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Obama And The TARP

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I always enjoy it when a commentator appearing on a talk show reminds us that President Obama has become a “tool” for the Wall Street bankers.  This theme is usually rebutted with the claim that the TARP bailout happened before Obama took office and that he can’t be blamed for rewarding the miscreants who destroyed our economy.  Nevertheless, this claim is not entirely true.  President Bush withheld distribution of one-half of the $700 billion in TARP bailout funds, deferring to his successor’s assessment of the extent to which the government should intervene in the banking crisis.  As it turned out, during the final weeks of the Bush Presidency, Hank Paulson’s Treasury Department declared that there was no longer an “urgent need” for the TARP bailouts to continue.  Despite that development, Obama made it clear that anyone on Capitol Hill intending to get between the banksters and that $350 billion was going to have a fight on their hands.  Let’s jump into the time machine and take a look at my posting from January 19, 2009 – the day before Obama assumed office:

On January 18, Salon.com featured an article by David Sirota entitled:  “Obama Sells Out to Wall Street”.  Mr. Sirota expressed his concern over Obama’s accelerated push to have immediate authority to dispense the remaining $350 billion available under the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout:

Somehow, immediately releasing more bailout funds is being portrayed as a self-evident necessity, even though the New York Times reported this week that “the Treasury says there is no urgent need” for additional money.  Somehow, forcing average $40,000-aires to keep giving their tax dollars to Manhattan millionaires is depicted as the only “serious” course of action.  Somehow, few ask whether that money could better help the economy by being spent on healthcare or public infrastructure.  Somehow, the burden of proof is on bailout opponents who make these points, not on those who want to cut another blank check.

Discomfort about another hasty dispersal of the remaining TARP funds was shared by a few prominent Democratic Senators who, on Thursday, voted against authorizing the immediate release of the remaining $350 billion.  They included Senators Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Maria Cantwell (Washington).  The vote actually concerned a “resolution of disapproval” to block distribution of the TARP money, so that those voting in favor of the resolution were actually voting against releasing the funds.  Earlier last week, Obama had threatened to veto this resolution if it passed.  The resolution was defeated with 52 votes (contrasted with 42 votes in favor of it).  At this juncture, Obama is engaged in a game of “trust me”, assuring those in doubt that the next $350 billion will not be squandered in the same undocumented manner as the first $350 billion.  As Jeremy Pelofsky reported for Reuters on January 15:

To win approval, Obama and his team made extensive promises to Democrats and Republicans that the funds would be used to better address the deepening mortgage foreclosure crisis and that tighter accounting standards would be enforced.

“My pledge is to change the way this plan is implemented and keep faith with the American taxpayer by placing strict conditions on CEO pay and providing more loans to small businesses,” Obama said in a statement, adding there would be more transparency and “more sensible regulations.”

Of course, we all know how that worked out  .   .   .  another Obama promise bit the dust.

The new President’s efforts to enrich the Wall Street banks at taxpayer expense didn’t end with TARP.  By mid-April of 2009, the administration’s “special treatment” of those “too big to fail” banks was getting plenty of criticism.  As I wrote on April 16 of that year:

Criticism continues to abound concerning the plan by Turbo Tim and Larry Summers for getting the infamous “toxic assets” off the balance sheets of our nation’s banks.  It’s known as the Public-Private Investment Program (a/k/a:  PPIP or “pee-pip”).

*   *   *

One of the harshest critics of the PPIP is William Black, an Economics professor at the University of Missouri.  Professor Black gained recognition during the 1980s while he was deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC).

*   *   *

I particularly enjoyed Black’s characterization of the PPIP’s use of government (i.e. taxpayer) money to back private purchases of the toxic assets:

It is worse than a lie.  Geithner has appropriated the language of his critics and of the forthright to support dishonesty.  That is what’s so appalling — numbering himself among those who convey tough medicine when he is really pandering to the interests of a select group of banks who are on a first-name basis with Washington politicians.

The current law mandates prompt corrective action, which means speedy resolution of insolvencies.  He is flouting the law, in naked violation, in order to pursue the kind of favoritism that the law was designed to prevent.  He has introduced the concept of capital insurance, essentially turning the U.S. taxpayer into the sucker who is going to pay for everything.  He chose this path because he knew Congress would never authorize a bailout based on crony capitalism.

Although President Obama’s hunt for Osama bin Laden was a success, his decision to “punt” on the economic stimulus program – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – became Obama’s own “Tora Bora moment”, at which point he allowed economic recovery to continue on its elusive path away from us.  Economist Steve Keen recently posted this video, explaining how Obama’s failure to promote an effective stimulus program has guaranteed us something worse than a “double-dip” recession:  a quadruple-dip recession.

Many commentators are currently discussing efforts by Republicans to make sure that the economy is in dismal shape for the 2012 elections so that voters will blame Obama and elect the GOP alternative.  If Professor Keen is correct about where our economy is headed, I can only hope there is a decent Independent candidate in the race.  Otherwise, our own “lost decade” could last much longer than ten years.


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There WILL Be Another Financial Crisis

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The latest Quarterly Report from SIGTARP – the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (Neil Barofsky) – was released on January 26, 2011.  The report brought a mix of good and bad news.  Among the good news was this tidbit:

Where fraud has managed to slip in, SIGTARP’s Investigations Division has already produced outstanding results in bringing to justice those who have sought to profit criminally from TARP, with 45 individuals charged civilly or criminally with fraud, of whom 13 have been criminally convicted. SIGTARP’s investigative efforts have helped prevent $555.2 million in taxpayer funds from being lost to fraud.  And with 142 ongoing investigations (including 64 into executives at financial institutions that applied for and/or received TARP funding through TARP’s Capital Purchase Program [“CPP”]), much more remains to be done.

Much of the bad news from SIGTARP stems from the never-ending problem of “moral hazard” resulting from the perpetually-increasing growth of those financial institutions, which have been “too big to fail” for too long:

In short, the continued existence of institutions that are “too big to fail” — an undeniable byproduct of former Secretary Paulson and Secretary Geithner’s use of TARP to assure the markets that during a time of crisis that they would not let such institutions fail — is a recipe for disaster.  These institutions and their leaders are incentivized to engage in precisely the sort of behavior that could trigger the next financial crisis, thus perpetuating a doomsday cycle of booms, busts, and bailouts.

Worse yet, as Mr. Barofsky pointed out in a January 25 interview with the Center for Public Integrity, the system has been rigged to provide additional advantages to the TBTF banks, making it impossible for smaller institutions to compete with them:

Noting that the major financial institutions are 20 percent larger than they were before the financial crisis, Barofsky said that the financial markets simply don’t believe that the government will allow one of these biggest banks to collapse, regardless of what they say will happen.  Those big banks enjoy access to cheaper credit than smaller institutions, based on that implicit government guarantee, he said.

As evidence, he cited the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, which recently announced its intention to add the prospect of government support into its calculation when determining a bank’s credit rating.

At 1:35 into the video clip of the Center for Public Integrity’s interview with Mr. Barofsky, he explained:

There’s going to be another financial crisis.  Of course, there is.

