Obama is back giving Centrism a bad name. His budget proposal has drawn criticism because it incorporates a mechanism for reducing Social Security Cost-of-Living benefits called the “chained CPI”, which ties those adjustments to the inflation rate. Obama’s inclusion of the chained CPI has drawn harsh criticism from Progressives as well as the Liberal base of the Democratic Party. Although the President and his sycophants characterize this proposal as an example of “Centrist” politics, it is actually an example of the economic neoliberalism which the Disappointer-in-Chief has advanced since taking office in 2009.
Despite its liberal slant, the FiredogLake blog has been critical of Obama since the beginning of his first term. A recent article by Jon Walker at FDL presents an unvarnished look at Obama’s motives for including the chained CPI in his budget:
Obama didn’t put chained-CPI in for Republicans, regardless what he may claim. While Republicans like to talk a big game on entitlements they have shown no real interest in cutting benefits for current retirees, who are the most important part of their base.
The comments to Walker’s piece give us a look at how a good number of liberals are finally seeing through the man who was advertised as an agent of Hope and Change. I was particularly impressed by the following comment from a reader identified as “coloradoblue”:
Crimes against humanity
Crimes against the American people
Crimes against the constitution he swore to uphold
Failure to investigate, prosecute and punish the war criminals of the last administration
Failure to investigate, prosecute and punish the crimes of wall street
Destroyer of the legacy of FDR and LBJ and the dem party
Hell of legacy you’ve got there Barry. Hell of a legacy.
Lest I repeat the entire batch of comments, I’ll include just one more. Reading through them provides one with the opportunity to understand the extent of disappointment in Obama, as expressed by those who voted for him. This comment was from an individual using the name, “BearCountry”:
o was never really the “capitulator in chief.” He has worked to destroy the safety net since he became pres. When I voted for him in ’08 I knew he was not going to be a savior for the nation, but I didn’t realize how bad he would be. He is worse than w because he knows full well what he is doing. Those that defend him or blame the repugs are simply deluding themselves.
When Hillary begins her run for the 2016 Democratic Nomination, it will be interesting to see whether any of her opponents exploit the photo of Bubba and Blankfein in Boca. On February 19 of 2012, The Business Insider published this photo of Bill Clinton having lunch with Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein at the Boca Raton Resort and Country Club. Obama’s function as a tool of the Wall Street megabanks will provide an ongoing reminder to anyone entertaining the thought of supporting Hillary, as to what they could expect from another Clinton administration.
Meanwhile Barry O. Tool is gonna’ have some ’splianin’ to do about his chained CPI proposal. His angry former supporters will want some answers.
Two years ago, I was inspired to write a piece entitled, “Justice Denied” after seeing hedge fund manager, David Einhorn interviewed by Charlie Rose. I also discussed an essay Jesse Eisenger wrote for the DealBook blog at The New York Times entitled, “The Feds Stage a Sideshow While the Big Tent Sits Empty”. The piece reinforced my suspicion that the “insider trading” investigation which received so much publicity in December of 2010 was simply a diversionary tactic to direct public attention away from the crimes which caused the financial crisis.
Since that time, a good deal of commentary has been written, lamenting the fact that no criminal charges have been brought against the miscreants who caused the financial crisis. Unfortunately, Attorney General Eric Hold-Harmless has taken no action against those responsible, while the time for bringing those charges within the applicable Statutes of Limitations was allowed to tick away.
With the expiration of the relevant Statutes of Limitations, the next question becomes: Does the failure to prosecute those cases rise to the level of obstruction of justice? Although President Obama has repeatedly insisted that “no crimes were committed” which could have caused the financial crisis, we are now learning that such was not the case.
Jesse Eisenger recently wrote another piece for the Deal Book blog at the New York Times entitled, “Financial Crisis Lawsuit Suggests Bad Behavior at Morgan Stanley” which appeared on January 23. In that essay, Eisenger discussed how the discovery process in civil lawsuits against the Wall Street Banks involved in the creation of the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) based on subprime mortgages, revealed that those CDOs were known to be toxic at the time they were marketed.
The Naked Capitalism website has provided and excellent roadmap to the skulduggery involving the role CDOs played in causing the financial crisis.
Matt Taibbi has written another magnum opus on the financial crisis, this time focusing on sleazy conduct which took place after the meltdown. In his article for Rolling Stone entitled, “Secrets and Lies of the Bailout”, we were reminded how the bank bailouts not only unjustly enriched the culprits who caused the problem – but they also provided the opportunity for those too-big-to-fail institutions to become even bigger while facilitating the cover-up of how the original mess occurred:
The public has been lied to so shamelessly and so often in the course of the past four years that the failure to tell the truth to the general populace has become a kind of baked-in, official feature of the financial rescue. Money wasn’t the only thing the government gave Wall Street – it also conferred the right to hide the truth from the rest of us. And it was all done in the name of helping regular people and creating jobs. “It is,” says former bailout Inspector General Neil Barofsky, “the ultimate bait-and-switch.”
Despite so many efforts to hide the truth from “the little people”, the truth is slowly leaking out as a result of the dogged investigation by journalists and bloggers. As discovery proceeds in the civil lawsuits against the megabanks, revealing the extent of criminal activity which brought about the most catastrophic economic disaster since the Great Depression, people will begin to ask: “How did they get away with this?” Perhaps the best way to answer that question would be to bring criminal charges against those who allowed the perpetrators to get away with it.
