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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

European Union Debt Crises: Ireland Next

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Bloomberg reports that Ireland banks need a $43 billion dollar bailout due to “appalling” lending practices, using the same Wall Street “financial innovations” that got Greece into so much trouble:

“Our worst fears have been surpassed,” Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said in the parliament in Dublin yesterday. “Irish banking made appalling lending decisions that will cost the taxpayer dearly for years to come.”

Dublin-based Allied Irish needs to raise 7.4 billion euros to meet the capital targets, while cross-town rival Bank of Ireland will need 2.66 billion euros. Anglo Irish Bank Corp., nationalized last year, may need as much 18.3 billion euros. Customer-owned lenders Irish Nationwide and EBS will need 2.6 billion euros and 875 million euros, respectively.

Greece wasn’t the first European country to go under, and it sure as hell wont’ be the last. After Ireland goes, Italy, Portugal, Spain, or even “Great” Britain are all worthy candidates for the next European collapse.

Written by pavanvan

March 31, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Posted in Economy

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More EU/IMF Confusion

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The Times gets credit for scooping the new plans for Germany and France to help Greece after all. I guess all those big bad threats to leave Greece to the mercy of the IMF weren’t really serious.

In one sense, it really doesn’t matter whether Germany or the IMF ends up on the hook for Greece’s bailout (which is supposed to cost 22 billion Euros, or something like $38 billion). The point is that Greece is not going to be the last country who needs this kind of assistance. As I mentioned previously, Britain, France, Portugal, Ireland, Belgium, Italy, and Spain all have debt crises looming on the horizon. Whoever cleans up after Greece will likely end up mopping up all of Europe. So it’s natural that neither Germany or the IMF want to set the precedent alone.

Again, I cannot stress Wall Street’s complicity in this affair. They were the ones selling Greece absurd amounts of debt on one hand and then buying credit default swaps against that debt on the other. That’s bandit behavior, and they shouldn’t be allowed to walk away from this colossal imbroglio they created without any repercussions. I think it’s clear that Wall Street deserves to pay for some of this mess, if not all of it.

But herein lies the paradox! If Wall Street pays up to bail out Greece, it’s really the US doing it, since all five of the major bank-holding companies are still on TARP life support. So it’s really a no-win situation, unless you happen to be a major bank-holding company on government life support. Then you win.

Written by pavanvan

March 25, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Germany Flip-Flops on Greek Bailout

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Well, I certainly didn’t expect this. It looks as though Germany is going to rely on the IMF to bail Greece out should the dreaded moment arrive (hint: it will). This does not bode well for the European Union, and indeed, until now, many thought the only way to preserve the integrity of the Euro would be to treat this Greek crisis as an in-house affair. Resorting to IMF loans would do very little to assure investors that the EU is good for its members’ debt, as this basically signals to the rest of the world that Germany (virtually the only healthy economy left in the EU) is either unwilling or unable to shoulder the entire partnership’s burden.

Remember: France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, and Belgium are all facing debt crises of their own, many just as deep, though not as visible, as that of Greece. Germany’s indication that it will not help Greece is effectively a pre-emptive warning to the rest of these countries that when their own respective economies collapse, not to come banging on Germany’s door. Bloomberg reports today that Greece’s Prime Minister has set a deadline for Germany to bail it out, before it goes to the IMF for help. Germany has already indicated that it’s going to let the IMF solve Greece’s problem, effectively rendering that threat moot.

This is big news for several reasons. With Germany, the last healthy EU economy, refusing to bail Greece out, we may be seeing the end of the European Union as a cohesive economic entity. The Euro has been taking a beating ever since fears of a Greek default arose (it’s down more than 10% since this crisis began), and it’s sure to drop further on today’s news. It is unlikely that Greece will default or be forced out of the economic partnership, but if the IMF gets its fingers into Greece, it will only be a matter of time before the rest of the EU comes to the IMF, arms outstretched. Greece will not be the last European country to undergo a debt crisis, as I hope I have shown.

