The LIBOR Scandal: It’s not just for the Brits any more

I’ve been trying to figure out a way to describe how serious the LIBOR scandal is without resorting to esoteric finance and economics models.  LIBOR–the London Interbank Offered Rate–is the rate at which many international banks lend money to other banks.  As such, it’s the underlying rate for prime rates around the globe.  It is akin to our Fed Funds rate.  It’s a rate watched by central banks closely and can be targeted by them.  It is not directly under their control but monetary policy can influence it.  Many, many loans are attached to the LIBOR rate and changes in the LIBOR rate.  As such, it allocates loanable funds to many many projects around the world.  It directly allocates funds to projects which–when missed–can lower the economic welfare of many countries.  Here’s just  a small bit that will give you an idea of how important the rate is from footnoted entries at Wiki.

Libor rates are calculated for ten different currencies and 15 borrowing periods ranging from overnight to one year and are published daily after 11 am (London time) by Thomson Reuters.[4] Many financial institutions, mortgage lenders and credit card agencies set their own rates relative to it. At least $350 trillion in derivatives and other financial products are tied to the Libor.[5]

Companies will use LIBOR as a base rate for discounting when evaluating capital projects. This means if the rate is too high or too low, it can impact the decision to build a factory, buy a machine, or expand a project. Let’s just say that nearly every financial and economic decision that’s evaluated based on opportunity costs or discounting uses a rate that’s base on the FED funds rate or LIBOR. It’s probably the most important interest rate in the world.

I’ve promised to write on this before.  I usually have some time on Saturdays for this kind of analysis and that usually means that it may get passed over too.  Last week, there were many discussions on this and most of them had some good explanations of LIBOR basics.  Still, you have to really understand financial and economic decision making to really grok how big of a deal the LIBOR rigging scandal is and will be for some time.  You also have to understand how much our sophisticated markets depend on trust and effective regulation.  Financial markets can be opaque.  They are subject to adverse selection, principal-agent issues, information asymmetry and moral hazard.  They are also the electricity that runs the real sector.  You don’t build a car factory or a levee with out funding from some source sold in a financial market. That’s why you evaluate that decision using cash flow discounting.  For every speculator that won the bet on which way the rate would move, there was one that lost that bet too.  So, gaming the rate is like fixing the spread on every MLB game including the World Series games.

Over and over, we’ve seen that the financial markets–and the folks that participate in them–are not worthy of trust.  We’ve also had some indication that our regulation over them has not been effective.  There are many reasons for that.  Purposeful deregulation, underfunding, and ideological appointments as well as regulator capture have all played a role.

Now, we now that we have trust issues with our regulators in larger ways than we thought possible.  Once again, Timothy Geithner is playing a central role in the questions of what did the NY FED know about the LIBOR gaming and when did they know it? Major newspapers are reporting that the NY Fed was aware of this as early as 2007.  This is as scandalous as the rate gaming itself.

Federal regulators had evidence that major banks could be manipulating one of the world’s most important interest rates a year before the practice came to an end, according to documents released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on Friday.

As early as 2007, the officials at the New York Fed suspected that this key rate, which serves as the basis for the interest rates that consumers pay on many loans, did not accurately reflect market forces, the documents show. Then, in April 2008, the New York Fed was explicitly warned by an employee of the British bank Barclays that it was participating in a ruse to “fit in with the rest of the crowd,” referring to other major banks.

The documents, released in response to congressional inquiries, add to the mounting questions about whether federal regulators were aggressive enough in addressing irregularities at the heart of the global financial system.

The new disclosures show that the New York Fed shared its concerns about the London-based Libor rate with British regulators. But the Fed offered no evidence that it had taken additional steps, including exercising its own authority as the regulator of some of the largest U.S. financial firms, to address the rigging of the rate.

“The New York Fed helped to identify problems related to ­LIBOR and press the relevant authorities in the UK to reform this London-based rate,” the Fed said in a statement. The Fed declined to say what other steps it might have taken and is still exploring whether there are more details it can release.

The ma­nipu­la­tion by Barclays did not end until some point in 2009, offering the freshest evidence of how regulators struggled to oversee the largest banks during the global financial crisis.

Again, this is appalling.  It implies that sitting Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner knew about this.  It appears that Geithner made the BOE aware of the situation by memo.  How much farther the interaction goes is unknown at this point.

The Federal Reserve and the U.S. government knew back in 2008 that Barclays was filing false reports about Libor, the interest rate that international banks charge one another for short-term loans, according to documents released Friday. The documents show that a staffer at the U.K.-based bank told the New York Federal Reserve—which was then run by current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner—more than four years ago about the false reports before the admission was circulated through the federal government.

Barclays has been fined about $450 million for its role in fixing the rate. The Libor (London Interbank Offered Rate) scandal has swept through the banking world, with other institutions, including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Deutsche Bank, all acknowledging that they are being investigated.

Congress is just getting up to speed on this.  Interestingly enough, it appears the driving force is Maxine Waters.

The House Financial Services Committee will get a private tutorial next week on the LIBOR scandal a day before Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is expected to be pressed by lawmakers about the central bank’s role in overseeing Wall Street giants being investigated for possibly manipulating the benchmark interest rate.