He went on to point out that once the next crisis begins, we will have the option of implementing the mechanisms established by the Dodd-Frank bill for breaking up insolvent banks.  The question then becomes:  Will be break up those banks or bail them out?  Barofsky suspects that the market is anticipating another round of bailouts.  He noted that “there’s a question of whether there will be the political will as well as the regulatory will to do that”.  As he pointed out on page 11 of the latest SIGTARP Quarterly Report:

As long as the relevant actors (executives, ratings agencies, creditors and counterparties) believe there will be a bailout, the problems of “too big to fail” will almost certainly persist.

Let’s not forget that most dangerous among those problems is the encouraged and facilitated “risky behavior” by those institutions, which will bring about the next financial crisis.  This is the “Doomsday Cycle” problem discussed by Mr. Barofsky.  “The Doomsday Cycle” was the subject of a paper, written last year by economists Simon Johnson and Peter Boone.

The SIGTARP Report then focused on what has been discussed as TARP’s biggest failure:

As SIGTARP discussed in its October 2010 Quarterly Report, after two years, TARP’s Main Street goals of “increas[ing] lending,” and “promot[ing] jobs and economic growth” had been largely unmet, but it is TARP’s failure to realize its most specific Main Street goal, “preserving homeownership,” that has had perhaps the most devastating consequences.  Treasury’s central foreclosure prevention effort designed to address that goal — the Home Affordable Modification Program (“HAMP”) — has been beset by problems from the outset and, despite frequent retooling, continues to fall dramatically short of any meaningful standard of success.  Indeed, even the “good news” of falling estimates for TARP’s cost is driven in part by the ineffectiveness of HAMP and related programs, which provide for TARP-funded grants and incentives.

As we begin fighting over the Final Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) — which investigated the causes of the financial crisis — it is important to be mindful of Neil Barofsky’s admonition that there will be another financial crisis.  If our government fails to prosecute the malfeasance that caused the crisis itself, that neglect — combined with the enhanced size of those “too big to fail” banks — could create a disaster we would have to characterize as “TBFAB” – Too Big For A Bailout.  What will happen at that point?


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Pay More Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain

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October 15, 2009

Reading the news these days can cause so much aggravation, I’m surprised more people haven’t pulled out all of their hair.  Regardless of one’s political perspective, there is an inevitable degree of outrage experienced from revelations concerning the role of government malfeasnace in causing and reacting to the financial crisis.  We have come to rely on satire to soothe our anger.  (For a good laugh, be sure to read this.)  Fortunately, an increasing number of commentators are not only exposing the systemic problems that created this catastrophe – they’re actually suggesting some good solutions.

Robert Scheer, editor of Truthdig, recently considered the idea that the debate over healthcare reform might just be a distraction from the more urgent need for financial reform:

The health care issue should never even have been brought up at a time when the economy is reeling and we are running such immense deficits to shore up the banks.  Instead of fixing the economy by saving Americans’ homes and jobs, we are preoccupied with pie-in-the-sky rhetoric on a hot issue that should have been addressed in calmer times.  It came up now because, despite all the hoary partisan posturing, it is a safer subject than the more pressing issue of what to do with Citigroup, AIG and General Motors, which the taxpayers happen to own but do not control.  While Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner plots in secret with the top bankers who got us into this mess, we are focused on the perennial circus of so-called health care reform.

There is an odd disconnect between the furious public debate over health care reform, with its emphasis on the cost of an increased government role, and the nonexistent discussion about the far more expensive and largely secretive government program to bail out Wall Street.  Why the agitation over the government spending $83 billion a year on health care when at least 20 times that amount has been thrown at the creators of the ongoing financial crisis without any serious public accountability?  On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that employees of the financial industry that we taxpayers saved are slated to be paid a record $140 billion this year.

Remember, taxpayers:  That $140 billion is your money.  The bailed-out institutions may claim to have repaid their TARP obligations, but they also received trillions in loans from the Federal Reserve — and Ben Bernanke refuses to disclose which institutions received how much.

William Greider wrote a superb essay for the October 26 issue of The Nation, emphasizing the importance of the work undertaken by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, led by Phil Angelides, as well as the investigation being done by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

Even if Congress manages to act this fall, the debate will not end.  Obama’s plan does not begin to get at the rot in the financial system.  Wall Street’s most notorious practices continue to flourish, and if unemployment rates keep rising through 2010, the public will not set aside its anger.  The Angelides investigators could put the story back on the front page.

*  *  *

Beyond Ponzi schemes and deceitful mortgage lending, a far larger crime may lurk at the center of the crisis — wholesale securities fraud.  “Risk models” reassured unwitting investors who bought millions of bundled mortgage securities and derivatives like credit-default swaps.  But as Christopher Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics has testified, many of the models lacked real-life markets where they could be tested and verified.  “Clearly, we have now many examples where a model or the pretense of a model was used as a vehicle for creating risk and hiding it,” Whalen said.  “More important, however, is the role of financial models for creating opportunities for deliberate acts of securities fraud.”  That’s what investigators can examine.  What did the Wall Street firms know about the reliability of these models when they sold the securities?  And what did they tell the buyers?

*  *  *

Surely the political system itself is a root cause of the financial crisis.  The swollen influence of financial interests pushed Congress and presidents to repeal regulation and look the other way as reckless excesses developed.  Efforts to restore a more reliable representative democracy can start with Congress.  The power of money could be curbed by new rules prohibiting members of key committees from accepting contributions from the sectors they oversee.  Regulatory agencies, likewise, need internal designs to protect them from capture by the industries they regulate.

The Federal Reserve, having failed in its obligations so profoundly, should be reconstituted as an accountable federal agency, shorn of the excessive secrecy and insider privileges accorded to bankers.  The Constitution gives Congress, not the executive branch, the responsibility for managing money and credit.  Congress must reassert this responsibility and learn how to provide adequate oversight and policy critique.

Reforming the financial system, in other words, can be the prelude to reviving representative democracy.

At The Huffington Post, Robert Borosage warned that the financial industry is waging a huge lobbying battle to derail any attempts at financial reform.  Beyond that, the banking lobbyists will re-write any legislation to make it more favorable to their own objectives:

The banking lobby is nothing if not shameless.  They hope to use the reforms to WEAKEN current law.  They are pushing to make the federal standard the ceiling on reform, stripping the power of states to have higher standards.  Basically, they are hoping to find a way to shut down the independent investigations of state attorneys general like New York’s Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo or Illinois’ Lisa Madigan.

*  *  *

Historically, the banks, as Senator Dick Durbin decried in disgust, “own the place.”  And they’ve succeeded thus far in frustrating reform, even while pocketing literally hundreds of billions in support from taxpayers.

*  *  *

But this time it could be different.  Backroom deals are no longer safe.  Americans have been fleeced of trillions in the value of their homes and their savings because of Wall Street’s reckless excesses.  Then as taxpayers, they were extorted to ante up literally trillions more to forestall economic collapse by bailing out the banking sector.  Insult was added to that injury when the Federal Reserve refused to tell the Congress who got the money and on what terms.

Legislators would be well advised to understand the cozy old ways of doing business are no longer acceptable.  Americans are livid and paying attention.  Legislators who rely on Wall Street to finance their campaigns and then lead the effort to block or dilute reforms will discover that their constituents know what they have been up to.  Organizations like my own Campaign for America’s Future, the Sunlight Foundation, Americans for Financial Reform, Huffington Post bloggers will make certain the word gets out.  Legislators may discover that Wall Street’s money is a burden, not a blessing.

