Tags: bailout, banking committee, barney frank, chris dodd, Citibank, Economic Crisis, financial crisis, foreclosures, Goldman Sachs, homeowners, Martha Coakley, massachusetts, massachusetts attorney general, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Politics News, roger hollander, rule of law, ryan grim, Subprime Mortgage Crisis, subprime mortgages, ubs, unfair loans
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(Roger’s note: read this then tell me why the Bailout funds could not be used to help homeowners pay subprime mortgages so that the Attorney General could pursue criminal charges against Goldman Sachs for the sake of justice and future deterrence; instead of letting Goldman Sachs get away with breaking the law with impunity and buy their way out with the taxpayers dollars. I am guessing that the Massachusetts AG is taking her cue from Barack Obama and his AG, Eric Holder, who would rather “reconcile” and “look forward” rather than comply with their oaths of office to defend and uphold the U.S. Constitution.)
Ryan Grim, www.huffingtonpost.com, May 12, 2009
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley won a victory against the Goldman Sachs Group Monday, forcing the financial firm to cut a $10 million check to the state and pony up $50 million to help around 700 homeowners pay subprime mortgages.
“Goldman Sachs is pleased to have resolved this matter,” says Michael DuVally, a Goldman spokesman, declining to comment further.
They were also pleased, no doubt, by the terms in the settlement that allowed Goldman to avoid admitting any wrongdoing. Letting Goldman off excuses what could have been criminal behavior, but it also brings relief to hundreds of homeowners and offers a roadmap to some sort of law-enforcement-driven solution where lawmakers have come up short.
Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said he wouldn’t “second guess” Coakley’s decision to settle short of criminal convictions. “I don’t know what other avenues she had available, but I will say this: Getting significant relief for 700 people is very important, both for them and for the economy. Now, that’s a legitimate consideration in getting it done more quickly than waiting for a couple years to go through the criminal procedure,” he tells the Huffington Post.
Rep. Bill Delahunt was a Massachusetts District Attorney for 23 years. He said balancing immediate justice for victims with bringing the white-collar criminals to justice can be difficult.
“You almost have to judge those on an ad hoc basis. There’s no formula,” he says in general, adding that he didn’t know enough about Coakley’s investigation to comment on her specific course of action.
“Clearly, there’s a preference to pursue them criminally because I think that creates deterrence,” he says. “You know, it’s difficult to deter a kid who’s going to rob a 7-11 store for 25 bucks but for people who are purportedly educated, or at least sophisticated, who defraud others, they’re more susceptible to being deterred.”
But the most sophisticated they are, the more they can drag out a prosecution. By the time they’re found guilty, half the victims may be out on the street, their homes foreclosed.
“It’s not always a perfect world and you can’t always secure the perfect justice,” says Delahunt. “It would appear that our attorney general did some good work that resulted in a very significant sum of money for redress by their behavior.”
Frank agrees. “I can’t tell exactly what the considerations were, but I’m inclined to think the value of getting immediate relief for 700 people and saving their homes, yeah, I’d trade off a little for that,” he says.
Goldman Sachs was not accused of originating the subprime loans in question, but rather investigated for facilitating the process by buying them and bundling them into securities without regard to whether the borrowers would be able to pay them back — or whether the borrowers or originators had followed reasonable lending practices or filed the appropriate paperwork.
“We will continue to investigate the deceptive marketing of unfair loans and the companies that facilitated the sale of those loans to consumers in the Commonwealth,” Coakley said in a statement. (Coakley’s press office did not return a call.)
The state attorney general’s office has previously pulled in more than $75 million from settlements with UBS, Morgan Stanley, Citibank, and Merrill Lynch, all related to the financial crisis.
But the U.S. attorney general would have a hard time making a similar case nationally. Coakely relied on stricter rules on subprime lenders who make “unfair” loans under state law.
Congressional Democrats hope to give the federal government the power some states now have. Last week, the House passed anti-predatory lending legislation that Coakley helped Frank’s committee draft.