By now, you’ve heard about it dozens of times. Mitt Romney is taking heat for remarks he made at a private fundraiser in Boca about the 47 percent of Americans who won’t vote for him because they enjoy taking handouts from the government. In response to the dustup, the Romney camp has focused on remarks made by Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign about people who “cling to their guns and religion”. Obama’s discussion with “Joe the Plumber” about “spreading the wealth around” has been cited as another example of Obama’s favoritism of one population segment over another. Nevertheless, as Brit Hume explained to Greta on Fox News, the Republicans’ focus on those remarks did not work during the 2008 campaign and there is no reason to believe that it will gain any more traction during the current election cycle.
Actually, there is a better example of Obama’s expression of contempt for a bloc of voters during a fundraiser, which is somewhat analogous the situation involving Romney in Boca. During the mid-term election campaign in September of 2010, Obama managed to alienate a good number of his own supporters during an event at the home of the appropriately-named Rich Richman. The event demonstrated how politicians – from either party – will speak more candidly and cynically about the “little people” when talking to their fat cat contributors. Nevertheless, the Republicans will not likely exploit Obama’s remarks at the Rich-man event. Of course, Obama supporters would be reminded that their candidate is not a significantly different alternative to Romney. However, by the same token, Romney supporters would be reminded that their candidate does not offer a significantly distinct alternative to Obama. As a result, the Republicans will never use it.
Let’s jump into the time machine and look back at how I discussed the Richman event on September 20, 2010:
President Obama recently spoke at a $30,000-per-plate fundraising event for the Democratic National Committee at the home of Richard and Ellen Richman. (Think about that name for a second: Rich Richman.) Mr. Richman lives up to his surname and resides in the impressive Conyers Farm development in Greenwich, Connecticut. Christopher Keating of the Capitolwatch blog at courant.com provided us with the President’s remarks, addressed to the well-heeled attendees:
. . . Democrats, just congenitally, tend to get – to see the glass as half empty. (Laughter.) If we get an historic health care bill passed – oh, well, the public option wasn’t there. If you get the financial reform bill passed – then, well, I don’t know about this particularly derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that. And gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace and – (laughter.) I thought that was going to happen quicker. (Laughter.) You know who you are. (Laughter.)
The tactlessness of those remarks was not lost on Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com. Mr. Greenwald transcended the perspective of an offended liberal to question what could possibly have been going on in the mind of the speaker:
What’s most striking about Obama’s comments is that there is no acceptance whatsoever of responsibility (I’ve failed in some critical areas; we could have/should have done better). There’s not even any base-motivating vow to fight to fix these particular failures (we’ll keep fighting for a public option/to curb executive power abuses/to reduce lobbyist and corporate control of our political process). Instead, he wants you to know that if you criticize him — or even question what he’s done (“well, I don’t know about this particular derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that”) – it’s your fault: for being some sort of naive, fringe-leftist idiot who thought he would eliminate the Pentagon and bring about world peace in 18 months, and/or because you simply don’t sufficiently appreciate everything he’s done for you because you’re congenitally dissatisfied.
* * *
Sitting at a $30,000 per plate fundraising dinner and mocking liberal critics as irrational ingrates while wealthy Party donors laugh probably does wonders for bruised presidential egos, but it doesn’t seem to be a particularly effective way to motivate those who are so unmotivated. Then again, Barack Obama isn’t actually up for election in November, so perhaps the former goal is more important to him than the latter. It certainly seems that way from these comments.
Of course, liberals weren’t the only Obama supporters who felt betrayed by the President’s abandonment of his campaign promises. In fact, Obama owed his 2008 victory to those independent voters who drank the “Hope and Change” Kool-Aid.
Glenn Greenwald devoted some space from his Salon piece to illustrate how President Obama seems to be continuing the agenda of President Bush. I was reminded of the quote from former Attorney General John Ashcroft in an article written by Jane Mayer for The New Yorker. When discussing how he expected the Obama Presidency would differ from the Presidency of his former boss, George W. Bush, Ashcroft said:
“How will he be different? The main difference is going to be that he spells his name ‘O-b-a-m-a,’ not ‘B-u-s-h.’ ”
One important difference that Ashcroft failed to anticipate was that Bush knew better than to disparage his own base.
By the onset of the 2012 Presidential Campaign, many of Obama’s 2008 supporters had become ambivalent about their former hero. As I pointed out on August 13, once Romney had named Paul “Marathon Man” Ryan as his running mate (rather than Ohio Senator Rob Portman), he provided Democrats with a bogeyman to portray a Romney Presidency as a threat to middle-class Americans:
As the Democratic Party struggled to resurrect a fraction of the voter enthusiasm seen during the 2008 campaign, Mitt Romney came along and gave the Democrats exactly what they needed: a bogeyman from the far-right wing of the Republican Party. The 2012 campaign suddenly changed from a battle against an outsourcing, horse ballet elitist to a battle against a blue-eyed devil who wants to take away Medicare. The Republican team of White and Whiter had suddenly solved the problem of Democratic voter apathy.
We have never experienced a Presidential campaign with more fact-checking than what we are seeing during the current cycle. The well-timed release of a popular new book by Janine Driver entitled, You Can’t Lie to Me might be one of the reasons why this is happening. Fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact and FactCheck have been overflowing with reports of exaggerations, half-truths and flat-out lies by the candidates and their surrogates.
Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech drew instant criticism from a number of news outlets. I quickly felt vindicated for my last posting, which asserted that Romney made a mistake by selecting Ryan, rather than Ohio Senator Rob Portman, as his running mate. FactCheck provided this breakdown of the misrepresentations in Ryan’s speech:
Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention contained several false claims and misleading statements. Delegates cheered as the vice presidential nominee:
Accused President Obama’s health care law of funneling money away from Medicare “at the expense of the elderly.” In fact, Medicare’s chief actuary says the law “substantially improves” the system’s finances, and Ryan himself has embraced the same savings.
