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Get Ready for the Next Financial Crisis

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It was almost one year ago when Bloomberg News reported on these remarks by Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Asset Management’s emerging markets group:

“There is definitely going to be another financial crisis around the corner because we haven’t solved any of the things that caused the previous crisis,” Mobius said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan inTokyotoday in response to a question about price swings. “Are the derivatives regulated?  No.  Are you still getting growth in derivatives?  Yes.”

I have frequently complained about the failed attempt at financial reform, known as the Dodd-Frank Act.  Two years ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax” wherein I expressed my outrage that the financial reform effort had become a charade.  The final product resulting from all of the grandstanding and backroom deals – the Dodd–Frank Act – had become nothing more than a hoax on the American public.  My essay included the reactions of five commentators, who were similarly dismayed.  I concluded the posting with this remark:

The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.

During the past few days, there has been a chorus of commentary calling for a renewed effort toward financial reform.  We have seen a torrent of reports on the misadventures of The London Whale at JP Morgan Chase, whose outrageous derivatives wager has cost the firm uncounted billions.  By the time this deal is unwound, the originally-reported loss of $2 billion will likely be dwarfed.

Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has made a hobby of writing blog postings about “what President Obama needs to do”.  Of course, President Obama never follows Professor Reich’s recommendations, which might explain why Mitt Romney has been overtaking Obama in the opinion polls.  On May 16, Professor Reich was downright critical of the President, comparing him to the dog in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle involving Sherlock Holmes, Silver Blaze.  The President’s feeble remarks about JPMorgan’s latest derivatives fiasco overlooked the responsibility of Jamie Dimon – obviously annoying Professor Reich, who shared this reaction:

Not a word about Jamie Dimon’s tireless campaign to eviscerate the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill; his loud and repeated charge that the Street’s near meltdown in 2008 didn’t warrant more financial regulation; his leadership of Wall Street’s brazen lobbying campaign to delay the Volcker Rule under Dodd-Frank, which is still delayed; and his efforts to make that rule meaningless by widening a loophole allowing banks to use commercial deposits to “hedge” (that is, make offsetting bets) their derivative trades.

Nor any mention Dimon’s outrageous flaunting of Dodd-Frank and of the Volcker Rule by setting up a special division in the bank to make huge (and hugely profitable, when the bets paid off) derivative trades disguised as hedges.

Nor Dimon’s dual role as both chairman and CEO of JPMorgan (frowned on my experts in corporate governance) for which he collected a whopping $23 million this year, and $23 million in 2010 and 2011 in addition to a $17 million bonus.

Even if Obama didn’t want to criticize Dimon, at the very least he could have used the occasion to come out squarely in favor of tougher financial regulation.  It’s the perfect time for him to call for resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act, of which the Volcker Rule – with its giant loophole for hedges – is a pale and inadequate substitute.

And for breaking up the biggest banks and setting a cap on their size, as the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve recommended several weeks ago.

This was Professor Reich’s second consecutive reference within a week to The Dallas Fed’s Annual Report, which featured an essay by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.  Beyond that, Rosenblum emphasized why those “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF) banks have actually grown since the enactment of Dodd-Frank:

The TBTF survivors of the financial crisis look a lot like they did in 2008.  They maintain corporate cultures based on the short-term incentives of fees and bonuses derived from increased oligopoly power.  They remain difficult to control because they have the lawyers and the money to resist the pressures of federal regulation.  Just as important, their significant presence in dozens of states confers enormous political clout in their quest to refocus banking statutes and regulatory enforcement to their advantage.

Last year, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by the TBTFs, which he characterized as “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:

…  I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism.  They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth.  So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

Although the huge derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase has motivated a number of commentators to issue warnings about the risk of another financial crisis, there had been plenty of admonitions emphasizing the risks of the next financial meltdown, which were published long before the London Whale was beached.  Back in January, G. Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk which brought about the catastrophe of 2008:

In response to widespread criticism associated with the financial collapse, Congress has enacted a number of reforms aimed at curbing abuses at financial institutions.  Legislation, such as the Dodd-Frank and Consumer Protection Act, was trumpeted as ensuring that another financial meltdown would be avoided.  Such reactionary regulation was certain to pacify U.S. taxpayers.

Unfortunately, legislation enacted does not solve the fundamental problem.  It simply provides cover for those who were asleep at the wheel, while ignoring the underlying cause of the crisis.

More than three years after the calamity, have we solved the dilemma we found ourselves in late 2008?  Can we rest assured that a future bailout will not occur?  Are financial institutions no longer “too big to fail?”

Regrettably, the answer, in each case, is a resounding no.

