Secrets and Lies of the Wall Street Bailout January 9, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
Tags: bailout, bank of america, citigroup, Economic Crisis, Federal Reserve, financial crisis, Goldman Sachs, hamp, Hank Paulson, Larry Summers, matt taibbi, Morgan Stanley, roger hollander, tarp, the fed, tim geithner, timothy geithner, Wall Street
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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?
(Illustration by Victor Juhasz)
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.
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.
Tags: bank of america, chase, citigroup, elizabeth warren, eric schneiderman, Federal Reserve, geithner, home foreclosures, homeowner assistance, jpmorgan, kathryn wylde, main street, robo=signing, roger bybee, tarp, Wall Street, Wells Fargo
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expose the destructive thinking of our financial and political elites.
“Corporations are people, my friend,” Mitt Romney recently declared.
That was pretty clumsy coming from a mega-millionaire Republican candidate,
as he was backing the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United
opposed by no less than 80 percent of the public because of the enormous
political power it confers
upon the rich.
But how about the notion that “Wall Street is our Main Street,” which was voiced
by Federal Reserve official Kathryn Wylde? Her assertion was especially
startling because her explicit duty is “to represent
the public” in determining how to handle the massive wrongdoing of major banks
in ramming through home foreclosures.
However, Wylde was merely being honest about the aims of federal policy. The
idea that “Wall Street is Main Street” and its protection was the uppermost goal
in the mind of top Treasury Department officials. The plight of working families
on the verge of losing their homes—well, that was somehow a much, much lower
The major banks—Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells
Fargo—are facing legal pressure from the attorneys general of all 50 states over
their practices, including “robo-signing.”
With the ownership of mortgages spread among thousands of investors due to
securities designed to minimize the risk, it becomes hopelessly complex to prove
ownership of a home when a bank wants to foreclose, as Chris Hayes of The
Nation explained on MSNBC Wednesday night.
But no sweat! Presto—the banks came up with reams of bogus documents and then
hired employees whose job was to sign affidavits saying that yes, indeed, Bank
of America owned the home in question. Untold thousands of families were thus
These unlawful practices brought together the 50 attorneys general who
demanded—no, not time in jail for bank CEOs—$20 billion in fines that would be
devoted to mortgage modifications. In exchange, the bankers would get total
immunity from prosecution.
When New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman—who this week was dismissed
from the executive committee of the 50-state AG investigation—balked at
accepting the deal, Wylde, the public’s watchdog, told
It is of concern to the industry that instead of trying to facilitate
resolving these issues, you seem to be throwing a wrench into it. Wall Street is
our Main Street — love ’em or hate ’em. They are important and we have to make
sure we are doing everything we can to support them unless they are doing
Wylde’s concern for the banks—already the recipients of taxpayers’ generous
2008 TARP bailout package—has been matched throughout the past two and a half
years of Obama administration programs designed to help homeowners.
The programs were supposed to help desperate
working families faced with rising
interest rates and falling home values to stay in their homes.
Recent reports and articles on foreclosures should assure Wylde that the
bankers have been treated with kid gloves from day one of the mortgage-relief
programs. First, the Obama Administration apparently ruled out the idea of
prosecuting bank officials for their multiple offenses, as Mary Bottari of
Bankster USA points
Perverse incentives on Wall Street allowed top executives to make more money
on flawed loans than boring old 30-year mortgages.
Even though there is widespread agreement that Wall Street’s endless appetite
for high-interest, high-fees loans to fuel the mortgage securitization machine
had a causal role in supercharging the housing bubble, not one mortgage servicer
provider or big bank CEO has been put in jail. This compares to over 1,000
successful prosecutions of top officers during the Savings and Loan crisis of
the late 1980s.
The almost uniform judgment of government officials outside Treasury
Secretary Timothy Geithner is that the homeowner assistance programs have been a
disaster. Former Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware said: “We have a $700 billion
program that basically helped all the banks but really hasn’t done a whole lot
for people who in the process of losing their homes.”
Elizabeth Warren, the consumer advocate who inspires fear and loathing among
Republicans, “grilled” Geithner at a June hearing in Washington D.C. for shaping
the programs around the needs of banks and other financial institutions rather
than homeowners, the New York Times reported:
“Forgive me, Mr. Secretary, but you say we designed the program from the
beginning, in effect you’re saying, not to save everyone,” she said. “You
designed it around servicers who, I wrote it down when you said it, ‘servicers
have done a terrible job.’
“We only have three months left, with hundreds
of thousands of families facing foreclosure,” she continued. “Is it time to
rethink whether or not a mortgage foreclosure prevention program that is based
on a group of servicers whom you describe as having done a terrible job, is a
program that perhaps should be redesigned?”
Particularly tragic is that these programs were proposed at a moment when the
public was ready
for truly innovative action to help families on the verge of losing their
With the antiforeclosure programs failing so badly, the nation is in no
condition to cope with a housing picture that is, if anything, worsening,
according to economist Jack Rasmus.
Foreclosures now approach 10 million, with some sources predicting 13-14
million before the current housing cycle bottoms. That’s about one-fourth of all
mortgages in the U.S. The numbers for homes in negative equity are even greater at around 16 million.
money. Much of our finacial services industry and their leaders are based in NY
City and adjacent areas, providing directly and indirectly 500,000 jobs.many of
them among the best paying and paying a living wage. That also means huge
precentages of tax revenues to NY City and State as well as huge amounts of
campaign contibutions/bribes to politicans of both parties. That means you don’t
want to chase them out with even sound and reasoned criminal proscution or civil
actions to Texas or other rich and corporate friendly states.
that the NYS AG is an elected position, so they too are looking for campaign
contributions thus comprimising their proscution policies. Look at what happened
to Elliot Spitzer who went after the NY Stock Exchange and AIG where somehow it
come up that he was seeing prostitutes – probably by those interests having
private investigators looking for any dirt they could throw on him to get
revenge for his active going after their abuses.
The Economic Boondoggle Explained: You’ll Laugh as You Weep November 22, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Humor.
Tags: bailout, Ben Bernanke, corruption, deregulation, Economic Crisis, economic policy, economics, Federal Reserve, Goldman Sachs, journalism, matt taibbi, quantitative easing, robert fisk, roger hollander, the fed, Wall Street
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I came across this amazing video while Googling Matt Taibbi, who in is own right is an amazing journalist, writes for Rolling Stone. Go to www.alternativeradio.org and order his amazing “Corruption: From Russia to Wall Street,” an address he gave in Boulder, Colorado. While you’re there, check out Robert Fisk, another incredibly incisive tell-it-like-it-is journalist. You won’t find this kind of reporting in the mainstream media.
