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Geithner Gets Bashed in New Book

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Much has been written about “Turbo” Tim Geithner since he first became Treasury Secretary on January 26, 2009.  In his book, Too Big to Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote adoringly about Geithner’s athletic expertise.  On the other hand, typing “Turbo Tim Geithner” into the space on the upper-right corner of this page and clicking on the little magnifying glass will lead you to no less than 61 essays wherein I saw fit to criticize the Treasury Secretary.  I first coined the “Turbo” nickname on February 9, 2009 and on February 16 of that year I began linking “Turbo” to an explanatory article, for those who did not understand the reference.

Geithner has never lacked defenders.  The March 10, 2010 issue of The New Yorker ran an article by John Cassidy entitled, “No Credit”.  The title was meant to imply that Getithner’s efforts to save America’s financial system were working, although he was not getting any credit for this achievement.  From the very outset, the New Yorker piece was obviously an attempt to reconstruct Geithner’s controversial public image – because he had been widely criticized as a tool of Wall Street.

Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns dismissed the New Yorker article as “an out and out puff piece” that Geithner himself could have written:

Don’t be fooled; this is a clear plant to help bolster public opinion for a bailout and transfer of wealth, which was both unnecessary and politically damaging.

Another article on Geithner, appearing in the April 2010 issue of The Atlantic, was described by Edward Harrison as “fairly even-handed” although worthy of extensive criticism.  Nevertheless, after reading the following passage from the first page of the essay, I found it difficult to avoid using the terms “fawning and sycophantic” to describe it:

In the course of many interviews about Geithner, two qualities came up again and again.  The first was his extraordinary quickness of mind and talent for elucidating whatever issue was the preoccupying concern of the moment.  Second was his athleticism.  Unprompted by me, friends and colleagues extolled his skill and grace at windsurfing, tennis, basketball, running, snowboarding, and softball (specifying his prowess at shortstop and in center field, as well as at the plate).  He inspires an adolescent awe in male colleagues.

Gawd!  Yeech!

In November of 2008, President George W. Bush appointed Neil M. Barofsky to the newly-established position, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP).  Barofsky was responsible for preventing fraud, waste and abuse involving TARP operations and funds.  From his first days on that job, Neil Barofsky found Timothy Geithner to be his main opponent.  On March 31 of 2009, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the oversight of TARP.  The hearing included testimony by Neil Barofsky, who explained how the Treasury Department had been interfering with his efforts to ascertain what was being done with TARP funds which had been distributed to the banks.  Matthew Jaffe of ABC News described Barofsky’s frustration in attempting to get past the Treasury Department’s roadblocks.

On the eve of his retirement from the position of Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP), Neil Barofsky wrote an op-ed piece for the March 30, 2011 edition of The New York Times entitled, “Where the Bailout Went Wrong”.  Barofsky devoted a good portion of the essay to a discussion of the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”, with a particular focus on the Treasury Department:

Worse, Treasury apparently has chosen to ignore rather than support real efforts at reform, such as those advocated by Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to simplify or shrink the most complex financial institutions.

In the final analysis, it has been Treasury’s broken promises that have turned TARP — which was instrumental in saving the financial system at a relatively modest cost to taxpayers — into a program commonly viewed as little more than a giveaway to Wall Street executives.

It wasn’t meant to be that.  Indeed, Treasury’s mismanagement of TARP and its disregard for TARP’s Main Street goals — whether born of incompetence, timidity in the face of a crisis or a mindset too closely aligned with the banks it was supposed to rein in — may have so damaged the credibility of the government as a whole that future policy makers may be politically unable to take the necessary steps to save the system the next time a crisis arises.  This avoidable political reality might just be TARP’s most lasting, and unfortunate, legacy.

It should come as no surprise that in Neil Barofsky’s new book, Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street, the author pulls no punches in his criticism of Timothy Geithner.  Barofsky has been feeding us some morsels of what to expect from the book by way of some recent articles in Bloomberg News.  Here is some of what Barofsky wrote for Bloomberg on July 22:

More important, the financial markets continue to bet that the government will once again come to the big banks’ rescue.  Creditors still give the largest banks more favorable terms than their smaller counterparts — a direct subsidy to those that are already deemed too big to fail, and an incentive for others to try to join the club.  Similarly, the major banks are given better credit ratings based on the assumption that they will be bailed out.

*   *   *

The missteps by Treasury have produced a valuable byproduct: the widespread anger that may contain the only hope for meaningful reform. Americans should lose faith in their government.  They should deplore the captured politicians and regulators who distributed tax dollars to the banks without insisting that they be accountable.  The American people should be revolted by a financial system that rewards failure and protects those who drove it to the point of collapse and will undoubtedly do so again.

Only with this appropriate and justified rage can we hope for the type of reform that will one day break our system free from the corrupting grasp of the megabanks.

In his review of Barofsky’s new book, Darrell Delamaide of MarketWatch discussed the smackdown Geithner received from Barofsky:

Barofsky may have an axe to grind, but he grinds it well, portraying Geithner as a dissembling bureaucrat in thrall to the banks and reminding us all that President Barack Obama’s selection of Geithner as his top economic official may have been one of his biggest mistakes, and a major reason the White House incumbent has to fight so hard for re-election.

From his willingness to bail out the banks with virtually no accountability, to his failure to make holders of credit default swaps on AIG take a haircut, to his inability to mount any effective program for mortgage relief, Geithner systematically favored Wall Street over Main Street and created much of the public’s malaise in the aftermath of the crisis.

*    *    *

Barofsky, a former prosecutor, relates that he rooted for Geithner to get the Treasury appointment and was initially willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when it emerged that he had misreported his taxes while he worked at the International Monetary Fund.

But as more details on those unpaid taxes came out and Geithner’s explanations seemed increasingly disingenuous, Barofsky had his first doubts about the secretary-designate.

Barofsky, of course, was not alone in his skepticism, and Geithner’s credibility was damaged from the very beginning by the disclosures about his unpaid taxes.

*   *   *

Barofsky concludes his scathing condemnation of Geithner’s “bank-centric policies” by finding some silver lining in the cloud – that the very scale of the government’s failure will make people angry enough to demand reform.

Once Geithner steps down from his position at the end of the year, we may find that his legacy is defined by Neil Barofsky’s book, rather than any claimed rescue of the financial system.