Last month, Michael T. Snyder of The Economic Collapse blog wrote an essay for the Seeking Alpha website, enumerating the 22 Red Flags Indicating Serious Doom Is Coming for Global Financial Markets.  Of particular interest was red flag #22:

The 9 largest U.S. banks have a total of 228.72 trillion dollars of exposure to derivatives.  That is approximately 3 times the size of the entire global economy.  It is a financial bubble so immense in size that it is nearly impossible to fully comprehend how large it is.

The multi-billion dollar derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase demonstrates that the sham “financial reform” cannot prevent another financial crisis.  The banks assume that there will be more taxpayer-funded bailouts available, when the inevitable train wreck occurs.  The Federal Reserve will be expected to provide another round of quantitative easing to keep everyone happy.  As a result, nothing will be done to strengthen financial reform as a result of this episode.  The megabanks were able to survive the storm of indignation in the wake of the 2008 crisis and they will be able ride-out the current wave of public outrage.

As Election Day approaches, Team Obama is afraid that the voters will wake up to the fact that the administration itself  is to blame for sabotaging financial reform.  They are hoping that the public won’t be reminded that two years ago, Simon Johnson (former chief economist of the IMF) wrote an essay entitled, “Creating the Next Crisis” in which he provided this warning:

On the critical dimension of excessive bank size and what it implies for systemic risk, there was a concerted effort by Senators Ted Kaufman and Sherrod Brown to impose a size cap on the largest banks – very much in accordance with the spirit of the original “Volcker Rule” proposed in January 2010 by Obama himself.

In an almost unbelievable volte face, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, Obama’s administration itself shot down this approach.  “If enacted, Brown-Kaufman would have broken up the six biggest banks inAmerica,” a senior Treasury official said.  “If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened.  But we weren’t, so it didn’t.”

Whether the world economy grows now at 4% or 5% matters, but it does not much affect our medium-term prospects. The US financial sector received an unconditional bailout – and is not now facing any kind of meaningful re-regulation.  We are setting ourselves up, without question, for another boom based on excessive and reckless risk-taking at the heart of the world’s financial system.  This can end only one way:  badly.

The public can forget a good deal of information in two years.  They need to be reminded about those early reactions to the Obama administration’s subversion of financial reform.  At her Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some negative opinions concerning the bill, along with her own cutting commentary in June of 2010:

I want the word “reform” back.  Between health care “reform” and financial services “reform,” Obama, his operatives, and media cheerleaders are trying to depict both initiatives as being far more salutary and far-reaching than they are.  This abuse of language is yet another case of the Obama Administration using branding to cover up substantive shortcomings.  In the short run it might fool quite a few people, just as BP’s efforts to position itself as an environmentally responsible company did.

*   *   *

So what does the bill accomplish?  It inconveniences banks around the margin while failing to reduce the odds of a recurrence of a major financial crisis.

On May 17, Noam Scheiber explained why the White House is ”sweating” the JPMorgan controversy:

In particular, the transaction appears to have been a type of proprietary trade – which is to say, a trade that a bank undertakes to make money for itself, not its clients.  And these trades were supposed to have been outlawed by the “Volcker Rule” provision of Obama’s financial reform law, at least at federally-backed banks like JP Morgan.  The administration is naturally worried that, having touted the law as an end to the financial shenanigans that brought us the 2008 crisis, it will look feckless instead.

*   *   *

But it turns out that there’s an additional twist here.  The concern for the White House isn’t just that the law could look weak, making it a less than compelling selling point for Obama’s re-election campaign.  It’s that the administration could be blamed for the weakness.  It’s one thing if you fought for a tough law and didn’t entirely succeed.  It’s quite another thing if it starts to look like you undermined the law behind the scenes.  In that case, the administration could look duplicitous, not merely ineffectual.  And that’s the narrative you see the administration trying to preempt   .   .   .

When the next financial crisis begins, be sure to credit President Obama as the Facilitator-In-Chief.


 

Dumping On The Dimon Dog

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The Dimon Dog has been eating crow for the past few days, following a very public humiliation.  The outspoken critic of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act found himself explaining a $2 billion loss sustained by his firm, JPMorgan Chase, as a result of involvement in the very type of activity the Act’s “Volcker Rule” was intended to prevent.  Financial industry lobbyists have been busy, frustrating regulatory attempts to implement Dodd-Frank’s provisions which call for stricter regulation of securities trading and transactions involving derivatives.  Appropriately enough, it was an irresponsible derivatives trading strategy which put Jamie Dimon on the hot seat.  The widespread criticism resulting from this episode was best described by Lizzie O’Leary (@lizzieohreally) with a single-word tweet:  Dimonfreude.

