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Federal Reserve Bailout Records Provoke Limited Outrage

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On December 3, 2009 I wrote a piece entitled, “The Legacy of Mark Pittman”.  Mark Pittman was the reporter at Bloomberg News whose work was responsible for the lawsuit, brought under the Freedom of Information Act, against the Federal Reserve, seeking disclosure of the identities of those financial firms benefiting from the Fed’s eleven emergency lending programs.

The suit, Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 08-CV-9595, (U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York) resulted in a ruling in August of 2009 by Judge Loretta Preska, who rejected the Fed’s defense that disclosure would adversely affect the ability of those institutions (which sought loans at the Fed’s discount window) to compete for business.  The suit also sought disclosure of the amounts loaned to those institutions as well as the assets put up as collateral under the Fed’s eleven lending programs, created in response to the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve appealed Judge Preska’s decision, taking the matter before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  The Fed’s appeal was based on Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act, which exempts trade secrets and confidential business information from mandatory disclosure.  The Second Circuit affirmed Judge Preska’s decision on the basis that the records sought were neither trade secrets nor confidential business information because Bloomberg requested only records generated by the Fed concerning loans that were actually made, rather than applications or confidential information provided by persons, firms or other organizations in attempt to obtain loans.  Although the Fed did not attempt to appeal the Second Circuit’s decision to the United States Supreme Court, a petition was filed with the Supreme Court by Clearing House Association LLC, a coalition of banks that received bailout funds.  The petition was denied by the Supreme Court on March 21.

Bob Ivry of Bloomberg News had this to say about the documents produced by the Fed as a result of the suit:

The 29,000 pages of documents, which the Fed released in pdf format on a CD-ROM, revealed that foreign banks accounted for at least 70 percent of the Fed’s lending at its October, 2008 peak of $110.7 billion.  Arab Banking Corp., a lender part- owned by the Central Bank of Libya, used a New York branch to get 73 loans from the window in the 18 months after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed.

As government officials and news reporters continue to review the documents, a restrained degree of outrage is developing.  Ron Paul is the Chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy.  He is also a longtime adversary of the Federal Reserve, and author of the book, End The Fed.  A recent report by Peter Barnes of FoxBusiness.com said this about Congressman Paul:

.   .   .   he plans to hold hearings in May on disclosures that the Fed made billions — perhaps trillions — in secret emergency loans to almost every major bank in the U.S. and overseas during the financial crisis.

*   *   *

“I am, even with all my cynicism, still shocked at the amount this is and of course shocked, but not completely surprised, [that] much [of] this money went to help foreign banks,” said Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX),   .   .   .  “I don’t have [any] plan [for] legislation …  It will take awhile to dissect that out, to find out exactly who benefitted and why.”

In light of the fact that Congressman Paul is considering another run for the Presidency, we can expect some exciting hearings starring Ben Bernanke.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont became an unlikely ally of Ron Paul in their battle to include an “Audit the Fed” provision in the financial reform bill.  Senator Sanders was among the many Americans who were stunned to learn that Arab Banking Corporation used a New York branch to get 73 loans from the Fed during the 18 months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.  The infuriating factoid in this scenario is apparent in the following passage from the Bloomberg report by Bob Ivry and Donal Griffin:

The bank, then 29 percent-owned by the Libyan state, had aggregate borrowings in that period of $35 billion — while the largest single loan amount outstanding was $1.2 billion in July 2009, according to Fed data released yesterday.  In October 2008, when lending to financial institutions by the central bank’s so- called discount window peaked at $111 billion, Arab Banking took repeated loans totaling more than $2 billion.

Ivry and Griffin provided this reaction from Bernie Sanders:

“It is incomprehensible to me that while creditworthy small businesses in Vermont and throughout the country could not receive affordable loans, the Federal Reserve was providing tens of billions of dollars in credit to a bank that is substantially owned by the Central Bank of Libya,” Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, wrote in a letter to Fed and U.S. officials.

The best critique of the Fed’s bailout antics came from Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi.  He began his report this way:

After the financial crash of 2008, it grew to monstrous dimensions, as the government attempted to unfreeze the credit markets by handing out trillions to banks and hedge funds.  And thanks to a whole galaxy of obscure, acronym-laden bailout programs, it eventually rivaled the “official” budget in size – a huge roaring river of cash flowing out of the Federal Reserve to destinations neither chosen by the president nor reviewed by Congress, but instead handed out by fiat by unelected Fed officials using a seemingly nonsensical and apparently unknowable methodology.

As Matt Taibbi began discussing what the documents produced by the Fed revealed, he shared this reaction from a staffer, tasked to review the records for Senator Sanders:

“Our jaws are literally dropping as we’re reading this,” says Warren Gunnels, an aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.  “Every one of these transactions is outrageous.”

