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My personal Wal-Mart nightmare: You won’t believe what life is like working there May 9, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis, Labor.
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Roger’s note: Barack Obama, soon to be if not already a millionaire, shows just how out of touch he is with reality by his visit to one of the most exploitative  enterprises on the face of the earth.

 

The president’s visiting my store Friday. He won’t see how I sleep on my son’s floor and eat potato chips for lunch

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Pam Ramos

When I woke up to see the news, I could hardly believe it: President Obama is planning a visit to the Mountain View Wal-Mart where I work.

But the excitement quickly passed when I found out the store would be shutting down hours in advance of his visit. I wouldn’t be able to tell the president what it’s like to work at Wal-Mart and what it’s like to struggle on low wages, without the hours I need. I am living at the center of the income inequality that he speaks about so often, and I wanted to talk to him about how to change this problem.

My situation is not unlike that of many of the 825,000 Wal-Mart associates – and many other Americans – who are working hard, but just can’t keep up. Most of us aren’t even paid $25,000 a year even though we work at the largest employer in the country and one that makes $16 billion in profits.

I wanted to tell the president what it’s like working – and living – like this.

Things have always been tight. After four years working at Wal-Mart in Mountain View, I am bringing home about $400 every two weeks (I’d like to get more hours, but I’m lucky if I work 32 hours a week). That’s not enough to pay for bills, gas and food.  All I can afford to eat for lunch is a cup of coffee and a bag of potato chips. I’ve always done everything possible to stretch paychecks and scrape by. Sometimes it means not getting enough to eat.

But then I got some bad news that made stretching my budget impossible.

Two months ago, I started feeling ill. My doctor told me I needed to take a week off to have a series of medical tests. Every day for a week I went to the hospital and had to pay $30, $60 or $100 in co-pays for each appointment, test and X-ray.

With these additional expenses and without a paycheck for the week I was out, it pushed me over the edge. I didn’t have enough money to pay the rent.

Right now, I don’t have a place to call home.

I sleep on the floor of my son’s living room because I can’t afford my own place. All of my belongings are in my car. I don’t know where to send my mail.

I used to think, “At least I have my health and my family.” But my doctor thinks I may have colon cancer, and with all of the money I still owe the hospital, I’m not sure how to finish the tests and get treatment. Even though I do have insurance through Wal-Mart, the co-pays are more than I can afford with only $400 every two weeks.

I wanted to tell the president I am scared. I am scared for my health. I am scared for the future for my grandkids. And I am scared and sad about the direction that companies like Wal-Mart are taking our country.

I don’t wish the struggle I’m facing onto anyone. But sadly, my situation isn’t unique. I know that I am one of many living in the Wal-Mart economy who has no financial stability. We expect to work until our deaths because we don’t have any retirement savings and are concerned about the future in front of our children and grandchildren.

There are so many of us who have it so hard – trying to live paycheck to paycheck. While the president is here visiting my store, I want him to look inside at what is really happening at Wal-Mart.

I want the president to help us and tell Wal-Mart to pay us enough to cover the bills and take care of our families. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask from such a profitable company, a company that sets the standard for jobs in this country. And I hope it’s not too much to ask from a president who believes that income inequality is the defining challenge of our time.

Pam Ramos has worked for four years at the Walmart in Mountain View, California. President Obama is visiting this Walmart on Friday. Ramos is also a member of OUR Walmart, the worker organization calling on Walmart to publicly commit to paying workers $25,000 a year, providing full-time work and ending illegal retaliation.

Obama and Holder Let Gangsters Pay Fine, Continue Business As Usual November 21, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Criminal Justice, Economic Crisis.
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Roger’s note: Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford is one of the most incisive journalists on the Internet.  Unlike the legions of mind/ethics challenged Obamabots, who for reasons of race or party loyalty are willfully blind to the Obama Administrations Wall Street/Military-Industrial Complex agenda, Black Agenda Report does not hesitate to speak the truth about the first Afro-American Emperor’s mythical new clothes.

 

 

 

 

 

Going on five years into the Obama regime, it is clear that Wall Street is immune from prosecution, no matter the savagery of the economic crime. Attorney General Eric Holder “has ruthlessly maneuvered every case against the oligarchs into his own jurisdictional arena, in order to protect the banksters from aggressive prosecution.” JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon is a far bigger bandit than Lucky Luciano.

 

 

 

Obama and Holder Let Gangsters Pay Fine, Continue Business As Usual

 

by BAR executive editor Glen Ford

 

The Obama administration has assessed a total of $28 billion in penalties against the Dimon mob, with no discernible effect.”

 

Imagine if Charles “Lucky” Luciano and his “Commission” representing the five reigning New York Mafia families plus the Chicago mob had been immune from law enforcement meddling in their activities, from the establishment of the “Syndicate” in 1931 to the present day. By now, Luciano’s gangster heirs would be the unchallenged rulers of economic and political life in the United States and, by imperial extension, the entire capitalist world.

 

JP Morgan chief executive Jamie Dimon is the man Lucky Luciano dreamed of becoming. A friend and golfing partner of President Obama, Dimon sits at the top of the ruling financial pyramid whose “commissioners” include the heads of Bank of America, CitiGroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Their syndicate owns the cops, prosecutors, judges and major political parties and is, therefore, immune from criminal prosecution: the true “Untouchables,” too big to jail. So big, it will require a revolution to dislodge them from hegemonic power.

 

The latest Obama administration “settlement” of JP Morgan’s ongoing criminal enterprise amounts to a $13 billion fine, a mere speed bump in the unbroken spree of lawlessness that “helped create a financial storm that devastated millions of Americans,” in the words of Associate Attorney General Tony West. Although it is “the largest penalty in history,” Dimon and his fellow banksters are also the richest criminals in history – the most powerful cartel of all time – who can easily afford the levy. The bursting of their housing securities bubble may have wrecked much of the global economy in 2008, but Dimon and his boys made out like pure bandits in the aftermath, consolidating their positions at the center of a dying system. JP Morgan emerged as the biggest U.S. bank in terms of assets, a gleaming tower standing amid the ruins it created. Such is the logic of late stage finance capitalism: catastrophe becomes “creative destruction,” which begets greater economic monopoly, resulting in unchallengeable political supremacy, which makes Dimon too big to jail, whether he’s actually a friend of Obama, or not.

 

Dimon and his fellow banksters can easily afford the levy.”

 

There is no reason whatsoever to believe that the $13 billion fine will have any measurable impact on JP Morgan’s business plan. So far, the Obama administration has assessed a total of $28 billion in penalties against the Dimon mob, with no discernible effect. This time around, however, Obama’s prosecutors have imposed the equivalent of mandatory community service on the corporate malefactor, as an alternative to actual justice. Part of the $4 billion set aside to help struggling homeowners will go towards knocking down abandoned or foreclosed homes in the urban neighborhoods laid waste by JP Morgan and its cohorts in the racially-targeted subprime mortgage frenzy. That’s like compelling the Mafia to do upkeep on the cemeteries where its victims are buried, in lieu of prison terms or execution.

 

Yet, Justice Department mouthpiece Tony West claims the eyesore clearance penalty will “rectify” some of the harm done to “areas hardest hit by the financial crisis.” But, of course, it doesn’t even come close. Whole communities have been wounded beyond repair. Black wealth took its deepest dive in history, with reverberations that will impact future generations. Many thousands of people have died from the social trauma inflicted by Jamie Dimon and his syndicate – and that’s just in the United States. Globally, millions have perished due to the actions for which the settlement is supposed to atone.

 

Back in the Spring, the Huffington Post noted that Attorney General Eric Holder was attempting to retract his famous admission that banks like JP Morgan are too big to jail. Holder’s original statement, in March, was:

 

“I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy. And I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large.”

 

Two months later, in May, Holder amended his remarks, to say:

 

“Let me make something real clear right away. I made a statement I guess in a Senate hearing that I think has been misconstrued. I said it was difficult at times to bring cases against large financial institutions because [of] the potential consequences that they would have on the financial system. But let me make it very clear that there is no bank, there’s no institution, there’s no individual who cannot be investigated and prosecuted by the United States Department of Justice…. Let me be very, very, very clear. Banks are not too big to jail. If we find a bank or a financial institution that has done something wrong, if we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, those cases will be brought.”

 

Clearly, Holder was lying, second time around. If there were ever a serial financial gangster, it’s Dimon. There are no better candidates for racketeering prosecution on the face of the Earth than the Big Six banks and their executives: the pinnacle of the ruling class.

 

Globally, millions have perished due to the actions for which the settlement is supposed to atone.”

 

However, it is wrong to deride Holder and Obama as merely timid in the face of Wall Street’s awesomely destructive power. Rather, they are instruments of finance capital’s hegemony. Holder has ruthlessly maneuvered every case against the oligarchs into his own jurisdictional arena, in order to protect the banksters from aggressive prosecution by wayward state officials. Holder’s “settlements” are designed to insulate the banks from the rule of law, since, at this stage of systemic decay, the Lords of Capital can no longer function within existing legal constraints. The public sphere must be privatized; the urban centers, like Detroit, must be disenfranchised; the financial cartel must be allowed to absorb an ever greater proportion of the real economy into its derivatives casino; wealth must flow from the bottom to the top, without pause; and a planetary corporate code must be established through “free trade” treaties that supersede the sovereign laws of nations. All of the Obama administration’s marching orders flow from these imperatives.

 

Obama and Holder are guardians of the emerging new order, which does not yet have a legal code – and may well prefer to forgo such niceties, entirely. In the meantime, corporate Democrats and Republicans will give lip service to the law while the Mafia of Money runs the show.

 

And, you can take that to the bank.

 

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.

 

 

 

Sorry, Venezuela Haters: This Economy Is Not the Greece of Latin America November 7, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Latin America, Venezuela.
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Roger’s note: As a fact checking exercise I went to the web site of the World Bank cited at the end of this article.  On its page for Venezuela I was unable to find data to confirm the statement that poverty has dropped by 20% in the past year.  What I did find was a chart that showed that poverty as a percentage of population dropped to 25.4% in 2012 from 31.6% in 2011, which does mean a drop of 6.2%, which indeed is approximately a 20% drop for the previous year.  This is the World Bank, folks, you can’t go wrong.

 

Predicting a Venezuelan apocalypse won’t make it happen: in this oil-rich country the only thing imploding is poverty

Women queue to buy toilet paper at a supermarket in Caracas as a result of the shortage of basic goods. (Photograph: Reuters/Jorge Silva)

For more than a decade people opposed to the government of Venezuela have argued that its economy would implode. Like communists in the 1930s rooting for the final crisis of capitalism, they saw economic collapse just around the corner. How frustrating it has been for them to witness only two recessions: one directly caused by the opposition’s oil strike (December 2002-May 2003) and one brought on by the world recession (2009 and the first half of 2010). However, the government got control of the national oil company in 2003, and the whole decade’s economic performance turned out quite well, with average annual growth of real income per person of 2.7% and poverty reduced by over half, and large gains for the majority in employment, access to health care, pensions and education.

