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Two Years Too Late

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October 11, 2010

Greg Gordon recently wrote a fantastic article for the McClatchy Newspapers, in which he discussed how former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson failed to take any action to curb risky mortgage lending.  It should come as no surprise that Paulson’s nonfeasance in this area worked to the benefit of Goldman Sachs, where Paulson had presided as CEO for the eight years prior to his taking office as Treasury Secretary on July 10, 2006.  Greg Gordon’s article provided an interesting timeline to illustrate Paulson’s role in facilitating the subprime mortgage crisis:

In his eight years as Goldman’s chief executive, Paulson had presided over the firm’s plunge into the business of buying up subprime mortgages to marginal borrowers and then repackaging them into securities, overseeing the firm’s huge positions in what became a fraud-infested market.

During Paulson’s first 15 months as the treasury secretary and chief presidential economic adviser, Goldman unloaded more than $30 billion in dicey residential mortgage securities to pension funds, foreign banks and other investors and became the only major Wall Street firm to dramatically cut its losses and exit the housing market safely.  Goldman also racked up billions of dollars in profits by secretly betting on a downturn in home mortgage securities.

By now, the rest of that painful story has become a burden for everyone in America and beyond.  Paulson tried to undo the damage to Goldman and the other insolvent, “too big to fail” banks at taxpayer expense with the TARP bailouts.  When President Obama assumed office in January of 2009, his first order of business was to ignore the advice of Adam Posen (“Temporary Nationalization Is Needed to Save the U.S. Banking System”) and Professor Matthew Richardson.  The consequences of Obama’s failure to put those “zombie banks” through temporary receivership were explained by Karen Maley of the Business Spectator website:

Ireland has at least faced up to the consequences of the reckless lending, unlike the United States.  The Obama administration has adopted a muddle-through approach, hoping that a recovery in housing prices might mean that the big US banks can avoid recognising crippling property losses.

*   *   *

Leading US bank analyst, Chris Whalen, co-founder of Institutional Risk Analytics, has warned that the banks are struggling to cope with the mountain of problem home loans and delinquent commercial property loans.  Whalen estimates that the big US banks have restructured less than a quarter of their delinquent commercial and residential real estate loans, and the backlog of problem loans is growing.

This is eroding bank profitability, because they are no longer collecting interest on a huge chunk of their loan book.  At the same time, they also face higher administration and legal costs as they deal with the problem property loans.

Banks nursing huge portfolios of problem loans become reluctant to make new loans, which chokes off economic activity.

Ultimately, Whalen warns, the US government will have to bow to the inevitable and restructure some of the major US banks.  At that point the US banking system will have to recognise hundreds of billions of dollars in losses from the deflation of the US mortgage bubble.

If Whalen is right, Ireland is a template of what lies ahead for the US.

Chris Whalen’s recent presentation, “Pictures of Deflation” is downright scary and I’m amazed that it has not been receiving the attention it deserves.  Surprisingly — and ironically – one of the only news sources discussing Whalen’s outlook has been that peerless font of stock market bullishness:  CNBC.   Whalen was interviewed on CNBC’s Fast Money program on October 8.  You can see the video here.  The Whalen interview begins at 7 minutes into the clip.  John Carney (formerly of The Business Insider website) now runs the NetNet blog for CNBC, which featured this interview by Lori Ann LoRocco with Chris Whalen and Jim Rickards, Senior Managing Director of Market Intelligence at Omnis, Inc.  Here are some tidbits from this must-read interview:

LL:  Chris, when are you expecting the storm to hit?

CW:  When the too big to fail banks can no longer fudge the cost of restructuring their real estate exposures, on and off balance sheet. Q3 earnings may be the catalyst

LL:  What banks are most exposed to this tsunami?

CW:  Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan, Citigroup among the top four.  GMAC.  Why do we still refer to the ugly girls — Bank of America, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo in particular — as zombies?  Because the avalanche of foreclosures and claims against the too-big-too-fail banks has not even crested.

*   *   *

LL:  How many banks to expect to fail next year because of this?

CW:  The better question is how we will deal with the process of restructuring.  My view is that the government/FDIC can act as receiver in a government led restructuring of top-four banks.  It is time for PIMCO, BlackRock and their bond holder clients to contribute to the restructuring process.

Of course, this restructuring could have and should have been done two years earlier — in February of 2009.  Once the dust settles, you can be sure that someone will calculate the cost of kicking this can down the road — especially if it involves another round of bank bailouts.  As the saying goes:  “He who hesitates is lost.”  In this case, President Obama hesitated and we lost.  We lost big.



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Your Sleazy Government At Work

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May 31, 2010

Although the cartoon above appeared in my local paper, it came to my attention only because Barry Ritholtz posted it on his website, The Big Picture.  Congratulations to Jim Morin of The Miami Herald for creating one of those pictures that’s worth well over a thousand words.

Forget about all that oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico.  President Obama, Harry Reid and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd are too busy indulging in an orgy of self-congratulation over the Senate’s passage of a so-called “financial reform” bill (S. 3217) to be bothered with “the fishermen’s buzzkill”.  Meanwhile, many commentators are expressing their disappointment and disgust at the fact that the banking lobby has succeeded in making sure that the taxpayers will continue to pick up the tab when the banks go broke trading unregulated derivatives.

