Daily Archive: 02/04/2013

Feb 04 2013

Preventing Future Economic Failures. Maybe

In the “I’ll believe this when I see it” category, there are two bits of news about banking and Wall Street have been too long in the coming and if it happens, there will be a lot of happy dances in places like Zucotti Park.

First, the British Treasury chief has told the “Too Big To Fail” banks that their days are numbered if they flout the law and banking regulations in the future:

George Osborne told executives from JPMorgan that the days of banks being “too big to fail” are over in Britain, and that taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to bail out the lenders. The next time a crisis hits, he wants more options to act. [..]

The new measure gives regulators the power to force a complete separation of a lender’s retail business from its investment banking. Risky investments undermined banks’ stability in 2008, leading to taxpayer bailouts of two big U.K. banks. [..]

The banking standards commission said that the scandal of manipulating key lending indexes (LIBOR) had “exposed a culture of culpable greed far removed from the interests of bank customers.” [..]

Other countries and regulators are also grappling with how to prevent future bailouts. In the United States, legislation known as the Dodd-Frank act seeks to bar banks them from engaging in risky trading on their own account. The European Union is also examining how banks might separate their riskier investment banking operations from the rest of their business.

Besides that, new international rules – known as Basel III – will require banks to hold more financial reserves to protect against possible losses. The requirements will be phased in over the coming years, but banks have said they are too demanding.

The second is the report that the US Department of Justice and state prosecutors intend to file civil charges again the rating service, Standard & Poors, alleging wrong doing  in its rating of mortgage bonds before the financial crisis erupted in 2008. According to the report in The Wall Street Journal

The likely move by U.S. officials would be the first federal enforcement action against a credit-rating firm for alleged illegal behavior related to the crisis. Several state attorneys general are expected to join the case, making it one of the highest-profile and widest-ranging enforcement crisis-era crackdowns.

The expected civil charges against S&P follow the breakdown of long-running settlement talks between the Justice Department and S&P, the people said. [..]

All three credit-rating firms have faced intense criticism from lawmakers for giving allegedly overly rosy ratings to thousands of subprime-mortgage bonds before the housing market collapsed.

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded two years ago that the top credit-rating agencies were “key enablers of the financial meltdown.”

The Justice Department and other law-enforcement agencies have long been investigating whether the rating firms broke securities laws or simply failed to predict the housing crisis.

Over at Zero Hedge, Tyler Durdin questions why S&P is being targeted and not the other ratings agencies:

Certainly if S&P is being targeted so will be the Octogenarian of Omaha’s pet rating company, Moody’s as well, not to mention French Fitch. Or maybe not: after all these were the two raters who sternly refused to downgrade the US when the country boldly penetrated the 100% debt/GDP target barrier, and which at last check has some 105% in debt/GDP with no actual plan of trimming spending. As in ever.

And in these here united banana states, it is only reasonable to expect that such crony, corrupt behavior is not only not punished but solidly rewarded.

I expect to be disappointed. Fool me.

Feb 04 2013

Punting the Pundits

“Punting the Pundits” is an Open Thread. It is a selection of editorials and opinions from around the news medium and the internet blogs. The intent is to provide a forum for your reactions and opinions, not just to the opinions presented, but to what ever you find important.

Thanks to ek hornbeck, click on the link and you can access all the past “Punting the Pundits”.

Follow us on Twitter @StarsHollowGzt

New York Times Editorial: Europe Moves Ahead on Privacy

The European Union is considering far-reaching privacy regulations that would give the citizens of its member countries significant control over how Web sites and marketing companies collect and use data about them. Years in the making, the effort stands in stark contrast to the much slower pace of discussions about online privacy laws in Washington. [..]

The Obama administration has talked with technology and marketing companies about creating voluntary industry standards. But the best way to ensure that Americans can keep their personal information private is through federal legislation backed by regulatory enforcement. Europe is setting an example of how that might be accomplished. While the United States is unlikely to go as far as the E.U., it needs to do a lot more.

