Posts Tagged ‘AIG’
$707,568,901,000,000: How (And Why) Banks Increased Total Outstanding Derivatives By A Record $107 Trillion In 6 Months
by Tyler Durden
While everyone was focused on the impending European collapse, the latest soon to be refuted rumors of a quick fix from the Welt am Sonntag notwithstanding, the Bank of International Settlements reported a number that quietly slipped through the cracks of the broader media. Which is paradoxical because it is the biggest everreported in the financial world: the number in question is $707,568,901,000,000 and represents the latest total amount of all notional Over The Counter (read unregulated) outstanding derivatives reported by the world’s financial institutions to the BIS for its semi-annual OTC derivatives report titled “OTC derivatives market activity in the first half of 2011.” Indicatively, global GDP is about $63 trillion if one can trust any numbers released by modern governments. Said otherwise, for the six month period ended June 30, 2011, the total number of outstanding derivatives surged past the previous all time high of $673 trillion from June 2008, and is now firmly in 7-handle territory: the synthetic credit bubble has now been blown to a new all time high. Another way of looking at the data is that one of the key contributors to global growth and prosperity in the past 10 years was an increase in total derivatives from just under $100 trillion to $708 trillion in exactly one decade. And soon we have to pay the mean reversion price.
What is probably just as disturbing is that in the first 6 months of 2011, the total outstanding notional of all derivatives rose from $601 trillion at December 31, 2010 to $708 trillion at June 30, 2011. A $107 trillion increase in notional in half a year. Needless to say this is the biggest increase in history. So why did the notional increase by such an incomprehensible amount? Simple: based on some widely accepted (and very much wrong) definitions of gross market value (not to be confused with gross notional), the value of outstanding derivatives actually declined in the first half of the year from $21.3 trillion to $19.5 trillion (a number still 33% greater than US GDP). Which means that in order to satisfy what likely threatened to become a self-feeding margin call as the (previously) $600 trillion derivatives market collapsed on itself, banks had to sell more, more, more derivatives in order to collect recurring and/or upfront premia and to pad their books with GAAP-endorsed delusions of future derivative based cash flows. Because derivatives in addition to a core source of trading desk P&L courtesy of wide bid/ask spreads (there is a reason banks want to keep them OTC and thus off standardization and margin-destroying exchanges) are also terrific annuities for the status quo. Just ask Buffett why he sold a multi-billion index put on the US stock market. The answer is simple – if he ever has to make good on it, it is too late.
Which brings us to the the chart showing total outstanding notional derivatives by 6 month period below. The shaded area is what that the BIS, the bank regulators, and the OCC urgently hope that the general public promptly forgets about and brushes under the carpet.
Try not to laugh. Or cry. Or gloss over, because when it comes to visualizing $708 trillion most really are incapable of doing so.
Total outstanding gross market value by 6 month period:
There is much more than can be said on this topic, and has to be said, because an increase of that magnitude is simply impossible to perceive without alarm bells going off everywhere, especially when one considers the pervasive deleveraging occurring at every sector but the government. All else equal, this move may well explain the massive surge in bank profitability in the first half of the year. It also means that with banks suffering massive losses, and rumors of bank runs and collateral calls, not to mention the aftermath of the MF Global insolvency, the world financial syndicate will have no choice but to increase gross notional even more, even as the market value continues to get ever lower, thus sparking the risk of the mother of all margin calls: a veritable credit fission reaction.
But no matter what: the important thing to remember is that “they are all hedged” – or so they say, a claim we made a completely mockery of a few weeks back. So ex-sarcasm, the now parabolic increase in derivatives means that when the bilateral netting chain is once again broken, and it will be (because AIG was not a one off event), there will simply be trillions more in derivatives that no longer generate a booked cash flow stream for the remaining counterparty, until at the very end, the whole inverted credit0money pyramid collapses in on itself.
And for those wondering what the distinction is between notional and
Notional amounts outstanding: Nominal or notional amounts outstanding are defined as the gross nominal or notional value of all deals concluded and not yet settled on the reporting date. For contracts with variable nominal or notional principal amounts, the basis for reporting is the nominal or notional principal amounts at the time of reporting.
Nominal or notional amounts outstanding provide a measure of market size and a reference from which contractual payments are determined in derivatives markets. However, such amounts are generally not those truly at risk. The amounts at risk in derivatives contracts are a function of the price level and/or volatility of the financial reference index used in the determination of contract payments, the duration and liquidity of contracts, and the creditworthiness of counterparties. They are also a function of whether an exchange of notional principal takes place between counterparties. Gross market values provide a more accurate measure of the scale of financial risk transfer taking place in derivatives markets.
Well, no. It is logical that the BIS will advise everyone to ignore the bigger number and focus on the small one: just like everyone was told to ignore gross exposure and focus on net… until Jefferies had to dump all of its gross PIIGS exposure or stare bankruptcy in the face; so no – the correct thing to say is “gross market values provide a more accurate measure of the scale of financial risk transfer” if one assumes there is no counterparty risk. Because once the whole bilateral netting chain is broken, net becomes gross. And gross market value becomes total notional outstanding. And, to quote Hudson, it’s game over.
As for the largely irrelevant gross market value, which is only relevant in as much as it will be the catalyst which will precipitate margin calls on the underlying notionals, all $700+ trillion of them:
Gross positive and negative market values: Gross market values are defined as the sums of the absolute values of all open contracts with either positive or negative replacement values evaluated at market prices prevailing on the reporting date. Thus, the gross positive market value of a dealer’s outstanding contracts is the sum of the replacement values of all contracts that are in a current gain position to the reporter at current market prices (and therefore, if they were settled immediately, would represent claims on counterparties). The gross negative market value is the sum of the values of all contracts that have a negative value on the reporting date (ie those that are in a current loss position and therefore, if they were settled immediately, would represent liabilities of the dealer to its counterparties).
The term “gross” indicates that contracts with positive and negative replacement values with the same counterparty are not netted. Nor are the sums of positive and negative contract values within a market risk category such as foreign exchange contracts, interest rate contracts, equities and commodities set off against one another.
As stated above, gross market values supply information about the potential scale of market risk in derivatives transactions. Furthermore, gross market value at current market prices provides a measure of economic significance that is readily comparable across markets and products.
And here again, what they ignore to add is that the measure of economic significance is only relevant in as much as the world’s banks don’t begin a Lehman-MF Global tango of mutual margin call annihilation. In that case, no. They are not measures of anything except for what some banks plug into some models to spit out a favorable EPS treatment at the end of the quarter.
Expect to see gross market value declines persisting even as the now parabolic increase in total notional persists. At this rate we would not be surprised to see one quadrillion in OTC derivatives by the middle of next year.
And, once again for those confused, the fact that notional had to increase so epically as market value tumbled most likely means that the global derivative pyramid scheme (no pun intended) is almost over.
Read the entire article HERE.
