Weekly Audit: Dismantling the Wall Street Casino

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Bailout pay czar Ken Feinberg raised a ruckus last week when he announced plans to slash cash payouts to executives at seven companies that have received massive levels of taxpayer support. While better oversight of the bailout barons is helpful, the best way to change Wall Street pay practices is to adopt a set of tough, comprehensive regulations that cover everything from the executive suite to the loan department. As is, many of the executives Feinberg cracked down on will still make millions this year from stocks and other perks, while the very banks that depend the most on bailout money are spending like mad to lobby against reform.

Feinberg's new salary limits only apply to executives at Citigroup, Bank of America, AIG, GM, Chrysler, GMAC and Chrysler Financial. But while these new rules are an effort to reduce the incentive for executives to take big risks for short-term gains, the rules of the game for non-bailout barons haven't changed at all. Risky securities trading and unenforced consumer protection regulations still allow financiers to make a killing by gambling on mortgages and credit cards.

As Greg Kaufmann explains for The Nation, Feinberg has been barred from altering some of the most egregious bonus arrangements at even the biggest fund recipients, as the employment contracts were signed prior to the government's bailout. AIG plans to pay out $198 million in bonuses in March 2010, and none of Feinberg's recent rulings will change that. As Kaufmann also notes, back in March, AIG agreed to pay pack $45 million of the bonuses it shelled out early this year. After over seven months, just $19 million has been repaid.

The government's hands-off approach to AIG employment contracts is a rather flagrant display of deference to executives. Nothing stopped the government from renegotiating contracts for union laborers when it bailed out Chrysler and GM, as Dean Baker notes for The American Prospect.

Lest we forget, the government literally owns AIG, and would own both Citigroup and Bank of America had it demanded a market rate of return for its investment. Taxpayers injected several times the stock market values of both Citi and BofA into the troubled banks, but settled for a 36% stake in Citi and preferred stock in BofA. As Mike Madden emphasizes for Salon, Feinberg is still letting executives make several times the median household income in cash alone--nevermind stock--and it's unlikely that his move will spark changes among bankers outside the handful of companies ordered to make changes.

"Executives are still taking home paychecks that dwarf what the average American earns. And it's not clear whether any other companies will get on board with the Treasury plan unless they're forced to," Madden writes.

Congress hasn't taken any significant steps to curb Wall Street paydays since the crisis broke, but lawmakers did take two other important steps toward banking reform this week. Two different House committees passed bills to rein in the wild world of derivatives trading and establish a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). In a video piece for the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, Amanda Zamora and Lagan Sebert detail the legislative battle to create a CFPA, which has faced an enormous lobbying push from both banks and the top lobby group for the corporate executive class, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Zamora and Sebert note that top bank lobbyist Ed Yingling is arguing that if regulators simply enforced the existing consumer protection laws, all of the major abuses in mortgage lending and credit cards would have been prevented. Even for a corporate lobbyist, Yingling's disingenuousness is absolutely breathtaking. He acknowledges that existing regulators are not enforcing consumer protection laws, says he wants the laws enforced, and then says it would be a bad idea to create a new agency to enforce those laws.

The CFPA won't have any mysterious new powers. It will have the same authorities on credit cards and mortgages that existing federal regulators have. But the current regulators are focused primarily on bank profits, which often run directly contrary to fair play with consumers. Yingling and Wall Street are really afraid of a serious regulator who will stand up for consumers. They're terrified that the CFPA will actually enforce consumer protection rules against powerful banks--but are talking as if all they want is effective enforcement. It's a lie, pure and simple.

On Monday and Tuesday, thousands took to the streets in Chicago to protest a meeting of Yingling's lobby group, the American Bankers Association (ABA). Esther Kaplan details the protests in a piece for The Nation, complete with video footage. The ABA retaliated against Kaplan's reporting by revoking her press credentials, but it appears to have been worth it, as her piece describes everything from citizen outrage to police intimidation and awkward banker solidarity. As Democracy Now! explains, the ABA has spent decades lobbying against rules to strengthen the economy and prevent banker abuses, and is now at the heart of an effort to use taxpayer bailout money to lobby Congress against financial reforms.

