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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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We Took The Wrong Turn

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October 7, 2010

The ugly truth has raised its head once again.  We did it wrong and Australia did it right.  It was just over a year ago – on September 21, 2009 – when I wrote a piece entitled, “The Broken Promise”.  I concluded that posting with this statement:

If only Mr. Obama had stuck with his campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”, we wouldn’t have so many people wishing they lived in Australia.

I focused that piece on a fantastic report by Australian economist Steve Keen, who explained how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the financial crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.

The trouble began immediately after President Obama assumed office.  I wasn’t the only one pulling out my hair in February of 2009, when our new President decided to follow the advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  That decision resulted in a breach of Obama’s now-infamous campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  Obama decided to do more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  At the Calculated Risk website, Bill McBride lamented Obama’s strident posturing in an interview conducted by Terry Moran of ABC News, when the President actually laughed off the idea of implementing the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership.

With the passing of time, it has become painfully obvious that President Obama took the country down the wrong path.  The Australian professor (Steve Keen) was right and Team Obama was wrong.  Economist Joseph Stiglitz made this observation on August 5, 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

Fast-forward to October 6, 2010.  Michael Heath of Bloomberg BusinessWeek provided the latest chapter in the story of how America did it wrong while Australia did it right:

Australian Employers Added 49,500 Jobs in September

Australian employers in September added the most workers in eight months, driving the country’s currency toward a record and bolstering the case for the central bank to resume raising interest rates.

The number of people employed rose 49,500 from August, the seventh straight gain, the statistics bureau said in Sydney today.  The figure was more than double the median estimate of a 20,000 increase in a Bloomberg News survey of 25 economists.  The jobless rate held at 5.1 percent.

Meanwhile — back in the States — on October 6, ADP released its National Employment Report for September, 2010.  It should come as no surprise that our fate is 180 degrees away from that of Australia:  Private sector employment in the U.S. decreased by 39,000 from August to September on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the ADP report.   Beyond that, October 6 brought us a gloomy forecast from Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist for the ever-popular Goldman Sachs Group.  Wes Goodman of Bloomberg News quoted Hatzius as predicting that the United States’ economy will be “fairly bad” or “very bad” over the next six to nine months:

“We see two main scenarios,” analysts led by Jan Hatzius, the New York-based chief U.S. economist at the company, wrote in an e-mail to clients.  “A fairly bad one in which the economy grows at a 1 1/2 percent to 2 percent rate through the middle of next year and the unemployment rate rises moderately to 10 percent, and a very bad one in which the economy returns to an outright recession.”

Aren’t we lucky!  How wise of President Obama to rely on Larry Summers to the exclusion of most other economists!

Charles Ferguson, director of the new documentary film, Inside Job, recently offered this analysis of the milieu that facilitated the opportunity for Larry Summers to inflict his painful legacy upon us:

Then, after the 2008 financial crisis and its consequent recession, Summers was placed in charge of coordinating U.S. economic policy, deftly marginalizing others who challenged him.  Under the stewardship of Summers, Geithner, and Bernanke, the Obama administration adopted policies as favorable toward the financial sector as those of the Clinton and Bush administrations — quite a feat.  Never once has Summers publicly apologized or admitted any responsibility for causing the crisis.  And now Harvard is welcoming him back.

Summers is unique but not alone.  By now we are all familiar with the role of lobbying and campaign contributions, and with the revolving door between industry and government.  What few Americans realize is that the revolving door is now a three-way intersection.  Summers’ career is the result of an extraordinary and underappreciated scandal in American society:  the convergence of academic economics, Wall Street, and political power.

*     *     *

Now, however, as the national recovery is faltering, Summers is being eased out while Harvard is welcoming him back.  How will the academic world receive him?  The simple answer:  Better than he deserves.

Australia is looking better than ever  —  especially when you consider that their spring season is just beginning right now     .   .   .




Party Out Of Bounds

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October 4, 2010

It’s refreshing to witness the expansion in the number of people looking forward to the demise of our two-party political system.  Tom Friedman of The New York Times recently gushed with enthusiasm about the idea of  “a serious third party”, capable of rising to the challenge of enacting important, urgently-needed legislation without offending the far left, the far right or “coal state Democrats”.  Friedman is only half-right.  We need a third, a fourth, a fifth and a sixth party, as well.  Placing all of one’s hope in THE Third Party is a formula for more disappointment.

I frequently complain that we no longer have two distinct political parties running America.  We are currently stuck under the regime of the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party.  The widely-expressed disappointment resulting from President Obama’s failure to keep his campaign promises was discussed in my previous four postings.

Salena Zito of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote a great article about her year of traveling 6,609 miles to interview 432 people identifying themselves as Democrats.  Here’s what she learned:

In coffee shops, on streetcorners and farms, at factories, the narrative was always the same:  How could such great promise have let the country down so much, so quickly?

