Weekly Audit: Foreclosure Mills, Social Security and the Fed’s Failures

by Amanda Anderson, Media Consortium blogger

Editor’s Note: Zach Carter is out this week, but we’ve compiled a rundown of the biggest economy-related stories, including the rise of foreclosure mills and why social security isn’t in jeopardy. Zach will be back next Tuesday, so stay tuned!

Who needs ethics when you’ve got foreclosure mills?

Want to make money quickly, but don’t want ethics to get in the way? Big banks are outsourcing their foreclosure duties to fraudulent law firms, known as foreclosure mills, and getting away with it. Zach Carter explains the latest get rich quick scheme for AlterNet. Foreclosure mills are ethically questionable law firms that process legal documents for foreclosures. They tend to have an emphasis on quantity, not quality. Carter writes:

Big banks are not outsourcing their foreclosure processing to shady law firms with a history of breaking the law for a quick buck. These foreclosure scammers forge documents, backdate signatures, slap families with thousands of dollars in illegal fees and even foreclosure on borrowers who haven’t missed a payment.

Andy Kroll chronicles the evolution of foreclosure mills for Mother Jones. Kroll also exposes a notorious Floridian law firm founded by David J. Stern that is using every trick in the book—including backdating documents and illegally charging clients massive fees—to profit from the foreclosure crisis:

While rushing foreclosures isn’t illegal, Stern’s fledgling firm was promptly accused of something that is: gouging people who are trying to get out of default. In October 1998, Tallahassee attorney Claude Walker filed a class-action lawsuit involving tens of thousands of claimants, alleging that Stern had piled excessive fees on families fighting to keep their homes. (Walker, who visited Stern’s offices in 1999 to collect depositions, described the place as “a big warehouse” where hordes of attorneys holed up in tiny, crowded offices “like hamsters in a cage.”)

Don’t blame Social Security for the deficit

Fact: Social Security benefits will be able to be paid, in full, through 2037.

Fact: 75% of Social Security benefits will be able to be paid thought 2084.

Fact: There is a huge surplus in Social Security trust fund- $2.5 trillion. So why the big push to trim the program? In an interview with The American Prospect, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) explains his proposed legislation that will actually expand benefits:

Ninety-five percent of the people in our country [already] pay Social Security tax on 100 percent of their income. The bill provides both contribution and benefit fairness: Even as people are going to be paying in more, they’re going to receive more benefits. Doing that, by the way, will also ensure the solvency of Social Security, which is terribly important.

The Fed’s failure and the AIG Bailout: A brief history

In The Nation, William Greider explains how the Federal Reserve Board gambled with American taxpayers’ money by not considering alternatives to the AIG bailout. Grieder highlights a report from the Congressional Oversight Panel, which “provides alarming insights that should be fodder for the larger debate many citizens long to hear—why Washington rushed to forgive the very interests that produced this mess, while innocent others were made to suffer the consequences.”

In short, the Fed acted “under the business-as-usual expectations of the private financial system, while skipping lightly over the public consequences.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Want Economic Justice? Then it's Time to Act

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a financial reform package that includes a handful of important reforms, but it won’t fundamentally change the relationship between banks and society. Wall Street still has a vice grip on our economy, and lawmakers still find it very difficult to stand up to bigwig financiers.

The real fight for our economy will involve future legislative battles with bankers. Winning those battles will require sweeping action by engaged citizens. The good news is, critical progressive mobilization is already happening. Public outcry helped fuel the fire for Senate reform. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), has said that the Wall Street reform bill he pushed through the House last year would have been much stronger in today’s atmosphere of outspoken economic unrest.

Focus on the Fed

So what’s good about the bill the Senate just passed? As Annie Lowrey explains for The Washington Independent, the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending programs will finally be subjected to public scrutiny.

The Fed served as the U.S. government’s chief bailout engine during the crisis. It injected trillions of dollars into the banking system without any oversight. We still don’t know who got the vast majority of that money, or what collateral the Fed accepted in return. There are all sorts of potential scandals, ranging from sweetheart deals the Fed cut with hedge funds to the trillions of dollars in loans to megabanks with no strings attached.

Of particular interest are the “Maiden Lane vehicles”—programs the Fed devised to purchase or guarantee assets from Bear Stearns and AIG. These were explicit bailouts for individual firms. We know almost nothing about the Bear Stearns bailout, and what little we do know about the AIG bailout is unsavory to say the least— big bonuses for AIG’s employees, with little or no effort to limit the impact on taxpayers.