If Greece accepts IMF help, it will be forced into far worse “austerity measures” than anything Germany would have imposed. “Austerity” is generally a euphemism for cutting off social services and indiscriminately firing middle class workers while the rich make off like bandits. Already these measures have caused massive riots and general strikes in Greece, and these are sure to continue if the IMF gets its way.

As always, one can draw a straight line between economic collapse and Wall Street. Many sources have already reported on how Wall Street helped Greece hide its debt for years, and, in fact, encouraged them to take on more debt via “securitized” trades.

But that isn’t all. Wall Street’s “innovative financial instruments” – its Collateralized Debt Obligations and other over-the-counter derivatives – proliferated throughout the European economy, and are at the heart of the myriad debt crises. They made billions selling Europe these worthless junk bonds, and now they’re slowly walking away, whistling, as though they had nothing to do with it. Greece should be demanding massive reparations for the unprecedented fraud of which they, and the rest of the EU, were the victims.

It’s difficult to see where this will end. The IMF bails out Greece instead of Germany – but then what? Portugal, Italy, Spain… then France? What if Britain needs a bailout? Does the IMF have such resources? Are they just going to print the money? Does anyone know what they’re doing?

Detroit City Employee: “I Borrow Money to Buy Food.”

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It’s true.

“I borrow money right now to buy food,” says Jackita Muhammad, a teller in the city’s finance department.  “I try to buy beans and other staples so I don’t have to ask family for money, but the truth is that if the mayor cuts my pay, I will have to declare bankruptcy.”

Muhammad, a single mother of three, has been employed with the city since the year 2000.  Ironically, during the day she handles thousands of dollars in checks and money that people come to her window with and pay for taxes and other costs.

Her plight, though precarious, is not unusual for people working full time in Detroit.  AFSCME workers make less than $30,000 a year on average and represent less than 40 percent of the city’s payroll budget.  The mayor’s pay cut will make many of them qualified for welfare benefits even though they work full time.

“It’s simply not fair,” says Muhammad.

Written by pavanvan

March 18, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Posted in Economy

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Britain Grapples With Debt of Greek Proportions

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The Times has a pretty strong piece in today’s issue about Britain’s massive debt problems. Yet more evidence that the “Greek Problem” isn’t limited to Greece alone. The whole European Union and most of its satellite economies are probably in for a rough decade:

As for the British government, it has been able to finance a budget deficit of 12.5 percent of G.D.P. — equal to Greece’s — at an interest rate more than two full percentage points lower only because the Bank of England bought the majority of the bonds it issued last year.

“It’s not just ‘basket cases’ like Greece that can be considered candidates for sovereign crises,” said Simon White of Variant Perception, a research house in London that caters to hedge funds and wealthy individuals. “Gilts and sterling will continue to come under pressure as scrutiny of the U.K. fiscal situation intensifies.”

Now, unlike the United States, other countries’ deficits actually mean something. They aren’t allowed to go around printing as much money as they want, running absurd amounts of debt, and forcing everyone to except their currency at the barrel of a gun. Running budget-busting deficits isn’t just something they can laugh off, like we can here in America – over a long enough time scale, those deficits can make a country’s currency worthless.

It’s tough to see where this will end. The whole EU and attached economies are vulnerable to this “contagion”, which, I cannot stress enough, has a lot to do with Wall Street’s reckless bets during the aughts. If we were living in a fair world, these Wall Street firms would pay reparations to the affected countries for essentially destroying their economies. As it is, it looks as though we’re going to have to watch the EU go down in flames before anyone does anything.

Then, likely, we’ll see some backdoor deals, a few hurried conferences, and the US Government will come out with a new TARP program, this time for Europe. Washington has always had a flair for publicity – maybe they’ll call it a “second Marshall Plan”. It’s inconceivable that the US would allow its most favored “allies” to go down without assistance. And such a move would likely have incidental benefits – namely, bringing the EU firmly under our political control.

Sure, the American taxpayer will eventually have to foot the bill, but who ever cared about that?