Matt Taibbi has written a fantastic essay for Rolling Stone, documenting the creepy battle over financial reform in the Senate.  The folks at Rolling Stone are sure getting their money’s worth out of Taibbi, after his landmark smackdown of Goldman Sachs and his revealing article exposing the way banks such as JP Morgan Chase fleeced Jefferson County, Alabama.  In his latest “must read” essay, Taibbi provides his readers with an understandable discussion of what is wrong with derivatives trading and Wall Street’s efforts to preserve the status quo:

Imagine a world where there’s no New York Stock Exchange, no NASDAQ or Nikkei:  no open exchanges at all, and all stocks traded in the dark.  Nobody has a clue how much a share of  IBM costs or how many of them are being traded.  In that world, the giant broker-dealer who trades thousands of IBM shares a day, and who knows which of its big clients are selling what and when, will have a hell of a lot more information than the day-trader schmuck sitting at home in his underwear, guessing at the prices of stocks via the Internet.

That world exists.  It’s called the over-the-counter derivatives market. Five of the country’s biggest banks, the Goldmans and JP Morgans and Morgan Stanleys, account for more than 90 percent of the market, where swaps of all shapes and sizes are traded more or less completely in the dark.  If you want to know how Greece finds itself bankrupted by swaps, or some town in Alabama overpaid by $93 million for deals to fund a sewer system, this is the explanation:  Nobody outside a handful of big swap dealers really has a clue about how much any of this shit costs, which means they can rip off their customers at will.

This insane outgrowth of  jungle capitalism has spun completely out of control since 2000, when Congress deregulated the derivatives market.  That market is now roughly 100 times bigger than the federal budget and 20 times larger than both the stock market and the GDP.  Unregulated derivative deals sank AIG, Lehman Brothers and Greece, and helped blow up the global economy in 2008.  Reining in derivatives is the key battle in the War for Finance Reform.  Without regulation of this critical market, Wall Street could explode another mushroom cloud of nuclear leverage and risk over the planet at any time.

At The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson de-mystified how both the Senate’s “financial reform” bill and the bill passed by the House require standardized derivatives to be traded on an exchange or a “swap execution facility”.  Although these proposals create the illusion of reform – it’s important to keep in mind that old maxim about gambling:  “The house always wins.”  In this case, the ability to “front-run” the chumps gives the house the power to keep winning:

But the devil is always in the details — hence, two 1,500-page bills — and problems arise in how the proposals define what constitutes a swap execution facility, and who can own one.

Big banks want to create and own the venues where swaps are traded, because such control has many benefits.  First, it gives the dealers extremely valuable pretrade information from customers wishing to buy or sell these instruments.  Second, depending on how these facilities are designed, they may let dealers limit information about pricing when transactions take place — and if an array of prices is not readily available, customers can’t comparison-shop and the banks get to keep prices much higher than they might be on an exchange.

*   *   *

Finally, lawmakers who are charged with consolidating the two bills are talking about eliminating language that would bar derivatives facilities from receiving taxpayer bailouts if they get into trouble.  That means a federal rescue of an imperiled derivatives trading facility could occur.  (Again, think A.I.G.)

Surely, we beleaguered taxpayers do not need to backstop any more institutions than we do now.  According to Jeffrey M. Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va., only 18 percent of the nation’s financial sector was covered by implied federal guarantees in 1999.  By the end of 2008, his bank’s research shows, the federal safety net covered 59 percent of the financial sector.

In a speech last week, Mr. Lacker said that he feared we were going to perpetuate the cycle of financial crises followed by taxpayer bailouts, in spite of Congressional reform efforts.

“Arguably, we will not break the cycle of regulation, bypass, crisis and rescue,”  Mr. Lacker said, “until we are willing to clarify the limits to government support, and incur the short-term costs of confirming those limits, in the interest of building a stronger and durable foundation for our financial system.  Measured against this gauge, my early assessment is that progress thus far has been negligible.”

Negligible progress, 3,000 pages notwithstanding.

When one considers what this legislation was intended to address, the dangers posed by failing to extinguish those systemic threats to the economy and what the Senate bill is being claimed to remedy  —  it’s actually just a huge, sleazy disgrace.  Matt Taibbi’s concluding words on the subject underscore the fact that not only do we still need real financial reform, we also need campaign finance reform:

Whatever the final outcome, the War for Finance Reform serves as a sweeping demonstration of how power in the Senate can be easily concentrated in the hands of just a few people.  Senators in the majority party – Brown, Kaufman, Merkley, even a committee chairman like Lincoln – took a back seat to Reid and Dodd, who tinkered with amendments on all four fronts of  the war just enough to keep many of them from having real teeth.  “They’re working to come up with a bill that Wall Street can live with, which by definition makes it a bad bill,” one Democratic aid eexplained in the final, frantic days of negotiation.

On the plus side, the bill will rein in some forms of predatory lending, and contains a historic decision to audit the Fed.  But the larger, more important stuff – breaking up banks that grow Too Big to Fail, requiring financial giants to pay upfront for their own bailouts, forcing the derivatives market into the light of day – probably won’t happen in any meaningful way.  The Senate is designed to function as a kind of ongoing negotiation between public sentiment and large financial interests, an endless tug of war in which senators maneuver to strike a delicate mathematical balance between votes and access to campaign cash.  The problem is that sometimes, when things get really broken, the very concept of a middle ground between real people and corrupt special interests becomes a grotesque fallacy.  In times like this, we need our politicians not to bridge a gap but to choose sides and fight.  In this historic battle over finance reform, when we had a once-in-a-generation chance to halt the worst abuses on Wall Street, many senators made the right choice.  In the end, however, the ones who mattered most picked wrong – and a war that once looked winnable will continue to drag on for years, creating more havoc and destroying more lives before it is over.

The sleazy antics by the Democrats who undermined financial reform (while pretending to advance it) will not be forgotten by the voters.  The real question is whether any independent candidates can step up to oppose the tools of Wall Street, relying on the nickels and dimes from “the little people” to wage a battle against the kleptocracy.