Accused Obama of doing “exactly nothing” about recommendations of a bipartisan deficit commission — which Ryan himself helped scuttle.
Claimed the American people were “cut out” of stimulus spending. Actually, more than a quarter of all stimulus dollars went for tax relief for workers.
Faulted Obama for failing to deliver a 2008 campaign promise to keep a Wisconsin plant open. It closed less than a month before Obama took office.
Blamed Obama for the loss of a AAA credit rating for the U.S. Actually, Standard & Poor’s blamed the downgrade on the uncompromising stands of both Republicans and Democrats.
If the widespread criticism of the veracity of Ryan’s speech had not been bad enough, Runner’s World saw fit to bust Ryan for making a false claim that he once ran a marathon in less than three hours. In reality, it took him just over four hours.
Ultimately, convention speeches are about making the argument for your team. We should fully expect politicians to make their case using facts and figures that either tilt positive about their accomplishment – or negative about their opponents. As the fact-checking business has blossomed in the news media, it has been increasingly hard for politicians to get away with such truth-shading without someone noticing.
Both political parties will stretch the truth if they believe it will advance their political interests. It’s been a rough campaign so far, but the GOP convention that just ended was strictly in the mainstream for such party celebrations.
As the Democratic Convention approaches, a good deal of attention has been focused on PolitiFact’s Obameter, which measures how well Obama has delivered on his campaign promises. PolitiFact’s most recent status report offered this analysis:
Our scorecard shows Obama kept 37 percent of his promises. He brought the war in Iraq to a close and finally achieved the Democratic dream of a universal health care program. When the United States had Osama bin Laden in its sights, Obama issued the order to kill.
Sixteen percent are rated Broken, often because they hit a brick wall in Congress. Global warming legislation passed the House but died in the Senate. He didn’t even push for comprehensive immigration reform. His program to help homeowners facing foreclosure didn’t even meet its own benchmarks. (PolitiFact rates campaign promises based on outcomes, not intentions.)
With four months left in Obama’s term, PolitiFact has rated Obama’s remaining promises Compromise (14 percent), Stalled (10 percent) or In the Works (22 percent).
The ad claims that Romney raised taxes on the middle class. It’s true that Romney imposed a number of fees, but none of them targeted middle-income persons. Also, Romney proposed cutting the state income tax three times – a measure that would have resulted in tax cuts for all taxpayers – but he was rebuffed every time by the state’s Democratic Legislature.
I suspect that the Obama campaign has a secret plan in the works to avoid the scrutiny of fact-checkers during their convention. Their plan to have John Kerry speak is actually part of a plot to cause the fact-checkers to fall asleep. Once “Operation Snoozeboat” is complete, the speakers who follow Kerry will be able to make the wildest claims imaginable – and get away with it!
For the past few years, a central mission of this blog has been to focus on Washington’s unending efforts to protect, pamper and bail out the Wall Street megabanks at taxpayer expense. From Maiden Lane III to TARP and through countless “backdoor bailouts”, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have been pumping money into businesses which should have gone bankrupt in 2008. Worse yet, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless have expressed no interest in bringing charges against those miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis. The Federal Reserve’s latest update to its Survey of Consumer Finances for 2010 revealed that during the period of 2007-2010, the median family net worth declined by a whopping thirty-eight percent. Despite the massive extent of wealth destruction caused by the financial crisis, our government is doing nothing about it.
I have always been a fan of economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, whose Weekly Market Comment essays are frequently referenced on this website. Professor Hussman’s most recent piece, “The Heart of the Matter” serves as a manifesto of how the financial crisis was caused, why nothing was done about it and why it is happening again both in the United States and in Europe. Beyond that, Professor Hussman offers some suggestions for remedying this unaddressed and unresolved set of circumstances. It is difficult to single out a passage to quote because every word of Hussman’s latest Market Comment is precious. Be sure to read it. What I present here are some hints as to the significance of this important essay:
The ongoing debate about the economy continues along largely partisan lines, with conservatives arguing that taxes just aren’t low enough, and the economy should be freed of regulations, while liberals argue that the economy needs larger government programs and grand stimulus initiatives.
Lost in this debate is any recognition of the problem that lies at the heart of the matter: a warped financial system, both in the U.S. and globally, that directs scarce capital to speculative and unproductive uses, and refuses to restructure debt once that debt has gone bad.
Specifically, over the past 15 years, the global financial system – encouraged by misguided policy and short-sighted monetary interventions – has lost its function of directing scarce capital toward projects that enhance the world’s standard of living. Instead, the financial system has been transformed into a self-serving, grotesque casino that misallocates scarce savings, begs for and encourages speculative bubbles, refuses to restructure bad debt, and demands that the most reckless stewards of capital should be rewarded through bailouts that transfer bad debt from private balance sheets to the public balance sheet.
* * *
By our analysis, the U.S. economy is presently entering a recession. Not next year; not later this year; but now. We expect this to become increasingly evident in the coming months, but through a constant process of denial in which every deterioration is dismissed as transitory, and every positive outlier is celebrated as a resumption of growth. To a large extent, this downturn is a “boomerang” from the credit crisis we experienced several years ago. The chain of events is as follows:
Financial deregulation and monetary negligence -> Housing bubble -> Credit crisis marked by failure to restructure bad debt -> Global recession -> Government deficits in U.S. and globally -> Conflict between single currency and disparate fiscal policies in Europe -> Austerity -> European recession and credit strains -> Global recession.
