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Getting It Reich

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April 8, 2010

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, has been hitting more than a few home runs lately.   At a time when too many commentators remain in lock-step with their favorite political party, Reich pulls no punches when pointing out the flaws in the Obama administration’s agenda.  I particularly enjoyed his reaction to the performance of Larry Summers on ABC television’s This Week on April 4:

I’m in the “green room” at ABC News, waiting to join a roundtable panel discussion on ABC’s weekly Sunday news program, This Week.

*   *   *

Larry Summers was interviewed just before Greenspan. He said the economy is expanding, that the Administration is doing everything it can to bring jobs back, and that the regulatory reform bills moving on the Hill will prevent another financial crisis.

What?

*   *   *

If any three people are most responsible for the failure of financial regulation, they are Greenspan, Larry Summers, and my former colleague, Bob Rubin.

*   *   *

I dislike singling out individuals for blame or praise in a political system as complex as that of the United States but I worry the nation is not on the right economic road, and that these individuals — one of whom advises the President directly and the others who continue to exert substantial influence among policy makers — still don’t get it.

The direction financial reform is taking is not encouraging.  Both the bill that emerged from the House and the one emerging from the Senate are filled with loopholes that continue to allow reckless trading of derivatives.  Neither bill adequately prevents banks from becoming insolvent because of their reckless trades.  Neither limits the size of banks or busts up the big ones.  Neither resurrects the Glass-Steagall Act. Neither adequately regulates hedge funds.

More fundamentally, neither bill begins to rectify the basic distortion in the national economy whose rewards and incentives are grotesquely tipped toward Wall Street and financial entrepreneurialism, and away from Main Street and real entrepreneurialism.

Is it because our elected officials just don’t understand what needs to be done to prevent another repeat of the financial crisis – or is the unwillingness to take preventative action the result of pressure from lobbyists?  I think they’re just playing dumb while they line their pockets with all of that legalized graft. Meanwhile, Professor Reich continued to function as the only adult in the room, with this follow-up piece:

Needless to say, the danger of an even bigger cost in coming years continues to grow because we still don’t have a new law to prevent what happened from happening again.  In fact, now that they know for sure they’ll be bailed out, Wall Street banks – and those who lend to them or invest in them – have every incentive to take even bigger risks.  In effect, taxpayers are implicitly subsidizing them to do so.

*   *   *

But the only way to make sure no bank it too big to fail is to make sure no bank is too big.  If Congress and the White House fail to do this, you have every reason to believe it’s because Wall Street has paid them not to.

Reich’s recent criticism of the Federal Reserve was another sorely-needed antidote to Ben Bernanke’s recent rise to media-designated sainthood.  In an essay quoting Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Reich transcended the polarized political climate to focus on the fact that the mysterious Fed enjoys inappropriate authority:

The Fed has finally came clean.  It now admits it bailed out Bear Stearns – taking on tens of billions of dollars of the bank’s bad loans – in order to smooth Bear Stearns’ takeover by JP Morgan Chase.  The secret Fed bailout came months before Congress authorized the government to spend up to $700 billion of taxpayer dollars bailing out the banks, even months before Lehman Brothers collapsed.  The Fed also took on billions of dollars worth of AIG securities, also before the official government-sanctioned bailout.

The losses from those deals still total tens of billions, and taxpayers are ultimately on the hook.  But the public never knew.  There was no congressional oversight.  It was all done behind closed doors. And the New York Fed – then run by Tim Geithner – was very much in the center of the action.

*   *   *

The Fed has a big problem.  It acts in secret.  That makes it an odd duck in a democracy.  As long as it’s merely setting interest rates, its secrecy and political independence can be justified. But once it departs from that role and begins putting billions of dollars of taxpayer money at risk — choosing winners and losers in the capitalist system — its legitimacy is questionable.

You probably thought that Ron Paul was the only one who spoke that way about the Federal Reserve.  Fortunately, when people such as Robert Reich speak out concerning the huge economic and financial dysfunction afflicting America, there is a greater likelihood that those with the authority to implement the necessary reforms will do the right thing.  We can only hope.



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Getting Cozy

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April 1, 2010

This week’s decision by the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Jones v.Harris Associates received a good deal of attention because it increased hopes of a cut in the fees mutual funds charge to individual investors.  The plaintiffs, Jerry Jones, Mary Jones and Arline Winerman, sued Harris Associates (which runs or “advises” the Oakmark mutual funds) for violating the Investment Company Act, by charging excessive fees.  Harris was charging individual investors a .88 percent (88 basis points) management fee, compared to the 45-bps fee charged to its institutional clients.