Reps. Spencer Bachus and Barney Frank, the committee’s top Republican and Democrat, have set up a July 17 briefing for staff with the Congressional Research Service, according to a memo obtained by POLITICO that was circulated Friday to members of the Financial Services Committee.

Bernanke will testify before the committee on July 18 in a regularly scheduled hearing on monetary policy.

Some liberal lawmakers have privately been agitating for a separate hearing focused solely on the rate setting scandal instead of simply being given an opportunity to quiz officials when they come before the committee for other business.

According to a Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) had started to circulate a letter demanding a hearing on LIBOR but she was encouraged not to send it to Bachus and Frank.

The decision to at least temporarily forego a hearing comes as allegations of international banks manipulating the LIBOR benchmark interest rate hit Washington, D.C., this week. A newly released memo revealed that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had expressed concerns about the problem as far back as 2008 during his tenure as president of the New York Federal Reserve.

The memo, sent to the head of Bank of England, Mervyn King, Geithner had made recommendations on ways to “improve the integrity and transparency of the rate-setting process.”

The big question is did the FED investigate or look into the role of its member banks in the rigging scam?  This scandal hopefully will allow us to look at the huge money center banks again and their monopoly power over so many markets.  I’ll be following this closely.


Thursday Reads

Good Morning!!

I hate to tell you this, but there is another Republican debate tonight at 8PM, hosted by CNN in Jacksonville, Florida. We’ll be live blogging, as always. Being the twisted individual I am, I’m still enjoying watching the Republicans commit mass suicide, so I’ll be listening and updating even if no one else shows up. But I hope some people do! Now let’s see what’s in the news today.

I missed this in the run up to the SOTU last night: Speaker tells members what not to wear

Just seconds after an emotional tribute to Arizona Democratic Rep Gabby Giffords in the House of Representatives Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner – who got a little choked up in the moment – suddenly felt the need to remind members that there’s a dress code on the House floor.

Boehner recovered his composure after embracing Giffords, who had just handed him her resignation letter. He looked around the chamber, and announced, “the chair would remind all members to be in proper business attire when you come to the floor of the House.”

Apparently enforcing the House dress code is one of the duties of Speaker that Boehner takes very seriously.

On Monday night, Boehner ran through some of basic rules of decorum on the floor, including the one about proper dress. “Members should wear appropriate attire however brief their presence might be,” the speaker said. And to the wardrobe offenders, Boehner said, “you know who you are.”

Obama and Geithner shake hands after SOTU

I know everyone has heard the news that Tim Geithner doesn’t expect President Obama to ask him to stay on as Treasury Secretary for a second term.

“He’s not going to ask me to stay on, I’m pretty confident,” Geithner said in an interview with Bloomberg Television today. “I’m confident he’ll be president. But I’m also confident he’s going to have the privilege of having another secretary of the Treasury.”

Ralphb commented on the SOTU live blog that Geithner “looked like he’d been gut punched” when Obama spoke about making banks pay fees on “transactions to pay for mortgage relief/refinancing.” Apparently Geithner wasn’t clued in about that ahead of time.

I’m wondering if they’ve been leaving him out of some of the meetings since Confidence Men revealed that Geithner was dismissive of presidential orders. Check out the facial expressions and body language in the above photo taken after the speech (I made it big so you could see detail). To me that doesn’t look like a friendly greeting. What do you think?

According to Business Week (see above link) two possible candidates to replace Geithner are Catfood Commission co-chair Erskine Bowles and North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad–both horrible choices IMO.

Conrad, 63, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee who said a year ago he won’t seek another term, is “a serious budget hawk on the left, well-liked and respected,” Calabria said.

Bowles, 66, is the former co-leader of Obama’s commission that drafted a plan to reduce the federal government’s debt.

Ariz. Gov. Jan Brewer lecturing President Obama

President Obama had another difficult interaction on Wednesday when he met wacky Arizona Governor Jan Brewer at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. From the Chicago Tribune:

During their brief encounter on the tarmac, intended to be a ceremonial welcome, Obama told Governor Jan Brewer that he disagreed with an account she had given of a meeting they had at the White House two years ago.

“He was a little disturbed about my book, ‘Scorpions for Breakfast,'” Brewer told reporters after the conversation. At one point during their chat, she pointed a finger at the president.

Brewer, who has differed with Obama over immigration policy in the past, handed him a letter asking him for a meeting to talk about Arizona’s economy when she greeted him. A White House official said the subject of the book came up after Brewer gave Obama the letter.

“The president said he’d be glad to meet with her again, but did note that after their last meeting, a cordial discussion in the Oval Office, the governor inaccurately described the meeting in her book. The president looks forward to continuing taking steps to help Arizona’s economy grow,” the official said.

I didn’t know she had written a book. In fact, I didn’t know she could read…. ABC News provides a little more detail on what the squabble was about.

Brewer complains in Scorpions for Breakfast that she and her staff were treated coldly by White House aides, prevented from taking pictures in the holding room outside the Oval Office and that their cell phones and cameras were “confiscated” by Secret Service.

