Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday, December 27, 2013 - Fooled Again

Fooled Again
by Sinclair Noe

And now we present the curious case of Michael Steinberg. Not familiar? That's understandable; Michael Steinberg is a convicted felon, securities fraud and conspiracy, specifically insider trading. Steinberg is a close personal friend and former trader with Steven A. Cohen. You've likely heard that name. Cohen is the billionaire, stock picker who runs SAC Capital hedge fund; recently fined $1.2 billion by the SEC for insider trading and not maintaining adequate supervision of his employees. Cohen has not been charged as an individual.

Eight SAC employees have been criminally charged; six have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the government; one faces trial in January; Steinberg just lost his trial, and when the verdict was announced, the fellow fainted. The other guy who faces trial in January fainted when he was arrested. It's a bit funny, a bit pathetic. Steinberg faces a maximum of 85 years but that won't happen. Still, it looks like a potential case against Cohen could gain traction.

The US Attorney's Office in Manhattan has secured 77 insider trading convictions since 2009, without losing a single case. Jurors are capable of understanding insider trading. It's a fairly simple form of cheating. Jurors are also capable of understanding more complex forms of cheating. The markets are rigged by cheaters, in the form of insider trading and other, more complex scams. There are many honest people who earn god livings in the markets, but there are plenty of cheaters. The prosecutors aren't even going after the folks on the other side of the insider trades; someone supplied information on Weight Watchers, Gymboree, Dell, Nvidia, and Intermune (and others). At some point, those people expected something for their information. There is an old saying: if you can't identify the “mark” at a poker table, it's you.

No need to actually sit at the table with big time hedge fund types – you're still the “mark”. Just look at what's happening in Detroit. I knew it was just a matter of time until we started hearing more about how the big banks bet against Detroit; slowly but surely the information is oozing out as the vultures fight over the carrion.

Detroit, of course, has many problems, long standing problems. Back in 2005, Detroit's pensions were underfunded to the tune of $1.44 billion. Then-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and other city officials set up nonprofit entities and corporations to issue the debt, and bought interest rate swaps as a hedge against rising interest rates (more precisely, they were sold interest rate swaps). Interest rates then dropped to the lowest levels in history; they lost the bet. Detroit owes the holders of the swaps the difference between the interest rates, adding to the pensions' underfunding by as much as $770 million over the next 22 years. Essentially, the politicians and banks gambled with the city's debt, and that bet may have exceeded legal limits on the debt; raising the question of whether the illegal bet is valid. There will probably be lawsuits.

And now that Detroit is in bankruptcy, the unelected emergency manager of Detroit, Kevin Orr, worked out a tentative deal to pay the UBS AG and Bank of America Merrill Lynch Capital Services more than $300 million in “secured debt”. Those banks are considered secured creditors because Detroit put up revenue from three casinos as collateral for the loan; which is now the only stable source of revenue for Detroit. The initial settlement would given the banks about 80 cents on the dollar of what they are owed, compared to 16 cents on the dollar that Orr has offered to retirees for their pensions. The judge told attorneys for Orr’s team to renegotiate the casino money deal because every deal the city has made relating to the swaps “has been made with a gun to its head”.

And so they went back to the table, and they have come up with a new deal, an incrementally better settlement that leaves much of the original structure intact. If the deal is approved by federal bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, Detroit would get out of the swaps deal for about 56 cents on the dollar, get $120 million in cash to bolster city services and free up casino revenues, crucial to the city’s ongoing operations, that were used to secure a previous renegotiation of the swaps deal in 2009. Detroit might be smart to argue that the two major issues with the swaps in the bankruptcy proceeding: whether the swaps are secured debt, and whether the deal was legal in the first place. A favorable ruling for the city on either matter could result in a far better outcome than what has been agreed to.

Over the past five years Detroit has reduced its salary expenses by 30 percent. More than 2,350 public jobs have been cut, accelerating the city’s already notable pace of deterioration. Far from uncontrollable, the cost of health benefits for the city’s public workers and retirees has risen more slowly than the national rate of 4 percent a year. Since 2008, Detroit has reduced its spending by more than $400 million. In the same period, city revenues have fallen by nearly $260 million, with a steep decline after 2011. This decline, rather than its pension obligations, more than accounts for the city’s projected deficit this year of $198 million.

One consequence of these cuts is that public services like transportation, infrastructure maintenance and education are barely functioning. And yet there is one expense that has, so far, been spared: service fees on derivatives that were sold to the city by banks backed by UBS and Bank of America. In fact, these fees are the only significant increase in spending over the past five years. There have been many numbers tossed about in the Detroit bankruptcy, including the claim that the pensions are underfunded by $3.5 billion, but by some calculations, if you strip out the wheeling and dealing, the actual underfunded amount may be closer to $800 million. The public sector pays for the mistakes of the financial sector, and observers are led to believe that the basic promise of retirement is the city’s problem.