By Matt Taibbi
August 17, 2011 8:00 AM ET
Imagine a world in which a man who is repeatedly investigated for a string of serious crimes, but never prosecuted, has his slate wiped clean every time the cops fail to make a case. No more Lifetime channel specials where the murderer is unveiled after police stumble upon past intrigues in some old file – “Hey, chief, didja know this guy had two wives die falling down the stairs?” No more burglary sprees cracked when some sharp cop sees the same name pop up in one too many witness statements. This is a different world, one far friendlier to lawbreakers, where even the suspicion of wrongdoing gets wiped from the record.
That, it now appears, is exactly how the Securities and Exchange Commission has been treating the Wall Street criminals who cratered the global economy a few years back. For the past two decades, according to a whistle-blower at the SEC who recently came forward to Congress, the agency has been systematically destroying records of its preliminary investigations once they are closed. By whitewashing the files of some of the nation’s worst financial criminals, the SEC has kept an entire generation of federal investigators in the dark about past inquiries into insider trading, fraud and market manipulation against companies like Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and AIG. With a few strokes of the keyboard, the evidence gathered during thousands of investigations – “18,000 … including Madoff,” as one high-ranking SEC official put it during a panicked meeting about the destruction – has apparently disappeared forever into the wormhole of history.
Under a deal the SEC worked out with the National Archives and Records Administration, all of the agency’s records – “including case files relating to preliminary investigations” – are supposed to be maintained for at least 25 years. But the SEC, using history-altering practices that for once actually deserve the overused and usually hysterical term “Orwellian,” devised an elaborate and possibly illegal system under which staffers were directed to dispose of the documents from any preliminary inquiry that did not receive approval from senior staff to become a full-blown, formal investigation. Amazingly, the wholesale destruction of the cases – known as MUIs, or “Matters Under Inquiry” – was not something done on the sly, in secret. The enforcement division of the SEC even spelled out the procedure in writing, on the commission’s internal website. “After you have closed a MUI that has not become an investigation,” the site advised staffers, “you should dispose of any documents obtained in connection with the MUI.”
Many of the destroyed files involved companies and individuals who would later play prominent roles in the economic meltdown of 2008. Two MUIs involving con artist Bernie Madoff vanished. So did a 2002 inquiry into financial fraud at Lehman Brothers, as well as a 2005 case of insider trading at the same soon-to-be-bankrupt bank. A 2009 preliminary investigation of insider trading by Goldman Sachs was deleted, along with records for at least three cases involving the infamous hedge fund SAC Capital.
The widespread destruction of records was brought to the attention of Congress in July, when an SEC attorney named Darcy Flynn decided to blow the whistle. According to Flynn, who was responsible for helping to manage the commission’s records, the SEC has been destroying records of preliminary investigations since at least 1993. After he alerted NARA to the problem, Flynn reports, senior staff at the SEC scrambled to hide the commission’s improprieties.
As a federally protected whistle-blower, Flynn is not permitted to speak to the press. But in evidence he presented to the SEC’s inspector general and three congressional committees earlier this summer, the 13-year veteran of the agency paints a startling picture of a federal police force that has effectively been conquered by the financial criminals it is charged with investigating. In at least one case, according to Flynn, investigators at the SEC found their desire to bring a case against an influential bank thwarted by senior officials in the enforcement division – whose director turned around and accepted a lucrative job from the very same bank they had been prevented from investigating. In another case, the agency farmed out its inquiry to a private law firm – one hired by the company under investigation. The outside firm, unsurprisingly, concluded that no further investigation of its client was necessary. To complete the bureaucratic laundering process, Flynn says, the SEC dropped the case and destroyed the files.
Much has been made in recent months of the government’s glaring failure to police Wall Street; to date, federal and state prosecutors have yet to put a single senior Wall Street executive behind bars for any of the many well-documented crimes related to the financial crisis. Indeed, Flynn’s accusations dovetail with a recent series of damaging critiques of the SEC made by reporters, watchdog groups and members of Congress, all of which seem to indicate that top federal regulators spend more time lunching, schmoozing and job-interviewing with Wall Street crooks than they do catching them. As one former SEC staffer describes it, the agency is now filled with so many Wall Street hotshots from oft-investigated banks that it has been “infected with the Goldman mindset from within.”
The destruction of records by the SEC, as outlined by Flynn, is something far more than an administrative accident or bureaucratic fuck-up. It’s a symptom of the agency’s terminal brain damage. Somewhere along the line, those at the SEC responsible for policing America’s banks fell and hit their head on a big pile of Wall Street’s money – a blow from which the agency has never recovered. “From what I’ve seen, it looks as if the SEC might have sanctioned some level of case-related document destruction,” says Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose staff has interviewed Flynn. “It doesn’t make sense that an agency responsible for investigations would want to get rid of potential evidence. If these charges are true, the agency needs to explain why it destroyed documents, how many documents it destroyed over what time frame and to what extent its actions were consistent with the law.”
How did officials at the SEC wind up with a faithful veteran employee – a conservative, mid-level attorney described as a highly reluctant whistle-blower – spilling the agency’s most sordid secrets to Congress? In a way, they asked for it.
On May 18th of this year, SEC enforcement director Robert Khuzami sent out a mass e-mail to the agency’s staff with the subject line “Lawyers Behaving Badly.” In it, Khuzami asked his subordinates to report any experiences they might have had where “the behavior of counsel representing clients in… investigations has been questionable.”
Khuzami was asking staffers to recount any stories of outside counsel behaving unethically. But Flynn apparently thought his boss was looking for examples of lawyers “behaving badly” anywhere, including within the SEC. And he had a story to share he’d kept a lid on for years. “Mr. Khuzami may have gotten something more than he expected,” Flynn’s lawyer, a former SEC whistle-blower named Gary Aguirre, later explained to Congress.
Flynn responded to Khuzami with a letter laying out one such example of misbehaving lawyers within the SEC. It involved a case from very early in Flynn’s career, back in 2000, when he was working with a group of investigators who thought they had a “slam-dunk” case against Deutsche Bank, the German financial giant. A few years earlier, Rolf Breuer, the bank’s CEO, had given an interview to Der Spiegel in which he denied that Deutsche was involved in übernahmegespräche – takeover talks – to acquire a rival American firm, Bankers Trust. But the statement was apparently untrue – and it sent the stock of Bankers Trust tumbling, potentially lowering the price for the merger. Flynn and his fellow SEC investigators, suspecting that investors of Bankers Trust had been defrauded, opened a MUI on the case.
A Matter Under Inquiry is just a preliminary sort of look-see – a way for the SEC to check out the multitude of tips it gets about suspicious trades, shady stock scams and false disclosures, and to determine which of the accusations merit a formal investigation. At the MUI stage, an SEC investigator can conduct interviews or ask a bank to send in information voluntarily. Bumping a MUI up to a formal investigation is critical, because it enables investigators to pull out the full law-enforcement ass-kicking measures – subpoenas, depositions, everything short of hot pokers and waterboarding. In the Deutsche case, Flynn and other SEC investigators got past the MUI stage and used their powers to collect sworn testimony and documents indicating that plenty of übernahmegespräche indeed had been going on when Breuer spoke to Der Spiegel. Based on the evidence, they sent an “Action Memorandum” to senior SEC staff, formally recommending that the agency press forward and file suit against Deutsche.
