Is Larry Summers on the way out?

Joshua Green thinks so:

I think Summers is going to leave sooner rather than later, possibly before the mid-term elections, and if not then, soon afterward.

Why? Because Summers is frustrated by his role, and his colleagues are clearly frustrated with him. Alexis Simendinger had a devastating item in last week's National Journal suggesting that Summers's "legendary self-regard" and "ego the size of the national debt" had gotten out of control. Some of Summers's frustration no doubt stems from his wanting to be Treasury secretary. When that plum went to Geithner, Summers cast his eye on the Fed chairmanship and agreed to bide his time until Ben Bernanke's term ended at the NEC--a staff position well below his old job as Clinton's Treasury secretary. Most administration officials tactfully avoid pointing this out, because Summers has a fragile ego. But that's why Joe Biden is so great. "How many former Secretaries of the Treasury would come in not as Secretary of the Treasury?" Biden blurted out to the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza last fall.

But Summers didn't get the Fed job either. Apparently that didn't sit well. Administration insiders told Simendinger that Summers demanded a series of perks as compensation, including cabinet status, golf dates with the president, and a personal car and driver. In the "No Drama" Obama administration, such behavior stands out. [...]

Summers always seemed a bad fit for NEC director because the job entails dispassionately presenting the president with the counsel of his competing economic advisers. Summers doesn't do "dispassionate" and he didn't want to limit himself to fielding others' advice--he had plenty of his own to offer. In other words, he was supposed to be the referee, but he also wanted to play power forward.

Summers was one of President Obama's worst appointments, in my opinion, but I wouldn't expect the president to reshuffle his economic team unless a mostly-jobless recovery continues, or the worst-case scenario of a douple-dip recession develops. Anyway, Summers' departure wouldn't make much difference if Green is right about Timothy Geithner being "ever more secure at Treasury."

What do you think?

Weekly Audit: Geithner, Bailouts, and the Financial Crisis

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

The AIG bailout is one of the largest redistributions of wealth from ordinary taxpayers to bigwig bankers in history, one in which current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner played a key role. Newly uncovered emails reveal that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s New York Federal Reserve office urged AIG to conceal key information about the bailout from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

If Geithner was involved in those decisions, he could face charges of securities fraud. As John Nichols explains for The Nation, the quality of Geithner’s judgment is no longer in question—we already knew he committed plenty of errors while negotiating the AIG bailout as president of the New York Federal Reserve. The question now is whether Geithner needs to be prosecuted for misleading federal regulators.

AIG bet on the housing market with credit default swaps, a new form of financial derivative that helped the company score big profits during the housing boom. But when the market tanked, the company couldn’t cover its losses. AIG’s housing market gambles were completed with help from some of the largest banks in the world, including Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, and Citigroup. If AIG had filed for bankruptcy in September of that year, those banks would have been required to accept much lower payouts on those bets—as little as 10% of their face value.

Instead, when the government swooped in to save AIG, the banks ended up with amazing deals. As a chief negotiator in the AIG bailout, Geithner allowed Goldman and others to receive full payout at 100 cents on the dollar. That meant U.S. tax dollars were going to the banks with no strings attached. But Geithner refused to tell the public which banks were benefiting from the bailout for almost six months. He finally relented when the AIG bonus outrage boiled over in March.

Last week, we learned the most damaging development yet: Geithner’s New York Fed urged AIG to keep the SEC in the dark about its sweetheart deals for the banks. Withholding key information from the SEC can be a criminal offense, and if Geithner was involved in the push to mislead the SEC, he must be held accountable.

For now, the Obama administration is standing by Geithner, saying that the decision to pressure AIG against cooperating with the SEC “did not rise to his level at the Fed” last Friday. But as Mike Lillis notes for The Washington Independent, that explanation strains credulity:

The federal government had recently bailed out AIG to the tune of $180 billion; AIG was funneling that cash to other (already bailed out) Wall Street giants; the New York Fed was telling AIG not to disclose those payments; and that decision didn’t rise to the level of the Fed chairman?

