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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.


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Abundance Of Goofiness

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The world is beset by a plague of goofiness.  I thought it was limited to the United States until recent events demonstrated that goofiness has become a worldwide phenomenon.  Premature European austerity programs, commenced before unemployment subsided, have led to higher deficits, elevated bond yields and more recession.  Although sober-minded economists warned against implementation of austerity measures until justified by economic circumstances, there was this itch that politicians had to scratch.  Now they have a nice infection.

In America, everyone had some good laughs of this video clip of President Obama’s discovery that he was locked out of the White House upon his return from Brazil.  Although it was widely reported that the White House staff was “caught off guard” by the First Family’s early return from their Brazilian vacation, I don’t believe it.  Such things don’t happen by accident.  My suspicion is that Chief of Staff, Bill Daley and his real boss, The Dimon Dog, deliberately locked Obama out of the White House as an admonition against cracking down on the megabanks, increasing taxes on the rich and empowering Elizabeth Warren.

Our President has been busy puzzling over the situation in Libya, where he (with authorization from the United Nations) has joined in on the “kinda-sorta” invasion.  Few people have dared to suggest that interloping in the Libyan civil war is sheer goofiness.  Many Republicans, such as Newt Gingrich, were in favor of intervention until Obama made the decision to launch air strikes.  Gingrich and his contrarian cohorts suddenly found it necessary to do a 180 on the issue.  Meanwhile, the smart conservative, George Will, was asking all the right questions.  I’ll reprint just a few of them here – but be sure to read his complete list.  These questions are among those that remain unanswered:

  • The world would be better without Gaddafi. But is that a vital U.S. national interest? If it is, when did it become so? A month ago, no one thought it was.

*   *   *

  • Presumably we would coordinate aid with the leaders of the anti-Gaddafi forces. Who are they?
  • Libya is a tribal society.  What concerning our Iraq and Afghanistan experiences justifies confidence that we understand Libyan dynamics?

More recently, George Will wrote an essay raising the question, “Is it America’s duty to intervene wherever regime change is needed?”  Consider this point:

.  .  .  America has intervened in a civil war in a tribal society, the dynamics of which America does not understand. And America is supporting one faction, the nature of which it does not know.  “We are standing with the people of Libya,” says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, evidently confident that “the” people are a harmonious unit.  Many in the media call Moammar Gaddafi’s opponents “freedom fighters,” and perhaps they are, but no one calling them that really knows how the insurgents regard one another, or understand freedom, or if freedom, however understood, is their priority.

While many commentators have been busy condemning Bradley Manning as a “terrorist” and the worst American traitor since John Anthony Walker, few of those hypocrites would admit that the “people power” revolutions now taking place throughout the Middle East have resulted from the publication of Manning’s purloined files by WikiLeaks.  Beyond that, few – if any – of those self-righteous journalists have hesitated to quote from those leaked documents in their own essays.  A look at one of those leaked cables (dated February 15, 2008 and originating from the American Embassy in Tripoli) gives us a better understanding of who some of those Libyan “freedom fighters” really are:

xxxxxxxxxxxx partly attributed the fierce mindset in Benghazi and Derna to the message preached by imams in eastern Libyan mosques, which he said is markedly more radical than that heard in other parts of the country. xxxxxxxxxxxx makes a point of frequenting mosques whenever he visits Libya as a means to connect with neighbors and relatives and take the political pulse.  Sermons in eastern mosques, particularly the Friday ‘khutba’, are laced with “coded phrases” urging worshippers to support jihad in Iraq and elsewhere through direct participation or financial contributions.  The language is often ambiguous enough to be plausibly denied, he said, but for devout Muslims it is clear, incendiary and unambiguously supportive of jihad.  Direct and indirect references to “martyrdom operations” were not uncommon.  By contrast with mosques in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country, where references to jihad are extremely rare, in Benghazi and Derna they are fairly frequent subjects.

The foregoing cable was discussed in a recent piece by Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch.  Mr. Cockburn also focused on some information contained in the so-called Sinjar Records, which American forces retrieved from an Al Qaeda stronghold in northern Iraq during 2007:

The West Point study of the Iraqi Sinjar Records calculates that of the 440 foreign al-Qaeda recruits whose hometowns are known, 21 came from Benghazi, thereby making it the fourth most common hometown listed in the records.  Fifty-three of the al-Qaeda recruits came from Darnah, the highest total of any of the hometowns listed in the records.  The second highest number, 51, came from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  Darnah (80,000) has less than 2 per cent the population of Riyadh.  Darnah contributed “far and away the largest per capita number of fighters.”

The Embassy cable from February of 2008 and the Sinjar Records provide some useful information to consider when pondering the questions raised by George Will.  Is Team Obama “up to speed” on any of this?

The aforementioned CounterPunch article by Alexander Cockburn covered another episode of tragic goofiness – the Fukushima power plant disaster.  As I previously discussed here and here, the feeble information flow concerning this crisis has been downright sleazy.  Mr. Cockburn provided a must read critique of how this critical situation has been mishandled and misrepresented by the media:

Amid reasonable suspicions that leading news media might have been in receipt of informal government advisories to stop creating panic, it became much harder to find credible bulletins on what was actually happening.  In fact careful perusal of the daily briefings at the  Vienna hq of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna disclosed absolutely no substantive progress and indeed discreet admissions that “[this was on March 23)  the “Agency still lacks data on water levels and temperatures in the spent fuel pools at Units 1, 2, 3 and 4.”