Breuer responded to the threat as big banks like Deutsche often do: He hired a former SEC enforcement director to lobby the agency to back off. The ex-insider, Gary Lynch, launched a creative and inspired defense, producing a linguistic expert who argued that übernahmegespräche only means “advanced stage of discussions.” Nevertheless, the request to proceed with the case was approved by several levels of the SEC’s staff. All that was needed to move forward was a thumbs-up from the director of enforcement at the time, Richard Walker.
But then a curious thing happened. On July 10th, 2001, Flynn and the other investigators were informed that Walker was mysteriously recusing himself from the Deutsche case. Two weeks later, on July 23rd, the enforcement division sent a letter to Deutsche that read, “Inquiry in the above-captioned matter has been terminated.” The bank was in the clear; the SEC was dropping its fraud investigation. In contradiction to the agency’s usual practice, it provided no explanation for its decision to close the case.
On October 1st of that year, the mystery was solved: Dick Walker was named general counsel of Deutsche. Less than 10 weeks after the SEC shut down its investigation of the bank, the agency’s director of enforcement was handed a cushy, high-priced job at Deutsche.
Deutsche’s influence in the case didn’t stop there. A few years later, in 2004, Walker hired none other than Robert Khuzami, a young federal prosecutor, to join him at Deutsche. The two would remain at the bank until February 2009, when Khuzami joined the SEC as Flynn’s new boss in the enforcement division. When Flynn sent his letter to Khuzami complaining about misbehavior by Walker, he was calling out Khuzami’s own mentor.
The circular nature of the case illustrates the revolving-door dynamic that has become pervasive at the SEC. A recent study by the Project on Government Oversight found that over the past five years, former SEC personnel filed 789 notices disclosing their intent to represent outside companies before the agency – sometimes within days of their having left the SEC. More than half of the disclosures came from the agency’s enforcement division, who went to bat for the financial industry four times more often than ex-staffers from other wings of the SEC.
Even a cursory glance at a list of the agency’s most recent enforcement directors makes it clear that the SEC’s top policemen almost always wind up jumping straight to jobs representing the banks they were supposed to regulate. Lynch, who represented Deutsche in the Flynn case, served as the agency’s enforcement chief from 1985 to 1989, before moving to the firm of Davis Polk, which boasts many top Wall Street clients. He was succeeded by William McLucas, who left the SEC in 1998 to work for WilmerHale, a Wall Street defense firm so notorious for snatching up top agency veterans that it is sometimes referred to as “SEC West.” McLucas was followed by Dick Walker, who defected to Deutsche in 2001, and he was in turn followed by Stephen Cutler, who now serves as general counsel for JP Morgan Chase. Next came Linda Chatman Thomsen, who stepped down to join Davis Polk, only to be succeeded in 2009 by Khuzami, Walker’s former protégé at Deutsche Bank.
This merry-go-round of current and former enforcement directors has repeatedly led to accusations of improprieties. In 2008, in a case cited by the SEC inspector general, Thomsen went out of her way to pass along valuable information to Cutler, the former enforcement director who had gone to work for JP Morgan. According to the inspector general, Thomsen signaled Cutler that the SEC was unlikely to take action that would hamper JP Morgan’s move to buy up Bear Stearns. In another case, the inspector general found, an assistant director of enforcement was instrumental in slowing down an investigation into the $7 billion Ponzi scheme allegedly run by Texas con artist R. Allen Stanford – and then left the SEC to work for Stanford, despite explicitly being denied permission to do so by the agency’s ethics office. “Every lawyer in Texas and beyond is going to get rich on this case, OK?” the official later explained. “I hated being on the sidelines.”
Small wonder, then, that SEC staffers often have trouble getting their bosses to approve full-blown investigations against even the most blatant financial criminals. For a fledgling MUI to become a formal investigation, it has to make the treacherous leap from the lower rungs of career-level staffers like Flynn all the way up to the revolving-door level at the top, where senior management is composed largely of high-priced appointees from the private sector who have strong social and professional ties to the very banks they are charged with regulating. And if senior management didn’t approve an investigation, the documents often wound up being destroyed – as Flynn would later discover.
After the Deutsche fiasco over Bankers Trust, Flynn continued to work at the SEC for four more years. He briefly left the agency to dabble in real estate, then returned in 2008 to serve as an attorney in the enforcement division. In January 2010, he accepted new responsibilities that included helping to manage the disposition of records for the division – and it was then he first became aware of the agency’s possibly unlawful destruction of MUI records.
Flynn discovered a directive on the enforcement division’s internal website ordering staff to destroy “any records obtained in connection” with closed MUIs. The directive appeared to violate federal law, which gives responsibility for maintaining and destroying all records to the National Archives and Records Administration. Over a decade earlier, in fact, the SEC had struck a deal with NARA stipulating that investigative records were to be maintained for 25 years – and that if any files were to be destroyed after that, the shredding was to be done by NARA, not the SEC.
But Flynn soon learned that the records for thousands of preliminary investigations no longer existed. In his letter to Congress, Flynn estimates that the practice of destroying MUIs had begun as early as 1993, and has resulted in at least 9,000 case files being destroyed. For all the thousands of tips that had come in to the SEC, and the thousands of interviews that had been conducted by the agency’s staff, all that remained were a few perfunctory lines for each case. The mountains of evidence gathered were no longer in existence.
To read through the list of dead and buried cases that Flynn submitted to Congress is like looking through an infrared camera at a haunted house of the financial crisis, with the ghosts of missed prosecutions flashing back and forth across the screen. A snippet of the list:
PARTY MUI # OPENED/CLOSED ISSUE
Goldman Sachs MLA-01909 6/99 – 4/00 Market Manipulation
Deutsche Bank MHO-09356 11/01 – 7/02 Insider Trading
Deutsche Bank MHO-09432 2/02 – 8/02 Market Manipulation
Lehman Brothers MNY-07013 3/02 – 7/02 Financial Fraud
Goldman Sachs MNY-08198 11/09 – 12/09 Insider Trading
One MUI – case MNY-08145 – involved allegations of insider trading at AIG on September 15th, 2008, right in the middle of the insurance giant’s collapse. In that case, an AIG employee named Jacqueline Millan reported irregularities in the trading of AIG stock to her superiors, only to find herself fired. Incredibly, instead of looking into the matter itself, the SEC agreed to accept “an internal investigation by outside counsel or AIG.” The last note in the file indicates that “the staff plans to speak with the outside attorneys on Monday, August 24th , when they will share their findings with us.” The fact that the SEC trusted AIG’s lawyers to investigate the matter shows the basic bassackwardness of the agency’s approach to these crash-era investigations. The SEC formally closed the case on October 1st, 2009.
