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Sanders Pushes for Fed Audit

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It’s about time.

Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) is pushing an amendment to the financial overhaul bill before the Senate that would broaden the Government Accountability Office’s power to audit the Fed and compel the central bank to disclose details about the firms that received emergency federal aid during the financial crisis.

Of course, the Obama White House is looking to kill the amendment. Surprise!


Written by pavanvan

May 4, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Posted in Economy

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SEC Ignored Fraud, Watched Porn

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I know I’m somewhat late to the party on this one, but I wanted to point out to anyone who wasn’t aware that senior members of the Securities and Exchange Commission, our main regulatory body, watched hours of pornography per day, while on the job. This peak porn usage occurred during 2007-2008, at the height of our banks’ financial fraud.

From ComputerWorld, of all places:

Seventeen investigations involved senior SEC staffers earning between $100,000 and $222,000 annually. In many cases, the Kotz’s office obtained on-the-record admissions from the employees involved, though the report does not say how, or even whether, the employees were disciplined.

Kotz’s report lists several instances where SEC employees spent several hours daily on porn. One such case involved a senior attorney at the SEC’s Washington headquarters who sometimes spent eight hours a day surfing pornographic sites and downloading explicit images. The attorney apparently downloaded so much porn that he filled up all the available space on his government-issued computer. He then downloaded more images onto personal CDs and DVDs, which he stored in boxes in his office.

Enjoy the rest of your day.

Written by pavanvan

April 30, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Posted in Economy

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Mendacious Commercials Against Financial Regulation

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Annie Lowrey over at The Washington Independent has a nice post deconstructing  the latest series of advertisments attacking the financial regulation bill now being debated in the Senate.

I admit I hadn’t seen this lovely bit of propaganda until she drew my attention to it, and it’s interesting to examine the claims it makes. The first rule of propaganda is to attribute to your enemy your own actions and intentions. Thus, the commercial rather cleverly accuses the Senate of setting up an apparatus for “unlimited bailout authority”, and, astoundingly, claims that “Goldman Sachs is in favor of the bill”.

Neither of these statements is true, of course, but the implications go deeper than that. As TPM revealed earlier this week, the sponsors of the ad, a front-organization calling themselves “Stop Too Big to Fail”, are funded entirely by corporate dollars, including, yes, Goldman Sachs. This attempt to dust up public anger against the financial reform bill indicates Wall Street’s fear of it, and their willingness to tell any lie in order to see that the reform bill doesn’t pass.

Not that they really have that much to worry about. As George Washington remarks, the reform bill currently being debated is “All Holes and No Cheese“, noting that:

Dodd’s bill:

What it will do, however, is set up new protections for consumers, specifically to protect them from predatory lending practices, overdraft fees, byzantine contracts that require a Ph.D to understand, etc. The bill will also (hopefully) enact some barriers to the trade of over-the-counter (unregulated) derivatives, those delightful instruments that got us into this crisis.

As with the health care bill, I feel really ambivalent about this.

On one hand, the Dodd bill does almost nothing to prevent too-big-to-fail, it proposes some watered-down reform on derivatives trading, it doesn’t reduce the size or power of our mega-conglomerate banks, it doesn’t reinstate Glass-Stegall, and it does nothing to rein in the frankly absurd amounts of cash the bank executives make, whether or not they happen to crash the economy

On the other hand, this bill does provide some new consumer protection services, it bans proprietary trading (whatever that is), and it does create a new regulatory body whose specific charge is to watch over our mega-banks (as opposed to the SEC, which has a universal mandate).

Is this good enough? Can we do better? With the flood of Wall Street money flowing into campaign coffers, and with the November election only 6 months away, I’m inclined to say no. Maybe we should take what we can get. And keeping in mind that, unlike the health-care bill which had full industry support, the Dodd bill is being opposed by nearly every major bank, maybe it isn’t so bad after all. If the banks are against it, there must be something good inside this bill.

Update: Also see Nomi Prins’ article in Alternet entitled “Ten Ways The Dodd Bill is Failing on Financial Reform“:

It won’t constrain the Fed’s future bailout operations. It appears to limit the Fed’s ability to lend money freely to firms in trouble by “allowing” its system-wide support only for healthy institutions or systemically important market utilities. But what’s to stop the Fed from designating any company a “systemically important market utility”? That was basically the rationale behind the AIG bailout.

Update II: It’s also important to keep in mind that Chris Dodd, the bill’s sponsor, is heavily funded by some of the most odious Wall Street titans, including Citigroup (who gave him $110,000 this cycle), AIG ($87,000), Merrill Lynch ($61,650), Morgan Stanley ($44,000), and JP Morgan ($37,000). Hooray for transparency!

Written by pavanvan

April 29, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Goldman Slimeball Hearing

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Well, the big Goldman Sachs hearing just wrapped up 10 hours of grueling testimony, and I’m still reeling from the stupendous prevarications their executives offered. The financial bloggers were out in full form today with some great live-blogs here, here and here. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this as the hearings progress, and I’d love to see how Goldman will justify its fraudulent deals with AIG once the Senate gets around to asking about them; but until then, a couple comments:

1) I really have to hand it to Sen. Carl Levin for his rigorous and adversarial line of questioning. Watching him tear these executives apart for knowingly engaging in outright fraud is gratifying, though of course some jail time for these executives would be even more so. Watch this video for the money shot (as it were).

2) I was really astounded by the total lack of contrition these executives showed. They defrauded investors to the tune of $500 million (at least) by selling them bonds which they knew were worthless and then betting against those bonds. The basic refrain from all these executives, particularly Mr. Sparks, was that “these bonds were traded on the open market and at market values” – but of course that’s an entirely spurious argument because Goldman was withholding valuable information from their clients (that the bonds were worthless). Amazingly, the Goldman executives don’t seem to think they were doing anything wrong! Fraud is totally acceptable in their world, just so long as it makes them money. Just don’t buy a used car from them – they’d probably sell you a death-trap and then take out car insurance and life insurance on you.

