Friday, January 11, 2013

Friday, January 11, 2013 - Meet the New Boss

Meet the New Boss
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 17 = 13,488
SPX -.07 = 1472
NAS + 3 = 3125
10 YR YLD - .02 = 1.88%
OIL -.06 = 93.76
GOLD – 12.10 = 1663.70
SILV - .42 = 30.54

Within a few days, Tim Geithner will be gone from the Treasury. Geithner was at the center of the financial crisis, first in his role as President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and in 2009 as Treasury Secretary. In a recent exit interview he said: “It was a very bad crisis. No playbook. No road map. No clear precedent. If we had a different set of constraints, particularly in fiscal policy, then I think that the economic outcome could have been modestly better.”

To be fair, Geithner was handed a mess, and to his credit he did not turn it into a catastrophe, and there were constraints. Still, Geithner's tenure at Treasury has been a little less than satisfying. The Too Big to Fail banks are bigger than ever; they operate with an explicit public guarantee, and despite Geithner's dissatisfaction with constraints placed on him, he did little to challenge the banksters. Geithner quashed proposals to seize bonuses, impose new taxes or otherwise punish bankers. He claimed that it would have destabilized the banks; instead he created a moral hazard and a two-tiered system of justice; Too Big to Fail became Too Big to Jail and the result is the banksters now operate with impunity. At the same time Geithner was making sure the big banks weren't destabilized, it was far too easy to overlook the lack of stability on Main Street, as families lost their homes. Programs to modify the loans of American facing foreclosures were impotent at best. Geithner sought to incentivize banks to provide mortgage relief; what was needed was a swift kick.

Geithner will be replaced by Jack Lew. Both Geithner and Lew should be applauded for their decades of commitment to public service; they are both intelligent men, but it's disheartening that the President has once again tapped Wall Street for a key economic advisor. Back in 2006, Lew was the chief operating officer of Citigroup's Alternative Investment Unit, a proprietary trading group that oversaw a hedge fund that bet on the housing market to collapse. It's hard to imagine Lew is prepared to stand up to the banksters and fight for policies that protect working families. We need a treasury secretary who will work hard to break up too-big-to-fail financial institutions so that Wall Street cannot cause another massive financial crisis.

And so, this week we have federal regulators proudly announcing an $8.5 billion dollar settlement with 10 big banks in a deal that papers over a sham review of foreclosed loans. The original idea was to provide a review process; independent analysts would go over each mortgage loan and make sure the efforts at loan modification hadn't been bungled; make sure the paperwork wasn't deficient; make sure the fees weren't excessive; make sure the wrong family wasn't being kicked to the street; and make sure the banks weren't robo-signing reams of foreclosure documents without checking for accuracy. But the analysts and consultants didn't really work for the people; they worked for the banks. The reviews that were supposed to detect foreclosure shams were nothing more than a sham.

The comptroller’s office said that it had identified 654,000 potentially problematic foreclosures, a combination of 495,000 claims submitted by borrowers and 159,000 files that the consultants flagged for review. The regulator said it was still determining the number of reviews completed, but the consultants said that only a third of the loans were fully reviewed. Now that the review program is being shut down, we'll never really know the full extent of wrongdoing.

And because the regulators don't know how many borrowers were actually harmed, this week's settlement will be spread out among 3.8 million borrowers; some who don't deserve anything, and not enough for those who were truly aggrieved. And for the 10 banks involved, no clawbacks of fees and profits, and no admission or denial of guilt.

And just last month, HSBC was fined $1.9 billion for money laundering. There were no criminal charges against any individuals, even though the bank admits to laundering billions for Mexican drug cartels, violating the Bank Secrecy Act and also the Trading with the Enemy Act. There were no criminal prosecutions against the bank either. The money laundering was brazen. The bank gave special boxes to the drug cartels, so they could fit their cash deposits through the bank tellers' windows. Other bank employees directed terrorist groups on how to circumvent sanctions. Apparently the rationale of the government for not pursuing criminal cases against individuals at the bank was that to do so when the individuals were employees of such an important bank, might threaten the stability of the financial system.