Now Venezuela is facing economic problems that are warming the cockles of the haters’ hearts. We see the bad news every day: consumer prices up 49% over the last year; a black market where the dollar fetches seven times the official rate; shortages of consumer goods from milk to toilet paper; the economy slowing; central bank reserves falling. Will those who cried wolf for so long finally see their dreams come true?

Not likely. In the opposition’s analysis Venezuela is caught in an inflation-devaluation spiral, where rising prices domestically undermine confidence in the economy and currency, causing capital flight and driving up the black market price of the dollar. This adds to inflation, as does – in their theory – money creation by the government. And its price controls, nationalisations and other interventions have caused more structural problems. Hyperinflation, rising foreign debt and a balance-of-payments crisis will mark the end of this economic experiment.

But how can a government with more than $90bn in oil revenue end up with a balance-of-payments crisis? Well, the answer is: it can’t, and won’t. In 2012 Venezuela had $93.6bn in oil revenues, and total imports in the economy were $59.3bn. The current account was in surplus to the tune of $11bn, or 2.9% of GDP. Interest payments on the public foreign debt, the most important measure of public indebtedness, were just $3.7bn. This government is not going to run out of dollars. The Bank of America’s analysis of Venezuela last month recognised this, and decided as a result that Venezuelan government bonds were a good buy.

The central bank currently holds $21.7bn in reserves, and opposition economists estimate that there is another $15bn held by other government agencies, for a total of $36.7bn. Normally, reserves that can cover three months of imports are considered sufficient; Venezuela has enough to cover at least eight months, and possibly more. And it has the capacity to borrow more internationally.

One problem is that most of the central bank’s reserves are in gold. But gold can be sold, even if it is much less liquid than assets such as US treasury securities. It seems far-fetched that the government would suffer through a balance-of-payments crisis rather than sell its gold.

Hyperinflation is also a very remote possibility. For the first two years of the economic recovery that began in June 2010, inflation was falling even as economic growth accelerated to 5.7% for 2012. In the first quarter of 2012, it reached a monthly low of just 2.9%. This shows that the Venezuelan economy – despite its problems – is very capable of providing healthy growth even while bringing down inflation.

What really drove inflation up, beginning a year ago, was a cut in the supply of dollars to the foreign exchange market. These were reduced by half in October of 2012 and practically eliminated in February. This meant more importers had to purchase increasingly expensive dollars on the black market. This is where the burst of inflation came from.

Inflation peaked at a monthly rate of 6.2% in May, then fell steadily to 3% in August as the government began to provide more dollars to the market. It jumped to 4.4% monthly in September, but the government has since increased its auctions of dollars and announced a planned increase of food and other imports, which is likely to put some downward pressure on prices.

Of course Venezuela is facing serious economic problems. But they are not the kind suffered by Greece or Spain, trapped in an arrangement in which macroeconomic policy is determined by people who have objectives that conflict with the country’s economic recovery. Venezuela has sufficient reserves and foreign exchange earnings to do whatever it wants, including driving down the black market value of the dollar and eliminating most shortages. These are problems that can be resolved relatively quickly with policy changes. Venezuela – like most economies in the world – also has long-term structural problems such as overdependence on oil, inadequate infrastructure, and limited administrative capacity. But these are not the cause of its current predicament.

Meanwhile, the poverty rate dropped by 20% in Venezuela last year – almost certainly the largest decline in poverty in the Americas for 2012, and one of the largest – if not the largest – in the world. The numbers are available on the website of the World Bank, but almost no journalists have made the arduous journey through cyberspace to find and report them. Ask them why they missed it.

Mark Weisbrot

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), in Washington, DC. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis. E-mail Mark: weisbrot@cepr.net

Larry Summers: Goldman Sacked September 17, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis.
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GregPalast.com

Larry Summers:  Goldman Sacked

By Greg Palast for Vice Magazine
Monday, 16 September 2013

Joseph Stiglitz couldn’t believe his ears.  Here they were in the White House, with President Bill Clinton asking the chiefs of the US Treasury for guidance on the life and death of America’s economy, when the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers turns to his boss, Secretary Robert Rubin, and says, “What would Goldman think of that?”

Huh?

Then, at another meeting, Summers said it again:  What would Goldman think?

A shocked Stiglitz, then Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, told me he’d turned to Summers, and asked if Summers thought it appropriate to decide US economic policy based on “what Goldman thought.”  As opposed to say, the facts, or say, the needs of the American public, you know, all that stuff that we heard in Cabinet meetings on The West Wing.

Summers looked at Stiglitz like Stiglitz was some kind of naive fool who’d read too many civics books.

R.I.P. Larry Summers
On Sunday afternoon, facing a revolt by his own party’s senators, Obama dumped Larry as likely replacement for Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
Until news came that Summers’ torch had been snuffed, I was going to write another column about Larry, the Typhoid Mary of Economics.  (My first, in The Guardian, 15 years ago, warned that “Summers is, in fact, a colony of aliens sent to Earth to turn humans into a cheap source of protein.”)

But the fact that Obama even tried to shove Summers down the planet’s throat tells us more about Obama than Summers—and whom Obama works for.  Hint:  You aren’t one of them.

All these Cabinet discussions back in the 1990s requiring the blessing of Goldman Sachs revolved around the Rubin-Summers idea of ending regulation of the US banking system.  To free the US economy, Summers argued, all you’d have to do is allow commercial banks to bet government-guaranteed savings on new “derivatives products,” let banks sell high-risk sub-prime mortgage securities and cut their reserves against losses.

What could possibly go wrong?
Stiglitz, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, tried to tell them exactly what would go wrong.  But when he tried, he was replaced and exiled.
Summers did more than ask Rubin to channel the spirit of Goldman: Summers secretly called and met with Goldman’s new CEO at the time, Jon Corzine, to plan out the planet’s financial deregulation. I’m not guessing:  I have the confidential memo to Summers reminding him to call Corzine.

[For the complete story of that memo and a copy of it, read The Confidential Memo at the Heart of the Global Financial Crisis.]

Summers, as Treasury official, can call any banker he damn well pleases.  But not secretly.  And absolutely not to scheme over details of policies that could make a bank billions.  And Goldman did make billions on those plans.

Example:  Goldman and clients pocketed $4 billion on the collapse of “synthetic collateralized debt obligations”—flim-flam feathers sold to suckers and dimwits i.e. the bankers at RBS.  (See Did Fabrice Tourre Really Create The Global Financial Crisis?)

Goldman also cashed in big on the implosion of Greece’s debt via secret derivatives trades permitted by Summers’ decriminalization of such cross-border financial gaming.

The collapse of the euro-zone and the US mortgage market caused by Bankers Gone Wild was made possible only by Treasury Secretary Summers lobbying for the Commodities Futures Modernization Act which banned regulators from controlling the 100,000% increase in derivatives assets, especially super-risky “naked” credit-default swaps.

The CMFA was the financial equivalent of a fire department banning smoke alarms.

Summers took over the Treasury’s reins from Rubin who’d left to become director of a strange new financial behemoth:  The combine of Citibank with and an investment bank, Travelers. The new bank beast went bankrupt and required $50 billion in bail-out funds.  (Goldman did not require any bail-out funds–but took $10 billion anyway.)

Other banks-turned-casinos followed Citi into insolvency.  Most got bail-outs … and got Larry Summers–or, at least, Larry’s lips for “consulting” or for gold-plated speaking gigs.

Derivatives trader D.E. Shaw paid Summers $5 million for a couple of years of “part-time” work.  This added to payments from Citigroup, Goldman and other finance houses, raising the net worth of this once penurious professor to more than $31 million.

Foreclosure fills the Golden Sacks
When Summers left Treasury in 2000, The New York Times reports that a grateful Rubin got Summers the post of President of Harvard University—from which Summers was fired. He gambled away over half a billion dollars of the university’s endowment on those crazy derivatives he’d legalized.  (Given Summers’ almost pathological inability to understand finance, it was most odd that, while President of the university, he suggested that humans with vaginas aren’t very good with numbers.)

In 2009, Summers, Daddy of the Deregulation Disaster, returned to the Cabinet in triumph. Barack Obama crowned him “Economics Tsar,” allowing Summers to run the Treasury without having to be questioned by Congress in a formal confirmation hearing.

As Economics Tsar in Obama’s first term, did Summers redeem himself?

Not a chance.

In 2008, both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain called for using the $300 billion remaining in the “bail-out’ fund for a foreclosure-blocking program identical to the one Franklin Roosevelt had used to pull the US out of the Great Depression.  But Tsar Larry would have none of it, although banks had been given $400 billion from the same fund.

Indeed, on the advice of Summers and his wee assistant, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Obama spent only $7 billon of the $300 billion available to save US homeowners.

What would Goldman think? 
As noted, Goldman and clients pocketed billions as a result of Obama’s abandonment of 3.9 million families whose homes were repossessed during his first term.  While American homeowners were drowning, Tsar Summers torpedoed their lifeboat:  a plan to prevent foreclosures by forcing banks to write-off the overcharges in predatory sub-prime mortgages.  Notably, Summers’ action (and Obama’s inaction) saved Citibank billions.

Loan Shark Larry
The deregulation disaster machinery is not done with mangling Americans.  While not-for-profit credit unions, lenders of last resort for working people and the poor in the US, have been under legal and political attack, a new kind of banking operation has bubbled out of the minds of the grifters looking for a way to make loan-sharking legit.

One new outfit, for example, called “Lending Club,” has figured out a way to collect fees for arranging loans charging as much as 29%.  Lending Club claims it cannot and should not be regulated by the Federal Reserve or other banking police.  The recent addition to its Board of Directors:  Larry Summers.

If you want to know why Obama would choose such a grifter and gamer to head the Fed, you have to ask, Who picked Obama?  Ten years ago, Barry Obama was a nothing, a State Senator from the South Side of Chicago.

But then, he got lucky.  A local bank, Superior, was shut down by regulators for mortgage shenanigans ripping off Black folk.  The bank’s Chairwoman, Penny Pritzker was so angry at regulators, she decided to eliminate them:  and that required a new President.

The billionaires connected Obama to Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan, but most importantly to Robert Rubin, former Treasury Secretary, but most important, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and mentor of Larry Summers.  Without Rubin’s blessing and overwhelming fundraising power, Obama would still be arguing over zoning on Halsted Street.

