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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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Wading In Quicksand

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July 12, 2010

The recent Gallup Poll, revealing that President Obama’s approval rating has dropped to 38% among independent voters, has resulted in an outpouring of (unsolicited) advice offered to the President by numerous commentators.  As I pointed out in my last posting, Matt Miller’s July 8 Washington Post article set out a really great plan, which he described as “a radically centrist ‘Jobs Now, Deficits Soon’ package”.   Nevertheless, Mr. Miller’s piece was not written as advice to the President, as some of the more recent articles have been.  I recently read one of those “advice to Obama” pieces that the President would do well to ignore.  It was written by a former Bill Clinton pollster named Douglas Schoen for the New York Daily News Schoen’s plan focused on this premise:

The independent swing voters who hold the fate of the Democratic Party in their hands are looking for candidates and parties that champion fiscal discipline, limited government, deficit reduction and a free market, pro-growth agenda.

Not true.  The independent swing voters are disappointed with Obama because the candidate’s promise of “hope and change” turned out to be a “bait and switch” scam to sell the public more cronyism.  At this point, it appears as though the entire Democratic Party will suffer the consequences in the 2010 elections.

The shortcomings of the Obama administration were more accurately summed up by Robert Kuttner for The Huffington Post:

But even a dire economic crisis and a Republican blockade of needed remedies have not fundamentally altered the temperament, trajectory, or tactical instincts of this surprisingly aloof  president.  He has not been willing or able to use his office to move public opinion in a direction that favors more activism.  Nor has Obama, for the most part, seized partisan and ideological opportunities that hapless Republicans and clueless corporate executives keep lobbing him like so many high, hanging curve balls.

*   *   *

But despite our hopes, Barack Obama is unlikely to offer bolder policies or give tougher speeches any time soon, even as threats of a double-dip recession and an electoral blowout in November loom.  This is just not who he is.  If the worst economic crisis in eight decades were going to change his assumptions about how to govern and how to lead, it would have done so by now.

*   *   *

I have also watched Obama’s loyal opposition –people like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Elizabeth Warren, Sheila Bair — be proven right by events, again and again.  So there are alternative paths, as there always are.  But the White House has disdained them.

And I’ve noticed that it is the populists among Democratic elected officials who are best defended against defeat in November.  That tells you something, too.  Why should the project of rallying the common people against elites in Washington, on Wall Street, and in the media, be ceded to the far right?  But that is what this White House is doing.

E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post demonstrated a good understanding of why independent voters have become fed up with Obama and how this has ballooned into a larger issue of anti-Democrat sentiment:

On the one hand, independent voters are turning on them.  Democratic House candidates enjoyed a 51 percent to 43 percent advantage over Republicans in 2008.  This time, the polls show independents tilting Republican by substantial margins.

But Democrats are also suffering from a lack of enthusiasm among their own supporters.  Poll after poll has shown that while Republicans are eager to cast ballots, many Democrats seem inclined to sit out this election.

The apathy of the rank-and-file Democrats and the alienation of the independents is best explained by the Administration’s faux-reform agenda.  The so-called healthcare “reform” bill turned out to be a giveaway to big pharma and the health insurance industry.  Worse yet, the financial “reform” bill not only turned out to be a hoax – it did nothing to address systemic risk.  In other words, if one of those five “untouchable” Wall Street banks fails, it will take the entire financial system down with it — in the absence of another huge, trillion-dollar bailout from the taxpayers.

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute documented the extent to which Obama’s Treasury Department undermined the financial reform bill at every step:

Examples?  Off the top of my head, ones with a paper trail:  They fought the Collins amendment for quality of bank capital, fought leverage requirements like a 15-to-1 cap, fought prefunding the resolution mechanism, fought Section 716removed foreign exchange swaps and introduced end user exemption from derivative language between the Obama white paper and the House Bill, believed they could have gotten the SAFE Banking Amendment to break up the banks but didn’t try, pushed against the full Audit the Fed and encouraged the Scott Brown deal. spinning out swap desks,

You can agree or disagree with any number of those items, think they are brilliant or dumb, reasonable or a pipe dream.  But what is worth noting is that they always end up leaving their fingerprints on the side of less structural reform and in favor of the status quo on Wall Street.

The Obama administration is apparently operating from the mistaken perspective that the voters are too stupid to see through their antics.  Sending Joe Biden to appear on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show to dissuade the public from considering the motives of politicians will not solve the administration’s problem of sinking approval ratings.




Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax

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June 28, 2010

You don’t have to look too far to find damning criticism of the so-called financial “reform” bill.  Once the Kaufman-Brown amendment was subverted (thanks to the Obama administration), the efforts to solve the problem of financial institutions’ growth to a state of being “too big to fail” (TBTF) became a lost cause.  Dylan Ratigan, who had been fuming for a while about the financial reform charade, had this to say about the product that emerged from reconciliation on Friday morning:

It means that the same people who brought you these horrible changes — rising wealth discrepancy, massive unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure – have now further institutionalized the policies that will keep the causes of these problems firmly in place.