Go to the following link and listen to what is without a doubt the funniest video ever made about the Fed, quantitative easing, and Ben Bernanke. Make sure you’re in a place where you can laugh freely, and press play:
Roger Hollander, November 22, 2010
Don’t Blame Bunning March 3, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
Tags: Alan Greenspan, bailout, banking bailout, banks, Ben Bernanke, Economic Crisis, fed, Federal Reserve, jim bunning, main street, republican, Robert Scheer, roger hollander, treasury, Wall Street
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How convenient that seemingly everyone in the liberal blogosphere, and even at many points to the right, got to use Jim Bunning as a scapegoat. The venom of the attacks suggests that the maverick Republican senator from Kentucky provided a welcome alternative to the real villains: bankers much closer to the centers of power. As if Bunning’s denial of unanimous consent to a stopgap extension of unemployment insurance-easily overcome, as was demonstrated Tuesday night-is at the root of our economic crisis.
It isn’t, and it is vicious nonsense to transform Bunning, who has a long record of opposition to the bipartisan policies that caused America’s financial mess, into a poster boy for economic heartlessness. The issue was not one of extending aid for another month to those whose benefits had run out but rather holding the government accountable for the means of payment.
Bunning’s action was a sideshow, a boneheaded symbolic gesture that backfired with slight consequences. Yet the senator was made to look the dangerous fool in media accounts while many of those who enabled the financial catastrophe continue to be treated as reasonable experts after being rewarded for their folly with the highest posts in both the Bush and Obama administrations.
The real issue here is the banking bailout, a bipartisan swindle that Bunning opposed and that has led to a dangerously spiraling deficit without providing relief to ordinary folk. It is the same issue that carried Texas Gov. Rick Perry to victory Tuesday in his state’s Republican gubernatorial primary, in which he defeated U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in part because of her support of the bank bailout.
As with the January defeat of the Democratic candidate in the Massachusetts election for a U.S. Senate seat, the message from voters is loud and clear: The political establishment cares only about the fat cats and not the people who are hurting. Bunning’s gesture was not intended, as his critics insisted, to increase that pain but rather to hold the government accountable for the money it is spending. He has consistently blasted the bailout as a shameless gift to the Wall Street hustlers and urged that the money being wasted on them instead be spent to aid homeowners and other victims of their greed.
This is not the first time that Bunning has stood alone in Congress. He was the sole member of the Senate to vote against the nomination of Ben Bernanke to be head of the Federal Reserve. That appointment came from Republican President George W. Bush, and yet it was Republican Sen. Bunning who warned that Bernanke as a Fed governor had been allied with then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan in his disastrous policymaking.
That was four years ago, when Greenspan was still being lionized by most Democratic and Republican politicians as well as by much of the media. On Jan. 28 of this year, Bunning once again rose in the Senate to challenge Bernanke, this time after President Barack Obama had nominated him for a second term:
“Chairman Bernanke … bowed to the political pressure of the Bush and Obama administrations and turned the Fed into an arm of the Treasury. … Instead of taking that money and lending to consumers and cleaning up their balance sheets, the banks started to pocket record profits and pay out billions of dollars in bonuses. … So if you like those bailouts, by all means vote for Chairman Bernanke. But if you want to put an end to bailouts and send a message to Wall Street, this vote is your choice.”
He is right to point out that enormous sums always seem to exist to aid Wall Street but that assistance to average Americans has consistently been only an afterthought. And he does have a point in noting that if the latest spending extension was felt to be so important, why wasn’t it funded in a timely manner or in an orderly procedure by his congressional colleagues from both parties who are now trouncing him?
The money is always there when they want it, as we have witnessed throughout the banking bailout when enormous sums have suddenly been made available to those who least need it. The Treasury Department managed to find $200 billion last week to deposit with the Fed to increase the purchase of toxic mortgages to $1.25 trillion to make the bankers whole.
But the level of vituperation unleashed against this senator is so disproportionate to his role in the economic catastrophe as to raise questions of motive. The overreaction to Bunning’s protest was never anything more than a ploy for Democratic and Republican leaders to profess great sorrow for the folks on Main Street while they continue to coddle Wall Street.
© 2010 TruthDig.com
Robert Scheer is editor of Truthdig.com and a regular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.
Who Are You and What Have You Done With the Community Organizer We Elected President? November 18, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis.
Tags: banking collapse, chris dodd, citigroup, clinton administration, congress, deregulation, Economic Crisis, Federal Reserve, gimothy geithner, Gramm-Leach-Bliley, hartford insurance, hedge funds, lawrence summers, neal wolin, Obama, robert rubin, Robert Scheer, roger hollander, senate banking, tarp, Wall Street
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What’s up with Barack Obama? The candidate for change once promised to take on the powerful banking interests but is now doing their bidding. Finally, a leading Democrat, in this case Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, has a good idea for monitoring the Wall Street fat cats who all but destroyed the American economy, and the Obama administration condemns it.
Dodd wants to take supervisory power from the Federal Reserve, which is controlled by the banks it pretends to monitor, and put it in the hands of a new independent agency. That makes sense given the Fed’s abject failure to properly monitor the financial sector over the past decade as that industry got drunk on greed. As Dodd’s spokeswoman Kirstin Brost put it: “The Federal Reserve flat out failed at supervising the largest, most complex firms.” But White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee frets that taking power from the Fed would cause financial industry “nervousness.” Isn’t that the whole point of government regulation-to make the bandits look over their shoulders before they launch their next destructive scam?
Not so in the view of Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, who blithely insists that the Fed “is the best agency equipped for the task of supervising the largest, most complex firms,” despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. There is some irony in the fact that the largest of those complex firms got to be “too big to fail” because of the radical deregulatory legislation that Wolin drafted during his previous incarnation as the Treasury Department’s general counsel in the Clinton administration. Wolin is now deputy to Timothy Geithner, who as head of the New York Fed in the five years preceding the banking meltdown looked the other way as the disaster began to unfold.
Why is Barack Obama allowing these retreads from the Clinton era who went on to great riches on Wall Street to set economic policy for his administration? The fatal hallmark of this president’s financial policy is that it is being designed by the very people whose previous legislative efforts created the mess that enriched them while impoverishing the nation, and they now want more of the same.
In the Clinton years, Wolin was general counsel to then-Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, the key architect of the radical deregulation that caused the recent banking collapse. Summers went off to work for hedge funds and banks that paid him $15 million in 2008 while he was advising Obama. Meanwhile, Wolin became general counsel for Hartford Insurance Corp., which had to be bailed out by the taxpayers because it took advantage of the radical deregulation that he helped write into law.
Wolin, Geithner and Summers were all protégés of Robert Rubin, who, as Clinton’s treasury secretary, was the grand author of the strategy of freeing Wall Street firms from their Depression-era constraints. It was Wolin who, at Rubin’s behest, became a key force in drafting the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which ended the barrier between investment and commercial banks and insurance companies, thus permitting the new financial behemoths to become too big to fail. Two stunning examples of such giants that had to be rescued with public funds are Citigroup bank, where Rubin went to “earn” $120 million after leaving the Clinton White House, and the Hartford Insurance Co., where Wolin landed after he left Treasury.