Rubin picked Obama and Obama picks whom Rubin picks for him.

Because, in the end, Obama knows he must choose a Fed chief based on the answer to one question:  What would Goldman think?

Special thanks to expert Lori Wallach of Public Citizen without whom our investigation could not have begun.

For the complete story of the investigation of Larry Summers, the “End Game” memo and the finance crisis, see Palast’s highly acclaimed book Vultures’ Picnic.
Get a
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Greg Palast is also the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Billionaires & Ballot BanditsThe Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Armed Madhouse.

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Obama Did It For the Money May 7, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis.
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Roger’s note: Obama strikes again: rewarding another one the architects of the economic disaster that ruined thousands of lives.  But she got him elected and the banksters and the corporate blood-sucking congress-owning community will be pleased; and that is what is important to the president.

The love fest between Barack Obama and his top fundraiser Penny Pritzker that has led to her being nominated as Commerce secretary would not be so unseemly if they both just confessed that they did it for the money. Her money, not his, financed his rise to the White House from less promising days back in Chicago.

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President Barack Obama looks to longtime fundraiser Penny Pritzker, right, as she laughs in the Rose Garden of the White House, where he announced he would nominate Pritzker to run the Commerce Department and economic adviser Michael Froman, left, as the next U.S. Trade Representative. (Photo: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

“Without Penny Pritzker, it is unlikely that Barack Obama ever would have been elected to the United States Senate or the presidency,” according to a gushing New York Times report last year that read like the soaring jacket copy of a steamy romance novel. “When she first backed him during his 2004 Senate run, she was No. 152 on the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. He was a long-shot candidate who needed her support and imprimatur. Mr. Obama and Ms. Pritzker grew close, sometimes spending weekends with their families at her summer home.”

But don’t sell the lady short; she wasn’t swept along on some kind of celebrity joyride. Pritzker, the billionaire heir to part of the Hyatt Hotels fortune, has long been first off an avaricious capitalist, and if she backed Obama, it wasn’t for his looks. Never one to rest on the laurels of her immense inherited wealth, Pritzker has always wanted more. That’s what drove her to run Superior Bank into the subprime housing swamp that drowned the institution’s homeowners and depositors alike before she emerged richer than before.

Pritzker and her family had acquired the savings and loan with the help of $600 million in tax credits. She became the new bank’s chairwoman and ended up as a director of the holding company that owned it. Under her leadership, Superior specialized in subprime lending, hustling folks with meager means and poor credit into high interest loans that were bundled into the toxic securities that wrecked the U.S. economy.

As federal regulators began to move in on her bank after it had dangerously inflated the value of its toxic assets, Pritzker assured its employees: “Our commitment to subprime has never been stronger.” Two months later, the bank was pronounced insolvent. At the time, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.‘s inspector general report concluded, “The failure of Superior Bank was directly attributable to the board of directors and executive management ignoring sound risk diversification principles, as evidenced by excessive concentration in residual assets related to subprime lending. …”

No biggie. In announcing her appointment, Obama joked, “For your birthday present, you get to go through confirmation. It’s going to be great.” It’s the same sort of joke he could have cracked in appointing Citigroup alum Jack Lew to be Treasury secretary.

It is deeply revealing that in the midst of the continuing cycle of misery brought on by the chicanery of the financial community two key Cabinet positions dealing with business practices will likely be occupied by people who specialized in those financial rip-offs.

For Pritzker, as with the confirmation of Lew, the fix is in. The Republicans don’t dare push back too hard on shady business practices that their deregulation legislation endorsed, and Democrats will go along with anything the president wants.

The same restraint will be exhibited in exploring the offshore tax havens that have protected the Pritzker family’s immense wealth. Back in 2008, when she had been rumored for this same Cabinet post, Pritzker was queried about avoiding the sort of taxes most ordinary folks are obligated to pay, and she replied in writing: “I am a beneficiary of some non-U.S. situs trusts which were established about 50 years ago (when I was a child) and are administered by a non-U.S.–based financial institution as trustee. I do not control how those assets are administered.” If the Republicans challenge that canard, the Democrats will smugly remind them of Mitt Romney’s tax havens, as if that excuses tax avoidance within their own ranks.

Certainly the Republicans will not raise questions about the anti-union practices that helped create the Hyatt fortune in the first place and continue to this day. Nor will the Democrats, who embrace unions only at national convention time.

“There is a huge unresolved set of issues in the Democratic Party between people of wealth and people who work,” noted Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, which attempts to organize the miserably paid workers that produced Pritzker’s wealth. “Penny is a living example of that issue.”

But it’s payback time, and even normally progressive Democrats like Pritzker’s home state Sen. Dick Durbin are prepared to roll over. Treating the appointment of billionaire Pritzker as a victory for women everywhere, the senator said she’d “broken through the glass ceiling with her extraordinary intelligence and business acumen.”

Right, Pritzker will be a fine role model for those women working at the Asian factories that she’ll be touring as Commerce secretary extolling the virtues of the American business model.

Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer is editor of Truthdig.com and a regular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Secrets and Lies of the Wall Street Bailout January 9, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
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Roger’s note: One does not have to have a Ph.D. in Economics to understand the words “lies” and “secrets.”  Matt Taibbi is one of the finest journalists writing today, and he painstakingly outlines the fraud perpetuated on the American people by the Republicrat government in collusion with the Wall Street financial institutions.

 

Published on Tuesday, January 8, 2013 by Rolling Stone

The federal rescue of Wall Street didn’t fix the economy – it created a permanent bailout state based on a Ponzi-like confidence scheme. And the worst may be yet to come

by Matt Taibbi

It has been four long winters since the federal government, in the hulking, shaven-skulled, Alien Nation-esque form of then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, committed $700 billion in taxpayer money to rescue Wall Street from its own chicanery and greed. To listen to the bankers and their allies in Washington tell it, you’d think the bailout was the best thing to hit the American economy since the invention of the assembly line. Not only did it prevent another Great Depression, we’ve been told, but the money has all been paid back, and the government even made a profit. No harm, no foul – right?

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(Illustration by Victor Juhasz)

Wrong.

It was all a lie – one of the biggest and most elaborate falsehoods ever sold to the American people. We were told that the taxpayer was stepping in – only temporarily, mind you – to prop up the economy and save the world from financial catastrophe. What we actually ended up doing was the exact opposite: committing American taxpayers to permanent, blind support of an ungovernable, unregulatable, hyperconcentrated new financial system that exacerbates the greed and inequality that caused the crash, and forces Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup to increase risk rather than reduce it. The result is one of those deals where one wrong decision early on blossoms into a lush nightmare of unintended consequences. We thought we were just letting a friend crash at the house for a few days; we ended up with a family of hillbillies who moved in forever, sleeping nine to a bed and building a meth lab on the front lawn.

How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform

But the most appalling part is the lying. The public has been lied to so shamelessly and so often in the course of the past four years that the failure to tell the truth to the general populace has become a kind of baked-in, official feature of the financial rescue. Money wasn’t the only thing the government gave Wall Street – it also conferred the right to hide the truth from the rest of us. And it was all done in the name of helping regular people and creating jobs. “It is,” says former bailout Inspector General Neil Barofsky, “the ultimate bait-and-switch.”

The bailout deceptions came early, late and in between. There were lies told in the first moments of their inception, and others still being told four years later. The lies, in fact, were the most important mechanisms of the bailout. The only reason investors haven’t run screaming from an obviously corrupt financial marketplace is because the government has gone to such extraordinary lengths to sell the narrative that the problems of 2008 have been fixed. Investors may not actually believe the lie, but they are impressed by how totally committed the government has been, from the very beginning, to selling it.

They Lied to Pass the Bailout

Today what few remember about the bailouts is that we had to approve them. It wasn’t like Paulson could just go out and unilaterally commit trillions of public dollars to rescue Goldman Sachs and Citigroup from their own stupidity and bad management (although the government ended up doing just that, later on). Much as with a declaration of war, a similarly extreme and expensive commitment of public resources, Paulson needed at least a film of congressional approval. And much like the Iraq War resolution, which was only secured after George W. Bush ludicrously warned that Saddam was planning to send drones to spray poison over New York City, the bailouts were pushed through Congress with a series of threats and promises that ranged from the merely ridiculous to the outright deceptive. At one meeting to discuss the original bailout bill – at 11 a.m. on September 18th, 2008 – Paulson actually told members of Congress that $5.5 trillion in wealth would disappear by 2 p.m. that day unless the government took immediate action, and that the world economy would collapse “within 24 hours.”

To be fair, Paulson started out by trying to tell the truth in his own ham-headed, narcissistic way. His first TARP proposal was a three-page absurdity pulled straight from a Beavis and Butt-Head episode – it was basically Paulson saying, “Can you, like, give me some money?” Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, remembers a call with Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. “We need $700 billion,” they told Brown, “and we need it in three days.” What’s more, the plan stipulated, Paulson could spend the money however he pleased, without review “by any court of law or any administrative agency.”

The White House and leaders of both parties actually agreed to this preposterous document, but it died in the House when 95 Democrats lined up against it. For an all-too-rare moment during the Bush administration, something resembling sanity prevailed in Washington.

So Paulson came up with a more convincing lie. On paper, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was simple: Treasury would buy $700 billion of troubled mortgages from the banks and then modify them to help struggling homeowners. Section 109 of the act, in fact, specifically empowered the Treasury secretary to “facilitate loan modifications to prevent avoidable foreclosures.” With that promise on the table, wary Democrats finally approved the bailout on October 3rd, 2008. “That provision,” says Barofsky, “is what got the bill passed.”

But within days of passage, the Fed and the Treasury unilaterally decided to abandon the planned purchase of toxic assets in favor of direct injections of billions in cash into companies like Goldman and Citigroup. Overnight, Section 109 was unceremoniously ditched, and what was pitched as a bailout of both banks and homeowners instantly became a bank-only operation – marking the first in a long series of moves in which bailout officials either casually ignored or openly defied their own promises with regard to TARP.

Congress was furious. “We’ve been lied to,” fumed Rep. David Scott, a Democrat from Georgia. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, raged at transparently douchey TARP administrator (and Goldman banker) Neel Kashkari, calling him a “chump” for the banks. And the anger was bipartisan: Republican senators David Vitter of Louisiana and James Inhofe of Oklahoma were so mad about the unilateral changes and lack of oversight that they sponsored a bill in January 2009 to cancel the remaining $350 billion of TARP.

So what did bailout officials do? They put together a proposal full of even bigger deceptions to get it past Congress a second time. That process began almost exactly four years ago – on January 12th and 15th, 2009 – when Larry Summers, the senior economic adviser to President-elect Barack Obama, sent a pair of letters to Congress. The pudgy, stubby­fingered former World Bank economist, who had been forced out as Harvard president for suggesting that women lack a natural aptitude for math and science, begged legislators to reject Vitter’s bill and leave TARP alone.