 

Manifesto

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For the past few years, a central mission of this blog has been to focus on Washington’s unending efforts to protect, pamper and bail out the Wall Street megabanks at taxpayer expense.  From Maiden Lane III to TARP and through countless “backdoor bailouts”, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have been pumping money into businesses which should have gone bankrupt in 2008.  Worse yet, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless have expressed no interest in bringing charges against those miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve’s latest update to its Survey of Consumer Finances for 2010 revealed that during the period of 2007-2010, the median family net worth declined by a whopping thirty-eight percent.  Despite the massive extent of wealth destruction caused by the financial crisis, our government is doing nothing about it.

I have always been a fan of economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, whose Weekly Market Comment essays are frequently referenced on this website.  Professor Hussman’s most recent piece, “The Heart of the Matter” serves as a manifesto of how the financial crisis was caused, why nothing was done about it and why it is happening again both in the United States and in Europe.  Beyond that, Professor Hussman offers some suggestions for remedying this unaddressed and unresolved set of circumstances.  It is difficult to single out a passage to quote because every word of Hussman’s latest Market Comment is precious.  Be sure to read it.  What I present here are some hints as to the significance of this important essay:

The ongoing debate about the economy continues along largely partisan lines, with conservatives arguing that taxes just aren’t low enough, and the economy should be freed of regulations, while liberals argue that the economy needs larger government programs and grand stimulus initiatives.

Lost in this debate is any recognition of the problem that lies at the heart of the matter:  a warped financial system, both in the U.S. and globally, that directs scarce capital to speculative and unproductive uses, and refuses to restructure debt once that debt has gone bad.

Specifically, over the past 15 years, the global financial system – encouraged by misguided policy and short-sighted monetary interventions – has lost its function of directing scarce capital toward projects that enhance the world’s standard of living. Instead, the financial system has been transformed into a self-serving, grotesque casino that misallocates scarce savings, begs for and encourages speculative bubbles, refuses to restructure bad debt, and demands that the most reckless stewards of capital should be rewarded through bailouts that transfer bad debt from private balance sheets to the public balance sheet.

*   *   *

By our analysis, the U.S. economy is presently entering a recession.  Not next year; not later this year; but now.  We expect this to become increasingly evident in the coming months, but through a constant process of denial in which every deterioration is dismissed as transitory, and every positive outlier is celebrated as a resumption of growth.  To a large extent, this downturn is a “boomerang” from the credit crisis we experienced several years ago.  The chain of events is as follows:

Financial deregulation and monetary negligence -> Housing bubble -> Credit crisis marked by failure to restructure bad debt -> Global recession -> Government deficits in U.S. and globally -> Conflict between single currency and disparate fiscal policies in Europe -> Austerity -> European recession and credit strains -> Global recession.

In effect, we’re going into another recession because we never effectively addressed the problems that produced the first one, leaving us unusually vulnerable to aftershocks.  Our economic malaise is the result of a whole chain of bad decisions that have distorted the financial markets in ways that make recurring crisis inevitable.

*   *   *

Every major bank is funded partially by depositors, but those deposits typically represent only about 60% of the funding.  The rest is debt to the bank’s own bondholders, and equity of its stockholders.  When a country like Spain goes in to save a failing bank like Bankia – and does so by buying stock in the bank – the government is putting its citizens in a “first loss” position that protects the bondholders at public expense.  This has been called “nationalization” because Spain now owns most of the stock, but the rescue has no element of restructuring at all.  All of the bank’s liabilities – even to its own bondholders – are protected at public expense.  So in order to defend bank bondholders, Spain is increasing the public debt burden of its own citizens.  This approach is madness, because Spain’s citizens will ultimately suffer the consequences by eventual budget austerity or risk of government debt default.

The way to restructure a bank is to take it into receivership, write down the bad assets, wipe out the stockholders and much of the subordinated debt, and then recapitalize the remaining entity by selling it back into the private market.  Depositors don’t lose a dime.  While the U.S. appropriately restructured General Motors – wiping out stock, renegotiating contracts, and subjecting bondholders to haircuts – the banking system was largely untouched.

*   *   *

If it seems as if the global economy has learned nothing, it is because evidently the global economy has learned nothing.  The right thing to do, again, is to take receivership of insolvent banks and wipe out the stock and subordinated debt, using the borrowed funds to protect depositors in the event that the losses run deep enough to eat through the intervening layers of liabilities (which is doubtful), and otherwise using the borrowed funds to stimulate the economy after the restructuring occurs.  We’re going to keep having crises until global leaders recognize that short of creating hyperinflation (which also subordinates the public, in this case by destroying the value of currency), there is no substitute for debt restructuring.

For some insight as to why the American megabanks were never taken into temporary receivership, it is useful to look back to February of 2010 when Michael Shedlock (a/k/a“Mish”) provided us with a handy summary of the 224-page Quarterly Report from SIGTARP (the Special Investigator General for TARP — Neil Barofsky).  My favorite comment from Mish appeared near the conclusion of his summary:

Clearly TARP was a complete failure, that is assuming the goals of TARP were as stated.

My belief is the benefits of TARP and the entire alphabet soup of lending facilities was not as stated by Bernanke and Geithner, but rather to shift as much responsibility as quickly as possible on to the backs of taxpayers while trumping up nonsensical benefits of doing so.  This was done to bail out the banks at any and all cost to the taxpayers.

Was this a huge conspiracy by the Fed and Treasury to benefit the banks at taxpayer expense?  Of course it was, and the conspiracy is unraveling as documented in this report and as documented in AIG Coverup Conspiracy Unravels.

On January 29 2010, David Reilly wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek concerning the previous week’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  After quoting from Reilly’s article, Mish made this observation:

Most know I am not a big believer in conspiracies.  I regularly dismiss them.  However, this one was clear from the beginning and like all massive conspiracies, it is now in the light of day.

David Reilly began the Bloomberg Business Week piece this way:

The idea of secret banking cabals that control the country and global economy are a given among conspiracy theorists who stockpile ammo, bottled water and peanut butter.  After this week’s congressional hearing into the bailout of American International Group Inc., you have to wonder if those folks are crazy after all.

Wednesday’s hearing described a secretive group deploying billions of dollars to favored banks, operating with little oversight by the public or elected officials.

