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Obama Sides With Banks Accused of Racism April 8, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Criminal Justice, Economic Crisis, Racism.
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The administration defends lenders that allegedly bilked

minority customers. What gives?

by Stephanie Mencimer

A number of big national banks stand accused of systematically bilking black and Latino borrowers. And the administration of our first black president is siding with the banks.

At the end of April, the Obama administration will go before the US Supreme Court to argue that those banks-including bailout recipients Bank of America, Citi, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan Chase-should be allowed to duck a state investigation into their lending practices. If that sounds like the politics of the past, it is. The Obama administration has opted to maintain the stance of the Bush administration-one opposed by the NAACP and other major civil rights groups. And it won’t be some Bush holdover making the arguments in Cuomo v. The Clearing House Association (an industry group whose membership includes the world’s largest banks). Instead, the banks will be defended by the office of Obama’s new solicitor general, former Harvard Law School dean Elena Kagan, whom some conservatives have branded a “radical leftist” because of her record opposing military recruitment on college campuses.

The case got its start in 2005, when then-New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer discovered that many banks operating in his state were issuing a disproportionate number of high-interest loans to African Americans and Hispanics. Invoking state anti-discrimination laws, Spitzer wrote to those banks, politely asking for more information about their lending practices. He didn’t even issue a subpoena. Rather than respond to the request, the banks sued Spitzer. They argued that they were legally entitled to blow him off because federal banking law preempted the state investigation-that is, only the feds could make such a request, not some lowly state AG.

To make their case, the banks sought help from the Bush administration, through the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The OCC is a little-known federal bank regulator that over the past decade has become increasingly active in helping those banks and their subsidiaries squash state efforts to rein in abusive predatory lending practices. The OCC joined the banks in the case as a plaintiff, asserting that a Civil War-era banking law made the OCC the only sheriff in town. When it came to big national banks like Bank of America and Wells Fargo, only the OCC, it argued, could force the banks to comply with state consumer protection laws like those banning racial discrimination in lending.

With the OCC’s backing, the banks prevailed in the trial court and the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. New York’s current attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, has appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments in late April. Kagan’s office will be representing the OCC. The administration’s position in Clearing House stands in sharp relief to other parts of the US government, where financial system regulators have recently come out in opposition to shielding banks from state consumer protection laws and enforcement.

In March, on the same day Kagan was confirmed as solicitor general, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation chair Sheila Bair, a Bush appointee, told the Senate banking committee that “it is time to examine curtailing federal preemption of state consumer protection laws…it has now become clear that abrogating sound state laws, particularly regarding consumer protection, created an opportunity for regulatory arbitrage that frankly resulted in a race-to-the-bottom mentality.”

Yet in their briefs in Clearing House, lawyers for the OCC and Obama’s solicitor general say that the OCC has used its authority appropriately and has done a terrific job of protecting consumers from abusive bank practices. It’s a dubious claim at best. Until 2008, the OCC had never taken a public consumer protection action against a major bank. In fact, the OCC’s light touch with national banks prompted many state-chartered banks to switch their charters just so they could evade stricter state regulation.

In an amicus brief in Clearing House, lawyers for consumer advocates cite the example of Capital One, a company whose deceptive and unfair credit card practices were investigated for several years by the West Virginia attorney general. Three years into the investigation, the bank changed its status from a state-charted bank to an OCC-chartered bank. Less than two weeks later, Capital One asked a federal court to halt the attorney general’s investigation, arguing that the OCC was now the only entity that could initiate such a probe. The judge who heard the suit recognized that the bank was simply trying to evade the attorney general. Nonetheless, he believed the law required him to stop the state investigation.

Over the years, the OCC has tried to prevent state consumer protection actions against all sorts of shady practices. For instance, the OCC has intervened to prevent states from cracking down on telemarketing fraud and misbehavior by car dealerships, an unlicensed trade school, an air-conditioning company, and a mall that issued gift cards-all because each of these entities had a financing relationship with OCC-chartered banks. The OCC’s track record in enforcing anti-discrimination laws like those at the heart of the Clearing House case is equally dismal. In their amicus brief, consumer lawyers note that the OCC has brought only four formal enforcement actions under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act since 1987. And during the Bush administration, it didn’t refer a single discriminatory mortgage lending case to the Justice Department. Yet in her brief, Kagan argues that the OCC “vigorously enforces fair lending laws against national banks.”

