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© 2008 – 2014 John T. Burke, Jr.

Congress Under The Microscope

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The November 13 broadcast of 60 Minutes, which featured a piece by Steve Kroft about Congressional insider trading, gave some needed momentum to the effort seeking a ban on the practice.  I originally wrote about this activity in September of 2009:

A recent report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn revealed how the law prohibiting “insider trading” (i.e. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.

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Mr. Henn’s report went on to raise concern over the fact that there is nothing to stop members of Congress from acting on such information to the detriment of their constituents in favor of their own portfolios.

In February of 2011, I discussed the subject again, including the history of Congressman Brian Baird’s introduction of  H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act) in January of 2009.  On November 14, I was pleased to report that a conservative pundit – Peter Schweizer – a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution – had joined the battle against Congressional insider trading:

A new book by Peter Schweizer – Throw Them All Out – deals with this very subject.  The book’s subtitle is reminiscent of the point I tried to make in my February posting:  “How politicians and their friends get rich off insider stock tips, land deals and cronyism that would send the rest of us to prison”.

On December 28, J.R. Dunn – consulting editor of the conservative American Thinker, enthusiastically weighed-in with a supportive review of Peter Schweizer’s book.  Beyond that, Dunn’s opening remarks addressed the greater problem:

Crony capitalism is the most serious current danger to the American community, a threat not simply to government or the economy, but to our very way of life.  It is the worst such threat since the trusts and monopolies of the early 20th century, and in much the same way. Cronyism is one of the major forces behind the establishment of the corrupt pseudo-aristocracy that has been taking shape in this country over the past two decades, a synthetic privileged class made up in large part of politicians, hustlers, and hangers-on who have become expert in exploiting the rest of us.

Fortunately, we have now reached a point where greater scrutiny is being used to investigate the manner in which Congress-cretins enrich themselves while in office.  David Richards wrote a great piece for the Daily Mail, which focused on the fact that over the past 25 years, the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen:

Against a backdrop of a vast budget deficit and fears of the fragility of the economy, analysis by the Washington Post shows that the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled over 25 years while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen.

It calculated that their median net worth, between 1984 and 2009 and excluding home equity, rose from $280,000 to $725,000.

Over those same 25 years the wealth of the average U.S. family slipped from $20,500 from $20,600, a University of Michigan study shows.

The Daily Mail article went on to point out that members of Congress are actually doing significantly better than America’s most wealthy citizens – who are so zealously defended by critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

The New York Times’ report into the wealth of members of Congress found that they were also getting rich compared with affluent Americans.

It found that the median net worth of members of Congress rose 15 per cent from 2004 to 2010 as the net worth of the richest 10 per cent of the country remained for the most part flat.

This disparity between those they represent also translated into a wider gap in their experiences of the economy, the Post found.

It interviewed Gary Myers, the son of a bricklayer, a Republican who entered Congress in 1975. He said his experience of having worked as a foreman in a steel mill shaped his outlook and led him to vote in favour of raising the minimum wage and helped him to understand the need for workers to have a safety net.

‘It would be hard to argue that the work in the steel mill didn’t give me a different perspective,’ he told the Post. ‘I think everybody’s history has an impact on them.’

The same area is now represented by Republican Mike Kelly who was elected last year. After graduating he married the heiress to an oil fortune and took over his father’s car dealership where he had worked as a youngster.

He told the paper he believed he was overtaxed already and that unemployment benefits made some people less willing to look for employment.

On the other hand, there is one Congressman’s investment portfolio, which is being criticized for other reasons.  In fact, I’m sure that many investment analysts are having a good laugh as they read Jason Zweig’s recent posting for his new Total Return blog at The Wall Street Journal:

Yes, about 21% of Rep. Paul’s holdings are in real estate and roughly 14% in cash.  But he owns no bonds or bond funds and has only 0.1% in stock funds.  Furthermore, the stock funds that Rep. Paul does own are all “short,” or make bets against, U.S. stocks. One is a “double inverse” fund that, on a daily basis, goes up twice as much as its stock benchmark goes down.

The remainder of Rep. Paul’s portfolio – fully 64% of his assets – is entirely in gold and silver mining stocks.  He owns no Apple, no ExxonMobil, no Procter & Gamble, no General Electric, no Johnson & Johnson, not even a diversified mutual fund that holds a broad basket of stocks.  Rep. Paul doesn’t own stock in any major companies at all except big precious-metals stocks like Barrick Gold, Goldcorp and Newmont Mining.

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Rep. Paul appears to be a strict buy-and-hold investor who rarely trades; he has held many of his mining stocks since at least 2002. But, as gold and silver prices have fallen sharply since September, precious-metals equities have also taken a pounding, with many dropping 20% or more.  That exposes the risk in making a big bet on one narrow sector.

At our request, William Bernstein, an investment manager at Efficient Portfolio Advisors in Eastford, Conn., reviewed Rep. Paul’s portfolio as set out in the annual disclosure statement.  Mr. Bernstein says he has never seen such an extreme bet on economic catastrophe.  “This portfolio is a half-step away from a cellar-full of canned goods and nine-millimeter rounds,” he says.

There are many possible doomsday scenarios for the U.S. economy and financial markets, explains Mr. Bernstein, and Rep. Paul’s portfolio protects against only one of them:  unexpected inflation accompanied by a collapse in the value of the dollar.  If deflation (to name one other possibility) occurs instead, “this portfolio is at great risk” because of its lack of bonds and high exposure to gold.