*   *   *

On our own website, by contrast, several articles and interviews stressed what Hirose Takashi said:

“All of the information media are at fault here I think.  They are saying stupid things like, why, we are exposed to radiation all the time in our daily life, we get radiation from outer space.  But that’s one millisievert per year.  A year has 365 days, a day has 24 hours; multiply 365 by 24, you get 8760.  Multiply the 400 millisieverts by that, you get 3,500,000 the normal dose.  You call that safe?  And what media have reported this?  None.  They compare it to a CT scan, which is over in an instant; that has nothing to do with it.  The reason radioactivity can be measured is that radioactive material is escaping.  What is dangerous is when that material enters your body and irradiates it from inside.   .  .  .”

Allow me to repeat Hirose Takashi’s question:  “And what media have reported this?  None.”  That’s because the media are incapable of covering serious (non-goofy) subjects.  Unfortunately, those vested with positions of responsibility and authority all over the world are impaired by a degree of goofiness, leaving them incapable of making the right decisions or taking the necessary steps to protect public safety and welfare.  Is this a permanent situation or just a temporary condition?


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Bad Timing By The Dimon Dog At Davos

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Last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland turned out to be a bad time for The Dimon Dog to stage a “righteous indignation” fit.  One would expect an investment banker to have a better sense of timing than what was demonstrated by the CEO of JPMorgan Chase.  Vito Racanelli provided this report for Barron’s:

The Davos panel, called “The Next Shock, Are We Better Prepared?” proceeded at a typically low emotional decibel level until Dimon was asked about what he thought of Americans who had directed their anger against the banks for the bailout.

Dimon visibly turned more animated, replying that “it’s not fair to lump all banks together.”  The TARP program was forced on some banks, and not all of them needed it, he said.  A number of banks helped stabilize things, noting that his bank bought the failed Bear Stearns.  The idea that all banks would have failed without government intervention isn’t right, he said defensively

Dimon clearly felt aggrieved by the question and the negative banker headlines, and went on for a while.

“I don’t lump all media together… .  There’s good and there’s bad.  There’s irresponsible and ignorant and there’s really smart media.  Well, not all bankers are the same.  I just think this constant refrain [of] ‘bankers, bankers, bankers,’ – it’s just a really unproductive and unfair way of treating people…  People should just stop doing that.”

The immediate response expressed by a number of commentators was to focus on Dimon’s efforts to obstruct financial reform.  Although Dimon had frequently paid lip service to the idea that no single institution should pose a risk to the entire financial system in the event of its own collapse, he did all he could to make sure that the Dodd-Frank “financial reform” bill did nothing to overturn the “too big to fail” doctrine.  Beyond that, the post-crisis elimination of the Financial Accounting Standards Board requirement that a bank’s assets should be “marked to market” values, was the only crutch that kept JPMorgan Chase from falling into the same scrap heap of insolvent banks as the other Federal Reserve welfare queens.

Simon Johnson (former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund) obviously had some fun writing a retort – published in the Economix blog at The New York Times to The Dimon Dog’s diatribe.  Johnson began by addressing the threat voiced by Dimon and Diamond (Robert E. Diamond of Barclay’s Bank):

The newly standard line from big global banks has two components  .  .  .

First, if you regulate us, we’ll move to other countries.  And second, the public policy priority should not be banks but rather the spending cuts needed to get budget deficits under control in the United States, Britain and other industrialized countries.

This rhetoric is misleading at best.  At worst it represents a blatant attempt to shake down the public purse.

*   *   *

As we discussed at length during the Senate hearing, it is therefore not possible to discuss bringing the budget deficit under control in the foreseeable future without measuring and confronting the risks still posed by our financial system.

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, put it well in his latest quarterly report, which appeared last week: perhaps TARP’s most significant legacy is “the moral hazard and potentially disastrous consequences associated with the continued existence of financial institutions that are ‘too big to fail.’ ”

*   *   *

In this context, the idea that megabanks would move to other countries is simply ludicrous.  These behemoths need a public balance sheet to back them up, or they will not be able to borrow anywhere near their current amounts.

Whatever you think of places like Grand Cayman, the Bahamas or San Marino as offshore financial centers, there is no way that a JPMorgan Chase or a Barclays could consider moving there.  Poorly run casinos with completely messed-up incentives, these megabanks need a deep-pocketed and somewhat dumb sovereign to back them.

After Dimon’s temper tantrum, a pile-on by commentators immediately ensued.  Elinor Comlay and Matthew Goldstein of Reuters wrote an extensive report, documenting Dimon’s lobbying record and debunking a good number of public relations myths concerning Dimon’s stewardship of JPMorgan Chase:

Still, with hindsight it’s clear that Dimon’s approach to risk didn’t help him entirely avoid the financial crisis.  Even as the first rumblings of the crisis were sounding in the distance, he aggressively sought to boost Chase’s share of the U.S. mortgage business.

At the end of 2007, after JPMorgan had taken a $1.3 billion write-down on leveraged loans, Dimon told analysts the bank was planning to add as much as $20 billion in mortgages from riskier borrowers.  “We think we’d get very good spreads and … it will be a drop in the bucket for our capital ratios.”

