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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!

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Written by pavanvan

April 29, 2010 at 1:00 pm

The “Too Big To Fail” Problem

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(c/o Ezra)

David Min over at Center for American Progress has one of the clearest and most concise explanations of our current banking system I’ve seen so far. And he’s honest enough to mention that the only true solution to our “too big to fails” is to nationalize them and break them up. This is a must-read article:

To address this problem, we first need to define “too big too fail” and how the problem can implode our financial system. “Too big to fail” is best understood as a bank panic problem, and has arisen as the result of two developments in the global financial markets over the past several decades. The first development was the tremendous growth of a “shadow banking system” operating outside of the rules that have governed depository banking since the Great Depression. This shadow banking system essentially performed the same functions as banking—attracting short-term investments and using them to finance long-term loans—but did so through the use of entities that were not depository banks, and the use of financing instruments (such as mortgage-backed securities, commercial paper, or short-term repurchase agreements) that were not deposits. Because of this nonbank, nondepository structure, the shadow banking system, which grew to an estimated $10 trillion in size, fell outside the rules and protections of the regulated banking system.

The second development was the concentration of risk within the shadow banking system, such that a small number of financial firms were and are responsible for the vast majority of its liabilities. Before the 2008 crash, the five major U.S. investment banks had a combined balance sheet size of approximately $4 trillion, and this may have understated the true level of liabilities they were holding. Witness the recent revelations about failed Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers, which raises questions about the extent to which shadow banks offloaded balance sheet risk through the use of dodgy transactions.

Good stuff.

Written by pavanvan

March 25, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Greece to Get $41 Billion Bailout

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The Wall Street Journal reports today that Greece will get a $41 Billion “financing” package from Germany and France, who, I hasten to point out, aren’t exactly swimming in liquidity themselves.

The plan seems to be that Germany and France will soak up some of this Greek debt via public markets and state-owned banks, due to a EU bylaw that prohibits member states from owning the debt of other members. What’s astounding to me is that no one is asking Wall Street to pony up any of this cash. They, after all, are almost entirely responsible for this Greek debt crisis, and they made hundreds of millions of dollars watching Greece go down in flames.

Goldman Sachs alone, who was arguably the single biggest catalyst for Greece’s downward spiral, paid out more than $21 Billion in sheer bonuses to its employees. AIG, another  major player in this, paid out more than $100 million. I mean, shouldn’t some of this money go toward cleaning up the mess they caused? The Times printed an excellent series of articles on Wall Street’s complicity in this just one week ago.

Javier Hernandez  even reported that major bank shares swung upward on rumors of a pending EU Bailout to Greece. So they’re blatantly profiting from their crimes. I mean, how is this legal?

Oh yeah, I keep forgetting. The banks own Congress. They make the laws.

Written by pavanvan

February 28, 2010 at 2:34 pm

AIG Deja Vu

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Well, it’s that time of year again: the snow has fallen, the air bitter cold, and AIG decides to award its criminal executives hundreds of millions of dollars in “bonuses”. But wait, haven’t we seen this before? I seem to remember a huge uproar about this sometime last year… hang on – let me check the interwebs…

Okay I found it! It’s a March 15, 2009 Times article entitled “AIG Planning Huge Bonuses after $170 Billion Bailout.” Yeah, now I remember. It was really a big deal back then – there were hearings, emotional speeches, widely publicized resignations – it even came out that AIG owed Goldman Sachs a lot of money, and that much of the AIG bailout really went to GS.  In the end, AIG said it was sorry and it would never do it again.

Well, I guess they must think we’re stupid or something, because it’s a year later and they’re doing the exact same thing again. Okay well, maybe not the exact same thing – last years’ bonuses added up to $170 million – this year they’re cutting back and only handing out a paltry $100 million.

But lets look at some of the similarities:

March, 2009:

The senior government official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the administration was outraged. “It is unacceptable for Wall Street firms receiving government assistance to hand out million-dollar bonuses, while hard-working Americans bear the burden of this economic crisis,” the official said.

February, 2010:

“A.I.G. has taxpayers over a barrel,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, in a statement on Tuesday night. “The Obama administration has been outmaneuvered. And the closed-door negotiations just add to the skepticism that the taxpayers will ever get the upper hand.”