“What we do in our bill is to go beyond any set of state laws,” says Frank, citing a requirement that five percent of the loan portfolio be kept by the company that originates the loan. Having that amount of skin in the game, he hopes, will persuade a lender to take a loan seriously.
The bill is now, like much else, stalled in the Senate.
Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) says that subprime lending reform is a lesser priority because the credit freeze has inadvertently dried up the business.
“That’s true right now but we cannot count on that being true forever,” says Frank. “You couldn’t count on getting a non-predatory loan a little while ago and it is true that the freeze has helped some. That’s true in some other areas as well. There aren’t a lot of credit default swaps being written.”
But, says Frank, the financial industry won’t have forgotten how to write a bad loan once the market thaws.
“It is important to get laws on the books, because this de facto moratorium isn’t going to last forever,” he says.
Ryan Grim is the author of the forthcoming book This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America
Tags: AIG, Alan Greenspan, bailout, bill black, brooksley born, bush administration, chris dodd, deregulation, derivitive market, Economic Crisis, gary gensler, glenn greenwald, Goldman Sachs, lawrence summers, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, obama administration, paulson, president obama, robert rubin, roger hollander, simon johnson, subprime scandal, tarp, tim geithner, Wall Street
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Published on Saturday, April 4, 2009 by Salon.com
Lawrence H. Summers, one of President Obama’s top economic advisers, collected roughly $5.2 million in compensation from hedge fund D.E. Shaw over the past year and was paid more than $2.7 million in speaking fees by several troubled Wall Street firms and other organizations. . . .
Financial institutions including JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch paid Summers for speaking appearances in 2008. Fees ranged from $45,000 for a Nov. 12 Merrill Lynch appearance to $135,000 for an April 16 visit to Goldman Sachs, according to his disclosure form.
That’s $135,000 paid by Goldman Sachs to Summers — for a one-day visit. And the payment was made at a time — in April, 2008 — when everyone assumed that the next President would either be Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton and that Larry Summers would therefore become exactly what he now is: the most influential financial official in the U.S. Government (and the $45,000 Merrill Lynch payment came 8 days after Obama’s election). Goldman would not be able to make a one-day $135,000 payment to Summers now that he is Obama’s top economics adviser, but doing so a few months beforehand was obviously something about which neither parties felt any compunction. It’s basically an advanced bribe. And it’s paying off in spades. And none of it seemed to bother Obama in the slightest when he first strongly considered naming Summers as Treasury Secretary and then named him his top economics adviser instead (thereby avoiding the need for Senate confirmation), knowing that Summers would exert great influence in determining who benefited from the government’s response to the financial crisis.
Last night, former Reagan-era S&L regulator and current University of Missouri Professor Bill Black was on Bill Moyers’ Journal and detailed the magnitude of what he called the on-going massive fraud, the role Tim Geithner played in it before being promoted to Treasury Secretary (where he continues to abet it), and — most amazingly of all — the crusade led by Alan Greenspan, former Goldman CEO Robert Rubin (Geithner’s mentor) and Larry Summers in the late 1990s to block the efforts of top regulators (especially Brooksley Born, head of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission) to regulate the exact financial derivatives market that became the principal cause of the global financial crisis. To get a sense for how deep and massive is the on-going fraud and the key role played in it by key Obama officials, I highly recommend watching that Black interview (it can be seen here and the transcript is here).
This article from Stanford Magazine — an absolutely amazing read — details how Summers, Rubin and Greenspan led the way in blocking any regulatory efforts of the derivatives market whatsoever on the ground that the financial industry and its lobbyists were objecting:
As chairperson of the CFTC, Born advocated reining in the huge and growing market for financial derivatives. . . . One type of derivative—known as a credit-default swap—has been a key contributor to the economy’s recent unraveling. . .