“Too bad we weren’t illegal aliens, or we could have sued them,” she writes.

During her meeting with the president, Brewer said Obama was “condescending” and professorial, “lecturing” on his efforts to promote comprehensive immigration reform.

“It wasn’t long before I realized I was hearing the president’s stump speech,” she said. “Only I was supposed to listen without talking. Did he care to hear the view from the actual scene at the border? Did the opinions and observations of the people of Arizona mean anything to him? I didn’t think so.”

“He was patronizing,” she said. “Then it dawned on me: He’s treating me like the cop he had over for a beer after he bad-mouthed the Cambridge police, I thought. He thinks he can humor me and then get rid of me.”

After the interaction, Obama apparently walked away before Brewer finished giving him a piece of her mind (or what’s left of it), but she said she would “regroup.” I guess that means “get over it.”

In the run-up to tonight’s debate, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have been lustily attacking each other. Romney must be doing something right, because he’s now running neck and neck with Newt (36% for Romney and 34% for Gingrich) after being behind the former Speaker by 9 points a couple of days ago. Santorum is trailing at 11% and Paul 9% CNN reports:

Gingrich…disparaged Romney’s personal wealth when asked about the former Massachusetts governor’s call for illegal immigrants to deport themselves.

“I think you have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic, you know, $20 million a year income with no work to have some fantasy this far from reality,” Gingrich said at a “Meet the Candidates” forum in Miami, later adding: “For Romney to believe that somebody’s grandmother is going to be so cut off that she is going to self-deport, I mean this verges — this is an Obama-level fantasy.” [….]

Romney….said in the candidate forum, hosted by the Spanish-language network Univision, that such attacks were “unbecoming” for a presidential hopeful….”It’s very sad for a candidate to resort to that kind of epithet,” Romney said of the pulled ad. “There are differences between the candidates on these issues but we don’t attack each other with those kind of terrible terms.”

Newt Gingrich was heckled about his work for Freddie Mac at a rally in Coral Springs, Florida yesterday.

It was quite a scene as a scrum of journalists ignored the candidate and turned to Cara Jennings, who heckled Gingrich in the face of intimidation from his campaign workers, threats from nearby supporters, and the two police officers who showed up to flank her.

“Do you work for the people or Freddie Mac?” Jennings shouted at the former speaker, who was on a platform in a parking lot about 50 feet away.

“I work for the people,” Gingrich responded.

The woman kept shouting, and Gingrich implored her to give others a chance to hear him. But Jennings kept it up, and Gingrich continued engaging her.

Mitt Romney, feeling pressure over the low taxes he pays, tried to claim that his “real tax rate is closer to 45-50 percent.” Think Progress provides a transcript from Romney’s interview with Univision’s Jorge Ramos:

RAMOS: You just released your tax returns. In 2010 you only paid 13 percent of taxes while most Americans paid much more than that. Is that fair?

ROMNEY: Well, actually, I released two years of taxes and I think the average is almost 15 percent. And then also, on top of that, I gave another more 15 percent to charity. When you add it together with all of the taxes and the charity, particularly in the last year, I think it reaches almost 40 percent that I gave back to the community. One of the reasons why we have a lower tax rate on capital gains is because capital gains are also being taxed at the corporate level. So as businesses earn profits, that’s taxed at 35 percent, then as they distribute those profits as dividends, that’s taxed at 15 percent more. So, all total, the tax rate is really closer to 45 or 50 percent.

RAMOS: But is it fair what you pay, 13 percent, while most pay much more than that?

ROMNEY: Well, again, I go back to the point that the, that the funds are being taxed twice at two different levels.

Sorry Mitt, but you’re not a corporation, and besides, as Think Progress points out, most corporations don’t pay 35 percent taxes–in fact many corporations pay no taxes. Romney constantly tells out and out, bald-face lies. Is that de rigueur for the Mormon church, or does he get a dispensation because of all the money he contributes to them?

Brainwashed cult member Rick Santorum, whose campaign is going nowhere in Florida, appeared at a Baptist church in Naples, Florida. He told the audience that “the left” uses college education to “indoctrinate” young people.

“It’s no wonder President Obama wants every kid to go to college,” said the former Pennsylvania senator. “The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America. And it is indoctrination. If it was the other way around, the ACLU would be out there making sure that there wasn’t one penny of government dollars going to colleges and universities, right?”

He continued: “If they taught Judeo-Christian principles in those colleges and universities, they would be stripped of every dollar. If they teach radical secular ideology, they get all the government support that they can possibly give them. Because you know 62 percent of children who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it.” [….]

“I’ll bet you there are people in this room who give money to colleges and universities who are undermining the very principles of our country every single day by indoctrinating kids with left-wing ideology,” he said. “And you continue to give to these colleges and universities. Let me have a suggestion: Stop it.”

Santorum attended Penn State and went on to earn an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh and a law degree from Dickinson School of Law. But he’d rather have the proles stay uneducated so they’ll buy his crazy theocratic bullsh*t.