The incident in question involved a risky bet made by a London-based trader named Bruno Iksil – nicknamed “The London Whale” – who works in JP Morgan’s Chief Investment Office, or CIO.  An easy-to-understand explanation of this trade was provided by Heidi Moore, who emphasized that Iksil’s risky position was no secret before it went south:

Everyone knew.  Thousands of people.  Iksil’s bets have been well known ever since Bloomberg’s Stephanie Ruhle broke the news in early April.  A trader at rival bank, Bank of America Merrill Lynch wrote to clients back then, saying that Iksil’s huge bet was attracting attention and hedge funds believed him to be too optimistic and were betting against him, waiting for Iksil to crash.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the Merrill Lynch trader wrote, “Fast money has smelt blood.

When the media, analysts and other traders raised concerns on JP Morgan’s earnings conference call last month, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon dismissed their worries as “a tempest in a teapot.”

Dimon’s smug attitude about the trade (prior to its demise) was consistent with the hubris he exhibited while maligning Dodd-Frank, thus explaining why so many commentators took delight in Dimon’s embarrassment.  On May 11, Kevin Roose of DealBook offered a preliminary round-up of the criticism resulting from this episode:

In a research note, a RBC analyst, Gerard Cassidy, called the incident a “hit to credibility” at the bank, while the Huffington Post’s Mark Gongloff said, “Funny thing:  Some of the constraints of the very Dodd-Frank financial reform act Dimon hates could have prevented it.”  Slate’s Matthew Yglesias pointed back to statements Mr. Dimon made in opposition to the Volcker Rule and other proposed regulations, and quipped, “Indeed, if only JPMorgan were allowed to run a thinner capital buffer and riskier trades.  Then we’d all feel safe.”

Janet Tavakoli pointed out that this event is simply the most recent chapter in Dimon’s history of allowing the firm to follow risky trading strategies:

At issue is corporate governance at JPMorgan and the ability of its CEO, Jamie Dimon, to manage its risk.  It’s reasonable to ask whether any CEO can manage the risks of a bank this size, but the questions surrounding Jamie Dimon’s management are more targeted than that.  The problem Jamie Dimon has is that JPMorgan lost control in multiple areas.  Each time a new problem becomes public, it is revealed that management controls weren’t adequate in the first place.

*   *   *

Jamie Dimon’s problem as Chairman and CEO–his dual role raises further questions about JPMorgan’s corporate governance—is that just two years ago derivatives trades were out of control in his commodities division.  JPMorgan’s short coal position was over sized relative to the global coal market.  JPMorgan put this position on while the U.S. is at war.  It was not a customer trade; the purpose was to make money for JPMorgan.  Although coal isn’t a strategic commodity, one should question why the bank was so reckless.

After trading hours on Thursday of this week, Jamie Dimon held a conference call about $2 billion in mark-to-market losses in credit derivatives (so far) generated by the Chief Investment Office, the bank’s “investment” book.  He admitted:

“In hindsight, the new strategy was flawed, complex, poorly reviewed, poorly executed, and poorly monitored.”

At The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson focused on the karmic significance of Dimon’s making such an admission after having belittled Paul Volcker and Dallas FedHead Richard Fisher at a party in Dallas last month:

During the party, Mr. Dimon took questions from the crowd, according to an attendee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the bank. One guest asked about the problem of too-big-to-fail banks and the arguments made by Mr. Volcker and Mr. Fisher.

Mr. Dimon responded that he had just two words to describe them:  “infantile” and “nonfactual.”  He went on to lambaste Mr. Fisher further, according to the attendee.  Some in the room were taken aback by the comments.

*   *   *

The hypocrisy is that our nation’s big financial institutions, protected by implied taxpayer guarantees, oppose regulation on the grounds that it would increase their costs and reduce their profit.  Such rules are unfair, they contend.  But in discussing fairness, they never talk about how fair it is to require taxpayers to bail out reckless institutions when their trades imperil them.  That’s a question for another day.

AND the fact that large institutions arguing against transparency in derivatives trading won’t acknowledge that such rules could also save them from themselves is quite the paradox.

Dimon’s rant at the Dallas party was triggered by a fantastic document released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas on March 21:  its 2011 Annual Report, featuring an essay entitled, “Choosing the Road to Prosperity – Why We Must End Too Big to Fail – Now”.  The essay was written by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.

With his own criticism of Dimon’s attitude, Robert Reich invoked the position asserted by the Dallas Fed:

And now – only a few years after the banking crisis that forced American taxpayers to bail out the Street, caused home values to plunge by more than 30 percent, pushed millions of homeowners underwater, threatened or diminished the savings of millions more, and sent the entire American economy hurtling into the worst downturn since the Great Depression – J.P. Morgan Chase recapitulates the whole debacle with the same kind of errors, sloppiness, bad judgment, and poorly-executed and excessively risky trades that caused the crisis in the first place.

In light of all this, Jamie Dimon’s promise that J.P. Morgan will “fix it and move on” is not reassuring.