The most encouraging article I have seen came from Dan Gerstein of Forbes.  His perspective matched my sentiments exactly.  Looking through President Obama’s empty rhetoric, Mr. Gerstein helped provide direction and encouragement to those of us who are losing hope that our dysfunctional government could do anything close to addressing our nation’s financial ills:

The Changer-in-Chief long ago gave up on the idea of dismantling and remaking the crazy-quilt regulatory system that Wall Street (along with its Washington enablers) rigged for its own enrichment at everyone else’s expense.

*  *  *

Instead, Team Obama opted to move around the deck chairs within the existing bureaucracy, daftly hoping this conformist approach would be enough to prevent another titanic meltdown.

*  *  *

In the end, though, the key to success will be countering Wall Street’s influence and putting the politicians’ feet to the ire.  Members of Congress need to know there will be consequences for sticking with the status quo.      . . .  Make clear to every incumbent: Endorse our plan and we’ll give you money and public support; back the banks, and we will run ads against you telling voters you are for corrupt capitalism.

As I have said before, this is all about power.  Right now, Wall Street has the political playing field to itself; it has the money, the access it buys and the fear it implies.  And the public is on the outside, looking incredulous that this rigged system is still in place more than a year after it was exposed.  But if the frustrated middle can organize and mobilize a focused, non-partisan revolt of the revolted — as opposed to the inchoate and polarizing tea party movement — that whole dynamic will quickly change.  And so too, I’m confident, will the voting habits of our elected officials.

Fortunately, individuals like Dan Gerstein are motivating people to stand up and let our elected officials know that they work for the people and not the lobbyists.  Larry Klayman, founder of Judicial Watch, has just written a new book:  Whores: Why And How I Came To Fight The Establishment.  The timing of the book’s release could not have been better.



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Simon Johnson In The Spotlight

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October 12, 2009

An ever-increasing number of people are paying close attention to a gentleman named Simon Johnson.  Mr. Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, now works at MIT as Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Sloan School of Management.  His Baseline Scenario website is focused on the financial and economic crises.  At the Washington Post website, he runs a blog with James Kwak called The Hearing.  Last spring, Johnson turned more than a few heads with his article from the May 2009 issue of The Atlantic, “The Quiet Coup”, in which he explained that what happened in America during last year’s financial crisis and what is currently happening with our economic predicament is “shockingly reminiscent” of events experienced during financial crises in emerging market nations (i.e. banana republics and proto-capitalist regimes).

On October 9, Joe Nocera of The New York Times began his column by asking Professor Johnson what he thought the Wall Street banks owed America after receiving trillions of dollars in bailouts.  Johnson’s response turned to Wednesday’s upcoming fight before the House Financial Services Committee concerning the financial reforms proposed by the Obama administration:

“They can’t pay what they owe!” he began angrily.  Then he paused, collected his thoughts and started over:  “Tim Geithner saved them on terms extremely favorable to the banks.  They should support all of his proposed reforms.”

Mr. Johnson continued, “What gets me is that the banks have continued to oppose consumer protection.  How can they be opposed to consumer protection as defined by a man who is the most favorable Treasury Secretary they have had in a generation?  If he has decided that this is what they need, what moral right do they have to oppose it?  It is unconscionable.”

This week’s battle over financial reform has been brewing for quite a while.  Back on May 31, Gretchen Morgenson and Dan Van Natta wrote a piece for The New York Times entitled, “In Crisis, Banks Dig In for Fight Against Rules”:

Hotly contested legislative wars are traditional fare in Washington, of course, and bills are often shaped by the push and pull of lobbyists — representing a cornucopia of special interests — working with politicians and government agencies.

What makes this fight different, say Wall Street critics and legislative leaders, is that financiers are aggressively seeking to fend off regulation of the very products and practices that directly contributed to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  In contrast, after the savings-and-loan debacle of the 1980s, the clout of the financial lobby diminished significantly.

In case you might be looking for a handy scorecard to see which members of Congress are being “lobbied” by the financial industry and to what extent those palms are being greased, The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to provide us with an interactive chart.  Just slide the cursor next to the name of any member of the House Financial Services Committee and you will be able to see how much generosity that member received just during the first quarter of 2009 from an entity to be affected by this legislation.  The bars next to the committee members’ names are color-coded, with different colors used to identify specific sources, whose names are displayed as you pass over that section of the bar.  This thing is a wonderful invention.  I call it “The Graft Graph”.

On October 9, Simon Johnson appeared with Representative Marcy Kaptur (D – Ohio) on the PBS program, Bill Moyers Journal.  At one point during the interview, Professor Johnson expressed grave doubts about our government’s ability to implement financial reform:

And yet, the opportunity for real reform has already passed. And there is not going to be — not only is there not going to be change, but I’ll go further.  I’ll say it’s going to be worse, what comes out of this, in terms of the financial system, its power, and what it can get away with.

*  *   *

BILL MOYERS:  Why have we not had the reform that we all knew was being — was needed and being demanded a year ago?

SIMON JOHNSON:  I think the opportunity — the short term opportunity was missed.  There was an opportunity that the Obama Administration had.  President Obama campaigned on a message of change.  I voted for him.  I supported him.  And I believed in this message.  And I thought that the time for change, for the financial sector, was absolutely upon us.  This was abundantly apparent by the inauguration in January of this year.

SIMON JOHNSON:  And Rahm Emanuel, the President’s Chief of Staff has a saying.  He’s widely known for saying, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’.  Well, the crisis is over, Bill.  The crisis in the financial sector, not for people who own homes, but the crisis for the big banks is substantially over.  And it was completely wasted.  The Administration refused to break the power of the big banks, when they had the opportunity, earlier this year.  And the regulatory reforms they are now pursuing will turn out to be, in my opinion, and I do follow this day to day, you know.  These reforms will turn out to be essentially meaningless.

Sound familiar?  If you change the topic to healthcare reform, you end up with the same bottom line:  “These reforms will turn out to be essentially meaningless.”  The inevitable watering down of both legislative efforts can be blamed on weak, compromised leadership.  It’s one thing to make grand promises on the campaign trail — yet quite another to look a lobbyist in the eye and say:  “Thanks, but no thanks.”  Toward the end of the televised interview, Bill Moyers had this exchange with Representative Kaptur:

BILL MOYERS:   How do we get Congress back?  How do we get Congress to do what it’s supposed to do?  Oversight.  Real reform.  Challenge the powers that be.

MARCY KAPTUR:  We have to take the money out.  We have to get rid of the constant fundraising that happens inside the Congress.  Before political parties used to raise money; now individual members are raising money through the DCCC and the RCCC.  It is absolutely corrupt.

As we all know, our system of legalized graft goes beyond the halls of Congress.  During his Presidential campaign, Barack Obama received nearly $995,000 in contributions from the people at Goldman Sachs.  The gang at 85 Broad Street is obviously getting its money’s worth.



