Posts Tagged ‘Finance’
Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) is pushing an amendment to the financial overhaul bill before the Senate that would broaden the Government Accountability Office’s power to audit the Fed and compel the central bank to disclose details about the firms that received emergency federal aid during the financial crisis.
Of course, the Obama White House is looking to kill the amendment. Surprise!
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.
(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.
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.
The Times has the latest in a string of articles accusing China of “using global trade rules to its advantage” today. With their angry, disapproving tone and several vague references to trade imbalances, one gets the distinct impression that America (and the Times by extension) has a hard time swallowing its own medicine.
Just look at what China is being accused of:
China buys dollars and other foreign currencies — worth several hundred billion dollars a year — by selling more of its own currency, which then depresses its value. That intervention helped Chinese exports to surge 46 percent in February compared with a year earlier.
Beijing has worked to suppress a series of I.M.F. reports since 2007 documenting how the country has substantially undervalued its currency, the renminbi, said three people with detailed knowledge of China’s actions.
Horrific! Tell me, when was the last time China invaded a country for not selling its main resource in its own currency?
As for the Times’ description of the I.M.F – well, it must be read to be believed:
The International Monetary Fund acts as a kind of watchdog for global economic policy but has no power over countries like China that do not borrow money from it.
Astonishing. The IMF’s true role is that of an economic enforcer on behalf of the United States. It compels “poor” countries to take IMF loans, and when they can’t pay them back, forces the debtors to enact “structural” changes to their economy, changes usually geared towards a neo-liberal agenda. This has happened in Russia, Poland, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Pakistan, Eastern Europe, and a raft of other countries. The IMF is not so much a “watchdog” as a “police dog”, on behalf of the United States and its “Washington Consensus” economic policies.
Then they accuse China’s “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies as being of the same sort that caused the Great Depression:
Two closely related scourges played a central role in the collapse of world trade in the 1930s: protectionism and beggar-thy-neighbor currency devaluations. World leaders set up two institutions after World War II, now known as the W.T.O. and the I.M.F., to reduce the risk of another Great Depression.
But they neglect to mention the role of US banks and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which the US congress enacted in 1930 and began the worldwide trend of “protectionism” during the Great Depression. I mean, this is high school level history here.
Now, there can be no doubt by this point that China is, indeed, keeping its currency devalued in order to boost its export sector. This is common knowledge. But for the Times to blame this whole situation on China belies a real bias on their part.
Remember, it would be impossible for China to keep its currency artificially devalued if the US had not run historic deficits in pursuit of tax cuts and murder in the Middle East. A very weak showing from our “newspaper of record”.
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.
“We’ve got strong financial institutions . . . Our markets are the envy of the world. They’re resilient, they’re…innovative, they’re flexible. I think we move very quickly to address situations in this country, and, as I said, our financial institutions are strong.”
– Hank Paulson, Treasury Secretary, March 16, 2008
“We must [enact a program quickly] in order to avoid a continuing series of financial institution failures and frozen credit markets that threaten American families’ financial well-being, the viability of businesses, both small and large, and the very health of our economy,”
– Hank Paulson, Treasury Secretary, September 23, 2008