This isn't the first time the “swaps” problem has hurt municipalities, we also have examples from Montgomery County, Alabama and San Bernardino, California, and at the core is the question of whether pensions, secured by 20, 30, or 40 years of work are more or less secure than bets by banks. A new report by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College indicates that costly pension promises are not the major cause of municipalities weak financial conditions. The researchers compared 32 cities that have recently made headlines as they struggle with serious budget problems to a list of 149 other cities that are in relatively good financial shape. "When identifying the source of the problems, fiscal mismanagement leads the list," the study's authors found. "Economic problems, in large part a response to the financial crisis and ensuing recession, come in second." And, "In many cases pension were a contributing factor, but they weren't the driving factor in the fiscal challenges these cities are facing."

Our next story takes us to Switzerland, where 300 Swiss banks are working to meet Department of Justice year-end deadline to put a stop to tax evasion by American clients. Banks with reason to believe they violated tax laws can ask the DOJ to waive prosecution if the banks disclose how they helped Americans hide assets, and the banks will be required to hand over data on undeclared accounts, and pay penalties. If the banks don't apply for waivers and cooperate, then the banks and their customers could face criminal probes.

To gain the non-prosecution deals the banks must pay 20% of the value of accounts not disclosed by August 2008, 30% for accounts opened between August 2008 and February 2009, and 50% for accounts opened afterward. Fourteen Swiss banks are already part of criminal investigations. The crackdown on tax cheats really took off back in 2009, when the US charged UBS, the biggest Swiss bank, with aiding Americans in hiding some $20 billion in assets. UBS admitted it fostered tax evasion; they paid $780 million in fines; they avoided prosecution.

The banks are complaining, whining really, that the penalties are too high. Some Swiss banks may decide to opt-out of the non-prosecution deal, but that comes with a risk. Nearly 40,000 clients told the IRS all about their offshore accounts so that they might avoid prosecution. If it is later learned that some of those clients had accounts with banks that skipped the non-prosecution deal, it would seem like a slam dunk case against the bank. One area that still seems confusing is how to treat multinational corporations with headquarters in the US but offices in Switzerland.

You might think the decision to opt-in to the non-prosecution deal would be simple because the banks aren't really paying a penalty; the money comes from client accounts; it isn't really the banks' money; it is the clients' money. Of course this is not how banksters think. Once the money is in the banks' account, it becomes their money; it is capital they can leverage, and then use to trade.

Just a reminder, we're talking about tax evasion, the same crime that brought down Al Capone. Imagine some petty thief robs the local liquor store and steals a case of beer; he won't get a non-prosecution deal by just handing over a few beers to the cops. Meanwhile, two Swiss banks, Wegelin and Bank Frey, have already gone out of business; and UBS estimates several more will likely close in the coming year. Tax evasion is the business model of the Swiss banks; without it they really can't function. The practice has become institutionalized over time. There is a much older model for taxation: render unto Caesar.

We “celebrated” the Federal Reserve's 100th anniversary on December 23. Of course, we could probably eliminate taxes if we could just come up with a better central bank. The government, if it and not the Fed was in control of its money supply, could spend as needed to meet its budget, drawing on credit issued by its own central bank (not the Fed); it could do this until price inflation indicated a weakened purchasing power of the currency. Then and only then, could the government need to levy taxes; and the need for taxes would not be to fund the budget but to counteract inflation by contracting the money supply.

In 1977, Congress gave the Fed a dual mandate, not only to maintain the stability of the currency but to promote full employment. The Fed also has another job, as a regulator of the banking system; and as a regulator, it is an abysmal failure; worse than an atheist priest.

There is a discipline in economics known as the “theory of repeated games” and the basic idea is that if you repeatedly cheat at a game, then it increases the likelihood that I will retaliate by trying to cheat you. Of course that is just a theoretical game. In the real world, I might just stop playing your game. When corruption and cheating permeates a society, everything starts to break down, fairness and trust turn to dust and the vacant, crumbling buildings of Detroit.

You have probably invested through Wall Street at some time or another, and yet we know that insiders rig the game; they cheat to fatten their own wallet at your expense. We know that the banks change the laws to make their wagers more “secure” than the pensions of retired cops and firefighters. Even the new deal for Detroit values banks bets at 56 cents on the dollar but pensioners would only get 20 cents on the dollar. Ah, but you might not have a public pension, so you are not concerned. Do you have a private retirement account? A 401k or IRA? The banksters have no more respect for private accounts than public accounts.

