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A Preemptive Strike By Tools Of The Plutocracy

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The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was created by section 5 of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (or FERA) which was signed into law on May 20, 2009.   The ten-member Commission has been modeled after the Pecora Commission of the early 1930s, which investigated the causes of the Great Depression, and ultimately provided a basis for reforms of Wall Street and the banking industry.  As I pointed out on April 15, more than a few commentators had been expressing their disappointment with the FCIC.  Section (5)(h)(1) of  the FERA established a deadline for the FCIC to submit its report:

On December 15, 2010, the Commission shall submit to the President and to the Congress a report containing the findings and conclusions of the Commission on the causes of the current financial and economic crisis in the United States.

In light of the fact that it took the FCIC eight months to conduct its first hearing, one shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that their report had not been completed by December 15.  The FCIC expects to have the report finalized in approximately one month.  This article by Phil Mattingly and Robert Schmidt of Bloomberg News provides a good history of the partisan struggle within the FCIC.  On December 14, Sewell Chan of The New York Times disclosed that the four Republican members of the FCIC would issue their own report on December 15:

The Republican members of the panel were angered last week when the commission voted 6 to 4, along partisan lines, to limit individual comments by the commissioners to 9 pages each in a 500-page report that the commission plans to publish next month with Public Affairs, an imprint of the Perseus Books Group, one Republican commissioner said.

Beyond that, Shahien Nasiripour of the Huffington Post revealed more details concerning the dissent voiced by Republican panel members:

During a private commission meeting last week, all four Republicans voted in favor of banning the phrases “Wall Street” and “shadow banking” and the words “interconnection” and “deregulation” from the panel’s final report, according to a person familiar with the matter and confirmed by Brooksley E. Born, one of the six commissioners who voted against the proposal.

I gave those four Republican members more credit than that.  I was wrong.  Commission Vice-Chairman Bill Thomas, along with Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Peter Wallison, and Keith Hennessey issued their own propaganda piece as a preemptive strike against whatever less-than-complimentary things the FCIC might ultimately say about the Wall Street Plutocrats.  The spin strategy employed by these men in explaining the cause of the financial crisis is to blame Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for the entire episode.  (That specious claim has been debunked by Mark Thoma and others many times.)  This remark from the “Introduction” section of the Republicans’ piece set the tone:

While the housing bubble, the financial crisis, and the recession are surely interrelated events, we do not believe that the housing bubble was a sufficient condition for the financial crisis. The unprecedented number of subprime and other weak mortgages in this bubble set it and its effect apart from others in the past.

Many economists and other commentators will have plenty of fun ripping this thing to shreds.  One of the biggest lies that jumped right out at me was this statement from page 5 of the so-called Financial Crisis Primer:

Put simply, the risk of a housing collapse was simply not appreciated.  Not by homeowners, not by investors, not by banks, not by rating agencies, and not by regulators.

That lie can and will be easily refuted —  many times over —  by the simple fact that a large number of essays had been published by economists, commentators and even dilettantes who predicted the housing collapse.

Yves Smith provided a refreshing retort to the Plutocracy’s Primer at her Naked Capitalism website:

This whole line of thinking is garbage, the financial policy equivalent of arguing that the sun revolves around the earth.  Yes, the US and other countries provide overly generous subsidies to housing, and curtailing them over time would not be a bad idea.  But that’s been our policy for decades.  Calling that a major, let alone primary, cause of the crisis, is simply a highly coded “blame the poor” strategy.  In reality, both the run-up to the crisis and its aftermath were one of the greatest wealth transfers from the citizenry at large to a comparatively small group of rentiers in the history of man.

*   *   *

This pathetic development shows how deeply this country is in thrall to lobbyists.  But these so-called commissioners, who are really no more than financial services minions out to misbrand themselves as independent, look to have overplayed their hand.  This stunt shows more than a tad of desperation on the part of banks and their operatives in their excessive efforts block any remotely accurate, and therefore critical, report on the industry.

Perversely, this development may be a positive indicator on several fronts.  First, the FCIC report may be tougher and more probing than I dared hope.