That “secretive group” is The Federal Reserve of New York, whose president at the time of the AIG bailout was “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  David Reilly’s disgust at the hearing’s revelations became apparent from the tone of his article:

By pursuing this line of inquiry, the hearing revealed some of the inner workings of the New York Fed and the outsized role it plays in banking.  This insight is especially valuable given that the New York Fed is a quasi-governmental institution that isn’t subject to citizen intrusions such as freedom of information requests, unlike the Federal Reserve.

At least in the Eurozone there is fear that the taxpayers will never submit to enhanced economic austerity measures, which would force the citizenry into an impoverished existence so that their increased tax burden could pay off the debts incurred by irresponsible bankers.  In the United States there is no such concern.  The public is much more compliant.  Whether that will change is anyone’s guess.


 

Instead Of Solving a Problem – Form a Committee

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It’s become a stale joke about the Obama administration.  Every time a demand is made for the White House to take decisive action on an important issue  .  .  .  the President’s solution is always the same:  Form a committee to study the matter.

In my last posting, I discussed the January 20 article written by Scot Paltrow for Reuters, which revealed that Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless and Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, had been partners in the Washington law firm, Covington & Burling.  As Scot Paltrow pointed out, during the years while Holder and Breuer were partners at Covington, the firm’s clients included the four largest U.S. banks – Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo & Co.

Less than a week after publication of Paltrow’s report, which raised “conflict of interest” questions concerning Holder’s reluctance to prosecute banks or mortgage servicers for fraudulent foreclosure practices, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address.  With Paltrow’s revelations still fresh in my mind, I was particularly surprised to hear President Obama make the following statement:

And tonight, I am asking my Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis.  This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.

If it weren’t bad enough that critics had already been complaining about the Attorney General’s failure to prosecute mortgage fraud cases, Obama has most recently appointed Holder to supervise “investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis”.  It’s hard to avoid the assumption that those “investigations” will lead to nowhere.  By Wednesday, I found that I was not alone in my cynicism concerning what is now called the Office of Mortgage Origination and Securitization Abuses.

Wednesday morning brought an essay by Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, in which she expressed dread about the possibility that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman may have been seduced by Team Obama to join the effort exerting pressure on each Attorney General from every state to consent to a settlement of any and all claims against the banksters arising from their fraudulent foreclosure practices.  Each state is being asked to release the banks from criminal and civil liability in return for a share of the $25 billion settlement package.  Ms. Smith compared that initiative with Obama’s most recent announcement about the Office of Mortgage Origination and Securitization Abuses:

So get this:  this is a committee that will “investigate.”    .   .   .  Neil Barofsky, former prosecutor and head of SIGTARP, doesn’t buy the logic of this committee either:

Neil Barofsky @neilbarofsky

If task force created either b/c DOJ hasn’t done an investigation, or b/c 3-yr investigation a failure, how does Holder keep his job?

A lot of soi-disant liberal groups have fallen in line with Obama messaging, which was the plan (I already have the predictable congratulatory Move On e-mail in my inbox). Let’s get real.  The wee problem is that this committee looks like yet another bit of theater for the Administration to pretend, yet again, that it is Doing Something, while scoring a twofer by getting Schneiderman, who has been a pretty effective opponent, hobbled.

If you wanted a real investigation, you get a real independent investigator, with a real budget and staffing, and turn him loose.  We had the FCIC which had a lot of hearings and produced a readable book that said everyone was responsible for the mortgage crisis, which was tantamount to saying no one was responsible.  We even had an eleven-regulator Foreclosure Task Force that looked at 2800 loan files (and a mere 100 foreclosures) and found nothing very much wrong.

Neil Barofsky’s question deserves repetition:  Why does Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless still have his job if – after three years – the Justice Department has taken no action against those responsible for originating and securitizing the risky mortgages which led to the housing crisis?

David Dayen of Firedoglake weighed-in with his own skeptical take on Obama’s purported crakdown on mortgage origination and securitization abuses:

First of all, this becomes part of a three year-old Financial Fraud Task Force which has done approximately nothing on Wall Street accountability outside of a few insider trading arrests.  So that’s the context of this investigative panel, part of the same entity that has spun its wheels.  Second, the panel would only look at origination, where there have been plenty of lawsuits and where the main offenders are all out of business, and securitization, which may aid investors (that includes pension funds, of course) but not necessarily homeowners.     .   .   .

Given the fact that this is an election year, President Obama knows that mere lip service toward a populist cause will not be enough to win back those disgruntled former supporters, who have now learned – the hard way – that talk is cheap.  Obama is now going the extra mile – he’s forming a committee!  Trouble is – those disgruntled former supporters have already learned that committee formation is simply the disingenuous “follow-through” on a false campaign promise.  Nice try, Mr. President!


 

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Looking Beyond Rhetoric

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As a result of the increasing popularity of the Occupy Wall Street movement (which now gets so much coverage, it’s referred to as “OWS”) President Obama has found it necessary to crank up the populist rhetoric.  He must walk a fine line because his injecting too much enthusiasm into any populist-themed discussion of the economic crisis will alienate those deep-pocketed campaign donors from the financial sector.  Don’t forget:  Goldman Sachs was Obama’s leading private source of 2008 campaign contributions, providing more than one million dollars for the cause.

The Occupy Wall Street protest has now placed Obama and his fellow Democrats in a double-bind situation.  Many commentators – while pondering that predicament – have found it necessary to take a good, hard look at the favorable treatment given to Wall Street by the current administration.  A recent essay by Robert Reich approached this subject by noting that Obama is as far from left-wing populism as any Democratic President in modern history:

To the contrary, Obama has been extraordinarily solicitous of Wall Street and big business – making Timothy Geithner Treasury Secretary and de facto ambassador from the Street; seeing to it that Bush’s Fed appointee, Ben Bernanke, got another term; and appointing GE Chair Jeffrey Immelt to head his jobs council.

Most tellingly, it was President Obama’s unwillingness to place conditions on the bailout of Wall Street – not demanding, for example, that the banks reorganize the mortgages of distressed homeowners, and that they accept the resurrection of the Glass-Steagall Act, as conditions for getting hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars – that contributed to the new populist insurrection.

*   *   *

But the modern Democratic Party is not likely to embrace left-wing populism the way the GOP has embraced – or, more accurately, been forced to embrace – right-wing populism. Just follow the money, and remember history.

Another commentator, who has usually been positive in his analysis of the current administration’s policies – Tom Friedman of The New York Times – couldn’t help but criticize Obama’s performance while lamenting the loss a great American leader, Steve Jobs:

Obama supporters complain that the G.O.P. has tried to block him at every turn.  That is true. But why have they gotten away with it? It’s because Obama never persuaded people that he had a Grand Bargain tied to a vision worth fighting for.