March, 2009:

The second group of bonuses covers some 2008 retention payments from contracts entered into before government involvement in A.I.G. Indeed, in his letter to Mr. Geithner, Mr. Liddy wrote that he had shown the details of the $450 million bonus pool to outside lawyers and been told that A.I.G. had no choice but to follow through with the payment schedule.

February, 2010:

The holdouts seem determined to make A.I.G. pay the full contractual amounts, knowing they can make a reasonably good case under law, because A.I.G.’s own lawyers have previously issued an opinion that the contracts are binding. If they succeed, A.I.G. would have to pay them more money at some point in the future, and might even have to pay penalties for breaking its employment contracts.

Huh.  Well, at least they’ve paid back some of the taxpayer money, right?

March, 2009:

The American International Group, which has received more than $170 billion in taxpayer bailout money from the Treasury and Federal Reserve…

February, 2010:

The government has extended roughly $182 billion in total to A.I.G. It is selling some of its units to help repay the debt.

D’oh!

Written by pavanvan

February 3, 2010 at 10:04 am

The State of the Union: An Annotated Response

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One year into his prophesied presidency, Mr. Obama addressed the nation on the issues he thinks plague it the most. The speech was 5 parts economy, two parts health care, one part budget, and a few throwaway references to “national security” and Haiti thrown in as well (for spice). Unsurprisingly, the speech was a hit with the mainstream commentariat. The inimitable Joe Klein seemed to think this was “Obama at his best“; Yglesias, of course, thought it was “just great”; and Greg Sargent praised its “mix of charm and good humor”. As we all know, the main things our belaguered republic lacks at this juncture are “charm” (and/or) “good humor”.

I guess nobody took notes on what Mr. Obama said, as the reactions I’ve seen are based on qualitative nonsense (“How did he look? Was he friendly? Did he get the Republicans’ goat?”) A shame, because a close reading of the text of the speech reveals evasions, inconsistencies, and, at times, willful manipulation of data. Let’s dive in, shall we?

As Mr. Obama said early on, “It begins with the economy”.

Our most urgent task upon taking office was to shore up the same banks that helped cause this crisis. It was not easy to do. And if there’s one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, and everybody in between, it’s that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it — (applause.) I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal. (Laughter.)

So I supported the last administration’s efforts to create the financial rescue program. And when we took that program over, we made it more transparent and more accountable. And as a result, the markets are now stabilized, and we’ve recovered most of the money we spent on the banks. (Applause.) Most but not all.

To recover the rest, I’ve proposed a fee on the biggest banks. (Applause.) Now, I know Wall Street isn’t keen on this idea. But if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need. (Applause.)

Did you really hate it so much, Mr. Obama? I mean, the largest contributors to your campaign were financial institutions, and they certainly didn’t hate it. And your Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, was practically appointed by Goldman Sachs, and went on to distribute trillions of untraceable dollars to unknown banks. He certainly didn’t hate it. Especially when your read about how Geithner willfully colluded with AIG to defraud the taxpayers of billions, it just seems like you’re making up all this populist “oh I hated it but it had to be done” nonsense ex post facto.

You’re well aware that the largest banks consider your so-called “bank fee” a joke, and that the $90 billion you plan to extract from them doesn’t cover 1/100th of the total money their malfeasance lost our economy. Also, paying back the government was stipulated in the TARP to begin with. When the banks accepted the money back in September ’08, they did so with the knowledge that they’d eventually have to pay it back. So all this “fee” does is force the banks to uphold the contract they already signed.

Moreover, you are well aware what $90 Billion won’t even cover the current outstanding bank debt. As Propublica reports, the net outstanding in the TARP program is $316 Billion. Not $90 Billion.

Concerning the “Recovery Act”:

The plan that has made all of this possible, from the tax cuts to the jobs, is the Recovery Act. (Applause.) That’s right -– the Recovery Act, also known as the stimulus bill. (Applause.) Economists on the left and the right say this bill has helped save jobs and avert disaster. But you don’t have to take their word for it.

Talk to the small business in Phoenix that will triple its workforce because of the Recovery Act.Talk to the window manufacturer in Philadelphia who said he used to be skeptical about the Recovery Act, until he had to add two more work shifts just because of the business it created. Talk to the single teacher raising two kids who was told by her principal in the last week of school that because of the Recovery Act, she wouldn’t be laid off after all.