Lately, the government hasn’t had a very good record on prosecuting financial crime. Prosecutors wouldn’t have uncovered a massive tax evasion scheme at Swiss banking giant UBS without the help of whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld. And the tax fraud was indeed massive—the Justice Department believes that UBS illegally helped shield over 19,000 wealthy clients from paying taxes.

But, as Amy Goodman reveals for Democracy Now!, in return for uncovering the biggest tax fraud in history, the Justice Department has successfully pushed to have Birkenfeld jailed for more than three years. By contrast, almost everyone involved in the scam is getting off with fines, probation, or less. What signal do you think this sends to other potential whistleblowers?

The housing boom encouraged banks to pour money into speculative investments outside the traditional mortgage market, especially by making loans to property developers to build high-end condominiums. When the housing bubble burst, it became clear that there were far more fancy condos than anybody wanted. Today, most economists expect the loans that financed these developments to prove nearly worthless.

As Alyssa Katz details for The American Prospect, scores of those buildings are now nearly vacant in New York City alone. In order to create these useless towers, developers cleared the land by forcing out tenants in affordable housing complexes, and shut down productive businesses. If these spaces are to be used productively—say, for affordable rental housing—banks and developers need to acknowledge that their market has tanked, accept their losses and move on.

Instead, Katz notes, federal regulators are letting banks apply very optimistic accounting values to these commercial real estate projects. This accounting creates illusory short-term profits for banks and eliminates incentives to let the land go to socially useful enterprises. If regulators don’t force banks to get serious about their commercial real estate losses, the government will effectively be subsidizing a rash of useless eyesores, allowing neighborhoods to decay in the process.

Subprime shenanigans from AIG, UBS and other banks helped tank the global economy. We’re still feeling the job fallout from a financial crisis that banks triggered over two years ago. Last week, the government reported that the economy lost 85,000 jobs in December, while the unemployment rate held even at 10%. David Moberg explains why we desperately need the Senate to approve a robust jobs bill in a blog for Working In These Times. A $174 billion package passed the House last month, but it’s a pittance compared to what the government has pledged to save Wall Street.

So how did we get here—saving the crooked jerks who created the mess while leaving everyone else out to dry? Kevin Drum’s story in Mother Jones on the bank lobby offers critical insight into the operations of the U.S. democratic process, and also stands up as one of a handful of investigative journalism masterpieces that have stemmed from the financial crisis. In the last dozen years, elite financiers have secured government approval to shoulder greater risks and pay bigger bonuses, despite a series of near-catastrophic financial market failures. Drum details the financial industry’s pervasive influence over lawmakers in Congress, key policymakers at the Federal Reserve and federal regulators in other agencies, influence often purchased outright with campaign contributions and massive lobbying efforts.

These days, the money still talks in American government. But the true economic coup is not financial. It’s ideological: Bankers have convinced leaders of both political parties that what’s good for Wall Street is always good for America, even if the cost of boosting the bottom line involves dismantling productive firms, ravaging neighborhoods with foreclosures or scamming poor people with massive overdraft fees.

“…There’s more to the finance lobby than just money and political influence,” Drum writes. “Their real power lies in the fact that they’ve so thoroughly changed our collective attitude toward financial regulation that sometimes they barely need to lobby in the traditional sense at all.”

This is precisely how we got stuck with banker apologists like Geithner, a Justice Department that punishes whistleblowers while letting corporate crooks go free, and why we’re allowing neighborhoods to rot away for no reason. We have to demand more from our government, regardless of which party is in power. If we don’t, we’ll get stuck with the same save-Wall-Street-first policies forever, regardless of the consequences for society.

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.

Past time for Geithner to go

Here's hoping this latest revelation about Timothy Geithner brings a rapid end to his tenure as Treasury secretary:

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, then led by Timothy Geithner, told American International Group Inc. to withhold details from the public about the bailed-out insurer’s payments to banks during the depths of the financial crisis, e-mails between the company and its regulator show.