By mid-2008, JPMorgan Chase had $95.1 billion exposure to home equity loans, almost $15 billion in subprime mortgages and a $76 billion credit card book.  Banks were not required to mark those loans at market prices, but if the loans were accounted for that way, losses could have been as painful for JPMorgan as credit derivatives were for AIG, according to former investment bank executives.

What was particularly bad about The Dimon Dog’s timing of his Davos diatribe concerned the fact that since December 2, 2010 a $6.4 billion lawsuit has been pending against JPMorgan Chase, brought by Irving H. Picard, the bankruptcy trustee responsible for recovering the losses sustained by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scam victims.  Did Dimon believe that the complaint would remain under seal forever?  On February 3, the complaint was unsealed by agreement of the parties, with the additional stipulation that the identities of several bank employees would remain confidential.  The New York Times provided us with some hints about how these employees were expected to testify:

On June 15, 2007, an evidently high-level risk management officer for Chase’s investment bank sent a lunchtime e-mail to colleagues to report that another bank executive “just told me that there is a well-known cloud over the head of Madoff and that his returns are speculated to be part of a Ponzi scheme.”

Even before that, a top private banking executive had been consistently steering clients away from investments linked to Mr. Madoff because his “Oz-like signals” were “too difficult to ignore.”  And the first Chase risk analyst to look at a Madoff feeder fund, in February 2006, reported to his superiors that its returns did not make sense because it did far better than the securities that were supposedly in its portfolio.

At The Daily Beast, Allan Dodds Frank began his report on the suit with questions that had to be fresh on everyone’s mind in the wake of the scrutiny The Dimon Dog had invited at Davos:

How much did JPMorgan CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon know about his bank’s valued customer Bernie Madoff, and when did he know it?

These two crucial questions have been lingering below the surface for more than two years, even as the JPMorgan Chase leader cemented his reputation as the nation’s most important, most upright, and most highly regarded banker.

Not everyone at Davos was so impressed with The Dimon Dog.  Count me among those who were especially inspired by the upbraiding Dimon received from French President Nicolas Sarkozy:

“Don’t be accusatory of us,” Sarkozy snapped at Dimon at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“The world has paid with tens of millions of unemployed, who were in no way to blame and who paid for everything.”

*   *   *
“We saw that for the last 10 years, major institutions in which we thought we could trust had done things which had nothing to do with simple common sense,” the Frenchman said.  “That’s what happened.”

Sarkozy also took direct aim at the bloated bonuses many bankers got despite the damage they did.

“When things don’t work, you can never find anyone responsible,” Sarkozy said.  “Those who got bumper bonuses for seven years should have made losses in 2008 when things collapsed.”

Why don’t we have a President like that?


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An Early Favorite For 2010

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February 11, 2010

It appears as though the runner-up for TheCenterLane.com’s 2009 Jackass of the Year Award is well on his way to winning the title for 2010.  After reading an op-ed piece by Ross Douthat of The New York Times, I decided that as of December 31, 2009, it was too early to determine whether our new President was worthy of such a title.

Since Wednesday morning, we have been bombarded with reactions to a story from Bloomberg News, concerning an interview Obama had with Bloomberg BusinessWeek in the Oval Office.  In case you haven’t seen it, here is the controversial passage from the beginning of that article:

President Barack Obama said he doesn’t “begrudge” the $17 million bonus awarded to JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon or the $9 million issued to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein, noting that some athletes take home more pay.

The president, speaking in an interview, said in response to a question that while $17 million is “an extraordinary amount of money” for Main Street, “there are some baseball players who are making more than that and don’t get to the World Series either, so I’m shocked by that as well.”

“I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen,” Obama said in the interview yesterday in the Oval Office with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which will appear on newsstands Friday.  “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth.  That is part of the free-market system.”

Many commentators have expounded upon what this tells us about our President.  I’d like to quote the reactions from a couple of my favorite bloggers.  Here’s what Yves Smith had to say at Naked Capitalism:

There are only two, not mutually exclusive, conclusions one can reach from reading this tripe:  that Obama is a lackey of the financiers, and putting the best spin he can on their looting, or he is a fool.

The salient fact is that, their protests to the contrary, the wealth of those at the apex of the money machine was not the result of the operation of  “free markets” or any neutral system.  The banking industry for the better part of two decades has fought hard to create a playing field skewed in their favor, with it permissible to sell complex products with hidden bad features to customers often incapable of understanding them.  By contrast, one of the factors that needs to be in place for markets to produce desirable outcomes is for buyers and sellers to have the same information about the product and the objectives of the seller.

Similarly, the concentrated capital flows, often too-low interest rates, and asymmetrical Federal Reserve actions (cutting rates fast when markets look rocky, being very slow to raise rates and telegraphing that intent well in advance) that are the most visible manifestations of two decades of bank-favoring policies, are the equivalent of massive subsidies.

And that’s before we get to the elephant in the room, the massive subsidies to the banksters that took place during the crisis and continue today.

We have just been through the greatest looting of the public purse in history, and Obama tries to pass it off as meritocracy in action.

Obama is beyond redemption.