Political and economic inequality go hand in hand with a two-tiered justice system, and at the root of the rot are the banksters, cheating the system, lying on a grand scale, and doing it all with impunity. Maybe 2014 could be the year when we won't be fooled again. Best wishes for the New Year.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 - According to Plan

According to Plan
by Sinclair Noe

Don't worry. Everything is going exactly according to plan. The Fed will taper just a little; cutting back to $75 billion a month in Treasury bond and mortgage backed securities; the cuts will trim back equally from both categories. You'll hardly notice.

The Fed said: "In light of the cumulative progress toward maximum employment and the improvement in the outlook for labor market conditions, the committee decided to modestly reduce the pace of its asset purchases.” Great news for people in the hunt for a job; everything is good. And for those of you with two jobs, well your doubled efforts have not gone unnoticed. The Fed expects unemployment to dip to 6.3% to 6.6% by the end of the year, what with more people dropping out of the workforce and the participation rate shrinking. Besides, the current 7% unemployment is apparently just good enough to avoid civil unrest, or as the Fed calls it “progress toward maximum employment.”

The central bank also said it "likely will be appropriate" to keep rates near zero "well past the time" that the jobless rate falls below 6.5 percent. Again, this confirms that everything is going exactly according to plan..., for the bankers; for the rest of us – not so much. But if you are a banker, you have to love free money from the Fed.

It's not like they could continue QE forever; they were running out of stuff to buy. The federal deficit has been shrinking and that means fewer Treasuries. Mortgage rates have increased and that means fewer MBS. And as the Fed dried up supply, that would potentially lead to increased costs in executing QE. The Fed has already dumped $4 trillion on their balance sheet, and even with taper they'll purchase up to $900 billion over the next 12 months.

Inflation has not been a problem; disinflation has. QE couldn't get the prices up on just about anything but stocks and other financial assets. In the press conference, Bernanke said: “If inflation does not show signs of returning to target, we will take appropriate action.” Not sure what that is, but clearly $85 billion a month in QE wasn't the answer. Toss in the idea that our emerging market friends were getting miffed; the Brazilian finance minister sent a letter to the Fed before the FOMC meeting asking them to taper; something to the effect of just do it already!

And so the Fed just ripped the band-aid off the cut. I was a little surprised; it seems Grinch-like heading into the holidays and the Fed's big birthday bash. Goldman Sachs described it as “slightly more hawkish than expectations.” I thought they would wait until January or March, but in the long run it really won't matter. QE has not done the job intended because the money never went where it was most needed. Bernanke's helicopter hovered over Wall Street, the bags of money were tossed out, and sucked into a black hole, also known as the banks. The money never moved. 

The Fed created debt-free money and bought government debt with it, returning the interest to the Treasury. The result was interest free credit for the government; which was great for reducing the debt load, but the government never took the extra step of deploying super cheap money into the economy. And then the fatal flaw was that QE delivered money to the accounts of the creditors while doing nothing for the accounts of the debtors. There is still plenty of bad debt floating around, and there is still a debt problem. The Fed never extended its largesse to Main Street, and Congress is just contrary to economic growth.

In his final press conference after the FOMC meeting, Bernanke said “the recovery remains incomplete,” and he repeated the idea that tapering is data dependent, suggesting the Fed could always come back in and increase securities purchases on an as needed basis.

So Bernanke will leave the Fed in January and this wraps up, sort of, lingering loose ends; he'll hand over control to Janet Yellen and not leave her with the task of explaining taper. He leaves with one final short squeeze for the market bears. I'm not sure why the markets soared to new highs on this news, since it would seem to portend higher interest rates and higher interest rates tend to portend lower corporate profits and lower stock prices. But then rates have been going up anyway. Ah well, you know the old saying: don't fight the Fed, at least not today.

The Fed will taper; you'll hardly notice, because it was never meant for you and me, just whatever scraps might fall our way; what they call the “wealth effect”. Ben is leaving and maybe his legacy will be that everything went according to plan, it's just that the plan was all about Wall Street and not about Main Street. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Tuesday, December 17, 2013 - The Year in Financial Review

The Year in Financial Review
by Sinclair Noe

They say you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you're coming from, so today on the Review, we'll review some of the financial milestones of 2013.

You may recall that 12 months ago, we were headed over the fiscal cliff. The fiscal cliff really started in 2001 with the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act, also known as the Bush tax cuts; after various extensions, they were set to expire at the end of 2012. And they did. In the end, Congress did not approve an extension of most of the tax cuts until late on New Year’s Day. Because all the Bush tax cuts had technically expired, Republicans could say they had not violated their No New Taxes pledge. The marginal rate on incomes over $400k increased, plus cap gains, and qualified dividends for high-income taxpayers, plus some estate tax changes, and the holiday on the payroll tax ended; just to be sure everybody felt some pain.