In effect, we’re going into another recession because we never effectively addressed the problems that produced the first one, leaving us unusually vulnerable to aftershocks. Our economic malaise is the result of a whole chain of bad decisions that have distorted the financial markets in ways that make recurring crisis inevitable.
* * *
Every major bank is funded partially by depositors, but those deposits typically represent only about 60% of the funding. The rest is debt to the bank’s own bondholders, and equity of its stockholders. When a country like Spain goes in to save a failing bank like Bankia – and does so by buying stock in the bank – the government is putting its citizens in a “first loss” position that protects the bondholders at public expense. This has been called “nationalization” because Spain now owns most of the stock, but the rescue has no element of restructuring at all. All of the bank’s liabilities – even to its own bondholders – are protected at public expense. So in order to defend bank bondholders, Spain is increasing the public debt burden of its own citizens. This approach is madness, because Spain’s citizens will ultimately suffer the consequences by eventual budget austerity or risk of government debt default.
The way to restructure a bank is to take it into receivership, write down the bad assets, wipe out the stockholders and much of the subordinated debt, and then recapitalize the remaining entity by selling it back into the private market. Depositors don’t lose a dime. While the U.S. appropriately restructured General Motors – wiping out stock, renegotiating contracts, and subjecting bondholders to haircuts – the banking system was largely untouched.
* * *
If it seems as if the global economy has learned nothing, it is because evidently the global economy has learned nothing. The right thing to do, again, is to take receivership of insolvent banks and wipe out the stock and subordinated debt, using the borrowed funds to protect depositors in the event that the losses run deep enough to eat through the intervening layers of liabilities (which is doubtful), and otherwise using the borrowed funds to stimulate the economy after the restructuring occurs. We’re going to keep having crises until global leaders recognize that short of creating hyperinflation (which also subordinates the public, in this case by destroying the value of currency), there is no substitute for debt restructuring.
For some insight as to why the American megabanks were never taken into temporary receivership, it is useful to look back to February of 2010 when Michael Shedlock (a/k/a“Mish”) provided us with a handy summary of the 224-page Quarterly Report from SIGTARP (the Special Investigator General for TARP — Neil Barofsky). My favorite comment from Mish appeared near the conclusion of his summary:
Clearly TARP was a complete failure, that is assuming the goals of TARP were as stated.
My belief is the benefits of TARP and the entire alphabet soup of lending facilities was not as stated by Bernanke and Geithner, but rather to shift as much responsibility as quickly as possible on to the backs of taxpayers while trumping up nonsensical benefits of doing so. This was done to bail out the banks at any and all cost to the taxpayers.
Was this a huge conspiracy by the Fed and Treasury to benefit the banks at taxpayer expense? Of course it was, and the conspiracy is unraveling as documented in this report and as documented in AIG Coverup Conspiracy Unravels.
On January 29 2010, David Reilly wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek concerning the previous week’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. After quoting from Reilly’s article, Mish made this observation:
Most know I am not a big believer in conspiracies. I regularly dismiss them. However, this one was clear from the beginning and like all massive conspiracies, it is now in the light of day.
The idea of secret banking cabals that control the country and global economy are a given among conspiracy theorists who stockpile ammo, bottled water and peanut butter. After this week’s congressional hearing into the bailout of American International Group Inc., you have to wonder if those folks are crazy after all.
Wednesday’s hearing described a secretive group deploying billions of dollars to favored banks, operating with little oversight by the public or elected officials.
That “secretive group” is The Federal Reserve of New York, whose president at the time of the AIG bailout was “Turbo” Tim Geithner. David Reilly’s disgust at the hearing’s revelations became apparent from the tone of his article:
By pursuing this line of inquiry, the hearing revealed some of the inner workings of the New York Fed and the outsized role it plays in banking. This insight is especially valuable given that the New York Fed is a quasi-governmental institution that isn’t subject to citizen intrusions such as freedom of information requests, unlike the Federal Reserve.
At least in the Eurozone there is fear that the taxpayers will never submit to enhanced economic austerity measures, which would force the citizenry into an impoverished existence so that their increased tax burden could pay off the debts incurred by irresponsible bankers. In the United States there is no such concern. The public is much more compliant. Whether that will change is anyone’s guess.
Comments Off on Get Ready for the Next Financial Crisis
It was almost one year ago when Bloomberg News reported on these remarks by Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Asset Management’s emerging markets group:
“There is definitely going to be another financial crisis around the corner because we haven’t solved any of the things that caused the previous crisis,” Mobius said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan inTokyotoday in response to a question about price swings. “Are the derivatives regulated? No. Are you still getting growth in derivatives? Yes.”
I have frequently complained about the failed attempt at financial reform, known as the Dodd-Frank Act. Two years ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax” wherein I expressed my outrage that the financial reform effort had become a charade. The final product resulting from all of the grandstanding and backroom deals – the Dodd–Frank Act – had become nothing more than a hoax on the American public. My essay included the reactions of five commentators, who were similarly dismayed. I concluded the posting with this remark:
The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective. Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions. It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.
During the past few days, there has been a chorus of commentary calling for a renewed effort toward financial reform. We have seen a torrent of reports on the misadventures of The London Whale at JP Morgan Chase, whose outrageous derivatives wager has cost the firm uncounted billions. By the time this deal is unwound, the originally-reported loss of $2 billion will likely be dwarfed.
Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has made a hobby of writing blog postings about “what President Obama needs to do”. Of course, President Obama never follows Professor Reich’s recommendations, which might explain why Mitt Romney has been overtaking Obama in the opinion polls. On May 16, Professor Reich was downright critical of the President, comparing him to the dog in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle involving Sherlock Holmes, Silver Blaze. The President’s feeble remarks about JPMorgan’s latest derivatives fiasco overlooked the responsibility of Jamie Dimon – obviously annoying Professor Reich, who shared this reaction:
Not a word about Jamie Dimon’s tireless campaign to eviscerate the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill; his loud and repeated charge that the Street’s near meltdown in 2008 didn’t warrant more financial regulation; his leadership of Wall Street’s brazen lobbying campaign to delay the Volcker Rule under Dodd-Frank, which is still delayed; and his efforts to make that rule meaningless by widening a loophole allowing banks to use commercial deposits to “hedge” (that is, make offsetting bets) their derivative trades.
Nor any mention Dimon’s outrageous flaunting of Dodd-Frank and of the Volcker Rule by setting up a special division in the bank to make huge (and hugely profitable, when the bets paid off) derivative trades disguised as hedges.
Nor Dimon’s dual role as both chairman and CEO of JPMorgan (frowned on my experts in corporate governance) for which he collected a whopping $23 million this year, and $23 million in 2010 and 2011 in addition to a $17 million bonus.
Even if Obama didn’t want to criticize Dimon, at the very least he could have used the occasion to come out squarely in favor of tougher financial regulation. It’s the perfect time for him to call for resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act, of which the Volcker Rule – with its giant loophole for hedges – is a pale and inadequate substitute.
And for breaking up the biggest banks and setting a cap on their size, as the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve recommended several weeks ago.
This was Professor Reich’s second consecutive reference within a week to The Dallas Fed’s Annual Report, which featured an essay by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics. Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act. Beyond that, Rosenblum emphasized why those “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF) banks have actually grown since the enactment of Dodd-Frank:
The TBTF survivors of the financial crisis look a lot like they did in 2008. They maintain corporate cultures based on the short-term incentives of fees and bonuses derived from increased oligopoly power. They remain difficult to control because they have the lawyers and the money to resist the pressures of federal regulation. Just as important, their significant presence in dozens of states confers enormous political clout in their quest to refocus banking statutes and regulatory enforcement to their advantage.
Last year, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by the TBTFs, which he characterized as “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:
… I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism. They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth. So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.
Although the huge derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase has motivated a number of commentators to issue warnings about the risk of another financial crisis, there had been plenty of admonitions emphasizing the risks of the next financial meltdown, which were published long before the London Whale was beached. Back in January, G. Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk which brought about the catastrophe of 2008:
In response to widespread criticism associated with the financial collapse, Congress has enacted a number of reforms aimed at curbing abuses at financial institutions. Legislation, such as the Dodd-Frank and Consumer Protection Act, was trumpeted as ensuring that another financial meltdown would be avoided. Such reactionary regulation was certain to pacify U.S. taxpayers.
Unfortunately, legislation enacted does not solve the fundamental problem. It simply provides cover for those who were asleep at the wheel, while ignoring the underlying cause of the crisis.
More than three years after the calamity, have we solved the dilemma we found ourselves in late 2008? Can we rest assured that a future bailout will not occur? Are financial institutions no longer “too big to fail?”
Regrettably, the answer, in each case, is a resounding no.
The 9 largest U.S. banks have a total of 228.72 trillion dollars of exposure to derivatives. That is approximately 3 times the size of the entire global economy. It is a financial bubble so immense in size that it is nearly impossible to fully comprehend how large it is.
The multi-billion dollar derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase demonstrates that the sham “financial reform” cannot prevent another financial crisis. The banks assume that there will be more taxpayer-funded bailouts available, when the inevitable train wreck occurs. The Federal Reserve will be expected to provide another round of quantitative easing to keep everyone happy. As a result, nothing will be done to strengthen financial reform as a result of this episode. The megabanks were able to survive the storm of indignation in the wake of the 2008 crisis and they will be able ride-out the current wave of public outrage.
As Election Day approaches, Team Obama is afraid that the voters will wake up to the fact that the administration itself is to blame for sabotaging financial reform. They are hoping that the public won’t be reminded that two years ago, Simon Johnson (former chief economist of the IMF) wrote an essay entitled, “Creating the Next Crisis” in which he provided this warning:
On the critical dimension of excessive bank size and what it implies for systemic risk, there was a concerted effort by Senators Ted Kaufman and Sherrod Brown to impose a size cap on the largest banks – very much in accordance with the spirit of the original “Volcker Rule” proposed in January 2010 by Obama himself.
In an almost unbelievable volte face, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, Obama’s administration itself shot down this approach. “If enacted, Brown-Kaufman would have broken up the six biggest banks inAmerica,” a senior Treasury official said. “If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened. But we weren’t, so it didn’t.”
Whether the world economy grows now at 4% or 5% matters, but it does not much affect our medium-term prospects. The US financial sector received an unconditional bailout – and is not now facing any kind of meaningful re-regulation. We are setting ourselves up, without question, for another boom based on excessive and reckless risk-taking at the heart of the world’s financial system. This can end only one way: badly.
The public can forget a good deal of information in two years. They need to be reminded about those early reactions to the Obama administration’s subversion of financial reform. At her Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some negative opinions concerning the bill, along with her own cutting commentary in June of 2010:
I want the word “reform” back. Between health care “reform” and financial services “reform,” Obama, his operatives, and media cheerleaders are trying to depict both initiatives as being far more salutary and far-reaching than they are. This abuse of language is yet another case of the Obama Administration using branding to cover up substantive shortcomings. In the short run it might fool quite a few people, just as BP’s efforts to position itself as an environmentally responsible company did.