At his Credit Writedowns website, Edward Harrison made this observation:

The problem is not that we have free markets in America, but rather that we have bailouts and crony capitalism.  So Americans actually do begrudge people this kind of monetary reward.  It has been obvious to me that the bailouts are a large part of why Obama’s poll numbers have been sinking.  It’s not just the economy here — so unless the President can demonstrate he understands this, he is unlikely to win back a very large number of voters who see this issue as central to their loss of confidence in Obama.

Is it just me or does this sound like Obama just doesn’t get it?

Victoria McGrane of Politico gave us a little background on Obama’s longstanding relationship with The Dimon Dog:

Dimon is seen as one of the Wall Street executives who enjoys the closest relationship with the president, along with Robert Wolf, head of the American division of Swiss bank UBS.  A longtime Democratic donor, Dimon first met Obama in Chicago, where Dimon lived and worked from the late 1990s until 2007.

And both Dimon and Blankfein have met with the president several times.  In their most recent meeting, Obama invited Dimon to Washington for lunch right before the State of the Union, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

Some commentators have expressed the view that Obama is making a transparent attempt to curry favor with the banking lobby in time to get those contributions flowing to Democratic candidates in the mid-term elections.  Nevertheless, for Obama, this latest example of trying to please both sides of a debate will prove to be yet another “lose/lose” situation.  As Victoria McGrane pointed out:

But relations between most Democrats and Wall Street donors aren’t as warm this cycle as the financial industry chafes against the harsh rhetoric and policy prescriptions lawmakers have aimed at them.

As for those members of the electorate who usually vote Democratic, you can rest assured that a large percentage will see this as yet another act of betrayal.  They saw it happen with the healthcare reform debacle and they’re watching it happen again in the Senate, as the badly-compromised financial reform bill passed by the House (HR 4173) is being completely defanged.  A bad showing by the Democrats on November 2, 2010 will surely be blamed on Obama.

As of February 11, we already have a “favorite” in contention for the 2010 Jackass of the Year Award.  It’s time for the competition to step forward!



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Lev Is The Drug

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January 14, 2010

The first day of hearings conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was as entertaining as I expected.  The stars of the show:  Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, John Mack of Morgan Stanley, “The Dimon Dog” of JP Morgan Chase and Brian Moynihan from Bank of America presented themselves as likeable guys.  However, in the case of Blankfein, whenever he wasn’t talking he would sit there with that squinting, perplexed look on his face that seemed to mime the question:  “WTF?”  A large segment of the viewing public has already been primed to view these gentlemen as “The Four Horsemen of The Financial Apocalypse”.  Nevertheless, there were four more Horsemen absent from the “stage” on Wednesday:  Messrs. Greenspan, Bernanke, Paulson and Geithner.  Beyond that, Brian Moynihan didn’t really belong there, since he was not such a significant “player” as the other panel members, in events of 2008.  In fact, history may yet view his predecessor, Ken Lewis, as more of a victim in this drama, due to the fact that he was apparently coerced by Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke into buying Merrill Lynch with instructions to remain silent about Merrill’s shabby financial status.  I would have preferred to see Vikram Pandit of Citigroup in that seat.

As I watched the show, I tried to imagine what actors would be cast to play which characters on the panel in a movie about the financial crisis.  Mike Myers would be the obvious choice to portray Lloyd Blankfein.  Myers could simply don his Dr. Evil regalia and it would be an easy gig.  The Dimon Dog should be played by George Clooney because he came off as a “regular guy”, lacking the highly-polished, slick presentation one might expect from someone in that position.  Brian Moynihan could be portrayed by Robin Williams, in one of his rare, serious roles.  John Mack should be portrayed by Nicholas Cage, if only because Cage needs the money.

Although many reports have described their demeanor as “contrite”, the four members of the first panel gave largely self-serving presentations, characterizing their firms in the most favorable light.  Blankfein emphasized that Goldman Sachs still believes in marking its assets to market.  As expected, his theme of  “if we knew then what we knew now  . . .” got heavier rotation than a Donna Summer record at a party for Richard Simmons.  John Mack, who was more candid and perhaps the most contrite panel member, made a point of mentioning that some assets cannot be “marked to market” because there really is no market for them.  Excuse me   . . .  but isn’t that the definition of the term, “worthless”?

Throughout the session, the panel discussed the myriad causes that contributed to the onset of the financial crisis.  Despite that, nobody seemed interested in implicating the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy as a factor.  “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” was the order of the day.  All four panelists described the primary cause of the crisis as excessive leverage.  They acted as a chorus, singing “Lev Is The Drug”.  Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly expressed pride in the fact that Goldman Sachs has always been leveraged to “only” a 23-to-1 ratio.  The Dimon Dog’s theme was something like:  “We did everything right  . . . except that we were overleveraged”.  Dimon went on to make the specious claim that overleveraging by consumers was a contributing element in causing the crisis.  Although many commentators whom I respect have made the same point, I just don’t buy it.  Why blame people who were led to believe that their homes would continue to print money for them until they died?  Dimon himself admitted at the hearing that no consideration was ever given to the possibility that home values would slump.  Worse yet, for a producer or purveyor of the so-called “financial weapons of mass-destruction” to implicate overleveraged consumers as sharing a role in precipitating this mess is simply absurd.