Kagan’s brief appears as if it were largely written during the last administration, which it no doubt was. It touts the supposedly great work done by the OCC’s Customer Assistance Group, which Kagan and the OCC say has facilitated the recovery of tens of millions of dollars by injured consumers. Back in 2005, I filed a Freedom of Information Act Request with the OCC for information about how many people in this group actually investigated and resolved consumer complaints. The answer I eventually got many, many months later? Three, in an agency that fields more than 70,000 complaints a year from bank customers. In years past, the group has recouped less than $8 million annually for consumers-a drop in the bucket compared to the billions banks collect via abusive credit card practices or overdraft fees.

By comparison, the state attorneys general the OCC has tried to neutralize have successfully gone after many lending institutions for sleazy practices and recouped sums that dwarf anything the OCC has recovered. During the past decade, attorneys general in various states banded together and settled cases against Household and Ameriquest Mortgage Company, once some of the nation’s biggest subprime lenders. The AGs recouped more than $800 million for consumers, but they were often prevented from bringing similar cases against big banks because of OCC interventions. And in Clearing House, the Obama administration is now defending the OCC’s turf-conscious obstructionism.

The administration’s brief in Clearing House was due only six days after Kagan was confirmed. Reversing course in a case this far along would have been both legally and administratively problematic for her and the administration. But consumer advocates have seen a few hints between the lines of her brief that the administration intends to change its regulatory policy at the OCC. It is hard to imagine that Obama would really want to usurp the states and remake the OCC as the nation’s preeminent financial consumer protection agency. That would make the federal banking regulator ultimately responsible for policing thousands of unscrupulous car dealers, air-conditioning installers, trade schools, or even mall gift-card programs, simply because they had financing relationships with national banks. Not only does the OCC not have the resources to do all that; it has enough on its plate right now just keeping the banks afloat. As Daniel Mosteller, litigation counsel to the Center for Responsible Lending, observes, “Is the OCC really going to start investigating malls?”


Was the Bailout Itself a Scam? March 19, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
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Paul Craig Roberts

www.opednews.com, March 19, 2009

Professor Michael Hudson (CounterPunch, March 18) is correct that the orchestrated outrage over the $165 million AIG bonuses is a diversion from the thousand times greater theft from taxpayers of the approximately $200 billion “bailout” of AIG. Nevertheless, it is a diversion that serves an important purpose. It has taught an inattentive American public that the elites run the government in their own private interests.

Americans are angry that AIG executives are paying themselves millions of dollars in bonuses after having cost the taxpayers an exorbitant sum. Senator Charles Grassley put a proper face on the anger when he suggested that the AIG executives “follow the Japanese example and resign or go commit suicide.”

Yet, Obama’s White House economist, Larry Summers, on whose watch as Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration financial deregulation got out of control, invoked the “sanctity of contracts” in defense of the AIG bonuses.

But the Obama administration does not regard other contracts as sacred. Specifically: labor unions had to agree to give-backs in order for the auto companies to obtain federal help; CNN reports that “Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki confirmed Tuesday [March 10] that the Obama administration is considering a controversial plan to make veterans pay for treatment of service-related injuries with private insurance” [ click here ]; the Washington Post reports that the Obama team has set its sights on downsizing Social Security and Medicare.

According to the Post, Obama said that “it is impossible to separate the country’s financial ills from the long-term need to rein in health-care costs, stabilize Social Security and prevent the Medicare program from bankrupting the government.” [ click here ]

After Washington’s trillion dollar bank bailouts and trillion dollar gratuitous wars for the sake of the military industry’s profits and Israeli territorial expansion, there is no money for Social Security and Medicare.

The US government breaks its contracts with US citizens on a daily basis, but AIG’s bonus contracts are sacrosanct. The Social Security contract was broken when the government decided to tax 85% of the benefits. It was broken again when the Clinton administration rigged the inflation measure in order to beat retirees out of their cost-of-living adjustments. To have any real Medicare coverage, a person has to give up part of his Social Security check to pay Medicare Part B premium and then take out a private supplemental policy. The true cost of Medicare to beneficiaries is about $6,000 annually in premiums, plus deductibles and the Medicare tax if the person is still earning.

Treasury Secretary Geithner, the fox in charge of the hen house, has resolved the problem for us. He is going to withhold $165 million (the amount of the AIG bonuses) from the next taxpayer payment to AIG of $30,000 million. If someone handed you $30,000 dollars, would you mind if they held back $165?

PR flaks have rechristened the bonus payments “retention payments” necessary if AIG is to retain crucial employees. This lie was shot down by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who informed the House Committee on Financial Services that the payments went to members of AIG’s Financial Products subsidiary, “the unit of AIG that was principally responsible for the firm’s meltdown.” As for retention, Cuomo pointed out that ”numerous individuals who received large ‘retention’ bonuses are no longer at the firm” [click here ].