Ms. Zito reached the conclusion that the man elected President by these voters was really no improvement from the 2004 candidate, John Kerry:

Obama is no less out of touch than the Kerry whom America watched windsurf  before the 2004 election — the same man who said last week that one reason Democrats will lose this year is that “we have an electorate that doesn’t always pay that much attention to what’s going on, so people are influenced by a simple slogan rather than the facts or the truth or what’s happening.”

Here’s where Kerry and Obama are both wrong:  The electorate that was influenced by a simple slogan – “Yes, we can” — in 2008 actually is very well-informed.

This time, that electorate isn’t voting for a dream, but for its pocketbook.

Throughout the current election cycle, the Democratic establishment has avoided the sort of challenge experienced by the Republican establishment in the form of the Tea Party movement.  That will change after November 2, at which point disgruntled Democrats will feel more comfortable jumping ship.  It took consecutive humiliations at the polls in 2006 and 2008 before the Tea Partiers were motivated to break ranks with the Republican powers that be and undertake campaigns to challenge Republican incumbents.  Their efforts paid off so well, many Tea Partiers have become enthused about having a distinct party from the Republican organization.  After the 2010 elections are concluded, we can expect to see splinter groups breaking away from the Democratic Party.

Back on April 22, Mark Willen, Senior Political Editor of The Kiplinger Letter, wrote an interesting piece, lamenting the disadvantage experienced by moderate candidates because the political primary process facilitates victory for the choices of extremist voters as a result of the enthusiasm gap.  (Extremists are more motivated to vote in primaries than moderate voters, who don’t consider themselves crusaders for a particular agenda.)  Willen sees the two parties being pushed to ideological extremes, despite the fact that most Americans consider themselves to be in the center of the political spectrum.  Another important point from that piece concerns the fact that info-tainment programs presenting extremist views get better ratings than programs featuring commentary that really is “fair and balanced”.  As a result, cable television audiences are regularly exposed to a bombardment of caustic rhetoric.

The 2012 elections could bring us a significant increase in the number of  “independent” candidates, as well as nominees from new political parties.  A change of that nature could close future mid-term enthusiasm gaps, occurring in the November elections (such as the one expected for this year).  The prospects for a larger, more diverse group of political parties are looking better with each passing day.



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Fighting The Old War

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September 30, 2010

The New York Times recently ran a story about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to support the campaigns of centrist Republicans out of concern that the election of “Tea Party” –  backed candidates was pushing the Republican Party to the extreme right.  The article by Michael Barbaro began this way:

In an election year when anger and mistrust have upended races across the country, toppling moderates and elevating white-hot partisans, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is trying to pull politics back to the middle, injecting himself into marquee contests and helping candidates fend off the Tea Party.

Although it’s nice to see Mayor Bloomberg take a stand in support of centrism, I believe he is going about it the wrong way.  There are almost as many different motives driving people to the Tea Party movement as there are attendees at any given Tea Party event.  Although the movement is usually described as a far-right-wing fringe phenomenon, reporters who have attended the rallies and talked to the people found a more diverse group.  Consider the observations made by True Slant’s David Masciotra, who attended a Tea Party rally in Valparaiso, Indiana back on April 14:

The populist anger of the Northwest Indiana tea partiers could be moved to a left-wing protest rally without much discernible difference.

As much as the NWI Patriots seemed to hate Obama and health care reform, they also hate large corporations and the favorable treatment they are given by Washington.

*   *   *

They have largely legitimate concerns and grievances about the quality of their lives and future of their children’s lives that are not being addressed in Washington by either party.  Their wages have stagnated, while the cost of raising a family has crushingly increased.

My pet theory is that the rise of the Tea Party movement is just the first signal indicating the demise of the so-called “two-party system”.  I expect this to happen as voters begin to face up to the fact that the differences between Democratic and Republican policies are subtle when compared to the parties’ united front with lobbyists and corporations in trampling the interests of individual citizens.  On July 26, I wrote a piece entitled, “The War On YOU”, discussing the battle waged by “our one-party system, controlled by the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party”.   On August 30, I made note of a recent essay at the Zero Hedge website, written by Michael Krieger of KAM LP.  One of Krieger’s points, which resonated with me, was the idea that whether you have a Democratic administration or a Republican administration, both parties are beholden to the financial elites, so there’s not much room for any “change you can believe in”:

.   .  .   the election of Obama has proven to everyone watching with an unbiased eye that no matter who the President is they continue to prop up an elite at the top that has been running things into the ground for years.  The appointment of Larry Summers and Tiny Turbo-Tax Timmy Geithner provided the most obvious sign that something was seriously not kosher.  Then there was the reappointment of Ben Bernanke.  While the Republicans like to simplify him as merely a socialist he represents something far worse.

Barry Ritholtz, publisher of The Big Picture website, recently wrote a piece focused on how the old Left vs. Right paradigm has become obsolete.  He explained that the current power struggle taking place in Washington (and everywhere else) is the battle of corporations against individuals:

We now live in an era defined by increasing Corporate influence and authority over the individual.  These two “interest groups” – I can barely suppress snorting derisively over that phrase – have been on a headlong collision course for decades, which came to a head with the financial collapse and bailouts.  Where there are massive concentrations of wealth and influence, there will be abuse of power.  The Individual has been supplanted in the political process nearly entirely by corporate money, legislative influence, campaign contributions, even free speech rights.