The fact that a pre-emptive strike by the Plutocratic “Gang of Four” has been initiated with the release of their Primer could indeed suggest that that their patrons are worried about the ultimate conclusions to be published by the FCIC next month.  The release of this Primer will surely draw plenty of criticism and attract more attention to the FCIC’s final report.  Nevertheless, will the resulting firestorm motivate the public to finally demand some serious action beyond the lame “financial reform” fiasco?  Adam Garfinkle’s recent essay in The American Interest suggests that such hope could be misplaced:

Obsessed with vacuous celebrity, Americans make it easier than ever for plutocrats to sail under the radar.  Corporate heavyweights and bankers may be suborning Congress and ripping off  “we the people” left and right, but we’re too busy dancing with the stars to notice.

Will this situation ever change?



More Fun Hearings

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January 11, 2010

In my last posting, I discussed the need for a 9/11-type of commission to investigate and provide an accounting of the Federal Reserve’s role in causing the financial crisis.  A more broad-based inquiry into the causes of the financial crisis is being conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, led by former California State Treasurer, Phil Angelides.  The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was created by section 5 of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (or FERA) which was signed into law on May 20, 2009.   The ten-member Commission has been modeled after the Pecora Commission of the early 1930s, which investigated the causes of the Great Depression, and ultimately provided a basis for reforms of Wall Street and the banking industry.  Like the Pecora Commission, the FCIC has subpoena power.

On Wednesday, January 13, the FCIC will hold its first public hearing which will include testimony from some interesting witnesses.  The witnesses will appear in panels, with three panels being heard on Wednesday and two more panels appearing on Thursday.  The witness list and schedule appear at The Huffington Post website.  Wednesday’s first panel is comprised of the following financial institution CEOs:  Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs (who unknowingly appeared as Dr. Evil on several humorous, internet-based Christmas cards), Jamie Dimon (a/k/a “The Dimon Dog”) of JP Morgan Chase, John Mack of Morgan Stanley and Brian Moynihan of Bank of America.  Curiously, Vikram Pandit of Citigroup was not invited.

Frank Rich of The New York Times spoke highly of FCIC chairman Phil Angelides in his most recent column.  Nevertheless, as Mr. Rich pointed out, given the fact that the banking lobby has so much influence over both political parties, there is a serious question as to whether the FCIC will have as much impact on banking reform as did the Pecora Commission:

Though bad history shows every sign of repeating itself on Wall Street, it will take a near-miracle for Angelides to repeat Pecora’s triumph.  Our zoo of financial skullduggery is far more complex, with many more moving pieces, than that of the 1920s.  The new inquiry does have subpoena power, but its entire budget, a mere $8 million, doesn’t even match the lobbying expenditures for just three banks (Citi, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America) in the first nine months of 2009.  The firms under scrutiny can pay for as many lawyers as they need to stall between now and Dec. 15, deadline day for the commission’s report.

More daunting still is the inquiry’s duty to reach into high places in the public sector as well as the private.  The mystery of exactly what happened as TARP fell into place in the fateful fall of 2008 thickens by the day — especially the behind-closed-door machinations surrounding the government rescue of A.I.G. and its counterparties.

A similar degree of skepticism was apparent in a recent article by Binyamin Appelbaum of The Washington Post.  Mr. Appelbaum also made note of the fact that the relatively small, $8 million budget — for an investigation that has until December 15 to prepare its report — will likely be much less than the amount spent by the banks under investigation.  Appelbaum pointed out that FCIC vice chairman, William Thomas, a retired Republican congressman from California, felt that the commission would benefit from its instructions to focus on understanding the crisis rather than providing policy recommendations.  Nevertheless, both Angelides and Thomas expressed concern about the December 15 deadline:

The tight timetable also makes it impossible to produce a comprehensive account of the crisis, both men said.  Instead, the commission will focus its work on particular topics, perhaps producing a series of case studies, Angelides said.

*   *   *

Both Angelides and Thomas acknowledged that the commission is off to a slow start, having waited more than a year since the peak of the crisis to hold its first hearing.  Thomas said that a lot of work already was happening behind the scenes and that the hearing next week could be compared to a rocket lifting off after a lengthy construction process.

Even as books and speeches about the crisis pile up, Thomas expressed confidence that the committee’s work could still make a difference.

“There are a lot of people who still haven’t learned the lessons,” he said.