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The Next Big Fight

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October 1, 2009

On Tuesday September 29, H. David Kotz, Inspector General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, issued two reports, recommending 58 changes to improve the way the agency investigates and enforces violations of securities laws, as a result of the SEC’s failure to investigate the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.  The reports exposed a shocking degree of ineptitude at the SEC.  On September 10, Mr. Kotz testified before the Senate Banking Committee.  You can find the prepared testimony here.  (I suggest starting at page 8.)  Having read that testimony, I wasn’t too shocked at what Mr. Kotz had to say in Tuesday’s reports.  Nevertheless, as Zachery Kouwe explained in The New York Times, the level of bureaucratic incompetence at the SEC was underestimated:

Many on Wall Street and in Washington were surprised that some of Mr. Kotz’s proposals, like recording interviews with witnesses and creating a database for tips and complaints, were not already part of the S.E.C.’s standard practice.

The extent of dysfunction at the SEC has been well-documented.  Back on January 5, I wrote a piece entitled:  “Clean-Up Time On Wall Street”, expressing my hope that the incoming Obama administration might initiate some serious financial reforms.  I quoted from Steven Labaton’s New York Times report concerning other SEC scandals investigated by Mr. Kotz last year.  My posting also included a quote from a Times piece by Michael Lewis (author of Liar’s Poker) and David Einhorn, which is particularly relevant to the recent disclosures by Inspector General Kotz:

Indeed, one of the great social benefits of the Madoff scandal may be to finally reveal the S.E.C. for what it has become.

Created to protect investors from financial predators, the commission has somehow evolved into a mechanism for protecting financial predators with political clout from investors.

This sentiment was echoed on Tuesday by Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture website:

The agency is supposed to be an investor’s advocate, the chief law enforcement agency for the markets.  But that has hardly been how they have been managed, funded and operated in recent years.

Essentially the largest prosecutor’s office in the country, the SEC has been undercut at every turn:  Their staffing was far too small to handle their jurisdiction — Wall Street and public Corporations.  Their budgets have been sliced, and they were unable to keep up with the explosion in corporate criminality.  Many key positions were left unfilled, and morale was severely damaged.  A series of disastrous SEC chairs were appointed — to be “kinder and gentler.”  Not only did they fail to maintain SEC funding (via fines), but they allowed the worst corporate offenders to go unpunished.

Gee, go figure that under those circumstances, they sucked at their jobs.

*   *   *

The bottom line of the SEC is this:  If we are serious about corporate fraud, about violations of the SEC laws, about a level playing field, then we fund the agency adequately, hire enough lawyers to prosecute the crimes, and prevent Congress critters from interfering with the SEC doing its job.

To be blunt:  So far, there is no evidence we are sincere about making the SEC a serious watchdog with teeth.

Congress sure hasn’t been.  Staffing levels have been ignored, budgeting has been cut over the years.  And it’s the sort of administrative issue that does not lend itself to bumper sticker aphorisms or tea party slogans.

Financial expert Janet Tavakoli explained in a presentation to the International Monetary Fund last week, that regulatory failures in the United States helped create an even larger Ponzi scam than the Madoff ruse — the massive racket involving the trading of residential mortgage-backed securities:

Wall Street disguised these toxic “investments” with new value-destroying securitizations and derivatives.

Meanwhile, collapsing mortgage lenders paid high dividends to shareholders (old investors) and interest on credit lines to Wall Street (old investors) with money raised from new investors in doomed securities.  New money allowed Wall Street to temporarily hide losses and pay enormous bonuses.  This is a classic Ponzi scheme.

*   *   *

Had regulators done their jobs, they would have shut down Wall Street’s financial meth labs, and the Ponzi scheme would have quickly choked to death from lack of monetary oxygen.

After the Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980’s, there were more than 1,000 felony indictments of senior officers.  Recent fraud is much more widespread and costly.  The consequences are much greater.  Congress needs to fund investigations.  Regulators need to get tough on crime.

As Simon Johnson and James Kwak explained in The Washington Post, the upcoming battle over financial reform will be hard-fought by the banking industry and its lobbyists:

The next couple of months will be crucial in determining the shape of the financial system for decades to come.  And so far, the signs are not encouraging.

*   *   *

Even back in April, the industry was able to kill Obama’s request for legislation allowing bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages.  Five months of profits later, the big banks are only stronger.  Is Obama up for this fight?

Our new President must know by now, that sinking a three-point shot is much easier than the juggling act he has undertaken with health care reform, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as his recent quest to help Chicago win the bid for the 2016 Olympics.  If Mr. Obama can’t beat the health insurance lobby with both the Senate and Congress under Democratic control — how will the voters feel if he drops another ball in the fight for financial reform?   Thanks to Harry Truman, the American public knows where “the buck stops”.  The previously-quoted Washington Post commentary looked even further back in history to explain this burden of leadership:

During the reign of Louis XIV, when the common people complained of some oppressive government policy, they would say, “If only the king knew . . . .”  Occasionally people will make similar statements about Barack Obama, blaming the policies they don’t like on his lieutenants.

But Barack Obama, like Louis XIV before him, knows exactly what is going on.  Now is the time for him to show what his priorities are and how hard he is willing to fight for them. Elections have consequences, people used to say.  This election brought in a popular Democratic president with reasonably large majorities in both houses of Congress.  The financial crisis exposed the worst side of the financial services industry to the bright light of day.  If we cannot get meaningful financial regulatory reform this year, we can’t blame it all on the banking lobby.

Let the games begin!



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The Longest Year

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September 14, 2009

As I write this, President Obama is preparing another fine-sounding, yet empty speech.  His subject this time is financial reform.  You may recall last week’s lofty address to the joint session of Congress, promoting his latest, somewhat-less-nebulous approach to healthcare reform.  He assured the audience that the so-called “public option” (wherein a government-created entity competes with private sector healthcare insurers) would be an integral part of the plan.  Within a week, two pieces of political toast from the Democratic Party (Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) set about undermining that aspect of the healthcare reform agenda.  This is just one reason why, on November 2, 2010, the people who elected Democrats in 2006 and 2008 will be taking a “voters’ holiday”, paving the way for Republican majorities in the Senate and House.  The moral lapse involving the public option was documented by David Sirota for Danny Schechter’s NewsDissector blog:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the first time yesterday suggested she may be backing off her support of the public option – the government-run health plan that the private insurance industry is desperately trying to kill.  According to CNN, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “said they would support any provision that increases competition and accessibility for health insurance – whether or not it is the public option favored by most Democrats.”

This announcement came just hours before Steve Elmendorf, a registered UnitedHealth lobbyist and the head of UnitedHealth’s lobbying firm Elmendorf Strategies, blasted this email invitation throughout Washington, D.C. I just happened to get my hands on a copy of the invitation from a source – check it out:

From: Steve Elmendorf [mailto:steve@elmendorfstrategies.com]
Sent: Friday, September 11, 2009 8:31 AM
Subject: event with Speaker Pelosi at my home
You are cordially invited to a reception with

Speaker of the House
Nancy Pelosi

Thursday, September 24, 2009
6:30pm ~ 8:00pm

At the home of
Steve Elmendorf
2301 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Apt. 7B
Washington, D.C.

$5,000 PAC
$2,400 Individual

Again, Elmendorf is a registered lobbyist for UnitedHealth, and his firm’s website brags about its work for UnitedHealth on its website.

The sequencing here is important: Pelosi makes her announcement and then just hours later, the fundraising invitation goes out. Coincidental?  I’m guessing no – these things rarely ever are.