President Obama signed the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 on January 2. The ATRA is usually described as a tax increase although technically it might be a tax cut. The confusion arises because there were so many expiring provisions at the end of 2012.  ATRA could be described as either a $618 billion tax increase, relative to maintenance of all of the provisions that had been in place – that is, relative to so-called “current policy”; or a $4 trillion tax cut, relative to the actual law.

It was an inauspicious start to the new year.

Wall Street found comfort in the resolution of the fiscal cliff, and of course the never-ending flow of free money from Quantitative Easing. Equity traders partied like it was 1999. Stock funds took in some $134 billion in the first ten months of this year. The Dow Industrial Average started the new year at 13,100, and never looked back. There were a few minor pullbacks but no significant corrections; just a string of record highs for the Dow, the S&P 500, and even the Nasdaq Comp hit the highest levels in 13 years. Milk and cookies indeed.

Turns out, the stock market wasn't dead,it just needed some juice from the Fed. The Federal Reserve had a major role in propping up Wall Street. The Fed's balance sheet grew by more than $1 trillion just since the start of the year, and not stands slightly north of 25% of GDP. Overlay a chart of the Fed's balance sheet with a chart of the S&P 500; carrots and peas; Fred and Ginger.

Bond markets had been absolutely giddy with QE. The yield on the 10-year note touched 1.39% back in the summer of 2012. Heading into the summer of 2013, Ben Bernanke sent up a trial balloon that the Fed had actually thought about how they might exit QE; not that they had any plans to exit; not that there was anything in reality; just a little contemplation. The bond market freaked, and threw a taper tantrum. In the process, conservative income investors were shocked to learn that bond funds can lose value. Who knew? And that is how the 30 year bond bull died.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific, Japan had been catatonic for 2 decades until Japan's new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe somehow got a hold of the Federal Reserve's playbook; but something was lost in translation. Instead of just applying enough stimulus to prop up the banks, Abe tripled the stimulus, and kicked in fiscal reform and structural reform. He tied a sack of bricks around the yen and tossed it in deep waters. The results were predictable; a smidge of inflation replaced deflation; the Japanese economy will expand about 2% for the year, and Japanese stocks are on pace for more than a 50% gain this year.

Who knew? Certainly not Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, who unfortunately became famous for their worst work – the sarcastically titled book: “This Time Is Different”. Not exactly. Turns out there was a miscalculation with the Excel spreadsheets and there isn't a real precise line where the ratio of debt to GDP becomes malignant. Simple error by a couple of academic wonks, except their theories had served as a template for economic reforms around the globe, with less than satisfactory results. If you followed the Rogoff-Reinhart Rule, you would have tightened the belt in the face of an economic slowdown; think Greece, Spain, Portugal, and to some extent, the US. The result in the Eurozone was narrowing credit spreads and scary spikes in unemployment; that eventually forced ECB chief Mario Draghi to announce “the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes.”

The Draghi Put sounded good, except to the Germans, and even after the Rogoff-Reinhart spreadsheet blunder became clear, Draghi still hasn't used the OMT, Outright Monetary Transactions, he promised back in 2012, and Euro-austerity has lead to even higher debt to GDP ratios in the most indebted Euro nations, and the ECB and IMF have denounced austerity, but they still haven't dared to experiment as boldly as the Japanese.

Meanwhile. the BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa were clobbered. In November, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the rich world's number-crunching club, lowered its global growth forecast for 2014 by nearly half a point, to 2.7%, because of the slowdown in emerging-market economies. The European Central Bank warned: "Any sharper or more disruptive adjustment in emerging market economies needs to be closely monitored, given the potential for stronger and more persistent euro area impacts." Their fast growth compensated for the developed world's stagnation and their currency reserves funded Western debt. The thirst of emerging market consumers for goods helped tide over Western companies, while their low production costs drove global trade.