*   *   *

For those of you who are stuck in the old Left/Right debate, you are missing the bigger picture.  Consider this about the Bailouts:  It was a right-winger who bailed out all of the big banks, Fannie Mae, and AIG in the first place; then his left winger successor continued to pour more money into the fire pit.

What difference did the Left/Right dynamic make?   Almost none whatsoever.

*   *   *

There is some pushback already taking place against the concentration of corporate power:  Mainstream corporate media has been increasingly replaced with user created content – YouTube and Blogs are increasingly important to news consumers (especially younger users).  Independent voters are an increasingly larger share of the US electorate. And I suspect that much of the pushback against the Elizabeth Warren’s concept of a Financial Consumer Protection Agency plays directly into this Corporate vs. Individual fight.

But the battle lines between the two groups have barely been drawn.  I expect this fight will define American politics over the next decade.

Keynes vs Hayek?  Friedman vs Krugman?  Those are the wrong intellectual debates.  It’s you vs. Tony Hayward, BP CEO,  You vs. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO.   And you are losing    . . .

Barry Ritholtz concluded with the statement:

If you see the world in terms of Left & Right, you really aren’t seeing the world at all  . . .

I couldn’t agree more.  Beyond that, I believe that politicians who continue to champion the old Left vs. Right war will find themselves in the dust as those leaders representing the interests of human citizens  rather than corporate interests win the support and enthusiasm of the electorate.   Similarly, those news and commentary outlets failing to adapt to this changing milieu will no longer have a significant following.  It will be interesting to see who adjusts. 




Where Obama Went Wrong

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September 27, 2010

One could write an 800-page book on this subject.  During the past week, we’ve been bombarded with explanations from across the political spectrum, concerning how President Obama has gone from wildly-popular cult hero to radioactive force on the 2010 campaign trail.  For many Democrats facing re-election bids in November, the presence of Obama at one of their campaign rallies could be reminiscent of the appearance of William Macy’s character from the movie, The Cooler.  Wikipedia’s discussion of the film provided this definition:

In gambling parlance, a “cooler” is an unlucky individual whose presence at the tables results in a streak of bad luck for the other players.

Barack Obama was elected on a wave of emotion, under the banners of  “Hope” and “Change”.  These days, the emotion consensus has turned against Obama as voters feel more hopeless as a result of Obama’s failure to change anything.  His ardent supporters feel as though they have been duped.  Instead of having been tricked into voting for a “secret Muslim”, they feel they have elected a “secret Republican”.  At the Salon.com website, Glenn Greenwald has documented no less than fifteen examples of Obama’s continuation of the policies of George W. Bush, in breach of his own campaign promises.

One key area of well-deserved outrage against President Obama’s performance concerns the economy.  The disappointment about this issue was widely articulated in December of 2009, as I pointed out here.  At that time, Matt Taibbi had written an essay for Rolling Stone entitled, “Obama’s Big Sellout”, which inspired such commentators as Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns to write this and this.  Beyond the justified criticism, polling by Pew Research has revealed that 46% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans incorrectly believe that the TARP bank bailout was signed into law by Barack Obama rather than George W. Bush.  President Obama invited this confusion with his nomination of “Turbo” Tim Geithner to the position of Treasury Secretary.  As President of the Federal Reserve of New York, Geithner oversaw the $13 billion gift Goldman Sachs received by way of Maiden Lane III.

The emotional battleground of the 2010 elections provided some fun for conservative pundit, Peggy Noonan this week as a result of the highly-publicized moment at the CNBC town hall meeting on September 20.  Velma Hart’s question to the President was emblematic of the plight experienced by many 2008 Obama supporters.  Noonan’s article, “The Enraged vs. The Exhausted” characterized the 2010 elections as a battle between those two emotional factions.  The “Velma Moment” exposed Obama’s political vulnerability as an aloof leader, lacking the ability to emotionally connect with his supporters:

The president looked relieved when she stood.  Perhaps he thought she might lob a sympathetic question that would allow him to hit a reply out of the park.  Instead, and in the nicest possible way, Velma Hart lobbed a hand grenade.

“I’m a mother. I’m a wife.  I’m an American veteran, and I’m one of your middle-class Americans.  And quite frankly I’m exhausted.  I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are.”  She said, “The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family.”  She said, “My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives.  But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed.”

What a testimony.  And this is the president’s base.  He got that look public figures adopt when they know they just took one right in the chops on national TV and cannot show their dismay.  He could have responded with an engagement and conviction equal to the moment.  But this was our president  — calm, detached, even-keeled to the point of insensate.  He offered a recital of his administration’s achievements: tuition assistance, health care.  It seemed so off point.  Like his first two years.