Or you can talk to this guy, who got a $24 million stimulus award after numerous accusations of bribery. Or you could talk to this crumbling school district unable to access its stimulus funds for “bureaucratic red tape”. Or, again, these six companies, currently under criminal investigation, who nevertheless received $30 million from your free money giveaway. As Mr. Obama says in his speech,

There are stories like this all across America.

Right.

But what about clean energy? Well, he’s glad you asked:

But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. (Applause.) It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. (Applause.) It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. (Applause.) And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America. (Applause.)

You clearly aren’t a scientist, Mr. Obama, because those suggestions don’t make a lick of sense. As I’m sure you’re aware, no nuclear plant has ever been built on time or on budget. Ever. “Breeder Reactors” are still an experimental technology, and there is no safe way to dispose of the waste current reactors produce. What should we do with “zombie reactors” – those crumbling ’70s-era nuclear plants we can’t find the budget to inspect? They constantly break down, and constitute a major public health risk.  Shouldn’t we do something about those, first? Oh yeah, “Spending Freeze”. Well, I guess we can do like the French and just dump our N-waste in Russia.

As for “Clean Coal”, your colleague Al Gore called that a “lie” months ago. There is no such thing as clean coal. You know it and I know it. But, as you and the coal lobby so fervently hope, the American public doesn’t know it. And let’s not even mention the world food crisis your vaunted “advanced biofuels” had a hand in creating. Or the massive deforestation now going on in Brazil and Indonesia to meet our “advanced biofuels” demand. That technology is wasteful, inefficient, and impracticable. Europe would have to use 70% of its landmass exclusively for biofuel crops in order to meet its energy demands. America doesn’t even have enough landmass to grow enough biofuels to meet its demands. And never mind that the distillation of biofuels requires orders of magnitude more energy than we get from them.

We move on to Health Care:

After nearly a century of trying — Democratic administrations, Republican administrations — we are closer than ever to bringing more security to the lives of so many Americans. The approach we’ve taken would protect every American from the worst practices of the insurance industry. It would give small businesses and uninsured Americans a chance to choose an affordable health care plan in a competitive market. It would require every insurance plan to cover preventive care.

It would also require every American to purchase health insurance, whether they want it or not (indeed, whether or not they can afford it) – but that’s not a popular aspect of the bill, so we better not mention that. In fact, given your recent defeat in Massachusetts, it’s probably better we move on altogether.

So now let’s talk about… the deficit!

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. (Applause.) Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. (Applause.)

So your plan is to cut everything but the three biggest contributors to the deficit? How is that a good idea? And is “national security” really something we “need” at this point? You are aware, I’m sure, that we spend on the order of $1 trillion per year prosecuting our misbegotten murder rampages in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and whomever else wish to inflict misery upon.This spending benefits no one, and it demonstrably makes us less safe. You think that might be something we would “cut” if we were trying to save money. I really can’t stress this point enough. We spend the equivalent of South Korea’s GDP murdering Arabs. This is completely baffling to me. Would a “cash-strapped family” really refuse to “sacrifice” its largest and most wasteful expenditure that also happens to actively harm it?

But it’s not just a “deficit of dollars” – it’s also a deficit of… trust. Getting that trust surplus back is what Mr. Obama came to Washington, apparently, to do.

That’s what I came to Washington to do. That’s why -– for the first time in history –- my administration posts on our White House visitors online. That’s why we’ve excluded lobbyists from policymaking jobs, or seats on federal boards and commissions.

But we can’t stop there. It’s time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my administration or with Congress. It’s time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office.

Actually, that bolded statement turned out not to be true. When you said “we have excluded lobbyists”, you might have added, “except for the ones I personally approve of.” You know you’ve given waivers to several former lobbyists to work for your administration. Why lie about it? Oh yeah, you’re doing the populist thing. But it kind of detracts from the whole “honesty” message if you have to lie while you’re making it.

So then while he’s on a roll, Mr. Obama attacks the Supreme Court bribery decision, even though the idea that “campaign donations are free speech” was a major reason why he got elected.

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections. (Applause.) I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. (Applause.) They should be decided by the American people.

Is this some kind of joke? You raised $680,000,000 in the most expensive presidential campaign ever. You took money from every major financial institution, including some of the biggest beneficiaries of the Geithner-Bernanke giveaway. I’m really at a loss for words here.