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Moment Of Truth

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May 24, 2010

Now that the Senate has passed its own version of a financial reform bill (S. 3217), the legislation must be reconciled with the House version before the bill can be signed into law by the President.  At this point, there is one big problem:  the President doesn’t like the bill because it actually has more teeth than an inbred, moonshine-drinking, meth head.  One especially objectionable provision in the eyes of the Administration and its kindred of the kleptocracy, Ben Bernanke, concerns the restrictions on derivatives trading introduced by Senator Blanche Lincoln.

Eric Lichtblau and Edward Wyatt of The New York Times wrote an article describing the current game plan of financial industry lobbyists to remove those few teeth from the financial reform bill to make sure that what the President signs is all gums:

The biggest flash point for many Wall Street firms is the tough restrictions on the trading of derivatives imposed in the Senate bill approved Thursday night.  Derivatives are securities whose value is based on the price of other assets like corn, soybeans or company stock.

The financial industry was confident that a provision that would force banks to spin off their derivatives businesses would be stripped out, but in the final rush to pass the bill, that did not happen.

The opposition comes not just from the financial industry.  The chairman of the Federal Reserve and other senior banking regulators opposed the provision, and top Obama administration officials have said they would continue to push for it to be removed.

And Wall Street lobbyists are mounting an 11th-hour effort to remove it when House and Senate conferees begin meeting, perhaps this week, to reconcile their two bills.  Lobbyists say they are already considering the possible makeup of the conference panel to focus on office visits and potential fund-raising.

The article discussed an analysis provided to The New York Times by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan group:

The group’s analysis found that the 14 freshmen who serve on the House Financial Services Committee raised 56 percent more in campaign contributions than other freshmen.  And most freshmen on the panel, the analysis found, are now in competitive re-election fights.

“It’s definitely not accidental,” said Melanie Sloan, the director of the ethics group. “It appears that Congressional leaders are deliberately placing vulnerable freshmen on the Financial Services Committee to increase their ability to raise money.”

Take Representative John Adler, Democrat of New Jersey.  Mr. Adler is a freshman in Congress with no real national profile, yet he has managed to raise more than $2 million for his re-election, more than any other freshman, the analysis found.

That is due in large part, political analysts say, to his spot on the Financial Services Committee.

An opinion piece from the May 24 Wall Street Journal provided an equally-sobering outlook on this legislation:

The unifying theme of the Senate bill that passed last week and the House bill of last year is to hand even more discretion and authority to the same regulators who failed to foresee and in many cases created the last crisis.  The Democrats who wrote the bill are selling it as new discipline for Wall Street, but Wall Street knows better.  The biggest banks support the bill, and the parts they don’t like they will lobby furiously to change or water down.

Big Finance will more than hold its own with Big Government, as it always does, while politicians will have more power to exact even more campaign tribute.  The losers are the overall economy, as financial costs rise, and taxpayers when the next bailout arrives.

At The Huffington Post, Mary Bottari discussed the backstory on Blanche Lincoln’s derivatives reform proposal and the opposition it faces from both lobbyists and the administration:

The Obama Administration Wants to Kill the Best Provisions

Lincoln’s proposal has come under fire from all fronts.  Big bank lobbyists went ballistic of course and they will admit that getting her language pulled from the bill is still their top priority.  Behind the scenes, it is also the top priority of the administration and the Federal Reserve.  Believe it or not the administration is fighting to preserve its ability to bailout any financial institutions that gets in trouble, not just commercial banks.  Yep that is right.  Instead of clamping down Wall Street gambling, the administration wants to keep reckless institutions on the teat of the Federal Reserve.

The battle lines are drawn.  The biggest threat to the Lincoln language now is the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve.  There will no doubt be a move to strip out the strong Lincoln language in conference committee where the House and Senate versions of the bank reform bill now go to be aligned.

Meanwhile, President Obama continues to pose as the champion of the taxpayers, asserting his bragging rights for the Senate’s passage of the bill.  Jim Kuhnhenn of MSNBC made note of Obama’s remark, which exhibited the Executive Spin:

The financial industry, Obama said, had tried to stop the new regulations “with hordes of lobbyists and millions of dollars in ads.”

In fact, the lobbyists have just begun to fight and Obama is right in their corner, along with Ben Bernanke.



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Banking Lobby Tools In Senate Subvert Reform

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May 20. 2010

The financial pseudo-reform bill is being exposed as a farce.  Thanks to its tools in the Senate, the banking lobby is on the way toward defeating any significant financial reform.  Although Democrats in the Senate (and the President himself) have been posing as reformers who stand up to those “fat cat bankers”, their actions are speaking much louder than their words.  What follows is a list of the Senate Democrats who voted against both the Kaufman – Brown amendment (to prevent financial institutions from being “too big to fail”) as well as the amendment calling for more Federal Reserve transparency (sponsored by Republican David Vitter to comport with Congressman Ron Paul’s original “Audit the Fed” proposal – H.R. 1207 – which was replaced by the watered-down S. 3217 ):

Akaka (D-HI), Baucus (D-MT), Bayh (D-IN), Bennet (D-CO), Carper (D-DE), Conrad (D-ND), Dodd (D-CT), Feinstein (D-CA), Gillibrand (D-NY), Hagan (D-NC), Inouye (D-HI), Johnson (D-SD), Kerry (D-MA), Klobuchar (D-MN), Kohl (D-WI), Landrieu (D-LA), Lautenberg (D-NJ), Lieberman (ID-CT), McCaskill (D-MO), Menendez (D-NJ), Nelson (D-FL), Nelson (D-NE), Reed (D-RI), Schumer (D-NY), Shaheen (D-NH), Tester (D-MT), Udall (D-CO) and Mark Warner (D-VA).