In the letters, Summers laid out a five-point plan in which the bailout was pitched as a kind of giant populist program to help ordinary Americans. Obama, Summers vowed, would use the money to stimulate bank lending to put people back to work. He even went so far as to say that banks would be denied funding unless they agreed to “increase lending above baseline levels.” He promised that “tough and transparent conditions” would be imposed on bailout recipients, who would not be allowed to use bailout funds toward “enriching shareholders or executives.” As in the original TARP bill, he pledged that bailout money would be used to aid homeowners in foreclosure. And lastly, he promised that the bailouts would be temporary – with a “plan for exit of government intervention” implemented “as quickly as possible.”

The reassurances worked. Once again, TARP survived in Congress – and once again, the bailouts were greenlighted with the aid of Democrats who fell for the old “it’ll help ordinary people” sales pitch. “I feel like they’ve given me a lot of commitment on the housing front,” explained Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska.

But in the end, almost nothing Summers promised actually materialized. A small slice of TARP was earmarked for foreclosure relief, but the resultant aid programs for homeowners turned out to be riddled with problems, for the perfectly logical reason that none of the bailout’s architects gave a shit about them. They were drawn up practically overnight and rushed out the door for purely political reasons – to trick Congress into handing over tons of instant cash for Wall Street, with no strings attached. “Without those assurances, the level of opposition would have remained the same,” says Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a leading progressive who voted against TARP. The promise of housing aid, in particular, turned out to be a “paper tiger.”

HAMP, the signature program to aid poor homeowners, was announced by President Obama on February 18th, 2009. The move inspired CNBC commentator Rick Santelli to go berserk the next day – the infamous viral rant that essentially birthed the Tea Party. Reacting to the news that Obama was planning to use bailout funds to help poor and (presumably) minority homeowners facing foreclosure, Santelli fumed that the president wanted to “subsidize the losers’ mortgages” when he should “reward people that could carry the water, instead of drink the water.” The tirade against “water drinkers” led to the sort of spontaneous nationwide protests one might have expected months before, when we essentially gave a taxpayer-funded blank check to Gamblers Anonymous addicts, the millionaire and billionaire class.

In fact, the amount of money that eventually got spent on homeowner aid now stands as a kind of grotesque joke compared to the Himalayan mountain range of cash that got moved onto the balance sheets of the big banks more or less instantly in the first months of the bailouts. At the start, $50 billion of TARP funds were earmarked for HAMP. In 2010, the size of the program was cut to $30 billion. As of November of last year, a mere $4 billion total has been spent for loan modifications and other homeowner aid.

In short, the bailout program designed to help those lazy, job-averse, “water-drinking” minority homeowners – the one that gave birth to the Tea Party – turns out to have comprised about one percent of total TARP spending. “It’s amazing,” says Paul Kiel, who monitors bailout spending for ProPublica. “It’s probably one of the biggest failures of the Obama administration.”

The failure of HAMP underscores another damning truth – that the Bush-Obama bailout was as purely bipartisan a program as we’ve had. Imagine Obama retaining Don Rumsfeld as defense secretary and still digging for WMDs in the Iraqi desert four years after his election: That’s what it was like when he left Tim Geithner, one of the chief architects of Bush’s bailout, in command of the no-strings­attached rescue four years after Bush left office.

Yet Obama’s HAMP program, as lame as it turned out to be, still stands out as one of the few pre-bailout promises that was even partially fulfilled. Virtually every other promise Summers made in his letters turned out to be total bullshit. And that includes maybe the most important promise of all – the pledge to use the bailout money to put people back to work.

They Lied About Lending

Once TARP passed, the government quickly began loaning out billions to some 500 banks that it deemed “healthy” and “viable.” A few were cash loans, repayable at five percent within the first five years; other deals came due when a bank stock hit a predetermined price. As long as banks held TARP money, they were barred from paying out big cash bonuses to top executives.

But even before Summers promised Congress that banks would be required to increase lending as a condition for receiving bailout funds, officials had already decided not to even ask the banks to use the money to increase lending. In fact, they’d decided not to even ask banks to monitor what they did with the bailout money. Barofsky, the TARP inspector, asked Treasury to include a requirement forcing recipients to explain what they did with the taxpayer money. He was stunned when TARP administrator Kashkari rejected his proposal, telling him lenders would walk away from the program if they had to deal with too many conditions. “The banks won’t participate,” Kashkari said.

Barofsky, a former high-level drug prosecutor who was one of the only bailout officials who didn’t come from Wall Street, didn’t buy that cash-desperate banks would somehow turn down billions in aid. “It was like they were trembling with fear that the banks wouldn’t take the money,” he says. “I never found that terribly convincing.”

In the end, there was no lending requirement attached to any aspect of the bailout, and there never would be. Banks used their hundreds of billions for almost every purpose under the sun – everything, that is, but lending to the homeowners and small businesses and cities they had destroyed. And one of the most disgusting uses they found for all their billions in free government money was to help them earn even more free government money.

To guarantee their soundness, all major banks are required to keep a certain amount of reserve cash at the Fed. In years past, that money didn’t earn interest, for the logical reason that banks shouldn’t get paid to stay solvent. But in 2006 – arguing that banks were losing profits on cash parked at the Fed – regulators agreed to make small interest payments on the money. The move wasn’t set to go into effect until 2011, but when the crash hit, a section was written into TARP that launched the interest payments in October 2008.

In theory, there should never be much money in such reserve accounts, because any halfway-competent bank could make far more money lending the cash out than parking it at the Fed, where it earns a measly quarter of a percent. In August 2008, before the bailout began, there were just $2 billion in excess reserves at the Fed. But by that October, the number had ballooned to $267 billion – and by January 2009, it had grown to $843 billion. That means there was suddenly more money sitting uselessly in Fed accounts than Congress had approved for either the TARP bailout or the much-loathed Obama stimulus. Instead of lending their new cash to struggling homeowners and small businesses, as Summers had promised, the banks were literally sitting on it.

Today, excess reserves at the Fed total an astonishing $1.4 trillion.”The money is just doing nothing,” says Nomi Prins, a former Goldman executive who has spent years monitoring the distribution of bailout money.

Nothing, that is, except earning a few crumbs of risk-free interest for the banks. Prins estimates that the annual haul in interest­ on Fed reserves is about $3.6 billion – a relatively tiny subsidy in the scheme of things, but one that, ironically, just about matches the total amount of bailout money spent on aid to homeowners. Put another way, banks are getting paid about as much every year for not lending money as 1 million Americans received for mortgage modifications and other housing aid in the whole of the past four years.

Moreover, instead of using the bailout money as promised – to jump-start the economy – Wall Street used the funds to make the economy more dangerous. From the start, taxpayer money was used to subsidize a string of finance mergers, from the Chase-Bear Stearns deal to the Wells Fargo­Wachovia merger to Bank of America’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch. Aided by bailout funds, being Too Big to Fail was suddenly Too Good to Pass Up.

Other banks found more creative uses for bailout money. In October 2010, Obama signed a new bailout bill creating a program called the Small Business Lending Fund, in which firms with fewer than $10 billion in assets could apply to share in a pool of $4 billion in public money. As it turned out, however, about a third of the 332 companies that took part in the program used at least some of the money to repay their original TARP loans. Small banks that still owed TARP money essentially took out cheaper loans from the government to repay their more expensive TARP loans – a move that conveniently exempted them from the limits on executive bonuses mandated by the bailout. All told, studies show, $2.2 billion of the $4 billion ended up being spent not on small-business loans, but on TARP repayment. “It’s a bit of a shell game,” admitted John Schmidt, chief operating officer of Iowa-based Heartland Financial, which took $81.7 million from the SBLF and used every penny of it to repay TARP.

Using small-business funds to pay down their own debts, parking huge amounts of cash at the Fed in the midst of a stalled economy – it’s all just evidence of what most Americans know instinctively: that the bailouts didn’t result in much new business lending. If anything, the bailouts actually hindered lending, as banks became more like house pets that grow fat and lazy on two guaranteed meals a day than wild animals that have to go out into the jungle and hunt for opportunities in order to eat. The Fed’s own analysis bears this out: In the first three months of the bailout, as taxpayer billions poured in, TARP recipients slowed down lending at a rate more than double that of banks that didn’t receive TARP funds. The biggest drop in lending – 3.1 percent – came from the biggest bailout recipient, Citigroup. A year later, the inspector general for the bailout found that lending among the nine biggest TARP recipients “did not, in fact, increase.” The bailout didn’t flood the banking system with billions in loans for small businesses, as promised. It just flooded the banking system with billions for the banks.

They Lied About the Health of the Banks

The main reason banks didn’t lend out bailout funds is actually pretty simple: Many of them needed the money just to survive. Which leads to another of the bailout’s broken promises – that taxpayer money would only be handed out to “viable” banks.

Soon after TARP passed, Paulson and other officials announced the guidelines for their unilaterally changed bailout plan. Congress had approved $700 billion to buy up toxic mortgages, but $250 billion of the money was now shifted to direct capital injections for banks. (Although Paulson claimed at the time that handing money directly to the banks was a faster way to restore market confidence than lending it to homeowners, he later confessed that he had been contemplating the direct-cash-injection plan even before the vote.) This new let’s-just-fork-over-cash portion of the bailout was called the Capital Purchase Program. Under the CPP, nine of America’s largest banks – including Citi, Wells Fargo, Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, State Street and Bank of New York Mellon – received $125 billion, or half of the funds being doled out. Since those nine firms accounted for 75 percent of all assets held in America’s banks – $11 trillion – it made sense they would get the lion’s share of the money. But in announcing the CPP, Paulson and Co. promised that they would only be stuffing cash into “healthy and viable” banks. This, at the core, was the entire justification for the bailout: That the huge infusion of taxpayer cash would not be used to rescue individual banks, but to kick-start the economy as a whole by helping healthy banks start lending again.

This announcement marked the beginning of the legend that certain Wall Street banks only took the bailout money because they were forced to – they didn’t need all those billions, you understand, they just did it for the good of the country. “We did not, at that point, need TARP,” Chase chief Jamie Dimon later claimed, insisting that he only took the money “because we were asked to by the secretary of Treasury.” Goldman chief Lloyd Blankfein similarly claimed that his bank never needed the money, and that he wouldn’t have taken it if he’d known it was “this pregnant with potential for backlash.” A joint statement by Paulson, Bernanke and FDIC chief Sheila Bair praised the nine leading banks as “healthy institutions” that were taking the cash only to “enhance the overall performance of the U.S. economy.”

