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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

Geithner Turns Halfway Around on Derivatives Regulation

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Via Bloomberg, it looks like the Treasury Secretary has backed off on his previous stance that the derivatives market (which got us into this mess) does not need to be regulated. Today he says:

Geithner said the over-the-counter derivatives market should be subject to “substantial supervision and regulation,” while omitting support for the provision that would force banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp. to wall off trading operations from their commercial banks.

The Obama administration requires that all over-the- counter derivatives dealers and “major market participants” be subject to “conservative capital requirements, conservative margin requirements and strong business conduct standards,” Geithner said.

There is some very tricky parsing of words here that will probably escape most peoples’ attention.

One of the major factors in the credit freeze of 2008 was the widespread proliferation of so-called “over-the-counter” derivatives, which are debt obligations that were traded secretly between banks. Unlike the mortgage industry or the credit card industry, derivatives were largely unregulated and are not traded on an exchange. Thus, banks can package and sell derivatives to one another “over the counter” – that is, without any public record of the transaction having taken place. This became a serious concern in 2008 when Lehman Bros. failed; because the derivatives market was undisclosed, no bank knew how many assets the other banks had, or if the assets they did have were worthless. As such, lending between banks froze overnight – no one knew who was solvent and who was underwater.

Many have taken this as evidence that OTC derivatives are inherently dangerous and should be banned. This could be done by outlawing all asset-backed derivatives (like the mortgage securities that got us into this mess to begin with), or by simply mandating that derivatives be traded on an open, transparent exchange. Thus, they would cease to be “over the counter”. Geithner’s recent comments, while they sound impressive, make a derivatives exchange highly unlikely, and actually point to an extension of the policies that caused the 2008 crisis.

“Substantial supervision and regulation” can fail. While the OTC derivatives had been the subject of a massive push for deregulation, the problem was that even if there were regulators to look at the books, the instruments had become too complex for them to decipher. Simply adding another layer of regulation won’t change the underlying problem, which is that these instruments are basically impervious to regulation unless traded on a transparent exchange, something Mr. Geithner apparently does not support.

Similarly, the “provision that would force banks to wall off trading operations from their commercial banks” refers to the infamous Glass-Stegall Act of 1934, the repeal of which in 1999  Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz gives an “especial role” in causing the 2008 crisis. I’ve written on Glass-Stegall in the past, and I don’t wish to repeat myself, but I should stress that so long as Lawrence Summers, the architect of the bill that repealed Glass-Stegall (and thus, a major architect of the crisis) stays in place, there is little hope of reducing the size of our Too-Big-To-Fails. Needless to say, Mr. Geithner is not even considering reinstating Glass-Stegall.

So basically, Timothy Geithner’s big plan to rein-in derivatives trading gives only a minor face-lift to the status quo. He’ll slap on a few regulatory outfits and say he’s done the job. Meanwhile, our Too-Big-To-Fail banks are getting even bigger, over-the-counter derivatives are still legal, and there won’t be any meaningful punitive action towards the banks that caused this crisis. The severe risks to the system remain.

Written by pavanvan

April 16, 2010 at 8:03 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

Six Largest US Banks Own 63 Percent of GDP

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A startling statistic buried within an outstanding New Republic article:

As a result of the crisis and various government rescue efforts, the largest six banks in our economy now have total assets in excess of 63 percent of GDP (based on the latest available data). This is a significant increase from even 2006, when the same banks’ assets were around 55 percent of GDP, and a complete transformation compared with the situation in the United States just 15 years ago, when the six largest banks had combined assets of only around 17 percent of GDP. If the status quo persists, we are set up for another round of the boom-bailout-bust cycle that the head of financial stability at the Bank of England now terms a “doom loop.”