The episode with AIG highlights yet another obstacle that MUIs experience on the road to becoming formal investigations. During the past decade, the SEC routinely began allowing financial firms to investigate themselves. Imagine the LAPD politely asking a gang of Crips and their lawyers to issue a report on whether or not a drive-by shooting by the Crips should be brought before a grand jury – that’s basically how the SEC now handles many preliminary investigations against Wall Street targets.
The evolution toward this self-policing model began in 2001, when a shipping and food-service conglomerate called Seaboard aggressively investigated an isolated case of accounting fraud at one of its subsidiaries. Seaboard fired the guilty parties and made sweeping changes to its internal practices – and the SEC was so impressed that it instituted a new policy of giving “credit” to companies that police themselves. In practice, that means the agency simply steps aside and allows companies to slap themselves on the wrists. In the case against Seaboard, for instance, the SEC rewarded the firm by issuing no fines against it.
According to Lynn Turner, a former chief accountant at the SEC, the Seaboard case also prompted the SEC to begin permitting companies to hire their own counsel to conduct their own inquiries. At first, he says, the process worked fairly well. But then President Bush appointed the notoriously industry-friendly Christopher Cox to head up the SEC, and the “outside investigations” turned into whitewash jobs. “The investigations nowadays are probably not worth the money you spend on them,” Turner says.
Harry Markopolos, a certified fraud examiner best known for sounding a famously unheeded warning about Bernie Madoff way back in 2000, says the SEC’s practice of asking suspects to investigate themselves is absurd. In a serious investigation, he says, “the last person you want to trust is the person being accused or their lawyer.” The practice helped Madoff escape for years. “The SEC took Bernie’s word for everything,” Markopolos says.
At the SEC, having realized that the agency was destroying documents, Flynn became concerned that he was overseeing an illegal policy. So in the summer of last year, he reached out to NARA, asking them for guidance on the issue.
That request sparked a worried response from Paul Wester, NARA’s director of modern records. On July 29th, 2010, Wester sent a letter to Barry Walters, who oversees document requests for the SEC. “We recently learned from Darcy Flynn… that for the past 17 years the SEC has been destroying closed Matters Under Inquiry files,” Wester wrote. “If you confirm that federal records have been destroyed improperly, please ensure that no further such disposals take place and provide us with a written report within 30 days.”
Wester copied the letter to Adam Storch, a former Goldman Sachs executive who less than a year earlier had been appointed as managing executive of the SEC’s enforcement division. Storch’s appointment was not without controversy. “I’m not sure what’s scarier,” Daniel Indiviglio of The Atlantic observed, “that this guy worked at an investment bank that many believe has questionable ethics and too cozy a Washington connection, or that he’s just 29.” In any case, Storch reacted to the NARA letter the way the SEC often does – by circling the wagons and straining to find a way to blow off the problem without admitting anything.
Last August, as the clock wound down on NARA’s 30-day deadline, Storch and two top SEC lawyers held a meeting with Flynn to discuss how to respond. Flynn’s notes from the meeting, which he passed along to Congress, show the SEC staff wondering aloud if admitting the truth to NARA might be a bad idea, given the fact that there might be criminal liability.
“We could say that we do not believe there has been disposal inconsistent with the schedule,” Flynn quotes Ken Hall, an assistant chief counsel for the SEC, as saying.
“There are implications to admit what was destroyed,” Storch chimed in. It would be “not wise for me to take on the exposure voluntarily. If this leads to something, what rings in my ear is that Barry [Walters, the SEC documents officer] said: This is serious, could lead to criminal liability.”
When the subject of how many files were destroyed came up, Storch answered: “18,000 MUIs destroyed, including Madoff.”
Four days later, the SEC responded to NARA with a hilariously convoluted nondenial denial. “The Division is not aware of any specific instances of the destruction of records from any other MUI,” the letter states. “But we cannot say with certainty that no such documents have been destroyed over the past 17 years.” The letter goes on to add that “the Division has taken steps… to ensure that no MUI records are destroyed while we review this issue.”
Translation: Hey, maybe records were destroyed, maybe they weren’t. But if we did destroy records, we promise not to do it again – for now.
The SEC’s unwillingness to admit the extent of the wrong doing left Flynn in a precarious position. The agency has a remarkably bad record when it comes to dealing with whistle-blowers. Back in 2005, when Flynn’s attorney, Gary Aguirre, tried to pursue an insider-trading case against Pequot Capital that involved John Mack, the future CEO of Morgan Stanley, he was fired by phone while on vacation. Two Senate committees later determined that Aguirre, who has since opened a private practice representing whistle-blowers, was dismissed improperly as part of a “process of reprisal” by the SEC. Two whistle-blowers in the Stanford case, Julie Preuitt and Joel Sauer, also experienced retaliation – including reprimands and demotions – after raising concerns about superficial investigations. “There’s no mechanism to raise these issues at the SEC,” says another former whistle-blower. Contacting the agency’s inspector general, he adds, is considered “the nuclear option” – a move “well-known to be a career-killer.”
In Flynn’s case, both he and Aguirre tried to keep the matter in-house, appealing to SEC chairman Mary Schapiro with a promise not to go outside the agency if she would grant Flynn protection against reprisal. When no such offer was forthcoming, Flynn went to the agency’s inspector general before sending a detailed letter about the wrongdoing to three congressional committees.
One of the offices Flynn contacted was that of Sen. Grassley, who was in the midst of his own battle with the SEC. Frustrated with the agency’s failure to punish major players on Wall Street, the Iowa Republican had begun an investigation into how the SEC follows up on outside complaints. Specifically, he wrote a letter to FINRA, another regulatory agency, to ask how many complaints it had referred to the SEC about SAC Capital, the hedge fund run by reptilian billionaire short-seller Stevie Cohen.
SAC has long been accused of a variety of improprieties, from insider trading to harassment. But no charge in recent Wall Street history is crazier than an episode involving a SAC executive named Ping Jiang, who was accused in 2006 of enacting a torturous hazing program. According to a civil lawsuit that was later dropped, Jiang allegedly forced a new trader named Andrew Tong to take female hormones, come to work wearing a dress and lipstick, have “foreign objects” inserted in his rectum, and allow Jiang to urinate in his mouth. (I’m not making this up.)
Grassley learned that over the past decade, FINRA had referred 19 complaints about suspicious trades at SAC to federal regulators. Curious to see how many of those referrals had been looked into, Grassley wrote the SEC on May 24th, asking for evidence that the agency had properly investigated the cases.
Two weeks later, on June 9th, Khuzami sent Grassley a surprisingly brusque answer: “We generally do not comment on the status of investigations or related referrals, and, in turn, are not providing information concerning the specific FINRA referrals you identified.” Translation: We’re not giving you the records, so blow us.