But right after the bailouts began, soon-to-be Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner admitted to Barofsky, the inspector general, that he and his cohorts had picked the first nine bailout recipients because of their size, without bothering to assess their health and viability. Paulson, meanwhile, later admitted that he had serious concerns about at least one of the nine firms he had publicly pronounced healthy. And in November 2009, Bernanke gave a closed-door interview to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the body charged with investigating the causes of the economic meltdown, in which he admitted that 12 of the 13 most prominent financial companies in America were on the brink of failure during the time of the initial bailouts.

On the inside, at least, almost everyone connected with the bailout knew that the top banks were in deep trouble. “It became obvious pretty much as soon as I took the job that these companies weren’t really healthy and viable,” says Barofsky, who stepped down as TARP inspector in 2011.

This early episode would prove to be a crucial moment in the history of the bailout. It set the precedent of the government allowing unhealthy banks to not only call themselves healthy, but to get the government to endorse their claims. Projecting an image of soundness was, to the government, more important than disclosing the truth. Officials like Geithner and Paulson seemed to genuinely believe that the market’s fears about corruption in the banking system was a bigger problem than the corruption itself. Time and again, they justified TARP as a move needed to “bolster confidence” in the system – and a key to that effort was keeping the banks’ insolvency a secret. In doing so, they created a bizarre new two-tiered financial market, divided between those who knew the truth about how bad things were and those who did not.

A month or so after the bailout team called the top nine banks “healthy,” it became clear that the biggest recipient, Citigroup, had actually flat-lined on the ER table. Only weeks after Paulson and Co. gave the firm $25 billion in TARP funds, Citi – which was in the midst of posting a quarterly loss of more than $17 billion – came back begging for more. In November 2008, Citi received another $20 billion in cash and more than $300 billion in guarantees.

What’s most amazing about this isn’t that Citi got so much money, but that government-endorsed, fraudulent health ratings magically became part of its bailout. The chief financial regulators – the Fed, the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency – use a ratings system called CAMELS to measure the fitness of institutions. CAMELS stands for Capital, Assets, Management, Earnings, Liquidity and Sensitivity to risk, and it rates firms from one to five, with one being the best and five the crappiest. In the heat of the crisis, just as Citi was receiving the second of what would turn out to be three massive federal bailouts, the bank inexplicably enjoyed a three rating – the financial equivalent of a passing grade. In her book, Bull by the Horns, then-FDIC chief Sheila Bair recounts expressing astonishment to OCC head John Dugan as to why “Citi rated as a CAMELS 3 when it was on the brink of failure.” Dugan essentially answered that “since the government planned on bailing Citi out, the OCC did not plan to change its supervisory rating.” Similarly, the FDIC ended up granting a “systemic risk exception” to Citi, allowing it access to FDIC-bailout help even though the agency knew the bank was on the verge of collapse.

The sweeping impact of these crucial decisions has never been fully appreciated. In the years preceding the bailouts, banks like Citi had been perpetuating a kind of fraud upon the public by pretending to be far healthier than they really were. In some cases, the fraud was outright, as in the case of Lehman Brothers, which was using an arcane accounting trick to book tens of billions of loans as revenues each quarter, making it look like it had more cash than it really did. In other cases, the fraud was more indirect, as in the case of Citi, which in 2007 paid out the third-highest dividend in America – $10.7 billion – despite the fact that it had lost $9.8 billion in the fourth quarter of that year alone. The whole financial sector, in fact, had taken on Ponzi-like characteristics, as many banks were hugely dependent on a continual influx of new money from things like sales of subprime mortgages to cover up massive future liabilities from toxic investments that, sooner or later, were going to come to the surface.

Now, instead of using the bailouts as a clear-the-air moment, the government decided to double down on such fraud, awarding healthy ratings to these failing banks and even twisting its numerical audits and assessments to fit the cooked-up narrative. A major component of the original TARP bailout was a promise to ensure “full and accurate accounting” by conducting regular­ “stress tests” of the bailout recipients. When Geithner announced his stress-test plan in February 2009, a reporter instantly blasted him with an obvious and damning question: Doesn’t the fact that you have to conduct these tests prove that bank regulators, who should already know plenty about banks’ solvency, actually have no idea who is solvent and who isn’t?

The government did wind up conducting regular stress tests of all the major bailout recipients, but the methodology proved to be such an obvious joke that it was even lampooned on Saturday Night Live. (In the skit, Geithner abandons a planned numerical score system because it would unfairly penalize bankers who were “not good at banking.”) In 2009, just after the first round of tests was released, it came out that the Fed had allowed banks to literally rejigger the numbers to make their bottom lines look better. When the Fed found Bank of America had a $50 billion capital hole, for instance, the bank persuaded examiners to cut that number by more than $15 billion because of what it said were “errors made by examiners in the analysis.” Citigroup got its number slashed from $35 billion to $5.5 billion when the bank pleaded with the Fed to give it credit for “pending transactions.”

Such meaningless parodies of oversight continue to this day. Earlier this year, Regions Financial Corp. – a company that had failed to pay back $3.5 billion in TARP loans – passed its stress test. A subsequent analysis by Bloomberg View found that Regions was effectively $525 million in the red. Nonetheless, the bank’s CEO proclaimed that the stress test “demonstrates the strength of our company.” Shortly after the test was concluded, the bank issued $900 million in stock and said it planned on using the cash to pay back some of the money it had borrowed under TARP.

This episode underscores a key feature of the bailout: the government’s decision to use lies as a form of monetary aid. State hands over taxpayer money to functionally insolvent bank; state gives regulatory thumbs up to said bank; bank uses that thumbs up to sell stock; bank pays cash back to state. What’s critical here is not that investors actually buy the Fed’s bullshit accounting – all they have to do is believe the government will backstop Regions either way, healthy or not. “Clearly, the Fed wanted it to attract new investors,” observed Bloomberg, “and those who put fresh capital into Regions this week believe the government won’t let it die.”

Through behavior like this, the government has turned the entire financial system into a kind of vast confidence game – a Ponzi-like scam in which the value of just about everything in the system is inflated because of the widespread belief that the government will step in to prevent losses. Clearly, a government that’s already in debt over its eyes for the next million years does not have enough capital on hand to rescue every Citigroup or Regions Bank in the land should they all go bust tomorrow. But the market is behaving as if Daddy will step in to once again pay the rent the next time any or all of these kids sets the couch on fire and skips out on his security deposit. Just like an actual Ponzi scheme, it works only as long as they don’t have to make good on all the promises they’ve made. They’re building an economy based not on real accounting and real numbers, but on belief. And while the signs of growth and recovery in this new faith-based economy may be fake, one aspect of the bailout has been consistently concrete: the broken promises over executive pay.

They Lied About Bonuses

hat executive bonuses on Wall Street were a political hot potato for the bailout’s architects was obvious from the start. That’s why Summers, in saving the bailout from the ire of Congress, vowed to “limit executive compensation” and devote public money to prevent another financial crisis. And it’s true, TARP did bar recipients from a whole range of exorbitant pay practices, which is one reason the biggest banks, like Goldman Sachs, worked so quickly to repay their TARP loans.

But there were all sorts of ways around the restrictions. Banks could apply to the Fed and other regulators for waivers, which were often approved (one senior FDIC official tells me he recommended denying “golden parachute” payments to Citigroup officials, only to see them approved by superiors). They could get bailouts through programs other than TARP that did not place limits on bonuses. Or they could simply pay bonuses not prohibited under TARP. In one of the worst episodes, the notorious lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac paid out more than $200 million in bonuses­ between 2008 and 2010, even though the firms (a) lost more than $100 billion in 2008 alone, and (b) required nearly $400 billion in federal assistance during the bailout period.

Even worse was the incredible episode in which bailout recipient AIG paid more than $1 million each to 73 employees of AIG Financial Products, the tiny unit widely blamed for having destroyed the insurance giant (and perhaps even triggered the whole crisis) with its reckless issuance of nearly half a trillion dollars in toxic credit-default swaps. The “retention bonuses,” paid after the bailout, went to 11 employees who no longer worked for AIG.

But all of these “exceptions” to the bonus restrictions are far less infuriating, it turns out, than the rule itself. TARP did indeed bar big cash-bonus payouts by firms that still owed money to the government. But those firms were allowed to issue extra compensation to executives in the form of long-term restricted stock. An independent research firm asked to analyze the stock options for The New York Times found that the top five executives at each of the 18 biggest bailout recipients received a total of $142 million in stocks and options. That’s plenty of money all by itself – but thanks in large part to the government’s overt display of support for those firms, the value of those options has soared to $457 million, an average of $4 million per executive.

In other words, we didn’t just allow banks theoretically barred from paying bonuses to pay bonuses. We actually allowed them to pay bigger bonuses than they otherwise could have. Instead of forcing the firms to reward top executives in cash, we allowed them to pay in depressed stock, the value of which we then inflated due to the government’s implicit endorsement of those firms.

All of which leads us to the last and most important deception of the bailouts:

They Lied About the Bailout Being Temporary

The bailout ended up being much bigger than anyone expected, expanded far beyond TARP to include more obscure (and in some cases far larger) programs with names like TALF, TAF, PPIP and TLGP. What’s more, some parts of the bailout were designed to extend far into the future. Companies like AIG, GM and Citigroup, for instance, were given tens of billions of deferred tax assets – allowing them to carry losses from 2008 forward to offset future profits and keep future tax bills down. Official estimates of the bailout’s costs do not include such ongoing giveaways. “This is stuff that’s never going to appear on any report,” says Barofsky.

Citigroup, all by itself, boasts more than $50 billion in deferred tax credits – which is how the firm managed to pay less in taxes in 2011 (it actually received a $144 million credit) than it paid in compensation that year to its since-ousted dingbat CEO, Vikram Pandit (who pocketed $14.9 million). The bailout, in short, enabled the very banks and financial institutions that cratered the global economy to write off the losses from their toxic deals for years to come – further depriving the government of much-needed tax revenues it could have used to help homeowners and small businesses who were screwed over by the banks in the first place.

Even worse, the $700 billion in TARP loans ended up being dwarfed by more than $7.7 trillion in secret emergency lending that the Fed awarded to Wall Street – loans that were only disclosed to the public after Congress forced an extraordinary one-time audit of the Federal Reserve. The extent of this “secret bailout” didn’t come out until November 2011, when Bloomberg Markets, which went to court to win the right to publish the data, detailed how the country’s biggest firms secretly received trillions in near-free money throughout the crisis.

