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© 2008 – 2014 John T. Burke, Jr.

Get Ready for the Next Financial Crisis

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It was almost one year ago when Bloomberg News reported on these remarks by Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Asset Management’s emerging markets group:

“There is definitely going to be another financial crisis around the corner because we haven’t solved any of the things that caused the previous crisis,” Mobius said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan inTokyotoday in response to a question about price swings. “Are the derivatives regulated?  No.  Are you still getting growth in derivatives?  Yes.”

I have frequently complained about the failed attempt at financial reform, known as the Dodd-Frank Act.  Two years 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 Act – 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 past few days, there has been a chorus of commentary calling for a renewed effort toward financial reform.  We have seen a torrent of reports on the misadventures of The London Whale at JP Morgan Chase, whose outrageous derivatives wager has cost the firm uncounted billions.  By the time this deal is unwound, the originally-reported loss of $2 billion will likely be dwarfed.

Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has made a hobby of writing blog postings about “what President Obama needs to do”.  Of course, President Obama never follows Professor Reich’s recommendations, which might explain why Mitt Romney has been overtaking Obama in the opinion polls.  On May 16, Professor Reich was downright critical of the President, comparing him to the dog in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle involving Sherlock Holmes, Silver Blaze.  The President’s feeble remarks about JPMorgan’s latest derivatives fiasco overlooked the responsibility of Jamie Dimon – obviously annoying Professor Reich, who shared this reaction:

Not a word about Jamie Dimon’s tireless campaign to eviscerate the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill; his loud and repeated charge that the Street’s near meltdown in 2008 didn’t warrant more financial regulation; his leadership of Wall Street’s brazen lobbying campaign to delay the Volcker Rule under Dodd-Frank, which is still delayed; and his efforts to make that rule meaningless by widening a loophole allowing banks to use commercial deposits to “hedge” (that is, make offsetting bets) their derivative trades.

Nor any mention Dimon’s outrageous flaunting of Dodd-Frank and of the Volcker Rule by setting up a special division in the bank to make huge (and hugely profitable, when the bets paid off) derivative trades disguised as hedges.

Nor Dimon’s dual role as both chairman and CEO of JPMorgan (frowned on my experts in corporate governance) for which he collected a whopping $23 million this year, and $23 million in 2010 and 2011 in addition to a $17 million bonus.

Even if Obama didn’t want to criticize Dimon, at the very least he could have used the occasion to come out squarely in favor of tougher financial regulation.  It’s the perfect time for him to call for resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act, of which the Volcker Rule – with its giant loophole for hedges – is a pale and inadequate substitute.

And for breaking up the biggest banks and setting a cap on their size, as the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve recommended several weeks ago.

This was Professor Reich’s second consecutive reference within a week to The Dallas Fed’s Annual Report, which featured an essay by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.  Beyond that, Rosenblum emphasized why those “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF) banks have actually grown since the enactment of Dodd-Frank:

The TBTF survivors of the financial crisis look a lot like they did in 2008.  They maintain corporate cultures based on the short-term incentives of fees and bonuses derived from increased oligopoly power.  They remain difficult to control because they have the lawyers and the money to resist the pressures of federal regulation.  Just as important, their significant presence in dozens of states confers enormous political clout in their quest to refocus banking statutes and regulatory enforcement to their advantage.

Last year, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by the TBTFs, which he characterized as “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:

…  I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism.  They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth.  So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

Although the huge derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase has motivated a number of commentators to issue warnings about the risk of another financial crisis, there had been plenty of admonitions emphasizing the risks of the next financial meltdown, which were published long before the London Whale was beached.  Back in January, G. Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk which brought about the catastrophe of 2008:

In response to widespread criticism associated with the financial collapse, Congress has enacted a number of reforms aimed at curbing abuses at financial institutions.  Legislation, such as the Dodd-Frank and Consumer Protection Act, was trumpeted as ensuring that another financial meltdown would be avoided.  Such reactionary regulation was certain to pacify U.S. taxpayers.

Unfortunately, legislation enacted does not solve the fundamental problem.  It simply provides cover for those who were asleep at the wheel, while ignoring the underlying cause of the crisis.