Money laundering is taking the proceeds of crime, “illegitimate” money, and bringing it into the legitimate financial system so that the criminals can use that money without being tied to those terrible crimes – crimes like manufacturing and distributing drugs, selling people into the sex trade, trafficking in illegal weapons, and terrorist attacks against our troops, our embassies, and our country. This is not mere money we are talking about; it is the daily gang violence on the streets of our cities and towns, it is the increased likelihood that your children will be offered drugs in their schools, it is the abduction of children and selling them into the sex trade; it's the killing and maiming of troops in Afghanistan; the violence and political unrest around the world – all made possible by the banks. And not just HSBC.

HSBC Bank USA was already under a written agreement from 2003-2006 with US regulators to correct deficiencies in its anti-money laundering regime.  In a strikingly similar case, Wachovia was found to have allowed as much as $420 billion through its banks without money laundering controls.  $110 million of that was linked directly to Mexican drug cartels, just like the HSBC case.  Wachovia was fined $160 million, $110 million of which was just coughing up the ill-gotten gains and not an actual penalty.  Not one person was prosecuted.  Recently, Standard Chartered Bank was fined $667 million, and ING Bank was fined $619 million, for engaging in the same criminal activity HSBC was engaged in when it doctored wire transfer information in order to clear transactions from countries barred from accessing the U.S. financial system, like Iran. Again, not a single person is being prosecuted in those cases. If it sounds like a lot of money in fines, just consider that this morning, Wells-Fargo posted fourth quarter earnings of more than $5 billion – far more than the fines imposed on the banks I just mentioned.

And we find this acceptable because the regulators and politicians are afraid to force the banks to conduct business honestly and sensibly. Better to allow the banks to lubricate the transactions of drug cartels and terrorists than face a possible bank closure that might challenge the global banking system.

More than 4 years after the financial crisis nearly imploded the global financial system, a committee of central bankers and regulators from more than two dozen countries, including the United States, has disappointingly given in to lobbying by big banks; watering down rules meant to strengthen the global financial system. After the meltdown, it just made sense that the banks should set aside enough reserves to cover possible and potential losses. The committee unanimously rolled back the so-called Basel III rules that were adopted in 2010 to make them “more realistic”.

The banks argued that requiring them to hold most of their liquid reserves as cash and government securities would restrict their ability to lend to small businesses and consumers because they would have less money to lend. Instead of holding cash reserves or Treasury bonds in reserve, the banks want to be able to hold stocks, or mortgage-backed securities.

Large banks are second to none among institutions in arguing against regulations, no matter how reasonable and valuable in protecting both the public and the banks themselves against unwise behavior. The problem is that the new assets defined as liquid are precisely those that banks found difficult to value and trade in 2008. Relying on mortgage-backed securities to provide liquidity during a crisis is a recipe for disaster, and just stunningly stupid.

The reality is that the banks know that in a crisis they would receive emergency loans and capital from central banks and their governments, so why tie up their reserves with assets that provide only modest returns? And because the banks know they are Too Big to be allowed to fail, they dictate policy in ways that put the world at greater risk of another crisis.

Eighty years ago this month, Ferdinand Pecora, the former assistant district attorney for New York City, was appointed chief counsel for the US Senate Committee on Banking and Currency. In subsequent months, the hearings of the Pecora Commission featured many sensational revelations about the practices that led to the 1930’s financial crisis.
The Commission’s investigation led to far-reaching reform – most famously, the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking. But Glass-Steagall didn’t stop there. It created federal insurance for bank deposits. With unit banking (in which all operations are carried out in self-standing offices) viewed as unstable, banks were now permitted to branch more widely. Glass-Steagall also strengthened regulators’ ability to clamp down on lending for real-estate and stock-market speculation. Glass-Steagall separated the banks' deposit-taking and securities underwriting activities. If a bank wanted to gamble, they could, but they couldn't gamble with depositors' money; and if the bankers lost their bet, they lost their own money; they had skin in the game.

The hearings also led to passage of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Securities issuers and traders were required to release more information, and were subjected to higher transparency standards. The notion that capital markets could self-regulate was decisively rejected. The contrast with today is striking.

We have a watered down Dodd-Frank Act, largely written by the bankers. We have watered down Basel III rules. And we have banks acting illegally, conspiring with drug cartels and terrorists; and doing so with impunity. And there are stacks upon stacks of illegally laundered dollars bearing the signature of Timothy Geithner, and soon they will bear the loopty-loop signature of Jack Lew.

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