I wasn’t surprised to see Senator Chuck Schumer on this list because, after all, Wall Street is located in his state.  But how about Senator Claire McCaskill?  Remember her performance at the April 27 hearing before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations?   She really went after those banksters – didn’t she?  Why would she suddenly turn around and support the banks in opposing those two amendments?   I suppose the securities and investment industry is entitled to a little payback, after having given her campaign committee $265,750.

I was quite disappointed to see Senator Amy Klobuchar on that list.  Back on June 19, 2008, I included her in a piece entitled “Women to Watch”.  Now, almost exactly two years later, we are watching her serve as a tool for the securities and investment industry, which has given her campaign committee $224,325.  On the other hand, another female Senator whom I discussed in that same piece, Maria Cantwell of Washington, has been standing firm in opposing attempts to leave some giant loopholes in Senator Blanche Lincoln’s amendment concerning derivatives trading reform.  The Huffington Post described how Harry Reid attempted to use cloture to push the financial reform bill to a vote before any further amendments could have been added to strengthen the bill.  Notice how “the usual suspects” – Reid, Chuck Schumer and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd tried to close in on Cantwell and force her capitulation to the will of the kleptocracy:

There were some unusually Johnsonian moments of wrangling on the floor during the nearly hour-long vote.  Reid pressed his case hard on Snowe, the lone holdout vote present, with Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell at her side.  After finding Brown, he put his arm around him and shook his head, then found Cantwell seated alone at the opposite end of the floor.  He and New York’s Chuck Schumer encircled her, Reid leaning over her with his right arm on the back of her chair and Schumer leaning in with his left hand on her desk.  Cantwell stared straight ahead, not looking at the men even as she spoke.  Schumer called in Chris Dodd, who was unable to sway her.  Feingold hadn’t stuck around.  Cantwell, according to a spokesman, wanted a guarantee on an amendment that would fix a gaping hole in the derivatives section of the bill, which requires the trades to be cleared, but applies no penalty to trades that aren’t, making Blanche Lincoln’s reform package little better than a list of suggestions.

*   *   *

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to cut off good consumer amendments because of cloture,” said Cantwell on Tuesday night.

Other amendments offered by Democrats would ban banks from proprietary trading, cap ATM fees at 50 cents, impose new limits on the payday lending industry, prohibit naked credit default swaps and reinstate Glass-Steagall regulations that prohibit banks from owning investment firms.

“We need to eliminate the risk posed to our economy by ‘too big to fail’ financial firms and to reinstate the protective firewalls between Main Street banks and Wall Street firms,” said Feingold in a statement after the vote.  Feingold supported the amendment to reinstate Glass-Steagall, among others.

“Unfortunately, these key reforms are not included in the bill,” he said.  “The test for this legislation is a simple one — whether it will prevent another financial crisis.  As the bill stands, it fails that test.  Ending debate on the bill is finishing before the job is done.”

Russ Feingold’s criticisms of the bill were consistent with those voiced by economist Nouriel Roubini (often referred to as “Doctor Doom” because he was one of the few economists to anticipate the scale of the financial crisis).  Barbara Stcherbatcheff of CNBC began her report on Dr. Roubini’s May 18 speech with this statement:

Current efforts to reform financial regulation are “cosmetic” and won’t prevent another crisis, economist Nouriel Roubini told an audience on Tuesday at the London School of Economics.

The current mid-term primary battles have fueled a never-ending stream of commentary following the same narrative:  The wrath of the anti-incumbency movement shall be felt in Washington.  Nevertheless, Dylan Ratigan seems to be the only television commentator willing to include “opposition to financial reform” as a political liability for Congressional incumbents.  Yves Smith raised the issue on her Naked Capitalism website with an interesting essay focused on this theme:

Why have political commentators been hesitant to connect the dots between the “no incumbent left standing” movement and the lack of meaningful financial reform?

Her must-read analysis of the “head fakes” going on within the financial reform wrangling concludes with this thought:

So despite the theatrics in Washington, I recommend lowering your expectations greatly for the result of financial reform efforts.  There have been a few wins (for instance, the partial success of the Audit the Fed push), but other measures have for the most part been announced with fanfare and later blunted or excised.  Even though the firestorm of Goldman-related press stiffened the spines of some Senators and produced a late-in-process flurry of amendments, don’t let a blip distract you from the trend line, that as the legislative process proceeds apace, the banks will be able to achieve an outcome that leaves their dubious business models and most important, the rich pay to industry incumbents, largely intact.

As always, it’s up to the voting public with the short memory to unseat those tools of the banking lobby.  Our only alternative is to prepare for the next financial crisis.



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Doctor Doom Writes A Prescription

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May 6, 2010

As I discussed on April 26, expectations for serious financial reform are pretty low.  Worse yet, Lloyd Blankfein (CEO of Goldman Sachs) felt confident enough to make this announcement, during a conference call with private wealth management clients:

“We will be among the biggest beneficiaries of reform.”

So how effective could “financial reform” possibly be if Lloyd Bankfiend expects to benefit from it?  Allan Sloan of Fortune suggested following the old Wall Street maxim of “what they promise you isn’t necessarily what you get” when examining the plans to reform Wall Street:

President Obama talks about “a common sense, reasonable, nonideological approach to target the root problems that led to the turmoil in our financial sector and ultimately in our entire economy.”  But what we’ll get from the actual legislation isn’t necessarily what we hear from the Salesman-in-Chief.

Sloan offered an alternative by providing “Six Simple Steps” to help fix the financial system.  He wasn’t alone in providing suggestions overlooked by our legislators.

Nouriel Roubini (often referred to as “Doctor Doom” because he was one of the few economists to anticipate the scale of the financial crisis) has written a new book with Stephen Mihm entitled, Crisis Economics:  A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.  (Mihm is a professor of economic history and a New York Times Magazine writer.)  An excerpt from the book recently appeared in The Telegraph.  The idea of fixing our “sub-prime financial system” was introduced this way:

Even though they have suffered the worst financial crisis in generations, many countries have shown a remarkable reluctance to inaugurate the sort of wholesale reform necessary to bring the financial system to heel.  Instead, people talk of tinkering with the financial system, as if what just happened was caused by a few bad mortgages.