In his article about the Jones v. Harris case, David Savage of the Los Angeles Times made a point that struck a chord with me:

Pay scales in the mutual fund industry, like those in banking and investment firms, are not strictly regulated by the government, and as the Wall Street collapse revealed, investment advisors and bankers sometimes can earn huge fees while losing money for their shareholders.

In 1970, however, Congress said mutual funds must operate with an independent board of directors.  And it said the investment advisors for the funds have a “fiduciary duty,” or a duty of trust, to the investors when setting fees for their services.  The law also allowed suits against those suspected of violating this duty.

But investors have rarely won such claims.  In Tuesday’s decision, the Supreme Court gave new life to the law, ruling that investment advisors could be sued for charging excessive fees.

But the court’s opinion also said such suits should fail unless there was evidence that advisors hid information from the board or that their fees were “so disproportionately large” as to suggest a cozy deal between the advisors and the supposedly independent board.

The lousy job that boards of directors do in protecting the investors they supposedly represent has become a big issue since the financial crisis, as Mr. Savage explained.  Think about it:  How could the boards of directors for those too-big-to-fail institutions allow the payouts of obscene bonuses to the very people who devastated our economy and nearly destroyed (or may yet destroy) our financial system?  The directors have a duty to the shareholders to make sure those investors obtain a decent dividend when the company does well.  If the company does well only because of a government bailout, despite inept management by the executives, who should benefit – the execs or the shareholders?

Michael Brush wrote an interesting essay concerning bad corporate boards for MSN Money on Wednesday.  His opining point was another reminder of how the financial crisis was facilitated by cozy relationships with bank boards:

Here’s a key take-away from the financial crisis that devastated our economy:   Bad boards of directors played a big role in the mess.

Because bank boards were too close to the executives they were supposed to police, they did a lousy job of spotting excessive risk.  They allowed short-term pay incentives such as huge options grants that encouraged bankers to roll the dice.

Michael Brush contacted The Corporate Library which used its Board Analyst screener to come up with a list of the five worst corporate boards.  Here is how he explained that research:

The ratings are based on problems that can compromise boards, including:

  • Allowing directors to do too much business with the companies they are supposed to oversee.
  • Letting the CEO chair the board, which is supposed to oversee the CEO.
  • Overpaying board members and keeping them on too long.
  • Allowing directors to miss too many meetings to do an effective job.

These and other red flags signal that a board is entrenched — too close to management to do its job of overseeing the people in the corner offices.

*   *   *

The big problem with bad boards is that they’re unlikely to ask CEOs tough questions, act swiftly when it is time to replace a CEO or tighten the reins on pay and perks.  And bad boards hurt shareholders.  Several studies have indicated that the stocks of companies with weak boards underperform.

I won’t spoil the surprise for you by identifying the companies with the bad boards.  If you want that information you will have to read the full piece.  Besides — you should read it anyway.

All of this raises the question (once again) of whether we will see any changes result in the aftermath of the financial crisis that will help protect the “little people” or the not-so-little “investor class”.   I’m not betting on it.



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Building A Consensus For Survival

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March 29, 2010

In my last posting, I focused on the fantastic discourse in favor of financial reform presented by Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, in a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  In addition to Hoenig’s speech, last week brought us a number of excellent arguments for the cause that is so bitterly opposed by Wall Street lobbyists.  On the same day that Thomas Hoenig delivered his great speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin also addressed that institution to argue in favor of financial reform.  I enjoyed the fact that he rubbed this in their faces:

That is why it is so puzzling that, despite the urgent and undeniable need for reform, the Chamber of Commerce has launched a $3 million advertising campaign against it.  That campaign is not designed to improve the House and Senate bills.  It is designed to defeat them.  It is designed to delay reform until the memory of the crisis fades and the political will for change dies out.

The Chamber’s campaign comes on top of the $1.4 million per day already being spent on lobbying and campaign contributions by big banks and Wall Street financial firms.  There are four financial lobbyists for every member of Congress.

Wolin’s presentation was yet another signal from the Treasury Department that inspired economist Simon Johnson to begin feeling optimistic about the possibility that some meaningful degree of financial reform might actually take place:

Against all the odds, a glimmer of hope for real financial reform begins to shine through.  It’s not that anything definite has happened — in fact most of the recent Senate details are not encouraging – but rather that the broader political calculus has shifted in the right direction.

Instead of seeing the big banks as inviolable, top people in Obama administration are beginning to see the advantage of taking them on — at least on the issue of consumer protection.  Even Tim Geithner derided the banks recently as,

“those who told us all they were the masters of noble             financial innovation and sophisticated risk management.”