Developing economies weren't prepared for a downturn in global trade. The prospect of costlier capital, courtesy of the Fed's taper talk, dried up the flow of hot money that never seemed to find its way to Main Street but did filter to emerging markets. A disinflationary environment also clobbered commodities, and many of the emerging markets rely on natural resources. Investors withdrew from emerging market equities, debt, currencies, and everything else. According to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the total value of commodity index-related instruments purchased by institutional investors rose from an estimated $15 billion in 2003 to at least $200 billion by mid-2008. And then the cycle turned; 2013 marks the third year of a downturn in commodity prices. At some point, the cycle will turn again.
And through it all, the United States has emerged as the cleanest shirt in the dirty clothes hamper. The Fed's QE might not have spread the wealth; actually it just concentrated the wealth, but that's not to say it didn't have some impact. The housing market bounced back; not all the way to the highs at the peak, but it helped. Global real estate deals are now back to late 2007 levels. The world population keeps growing, and the institutional buyers can't buy everything; even though they tried. That lead to an increase in rents. If, or when rates move even higher, it will likely dampen the enthusiasm for real estate. Look for a slightly calmer market in 2014.

The high price of oil pushed drivers to switch to more fuel efficient cars. The hybrid Prius is the top-seller in California and the Tesla outsold Audi and Jaguar. GM turned a profit, and completed the terms of its bailout. The US keeps coming up with new technologies, such as 3D printing and robotics. And we've become masters at spying on the rest of the world.

The US is now in its fifth year of economic expansion and economic growth is surpassing some of the emerging markets, which is back to that cleanest shirt theory. One of the big surprises for the US economy has been energy production. Domestic crude oil production is up 18% form one year ago; up 56% from 2007; nat gas production is up 28% from 2007. Oil imports have been dropping and exports of refined petroleum products has increased.

So everything was on track for economic recovery, until the politicians in Washington decided to shut down government. Remember the fiscal cliff deal that started the year? Turns out it was just a stopgap measure, and when it came time to work out a longer-term deal, well, what can I tell you; we've got the best politicians money can buy; which is to say that Congress is a train wreck waiting to happen, and it happened in October. The 16 day shutdown came with a price tag of $24 billion, with nothing to show for it but really bad political theater.

And then that was followed by the biggest municipal bankruptcy in US history. Detroit is on the skids. The BK process is still underway, and there are implications. We have seen an unelected emergency manager take over the governance of a major city. A coup. How will it turn out? I don't know but if this is going to be a template for other struggling cities, it could get ugly.

And finally, perhaps the most important financial development came from a source we didn't even know a year ago; a modest priest from the slums of Buenos Aires; Pope Francis, the new spiritual leader of more than 1.2 billion Catholics – it is a very large contingent. The new Pope published an apostolic exhortation in late November. Pope Francis called for renewal of the Roman Catholic Church and attacked unfettered capitalism as "a new tyranny", urging global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality. Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the "idolatry of money" and beseeching politicians to guarantee all citizens "dignified work, education and healthcare". He also called on rich people to share their wealth. "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills," Francis wrote in the document issued on Tuesday. "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?"

I think this, more than anything else, has changed the financial dialogue as we head into the new year. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thursday, December 12, 2013 - Three Strikes

Three Strikes
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 104 = 15,739
SPX – 6 = 1775
NAS – 5 = 3998
10 YR YLD + .03 = 2.88%
OIL - .06 = 97.38
GOLD – 27.10 = 1226.20
SILV - .81 = 19.60

Stocks down for a third day in a row, and except for that big gain on the news of the monthly jobs report, this has been a nasty start to December. Weekly jobless claims jumped to 368,00 from 300,000 the week before. Overall retail sales climbed a seasonally adjusted 0.7% last month, the most since June.  Auto sales jumped 1.8% in November, the most since June. Meanwhile, there were drops in retail sales of 0.2% for clothing and accessories stores, and 1.1% at gasoline stations. Online and other non-store retailers saw sales rise 2.2% in November, the most since July 2012. Over the past year, retail sales have grown 4.7%. Inventories at US businesses rose 0.7% in October. Maybe businesses are expecting a great holiday shopping season but it isn't looking good.

Neither the jobless claims nor the retail sales will move the Fed’s current position on tapering. Markets have been focused on the timing and the slope of Fed bond-buying tapering and not on anything else. Most likely, the Fed will meet next week and not taper, but they will likely communicate clearly their intent to taper.

The just agreed 2014-2015 US budget deal faces a crucial test today when the House of Representatives votes on the bill, with Speaker John Boehner urging skeptical conservatives to back it. The agreement sealed between top Democratic and Republican negotiators is seen as a chance to end the brutal cycle of fiscal crises that have plagued Washington in recent years. The legislation, which sets spending caps at $1.012 trillion for 2014 and $1.014 trillion for 2015, and repeals billions in a package of arbitrary cuts known as sequestration, appears likely to pass the Republican-led House. It would then go to the Senate for a vote, likely next week before the chamber adjourns for the year-end holiday.