So far, their efforts seem to be paying off. Last week, one of the CFPA's chief advocates, Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC), co-authored an amendment significantly restricting the agency's enforcement powers. As Sebert and Zamora note, Miller agreed to exempt banks with $10 billion or less in assets from regulatory examinations by the CFPA--roughly 98% of all banks. The existing, corrupted regulators who didn't lift a finger to prevent the subprime mortgage crisis will be the people actually going to the banks and reviewing their books. While the CFPA could send along one of its own regulators to participate in the exam, the new agency can't tax the bank to pay for it, which would make it very difficult for the CFPA to keep an eye on smaller banks.

Even worse, there is nothing to prevent a giant bank like Bank of America from moving all of its most egregiously predatory activities into a series of small corporate subsidiaries. By exploiting this loophole, 100% of U.S. banks could be exempt from CFPA enforcement, including the giant banks most heavily involved in subprime mortgage abuses.

The other big piece of Obama-backed financial legislation to make its way through Committee last week had to do with derivatives, also known as the wild Wall Street securities that brought down AIG. The best way to fix the derivatives mess is to require that derivatives be traded on an exchange the same way stocks are, so that companies can't make crazy bets without regulatory and market scrutiny. But Obama only wants "standardized" derivatives to be processed through a central clearinghouse--like an exchange, except without any public pricing information. And so long as a derivative contract can be deemed "customized," it would be totally exempt from even this limited reform.

But as Art Levine notes for AlterNet, the derivatives bill actually got worse in committee. Plenty of non-financial businesses use derivatives to legitimately hedge real risks: Airlines try to insure themselves against swings in oil prices, for instance. Lawmakers agreed to exempt any contract with these companies, termed "end-users" in the financial jargon, from central clearing requirements. The trouble is, big Wall Street hedge funds and private equity firms can be classified as "end-users," opening a fatal loophole in the legislation. The five banks who control 95% of the derivatives market will just conduct all of their most reckless trades with hedge funds and avoid oversight entirely.

A modest reform on paychecks for bailout recipients is nowhere near sufficient to protect our economy from banker excess. If Wall Street is going to serve any productive economic function, it has to be subject to serious consumer protection rules, and its derivatives casino has to be dismantled.

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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Record pay on Wall Street as unemployment rises

Americans won't be happy to learn that Wall Street salaries may be higher this year than they were before the current recession began:

Major U.S. banks and securities firms are on pace to pay their employees about $140 billion this year -- a record high that shows compensation is rebounding despite regulatory scrutiny of Wall Street's pay culture.

Workers at 23 top investment banks, hedge funds, asset managers and stock and commodities exchanges can expect to earn even more than they did the peak year of 2007, according to an analysis of securities filings for the first half of 2009 and revenue estimates through year-end by The Wall Street Journal.

Ian Welsh wrote a depressing post at Open Left yesterday:

All they did was throw cash at the problem, without dealing with the underlying issues, which is why they didn't manage (as Jerome points out) to kickstart ANY net private spending.  They didn't break up major banks.  They didn't allow bankruptcy judges to rewrite mortgages.  Their mortgage program kept hardly anyone in the house.  And their money for financial firms did not increase lending by one cent. [...]

This is going to be the wost "recovery" of your lifetime, unless you're in the financial sector at a relatively high level.  Bank profits have recovered but ordinary people are not, in a generation, going to see a full recovery from this clusterfuck - employment will not recover to pre-recession levels before the next recession, and I don't expect it to recover after that recession either.

At this point, in fact, I am expecting this to turn into a double dip recession--this "recovery" will not have any significant legs.

Continuing George Bush's Wall Street bailout policy will prove to be a costly mistake for President Obama. Watch the Huffington Post Investigative Fund's interview with Neil Barofsky, who "monitors a dozen separate bailout-related programs that now account for nearly $3 trillion in financial commitments." Among other things, his research has confirmed that the bailout did not increase lending to the business sector.

