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Widespread Disappointment With Financial Reform

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Exactly one year ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax” wherein I expressed my outrage that the financial reform effort had become a charade.  The final product resulting from all of the grandstanding and backroom deals – the Dodd–Frank bill – had become nothing more than a hoax on the American public.  My essay included the reactions of five commentators, who were similarly dismayed.  I concluded the posting with this remark:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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


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Deceptive Oversight

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March 17, 2010

March 16 brought us a few more provocative essays about the Lehman Brothers scandal.  The most prominent subject discussed in the reactions to the Valukas Report has been the complete lack of oversight by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — the entity with investigators in place inside of Lehman Brothers after the collapse of Bear Stearns.  The FRBNY had the perfect vantage point to conduct effective oversight of Lehman.  Not only did the FRBNY fail to do so — it actually helped Lehman maintain a false image of being financially solvent.  It is important to keep in mind that Lehman CEO Richard Fuld was a class B director of the FRBNY during this period.  Does that sound like a conflict of interest to anyone besides me?  The Securities and Exchange Commission (under the direction of Christopher Cox at the time) has become another subject of scrutiny for its own dubious semblance of oversight.

Eliot Spitzer and William Black (a professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City) recently posted a great article at the New Deal 2.0 website.  Among the memorable points from that piece is the assertion that accounting is “the weapon of choice” for financial deception.  The Valukas Report has exposed such extensive accounting fraud at Lehman, it will be impossible for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to feign ignorance of that activity.  Another memorable aspect of the Spitzer – Black piece is its reference to those “too big to fail” financial institutions as “SDIs” or systemically dangerous institutions.  Here is some of what Spitzer and Black had to say about how the FRBNY became enmeshed in Lehman’s sleazy accounting tactics:

The FRBNY knew that Lehman was engaged in smoke and mirrors designed to overstate its liquidity and, therefore, was unwilling to lend as much money to Lehman.  The FRBNY did not, however, inform the SEC, the public, or the OTS  (which regulated an S&L that Lehman owned) of what should have been viewed by all as ongoing misrepresentations.

The Fed’s behavior made it clear that officials didn’t believe they needed to do more with this information. The FRBNY remained willing to lend to an institution with misleading accounting and neither remedied the accounting nor notified other regulators who may have had the opportunity to do so.

*   *   *

The FRBNY acted shamefully in covering up Lehman’s inflated asset values and liquidity.

The consequences of the New York Fed’s involvement in this scam were discussed in an article by Andrew Ross Sorkin from the March 16 edition of The New York Times.  (You may recall that Andrew Ross Sorkin is the author of the book, Too Big To Fail.)  He pointed out that the consequences of the Lehman scandal could be very far-reaching:

Indeed, it now appears that the federal government itself either didn’t appreciate the significance of what it saw (we’ve seen that movie before with regulators waving off tips about Bernard L. Madoff).  Or perhaps they did appreciate the significance and blessed the now-suspect accounting anyway.

*   *   *

There’s a lot riding on the government’s oversight of these accounting shenanigans.  If Lehman Brothers executives are sued civilly or prosecuted criminally, they may actually have a powerful defense:  a raft of government officials from the S.E.C. and Fed vetted virtually everything they did.

On top of that, Lehman’s outside auditor, Ernst &Young, and a law firm, Linklaters, signed off on the transactions.

The problems at Lehman raise even larger questions about the vigilance of the SEC and Fed in overseeing the other Wall Street banks as well.

The question as to whether similar accounting tricks were being performed at “other Wall Street banks as well” opens a very huge can of worms.  It’s time for the government to step back and assess the larger picture of what the systemic problem really is.  In a speech before the Senate, Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman emphasized that the government needs to return the rule of law to Wall Street:

We all understood that to restore the public’s faith in our financial markets and the rule of law, we must identify, prosecute, and send to prison the participants in those markets who broke the law.  Their fraudulent conduct has severely damaged our economy, caused devastating and sustained harm to countless hard-working Americans, and contributed to the widespread view that Wall Street does not play by the same rules as Main Street.

*   *   *

Many have said we should not seek to “punish” anyone, as all of Wall Street was in a delirium of profit-making and almost no one foresaw the sub-prime crisis caused by the dramatic decline in housing values.  But this is not about retribution.  This is about addressing the continuum of behavior that took place — some of it fraudulent and illegal — and in the process addressing what Wall Street and the legal and regulatory system underlying its behavior have become.

As part of that effort, we must ensure that the legal system tackles financial crimes with the same gravity as other crimes.