The losses here had been mounting for at least six weeks, according to Morgan. Where was the new transparency that’s supposed to allow regulators to catch these things before they get out of hand?

*   *   *

But let’s also stop hoping Wall Street will mend itself.  What just happened at J.P. Morgan – along with its leader’s cavalier dismissal followed by lame reassurance – reveals how fragile and opaque the banking system continues to be, why Glass-Steagall must be resurrected, and why the Dallas Fed’s recent recommendation that Wall Street’s giant banks be broken up should be heeded.

At Salon, Andrew Leonard focused on the embarrassment this episode could bring to Mitt Romney:

Because if anyone is going to come out of this mess looking even stupider than Jamie Dimon, it’s got to be Mitt Romney – the presidential candidate actively campaigning on a pledge to repeal Dodd-Frank.

Perhaps Mr. Romney might want to consider strapping The Dimon Dog to the roof of his car for a little ride to Canada.


 

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Occupy Movement Gets Some Respect

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Much has changed since the inception of the Occupy Wall Street movement.   When the occupation of Zuccotti Park began on September 17, the initial response from mainstream news outlets was to simply ignore it – with no mention of the event whatsoever.  When that didn’t work, the next tactic involved using the “giggle factor” to characterize the protesters as “hippies” or twenty-something “hippie wanna-bes”, attempting to mimic the protests in which their parents participated during the late-1960s.  When that mischaracterization failed to get any traction, the presstitutes’ condemnation of the occupation events – which had expanded from nationwide to worldwide – became more desperate:  The participants were called everything from “socialists” to “anti-Semites”.  Obviously, some of this prattle continues to emanate from unimaginative bloviators.  Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for respectable news sources to give serious consideration to the OWS effort.

One month after the occupation of Zuccotti Park began, The Economist explained why the movement had so much appeal to a broad spectrum of the population:

So the big banks’ apologies for their role in messing up the world economy have been grudging and late, and Joe Taxpayer has yet to hear a heartfelt “thank you” for bailing them out.  Summoned before Congress, Wall Street bosses have made lawyerised statements that make them sound arrogant, greedy and unrepentant.  A grand gesture or two – such as slashing bonuses or giving away a tonne of money – might have gone some way towards restoring public faith in the industry.  But we will never know because it didn’t happen.

Reports eventually began to surface, revealing that many “Wall Street insiders” actually supported the occupiers.  Writing for the DealBook blog at The New York Times, Jesse Eisinger provided us with the laments of a few Wall Street insiders, whose attitudes have been aligned with those of the OWS movement.

By late December, it became obvious that the counter-insurgency effort had expanded.   At The eXiled blog, Yasha Levine discussed the targeting of journalists by police, hell-bent on squelching coverage of the Occupy movement.  In January, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg lashed out against the OWS protesters by parroting what has become The Big Lie of our time.  In response to a question about Occupy Wall Street, Mayor Bloomberg said this:

“It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis.  It was, plain and simple, Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”

The counterpunch to Mayor Bloomberg’s remark was swift and effective.  Barry Ritholtz wrote a piece for The Washington Post entitled “What caused the financial crisis?  The Big Lie goes viral”.  After The Washington Post published the Ritholtz piece, a good deal of supportive commentary emerged – as observed by Ritholtz himself:

Since then, both Bloomberg.com and Reuters each have picked up the Big Lie theme. (Columbia Journalism Review as well).  In today’s NYT, Joe Nocera does too, once again calling out those who are pushing the false narrative for political or ideological reasons in a column simply called “The Big Lie“.

Once the new year began, the Occupy Oakland situation quickly deteriorated.  Chris Hedges of Truthdig took a hard look at the faction responsible for the “feral” behavior, raising the question of whether provocateurs could have been inciting the ugly antics:

The presence of Black Bloc anarchists – so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property – is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.

Chris Hedges gave further consideration to the involvement of provocateurs in the Black Bloc faction on February 13:

Occupy’s most powerful asset is that it articulates this truth.  And this truth is understood by the mainstream, the 99 percent.  If the movement is severed from the mainstream, which I expect is the primary goal of the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, it will be crippled and easily contained.  Other, more militant groups may rise and even flourish, but if the Occupy movement is to retain the majority it will have to fight within self-imposed limitations of nonviolence.

Despite the negative publicity generated by the puerile pranks of the Black Bloc, the Occupy movement turned a corner on February 13, when Occupy the SEC released its 325-page comment letter concerning the Securities and Exchange Commission’s draft “Volcker Rule”.  (The Volcker Rule contains the provisions in the Dodd-Frank financial reform act which restrict the ability of banks to make risky bets with their own money).  Occupy the SEC took advantage of the “open comment period” which is notoriously exploited by lobbyists and industry groups whenever an administrative agency introduces a new rule.  The K Street payola artists usually see this as their last chance to “un-write” regulations.