Back in the 1990s, however, Born’s proposal stirred an almost visceral response from other regulators in the Clinton administration, as well as members of Congress and lobbyists. . . . But even the modest proposal got a vituperative response. The dozen or so large banks that wrote most of the OTC derivative contracts saw the move as a threat to a major profit center. Greenspan and his deregulation-minded brain trust saw no need to upset the status quo. The sheer act of contemplating regulation, they maintained, would cause widespread chaos in markets around the world.
Born recalls taking a phone call from Lawrence Summers, then Rubin’s top deputy at the Treasury Department, complaining about the proposal, and mentioning that he was taking heat from industry lobbyists. . . . The debate came to a head April 21, 1998. In a Treasury Department meeting of a presidential working group that included Born and the other top regulators, Greenspan and Rubin took turns attempting to change her mind. Rubin took the lead, she recalls.
“I was told by the secretary of the treasury that the CFTC had no jurisdiction, and for that reason and that reason alone, we should not go forward,” Born says. . . . “It seemed totally inexplicable to me,” Born says of the seeming disinterest her counterparts showed in how the markets were operating. “It was as though the other financial regulators were saying, ‘We don’t want to know.’”
She formally launched the proposal on May 7, and within hours, Greenspan, Rubin and Levitt issued a joint statement condemning Born and the CFTC, expressing “grave concern about this action and its possible consequences.” They announced a plan to ask for legislation to stop the CFTC in its tracks.
Rubin, Summers and Greenspan succeeded in inducing Congress — funded, of course, by these same financial firms — to enact legislation blocking the CFTC from regulating these derivative markets. More amazingly still, the CFTC, headed back then by Born, is now headed by Obama appointee Gary Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs executive (naturally) who was as instrumental as anyone in blocking any regulations of those derivative markets (and then enriched himself by feeding on those unregulated markets).
Just think about how this works. People like Rubin, Summers and Gensler shuffle back and forth from the public to the private sector and back again, repeatedly switching places with their GOP counterparts in this endless public/private sector looting. When in government, they ensure that the laws and regulations are written to redound directly to the benefit of a handful of Wall St. firms, literally abolishing all safeguards and allowing them to pillage and steal. Then, when out of government, they return to those very firms and collect millions upon millions of dollars, profits made possible by the laws and regulations they implemented when in government. Then, when their party returns to power, they return back to government, where they continue to use their influence to ensure that the oligarchical circle that rewards them so massively is protected and advanced. This corruption is so tawdry and transparent — and it has fueled and continues to fuel a fraud so enormous and destructive as to be unprecedented in both size and audacity — that it is mystifying that it is not provoking more mass public rage.
All of that leads to things like this, from today’s Washington Post:
The Obama administration is engineering its new bailout initiatives in a way that it believes will allow firms benefiting from the programs to avoid restrictions imposed by Congress, including limits on lavish executive pay, according to government officials. . . .
The administration believes it can sidestep the rules because, in many cases, it has decided not to provide federal aid directly to financial companies, the sources said. Instead, the government has set up special entities that act as middlemen, channeling the bailout funds to the firms and, via this two-step process, stripping away the requirement that the restrictions be imposed, according to officials. . . .
In one program, designed to restart small-business lending, President Obama’s officials are planning to set up a middleman called a special-purpose vehicle — a term made notorious during the Enron scandal — or another type of entity to evade the congressional mandates, sources familiar with the matter said.
If that isn’t illegal, it is as close to it as one can get. And it is a blatant attempt by the White House to brush aside — circumvent and violate — the spirit if not the letter of Congressional restrictions on executive pay for TARP-receiving firms. It was Obama, in the wake of various scandals over profligate spending by TARP firms, who pretended to ride the wave of populist anger and to lead the way in demanding limits on compensation. And ever since his flamboyant announcement, Obama — adopting the same approach that seems to drive him in most other areas — has taken one step after the next to gut and render irrelevant the very compensation limits he publicly pretended to champion (thereafter dishonestly blaming Chris Dodd for doing so and virtually destroying Dodd’s political career). And the winners — as always — are the same Wall St. firms that caused the crisis in the first place while enriching and otherwise co-opting the very individuals Obama chose to be his top financial officials.
