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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Of foxes and henhouses

Ever wonder how a national financial meltdown, like the one the United States suffered in 2008, can happen? It takes greed and dishonesty, to be sure, but it's also helped along considerably when the federal regulators are just one step away from cushy jobs in the very industries that they're supposed to be keeping an eye on. Here's a report that turns over some rocks at the Securities and Exchange Commission, exposing some ugly critters underneath.

Comments (5)

This is just the tip of the iceberg; there are plenty more who limit themselves to advising behind the scenes and rely on informal contacts and the old boy and girl networks; these folks refrain from sticking their nose into agency halls for two years, when essentially all restrictions are off.

But frankly, I don't think there were anymore crooks in the financial sector leading up to the meltdown than the norm -- the fundamental fulcrums that leveraged the economic disaster were concentration and coordination of financial and economic power, with the public and private sectors playing co-equal roles -- crony capitalism plus zero enforcement of the antitrust laws.

An important part of the financial sector melt down centered around Fannie Mae. I will always wonder why its oversight by Barney Frank doesn't get intensely reviewed.

As easy as it is to take potshots at Barney Frank, it is important to note that the Republicans controlled the House from 1994 through 2006. The chief lobbyist for Fannie was a former Chief of Staff for a Republican House Member.

On the other side of the aisle, Franklin Raines (OMB expatriate from the Clinton administration) was CEO of Fannie during the critically important years of 1999 through 2004, when he earned $90 million in bonuses based on shoddy (fraudulent in my view) accounting and misstated earnings. Raines was succeeded by Daniel Mudd ($80 million in compensation), who moved to Fannie from GE Capital. These fellows led Fannie into the Alt-A, and subprime mess, running a behemoth that they didn't understand or care to understand so long as they received their oversize, unearned rewards.

We continue to pay the price to this day as the majority of assets the Fed has purchased in QE1 and QE2 are agency bonds (i.e., Freddie and Fannie mortgage backed securities), which results in passing the cost of the Fannie/Freddie bailouts to the unsuspecting public in the form of consumer price inflation. It is quite the tangled web.

"An important part of the financial sector melt down centered around Fannie Mae. I will always wonder why its oversight by Barney Frank doesn't get intensely reviewed."

Mostly because Fannie and Freddie weren't an "important" part of the Financial meltdown. They were more like innocent victims of a drive by shooting. Without Wall Street financing every warm body with subprime money the melt down doesn't happen, period end of statement.

Why because without Wall Street pumping up the balloon, Fannie Mae doesn't issue 90% LTV mortgages on houses soon to be worth 60% of their sales value. Without Wall Street filling investors pockets with CDO's CMO's etc that no one could value, the panic in the finance markets doesn't happen. Blaming Fannie Mae is a classic "let's see if we can divert peoples attentions from the real criminals" technique. Not to mention getting rid of a competitor to Wall Street who has been safely financing peoples mortgages since 1938.

"[Mr O'Bama's erstwhile and once-again best bankster bud, JPM CEO Jamie] Dimon has also grown close to Stephen Cutler, the enforcement chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission under President George W. Bush who joined JPMorgan as general counsel in 2007."

Mr Cutler may have been instrumental in "resolving" the matter of Jefferson County AL, as described in the NYT by Joe Nocera last April 22nd:

"Today, the county is broke; according to The Birmingham News, it may run out of cash by July. It is toying with a bankruptcy filing — which, if it happened, would be the largest municipal bankruptcy in history.

Though the county no longer has to pay fees to JPMorgan — the bank agreed to void the swaps as part of a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission — its bond debt for the sewers now totals almost $4 billion. The Birmingham News described Jefferson County as a 'poster child' for all that can go wrong when municipalities start playing with unregulated derivatives peddled by Wall Street sharpies.

Has Spencer Bachus, as the local congressman, decried this debacle? Of course — what local congressman wouldn’t? In a letter last year to Mary Schapiro, the chairwoman of the S.E.C., he said that the county’s financing schemes 'magnified the inherent risks of the municipal finance market.' (He also blamed, among other things, 'serious corruption,' of which there was plenty, including secret payments by JPMorgan to people who could influence the county commissioners.)"

Also, from last November,

"The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether JPMorgan Chase allowed a hedge fund to improperly select assets for a $1.1 billion deal backed by subprime mortgages, according to people familiar with the probe."

It is not clear how far this investigation has advanced. A similar one, regarding Goldman Sachs, resulted in that company paying a fine of $550 million -- petty cash for GS -- and no indictments.

But is the much-remarked-upon absence of indictments following the recent, continuing financial crisis unexpected? James Lieber predicted otherwise in October, 2009:

"An administration whose claws are far from sharpened shouldn't really surprise us: Obama was Wall Street's preferred candidate in terms of campaign contributions. His SEC chair, Mary Schapiro, ran FINRA, the Street's self-regulatory private agency. Gary Gensler, chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, actually worked a decade ago to exempt credit default swaps and other derivatives from regulation."

Mr Gensler has allegedly reversed his opinion of derivatives; whether his conversion is sincere remains to be seen. And SEC head Shapiro has hardly become "Mary, Mary, quite contrary" to her Wall St buds.

But, Mr Lieber continues,

"More importantly, the nation's new top prosecutor, Attorney General Eric Holder, has a history of preferring that deviant corporations be held to no more than a 'voluntary cooperation' system in which they investigate themselves privately.

Under the 'Holder Memo,' which he wrote in 1999 as deputy AG in the Clinton administration, bad-boy executives and their corporations who turn over evidence to the government qualify for lenient sentences and fines and, sometimes, for settlements without even indictments. The consequences of their crimes often amount to only the cost of doing business.

After leaving government, Holder followed the mandates of his own memo and made a lucrative living by conducting internal probes for companies and negotiating outstanding results for white-collar clients. He was public about it: Holder's 2002 op-ed 'Don't Indict WorldCom' in The Wall Street Journal argued on behalf of the corporate perpetrator of one of the sleaziest frauds of the past decade.

Holder takes a hard line on social issues, but not on financial issues: He favors re-dedicating the DOJ to civil rights, and he has vowed to investigate Bush-era torture. But when asked if he plans to prosecute the financial mayhem that erupted under Bush, Holder has said that he isn't inclined to engage in what he calls 'witch hunts.'"

Reports come, reports go. It takes a courageous AG -- one whose targets are not his once and future clients -- to direct the energies of the DOJ toward purging a corrupt financial system. Isn't it time to restore Eliot Spitzer -- in the absence of any other likely candidate -- to a role in which he was remarkably successful?

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