I wrote a book a few years ago called Hostile Takeover whose premise was that corruption and legalized bribery has become so widespread that nobody in Washington even tries to hide it. This is about as good an example of that truism as I’ve ever seen.

Whatever President Obama proposes to accomplish in terms of financial reform will surely be met with a similar fate.  Worse yet, his appointment of “Turbo” Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary and his nomination of Ben Bernanke to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman are the best signals of the President’s true intention:  Preservation of the status quo, regardless of the cost to the taxpayers.

On this first anniversary of the demise of Lehman Brothers and the acknowledgment of the financial crisis, many commentators have noted the keen observations by Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, published in the May, 2009 issue of The Atlantic.  The theme of Johnson’s article, “The Quiet Coup” was that the current economic and financial crisis in the United States is “shockingly reminiscent” of those experienced in emerging markets (i.e. banana republics and proto-capitalist regimes).  The devil behind all the details in setting these systems upright after a financial crisis is the age-old concept of moral hazard or more simply:  sleaze.  In making the comparison of the United States to the emerging market countries he encountered at the IMF, Mr. Johnson began this way:

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity:  elite business interests — financiers, in the case of the U.S. — played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse.  More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive.  The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Here are a few more passages from “The Quiet Coup” that our political leaders would be well-advised to consider:

Even leaving aside fairness to taxpayers, the government’s velvet-glove approach with the banks is deeply troubling, for one simple reason:  it is inadequate to change the behavior of a financial sector accustomed to doing business on its own terms, at a time when that behavior must change.  As an unnamed senior bank official said to The New York Times last fall, “It doesn’t matter how much Hank Paulson gives us, no one is going to lend a nickel until the economy turns.”  But there’s the rub:  the economy can’t recover until the banks are healthy and willing to lend.

*   *   *

The second problem the U.S. faces—the power of the oligarchy— is just as important as the immediate crisis of lending.  And the advice from the IMF on this front would again be simple:  break the oligarchy.

Oversize institutions disproportionately influence public policy; the major banks we have today draw much of their power from being too big to fail. Nationalization and re-privatization would not change that; while the replacement of the bank executives who got us into this crisis would be just and sensible, ultimately, the swapping-out of one set of powerful managers for another would change only the names of the oligarchs.

Ideally, big banks should be sold in medium-size pieces, divided regionally or by type of business.  Where this proves impractical—since we’ll want to sell the banks quickly— they could be sold whole, but with the requirement of being broken up within a short time.  Banks that remain in private hands should also be subject to size limitations.

Mr. Johnson pointed out the need to overhaul our current antitrust laws – not because any single institution controls so much market share as to influence prices – but because the failure of any one “to big to fail” bank could collapse the entire financial system.

One of my favorite reporters at The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, observed the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers failure with an essay that focused, in large part, on a recent paper by Edward Kane, a finance professor at Boston College, who created the expression: “zombie bank” in 1987.   This month, the Networks Financial Institute at Indiana State University published a policy brief by Dr. Kane on the subject of financial regulation.  In her article:  “But Who Is Watching Regulators?”, Ms. Morgenson summed up Professor Kane’s paper in the following way:

This ugly financial episode we’ve all had to live through makes clear, Mr. Kane says, that taxpayers must protect themselves against two things:  the corrupting influence of bureaucratic self-interest among regulators and the political clout wielded by the large institutions they are supposed to police. Finally, he argues, taxpayers must demand that the government publicize the costs of efforts taken to save the financial system from itself.

Although you may have seen widely-publicized news reports about an “overwhelming number” of academicians opposing the current efforts to require transparency from the Federal Reserve, Professor Kane provides a strong argument in favor of Fed transparency as well as scrutiny of the Treasury and the other government entities enmeshed the complex system of bailouts created within the past year.

At thirty-eight pages, his paper is quite a deep read.  Nevertheless, it’s packed with great criticism of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury.  We need more of this and when someone of Professor Kane’s stature provides it, there had better be people in high places taking it very seriously.  The following are just a few of the many astute observations made by Dr. Kane:

Agency elitism would be evidenced by the extent to which its leaders use crises to establish interpretations and precedents that cover up its mistakes, inflate its powers, expand its discretion, and extend its jurisdiction. According to this standard, Fed efforts to use the crisis as a platform for self-congratulation and for securing enlarged systemic-risk authority sidetracks rather than promotes effective reform.

*   *   *

A financial institution’s incentive to disobey, circumvent or lobby against a particular rule increases with the opportunity cost of compliance. This means that, to sort out the welfare consequences of any regulatory program, we must assess not only the costs and benefits of compliance, but include the costs and benefits of circumvention as well.

*   *   *

Realistically, every government-managed program of disaster relief is a strongly lobbied and nontransparent tax-transfer scheme for redistributing wealth and shifting risk away from the disaster’s immediate victims.  A financial crisis externalizes – in margin and other collateral calls, in depositor runs, and in bank and borrower pleas for government assistance – a political and economic struggle over when and how losses accumulated in corporate balance sheets and in the portfolios of insolvent financial institutions are to be unwound and reallocated across society.  At the same time, insolvent firms and government rescuers share a common interest in mischaracterizing the size and nature of the redistribution so as to minimize taxpayer unrest.

In principle, lenders and investors that voluntarily assume real and financial risks should reap the gains and bear the losses their risk exposures generate.  However, in crises, losers pressure government officials to rescue them and to induce other parties to share their pain.

The advocates of crony capitalism and their tools (our politicians and regulatory bureaucrats) need to know that we are on to them.  If the current administration is willing to facilitate more of the same, then it’s time for some new candidates to step forward.




The Big Lie Gets Some Blowback

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September 3, 2009

My favorite “blowback” story of the week resulted from the ill-advised decisions by people at The New York Times and the Financial Times to trumpet talking points apparently “Fed” (pun intended) to them by the Federal Reserve.  Both publications asserted that the TARP program has already returned profits for the Untied States government.  The Financial Times claimed the profit so far has been $14 billion.  The New York Times, reporting the amount as $18 billion, claimed that “taxpayers have begun seeing profits from the hundreds of billions of dollars in aid that many critics thought might never be seen again.”  So where is my check?  Anyone with a reasonable degree of intelligence, who bothered to completely read through either of these articles, could quickly recognize yet another rendition of The Big Lie.  The blowback against these articles was swift and harsh.  Matt Taibbi’s critique was short and sweet:

This is sort of like calculating the returns on a mutual fund by only counting the stocks in the fund that have gone up.  Forgetting for a moment that TARP is only slightly relevant in the entire bailout scheme — more on that in a moment — the TARP calculations are a joke, apparently leaving out huge future losses from AIG and Citigroup and others in the red.  Since only a small portion of the debt has been put down by the best borrowers, and since the borrowers in the worst shape haven’t retired their obligations yet, it’s crazy to make any conclusions about TARP, pure sophistry.

*   *   *

The other reason for that is that it’s only a tiny sliver of the whole bailout picture.  The real burden carried by the government and the Fed comes from the various anonymous bailout facilities — the TALF, the PPIP, the Maiden Lanes, and so on.       .  .  .

And there are untold trillions more the Fed has loaned out in the last 18 months and which we are not likely to find out much about, unless the recent court ruling green-lighting Bloomberg’s FOIA request for those records actually goes through.