Yep.  That was our old pal and former New York Fed President, “Turbo” Tim Geithner, making the case for financial reform before the American Enterprise Institute.  (You remember them — the outfit that fired David Frum for speaking out against Fox News and the rest of the “conservative entertainment industry”.)  Treasury Secretary Geithner made his pitch for reform by reminding his conservative audience that longstanding advocates of the “efficient market hypothesis” had come on board in favor of financial reform:

Now, the recognition that markets failed and that the necessary solution involves reform; that it requires rules enforced by government is not a partisan or political judgment.  It is a conclusion reached by liberals and by conservative skeptics of regulation.

Judge Richard Posner, a leader in the conservative Chicago School of economics, wrote last year, that “we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails.”

And consider Alan Greenspan, a skeptic of the benefits of regulation, who recently said, “inhibiting irrational behavior when it can be identified, through regulation,   . . .   could be stabilizing.”

No wonder Simon Johnson is feeling so upbeat!  The administration is actually making a serious attempt at doing what needs to be done to get this accomplished.

Meanwhile, The New York Times had run a superb article by David Leonhardt just as Geithner was about to address the AEI.  Leonhardt’s essay, “Heading Off the Next Financial Crisis” is a thorough analysis, providing historical background and covering every angle on what needs to be done to clean up the mess that got us where we are today — and to prevent it from happening again.  Here are some snippets from the first page that had me hooked right away:

It was a maddening story line:  the government helped the banks get rich by looking the other way during good times and saved them from collapse during bad times.  Just as an oil company can profit from pollution, Wall Street profited from weak regulation, at the expense of society.

*   *   *

In a way, this issue is more about human nature than about politics.  By definition, the next period of financial excess will appear to have recent history on its side.

*   *   *

One way to deal with regulator fallibility is to implement clear, sweeping rules that limit people’s ability to persuade themselves that the next bubble is different — upfront capital requirements, for example, that banks cannot alter.  Thus far, the White House, the Fed and Congress have mostly steered clear of such rules.

Congratulations to David Leonhardt for putting that great piece together.  As more commentators continue to advance such astute, sensible appeals to plug the leaks in our sinking financial system, there is a greater likelihood that our lawmakers will realize that the economic risk of doing nothing far exceeds the amounts of money in those envelopes from the lobbyists.



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The Best Argument For Financial Reform

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March 26, 2010

Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, spoke out in favor of financial reform on Wednesday in a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  The shocking aspect of Hoenig’s speech is that it comes from the mouth of a member of the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) which sets economic policy.  Beyond that, Hoenig brutally criticized what has been done so far to tilt the playing field in favor of the megabanks, at the expense of smaller banks.  Here are some choice bits from what should be mandatory reading for everyone in Congress:

As a nation, we have violated the central tenants of any successful system.  We have seen the formation of a powerful group of financial firms.  We have inadvertently granted them implied guarantees and favors, and we have suffered the consequences.  We must correct these violations.  We must reinvigorate fair competition within our system in a culture of business ethics that operates under the rule of law.  When we do this, we will not eliminate the small businesses’ need for capital, but we will make access to capital once again earned, as it should be.

*   *   *

The fact is that Main Street will not prosper without a healthy financial system.  We will not have a healthy financial system now or in the future without making fundamental changes that reverse the wrong-headed incentives, change behavior and reinforce the structure of our financial system.  These changes must be made so that the largest firms no longer have the incentive to take too much risk and gain a competitive funding advantage over smaller ones.  Credit must be allocated efficiently and equitably based on prospective economic value.  Without these changes, this crisis will be remembered only in textbooks and then we will go through it all again.

Hoenig’s speech comes at a time when the Senate is considering a watered-down version of financial reform that has been widely criticized.  Economist Simon Johnson pointed out how any approach based on U.S. authority alone to “resolve” or break up systemically dangerous banks would be doomed because “there is no cross-border agreement on resolution process and procedure — and no prospect of the same in sight”.

Blogger Mike Konczal expressed his disappointment with what has become of the Financial Reform Bill as it has been dragged through the legislative process:

It’s funny, I know what a good financial reform bill becoming a bad financial reform bill looks like through this process.  I’ve seen bribes and more bribes and last-minute giveaway changes.

The notion that bribery has been an obstacle to financial reform became a central theme of Karl Denninger’s enthusiastic reaction to Hoenig’s speech:

All in all it’s nice to see Thomas Hoenig wake up.  Now let’s see if we can get CONgress to stop opening the bribe envelopes, er, ignore the campaign contributions for a sufficient period of time to actually fix this mess, forcing those “big banks” to get that leverage ratio down to where it belongs, along with marking their assets to the market.