Kirsten Powers of The Daily Beast provided the best analysis of how the “Velma Moment” illustrated Obama’s lack of empathy.  Where Bill Clinton is The Sorcerer, Barack Obama is The Apprentice:

Does Barack Obama suffer from an “empathy deficit?” Ironically, it was Obama who used the phrase in a 2008 speech when he diagnosed the United States as suffering from the disorder.  In a plea for unity, candidate Obama said lack of empathy was “the essential deficit that exists in this country.”  He defined it as “an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

*   *   *

And at a 2008 rally in Westerville, Ohio, Obama said, “One of the values that I think men in particular have to pass on is the value of empathy.  Not sympathy, empathy.  And what that means is standing in somebody else’s shoes, being able to look through their eyes.  You know, sometimes we get so caught up in ‘us’ that it’s hard to see that there are other people and that your behavior has an impact on them.”

Yes, President Obama, sometimes that does happen.  Take a look in the mirror.  Nothing brought this problem into relief like the two Obama supporters who confronted the president at a recent town hall meeting expressing total despair over their economic situation and hopelessness about the future.  Rather than expressing empathy, Obama seemed annoyed and proceeded with one of his unhelpful lectures.

*   *   *

One former Emoter-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, told Politico last week, “[Obama’s] being criticized for being too disengaged, for not caring.  So he needs to turn into it.  I may be one of the few people that think it’s not bad that that lady said she was getting tired of defending him.  He needs to hear it.  You need to hear. Embrace people’s anger, including their disappointment at you.  And just ask ‘em to not let the anger cloud their judgment.  Let it concentrate their judgment.  And then make your case.”

Then the kicker:  “[Obama has] got to realize that, in the end, it’s not about him. It’s about the American people, and they’re hurting.”

The American people are hurting because their President sold them out immediately after he was elected.  When faced with the choice of bailing out the zombie banks or putting those banks through temporary receivership (the “Swedish approach” – wherein the bank shareholders and bondholders would take financial “haircuts”) Obama chose to bail out the banks at taxpayer expense.  So here we are  . . .  in a Japanese-style “lost decade”.  In case you don’t remember the debate from early 2009 – peruse this February 10, 2009 posting from the Calculated Risk website.  After reading that, try not to cry after looking at this recent piece by Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture entitled, “We Should Have Gone Swedish  . . .” :

The result of the Swedish method?  They spent 4% of GDP ($18.3 billion in today’s dollars), to rescue their banks.  That is far less than the $trillions we have spent — somewhere between 15-20% of GDP.

Final cost to the Swedes?  Less than 2% of G.D.P.  (Some officials believe it was closer to zero, depending on how certain rates of return are calculated).

In the US, the final tally is years away from being calculated — and its likely to be many times what Sweden paid in GDP % terms.

It has become apparent that the story of  “Where Obama Went Wrong” began during the first month of his Presidency.  Whoever undertakes the task of writing that book will be busy for a long time.




A Shocking Decision

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September 23, 2010

Nobody seems too surprised about the resignation of Larry Summers from his position as Director of the National Economic Council.  Although each commentator seems to have a unique theory for Summers’ departure, the event is unanimously described as “expected”.

When Peter Orszag resigned from his post as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the gossip mill focused on his rather complicated love life.  According to The New York Post, the nerdy-looking number cruncher announced his engagement to Bianna Golodryga of ABC News just six weeks after his ex-girlfriend, shipping heiress Claire Milonas, gave birth to their love child, Tatiana.  That news was so surprising, few publications could resist having some fun with it.  Politics Daily ran a story entitled, “Peter Orszag:  Good with Budgets, Good with Babes”.  Mark Leibovich of The New York Times pointed out that the event “gave birth” to a fan blog called Orszagasm.com.  Mr. Leibovich posed a rhetorical question at the end of the piece that was apparently answered with Orszag’s resignation:

This goes to another obvious — and recurring — question:  whether someone whose personal life has become so complicated is really fit to tackle one of the most demanding, important and stressful jobs in the universe. “Frankly I don’t see how Orszag can balance three families and the national budget,” wrote Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post.

The shocking nature of the Orszag love triangle was dwarfed by President Obama’s nomination of Orszag’s replacement:  Jacob “Jack” Lew.  Lew is a retread from the Clinton administration, at which point (May 1998 – January 2001) he held that same position:  OMB Director.  That crucial time frame brought us two important laws that deregulated the financial industry:  the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 (which legalized proprietary trading by the Wall Street banks) and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which completely deregulated derivatives trading, eventually giving rise to such “financial weapons of mass destruction” as naked credit default swaps.  Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that Lew does not believe that deregulation of the financial industry was a proximate cause of  the 2008 financial crisis.  Lew’s testimony at his September 16 confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee was discussed by Shahien Nasiripour  of The Huffington Post:

Lew, a former OMB chief for President Bill Clinton, told the panel that “the problems in the financial industry preceded deregulation,” and after discussing those issues, added that he didn’t “personally know the extent to which deregulation drove it, but I don’t believe that deregulation was the proximate cause.”