The most enthusiastic response to Occupy the SEC’s comment letter came from Felix Salmon of Reuters:

Occupy the SEC is the wonky finreg arm of Occupy Wall Street, and its main authors are worth naming and celebrating:  Akshat Tewary, Alexis Goldstein, Corley Miller, George Bailey, Caitlin Kline, Elizabeth Friedrich, and Eric Taylor.  If you can’t read the whole thing, at least read the introductory comments, on pages 3-6, both for their substance and for the panache of their delivery.  A taster:

During the legislative process, the Volcker Rule was woefully enfeebled by the addition of numerous loopholes and exceptions.  The banking lobby exerted inordinate influence on Congress and succeeded in diluting the statute, despite the catastrophic failures that bank policies have produced and continue to produce…

The Proposed Rule also evinces a remarkable solicitude for the interests of banking corporations over those of investors, consumers, taxpayers and other human beings. 

*   *   *

There’s lots more where that comes from, including the indelible vision of how “the Volcker Rule simply removes the government’s all-too-visible hand from underneath the pampered haunches of banking conglomerates”.  But the real substance is in the following hundreds of pages, where the authors go through the Volcker Rule line by line, explaining where it’s useless and where it can and should be improved.

John Knefel of Salon emphasized how this comment letter exploded the myth that the Occupy movement is simply a group of cynical hippies:

The working group’s detailed policy position gives lie to the common claim that the Occupy Wall Street movement is “well intentioned but misinformed.”  It shows there’s room in the movement both for policy wonks and those chanting “anti-capitalista.”

Even Mayor Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek spoke highly of Occupy the SEC’s efforts.  Karen Weise interviewed Occupy’s Alexis Goldstein, who had previously worked at such Wall Street institutions as Deutsche Bank, where she built IT systems for traders:

Like Goldstein, several members have experience in finance.  Kline says she used to be a derivatives trader.  Tewary is a lawyer who worked on securitization cases at the firm Kaye Scholer, according to his bio on the website of his current firm, Kamlesh Tewary.  Mother Jones, which reported on the group in December, says O’Neil is a former Wall Street quant.

There are parts of the rule that Occupy the SEC would like to see toughened.  For example, Goldstein sees a “big loophole” in the proposed rule that allows banks to make proprietary trades using so-called repurchase agreements, by which one party sells securities to another with the promise to buy back the securities later.  The group wants to make sure other parts aren’t eroded.

Chris Sturr of Dollars & Sense provided this reaction:

From the perspective of someone who’s spent a lot of time in working groups of Occupy Boston, what I love about this story is that it’s early evidence of what Occupy can and will do, beyond “changing the discourse,” which is the best that sympathetic people who haven’t been involved seem to be able to say about Occupy, or just going away and dying off, which is what non-sympathizers think has happened to Occupy.  Many of us have been quietly working away over the winter, and the results will start to be seen in the coming months.

If Chris Sturr’s expectation ultimately proves correct, it will be nice to watch the pro-Wall Street, teevee pundits get challenged by some worthy opponents.


 

A Shocking Decision

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September 23, 2010

Nobody seems too surprised about the resignation of Larry Summers from his position as Director of the National Economic Council.  Although each commentator seems to have a unique theory for Summers’ departure, the event is unanimously described as “expected”.

When Peter Orszag resigned from his post as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the gossip mill focused on his rather complicated love life.  According to The New York Post, the nerdy-looking number cruncher announced his engagement to Bianna Golodryga of ABC News just six weeks after his ex-girlfriend, shipping heiress Claire Milonas, gave birth to their love child, Tatiana.  That news was so surprising, few publications could resist having some fun with it.  Politics Daily ran a story entitled, “Peter Orszag:  Good with Budgets, Good with Babes”.  Mark Leibovich of The New York Times pointed out that the event “gave birth” to a fan blog called Orszagasm.com.  Mr. Leibovich posed a rhetorical question at the end of the piece that was apparently answered with Orszag’s resignation:

This goes to another obvious — and recurring — question:  whether someone whose personal life has become so complicated is really fit to tackle one of the most demanding, important and stressful jobs in the universe. “Frankly I don’t see how Orszag can balance three families and the national budget,” wrote Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post.

The shocking nature of the Orszag love triangle was dwarfed by President Obama’s nomination of Orszag’s replacement:  Jacob “Jack” Lew.  Lew is a retread from the Clinton administration, at which point (May 1998 – January 2001) he held that same position:  OMB Director.  That crucial time frame brought us two important laws that deregulated the financial industry:  the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 (which legalized proprietary trading by the Wall Street banks) and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which completely deregulated derivatives trading, eventually giving rise to such “financial weapons of mass destruction” as naked credit default swaps.  Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that Lew does not believe that deregulation of the financial industry was a proximate cause of  the 2008 financial crisis.  Lew’s testimony at his September 16 confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee was discussed by Shahien Nasiripour  of The Huffington Post:

Lew, a former OMB chief for President Bill Clinton, told the panel that “the problems in the financial industry preceded deregulation,” and after discussing those issues, added that he didn’t “personally know the extent to which deregulation drove it, but I don’t believe that deregulation was the proximate cause.”