Reconciliation

There are still a handful of important fights as the House and Senate iron out the differences between their respective versions of the bill. As I emphasize for AlterNet, a host of major issues are still on the table, including consumer protection rules and fixing the derivatives casino. These changes could be gutted entirely or dramatically strengthened during negotiations between the House and Senate.

The final bill will not dramatically alter Wall Street. As Roger Bybee explains for In These Times, the Democratic leadership has been trying to both establish meaningful reforms and simultaneously maintain its campaign finance relationship with megabanks. Republicans have almost universally attempted to block any reform altogether.

Regulators will get a handful of important new tools, including the authority to shut down complex banks on the verge of collapse, the ability to monitor derivatives and a have new set of powers to protect consumers. That’s all good, but we’ll still be living with too-big-to-fail behemoth banks that engage in reckless trading and exploit consumers.

Engaging activists

That means that the real business of fixing the financial system is still to come. And, as Christopher Hayes emphasizes for The Nation, that business is not going to be accomplished without serious, organized progressive activists putting pressure on political leaders to act in the public interest, rather than the interests of the corporate class.

When the country suffered a trauma that massively discredited the establishment rulers, the Democratic Party became the establishment. And progressive groups in DC, under stern White House orders not to cause trouble (don’t show up at his door! he’s a donor! we might nominate him for something!), descended into what one organizer calls “grotesque transactionalism” . . . . If we’re going to get reform on the scale we need, bank lobbyists and members of Congress alike have to be confronted with the terrifying thought that the system from which they profit might just be run over—that 700 angry protesters might show up on their lawn.

As Hayes details, Bank of America lobbyist Gregory Baer woke up last Sunday with exactly that– 700 protesters in his front yard. That kind of pressure gets results. It took Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven years to enact his New Deal financial reforms. Earlier in the 20th Century, it took more than a decade for public opinion to align itself with the corporate crackdowns pushed by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. It’s reasonable to expect the fight for fair finance to take more than two years, and important to fight hard for it.

The minimum reforms are already clear. Essentially, we need to bring banking back to the model that persisted from the 1930s into the 1980s—an era with no serious financial crises or bailouts. Our current financial woes stem from the systematic dismantling and deregulation of this system over the past 30 years.

State-run banks?

But we also need to learn from more recent economic experiments. As Ellen Brown notes for Yes! Magazine, the state of North Dakota has been largely insulated from much of the fallout from the financial crisis of 2008. Part of the reason for the state’s relative stability lies in the fact that it operates its own bank.

North Dakota’s direct supervision of one institution among the hundreds of banks that operate in the state has helped insulate it from the credit storm on Wall Street. The state has its own engine of credit, and can keep funds flowing to businesses that need it, even in the middle of a crisis.

The prospect of state-run banking may seem radical, but it isn’t. It’s a practical proposal based on the established, real-life success of the Bank of North Dakota. As Brown notes, five other states have legislation pending that would create their very own banks—Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington, Illinois and Michigan, while Hawaii recently approved a study to determine the usefulness of a bank run by that state.

The financial reform bill the Senate just passed was a good start, but we’ve got a long way to go. We’re not going to get there without a committed community of progressive activists who demand that the economy serve society, not only entrenched corporate interests.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Let's Name the Bankers and Make Them Famous

John McCain said during the campaign that he would stop wasteful spending in government by naming names and making people famous. Well, that's a pretty good idea. So, we've adopted it (call us bipartisan). Except we're going to apply it to the bankers who took our money.

Last week we led a protest at the Treasury Department to demand that they get our $13 billion back from Goldman Sachs for the AIG backdoor bailout (read about the reason for the protest here).

On the same day, a Congressional report came out saying basically that we were exactly right. The Congressional watchdogs said that not only should Goldman not have gotten paid a hundred percent of their bets by the American taxpayer but that doing so " undermin[ed] the basic tenets of capitalism" and had a "poisonous effect on the marketplace."

People came from all over the country to this protest. Someone took a 24 hour bus ride from Minnesota to join us at the protest. Others flew in from Wisconsin and Illinois. Someone also took a train from Minnesota (maybe Al Franken is energizing the state to get them so active). People drove in from Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, etc. Somebody even came in from Switzerland.