Both Citigroup and Hartford would not have gotten into trouble were it not for the enabling legislation that the three Clinton officials pushed through while they were in power. But even with that law, had Geithner been on the case protecting the public interest while head of the New York Fed much of the damage could have been avoided.
Thanks to the legislation that Wolin helped write, the limits preventing mergers between insurance companies and banks imposed during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency was reversed. Hartford got into banking, and as The Washington Times observed in a scathing editorial, “Hartford … rushed to buy regulated savings and loans just so they could call themselves banks and qualify for government TARP funds.” Wolin collected his millions while the taxpayers were obliged to cover Hartford’s losses.
It is depressing for a columnist who had great hopes for Obama to be forced by the facts to credit editors at the right-wing Washington Times for getting it right when they opined: “Revolving doors between industry and the administration and fat-cat political contributors getting bailed out at taxpayer expense sound like business as usual. This certainly isn’t change we can believe in.” Please, Mr. President, say it ain’t so.
Robert Scheer is editor of Truthdig.com and a regular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.
Foreclosure Fiasco Continues: The Bush-Obama Strategy of Throwing Billions at Banks Doesn’t Work June 27, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Uncategorized.
Tags: bailout, Ben Bernanke, Bush, citigroup, commodity futures, economy, Federal Reserve, food banks, foreclosure, gary gensler, gene sperling, glass-steagall, Goldman Sachs, Larry Summers, mortgage, mortgage crisis, ned, Obama, obama administration, poverty, Robert Scheer, roger hollander, Wall Street
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Americans are now $14 trillion poorer. Many who thought they were middle class have now joined the ranks of the poor.
It’s not working. The Bush-Obama strategy of throwing trillions at the banks to solve the mortgage crisis is a huge bust. The financial moguls, while tickled pink to have $1.25 trillion in toxic assets covered by the feds, along with hundreds of billions in direct handouts, are not using that money to turn around the free fall in housing foreclosures.
As The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, “The Mortgage Bankers Association cut its forecast of home-mortgage lending this year by 27% amid deflating hopes for a boom in refinancing.” The same association said that the total refinancing under the administration’s much ballyhooed Home Affordable Refinance Program is “very low.”
Aside from a tight mortgage market, the problem in preventing foreclosures has to do with homeowners losing their jobs. Here again the administration, continuing the Bush strategy, is working the wrong end of the problem. Although President Obama was wise enough to at least launch a job stimulus program, a far greater amount of federal funding benefits Wall Street as opposed to Main Street.
State and local governments have been forced into draconian budget cuts, firing workers who are among the most reliable in making their mortgage payments–when they have jobs. Yet the Obama administration won’t spend even a small fraction of what it has wasted on the banks to cover state shortfalls.
California couldn’t get the White House to guarantee $5.5 billion in short-term notes to avert severe cuts in state and local payrolls, from prison guards to schoolteachers. Compare that with the $50 billion already given to Citigroup, plus an astounding $300 billion to guarantee that institution’s toxic assets. Citigroup benefits from being a bank “too big to fail,” although through its irresponsible actions to get that large it did as much as any company to cause this mess.
How big a mess? According to the Federal Reserve’s most recent report, seven straight quarters of declining household wealth have left Americans $14 trillion poorer. Many who thought they were middle class have now joined the ranks of the poor. Food banks are strapped and welfare rolls are dramatically on the rise, as the WSJ reports, with a 27 percent year-to-year increase in Oregon, 23 percent in South Carolina and 10 percent in California. And you have to be very poor to get on welfare, thanks to President Clinton’s so-called welfare reform, which he signed into law before he ramped up the radical deregulation of the financial services industry, enabling our economic downturn.
Citigroup, the prime mover for ending the sensible restraints of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, is now a pathetic ward of the state. But back in the day President Clinton would tour the country with Citigroup founder Sandy Weill touting the wonderful work that Weill and other moguls were doing to invest in economically depressed communities. It wasn’t really happening then, and now millions of folks in those communities have seen their houses snatched from them as if they were just pieces in a game of Monopoly that Clinton and his fat-cat buddy were playing.
Once Weill got the radical deregulation law he wanted, he issued a statement giving credit: “In particular, we congratulate President Clinton, Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, NEC [National Economic Council] Chairman Gene Sperling, Under Secretary of the Treasury Gary Gensler, Assistant Treasury Secretaries Linda Robertson and Greg Baer.”
Summers is now Obama’s top economic adviser, Sperling has been appointed legal counselor at Treasury, and Gensler, a former partner in Goldman Sachs, is head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which he once attempted to prevent from regulating derivatives when it was run by Brooksley Born. Robertson worked for Summers in pushing through the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which freed the derivatives market from adult supervision and contained the “Enron Loophole,” permitting that company to go wild. Robertson then became the top Washington lobbyist for Enron and was recently appointed senior adviser to Fed Chair Ben S. Bernanke. Baer went to work as a corporate counsel for Bank of America, which announced his appointment with a press release crediting him with having “coordinated Treasury policy” during the Clinton years in getting Glass-Steagall repealed. As a result of deregulation, B of A too spiraled out of control and ended up as a beneficiary of the Treasury’s welfare program.
Why was I so naive as to have expected this Democratic president to not do the bidding of the banks when the last president from that party joined the Republicans in giving the moguls everything they wanted? Please, Obama, prove me wrong.
Robert Scheer is Editor in Chief of Truthdig and author of a new book, The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America.
Mortgaging the White House May 2, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
Tags: bailout, bank bailout, banking barons, banksters, bill moyers, citigroup, congressional oversight, cop, economic advisor, Economic Crisis, fdr, Federal Reserve, finance industry, foreclosure, franklin delano roosevelt, geithner, great deression, gretchen morgenson, jo becker, laissez-faire, Larry Summers, michael winship, new york federal reserve, president obama, richard durbin, robert rubin, roger hollander, tarp, tarp bailout, taxpayer, treasury, Wall Street, white house
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Published on Saturday, May 2, 2009 by CommonDreams.org
In his first hundred days, FDR came out swinging. He shut down the banks, threw the money lenders from the temple, cranked out so much legislation so fast he would shout to his secretary, Grace Tully, “Grace, take a law!” Will Rogers said Congress didn’t pass bills anymore; it just waved as they went by.
President Obama’s been busy, but contrary to many of the pundits, he’s no FDR. Our new president got his political education in the world of Chicago ward politics, and seems to have adopted a strategy from the machine of that city’s longtime boss, the late Richard J. Daley, father of the current mayor there. “Don’t make no waves,” one of Daley’s henchmen used to advise, “don’t back no losers.”
Your opinion of Obama’s first 100 days depends of course on your own vantage point. But we’d argue that as part of his bending over backwards to support the banks and avoid the losers, he has blundered mightily in his choice of economic advisers.
Last week, at a hearing of the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) monitoring the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner tried to correct AFL-CIO General Counsel Damon Silvers. “I’ve practiced law and you’ve been a banker,” Silvers said. Never, Geithner replied, “I’ve only been in public service.”
