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Bait And Switch

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October 19, 2009

On Friday, October 16, Aaron Task interviewed Elizabeth Warren for his online TV show, Tech Ticker.  In case you don’t remember, Ms. Warren is the Harvard law professor, appointed to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel which has attempted to trace the money thrown into the infamous slush fund known as TARP — the Troubled Assets Relief Program.  Mr. Task questioned Professor Warren as to whether, after all this time, we can expect a full accounting as to where the TARP money went.  Professor Warren responded:  “No.  I think there is no chance that we will get a full accounting of it.”  She explained the reason for this is because former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson never asked for an explanation “on the front end” (when the TARP bailout program began) concerning what the recipients planned to do with this money, nor was any documentation of expenditures requested.  As an aside, the folks at The New York Times were kind enough to put together this TARP scorecard, for keeping track of which institutions pay back the money they received.  Of course, these amounts do not include all the loans, “backstopping” and other largesse provided to Wall Street by the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Treasury.  For that information, we can look to this Bailout Tally Report, prepared by Nomi Prins for her book:  It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses,and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street.

During the interview with Aaron Task, Elizabeth Warren expressed particular concern over the fact that former Treasury Secretary Paulson failed to put any restrictions on the use of the TARP bailout funds prior to their dispersal, despite the explanation to the taxpayers that this money would be used to remove the “toxic assets” from the banks’ balance sheets.  Worse yet, as she explained:  “The toxic assets are still there, by and large” because the TARP money was used by the Wall Street banks to “make bets”.  The bait-and-switch tactic used by Secretary Paulson was exposed by Professor Warren when she criticized how the banks used that money:

My biggest complaint would be:  That was not how Secretary Paulsen described what was going to happen with American taxpayer dollars.   . . . He said we are going to put money into the banks to increase lending —  specifically to increase small business lending because that is the engine of our economy . . .  I have a real problem when we describe to taxpayers their money will be taken and used one way and in fact it’s used another way.

Professor Warren also noted that nothing had been done to contain “systemic risk” after the financial crisis because those institutions requiring bailouts as they were considered “too big to fail” have grown even larger.  This subject was addressed by Rolfe Winkler of Reuters, who questioned whether these institutions, such as Goldman Sachs, are really indispensable:

Many of us didn’t like it — we thought banks like Goldman should have been recapitalized the right way, by wiping out shareholders and forcing subordinated creditors to eat their share of losses.  But that ship has sailed.  We socialized the risk while privatizing the profit because we were told we had no other choice:  The government had to guarantee the biggest banks’ liabilities because they were too unstable to survive bankruptcy or FDIC receivership.

If that’s true, why haven’t we seen any substantial reforms to reduce systemic risk?  Congress is kicking around new resolution authority to help resolve failed systemically-important banks.  But the goal should be reducing systemic risk to begin with.  Yet serious reform of the derivatives market — something that would reduce its size significantly — is nowhere on the radar.

Indeed, Goldman’s trading results suggest that market is coming back with a vengeance.  It’s playing in very risky markets with a capital structure that remains vulnerable yet is guaranteed by taxpayers.

*   *   *

Wall Street and its protectors at the Fed and Treasury tell us the bailout was necessary to protect the financial system, to protect Main Street.  That may be.  But Main Street still owns much of the risk while Wall Street gets all of the profit.

Elizabeth Warren’s reaction to the issue of what has been done with those profits — the huge, record-breaking bonuses paid to the people at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, was to describe the situation as so inappropriate as to leave her “speechless”.  Fortunately this sentiment is shared by a number of people who are already taking action in the absence of any responsible government activity.  The Gawker website has announced its initiation of what it calls the “Goldman Project” as a way of pushing back against this atrocity:

But what makes it eye-stabbingly, brain-searingly blood-boiling is the fact that Goldman’s employees are personally reaping the benefits of these subsidies to the tune of an average of $700,000 per staffer.  Being unjustifiably wealthy in boom times is not enough — when market forces of their own creation brought their company low, they turned to the taxpayers both to rescue the firm and prop up their obscenely acquisitive lifestyles.