Finally we come to the part about terrorism. I think he’s almost done.

Since the day I took office, we’ve renewed our focus on the terrorists who threaten our nation. We’ve made substantial investments in our homeland security and disrupted plots that threatened to take American lives. We are filling unacceptable gaps revealed by the failed Christmas attack, with better airline security and swifter action on our intelligence. We’ve prohibited torture and strengthened partnerships from the Pacific to South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula. And in the last year, hundreds of al Qaeda’s fighters and affiliates, including many senior leaders, have been captured or killed — far more than in 2008.

No you haven’t. Well, maybe you have, but – wink! – we’ll never know, right? The “black site” at Bagram air base is expanding; Guantanamo hasn’t closed; you believe in extra-legal kidnapping and assassinations (even of American citizens!) And given that you refuse to prosecute Bush-era torturers, even though their actions constitute high crime under the Geneva Conventions, the Nuremberg Code, and our own World War II legal precedent, it’s hard to believe you’re really against torture. Oh, and by the way, I know of a massive plot to take American lives. In fact, it’s killed more than 5,000 Americans already, almost twice as many as 9/11 did. Do you know what it is?

Aaaaand that about does it. A few more references to the “heroic” American response to Haiti (our decidedly ‘un-heroic’ IMF loansharking, of course, went unmentioned), a throwaway reference to some random lady who says “we are tough, we are American”, one last “God Bless America!”, and we’re clear! Another logically inconsistent, factually dubious, rabble-rousing excuse of abuse that managed to tell us nothing. Congratulations, Mr. Obama.

AIG Timeline

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Bloomberg has a fantastic timeline of the fortunes and despairs our favorite International Group has suffered and celebrated over the past two years. This will be very useful for anyone still confused about how AIG ended up with trillions of taxpayer dollars (read: everyone)

Written by pavanvan

January 23, 2010 at 11:39 am

Reinstate Glass-Stegall!

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I mentioned this before, but I really want to stress that “financial reform” is completely meaningless without reinstating the Glass-Stegall Act. Enacted in 1933 and foolishly repealed in 1999, Glass-Stegall drew a firm line between commercial and investment banks and prohibited the “securitization” that lay at the heart of this crisis. Previously, “commercial” banks – ones in which you deposit your paycheck and which might later loan you money for a house or car – were completely separate entities from “investment” banks – ones that invest your money in whatever way they see fit. Commercial banks were low risk, low rate-of-return, while investment banks carried a higher risk, but with more earning potential. When current Economic Council Director Larry Summers chose to repeal Glass-Stegall back in 1999, he abolished the distinction between commercial and investment banks, allowing erstwhile “safe” organizations to make wildly irresponsible bets and grow so intertwined that they eventually brought the whole system down. Repealing Glass-Stegall created the “Too Big to Fail” banks.

The famous Elizabeth Warren, Paul Vlocker, and even John McCain (whose chief adviser’s name is on the G-S repeal) have come out in favor of reinstating Glass-Stegall. All the “too big to fail” banks are now even bigger, and this is largely because legislation which was traditionally used to keep them from conglomerating was idiotically repealed. This is the biggest one thing Congress can do right now to prevent the need of a future bailout. It would be so easy – they could do it tomorrow! The legislation is already written; all they have to do is sign it.

Sens. John McCain and Maria Cantwell have done a great service by recently proposing a Glass-Stegall reinstatement in the senate last month, but the bill doesn’t seem to have much support. This is totally baffling to me. The only reason I can think why the Senate wouldn’t do this right now is the massive donations they would have to sacrifice. Predictably, all the financial institutions, from Bank of America to Goldman Sachs, are vehemently against Glass-Stegall, as it would require them to break up, and likely diminish their ludicrous profits. Hence in the Bloomberg article you can hear Senators conceding that the bill “makes a lot of sense”, but “[they] don’t know if it’ll ever happen.” Uh…

The toll-free numbers for the Congressional switchboard are: 1-877-851-6437, 1-800-828-0498, or 1-800-614-2803. I think this is one issue where calling your congressman could conceivably sway them. Congress bows to the financial industry only insofar as its money can help them get elected. Public outcry can influence our legislators on legislation as specific as this. Remember, the TARP bailout originally failed in the House because their switchboards lit up with calls from angry voters.