Grassley later found out from FINRA that it had actually referred 65 cases about SAC to the SEC, making the lack of serious investigations even more inexplicable. Angered by Khuzami’s response, he sent the SEC another letter on June 15th demanding an explanation, but no answer has been forthcoming.
In the interim, Grassley’s office was contacted by Flynn, who explained that among the missing MUIs he had uncovered were at least three involving SAC – one in 2006, one in 2007 and one in 2010, involving charges of insider trading and currency manipulation. All three cases were closed by the SEC, and the records apparently destroyed.
On August 17th, Grassley sent a letter to the SEC about the Flynn allegations, demanding to know if it was indeed true that the SEC had destroyed records. He also asked if the agency’s failure to produce evidence of investigations into SAC Capital were related to the missing MUIs.
The SEC’s inspector general is investigating the destroyed MUIs and plans to issue a report. NARA is also seeking answers. “We’ve asked the SEC to look into the matter and we’re awaiting their response,” says Laurence Brewer, a records officer for NARA. For its part, the SEC is trying to explain away the illegality of its actions through a semantic trick. John Nester, the agency’s spokesman, acknowledges that “documents related to MUIs” have been destroyed. “I don’t have any reason to believe that it hasn’t always been the policy,” he says. But Nester suggests that such documents do not “meet the federal definition of a record,” and therefore don’t have to be preserved under federal law.
But even if SEC officials manage to dodge criminal charges, it won’t change what happened: The nation’s top financial police destroyed more than a decade’s worth of intelligence they had gathered on some of Wall Street’s most egregious offenders. “The SEC not keeping the MUIs – you can see why this would be bad,” says Markopolos, the fraud examiner famous for breaking the Madoff case. “The reason you would want to keep them is to build a pattern. That way, if you get five MUIs over a period of 20 years on something similar involving the same company, you should be able to connect five dots and say, ‘You know, I’ve had five MUIs – they’re probably doing something. Let’s go tear the place apart.’” Destroy the MUIs, and Wall Street banks can commit the exact same crime over and over, without anyone ever knowing.
Regulation isn’t a panacea. The SEC could have placed federal agents on every corner of lower Manhattan throughout the past decade, and it might not have put a dent in the massive wave of corruption and fraud that left the economy in flames three years ago. And even if SEC staffers from top to bottom had been fully committed to rooting out financial corruption, the agency would still have been seriously hampered by a lack of resources that often forces it to abandon promising cases due to a shortage of manpower. “It’s always a triage,” is how one SEC veteran puts it. “And it’s worse now.”
But we’re equally in the dark about another hypothetical. Forget about what might have been if the SEC had followed up in earnest on all of those lost MUIs. What if even a handful of them had turned into real cases? How many investors might have been saved from crushing losses if Lehman Brothers had been forced to reveal its shady accounting way back in 2002? Might the need for taxpayer bailouts have been lessened had fraud cases against Citigroup and Bank of America been pursued in 2005 and 2007? And would the U.S. government have doubled down on its bailout of AIG if it had known that some of the firm’s executives were suspected of insider trading in September 2008?
It goes without saying that no ordinary law-enforcement agency would willingly destroy its own evidence. In fact, when it comes to garden-variety crooks, more and more police agencies are catching criminals with the aid of large and well-maintained databases. “Street-level law enforcement is increasingly data-driven,” says Bill Laufer, a criminology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “For a host of reasons, though, we are starved for good data on both white-collar and corporate crime. So the idea that we would take the little data we do have and shred it, without a legal requirement to do so, calls for a very creative explanation.”
We’ll never know what the impact of those destroyed cases might have been; we’ll never know if those cases were closed for good reasons or bad. We’ll never know exactly who got away with what, because federal regulators have weighted down a huge sack of Wall Street’s dirty laundry and dumped it in a lake, never to be seen again.
Read the entire article HERE.
What was Timothy Geithner thinking back in 2008 when, as president of the New York Fed, he decided to give Goldman Sachs a $30 billion interest-free loan as part of an $80 billion secret float to favored banks? The sordid details of that program were finally made public this week in response to a court order for a Freedom of Information Act release, thanks to a Bloomberg News lawsuit. Sorry, my bad: It wasn’t an interest-free loan; make that .01 percent that Goldman paid to borrow taxpayer money when ordinary folks who missed a few credit card payments in order to finance their mortgages were being slapped with interest rates of more than 25 percent.
One wonders if Barack Obama was fully aware of Geithner’s deceitful performance at the New York Fed when he appointed him treasury secretary in the incoming administration. The president was probably ignorant of this particular giveaway, as were key members of Congress. “I wasn’t aware of this program until now,” Barney Frank, D-Mass., who at the time chaired the House Financial Services Committee, admitted in referring to Geithner’s “single-tranche open-market operations” program. And there was no language in the Dodd-Frank law supposedly reining in the banks that compelled the Fed to reveal the existence of this program.
It was merely one small part of that reckless policy of throwing mad money at the banks while ignoring the plight of homeowners whom the banks had swindled, a plan pursued by both the Bush and the Obama administrations that set the stage for the current slide into a double-dip recession. On Tuesday it was reported that home values have continued an eight-month decline back to their lowest point since the recession began. With housing in deep trouble there can be no rebound of consumer confidence or job creation, and the first-quarter growth rate was an anemic 1.8 percent even as Wall Street profits and bonuses flourished. Wages are stagnant, unemployment claims have recently risen and, as The Wall Street Journal headlined on Tuesday, “Economists Downgrade Prospects for Growth.” That same edition of the Journal reported that 44.6 million Americans now survive on food stamps, an 11 percent increase in that misery index over the past year, while Geithner’s friends at Goldman are doing quite well.
Actually, Goldman wasn’t even a bank and was therefore ineligible for those massive government handouts until Geithner helped gain approval for the instant conversion of Goldman from an investment house to a commercial bank. Goldman was granted that status, and with it access to the Fed’s lending, soon after the privilege had been denied to the fellow investment bank Lehman Brothers (the $30 billion mentioned above was in addition to the $43.5 billion Goldman borrowed from other Fed programs). Although Lehman was allowed to go belly up, Geithner engineered the massive bailout of AIG, a move that turned out to be a cover for passing money to AIG’s clients, including the aforementioned Goldman Sachs. The man’s intentions were clear, even if all the secret details were not, when Obama picked him to be his point man in salvaging an economy that Geithner had done much to wreck.
Geithner’s priorities were all too obvious from his days in the Clinton administration’s Treasury Department when he worked first under former Goldman honcho Robert Rubin and then Lawrence Summers, who took six-figure speaking fees from Goldman and other banks while he was an adviser to candidate Obama. It was the recommendation of Rubin and Summers that landed Geithner the job as president of the New York Fed, where he faithfully followed the policy lead of Goldman-CEO-turned-Treasury-Secretary Henry Paulson.