Sam Seder, RJ Eskow, Michael Shure and I all spoke at the event. We had great media coverage, fromMSNBC to Voice of America to Russia Today to the conservative website Townhall. Strong progressive organizations like Campaign for America's Future, Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America all chipped in.

We had a great time and delivered a message. We also delivered a petition with over 5,000 signatures on it. Now, that petition is up to 6,000 signatures. You can add your own name to it here.

But it's time to take it to the next step. The DC protest was just the beginning. Now, we've started a wiki protest. We want your contributions, ideas and actions in getting the money back. People have already started to put up the names and pictures of all the people who work at Goldman Sachs on the website. We also have many of the addresses for their offices. But we need more info. Please help us build this wiki protest by going to this link and taking part.

In its first year, Wikipedia was actually run by experts in different fields. The scholars put up a grand total of 12 articles that year. When they opened it up to everyone to contribute, they had the world's largest encyclopedia by the end of the next year. We hope we can do the same here with our wiki protest. I am sure that all of you will come up with better ideas and more effective actions than we could on our own. This way we just might get our money back.

We just have one cardinal rule - nothing physical under any circumstances. We want to ask these people to give our money back but in a very civil and polite way. Anything else is unacceptable. Please go to their offices but don't go to their homes. No yelling, no crazy confrontations, just politely ask them to return the money.

Remember, they're real people, too. They're not some evil comic book character. They're simply acting on normal human instincts. There was great money to be made by duping our government and they took advantage. In fact, they were pretty smart to do it. It's not personal. We just want the money back and that's it.

One of my high school friends works at Goldman. He's a good guy but I put his name on the list. Why? It's not because I don't like him. It's because he made a smart bet with AIG, not with me or you. We had no business paying off that bet. That's not capitalism; that's not fair. As soon as we reverse that, then there is no further issue with Goldman. I don't dislike them; I just don't want to pay their bets with our money.

Lastly, remember what Tim Geithner said at the time and continues to say to this day. He said that if we hadn't paid Goldman and the other banks for the side bets they made with AIG that the whole world economy would have collapsed. Well, luckily we're not on the edge of disaster anymore. Goldman made $25 million a day - every day - last quarter. And that was the bare minimum. They made more than $100 million 60% of those days. They're not on the brink of extinction anymore. In fact, they're making record profits. That's a perfect time for them to return the American taxpayers' money.

This has to be an issue conservatives and liberals can agree on. So, everyone please join our wiki protestand let's figure out how to get that money back to its rightful owners - the American taxpayers.

Join Wiki Protest Here

Sign Goldman Petition Here

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Weekly Audit: Wall Street Goes to the Movies

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Last week, the U.S. Senate rejected a plan that would have broken up the nation’s six largest banks firms into firms that could fail without wreaking havoc on the economy. Even though the defeat reinforces Wall Street’s political dominance, there is still room for a handful of other useful reforms, like banning banks from gambling with taxpayer money and protecting consumers from banker abuses. After looting our houses, banks are now pushing for the ability to bet on movie box-office receipts, and will keep trying to financialize anything they can unless Congress acts.

Wall Street calls the shots

Writing for The Nation, John Nichols details last week’s Capitol Hill damage. Today’s financial oligarchy, in which a handful of bigwig bankers and their lobbyists are able to write regulations and evade rules they don’t like, will still be in place after the Wall Street reform bill is passed. The lesson is clear, as Nichols notes:

Whatever the final form of federal financial services reform legislation, one thing is now certain: The biggest of the big banks will still be calling the shots.

Still worth fighting for

As I emphasize for AlterNet, Congress has made a terrible mistake here, but there is still room for reform. It took President Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven years to enact his New Deal banking laws. It took even longer to reshape public opinion of monopolies when President Theodore Roosevelt took on Corporate America in the early 1900s.

What’s still worth fighting for? We have to curb the derivatives market—the multi-trillion-dollar casino that destroyed AIG. We have to impose a strong version of the Volcker Rule, which would ban banks from engaging in speculative trading for their own accounts. We have to change the way the Federal Reserve does business and force the government’s most secretive bailout engine to operate in the open. And we have to establish a strong, independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency to ensure that the horrific subprime mortgage abuses are not repeated.