Pemex is the pride of Mexico. Part of the reason may be that it is ubiquitous. Every gas station in Mexico has the green and white sign of the state owned oil company. When all else failed, Pemex was the economic lifeblood of the Mexican government. Today, the Mexican Congress passed legislation  declaring that Mexico still owns its oil, but allowing private companies to drill for oil and natural gas in partnership with Pemex, or on their own, returning international oil companies to territory they were kicked out of 75 years ago.

The stated goal is to stimulate Mexico’s sliding oil production and vault the country into the developed world by tapping vast pockets of oil and natural gas deep under the earth and sea. Foreign oil companies have long been eager to gain access to Mexico’s oil and have quietly lobbied the government to open up for years, while Pemex is known for inefficiency at best, and corruption at worst. Mexico’s oil production has declined by 25 percent from its 2004 peak, to just over 2.5 million barrels a day. Pemex is spending more to pump less: investment has more than doubled in the same period to more than $20 billion a year. It may not be the best run oil company but Mexicans tend to consider it their oil company. In a country where controlling oil is often equated with sovereignty and national pride, the plan has set off furious debate.

And it's just part of a bigger plan. President Pena Nieto is also pushing to break up telecommunication monopolies, raise taxes and weaken the teachers union grip on faltering public schools. Two decades after Mexico sold off banks and the telephone monopoly, Mexicans pay more for credit and phones service than other Latin Americans, and they suspect they will pay more for gas under the new law, too.

Five years ago, Bernie Madoff was arrested in New York for running a Ponzi scheme. Madoff's banker was JPMorgan. Federal authorities suspect JPMorgan continued to serve as Madoff’s primary bank even as questions mounted about his operation, with one bank executive acknowledging before the arrest that Madoff’s “Oz-like signals” were “too difficult to ignore.” And so now, the authorities are going after JPMorgan; apparently close to a settlement that would involve about $2 billion in penalties and criminal action, or what passes as criminal action in the world of Wall Street bankers.

The government would use a chunk of the money, probably less than half to compensate Madoff's victims. The settlement would include a deferred prosecution agreement, which would list the bank’s criminal violations in a court filing but stop short of an indictment as long as JPMorgan pays the penalties and acknowledges the facts of the government’s case. The deferred prosecution agreement is expected to fault JPMorgan for a “programmatic violation” of the Bank Secrecy Act, which requires banks to maintain internal controls against money laundering and to report suspicious transactions to the authorities. And just to be clear, this case involves money laundering by JPMorgan.

The government has been reluctant to bring criminal charges against large corporations, fearing that such an action could imperil a company and throw innocent employees out of work. Those fears trace to the indictment of Enron's accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, which went out of businesses after its 2002 conviction, taking 28,000 jobs with it. Ever since, prosecutors have increasingly relied on deferred prosecution agreements, which is a slap on the wrist and allows the bank to continue, as long as they don't continue with their illegal activities. So the basic idea is that JPMorgan can break the law, pay off the government and promise not to do it again. Prosecutors insist that no one is too big to indict or too big to jail. It will be interesting to see if JPMorgan can indeed clean up its business and manage to stop breaking the law; and if they can't keep their nose clean, it'll be interesting to see if the prosecutors actually have the fortitude to enforce the law.

Two years ago JPMorgan entered an “non-prosecution agreement” to settle antitrust charges. I'm sure there is some sort of fine distinction between a “non-prosecution agreement” and a “deferred-prosecution agreement” but they sound similar; no criminal charges as long as they kept to the straight and narrow for 2 years. Then there was that problem of manipulating electricity markets between 2010 and 2012. The head of their commodities trading division, Blythe Masters, was accused of making false and misleading statements to federal energy regulators. No criminal charges were filed.

Pope Francis is at it again. Francis, who was named Time magazine's Person of the Year on Wednesday, has urged his own Church to be more fair, frugal and less pompous and to be closer to the poor and suffering. A couple of weeks ago he published an apostolic exhortation title, The Joy of the Gospel, where he attacked unfettered capitalism, as “a new tyranny” and  condemned the "idolatry of money".

Now in a new message for the Roman Catholic Church's World Day of Peace, marked around the world on Jan. 1, he also called for sharing of wealth and for nations to shrink the gap between rich and poor, more of whom are getting only "crumbs". And he says that huge salaries and bonuses are  symptoms of an economy based on greed and inequality.

Titled "Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace", the message also attacked injustice, human trafficking, organized crime and the weapons trade as obstacles to peace.

Francis said many places in the world were seeing a "serious rise" in inequality between people living side by side. He attacked the "widening gap between those who have more and those who must be content with the crumbs", calling on governments to implement "effective policies" to guarantee people's fundamental rights, including access to capital, services, educational resources, healthcare and technology. The Pope says: "The grave financial and economic crises of the present time ... have pushed man to seek satisfaction, happiness and security in consumption and earnings out of all proportion to the principles of a sound economy."