Santorum did have a license to practice law, but it has been suspended because he didn’t bother to pay his $70.00 per year fee to keep it active. He stopped paying in 1994 and was suspended in 2010. Maybe he decided being a lawyer was the devil’s work?

OK, that’s it for me. What are you reading and blogging about today?


Elizabeth Warren: The Woman Who Would Throw Rocks

What is it about Elizabeth Warren that makes Republicans foam at the mouth and turn apoplectic?  Surely her tenure as a presidential adviser and creator of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau brought her into direct fire and criticism for anyone singing the corporate/banker tune.  Though the Bureau was presumably a joint venture with Treasury, it soon became apparent that Timothy Geithner was a less than enthusiastic partner in Warren’s brainchild, an agency to protect consumer interests from confusing, often unfair financial contracts.

To many in the public, Elizabeth Warren was and has been a vocal advocate of the 99% before the 99ers were a twinkle in anyone’s eye.  She had famously said she would fight for the Bureau’s legitimacy and was willing to leave “blood and teeth on the floor” to make that happen.  That attitude and her frank support for middle-class, every-day concerns made her wildly popular in the public arena.

Well, that was then and this is now.  Warren would not receive a permanent position to head the Bureau she created and breathed into life.  That would have entailed a fight from this Administration, something for which President Obama has shown little talent or willingness.

Instead, as we all know Elizabeth Warren is running for the US Senate in Massachusetts, the seat held by Ted Kennedy for nearly 47 years, now occupied by Scott Brown, who was swept into office primarily over Obama’s botched healthcare plan.

I suspect that the GOP’s real problem with Ms.  Warren is she did not go quietly into that good night, otherwise known as:  back off and shut up.  Not only is she running for the Senate but she’s giving talking tours, explaining the current financial crisis and serving up some very inconvenient truths about what Bush’s eight-year stint of failed economic policy actually did to the country.  Remember?  Cut taxes; run two, hideously expensive, unfunded wars; and create a Medicare drug program out of thin air and magic money.

Ms. Warren’s unforgiveable sin is simply this:. Tell the truth.  Not only that, but then suggest the rich have an obligation to pay their fair share, to give back to the society that made their success possible. Known as pay it forward.  And if you’re going to go to Hell, why not go out in true glory?   Warren went on to suggest that no one who has become rich did it all on their own.  Her statements went viral.

Republican and Libertarian heads exploded in short order. Blasphemy must be punished, they screamed. Bring the woman to heel.

The new Republican assault is as predictable as it is laughable.  Elizabeth Warren is now charged with a ‘collectivist agenda.’  She is an enemy of free enterprise, a threat to capitalism [which needs redefining because as I recall Banana Republic economies are hardly free, nor dedicated to capitalism].  And so we come to the rather pathetic campaign ad that declares Ms. Warren is calling for violence, the overthrow of the State itself.

She is the Woman Who Would Throw Rocks.

Personally?  I hope her aim is deadly.


Is Timmy in the Well Again?

Boston Boomer has been updating me on the shenanigans pulled by Timothy Geithner via Ron Suskind’s “Confidence Men”.  I’m hoping she’ll outline all the stuff in a post soon.  I’m sure you remember how Geithner approved Wall Street Executives giving themselves bonuses after receiving TARP funds. There’s substantial evidence that Geithner blocked plans to remove CEO Vikram Pandit and dismantle Citibank.  He evidently had incredible issues with Sheila Bair, is known for throwing screaming fits when his pet Wall Street Banker friends are threatened and evidently ignored the President’s orders to get tougher on Wall Street early in the administration.  Again, I”ll let Boomer flesh it out for you but there’s some really heady information out there about Geithner and his incredible coziness with the shadow banking industry.

Given that context, color me surprised by this Politico headline: Geithner: Action against Wall St. coming.

Asked on CNBC about the Occupy Wall Street movement’s frustrations over the lack of criminal charges related to the financial crisis, Geithner said action is on the way.

“You’ve seen very, very dramatic enforcement actions already by the enforcement authorities across the U.S. government, and I’m sure you’re going to see more to come. You should stay tuned for that,” he said.

Geithner Friday said the Obama administration had moved swiftly after the crisis to put into place new protections for consumers and investors.

“We moved very quickly to put in place a much stronger set of rules of the game across the financial sector. Now, we’re now facing a lot of resistance to those rules, but we’re going to make sure that we deliver the promise of those reforms, which is a much tougher set of rules across the system against risk-taking and much stronger protections for consumers,” he said.

Geithner responded to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations by asserting that their unhappiness was due to the sluggish pace of overall economic growth.

“What you see is a general sense across the country of concern that the U.S. economy is not growing faster, you’re not seeing incomes rise more rapidly, and people want to make sure that the government, Washington, is acting to make things better now. As part of that, they want to see us deliver much stronger protections for consumers and investors as an economy as a whole,” Geithner said on CNBC.

The Treasury Secretary added that the domestic focus was to ensure that Congress would take steps that would encourage economic growth and lower the deficit.

“What we’re focused on is trying to make sure that we are doing everything to encourage Congress. … to take some steps now that can make growth stronger in the United States, and tie that to reforms to bring down our long-term deficits,” he said.