It was back then and is now accurate to speak, as a New York Times headline once put it, of U.S. politics dominated by “The Guys From “Government Sachs’ “–but on an international scale. From the crisis in Greece, where Goldman manufactured toxic tax-based derivatives with abandon, to its betting against the success of the mortgage-based derivatives that Goldman designed and sold to others, the company was nothing short of a massive wrecking ball in the international economy.
Oh yes, what did Goldman do with that taxpayer money it borrowed back in 2008? It needed the money to cover the lousy bets of its Fixed Income, Currencies and Commodities trading unit, which had lost $320 million. Typical of the Goldman dealings in that arena was the $1.3 billion solicited from Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya sovereign wealth fund, which according to a report in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal lost 98 percent of its value and almost cost some Goldman executives doing business in Tripoli their lives.
But they survived, as the guys from Goldman always do. With the general “no banker left behind” program pursued by Geithner under both George W. Bush and Obama, the theory was that saving the banks would save the country. The first part worked out brilliantly, but the second act never occurred.
Read the entire article HERE.
Imagine if you will that you are walking down the street flush with pay day cash when a mugger steals your wallet. Several people witness this theft, and all are willing to testify on your behalf. Unfortunately, the cop who apprehends our felon, rather than slap cuffs on him, suggests that he take the cash and the credit cards and pop into a nearby Tiffany’s to see if there is anything the wife might like. With a bagful of blue boxes in hand, the thief returns the cash empty wallet with maxed out credit cards to the cop. Our protector then turns to us and hands us a newly minted financial burden with a shrug.
A seemingly ridiculous scenario, but one that has occurred repeatedly in the last decade. Some thieves didn’t get away. Jeff Skilling, Dennis Kozloski, and Bernie Madoff, to name a few, are all doing time for their frauds. While their crimes hurt a lot of people, none participated in the near collapse of the financial system we experienced just a few short years ago. Those particular bandits have mostly escaped without prosecution and with a boat load of cash.
The following three crooks had an impact on your life, whether as a victim of deceptive lending practices, falling portfolio values, or by losing your job as a result of an economy that spiraled out of control when the methods they used to enrich themselves imploded …
“Listen, suckers were throwing money at us from both sides, you think I would turn a blind eye to that?”
Remember how the whole mess started in sub-prime mortgages, a large chuck of which were originated at Countrywide Financial (now owned by Bank of America) under the leadership of Angelo Mozilo. Mozilo co-founded Countrywide in 1969 along with the now defunct IndyMac Bank, both of which, for the most part, were standard mortgage originators until the housing bubble started inflating.
Mozilo and Countrywide did not create products like the option ARM, the 80-20 product, FlexPay, or any of the other dubious mortgage products that were developed in the early 2000s, but they swooped into the fray when it was clear that there was money to be made. In fact, according to the Center for Public Integrity, Countrywide was the top subprime lender between 2005 and 2007, originating $97 billion in loans at the peak of the housing market.
From 2001-2006, Mozilo is estimated to have received total compensation of $470 million. That includes $140 million in stock he sold prior to Countrywide’s demise. In fact, in a 2006 e-mail written just days after the massive sale, Mozilo is quoted as saying, “We have no way, with any reasonable certainty, to assess the real risk of holding these loans on our balance sheet.”
During the period that Mozilo disposed of chunks of his shares, Countrywide was engaged in an aggressive share buyback program. How can a CEO possibly justify a share buyback while unceremoniously dumping the stock?
Publicly, while reducing guidance for 2006 in October of that year, Mozilo continued to tout the strength of Countrywide and cited expected improvement of results from refinancing activity, while downplaying the real risk to the balance sheet.
For not disclosing the full extent of the risks a declining housing market posed to Countrywide’s portfolio, and for selling the stock while clearly in possession on material non-public information, Mozilo paid $67.5 million in fines, and the criminal investigation has been recently dropped. Not only is that a paltry sum for a man purportedly worth as much as $600 million, but $45 million of that is being paid by Bank of America as part of its obligations in the takeover of Countrywide.
It simply makes your head spin.
“I can’t hide myself very well, so how could I be hiding anything else?”
Cassano, former head of AIG Financial Products, is the man “credited” with the collapse of the insurance giant. Cassano amassed large returns for his division and AIG by writing insurance on bond portfolios in the form of Credit Default Swaps (CDS)– and that was fine, when he was winning. He bragged about his large, unhedged positions, fought internal audits that valued the swaps far below Cassano’s claims, and claimed that his products were so safe that investors would not lose as much as $1.
For a time the con was successful, but as the housing market began to crumble and the mortgages insured by Cassano’s CDS began to default, write offs began to mount. As late as December of 2007, Cassano still had AIG CEO Martin Sullivan convinced. Sullivan commented at the time that the probability of the housing crisis causing losses at AIG were “close to zero,” despite the fact that the company was witting off $1.1 billion as a result of CDS covering American mortgages. Two months later, that number became $11.1 billion, and the death spiral began.
For the eight year period from 2000-2008, Cassano earned roughly $315 million, including a $35 million bonus received after the collapse of the insurance giant and the $182 billion tax payer funded bailout. Despite clear evidence that he sought to conceal the massive problems in his division, no criminal charges have been filed.
How this cannot be considered fraud raises serious questions about the effectiveness of our legal system when it comes to financial crimes.
Fuld headed Lehman Brothers from 1994 until its collapse in 2008, and received total compensation in excess of $500 million, although he claims it was only $310 million. Under Fuld, Lehman engaged in some serious financial chicanery using what is known as “Repo 105″.
Repos, or Repurchase agreements, are used throughout the financial sector as a means of balancing the books for short periods. The Federal Reserve is active in the repo market, providing temporary funds collateralized by some securities (usually Treasuries) with an agreement that the receiver of the funds will repurchase the securities at a later date for a specified amount. All part of normal business, and the process basically amounts to a secured loan.
The thing that Lehman discovered is that, if you over collateralize a loan, you can treat it as a sale of assets, not a loan, despite the fact that you are contractually bound to repurchase your collateral. The name “Repo 105″ stems from the loop hole that allowed Lehman to use $105 of collateral for $100 in cash.
So at quarter end, when the company’s financials would come under scrutiny in coincidence with its earnings release, Lehman routinely “sold” assets under the repo agreement and used the proceeds to pay off some debt, thereby reducing leverage and “improving” its financial condition. A few weeks after earnings, Lehman would releverage by borrowing to repurchase the assets.
Fuld claims that he had no knowledge of the Repo 105 transactions, despite the fact that in one quarter Lehman used the transactions to “remove” as much as $50 billion of assets and debt from its balance sheet.
Now I am not the CEO of a large securities firm, but if I were, and my numbers changed for a few days by $50 billion, I think I might notice. So either Fuld is a complete idiot and should never have been doing anything more mentally strenuous than finger painting, or he is complicit in what amounts to fraudulent reporting.
As yet, no charges or penalties have been levied against Fuld.
Read the entire article HERE.