*    *    *

The paucity of Obama’s audacity is striking.

As I recently pointed out, any discussion of our nation’s economic problems ultimately focuses on President Obama’s failure to seize the opportunity – during the first year of his Presidency – to turn the economy around and reduce unemployment.  Despite the administration’s repeated claims that it has reduced unemployment, Pro Publica offered an honest look of that claim:

Overall, job creation has been relatively meager during the Obama administration, particularly compared to the massive job losses brought on by the recession.  According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, even if job creation were happening at pre-recession levels, it would take us 11 years to get back to an unemployment rate of 5 percent.

Ron Suskind’s new book, Confidence Men provided a shocking revelation about Obama’s decision allow unemployment to remain above 9 percent by ignoring the advice of Larry Summers (Chair of the National Economic Council) and Christina Romer (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers).  I discussed that issue and the outrage expressed in reaction to Obama’s attitude on September 22.

At The Washington Post, Ezra Klein wrote an engaging piece, which provided us with a close look at how the Obama administration was fighting the economic crisis.  Klein interviewed several people from inside the administration and provided a sympathetic perspective on Obama’s decisions.  Nevertheless, Klein’s ultimate conclusion – although nuanced – didn’t do much for the President:

From the outset, the policies were too small for the recession the administration and economists thought we faced.  They were much too small for the recession we actually faced.  More and better stimulus, more aggressive interventions in the housing market, more aggressive policy from the Fed, and more attention to preventing layoffs and hiring the unemployed could have led to millions more jobs.  At least in theory.

Of course, ideas always sound better than policies.  Policies must be implemented, and they have unintended consequences and unforeseen flaws.  In the best of circumstances, the policymaking process is imperfect.  But January 2009 had the worst of circumstances – a once-in-a-lifetime economic emergency during a presidential transition.

*   *   *

These sorts of economic crises are, in other words, inherently politically destabilizing, and that makes a sufficient response, at least in a democracy, nearly impossible.

Klein’s apologia simply underscored the necessity for a President to exhibit good leadership qualities.  Despite a “Presidential transition”, the Democratic Party held the majority of seats in both the Senate and the House.  In July of 2009, when it was obvious that the stimulus had been inadequate, Obama was too preoccupied with his healthcare bill to refocus on economic recovery.  As I said back then:

President Obama should have done it right the first time.  His penchant for compromise – simply for the sake of compromise itself – is bound to bite him in the ass on this issue, as it surely will on health care reform – should he abandon the “public option”.  The new President made the mistake of assuming that if he established a reputation for being flexible, his opposition would be flexible in return.  The voting public will perceive this as weak leadership.  As a result, President Obama will need to re-invent this aspect of his public image before he can even consider presenting a second economic stimulus proposal.

Weak leadership is hardly a justifiable excuse for an inadequate, half-done, economic stimulus program.  Beyond that, President Obama’s sell-out to Wall Street by way of a sham financial “reform” bill has drawn widespread criticism.  In his March 29 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Neil Barofsky, the retiring Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP) criticized the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”:

Finally, the country was assured that regulatory reform would address the threat to our financial system posed by large banks that have become effectively guaranteed by the government no matter how reckless their behavior.  This promise also appears likely to go unfulfilled.  The biggest banks are 20 percent larger than they were before the crisis and control a larger part of our economy than ever.  They reasonably assume that the government will rescue them again, if necessary.

*   *   *

Worse, Treasury apparently has chosen to ignore rather than support real efforts at reform, such as those advocated by Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to simplify or shrink the most complex financial institutions.

Running as an incumbent President presents a unique challenge to Mr. Obama.  He must now reconcile his populist rhetoric with his record as President.  The contrast is too sharp to ignore.


 

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Obama Fatigue

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Since President Obama first assumed office, it hasn’t been too difficult to find harsh criticism of the new administration.  One need only tune in to the Fox News, where an awkward Presidential sneeze could be interpreted as a “secret message” to Bill Ayers or George Soros.  Nevertheless, with the passing of time, voices from across the political spectrum have joined a chorus of frustration with the Obama agenda.

On February 26, 2009 – only one month into the Obama Presidency – I voiced my suspicion about the new administration’s unwillingness to address the problem of systemic risk, inherent in allowing a privileged few banks to enjoy their “too big to fail” status:

Will Turbo Tim’s “stress tests” simply turn out to be a stamp of approval, helping insolvent banks avoid any responsible degree of reorganization, allowing them to continue their “welfare queen” existence, thus requiring continuous infusions of cash at the expense of the taxpayers?  Will the Obama administration’s “failure of nerve” –  by avoiding bank nationalization — send us into a ten-year, “Japan-style” recession?  It’s beginning to look that way.

By September of 2009, I became convinced that Mr. Obama was suffering from a degree of hubris, which could seal his fate as a single-term President:

Back on July 15, 2008 and throughout the Presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised the voters that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”.  Nevertheless, his administration’s continuing bailouts of the banking sector have become the worst examples of trickle-down economics in American history – not just because of their massive size and scope, but because they will probably fail to achieve their intended result.

Although the TARP bank bailout program was initiated during the final months of the Bush Presidency, the Obama administration’s stewardship of that program recently drew sharp criticism from Neil Barofsky, the retiring Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP).  Beyond that, in his March 29 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Mr. Barofsky criticized the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”:

Finally, the country was assured that regulatory reform would address the threat to our financial system posed by large banks that have become effectively guaranteed by the government no matter how reckless their behavior.  This promise also appears likely to go unfulfilled.  The biggest banks are 20 percent larger than they were before the crisis and control a larger part of our economy than ever.  They reasonably assume that the government will rescue them again, if necessary.

*   *   *

Worse, Treasury apparently has chosen to ignore rather than support real efforts at reform, such as those advocated by Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to simplify or shrink the most complex financial institutions.

*   *   *

In the final analysis, it has been Treasury’s broken promises that have turned TARP – which was instrumental in saving the financial system at a relatively modest cost to taxpayers – into a program commonly viewed as little more than a giveaway to Wall Street executives.