I'm going to take a little vacation time over the next couple of weeks. Don't worry, I'll continue to update the blog on a kind of regular basis.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Wednesday, December 11, 2013 - Let's Make A Deal

Let's Make A Deal
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 129 = 15,843
SPX – 20 = 1782
NAS -56 = 4003
10 YR YLD + .05 = 2.84%
OIL -1.09 = 97.42
GOLD – 9.70 = 1253.30
SILV - .13 = 20.40

We have a deal. Bipartisan budget negotiators, led by senator Patty Murray for the Democrats and House Republican Paul Ryan, announced last night that they have reached a deal to settle the federal budget for two years, and avert a possible government shutdown. We have a deal; it's just not a done deal. There is pressure from both the left and right, as Democrats sought to negotiate a further deal on unemployment benefits and Republicans fended off attacks from conservative pressure groups.

House Speaker John Boehner lashed out at right wing groups such as the Heritage Foundation, claiming they were criticizing the compromise deal before they even knew what was in it. Meanwhile, some Democrats lashed out at the $1 trillion deal because it did not include an extension of long term unemployment benefits for some 2.1 million out of work workers.

Republican leaders will likely have to rely on House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi to deliver sufficient Democratic votes to counter any rebellion among their Tea Party wing, which gives the minority leader a rare moment of leverage. So far, Republicans have not ruled out allowing a separate vote to extend long-term unemployment benefits, but signal they too want more concessions from Democrats first. There is also opposition from Republicans in the Senate, who are less able to block the budget's passage, but are under pressure from a renewed wave of primary challenges by Tea Party candidates in the 2014 midterms.

The framework includes $85 billion in spending cuts and non-tax revenue from new fees to replace the mandatory budget cuts and supply a modest amount of deficit reduction. As drafted, the bill would reverse $63 billion in across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect in the current budget year and the next one, easing a crunch on programs as diverse as environmental protection and the Pentagon.
It would offset the higher spending with $85 billion in savings over a decade from higher fees and relatively modest curtailments on government benefit programs.
Nearly a third of the total savings would come nearly a decade from now, in 2022 and 2023, partly from extending a current 2 percent cut in payments to Medicare providers. Also, future federal workers would pay more toward their own retirement, fees would rise on air travelers and corporations would pay more to the government agency that guarantees their pension programs.
With the increased spending to begin immediately and much of the savings delayed, Congressional Budget Office estimates showed the deal would push deficits higher than currently projected in the current year and each of the next two. The CBO said red ink would rise by about $23 billion in this 2014 fiscal year, $18 billion in the next year and about $4 billion in the one after that.
Though congressional negotiators may have reached an agreement over the federal budget, they may not have may not have figured out how they will get it passed. Still, the fallout from the government shutdown in October wasn't difficult to understand. Americans are sick and tired of the dysfunction in Washington, and another shutdown, or even the threat of another shutdown is unacceptable. There could be a vote on the deal as early as tomorrow.

On Wall Street, good news is bad news. The idea that Washington might actually be able to pass a budget raised the expectations that the Federal Reserve might be able to scale back it's quantitative easing stimulus plan. Indeed, the big question is not whether the Fed will taper, but when. The FOMC meets next week, and the Fed policymakers will likely debate how best to communicate their plan. It's still unlikely they will actually start tapering now; that would be a little shocking, but they might indicate they are going to do it in the near future, with the caveat that taper proceeds absent some exogenous catastrophe. So, expect some clarification on the thresholds for taper and interest rates.

Across the globe, central banks have resorted to forward guidance on interest rates in the wake of the financial crisis to convince markets they are serious about supporting recovery in the world's top economies for a long time to come. So, even as the Fed is likely to offer a more solid opinion on taper, they will likely offer a more precise outlook for maintaining Zero Interest Rate Policy. In a Reuters poll conducted this week, 32 economists said they expect the central bank to wait until March, while 22 looked for a move in January. Only 12 expected a move next week.

The "better than expected" figures in the latest employment data were far below the level of job creation needed to put unemployed Americans back to work on any kind of reasonable schedule. It was even below the average monthly job creation during most of the 1990s. The jobs picture is still far worse than many people would have you believe. The current unemployment rate doesn't include the workers who have become discouraged and left the workforce, and workforce participation rates remain at historic lows. The jobs numbers don't include the underemployed who are working part-time and prefer to work full-time. The ratio of job seekers to available jobs remains discouragingly high. There are no jobs for nearly two out of every three job seekers, no matter how hard they look.

