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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.


 

Senator Kaufman Will Be Missed

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Ted Kaufman filled Joe Biden’s seat representing the state of Delaware in the United States Senate on January 15, 2009, when Biden resigned to serve as Vice-President.  Kaufman’s 22-month term as Senator concluded on November 15, when Chris Coons was sworn in after defeating Christine O’Donnell in the 2010 election.

Senator Kaufman served as Chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel – the entity created to monitor TARP on behalf of Congress.  The panel’s November Oversight Report was released at the COP website with an embedded, five-minute video of Senator Kaufman’s introduction to the Report.  At the DelawareOnline website, Nicole Gaudiano began her article about Kaufman’s term by pointing out that C-SPAN ranked Kaufman as the 10th-highest among Senators for the number of days (126) when he spoke on the Senate floor during the current Congressional session.  Senator Kaufman was a high-profile advocate of financial reform, who devoted a good deal of effort toward investigating the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.

On November 9, Senator Kaufman was interviewed by NPR’s Robert Siegel, who immediately focused on the fact that aside from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s civil suit against Goldman Sachs and the small fine levied against Goldman by FINRA, we have yet to see any criminal prosecutions arising from the fraud and other violations of federal law which caused the financial crisis.  Kaufman responded by asserting his belief that those prosecutions will eventually proceed, although “it takes a while” to investigate and prepare these very complex cases:

When you commit fraud on Wall Street or endanger it, you have good attorneys around you to kind of clean up after you.  So they clean up as they go.  And then when you actually go to trial, these are very, very, very complex cases.  But I still think we will have some good cases.  And I also think that if isn’t a deterrent, they will continue to do that.  And I think we have the people in place now at the Securities Exchange Commission and the Justice Department to hold them accountable.

We can only hope so   .  .  .

Back on March 17, I discussed a number of reactions to the recently-released Valukas Report on the demise of Lehman Brothers, which exposed 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.  Senator Kaufman’s reaction to the Valukas Report resulted in his widely-quoted March 15 speech from the Senate floor, in which he 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.

Within a few months after that speech by Senator Kaufman, a weak financial reform bill was enacted to appease (or more importantly:  deceive) the outraged taxpayers.  Despite that legislative sham, polling results documented the increased public skepticism about the government’s ability or willingness to do right by the American public.

On October 20, Sam Gustin interviewed economist Joseph Stiglitz for the DailyFinance website.  Their discussion focused on the recent legislative attempt to address the causes of the financial crisis.  Professor Stiglitz emphasized the legal system’s inability to control that type of  sleazy behavior:

The corporations have the right to give campaign contributions.  So basically we have a system in which the corporate executives, the CEOs, are trying to make sure the legal system works not for the companies, not for the shareholders, not for the bondholders – but for themselves.

So it’s like theft, if you want to think about it that way.  These corporations are basically now working now for the CEOs and the executives and not for any of the other stakeholders in the corporation, let alone for our broader society.

You look at who won with the excessive risk-taking and shortsighted behavior of the banks.  It wasn’t the shareholder or the bondholders.  It certainly wasn’t American taxpayers.  It wasn’t American workers.  It wasn’t American homeowners.  It was the CEOs, the executives.

*   *   *

Economists focus on the whole notion of incentives.  People have an incentive sometimes to behave badly, because they can make more money if they can cheat.  If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

And that’s why, for instance, in our antitrust law, we often don’t catch people when they behave badly, but when we do we say there are treble damages. You pay three times the amount of the damage that you do.  That’s a strong deterrent.

For now, there are no such deterrents for those CEOs who nearly collapsed the American economy and destroyed 15 million jobs.  Robert Scheer recently provided us with an update about what life is now like for Sandy Weill, the former CEO of Citigroup.  Scheer’s essay – entitled “The Man Who Shattered Our Economy” revealed that Weill just purchased a vineyard estate in Sonoma, California for a record $31 million.  That number should serve as a guidepost when considering the proposition expressed by Professor Stiglitz:

If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

What are the chances of that happening?


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Ignoring The Root Cause

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June 17, 2010

The predominant criticism of the so-called “financial reform” bill is its failure to address the problems caused by the existence of financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  In an essay entitled, “Creating the Next Crisis” economist Simon Johnson discussed the consequences of this legislative let-down:

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 in America,” a senior Treasury official said.  “If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened.  But we weren’t, so it didn’t.”

*   *   *

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.