*   *   *

.  .  .  we’re launching the Goldman Project, an ongoing attempt to track and publicize the multi-million second homes, $50,000 cars, $500 bottles of wine, and ostentatious living that we are subsidizing.  And we need your help: Are you Facebook friends with a Goldmanite who just posted photos of his lavish bachelor party?  Post them to our fancy new tag page, #GoldmanProject, or e-mail them to us.  Are you a realtor who just sold a $4 million duplex a Goldman banker?  Is your ex-boyfriend Goldman banker planning a year-end trip to Cabo to blow his bonus wad?  Shoot us an e-mail.  Likewise, if you catch any references to Goldman employees living large in the media, post them to #GoldmanProject to keep a running clipfile.

The folks at Gawker aren’t the only ones taking action.  When the American Bankers Association holds its annual meeting in Chicago on October 25-26, it will be confronted with a (hopefully) large protest led by a coalition of labor, community and consumer groups, called the “Showdown in Chicago”.  Visit their website and do whatever you can to help make this event a success.  The arrogant influence peddlers in Washington need to get the message:  Clean things up or get thrown out.



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The Big Lie Gets Some Blowback

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September 3, 2009

My favorite “blowback” story of the week resulted from the ill-advised decisions by people at The New York Times and the Financial Times to trumpet talking points apparently “Fed” (pun intended) to them by the Federal Reserve.  Both publications asserted that the TARP program has already returned profits for the Untied States government.  The Financial Times claimed the profit so far has been $14 billion.  The New York Times, reporting the amount as $18 billion, claimed that “taxpayers have begun seeing profits from the hundreds of billions of dollars in aid that many critics thought might never be seen again.”  So where is my check?  Anyone with a reasonable degree of intelligence, who bothered to completely read through either of these articles, could quickly recognize yet another rendition of The Big Lie.  The blowback against these articles was swift and harsh.  Matt Taibbi’s critique was short and sweet:

This is sort of like calculating the returns on a mutual fund by only counting the stocks in the fund that have gone up.  Forgetting for a moment that TARP is only slightly relevant in the entire bailout scheme — more on that in a moment — the TARP calculations are a joke, apparently leaving out huge future losses from AIG and Citigroup and others in the red.  Since only a small portion of the debt has been put down by the best borrowers, and since the borrowers in the worst shape haven’t retired their obligations yet, it’s crazy to make any conclusions about TARP, pure sophistry.

*   *   *

The other reason for that is that it’s only a tiny sliver of the whole bailout picture.  The real burden carried by the government and the Fed comes from the various anonymous bailout facilities — the TALF, the PPIP, the Maiden Lanes, and so on.       .  .  .

And there are untold trillions more the Fed has loaned out in the last 18 months and which we are not likely to find out much about, unless the recent court ruling green-lighting Bloomberg’s FOIA request for those records actually goes through.

Over at The Business Insider, John Carney also quoted Matt Taibbi’s piece, adding that:

We simply don’t know how to value the mortgage backed securities the Fed bought.  We don’t know how much the government will wind up paying on the backstops of Citi and Bear Stearns assets.  And we don’t know how much more money might have to be pumped into the system to keep it afloat.

At another centrist website called The Moderate Voice, Michael Silverstein pointed out that any news reporter with a conscience ought to feel a bit of shame for participating in such a propaganda effort:

I’ve been an economics and financial writer for 30 years.  I used to enjoy my work.  I used to take pride in it.  The markets were kinky, sure, but that made the writing more fun.

*   *   *

That’s not true anymore.  Reportage about the economy and the markets — at least in most mainstream media — now largely consists of parroting press releases from experts of various stripes or government spokespeople.  And the result is not just infuriating for a long-term professional in this field, but outright embarrassing.

A perfect example was yesterday’s “good news” supposedly showing that our economic masters were every bit as smart as they think they are.  A few banks have repaid their TARP loans, part of the $4 trillion that government has sunk into our black hole banking system.

*   *   *

The $74 billion the government has been repaid is less than two percent of the $4 trillion the government has borrowed or printed to keep incompetent lenders from going down.  Less than two percent!  Even this piddling sum was generated by a manipulated stock market rally that allowed banks shares to soar, bringing a lot of money into bank coffers, almost all of which they added to reserves before paying back a few billion to the government.