Goldman Sachs, which had made such a big show of being reluctant about accepting $10 billion in TARP money, was quick to cash in on the secret loans being offered by the Fed. By the end of 2008, Goldman had snarfed up $34 billion in federal loans – and it was paying an interest rate of as low as just 0.01 percent for the huge cash infusion. Yet that funding was never disclosed to shareholders or taxpayers, a fact Goldman confirms. “We did not disclose the amount of our participation in the two programs you identify,” says Goldman spokesman Michael Duvally.

Goldman CEO Blankfein later dismissed the importance of the loans, telling the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that the bank wasn’t “relying on those mechanisms.” But in his book, Bailout, Barofsky says that Paulson told him that he believed Morgan Stanley was “just days” from collapse before government intervention, while Bernanke later admitted that Goldman would have been the next to fall.

Meanwhile, at the same moment that leading banks were taking trillions in secret loans from the Fed, top officials at those firms were buying up stock in their companies, privy to insider info that was not available to the public at large. Stephen Friedman, a Goldman director who was also chairman of the New York Fed, bought more than $4 million of Goldman stock over a five-week period in December 2008 and January 2009 – years before the extent of the firm’s lifeline from the Fed was made public. Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit bought nearly $7 million in Citi stock in November 2008, just as his firm was secretly taking out $99.5 billion in Fed loans. Jamie Dimon bought more than $11 million in Chase stock in early 2009, at a time when his firm was receiving as much as $60 billion in secret Fed loans. When asked by Rolling Stone, Chase could not point to any disclosure of the bank’s borrowing from the Fed until more than a year later, when Dimon wrote about it in a letter to shareholders in March 2010.

The stock purchases by America’s top bankers raise serious questions of insider trading. Two former high-ranking financial regulators tell Rolling Stone that the secret loans were likely subject to a 1989 guideline, issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission in the heat of the savings and loan crisis, which said that financial institutions should disclose the “nature, amounts and effects” of any government aid. At the end of 2011, in fact, the SEC sent letters to Citigroup, Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Wells Fargo asking them why they hadn’t fully disclosed their secret borrowing. All five megabanks essentially replied, to varying degrees of absurdity, that their massive borrowing from the Fed was not “material,” or that the piecemeal disclosure they had engaged in was adequate. Never mind that the law says investors have to be informed right away if CEOs like Dimon and Pandit decide to give themselves a $10,000 raise. According to the banks, it’s none of your business if those same CEOs are making use of a secret $50 billion charge card from the Fed.

The implications here go far beyond the question of whether Dimon and Co. committed insider trading by buying and selling stock while they had access to material nonpublic information about the bailouts. The broader and more pressing concern is the clear implication that by failing to act, federal regulators­ have tacitly approved the nondisclosure. Instead of trusting the markets to do the right thing when provided with accurate information, the government has instead channeled Jack Nicholson – and decided that the public just can’t handle the truth.

All of this – the willingness to call dying banks healthy, the sham stress tests, the failure to enforce bonus rules, the seeming indifference to public disclosure, not to mention the shocking­ lack of criminal investigations into fraud committed by bailout recipients before the crash – comprised the largest and most valuable bailout of all. Brick by brick, statement by reassuring statement, bailout officials have spent years building the government’s great Implicit Guarantee to the biggest companies on Wall Street: We will be there for you, always, no matter how much you screw up. We will lie for you and let you get away with just about anything. We will make this ongoing bailout a pervasive and permanent part of the financial system. And most important of all, we will publicly commit to this policy, being so obvious about it that the markets will be able to put an exact price tag on the value of our preferential treatment.

The first independent study that attempted to put a numerical value on the Implicit Guarantee popped up about a year after the crash, in September 2009, when Dean Baker and Travis McArthur of the Center for Economic and Policy Research published a paper called “The Value of the ‘Too Big to Fail’ Big Bank Subsidy.” Baker and McArthur found that prior to the last quarter of 2007, just before the start of the crisis, financial firms with $100 billion or more in assets were paying on average about 0.29 percent less to borrow money than smaller firms.

By the second quarter of 2009, however, once the bailouts were in full swing, that spread had widened to 0.78 percent. The conclusion was simple: Lenders were about a half a point more willing to lend to a bank with implied government backing – even a proven-stupid bank – than they were to lend to companies who “must borrow based on their own credit worthiness.” The economists estimated that the lending gap amounted to an annual subsidy of $34 billion a year to the nation’s 18 biggest banks.

Today the borrowing advantage of a big bank remains almost exactly what it was three years ago – about 50 basis points, or half a percent. “These megabanks still receive subsidies in the sense that they can borrow on the capital markets at a discount rate of 50 or 70 points because of the implicit view that these banks are Too Big to Fail,” says Sen. Brown.

Why does the market believe that? Because the officials who administered the bailouts made that point explicitly, over and over again. When Geithner announced the implementation of the stress tests in 2009, for instance, he declared that banks who didn’t have enough money to pass the test could get it from the government. “We’re going to help this process by providing a new program of capital support for those institutions that need it,” Geithner said. The message, says Barofsky, was clear: “If the banks cannot raise capital, we will do it for them.” It was an Implicit Guarantee that the banks would not be allowed to fail – a point that Geithner and other officials repeatedly stressed over the years. “The markets took all those little comments by Geithner as a clue that the government is looking out for them,” says Baker. That psychological signaling, he concludes, is responsible for the crucial half-point borrowing spread.

The inherent advantage of bigger banks – the permanent, ongoing bailout they are still receiving from the government – has led to a host of gruesome consequences. All the big banks have paid back their TARP loans, while more than 300 smaller firms are still struggling to repay their bailout debts. Even worse, the big banks, instead of breaking down into manageable parts and becoming more efficient, have grown even bigger and more unmanageable, making the economy far more concentrated and dangerous than it was before. America’s six largest banks – Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley – now have a combined 14,420 subsidiaries, making them so big as to be effectively beyond regulation. A recent study by the Kansas City Fed found that it would take 70,000 examiners to inspect such trillion-dollar banks with the same level of attention normally given to a community bank. “The complexity is so overwhelming that no regulator can follow it well enough to regulate the way we need to,” says Sen. Brown, who is drafting a bill to break up the megabanks.

Worst of all, the Implicit Guarantee has led to a dangerous shift in banking behavior. With an apparently endless stream of free or almost-free money available to banks – coupled with a well-founded feeling among bankers that the government will back them up if anything goes wrong – banks have made a dramatic move into riskier and more speculative investments, including everything from high-risk corporate bonds to mortgage­backed securities to payday loans, the sleaziest and most disreputable end of the financial system. In 2011, banks increased their investments in junk-rated companies by 74 percent, and began systematically easing their lending standards in search of more high-yield customers to lend to.

This is a virtual repeat of the financial crisis, in which a wave of greed caused bankers to recklessly chase yield everywhere, to the point where lowering lending standards became the norm. Now the government, with its Implicit Guarantee, is causing exactly the same behavior – meaning the bailouts have brought us right back to where we started. “Government intervention,” says Klaus Schaeck, an expert on bailouts who has served as a World Bank consultant, “has definitely resulted in increased risk.”

And while the economy still mostly sucks overall, there’s never been a better time to be a Too Big to Fail bank. Wells Fargo reported a third-quarter profit of nearly $5 billion last year, while JP Morgan Chase pocketed $5.3 billion – roughly double what both banks earned in the third quarter of 2006, at the height of the mortgage bubble. As the driver of their success, both banks cite strong performance in – you guessed it – the mortgage market.

So what exactly did the bailout accomplish? It built a banking system that discriminates against community banks, makes Too Big to Fail banks even Too Bigger to Failier, increases risk, discourages sound business lending and punishes savings by making it even easier and more profitable to chase high-yield investments than to compete for small depositors. The bailout has also made lying on behalf of our biggest and most corrupt banks the official policy of the United States government. And if any one of those banks fails, it will cause another financial crisis, meaning we’re essentially wedded to that policy for the rest of eternity – or at least until the markets call our bluff, which could happen any minute now.

Other than that, the bailout was a smashing success.

© 2012 Rolling Stone
matt-taibbi

As Rolling Stone’s chief political reporter, Matt Taibbi’s predecessors include the likes of journalistic giants Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke. Taibbi’s 2004 campaign journal Spanking the Donkey cemented his status as an incisive, irreverent, zero-bullshit reporter. His books include Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion, Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire.

Bill Clinton’s $80 Million Payday, or Why Politicians Don’t Care That Much About Reelection August 4, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Democracy, Economic Crisis.
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Future Millionaires

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

 

“There was a kind of inflection point during the five-year period between 1997 and 2003 — the late Clinton and/or early Bush administration — when all the rules just went away. You went from a period, a regime, where people did have at least some concern about going to jail, to a point where everything is legal, and derivatives couldn’t be regulated at all and nobody went to jail for anything. And looking back I would say that this period definitely started under Clinton. You absolutely cannot blame this on George W. Bush.” – Charles Ferguson of Inside Job

“I never had any money until I got out of the White House, you know, but I’ve done reasonably well since then.” Bill Clinton

On December 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a bill called the Commodities Futures Modernization Act. This law ensured that derivatives could not be regulated, setting the stage for the financial crisis. Just two months later, on February 5, 2001, Clinton received $125,000 from Morgan Stanley, in the form of a payment for a speech Clinton gave for the company in New York City. A few weeks later, Credit Suisse also hired Clinton for a speech, at a $125,000 speaking fee, also in New York. It turns out, Bill Clinton could make a lot of money, for not very much work.

Today, Clinton is worth something on the order of $80 million (probably much more, but we don’t really know), and these speeches have become a lucrative and consistent revenue stream for his family. Clinton spends his time offering policy advice, writing books, stumping for political candidates, and running a global foundation. He’s now a vegan. He makes money from books. But the speaking fee money stream keeps coming in, year after year, in larger and larger amounts.

Most activists and political operatives are under a delusion about American politics, which goes as follows. Politicians will do *anything* to get reelected, and they will pander, beg, borrow, lie, cheat and steal, just to stay in office. It’s all about their job.

This is 100% wrong. The dirty secret of American politics is that, for most politicians, getting elected is just not that important. What matters is post-election employment. It’s all about staying in the elite political class, which means being respected in a dense network of corporate-funded think tanks, high-powered law firms, banks, defense contractors, prestigious universities, and corporations. If you run a campaign based on populist themes, that’s a threat to your post-election employment prospects. This is why rising Democratic star and Newark Mayor Corey Booker reacted so strongly against criticism of private equity – he’s looking out for a potential client after his political career is over, or perhaps, during interludes between offices. Running as a vague populist is manageable, as long as you’re lying to voters. If you actually go after powerful interests while in office, then you better win, because if you don’t, you’ll have basically nowhere to go. And if you lose, but you were a team player, then you’ll have plenty of money and opportunity. The most lucrative scenario is to win and be a team player, which is what Bill and Hillary Clinton did. The Clinton’s are the best at the political game – it’s not a coincidence that deregulation accelerated in the late 1990s, as Clinton and his whole team began thinking about their post-Presidential prospects.