Written by pavanvan

March 3, 2010 at 4:00 pm

JP Morgan Says California A “Bigger Risk” Than Greece

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The London Telegraph has the scoop:

Mr Dimon told investors at the Wall Street bank’s annual meeting that “there could be contagion” if a state the size of California, the biggest of the United States, had problems making debt repayments. “Greece itself would not be an issue for this company, nor would any other country,” said Mr Dimon. “We don’t really foresee the European Union coming apart.” The senior banker said that JP Morgan Chase and other US rivals are largely immune from the European debt crisis, as the risks have largely been hedged.

California however poses more of a risk, given the state’s $20bn (£13.1bn) budget deficit, which Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is desperately trying to reduce.

Written by pavanvan

March 1, 2010 at 5:55 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

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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Paul Krugman Agrees With Me

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Check out his column, in which he makes a similar point to what I made a couple posts down:

Now what? A breakup of the euro is very nearly unthinkable, as a sheer matter of practicality. As Berkeley’s Barry Eichengreen puts it, an attempt to reintroduce a national currency would trigger “the mother of all financial crises.” So the only way out is forward: to make the euro work, Europe needs to move much further toward political union, so that European nations start to function more like American states.

It’s an ugly picture. But it’s important to understand the nature of Europe’s fatal flaw. Yes, some governments were irresponsible; but the fundamental problem was hubris, the arrogant belief that Europe could make a single currency work despite strong reasons to believe that it wasn’t ready.

Written by pavanvan

February 16, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Greek Street

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The Times has a pretty good rundown on Wall Street’s complicity in Greece’s current budget woes. The European Union has rather strict rules on the size of the deficit its member countries are allowed to have; but Greece, it turns out, has been under-reporting its deficit for nearly a decade. I wonder where they learned to cook their books?

The bankers, led by Goldman’s president, Gary D. Cohn, held out a financing instrument that would have pushed debt from Greece’s health care system far into the future, much as when strapped homeowners take out second mortgages to pay off their credit cards.

It had worked before. In 2001, just after Greece was admitted to Europe’s monetary union, Goldman helped the government quietly borrow billions, people familiar with the transaction said. That deal, hidden from public view because it was treated as a currency trade rather than a loan, helped Athens to meet Europe’s deficit rules while continuing to spend beyond its means.

Oh.

We’re going to hear a lot in the coming weeks about Greece’s irresponsibility and how Wall Street callously enabled them like a heroin dealer that profits from a junkie’s weakness. And while these accusations are no doubt true, they miss the real point of the Greek debt story, which has to do with the paradox on which the European Union is founded. In fact, a crisis like this was bound to happen. Greece’s and Wall Street’s malfeasance are inexcusable, and certainly no one should try to absolve them from blame on this, but we have to ask ourselves: how long did Europe expect this partnership to last?

At the heart of the EU’s troubles lie the fundamental disparities between its member economies. Germany, as we all know, is an economic powerhouse, and produces the lion’s share of the EU’s GDP. France does well for itself, as do Austria, Sweden, Switzerland and a host of other countries. But the countries that aren’t doing so well: Greece, yes, but also Italy, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain are all  in a difficult and ultimately insoluble position.

Their economic fortunes entwined with that of the rest of Europe, they find themselves under enormous pressure to report spectacular economic growth. If unable to do so, their troubles extend to the other member countries, and, most importantly, cast aspersions upon the value of their shared currency – the Euro. So the incentive to fudge the numbers is tremendous.

The paradox of “Eurozone” (zone of countries that use the Euro) directly stems from this. Put simply, no country can leave the Eurozone after it joins, and at the same time, every Eurozone member has to post annual growth without fail. The Greek situation is a perfect illustration of this, but the point is that it could have happened (in fact, probably will happen) to several EU countries. Greece just happened to be the scapegoat because it had the biggest debt.

This handy chart from Der Spiegel should nicely demonstrate this point.