Thomas Hoenig provided exactly the type of leadership needed and at exactly the right time to give a boost to serious financial reform.  We can only hope that there will be enough responsible, ethical people in the Senate to incorporate Hoenig’s suggestions into the Financial Reform Bill.  If only  . . .



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The GOP Is Losing Centrists

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March 23, 2010

David Frum’s Sunday afternoon blog posting, “Waterloo” has been receiving praise for its painfully accurate diagnosis of what ails (or should I say, “Ailes”) the Republican Party.  Among his important points were these:

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

*   *   *

The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government.  Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination.  When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests.  What he omitted to say — but what is equally true — is that he also wants Republicans to fail.  If Republicans succeed — if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry.  And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry.  Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio.  For them, it’s mission accomplished.  For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right:  ours.

On the following evening, Frum appeared on ABC’s Nightline with Terry Moran and this exchange took place:

Moran:   “It sounds like you’re saying that the Glenn Becks, the Rush Limbaughs, hijacked the Republican party and drove it to a defeat?”

Frum:   “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.  And this balance here has been completely reversed.  The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.”

During the days leading up to the vote on the healthcare bill, the rallying tea party activists exhibited the behavior of a lynch mob.  Their rhetoric was curiously extreme and anyone with a neutral point of view on the issue had to wonder what was pushing those people to the edge.   Following up on Frum’s thesis, Thomas Frank of The Wall Street Journal seemed to have the right idea:

It is tempting to understand the tea party movement as a distant relative of the lowest form of televangelism, with its preposterous moral certainty, its weird faith in markets, its constant profiteering, and, of course, its gullible audiences.

Tea partiers fancy themselves a movement without leaders, but this is only true in the sense that, say, the nation’s Miley Cyrus fan clubs don’t have a central leader.  They don’t need one — they have Miley Cyrus herself.  And the tea partiers, for their part, have Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the various personalities of Fox News, whose exploits were mentioned frequently from the speaker’s platform on Saturday.  But it was only after I watched an online video of Capitol Hill protesters earnestly instructing one another in what sounded like Mr. Beck’s trademark theory of progressivism that I understood:  This is protest as a form of fandom.

These are TV citizens, regurgitating TV history lessons, and engaged in a TV crusade.  They seem to care little for the give and take of the legislative process.  What seems to make sense to them is the logic of entertainment, the ever-escalating outrage of reality TV.

But maybe, one of these days, the nation is going to change the channel.

That change of the channel is exactly what the Republicans need to worry about.  Karl Rove’s trademark strategy of pandering to the so-called “base” of the party failed in 2006 and it failed again in 2008.  Nevertheless the GOP continues with a tone-deaf strategy, focused on the manipulated emotions of the tea partiers.

As I observed when I started this blog two years ago, a decision by John McCain to continue pandering to the televangelist lobby after winning the Republican Presidential nomination, would make absolutely no sense.  McCain now finds himself struggling against an ultra-conservative tea partier for the Republican nomination to retain his Senate seat.  He has again chosen to pander to the base and in the process, he has painted himself into a corner — boosting the chances for victory by the Democratic nominee in November.

The Republicans just don’t get it.  John “BronzeGel” Boehner’s decision to ally himself with the banking lobbyists has given another black eye to the Republican Party.   Although the voting public has become increasingly educated and incensed about the bank bailouts as a form of “lemon socialism” BronzeGel decided to give a pep talk to the American Bankers Association, advising them:

“Don’t let those little punk staffers take advantage of you and stand up for yourselves.”

Who is going to stand up for the taxpayers (and their children) who have been forced to support the welfare queens of Wall Street?  Certainly not the Republicans.  BronzeGel Boehner has promised to fight a protracted battle against financial reform.  In the process, he and his party are throwing the centrist voters (and the educated conservatives) under the bus.  What a brilliant strategy!



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Dumping On Alan Greenspan

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March 22, 2010

On Friday, March 19, former Federal Reserve chair, Alan Greenspan appeared before the Brookings Institution to present his 48-page paper entitled, “The Crisis”.  The obvious subject of the paper concerned the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.  With this document, Greenspan attempted to add his own spin to history, for the sake of restoring his tattered public image.  The man once known as “The Maestro” had fallen into the orchestra pit and was struggling to preserve his prestige.  After the release of his paper on Friday, there has been no shortage of criticism, despite Greenspan’s “enlightened” change of attitude concerning bank regulation.  Greenspan’s refusal to admit the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy had anything to do with causing the crisis has placed him directly in the crosshairs of more than a few critics.