*   *   *

Since its founding, the United States has suffered from brutal banking crises and other financial disasters on a regular basis.  Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, crippling panics and depressions hit the nation again and again.  The crisis was less a function of sub-prime mortgages than of a sub-prime financial system.  Thanks to everything from warped compensation structures to corrupt ratings agencies, the global financial system rotted from the inside out.  The financial crisis merely ripped the sleek and shiny skin off what had become, over the years, a gangrenous mess.

Roubini and Mihm had nothing favorable to say about CDOs, which they referred to as “Chernobyl Death Obligations”.  Beyond that, the authors called for more transparency in derivatives trading:

Equally comprehensive reforms must be imposed on the kinds of deadly derivatives that blew up in the recent crisis.  So-called over-the-counter derivatives — better described as under-the-table — must be hauled into the light of day, put on central clearing houses and exchanges and registered in databases; their use must be appropriately restricted.  Moreover, the regulation of derivatives should be consolidated under a single regulator.

Although derivatives trading reform has been advanced by Senators Maria Cantwell and Blanche Lincoln, inclusion of such a proposal in the financial reform bill faces an uphill battle.  As Ezra Klein of The Washington Post reported:

The administration, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, and even the FDIC are lockstep against it.

The administration, Treasury and the Fed are also fighting hard against a bipartisan effort to include an amendment in the financial reform bill that would compel a full audit of the Federal Reserve.  I’m intrigued by the possibility that President Obama could veto the financial reform bill if it includes a provision to audit the Fed.

Jordan Fabian of The Hill discussed Congressman Alan Grayson’s theory about why Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner opposes a Fed audit:

But Grayson, who is known for his tough broadsides against opponents, indicated Geithner may have had a role in enacting “secret bailouts and loan guarantees” to large corporations, while New York Fed chairman during the Bush administration.

“It’s one of the biggest conflict of interests I have ever seen,” he said.

With the Senate and the administration resisting various elements of financial reform, the recent tragedy in Nashville provides us with a reminder of how history often repeats itself.  The concluding remarks from the Roubini – Mihm piece in The Telegraph include this timely warning:

If we strengthen the levees that surround our financial system, we can weather crises in the coming years. Though the waters may rise, we will remain dry.  But if we fail to prepare for the inevitable hurricanes — if we delude ourselves, thinking that our antiquated defences will never be breached again — we face the prospect of many future floods.

The issue of whether our government will take the necessary steps to prevent another financial crisis continues to remain in doubt.



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Too Cute By Half

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April 29, 2010

On April 15, I discussed the disappointing performance of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC).  The vapid FCIC hearings have featured softball questions with no follow-up to the self-serving answers provided by the CEOs of those too-big–to-fail financial institutions.

In stark contrast to the FCIC hearings, Tuesday brought us the bipartisan assault on Goldman Sachs by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.  Goldman’s most memorable representatives from that event were the four men described by Steven Pearlstein of The Washington Post as “The Fab Four”, apparently because the group’s most notorious member, Fabrice “Fabulous Fab” Tourre, has become the central focus of the SEC’s fraud suit against Goldman.   Tourre’s fellow panel members were Daniel Sparks (former partner in charge of the mortgage department), Joshua Birnbaum (former managing director of Structured Products Group trading) and Michael Swenson (current managing director of Structured Products Group trading).  The panel members were obviously over-prepared by their attorneys.  Their obvious efforts at obfuscation turned the hearing into a public relations disaster for Goldman, destined to become a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Although these guys were proud of their evasiveness, most commentators considered them too cute by half.  The viewing public could not have been favorably impressed.  Both The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein as well as Tunku Varadarajan of The Daily Beast provided negative critiques of the group’s testimony.  On the other hand, it was a pleasure to see the Senators on the Subcommittee doing their job so well, cross-examining the hell out of those guys and not letting them get away with their rehearsed non-answers.

A frequently-repeated theme from all the Goldman witnesses who testified on Tuesday (including CEO Lloyd Bankfiend and CFO David Viniar) was that Goldman had been acting only as a “market maker” and therefore had no duty to inform its customers that Goldman had short positions on its own products, such as the Abacus-2007AC1 CDO.  This assertion is completely disingenuous.  When Goldman creates a product and sells it to its own customers, its role is not limited to that of  “market-maker”.  The “market-maker defense” was apparently created last summer, when Goldman was defending its “high-frequency trading” (HFT) activities on stock exchanges.  In those situations, Goldman would be paid a small “rebate” (approximately one-half cent per trade) by the exchanges themselves to buy and sell stocks.  The purpose of paying Goldman to make such trades (often selling a stock for the same price they paid for it) was to provide liquidity for the markets.  As a result, retail (Ma and Pa) investors would not have to worry about getting stuck in a “roach motel” – not being able to get out once they got in – after buying a stock.  That type of market-making bears no resemblance to the situations which were the focus of Tuesday’s hearing.