Experts and policymakers, including U.S. Senators, commissioners at the Securities and Exchange Commission, top leaders in Congress, former financial regulators and even Obama himself have pointed to the deregulatory zeal of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as a major cause of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

During 2009, Lew was working for Citigroup, a TARP beneficiary.  Between the TARP bailout and the Federal Reserve’s purchase of mortgage-backed securities from that zombie bank, Citi was able to give Mr. Lew a fat bonus of $950,000 – in addition to the other millions he made there from 2006 until January of 2009 (at which point Hillary Clinton found a place for him in her State Department).

The sabotage capabilities Lew will enjoy as OMB Director become apparent when revisiting my June 28 piece, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax”:

Another victory for the lobbyists came in their sabotage of the prohibition on proprietary trading (when banks trade with their own money, for their own benefit).  The bill provides that federal financial regulators shall study the measure, then issue rules implementing it, based on the results of that study.  The rules might ultimately ban proprietary trading or they may allow for what Jim Jubak of MSN calls the “de minimus” (trading with minimal amounts) exemption to the ban.  Jubak considers the use of the de minimus exemption to the so-called ban as the likely outcome.  Many commentators failed to realize how the lobbyists worked their magic here, reporting that the prop trading ban (referred to as the “Volcker rule”) survived reconciliation intact.  Jim Jubak exposed the strategy employed by the lobbyists:

But lobbying Congress is only part of the game.  Congress writes the laws, but it leaves it up to regulators to write the rules.  In a mid-June review of the text of the financial-reform legislation, the Chamber of Commerce counted 399 rule-makings and 47 studies required by lawmakers.

Each one of these, like the proposed de minimus exemption of the Volcker rule, would be settled by regulators operating by and large out of the public eye and with minimal public input.  But the financial-industry lobbyists who once worked at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. know how to put in a word with those writing the rules.  Need help understanding a complex issue?  A regulator has the name of a former colleague now working as a lobbyist in an e-mail address book.  Want to share an industry point of view with a rule-maker?  Odds are a lobbyist knows whom to call to get a few minutes of face time.

You have one guess as to what agency will be authorized to make sure those new rules comport with the intent of the financial “reform” bill   .   .   .   Yep:  the OMB (see OIRA).

President Obama’s nomination of Jacob Lew is just the latest example of a decision-making process that seems incomprehensible to his former supporters as well as his critics.  Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism refuses to let Obama’s antics go unnoticed:

The Obama Administration, again and again, has taken the side of the financial services industry, with the occasional sops to unhappy taxpayers and some infrequent scolding of the industry to improve the optics.

Ms. Smith has developed some keen insight about the leadership style of our President:

The last thing Obama, who has been astonishingly accommodating to corporate interests, needs to do is signal weakness.  But he has made the cardinal mistake of trying to please everyone and has succeeded in having no one happy with his policies.  Past Presidents whose policies rankled special interests, such as Roosevelt, Johnson, and Reagan, were tenacious and not ruffled by noise.  Obama, by contrast, announces bold-sounding initiatives, and any real change will break eggs and alienate some parties, then retreats.  So he creates opponents, yet fails to deliver for his allies.

Yes, the Disappointer-In-Chief has failed to deliver for his allies once again – reinforcing my belief that he has no intention of running for a second term.




The Smell Of Rotting TARP

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September 16, 2010

I never liked the TARP program.  As we approach the second anniversary of its having been signed into law by President Bush, we are getting a better look at how really ugly it has been.  Marshall Auerback picked up a law degree from Corpus Christi College, Oxford University in 1983 and currently serves as a consulting strategist for RAB Capital Plc in addition to being an economic consultant to PIMCO.  Mr. Auerback recently wrote a piece for the Naked Capitalism website in response to a posting by Ben Smith at Politico.  Smith’s piece touted the TARP program as a big success, with such statements as:

The consensus of economists and policymakers at the time of the original TARP was that the U.S. government couldn’t afford to experiment with an economic collapse.  That view in mainstream economic circles has, if anything, only hardened with the program’s success in recouping the federal spending.

Marshall Auerback’s essay, rebutting Ben Smith’s piece, was entitled, “TARP Was Not a Success —  It Simply Institutionalized Fraud”.  Mr. Auerback began his argument this way:

Indeed, the only way to call TARP a winner is by defining government sanctioned financial fraud as the main metric of results.  The finance leaders who are guilty of wrecking much of the global economy remain in power – while growing extraordinarily wealthy in the process.  They know that their primary means of destruction was accounting “control fraud”, a term coined by Professor Bill Black, who argued that “Control frauds occur when those that control a seemingly legitimate entity use it as a ‘weapon’ to defraud.”  TARP did nothing to address this abuse; indeed, it perpetuates it.  Are we now using lying and fraud as the measure of success for financial reform?