At least Congressman Ron Paul is authentic enough to “place his money where his mouth is” when criticizing Federal Reserve monetary policy.

As election year progresses, the current trend of “turning over rocks” to investigate the financial dealings of those in Congress could make things quite interesting.


 

Widespread Disappointment With Financial Reform

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Exactly one year 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 bill – 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 year since that posting, I felt a bit less misanthropic each time someone spoke out, wrote an article or made a presentation demonstrating that our government’s “financial reform” effort was nothing more than political theater.  Last July, Rich Miller of Bloomberg News reported that according to a Bloomberg National Poll, almost eighty percent of those surveyed expressed “just a little or no confidence” that the financial reform bill would make their financial assets more secure.  Forty-seven percent believed that the bill would do more to protect the financial industry than consumers.  The American public is not as dumb as most people claim!

This past week brought us three great perspectives on the worthlessness of our government’s financial reform facade.  I was surprised that the most impressive presentation came from a Fed-head!   Thomas M. Hoenig, President and CEO of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, gave a speech at New York University’s Stern School of Business, concerning the future of “systemically important financial institutions” or “SIFIs” and the Dodd-Frank Act.  (Bill Black prefers to call them “systemically dangerous institutions” or “SDIs”.)   After a great discussion of the threat these entities pose to our financial system and the moral hazard resulting from the taxpayer-financed “safety net”, which allows creditors of the SIFIs to avoid accountability for risks taken, Tom Hoenig focused on Dodd-Frank:

Following this financial crisis, Congress and the administration turned to the work of repair and reform.  Once again, the American public got the standard remedies – more and increasingly complex regulation and supervision.  The Dodd-Frank reforms have all been introduced before, but financial markets skirted them.  Supervisory authority existed, but it was used lightly because of political pressure and the misperceptions that free markets, with generous public support, could self-regulate.

Dodd-Frank adds new layers of these same tools, but it fails to employ one remedy used in the past to assure a more stable financial system – simplification of our financial structure through Glass-Steagall-type boundaries.  To this end, there are two principles that should guide our efforts to restore such boundaries.  First, institutions that have access to the safety net should be restricted to certain core activities that the safety net was intended to protect – making loans and taking deposits – and related activities consistent with the presence of the safety net.

Second, the shadow banking system should be reformed in its use of money market funds and short-term repurchase agreements – the repo market.  This step will better assure that the safety net is not ultimately called upon to bail them out in crisis.

Another engaging perspective on financial reform efforts came from Phil Angelides, who served as chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which conducted televised hearings concerning the causes of the financial crisis and issued its final report in January.  On June 27, Angelides wrote an article for The Washington Post wherein he discussed what caused the financial crisis, the current efforts to “revise the historical narrative” of what led to the economic catastrophe, as well as the efforts to undermine, subvert and repeal the meager reforms Dodd-Frank authorized.  Angelides didn’t pull any punches when he upbraided Congressional Republicans for conduct which the Democrats have been too timid (or complicit) to criticize:

If you are Rep. Paul Ryan, you ignore the fact that our federal budget deficit has ballooned more than $10 trillion annually since the financial collapse.  You disregard the reality that two-thirds of the deficit increase is directly attributable to the economic downturn and bipartisan fiscal measures adopted to bolster the economy.  Instead of focusing on the real cause of the deficit, you conflate today’s budgetary disaster with the long-term challenges of Medicare so you can shred the social safety net.

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If you are most congressional Republicans, you turn a blind eye to the sad history of widespread lending abuses that savaged communities across the country and pledge to block the appointment of anyone to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unless its authority is weakened.  You ignore the evidence of pervasive excess that wrecked our financial markets and attempt to cut funding for the regulators charged with curbing it.  Across the board, you refuse to acknowledge what went wrong and then try to stop efforts to make it right.

David Sirota wrote a great essay for Salon entitled, “America’s unique hatred of finance reform”.  Sirota illustrated how bipartisan efforts to undermine financial reform are turning America into – what The Daily Show with Jon Stewart called – “Sweden’s Mexico”:

On one hand, Europe’s politics of finance seem to be gradually moving in the direction of Sweden — that is, in the direction of growth and stability.  As the Washington Post reports, that Scandinavian country — the very kind American Tea Party types write off with “socialist” epithets — has the kind of economy the U.S. can now “only dream of:  growing rapidly, creating jobs and gaining a competitive edge (as) the banks are lending, the housing market booming (and) the budget is balanced.”  It has accomplished this in part by seriously regulating its banking sector after it collapsed in the 1990s.

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After passing an embarrassingly weak financial “reform” bill that primarily cemented the status quo, the U.S. government is now delaying even the most minimal new rules that were included in the legislation.  At the same time, Senate Republicans are touting their plans to defund any new financial regulatory agencies; the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee has declared that “Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks” — not the other way around; and the Obama administration is now trying to force potential economic partners to accept financial deregulation as a consequence of bilateral trade deals.

Meanwhile, the presidential campaign already looks like a contest between two factions of the same financial elite — a dynamic that threatens to make the 2012 extravaganza a contest to see which party can more aggressively suck up to the banks.

Any qualified, Independent political candidate, who is willing to step up for the American middle class and set out a plan of action to fight the financial industry as well as its lobbyists, would be well-positioned for a 2012 election victory.



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