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.




Weekly Audit: More Jobs Please

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

One year after President Barack Obama secured passage of his critical economic stimulus package, the U.S. Senate is finally taking anther look at how to create jobs and repair the economy. These issues are more important than ever, but absurd Republican obstructionism and timid Democratic negotiation are once again threatening good public policy.

Not really bipartisan, is it?

As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, the Senate Finance Committee reached a “bipartisan” agreement to supposedly spur job creation last week. Republicans demanded billions in tax cuts for wealthy people, but kept on caterwauling about the federal budget deficit. In exchange for $80 billion to dedicate to jobs—an extremely modest figure given the state of the labor market—Republicans asked for hundreds of billions in giveaways for the rich. And that’s just to get the bill through the Finance Committee, much less the full Senate.

In a piece for Working In These Times, Michelle Chen notes that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the plug on the Finance Committee “compromise,” but stripped out a critical extension of unemployment benefits for laid-off workers in the process.

The Republican uproar over such modest job figures is an economically preposterous political ploy, and Democratic cave-ins to their demands are both bad politics and bad economics. Chen notes that 70% of Americans support a $100 billion jobs bill. And we know what kinds of programs help spur employment—many of them were passed in the stimulus bill last year and have saved millions of jobs.

Stopping the Bleeding

In an interview with Christopher Hayes of The Nation, Economic Policy Institute Fellow Josh Bivens explains that Obama’s economic stimulus package has worked well, effectively stopping the job hemorrhaging that the economy was experiencing immediately before Obama took office. Here’s Bivens:

“We haven’t returned to growth on employment … but the rate of contraction has slowed radically. Immediately before the Recovery Act is passed, we’re losing on the order of 700,000 jobs per month … In the past three months, we’re now down to something like between 50 and 75,000 jobs lost per month, on average … it really is a stark before and after.”

Racial inequality and the recession

The trouble is, the stimulus was only big enough to prevent the economy from getting much worse. It was not large enough to return the economy to serious job growth. And the brutal effects of the recession are not being shouldered equally. As LinkTV’s collaboration with ColorLines illustrates (video below), the Great Recession is hitting people of color much harder, but the story of racial inequality is being lost in stories about statistical economic recovery in the financial sector. The special profiles several families of color struggling to make ends meet in the worst recession since the Great Depression, which features Depression-era unemployment rates for African Americans.

“What we don’t see on TV are the [people] who never had a home or a good job to lose in the first place. These are the millions of poor people whose chance to cross the line into middle class has always been cut short by another kind of line, the color line,” says host Chris Rabb, founder of Afro-Netizen.

Rabb, ColorLines and LinkTV describe a social safety net that has been shredded by opportunistic politicians. Instead of focusing on ways to guarantee good jobs, politicians since the Reagan era have demonized black single mothers by exploiting racist stereotypes in an effort to justify slashing federal supports for the poor and unemployed. The result is a fundamentally unstable economy. Our society has weak demand for goods and services in good times, and that demand completely falls apart when economic conditions deteriorate. And while these socially destructive initiatives have been described as “pro-business,” the truth is, businesses don’t like societies where millions of people are impoverished. They don’t have any customers.

Predatory lending strikes again

The recession hasn’t exactly been a picnic for the middle class, either. In an article for Mother Jones, Andy Kroll profiles the mortgage mess that Ocwen Loan Servicing created for borrower Deanna Walters. Unlike millions of other borrowers dealing with mortgage headaches, Walters wasn’t actually behind on her payments. She was making payments regularly, but Ocwen was misplacing them, and charging her thousands of dollars in improper fees. Walters even paid the fees, but Ocwen eventually foreclosed on her home and sold it in an auction without even informing Walters.

As Kroll emphasizes, Ocwen’s antics aren’t unique. There is an entire class of companies known as mortgage servicers that specialize in deceiving and bullying borrowers out of their money. They often use illegal tactics, and as I note for AlterNet, have been systematically exploiting a badly designed foreclosure relief program from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Funding projects that will put people to work

As prominent economist Dean Baker argues for The American Prospect, there are dozens of productive programs that would put millions of people back to work—if they could just get the funding. The government could quickly and easily provide money to improve public transportation, develop open-source software, fund objective clinical drug trials and (my favorite) support writers and artists, whose work would subsequently be available for the public to enjoy for free.

Taxing financial speculation

The federal government can afford these programs right now, especially without any additional tax revenue. But if we’re really worried about the budget deficit, we can always turn to reasonable new sources for taxes. As Sarah Anderson details for Yes!, an obvious place to look is financial speculation. Since excessive and risky trading helped bring down the economy in 2008, a tax discouraging this behavior could make the economy stronger and reap as much as $175 billion a year for the public.

Our economy wouldn’t face troubles of the same order as those it must overcome today if so-called conservatives had not spend decades pursuing a radical agenda to shred the social safety net. The stimulus package has not spurred job growth to date because of cuts demanded by Congressional Republicans, nearly all of whom refused to vote for the bill anyway. Our economy needs a jobs bill now. It’d be nice if Republicans would show some interest in governing, but if they continue to refuse, Democrats must act on their own.

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: 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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In Vermont, Slow But Steady Wins the Race

UPDATE: Apparently the link below is subscriber's only. However, if you click on the very same link returned by a Google search, you can read the whole article.

An interesting article caught my eye last week on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, about how our state avoided the mortgage crisis and is weathering the national economic crisis relatively well.  The article is titled Vermont Mortgage Laws Shut the Door on Bust -- and Boom.

You certainly do get a whiff of anti-regulatory sentiment from that title and the reporter's opening paragraph teaser:

In plenty of other states, Andrea Todd would have been a homeowner years ago. Here, she bought just this month -- a difference that helps explain how Vermont avoided the housing bust, and shows the possible pitfalls in President Barack Obama's plan to tighten mortgage regulation.

Yet if you read the article, the facts speak for themselves: Vermont's tough lending regulations have proven to be ahead-of-the-curve. That, combined with old-fashioned fiscal conservatism of our bankers, and nonprofit organizations' efforts to give good economic counseling to prospective home-buyers whom the bankers have turned down, have earned our state the lowest foreclosure rate in the nation - and our economy continues to expand while other states' economies are contracting. It's a tortoise and hare story: while it's true Vermont hasn't had a booming economy, we've kept a steady pace that over the long haul has kept us on par with the nation and ahead in our own region:

Vermont, with its fairly stable population, saw its economy grow relatively slowly -- its aggregate state product up 2.2% in 2005, 1.3% in 2006 and 1.7% in 2007. By comparison, Arizona and Nevada, which enjoyed population explosions, had economic growth rates as high as 8% during those years. But by last year, those two boom states had both contracted while Vermont continued to grow, at 1.7%.

Over the decade, such differences appear to have evened out. Vermont's economy grew 60% in the 10 years ending in 2008, just behind the 63% rate nationally, according to the Commerce Department. Vermont lagged Arizona, Nevada and California over the decade but outpaced most of its New England neighbors.

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Stopping the 13 Second Clock: ACORN and Leading Mayors Join Together in Fighting Foreclosures

Yesterday I was honored to be on a call with America's leading mayors and the US Conference of Mayors to talk about a huge problem affecting cities from coast to coast: the foreclosure crisis.

I've been talking about how a family is losing their home every 13 seconds for awhile now and the recent failure by Congress to enact bankruptcy reform to protect homeowners because of industry pressure was a real blow to stopping that clock.  

But the failure in Washington isn't going to stand in the way of ACORN's push to address the crisis at the heart of the economic meltdown and teaming up with some of the leading mayors in the United States is a major way we're moving forward to help families stay in their homes.

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