In case you are wondering just how “outrageous” these transactions were, Mr. Taibbi provided an outrageously entertaining chronicle of a venture named “Waterfall TALF Opportunity”, whose principal investors were Christy Mack and Susan Karches.  Susan Karches is the widow of Peter Karches, former president of Morgan Stanley’s investment banking operations.  Christy Mack is the wife of John Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley.  Matt Taibbi described Christy Mack as “thin, blond and rich – a sort of still-awake Sunny von Bulow with hobbies”.  Here is how he described Waterfall TALF:

The technical name of the program that Mack and Karches took advantage of is TALF, short for Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility.  But the federal aid they received actually falls under a broader category of bailout initiatives, designed and perfected by Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, called “giving already stinking rich people gobs of money for no fucking reason at all.”  If you want to learn how the shadow budget works, follow along.  This is what welfare for the rich looks like.

The venture would have been more aptly-named, “TALF Exploitation Windfall Opportunity”.  Think about it:  the Mack-Karches entity was contrived for the specific purpose of cashing-in on a bailout program, which was ostensibly created for the purpose of preventing a consumer credit freeze.

I was anticipating that the documents withheld by the Federal Reserve were being suppressed because – if the public ever saw them – they would provoke an uncontrollable degree of public outrage.  So far, the amount of attention these revelations have received from the mainstream media has been surprisingly minimal.  When one compares the massive amounts squandered by the Fed on Crony Corporate Welfare Queens such as Christy Mack and Susan Karches ($220 million loaned at a fraction of a percentage point) along with the multibillion-dollar giveaways (e.g. $13 billion to Goldman Sachs by way of Maiden Lane III) the fighting over items in the 2012 budget seems trivial.

The Fed’s defense of its lending to foreign banks was explained on the New York Fed’s spiffy new Liberty Street blog:

Discount window lending to U.S. branches of foreign banks and dollar funding by branches to parent banks helped to mitigate the economic impact of the crisis in the United States and abroad by containing financial market disruptions, supporting loan availability for companies, and maintaining foreign investment flows into U.S. companies and assets.

Without the backstop liquidity provided by the discount window, foreign banks that faced large and fluctuating demand for dollar funding would have further driven up the level and volatility of money market interest rates, including the critical federal funds rate, the Eurodollar rate, and Libor (the London interbank offered rate).  Higher rates and volatility would have increased distress for U.S. financial firms and U.S. businesses that depend on money market funding.  These pressures would have been reflected in higher interest rates and reduced bank lending, bank credit lines, and commercial paper in the United States.  Moreover, further volatility in dollar funding markets could have disrupted the Federal Reserve’s ability to implement monetary policy, which requires stabilizing the federal funds rate at the policy target set by the Federal Open Market Committee.

In other words:  Failure by the Fed to provide loans to foreign banks would have made quantitative easing impossible.  There would have been no POMO auctions.  As a result, there would have been no supply of freshly printed-up money to be used by the proprietary trading desks of the primary dealers to ramp-up the stock market for those “late-day rallies”.  This process was described as the “POMO effect” in a 2009 paper by Precision Capital Management entitled, “A Grand Unified Theory of Market Manipulation”.

Thanks for the explanation, Mr. Dudley.


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Getting Cozy

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April 1, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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



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Much Ado About Nothing

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May 28, 2009

The media feeding frenzy over President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court provides us with yet another reason why so many newspapers and news magazines are going broke:  They beat stories to death.  There has been quite a bit of hype in the run-up to Obama’s announcement of his choice.  News outlets have been salivating in anticipation of a protracted, partisan brawl with visions of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, dancing in their heads.  A visit to the RealClearPolitics website for May 27 provides the reader with an assaultive profusion of articles concerning the Sotomayor nomination.

There are a couple of simple dynamics at work here.  With his nomination of Judge Sotomayor, President Obama has set out a trap for partisan Republicans, hell-bent on opposing any nominee selected by the Democrat for the high court.  Once these “attack dogs” pounce on Sotomayor, they reinforce the public perception of the GOP as the Party of White Men.  They would not only alienate female voters but they would also antagonize Hispanic voters.  This is exactly why you won’t really see that much of a fight over her nomination.  On the other hand, a political “has been” such as Newt Gingrich, sees the Sotomayor nomination as the perfect opportunity to keep his fat face in front of the cameras, without any apparent regard as to whether his remarks could exacerbate the GOP’s image problem.  The “hard right” media outlets and other authoritarian activist groups have instinctively responded by filling in the blanks on their pre-written scripts to include Sotomayor’s name as well as the necessary touch-ups to relate their  remarks to this particular target.  One smear fits all.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet  . . .  It’s all a waste of your time.  You need only read one story about the Sotomayor nomination and it was written by Mike Allen of Politico.  Relying on confidential Republican sources, Mr. Allen reports that “the GOP plans no scorched-earth opposition to her confirmation”.  At this point, I should advise you that the hissing sound you are hearing is all the air coming out of the tires for those pundits, hoping to expand this story into an epic drama and an eventual book deal.  It’s not happening.  As Mike Allen reported:

“The sentiment is overwhelming that the Senate should do due diligence but should not make a mountain out of a molehill,” said a top Senate Republican aide.  “If there’s no ‘there’ there, we shouldn’t try to create one.”