We beg to differ. Read Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson’s front-page profile of Secretary Geithner in Monday’s New York Times, and you’ll see how Robert Rubin protégé Geithner, during the five years he was running the New York Federal Reserve, fell under the spell of the big barons of banking to whom he would one day help shovel overly generous sums of money at taxpayer expense.
During “an era of unbridled and ultimately disastrous risk-taking by the financial industry,” the Times reported, “… He forged unusually close relationships with executives of Wall Street’s giant financial institutions.
“His actions, as a regulator and later a bailout king, often aligned with the industry’s interests and desires, according to interviews with financiers, regulators and analysts and a review of Federal Reserve records.”
Wined and dined at the Four Seasons, and in corporate dining rooms and fine homes by the very men whose greed and judgment helped bring on the Great Collapse, Geithner became so much a favorite of the Club that former Citigroup chairman Sandy Weill talked with him about becoming the bank’s CEO.
According to Becker and Morgenson, “Even as banks complain that the government has attached too many intrusive strings to its financial assistance, a range of critics — lawmakers, economists and even former Federal Reserve colleagues — say that the bailout Mr. Geithner has played such a central role in fashioning is overly generous to the financial industry at taxpayer expense.”
The two reporters write that Geithner “repeatedly missed or overlooked signs” that the financial system was self-destructing. “When he did spot trouble, analysts say, his responses were too measured, or too late.”
In choosing a man to manage the bailout of the banks who’s so cozy with its players, and then installing as his White House economic adviser Larry Summers, who in the Clinton administration took a laissez-faire attitude toward the financial industry which would later enrich him, the president bought into the old fantasy that what’s best for Wall Street is best for America.
With these two as his financial gatekeepers, President Obama’s now in the position of Louis XVI being advised by Marie Antoinette to have another piece of cake until that rumble in the streets has passed on by.
In fact, other Wall Street insiders — many of them big contributors to the Obama presidential campaign, and progressive in their concern for the public interest — privately are expressing serious concerns that Geithner, Summers and their associates are leading the president and America’s taxpayers down a path toward further economic disaster.
This week, as Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois unsuccessfully fought for a congressional amendment he said would have helped 1.7 million Americans save their homes from foreclosure, the senator told a radio station back home that, “The banks — hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created — are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”
He could say the same of the White House.
Thievery Under the TARP April 22, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
Tags: AIG, bailout, bush administration, d.e.shaw, Economic Crisis, Federal Reserve, Goldman Sachs, hedge funds, Henry Paulson, inspector general, lawrence summers, obama administation, Robert Scheer, roger hollander, tarp, tarp fraud, taxpayer money, timothy geithner, toxic assets, treasury department, Wall Street
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Published on Wednesday, April 22, 2009 by TruthDig.com
We are being robbed big-time, but you can’t say we haven’t been warned. Not after the release Tuesday of a scathing report by the Treasury Department’s special inspector general, who charged that the aptly named Troubled Asset Relief Fund bailout program is rife with mismanagement and potential for fraud. The IG’s office already has opened 20 criminal fraud investigations into the $700 billion program, which is now well on its way to a $3 trillion obligation, and the IG predicts many more are coming.
Special Inspector General Neil M. Barofsky charged that the TARP program from its inception was designed to trust the Wall Street recipients of the bailout funds to act responsibly on their own, without accountability to the government that gave them the money.
He pointed to the example of AIG, which has acted as a conduit of funds to the banks it had insured without being required to tell the government what it is doing: “Failure to impose this requirement with respect to the injection of yet another $30 billion into AIG would not only be a failure of oversight, but could call into question the credibility of the government’s efforts.”
AIG is just one example in a bailout that has left the financial conglomerates unsupervised as they spend taxpayer money in what the report termed a government program of “unprecedented scope, scale and complexity,” putting the public and the Treasury Department in the dark as to how the money is being used by the very tycoons who got us into this mess. “The American people have a right to know how their tax dollars are being used,” Barofsky wrote in the report, which sharply criticized the government for failing to hold financial institutions accountable.
For all of its criticism of the original program, designed by the Bush administration, the report was equally severe in denouncing the Obama administration’s plan to partner with hedge funds and other private capital groups to buy up the “toxic” holdings of the banks. Charging that the plan carries “significant fraud risks,” the inspector general’s report pointed out that almost all of the risk in this new trillion-dollar plan is being borne by the taxpayers. The so-called private investors would be able to put up money they borrowed from the Fed through “nonrecourse” loans, meaning if the toxic assets purchased prove too toxic and the scheme failed, the private investors could just walk away without repaying the Fed for those loans.
The reason those loans may prove even more toxic than expected and the price paid by this government-underwritten partnership far too high is that the government is purchasing the most suspect of the banks’ mortgage packages. In addition, the plan is to accept at face value the evaluation of those packages by the very same credit-rating firms whose absurdly wrong estimates of the dollar worth of these securities helped create the problem that now haunts the world’s economy. “Arguably, the wholesale failure of the credit rating agencies to rate adequately such securities is at the heart of the securitization market collapse, if not the primary cause of the current credit crisis,” the report found.
As with the entire banking bailout, the new plan of Obama’s treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is likely to enrich the very folks who impoverished the rest of us, as the report notes: “The significant government-financed leverage presents a great incentive for collusion between the buyer and seller of the asset, or the buyer and other buyers, whereby, once again, the taxpayer takes a significant loss while others profit.”
At the heart of this potentially massive fraud was the original decision of Henry Paulson, President Bush’s treasury secretary and a former Goldman Sachs chairman, to not require the recipients of the bailout, such as his old firm, to account for how the money was spent. Unfortunately, President Obama’s administration continued that practice.
The only difference is that the amount of public money being put at risk is now far greater, and the hedge funds, which are totally unregulated, have been brought in as the central players. One of the largest of those hedge funds, D.E. Shaw, carried Obama’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, on its payroll to the tune of $5.2 million last year. He may have reason to trust these secretive enterprises that operate beyond the law, but the public does not.
Bill Moyers Journal: William K. Black Interview April 16, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Uncategorized.
Tags: AIG, bailout, bank deregulation, banker fraud, banking industry, banksters, bill moyers, charles keating, conggressional oversight, congress, derivatives, doj, Economic Crisis, Federal Reserve, general motors, glass-steagall, gm, indymac, japan lost decade, jim wright, john glenn, justice department, lawrence summers, liar's loans, McCain, ninja loans, paulson, pecora investigation, Phil Gramm, ponzi, ponzi scheme, roger hollander, rubin, s&l scandal, savings and loan, sub-prime, subprime scandal, tim geithner, toxic assets, toxic loans, ubs, Wall Street, wall street barons, wall street bonuses, william k. black
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.