As Nomi Prins details for The American Prospect, the current reform bill will not effectively deal with the dangers posed by hedge funds and private equity firms—companies that partnered with banks to blow up the economy through investments in subprime mortgages. That means that whatever happens with the current bill, Congress must again take action next year to rein in other financial sector excesses.

The derivatives casino at the movies

As Nick Baumann demonstrates for Mother Jones, banks are doing everything they can to gobble up other productive elements of the economy. The economy crashed in 2008 in large part because banks had used the derivatives market to place trillions of dollars in speculative bets on the housing market. This wasn’t lending, it was pure gambling: Instead of using poker chips, bankers placed their bets with derivatives. But, as Baumann emphasizes, banks are now looking to expand the sort of thing they can make derivatives gambles with. The latest proposal is to allow banks to bet on the box office success of movies. That’s right, banks would be gambling on movies.

Hollywood may be shallow, but it isn’t stupid. It doesn’t want to see the banking industry repeat its destructive looting of the housing industry on the movie business, and is pushing hard to ban banks from betting on movies. But we can’t count on every industry having a powerful lobby group to counter every assault from the banking system.

Taking stock in schools

Consider the unsettling report by Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now!. Gonzales details how big banks gamed the charter school system to score huge profits while simultaneously saddling taxpayers with massive debts that make teaching kids supremely difficult. By exploiting multiple federal tax credits, banks that invest in charter schools have been able to double their money in seven years—no small feat in the investing world—while schools have seen their rents skyrocket. One school in Albany, N.Y. saw its rent jump from $170,000 to $500,000 in a single year.

About that unemployment rate…

It’s not like public schools are flush with cash right now. The $330,000 increase in rent could pay the salaries of more than a few teachers. As the recession sparked by big bank excess grinds on, even the good news is pretty hard to swallow. As David Moberg emphasizes for Working In These Times, the economy added 290,000 jobs in April, but the unemployment rate actually climbed from 9.7 percent to 9.9 percent in March. That’s because the unemployment rate only counts workers who are actively seeking a job—if you want a job but haven’t found one for so long that you give up, you’re not technically “unemployed.” All of those “new” workers are driving the official figures up.

In other words, it’s still rough out there. And likely to stay rough as state governments try to deal with the lost tax revenue from plunging home values and mass layoffs. Nearly half of all unemployed people in the U.S. have been out of a job for six months or more. And while we’d be much worse off without Obama’s economic stimulus package, that percentage is likely to grow this year, Moberg notes.

This is what unrestrained banking behemoths do. They book big profits and bonuses for themselves, regardless of the consequences for the rest of the economy. Congress absolutely must impose serious financial reform this year. After the November election, breaking up the banks must once again be on the agenda when Congress considers the future fate of hedge funds, private equity firms, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. If we don’t rein in Wall Street, banks will continue to wreak havoc on our homes, our jobs and even our schools. Congress must act.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: How Deregulation Fueled Goldman Sachs’ Scam

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed fraud charges against Goldman Sachs and underscored what most Americans have believed for some time: Wall Street has rigged the economy in its own favor, and will stop at nothing—not even outright theft—to boost its profits. What’s worse, Goldman’s scam could have been completely prevented by better regulations and law enforcement.

Goldman’s heist

Let’s be clear. “Financial fraud” means “theft.” Goldman Sachs sold investors securities that were stocked with subprime mortgages and had been cherry-picked by a hedge fund manager named John Paulson. Paulson believed these mortgages were about to go bust, so he helped Goldman Sachs concoct the securities so that he could bet against them himself.

Goldman Sachs, like Paulson, also bet against the securities. But when Goldman sold the securities to investors, it didn’t tell them that Paulson had devised the securities, or that he was betting on their failure. By withholding crucial information from investors, Goldman directly profited from the scam at the expense of its own clients. If ordinary citizens did what the SEC’s alleges Goldman did, we’d call it stealing.

As Nick Baumann emphasizes for Mother Jones, the SEC’s suit against Goldman is just the tip of the iceberg. During the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s, literally thousands of bankers were jailed for financial fraud. Today’s crisis was much larger in scope, yet the Goldman allegations are among the first serious charges of legal wrongdoing to emerge (other complaints have been filed against Regions Bank and former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo). If the SEC or the FBI are doing their jobs, we should see many more of these cases.

Bust ‘em up.