More than three years after the calamity, have we solved the dilemma we found ourselves in late 2008?  Can we rest assured that a future bailout will not occur?  Are financial institutions no longer “too big to fail?”

Regrettably, the answer, in each case, is a resounding no.

Last month, Michael T. Snyder of The Economic Collapse blog wrote an essay for the Seeking Alpha website, enumerating the 22 Red Flags Indicating Serious Doom Is Coming for Global Financial Markets.  Of particular interest was red flag #22:

The 9 largest U.S. banks have a total of 228.72 trillion dollars of exposure to derivatives.  That is approximately 3 times the size of the entire global economy.  It is a financial bubble so immense in size that it is nearly impossible to fully comprehend how large it is.

The multi-billion dollar derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase demonstrates that the sham “financial reform” cannot prevent another financial crisis.  The banks assume that there will be more taxpayer-funded bailouts available, when the inevitable train wreck occurs.  The Federal Reserve will be expected to provide another round of quantitative easing to keep everyone happy.  As a result, nothing will be done to strengthen financial reform as a result of this episode.  The megabanks were able to survive the storm of indignation in the wake of the 2008 crisis and they will be able ride-out the current wave of public outrage.

As Election Day approaches, Team Obama is afraid that the voters will wake up to the fact that the administration itself  is to blame for sabotaging financial reform.  They are hoping that the public won’t be reminded that two years ago, Simon Johnson (former chief economist of the IMF) wrote an essay entitled, “Creating the Next Crisis” in which he provided this warning:

On the critical dimension of excessive bank size and what it implies for systemic risk, there was a concerted effort by Senators Ted Kaufman and Sherrod Brown to impose a size cap on the largest banks – very much in accordance with the spirit of the original “Volcker Rule” proposed in January 2010 by Obama himself.

In an almost unbelievable volte face, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, Obama’s administration itself shot down this approach.  “If enacted, Brown-Kaufman would have broken up the six biggest banks inAmerica,” a senior Treasury official said.  “If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened.  But we weren’t, so it didn’t.”

Whether the world economy grows now at 4% or 5% matters, but it does not much affect our medium-term prospects. The US financial sector received an unconditional bailout – and is not now facing any kind of meaningful re-regulation.  We are setting ourselves up, without question, for another boom based on excessive and reckless risk-taking at the heart of the world’s financial system.  This can end only one way:  badly.

The public can forget a good deal of information in two years.  They need to be reminded about those early reactions to the Obama administration’s subversion of financial reform.  At her Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some negative opinions concerning the bill, along with her own cutting commentary in June of 2010:

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.

On May 17, Noam Scheiber explained why the White House is ”sweating” the JPMorgan controversy:

In particular, the transaction appears to have been a type of proprietary trade – which is to say, a trade that a bank undertakes to make money for itself, not its clients.  And these trades were supposed to have been outlawed by the “Volcker Rule” provision of Obama’s financial reform law, at least at federally-backed banks like JP Morgan.  The administration is naturally worried that, having touted the law as an end to the financial shenanigans that brought us the 2008 crisis, it will look feckless instead.

*   *   *

But it turns out that there’s an additional twist here.  The concern for the White House isn’t just that the law could look weak, making it a less than compelling selling point for Obama’s re-election campaign.  It’s that the administration could be blamed for the weakness.  It’s one thing if you fought for a tough law and didn’t entirely succeed.  It’s quite another thing if it starts to look like you undermined the law behind the scenes.  In that case, the administration could look duplicitous, not merely ineffectual.  And that’s the narrative you see the administration trying to preempt   .   .   .

When the next financial crisis begins, be sure to credit President Obama as the Facilitator-In-Chief.


 

From Cover-up to Bailout

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It has been one year since the earthquake and tsunami which caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant catastrophe.  From the very beginning (March 14, 2011) I suspected a cover-up:

Since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, we were given spotty, uninformative reports about the extent of the damage to the critical equipment, despite assurances that the “reactor vessels remain intact”.