Even Germany and France, the so-called “EU powerhouses”, are technically breaking their own debt rules. But why doesn’t Greece just divest itself from the Euro, say it was too hasty in joining, and maybe re-apply for admission in a few years once it gets its economy under control? Well, it could do this  – and likely would, if France and Germany had their say – but such a move would precipitate a run on Greece’s banks, sink its economy, and leave it a European pariah for at least a generation. Think about it: if you had a bank account in a Greek bank in Euros, and the Greek Premier announces one day that your account will be transformed into Greek Drachmas on such-and-such a date, what would you do? Obviously you would liquidate your holdings and invest in some more stable Eurozone country. Germany, perhaps?

But at the same time, Greece’s economic situation is causing near-panic among investors and ravaging the Euro. The Euro’s value has dropped more than 9% in just two months. And therein lies the paradox. By staying in the Eurozone, Greece threatens the whole enterprise. By leaving, it dooms itself to economic collapse.

A recent interview with the EU Central Bank chief economist Jurgen Stark displays the confusion now embroiling the EU. It’s clear that no one knows what to do about this. For the time being, I suppose, Germany or France will have to pony up the cash to bail Greece out, but this does nothing but delay the central problem described above.

Written by pavanvan

February 14, 2010 at 4:02 pm

China Ready to Dump US Securities

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(c/o ZeroHedge)

This is serious. The Asia Times reports today that China is ready to start selling off its US Treasury Notes, ostensibly as a “punishment” for the recent US sales of arms to Taiwan. I and others previously warned about what would happen if China decided to let go of its dollar holdings – the gist is that China is the only thing standing between the US and catastrophic inflation. Previously these fears were pooh-poohed by establishment figures with the familiar arguments: “China needs us more than we need them”, “Who will China sell its surpluses to?” I even heard someone say, “Without us, the Chinese will be cavemen”. Well, it looks like China might have found itself a new trading partner, if this Asia Times article is any indication:

Dollar-denominated risk assets, including asset-backed securities and corporates, are no longer wanted at the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), nor at China’s large commercial banks. The Chinese government has ordered its reserve managers to divest itself of riskier securities and hold only Treasuries and US agency debt with an implicit or explicit government guarantee. This already has been communicated to American securities dealers, according to market participants with direct knowledge of the events.

It is not clear whether China’s motive is simple risk aversion in the wake of a sharp widening of corporate and mortgage spreads during the past two weeks, or whether there also is a political dimension. With the expected termination of the Federal Reserve’s special facility to purchase mortgage-backed securities next month, some asset-backed spreads already have blown out, and the Chinese institutions may simply be trying to get out of the way of a widening. There is some speculation that China’s action has to do with the recent deterioration of US-Chinese relations over arm sales to Taiwan and other issues. That would be an unusual action for the Chinese to take–Beijing does not mix investment and strategic policy–and would be hard to substantiate in any event.

Where do you think we’re getting the money to prosecute these $5,000 per second conflicts in the Middle East? Where did the money for our $2,500,000,000,000 (and counting) bank bailouts come from? China. They make our money real. Without their manufacturing powerhouse backing us up, our dollars are worthless. What, you think the world is going to value our “service economy” at $13,000,000,000,000 per annum if that money weren’t backed by Chinese promises? Not likely. And now those promises are now increasingly under threat.

Be afraid.

Written by pavanvan

February 12, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Perspective on Greece

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(c/o George Washington)

Barry Ritholz over at The Big Picture has an excellent post on Greece’s debt woes vs. those of the United States:

All by itself, the insolvent nation-state of California is the 8th largest economy in the world. Its the size of France. According to the CIA Factbook, Greece is number 34. That is a lot of hyperventilating about a relatively small impact to global GDP. Italy is 11, Spain is 13, Portugal is 50, and Ireland is 56.

Additionally, in the US, we have 43 of the 50 states in some form of financial distress.

Perhaps the solution to California’s woes is for Arnold (who is from Austria) to have California join the EU. Then, they might qualify for a bailout from Germany . . .