After pointing out that “Congress adopted unprincipled accounting principles that permit banks to lie about asset values in order to hide their massive losses on loans and investments”, Mr. Auerback concluded by enumerating the steps followed to create an illusion of viability for those “zombie banks”:

Both the Bush and Obama administration followed a three-part strategy towards our zombie banks:  (1) cover up the losses through (legalized) accounting fraud, (2) launch an “everything is great” propaganda campaign (the faux stress tests were key to this tactic and Ben Smith perpetuates this nonsense in his latest piece on TARP), and (3) provide a host of secret taxpayer subsidies to the systemically dangerous institutions (the so-called “too big to fail” banks).  This strategy is the opposite of what the Swedes and Norwegians did during their banking crisis in the 1990s, which remains the template on a true financial success.

Despite this sleight-of-hand by our government, the Moment of Truth has arrived.  Alistair Barr reported for MarketWatch that it has finally become necessary for the Treasury Department to face reality and crack down on the deadbeat banks that are not paying back what they owe as a result of receiving TARP bailouts.  That’s right.  Despite what you’ve heard about what a great “investment” the TARP program supposedly has been, there is quite a long list of banks that cannot boast of having paid back the government for their TARP bailouts.  (Don’t forget that although Goldman Sachs claims that it repaid the government for what it received from TARP, Goldman never repaid the $13 billion it received by way of Maiden Lane III.)  The MarketWatch report provided us with this bad news:

In August, 123 financial institutions missed dividend payments on securities they sold to the Treasury Department under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.  That’s up from 55 in November 2009, according to Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

More important —  of those 123 financial institutions, seven have never made any TARP dividend payments on securities they sold to the Treasury.  Those seven institutions are:  Anchor Bancorp Wisconsin, Blue Valley Ban Corp, Seacoast Banking Corp., Lone Star Bank, OneUnited Bank, Saigon National Bank and United American Bank.  The report included this point:

Saigon National is the only institution to have missed seven consecutive quarterly TARP dividend payments.  The other six have missed six consecutive payments, KBW noted.

The following statement from the MarketWatch piece further undermined Ben Smith’s claim that the TARP program was a great success:

Most of the big banks have repaid the TARP money they got and the Treasury has collected about $10 billion in dividend payments from the effort.  However, the rising number of smaller banks that are struggling to meet dividend payments shows the program hasn’t been a complete success.

Of course, the TARP program’s success (or lack thereof) will be debated for a long time.  At this point, it is important to take a look at the final words from the “Conclusion” section (at page 108) of a document entitled, September Oversight Report (Assessing the TARP on the Eve of its Expiration), prepared by the Congressional Oversight Panel.  (You remember the COP – it was created to oversee the TARP program.)  That parting shot came after this observation at page 106:

Both now and in the future, however, any evaluation must begin with an understanding of what the TARP was intended to do.  Congress authorized Treasury to use the TARP in a manner that “protects home values, college funds, retirement accounts, and life savings; preserves home ownership and promotes jobs and economic growth; [and] maximizes overall returns to the taxpayers of the United States.”  But weaknesses persist.  Since EESA was signed into law in October 2008, home values nationwide have fallen.  More than seven million homeowners have received foreclosure notices.  Many Americans’ most significant investments for college and retirement have yet to recover their value.  At the peak of the crisis, in its most significant acts and consistent with its mandate in EESA, the TARP provided critical support at a time in which confidence in the financial system was in freefall.  The acute crisis was quelled.  But as the Panel has discussed in the past, and as the continued economic weakness shows, the TARP’s effectiveness at pursuing its broader statutory goals was far more limited.

The above-quoted passage, as well as these final words from the Congressional Oversight Panel’s report, provide a  greater degree of candor than  what can be seen in Ben Smith’s article:

The TARP program is today so widely unpopular that Treasury has expressed concern that banks avoided participating in the CPP program due to stigma, and the legislation proposing the Small Business Lending Fund, a program outside the TARP, specifically provided an assurance that it was not a TARP program.  Popular anger against taxpayer dollars going to the largest banks, especially when the economy continues to struggle, remains high.  The program’s unpopularity may mean that unless it can be convincingly demonstrated that the TARP was effective, the government will not authorize similar policy responses in the future.  Thus, the greatest consequence of the TARP may be that the government has lost some of its ability to respond to financial crises in the future.

No doubt.



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Geithner And Summers Draw Flak

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August 30, 2010

It’s coming from everywhere.  House Minority Leader, John “BronzeGel” Boehner, while giving a speech in Cleveland on August 24, called for the ouster of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as well as the removal of National Economic Council Director, Larry Summers.  Bridget Johnson reported for The Hill that on August 28, Representative Tom Price (R-Georgia) echoed the call for Geithner and Summers to step down:  “They need to resign because the policies that they’re putting in place are not being effective.”