* * *
So what does the bill accomplish? It inconveniences banks around the margin while failing to reduce the odds of a recurrence of a major financial crisis.
In particular, the transaction appears to have been a type of proprietary trade – which is to say, a trade that a bank undertakes to make money for itself, not its clients. And these trades were supposed to have been outlawed by the “Volcker Rule” provision of Obama’s financial reform law, at least at federally-backed banks like JP Morgan. The administration is naturally worried that, having touted the law as an end to the financial shenanigans that brought us the 2008 crisis, it will look feckless instead.
* * *
But it turns out that there’s an additional twist here. The concern for the White House isn’t just that the law could look weak, making it a less than compelling selling point for Obama’s re-election campaign. It’s that the administration could be blamed for the weakness. It’s one thing if you fought for a tough law and didn’t entirely succeed. It’s quite another thing if it starts to look like you undermined the law behind the scenes. In that case, the administration could look duplicitous, not merely ineffectual. And that’s the narrative you see the administration trying to preempt . . .
When the next financial crisis begins, be sure to credit President Obama as the Facilitator-In-Chief.
Given that background, it must be particularly painful for President Obama when Pat Roberson is congratulated for speaking out sensibly on an issue which Obama is too timid to address. Beyond that, when Robertson asserts a position which is supported by clear-thinking, prominent members of society, it must be particularly embarrassing for a President who has abdicated the “bully pulpit”.
Pat Robertson turned some heads in March, when he spoke out in favor of marijuana legalization. Jesse McKinley of The New York Timesdiscussed the reaction to a pro-legalization statement made by Robertson during a broadcast of The 700 Club:
Mr. Robertson’s remarks were hailed by pro-legalization groups, who called them a potentially important endorsement in their efforts to roll back marijuana penalties and prohibitions, which residents of Colorado and Washington will vote on this fall.
“I love him, man, I really do,” said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of current and former law enforcement officials who oppose the drug war. “He’s singing my song.”
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Mr. Franklin, who is a Christian, said Mr. Robertson’s position was actually in line with the Gospel. “If you follow the teaching of Christ, you know that Christ is a compassionate man,” he said. “And he would not condone the imprisoning of people for nonviolent offenses.”
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And while Mr. Robertson said his earlier hints at support for legalization had led to him being “assailed by those who thought that it was terrible that I had forsaken the straight and narrow,” he added that he was not worried about criticism this time around.
“I just want to be on the right side,” he said. “And I think on this one, I’m on the right side.”
“Guess what country is getting itself out of a financial problem by some draconian measures?” Robertson asked his co-host Terry Meeuwsen. “Greece?” she asked. “No, not even close. Iceland!” Robertson exclaimed. “They are putting people in jail. Prime ministers are being indicted. They are going after banks. The people said the banks are ripping us off. We don’t like what they did, and they brought our country to ruin. Suddenly, Iceland is turning around and they look like a big success story!”
“Think we could learn something?” Meeuwsen asked.
“We sure could!” Roberson continued. “We could start putting all of those bankers in jail. There was not one banker prosecuted and so many people were lying, and so-called “no-doc loans” and liars’ loans, and none of them have been held accountable. I’m not for putting people in jail. I’m sick of these – we’ve got too many penalties. Too many penalties, too many criminal sanctions, too many people in prison. But here is an opportunity for the people who wanted, you know, to enforce laws, to enforce that one. There must be some laws against lying on documents. I’m sure there are.”
“Lying to banks is a super no-no,” he added. “It has criminal sanctions, but nobody so far has had to pay the price, but Iceland is leading the way and their GDP is growing, and all of a sudden, they were in a terrible mess, terrible mess, and look what is happening!”
With the release of the Department of Labor’s non-farm payrolls report for April, attention is again being focused on the issue of whether President Obama did enough to help the country recover from the financial crisis. As the aforementioned Washington’s Blog essay made clear, the institutional corruption facilitated by the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute the culprits who caused the financial meltdown has brought even more harm to the American economy. Consider this passage from the Washington’s Blog piece:
The legal system is supposed to be the codification of our norms and beliefs, things that we need to make our system work. If the legal system is seen as exploitative, then confidence in our whole system starts eroding. And that’s really the problem that’s going on.
*** I think we ought to go do what we did in the S&L [crisis] and actually put many of these guys in prison. Absolutely. These are not just white-collar crimes or little accidents. There were victims. That’s the point. There were victims all over the world.
Economists focus on the whole notion of incentives. People have an incentive sometimes to behave badly, because they can make more money if they can cheat. If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.
Think about it: Joe Stiglitz and Pat Robertson are on the same page, while President Obama is somewhere else. Yikes!
Now it’s official. Christina Romer was right. The signs that she was about to be proven correct had been turning up everywhere. When Charles Kaldec of Forbesreminded us – yet again – of President Obama’s willful refusal to seriously consider the advice of the former Chair of his Council of Economic Advisers, it became apparent that something was about to happen . . .
On Friday morning, the highly-anticipated non-farm payrolls report for April was released by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Although economists had been anticipating an increase of 165,000 jobs during the past month, the report disclosed that only 115,000 jobs were added. In other words, the headline number was 50,000 less than the anticipated figure, missing economists’ expectations by a whopping 31 percent. The weak 115,000 total failed to match the 120,000 jobs added in March. Worse yet, even if payrolls were expanding at twice that rate, it would take more than five years to significantly reduce the jobs backlog and create new jobs to replace the 5.3 million lost during the recession.