Experts and policymakers, including U.S. Senators, commissioners at the Securities and Exchange Commission, top leaders in Congress, former financial regulators and even Obama himself have pointed to the deregulatory zeal of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as a major cause of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

During 2009, Lew was working for Citigroup, a TARP beneficiary.  Between the TARP bailout and the Federal Reserve’s purchase of mortgage-backed securities from that zombie bank, Citi was able to give Mr. Lew a fat bonus of $950,000 – in addition to the other millions he made there from 2006 until January of 2009 (at which point Hillary Clinton found a place for him in her State Department).

The sabotage capabilities Lew will enjoy as OMB Director become apparent when revisiting my June 28 piece, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax”:

Another victory for the lobbyists came in their sabotage of the prohibition on proprietary trading (when banks trade with their own money, for their own benefit).  The bill provides that federal financial regulators shall study the measure, then issue rules implementing it, based on the results of that study.  The rules might ultimately ban proprietary trading or they may allow for what Jim Jubak of MSN calls the “de minimus” (trading with minimal amounts) exemption to the ban.  Jubak considers the use of the de minimus exemption to the so-called ban as the likely outcome.  Many commentators failed to realize how the lobbyists worked their magic here, reporting that the prop trading ban (referred to as the “Volcker rule”) survived reconciliation intact.  Jim Jubak exposed the strategy employed by the lobbyists:

But lobbying Congress is only part of the game.  Congress writes the laws, but it leaves it up to regulators to write the rules.  In a mid-June review of the text of the financial-reform legislation, the Chamber of Commerce counted 399 rule-makings and 47 studies required by lawmakers.

Each one of these, like the proposed de minimus exemption of the Volcker rule, would be settled by regulators operating by and large out of the public eye and with minimal public input.  But the financial-industry lobbyists who once worked at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. know how to put in a word with those writing the rules.  Need help understanding a complex issue?  A regulator has the name of a former colleague now working as a lobbyist in an e-mail address book.  Want to share an industry point of view with a rule-maker?  Odds are a lobbyist knows whom to call to get a few minutes of face time.

You have one guess as to what agency will be authorized to make sure those new rules comport with the intent of the financial “reform” bill   .   .   .   Yep:  the OMB (see OIRA).

President Obama’s nomination of Jacob Lew is just the latest example of a decision-making process that seems incomprehensible to his former supporters as well as his critics.  Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism refuses to let Obama’s antics go unnoticed:

The Obama Administration, again and again, has taken the side of the financial services industry, with the occasional sops to unhappy taxpayers and some infrequent scolding of the industry to improve the optics.

Ms. Smith has developed some keen insight about the leadership style of our President:

The last thing Obama, who has been astonishingly accommodating to corporate interests, needs to do is signal weakness.  But he has made the cardinal mistake of trying to please everyone and has succeeded in having no one happy with his policies.  Past Presidents whose policies rankled special interests, such as Roosevelt, Johnson, and Reagan, were tenacious and not ruffled by noise.  Obama, by contrast, announces bold-sounding initiatives, and any real change will break eggs and alienate some parties, then retreats.  So he creates opponents, yet fails to deliver for his allies.

Yes, the Disappointer-In-Chief has failed to deliver for his allies once again – reinforcing my belief that he has no intention of running for a second term.




Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax

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June 28, 2010

You don’t have to look too far to find damning criticism of the so-called financial “reform” bill.  Once the Kaufman-Brown amendment was subverted (thanks to the Obama administration), the efforts to solve the problem of financial institutions’ growth to a state of being “too big to fail” (TBTF) became a lost cause.  Dylan Ratigan, who had been fuming for a while about the financial reform charade, had this to say about the product that emerged from reconciliation on Friday morning:

It means that the same people who brought you these horrible changes — rising wealth discrepancy, massive unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure – have now further institutionalized the policies that will keep the causes of these problems firmly in place.

The best trashing of this bill came from Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge:

Congrats, middle class, once again you get raped by Wall Street, which is off to the races to yet again rapidly blow itself up courtesy of 30x leverage, unlimited discount window usage, trillions in excess reserves, quadrillions in unregulated derivatives, a TBTF framework that has been untouched and will need a rescue in under a year, non-existent accounting rules, a culture of unmitigated greed, and all of Congress and Senate on its payroll.  And, sorry, you can’t even vote some of the idiots that passed this garbage out:  after all there is a retiring lame duck in charge of it all.  We can only hope his annual Wall Street (i.e. taxpayer funded) annuity will satisfy his conscience for destroying any hope America could have of a credible financial system.