The second panel from Wednesday’s hearing was equally, if not more entertaining.  Michael Mayo of Calyon Securities seemed awfully proud of himself.  After all, he did a great job on his opening statement and he knew it.  Later on, he refocused his pride with an homage to his brother, who is currently serving in Iraq.  Nevertheless, the star witness from the second panel was Kyle Bass of Hayman Advisors, who gave the most impressive performance of the day.  Bass made a point of emphasizing (in so many words) that Lloyd Blankfein’s 23-to-1 leverage ratio was nearly 100 percent higher than what prudence should allow.  If you choose to watch the testimony of just one witness from Wednesday’s hearing, make sure it’s Kyle Bass.

I didn’t bother to watch the third panel for much longer than a few minutes.  The first two acts were tough to follow.  Shortly into the opening statement by Mark Zandy of Moody’s, I decided that I had seen enough for the day.  Besides, Thursday’s show would hold the promise of some excitement with the testimony of Sheila Bair of the FDIC.  I wondered whether someone might ask her:  “Any hints as to what banks are going to fail tomorrow?”  On the other hand, I had been expecting the testimony of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to help cure me of the insomnia caused by too much Cuban coffee.

The Commissioners themselves have done great work with all of the witnesses.  Phil Angelides has a great style, combining a pleasant affect with incisive questioning and good witness control.  Doug Holtz-Eakin and Brooksley Born have been batting 1000.  Heather Murren is more than a little easy on the eyes, bringing another element of “star quality” to the show.

Who knows?  This commission could really end up making a difference in effectuating financial reform.  They’re certainly headed in that direction.



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More Fun Hearings

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January 11, 2010

In my last posting, I discussed the need for a 9/11-type of commission to investigate and provide an accounting of the Federal Reserve’s role in causing the financial crisis.  A more broad-based inquiry into the causes of the financial crisis is being conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, led by former California State Treasurer, Phil Angelides.  The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was created by section 5 of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (or FERA) which was signed into law on May 20, 2009.   The ten-member Commission has been modeled after the Pecora Commission of the early 1930s, which investigated the causes of the Great Depression, and ultimately provided a basis for reforms of Wall Street and the banking industry.  Like the Pecora Commission, the FCIC has subpoena power.

On Wednesday, January 13, the FCIC will hold its first public hearing which will include testimony from some interesting witnesses.  The witnesses will appear in panels, with three panels being heard on Wednesday and two more panels appearing on Thursday.  The witness list and schedule appear at The Huffington Post website.  Wednesday’s first panel is comprised of the following financial institution CEOs:  Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs (who unknowingly appeared as Dr. Evil on several humorous, internet-based Christmas cards), Jamie Dimon (a/k/a “The Dimon Dog”) of JP Morgan Chase, John Mack of Morgan Stanley and Brian Moynihan of Bank of America.  Curiously, Vikram Pandit of Citigroup was not invited.

Frank Rich of The New York Times spoke highly of FCIC chairman Phil Angelides in his most recent column.  Nevertheless, as Mr. Rich pointed out, given the fact that the banking lobby has so much influence over both political parties, there is a serious question as to whether the FCIC will have as much impact on banking reform as did the Pecora Commission:

Though bad history shows every sign of repeating itself on Wall Street, it will take a near-miracle for Angelides to repeat Pecora’s triumph.  Our zoo of financial skullduggery is far more complex, with many more moving pieces, than that of the 1920s.  The new inquiry does have subpoena power, but its entire budget, a mere $8 million, doesn’t even match the lobbying expenditures for just three banks (Citi, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America) in the first nine months of 2009.  The firms under scrutiny can pay for as many lawyers as they need to stall between now and Dec. 15, deadline day for the commission’s report.

More daunting still is the inquiry’s duty to reach into high places in the public sector as well as the private.  The mystery of exactly what happened as TARP fell into place in the fateful fall of 2008 thickens by the day — especially the behind-closed-door machinations surrounding the government rescue of A.I.G. and its counterparties.

A similar degree of skepticism was apparent in a recent article by Binyamin Appelbaum of The Washington Post.  Mr. Appelbaum also made note of the fact that the relatively small, $8 million budget — for an investigation that has until December 15 to prepare its report — will likely be much less than the amount spent by the banks under investigation.  Appelbaum pointed out that FCIC vice chairman, William Thomas, a retired Republican congressman from California, felt that the commission would benefit from its instructions to focus on understanding the crisis rather than providing policy recommendations.  Nevertheless, both Angelides and Thomas expressed concern about the December 15 deadline:

The tight timetable also makes it impossible to produce a comprehensive account of the crisis, both men said.  Instead, the commission will focus its work on particular topics, perhaps producing a series of case studies, Angelides said.

*   *   *

Both Angelides and Thomas acknowledged that the commission is off to a slow start, having waited more than a year since the peak of the crisis to hold its first hearing.  Thomas said that a lot of work already was happening behind the scenes and that the hearing next week could be compared to a rocket lifting off after a lengthy construction process.

Even as books and speeches about the crisis pile up, Thomas expressed confidence that the committee’s work could still make a difference.

“There are a lot of people who still haven’t learned the lessons,” he said.