It wasn’t meant to be that.  Indeed, Treasury’s mismanagement of TARP and its disregard for TARP’s Main Street goals – whether born of incompetence, timidity in the face of a crisis or a mindset too closely aligned with the banks it was supposed to rein in – may have so damaged the credibility of the government as a whole that future policy makers may be politically unable to take the necessary steps to save the system the next time a crisis arises.  This avoidable political reality might just be TARP’s most lasting, and unfortunate, legacy.

Another unlikely critic of President Obama is the retired law school professor who blogs using the pseudonym, “George Washington”.  A recent posting at Washington’s Blog draws from a number of sources to ponder the question of whether President Obama (despite his Nobel Peace Prize) has become more brutal than President Bush.  The essay concludes with a review of Obama’s overall performance in The White House:

Whether or not Obama is worse than Bush, he’s just as bad.

While we had Bush’s “heck of a job” response to Katrina, we had Obama’s equally inept response and false assurances in connection with the Gulf oil spill, and Obama’s false assurances in connection with the Japanese nuclear crisis.

And Bush and Obama’s response to the financial crisis are virtually identical:  bail out the giant banks, let Wall Street do whatever it wants, and forget the little guy.

The American voters asked for change.  Instead, we got a different branch of the exact same Wall Street/military-industrial complex/Big Energy (BP, GE)/Big Pharma party.

Another commentator who has become increasingly critical of President Obama is Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration.  Mr. Obama’s failure to push back against the corporatist politicians, who serve as “reverse Robin Hoods” enriching CEOs at the expense of American workers, resulted in this rebuke from Professor Reich:

President Obama and Democratic leaders should be standing up for the wages and benefits of ordinary Americans, standing up for unions, and decrying the lie that wage and benefit concessions are necessary to create jobs.  The President should be traveling to the Midwest – taking aim at Republican governors in the heartland who are hell bent on destroying the purchasing power of American workers.  But he’s doing nothing of the sort.

As attention begins to focus on the question of who will be the Republican nominee for the 2012 Presidential election campaign, Obama Fatigue is causing many people to appraise the President’s chances of defeat.  The excitement of bringing the promised “change” of 2008 has morphed into cynicism.  Many of the voters who elected Obama in 2008 might be too disgusted to bother with voting in 2012.  As a result, the idea of a Democratic or Independent challenger to Obama is receiving more consideration.  Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi recently provided this response to a letter inquiring about the possibility that Elizabeth Warren could make a run for the White House in 2012:

A few months ago I heard a vague rumor from someone who theoretically would know that such a thing was being contemplated, but I don’t know anything beyond that.  I wish she would run.  I’m not sure if it would ultimately be a good thing or a bad thing for Barack Obama – she could fatally wound his general-election chances by exposing his ties to Wall Street – but I think she’s exactly what this country needs. She’s totally literate on the finance issues and is completely on the side of human beings, as opposed to banks and oil companies and the like.  One thing I will say:  if she did run, she would have a lot more support from the press than she probably imagines, as there are a lot of reporters out there who are reaching the terminal-disappointment level with Obama ready to hop on the bandwagon of someone like Warren.

If Elizabeth Warren ultimately decides to make a run for The White House, Mr. Obama should do the right thing:  Stop selling the sky to people and step aside.


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Another Cartoon For The Bernank To Hate

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Those of us who found it necessary to explain quantitative easing during the course of a blog posting, have struggled with creating our own definitions of the term.  On October 18, 2010, I started using this one:

Quantitative easing involves the Federal Reserve’s purchase of Treasury securities as well as mortgage-backed securities from those privileged, too-big-to-fail banks.

What I failed to include in that description was the fact that the Fed was printing money to make those purchases.  I eventually resorted to simply linking the term to the definition of quantitative easing at Wikipedia.org.

Suddenly, in November of 2010, a cartoon – posted on YouTube – became an overnight sensation.  It was a 6-minute discussion between two little bears, which explained how “The Ben Bernank” was trying to fix a broken economy by breaking it more.

We eventually learned a few things about the cartoon’s creator, Omid Malekan, who produced the clip for free on the xtranormal.com website.  Kevin Depew, the Editor-in-Chief of Minyanville, interviewed Malekan within days of the cartoon’s debut.  Malekan expressed his disgust with what he described as “the Washington-Wall Street Complex” and the revolving door between the financial industry and those agencies tasked to regulate it.  David Weigel of Slate interviewed Malekan on November 22, 2010 (eleven days after the cartoon was made).  At that point, we learned a bit about the political views of the 30-year-old, former stock trader-turned-real estate manager:

I’m all over the map.  Socially, I’m pretty liberal.  Economically, I’m fairly free-market oriented.  I generally prefer to vote third party, because it’s just good for the country if we get another voice in there.  To me none of this is really partisan because things are the same under both parties.  Ben Bernanke was appointed by Bush and re-appointed by Obama, so they both have basically the same policies.  The problem, really, is that monetary policy is now removed from people in general.  People like Bernanke don’t have to get elected.  There’s a disconnect between them and the people their decisions are affecting.

One month later, Malekan was interviewed by “Evan” of The Point Blog at the Sam Adams Alliance.  On this occasion, the animator explained his decision to put “the” in front of so many proper names, as well as his reference to Ben Bernanke as “The Bernank”.  Malekan had this to say about the popularity of the cartoon:

To be fully honest, I had no idea this would get the wide audience that it did.  Initially when I made it, it was to explain it to a select group of friends of mine.  And any other straggler that happened to see it, and I never thought that would be over 3 million people.  But, the main reason was cause I think monetary policy is important to everybody because it’s monetary policy.  Unlike fiscal policy or regulation, monetary policy, because of the way it impacts interest rates and the dollar, impacts every single person that buys and sells and earns dollars.  So I think it’s something that everybody should be paying attention to, but most people don’t because it’s not ever presented to them in a way they could hope to understand it.