The best trashing of this bill came from Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge:

Congrats, middle class, once again you get raped by Wall Street, which is off to the races to yet again rapidly blow itself up courtesy of 30x leverage, unlimited discount window usage, trillions in excess reserves, quadrillions in unregulated derivatives, a TBTF framework that has been untouched and will need a rescue in under a year, non-existent accounting rules, a culture of unmitigated greed, and all of Congress and Senate on its payroll.  And, sorry, you can’t even vote some of the idiots that passed this garbage out:  after all there is a retiring lame duck in charge of it all.  We can only hope his annual Wall Street (i.e. taxpayer funded) annuity will satisfy his conscience for destroying any hope America could have of a credible financial system.

*   *   *

In other words, the greatest theatrical production of the past few months is now over, it has achieved nothing, it will prevent nothing, and ultimately the financial markets will blow up yet again, but not before the Teleprompter in Chief pummels the idiot public with address after address how he singlehandedly was bribed, pardon, achieved a historic event of being the only president to completely crumble under Wall Street’s pressure on every item that was supposed to reign in the greatest risktaking generation (with Other People’s Money) in history.

Robert Lenzner of Forbes focused his criticism of the bill on the fact that nothing was done to limit the absurd leverage used by the banks to borrow against their capital.  After all, at the January 13 hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Lloyd Bankfiend of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan’s Dimon Dog admitted that excessive leverage was a key problem in causing the financial crisis.  As I discussed in “Lev Is The Drug”:

Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly expressed pride in the fact that Goldman Sachs has always been leveraged to “only” a  23-to-1 ratio.  The Dimon Dog’s theme was something like:  “We did everything right  . . . except that we were overleveraged”.

At Forbes, Robert Lenzner discussed the ugly truth about how the limits on leverage were excised from this bill:

The capitulation on this matter of leverage is extraordinary evidence of Wall Street’s power to influence Congress through its lobbying dollars.  It is another example of the public servants serving the agents of finance capitalism.  After pumping in gobs of sovereign credit to replace the credit that had been wiped out and replace the supply of credit to the economic system, a weak reform bill will just be an invitation to drum up the leverage that caused the crisis in the first place.

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.

At the Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some more negative reactions to the bill, along with her own cutting commentary:

I want the word “reform” back.  Between health care “reform” and financial services “reform,” Obama, his operatives, and media cheerleaders are trying to depict both initiatives as being far more salutary and far-reaching than they are.  This abuse of language is yet another case of the Obama Administration using branding to cover up substantive shortcomings.  In the short run it might fool quite a few people, just as BP’s efforts to position itself as an environmentally responsible company did.

*   *   *

So what does the bill accomplish?  It inconveniences banks around the margin while failing to reduce the odds of a recurrence of a major financial crisis.

The only two measures I see as genuine accomplishments, the Audit the Fed provisions, and the creation of a consumer financial product bureau, do not address systemic risks.  And the consumer protection authority was substantially watered down.  Recall a crucial provision, that banks be required to offer plain vanilla variants of products, was axed early on.

So there you have it.  The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.





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Your Sleazy Government At Work

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May 31, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

Negligible progress, 3,000 pages notwithstanding.

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

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

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

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






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Moment Of Truth

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May 24, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Obama Administration Wants to Kill the Best Provisions

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

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

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

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

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



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Banking Lobby Tools In Senate Subvert Reform

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May 20. 2010

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Ron Paul Criticizes Fed Audit Compromise

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May 13, 2010

The Federal Reserve had two big wins this week.  At least their most recent win made some sense.  Bloomberg BusinessWeek put it this way:

U.S. senators voted 90-9 yesterday to void a provision in regulatory-overhaul legislation that would have stripped the Fed of oversight of 5,000 banks with less than $50 billion in assets.  A day earlier, senators rejected a measure to allow continuous congressional audits of Fed policies.

*   *   *

Bernanke may now have a freer hand to decide when and how fast to unwind record monetary stimulus begun during the financial crisis, while being less vulnerable to criticism that the Fed favors large Wall Street financial institutions.  The Senate votes also removed a threat to the 12 regional Fed banks from a provision that would have limited the supervision of many of them to a few banks or none at all.