For months now, revelations of the wholesale greed and blatant transgressions of Wall Street have reminded us that “The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One.” In fact, the man you’re about to meet wrote a book with just that title. It was based upon his experience as a tough regulator during one of the darkest chapters in our financial history: the savings and loan scandal in the late 1980s.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: These numbers as large as they are, vastly understate the problem of fraud.
BILL MOYERS: Bill Black was in New York this week for a conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice where scholars and journalists gathered to ask the question, “How do they get away with it?” Well, no one has asked that question more often than Bill Black.
The former Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention now teaches Economics and Law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. During the savings and loan crisis, it was Black who accused then-house speaker Jim Wright and five US Senators, including John Glenn and John McCain, of doing favors for the S&L’s in exchange for contributions and other perks. The senators got off with a slap on the wrist, but so enraged was one of those bankers, Charles Keating — after whom the senate’s so-called “Keating Five” were named — he sent a memo that read, in part, “get Black — kill him dead.” Metaphorically, of course. Of course.
Now Black is focused on an even greater scandal, and he spares no one — not even the President he worked hard to elect, Barack Obama. But his main targets are the Wall Street barons, heirs of an earlier generation whose scandalous rip-offs of wealth back in the 1930s earned them comparison to Al Capone and the mob, and the nickname “banksters.”
Bill Black, welcome to the Journal.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: I was taken with your candor at the conference here in New York to hear you say that this crisis we’re going through, this economic and financial meltdown is driven by fraud. What’s your definition of fraud?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Fraud is deceit. And the essence of fraud is, “I create trust in you, and then I betray that trust, and get you to give me something of value.” And as a result, there’s no more effective acid against trust than fraud, especially fraud by top elites, and that’s what we have.
BILL MOYERS: In your book, you make it clear that calculated dishonesty by people in charge is at the heart of most large corporate failures and scandals, including, of course, the S&L, but is that true? Is that what you’re saying here, that it was in the boardrooms and the CEO offices where this fraud began?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: How did they do it? What do you mean?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, the way that you do it is to make really bad loans, because they pay better. Then you grow extremely rapidly, in other words, you’re a Ponzi-like scheme. And the third thing you do is we call it leverage. That just means borrowing a lot of money, and the combination creates a situation where you have guaranteed record profits in the early years. That makes you rich, through the bonuses that modern executive compensation has produced. It also makes it inevitable that there’s going to be a disaster down the road.
BILL MOYERS: So you’re suggesting, saying that CEOs of some of these banks and mortgage firms in order to increase their own personal income, deliberately set out to make bad loans?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: How do they get away with it? I mean, what about their own checks and balances in the company? What about their accounting divisions?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: All of those checks and balances report to the CEO, so if the CEO goes bad, all of the checks and balances are easily overcome. And the art form is not simply to defeat those internal controls, but to suborn them, to turn them into your greatest allies. And the bonus programs are exactly how you do that.
BILL MOYERS: If I wanted to go looking for the parties to this, with a good bird dog, where would you send me?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, that’s exactly what hasn’t happened. We haven’t looked, all right? The Bush Administration essentially got rid of regulation, so if nobody was looking, you were able to do this with impunity and that’s exactly what happened. Where would you look? You’d look at the specialty lenders. The lenders that did almost all of their work in the sub-prime and what’s called Alt-A, liars’ loans.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Liars’ loans–
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Liars’ loans.
BILL MOYERS: Why did they call them liars’ loans?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Because they were liars’ loans.
BILL MOYERS: And they knew it?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: They knew it. They knew that they were frauds.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Liars’ loans mean that we don’t check. You tell us what your income is. You tell us what your job is. You tell us what your assets are, and we agree to believe you. We won’t check on any of those things. And by the way, you get a better deal if you inflate your income and your job history and your assets.
BILL MOYERS: You think they really said that to borrowers?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: We know that they said that to borrowers. In fact, they were also called, in the trade, ninja loans.
BILL MOYERS: Ninja?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Yeah, because no income verification, no job verification, no asset verification.
BILL MOYERS: You’re talking about significant American companies.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Huge! One company produced as many losses as the entire Savings and Loan debacle.
BILL MOYERS: Which company?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: IndyMac specialized in making liars’ loans. In 2006 alone, it sold $80 billion dollars of liars’ loans to other companies. $80 billion.
BILL MOYERS: And was this happening exclusively in this sub-prime mortgage business?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: No, and that’s a big part of the story as well. Even prime loans began to have non-verification. Even Ronald Reagan, you know, said, “Trust, but verify.” They just gutted the verification process. We know that will produce enormous fraud, under economic theory, criminology theory, and two thousand years of life experience.
BILL MOYERS: Is it possible that these complex instruments were deliberately created so swindlers could exploit them?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Oh, absolutely. This stuff, the exotic stuff that you’re talking about was created out of things like liars’ loans, that were known to be extraordinarily bad. And now it was getting triple-A ratings. Now a triple-A rating is supposed to mean there is zero credit risk. So you take something that not only has significant, it has crushing risk. That’s why it’s toxic. And you create this fiction that it has zero risk. That itself, of course, is a fraudulent exercise. And again, there was nobody looking, during the Bush years. So finally, only a year ago, we started to have a Congressional investigation of some of these rating agencies, and it’s scandalous what came out. What we know now is that the rating agencies never looked at a single loan file. When they finally did look, after the markets had completely collapsed, they found, and I’m quoting Fitch, the smallest of the rating agencies, “the results were disconcerting, in that there was the appearance of fraud in nearly every file we examined.”
BILL MOYERS: So if your assumption is correct, your evidence is sound, the bank, the lending company, created a fraud. And the ratings agency that is supposed to test the value of these assets knowingly entered into the fraud. Both parties are committing fraud by intention.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Right, and the investment banker that — we call it pooling — puts together these bad mortgages, these liars’ loans, and creates the toxic waste of these derivatives. All of them do that. And then they sell it to the world and the world just thinks because it has a triple-A rating it must actually be safe. Well, instead, there are 60 and 80 percent losses on these things, because of course they, in reality, are toxic waste.
BILL MOYERS: You’re describing what Bernie Madoff did to a limited number of people. But you’re saying it’s systemic, a systemic Ponzi scheme.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Oh, Bernie was a piker. He doesn’t even get into the front ranks of a Ponzi scheme…
BILL MOYERS: But you’re saying our system became a Ponzi scheme.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Our system…
BILL MOYERS: Our financial system…
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Became a Ponzi scheme. Everybody was buying a pig in the poke. But they were buying a pig in the poke with a pretty pink ribbon, and the pink ribbon said, “Triple-A.”
BILL MOYERS: Is there a law against liars’ loans?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Not directly, but there, of course, many laws against fraud, and liars’ loans are fraudulent.
BILL MOYERS: Because…
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Because they’re not going to be repaid and because they had false representations. They involve deceit, which is the essence of fraud.