Omid Malekan produced another helpful cartoon on January 28.  The new six-minute clip, “Bank Bailouts Explained” provides the viewer with an understanding of what many of us know as Maiden Lane III – as well as how the other “backdoor bailouts” work, including the true cost of Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) to the taxpayers.  This cartoon is important because it can disabuse people of the propaganda based on the claim that the Wall Street megabanks – particularly Goldman Sachs – owe the American taxpayers nothing because they repaid the TARP bailouts.  I discussed this obfuscation back on November 26, 2009:

For whatever reason, a number of commentators have chosen to help defend Goldman Sachs against what they consider to be unfair criticism.  A recent example came to us from James Stewart of The New Yorker.  Stewart had previously written a 25-page essay for that magazine, entitled “Eight Days” — a dramatic chronology of the financial crisis as it unfolded during September of 2008.  Last week, Stewart seized upon the release of the recent SIGTARP report to defend Goldman with a blog posting which characterized the report as supportive of the argument that Goldman owes the taxpayers nothing as a result of the government bailouts resulting from that near-meltdown.  (In case you don’t know, a former Assistant U.S. District Attorney from New York named Neil Barofsky was nominated by President Bush as the Special Investigator General of the TARP program.  The acronym for that job title is SIGTARP.)   In his blog posting, James Stewart began by characterizing Goldman’s detractors as “conspiracy theorists”.  That was a pretty weak start.  Stewart went on to imply that the SIGTARP report refuted the claims by critics that, despite Goldman’s repayment of the TARP bailout, it did not repay the government the billions it received as a counterparty to AIG’s collateralized debt obligations.  Stewart referred to language in the SIGTARP report to support the spin that because “Goldman was fully hedged on its exposure both to a failure by A.I.G. and to the deterioration of value in its collateralized debt obligations” and that “(i)t repaid its TARP loans with interest, bought back the government’s warrants at a nice profit to the Treasury” Goldman therefore owes the government nothing — other than “a special debt of gratitude”.  One important passage from page 22 of the SIGTARP report that Stewart conveniently ignored, concerned the money received by Goldman Sachs as an AIG counterparty by way of Maiden Lane III, at which point those credit default obligations (of questionable value) were purchased at an excessive price by the government.  Here’s that passage from the SIGTARP report:

When FRBNY authorized the creation of Maiden Lane III in November 2008, it lent approximately $24.6 billion to the newly formed limited liability company, and AIG provided Maiden Lane III approximately $5 billion in equity.  These funds were used to purchase CDOs from AIG counterparties worth an estimated fair value of $29.6 billion at the time of the purchases, which were done in three stages on November 25, 2008, December 18, 2008, and December 22, 2008.  AIGFP’s counterparties were paid $27.1 billion, and AIGFP was paid $2.5 billion per an agreement between AIGFP and FRBNY.  The $2.5 billion represented the amount of collateral that AIGFP had previously paid to the counterparties that was in excess of the actual decline in the fair value as of October 31, 2008.

FRBNY’s loan to Maiden Lane III is secured by the CDOs as the underlying assets.  After the loan has been repaid in full plus interest, and, to the extent that there are sufficient remaining cash proceeds, AIG will be entitled to repayment of the $5 billion that the company contributed in equity, plus accrued interest.  After repayment in full of the loan and the equity contribution (each including accrued interest), any remaining proceeds will be split 67 percent to FRBNY and 33 percent to AIG.

The end result was a $12.9 billion gift to “The Goldman Sachs”.

Thanks to Mr. Malekan, we now have a cartoon that explains how all of AIG’s counterparties were bailed out at taxpayer expense, along with an informative discourse about the other “backdoor bailouts”.

Omid Malekan has his own website here.  You should make a point of regularly checking in on it, so you can catch his next cartoon before someone takes the opportunity to spoil all of the jokes for you.  Enjoy!


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There WILL Be Another Financial Crisis

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The latest Quarterly Report from SIGTARP – the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (Neil Barofsky) – was released on January 26, 2011.  The report brought a mix of good and bad news.  Among the good news was this tidbit:

Where fraud has managed to slip in, SIGTARP’s Investigations Division has already produced outstanding results in bringing to justice those who have sought to profit criminally from TARP, with 45 individuals charged civilly or criminally with fraud, of whom 13 have been criminally convicted. SIGTARP’s investigative efforts have helped prevent $555.2 million in taxpayer funds from being lost to fraud.  And with 142 ongoing investigations (including 64 into executives at financial institutions that applied for and/or received TARP funding through TARP’s Capital Purchase Program [“CPP”]), much more remains to be done.

Much of the bad news from SIGTARP stems from the never-ending problem of “moral hazard” resulting from the perpetually-increasing growth of those financial institutions, which have been “too big to fail” for too long:

In short, the continued existence of institutions that are “too big to fail” — an undeniable byproduct of former Secretary Paulson and Secretary Geithner’s use of TARP to assure the markets that during a time of crisis that they would not let such institutions fail — is a recipe for disaster.  These institutions and their leaders are incentivized to engage in precisely the sort of behavior that could trigger the next financial crisis, thus perpetuating a doomsday cycle of booms, busts, and bailouts.

Worse yet, as Mr. Barofsky pointed out in a January 25 interview with the Center for Public Integrity, the system has been rigged to provide additional advantages to the TBTF banks, making it impossible for smaller institutions to compete with them:

Noting that the major financial institutions are 20 percent larger than they were before the financial crisis, Barofsky said that the financial markets simply don’t believe that the government will allow one of these biggest banks to collapse, regardless of what they say will happen.  Those big banks enjoy access to cheaper credit than smaller institutions, based on that implicit government guarantee, he said.

As evidence, he cited the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, which recently announced its intention to add the prospect of government support into its calculation when determining a bank’s credit rating.

At 1:35 into the video clip of the Center for Public Integrity’s interview with Mr. Barofsky, he explained:

There’s going to be another financial crisis.  Of course, there is.

He went on to point out that once the next crisis begins, we will have the option of implementing the mechanisms established by the Dodd-Frank bill for breaking up insolvent banks.  The question then becomes:  Will be break up those banks or bail them out?  Barofsky suspects that the market is anticipating another round of bailouts.  He noted that “there’s a question of whether there will be the political will as well as the regulatory will to do that”.  As he pointed out on page 11 of the latest SIGTARP Quarterly Report:

As long as the relevant actors (executives, ratings agencies, creditors and counterparties) believe there will be a bailout, the problems of “too big to fail” will almost certainly persist.

Let’s not forget that most dangerous among those problems is the encouraged and facilitated “risky behavior” by those institutions, which will bring about the next financial crisis.  This is the “Doomsday Cycle” problem discussed by Mr. Barofsky.  “The Doomsday Cycle” was the subject of a paper, written last year by economists Simon Johnson and Peter Boone.