One of those people who still has not learned his lesson is Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner, who is currently facing a chorus of calls for his resignation or firing.  Economist Randall Wray, in a piece entitled, “Fire Geithner Now!” shared my sentiment that Turbo Tim is not the only one who needs to go:

There is a growing consensus that it is time for President Obama to fire Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.  While he is at it, he needs to clean house by firing Larry Summers, by banning Robert Rubin from Washington, and by appointing a replacement for Chairman Bernanke.  It is time for a fresh start.

Geithner is facing renewed scrutiny due to his questionable actions while at the NYFed.  As reported on Bloomberg and in the NYT, secret emails show that the NYFed under Geithner’s command prohibited AIG from reporting that it was passing government bail-out funds directly to counterparties, including Goldman Sachs.

Beyond that, Professor Wray emphasized that Obama’s new economic team should be able to recognize the following four principles (which I have abbreviated):

1.  Banks do not face a liquidity crisis, rather they are massively insolvent.  Reported profits are due entirely to trading activities – which amount to nothing more than a game of Old Maid, with institutions selling bad assets to each other at inflated prices on a quid-pro-quo basis.  As such, they need to be shut down and resolved.  …

2.  Saving financial institutions does not save the economy.   …

3.  As such, all of the bail-outs and guarantees provided to financial institutions (over $20 trillion) need to be unwound.  Not because we cannot “afford” them but because they are dangerous.  Unfortunately, Congress has come to see all of these trillions of dollars committed to Wall Street as a barrier to spending more on Main street.  …

4.   Finally, we need an economic team that understands government finance.  The current team is hopelessly confused, led and misguided by Robert Rubin.  …

At The Business Insider website, Henry Blodget gave a four-minute, video presentation, citing five reasons why Geithner should resign.  The text version of this discussion appears at The Huffington Post.  Nevertheless, at The Business Insider’s Clusterstock blog, John Carney expressed his belief that Geithner would not quit or be forced to leave office until after the mid-term elections in November:

We would like to see Geithner go now.

*   *   *

But there’s little chance this will happen.  The Obama administration cannot afford to show weakness.  If it caved to Congressional critics of Geithner, lawmakers would be further emboldened to chip away at the president’s authority.  Senate Republicans would likely turn the confirmation hearing of Geithner’s replacement into a brawl — one that would not reflect well on the White House or Democrat Congressional leadership.

There’s also little political upside to getting rid of Geithner now.  It will not save Congressional Democrats any seats in the mid-term election.  Obama’s popularity ratings won’t rise. None of the administration’s priorities will be furthered by firing Geithner.

All of this changes following the midterm elections, when Democrats will likely lose seats in Congress.  At that point, the administration will be looking for a fall guy.  Geithner will make an attractive fall guy.

Although there may not be much hope that the hard work of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission will result in any significant financial reform legislation, at least we can look forward to the resignations of Turbo Tim and Larry Summers before the commission’s report is due on December 15.



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The Window Of Opportunity Is Closing

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September 17, 2009

In my last posting, I predicted that President Obama’s speech on financial reform would be “fine-sounding, yet empty”.  As it turned out, many commentators have described the speech as just that.  There weren’t many particulars discussed at all.  As Caroline Baum reported for Bloomberg News:

At times he sounded more like a parent scolding a disobedient child than a president proposing a new regulatory framework.

“We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess that was at the heart of this crisis,” Obama said in a speech at Federal Hall in New York City.  (“You will not stay out until 2 a.m. again.”)

*   *   *

Obama warned “those on Wall Street” against taking “risks without regard for consequences,” expecting the American taxpayer to foot the bill.  But his words rang hollow.

*   *   *

But you can’t, with words alone, alter the perception — now more entrenched than ever — that the government won’t allow large institutions to fail.

How do you convince bankers they will pay for their risk-taking when they’ve watched the government prop up banks, investment banks, insurance companies, auto companies and housing finance agencies?

They learn by example.  The system of privatized profits and socialized losses has suited them fine until now.

Although the President had originally voiced support for expanding the authority of the Federal Reserve to include the role of “systemic risk regulator”, Ms. Baum noted that Allan Meltzer, professor of political economy at Carnegie Mellon University, believes that Mr. Obama has backed away from that ill-conceived notion:

“The Senate Banking Committee doesn’t want to give the Fed more power,” Meltzer said.   “I’ve never seen such unanimity, and I’ve been testifying before the committee since 1962.”