Paul Krugman: Friends of Fraud

Like many advocates of financial reform, I was a bit disappointed in the bill that finally emerged. Dodd-Frank gave regulators the power to rein in many financial excesses; but it was and is less clear that future regulators will use that power. As history shows, the financial industry’s wealth and influence can all too easily turn those who are supposed to serve as watchdogs into lap dogs instead.

There was, however, one piece of the reform that was a shining example of how to do it right: the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a stand-alone agency with its own funding, charged with protecting consumers against financial fraud and abuse. And sure enough, Senate Republicans are going all out in an attempt to kill that bureau.

Why is consumer financial protection necessary? Because fraud and abuse happen.

The Observer Editorial: The Growing Wealth Gap Is Unsustainable

The ever-increasing many who are struggling cannot support a structure that favours a tiny number of the very rich

Last month, Barack Obama, on his re-election to a country with 42 million living in poverty, warned: “America cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” At the World Economic Forum in Davos, its founder, Klaus Schwab, said: “Capitalism in its current form no longer fits the world around us.” How badly it “fits” is powerfully demonstrated in Inequality for All, a documentary made by Jacob Kornbluth, that recently won the special jury prize at the Sundance festival. As discussed in today’s New Review, the film “stars” Robert Reich, professor of public policy at Harvard, prolific author, campaigner, former labour secretary under Bill Clinton, a charismatic man whose lectures are renowned for the way he surgically dismembers the mutant capitalism that has taken hold in the US over the past 40 years.

While the debate in the UK is mostly focused on growth and how best to engender it, Reich explains in chilling detail why growth alone may not be enough. For too many, he explains, social mobility has begun to slide backwards. A small but growing band of global pirates – billionaires all, without allegiance to community or country, devoid of civic responsibility – accrue wealth from the continued immiseration of the squeezed majority. These hugely rich are fawned over and subsidised by governments even as inequality widens to a chasm that may yet produce social unrest.

Robert Kuttner: Weak Economy, Wrong Debate

What is it with this economy? The Dow hits 14,000, the unemployment rate rises in January, and GDP actually falls in the last three months of 2012. Could it be that what’s good for the stock market is bad for the rest of the economy? Could it be that captains of industry like weak labor markets, high unemployment, low wages — and a Federal Reserve that has to use ultra-low interest rates to try to keep things afloat?

Well, yes, but the story is also richer and more complicated.

Basically, the economy is still weighted down by the legacy effects of the financial collapse of 2008 — mortgages that exceed the value of homes, students staggering under the weight of college loans in a dismal job market, retired people for whom low interest rates mean low returns on savings, corporations looting pensions, and above all flat or declining wages. [..]

In sum: unless we stop obsessing on cutting the debt ratio as an end in itself, we are condemned to a decade of economic underperformance.

President Obama got some nice political lift from his re-election and his new, more assertive tone. But he (and the economy) are still dragged down by the undertow of bad economic assumptions that continue to contour the debate.

Robert Reich: An Anniversary of America’s First Progressive Revolution

A progressive backlash against concentrated wealth and power occurred a century ago in America. In the 1880s and 1890s such a movement seemed improbable if not impossible. Only idealists and dreamers thought the nation had the political will to reform itself, let alone enact a constitutional amendment of such importance – analogous, today, to an amendment reversing “Citizens United v. FEC” and limiting the flow of big money into politics.

But it did happen. And it will happen again.

Robert Dreyfuss: The Hagel Disaster

Chuck Hagel may still be confirmed by the Senate as secretary of defense, because Democrats who hold the majority will probably vote with the president. But if the Israel Lobby manages to cull a few Democrats to join what appears to be a growing Republican tidal wave against Hagel, he’ll be shot down. Just as Chas Freeman-whose views are in roughly the same ballpark as Hagel’s-was shot down, even before his appointment got off the ground three years ago.