Corruption used to be more overt. Lyndon Johnson made money while in office, by illicitly garnering lucrative FCC licenses. It was the first neoliberal President, Jimmy Carter, who began the post-career payoff trend in the Democratic Party. In 1978, Archer Daniels Midland CEO Dwayne Andreas convinced Carter to back ethanol subsidies. After Carter lost to Reagan, he faced financial problems, as his peanut warehouse had been mismanaged and was going bankrupt. AMD stepped in, overpaying for the property. But Carter wasn’t nearly as skilled as Clinton, because he didn’t stay in the club.

Over the course of the next ten years after his Presidency, Clinton brought in roughly $8-10 million a year in speaking fees. In 2004, Clinton got $250,000 from Citigroup and $150,000 from Deutsche Bank. Goldman paid him $300,000 for two speeches, one in Paris. As the bubble peaked, in 2006, Clinton got $150,000 paydays each from Citigroup (twice), Lehman Brothers, the Mortgage Bankers Association, and the National Association of Realtors. In 2007, it was Goldman again, twice, Lehman, Citigroup, and Merrill Lynch. He didn’t just reap speaking fee cash from the financial services sector – corporate titans like Oracle and outsourcing specialist Cisco paid up, as did many Israel-focused groups, Middle Eastern interests, and universities. Does this explain the finance-friendly, oil-friendly and Israel First-friendly policies pursued by the State Department under Hillary Clinton? Who knows? But if you could legally deliver millions in cash to the husband of a high-level political official, it wouldn’t hurt your policy goals.

Speaking fee money isn’t just money, it is easy money. In one appearance, for one hour, Clinton can make $125,000 to $500,000. At an hourly rate, that’s between $250 million to $1 billion annually. It isn’t the case that Clinton is a billionaire, but it is the case that Clinton can, whenever he wants, make money as quickly and as easily as a billionaire. He is awash in cash, and cash is useful. Cash finances his lifestyle. Cash helped backstop his wife’s Presidential campaign when it was on the ropes.

And these speaking fees aren’t the only money Clinton got, it’s just the easiest cash to find because of disclosure laws. Apparently, Clinton’s firm apparently had a paid $100k+ a month consulting relationship with MF Global, and Clinton and Tony Blair have teamed up to help hedge funds raise money. His daughter worked for a giant hedge fund and political ally (Avenue Capital). And Clinton has unusual relationships with billionaires and Dubai-based investors.

Bill and Hillary Clinton are the best at what they do, but they aren’t the only ones who do it. In fact, this is what politics is increasingly about, not elections, but staying in the club. Erskine Bowles, former White House Chief of Staff, lost two Senate elections. But he’s on the board of Facebook and Morgan Stanley, as well as authoring the highly influential Simpson-Bowles plan to gut Social Security and Medicare. Tom Daschle, who lost a Senate race in 2004, is a millionaire who in large part crafted Obama’s health care plan. Former Senator Judd Gregg is now at Goldman Sachs. Current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made $12 million in between his stint at the Clinton White House which ended in 2000 and his election to Congress in 2002. Former Congressman Harold Ford, now at Morgan Stanley, is routinely on TV making political claims. Larry Summers is on the board of the high-flying start-up Square. Meanwhile, Russ Feingold, a Senator who did go after Wall Street, is a professor in the Midwest. Eliot Spitzer is a struggling TV host and writer.

In other words, Barack Obama and his franchise are emulating the Clinton’s, and are speaking not to voters, but to potential post-election patrons. That’s what their policy goals are organized around. So when you hear someone talking about how politicians just want to be reelected, roll your eyes. When you hear an argument about the best message or policy framework to use for reelection, stop listening. That’s not what politicians really care about. Elections in many ways are just like regular season games in basketball – they are worth winning, but it’s not worth risking an injury. The reason Obama won’t prosecute bankers, or run anything but a very mild sort of populism, is because he’s not really talking to voters. He just wants to be slightly more appealing than Romney. He’s really talking to the people who made Bill and Hillary Clinton a very wealthy couple, his future prospective clients. We don’t call it bribery, but that’s what it is. Bill Clinton made a lot of money when he signed the bill deregulating derivatives and repealed Glass-Steagall. The payout just came later, in the form of speaking fees from elite banks and their allies.

Ironically, Clinton has come to express regret about deregulating derivatives. He has not given the money back.

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The Big Banks’ Big Secret in Canada May 1, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Economic Crisis.
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Published on Tuesday, May 1, 2012 by The Progressive Economics Forum

 

The CCPA today released my report: The Big Banks Big Secret” which provides the first public estimates of the emergency funds taken by Canadian banks. The report bases its estimates on publicly available data from CMHC, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, US Federal Reserve, the Bank of Canada, as well as quarterly reports from the banks themselves.

The conventional narrative about the performance Canada’s big banks during the financial crisis goes as follows: while American banks bet heavily on sub-prime real estate and had extensive shadow bank holdings, Canadian banks did not.

However, the details of exactly how much each Canadian bank received, when they received it, and what they put up as collateral, has remained locked away at CMHC and the Bank of Canada. Not even Access to Information requests have been able to free this information.

In this study I estimate that, at their neediest, Canada’s banks had received $114 billion in support, a figure equal to 7% of the size of Canada’s economy in 2009.

This is equivalent to $3,400 for every man woman and child in Canada.

It is almost 10 times more than the auto bailout for which Canadians put up $14 billion and for which the loan portion has been repaid.

During the financial crisis, Canadian banks accessed three separate programs from both the Canadian and U.S. governments. Canadian banks received $33 billion dollars (converted to $CDN) through the U.S. Federal Reserve programs. At the same time, they also accessed $41 billion at the peak of the crisis through a nearly identical Bank of Canada loan program. Finally, they received $69 billion selling mortgages to CMHC for cash. These peaks occurred at different times.

Canada’s Big 5 banks drew on government support programs for an extended period from October 2008 through June 2010. In other words, Canadian banks continued to rely on government supports for one and a half years, well after the financial crisis had subsided.

The largest recipients of aid were Scotiabank, Royal bank and TD Bank. They received an estimated $25-26 billion at their peak. CIBC received somewhat less money: an estimated $21 billion at peak. BMO received an estimated $17 billion. Most of these peaks, except for TD occurred in the early months of 2009. TD peaked much later in September 2009. (See charts below)

The banks are very different sizes in terms of market capitalization. Royal is the biggest and BMO is about a third the size or Royal. So I’ve also adjusted the figures for the size of the banks.

On the relative side, three of Canada’s biggest banks, Scotiabank, Bank of Montreal and CIBC, received estimated peak support that at some point was equal or greater than the value of the company itself. That is to say that at some point during the financial crisis, it would have cost less money for the Canadian and U.S. governments to have bought every single share in these companies rather than providing them with support.

CIBC in particular received estimated aid worth at peak 1.5 times the value of the company, it spent the better part of the first three months of 2009 underwater.

The federal government claims it was offering the banks ‘liquidity support’ but it looks an awful lot like a bailout to me. Whatever you call it, government aid for the country’s biggest banks was far more substantial than the official line would suggest.

It is worth noting: Over the entire aid period, Canada’s banks remained profitable, reporting $27 billion in total profits between them and the CEOs of each of the big banks were among the highest paid Canadian CEOs. Between 2008 and 2009, each bank CEO even received an average raise in total compensation of 19%.

In the U.S., they called these sorts of programs: bailouts, in Canada we call them backstops. In the US, they have released the full details of the support, in Canada those details remain secret. It is time for the government to come clean with the actual figures of how much support each bank received, when they received it and what they put up as collateral.

© 2012 The Progressive Economics Forum

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David MacDonald is an economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

Obama Sells Out Homeowners Again: Mortgage Settlement a Sad Joke February 23, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis, Housing/Homelessness.
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Published on Thursday, February 23, 2012 by Common Dreams

by  Ted Rall

Joe Nocera, the columnist currently challenging Tom Friedman for the title of Hackiest Militant Centrist Hack–it’s a tough job that just about everyone on The New York Times op-ed page has to do–loves the robo-signing settlement announced last week between the Obama Administration, 49 states and the five biggest mortgage banks. “Two cheers!” shouts Nocera.

Too busy to follow the news? Read Nocera. If he likes something, it’s probably stupid, evil, or both.

(Photo: CNN)

As penance for their sins–securitizing fraudulent mortgages, using forged deeds to foreclose on millions of Americans and oh, yeah, borking the entire world economy–Ally Financial, Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo have agreed to fork over $5 billion in cash. Under the terms of the new agreement they’re supposed to reduce the principal of loans to homeowners who are “underwater” on their mortgages–i.e. they owe more than their house is worth–by $17 billion.

Some homeowners will qualify for $3 billion in interest refinancing, something the banks have resisted since the ongoing depression began in late 2008.

What about those who got kicked out of their homes illegally? They split a pool of $1.5 billion. Sounds impressive. It’s not. Mark Zuckerberg is worth $45 billion.

“That probably nets out to less than $2,000 a person,” notes The Times. “There’s no doubt that the banks are happy with this deal. You would be, too, if your bill for lying to courts and end-running the law came to less than $2,000 per loan file.”

Readers will recall that I paid more than that for a speeding ticket. 68 in a 55. This is the latest sellout by a corrupt system that would rather line the pockets of felonious bankers than put them where they belong: prison.

Remember TARP, the initial bailout? Democrats and Republicans, George W. Bush and Barack Obama agreed to dole out $700 billion in public–plus $7.7 trillion funneled secretly through the Fed–to the big banks so they could “increase their lending in order to loosen credit markets,” in the words of Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican.

Never happened.

Three years after TARP “tight home loan credit is affecting everything from home sales to household finances,” USA Today reported. “Many borrowers are struggling to qualify for loans to buy homes…Those who can get loans need higher credit scores and bigger down payments than they would have in recent years. They face more demands to prove their incomes, verify assets, show steady employment and explain things such as new credit cards and small bank account deposits. Even then, they may not qualify for the lowest interest rates.”

Financial experts aren’t surprised. TARP was a no-strings-attached deal devoid of any requirement that banks increase lending. You can hardly blame the bankers for taking advantage. They used the cash–money that might have been used to help distressed homeowners–to grow income on their overnight “float” and issue record raises to their CEOs.