The amendment to the financial reform bill allowing the 12 regional Federal Reserve banks to maintain oversight of banks with less than $50 billion in assets was a bipartisan effort by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Amy Klobuchar (D- Minnesota).  The downside to the passage of this amendment is that it has provided the Fed with back-to-back legislative victories.  One day earlier, Congressman Ron Paul’s “Audit the Fed” amendment was replaced by a rewritten, compromise amendment, sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders.  Senator Sanders is now being criticized for caving in to pressure exerted by President Obama, who opposed ongoing scrutiny of the Federal Reserve, under the pretext that continuous audits would interfere with the Fed’s purported “independence” in setting monetary policy.  The Sanders compromise proposed a one-time audit of the Fed to uncover information including the loans made to financial institutions by the Fed in response to the financial crisis of 2008.  The Sanders amendment was passed in a 96-0 vote.  Subsequently, Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana) proposed an amendment (#3760) containing the stronger language of Ron Paul’s H.R. 1207, allowing for repeated audits of the Fed.  The Vitter amendment was defeated by 62 Senators opposing the measure, with only 37 Senators supporting it.  You can see how each Senator voted here.  Ultimately, the complete financial reform bill — S. 3217 (Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010) —  will be subject to approval by the Senate and reconciliation with the House version (H.R. 4173) before it can be signed into law by the President.

On May 11, Congressman Ron Paul expressed his displeasure with the Sanders compromise in a statement from the floor of the House of Representatives.  The New American website has the video and text of Congressman Paul’s statement here.  Ron Paul emphasized that the Fed’s use of currency swaps to facilitate the bailout fund for the sovereign debt crisis in the European Union, has provided the latest example of the need for a continuous audit of the Fed’s activities:

The reason this is so disturbing is because of the current events going on in the financial markets. We are right now involved in bailing out Europe and especially bailing out Greece, and we’re doing this through the Federal Reserve.  The Federal Reserve does this with currency swaps and they do this literally by giving loans and guarantees to other central banks, and they can even give loans to governments.  So this is placing the burden on American taxpayers — not by direct taxation, but by expanding the money supply this is a tax on the American people because this will bring economic hardship to this country. And because we’ve been doing this for so many years the economic hardship is already here [and] we’ve been suffering from it.

But the problem comes that once you have a system of money where you can create it out of thin air there’s no restraint whatsoever on the spending in the Congress.  And then the debt piles up and they get into debt problems as they are in Greece and other countries in Europe.  And how they want to bail them out?  With more debt.  But what is so outrageous is that the Federal Reserve can literally deal in trillions of dollars.  They don’t get the money authorized, they don’t get the money appropriated, they just create it and they get involved in bailing out their friends, as they have been doing for the last two years, and now they’re doing it in Europe.  So, my contention is that they deserve oversight.  Actually they deserve to be reined in where they can’t do what they’re doing.

*   *   *

Now, what has this led to?  It has led to tremendous pressure on the dollar.  The dollar is the reserve currency of the world; we bail out all the banks and all the corporations.  We’ve been doing it for the last couple years to the tune of trillions of dollars….

The real truth is that the dollar is very, very weak, because the only true measurement of the value of a currency is its relationship to gold. …  In the last ten years, our dollar has been devalued 80 percent in terms of gold.  That means, literally, that just means that we have printed way too much money, and right now we’re just hanging on, the world is hanging on to the fact that the dollar is still usable. …

So we face a very serious crisis.  To me it is very unfortunate that we are not going to have this audit the Fed bill in the Senate.  It has passed in the House, possibly we can salvage it in conference and make sure this occurs.  But since the Federal Reserve is responsible for the business cycle and the inflation and for all the problems we have it is vital that we stand up and say, you know, its time for us to assume the responsibility because it is the Congress under the Constitution that has been authorized to be responsible for the value of the currency.

At the Financial Times, John Taylor pointed out that not only is the Fed’s decision to provide currency swaps a bad idea – it might actually aggravate the EU’s problems:

Making matters worse for the future of monetary policy is the Fed’s active participation in the European bail-out.  The US central bank agreed to provide loans – technically called swaps – to the ECB so that the ECB can more easily make dollar loans in the European markets.  In order to loan dollars to the ECB, the Fed will have to increase the size of its own balance sheet.  Such swap loans were made to the ECB back in December 2007, but they did not help end the crisis or prevent the panic of autumn 2008.  Instead, they merely delayed inevitable action to deal with deteriorating bank balance sheets, thereby making the panic worse.

Was it necessary for the Fed to participate in the European bail-out?  At least as evidenced by quantitative measures such as the spread between 3-month Libor and the overnight index swap (OIS), the funding problem in the interbank markets is far less severe now than in December 2007.  The international loans also raise questions about the Fed’s independence at a time when many in Congress are calling for a complete audit of the Fed.  Even though monetary policy does not warrant such an audit, extraordinary measures such as the loans to the ECB do.  By taking these extraordinary measures, the Fed is losing some of its independence as well as adding to the perception that the ECB is losing its independence.

At some point, everyone will be forced to admit that “Fed independence” is a myth.



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Too Cute By Half

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April 29, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Unrealistic Expectations

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April 22, 2010

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back where?  That’s the real question.

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

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

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



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