Coincidentally, Goldman’s involvement in high-frequency trading resulted in allegations that the firm was “front-running” its own customers.   It was claimed that when a Goldman customer would send out a limit order, Goldman’s proprietary trading desk would buy the stock first, then resell it to the client at the high limit of the order.  (Of course, Goldman denied front-running its clients.)  The Zero Hedge website focused on the language of the disclaimer Goldman posted on its “GS360” portal.  Zero Hedge found some language in the GS360 disclaimer which could arguably have been exploited to support an argument that the customer consented to Goldman’s front-running of the customer’s orders.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the Goldman witnesses were repeatedly questioned as to what, if any, duty the firm owed its clients who bought synthetic CDOs, such as Abacus.  Alistair Barr of MarketWatch contended that the contradictory answers provided by the witnesses on that issue exposed internal disagreement at Goldman as to what duty the firm owed its customers.  Kurt Brouwer of MarketWatch looked at the problem this way :

This distinction is of fundamental importance to anyone who is a client of a Wall Street firm.  These are often very large and diverse financial services firms that have — wittingly or unwittingly — blurred the distinction between the standard of responsibility a firm has as a broker versus the requirements of an investment advisor.  These firms like to tout their brilliant and objective advisory capabilities in marketing brochures, but when pressed in a hearing, they tend to fall back on the much looser standards required of a brokerage firm, which could be expressed like this:

Well, the firm made money and the traders made money.  Two out of three ain’t bad, right?

The third party referred to indirectly would be the clients who, all too frequently, are left out of the equation.

A more useful approach could involve looking at the language of the brokerage agreements in effect between Goldman and its clients.  How did those contracts define Goldman’s duty to its own customers who purchased the synthetic CDOs that Goldman itself created?  The answer to that question could reveal that Goldman Sachs might have more lawsuits to fear than the one brought by the SEC.



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Failed Financial Reform And Failed Justice

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April 26, 2010

As the long-awaited financial reform legislation finally seems to be headed toward enactment, the groans of disappointment are loud and clear.  My favorite reporter at The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, did a fine job of exposing the shortcomings destined for inclusion in this lame bill:

Unfortunately, the leading proposals would do little to cure the epidemic unleashed on American taxpayers by the lords of finance and their bailout partners.  The central problem is that neither the Senate nor House bills would chop down big banks to a more manageable and less threatening size.  The bills also don’t eliminate the prospect of future bailouts of interconnected and powerful companies.

Too big to fail is alive and well, alas.  Indeed, several aspects of the legislative proposals sanction and codify the special status conferred on institutions that are seen as systemically important.  Instead of reducing the number of behemoth firms assigned this special status, the bills would encourage smaller companies to grow large and dangerous so that they, too, could have a seat at the bailout buffet.

*   *   *

It is disappointing that none of the current proposals call for breaking up institutions that are now too big or on their way there.  Such is the view of Richard W. Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

“The social costs associated with these big financial institutions are much greater than any benefits they may provide,” Mr. Fisher said in an interview last week.  “We need to find some international convention to limit their size.”

*   *   *

Edward Kane, a finance professor at Boston College and an authority on financial institutions and regulators, said that it was not surprising that substantive changes for both groups are not on the table.  After all, powerful banks want to maintain their ability to privatize gains and socialize losses.

“To understand why defects in in solvency detection and resolution persist, analysts must acknowledge that large financial institutions invest in building and exercising political clout,” Mr.Kane writes in an article, titled “Defining and Controlling Systemic Risk,” that he is scheduled to present next month at a Federal Reserve conference.

But regulators, eager to avoid being blamed for missteps in oversight, also have an interest in the status quo, Mr. Kane argues.  “As in a long-running poker game in which one player (here, the taxpayer) is a perennial and relatively clueless loser,” he writes, “other players see little reason to disturb the equilibrium.”

At Forbes, Robert Lenzner focused on the human failings responsible for the bad behavior of the big banks with his emphasis on the notion that “a fish stinks from the head”:

No well-intentioned reform bill that will pass Congress can prevent the mind-blowing stupidity, hubris and denial utilized by the big fish of Wall Street from stinking from the head.

*   *   *

Transparency won’t help if the Obama plan does not absolutely require all derivatives to be registered at the Securities and Exchange Commission.  It’s an invitation for abuse as five major market making banks like JPMorgan Chase account for 95% of all derivatives transactions and a very large share of their profits.  We haven’t seen evidence that they police themselves satisfactorily.

Derivatives expert Janet Tavakoli recently expressed her disgust over the disingenuousness of the current version of this legislation:

Our proposed “financial reform” bill is a sham, and the health of our society and our economy is at stake.

Ms. Tavakoli referred to the recent Huffington Post article by Dan Froomkin, which highlighted the criticism of the financial reform legislation provided by Professor William Black (the former prosecutor from the Savings and Loan crisis, whose execution was called for by Charles Keating).  Froomkin embraced the logic of economist James Galbraith, who emphasized that rather than relying on the expertise of economists to shape financial reform, we should be looking to the assistance of criminologists.  William Black reinforced this idea:

Criminologists, Black said, are trained to identify the environments that produce epidemics of fraud — and in the case of the financial crisis, the culprit is obvious.

“We’re looking at incentive structures,” he told HuffPost.  “Not people suddenly becoming evil.  Not people suddenly becoming crazy.  But people reacting to perverse incentive structures.”

CEOs can’t send out a memo telling their front-line professionals to commit fraud, “but you can send the same message with your compensations system, and you can do it without going to jail,” Black said.

Criminologists ask “fundamentally different types of question” than the ones being asked.

Back at The New York Times, Frank Rich provided us with a rare example of mainstream media outrage over the lack of interest in prosecuting the fraudsters responsible for the financial disaster that put eight million people out of work:

That no one at Lehman Brothers has yet been held liable for its Enronesque bookkeeping deceit is appalling.  That we still haven’t seen the e-mail and documents that would illuminate A.I.G.’s machinations with Goldman and the rest of its counterparties amounts to a cover-up.  That investigative journalists have consistently been way ahead of the authorities, the S.E.C. included, in uncovering Wall Street’s foul play is a scandal.  If this culture remains in place, the whole crisis will have gone to waste.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that any significant financial reform will be enacted as a result of the financial crisis is about the same as the likelihood that we will see anyone doing a “perp walk” for the fraudulent behavior that caused the meltdown.  Don’t expect serious reform and don’t expect justice.