How do banks get away with these kinds of shenanigans and still secure epic taxpayer bailouts? It’s all about their political clout, as Robert Reich notes for The American Prospect. So long as banks are so enormous that they can ruin the economy with their collapse, the institutions will always carry tremendous political clout.

Even in the case of Goldman Sachs, which is too-big-to-fail by any reasonable standard, the SEC’s fraud case is being filed three years after the company’s alleged offense. That’s well after the company rode to safety on the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the AIG bailout and billions more in other indirect assistance—and only after multiple journalists made Goldman’s offensive transactions general public knowledge.

If we don’t break up the big banks, politically connected Wall Street titans will make sure they get bailed out when the next crisis hits, regardless of whatever laws we have on the books.

Fix the derivatives casino

If Congress doesn’t soon pass a bill to break up behemoth banks, it will be neglecting the gravest problem in our financial system today. But several other reforms are needed if Wall Street is ever going to serve a useful economic function again.

As Nomi Prins emphasizes for AlterNet, much of the Wall Street profit machine has been divorced from the economy that the rest of us live in. These days, banks make most of their money from securities trades and derivatives deals. Their actual lending business is taking a beating. That means big banks have very little incentive to promote economic well-being for every day citizens. We need to create these incentives by banning economically essential banks from engaging in securities trades, and make sure all derivatives transactions are conducted on open, transparent exchanges, just like ordinary stocks and bonds.

Better derivatives regulations could help protect against fraud. If Goldman Sachs’ sketchy subprime deal had been subject to market scrutiny on an exchange, it’s very unlikely that any investor would have bought into it. Goldman Sachs almost got away with it because the deal was secretive and beyond the scope of most regulatory oversight.

Protect whistleblowers

The Goldman case also raises significant questions about the government’s enforcement of existing financial fraud laws. Bradley Birkenfeld, a banker for Swiss financial giant UBS, helped the Department of Justice bring the largest tax fraud case in history against his company, which was helping rich Americans hide money from the IRS in offshore bank accounts.

For his cooperation, Birkenfeld was rewarded with a four-year prison sentence, even though nobody else at UBS—nobody—has been sentenced to prison over the scam. As Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman emphasize for Democracy Now!, Birkenfeld’s imprisonment could have something to with who exactly is hiding money with UBS.

Gonzalez discusses an interview with Birkenfeld, in which the former banker notes that the bank had a special office to handle the accounts of “politically exposed persons”— American politicians. Moreover, the top brass at UBS includes key advisors to top politicians in both parties. This is exactly the kind of influence smuggling that breaking up the banks would help fix. UBS is a multi-trillion-dollar institution with no less than 27 U.S. subsidiaries.

But protecting Birkenfeld would accomplish still more—by jailing him, the Justice Department is actively discouraging others from coming forward, and making it more difficult for regulators to enforce the law.

Greenspan’s failure

It’s abundantly clear that almost every major regulatory agency charged with curtailing financial excess failed to prevent the Crash of 2008. But that failure doesn’t mean that effective regulation is impossible—it only shows that the regulators in power failed. The top bank regulator in the U.S., John Dugan, was a former bank lobbyist.

As Christopher Hayes demonstrates for The Nation, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has never had any interest in regulation whatsoever. After the crash, Greenspan insisted that nobody could have seen it coming. But as Hayes notes, many people did—Greenspan simply didn’t listen to them. These days, Greenspan is revising his story, claiming that he did in fact see the crisis coming, but that nobody could have prevented it. That is simply not credible.

Hayes draws a useful parallel Hurricane Katrina, a problem sparked by a natural event that became a catastrophe when regulators failed to take the necessary precautions. The lesson from both Katrina and the financial crash is not that government always screws up—we have plenty of examples of government preventing floods and economic calamity. The lesson we should learn is that people who don’t believe in government will never do a good job governing. As Hayes notes:

If Greenspan couldn’t figure things out, that doesn’t mean others can’t. In fact, developing systems for doing just that is called—quite simply—progress, and Alan Greenspan continues to be one of its enemies.

That is exactly the task that now presents itself before Congress: Developing a system to prevent and constrain economic destruction wielded by Wall Street. The U.S. had a system that did exactly this for more than fifty years. For the last thrity years, it has been systematically dismantled. How well Congress lives up to that challenge will define much of our economic future for decades to come.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

 

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