Something tells me that the deteriorating political scenario for the President has something to do with this conversation.  However, I will believe it when I see it happen.  Talk show chatter comes so cheap.


The Latest Stupid Republican Tricks: The “Default Deniers”

GOP Leadership

{Sigh….} Is there any way to be rid of these crazies? The latest Republican nutty meme is that it will be much much better for all concerned if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling and the U.S. has to either cut trillions in spending or default on its debts. From Politico:

They are the newest breed of government skeptics, the swelling ranks of Republicans who don’t believe the Obama administration when it says a failure to raise the debt limit will prove catastrophic.

And they stand ready to make negotiations over raising the cap on debt as grueling as possible, making Treasury officials and Wall Street more nervous than ever that the country could suffer an unprecedented default with consequences no one can predict.

The suspicion, which once flourished on only the conservative outskirts of economic circles, has seeped into the mainstream in recent weeks, gaining broader acceptance among establishment Republicans, even as the administration issues increasingly dire warnings.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) validated the default deniers Sunday, saying, “I understand the doubts.” Jim Nussle, a budget director under former President George W. Bush, argued last week that “no one’s going to default” if Congress misses the Aug. 2 deadline. And Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, accused the White House of scare tactics similar to those used by the previous administration to win quick approval of the 2008 bank bailout after the markets crashed.

Via Think Progress, Rush Limbaugh yesterday responded to the Politico article by leaping aboard the GOP elephant just as it began to topple off the cliff. Limbaugh announced on his radio program that refusing to raise the debt ceiling will help the country’s credit rating.

LIMBAUGH: Today I claim the mantle. I proudly and honestly come to you today as the Mr. Big of the default deniers. We will not default on anything. And moreover, it is more likely that the country’s creditworthiness would go up around the world since we would finally be doing something to address our out-of-control spending and indebtedness if we were not to raise the debt limit. We would be perceived around the world as serious for a change, and responsible for a change. Otherwise we are headed for junk bond status.

I’m no economist, but according to Dakinikat Alan S. Blinder is a really good one, and he wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal today. Here is his analysis of what could happen if the Republicans get their way on the debt ceiling.

What happens if we crash into the debt ceiling? Nobody really knows, but it’s not likely to be pretty. Inflows and outflows of cash to and from the Treasury jump around from day to day as bills are paid and revenues arrive. But at average fiscal 2011 rates, receipts cover only about 60% of expenditures. So if we hit the borrowing wall traveling at full speed, the U.S. government’s total outlays—a complex amalgam that includes everything from Social Security benefits to soldiers’ pay to interest on the national debt—will have to drop by about 40% immediately.

The bottom line is that Timmy Geithner will have to decide whether to pay soldiers and old folks or pay China other foreign creditors. I guess that’s what the Republicans are hoping for–that it will spell the end of the entire social safety net. But they don’t seem to be thinking very long-term. Do they really believe Americans will passively allow that to happen? Back to Blinder:

If and when the time comes, Mr. Geithner and his boss will have to decide. But here’s one prediction: Defaulting on the national debt will not be their first choice. After all, the statue of Alexander Hamilton at the Treasury entrance reminds Mr. Geithner every day of the importance of maintaining the nation’s creditworthiness. Even if we hit the debt ceiling, maturing obligations still can be rolled over. And I’ll bet he will bend every effort to make the interest payments, too. Unfortunately, however, when you’re 40% short, not much can be ruled out.

Exactly. Geithner is going to choose to pay China, not the elderly and disabled–that’s what the Republicans are counting on. But that will be a choice between chaos in the world economy and mass uprisings on the domestic front–or we might get both. According to Blinder a contraction in the U.S. economy like the one the Republicans are pushing us toward could lead to world-wide financial panic. According to Blinder:

…suppose the federal government actually does reduce its expenditures by 40% overnight. That translates to roughly $1.5 trillion at annual rates, or about 10% of GDP. That’s an enormous fiscal contraction for any economy to withstand, never mind one in a sluggish recovery with 9% unemployment. Even contemplating such a possibility is evidence of a dark, self-destructive impulse.

Second, markets now assign essentially zero probability to the U.S. losing its fiscal mind. They’d be caught flat-footed if the threat of default suddenly started to look real, possibly triggering a world-wide financial panic. Remember how markets reacted to the Lehman Brothers surprise? As Mr. Geithner pointed out in New York on Tuesday, “As we saw in the fall of 2008, when confidence turns, it can turn with brutal force and with a momentum that is very difficult and costly to arrest.”

And Blinder isn’t even considering what the reaction would be among ordinary Americans here at home when the economy completely tanks and there is no social safety net whatsoever.


Tuesday Reads: Tim Geithner in Control of Obama’s Economic Policy, and Other News

Good Morning!! The snow is slowly melting outside my house, and I’ve come down with Spring fever! No more snowstorms please, Mother Nature. Anyway, at least for this week, we are getting temperatures in the 40s and 50s. It is going to be chilly again tomorrow, but after that–springlike! After the frigid winter we’ve lived through, these temperatures feel amazing. Maybe this will make the bad news from DC a little more bearable. I hope so.