Next came Obama’s “Home Affordable Modification Program” farce. Another toothless “voluntary” program, HAMP asked banks to do the same things they’ve just agreed to under the robo-signing settlement: allow homeowners who are struggling to refinance and possibly reduce their principals to reflect the collapse of housing prices in most markets.

Voluntary = worthless.

CNN reported on January 24th: “The HAMP program, which was designed to lower troubled borrowers’ mortgage rates to no more than 31% of their monthly income, ran into problems almost immediately. Many lenders lost documents, and many borrowers didn’t qualify. Three years later, it has helped a scant 910,000 homeowners–a far cry from the promised 4 million.”

Or the 15 million who needed help.

As usual, state-controlled media is too kind. Banks didn’t “lose” documents. They threw them away.

One hopes they recycled.

I wrote about my experience with HAMP: Chase Home Mortgage repeatedly asked for, received, confirmed receiving, then requested the same documents. They elevated the runaround to an art. My favorite part was how Chase wouldn’t respond to queries for a month, then request the bank statement for that month. They did this over and over. The final result: losing half my income “did not represent income loss.”

It’s simple math: in 67 percent of cases, banks make more money through foreclosure than working to keep families in their homes.

This time is different, claims the White House. “No more lost paperwork, no more excuses, no more runaround,” HUD secretary Shaun Donovan said February 9th. The new standards will “force the banks to clean up their acts.”

Don’t bet on it. The Administration promises “a robust enforcement mechanism”–i.e. an independent monitor. Such an agency, which would supervise the handling of million of distressed homeowners, won’t be able to handle the workload according to mortgage experts. Anyway, it’s not like there isn’t already a law. Law Professor Alan White of Valparaiso University notes: “Much of this [agreement] is restating obligations loan servicers already have.”

Finally, there’s the issue of fairness. “Underwater” is a scary, headline-grabbing word. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Tens of millions of homeowners have seen the value of their homes plummet since the housing crash. (The average home price fell from $270,000 in 2006 to $165,000 in 2011.) Those who are underwater tended not to have had much equity in their homes in the first place, having put down low downpayments. Why single them out for special assistance? Shouldn’t people who owned their homes free and clear and those who had significant equity at the beginning of crisis get as much help as those who lost less in the first place? What about renters? Why should people who were well-off enough to afford to buy a home get a payoff ahead of poor renters?

The biggest fairness issue of all, of course, is one of simple justice. If you steal someone’s house, you should go to jail. If your crimes are company policy, that company should be nationalized or forced out of business.

Your victim should get his or her house back, plus interest and penalties.

You shouldn’t pay less than a speeding ticket for stealing a house.

© 2012 Ted Rall

 

Ted Rall

Ted Rall is the author of the new books “Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?,” and “The Anti-American Manifesto” . His website is tedrall.com.

 

 

Obama to Use Pension Funds of Ordinary Americans to Pay for Bank Mortgage “Settlement” January 23, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis.
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Roger’s note: more Obama “plus ca change” you can believe in.
Published on Monday, January 23, 2012 by Naked Capalitism

Obama’s latest housing market chicanery should come as no surprise. As we discuss below, he will use the State of the Union address to announce a mortgage “settlement” by Federal regulators, and at least some state attorneys general. It’s yet another gambit designed to generate a campaign talking point while making the underlying problem worse.

The president seems to labor under the misapprehension that crimes by members of the elite must be swept under the rug because prosecuting them would destabilize the system. What he misses is that we are well past the point where coverups will work, and they may even blow up before the November elections. If nothing else, his settlement pact has a non-trivial Constitutional problem which the Republicans, if they are smart, will use to undermine the deal and discredit the Administration.

To add insult to injury, Obama is apparently going to present his belated Christmas present to the banking industry as a boon to ordinary citizens. He refused to appoint a real middle class advocate, Elizabeth Warren, to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but he’s not above stealing her talking points.

We and other commentators have discussed how the mortgage settlement negotiations nominally led by Iowa attorney general Tom Miller had descended into farce. Almost nothing the Miller camp said was believable. They were presented as “attorney general” discussions when the Administration was pulling the strings. They’ve described a deal as weeks away for over a year. They kept claiming that they had undertaken investigations when not a single subpoena was issued by the AGs still involved in the negotiations. They’ve argued from the get go that a pact will be good for homeowners when the deal reached by under-resourced Nevada attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto with a single servicer, Saxon, resulted in a payout that is 10 to 20 times what the Administration is calling a victory. And that assumes that the banks will live up to their side of the deal when past settlements of servicing abuses have shown that they don’t.

The administration has finally woken up to the fact that the housing mess is almost certain to get worse before it gets better, and Obama must therefore be armed with better propaganda. The Miller-led talks have become a bit of an embarrassment and needed to be put out of their misery. So Team Obama and Federal banking regulators have agreed on terms and as we discussed last Friday, are upping the pressure on state attorneys general to fall into line. As reported by Shahien Nasiripour of the Financial Times:

Banks and government negotiators have cleared a big hurdle in efforts to resolve allegations of widespread mortgage-related misdeeds, agreeing on terms for a settlement that are being circulated to the 50 US states for approval, state officials and a bank representative say.

The proposed pact would potentially reduce mortgage balances and monthly payments by more than $25bn for distressed US homeowners…

State prosecutors have already received a set of documents detailing new mortgage servicing standards that the banks and the government negotiators have agreed to. The states were also being sent documents detailing other main components of the deal, such as the liability release for the banks, the so-called “menu” of options describing the various forms of aid to be given to borrowers, as well as the precise language of the so-called “most favoured nation” clause, which spells out how participating states in the deal would be eligible to receive more advantageous terms should a holdout state strike a more favourable deal on its own with the five targeted banks.

The story did not outline terms, but previous leaks have indicated that the bulk of the supposed settlement would come not in actual monies paid by the banks (the cash portion has been rumored at under $5 billion) but in credits given for mortgage modifications for principal modifications. There are numerous reasons why that stinks. The biggest is that servicers will be able to count modifying first mortgages that were securitized toward the total. Since one of the cardinal rules of finance is to use other people’s money rather than your own, this provision virtually guarantees that investor-owned mortgages will be the ones to be restructured. Why is this a bad idea? The banks are NOT required to write down the second mortgages that they have on their books. This reverses the contractual hierarchy that junior lien-holders take losses before senior lenders. So this deal amounts to a transfer from pension funds and other fixed income investors to the banks, at the Administration’s instigation.

Another reason the modification provision is poorly structured is that the banks are given a dollar target to hit. That means they will focus on modifying the biggest mortgages. So help will go to a comparatively small number of grossly overhoused borrowers, no doubt reinforcing the “profligate borrower” meme.

But those criticisms assume two other things: that the program is actually implemented. The experience with past consent decrees in the mortgage space is that the servicers get a legal get out of jail free card, a release, and do not hold up their end of the deal. Similarly, we’ve seen bank executives swear in front of Congress in late 2010 that they had stopped robosigning, which turned out to be a brazen lie. So here, odds favor that servicers will pretty much do nothing except perhaps be given credit for mortgage modifications they would have made anyhow.

There are two clever features of the deal, but neither look intended to benefit ordinary citizens. One is that the deal throws some funding at chronically cash stressed mortgage counselors. They are thus certain to voice approval of the pact. The other is (per the FT story) the deal’s “most favored nations clause” is designed to reduce the bargaining leverage of any AGs that go their own way. It means that any servicer will have the incentive to fight hard against giving any state a better deal because it will automagically trigger improved terms across the states that signed on to the Federal deal. But this may have interesting perverse effects, since banks that refuse to settle with breakaway AGs will ultimately have damages awarded by a court. That means longer and most costly fights by the states, but in most cases, ultimately bigger awards (frankly, the fact set is so bad that all the state AGs need to do is focus on fairly conservative legal theories to have good odds of scoring big wins).

Dave Dayen seemed to think that the AG rebellion was likely to stay firm, given how few of the Democrats were going to Chicago on Monday for an arm-twisting meeting with HUD head Shaun Donovan and an unnamed emissary from the Department of Justice. I would not be so certain. With states so budget starved, I don’t see how anyone can justify sending a live body to Chicago when a phone briefing would work just as well. More important, the most favored nation clause is nasty, and may nudge some fence-sitters over the line.

And I have also been told that Donovan was on the Hill late last week pressuring Congressmen to support the deal. Since this is a regulatory measure that does not require Congressional approval, this move is meant to deprive dissenting state AGs from any support in local media from sympathetic Congressmen. For instance, 31 California representatives wrote the Justice Department, the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency calling on them to “investigate possible violations of law or regulations by financial institutions in their handling of delinquent mortgages, mortgage modifications and foreclosures.” Clearly they could be expected to support California attorney general Kamala Harris’ withdrawal of the deal. Donovon is trying to get them and like minded solons speaking from the Obama script.

But the Administration’s scheme may not be playing out according to script. Senator Sherrod Brown sent a letter last week to associate attorney general Thomas Perelli, Donovan, the CFPB’s Richard Cordray and Tom Miller criticizing the settlement pact. It could have been written by Naked Capitalism readers. Key section:

Now while Republicans may relish the specter of Democrats infighting, the fact is no one is going to want to be seen to be undermining the leader of the party in an election year. So that will put a damper on how aggressive the opponents will be. And media outlets have been amplifying Obama’s efforts to take credit for gravity. For instance, the Administration is touting the fall in foreclosures as an indicator of success when their policies have ranged from do nothing to disasters like HAMP. The fall in foreclosures is actually a sign of failure, as banks are attenuating the process more and more, in some cases due to their inability to come up with necessary documentation, in others out of a desire to wring even more fees out of investors (when a borrower can’t pay, the bank’s fees come first out of the eventual sale of the house).

Either a Gingrich nomination or Romney getting too dented during Republican primary fights increase the odds of what heretofore seemed impossible: an Obama win in November. So if the Republicans were smart, they’d take advantage of a serious weakness in this deal: that it violates the 5th Amendment takings clause. I am told by Bill Frey of Greenwich Financial that a servicer safe harbor provision in HAMP, which was supposed to shield servicers from investor lawsuits over mortgage modifications, was passed by both the House and Senate but was removed in reconciliation because that provision would have run afoul of the 5th Amendment. This settlement is intended to have servicers engage in even more aggressive mortgage modifications and would thus seem to have precisely the same Constitutional problem.

As I urged last week, please call your state attorney general and tell them you think taking from your pension to enrich banks for abusing homeowners is a lousy idea and they should therefore refuse to sign on to the settlement. You can find their phone numbers here. Please call today if you haven’t already. Thanks!

© 2012 Yves Smith

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Yves Smith

Yves Smith is the pen name of Susan Webber, a Principal of Aurora Advisors, Inc. and publisher of the Naked Capitalism blog.

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