The SIGTARP Report then focused on what has been discussed as TARP’s biggest failure:

As SIGTARP discussed in its October 2010 Quarterly Report, after two years, TARP’s Main Street goals of “increas[ing] lending,” and “promot[ing] jobs and economic growth” had been largely unmet, but it is TARP’s failure to realize its most specific Main Street goal, “preserving homeownership,” that has had perhaps the most devastating consequences.  Treasury’s central foreclosure prevention effort designed to address that goal — the Home Affordable Modification Program (“HAMP”) — has been beset by problems from the outset and, despite frequent retooling, continues to fall dramatically short of any meaningful standard of success.  Indeed, even the “good news” of falling estimates for TARP’s cost is driven in part by the ineffectiveness of HAMP and related programs, which provide for TARP-funded grants and incentives.

As we begin fighting over the Final Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) — which investigated the causes of the financial crisis — it is important to be mindful of Neil Barofsky’s admonition that there will be another financial crisis.  If our government fails to prosecute the malfeasance that caused the crisis itself, that neglect — combined with the enhanced size of those “too big to fail” banks — could create a disaster we would have to characterize as “TBFAB” – Too Big For A Bailout.  What will happen at that point?


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The Outrage Continues

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February 1, 2010

The news reports of the past few days have brought us enough fuel to keep us outraged for the next decade.  Let’s just hope that some of this lasts long enough for the November elections.  I will touch on just three of the latest stories that should get the pitchfork-wielding mobs off their asses and into the streets.  Nevertheless, we have to be realistic about these things.  With the Super Bowl coming up, it’s going to be tough to pry those butts off the couches.

The first effrontery should not come as too much of a surprise.  The Times of London has reported that Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein (a/k/a Lloyd Bankfiend) is expecting to receive a $100 million bonus this year:

Bankers in Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF) told The Times yesterday they understood that Lloyd Blankfein and other top Goldman bankers outside Britain were set to receive some of the bank’s biggest-ever payouts.  “This is Lloyd thumbing his nose at Obama,” said a banker at one of Goldman’s rivals.

Blankfein is also thumbing his nose at the American taxpayers.  Despite widespread media insistence that Goldman Sachs “paid back the government” there is a bit of unfinished business arising from something called Maiden Lane III — for which Goldman should owe us billions.

That matter brings us to our second item:  the recently-released Quarterly Report from SIGTARP (the Special Investigator General for TARP — Neil Barofsky).  The report is 224 pages long, so I’ll refer you to the handy summary prepared by Michael Shedlock (“Mish”).  Mish’s headline drove home the point that there are currently 77 ongoing investigations of fraud, money laundering and insider trading as a result of the TARP bank bailout program.  Here are a few more of his points, used as introductions to numerous quoted passages from the SIGTARP report:

The Report Blasts Geithner and the NY Fed.  I seriously doubt Geithner survives this but the sad thing is Geithner will not end up in prison where he belongs.

*   *   *

Please consider a prime conflict of interest example in regards to PPIP, the Public-Private-Investment-Plan, specifically designed to allow banks to dump their worst assets onto the public (taxpayers) shielding banks from the risk.

*   *   *

Note the refutation of the preposterous claims that taxpayers will be made whole.

*   *   *

TARP Tutorial:  How Taxpayers Lose Money When Banks Fail

My favorite comment from Mish appears near the conclusion of his summary:

Clearly TARP was a complete failure, that is assuming the goals of TARP were as stated.

My belief is the benefits of TARP and the entire alphabet soup of lending facilities was not as stated by Bernanke and Geithner, but rather to shift as much responsibility as quickly as possible on to the backs of taxpayers while trumping up nonsensical benefits of doing so.  This was done to bail out the banks at any and all cost to the taxpayers.

Was this a huge conspiracy by the Fed and Treasury to benefit the banks at taxpayer expense?  Of course it was, and the conspiracy is unraveling as documented in this report and as documented in AIG Coverup Conspiracy Unravels.

Mish’s last remark (and his link to an earlier posting) brings us to the third disgrace to be covered in this piece:  The AIG bailout cover-up.  On January 29, David Reilly wrote an article for Bloomberg News (and Business Week) concerning last Wednesday’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  After quoting from Reilly’s article, Mish made this observation:

Most know I am not a big believer in conspiracies.  I regularly dismiss them.  However, this one was clear from the beginning and like all massive conspiracies, it is now in the light of day.

David Reilly began the Bloomberg/Business Week piece this way:

The idea of secret banking cabals that control the country and global economy are a given among conspiracy theorists who stockpile ammo, bottled water and peanut butter.  After this week’s congressional hearing into the bailout of American International Group Inc., you have to wonder if those folks are crazy after all.

Wednesday’s hearing described a secretive group deploying billions of dollars to favored banks, operating with little oversight by the public or elected officials.

That “secretive group” is The Federal Reserve of New York, whose president at the time of the AIG bailout was “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  David Reilly’s disgust at the hearing’s revelations became apparent from the tone of his article:

By pursuing this line of inquiry, the hearing revealed some of the inner workings of the New York Fed and the outsized role it plays in banking.  This insight is especially valuable given that the New York Fed is a quasi-governmental institution that isn’t subject to citizen intrusions such as freedom of information requests, unlike the Federal Reserve.

This impenetrability comes in handy since the bank is the preferred vehicle for many of the Fed’s bailout programs.  It’s as though the New York Fed was a black-ops outfit for the nation’s central bank.

*   *   *

The New York Fed is one of 12 Federal Reserve Banks that operate under the supervision of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, chaired by Ben Bernanke.  Member-bank presidents are appointed by nine-member boards, who themselves are appointed largely by other bankers.

As Representative Marcy Kaptur told Geithner at the hearing:  “A lot of people think that the president of the New York Fed works for the U.S. government.  But in fact you work for the private banks that elected you.”

The “cover-up” aspect to this caper involved intervention by the New York Fed that included editing AIG’s communications to investors and pressuring the Securities and Exchange Commission to keep secret the details of the bailouts of AIG’s counterparties (Maiden Lane III).  The Fed’s opposition to disclosure of such documentation to Congress was the subject of a New York Times opinion piece in December.  The recent SIGTARP report emphasized the disingenuous nature of the Fed’s explanation for keeping this information hidden:

SIGTARP’s audit also noted that the now familiar argument from Government officials about the dire consequences of basic transparency, as advocated by the Federal Reserve in connection with Maiden Lane III, once again simply does not withstand scrutiny.  Federal Reserve officials initially refused to disclose the identities of the counterparties or the details of the payments, warning that disclosure of the names would undermine AIG’s stability, the privacy and business interests of the counterparties, and the stability of the markets.  After public and Congressional pressure, AIG disclosed the identities of its counterparties, including its eight largest:  Societe Generale, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank AG, UBS, Calyon Corporate and Investment Banking (a subsidiary of Credit Agricole S.A.), Barclays PLC, and Bank of America.