Throughout the year following the Fukushima disaster, there has been an unending series of accounts concerning efforts by the plant operator, Tepco, as well as by governmental officials to cover-up the true extent of this tragedy.  The hazardous radiation levels to which local residents were subjected, have become the focus of the most recent news reports exposing cover-up tactics.  Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar was recently interviewed for Russia Today.  Escobar reported that Fukushima officials concealed radiation data vital to safely evacuate people from that area.  This was accomplished by the deletion of e-mails detailing the spread of radiation.  An unidentified official (or several officials) from Fukushima prefecture should face responsibility for the loss of that data.  At one point during the interview, Escobar remarked that the situation “sounds and looks and quacks like a major cover-up”.  He expects that ultimately, “a low-level official” will take the fall for this transgression, with no consequences other than a generous severance package.

The Mainichi Daily News report on this suspicious situation revealed that officials from Fukushima prefecture deleted five days of early radiation dispersion data.  In typical bureaucratic fashion, Fukushima prefecture officials claimed that “it was the responsibility of the central government to release the data”.

The obfuscation tactics employed by the plant operator, Tepco, have been apparent since the onset of this disaster.  Nevertheless, Tepco continues to “play dumb”.  In a March 28 report by Karen Sloan of the Associated Press, Tepco characterized the situation with the explanation that “conditions could be worse than officials had pictured”.  The report pointed out that there are “fatally–high radiation levels” at the #2 reactor with less water than anticipated available  for cooling the reactor.  The damage is so severe that Tepco will need to “develop special equipment and technology” to decommission the plant.  Worse yet, the other reactors which experienced meltdowns “could be in worse shape”.  You can watch the video version of Karen Sloan’s report here.  As for those “fatally–high radiation levels”, Anne Sewell of the Digital Journal pointed out that measurements revealed those levels to be “up to 10 times the lethal dose”.  Beyond that, Ms. Sewell didn’t hesitate to remind her readers of the continuing problems encountered by those who have reported on this crisis:

Japanese authorities and Tepco representatives have been caught lying about the true situation at Fukushima on numerous occasions, which adds to the overwhelming stress on the residents.

First-hand accounts of the situation in Fukushima prefecture are provided by blogger Lori Mochizuki and her cohorts at the Fukushima Diary website.  Their motto appears on the masthead of the site:  “We are against the media blackout – Please support us so that we may inform the world.”

Those interested in keeping-up with the slow trickle of truth about this tragedy can follow the Fukushima Update website.   Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer of Fairewinds Associates, is another source who provides regular updates on Fukushima.

As we have witnessed in the aftermath of the financial crisis, those entities responsible for the world’s worst disasters always find themselves rewarded with taxpayer-funded bailouts.  The Fukushima nuclear catastrophe is yet another example of this principle.  On March 29, Kentaro Hamada of Reuters reported that Tepco has asked the Japanese government for a $12.6 billion taxpayer-funded bailout.  (This amounts to 1 trillion yen.)  This amount would be in addition to the 850 billion yen which Tepco requested from the government in order to provide victim compensation.  That’s right – a free $10.7 billion insurance policy!  Is that coverage available to other companies?  I’m afraid to ask!  Nevertheless, some Japanese officials insist that the indemnity should come at a price – as the Reuters article explained:

The government is keen to obtain an initial majority stake in Tepco in return for the fund injection, with an option to boost the stake to two-thirds if the firm drags its feet on corporate reforms.  A final decision, however, would have to wait until the company finds a new chairman, a second source with knowledge of the matter said.

*   *   *

Trade Minister Yukio Edano, who is responsible for approving a public fund injection, has said he wants the government to have a significant say in managing Tepco, but the two sides have differed over how big the government stake should be.

Moral hazard and nuclear radiation hazard make such a wonderful combination!