Over at The Business Insider, John Carney also quoted Matt Taibbi’s piece, adding that:

We simply don’t know how to value the mortgage backed securities the Fed bought.  We don’t know how much the government will wind up paying on the backstops of Citi and Bear Stearns assets.  And we don’t know how much more money might have to be pumped into the system to keep it afloat.

At another centrist website called The Moderate Voice, Michael Silverstein pointed out that any news reporter with a conscience ought to feel a bit of shame for participating in such a propaganda effort:

I’ve been an economics and financial writer for 30 years.  I used to enjoy my work.  I used to take pride in it.  The markets were kinky, sure, but that made the writing more fun.

*   *   *

That’s not true anymore.  Reportage about the economy and the markets — at least in most mainstream media — now largely consists of parroting press releases from experts of various stripes or government spokespeople.  And the result is not just infuriating for a long-term professional in this field, but outright embarrassing.

A perfect example was yesterday’s “good news” supposedly showing that our economic masters were every bit as smart as they think they are.  A few banks have repaid their TARP loans, part of the $4 trillion that government has sunk into our black hole banking system.

*   *   *

The $74 billion the government has been repaid is less than two percent of the $4 trillion the government has borrowed or printed to keep incompetent lenders from going down.  Less than two percent!  Even this piddling sum was generated by a manipulated stock market rally that allowed banks shares to soar, bringing a lot of money into bank coffers, almost all of which they added to reserves before paying back a few billion to the government.

Rolfe Winkler at Reuters joined the chorus criticizing the sycophantic cheerleading for these claims of TARP profitability:

A very dangerous misconception is taking root in the press, that in addition to saving the world financial system, the bank bailout is making taxpayers money.

“As big banks repay bailout, U.S.sees profit” read the headline in the New York Times on Monday.  The story was parroted on evening newscasts.

*   *   *

Taxpayers should keep that in mind whenever they see misguided reports that they are making money from bailouts.  The truth is that the biggest banks are still insolvent and, ultimately, their losses are likely to be absorbed by taxpayers.

As the above-quoted sources have reported, the ugly truth goes beyond the fact that the Treasury and the Federal Reserve have been manipulating the stock markets by pumping them to the stratosphere  —  there is also a coordinated “happy talk” propaganda campaign to reinforce the “bull market” fantasy.  Despite the efforts of many news outlets to enable this cause, it’s nice to know that there are some honest sources willing to speak the truth.  The unpleasant reality is exposed regularly and ignored constantly.  Tragically, there just aren’t enough mainstream media outlets willing to pass along the type of wisdom we can find from Chris Whalen and company at The Institutional Risk Analyst:

Plain fact is that the Fed and Treasury spent all the available liquidity propping up Wall Street’s toxic asset waste pile and the banks that created it, so now Main Street employers and private investors, and the relatively smaller banks that support them both, must go begging for capital and liquidity in a market where government is the only player left.  The notion that the Fed can even contemplate reversing the massive bailout for the OTC markets, this to restore normalcy to the monetary models that supposedly inform the central bank’s deliberations, is ridiculous in view of the capital shortfall in the banking sector and the private sector economy more generally.

Somebody ought to write that on a cake and send it over to Ben Bernanke, while he celebrates his nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman.



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A Helluva Read

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August 31, 2009

We are constantly being bombarded with predictions and opinions about where the economy is headed.  Since last fall’s financial crisis, people have seen their home values reduced to shocking levels; they’ve seen their investments take a nosedive and they’ve watched our government attempt to respond to crises on several fronts.  There have been numerous programs including TARP, TALF, PPIP and quantitative easing, that some of us have tried to understand and that others find too overwhelming to approach.  When one attempts to gain an appreciation of what caused this crisis, it quickly becomes apparent that there are a number of different theories being espoused, depending upon which pundit is doing the talking.  One of my favorite explanations of what caused the financial crisis came from William K. Black, Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law.  In his lecture:  The Great American Bank Robbery (which can be seen here) Black explains that we have a culture of corruption at the highest levels of our government, which, combined with ineptitude, allowed some of the sleaziest people on Wall Street to nearly destroy our entire financial system.

William Black recently participated in a conference with a group of experts associated with the Economists for Peace and Security and the Initiative for Rethinking the Economy.  The panel included authorities from all over the world and met in Paris on June 15 – 16.  A report on the meeting was prepared by Professor James K. Galbraith and was published by The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.  The paper, entitled Financial and Monetary Issues as the Crisis Unfolds, is available here.  At 16 pages, the document goes into great detail about what has been going wrong and how to address it, in terms that are understandable to the layperson.  Here’s how the report was summarized in the Preface:

Despite some success in averting a catastrophic collapse of liquidity and a decline in output, the group was pessimistic that there would be sustained economic recovery and a return of high employment.  There was general consensus among the group that the pre-crisis financial system should not be restored, that reviving the financial sector first was not the way to revive the economy, and that governments should not pursue exit strategies that permit a return to the status quo. Rather, the crisis exposes the need for profound reform to meet a range of physical and social objectives.

As to the question of where we are now, at the current stage of the economic crisis, Professor Galbraith recalled one panel member’s analogy to the eye of a hurricane:

The first wall of the storm has passed over us:  the collapse of the banking system, which engendered panic and a massive public sector rescue effort.  At rest in the eye, we face the second:  the bankruptcy of states, provinces, cities, and even some national governments, from California, USA, to Belgium.  Since this is a slower process involving weaker players, complicated questions of politics, fairness, and solidarity, and more diffused system risk, there is no assurance that the response by capable actors at the national or transnational level will be either timely or sufficient, either in the United States or in Europe.

There is plenty to quote from in this document, especially in light of the fact that it provides a good deal of sound, constructive criticism of our government’s response to the crisis.  Additionally, the panel offered solutions you’re not likely to hear from politicians, most of whom are in the habit of repeating talking points, written by lobbyists.

Focusing on the situation here in the United States, the report gave us some refreshing criticism, especially in the current climate where commentators are stumbling over each other to congratulate Ben Bernanke on his nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman:

American participants were almost equally skeptical of the effectiveness of the U.S.approach to date.  As one put it, “Diabetes is a metabolic disease.”  Elements of a metabolic disease can be treated (here, “stimulus” plays the role of insulin), but the key to success is to deal with the underlying metabolic problem.  In the economic sphere, that problem lies essentially with the transfer of resources and power to the top and the dismantling of effective taxing power over those at the top of the system.  (The speaker noted that the effective corporate tax rate for the top 20 firms in the United States is under 2 percent.)  The effect of this is to create a “trained professional class of retainers” who devote themselves to preserving the existing (unstable) system.  Further, there were massive frauds in the origination of mortgages, in the ratings processes that led to securitization, and in the credit default swaps that were supposed to insure against loss.  In the policy approach so far, there is a consistent failure to address,                 analyze, remedy, and prosecute these frauds.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, major legislation from health care to bank reform continues to be written in consultation with the lobbies; as one speaker noted, legislation on credit default swaps was being prepared by “Jamie Dimon and his lobbyists.”