But Hagel didn’t help himself with a confused, stumbling appearance yesterday in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Admittedly, the SFRC was infested with what seemed to rabid jackals, extreme-right Republicans like Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, along with John McCain of Arizona, still fighting the long-lost Iraq war.

But Hagel, rather than take any of them on, shucked and jived his way through the ordeal. It was the Apology Tour, during which Hagel alternately apologized for having semi-progressive views on issues such as Israel and Iran or, otherwise, denied he had them.

Feb 04 2013

On This Day In History February 4

This is your morning Open Thread. Pour your favorite beverage and review the past and comment on the future.

Find the past “On This Day in History” here.

February 4 is the 35th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. There are 330 days remaining until the end of the year (331 in leap years).

On this day in 1789, George Washington becomes the first and only president to be unanimously elected by the Electoral College. He repeated this notable feat on the same day in 1792.

The peculiarities of early American voting procedure meant that although Washington won unanimous election, he still had a runner-up, John Adams, who served as vice president during both of Washington’s terms. Electors in what is now called the Electoral College named two choices for president. They each cast two ballots without noting a distinction between their choice for president and vice president. Washington was chosen by all of the electors and therefore is considered to have been unanimously elected. Of those also named on the electors’ ballots, Adams had the most votes and became vice president.

George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) was the dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America from 1775 to 1799. He led the American victory over Britain in the American Revolutionary War as commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1775-1783, and he presided over the writing of the Constitution in 1787. As the unanimous choice to serve as the first President of the United States (1789-1797), he developed the forms and rituals of government that have been used ever since, such as using a cabinet system and delivering an inaugural address. As President he built a strong, well-financed national government that avoided war, suppressed rebellion and won acceptance among Americans of all types, and Washington is now known as the “Father of his country”.

In Colonial Virginia, Washington was born into the provincial gentry in a wealthy, well connected family that owned tobacco plantations using slave labor. Washington was home schooled by his father and older brother but both died young and Washington became attached to the powerful Fairfax clan. They promoted his career as surveyor and soldier. Strong, brave, eager for combat and a natural leader, young Washington quickly became a senior officer of the colonial forces, 1754-58, during the first stages of the French and Indian War. Indeed, his rash actions helped precipitate the war. Washington’s experience, his military bearing, his leadership of the Patriot cause in Virginia, and his political base in the largest colony made him the obvious choice of the Second Continental Congress in 1775 as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army to fight the British in the American Revolution. He forced the British out of Boston in 1776, but was defeated and nearly captured later that year when he lost New York City. After crossing the Delaware River in the dead of winter he defeated the enemy in two battles, retook New Jersey, and restored momentum to the Patriot cause. Because of his strategy, Revolutionary forces captured two major British armies at Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781. Negotiating with Congress, governors, and French allies, he held together a tenuous army and a fragile nation amid the threats of disintegration and invasion. Historians give the commander in chief high marks for his selection and supervision of his generals, his encouragement of morale, his coordination with the state governors and state militia units, his relations with Congress, and his attention to supplies, logistics, and training. In battle, however, Washington was repeatedly outmaneuvered by British generals with larger armies. Washington is given full credit for the strategies that forced the British evacuation of Boston in 1776 and the surrender at Yorktown in 1781. After victory was finalized in 1783, Washington resigned rather than seize power, and returned to his plantation at Mount Vernon, proving his opposition to dictatorship and his commitment to republican government.

Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention that drafted the United States Constitution in 1787 because of his dissatisfaction with the weaknesses of Articles of Confederation that had time and again impeded the war effort. Washington became the first President of the United States in 1789. He attempted to bring rival factions together in order to create a more unified nation. He supported Alexander Hamilton‘s programs to pay off all the state and national debts, implement an effective tax system, and create a national bank, despite opposition from Thomas Jefferson. Washington proclaimed the U.S. neutral in the wars raging in Europe after 1793. He avoided war with Britain and guaranteed a decade of peace and profitable trade by securing the Jay Treaty in 1795, despite intense opposition from the Jeffersonians. Although never officially joining the Federalist Party, he supported its programs. Washington’s “Farewell Address” was an influential primer on republican virtue and a stern warning against partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars.