Eliot Spitzer, the former New York Governor who was set-up in a sex scandal to prevent him investigating Wall Street’s financial gangsterism, pointed out on March 17 that the real scandal is the billions of taxpayer dollars paid to the counter-parties of AIG’s financial deals. These payments, Spitzer writes, [ http://www.slate.com/id/2213942/ ] are “a way to hide an enormous second round of cash to the same group that had received TARP money already.”

Goldman Sachs, for example, had already received a taxpayer cash infusion of $25 billion and was sitting on more than $100 billion in cash when the Wall Street firm received another $13 billion via the AIG bailout.

Moreover, in my opinion, most of the billions of dollars in AIG counter-party payments were unnecessary. They represent gravy paid to firms that had made risk-free bets, the non-payment of which constituted no threat to financial solvency.

Spitzer identifies a conflict of interest that could possibly be criminal self-dealing. According to reports, the AIG bailout decision involved Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, formerly of Goldman Sachs, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geithner, former New York Federal Reserve president and currently Secretary of the Treasury. No doubt the incestuous relationships are the reason the original bailout deal had no oversight or transparency.

The Bush/Obama bailouts require serious investigation. Were these bailouts necessary, or were they a scam, like “weapons of mass destruction,” used to advance a private agenda behind a wall of fear? Recently I heard Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren, a member of a congressional bailout oversight panel, say on NPR that the US has far too many banks. Out of the financial crisis, she said, should come consolidation with the financial sector consisting of a few mega-banks. Was the whole point of the bailout to supply taxpayer money for a program of financial concentration?

The Real AIG Scandal March 18, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
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The Real AIG ScandalIt’s not the bonuses. It’s that AIG’s counterparties are getting paid back in full.

American International Group Inc. Click image to expand.AIG’s Manhattan, N.Y., office

Everybody is rushing to condemn AIG’s bonuses, but this simple scandal is obscuring the real disgrace at the insurance giant: Why are AIG’s counterparties getting paid back in full, to the tune of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars?

For the answer to this question, we need to go back to the very first decision to bail out AIG, made, we are told, by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, then-New York Fed official Timothy Geithner, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke last fall. Post-Lehman’s collapse, they feared a systemic failure could be triggered by AIG’s inability to pay the counterparties to all the sophisticated instruments AIG had sold. And who were AIG’s trading partners? No shock here: Goldman, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, UBS, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, and on it goes. So now we know for sure what we already surmised: The AIG bailout has been a way to hide an enormous second round of cash to the same group that had received TARP money already.

It all appears, once again, to be the same insiders protecting themselves against sharing the pain and risk of their own bad adventure. The payments to AIG’s counterparties are justified with an appeal to the sanctity of contract. If AIG’s contracts turned out to be shaky, the theory goes, then the whole edifice of the financial system would collapse.

But wait a moment, aren’t we in the midst of reopening contracts all over the place to share the burden of this crisis? From raising taxes—income taxes to sales taxes—to properly reopening labor contracts, we are all being asked to pitch in and carry our share of the burden. Workers around the country are being asked to take pay cuts and accept shorter work weeks so that colleagues won’t be laid off. Why can’t Wall Street royalty shoulder some of the burden? Why did Goldman have to get back 100 cents on the dollar? Didn’t we already give Goldman a $25 billion capital infusion, and aren’t they sitting on more than $100 billion in cash? Haven’t we been told recently that they are beginning to come back to fiscal stability? If that is so, couldn’t they have accepted a discount, and couldn’t they have agreed to certain conditions before the AIG dollars—that is, our dollars—flowed?

The appearance that this was all an inside job is overwhelming. AIG was nothing more than a conduit for huge capital flows to the same old suspects, with no reason or explanation.

So here are several questions that should be answered, in public, under oath, to clear the air:

What was the precise conversation among Bernanke, Geithner, Paulson, and Blankfein that preceded the initial $80 billion grant?

Was it already known who the counterparties were and what the exposure was for each of the counterparties?

What did Goldman, and all the other counterparties, know about AIG’s financial condition at the time they executed the swaps or other contracts? Had they done adequate due diligence to see whether they were buying real protection? And why shouldn’t they bear a percentage of the risk of failure of their own counterparty?

What is the deeper relationship between Goldman and AIG? Didn’t they almost merge a few years ago but did not because Goldman couldn’t get its arms around the black box that is AIG? If that is true, why should Goldman get bailed out? After all, they should have known as well as anybody that a big part of AIG’s business model was not to pay on insurance it had issued.

Why weren’t the counterparties immediately and fully disclosed?

Failure to answer these questions will feed the populist rage that is metastasizing very quickly. And it will raise basic questions about the competence of those who are supposedly guiding this economic policy.