One of those people who still has not learned his lesson is Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner, who is currently facing a chorus of calls for his resignation or firing.  Economist Randall Wray, in a piece entitled, “Fire Geithner Now!” shared my sentiment that Turbo Tim is not the only one who needs to go:

There is a growing consensus that it is time for President Obama to fire Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.  While he is at it, he needs to clean house by firing Larry Summers, by banning Robert Rubin from Washington, and by appointing a replacement for Chairman Bernanke.  It is time for a fresh start.

Geithner is facing renewed scrutiny due to his questionable actions while at the NYFed.  As reported on Bloomberg and in the NYT, secret emails show that the NYFed under Geithner’s command prohibited AIG from reporting that it was passing government bail-out funds directly to counterparties, including Goldman Sachs.

Beyond that, Professor Wray emphasized that Obama’s new economic team should be able to recognize the following four principles (which I have abbreviated):

1.  Banks do not face a liquidity crisis, rather they are massively insolvent.  Reported profits are due entirely to trading activities – which amount to nothing more than a game of Old Maid, with institutions selling bad assets to each other at inflated prices on a quid-pro-quo basis.  As such, they need to be shut down and resolved.  …

2.  Saving financial institutions does not save the economy.   …

3.  As such, all of the bail-outs and guarantees provided to financial institutions (over $20 trillion) need to be unwound.  Not because we cannot “afford” them but because they are dangerous.  Unfortunately, Congress has come to see all of these trillions of dollars committed to Wall Street as a barrier to spending more on Main street.  …

4.   Finally, we need an economic team that understands government finance.  The current team is hopelessly confused, led and misguided by Robert Rubin.  …

At The Business Insider website, Henry Blodget gave a four-minute, video presentation, citing five reasons why Geithner should resign.  The text version of this discussion appears at The Huffington Post.  Nevertheless, at The Business Insider’s Clusterstock blog, John Carney expressed his belief that Geithner would not quit or be forced to leave office until after the mid-term elections in November:

We would like to see Geithner go now.

*   *   *

But there’s little chance this will happen.  The Obama administration cannot afford to show weakness.  If it caved to Congressional critics of Geithner, lawmakers would be further emboldened to chip away at the president’s authority.  Senate Republicans would likely turn the confirmation hearing of Geithner’s replacement into a brawl — one that would not reflect well on the White House or Democrat Congressional leadership.

There’s also little political upside to getting rid of Geithner now.  It will not save Congressional Democrats any seats in the mid-term election.  Obama’s popularity ratings won’t rise. None of the administration’s priorities will be furthered by firing Geithner.

All of this changes following the midterm elections, when Democrats will likely lose seats in Congress.  At that point, the administration will be looking for a fall guy.  Geithner will make an attractive fall guy.

Although there may not be much hope that the hard work of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission will result in any significant financial reform legislation, at least we can look forward to the resignations of Turbo Tim and Larry Summers before the commission’s report is due on December 15.



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Compare And Contrast

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November 26, 2009

We have seen and heard so much discussion during the past week concerning the dismal performance of Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner while testifying before the Joint Economic Committee — I won’t repeat it.  At this point, there appears to be a consensus that Turbo Tim has to go.  The scary part comes when pundits start tossing around names for a possible replacement.  One would expect that President Obama might be wise enough to avoid the appointment of another “Wall Street insider” as Treasury Secretary.  Rumors are circulating that The Dimon Dog (Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase) is being considered for the post.  This buzz gained more traction when bank analyst, Dick Bove, recently voiced support for Dimon as Treasury Secretary.  The handful of Geithner supporters deny that Turbo Tim ever was a “Wall Street insider”.  This assertion is contradicted by the fact that Geithner was the President of the New York Federal Reserve at the time of the financial crisis, when he served as architect of the more-than-generous bailouts of those “too big to fail” financial institutions — at taxpayer expense.

These days, the most vilified beneficiary of government largesse resulting from the financial crisis is the widely-despised investment bank, Goldman Sachs — often referred to as the “giant vampire squid” — thanks to Matt Taibbi’s metaphor, describing Goldman as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

For whatever reason, a number of commentators have chosen to help defend Goldman Sachs against what they consider to be unfair criticism.  A recent example came to us from James Stewart of The New Yorker.  Stewart had previously written a 25-page essay for that magazine, entitled “Eight Days” — a dramatic chronology of the financial crisis as it unfolded during September of 2008.  Last week, Stewart seized upon the release of the recent SIGTARP report to defend Goldman with a blog posting which characterized the report as supportive of the argument that Goldman owes the taxpayers nothing as a result of the government bailouts resulting from that near-meltdown.  (In case you don’t know, a former Assistant U.S. District Attorney from New York named Neil Barofsky was nominated by President Bush as the Special Investigator General of the TARP program.  The acronym for that job title is SIGTARP.)   In his blog posting, James Stewart began by characterizing Goldman’s detractors as “conspiracy theorists”.  That was a pretty weak start.  Stewart went on to imply that the SIGTARP report refutes the claims by critics that, despite Goldman’s repayment of the TARP bailout, it did not repay the government the billions it received as a counterparty to AIG’s collateralized debt obligations.  Stewart referred to language in the SIGTARP report to support the spin that because “Goldman was fully hedged on its exposure both to a failure by A.I.G. and to the deterioration of value in its collateralized debt obligations” and that “(i)t repaid its TARP loans with interest, bought back the government’s warrants at a nice profit to the Treasury” Goldman therefore owes the government nothing — other than “a special debt of gratitude”.  One important passage from page 22 of the SIGTARP report that Stewart conveniently ignored, concerned the money received by Goldman Sachs as an AIG counterparty by way of Maiden Lane III, at which point those credit default obligations (of questionable value) were purchased at an excessive price by the government.  Here’s that passage from the SIGTARP report:

When FRBNY authorized the creation of Maiden Lane III in November 2008, it lent approximately $24.6 billion to the newly formed limited liability company, and AIG provided Maiden Lane III approximately $5 billion in equity.  These funds were used to purchase CDOs from AIG counterparties worth an estimated fair value of $29.6 billion at the time of the purchases, which were done in three stages on November 25, 2008, December 18, 2008, and December 22, 2008.  AIGFP’s counterparties were paid $27.1 billion, and AIGFP was paid $2.5 billion per an agreement between AIGFP and FRBNY.  The $2.5 billion represented the amount of collateral that AIGFP had previously paid to the counterparties that was in excess of the actual decline in the fair value as of October 31, 2008.

FRBNY’s loan to Maiden Lane III is secured by the CDOs as the underlying assets.  After the loan has been repaid in full plus interest, and, to the extent that there are sufficient remaining cash proceeds, AIG will be entitled to repayment of the $5 billion that the company contributed in equity, plus accrued interest.  After repayment in full of the loan and the equity contribution (each including accrued interest), any remaining proceeds will be split 67 percent to FRBNY and 33 percent to AIG.

On November 21, one of my favorite reporters for The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winner Gretchen Morgenson, wrote an informative piece concerning the recent SIGTARP Report.  Compare and contrast Ms. Morgenson’s discussion of the report’s disclosures, with the spin provided by James Stewart.  Here is some of what Ms. Morgenson had to say:

The Fed, under Mr. Geithner’s direction, caved in to A.I.G.’s counterparties, giving them 100 cents on the dollar for positions that would have been worth far less if A.I.G. had defaulted.  Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Societe Generale and other banks were in the group that got full value for their contracts when many others were accepting fire-sale prices.

On the question of whether this payout was what the report describes as a “backdoor bailout” of A.I.G.’s counterparties, Mr. Barofsky concluded:  “The very design of the federal assistance to A.I.G. was that tens of billions of dollars of government money was funneled inexorably and directly to A.I.G.’s counterparties.”  The report noted that this was money the banks might not otherwise have received had A.I.G. gone belly-up.

*   *   *

Finally, Mr. Barofsky pokes holes in arguments made repeatedly over the past 14 months by Goldman Sachs, A.I.G.’s largest trading partner and recipient of $12.9 billion in taxpayer money in the bailout, that it had faced no material risk in an A.I.G. default — that, in effect, had A.I.G. cratered, Goldman wouldn’t have suffered damage.

*   *   *

Rather than forcing the banks to accept a steep discount, or “haircut,” the Fed gave the banks $27 billion in taxpayer cash and allowed them to keep an additional $35 billion in collateral already posted by A.I.G.  That amounted to about $62 billion for the contracts, which the report describes as “far above their market value at the time.”

*   *   *

As Goldman prepares to pay out nearly $17 billion in bonuses to its employees in one of its most profitable years ever, it is important that an authoritative, independent voice like Mr. Barofsky’s reminds us how the taxpayer bailout of A.I.G. benefited Goldman.

*   *   *

The inspector noted in his report that Goldman made several arguments for why it believed it was not materially at risk in an A.I.G. default, but he is skeptical of the firm’s reasoning.

So is Janet Tavakoli, an expert in derivatives at Tavakoli Structured Finance, a consulting firm.

*   *   *

Ms. Tavakoli argues that Goldman should refund the money it received in the bailout and take back the toxic C.D.O.’s now residing on the Fed’s books — and to do so before it begins showering bonuses on its taxpayer-protected employees.

“A.I.G., a sophisticated investor, foolishly took this risk,” she said.  “But the U.S. taxpayer never agreed to be the victim of investments that should undergo a rigorous audit.”

After reading James Stewart’s November 19 blog posting and Gretchen Morgenson’s November 21 article from The New York Times, ask yourself this:  Are Gretchen Morgenson and Janet Tavakoli “conspiracy theorists”      . . .  or is James Stewart just a tool?



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Call Him The Dimon Dog

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November 16, 2009

It seems as though once an individual rises to a significant level of influence and authority, that person becomes “too big for straight talk”.  We’ve seen it happen with politicians, prominent business people and others caught-up in the “leadership” racket.  Influential people are well aware of the unforeseen consequences resulting from a candid, direct response to a simple question.  Mindful of those hazards, a rhetorical technique employing equivocation, qualification and obfuscation is cultivated in order to avoid responsibility for what could eventually become exposed as a brain fart.