AIG said in a draft of a regulatory filing that the insurer paid banks, which included Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Societe Generale SA, 100 cents on the dollar for credit-default swaps they bought from the firm. The New York Fed crossed out the reference, according to the e-mails, and AIG excluded the language when the filing was made public on Dec. 24, 2008. The e-mails were obtained by Representative Darrell Issa, ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The New York Fed took over negotiations between AIG and the banks in November 2008 as losses on the swaps, which were contracts tied to subprime home loans, threatened to swamp the insurer weeks after its taxpayer-funded rescue. The regulator decided that Goldman Sachs and more than a dozen banks would be fully repaid for $62.1 billion of the swaps, prompting lawmakers to call the AIG rescue a “backdoor bailout” of financial firms.

“It appears that the New York Fed deliberately pressured AIG to restrict and delay the disclosure of important information,” said Issa, a California Republican. Taxpayers “deserve full and complete disclosure under our nation’s securities laws, not the withholding of politically inconvenient information.”[...]

Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said the e-mail exchanges were “troubling” and that he supports holding congressional hearings to review them.

I've been hoping for the last year that President Obama would ditch Geithner sooner rather than later. The president didn't react to the November report from the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which slammed Geithner's conduct during the AIG bailout. But it's clear that Geithner wasn't looking out for the public interest in his last job and never should have been promoted to his current position.

House Populists pushing Wall Street transaction fee bill

Members of the House Populist Caucus held a press conference on Thursday to endorse a bill that would "assess a small fee on Wall Street day traders to pay down the national deficit and invest in America's middle class families." From a press release issued by Populist Caucus Chairman Bruce Braley (IA-01):

"Our nation continues to be crippled by a struggling economy which has resulted in an astronomical unemployment rate of 10.2 percent," [Representative Peter] DeFazio [OR-04] said.  "The American taxpayers bailed out Wall Street during a crisis brought on by reckless speculation in the financial markets.  This legislation will force Wall Street to do their part and put people displaced by that crisis back to work." [...]

The legislation will assess a small securities fee on the following transactions:
·         Stock transactions (tax rate will be 1/4 of 1 percent--0.25%),
·         Futures contracts to buy or sell a specified commodity of standardized quality at a certain date in the future, at a market determined price (tax rate will be 0.02%),
·         Swaps between two firms on certain benefits of one party's financial instrument for those of the other party's financial instrument (tax rate will be 0.02%)
·         Credit default swaps where a contract is swapped through a series of payments in exchange for a payoff if a credit instrument (typically a bond or loan) goes into default (fails to pay) (tax rate will be 0.02%),
·         And options, which are contracts between a buyer and a seller that gives the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to buy or to sell a particular asset on or before the option's expiration time, at an agreed price (at the rate of the underlying asset).

To ensure the tax is appropriately targeted to speculators and has no impact on the average investor and pension funds, the tax will be refunded for:

1)      tax-favored retirement accounts,

  1.      education savings accounts,
  2.      health savings accounts,
  3.      mutual funds and,
  4.      the first $100,000 of transactions annually that are not already exempted.

Braley spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki told me that as of this morning, the bill has 21 co-sponsors, 14 of whom belong to the Populist Caucus.

The bill has at least one champion in the Senate. HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin appeared with Populist Caucus members at yesterday's press conference. I don't know whether any Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee is willing to push for this measure.

I haven't seen any reaction yet from the Obama administration. Supporting this bill should be an easy call, but my hunch is that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and senior presidential adviser Larry Summers will have Wall Street's back on this one. Here's hoping I am wrong about that.

There's more...

A Wolf Among Sheep: Why Timothy Geithner Must Go

Previously, I voiced  my concern about Timonthy Geithner's role as one of the chief stewards of our economy.

Certainly, his neoliberal bent, solutions to the banking crisis and his push for "too big to fail" into policy were disturbing, but some part of me believed he was simply an ideologue. A misguided, incompetent one, but just an ideologue.

Now, comes news that he was one of the principles "responsible for overpayments that put billions of extra tax dollars in the coffers of major Wall Street firms, most notably Goldman Sachs."

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/16 /aig-bailout-government-ov_n_359919.html

There's more...

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