The nagging suspicion that those nefarious activities at Lehman Brothers could be taking place “at other banks as well” became a key point in Senator Kaufman’s speech:

Mr. President, I’m concerned that the revelations about Lehman Brothers are just the tip of the iceberg.  We have no reason to believe that the conduct detailed last week is somehow isolated or unique.  Indeed, this sort of behavior is hardly novel.  Enron engaged in similar deceit with some of its assets.  And while we don’t have the benefit of an examiner’s report for other firms with a business model like Lehman’s, law enforcement authorities should be well on their way in conducting investigations of whether others used similar “accounting gimmicks” to hide dangerous risk from investors and the public.

We can only hope that a continued investigation into the Lehman scandal will result in a very bright light directed on those privileged plutocrats who consider themselves above the law.



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Turning Over A Rock

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September 24, 2009

Last year’s financial crisis and our current economic crisis have exposed some pretty ugly things to an unsuspecting public.  As news reporters dig and as witnesses are called to testify, these investigations are turning over a very large rock, revealing all the colonies of maggots and fungus infestations, just below ground level, out of our usual view.  The voters are learning more about the sleaziness that takes place on Wall Street and in the halls of Congress.  Hopefully, they will become motivated to demand some changes.

A recent report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn revealed how the law prohibiting “insider trading” (i.e. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.  Mr. Henn’s report discussed the investment transactions made by some Senators after having been informed by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, that our financial system was on the verge of a meltdown.  After quoting GOP House Minority Leader John Boehner’s public acknowledgement last September that:

We clearly have an unprecedented crisis in our financial system.   .   .   .

On behalf of the American people our job is to put our partisan differences aside and to work together to help solve this crisis.

Mr. Henn proceeded to explain how swift Senatorial action resulted in a bipartisan exercise of greed:

The next day, according to personal financial disclosures, Boehner cashed out of a fund designed to profit from inflation.  Since he sold, it’s lost more than half its value.

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who was also at that meeting sold more than $40,000 in mutual funds and reinvested it all with Warren Buffett.

Durbin said like millions of others he was worried about his retirement. Boehner says his stock broker acted alone without even talking to him.  Both lawmakers say they didn’t benefit from any special tips.

But over time members of Congress do much better than the rest of us when playing the stock market.

*   *   *

The value of information that flows from the inner workings of Washington isn’t lost on Wall Street professionals.

Michael Bagley is a former congressional staffer who now runs the OSINT Group. Bagley sells access and research. His clients are hedge funds, and he makes it his business to mine Congress and the rest of Washington for tips.

MICHAEL Bagley: The power center of finance has moved from Wall Street to Washington.

His firm is just one recent entry into Washington’s newest growth industry.

CRAIG HOLMAN: It’s called political intelligence.

Craig Holman is at Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog.  Holman believes lobbyists shouldn’t be allowed to sell tips to hedge funds and members of Congress shouldn’t trade on non-public information.  But right now it’s legal.

HOLMAN: It’s absolutely incredible, but the Securities and Exchange Act does not apply to members of Congress, congressional staff or even lobbyists.

That law bans corporate insiders, from executives to their bankers and lawyers, from trading on inside information.  But it doesn’t apply to political intelligence.  That makes this business lucrative.  Bagley says firms can charge hedge funds $25,000 a month just to follow a hot issue.

BAGLEY: So information is a commodity in Washington.

Inside information on dozens of issues, from bank capitol requirements to new student loan rules, can move markets.  Consumer advocate Craig Holman is backing a bill called the STOCK Act.  Introduced in the House, it would force political-intelligence firms to disclose their clients and it would ban lawmakers, staffers, and lobbyists from profiting on non-public knowledge.

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

In his prepared testimony before the House Financial Services Committee this morning, former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker made this observation:

I understand, and share, concern that the financial crisis has revealed weaknesses in our regulatory and supervisory agencies as well as in the activities of private financial institutions.  There has been criticism of the Federal Reserve itself, and even proposals to remove responsibilities other than monetary policy, strictly defined, from the Fed.

Mr. Volcker discussed a number of suggestions for regulatory changes to prevent a repeat of last year’s crisis.  He criticized Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner’s approach toward what amounts to simply baby-sitting for those financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.   Here is some of Mr. Volcker’s discussion on that point:

However well justified in terms of dealing with the extreme threats to the financial system in the midst of crisis, the emergency actions of the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and ultimately the Congress to protect the viability of particular institutions – their bond holders and to some extent even their stockholders – have inevitably left an indelible mark on attitudes and behavior patterns of market participants.

  • Will not the pattern of protection for the largest banks and their holding companies tend to encourage greater risk-taking, including active participation in volatile capital markets, especially when compensation practices so greatly reward short-term success?
  • Are community or regional banks to be deemed “too small to save”, raising questions of competitive viability?