Notwithstanding the Federal Reserve’s warnings, the sky did not fall; there is no indication that AIG’s disclosure undermined the stability of AIG or the market or damaged legitimate interests of the counterparties.

The SIGTARP investigation has revealed some activity that most people would never have imagined possible given the enormous amounts of money involved in these bailouts and the degree of oversight (that should have been) in place.  The bigger question becomes:  Will any criminal charges be brought against those officials who breached the public trust by facilitating this monumental theft of taxpayer dollars?



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Watching For Storm Clouds

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October 26, 2009

As the economy continues to flounder along, one need not look very far to find enthusiastic cheerleaders embracing any seemingly positive information to reinforce the belief that this catastrophic chapter in history is about to reach an end.  Meanwhile, others are watching out for signs of more trouble.  The recent celebrations over the return of the Dow Jones Industrial Average to the 10,000 level gave some sensible commentators the opportunity to point out that this may simply be evidence that we are experiencing an “asset bubble” which could burst at any moment.

October 21 brought the latest Quarterly Report from SIGTARP, the Special Investigator General for TARP, who is a gentleman named Neil Barofsky.  Since the report is 256 pages long, it made more sense for Mr. Barofsky to submit to a few television interviews and simply explain to us, the latest results of his investigatory work.  In a discussion with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on that date, Mr. Barofsky voiced his concern about the potential consequences that could arise because those bailed-out banks, considered “too big to fail” have continued to grow, due to government-approved mergers:

“These banks that were too big to fail are now bigger,” Barofsky said.  “Government has sponsored and supported several mergers that made them larger and that guarantee, that implicit guarantee of moral hazard, the idea that the government is not going to let these banks fail, which was implicit a year ago, is now explicit, we’ve said it.  So if anything, not only have there not been any meaningful regulatory reform to make it less likely, in a lot of ways, the government has made such problems more likely.

“Potentially we could be in more danger now than we were a year ago,” he added.

In comparing where the economy is now, as opposed to this time last year, we haven’t seen much in the way of increased lending by the oversized banks.  In fact, we’ve only seen more hubris and bullying on their part.  Julian Delasantellis expressed it this way in his October 22 essay for the Asia Times:

Now, a year later, things have turned out exactly as expected – except that the roles are reversed.  The rulemakers have not disciplined the corrupted; it’s more accurate to say that the corrupted have abased the rulemakers.  If the intention was that the big investment banks would settle down into a sort of quiet, reserved suburban lifestyle, the reality has been that they’ve acted more like former gangsters placed into the US government’s witness protection program, taking over the numbers racket on the Saturday pee-wee soccer fields.

*   *   *

Obviously, there can’t be any inflation, or any real long-term earnings growth for consumer and business-oriented banks for that matter, as long as the economic crisis continues to destroy capital faster than Obama can ask Bernanke to print it.

These issues are of little concern to operations such as Goldman and Morgan, with their trading strategies and profit profiles essentially divorced from the real economy.  But down here on planetary level, as the little league baseball fields don’t get maintained because the businesses who funded the work go out of business after having their loans called, after elderly people with chest pains have to wait longer for one of the few ambulances on station after rescue service cutbacks, life is changing, changing for the long term, and it sure isn’t pretty.

“Proprietary trading” by banks such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, forms an important part of their business model.  This practice involves trading by those banks, on their own accounts, rather than the accounts of customers.  The possibility of earning lavish bonus payments helps to incentivize risk taking by the traders working on the “prop desks” of those institutions.  Gillian Tett wrote a report for the Financial Times on October 22, wherein she discussed an e-mail she received from a recently-retired banker, who stays in touch with his former colleagues — all of whom remain actively trading the markets.  Ms. Tett observed that this man was “feeling deeply shocked” when he shared his observations with her:

“Forget about the events of the past 12 months … the punters are back punting as aggressively as ever,” he wrote.  “Highly leveraged short-term trades are back in vogue as players … jostle to load up on everything from Reits [real estate investment trusts] and commercial property, commodities, emerging markets and regular stocks and bonds.

“Oh, I am sure the banks’ public relations people will talk about the subdued atmosphere in banking, but don’t you believe it,” he continued bitterly, noting that when money is virtually free — or, at least, at 0.5 per cent — traders feel stupid if they don’t leverage up.

“Any sense of control is being chucked out of the window.  After the dotcom boom and bust it took a good few years for the market to get its collective mojo back [but] this time it has taken just a few months,” he added.  He finished with a despairing question:  “Was October 2008 just a dress rehearsal for the crash when this latest bubble bursts?”

*   *   *

Yet, if you talk at length to traders — or senior bankers — it seems that few truly believe that fundamentals alone explain this pattern.  Instead, the real trigger is the amount of money that central bankers have poured into the system that is frantically seeking a home, because most banks simply do not want to use that cash to make loans.  Hence, the fact that the prices of almost all risk assets are rallying — even as non-risky assets such as Treasuries bounce too.

Now, some western policymakers like to argue — or hope –that this striking rally could be beneficial, in a way, even if it is not initially based on fundamentals.  After all, the argument goes, if markets rebound sharply, that should boost animal spirits in a way that could eventually seep through to the “real” economy.

On this interpretation, the current rally could turn out to be akin to the firelighter that one uses to start a blaze in a pile of damp wood.

*   *   *

So I, like my e-mail correspondent, am growing uneasy.  Perhaps, the optimistic “firelighter-igniting-the-damp-wood” scenario will yet come to play; but we will probably not really know whether the optimists are correct for at least another six months.

Gillian Tett’s “give it six months” approach seems much more sober and rational than what we hear from many of the exuberant commentators appearing on television.  Beyond that, she reminds us that our current situation involves a more important issue than the question of whether our economy can experience sustained growth:  The continued use of leveraged risk-taking by TARP beneficiaries invites the possibility of a return to last year’s crisis-level conditions.  As long as those banks know that the taxpayers will be back to bail them out again, there is every reason to assume that we are all headed for more trouble.



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The SEC Is Out To Lunch

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August 27, 2009

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regulated by whom?