Written by pavanvan

February 11, 2010 at 10:01 am

Posted in Economy

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Greek Debt

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Greece is in a lot of trouble, and as a member of the “eurozone”, its troubles have now become Europe’s. In a sense, we’re getting a grim preview of the sort of future we might have in America with the case of Greece. Like us, Greece spent heavily over the past decade and accumulated a lot of “sovereign debt”. Unlike us, however, Greece is not a military bully – and thus cannot simply print money and force the rest of the world to accept it. Further complicating the issue is Greece’s membership in the European Union. No Euro-using country has ever declared bankruptcy, and analysts are busy falling over themselves to predict what a Greek government default would imply. Some of the most grim predictions entail the break-up of the EU, while the more moderate voices still predict havoc within the eurozone.

If Greece defaults, it seems likely there would be some sort of run on the European banking system, and almost certainly the Greek banking system. But more significantly, this crisis highlights the impossibility of leaving the Eurozone, once you become a full-fledged member. For many countries (notably, the PIIGS – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain – the slowly growing Eurozone countries) this leads to a catch-22.

One one hand, adopting the Euro means a country can’t combat deflation via the traditional methods. Usually this would be done by revaulating its currency, but since no individual country has control over the Euro (well, maybe Germany does) – this ceases to be an option.

On the other hand, an announcement to leave the Euro (As Tyler notes) would trigger an immediate run on that country’s banks. Nobody wants their bank account in Euros to suddenly transform into a bank account in a less prestigious currency (lira, drachmas, etc.) Once a country gets into the EU, it pretty much has no choice but to stay.

So leaving the Eurozone would doom Greece – and staying in might doom the rest of the EU. What are they doing about it? Well, the Times splashed on its front page today that after weeks of nail-biting vacillation, the EU has finally pledged a “bailout” to Greece. (Under that article, in tiny letters, the headline: “Greek Civil Servants Strike Over Austerity Measures – giving us a taste, I guess, of what that bailout will cost.) But the point is that no one knows how this bailout will actually work.

At the root of Greece’s problems, and the EU’s, lies the vast difference in economic output between members. Though Greece and Germany use the same currency, their economies are vastly different. This naturally leads to over-valuation of the Greek economy, and, I suppose, under-valuation of the German economy.

It looks like Britain made a smart move after all, not adopting the Euro.

Written by pavanvan

February 11, 2010 at 9:34 am

Stimulus Fraud

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Propublica continues its fantastic coverage of the Obama stimulus bill by drawing attention to a true face-palm moment:

The Kentucky transportation department has awarded $24 million in stimulus contracts to companies associated with a road contractor who is accused of bribing the previous state transportation secretary, according to an audit by the federal Department of Transportation [1] (PDF).The DOT’s internal watchdog used the case to highlight the significant delays in the time it takes for the Federal Highway Administration to suspend or bar someone from receiving government contracts. Though the agency is supposed to make such a decision within 45 days, federal highway officials waited 10 months after the indictment to put the men accused of bribery onto the list of banned contractors.

I think this happy little episode displays pretty succinctly the vast and systemic corruption with which the Government has dispensed this stimulus.

The shadowy underworld of government contract awards is mysterious indeed:

In the Kentucky case, at trial this week, prosecutors have alleged that longtime road contractor Leonard Lawson paid state employees for confidential engineering estimates that helped him get a leg up on bidding for contracts.

Paul KrugmanMatt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and the rest of the “progressive” blogosphere have each chastised Mr. Obama for not providing a “big enough” stimulus, and while there may be theoretical reasons for thinking such, it seems clear that even the biggest “stimulus” will fail to stimulate if it’s handled with fraud and deceit.

Eye on the Stimulus

We’re tracking the stimulus from bill to building, and we’re organizing citizens nationwide to watchdog local stimulus projects. Our team includes editor Tom Detzel, lead reporter Michael Grabell, Jennifer LaFleur, Amanda Michel, Eric Umansky and Christopher Flavelle.