BILL MOYERS: Why is it so hard to prosecute? Why hasn’t anyone been brought to justice over this?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Because they didn’t even begin to investigate the major lenders until the market had actually collapsed, which is completely contrary to what we did successfully in the Savings and Loan crisis, right? Even while the institutions were reporting they were the most profitable savings and loan in America, we knew they were frauds. And we were moving to close them down. Here, the Justice Department, even though it very appropriately warned, in 2004, that there was an epidemic…
BILL MOYERS: Who did?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: The FBI publicly warned, in September 2004 that there was an epidemic of mortgage fraud, that if it was allowed to continue it would produce a crisis at least as large as the Savings and Loan debacle. And that they were going to make sure that they didn’t let that happen. So what goes wrong? After 9/11, the attacks, the Justice Department transfers 500 white-collar specialists in the FBI to national terrorism. Well, we can all understand that. But then, the Bush administration refused to replace the missing 500 agents. So even today, again, as you say, this crisis is 1000 times worse, perhaps, certainly 100 times worse, than the Savings and Loan crisis. There are one-fifth as many FBI agents as worked the Savings and Loan crisis.
BILL MOYERS: You talk about the Bush administration. Of course, there’s that famous photograph of some of the regulators in 2003, who come to a press conference with a chainsaw suggesting that they’re going to slash, cut business loose from regulation, right?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, they succeeded. And in that picture, by the way, the other — three of the other guys with pruning shears are the…
BILL MOYERS: That’s right.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: They’re the trade representatives. They’re the lobbyists for the bankers. And everybody’s grinning. The government’s working together with the industry to destroy regulation. Well, we now know what happens when you destroy regulation. You get the biggest financial calamity of anybody under the age of 80.
BILL MOYERS: But I can point you to statements by Larry Summers, who was then Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, or the other Clinton Secretary of the Treasury, Rubin. I can point you to suspects in both parties, right?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: There were two really big things, under the Clinton administration. One, they got rid of the law that came out of the real-world disasters of the Great Depression. We learned a lot of things in the Great Depression. And one is we had to separate what’s called commercial banking from investment banking. That’s the Glass-Steagall law. But we thought we were much smarter, supposedly. So we got rid of that law, and that was bipartisan. And the other thing is we passed a law, because there was a very good regulator, Brooksley Born, that everybody should know about and probably doesn’t. She tried to do the right thing to regulate one of these exotic derivatives that you’re talking about. We call them C.D.F.S. And Summers, Rubin, and Phil Gramm came together to say not only will we block this particular regulation. We will pass a law that says you can’t regulate. And it’s this type of derivative that is most involved in the AIG scandal. AIG all by itself, cost the same as the entire Savings and Loan debacle.
BILL MOYERS: What did AIG contribute? What did they do wrong?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: They made bad loans. Their type of loan was to sell a guarantee, right? And they charged a lot of fees up front. So, they booked a lot of income. Paid enormous bonuses. The bonuses we’re thinking about now, they’re much smaller than these bonuses that were also the product of accounting fraud. And they got very, very rich. But, of course, then they had guaranteed this toxic waste. These liars’ loans. Well, we’ve just gone through why those toxic waste, those liars’ loans, are going to have enormous losses. And so, you have to pay the guarantee on those enormous losses. And you go bankrupt. Except that you don’t in the modern world, because you’ve come to the United States, and the taxpayers play the fool. Under Secretary Geithner and under Secretary Paulson before him… we took $5 billion dollars, for example, in U.S. taxpayer money. And sent it to a huge Swiss Bank called UBS. At the same time that that bank was defrauding the taxpayers of America. And we were bringing a criminal case against them. We eventually get them to pay a $780 million fine, but wait, we gave them $5 billion. So, the taxpayers of America paid the fine of a Swiss Bank. And why are we bailing out somebody who that is defrauding us?
BILL MOYERS: And why…
WILLIAM K. BLACK: How mad is this?
BILL MOYERS: What is your explanation for why the bankers who created this mess are still calling the shots?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, that, especially after what’s just happened at G.M., that’s… it’s scandalous.
BILL MOYERS: Why are they firing the president of G.M. and not firing the head of all these banks that are involved?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: There are two reasons. One, they’re much closer to the bankers. These are people from the banking industry. And they have a lot more sympathy. In fact, they’re outright hostile to autoworkers, as you can see. They want to bash all of their contracts. But when they get to banking, they say, â€˜contracts, sacred.’ But the other element of your question is we don’t want to change the bankers, because if we do, if we put honest people in, who didn’t cause the problem, their first job would be to find the scope of the problem. And that would destroy the cover up.
BILL MOYERS: The cover up?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Sure. The cover up.
BILL MOYERS: That’s a serious charge.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Of course.
BILL MOYERS: Who’s covering up?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Geithner is charging, is covering up. Just like Paulson did before him. Geithner is publicly saying that it’s going to take $2 trillion — a trillion is a thousand billion — $2 trillion taxpayer dollars to deal with this problem. But they’re allowing all the banks to report that they’re not only solvent, but fully capitalized. Both statements can’t be true. It can’t be that they need $2 trillion, because they have masses losses, and that they’re fine.
These are all people who have failed. Paulson failed, Geithner failed. They were all promoted because they failed, not because…
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, Geithner has, was one of our nation’s top regulators, during the entire subprime scandal, that I just described. He took absolutely no effective action. He gave no warning. He did nothing in response to the FBI warning that there was an epidemic of fraud. All this pig in the poke stuff happened under him. So, in his phrase about legacy assets. Well he’s a failed legacy regulator.
BILL MOYERS: But he denies that he was a regulator. Let me show you some of his testimony before Congress. Take a look at this.
TIMOTHY GEITHNER:I’ve never been a regulator, for better or worse. And I think you’re right to say that we have to be very skeptical that regulation can solve all of these problems. We have parts of our system that are overwhelmed by regulation.
Overwhelmed by regulation! It wasn’t the absence of regulation that was the problem, it was despite the presence of regulation you’ve got huge risks that build up.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, he may be right that he never regulated, but his job was to regulate. That was his mission statement.
BILL MOYERS: As?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: As president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which is responsible for regulating most of the largest bank holding companies in America. And he’s completely wrong that we had too much regulation in some of these areas. I mean, he gives no details, obviously. But that’s just plain wrong.
BILL MOYERS: How is this happening? I mean why is it happening?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Until you get the facts, it’s harder to blow all this up. And, of course, the entire strategy is to keep people from getting the facts.
BILL MOYERS: What facts?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: The facts about how bad the condition of the banks is. So, as long as I keep the old CEO who caused the problems, is he going to go vigorously around finding the problems? Finding the frauds?
BILL MOYERS: You–
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Taking away people’s bonuses?
BILL MOYERS: To hear you say this is unusual because you supported Barack Obama, during the campaign. But you’re seeming disillusioned now.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, certainly in the financial sphere, I am. I think, first, the policies are substantively bad. Second, I think they completely lack integrity. Third, they violate the rule of law. This is being done just like Secretary Paulson did it. In violation of the law. We adopted a law after the Savings and Loan crisis, called the Prompt Corrective Action Law. And it requires them to close these institutions. And they’re refusing to obey the law.