One of the gravest dangers to economic recovery, finally, lies precisely in the crisis-fatigue of the political classes, in their lack of patience with a deep and intractable problem, and with their inflexible commitment to the preceding economic order.  This feeds denial of the problem, a deep desire to move back to familiar rhetorical and political ground, and the urge to declare victory, groundlessly and prematurely.  As one speaker argued, the U.S.discussion of  “green shoots” amounts to little more than politically inspired wishful thinking — a substitute for action, at least so far as hopes for the recovery of employment are concerned.

Lest I go on, quoting the whole damned thing, I’ll simply urge you to take a look at it.  At the conclusion of the paper was the unpleasant point that some of the damage from this crisis has been irreversible.  There was an admonition that before undertaking reconstruction of the damage, some careful planning should be done, inclusive of the necessary safeguards to make it possible to move forward.

Whether or not anyone in Washington will pay serious attention to these findings is another issue altogether.  Our system of legalized graft in the form of lobbying and campaign contributions, guarantees an uphill battle for anyone attempting to change the status quo.

The SEC Is Out To Lunch

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August 27, 2009

Back on January 5, I wrote a piece entitled:  “Clean-Up Time On Wall Street” in which I pondered whether our new President-elect and his administration would really “crack down on the unregulated activities on Wall Street that helped bring about the current economic crisis”.  I quoted from a December 15 article by Stephen Labaton of The New York Times, examining the failures of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the environment at the SEC that facilitated such breakdowns.  Some of the highlights from the Times piece included these points:

.  .  .  H. David Kotz, the commission’s new inspector general, has documented several major botched investigations.  He has told lawmakers of one case in which the commission’s enforcement chief improperly tipped off a private lawyer about an insider-trading inquiry.

*  *  *

There are other difficulties plaguing the agency. A recent report to Congress by Mr. Kotz is a catalog of major and minor problems, including an investigation into accusations that several S.E.C. employees have engaged in illegal insider trading and falsified financial disclosure forms.

I then questioned the wisdom of Barack Obama’s appointment of Mary Schapiro as the new Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, quoting from an article by Randall Smith and Kara Scannell of The Wall Street Journal concerning Schapiro’s track record as chair of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA):

Robert Banks, a director of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, an industry group for plaintiff lawyers . . .  said that under Ms. Schapiro, “Finra has not put much of a dent in fraud,” and the entire system needs an overhaul.  “The government needs to treat regulation seriously, and for the past eight years we have not had real securities regulation in this country,” Mr. Banks said.

*   *   *

In 2001 she appointed Mark Madoff, son of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council, the national committee that reviews initial decisions rendered in Finra disciplinary and membership proceedings.

I also quoted from a two-part op-ed piece for the January 3  New York Times, written by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker, and David Einhorn.  Here’s what they had to say about the SEC:

Created to protect investors from financial predators, the commission has somehow evolved into a mechanism for protecting financial predators with political clout from investors.  (The task it has performed most diligently during this crisis has been to question, intimidate and impose rules on short-sellers — the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse.)

Keeping all of this in mind, let’s have a look at the current lawsuit brought by the SEC against Bank of America, pending before Judge Jed S. Rakoff of The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.  The matter was succinctly described by Louise Story of The New York Times:

The case centers on $3.6 billion bonuses that were paid out by Merrill Lynch late last year, just before that firm was merged with Bank of America.  Neither company disclosed the bonuses to shareholders, and the S.E.C. has charged that the companies’ proxy statement about the merger were misleading in their description of the bonuses.

To make a long story short, Bank of America agreed to settle the case for a mere $33 million, despite its insistence that it properly disclosed to its shareholders, the bonuses it authorized for Merrill Lynch & Co employees.  The mis-handling of this case by the SEC was best described by Rolfe Winkler of Reuters.  The moral outrage over this entire matter was best expressed by Karl Denninger of The Market Ticker.  Denninger’s bottom line was this:

It is time for the damn gloves to come off.  Our economy cannot recover until the scam street games are stopped, the fraudsters are removed from the executive suites (and if necessary from Washington) and the underlying frauds – particularly including the games played with the so-called “value” of assets on the balance sheets of various firms are all flushed out.

On a similarly disappointing note, there is the not-so-small matter of:  “Where did all the TARP money go?”  You may have read about Elizabeth Warren and you may have seen her on television, discussing her role as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, tasked with scrutinizing the TARP bank bailouts.  Neil Barofsky was appointed Special Investigator General of TARP (SIGTARP).  Why did all of this become necessary?  Let’s take another look back to last January.  At that time, a number of Democratic Senators, including:  Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Maria Cantwell (Washington) voted to oppose the immediate distribution of the second $350 billion in TARP funds.  The vote actually concerned a “resolution of disapproval” to block distribution of the TARP money, so that those voting in favor of the resolution were actually voting against releasing the funds.  Barack Obama had threatened to veto this resolution if it passed. The resolution was defeated with 52 votes (contrasted with 42 votes in favor of it).  At that time, Obama was engaged in a game of “trust me”, assuring those in doubt that the second $350 billion would not be squandered in the same undocumented manner as the first $350 billion.  As Jeremy Pelofsky reported for Reuters on January 15:

To win approval, Obama and his team made extensive promises to Democrats and Republicans that the funds would be used to better address the deepening mortgage foreclosure crisis and that tighter accounting standards would be enforced.

“My pledge is to change the way this plan is implemented and keep faith with the American taxpayer by placing strict conditions on CEO pay and providing more loans to small businesses,” Obama said in a statement, adding there would be more transparency and “more sensible regulations.”

Although it was a nice-sounding pledge, the new President never lived up to it.  Worse yet, we now have to rely on Congress, to insist on getting to the bottom of where all the money went.  Although Elizabeth Warren was able to pressure “Turbo” Tim Geithner into providing some measure of disclosure, there are still lots of questions that remain unanswered.  I’m sure many people, including Turbo Tim, are uncomfortable with the fact that Neil Barofsky is doing “too good” of a job as SIGTARP.  This is probably why Congress has now thrown a “human monkey wrench” into the works, with its addition of former SEC commissioner Paul Atkins to the Congressional Oversight Panel.  Expressing his disgust over this development, David Reilly wrote a piece for Bloomberg News, entitled: “Wall Street Fox Beds Down in Taxpayer Henhouse”.  He discussed the cynical appointment of Atkins with this explanation:

Atkins was named last week to be one of two Republicans on the five-member TARP panel headed by Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren.  He replaces former Senator John Sununu, who stepped down in July.

*   *   *

And while a power-broker within the commission, Atkins was also seen as the sharp tip of the deregulatory spear during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Atkins didn’t waver from his hands-off position, even as the credit crunch intensified.  Speaking less than two months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Atkins in one of his last speeches at the SEC warned against calls for a “new regulatory order.”

He added, “We must not immediately jump to the conclusion that failures of firms in the marketplace or the unavailability of credit in the marketplace is caused by market failure, or indeed regulatory failure.”

When I spoke with him yesterday, Atkins hadn’t changed his tune.  “If the takeaway by some people is that deregulation is the thing that led to problems in the marketplace, that’s completely wrong,” he said.  “The problems happened in the most heavily regulated areas of the financial-services industry.”

Regulated by whom?

An Ominous Drumbeat Gets Louder

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August 13, 2009

Regular readers of this blog (all four of them) know that I have been very skeptical about the current “bear market rally” in the stock markets.  Nevertheless, the rally has continued.  However, we are now beginning to hear opinions from experts claiming that not only is this rally about to end — we could be headed for some real trouble.