Worse still, what is happening here is an exact analog to what is happening in the realm of Bush war crimes — the Obama administration’s first priority is to protect the wrongdoers and criminals by ensuring that the criminality remains secret. Here is how Black explained it last night:
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…
Moyers: What do you mean?
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. . . .
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. . . .
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?
Moyers: You are.
Black: Absolutely, because they are scared to death. . . . 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.
Moyers: Even though Goldman Sachs had a big vested stake.
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.
This is exactly what former IMF Chief Economist Simon Johnson warned about in his vital Atlantic article: “that the finance industry has effectively captured our government — a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises.” This is the key passage where Johnson described the hallmark of how corrupt oligarchies that cause financial crises then attempt to deal with the fallout:
Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or—here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique — the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk—at least until the riots grow too large. . . .
As much as he campaigned against anything, Obama railed against precisely this sort of incestuous, profoundly corrupt control by narrow private interests of the Government, yet he has chosen to empower the very individuals who most embody that corruption. And the results are exactly what one would expect them to be.
The Real AIG Scandal March 18, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
Tags: AIG, AIG bailout, aig bonuses, aig counterparties, aig scandal, bank of america, barclays, bernanke, deutsche bank, eliot spitzer, geithner, Goldman, Goldman Sachs, Henry Paulson, jpmorgan chase, lloyd balnkfein, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, roger hollander, tarp, taxpayers, treasury department, ubs
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The Real AIG ScandalIt’s not the bonuses. It’s that AIG’s counterparties are getting paid back in full.
Posted Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at 10:41 AM ET
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.
Workers Laid Off, Executives Paid Off, Bernard Madoff December 16, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Labor.
Tags: $700 billion bailout, amy goodman, bank of america, Barack Obama, denis moynihan, enron, executive bonuses, George Bush, Goldman Sachs, jobless, labor, labour, Lehman Brothers, madoff, Merrill Lynch, nasdaq, paulson, pelosi, ponzi, pyramid, roger hollander, sec, severnce pay, tarp, taxpayers, treasury, unemployment, Wall Street, workers
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Posted on Dec 16, 2008, www.truthdig.com
By Amy Goodman
The global financial crisis deepens, with more than 10 million in the U.S. out of work, according to the Department of Labor. Unemployment hit 6.7 percent in November. Add the 7.3 million “involuntary part-time workers,” who want to work full time but can’t find such a job. Jobless claims have reached a 26-year high, while 30 states reportedly face potential shortfalls in their unemployment-insurance pools. The stunning failure of regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission was again highlighted, as former NASDAQ head Bernard Madoff (you got it, pronounced “made off”) was arrested for allegedly running the world’s largest criminal pyramid scheme, with losses expected to be $50 billion, dwarfing those from the Enron scandal. The picture is grim—unless, that is, you are a corporate executive.
The $700-billion financial bailout package, TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program), was supposed to mandate the elimination of exorbitant executive compensation and “golden parachutes.” As U.S. taxpayers pony up their hard-earned dollars, highflying executives and corporate boards are now considering whether to give themselves multimillion-dollar bonuses.
According to The Washington Post, the specific language in the TARP law that forbade such payouts was changed at the last minute, with a small but significant one-sentence edit made by the Bush administration. The Post reported, “The change stipulated that the penalty would apply only to firms that received bailout funds by selling troubled assets to the government in an auction.”
Read the fine print. Of the TARP bailout funds to be disbursed, only those that were technically spent “in an auction” would carry limits on executive pay. But Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and his former Goldman Sachs colleague Neel Kashkari (yes, pronounced “cash carry”), who is running the program, aren’t inclined to spend the funds in auctions. They prefer their Capital Purchase Program, handing over cash directly. Recall Paulson’s curriculum vitae: He began as a special assistant to John Ehrlichman in the Nixon White House and then went on to work for a quarter-century at Goldman Sachs, one of the largest recipients of bailout funds and chief competitor to Lehman Brothers, the firm that Paulson let fail.