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In other words, the greatest theatrical production of the past few months is now over, it has achieved nothing, it will prevent nothing, and ultimately the financial markets will blow up yet again, but not before the Teleprompter in Chief pummels the idiot public with address after address how he singlehandedly was bribed, pardon, achieved a historic event of being the only president to completely crumble under Wall Street’s pressure on every item that was supposed to reign in the greatest risktaking generation (with Other People’s Money) in history.

Robert Lenzner of Forbes focused his criticism of the bill on the fact that nothing was done to limit the absurd leverage used by the banks to borrow against their capital.  After all, at the January 13 hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Lloyd Bankfiend of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan’s Dimon Dog admitted that excessive leverage was a key problem in causing the financial crisis.  As I discussed in “Lev Is The Drug”:

Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly expressed pride in the fact that Goldman Sachs has always been leveraged to “only” a  23-to-1 ratio.  The Dimon Dog’s theme was something like:  “We did everything right  . . . except that we were overleveraged”.

At Forbes, Robert Lenzner discussed the ugly truth about how the limits on leverage were excised from this bill:

The capitulation on this matter of leverage is extraordinary evidence of Wall Street’s power to influence Congress through its lobbying dollars.  It is another example of the public servants serving the agents of finance capitalism.  After pumping in gobs of sovereign credit to replace the credit that had been wiped out and replace the supply of credit to the economic system, a weak reform bill will just be an invitation to drum up the leverage that caused the crisis in the first place.

Another victory for the lobbyists came in their sabotage of the prohibition on proprietary trading (when banks trade with their own money, for their own benefit).  The bill provides that federal financial regulators shall study the measure, then issue rules implementing it, based on the results of that study.  The rules might ultimately ban proprietary trading or they may allow for what Jim Jubak of MSN calls the “de minimus” (trading with minimal amounts) exemption to the ban.  Jubak considers the use of the de minimus exemption to the so-called ban as the likely outcome.  Many commentators failed to realize how the lobbyists worked their magic here, reporting that the prop trading ban (referred to as the “Volcker rule”) survived reconciliation intact.  Jim Jubak exposed the strategy employed by the lobbyists:

But lobbying Congress is only part of the game.  Congress writes the laws, but it leaves it up to regulators to write the rules.  In a mid-June review of the text of the financial-reform legislation, the Chamber of Commerce counted 399 rule-makings and 47 studies required by lawmakers.

Each one of these, like the proposed de minimus exemption of the Volcker rule, would be settled by regulators operating by and large out of the public eye and with minimal public input.  But the financial-industry lobbyists who once worked at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. know how to put in a word with those writing the rules.  Need help understanding a complex issue?  A regulator has the name of a former colleague now working as a lobbyist in an e-mail address book.  Want to share an industry point of view with a rule-maker?  Odds are a lobbyist knows whom to call to get a few minutes of face time.

At the Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some more negative reactions to the bill, along with her own cutting commentary:

I want the word “reform” back.  Between health care “reform” and financial services “reform,” Obama, his operatives, and media cheerleaders are trying to depict both initiatives as being far more salutary and far-reaching than they are.  This abuse of language is yet another case of the Obama Administration using branding to cover up substantive shortcomings.  In the short run it might fool quite a few people, just as BP’s efforts to position itself as an environmentally responsible company did.

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So what does the bill accomplish?  It inconveniences banks around the margin while failing to reduce the odds of a recurrence of a major financial crisis.

The only two measures I see as genuine accomplishments, the Audit the Fed provisions, and the creation of a consumer financial product bureau, do not address systemic risks.  And the consumer protection authority was substantially watered down.  Recall a crucial provision, that banks be required to offer plain vanilla variants of products, was axed early on.

So there you have it.  The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.





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Ignoring The Root Cause

Comments Off on Ignoring The Root Cause

June 17, 2010

The predominant criticism of the so-called “financial reform” bill is its failure to address the problems caused by the existence of financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  In an essay entitled, “Creating the Next Crisis” economist Simon Johnson discussed the consequences of this legislative let-down:

On the critical dimension of excessive bank size and what it implies for systemic risk, there was a concerted effort by Senators Ted Kaufman and Sherrod Brown to impose a size cap on the largest banks – very much in accordance with the spirit of the original “Volcker Rule” proposed in January 2010 by Obama himself.  In an almost unbelievable volte face, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, Obama’s administration itself shot down this approach.  “If enacted, Brown-Kaufman would have broken up the six biggest banks in America,” a senior Treasury official said.  “If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened.  But we weren’t, so it didn’t.”