The news media shouldn’t try to create one, either  . . .   but they will anyway.  What else are they going to discuss?  You’re already sick of the American Idol stories.  So what they’re left with is the economy.  They hate that subject because the public and their own reporters are too dumb to understand it.  Besides … it’s boring and it involves math!  Never mind the fact that you’re going broke.  Just smoke your “green shoots” and believe in a “hope rally” for the stock market.

It’s always refreshing when someone such as Mike Allen undermines the mainstream media hype machine by sticking to the simple truth of a story.  In this case the simple truth is that the story itself is quite simple.

Joining The Supremes

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May 4, 2009

On April 30, Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced his intention to retire after the current court term recess in June.  Many were surprised by this announcement.  Since Justice John Paul Stevens is 89 and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 76, most Supreme Court watchers expected one of those two jurists to be the first to retire after the election of President Obama.  Those who know Justice Souter all concur that he hates living in Washington, D.C. where he is a reluctant member of the capitol’s “elite”.

Watching Friday’s news programs, I was amused by the mad scramble by those on the “hard right” to organize their opposition to the confirmation of Preisdent Obama’s nominee to the high court.  Obama has not yet even announced whom he intends to nominate, yet these reactionaries are already against that person.  So, the fun begins  . . .

Once the President makes the nomination, the Senate Judiciary Committee begins the confirmation hearings, wherein the candidate will become incessantly badgered about his or her views on abortion, gay weddings, gun control and whether the court should “intervene” by overturning patently unconstitutional laws enacted by a bought-off (Oops!  — I mean “lobbied”) Congress.  The Judiciary Committee then issues its report and the full Senate votes to either confirm or reject the nomination with 51 votes.

This process became a spectator sport back in 1987, when Ronald Reagan nominated the Amish-looking, Robert Bork.  The Democrats immediately launched a full-on battle against the nomination, considered by many as a bit over-the-top, since it involved scrutiny of Bork’s video rentals.  This particular judicial confirmation resulted in the use of the word “Bork” as a verb.  Since that time, getting “Borked” described any situation wherein a political appointee became the target of a partisan attack during the confirmation process.  Nevertheless, Bork’s view that the Constitution provides no guarantee of an individual’s right to privacy, justified much of the ire against him.  During the confirmation hearings, he criticized the decision in Roe v. Wade.  Dumb idea.  Since that time, Republican nominees to any Federal Court do all they can to avoid providing straight answers to questions dealing with a woman’s right to determine whether she will carry a fetus to term.

The most entertaining confirmation hearings came along when George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991.  By that time, Bush appointee David Souter had already begun to disappoint the “hard right”.  The administration wanted to be sure they had a hard-line conservative this time and in Thomas they found the prefect candidate to replace the court’s first African-American Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who retired.  The excitement began when the committee heard testimony from Anita Hill, who had worked for Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Ms. Hill testified that while working at the EEOC, she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas on several occasions.  The most memorable portion of her testimony concerned a remark by Thomas that his favorite porn video was a feature entitled:  Long Dong Silver.  Although Hill’s testimony ultimately did not block the confirmation of Thomas, people began lining up at adult book stores to purchase copies of the overnight classic.  I always wondered whether a certain chain of seafood restaurants also might have benefited from that aspect of the proceedings.

At this point, many Republicans likely assume that President Obama will nominate an ultra-liberal judge to counter-balance the far-right members of the court:  Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.  News outlets are already abuzz with speculation concerning the most likely nominee.  The betting is heavy that Obama will nominate a woman for this vacancy because a man (Samuel Alito) was appointed by George W. Bush to replace Sandra Day O’Connor, one of only two females on the court when Bush took office.  Some pundits expect Obama to nominate someone from a minority group to add a little more diversity to the court.  As a result, many of these people expect Judge Sonia Sotomayor from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to get the nod.  My prediction is that the President will select Judge Diane Wood from the Seventh Circuit.  She shares Obama’s experience as an instructor at the University of Chicago Law School and she has a solid background.

Nevertheless, we can expect quite a bit of showboating once the confirmation process begins.  It might not be as much fun as the Clarence Thomas hearings  .  .  .  but who knows?

Let the games begin!