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Black And Reich

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April 16, 2009

I guess it’s because I was using TurboTax to work on my income tax return for the past few days, that I was constantly reminded of Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  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”).  I recently read an article by a couple of Economics professors named Laurence J. Kotlikoff (Boston University) and Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University) wherein they referred to this plan as the GASP (Geithner And Summers Plan).  Their bottom line:

The Geithner-and-Summers Plan should be scrapped.  President Obama should ask his advisors to canvas the economics and legal community to hear the much better ideas that are in wide circulation.

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).  During that time, the FSLIC helped block an attempted sale of Charles Keating’s Lincoln Savings and Loan, which was subsequently seized by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, despite opposition from five United States Senators, who became known as the Keating Five.  A recent interview with Professor Black by Jack Willoughby of Barrons revealed that Black’s aversion to the PPIP starts with the fact that it is being implemented by Geithner and Summers:

We have failed bankers giving advice to failed regulators on how to deal with failed assets.  How can it result in anything but failure?  If they are going to get any truthful investigation, the Democrats picked the wrong financial team.  Tim Geithner, the current Secretary of the Treasury, and Larry Summers, chairman of the National Economic Council, were important architects of the problems.  Geithner especially represents a failed regulator, having presided over the bailouts of major New York banks.

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.

For the past month or so, I’ve been hearing many stock market commentators bemoan the fact that there is so much money “on the sidelines”.  In other words, people with trading accounts are letting their money sit in brokerage money market accounts, rather than risking it in the stock markets.  I believe that many of these people are so discouraged by the sleazy environment on Wall Street, they are waiting for things to get cleaned up before they take any more chances in a casino where so many games are rigged.  In the Barrons interview, Black made a point that reinforced my opinion:

His (Geithner’s) use of language like “legacy assets” — and channeling the worst aspects of Milton Friedman — is positively Orwellian.  Extreme conservatives wrongly assume that the government can’t do anything right.  And they wrongly assume that the market will ultimately lead to correct actions.  If cheaters prosper, cheaters will dominate.  It is like Gresham’s law:  Bad money drives out the good.  Well, bad behavior drives out good behavior, without good enforcement.

By asking Professor Black a few simple, straightforward questions (in layperson’s language) Jack Willoughby got some fantastic and refreshing information in return (also in layperson’s language) making this article a “must read”.  As Black and many others have pointed out, these huge financial institutions must be broken down into smaller businesses.  Why isn’t this being undertaken?  Professor Black looks to where the buck stops:

Obama, who is doing so well in so many other arenas, appears to be slipping because he trusts Democrats high in the party structure too much.

These Democrats want to maintain America’s pre-eminence in global financial capitalism at any cost.  They remain wedded to the bad idea of bigness, the so-called financial supermarket — one-stop shopping for all customers — that has allowed the American financial system to paper the world with subprime debt.  Even the managers of these worldwide financial conglomerates testify that they have become so sprawling as to be unmanageable.

Another critic of the Geithner-Summers PPIP is former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich.  Reich is now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.  His April 6 blog entry discussed the fact that the top 25 hedge fund managers earned a total of $11.6 billion last year:

But what causes me severe heartburn is that these are exactly the sort of investors Tim Geithner is trying to lure in to buy troubled assets from banks, with an extraordinary offer financed by you and me and other taxpayers:  If it turns out the troubled assets are worth more than these guys pay for them, they could make a fortune.  If it turns out the assets are worth less, these guys won’t lose a thing because we taxpayers will bail them out.  Plus, they get to pick only the highest-rated of the big banks’ bad assets and can review them carefully before buying.

What a deal.  Why can’t you and I get in on this bonanza? Because we’re too small.  The government will designate only about five big investor funds — run or owned by the richest of the rich — as potential buyers.  Hedge funds fit the bill perfectly.

It’s nice to know that more and more prominent individuals in the world of economics and public policy are taking the ethical stand against a program based on the principle of “socialized loss and privatized gain”.  I just hope President Obama doesn’t take too long to realize that these people are right and that the Geithner – Summers team is wrong.

Another Troubling Appointment By Obama

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February 5, 2009

It all started with Bill Richardson.  On January 4, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that he was withdrawing as nominee for the position of Commerce Secretary, due to an investigation into allegations of influence peddling.