Because this is an election year, Republicans are highlighting the ongoing unemployment crisis as a failure of the Obama Presidency. On Friday evening’s CNN program, Anderson Cooper 360, economist Paul Krugman insisted that this crisis has resulted from Republican intransigence. Bohemian Grove delegate David Gergen rebutted Krugman’s claim by emphasizing that Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus program was inadequate to address the task of bringing unemployment back to pre-crisis levels. What annoyed me about Gergen’s response was his dishonest implication that President Obama’s semi-stimulus was Christina Romer’s brainchild. Nothing could be further from the truth. The stimulus program proposed by Romer would have involved a more significant, $1.8 trillion investment. Beyond that, the fact that unemployment continues for so many millions of people who lost their jobs during the recession is precisely because of Barack Obama’s decision to ignore Christina Romer. I have been groaning about that decision for a long time, as I discussed here and here.
My February 13 discussion of Noam Scheiber’s book, The Escape Artists, demonstrated how abso-fucking-lutely wrong David Gergen was when he tried to align Christina Romer with Obama’s stimulus:
The book tells the tale of a President in a struggle to create a centrist persona, with no roadmap of his own. In fact, it was Obama’s decision to follow the advice of Peter Orszag, to the exclusion of the opinions offered by Christina Romer and Larry Summers – which prolonged the unemployment crisis.
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The Escape Artists takes us back to the pivotal year of 2009 – Obama’s first year in the White House. Noam Scheiber provided us with a taste of his new book by way of an article published in The New Republic entitled, “Obama’s Worst Year”. Scheiber gave the reader an insider’s look at Obama’s clueless indecision at the fork in the road between deficit hawkishness vs. economic stimulus. Ultimately, Obama decided to maintain the illusion of centrism by following the austerity program suggested by Peter Orszag:
BACK IN THE SUMMER of 2009, David Axelrod, the president’s top political aide, was peppering White House economist Christina Romer with questions in preparation for a talk-show appearance. With unemployment nearing 10 percent, many commentators on the left were second-guessing the size of the original stimulus, and so Axelrod asked if it had been big enough. “Abso-fucking-lutely not,” Romer responded. She said it half-jokingly, but the joke was that she would use the line on television. She was dead serious about the sentiment. Axelrod did not seem amused.
For Romer, the crusade was a lonely one. While she believed the economy needed another boost in order to recover, many in the administration were insisting on cuts. The chief proponent of this view was budget director Peter Orszag. Worried that the deficit was undermining the confidence of businessmen, Orszag lobbied to pare down the budget in August, six months ahead of the usual budget schedule. . . .
The debate was not only a question of policy. It was also about governing style – and, in a sense, about the very nature of the Obama presidency. Pitching a deficit-reduction plan would be a concession to critics on the right, who argued that the original stimulus and the health care bill amounted to liberal overreach. It would be premised on the notion that bipartisan compromise on a major issue was still possible. A play for more stimulus, on the other hand, would be a defiant action, and Obama clearly recognized this. When Romer later urged him to double-down, he groused, “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”
That’s a fine example of great leadership – isn’t it? “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.” In 2009, the fierce urgency of the unemployment and economic crises demanded a leader who would not feel intimidated by the sheeple’s erroneous belief that the Economic Recovery Act had not “worked”.
Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men is another source which contradicts David Gergen’s attempt to characterize Obama’s stimulus as Romer’s baby. Last fall, Berkeley economics professor, Brad DeLong had been posting and discussing excerpts from the book at his own website, Grasping Reality With Both Hands. On September 19, Professor DeLong posted a passage from Suskind’s book, which revealed Obama’s expressed belief (in November of 2009) that high unemployment was a result of productivity gains in the economy. Both Larry Summers (Chair of the National Economic Council) and Christina Romer (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers) were shocked and puzzled by Obama’s ignorance on this subject:
“What was driving unemployment was clearly deficient aggregate demand,” Romer said. “We wondered where this could be coming from. We both tried to convince him otherwise. He wouldn’t budge.”
Obama’s willful refusal to heed the advice of Cristina Romer has facilitated the persistence of our nation’s unemployment problem. As Ron Suskind remarked in the previously-quoted passage:
The implications were significant. If Obama felt that 10 percent unemployment was the product of sound, productivity-driven decisions by American business, then short-term government measures to spur hiring were not only futile but unwise.
There you have it. Despite the efforts of Obama’s apologists to blame Larry Summers or others on the President’s economic team for persistent unemployment, it wasn’t simply a matter of “the buck stopping” on the President’s desk. Obama himself has been the villain, hypocritically advocating a strategy of “trickle-down economics” – in breach of his campaign promise to do the exact opposite.
As Election Day approaches, it becomes increasingly obvious that the unemployment situation will persist through autumn – and it could get worse. This is not Christina Romer’s fault. It is President Obama’s legacy. Christina Romer was right and President Obama was wrong.
I have never accepted the idea that economic austerity could be at all useful in resolving our unending economic crisis. I posted my rant about this subject on December 19, 2011:
The entire European economy is on its way to hell, thanks to an idiotic, widespread belief that economic austerity measures will serve as a panacea for the sovereign debt crisis. The increasing obviousness of the harm caused by austerity has motivated its proponents to crank-up the “John Maynard Keynes was wrong” propaganda machine. You don’t have to look very far to find examples of that stuff. On any given day, the Real Clear Politics (or Real Clear Markets) website is likely to be listing at least one link to such a piece. Those commentators are simply trying to take advantage of the fact that President Obama botched the 2009 economic stimulus effort. Many of us realized – a long time ago – that Obama’s stimulus measures would prove to be inadequate. In July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, wherein I pointed out that another stimulus program would be necessary because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was not going to accomplish its intended objective. Beyond that, it was already becoming apparent that the stimulus program would eventually be used to support the claim that Keynesian economics doesn’t work. Economist Stephanie Kelton anticipated that tactic in a piece she published at the New Economic Perspectives website . . .