The Government Accountability Office issued a report on TARP Dec. 10, expressing concerns about the lack of oversight of the companies receiving bailout funds. The report states that “without a strong oversight and monitoring function, Treasury’s ability to ensure an appropriate level of accountability and transparency will be limited.” The nonprofit news organization ProPublica has been tracking the bailout program, reporting details that remain shrouded by the Treasury Department. As of Tuesday, 202 institutions had obtained bailout funds totaling close to $250 billion.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said recently, “The Treasury Department’s implementation of the TARP is insufficiently transparent and is not accountable to American taxpayers.” Barney Frank, D-Mass., chair of the House Financial Services Committee, said earlier, “Use of these funds … for bonuses, for severance pay, for dividends, for acquisitions of other institutions, etc. … is a violation of the terms of the act.”
Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa said of the loophole, “The flimsy executive-compensation restrictions in the original bill are now all but gone.” Put aside for the moment that these three all voted for the legislation. The law clearly needs to be corrected before additional funds are granted.
The sums these titans of Wall Street are walking away with are staggering. In their annual “Executive Excess” report, the groups United for a Fair Economy and the Institute for Policy Studies reported 2007 compensation for Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs (Paulson’s replacement), at $54 million and that of John Thain, CEO of Merrill Lynch, at a whopping $83 million. Merrill has since been sold to Bank of America, after losing more than $11 billion this year—yet Thain still wants a $10-million bonus.
Paulson, Kashkari and their boss, President George W. Bush, might not be the best people to spend the next $350-billion tranche of U.S. taxpayer money, with just weeks to go before the new Congress convenes Jan. 6 and Barack Obama assumes the presidency Jan. 20. As Watergate leaker Deep Throat was said to have told Bob Woodward, back when Paulson was just starting out, “Follow the money.” The U.S. populace, its representatives in Congress and the new Obama administration need to follow the money, close the executive-pay loophole and demand accountability from the banks that the public has bailed out.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 700 stations in North America.
© 2008 Amy Goodman
Distributed by King Features Syndicate
For Whom the Bailout Tolls October 25, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
Tags: $700 million Wall Street bailout, AIG, Andrew Cuomo, bailout, bank CEOs, Bear Stearns, Ben Bernanke, delinquencies, Economic Crisis, executive pay, Federal Reserve, Federal Reserve Chairman, foreclosures, Goldman Sachs, Henry Paulson, job losses, John Kenneth Galbraith, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, roger hollander, stock market crash 1929, Wall Street Bankers, Wall Street brokers
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Saturday 25 October 2008
by: Michael Winship, t r u t h o u t | Perspective
During the Stock Market Crash in 1929, that curtain-raising overture to the Great Depression, stories abounded of Wall Street brokers rushing to their office windows and leaping to their deaths. But according to the late John Kenneth Galbraith and other economic historians, those accounts of suicide were, by and large, fairy tales. Perhaps they were more dark-hearted, wishful thinking than reality – revenge fantasies on the part of those whose real life savings had been wiped out by ravenous speculators.
Nonetheless, the myth of those fatal plunges, like so many urban legends, is hard to shake. With more than a drop of cold blood, some have asked why, during this current fiscal crisis, we haven’t seen similar tragedies in the ranks of high finance.
A close look at the recent government bailouts may explain why. The fat cats at the top had nothing to worry their pretty little whiskers about. Not only have most of their businesses been saved, for now at least, but they’ve already been pretty successful at protecting their high-rolling lifestyles, and finding bailout loopholes that allow them to keep hauling in the big bucks. To that ancient business axiom, “Buy low, sell high,” add this amendment: When you get into trouble, beg for a bailout. Then, new money in hand, continue to act with the rapacious greed of Caligula or the Sun King.
You may already have heard how AIG, the insurance giant, after being saved to the tune of $85 billion, threw a $440,000 shindig at a California spa and then blew another $86,000 on a hunting trip to the English countryside, picking off partridges just as they were asking the Feds for an additional $38 billion. Bit of a sticky wicket, that.