Then there was a brief moment of concern over the fact that Treasury Secretary nominee, Timothy Geithner, was a little late with some self-employment tax payments.  Since his new position would put him in charge of the Internal Revenue Service, many people found this shocking.  Even more shocking was his admission that he prepared his income taxes using the TurboTax software program.  That entire controversy was overlooked because Geithner has been regarded as the only person in Washington who fully understands the TARP bailout bill (as Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter once said).

On February 3, two more Obama appointees had to step aside.  The first was Nancy Killefer, who had been selected to become “Chief Performance Officer”, in which role she would have been tasked with cleaning up waste in government programs.  Her situation didn’t sound all that scandalous.  The Wall Street Journal explained that she “… had a $946.69 tax lien imposed on her home by the District of Columbia for unpaid taxes on household help, a debt she had satisfied long ago.”  Later that day, Tom Daschle had to withdraw his nomination to become Secretary of Health and Human Services.  It seemed that his failure to timely pay over $100,000 in taxes was just part of the problem.  As the previously-mentioned Wall Street Journal article pointed out, the Daschle nomination provided additional embarrassment for President Obama:

Beyond the tax issue, Mr. Daschle was increasingly being portrayed as a Washington insider who made a fortune by trading on his Beltway connections — an example of the kind of culture Mr. Obama had pledged to change.

Meanwhile, many Democrats were expressing dismay over the February 2 announcement that Republican Senator Judd Gregg had been tapped to become Commerce Secretary.  Back in 1995, as United States Senator representing New Hampshire, he voted in favor of a budget measure that would have abolished the Commerce Department.  To many, this seemed too much like the George W. Bush tactic of putting a saboteur in charge of an administrative agency.  Nevertheless, Senator Gregg was ready to address those concerns.  As Liz Sidoti reported for the Associated Press:

In a conference call with reporters, Gregg dismissed questions about the vote.

“I say those were my wild and crazy days,” he said.  “My record on supporting Commerce far exceeds any one vote that was cast early on in the context of an overall budget.”

Gregg said he’s strongly supported the agency, particularly its scientific initiatives, including at the agency’s largest department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Finally, on Wednesday February 5, those who concurred with President Obama’s appointment of Mary Schapiro as Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had good reason to feel anxious.  That day brought us the long-awaited testimony of independent financial fraud investigator, Harry Markopolos, before the House Financial Services Committee.  Back in May of 2000, Mr. Markopolos tried to alert the SEC to the fact that Bernie Madoff’s hedge fund was a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.  As Markopolos explained in his testimony, he repeatedly attempted to get the SEC to investigate this scam, only to be rebuffed on every occasion.  Although his testimony included some good advice directed to Ms. Schapiro about “cleaning up” the SEC, this portion of his testimony, as discussed by Marcy Gordon of the Associated Press, deserves some serious attention:

While the SEC is incompetent, the securities industry’s self-policing organization, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, is “very corrupt,” Markopolos charged.  That organization was headed until December by Schapiro, who has said Madoff carried out the scheme through his investment business and FINRA was empowered to inspect only the brokerage operation.

So Schapiro’s defense is that FINRA was empowered to inspect only brokerages and Madoff Investments was not a brokerage.  This doesn’t address Markopolos’ testimony that FINRA is “very corrupt”.  Mary Schapiro was the Chair and CEO of that “very corrupt” entity from 2006 until December of 2008.  Let’s not forget that during her tenure in that position she appointed Bernie Madoff’s son, Mark Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council.  The Mark Madoff appointment was discussed back on December 18 by Randall Smith and Kara Scannell, in The Wall Street Journal.  At that time, they provided an informative analysis of the SEC nominee’s track record, which should have discouraged the new President from appointing her as he did on his second day in office:

She was credited with beefing up enforcement while at the National Association of Securities Dealers and guiding the creation of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which she now leads.  But some in the industry questioned whether she would be strong enough to get the SEC back on track.

*   *   *

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.

Since Ms. Schapiro took over Finra in 2006, the number of enforcement cases has dropped, in part because actions stemming from the tech-bubble collapse ebbed and the markets rebounded from 2002 to 2007.  The agency has been on the fringe of the major Wall Street blowups, and opted to focus on more bread-and-butter issues such as fraud aimed at senior citizens.

Out of the gate, Ms. Schapiro faces potential controversy.  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.  Both sons of Mr. Madoff have denied any involvement in the massive Ponzi scheme their father has been accused of running.

I would be much more comfortable with a small-time tax cheat in charge of the SEC, than I am with Mary Schapiro in that position.  As his testimony demonstrates, Harry Markopolos is the person who should be running the SEC.