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Unrealistic Expectations

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April 22, 2010

Newsweek’s Daniel Gross is back at it again.  His cover story for Newsweek’s April 9 issue is another attempt to make a preemptive strike at writing history.  You may remember his cover story for the magazine’s July 25 issue, entitled:  “The Recession Is Over”.  During the eight months since the publication of that article, the sober-minded National Bureau of Economic Research, or NBER —  which is charged with making the determination that a recession has ended – has yet to make such a proclamation.

The most recent cover story by Daniel Gross, “The Comeback Country” has drawn plenty of criticism.  (The magazine cover used the headline “America’s Back” to introduce the piece.)  At The Huffington Post, Dan Dorfman discussed the article with Olivier Garret, the CEO of Casey Research, an economic and investment consulting firm.  Garret described the Newsweek cover story as “fantasy journalism” and he shared a number of observations with Dan Dorfman:

“You know when a magazine like Newsweek touts a bullish economic recovery on its cover, just the opposite is likely to be the case,” he says.  “It sees superficial signs of improvement, but it’s ignoring the big picture.”

*   *   *

Meanwhile, Garret sees additional signs of economic anguish.  Among them:  More foreclosures and delinquencies of real estate properties will plague construction spending; banks haven’t yet cleaned up their balance sheets; private debt is no longer going down as it did in 2009; both short and long term rates should be headed higher, and many companies, he says, tell him they’re reluctant to invest and hire.

He also sees some major corporate bankruptcies, worries about the country’s ability to repay its debt, looks for rising cost of capital, which should further slow the economy, and expects a spreading sovereign debt crisis.

*  *  *

Many economists are projecting GDP growth in the range of 3% to 4% in the first quarter and similar growth for the entire year.  Much too optimistic, Garret tells me.  His outlook (which would clobber the stock market if he’s right):  up 0.4%-0.5% in the first quarter after revisions and between 0% and 1% for all of 2010.

“Fantasy economies only work in the mind, not in real life,” he says.

Given his bleak economic outlook, Garret expects a major market adjustment, say about a 10% to 20% decline in stock prices over the next six months.  He figures it could be triggered by one event, such as as an extension of the sovereign debt crisis.

David Cottle of The Wall Street Journal had this reaction to the Newsweek article:

Therefore, when you see a cover such as Newsweek’s recent effort, yelling “America’s Back” in no uncertain terms, it’s quite tempting to stock up on bonds, cash, tinned goods and ammunition.

Now, in fairness to the author, Daniel Goss, he makes the good point that the U.S. economy is growing at a clip that has consistently surprised gloomy forecasters.  It is.  The turnaround we’ve seen since Lehman Brothers imploded has been remarkable, if not entirely satisfying, he says, and he is quite right.  At the very least, U.S. growth is all-too-predictably leaving the European version in the dust.  Goss is also pretty upfront about the corners of the U.S. economy that have so far failed to keep up:  job creation and the housing market being the most obvious.

However, the problem with all these ‘back to normal’ pieces, and Goss’s is only one of many creeping out as the sky resolutely fails to fall in, is that the ‘normal’ they want to go back to was, in reality, anything but.

The financial sector remains unreformed, the global economy remains dangerously unbalanced.  The perilous highways that brought us to 2007 have not been sealed off in favor of straighter, if slower, roads.  Of course it would be great for us all if America were ‘back’ and so we must hope Newsweek’s cover doesn’t join the ranks of those which cruel history renders unintentionally hilarious .

But back where?  That’s the real question.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center has turned to Americans themselves to find out just how “back” America really is.  This report from April 20 didn’t seem to resonate so well with the rosy picture painted by Daniel Gross:

Americans are united in the belief that the economy is in bad shape (92% give it a negative rating), and for many the repercussions are hitting close to home.  Fully 70% of Americans say they have faced one or more job or financial-related problems in the past year, up from 59% in February 2009.  Jobs have become difficult to find in local communities for 85% of Americans.  A majority now says that someone in their household has been without a job or looking for work (54%); just 39% said this in February 2009. Only a quarter reports receiving a pay raise or a better job in the past year (24%), while almost an equal number say they have been laid off or lost a job (21%).

As economic conditions continue to deteriorate for middle-class Americans, the first few months of 2009 are already looking like “the good old days”.   The “comeback” isn’t looking too good.



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The Goldman Fallout

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April 19, 2010

In the aftermath of the disclosure concerning the Securities and Exchange Commission’s fraud suit against Goldman Sachs, we have heard more than a little reverberation of Matt Taibbi’s “vampire squid” metaphor, along with plenty of concern about which other firms might find themselves in the SEC’s  crosshairs.

As Jonathan Weil explained for Bloomberg News :

As Wall Street bombshells go, the lawsuit that the Securities and Exchange Commission filed against Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is about as big as it gets.

At The Economist, there was a detectable scent of schadenfreude in the discussion, which reminded readers that despite Lloyd Blankfein’s boast of having repaid Goldman’s share of the TARP bailout, not everyone has overlooked Maiden Lane III:

IS THE most powerful and controversial firm on Wall Street about to get the comeuppance that so many think it deserves?

*   *   *

The charges could hardly come at a worse time for Goldman.  The firm has been under fire on a number of fronts, including over the handsome payout it secured from the New York Fed as a derivatives counterparty of American International Group, an insurer that almost failed in 2008.  In a string of negative articles over the past year, Goldman has been accused of everything from double-dealing for its own advantage to planting its own people in the Treasury and other agencies to ensure that its interests were looked after.