When Do You Ban a Stimulus Contractor?

by Michael Grabell, ProPublica – January 15, 2010 11:45 am EST
Kentucky highway contractor Leonard Lawson heads to court where he faces charges related to bid-rigging on road construction projects in Lexington, Ky., on Jan. 11, 2010. (James Crisp/AP Photo)
Kentucky highway contractor Leonard Lawson heads to court where he faces charges related to bid-rigging on road construction projects in Lexington, Ky., on Jan. 11, 2010. (James Crisp/AP Photo)

The Kentucky transportation department has awarded $24 million in stimulus contracts to companies associated with a road contractor who is accused of bribing the previous state transportation secretary, according to an audit by the federal Department of Transportation [1] (PDF).The DOT’s internal watchdog used the case to highlight the significant delays in the time it takes for the Federal Highway Administration to suspend or bar someone from receiving government contracts. Though the agency is supposed to make such a decision within 45 days, federal highway officials waited 10 months after the indictment to put the men accused of bribery onto the list of banned contractors.

The combination of lengthy delays in the contractor suspension process and the rapid disbursement of billions of stimulus dollars “creates a ‘perfect storm’ for contractors intent on defrauding the government,” the inspector general audit said.

But the case also highlights a common tension in the contracting world that is now getting more attention with the nearly $800 billion stimulus package: What level of evidence is enough to justify suspending a company from receiving government contracts?

In the Kentucky case, at trial this week, prosecutors have alleged that longtime road contractor Leonard Lawson paid state employees for confidential engineering estimates that helped him get a leg up on bidding for contracts.

Written by pavanvan

January 19, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Cancel Haiti’s Debt!

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Richard Kim makes a lot of sense on Haiti in The Nation:

Now, in its attempts to help Haiti, the IMF is pursuing the same kinds of policies that made Haiti a geography of precariousness even before the quake. To great fanfare, the IMF announced a new $100 million loan to Haiti on Thursday. In one crucial way, the loan is a good thing; Haiti is in dire straits and needs a massive cash infusion. But the new loan was made through the IMF’s extended credit facility, to which Haiti already has $165 million in debt. Debt relief activists tell me that these loans came with conditions, including raising prices for electricity, refusing pay increases to all public employees except those making minimum wage and keeping inflation low.

Yes, leave it to the IMF to use this earthquake to force even more draconian “market-friendly” reforms on Haiti. The time will soon come, I hope, when “developing” countries realize that IMF loans are a scam designed to wrest their sovereignty from them. Under the guise of “development” and “helping” the “third-world”, the US-driven International Monetary Fund has repeatedly and consistently used their position to manipulate “third-world” countries into enacting reforms designed specifically to benefit the United States at the expense of their own population. The concept of “international loans” must be replaced with a “grant” system – most of the countries now indebted to the IMF have literally no prospect of paying back their loans, and in many cases the interest alone is greater than their GDP.

Further, the IMF forces repayment of what many call “odious debt”. If your country has been ruled for the last few decades by a despotic and insane dictator who racked up IMF debt to finance his own extravagant lifestyle and pay his soldiers (who, in turn, keep the general population impoverished and frightened), and you then overthrow this dictator, do you still owe the IMF money? According to them, yes, yes you do – and they will use this leverage to force you to compromise your newly-won freedom. A cursory look at the post-Soviet history of Poland, the post-Apartheid history of South Africa, or the modern history of Haiti itself should make this point abundantly clear.

This tendency becomes doubly painful when one learns that the dictators squandering the IMF ‘loans’ were installed by the US in the first place. This is especially true of Haiti (vis-a-vis the Duvialier duo), but also of Chile, many of the post-Soviet dictatorships (including Khazakstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, etc.) and post-colonial African dictatorships (like the former Zaire, and countless other states). The deal here is too cynical to believe. The United States, with its magnificent CIA, move into a “turbulent” area and install a dictator. They then instruct the dictator to take out large IMF loans for “development”. Much of the money goes into the dicator’s pocket, but a significant portion goes back to the US, in the form of “contractor services”. Then, when the dictator is overthrown, the long-oppressed people find that they owe the IMF however many billions of dollars, and they have no way to pay it back. Enter the US and repeat – ad horribilis.

A more successful neo-imperial enterprise, one could hardly imagine!