Sewell Chan of The New York Times provided this summary of Greenspan’s paper:

Mr. Greenspan, who has long argued that the market is often a more effective regulator than the government, has now adopted a more expansive view of the proper role of the state.

He argues that regulators should enforce collateral and capital requirements, limit or ban certain kinds of concentrated bank lending, and even compel financial companies to develop “living wills” that specify how they are to be liquidated in an orderly way.

*   *   *

. . . Mr. Greenspan warned that “megabanks” formed through mergers created the potential for “unusually large systemic risks” should they fail.

Mr. Greenspan added:  “Regrettably, we did little to address the problem.”

That is as close as Greenspan came to admitting that the Federal Reserve had a role in helping to cause the financial crisis.  Nevertheless, these magic words from page 39 of “The Crisis” are what got everybody jumping:

To my knowledge, that lowering of the federal funds rate nearly a decade ago was not considered a key factor in the housing bubble.

The best retort to this denial of reality came from Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation.  His essay entitled, “Explaining the Impact of Ultra-Low Rates to Greenspan” is a must read.  Here’s how Ritholtz concluded the piece:

The lack of regulatory enforcement was a huge factor in allowing the credit bubble to inflate, and set the stage for the entire credit crisis.  But it was intricately interwoven with the ultra low rates Alan Greenspan set as Fed Chair.

So while he is correct in pointing out that his own failures as a bank regulator are in part to blame, he needs to also recognize that his failures in setting monetary policy was also a major factor.

In other words, his incompetence as a regulator made his incompetence as a central banker even worse.

Paul La Monica wrote an interesting post for CNN Money’s The Buzz blog entitled, “Greenspan and Bernanke still don’t get it”.  He was similarly unimpressed with Greenspan’s denial that Fed monetary policy helped cause the crisis:

This argument is getting tiresome.  Keeping rates so low helped inflate the bubble.

*   *   *

“The Fed wasn’t the sole culprit.  But if not for an artificially steep yield curve, we probably would not have had a global financial crisis,” said John Norris, managing director of wealth management with Oakworth Capital Bank in Birmingham, Ala.

“Greenspan and Bernanke are missing the point.  It all stems from monetary policy,” Norris added.  “If you give bankers an inducement to lend more than they ordinarily would they are going to do so.”

From across the pond, Stephen Foley wrote a great article for The Independent entitled, “For the wrong answers, turn to Greenspan”.  He began the piece this way:

The former US Federal Reserve chairman, the wizened wiseman of laissez-faire economics, shocked us all — and probably himself — when he told a congressional panel in 2008 that he had found “a flaw in the model I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak”.  He meant that he had realised banks cannot be trusted to manage their own risks, and that markets do not smoothly self-correct.

But instead of taking that revelation and helping to point the way to a new, post-crisis financial world, he has shuddered to an intellectual halt.  It is the same intellectual stop sign that Wall Street’s bankers are at.  The failure to move forward is regrettable, dangerous and more than a little self-serving.

These reactions to Greenspan’s paper are surely just the beginning of an overwhelming backlash.  The Economist has already weighed in and before too long, we might even see a movie documenting the Fed’s responsibility for helping to cause The Great Recession.



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Inviting Blowback

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March 11, 2010

Is it just a coincidence that “Turbo” Tim Geithner was the subject of back-to-back feature stories in The New Yorker and The Atlantic ?  A number of commentators don’t think so.

The March 10 issue of The New Yorker ran an article by John Cassidy entitled, “No Credit”.  The title is meant to imply that Getithner’s efforts to save America’s financial system are working but he’s not getting any credit for this achievement.  From the very outset, this piece was obviously an attempt to reconstruct Geithner’s controversial public image – because he has been widely criticized as a tool of Wall Street.

The article by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson in the April 26, 2009 issue of The New York Times helped clarify the record on Geithner’s loyalty to the big banks at the public’s expense, during his tenure as president of the Federal Reserve of New York.  That piece began with a brainstorming session convened by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in June of 2008, at which point Paulson asked for suggestions as to what emergency powers the government should have at its disposal to confront the burgeoning financial crisis:

Timothy F. Geithner, who as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank oversaw many of the nation’s most powerful financial institutions, stunned the group with the audacity of his answer.  He proposed asking Congress to give the president broad power to guarantee all the debt in the banking system, according to two participants, including Michele Davis, then an assistant Treasury secretary.