Washington had a vision of a great and powerful nation that would be built on republican lines using federal power. He sought to use the national government to improve the infrastructure, open the western lands, create a national university, promote commerce, found a capital city (later named Washington, D.C.), reduce regional tensions and promote a spirit of nationalism. “The name of AMERICAN,” he said, must override any local attachments.” At his death Washington was hailed as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”. The Federalists made him the symbol of their party, but for many years the Jeffersonians continued to distrust his influence and delayed building the Washington Monument. As the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial empire in world history, Washington became an international icon for liberation and nationalism. His symbolism especially resonated in France and Latin America. Historical scholars consistently rank him as one of the two or three greatest presidents.

Feb 04 2013

DOJ Turns A Blind Eye to Shockingly Bad Behavior

Matt Taibbi on Big Banks’ Lack of Accountability

Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi joins Bill to discuss the continuing lack of accountability for “too big to fail” banks which continue to break laws and act unethically because they know they can get away with it. Taibbi refers specifically to the government’s recent settlement with HSBC – “a serial offender on the money laundering score” – who merely had to pay a big fine for shocking offenses, including, Taibbi says, laundering money for both drug cartels and banks connected to terrorists.

Taibbi also expresses his concern over recent Obama appointees – including Jack Lew and Mary Jo White – who go from working on behalf of major banks in the private sector to policing them in the public sector.

Matt has more on Mary Jo White and her involvement with squashing the insider trading case against future Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack by Sec investigator Gary Aguirre.

There are a few more troubling details about this incident that haven’t been disclosed publicly yet. The first involve White’s deposition about this case, which she gave in February 2007, as part of the SEC Inspector General’s investigation. In this deposition, White is asked to recount the process by which Berger came to work at D&P. There are several striking exchanges, in which she gives highly revealing answers.

First, White describes the results of her informal queries about Berger as a hire candidate. “I got some feedback,” she says, “that Paul Berger was considered very aggressive by the defense bar, the defense enforcement bar.” White is saying that lawyers who represent Wall Street banks think of Berger as being kind of a hard-ass. She is immediately asked if it is considered a good thing for an SEC official to be “aggressive”:

   Q: When you say that Berger was considered to be very aggressive, was that a positive thing for you?

   A: It was an issue to explore.

Later, she is again asked about this “aggressiveness” question, and her answers provide outstanding insight into the thinking of Wall Street’s hired legal guns – what White describes as “the defense enforcement bar.” In this exchange, White is essentially saying that she had to weigh how much Berger’s negative reputation for “aggressiveness” among her little community of bought-off banker lawyers might hurt her firm.

   Q: During your process of performing due diligence on Paul Berger, did you explore what you had heard earlier about him being very aggressive?

   A: Yes.

   Q: What did you learn about that?

   A: That some people thought he was very aggressive. That was an issue, we really did talk to a number of people about.

   Q: Did they expand on that as to why or how they thought he was aggressive?

   A: I think and as a former prosecutor, sometimes people refer to me as Attila the Hun. I understand how people can get a reputation sometimes. We were trying to obviously figure out whether this was something beyond, you always have a spectrum on the aggressiveness scale for government types and was this an issue that was beyond real commitment to the job and the mission and bringing cases, which is a positive thing in the government, to a point. Or was it a broader issue that could leave resentment in the business community or in the legal community that would hamper his ability to function well in the private sector?

It’s certainly strange that White has to qualify the idea that bringing cases is a positive thing in a government official – that bringing cases is a “positive thing . . . to a point.” Can anyone imagine the future head of the DEA saying something like, “For a prosecutor, bringing drug cases is a positive, to a point?”

Somehow this sounds like more of the same at the from the Obama administration.  

Feb 04 2013

Midnight Movie

Oh, I can so do this.