Written by pavanvan

January 17, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Citi of Bankruptcy

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Dubai, our favorite slave state, where workers toil, buildings erupt and the West takes its vacation, is apparently on the verge of bankruptcy. They have already asked for a “debt standstill”, and are rumored to owe in excess of $50 Billion dollars.

It would have been nice if the financial wizards at Citigroup hadn’t frittered away their government bailout on an $8 Billion loan to that debt-ridden emirate.

You know, just sayin’.

Written by pavanvan

December 1, 2009 at 8:18 pm

I.O.U

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The Times ran a fantastic article last week which I think deserves a careful look, as it presents in uncharacteristically sharp terms the economic situation before us.

They begin with some fun facts:

With the national debt now topping $12 trillion, the White House estimates that the government’s tab for servicing the debt will exceed $700 billion a year in 2019, up from $202 billion this year, even if annual budget deficits shrink drastically. Other forecasters say the figure could be much higher.

In concrete terms, an additional $500 billion a year in interest expense would total more than the combined federal budgets this year for education, energy, homeland security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

$700 Billion, as many must recall, was the magical “really big number” Bush and Paulson sold us last September, promising that we likely shouldn’t spend it all, and will probably “see a return on our investment”. I remember the awe with which we once held the TARP program: “$700 Billion, have they lost their minds?” None of us (certainly not I) could have fathomed such a large sum being spent at one time. It is a testament, then, to our infinite ability to adapt that $700 Billion no longer seems so very great, and we can swallow easily the prospect of such an annual payment.

The Times is somewhat disingenuous in claiming $500 billion a year to be “greater than the combined federal budgets for… Iraq and Afghanistan”. As The Times are surely aware, President Obama recently signed a $680 Billion war bill in October, with (according to The Times), “$550 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget in fiscal 2010 and $130 billion more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  But I digress.

Much of this new debt, as The Times is kind enough to report, has to do with the massive dumping of cash onto the open market via the Federal Reserve. Euphemistically, the article states:

“The government is on teaser rates,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates lower deficits. “We’re taking out a huge mortgage right now, but we won’t feel the pain until later.”

“Teaser rates” of course, means lending at 0% interest, essentially lending for free. This is the policy our Fed has chosen over the past year. It, combined with the trillions of untraceable dollars injected into our five major banks, have expanded the Treasury beyond anything previously imaginable. As the article claims:

On top of that, the Fed used almost every tool in its arsenal to push interest rates down even further. It cut the overnight federal funds rate, the rate at which banks lend reserves to one another, to almost zero. And to reduce longer-term rates, it bought more than $1.5 trillion worth of Treasury bonds and government-guaranteed securities linked to mortgages.

What this all means, what the Times doesn’t see fit to mention, is that the US government is bankrupt. That’s it. Our liabilities overshadow our assets, our debts are greater than our ability to pay them; we are underwater, over our heads, sunk.

And we aren’t the only ones:

The United States will not be the only government competing to refinance huge debt. Japan, Germany, Britain and other industrialized countries have even higher government debt loads, measured as a share of their gross domestic product, and they too borrowed heavily to combat the financial crisis and economic downturn. As the global economy recovers and businesses raise capital to finance their growth, all that new government debt is likely to put more upward pressure on interest rates.

It looks like the US and Europe will be coming to terms with some hard realizations next decade.

Written by pavanvan

December 1, 2009 at 8:08 pm

Too big

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I know I’m somewhat late to this party, but I wanted to point out to all who are still unaware that the ‘too big to fail’ banks which caused our late crisis are even bigger.

JP Morgan, AIG, Citigroup, Goldman, and Bank of America were the winners of Geithner-Paulson’s free money giveaway (with Lehman a bad loser), and together they have swallowed the hundreds of small and medium banks that have failed since. They now present an even bigger and more systemic risk, should they choose to gamble away their money once again.

Despite repeated calls from almost every respected economist (notably Joseph Stiglitz) that these banks are a menace, Lords Geithner and Bernanke have done nothing to restrict their size – indeed, they have made them impossibly more dangerous and lucrative.

Furthermore, none of the incentives which led to such reckless gambling (ludicrous bonus packages, easy credit, low intrest, short-term rewards) have been addressed, and instead have been reinforced.