This morning I want to focus on an important article that comes via David Dayen at FDL. It’s a piece at The New Republic about Timothy Geithner, written by Noam Scheiber. First a little aside.

Back in November, I wrote a post about the axing of Obama’s economic team and noted that Geither was the last man standing.

In that post, I quoted Andrew Cockburn of Counterpunch:

If Barack Obama needed any help in guiding the Democratic Party over the cliff he certainly got it from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Voters have told pollsters that the state of the economy, their own in particular, was their principle concern. Though impelled by the specter of unemployment and homelessness, the image of Geithner, toady to the bankers, can only have encouraged them in their fury. A sensible president would therefore already be running out the plank prior to giving this disastrous financial overseer an encouraging shove between the shoulders. But in this case, we may not be that lucky. CounterPunch can reveal the crucial role played in these matters by a group close to the President but unknown to the outside world.

A knowledgeable insider told Cockburn that despite Larry Summers’ reputation as a corporate tool,

“Larry has some idea that there is more to the economy than just the welfare of large banks,” this official suggests. “He did push for a larger stimulus and more jobs programs, for example. Tim just cares about banks.”

I then went on to indulge in a little conspiracy theorizing based on Cockburn’s information. But that’s beside the point right now. The point is that after writing that post, I came to the conclusion that Geithner was running economic policy in the Obama administration.

Getting back to the article at TNR, Scheiber purports to explain how Geithner survived the massacre of the economists. One interesting tidbit in the lengthy article is about Geithner’s relationship with Larry Summers, who acted as Geithner’s mentor and patron early on.

In 1993, Geithner caught the attention of [a] prominent patron—Larry Summers—whom Bill Clinton had appointed as his treasury undersecretary. Summers took a personal interest in Geithner’s career and promoted him each time he rose through the Treasury ranks.

And then during the Obama administration, Geithner apparently stabbed his patron in the back, becoming President Obama’s primary economic adviser–even though Geithner isn’t an economist. (Neither is anyone else on Obama current “economic team,” as Dakinikat frequently points out.)

Geithner actually sounds a lot like Obama–he’s really good at sucking up and convincing people he’s on their side–until he slides in the knife. Regarding Geithner’s time at the IMF, Scheiber writes:

According to former co-workers, Geithner was deft at bringing skeptical colleagues on board. One technique involved homing in on possible dissidents and absorbing their suggestions into his proposals.

Sound familiar? A bit more:

Perhaps most important, Geithner was scrupulously attuned to the temperament of the boss. Like Obama, he evinced a strong aversion to blather. During meetings with the president, he would say little, and usually not until the end, when his opinion was solicited. “I thought [Geithner] got the president really well,” says a former administration official who interacted with him on nonfinancial matters. “When he was in trouble, I said to someone, ‘He just needs to hold on. He’ll be fine with Obama. Once they get to know each other, they’re like the same person.’”

Scheiber describes an epic struggle between Geithner and Summers over how to deal with the banks that had crashed the U.S. economy. Summers argued for some form of nationalization, while Geithner claimed the banks just needed more capital and they could recover.

If Geithner was right, the capital shortfall was much more manageable than Summers feared. The banks might be able to fill it with minimal government help, simply by selling shares to investors. But, if he was wrong, the banks would stumble along in a kind of vampire state, sucking credit from the economy and exacerbating the recession. In the worst case, fears of insolvency could trigger a modern-day version of Depression-era bank runs.

Hey, wait a minute. That sounds like what is happening to our economy right now. But, never mind, Geithner won the battle that counted–the battle for Obama’s favor.

Part of what Geithner convinced Obama of was “that it was ultimately better politics to risk a backlash with unemployment at 10 percent than to feed the backlash and watch the economy shrink further.” So it’s Geithner we have to thank for the new normal of high unemployment, poverty, and suffering among the middle, working, and lower classes.

Finally, what horrified David Dayen was Geithner’s out-front claim that–in Dayen’s words, “what’s good for Wall Street is good for America.” Geithner:

“I don’t have any enthusiasm for … trying to shrink the relative importance of the financial system in our economy as a test of reform, because we have to think about the fact that we operate in the broader world,” he said. “It’s the same thing for Microsoft or anything else. We want U.S. firms to benefit from that.” He continued: “Now financial firms are different because of the risk, but you can contain that through regulation.” This was the purpose of the recent financial reform, he said. In effect, Geithner was arguing that we should be as comfortable linking the fate of our economy to Wall Street as to automakers or Silicon Valley.

In response, Dayen writes:

I don’t even know what to say about this. We’re just a few years removed from the financial oligarchs destroying the global economy through their own greed and negligence. And the man put in charge of regulating them, who had a front-row seat to all this destruction and who has been given expanded powers under Dodd-Frank to see to it that never happens again, thinks that there’s a great “financial deepening” about to take place where the demand for sophisticated financial innovations will jump. Therefore, the financial sector will need to grow and become the most reliable spur of the US economy. That’s his feeling. And regulation can reduce the risk, even though the new regulations barely put a dent into Wall Street’s core business, and are being systematically defunded besides.