September 4, 2010
By Michael Hudson
The Angelides Committee Sidesteps the Mortgage Fraud Issue
What is the difference between today’s economy and Lehman Brothers just before it collapsed in September 2008? Should Lehman, the economy, Wall Street – or none of the above – be bailed out of bad mortgage debt? How did the Fed and Treasury decide which Wall Street firms to save – and how do they decide whether or not to save U.S. companies, personal mortgage debtors, states and cities from bankruptcy and insolvency today? Why did it start by saving the richest financial institutions, leaving the “real” economy locked in debt deflation?
Stated another way, why was Lehman the only Wall Street firm permitted to go under? How does the logic that Washington used in its case compare to how it is treating the economy at large? Why bail out Wall Street – whose managers are rich enough not to need to spend their gains – and not the quarter of U.S. homeowners unfortunate enough also to suffer “negative equity” but not qualify for the help that the officials they elect gave to Wall Street’s winners by enabling Bear Stearns, A.I.G., Countrywide Financial and other gamblers to pay their bad debts?
There was disagreement last Wednesday at the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings now plodding along through its post mortem on the causes of Wall Street’s autumn 2008 collapse and ensuing bailout. Federal Reserve economists argue that the economy – and Wall Street firms apart from Lehman – merely had a liquidity problem, a temporary failure to find buyers for its junk mortgages. By contrast, Lehman had a more deep-seated “balance sheet” problem: negative equity. A taxpayer bailout would have been an utter waste, not recoverable.
Only a “liquidity problem,” or a balance sheet problem of negative equity?
Lehman CEO Dick Fuld is bitter. He claims that Lehman was unfairly singled out. After all, the Fed lent $29 billion to help JP Morgan Chase buy out Bear Stearns the preceding spring. In the wake of Lehman’s failure it seemed to gain the courage to say, “Never again,” and avoided new collapses by bailing out A.I.G. – saving all its counterparties from having to take a loss.
Was this not a giveaway? Mr. Fuld implied. Why couldn’t the Fed and Treasury do for Lehman what they did with other Wall Street investment firms and stock brokers: let it reclassify itself as a bank so it could pawn off its junk mortgages at the Fed’s discount window for 100 cents on the dollar, sticking taxpayers with the loss? (And by the way, will these firms ever be asked to buy back these mortgages at the price they borrowed against from the government? Or will they be allowed to walk away from their debts in a Wall Street version of “jingle mail”?)
This is the soap opera that Americans should be watching, if only it weren’t conducted in the foreign language of jargon and euphemism. At issue is whether Lehman’s crisis was merely a temporary “liquidity problem,” that time would have cleaned up much like BP’s oil spill in the Gulf; or, did the firm suffer a more deep-seated “balance sheet problem” (negative equity), as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke claims – a junk balance sheet, composed of assets that not only had no buyers at the time, but had no visible likelihood of recovering their market price even after the $13 trillion the Treasury and Federal Reserve have spent to bail out Wall Street.
Insisting that Lehman should have shared in Washington’s $13 trillion giveaway, Mr. Fuld testified that his firm was just as savable as Countrywide or A.I.G. – or Fannie Mae for that matter. Lehman was perversely singled out, he claims. Was it not indeed as savable as the Fed and Treasury claim the U.S. real estate sector is? Like over-mortgaged homeowners, all it needed was enough time to finish selling off its portfolio, given enough loan support to tide it over.
The problem, of course, is that the securities that Lehman hoped to pawn off were fraudulent junk. American homeowners are victims, not crooks. Wall Street bailed out crooks at Countrywide and its cohorts. The credit-rating agency Fitch has found financial fraud in every mortgage package it has examined. And these are the packages that have made Wall Street rich and powerful enough to gain Washington bailouts to establish them as a new ruling class, bailouts to use for buying up Washington politicians and lawmakers, and for buying out the popular press to tell people how necessary Wall Street financial practice is to “support” the economy and “create wealth.”
Could any other daytime telecast have a more typecast villain than Mr. Fuld? A novelist would be hard-put to better personify greed, arrogantly playing bridge with his boss while Lehman burned. Yet his testimony has a certain logic. If the negative equity suffered by a quarter of U.S. homeowners can be saved, as the Fed claims it can, where should the line be drawn?
Or to put this question the other way around, why are ten million American homeowners being treated like Lehman, if the Fed believes that they are as savable as Countrywide and A.I.G.?
Huge sums are at stake, because the bailout has left little for Social Security, and nothing to bail out the insolvent states and cities, or for more stimuli to pull the national economy out of depression.
Most relevant in Mr. Fuld’s self-pitying defense before the Angelides Committee is not what he said about his own firm, but his accusation that the Fed and Treasury rescued the rest of Wall Street. Weren’t other firms just as bad? Why was Lehman singled out?
The Fed’s witnesses gave a devastating reply. They drew a clear distinction between a temporary “liquidity problem” and outright negative net worth – the “balance-sheet problem” of insufficient assets to cover one’s debts. Lehman was so badly managed, the Fed claimed – so reckless and arrogant in its belief that it could cheat its customers by selling junk at a huge markup – that it could not have been rescued except by an outright taxpayer giveaway.
As the Fed’s Chief Counsel, Scott Alvarez, put matters: “I think that if the Federal Reserve had lent to Lehman?…?in the way that some people think without adequate collateral?…?this hearing and all other hearings would have only been about how we had wasted the taxpayers’ money – and I don’t expect we would have been repaid.” Like downtown Los Angeles, there was no “there” there.
Included in the hearings’ evidence is an exasperated e-mail sent by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s chief of staff, Jim Wilkinson, on Sept. 9, 2008: “I just can’t stomach us bailing out lehman. Will be horrible in the press.” Five days later, on Sept. 14, he added that unless a private buyer could be found (e.g., as JP Morgan Chase stepped forward to buy Bear Stearns), “No way govt money is coming in … also just did a call with the WH [White House] and usg [U.S. Government] is united behind no money … I think we are headed for winddown.”
Lehman’s problem was not just temporary illiquidity. It had a fatal balance-sheet problem: Its assets were not worth anywhere near what it owed. So with poetic justice, it was in the same position as the subprime borrowers whose junk mortgages it had underwritten and sold to investors gullible enough to believe Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s AAA ratings. This fraudulent junk was supposed to be as safe as a U.S. Treasury bond. But it turned out to be only as safe as Social Security and state pension promises are in today’s “Big fish eat little fish” world.
Yet Mr. Fuld is correct in pointing out that not only Bear Stearns and A.I.G., but also Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs would have failed without state support. So the question remains: Why bail out these firms (and their counterparties!) but not Lehman?
This is too narrow a scope to pose the proper question. What needs to be discussed is the result of Washington arranging for Wall Street to repay its TARP, A.I.G. and other bailout money – including that of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – by “earning its way out of debt” at the “real” economy’s expense. Why has Washington refused to write down the bad debts of homeowners, states and cities, and companies facing bankruptcy unless they annul their pension promises to their employees? Why is Washington is treating the American economy like it treated Lehman and telling it to “Drop dead”?