An editorial from the Republican-oriented Investors Business Daily expanded on Boehner’s criticism of the duo, without really giving any specific examples of what Geithner or Summers did wrong.  That’s because what they did wrong was to protect the banks at the expense of the taxpayers  —  the same thing a Republican administration would have done.  As a result, there have been simultaneous calls from the left for the sacking of Geithner and Summers.  Robert Scheer wrote a piece for The Nation entitled, “They Go or Obama Goes”.  Here is some of what he said:

It is Obama’s continued deference to the sensibilities of the financiers and his relative indifference to the suffering of ordinary people that threaten his legacy, not to mention the nation’s economic well-being.

*    *    *

While Obama continued the Bush practice of showering the banks with bailout money, he did not demand a moratorium on foreclosures or call for increasing the power of bankruptcy courts to force the banks, which created the problem, to now help distressed homeowners.

*    *     *

There is no way that Obama can begin to seriously reverse this course without shedding the economic team led by the Clinton-era “experts” like Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner who got us into this mess in the first place.

Economist Randall Wray wrote a great piece for Wall Street Pit entitled, “Boehner Gets One Right:  Fire Obama’s Economics Team”.  Professor Wray distinguished his argument from Boehner’s theme that because neither Geithner nor Summers ever ran a business, they don’t know how to create jobs:

Obama’s economics team doesn’t care about job creation. (here)  So far, nearly three years into the worst depression since the Great Depression, they’ve yet to turn any serious attention to Main Street.  The health of Wall Street still consumes almost all of their time — and almost all government funds.  Trillions for Wall Street, not even peanuts for Americans losing their jobs and homes.  No one, except a highly compensated Wall Street trader, could possibly disagree with Boehner.  Fire Timmy and Larry and the rest of the Government Sachs team.

As an aside:  If you take offense at Professor Wray’s suggestion that the government should get actively involved in job creation, be sure to watch the interview with economist Robert Shiller by Simon Constable of The Wall Street Journal.

The Zero Hedge website recently published an essay by Michael Krieger of KAM LP.  One of Krieger’s points, which resonated with me, was the idea that whether you have a Democratic administration or a Republican administration, both parties are beholden to the financial elites, so there’s not much room for any “change you can believe in”:

.   .  .   the election of Obama has proven to everyone watching with an unbiased eye that no matter who the President is they continue to prop up an elite at the top that has been running things into the ground for years.  The appointment of Larry Summers and Tiny Turbo-Tax Timmy Geithner provided the most obvious sign that something was seriously not kosher.  Then there was the reappointment of Ben Bernanke.  While the Republicans like to simplify him as merely a socialist he represents something far worse.

*    *    *

What Obama has attempted to do is to wipe a complete economic collapse under the rug and maintain the status quo so that the current elite class in the United States remains in control.  The “people” see this ploy and are furious.  Those that screwed up the United States economy should never make another important decision about it yet they remain firmly in control of policy.  The important thing in any functioning democracy is the turnover of the elite class every now and again.  Yet, EVERY single government policy has been geared to keeping that class in power and to pass legislation that gives the Federal government more power to then buttress this power structure down the road.  This is why Obama is so unpopular.  Everything else is just noise to keep people divided and distracted.

“Keeping people divided and distracted” helps preserve the illusion that there really is a difference between the economic policies of the two parties.  If you take a close look at how President Obama’s Deficit Commission is attempting to place the cost of deficit reduction on the backs of working people, the unified advocacy for the financial sector becomes obvious.  What we are left with are the fights over abortion and gay marriage to differentiate the two parties from each other.

It’s time to pay more attention to that man behind the curtain.



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The Invisible Bank Bailout

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August 23, 2010

By now, you are probably more than familiar with the “backdoor bailouts” of the Wall Street Banks – the most infamous of which, Maiden Lane III, included a $13 billion gift to Goldman Sachs as a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper.  Despite Goldman’s claims of having repaid the money it received from TARP, the $13 billion obtained via Maiden Lane III was never repaid.  Goldman needed it for bonuses.

On August 21, my favorite reporter for The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, discussed another “bank bailout”:  a “secret tax” that diverts money to banks at a cost of approximately $350 billion per year to investors and savers.  Here’s how it works:

Sharply cutting interest rates vastly increases banks’ profits by widening the spread between what they pay to depositors and what they receive from borrowers.  As such, the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy is yet another government bailout for the very industry that drove the economy to the brink.

Todd E. Petzel, chief investment officer at Offit Capital Advisors, a private wealth management concern, characterizes the Fed’s interest rate policy as an invisible tax that costs savers and investors roughly $350 billion a year.  This tax is stifling consumption, Mr. Petzel argues, and is pushing investors to reach for yields in riskier securities that they wouldn’t otherwise go near.

*   *   *

“If we thought this zero-interest-rate policy was lowering people’s credit card bills it would be one thing but it doesn’t,” he said.  Neither does it seem to be resulting in increased lending by the banks.  “It’s a policy matter that people are not focusing on,” Mr. Petzel added.

One reason it’s not a priority is that savers and people living on fixed incomes have no voice in Washington.  The banks, meanwhile, waltz around town with megaphones.

Savers aren’t the only losers in this situation; underfunded pensions and crippled endowments are as well.