BILL MOYERS: In other words, they could have closed these banks without nationalizing them?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, you do a receivership. No one — Ronald Reagan did receiverships. Nobody called it nationalization.
BILL MOYERS: And that’s a law?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: That’s the law.
BILL MOYERS: So, Paulson could have done this? Geithner could do this?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Not could. Was mandated–
BILL MOYERS: By the law.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: By the law.
BILL MOYERS: This law, you’re talking about.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: What the reason they give for not doing it?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: They ignore it. And nobody calls them on it.
BILL MOYERS: Well, where’s Congress? Where’s the press? Where–
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, where’s the Pecora investigation?
BILL MOYERS: The what?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: The Pecora investigation. The Great Depression, we said, “Hey, we have to learn the facts. What caused this disaster, so that we can take steps, like pass the Glass-Steagall law, that will prevent future disasters?” Where’s our investigation?
What would happen if after a plane crashes, we said, “Oh, we don’t want to look in the past. We want to be forward looking. Many people might have been, you know, we don’t want to pass blame. No. We have a nonpartisan, skilled inquiry. We spend lots of money on, get really bright people. And we find out, to the best of our ability, what caused every single major plane crash in America. And because of that, aviation has an extraordinarily good safety record. We ought to follow the same policies in the financial sphere. We have to find out what caused the disasters, or we will keep reliving them. And here, we’ve got a double tragedy. It isn’t just that we are failing to learn from the mistakes of the past. We’re failing to learn from the successes of the past.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: In the Savings and Loan debacle, we developed excellent ways for dealing with the frauds, and for dealing with the failed institutions. And for 15 years after the Savings and Loan crisis, didn’t matter which party was in power, the U.S. Treasury Secretary would fly over to Tokyo and tell the Japanese, “You ought to do things the way we did in the Savings and Loan crisis, because it worked really well. Instead you’re covering up the bank losses, because you know, you say you need confidence. And so, we have to lie to the people to create confidence. And it doesn’t work. You will cause your recession to continue and continue.” And the Japanese call it the lost decade. That was the result. So, now we get in trouble, and what do we do? We adopt the Japanese approach of lying about the assets. And you know what? It’s working just as well as it did in Japan.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Are you saying that Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury, and others in the administration, with the banks, are engaged in a cover up to keep us from knowing what went wrong?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: You are.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Absolutely, because they are scared to death. All right? They’re scared to death of a collapse. They’re afraid that if they admit the truth, that many of the large banks are insolvent. They think Americans are a bunch of cowards, and that we’ll run screaming to the exits. And we won’t rely on deposit insurance. And, by the way, you can rely on deposit insurance. And it’s foolishness. All right? Now, it may be worse than that. You can impute more cynical motives. But I think they are sincerely just panicked about, “We just can’t let the big banks fail.” That’s wrong.
BILL MOYERS: But what might happen, at this point, if in fact they keep from us the true health of the banks?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, then the banks will, as they did in Japan, either stay enormously weak, or Treasury will be forced to increasingly absurd giveaways of taxpayer money. We’ve seen how horrific AIG — and remember, they kept secrets from everyone.
BILL MOYERS: A.I.G. did?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: What we’re doing with — no, Treasury and both administrations. The Bush administration and now the Obama administration kept secret from us what was being done with AIG. AIG was being used secretly to bail out favored banks like UBS and like Goldman Sachs. Secretary Paulson’s firm, that he had come from being CEO. It got the largest amount of money. $12.9 billion. And they didn’t want us to know that. And it was only Congressional pressure, and not Congressional pressure, by the way, on Geithner, but Congressional pressure on AIG.
Where Congress said, “We will not give you a single penny more unless we know who received the money.” And, you know, when he was Treasury Secretary, Paulson created a recommendation group to tell Treasury what they ought to do with AIG. And he put Goldman Sachs on it.
BILL MOYERS: Even though Goldman Sachs had a big vested stake.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Massive stake. And even though he had just been CEO of Goldman Sachs before becoming Treasury Secretary. Now, in most stages in American history, that would be a scandal of such proportions that he wouldn’t be allowed in civilized society.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, like a conflict of interest, it seems.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Massive conflict of interests.
BILL MOYERS: So, how did he get away with it?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: I don’t know whether we’ve lost our capability of outrage. Or whether the cover up has been so successful that people just don’t have the facts to react to it.
BILL MOYERS: Who’s going to get the facts?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: We need some chairmen or chairwomen–
BILL MOYERS: In Congress.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: –in Congress, to hold the necessary hearings. And we can blast this out. But if you leave the failed CEOs in place, it isn’t just that they’re terrible business people, though they are. It isn’t just that they lack integrity, though they do. Because they were engaged in these frauds. But they’re not going to disclose the truth about the assets.
BILL MOYERS: And we have to know that, in order to know what?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: To know everything. To know who committed the frauds. Whose bonuses we should recover. How much the assets are worth. How much they should be sold for. Is the bank insolvent, such that we should resolve it in this way? It’s the predicate, right? You need to know the facts to make intelligent decisions. And they’re deliberately leaving in place the people that caused the problem, because they don’t want the facts. And this is not new. The Reagan Administration’s central priority, at all times, during the Savings and Loan crisis, was covering up the losses.
BILL MOYERS: So, you’re saying that people in power, political power, and financial power, act in concert when their own behinds are in the ringer, right?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: That’s right. And it’s particularly a crisis that brings this out, because then the class of the banker says, “You’ve got to keep the information away from the public or everything will collapse. If they understand how bad it is, they’ll run for the exits.”
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, and this week in New York, at this conference, you described this as more than a financial crisis. You called it a moral crisis.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Because it is a fundamental lack of integrity. But also because, if you look back at crises, an economist who is also a presidential appointee, as a regulator in the Savings and Loan industry, right here in New York, Larry White, wrote a book about the Savings and Loan crisis. And he said, you know, one of the most interesting questions is why so few people engaged in fraud? Because objectively, you could have gotten away with it. But only about ten percent of the CEOs, engaged in fraud. So, 90 percent of them were restrained by ethics and integrity. So, far more than law or by F.B.I. agents, it’s our integrity that often prevents the greatest abuses. And what we had in this crisis, instead of the Savings and Loan, is the most elite institutions in America engaging or facilitating fraud.
BILL MOYERS: This wound that you say has been inflicted on American life. The loss of worker’s income. And security and pensions and future happened, because of the misconduct of a relatively few, very well-heeled people, in very well-decorated corporate suites, right?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Right.
BILL MOYERS: It was relatively a handful of people.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: And their ideologies, which swept away regulation. So, in the example, regulation means that cheaters don’t prosper. So, instead of being bad for capitalism, it’s what saves capitalism. “Honest purveyors prosper” is what we want. And you need regulation and law enforcement to be able to do this. The tragedy of this crisis is it didn’t need to happen at all.