The next bailout will have to be 700 trillion instead of a mere 700 billion.

Written by pavanvan

November 30, 2009 at 10:06 pm

Sour News for Deficit-Watchers

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Time Magazine reports that Obama is planning another stimulus package in what they refer to as a “stealth stimulus” – it bears all the characteristics of a new round of spending without the now-discredited moniker.

In fact, Obama officials have been adamant that what they are proposing is not a new stimulus. They prefer such woolly phrases as “tax credit” and “other measures to improve the economy”. But by whatever name you choose to call it, the measures being proposed could eventually add up to more than $100 billion, according to Time.

Meanwhile, if the old stimulus has had any effect, it remains somewhat difficult to tell. The administration touts various figures of “saved jobs” (according to recovery.gov, my home state of Michigan saw 397 jobs created), but they present small relief when compared to the still-horrifying monthly job losses. It is also clear that the original stimulus is not being spent quickly enough. According to the government’s own statistics, the states have received only 11% of the original stimulus, even though 73% of the amount specified by the bill has officially been awarded.

This indicates a bureaucratic bottleneck that no amount of extra “tax credits” can relieve. Authorizing a new stimulus when the old one is still 89% unspent will only add to the deficit while having no other discernible effect. Most indicators would suggest that the stimulus money is now being spent at its fastest possible rate – our bureaucracy literally cannot allow for the funds to be distributed any faster. In light of this, a second stimulus would seem positively irresponsible. No wonder the Obama Administration doesn’t want to call it that.

An addendum: Christopher Flavelle over at ProPublica did some math and calculated that jobs created by the current stimulus bill cost $533,000 apiece. Even more evidence that a stimulus bill might not be the most efficient way to mitigate job losses.

Written by pavanvan

October 22, 2009 at 11:54 pm

An Investment Banker on China

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The banker from the previous post also commented upon China Question (i.e. “is it a good idea to borrow so much money from China?) His answer repeated almost verbatim the answer I previously received from several of his industrial colleagues.

Without the US (runs the standard interpretation), China would have no market for its goods, and thus, for China to prosper, the US must also prosper.

He continued to remark that no other country has the raw purchasing power of America. Our GDP outstrips the next largest by a factor of three. Only the combined European Union has a larger economic output than ours.

(A graph, to illustrate. The Y-axis is in millions of US dollars.)

Poor China!

Poor China!

It’s clear that no other country has the power to fuel China’s growth. If they wish to rise their people from the depths of poverty they must do so through us. Who else can they sell to? Therefore, my friend triumphantly concluded, China will do nothing to sabotage our economy.

Tellingly, however, he made the statement: “We need them and they need us – maybe they need us a little less, but the fact remains.”

He winced when I noted that these figures are based on dollar-centric monetary system. There was a possibility, he conceded, that China may wish to supplant the dollar as global currency with another, or even its own.

But this was “at least five years down the line”, he declared.

Written by pavanvan

August 23, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Death Panels

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The recent brouhaha over so-called death panels appears to be little more than an attempt to obscure the fact that in large part consensus over healthcare already exists.

By inflating a non-issue and making it a centerpiece of the “Health Care Debate”, our establishment leaders can quietly insert pro-corporate clauses into whatever legislation they enact. Indeed, such a trend is already evident from Obama’s speech to the American Medical Association a few months ago.

In his speech, he identified an outdated records system, an “epidemic of obesity” spurred by “junk food”, lack of preventative care, and a system which charges by procedure instead of charging by result as the main culprits in our high cost of health care.

Well and good – but to that I might add a couple more: the exorbitant cost of medical school and the well-to-do salaries it enforces. The debt implied by a full medical school term has ballooned to more than $200,000, and this forces doctors to start out at least six figures if they wish to pay it off. No one denies that doctors ought to be at least somewhat affluent, but the unfortunate fact is that in many cases their salaries go to the repayment of medical school debt. Curiously unmentioned!

Written by pavanvan

August 14, 2009 at 11:21 pm