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Weekly Audit: We Need a 'People's Bailout'

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

The economic free-fall is finally slowing down, although nobody expects the recovery to be very pleasant. Job losses and foreclosures are expected to increase well into next year. But even if our economic system gets back to normal, it's important to remember that gross inequalities are embedded in the global order. At home, minorities face significant barriers to economic security, while abroad, children in poor countries are denied access to basic nutrition. This is especially disheartening in the wake of the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, which demonstrated that the world's economic leaders are more focused on bailing out banks than eradicating global poverty.

Robert Reich sums up the domestic economic scenario succinctly for Salon. The stock market is humming along, even as most Americans are tightening their belts. It's a counterintuitive situation: Wall Street is celebrating an economic recovery, but the consumers that drive our economy are still cutting back. Reich explains that the government has stepped in to fill the hole caused by consumer spending. Business executives may scream "Socialism!" when the tax man comes around, but without massive government help, those same CEOs would be watching their earnings and companies collapse.

Without the jobs and tax cuts created by President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package, we'd see more red ink from just about every industry. The entire U.S. mortgage market is currently supported by the federal government via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, while other special initiatives like the Cash for Clunkers program brought the auto industry out of its recession-induced coma this summer.

The trouble is, while a few programs have been good for ordinary citizens, most of the government's economic salvage operations are aimed at giant corporations. Of all the paradoxes in today's economy, the most significant can be found in the financial sector. Bank stocks are up, even though banks are in serious trouble. Their customers are broke, foreclosures are soaring, and analysts are predicting a fresh round of multi-billion-dollar losses on commercial real estate loans soon. So what makes an investor want to buy a bank stock right now? Nothing but the government's limitless willingness to bail out banks.

How much bailout money did the government actually spend? We've all heard about the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), but the real haul for bankers is much, much bigger, as Nomi Prins and Christopher Hayes detail in a piece for The Nation. A whopping $17.5 trillion has been dedicated to subsidies, guarantees, below-market-rate loans, and other special perks for the financial industry. That's roughly one-fourth of the entire global economic output for a full year, and more than the entire annual productivity of the U.S.

Prins and Hayes make use of a clever thought experiment: What if, instead of spending the money on big institutions, the money had gone to a small-time gambler? It's an apt comparison. Taxpayer money went to financial speculators who used our homes and neighborhoods as poker chips in a global casino. The dozen or so bailouts the government has enacted seem absurd when we think of them as cheap financing for bets on the craps table. The number of programs is staggering. Bank executives love to proclaim that their banks didn't really need TARP money, they just accepted it because the government wanted them to. Next time you hear that boast (sometimes it sounds more like a whine), remember that every big bank in the country issued debt guaranteed by the government, then scored ridiculously cheap loans from the Federal Reserve while others got federal help through AIG, Fannie and Freddie.

"A fraction of the $17.5 trillion bailout could have been used to cut the principal of homeowners' mortgages (using homes, even devalued ones, as collateral) and cover student loans at zero percent interest," Prins and Hayes write. "Rather than pouring it into the top layers--the banks--a people's bailout would have cost less and been more humane. And it likely would have prevented the ongoing increase in defaults, foreclosures and general economic anxiety."

There are very good reasons to maintain a healthy financial sector, but only if banks actually do something useful. Banks are supposed to lend money to enable socially productive economic activity. This bailout money has not been spent on anything socially productive. Instead, it's covered losses from predatory lending and boneheaded speculation.

The dominant cause of the recession was the collapse of an $8 trillion housing bubble, which banks helped inflate with all outrageous loans. For decades, the value of a family's house was the foundation of most American middle-class wealth. When home prices took a nosedive, so did the spending power of every homeowner. Even borrowers who had affordable mortgage payments were hit hard. For borrowers stuck with expensive, predatory mortgages, the result was a wave of foreclosures. Writing for Mother Jones, Andy Kroll highlights a hard reality: Recovery in the housing market will not lead to middle-class financial security. It will be at least a decade before home prices reach pre-crash levels.