Good god. I knew that these banks were big, but I had no idea they were this big. The New Republic devotes the rest of its article to explaining why Obama’s bank regulations are (surprise!) a sham. But then, we should have already known that. When Treasury Secretary Geithner appeared on Newshour a few days ago, he baldly stated that these new regulatory rules “will not include breaking up the banks“. Forgive me, but what is the point of “regulation” if our banks are allowed to keep their “too big to fail” status and continue to engage in the same practices that brought down our economy in 2008? The so-called Volcker rules do nothing to stymie the relationship between Wall Street and Washington, they do nothing to prevent banks from over-leveraging (as they had during the run-up to the crisis), they allow the banks to retain their gargantuan size… so what were the Volcker rules supposed to do again? Oh yeah, it bans “proprietary trading”, somthing which only accounts for 5 percent of total bank revenue.

Meanwhile, President Obama is proposing yet another giveaway to the banks, this time in the form of $30 billion in loans at below-market interest rates. If I sell you something about below-market value, then I’m giving you a gift. That’s what these “loans” are. The Washington Post attempts to bury the issue in the middle of the piece, and refers to the subsidy as going to “community banks”, without noting that most of these “community banks” have long since been bought up by our banking behemoths.

I don’t really know what else to say here. The banks own Congress; they own the House; they own Obama (check out his campaign donors) – there doesn’t seem to be any way out of this. I think some mobs with torches and pitchforks would not go amiss at this point.

Written by pavanvan

February 26, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Banks Bet Hard Against Greek Debt They Sold

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The Times continues its reporting on the Greek crisis:

Echoing the kind of trades that nearly toppled the American International Group, the increasingly popular insurance against the risk of a Greek default is making it harder for Athens to raise the money it needs to pay its bills, according to traders and money managers.

These contracts, known as credit-default swaps, effectively let banks and hedge funds wager on the financial equivalent of a four-alarm fire: a default by a company or, in the case of Greece, an entire country. If Greece reneges on its debts, traders who own these swaps stand to profit.

“It’s like buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house — you create an incentive to burn down the house,” said Philip Gisdakis, head of credit strategy at UniCredit in Munich.

Fabulous. So let me see if I have this straight: our banks sold Greece predatory loans which they knew Greece would never be able to repay – then they took out “insurance” on those loans, effectively betting against Greece’s solvency. Heads they win; tails Greece loses. It’s important to note that this is the exact same behavior they indulged in during the sub-prime fiasco. They sold loans to people whom they knew would never be able to pay them back, and then bet that those loans would default. If, by some miracle, the debtor was able to pay these banks back, they’d get a nice interest rate. If, as the banks bet, the debtor couldn’t pay them back, they’d get re-imbursed via the Credit Default Swaps. It’s a classic win-win for the banks – and a lose-lose for whatever poor sucker they entrapped.

Only now its happening on the level of entire countries. I want to stress that Greece is neither the first nor the last nation to default on account of the malfeasance of US banks. Iceland came before it, and Spain, Ireland, or even France are likely to come afterward.

It is clear that our banks are purely malevolent forces, who benefit only from the destruction of others, and that, for the sake of the world economy, they must be thoroughly audited and broken up. And it is equally clear that this will never happen.

Written by pavanvan

February 25, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Economy

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This CIA Gig Just Can’t Pay the Bills

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A forthcoming book by US reporter Eamon Jarvers reveals that many CIA members moonlight as Wall Street “consultants”. I’m sure this represents some kind of conflict of interest, but lets see what kind of helpful advice they’re giving.

The Guardian:

According to Javers, Business Intelligence Advisors (BIA), a Boston-based investment research firm that boasts links to the US intelligence apparatus, employed workers with backgrounds in interrogation and interviewing to train hedge fund managers in a technique called tactical behaviour assessment. This purports to allow practitioners to tell if someone is being dishonest by reading verbal and behavioural clues, such as fidgeting or qualifying statements with words like “honestly” and “frankly”


One case described by Javers shows how veteran CIA workers helped hedge fund clients to make enormous investment decisions by assessing the veracity of a company’s financial presentation.

And the line between government and corporations shrinks by just that much.

Written by pavanvan

February 3, 2010 at 10:48 am

Posted in Policy

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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.


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.