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The US financial sector received an unconditional bailout – and is not now facing any kind of meaningful re-regulation.  We are setting ourselves up, without question, for another boom based on excessive and reckless risk-taking at the heart of the world’s financial system.  This can end only one way:  badly.

One would assume that an important lesson learned from the 2008 financial crisis was the idea that a corporation shouldn’t be permitted to blackmail the country with threats that its own financial collapse would have such a dire impact on society-at-large that the corporation should be bailed out by the taxpayers.  The resulting problem is called “moral hazard” because such businesses are encouraged to act irresponsibly by virtue of the certainty that they will be bailed out if their activities prove self-destructive.

Gonzalo Lira wrote a piece for the Naked Capitalism blog, explaining how the moral hazard resulting from the “too big to fail” doctrine is facilitating a state of corporate anarchy:

In a nutshell, in this era of corporate anarchy, corporations do not have to abide by any rules — none at all.  Legal, moral, ethical, even financial rules are irrelevant.  They have all been rescinded in the pursuit of profit — literally nothing else matters.

As a result, corporations currently exist in a state of almost pure anarchy — but an anarchy directly related to their size:  The larger the corporation, the greater its absolute freedom to do and act as it pleases.  That’s why so many medium-sized corporations are hell-bent on growth over profits:  The biggest of them all, like BP and Goldman Sachs, live in a positively Hobbesian State of Nature, free to do as they please, with nary a consequence.

Good-old British Petroleum – the latest beneficiary of the “too big to fail doctrine”  — can rely on its size to avoid any sanctions it considers unacceptable because too many “small people” might lose their jobs if BP can’t stay fat and happy.  Gonzalo Lira’s analysis went a step further:

Worst of all, BP realizes that, if it finally cannot get a handle on the oil spill disaster, they can simply fob it off on the U.S. Government — in other words, the people of the United States will wind up cleaning BP’s mess.  BP knows that no one will hold it accountable — BP knows that it will get away with it.

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This era of corporate anarchy is reaching a crisis point — we can all sense it.  Yet the leadership in the United States and Europe is making no effort to solve the root problem.  Perhaps they don’t see the problem.  Perhaps they are beholden to corporate masters.  Whatever the case, in his speech, President Obama made ridiculous references to “clean energy” while ignoring the cause of the BP oil spill disaster, the cause of the financial crisis, the cause of the spiralling health-care costs — the corporate anarchy that underlines them all.

This era of corporate anarchy is wrecking the world — literally, if you’ve been tuning in to images of the oil billowing out a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Lira discussed how a leadership void has been helping corporate anarchy overtake democratic capitalism:

Obama is a corporatist — he’s one of Them.  So there’ll be more bullshit talk about “clean energy” and “energy independence”, while the root cause — corporate anarchy — is left undisturbed.

The failure of President Obama to take advantage of the opportunity to address this “root cause” in his Oval Office address concerning the Deepwater Horizon disaster, inspired Robert Reich to make this comment:

Whether it’s Wall Street or health insurers or oil companies, we are approaching a turning point.  The top executives of powerful corporations are pursuing profits in ways that menace the nation.  We have not seen the likes not since the late nineteenth century when the “robber barons” of finance, oil, and the giant trusts ran roughshod over America.  Now, as then, they are using their wealth and influence to buy off legislators and intimidate the regions that depend on them for jobs.  Now, as then, they are threatening the safety and security of our people.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, recently warned us about the consequences of allowing corporate anarchy to destroy democratic capitalism:

The rise of uncontrolled corporate greed killed the “Invisible Hand,” the “soul” of capitalism that Adam Smith saw in 1776 as a divine force serving “the common good.”  Today the system has no moral compass.  Wall Street’s insatiable greed has destroyed capitalism from within, turning America’s economy into a soulless zombie.

The “Invisible Hand” Adam Smith saw as essential to capitalism in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” died in endless battles fought by 261,000 lobbyists each wanting a bigger piece of the $1.7 trillion federal budget pie plus favorable laws protecting, vesting and increasing the power and wealth of their special interest clients.  Future historians will call this ideological battle replacing democracy the new “American Capitalists Anarchy.”

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As a New York Times reviewer put it:  Nations like “China and Russia are using what he calls ‘state capitalism’ to advance the interests of their companies at the expense of their American rivals.”  Global pandemic?

Unfortunately while America wastes trillions to bail out inefficient too-stupid-to-fail banks, our competition is bankrolling healthy state-controlled corporations to destroy us  . . .

If we ever reach the point when the watered-down “financial reform” bill finally becomes law, the taxpayers should insist that their government move on to address the “root cause” of corporate anarchy by taking up campaign finance reform.  That should be one hell of a fight!



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