Rolfe Winkler at Reuters joined the chorus criticizing the sycophantic cheerleading for these claims of TARP profitability:

A very dangerous misconception is taking root in the press, that in addition to saving the world financial system, the bank bailout is making taxpayers money.

“As big banks repay bailout, U.S.sees profit” read the headline in the New York Times on Monday.  The story was parroted on evening newscasts.

*   *   *

Taxpayers should keep that in mind whenever they see misguided reports that they are making money from bailouts.  The truth is that the biggest banks are still insolvent and, ultimately, their losses are likely to be absorbed by taxpayers.

As the above-quoted sources have reported, the ugly truth goes beyond the fact that the Treasury and the Federal Reserve have been manipulating the stock markets by pumping them to the stratosphere  —  there is also a coordinated “happy talk” propaganda campaign to reinforce the “bull market” fantasy.  Despite the efforts of many news outlets to enable this cause, it’s nice to know that there are some honest sources willing to speak the truth.  The unpleasant reality is exposed regularly and ignored constantly.  Tragically, there just aren’t enough mainstream media outlets willing to pass along the type of wisdom we can find from Chris Whalen and company at The Institutional Risk Analyst:

Plain fact is that the Fed and Treasury spent all the available liquidity propping up Wall Street’s toxic asset waste pile and the banks that created it, so now Main Street employers and private investors, and the relatively smaller banks that support them both, must go begging for capital and liquidity in a market where government is the only player left.  The notion that the Fed can even contemplate reversing the massive bailout for the OTC markets, this to restore normalcy to the monetary models that supposedly inform the central bank’s deliberations, is ridiculous in view of the capital shortfall in the banking sector and the private sector economy more generally.

Somebody ought to write that on a cake and send it over to Ben Bernanke, while he celebrates his nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman.



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The SEC Is Out To Lunch

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August 27, 2009

Back on January 5, I wrote a piece entitled:  “Clean-Up Time On Wall Street” in which I pondered whether our new President-elect and his administration would really “crack down on the unregulated activities on Wall Street that helped bring about the current economic crisis”.  I quoted from a December 15 article by Stephen Labaton of The New York Times, examining the failures of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the environment at the SEC that facilitated such breakdowns.  Some of the highlights from the Times piece included these points:

.  .  .  H. David Kotz, the commission’s new inspector general, has documented several major botched investigations.  He has told lawmakers of one case in which the commission’s enforcement chief improperly tipped off a private lawyer about an insider-trading inquiry.

*  *  *

There are other difficulties plaguing the agency. A recent report to Congress by Mr. Kotz is a catalog of major and minor problems, including an investigation into accusations that several S.E.C. employees have engaged in illegal insider trading and falsified financial disclosure forms.

I then questioned the wisdom of Barack Obama’s appointment of Mary Schapiro as the new Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, quoting from an article by Randall Smith and Kara Scannell of The Wall Street Journal concerning Schapiro’s track record as chair of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA):

Robert Banks, a director of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, an industry group for plaintiff lawyers . . .  said that under Ms. Schapiro, “Finra has not put much of a dent in fraud,” and the entire system needs an overhaul.  “The government needs to treat regulation seriously, and for the past eight years we have not had real securities regulation in this country,” Mr. Banks said.

*   *   *

In 2001 she appointed Mark Madoff, son of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council, the national committee that reviews initial decisions rendered in Finra disciplinary and membership proceedings.

I also quoted from a two-part op-ed piece for the January 3  New York Times, written by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker, and David Einhorn.  Here’s what they had to say about the SEC:

Created to protect investors from financial predators, the commission has somehow evolved into a mechanism for protecting financial predators with political clout from investors.  (The task it has performed most diligently during this crisis has been to question, intimidate and impose rules on short-sellers — the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse.)