Caught red-handed, AIG canceled plans for another 160 sales and promotion events that would have cost a cool $80 million AND – get this – agreed to stop spending millions of their newly gained tax dollars on lobbying efforts against increased government regulations – this after being rescued from extinction by that very same government. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you! New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is demanding that AIG get back from its execs millions of dollars the insurer paid out as the company neared collapse, and on Wednesday, the insurance giant agreed to freeze $600 million worth of deferred compensation and bonuses for its top brass.
There are “claw back” provisions in the big $700 billion bailout passed by Congress three weeks ago, requiring that financial institutions get money back from their senior executives, if the payments were “based on statements of earnings, gains, or other criteria that are later proven to be materially inaccurate.”
But the executive pay limits in the legislation apparently have so many loopholes you could fly a fleet of Gulfstream corporate jets through them. Oregon Congressman Peter de Fazio caught at least seven, “that will protect their outrageous paychecks and golden parachutes,” he wrote fellow Democratic House members, adding, “Imagine how many more loopholes the Wall Street lawyers will find.”
No doubt the nine banks into which the US is planning to inject billions in capital – again, all taxpayer dollars – have their lawyers searching for those escape hatches. Writing in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Sarah Anderson and Sam Pizzigati of the Institute for Policy Studies calculated that last year the CEO’s of those nine banks took home “on average, $32.2 million each, nearly triple the average CEO pay at the 500 biggest US companies. This is more than $600,000 a week.” Apiece.
Bloomberg News columnist Jonathan Weil figures that since the start of fiscal 2004, the once Mighty Five of Wall Street – Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns – lost around $83 billion in stock market value. But they reported employee compensation of around $239 billion. In other words, the engineers who dug this disastrous hole paid themselves almost three dollars for every dollar they lost.
The cost to the taxpayer of all the bailouts, as calculated by the internet investigative newsroom ProPublica.org, is a whopping $8,750 per household, more than two and a half times what lucky us got to fork over 20 years ago during the savings and loan crisis.
But the masters of the universe are just fine, thank you, in no small part due to the tolerance and largesse of their guru, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, late of Goldman Sachs, where Forbes magazine reports that during a 32-year-career he accumulated more than $700 million. He said limiting compensation too punitively might prevent some institutions from participating in his plan to save the economy.
No, the people suffering are the nearly 800,000 out of work so far this year. More families with children are homeless. Delinquencies and foreclosures are at their highest in nearly three decades, and The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month that, “Worries about home foreclosures, job losses and plunging stock prices have sparked a surge in mental health problems.”
Including suicide. In California recently, where professionals say mental health referrals have tripled in the last year, unemployed financial adviser Karthik Rajaram killed himself and four members of his family, including his wife, children and mother-in-law. In two suicide notes, he said he was broke and had run out of options. Variations of his story are appearing all over the country, from Colorado to Tennessee.
There are some happier stories. Tom Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, suspended all foreclosure evictions because they were throwing into the street tenants of buildings who had nothing to do with their landlords’ inability to make payments. Jocelyn Voltaire, an immigrant from Haiti, was about to lose her home after the death of her eldest son, a Marine in Iraq who had been sending her money to help meet the mortgage.
After seeing a report produced by the American News Project, members of the antiwar group CodePink raised $30,000 to save Voltaire’s house.
Testifying before the House Budget Committee this week, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke agreed that homeowners in jeopardy of foreclosure need help. “I agree that stopping preventable foreclosures is extremely important,” he said. “I hope we continue to look for ways to do that.”
But so far the government and the businesses bailed out haven’t looked very hard. They’ve done little or nothing and it’s every man for himself, devil take the hindmost. In his history of the 1929 market crash, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, “The sense of responsibility in the financial community for the community as a whole is not small. It is nearly nil.”
In other words, virtually nonexistent, somewhere around zero. In other words, my fellow Americans, look out below. Do not ask for whom the bailout tolls. It tolls for thee.