BILL MOYERS: When you wake in the middle of the night, thinking about your work, what do you make of that? What do you tell yourself?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: There’s a saying that we took great comfort in. It’s actually by the Dutch, who were fighting this impossible war for independence against what was then the most powerful nation in the world, Spain. And their motto was, “It is not necessary to hope in order to persevere.”
Now, going forward, get rid of the people that have caused the problems. That’s a pretty straightforward thing, as well. Why would we keep CEOs and CFOs and other senior officers, that caused the problems? That’s facially nuts. That’s our current system.
So stop that current system. We’re hiding the losses, instead of trying to find out the real losses. Stop that, because you need good information to make good decisions, right? Follow what works instead of what’s failed. Start appointing people who have records of success, instead of records of failure. That would be another nice place to start. There are lots of things we can do. Even today, as late as it is. Even though they’ve had a terrible start to the administration. They could change, and they could change within weeks. And by the way, the folks who are the better regulators, they paid their taxes. So, you can get them through the vetting process a lot quicker.
BILL MOYERS: William Black, thank you very much for being with me on the Journal.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Thank you so much.
William K. Black suspects that it was more than greed and incompetence that brought down the U.S. financial sector and plunged the economy in recession — it was fraud. And he would know. When it comes to financial shenanigans, William K. Black, the former senior regulator who cracked down on banks during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, has seen pretty much everything.
Now an Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri, William K. Black tells Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL that the tool at the very center of mortgage collapse, creating triple-A rated bonds out of “liars’ loans” — loans issued without verifying income, assets or employment — was a fraud, and the banks knew it.
And while there is no law against liars’ loans, Black points out that there are, “many laws against fraud, and liars’ loans are fraudulent. [...] They involve deceit, which is the essence of fraud.”
Only the scale of the scandal is new. A single bank, IndyMac, lost more money than the entire Savings and Loan Crisis. The difference between now and then, explains Black, is a drastic reduction in regulation and oversight, “We now know what happens when you destroy regulation. You get the biggest financial calamity of anybody under the age of 80.”
William K. Black, author of THE BEST WAY TO ROB A BANK IS TO OWN ONE, teaches economics and law at the University of Missouri — Kansas City (UMKC). He was the Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention from 2005-2007. He has taught previously at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and at Santa Clara University, where he was also the distinguished scholar in residence for insurance law and a visiting scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
Black was litigation director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, deputy director of the FSLIC, SVP and general counsel of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and senior deputy chief counsel, Office of Thrift Supervision. He was deputy director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement.
Black developed the concept of “control fraud” — frauds in which the CEO or head of state uses the entity as a “weapon.” Control frauds cause greater financial losses than all other forms of property crime combined. He recently helped the World Bank develop anti-corruption initiatives and served as an expert for OFHEO in its enforcement action against Fannie Mae’s former senior management.
Published April 3, 2009. Guest photos by Robin Holland
In for a Penny, In for $2.98 Trillion April 1, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
Tags: AIG, auto bailout, auto workers, auto workers pensions, bailout, bailout fraud, bernard madoff, chrysler, congressional oversight, deregulation, derivitives, Federal Reserve, geithner, general moters, gm, gm bankruptcy, lawrence summers, Obama, president clinton, Robert Scheer, roger hollander, taxpayers, treasury, Wall Street, white house advisors
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Posted on Mar 31, 2009, www.truthdig.com
|AP photo / Mary Altaffer|
The good news on the government’s “No Banker Left Behind” program is that according to the special inspector general’s report on Tuesday, the total handout to date is still less than 3 trillion dollars. It’s only 2.98 trillion to be precise, an amount six times greater than will be spent by federal, state and local governments this year on educating the 50 million American children in elementary and secondary schools.
The bad news is that even greater amounts of money are to be thrown down what has to be the world record for rat holes.
Where did the money go? Almost all of it went to the bankers and stockbrokers who got us into this mess by insisting that the complex-by-design derivatives they trafficked in should not be regulated by government since they were private transactions between consenting professionals. Sort of like a lap dance: If it doesn’t work out, that’s the problem of the parties involved and no concern of the government.
For the government to intervene would have created “legal uncertainty” in the derivatives market, an argument that a Republican-dominated Congress and President Clinton bought in authorizing the Commodity Futures Modernization Act in December of 2000. That law brought “legal certainty” to the market, a phrase that Lawrence Summers, then Clinton’s secretary of the treasury and now Barack Obama’s top White House economics adviser, deployed incessantly as a calming mantra as the financial derivatives market swirled out of control.
Now Summers and the other finance gurus who move so easily from Wall Street to Pennsylvania Avenue assure us that those professionals who made the toxic swap deals are too big to fail and must be entrusted with 3 trillion of our dollars to save themselves from disaster. And thanks to the laws they wrote, the bankers are likely to be covered for their socially destructive behavior by a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Well, maybe not all of them. A shudder must have run through the former Wall Street buddies of Bernie Madoff—once the highly respected chairman of the Nasdaq stock exchange—when Inspector General Neil Barofsky warned on Tuesday that “we are looking at the potential exposure of hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money lost to fraud.”
How naive. The fraud no doubt has occurred and will occur again, but the exposure part is more questionable, if by that is meant bringing the criminals to account. As opposed to welfare cheats who end up imprisoned over scams that involve hundreds of dollars, these guys have brilliant lawyers who tell them how to steal legally when it comes to billions in fraud.
But most likely the white-collar criminals, if they are high enough up the food chain, will not even be quizzed about their activities. As the independent Congressional Oversight Panel has reported, there has been no serious accounting of the bailout money. It took major pressure from a Congress reacting to an outraged public to discover that AIG, in addition to handing out hundreds of millions in bonuses to the very hustlers who created the firm’s swindles, was a conduit for at least $70 billion in taxpayer money to reimburse the banks and stockbrokers who got us into this crisis with their bad bets.
No surprise there, given the incestuous world of finance, where the revolving doors between the Treasury Department, the Fed and executive offices in the industry have been swinging throughout both Republican and Democratic administrations. As a result, those orchestrating the bailout and those grabbing the money are for the most part friends and former colleagues, with enormous respect for each other but not for the American taxpayer and homeowner. Or for the autoworkers who had nothing to do with creating this problem but stand to lose their retiree health benefits and pensions if the Obama administration goes though with its threat to use bankruptcy to discharge GM and Chrysler from their obligations to their workers. Why float a company like AIG to the tune of $170 billion to keep that massive conglomerate from bankruptcy but balk at a much smaller commitment to keep GM solvent?
The money involved in the auto bailout is chump change compared with what Wall Street got, and it is far better spent. As opposed to the financial high rollers richly rewarded for crawling in and out of balance sheets, the folks who crawl in and out of cars along an assembly line are left with permanent aching backs and hard-won health care and retirement plans about to disappear through their company’s bankruptcy. Where’s their bonus package?