It's critical to remember how the recession is deepening existing inequalities, particularly along racial lines. In a post for In These Times, Michelle Chen explains how African Americans and Latinos are consistently paid less than whites during boom times, and are pushed even further down the ladder when things go bust. Communities of color are more likely to be targeted by predatory lending, which can devastate entire neighborhoods for generations. That means people of color are more likely to be foreclosed on, more likely to be laid off, and less likely to have access to basic necessities like health insurance.

The statistics are stark. In a story for New America Media, Christina Fernandez-Pereda, notes that while the overall unemployment stands at 9.7%, for minorities, the actual number is much higher. A full 15.1% of Blacks are unemployed, while unemployment among Asian Americans has doubled since early 2007. A full third of Latinos between the ages of 16 and 29 are unemployed.

The bank bailout has done nothing to improve the status of the global poor. The G-20 made grand promises to help those who need it most in developing countries this year, but so far, the talk has resulted in very little action. As Hayley Hathaway explains at Sojourners, only $50 billion has been dedicated to the 78 countries where humanitarian risk is greatest. As Hathaway notes, that's less than 25% of the TARP money received by the 20 largest U.S. banks.

Without major action, between 1.4 million and 2.8 million children will die of malnutrition in the next five years. Instead of pushing major humanitarian aid, the G-20 has promised $750 billion to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF was supposed to act as an international lender of last resort--if a nation's financial woes got really bad, they could get a loan from the IMF while they restructured. But IMF money ends up flowing to private-sector banks, and governments in need are forced to cut spending on programs that help the poor. When the G-20 met in Pittsburgh last week, a major topic of discussion involved giving developing nations a greater voice in IMF policies. But despite this talk, wealthy nations remain committed to the status quo, protecting the interests of their bankers eyeing future international bailouts.

For most people, it will be a long time before our economic recovery is a reality. But as the economy crawls out of the ditch, it's critical to build our future on a stronger foundation, one where we don't allow millions children to starve and where skin color does not determine economic security.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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Weekly Audit: Cheating Workers and Pampering CEOs

By Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

Low-wage workers are struggling to navigate the current recession. A new study conducted by a team of academics reveals that the majority of workers at the bottom of the economic ladder have been shorted on their paychecks as recently as last week. But the compensation crisis looks very different on Wall Street, where excessive pay tied to risky activities helped set the economy on its crash course. Despite the resulting deep recession, pay for high-level U.S. financiers remains over-the-top, even as low wage workers struggle to navigate the downturn.

The U.S. has made a few gestures toward scaling back executive compensation for banks that it bailed out under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but the rules have amounted to little more than window-dressing, according to a paper published last week by the Institute for Policy Studies. The paper's authors, Sarah Anderson and Sam Pizzigati, found that ten of the 20 largest bailout banks have reported stock option compensation for 2009, and the top five executives at those companies have scored a full $90 million so far this year. That's just through stock options. The number gets even more obscene if you include bonuses, salary and other payouts.

As Anderson and Pizzigati explain in a companion piece published in AlterNet, bank executives collected huge bonuses based on the profits from subprime loans during the housing bubble. Since subprime mortgages were more expensive than traditional loans, profits were high--until borrowers stopped being able to pay back their predatory, unaffordable debt. Suddenly the banks were all busted, but the executives had already made a killing.

Katrina vanden Huevel emphasizes in The Nation that the U.S. government doesn't even try to tax this kind of income, much less regulate its connection to risk-taking. Billions of dollars in tax revenue are lost each year as financiers hide payouts in offshore tax havens, while on-the-books income from financial activities are taxed at arbitrarily low rates. Capital gains like stock price increases, for instance, are taxed at just 15%, while income from an ordinary paycheck is taxed at 35% for the wealthiest individuals.