Keeping all of this in mind, let’s have a look at the current lawsuit brought by the SEC against Bank of America, pending before Judge Jed S. Rakoff of The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.  The matter was succinctly described by Louise Story of The New York Times:

The case centers on $3.6 billion bonuses that were paid out by Merrill Lynch late last year, just before that firm was merged with Bank of America.  Neither company disclosed the bonuses to shareholders, and the S.E.C. has charged that the companies’ proxy statement about the merger were misleading in their description of the bonuses.

To make a long story short, Bank of America agreed to settle the case for a mere $33 million, despite its insistence that it properly disclosed to its shareholders, the bonuses it authorized for Merrill Lynch & Co employees.  The mis-handling of this case by the SEC was best described by Rolfe Winkler of Reuters.  The moral outrage over this entire matter was best expressed by Karl Denninger of The Market Ticker.  Denninger’s bottom line was this:

It is time for the damn gloves to come off.  Our economy cannot recover until the scam street games are stopped, the fraudsters are removed from the executive suites (and if necessary from Washington) and the underlying frauds – particularly including the games played with the so-called “value” of assets on the balance sheets of various firms are all flushed out.

On a similarly disappointing note, there is the not-so-small matter of:  “Where did all the TARP money go?”  You may have read about Elizabeth Warren and you may have seen her on television, discussing her role as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, tasked with scrutinizing the TARP bank bailouts.  Neil Barofsky was appointed Special Investigator General of TARP (SIGTARP).  Why did all of this become necessary?  Let’s take another look back to last January.  At that time, a number of Democratic Senators, including:  Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Maria Cantwell (Washington) voted to oppose the immediate distribution of the second $350 billion in TARP funds.  The vote actually concerned a “resolution of disapproval” to block distribution of the TARP money, so that those voting in favor of the resolution were actually voting against releasing the funds.  Barack Obama had threatened to veto this resolution if it passed. The resolution was defeated with 52 votes (contrasted with 42 votes in favor of it).  At that time, Obama was engaged in a game of “trust me”, assuring those in doubt that the second $350 billion would not be squandered in the same undocumented manner as the first $350 billion.  As Jeremy Pelofsky reported for Reuters on January 15:

To win approval, Obama and his team made extensive promises to Democrats and Republicans that the funds would be used to better address the deepening mortgage foreclosure crisis and that tighter accounting standards would be enforced.

“My pledge is to change the way this plan is implemented and keep faith with the American taxpayer by placing strict conditions on CEO pay and providing more loans to small businesses,” Obama said in a statement, adding there would be more transparency and “more sensible regulations.”

Although it was a nice-sounding pledge, the new President never lived up to it.  Worse yet, we now have to rely on Congress, to insist on getting to the bottom of where all the money went.  Although Elizabeth Warren was able to pressure “Turbo” Tim Geithner into providing some measure of disclosure, there are still lots of questions that remain unanswered.  I’m sure many people, including Turbo Tim, are uncomfortable with the fact that Neil Barofsky is doing “too good” of a job as SIGTARP.  This is probably why Congress has now thrown a “human monkey wrench” into the works, with its addition of former SEC commissioner Paul Atkins to the Congressional Oversight Panel.  Expressing his disgust over this development, David Reilly wrote a piece for Bloomberg News, entitled: “Wall Street Fox Beds Down in Taxpayer Henhouse”.  He discussed the cynical appointment of Atkins with this explanation:

Atkins was named last week to be one of two Republicans on the five-member TARP panel headed by Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren.  He replaces former Senator John Sununu, who stepped down in July.

*   *   *

And while a power-broker within the commission, Atkins was also seen as the sharp tip of the deregulatory spear during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Atkins didn’t waver from his hands-off position, even as the credit crunch intensified.  Speaking less than two months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Atkins in one of his last speeches at the SEC warned against calls for a “new regulatory order.”

He added, “We must not immediately jump to the conclusion that failures of firms in the marketplace or the unavailability of credit in the marketplace is caused by market failure, or indeed regulatory failure.”

When I spoke with him yesterday, Atkins hadn’t changed his tune.  “If the takeaway by some people is that deregulation is the thing that led to problems in the marketplace, that’s completely wrong,” he said.  “The problems happened in the most heavily regulated areas of the financial-services industry.”

Regulated by whom?