Ms. Baum took that criticism a step further with her observation that the mission undertaken by any systemic risk regulator would not likely fare well:

Bankers Outfox Regulators

It is fantasy to believe a new, bigger, better regulator will ferret out problems before they grow to system-sinking size.  Those being regulated are always one-step ahead of the regulator, finding new cracks or loopholes in the regulatory fabric to exploit.  When the Basel II accord imposed higher risk- based capital requirements on international banks, banks moved assets off the balance sheet.

What’s more, regulators tend to identify with those they regulate, a phenomenon known as “regulatory capture,” making it highly unlikely that a new regulator would succeed where previous ones have failed.

At this point in the economic crisis, with Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s recent declaration that the recession is “very likely over”, there is concern that President Obama’s incipient attempt at enacting financial reform may already be too late.  A number of commentators have elaborated on this theme.  At Credit Writedowns, Edward Harrison made this observation:

If you are looking for reform in the financial sector, the moment has passed.  And only to the degree that the underlying weaknesses in the global financial system are made manifest and threaten the economy will we see any appetite for reform amongst politicians.  So, as I see it, the Obama administration has missed the opportunity for reform.

More important, the following point by Mr. Harrison has been expressed in several recent essays:

Irrespective, I believe the need for reform is clear.  Those gloom & doom economists were right because the economic model which brought us to the brink of disaster in 2008 is the same one we have at present and that necessarily means another crisis will come.

At MSN’s MoneyCentral, Michael Brush shared that same fear in a piece entitled, “Why a meltdown could happen again”:

Some observers say it’s OK that a year has gone by without reform; we don’t want to get it wrong.  But the political reality is that as the urgency passes, it’s harder to pass reforms.

“We have lulled ourselves into the mind-set that we are out of the woods, when we aren’t,” says Cornelius Hurley, the director of the Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law at Boston University School of Law.  “I don’t think time is our friend here. We risk losing the sense of urgency so that nothing happens.”

*   *   *

Douglas Elliott, a former JPMorgan investment banker now with the Brookings Institution, thinks the unofficial deadline for financial-sector reform is now October 2010 — right before the next congressional elections.

That leaves lawmakers a full year to get the job done.

But given all the details they have to work out — and the declining sense of urgency as stocks keep ticking higher — you have to wonder how much progress they’ll make.

On the other hand, back at Credit Writedowns, Edward Harrison voiced skepticism that such a deadline would be met:

You are kidding yourself if you think real reform is coming to the financial sector before the mid-term elections, especially with healthcare, two wars and the need to ensure recovery still on politicians’ plates. Obama could go for real reform in 2011 — or in a second term in 2013.  But, unless economic crisis is at our door, there isn’t a convincing argument which says reform is necessary.

At The Washington Post, Brady Dennis discussed the Pecora Commission of the early 1930s, which investigated the causes of the Great Depression, and ultimately provided a basis for reforms of Wall Street and the banking industry.  Mr. Dennis pointed out how the success of the Pecora Commission was rooted in the fact that populist outrage provided the fuel to help mobilize reform efforts, and he contrasted that situation with where we are now:

“Pecora’s success was his ability to crystallize the anger that a lot of Americans were feeling toward Wall Street,” said Michael Perino, a law professor at St. John’s University and author of an upcoming book about the hearings. “He was able to create a clamor for reform.”

But Pecora also realized that such clamor was fleeting

*   *   *

“We’ve passed the moment when there’s this palpable anger directed at the financial community,” Perino said of the current crisis.  “When you leave the immediate vicinity of the crisis, as you get farther and farther away in time, the urgency fades.”

Unfortunately, we appear to be at a point where it is too late to develop regulations against many of the excesses that led to last year’s financial crisis.  Beyond that, many people who allowed the breakdown to occur (Bernanke, Geithner, et al.) are still in charge and the players who gamed the system with complex financial instruments are back at it again, with new derivatives — even some based on life insurance policies.  Perhaps another harbinger of doom can be seen in this recent Bloomberg article:  “Credit Swaps Lose Crisis Stigma as Confidence Returns”.  Nevertheless, from our current perspective, some of us don’t have that much confidence in our financial system or our leadership.



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