It has finally become apparent to most rational thinkers that economic austerity is of no use to any national economy’s attempts to recover from a severe recession. There have been loads of great essays published on the subject this week and I would like to direct you to a few of them.
The “austerity” idea, you’ll remember, was that the huge debt and deficit problem had ushered in a “crisis of confidence” and that, once business-people saw that governments were serious about debt reduction, they’d get confident and start spending again.
That hasn’t worked.
Instead, spending cuts have led to cuts in GDP which has led to greater deficits and the need for more spending cuts. And so on.
With political allies weakened or ousted, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s seat at the head of the European table has become much less comfortable, as a reckoning with Germany’s insistence on lock-step austerity appears to have begun.
“The formula is not working, and everyone is now talking about whether austerity is the only solution,” said Jordi Vaquer i Fanés, a political scientist and director of the Barcelona Center for International Affairs in Spain. “Does this mean that Merkel has lost completely? No. But it does mean that the very nature of the debate about the euro-zone crisis is changing.”
A German-inspired austerity regimen agreed to just last month as the long-term solution to Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has come under increasing strain from the growing pressures of slowing economies, gyrating financial markets and a series of electoral setbacks.
As we wrote this morning, the bad news for Angela Merkel is that the jig is up: There’s almost nobody left who is willing to go along with the German idea that the sole solution forEurope is spending discipline and “reform,” whatever that means.
Those in denial about the demise of economic austerity have found it necessary to ignore the increasing refutations of the policy from conservative economists, which began appearing early this year. The most highly-publicized of these came from Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson. Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) criticized the policy on a number of occasions, such as his posting of January 11, 2012:
Austerity measures in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and France combined with escalating trade wars ensures the recession will be long and nasty.
One would think that a consensus of reasonable people, speaking out against this ill-conceived policy, should be enough to convince The Powers That Be to pull the plug on it. In a perfect world . . .
In case you might be wondering whether the miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis might ever be prosecuted by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless – don’t hold your breath. At the close of 2010, I expressed my disappointment and skepticism that the culprits responsible for having caused the financial crisis would ever be brought to justice. I found it hard to understand why neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Justice Department would be willing to investigate malefaction, which I described in the following terms:
We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust. Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products – who happened to be betting against the value of those items. In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.
During that same week, former New York Mayor Ed Koch wrote an article which began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:
Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees. The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge. Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.
“Accountability” is a relative term. If you believe that the imposition of fines – resulting from civil actions by the Justice Department – could provide accountability for the crimes which led to the financial crisis, then you might have reason to feel enthusiastic. On the other hand if you agree with Matt Taibbi’s contention that some of those characters deserve to be in prison – then get ready for another disappointment.
Last week, Reuters described plans by the Justice Department to make use of President Obama’s Financial Fraud Task Force (which I discussed last January) by relying on a statute (FIRREA- the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act) which was passed in the wake of the 1980s Savings & Loan crisis:
FIRREA allows the government to bring civil charges if prosecutors believe defendants violated certain criminal laws but have only enough information to meet a threshold that proves a claim based on the “preponderance of the evidence.”
Adam Lurie, a lawyer at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft who worked in the Justice Department’s criminal division until last month, said that although criminal cases based on problematic e-mails without a cooperating witness could be difficult to prove, the same evidence could meet a “preponderance” standard.
The FBI and the DOJ remain unlikely to prosecute the elite bank officers that ran the enormous “accounting control frauds” that drove the financial crisis. While over 1000 elites were convicted of felonies arising from the savings and loan (S&L) debacle, there are no convictions of controlling officers of the large nonprime lenders. The only indictment of controlling officers of a far smaller nonprime lender arose not from an investigation of the nonprime loans but rather from the lender’s alleged efforts to defraud the federal government’s TARP bailout program.
What has gone so catastrophically wrong with DOJ, and why has it continued so long? The fundamental flaw is that DOJ’s senior leadership cannot conceive of elite bankers as criminals.
In effect, equal enforcement of the law is not simply important for democracy or to ensure that economic activity takes place, it is fundamental to ensuring that capitalism works. Without equal enforcement of the law, the economy operates with participants who are competitively advantaged and disadvantaged. The rogue firms are in effect receiving a giant government subsidy: the freedom to engage in profitable activities that are prohibited to lesser entities. This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle (like the growth of WorldCom from a regional phone carrier to a national giant that included MCI), so that inequality becomes ever greater. Ultimately, we all lose as our entire economy is distorted, valuable entities are crushed or never get off the ground because they can’t compete on a playing field that is not level, and most likely wealth is destroyed.
Does the Justice Department really believe that it is going to impress us with FIRREA lawsuits? We’ve already had enough theatre – during the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings and the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal. It’s time for some “perp walks”.
TheCenterLane.com offers opinion, news and commentary on politics, the economy, finance and other random events that either find their way into the news or are ignored by the news reporting business. As the name suggests, our focus will be on what seems to be happening in The Center Lane of American politics and what the view from the Center reveals about the events in the left and right lanes. Your Host, John T. Burke, Jr., earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Boston College with a double major in Speech Communications and Philosophy. He earned his law degree (Juris Doctor) from the Illinois Institute of Technology / Chicago-Kent College of Law.