The proposal quickly died amid protests that it was politically untenable because it could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars.

“People thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of out there,’” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency, who heard about the idea afterward.  Mr. Geithner says, “I don’t remember a serious discussion on that proposal then.”

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription.

The recent article in The New Yorker defends Geithner’s bank bailouts, with a bit of historical revisionism that conveniently avoids a small matter referred to as Maiden Lane III:

During the past ten months, U.S. banks have raised more than a hundred and forty billion dollars from investors and increased the reserves they hold to cover unforeseen losses.  While many small banks are still in peril, their larger brethren, such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs, are more strongly capitalized than many of their international competitors, and they have repaid virtually all the money they received from taxpayers.  Looking ahead, the Treasury Department estimates the ultimate cost of the financial-rescue package at just a hundred and seventeen billion dollars — and much of that related to propping up General Motors and Chrysler.

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

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

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

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

Gawd!  Yeech!

The reaction to the New Yorker and Atlantic articles, articulated by Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, is an absolutely fantastic “must read” piece.  Ms. Smith goes beyond the subject of Geithner.  Her essay is a tour de force, describing how President Obama sold out the American public in the service of his patrons on Wall Street.  The final two paragraphs portray the administration’s antics with a long-overdue measure of pugilism:

But the Obama administration miscalculated badly.  First, it bought the financiers’ false promise that massive subsidies to them would kick start the economy.  But economists are now estimating that it is likely to take five years to return to pre-crisis levels of unemployment.  Obama took his eye off the ball.  A Democratic President’s most important responsibility is job creation.  It is simply unacceptable to most Americans for Wall Street to be reaping record profits and bonuses while the rest of the country is suffering.  Second, it assumed finance was too complicated to hold the attention of most citizens, and so the (non) initiatives under way now would attract comparatively little scrutiny.  But as public ire remains high, the press coverage has become almost schizophrenic.  Obvious public relations plants, like Ben Bernanke’s designation as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year (precisely when his confirmation is running into unexpected opposition) and stories in the New York Times that incorrectly reported some Goldman executive bonus cosmetics as meaningful concessions have co-existed with reports on the abject failure of Geithner’s mortgage modification program.  While mainstream press coverage is still largely flattering, the desperation of the recent PR moves versus the continued public ire and recognition of where the Administration’s priorities truly lie means the fissures are becoming a gaping chasm.

So with Obama’s popularity falling sharply, it should be no surprise that the Administration is resorting to more concerted propaganda efforts.  It may have no choice.  Having ceded so much ground to the financiers, it has lost control of the battlefield.  The banking lobbyists have perfected their tactics for blocking reform over the last two decades.  Team Obama naively cast its lot with an industry that is vastly more skilled in the dark art of the manufacture of consent than it is.

Congratulations to Yves Smith for writing a fantastic critique of the Obama administration’s combination of nonfeasance and misfeasance in responding to both the financial and economic crises.



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Elizabeth Warren To The Rescue

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March 4, 2010

We reached the point where serious financial reform began to look like a lost cause.  Nothing has been done to address the problems that caused the financial crisis.  Economists have been warning that we could be facing another financial crisis, requiring another round of bank bailouts.  The watered-down financial reform bill passed by the House of Representatives, HR 4173, is about to become completely defanged by the Senate.

The most hotly-contested aspect of the proposed financial reform bill — the establishment of an independent, stand-alone, Consumer Financial Protection Agency — is now in the hands of “Countrywide Chris” Dodd, who is being forced into retirement because the people of Connecticut are fed up with him.  As a result, this is his last chance to get some more “perks” from his position as Senate Banking Committee chairman.  Back on January 18, Elizabeth Warren (Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel and the person likely to be appointed to head the CFPA) explained to Reuters that banking lobbyists might succeed in “gutting” the proposed agency:

“The CFPA is the best indicator of whether Congress will reform Wall Street or whether it will continue to give Wall Street whatever it wants,” she told Reuters in an interview.

*   *   *

Consumer protection is relatively simple and could easily be fixed, she said.  The statutes, for the most part, already exist, but enforcement is in the hands of the wrong people, such as the Federal Reserve, which does not consider it central to its main task of maintaining economic stability, she said.

The latest effort to sabotage the proposed CFPA involves placing it under the control of the Federal Reserve.  As Craig Torres and Yalman Onaran explained for Bloomberg News:

Putting it inside the Fed, instead of creating a standalone bureau, was a compromise proposed by Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat.

*   *   *

Banking lobbyists say the Fed’s knowledge of the banking system makes it well-suited to coordinate rules on credit cards and other consumer financial products.