 

Obama Backpedals To Save His Presidency

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President Obama’s demotion of his Chief of Staff, Bill Daley, has drawn quite a bit of attention – despite efforts by the White House to downplay the significance of that event.  The demotion of Daley is significant because it indicates that Obama is now trying to back away from his original strategy of helping Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.  This move appears to be an attempt by Obama to re-cast himself as a populist, in response to the widespread success of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In September of 2010, I wrote a piece entitled, “Where Obama Went Wrong”.  Despite the subsequent spin by right-wing pundits, to the effect that voters had been enamored with the Tea Party’s emphasis on smaller government, the true reasons for the mid-term disaster for the Democrats had become obvious:

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

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

*   *   *

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

Back in December of 2009, Bill Daley – a minion of The Dimon Dog at JPMorgan Chase – wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, which resonated with Wall Street’s tool in the White House.  Daley claimed that Obama and other Democrats were elected to office in 2008 because voters had embraced some pseudo-centrist ideas, which Daley referenced in these terms:

These independents and Republicans supported Democrats based on a message indicating that the party would be a true Big Tent — that we would welcome a diversity of views even on tough issues such as abortion, gun rights and the role of government in the economy.

*   *   *

All that is required for the Democratic Party to recover its political footing is to acknowledge that the agenda of the party’s most liberal supporters has not won the support of a majority of Americans — and, based on that recognition, to steer a more moderate course on the key issues of the day, from health care to the economy to the environment to Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, Obama was pre-disposed to accept this rationale, keeping his policy decisions on a trajectory which has proven as damaging to his own political future as it has been to the future of the American middle class.

On November 8, Jonathan Chait wrote a piece for New York magazine’s Daily Intel blog, wherein he explained that the demotion of Bill Daley revealed a “course correction” by Obama, in order to a pursue a strategy “in line with the realities of public opinion”.  Jonathan Chait explained how the ideas espoused by Daley in his 2009 Washington Post editorial, had been a blueprint for failure:

Daley, pursuing his theory, heavily courted business leaders.  He made long-term deficit reduction a top priority, and spent hours with Republican leaders, meeting them three-quarters of the way in hopes of securing a deal that would demonstrate his centrism and bipartisanship.  The effort failed completely.

The effort failed because Daley’s analysis – which is also the analysis of David Brooks and Michael Bloomberg – was fatally incorrect.  Americans were not itching for Obama to make peace with corporate America.  Americans are in an angry, populist mood – distrustful of government, but even more distrustful of business.  In the most recent NBC/The Wall Street Journal poll, 60 percent of Americans strongly agreed with the following statement:

The current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country.  America needs to reduce the power of major banks and corporations and demand greater accountability and transparency.  The government should not provide financial aid to corporations and should not provide tax breaks to the rich.

At the website of economist Brad DeLong, a number of comments were posted in response to Jonathan Chait’s essay.  One can only hope that our President has the same, clear understanding of this situation as do the individuals who posted these comments:

Full Employment Hawk said:

.   .   .   The defeat of the Democrats was due to the fact that the Obama administration did too little, not because it did too much.

Daley’s view that it was because the moderately progressive policies of the Obama administration were too far left for the center was totally wrong.  And listening to Daley’s advice to further shift from job creation to deficit reduction was a major blunder that reinforced the blunder of the first two years of dropping the ball on making the economy grow fast enough for the unemployment rate to be coming down significantly by the time of the Fall election.

In reply to the comment posted by Full Employment Hawk, a reader, identified as “urban legend” said this:

Obama should have been making the point over and over and over and over that getting more money into the hands of more Americans — principally right now by creating jobs — is the most pro-business stance you can take.  Continuing to let the 1% dictate everything in their favor is the most anti-business thing you can do.  We are the ones who want demand to rise for the goods and services of American business.  Right-wingers don’t care much about that.  What they do care about is maintaining their theology against all the evidence of its massive failure.

At Politico, Jonathan Chait’s essay provoked the following comment from Ben Smith:

It is entirely possible that no staff shift, and no ideological shift, can save Obama from a bad economy.  You don’t get to run controlled experiments in politics.

But it does seem worth noting that this argument pre-dates Daley: It’s the substance of the 2008 debate between Hillary Clinton and Obama, with Clinton portraying Obama as naive in his dream of bipartisan unity, and the Republicans as an implacable foe.  It’s the Clinton view, the ’90s view, that has prevailed here.

Indeed, it would be nice for all of us if Obama could get a “Mulligan” for his mishandling of the economic crisis.  Unfortunately, this ain’t golf.