The explanation is that a double standard exists. The wealthy get bailed out – the creditors, not the debtors. And even the fraudsters, not their victims.
Sidestepping the Fraud Issue: Bailing out fraudsters instead of saving America’s economic base
Recent federal bankruptcy proceedings have exposed Lehman’s deceptive off-balance-sheet accounting gimmicks such as Repo 105 to conceal its true position. No fraud charges have yet been levied, but this is the invisible elephant in the Washington committee rooms. “Everyone was doing it,” so that makes it legal – or what is the same thing these days, non-prosecutable in practice. To prosecute would be to disrupt the financial system – and it is Fed doctrine that the economy cannot survive without a financial system enabled to “earn its way out of debt” by raking off the needed wealth from the rest of the economy?
So the Fed, the Treasury and the Justice Department have merely taken the timid baby step of pointing out that Lehman suffered from such bad management that no firm was willing to buy it out. Barclay’s was interested, but Mr. Fuld was so greedy that he found its offer not rich enough for his taste. So he ended up with nothing. It is a classic morality tale. But evidently not fraud.
The fraud issue lies as far outside the scope of the financial committee meetings as does the question of how the economy should cope with its unpayably high mortgage, state and local debts in the face of its inadequately funded pension obligations. Fed Chairman Bernanke testified on Thursday, Sept. 2, that “the market” itself breeds what most people would call fraud. Widening the market for home ownership necessarily involves lowering loan standards, he explained. But as the Lehman failure illustrates, where should we draw the line between “illiquidity” and insolvency on the one hand, and higher risk and outright fraud?
The Fed argues that the economy cannot recover without a solvent financial system. But what about that large part of the financial system based on fraud? Would the economy fall apart without it – without mortgage fraud, without deceptive packaging of junk mortgages, and for that matter without computerized gambling on derivatives? What of the credit-ratings agencies whose AAA writings were as much up for sale as the conscience and honesty of politicians on the Senate and House Banking Committees? Do we really need them?
And does the economy need more credit (that is, debt)? Or does it need jobs? Does it need to un-tax the banks and give tax-favoritism to Wall Street (“capital gains” tax rates) to enable it to earn its way out of debt at the expense of the production-and-consumption economy?
The question that Washington financial committees should be asking (and economics textbooks should be posing) is whether wider home ownership is really dependent on easier and looser lending standards. After all, the effect of easy credit is to enable borrowers to bid up housing prices. Is this really how to make the U.S. economy more competitive – given the fact that industrial labor now typically pays 40% of its wage income for housing?
Or, does the Fed’s easy-money policy deregulation of oversight open the way for asset-price inflation that puts home ownership even further out of reach – except at the price of running up a lifetime of debt to the banks that write the loans on their keyboard at steep markups over their cost of funding from the compliant Fed?
Who is to benefit from the Fed’s easy money policy – consumers and homeowners, or Wall Street?
This is the broad issue that should be discussed. What would have happened without the bailout? (Remember, Republican Congressmen opposed it – before that fatal Friday when Maverick John McCain rushed back to Washington and said he would not debate Mr. Obama that evening unless Congress approved the bailout of is Wall Street backers.) What if debtors had been bailed out by a write-down of bad debts, instead of the lenders who had made bad loans and the large institutions that bought them?
The bailout has saddled taxpayers not only with $13 trillion that now must be sacrificed by the economy at large (but not by Wall Street), but with the cost of a decade-long depression resulting from keeping the bad debt on the books. This is what rightly should be deemed criminal.
Defenders of Wall Street insist that there was no alternative. And the committee hearings are carefully only listening to such people, because these are very respectable hearings. They are writing mythology, almost as if they are crafting a new religion. In this new ethic, Wall Street financial institutions – “credit creators,” that is, debt creators – are supposed to fund industry, not strip assets or make bad loans. Without rich people, who would “create jobs”? Such is the self-serving logic of Wall Street. For them, Wall Street is the economy.
The wealth of a nation is worth whatever banks will lend, by collateralizing the economic surplus for debt service.
What the Angelides Commission really should focus on is whether this is true or false. That would make it a soap opera worth watching. The Fed so far has stonewalled attempts to discover just who was bailed out in autumn 2008? But most important of all is, what dynamic was bailed out? What class of people?
The answer would seem to be, financial firms employing and serving the nation’s wealthiest 1%? Any and all fraudsters among their ranks? (There has not been a single prosecution, as Bill Black reminds us.) Or the remaining 99% of the population – their bank deposits and indeed, their jobs themselves?
Academic textbooks pretend that the economy is all about production and consumption – factories producing the things their workers buy. The distribution of wealth does not appear, nor is it regularly tracked in statistics. But in Washington and at the hearings, the economy seems to be all about lending and debt, all about balance sheets.
I believe that the beneficiaries were fraudsters, and that the system cannot be saved. Trying to save it by keeping the debts in place – and letting Wall Street banks “work their way out of debt” at the U.S. economy’s expense – threatens to lock the economy in a chronic debt deflation and depression.
At issue is the concept of capital. Does money that is made by short-term, computer-driven financial trades qualify as “capital formation” and hence deserving of tax breaks? Are the billions of dollars of “earnings” reported by Wall Street speculators to be taxed at the low 15% “capital gains” rate? That is only a fraction of the income-tax rate that most workers pay – on top of which is piled the 11% FICA wage withholding for Social Security and Medicare that all workers have to pay on their salaries up to the cut-off point of about $102,000 (This cut-off frees from this tax the tens of millions of dollars that hedge fund traders pay themselves).
Or should these trading gains – a zero-sum activity where one party’s gain is, by definition, another’s loss (usually one’s customers) – be taxed more highly than poverty-level income of workers?
A short while ago the Blackstone hedge fund’s co-founder, Stephen Schwarzman, characterized the attempt to tax short-term arbitrage trading gains at the same rate that wage-earners pay as analogous to Adolph Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. It is a class war against fraudsters and criminals – an unfair war as serious as World War II.
In Mr. Schwarzman’s inspired vision the Democrats are re-enacting the role of Adolph Hitler by mounting a fiscal blitzkrieg to force billionaires to pay as high a tax rate as workers. Are not Wall Street firms doing “God’s work,” after all, as Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd Blankfein, put it last fall? And if they are, then are not those who would tax or criticize Wall Street “God-killers”?
If religion can be turned on its head like this – where the Invisible Hand of Wall Street (invisible to the Justice Department, at least) is elevated to a faux-Deist moral philosophy – is it any surprise that economic orthodoxy and formerly progressive tax policy is succumbing?
The rentiers are fighting back – against the Enlightenment, against Progressive Era tax policy, and against hopes for U.S. economic recovery.
Given today’s florid emotionalism when it comes to discussing Wall Street finances, it hardly is surprising that the Angelides hearings do not dare venture into such territory as to ask whether the bottom 90% of the U.S. economy might need to be bailed out with debt relief just as Wall Street’s elites were.
Read the entire article HERE.