*   *   *

The financial-services industry has lobbied lawmakers to defeat the plan for a consumer agency.  JP Morgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon called the agency “just a whole new bureaucracy” on a December conference call with analysts.

Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation, recently discussed the importance of having an independent CFPA:

Currently, there are several proposals floating around to change the basic concept of a consumer protection agency.  For the most part, these proposals are meaningless, watered down foolishness, bordering on idiotic.  Let the Fed do it? They were already charged with doing this, and under Greenspan, committed Nonfeasance — they failed to do their duty.

The Fed is the wrong agency for this.

In an interview with Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post, Congressman Barney Frank expressed a noteworthy reaction to the idea:

“It’s like making me the chief judge of the Miss America contest,” Frank said.

On Tuesday, March 2, Elizabeth Warren spent the day on the phone with reform advocates, members of Congress and administration officials, as she explained in an interview with Shahien Nasiripour of The Huffington Post.  The key point she stressed in that interview was the message:  “Pass a strong bill or nothing at all.”  It sounds as though she is afraid that the financial reform bill could suffer the same fate as the healthcare reform bill.  That notion was reinforced by the following comments:

My first choice is a strong consumer agency  . . .  My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.

*   *   *

“The lobbyists would like nothing better than for the story to be the [proposed] agency has died and everyone has given up,” Warren said.  “The lobbyists’ closest friends in the Senate would like nothing better than passing an agency that has a good name but no real impact so they have something good to say to the voters — and something even better to say to the lobbyists.”

Congratulations, Professor Warren!  At last, someone with some cajones is taking charge of this fight!

On Wednesday, March 3, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration was getting involved in the financial reform negotiations, with Treasury Secretary Geithner leading the charge for an independent Consumer Financial Protection agency.  I suspect that President Obama must have seen the “Ex-Presidents” sketch from the FunnyOrDie.com website, featuring the actors from Saturday Night Live portraying former Presidents (and ghosts of ex-Presidents) in a joint effort toward motivating Obama to make sure the CFPA becomes a reality.  When Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase reunited, joining Dana Carvey, Will Ferrell and Darryl Hammond in promoting this cause, Obama could not have turned them down.



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Rethinking The Stimulus

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February 22, 2010

On the anniversary of the stimulus law (a/k/a the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — Public Law 111-5) there has been quite a bit of debate concerning the number of jobs actually created by the stimulus as opposed to the claims made by Democratic politicians.  For their part, the Democrats take pride in the fact that John Makin of the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, recently published this statement at the AEI website:

Absent temporary fiscal stimulus and inventory rebuilding, which taken together added about 4 percentage points to U.S.growth, the economy would have contracted at about a 1 percent annual rate during the second half of 2009.

A few months ago, I had a discussion with an old friend and the subject of the stimulus came up.  My beefs about the stimulus were that it did not offer the necessary degree of immediate relief and that a good chunk of it should have gone directly into the hands of the taxpayers.

I recently read a blog posting by Keith Hennessey, the former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush, which expressed some opinions similar to my own on what the stimulus should have offered.  Although Mr. Hennessey preferred the traditional panacea of tax cuts as the primary means for economic stimulus, he made a number of other important points.  With so much fear being expressed about the possibility of a “double-dip” recession, our government could find itself in the uncomfortable position of considering another stimulus bill.  If that day comes, we have all the more reason to look back at what was right and what was wrong with the 2009 stimulus.

Keith Hennessy began with this statement:

Unlike many critics of the stimulus law, I think that fiscal policy can increase short-term economic growth, especially when the economy is in a deep recession.  In other words, I think that fiscal stimulus is a valid concept.  This does not mean that I think that every increase in government spending, or every tax cut, (a) increases short-term economic growth or (b) is good policy.

At the end of his second paragraph, he got to the part that was music to my ears:

If the Administration had instead put $862 B directly into people’s hands, you would have seen more immediate spending and economic growth than we did, even if people had saved most of it.

In contrast, government spending is powerful but painfully slow.  If the government spends $1 on building a road, eventually that entire $1 will enter the economy and increase GDP growth.  Your bang-for-the-deficit-buck is extremely high.  The problem is that bang-for-the-buck doesn’t help us if that bang occurs two or three or four years from now.

*   *   *

I would instead prefer that people be allowed to spend and save the money how they best see fit.  My preferred path also has less waste and bureaucracy.

A bit later in the piece, Hennessey said some things that probably caused a good number of the CPAC conventioneers reach for the Tums:

I agree with the Administration that last year’s stimulus law increased economic growth above what it otherwise would have been.  I agree that employment is higher than it would have been without a stimulus.