Some commentators are currently discussing “The September Effect” and looking at how the stock market indices usually drop during the month of September.  Brett Arends gave us a detailed history of the September Effect in Tuesday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Throughout the summer rally, a number of analysts focused on the question of how this rally could be taken seriously with such thin trading volume.  When the indices dropped on Monday, many blamed the decline on the fact that it was the lowest volume day for 2009.  However, take a look at Kate Gibson’s discussion of this situation for MarketWatch:

One market technician believes trading volume in recent days on the S&P 500 is a sign that the broad market gauge will test last month’s lows, then likely fall under its March low either next month or in October.

The decline in volume started on Friday and suggests the S&P 500 will make a new low beneath its July 8 bottom of 869.32, probably next week, on the way to a test in September or October of its March 6 intraday low of 666.79, said Tony Cherniawski, chief investment officer at Practical Investor, a financial advisory firm.

“In a normal breakout, you get rising volume. In this case, we had rising volume for a while; then it really dropped off last week,” said Cherniawski, who ascribes the recent rise in equities to “a huge short-covering rally.”

The S&P has rallied more than 50 percent from its March lows, briefly slipping in late June and early July.

Friday’s rise on the S&P 500 to a new yearly high was not echoed on the Nasdaq Composite Index, bringing more fodder to the bearish side, Cherniawski said.

“Whenever you have tops not confirmed by another major index, that’s another sign something fishy is going on,” he said.

What impressed me about Mr. Cherniawski’s statement is that, unlike most prognosticators, he gave us a specific time frame of “next week” to observe a 137-point drop in the S&P 500 index, leading to a further decline “in September or October” to the Hadean low of 666.

At CNNMoney.com, the question was raised as to whether the stock market had become the latest bubble created by the Federal Reserve:

The Federal Reserve has spent the past year cleaning up after a housing bubble it helped create.  But along the way it may have pumped up another bubble, this time in stocks.

*   *   *

But while most people take the rise in stocks as a hopeful sign for the economy, some see evidence that the Fed has been financing a speculative mania that could end in another damaging rout.

One important event that gave everyone a really good scare took place on Tuesday’s Morning Joe program on MSNBC.  Elizabeth Warren, Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel (responsible for scrutiny of the TARP bailout program) discussed the fact that the “toxic assets” which had been the focus of last fall’s financial crisis, were still on the books of the banks.  Worse yet, “Turbo” Tim Geithner’s PPIP (Public-Private Investment Program) designed to relieve the banks of those toxins, has now morphed into something that will help only the “big” banks (Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, et al.) holding “securitized” mortgages.  The banks not considered “too big to fail”, holding non-securitized “whole” loans, will now be left to twist in the wind on Geithner’s watch.  The complete interview can be seen here.  This disclosure resulted in some criticism of the Obama administration, coming from sources usually supportive of the current administration. Here’s what The Huffington Post had to say:

Warren, who’s been leading the call of late to reconcile the shoddy assets weighing down the bank sector, warned of a looming commercial mortgage crisis.  And even though Wall Street has steadied itself in recent weeks, smaller banks will likely need more aid, Warren said.

Roughly half of the $700 billion bailout, Warren added, was “don’t ask, don’t tell money. We didn’t ask how they were going to spend it, and they didn’t tell how they were going to spend it.”

She also took a passing shot at Tim Geithner – at one point, comparing Geithner’s handling of the bailout money to a certain style of casino gambling.  Geithner, she said, was throwing smaller portions of bailout money at several economic pressure points.

“He’s doing the sort of $2 bets all over the table in Vegas,” Warren joked.

David Corn, a usually supportive member of the White House press corps, reacted with indignation over Warren’s disclosures in an article entitled:  “An Economic Time Bomb Being Mishandled by the Obama Administration?”  He pulled no punches:

What’s happened is that accounting changes have made it easier for banks to contend with these assets. But this bad stuff hasn’t gone anywhere.  It’s literally been papered over. And it still has the potential to wreak havoc.  As the report puts it:

If the economy worsens, especially if unemployment remains elevated or if the commercial real estate market collapses, then defaults will rise and the troubled assets will continue to deteriorate in value.  Banks will incur further losses on their troubled assets.  The financial system will remain vulnerable to the crisis conditions that TARP was meant to fix.

*   *   *

In a conference call with a few reporters (myself included), Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard professor heading the Congressional Oversight Panel, noted that the biggest toxic assets threat to the economy could come not from the behemoth banks but from the “just below big” banks.  These institutions have not been the focus of Treasury efforts because their troubled assets are generally “whole loans” (that is, regular loans), not mortgage securities, and these less-than-big banks have been stuck with a lot of the commercial real estate loans likely to default in the next year or two.  Given that the smaller institutions are disproportionately responsible for providing credit to small businesses, Warren said, “if they are at risk, that has implications for the stability of the entire banking system and for economic recovery.”  Recalling that toxic assets were once the raison d’etre of TARP, she added, “Toxic assets posed a very real threat to our economy and have not yet been resolved.”

Yes, you’ve heard about various government efforts to deal with this mess.  With much hype, Secretary Timothy Geithner in March unveiled a private-public plan to buy up this financial waste.  But the program has hardly taken off, and it has ignored a big chunk of the problem (those”whole loans”).

*   *   *

The Congressional Oversight Panel warned that “troubled assets remain a substantial danger” and that this junk–which cannot be adequately valued–“can again become the trigger for instability.”  Warren’s panel does propose several steps the Treasury Department can take to reduce the risks.  But it’s frightening that Treasury needs to be prodded by Warren and her colleagues, who characterized troubled assets as “the most serious risk to the American financial system.”

On Wednesday morning’s CNBC program, Squawk Box, Nassim Taleb (author of the book, Black Swan — thus earning that moniker as his nickname) had plenty of harsh criticism for the way the financial and economic situations have been mishandled.  You can see the interview with him and Nouriel Roubini here, along with CNBC’s discussion of his criticisms:

“It is a matter of risk and responsibility, and I think the risks that were there before, these problems are still there,” he said. “We still have a very high level of debt, we still have leadership that’s literally incompetent …”

“They did not see the problem, they don’t look at the core of problem.  There’s an elephant in the room and they did not identify it.”

Pointing his finger directly at Fed Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and President Obama, Taleb said policymakers need to begin converting debt into equity but instead are continuing the programs that created the financial crisis.

“I don’t think that structural changes have been addressed,” he said.  “It doesn’t look like they’re fully aware of the problem, or they’re overlooking it because they don’t want to take hard medicine.”

With Bernanke’s term running out, Taleb said Obama would be making a mistake by reappointing the Fed chairman.

Just in case you aren’t scared yet, I’d like to direct your attention to Aaron Task’s interview with stock market prognosticator, Robert Prechter, on Aaron’s Tech Ticker internet TV show, which can be seen at the Yahoo Finance site.  Here’s how some of Prechter’s discussion was summarized:

“The big question is whether the rally is over,” Prechter says, suggesting “countertrend moves can be tricky” to predict.  But the veteran market watcher is “quite sure the next wave down is going to be larger than what we’ve already experienced,” and take major averages well below their March 2009 lows.

“Well below” the Hadean low of 666?  Now that’s really scary!