Before I get too gushy on Senator Levin, I should hasten to remind my readers that he voted for the Financial Services Modernization Act back in 1999 – the same act that allowed Goldman Sachs to trade unregulated (“over-the-counter”) derivatives. Without the FSMA, the sort of fraud Goldman engaged in would have been impossible, and any attempt to prevent this sort of behavior in the future is meaningless without repealing the FSMA. Needless to say such a repeal is not even being discussed.

Watching the hearings today gave me a strange, other-worldly feeling. Some of the same senators who took major campaign donations from Goldman Sachs were sitting there and grilling these executives.  A cynical observer might have gotten the impression that this was all a bit of political theater designed to soothe the public’s anger, which by all accounts is badly in need of catharsis. Certainly when one remembers that the very behavior for which Goldman is now being indicted was standard practice for nearly all of the major banks, it seems strange that the Senate should decide to focus all of its ire on Goldman. But then again, they are, after all, the most visible symbol of Wall Street insanity.

Written by pavanvan

April 27, 2010 at 11:21 pm

Posted in Economy

Tagged with , , , ,

Fraud Didn’t End With Goldman Sachs

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Hats off to ProPublica for their phenomenal follow-ups to the SEC case against Goldman Sachs, and for revealing that what might have been a genuine move against corruption now merely seems like a politically motivated slap on the wrist, a show-trial, essentially, where big bad Goldman Sachs gets forced to pay a pittance of a fine and the rest of their compatriots who indulged in the exact same practices go off scot-free. Let’s not forget that they paid only 1% of their 2009 profits in taxes, so whatever restitution the SEC squeezes out of them won’t begin to cover their debt to the US Government.

For those of you who haven’t been following the byzantine hearings regarding the Goldman case, with their alphabet soup of acronyms and stern avocations from our media that these are “complex financial instruments” we’re dealing with – well, who can blame you? But the gist of the case is relatively easy to follow, and while Goldman may have been a particularly egregious offender, almost every investment bank bigger than a mom-and-pop outfit traded in Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), the “complex instruments” that lie at the center of this case. Earlier this month ProPublica ran an extensive look at Magnetar, a hedge fund that traded exclusively in CDOs, and just a few days ago it revealed that Merril Lynch engaged in identical practices to the ones that got Goldman Sachs sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

CDOs are basically a bet that a given asset will perform well or perform poorly. In the Goldman Sachs case, Goldman put together securities (assets) that it knew would fail (the SEC hopes to show that a Goldman trader specifically picked the components of the securities for their especial toxicity), sold those securities to gullible investors, then secretly took out a collateralized debt obligation against that same security, betting, in essence, that its value would go to zero, which of course they knew would happen because they picked it specifically to do so. When, sure enough, the security did become worthless, Goldman hit paydirt.

This is called fraud, and it’s a pretty grievous sin in the world of finance (at least it was, once upon a time). So on one hand, it’s absolutely just for Goldman Sachs to come under the SEC’s gun, get its reputation tarnished a bit, and, with luck, get a few of its executives fired, where they can live the rest of their days in their Park Avenue penthouses, counting their ill-gotten gains. But on the other hand, what is the use of this symbolic prosecution if it doesn’t engender a shift in practices from the financial community?

The case of John Paulson and Goldman Sachs identified in the SEC indictment was neither the biggest nor the most blatant case of securities fraud during the run-up to the crisis. For the SEC to suddenly regain its regulatory muscle, and for them to focus on this one case to the exclusion of all else stinks of politics. President Obama’s approval ratings are dropping fast, and prior to this there had been no prosecutions of financial fraud at all. I could easily see President Obama instructing the SEC to move forward on the Goldman case so he could have something to show by November, especially since Goldman is the most visible and most reviled of all the Wall Street slimeball firms.

Finally, this case brings to light just how important the financial reform being discussed in the Senate is to prevent future such fraud. Currently most of the discussion seems to center around the politically popular “consumer protection”, but while overdraft fees and adjustable rate mortgages were pernicious side effects of the crisis, the real engine behind the financial meltdown was the widespread sale of over-the-counter (unregulated) derivatives like the CDOs mentioned in this case.

“Financial Reform” means nothing if not the outright ban of derivatives trading – or failing that, the erection of a structured derivatives exchange where fraudulent trades like the Goldman Sachs deal would be visible to the public and to investors. Without that, we’re literally back where we started.

Written by pavanvan

April 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm

SEC sues Goldman

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Written by pavanvan

April 17, 2010 at 1:11 am

Posted in Economy

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Blanche Lincoln Stands Up Against OTC Derivatives

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(Via Felix Salmon)

I’ve written negatively about Senator Blanche Lincoln in the past for her vote in favor of the Iraq War, her frightening views on indefinite detention and torture, her support of warrentless surveillance, and a host of other sins, but I think she deserves major credit for introducing a bill earlier this week that would ban over the counter derivatives:

“Speculators will not be exempted and all trades will be reported to regulators and the public,” Mrs. Lincoln wrote. In addition, any agency that is used for the trading of swaps contracts, including those dealing with energy commodities, will be required to register with the C.F.T.C.

This is exactly the kind of transparency and oversight that could have prevented the crisis, or at least made it softer. I want to stress that the layers upon layers of new regulation that Timothy Geithner intends to add (and which I discussed in the post immediately before this one), will not do anything for public transparency.

Blanche, you’ve voted for some pretty bad things in the past, but this is a bill I can get behind.

Written by pavanvan

April 16, 2010 at 8:50 pm