Of course, Hennessey complained that “The law was poorly designed and inefficient” — in part because the money was funneled through federal and state bureaucracies — another valid point.  Then, he got to the important issue:

Given a decision last year to do a big fiscal stimulus, I would have preferred, in this order:

1.  putting all the money into a permanent reduction in income and capital taxes;

2.  putting all the money into a temporary reduction in income and capital taxes;

3.  putting all the money into transfer payments;

4.  what Congress and the President did.

Given the policy preferences of the President, his team’s big policy mistake last year was to let Congress turn a reasonable macroeconomic fiscal policy goal into a Congressional spending toga party.  Given his policy preferences, the President should have insisted that Congress put all the money into (2) and (3) above.  He would have had a bigger macro stimulus bang earlier.

In case you’re wondering what “transfer payments” are — you need to think in terms of “wealth transfer”.  In this case, it concerns situations where the government gives away money to people who aren’t rich.  A good example of this was the stimulus program that took place under President Bush.  Individuals with incomes of less than $75,000 received a $300 “stimulus check” and households with joint incomes under $150,000 got $600.

My own stimulus idea would involve a “tax rebate” program, wherein the taxpayers receive a number of $50 vouchers based on the amount of income tax they paid the previous year.  The recipients would then be instructed to go out and buy stuff with the vouchers.  So what if they spent it on imported merchandise?  The American retailers and shipping companies would still make money, finding it necessary to hire people.  The vouchers would display the person’s name and address.  In order to use the vouchers, identification would be needed, so as to prevent resale.  The maximum amount of cash change one could get back from a voucher-funded purchase would be $10.

Hopefully, we won’t need another stimulus program.  However, if we do, I suggest that the government simply give us vouchers and send us shopping.



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More Super Powers For Turbo Tim

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February 18, 2010

I shouldn’t have been shocked when I read about this.  It’s just that it makes no sense at all and it’s actually scary — for a number of reasons.  On Wednesday, February 17, Sewell Chan broke the story for The New York Times:

The Senate and the Obama administration are nearing agreement on forming a council of regulators, led by the Treasury secretary, to identify systemic risk to the nation’s financial system, officials said Wednesday.

They’re going to put “Turbo” Tim Geithner in charge of the council that regulates systemic risk in the banking system?  Let the pushback begin!  The first published reaction to this news (that I saw) came from Tom Lindmark at the iStockAnalyst.com website:

Only the Congress of the United States is capable of this sort of monumental stupidity.  It appears as if the responsibility for running a newly formed council of bank regulators is going to be delegated to the Treasury Secretary.

Lindmark’s beef was not based on any personal opinion about the appointment of Tim Geithner himself to such a role.  Mr. Lindmark’s opinion simply reflects his disgust at the idea of putting a political appointee at the head of such a committee:

The job of overseeing our financial system is going to be given to an individual whose primary job is implementing the political agenda of his boss — the President of the US.

Regulation of the banks and whatever else gets thrown into the mix is now going to be driven by politicians who have little or no interest in a safe and sound banking system.  As we know too well, their primary interest is the perpetuation and enhancement of their own power with no regard for the consequences.

So there you have reason number one:  Nothing personal — just bad policy.

I can’t wait to hear the responses from some of my favorite gurus from the world of finance.  How about John Hussman — president of the investment advisory firm that manages the Hussman Funds?  One day before the story broke concerning our new systemic risk regulator, this statement appeared in the Weekly Market Comment by Dr. Hussman:

If one is alert, it is evident that the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury have disposed of the need for Congressional approval, and have engineered a de facto bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, at public expense.

What better qualification could one have for sitting at the helm of the systemic risk council?  Choose one of the guys who bypassed Congressional authority to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with the taxpayers’ money!  If Geithner is actually appointed to chair this council, you can expect an interesting response from Dr. Hussman.

Jeremy Grantham should have plenty to rant about concerning this nomination.  As chairman of GMO, Mr. Grantham is responsible for managing over $107 billion of his clients’ hard-inherited money.  Consider what he said about Geithner’s performance as president of the New York Fed during the months leading up to the financial crisis:

Timothy Geithner, in turn, sat in the very engine room of the USS Disaster and helped steer her onto the rocks.

Mr. Grantham should hardly be pleased to hear about our Treasury Secretary’s new role, regulating systemic risk.

The coming days should provide some entertaining diatribes along the lines of:  “You’ve got to be kidding!” in response to this news.  I’m looking forward to it!



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