Since last year’s financial crisis began, we have heard plenty of debate over the concept of “too big to fail” —  the idea that a bank is so large and interconnected with other important financial institutions that its failure could pose a threat to the entire financial system.  Recent efforts at financial reform have targeted the “too big to fail” (TBTF) concept, with differing approaches toward downsizing or breaking up those institutions with “systemic risk” potential.  Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner was the first to use doublespeak as a weapon against those attempting to eliminate TBTF status.  When he testified before the House Financial Services Committee on September 23 to explain his planned financial reform agenda, Geithner attempted to create the illusion that his plan would resolve the “too big to fail” problem:

First, we cannot allow firms to reap the benefits of explicit or implicit government subsidies without very strong government oversight.  We must substantially reduce the moral hazard created by the perception that these subsidies exist; address their corrosive effects on market discipline; and minimize their encouragement of risk-taking.

So, in other words … the government subsidies to those institutions will continue, but only if the recipients get “very strong government oversight”.  In his next sentence, Geithner expressed his belief that the moral hazard was created “by the perception that these subsidies exist” rather than the FACT that they exist.  At a subsequent House Financial Services Committee hearing on October 29, Geithner again tried to trick his audience into believing that the administration’s latest reform plan was opposed to TBTF status.  As Jim Kuhnhenn and Anne Flaherty reported for The Huffington Post, representatives from both sides of the isle saw right through Geithner’s smokescreen:

Others argue that by singling out financial firms important to the economy, the government could inevitably set itself up to bail them out, and that even dismantling rather than rescuing them would take taxpayer money.

“Apparently, the ‘too big to fail’ model is too hard to kill,” quipped Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., called the bill “TARP on steroids,” referring to the government’s $700 billion Wall Street rescue fund.

On Friday the 13th, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, stole the spotlight in this debate with an opinion piece published by The Washington Post.  Dimon pretended to be opposed to the TBTF concept and quoted from his fellow double-talker, Turbo Tim.  Dimon then made this assertion:  “The term ‘too big to fail’ must be excised from our vocabulary.”  He followed with the qualification that ending TBTF “does not mean that we must somehow cap the size of financial-services firms.”  Dimon proceeded to argue against the creation of “artificial limits” on the size of financial institutions.  In other words:  Dimon would like to see Congress enact a law that could never be applied because it would contain no metric for its own applicability.

Criticism of Dimon’s Washington Post piece was immediate and widespread, especially considering the fact that his own JP Morgan is a TBTF All Star.  David Weidner explained it for MarketWatch this way:

In other words, Dimon favors a regulatory system for unwinding failing institutions — he believes no bank should be too big to fail — but doesn’t seem to like the global effort, endorsed by the G-20, to encourage smaller, less-connected institutions.  He wants to let big institutions be big.

The best criticism of Dimon’s article came from my blogging buddy, Adrienne Gonzalez, a/k/a  Jr Deputy Accountant.  She pointed out that the report for the first quarter of 2009 by the Office of the Currency Comptroller revealed that JP Morgan Chase holds 81 trillion dollars’ worth of derivatives contracts, putting it in first place on the OCC list of what she called “derivatives offenders”.  After quoting the passage in Dimon’s piece concerning the procedure for winding-down “a large financial institution”, Adrienne made this point:

Interesting and a great read but useless in practical application.  Does Dimon really believe this?  With $81 TRILLION in notional derivatives exposure, I don’t see how an FDIC for investment banks could possibly unwind such a tangled mess in an orderly fashion.  He’s joking, right?

For an interesting portrayal of The Dimon Dog, you might want to take a look at an article by Paul Barrett, entitled “I, Banker”.   It was actually a book review Barrett wrote for The New York Times concerning a biography of Dimon by Duff McDonald, entitled The Last Man Standing.  I haven’t read the book and after reading Barrett’s review, I have no intention of doing so — since Barrett made the book appear to be the work of a fawning sycophant in awe of Dimon.  In criticizing the book, Paul Barrett gave us some of his own useful insights about Dimon:

The Dimon of  “Last Man Standing” emerges as a brilliant but flawed winner, one whose long and psychologically tangled apprenticeship to another legendary money man, Sanford Weill, helped lay the groundwork for the crisis of 2008.  In recent days, Dimon’s conduct suggests he is someone who puts the interests of his company ahead of those of society at large, which will be surprising only to those who naively look to modern Wall Street for statesmanship.

*   *   *

JPMorgan under Dimon’s leadership allowed home buyers to borrow without having to prove their income.  The bank did business with sleazy mortgage brokers who would lend to anyone with a heartbeat.  These habits ended only in 2008, when it was too late.  McDonald lauds Dimon for cleverly unloading huge volumes of the toxic subprime mortgages JPMorgan originated.  But that’s like praising a corporate polluter for trucking his poisonous sludge into the next state.  It doesn’t solve the problem; it merely moves it elsewhere.

Paul Barrett’s book review gave us a useful perspective on The Dimon Dog’s support of the administration’s financial reform agenda:

McDonald notes that the C.E.O. publicly endorses certain financial regulatory changes proposed by the Obama administration.  But critics point out that lobbyists employed by “Dimon and his team are actually stonewalling derivatives reform in order to protect the outsize margins the business generates” for JPMorgan.  The derivatives in question include “credit default swaps,” transactions akin to insurance policies that lenders can buy to buffer against loans that go bad.  In the wrong hands, credit derivatives become a form of gambling that can lead to ruin.  They need to be checked, and Dimon’s self-interested resistance isn’t helping matters.

Dimon may be the best of his breed, but when it comes to public-spirited leaders, today’s Wall Street isn’t a promising recruiting ground.

Well said!



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