*   *   *

What all this amounts to is an unintended and unanticipated extension of the official “safety net”, an arrangement designed decades ago to protect the stability of the commercial banking system.  The obvious danger is that with the passage of time, risk-taking will be encouraged and efforts at prudential restraint will be resisted.  Ultimately, the possibility of further crises – even greater crises – will increase.

This concern is often discussed as the “moral hazard” issue.  William Black, Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City published an excellent paper concerning this issue on September 10.  He made some great suggestions as to how to deal with these “Systemically Dangerous Institutions”:

Historically, “too big to fail” was a misnomer – large, insolvent banks and S&Ls were placed in receivership and their “risk capital” (shareholders and subordinated debtholders) received nothing.  That treatment is fair, minimizes the costs to the taxpayers, and minimizes “moral hazard.”  “Too big to fail” meant only that they were not placed in liquidating receiverships (akin to a Chapter 7 “liquidating” bankruptcy).  In this crisis, however, regulators have twisted the term into immunity.  Massive insolvent banks are not placed in receivership, their senior managers are left in place, and the taxpayers secretly subsidize their risk capital.  This policy is indefensible.  It is also unlawful.  It violates the Prompt Corrective Action law.  If it is continued it will cause future crises and recurrent scandals.

*   *   *

Under the current regulatory system banks that are too big to fail pose a clear and present danger to the economy.  They are not national assets.  A bank that is too big to fail is too big to operate safely and too big to regulate.  It poses a systemic risk. These banks are not “systemically important”, they are “systemically dangerous.”  They are ticking time bombs – except that many of them have already exploded.

Mr. Black then listed twenty areas of reform where these institutions would face additional regulatory compliance and restrictions on their activities, including a ban on “all new speculative investments”.     Paul Volcker took that issue a step further with his criticism of “proprietary trading” by these institutions, which often can result in conflicts of interest with customers, since these banks are trading on their own accounts while in a position to act on the confidential investing strategies of their clients.

Paul Volcker made a point of emphasizing the need to clarify the overlapping jurisdictions of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).  On September 18, David Corn wrote a piece about the CFTC, describing it as:

…  a somewhat obscure federal agency, but an important one. Its mission is to protect consumers and investors by preventing misconduct in futures trading that could distort the prices of agricultural and energy commodities.  In 2000, the CFTC wanted to regulate credit default swaps — complicated and privately traded financial instruments that helped grease the way to the subprime meltdown — but Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, then the chair of the Senate Banking Committee, Fed chair Alan Greenspan and Clinton administration officials (including Lawrence Summers, now President Obama’s top economic adviser) blocked that effort.  Had the CFTC been allowed to police swaps, the housing finance crisis that begot the economic crash of last year might not have been as bad.  So the CFTC is a critical agency.  And under Obama’s proposal for more robust financial regulation — which he talked about during a Wall Street visit on Monday — the CFTC would have greater responsibility to make sure no one was gaming the financial system.  Consequently, the composition of the CFTC is more significant than ever.

Mr. Corn expressed his concern over the fact that the Obama administration had nominated Scott O’Malia, a Republican Senate aide, to be a commissioner on the CTFC:

For the past seven years, he’s been a GOP staffer in the Senate.  But before that he was a lobbyist for Mirant, an Atlanta-based electricity company. According to House and Senate records, while at Mirant O’Malia was registered to lobby for greater deregulation at a time when his company was exploiting the then-ongoing deregulation of the energy market to bilk consumers.  Remember the Enron-driven electricity crisis in California of 2001, when Enron and other companies were manipulating the state’s deregulated electricity markets, causing prices to go sky-high, creating rolling black-outs and triggering a statewide emergency?  Mirant was one of those other companies.  According to state investigators, Mirant deliberately held back power to force prices up.

After the crisis, Mirant was investigated by various federal and local agencies and became the target of a number of lawsuits.  It ultimately agreed to pay California about half a billion dollars to settle claims it had screwed the state’s residents.  It also was fined $12.5 million — by the CFTC! — for attempting to manipulate natural gas prices.

Mr. O’Malia had previously been nominated for this position by President George W. Bush.  Nevertheless, Washington Senator Maria Cantwell helped block the nomination.  As a result, David Corn was understandably shocked when O’Malia was re-nominated for this same position by the Obama administration:

Yet Obama has brought it back.  Why would a president who craves change in Washington and who wants the CFTC to be a tougher watchdog do that?

The answer to that question is another question:  Does President Obama really want the CFTC to be a tougher watchdog or just another “lap dog” like the SEC?

After all the promises of the needed regulatory “clean-up” to prevent another financial crisis, can we really trust our current leadership to accomplish anything toward that goal?



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