At this point, those who criticized Matt Taibbi for his tour de force against Goldman (such as Megan McArdle) must be experiencing a bit of remorse.  Meanwhile, those of us who wrote items appearing at GoldmanSachs666.com are exercising our bragging rights.

The complaint filed against Goldman by the SEC finally put to rest the tired old lie that nobody saw the financial crisis coming.  The e-mails from Goldman VP, Fabrice Tourre, made it perfectly clear that in addition to being aware of the imminent collapse, some Wall Street insiders were actually counting on it.  Jonathan Weil’s Bloomberg article provided us with the translated missives from Mr. Tourre:

“More and more leverage in the system.  The whole building is about to collapse anytime now,” Fabrice Tourre, the Goldman Sachs vice president who was sued for his role in putting together the deal, wrote on Jan. 23, 2007.

“Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab …  standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstruosities!!!”

A few weeks later, Tourre, now 31, e-mailed a top Goldman trader:  “the cdo biz is dead we don’t have a lot of time left.”  Goldman closed the Abacus offering in April 2007.

Michael Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) has quoted a number of sources reporting that Goldman may soon find itself defending similar suits in Germany and the UK.

Not surprisingly, there is mounting concern over the possibility that other investment firms could find themselves defending similar actions by the SEC.  As Anusha Shrivastava reported for The Wall Street Journal, the action in the credit markets on Friday revealed widespread apprehension that other firms could face similar exposure:

Credit markets were shaken Friday by the news as investors tried to figure out whether other firms or other structured finance products will be affected.

Investors are concerned that the SEC’s action may create a domino effect affecting other firms and other structured finance products.  There’s also the worry that this regulatory move may rattle the recovery and bring uncertainty back to the market.

“Credit markets are seeing a sizeable impact from the Goldman news,” said Bill Larkin, a portfolio manager at Cabot Money Management, in Salem, Mass.  “The question is, has the S.E.C. discovered what may have been a common practice across the industry?  Is this the tip of the iceberg?”

*  *  *

The SEC’s move marks “an escalation in the battle to expose conflicts of interest on Wall Street,” said Chris Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics in a note to clients.  “Once upon a time, Wall Street firms protected clients and observed suitability …  This litigation exposes the cynical, savage culture of Wall Street that allows a dealer to commit fraud on one customer to benefit another.”

The timing of this suit could not have been better – with the Senate about to consider what (if anything) it will do with financial reform legislation.  Bill Black expects that this scandal will provide the necessary boost to get financial reform enacted into law.  I hope he’s right.



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Financial Crisis Inquiry Disappointment

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April 15, 2010

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) has been widely criticized for its lame efforts at investigating the causes of the financial crisis.  As I pointed out on January 11, a number of commentators had been expressing doubt concerning what the FCIC could accomplish before the commission held its first hearing.  At this point — just three months later — we are already hearing the question of whether it might be “time to pull the plug on the FCIC”.   Writing for the Center for Media and Democracy’s PRWatch.org website, Mary Bottari posed that question as the title to her critical piece, documenting the commission’s “lackluster performance”:

The FCIC is a 10-person panel assembled to report on the meltdown to President Obama later this year.  The New York Times reported last week what was becoming increasingly obvious: the commission was in shambles.  The commission waited eight months before having its first hearing.  A top investigator resigned due to delays in hiring staff, no subpoenas have been issued and partisan infighting means few new documents have been released that would aid reporters in piecing together the crime scene, even if  FCIC investigators are not up to the task.  Worse, it seems like the majority of staff  have been borrowed from the complicit Federal Reserve.

These problems were on full display in last week’s hearings.  The three days of hearings were marked by some heat, but little light.

The FCIC’s failure to issue any subpoenas became a major point of criticism by Eliot Spitzer, who had this to say in a recent posting for Slate :

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission has so far been a waste.  Some momentary theater has been provided by the witnesses who have tried to excuse, explain, or occasionally admit their role in the cataclysm of the past two years.  While this has ginned up some additional public outrage, it hasn’t deepened our knowledge about what critical players knew or did.  There is a simple reason for this:  The commission has not issued a single subpoena.  Any investigator will tell you that you must get the documentary evidence before you examine the witnesses.  The evidence is waiting to be seized from the Fed, AIG, Goldman Sachs, and on down the line.  Yet not one subpoena.

Rather than accept Robert Rubin’s simple disclaimers about Citigroup, why hasn’t the FCIC combed through the actual communications among the board, the executive committee, the audit committee, and the risk-management committee?  Why hasn’t the FCIC collected AIG’s e-mails with the Fed and Goldman Sachs?  Unless the subpoenas are issued, we will lose the chance to make the record.

As Binyamin Appelbaum pointed out in The Washington Post back on January 8, if a financial reform bill is eventually passed, it will likely be signed into law before the mid-term elections in November – one month before the FCIC is required to publish its findings.  As a result, there is a serious question as to whether the commission’s efforts will contribute anything to financial reform legislation.  Given the FCIC’s unwillingness to exercise its subpoena power, we are faced with the question of why the commission should even bother wasting its time and the taxpayers’ money on an irrelevant, ineffective exercise.

Although Mary Bottari’s essay discussed the possibility that the FCIC might still “get its act together”, the cynicism expressed by Eliot Spitzer provided a much more realistic assessment of the situation:

Americans have been betrayed by Washington over financial reform.  Our leaders have failed to get the evidence, failed to push back when clearly inadequate explanations were provided, and failed to explore the structural reforms that will work.  Pretend tears will drip from bankers’ eyes after the consumer protection agency is created.  Then their wolfish teeth will slowly break into a grin, the pure delight that Washington has failed to do anything meaningful to restructure the banking sector.

Just when it was beginning to appear as though we might actually see some meaningful financial reform find its way into law, we have been reminded that Washington has its own ways – which benefit the American public only by rare coincidence.