While the U.S. dallies on executive pay, key leaders in Europe are moving to rein in risky compensation practices in the financial sector, as detailed in this video report over at The Real News. President Barack Obama will meet with U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders of the G-20 in Pittsburgh later this month, and financial regulatory reform will be at the top of the agenda.

For ordinary workers, there are few positive signs in the current economy. The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen dissects the latest batch of unemployment numbers from the Labor Department. The good news is that the overall pace of layoffs seems to be abating. The bad news? The U.S. still lost a whopping 216,000 jobs in August. And broader measures of workplace woe are even worse. The unemployment rate does not include discouraged workers who have stopped looking for a job, and it doesn't include those who want to work full-time but have to settle for part-time employment. That statistic actually declined slightly in July, giving some economists cause for optimism. But the metric soared again in August, reaching the highest level on record.

And unemployment is not the only problem workers face. Both Tim Fernholz of The American Prospect and Elizabeth Palmberg of Sojourners highlight a New York Times story by labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, which details how low-wage workers are routinely cheated by their employers. According to a recent study, a full 68% of these workers report having experienced an illegal workplace abuse in the past week, such as being denied overtime pay or being required to work for less than minimum wage. On average, workers lost 15% of their weekly income as a result of this exploitation.

We have good laws to protect workers, but they just aren't being enforced. Companies have successfully intimidated their employees into not reporting blatantly illegal pay practices. The best way to resolve this situation is to expand unionization and give workers a stronger voice in the workplace, making it safe to speak out against abuses. And the best way to expand unionization is to enact the Employee Free Choice Act, which lowers barriers to creating a union. But the legislative process has been delayed by a smear campaign organized by executives and managers claiming that unions, and not corporate elites, are the actual source of workplace coercion.

"It ought to make your blood boil--especially as people decry union thugs 'intimidating' people into joining unions when that doesn't happen and most workers want to join a union," Fernholz writes.

The U.S. needs to get its economic priorities in order. We should be protecting low-wage workers from executive excess, not the other way around. President Obama will have an opportunity to coordinate that effort globally at the G-20 summit later this month. Let's hope he doesn't squander it.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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California Crisis

The decision on Prop 8 was not the only important matter today. With the failure of the 5 propositions, and about 20-40 billion dollars in debt, the state has to have massive cuts to social services. The legislature and Arnold are deciding whether to cut of Cal Grant, which provides money to about 300 k students to study; services to the needy, poor, and the elderly; or health services to the elderly; or the worst to all 3 of them. Obama and Treasury Geither had said that the Federal Government will not bailout California and/or have no money/political will to do so. The Treasurer of California had said that if nothing changes, there will be no money at all to the UCs/CSUs next year. He also said that California will run out of money by July. Even liberals and independants alike all around the country are opposing state bailouts. Why is that and what they fail to see?

One important point that the general population in this country are not realizing is that the economy of California is bigger than the whole of US (without California). Furthermore, states cannot spend on deficit and therefore have to balance the budget. Can you imagine how this country would be like without our 11.5 trillion in debt and another 4 trillion more in guarantees? The reason our stock market is not crashing is due to the strength of the tech industry, which ironically is located in California. Thus it can be easily concluded that if California goes down, so goes the nation as depression will really be inevitable. Just 5 years ago, California was the 4th biggest economy in the world. I think it was the 7th last year and the 9th this year.

People working in finance often overlook the importance of the technology industry. In fact to most economists, technology is just another statistic without any significance. Of course when the economy is in trouble, those economists will rely upon the tech industry to last through the crisis. When times are good, policies that are being suggested are to the benefit of the finance industry, while screwing over the tech industry. History has shown that technology is essential to the advancement and development of any particular nation. This is the importance of California to the US. All California is asking is for the Fed to guarantee our debt. California has never once forgo any debt or even making any late payment. Consider that our economy is bigger than the US, this should be quite an amazing feet. It can then be logically concluded that California is more important that maybe 40+ other states combine. Education funding is therefore vital to this state and the entire nation.

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