Many commentators have pointed out that zero-interest-rate-policy (often referred to as “ZIRP”) was responsible for the stock market rally that began in the Spring of 2009.  Bert Dohmen made this observation for Forbes back on October 30, 2009:

There is very little, if any, investment buying.  In my view, we are seeing a mini-bubble in the stock market, fueled by ZIRP, the “zero interest rate policy” of the Fed.

At this point, retail investors (the “mom and pop” customers of discount brokerage firms) are no longer impressed.  After the “flash crash” of May 6 and the revelations about stock market manipulation by high-frequency trading (HFT), retail investors are now avoiding mutual funds.  Graham Bowley’s recent report for The New York Times has been quoted and re-published by a number of news outlets.   Here is the ugly truth:

Investors withdrew a staggering $33.12 billion from domestic stock market mutual funds in the first seven months of this year, according to the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund industry trade group.  Now many are choosing investments they deem safer, like bonds.

The pretext of providing “liquidity” to the stock markets is no longer viable.  The only remaining reasons for continuing ZIRP are to mitigate escalating deficits and stopping the spiral of deflation.  Whether or not that strategy works, one thing is for certain:  ZIRP is enriching the banks —  at the public’s expense.



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Geithner Watch

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August 19, 2010

It’s that time once again.  The Treasury Department has launched another “charm offensive” – and not a moment too soon.  “Turbo” Tim Geithner got some really bad publicity at the Daily Beast website by way of a piece by Philip Shenon.  The story concerned the fact that a man named Daniel Zelikow — while in between revolving door spins at JP Morgan Chase — let Geithner live rent-free in Zelikow’s $3.5 million Washington townhouse, during Geithner’s first eight months as Treasury Secretary.  Zelikow (who had previously worked for JP Morgan Chase from 1999 until 2007) was working at the Inter-American Development Bank at the time.  The Daily Beast described the situation this way:

At that time, Geithner was overseeing the bailout of several huge Wall Street banks, including JPMorgan, which received $25 billion in federal rescue funds from the TARP program.

Zelikow, a friend of Geithner’s since they were classmates at Dartmouth College in the early 1980s, begins work this month running JPMorgan’s new 12-member International Public Sector Group, which will develop foreign governments as clients.

*   *   *

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University who is a specialist in government ethics and author of a leading textbook on legal ethics, described Geithner’s original decision to move in with Zelikow last year as “just awful” —  given the conflict-of-interest problems it seemed to create.

He tells The Daily Beast that Geithner now needs to avoid even the appearance of assisting JPMorgan in any way that suggested a “thank-you note” to Zelikow in exchange for last year’s free rent.

“He needs to be purer than Caesar’s wife — purer than Caesar’s whole family,” Gillers said of the Treasury secretary.

The Daily Beast story came right on the heels of Matt Taibbi’s superlative article in Rolling Stone, exposing the skullduggery involved in removing all the teeth from the financial “reform” bill.  Taibbi did not speak kindly of Geithner:

If Obama’s team had had their way, last month’s debate over the Volcker rule would never have happened.  When the original version of the finance-­reform bill passed the House last fall  – heavily influenced by treasury secretary and noted pencil-necked Wall Street stooge Timothy Geithner – it contained no attempt to ban banks with federally insured deposits from engaging in prop trading.

Just when it became clear that Geithner needed to make some new friends in the blogosphere, another conclave with financial bloggers took place on Monday, August 16.  The first such event took place last November.  I reviewed several accounts of the November meeting in a piece entitled “Avoiding The Kool -Aid”.  Since that time, Treasury has decided to conduct such meetings 4 – 6 times per year.  The conferences follow an “open discussion” format, led by individual senior Treasury officials (including Turbo Tim himself) with three presenters, each leading a 45-minute session.  A small number of financial bloggers are invited to attend.  Some of the bloggers who were unable to attend last November’s session were sorry they missed it.  The August 16 meeting was the first one I’d heard about since the November event.  The following bloggers attended the August 16 session:  Phil Davis of Phil’s Stock World, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, John Lounsbury for Ed Harrison’s Credit Writedowns, Michael Konczal of Rortybomb, Steve Waldman of Interfluidity, as well as Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution.  As of this writing, Alex Tabarrok and John Lounsbury were the only attendees to have written about the event.  You can expect to see something soon from Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism.

At this juncture, the effort appears to have worked to Geithner’s advantage, since he made a favorable impression on Alex Tabarrok, just as he had done last November with Tabarrok’s partner at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen:

As Tyler said after an earlier visit, Geithner is smart and deep.  Geithner took questions on any topic.  Bear in mind that taking questions from people like Mike Konczal, Tyler, or Interfluidity is not like taking questions from the press.  Geithner quickly identified the heart of every question and responded in a way that showed a command of both theory and fact.  We went way over scheduled time.  He seemed to be having fun.

It will be interesting to see whether the upcoming accounts of the meeting continue to provide Geithner with the image makeover he so desperately needs.


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