Financialization of the economy has led to practically nothing but pain for the average worker and risk for the taxpayer. It has turned the allocation of capital into the placing of bets at a casino, and the stock market into a particularly sophisticated video poker game. This territory was all covered before in the run-up to the Great Depression as well, and we know the precise causes and remedies involved. Geithner prefers not to address the plutocracy he’s really advancing here – where elites provide “financial deepening” services abroad and amass ridiculous profits that they wall off.

This incredibly amoral conman is partnering with our conman chief executive to sell out our country, our lives, and those of our children and grandchildren. There’s lots more of interest in the article, particularly the information about Geithner’s upbringing.

I’ll wrap this up with a few other stories, and then throw the floor open to your links and opinions. Did you hear that Stephen Baldwin is suing Kevin Costner over Costner’s oil-eating invention?

It seems Baldwin sold his shares in Costner’s company right before BP shelled out $50 million for the machines.

Jane Hamsher offers a flow-chart of the principle players in the scandal over US Chamber of Commerce’s attempts to discredit Wikileaks, Glenn Greenwald, Brad Friedman, David House, and others who have supported wikileaks and Bradley Manning. Joseph Cannon has also been covering this story.

Brad Friedman’s post especially is a must read. Get this, the Chamber paid 2 million dollars a month for dirt on Friedman, and got completely inaccurate information. And that inaccurate information came from corporations who are paid billions by our government “to target terrorists.” But Obama wants to cancel heating assistance for poor people to save money.

Mitt Romney is ahead in the latest NH poll, at 40%, for whatever that’s worth. Romney was always going to win NH. They always vote for New Englanders up there. The real test for Romney will be Iowa.

The Patriot Act extension has been passed by the House on the second try. I think the Egyptians will probably get rid of their emergency law before we get rid of ours.

There are “massive” protests in Iran, inspired by the dramatic events in Egypt. There have also been more protests in Yemen and in Bahrain. When will it happen here?

What are you reading and blogging about today?


Label me ‘Not Surprised’

I should’ve stuck to my research agenda, but no, I just had to go look at business headlines. There’s a debate on at The Economist over Who benefits from financial innovation?” Nobel Prize winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz is arguing that financial innovation hasn’t been boosting economic growth but his position (which is mine) is currently in the minority.

The right kind of innovation obviously would help the financial sector fulfil its core functions; and if the financial sector fulfilled those functions better, and at lower cost, almost surely it would contribute to growth and societal well-being. But, for the most part, that is not the kind of innovation we have had.

In terms of that big question up there, the answer is found today on Bloomberg.com. If you answered “what is the vampire squid”,you’re absolutely right. The more relevant question appears to be what did that cost us? For that, I can only answer a lot and there’s more to come. Here’s the headline: Secret AIG Document Shows Goldman Sachs Minted Most Toxic CDOs.

Well, there’s your financial innovation for you.

So, the fun thing about the story is that the unlikely hero is Darrold Issa (Republican) member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform who “placed into the hearing record a five-page document itemizing the mortgage securities on which banks such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Societe Generale SA had bought $62.1 billion in credit-default swaps from AIG.” Oddly enough,it appears that Issa may have not really known exactly what he had just disclosed. It didn’t really attract any attention at the time. Luckily, some one who knew something eventually looked at it. This was essentially a list of the deals that made AIG insolvent. These were also the deals that the government basically bought when it rescued AIG.

The document Issa made public cuts to the heart of the controversy over the September 2008 AIG rescue by identifying specific securities, known as collateralized-debt obligations, that had been insured with the company. The banks holding the credit-default swaps, a type of derivative, collected collateral as the insurer was downgraded and the CDOs tumbled in value.

The public can now see for the first time how poorly the securities performed, with losses exceeding 75 percent of their notional value in some cases. Compounding this, the document and Bloomberg data demonstrate that the banks that bought the swaps from AIG are mostly the same firms that underwrote the CDOs in the first place.

Here’s an even more interesting analysis from a legal standpoint. I know the deal was shady, I just have never known exactly if shady=unethical=illegal. The devil is truly in the details placed into public record by Issa.

The identification of securities in the document, known as Schedule A, and data compiled by Bloomberg show that Goldman Sachs underwrote $17.2 billion of the $62.1 billion in CDOs that AIG insured — more than any other investment bank. Merrill Lynch & Co., now part of Bank of America Corp., created $13.2 billion of the CDOs, and Deutsche Bank AG underwrote $9.5 billion.

These tallies suggest a possible reason why the New York Fed kept so much under wraps, Professor James Cox of Duke University School of Law says: “They may have been trying to shield Goldman — for Goldman’s sake or out of macro concerns that another investment bank would be at risk.”

Okay, so we know who we’re speaking of when Cox says the New York Fed, right? That would be Treasury Secretary Timmy-really-in-the-well-this-time Geithner. Bloomberg is going as far as to label his actions a cover-up. I frankly think that looks like a mild charge. Interestingly enough, an earlier version of the information was released by AIG but the counterparty names were redacted at the time. Chris Dodd’s committee had requested the information. Without the names–or more truthfully the frequency of ONE name in particular–you can’t really see much of a conspiracy.