One would assume that an important lesson learned from the 2008 financial crisis was the idea that a corporation shouldn’t be permitted to blackmail the country with threats that its own financial collapse would have such a dire impact on society-at-large that the corporation should be bailed out by the taxpayers.  The resulting problem is called “moral hazard” because such businesses are encouraged to act irresponsibly by virtue of the certainty that they will be bailed out if their activities prove self-destructive.

Gonzalo Lira wrote a piece for the Naked Capitalism blog, explaining how the moral hazard resulting from the “too big to fail” doctrine is facilitating a state of corporate anarchy:

In a nutshell, in this era of corporate anarchy, corporations do not have to abide by any rules — none at all.  Legal, moral, ethical, even financial rules are irrelevant.  They have all been rescinded in the pursuit of profit — literally nothing else matters.

As a result, corporations currently exist in a state of almost pure anarchy — but an anarchy directly related to their size:  The larger the corporation, the greater its absolute freedom to do and act as it pleases.  That’s why so many medium-sized corporations are hell-bent on growth over profits:  The biggest of them all, like BP and Goldman Sachs, live in a positively Hobbesian State of Nature, free to do as they please, with nary a consequence.

Good-old British Petroleum – the latest beneficiary of the “too big to fail doctrine”  — can rely on its size to avoid any sanctions it considers unacceptable because too many “small people” might lose their jobs if BP can’t stay fat and happy.  Gonzalo Lira’s analysis went a step further:

Worst of all, BP realizes that, if it finally cannot get a handle on the oil spill disaster, they can simply fob it off on the U.S. Government — in other words, the people of the United States will wind up cleaning BP’s mess.  BP knows that no one will hold it accountable — BP knows that it will get away with it.

*   *   *

This era of corporate anarchy is reaching a crisis point — we can all sense it.  Yet the leadership in the United States and Europe is making no effort to solve the root problem.  Perhaps they don’t see the problem.  Perhaps they are beholden to corporate masters.  Whatever the case, in his speech, President Obama made ridiculous references to “clean energy” while ignoring the cause of the BP oil spill disaster, the cause of the financial crisis, the cause of the spiralling health-care costs — the corporate anarchy that underlines them all.

This era of corporate anarchy is wrecking the world — literally, if you’ve been tuning in to images of the oil billowing out a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Lira discussed how a leadership void has been helping corporate anarchy overtake democratic capitalism:

Obama is a corporatist — he’s one of Them.  So there’ll be more bullshit talk about “clean energy” and “energy independence”, while the root cause — corporate anarchy — is left undisturbed.

The failure of President Obama to take advantage of the opportunity to address this “root cause” in his Oval Office address concerning the Deepwater Horizon disaster, inspired Robert Reich to make this comment:

Whether it’s Wall Street or health insurers or oil companies, we are approaching a turning point.  The top executives of powerful corporations are pursuing profits in ways that menace the nation.  We have not seen the likes not since the late nineteenth century when the “robber barons” of finance, oil, and the giant trusts ran roughshod over America.  Now, as then, they are using their wealth and influence to buy off legislators and intimidate the regions that depend on them for jobs.  Now, as then, they are threatening the safety and security of our people.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, recently warned us about the consequences of allowing corporate anarchy to destroy democratic capitalism:

The rise of uncontrolled corporate greed killed the “Invisible Hand,” the “soul” of capitalism that Adam Smith saw in 1776 as a divine force serving “the common good.”  Today the system has no moral compass.  Wall Street’s insatiable greed has destroyed capitalism from within, turning America’s economy into a soulless zombie.

The “Invisible Hand” Adam Smith saw as essential to capitalism in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” died in endless battles fought by 261,000 lobbyists each wanting a bigger piece of the $1.7 trillion federal budget pie plus favorable laws protecting, vesting and increasing the power and wealth of their special interest clients.  Future historians will call this ideological battle replacing democracy the new “American Capitalists Anarchy.”

*   *   *

As a New York Times reviewer put it:  Nations like “China and Russia are using what he calls ‘state capitalism’ to advance the interests of their companies at the expense of their American rivals.”  Global pandemic?

Unfortunately while America wastes trillions to bail out inefficient too-stupid-to-fail banks, our competition is bankrolling healthy state-controlled corporations to destroy us  . . .

If we ever reach the point when the watered-down “financial reform” bill finally becomes law, the taxpayers should insist that their government move on to address the “root cause” of corporate anarchy by taking up campaign finance reform.  That should be one hell of a fight!



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