What this detailed list shows–because the names are now out there along with the deals–is that the very same folks that underwrote the original toxic securities were the same folks that went to AIG to bet against them. It doesn’t look like they were hedging or placing insurance on their risk which would be natural and understandable transactions. It appears they fully knew the securities were bad and were preparing to make money by placing offsetting bets. This activity could only be determined if you saw the names of the counterparties next to the deals themselves. So, the appropriate document to list the information on would be a Schedule A. AIG released a schedule A for several years during the crisis, but without some of the most relevant details. We know now that this was at the request of the NY Fed (aka Tim–I’ve got GS on speed dial–Geithner).

In late November 2008, the insurer was planning to include Schedule A in a regulatory filing — until a lawyer for the Fed said it wasn’t necessary, according to the e-mails. The document was an attachment to the agreement between AIG and Maiden Lane III, the fund that the Fed established in November 2008 to hold the CDOs after the swap contracts were settled.

AIG paid its counter­parties — the banks — the full value of the contracts, after accounting for any collateral that had been posted, and took the devalued CDOs in exchange. As requested by the New York Fed, AIG kept the bank names out of the Dec. 24 filing and edited out a sentence that said they got full payment.

The New York Fed’s January 2010 statement said the sentence was deleted because AIG technically paid slightly less than 100 cents on the dollar.

Before the New York Fed ordered AIG to pay the banks in full, the company was trying to negotiate to pay off the credit- default swaps at a discount or “haircut.”

Read that date. We’re talking November 2008. If you read further into the Bloomberg article you’ll see that the names were withheld also during 2009. Issa put the names out because he wanted to show U.S. taxpayers where their money went. It’s unclear to me if he understood then or maybe even now that by putting out the details of the deals, he’s basically provided information that let’s us know how deeply Goldman Sachs was in on the financial innovations that blew up the economy. Not only that, it appears they knowingly may have been loading some of those innovations with assets they knew would explode and that they were actively placing bets on that outcome at AIG. As of the end of January, 2010 meeting, Geithner and the NY Fed still didn’t want the details released. No fucking wonder!

Janet Tavakoli, founder of Tavakoli Structured Finance Inc., a Chicago-based consulting firm, says the New York Fed’s secrecy has helped hide who’s responsible for the worst of the disaster. “The suppression of the details in the list of counterparties was part of the coverup,” she says.

E-mails between Fed and AIG officials that Issa released in January show that the efforts to keep Schedule A under wraps came from the New York Fed. Revelation of the messages contributed to the heated atmosphere at the House hearing.

Tavakoli also says that the poor performance of the underlying securities (which are actually specific slices or tranches of CDOs) shows they were toxic in the first place and were probably replenished with bundles of mortgages that were particularly troubled. Managers who oversee CDOs after they are created have discretion in choosing the mortgage bonds used to replenish them.

“The original CDO deals were bad enough,” Tavakoli says. “For some that allow reinvesting or substitution, any reasonable professional would ask why these assets were being traded into the portfolio. The Schedule A shows that we should be investigating these deals.”

So, check this out.

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, who delivered a report on the AIG bailout in November, says he’s not finished. He has begun a probe of why his office wasn’t provided all of the 250,000 pages of documents, including e-mails and phone logs, that Issa’s committee received from the New York Fed.

Okay, now, follow closely as I connect the dots to this one: U.S. Treasury loan plan may exclude TARP watchdog.

If you were Timothy Geithner, would you want Neil Barofsky poking around any more programs? Wouldn’t you be highly interested in controlling TARP oversight? No wonder Treasury officials and others have been after Barofsky for some time. (Here’s an outline of their actions and attempts to remove independency by Glenn Greenwald at Salon from last summer. )

Bottom line:

Geithner basically knew the vampire squid was a huge contributor to the fall of AIG. It looks like he may have actively encouraged covering-up that information. It also looks like GS actively securitized mortgages it knew would fail eventually and made huge counterbets based on that information using AIG as its personal bookie. Then, when AIG couldn’t cover the bets, GS refused to negotiate any deals (they must’ve known something like a bail out was forthcoming). Then knew exactly what was in those securities so they knew their real value. Geithner made AIG pay GS 100% of the value when it appears they were worth around 35%. When AIG tried to report the counterparties, the NY FED told them to withhold the information. (Yet, post Timmy, the NY FED appears to have released everything to Issa’s committee. During Timmy’s time, remember, everything was heavily edited and Barofsky appears not to have gotten the same information.) They also were told not to provide details on the mark downs. Timmy must’ve known that Goldman was betting against the toxic assets they had created. Not only that, it looks like Goldman was actually shorting themselves! AND these guys were Obama’s major contributors. Giethner must’ve been part of the packaged deal.

I got one thing to say now. A lot of folks should be doing a perp walk on this one. This looks like fraud. If this is the kind’ve financial innovation these folks voting on The Economist poll want, then they should just as well turn their life savings over to Bernie Madoff right now. I just wish they’d stop giving the likes of him mine too.

(I hope I’ve explained this adequately, cause this sure is one fucking twisted tale.)