The employment picture for the long-term jobless remains dismal. And many of those people were left out in the cold under the budget deal announced last night. They will fall off the roles, and basically become invisible for economic data purposes. Of course, they aren't really invisible; they're still there. But maybe there isn't anything the Fed policymakers can do to achieve maximum employment. Maybe a taper is an admission, a clear and honest communication that Fed policy is impotent in its dual mandate, and maybe the time has come to amend the Fed's tools so that all that money they've been dropping out of helicopters falls somewhere else besides Wall Street, maybe they can toss a little bit over Main Street.

Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan was speaking at an investor conference in New York today. Dimon said he was thankful congressional leaders had reached a budget deal and was "less worried" about the impact of an eventual scaling back of the Federal Reserve's market-friendly stimulus measures. Dimon said the budget agreement was good for business confidence and that he would send thank you cards to congressional leaders. That makes me a bit more nervous about the deal.

Dimon said business demand for loans should rise to more normal levels as confidence rises, and demand for investment banking services in 2014 would be stronger than many people expect; and higher interest rates that would come with a Fed tapering would be good for the bank. He also said public attention to investigations of the bank by regulators and law enforcers was "really, really painful." Ahhh, maybe he should stop breaking the law, and then he wouldn't have all that painful attention.

Time magazine named Pope Francis its Person of the Year, crediting him with shifting the message of the Catholic Church while capturing the imagination of millions of people who had become disillusioned with the Vatican. This is the third time the magazine has chosen a pope as its Person of the Year. Time gave that honor to Pope John Paul II in 1994 and to Pope John XXIII in 1963.
Pope Francis, who, as archbishop of Buenos Aires was known as the slum cardinal for his visits to the poor and penchant for subway travel - beat former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and gay rights activist Edith Windsor for the award.
The new pope's style is characterized by frugality. He shunned the spacious papal apartment in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace to live in a small suite in a Vatican guest house, and he prefers a Ford Focus to the traditional pope's Mercedes. In September, Francis gave a groundbreaking and frank interview, in which he said the Vatican must shake off an obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality, and become more merciful. And in July, Francis told reporters he was not in a position to judge homosexuals who are of good will and in search of God, marking a break from his predecessor, Benedict, who said homosexuality was an intrinsic disorder.

And a couple of weeks ago he published his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, which has gained attention for what some are calling an attack on capitalism, but is more precisely an attack on unbridled financial speculation and runaway greed. Which may actually be an attack on capitalism, but he did it without using the actual word “capitalism”.

Rather he made an impassioned plea for society and government to protect the vulnerable from the predations of the greedy, to include everyone in this prosperity, not by taking from the rich to give to the poor but by making sure they have a role to play. His call to reject the “idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose” are lessons we've heard for a couple of thousand years, and that ancient economic wisdom is as valid today as it was 2014 years ago.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 - Impossible Until It Is Done

Impossible Until It Is Done
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 52 = 15,973
SPX – 5 = 1802
NAS – 8 = 4060
10 YR YLD - .06 = 2.79%
OIL + 1.17 = 98.51
GOLD + 21.60 = 1263.00
SILV + .59 = 20.53

Today federal regulators voted to implement the Volcker Rule. It won't actually be implemented until 2015, but the vote was today. The Volker Rule will lay out specific activities that banks can and can't do.

The final rules would prohibit proprietary trading by banking entities. As required by the Dodd-Frank Act, the final rules would include exemptions for: Underwriting - this exemption would require that a bank act as an underwriter for a distribution of securities (including both public and private offerings) and that the trading desk’s underwriting position be related to that distribution. Market making-related activities - a market-making desk may hedge the risks of its market-making activity under this exemption. Risk-mitigating hedging - this exemption would require that hedging activity is identified specifically. Trading in certain government obligations banks could still trade in Treasuries and muni's, and what the heck, foreign sovereign debt or its political subdivisions.

The final Volker Rule would also clarify which activities are not considered proprietary trading, and it is looking like nothing is considered a proprietary trade with the possible exception of when a bank trader places a bet on the Yankees with his local bookie. You may recall that Jamie Dimon tried to claim that the London Whale was not involved in proprietary trading, rather hedging; of course this was after he claimed he didn't know what the London Whale was doing

The final rules would become effective (appropriately) April 1, 2014. The Federal Reserve Board has extended the conformance period until July 21, 2015. Turning the Volker Rule into regulations has been slowed by a lobbying onslaught. And it looks like the banking lobby has won. The banks met with regulators on a regular and constant basis, and basically rewrote the rules. There was a token appearance from bank reformers, but the odds were against them by about 99 to 1.

The Volker Rule won't be totally worthless. Already many banks have shut down or spun off the desks they used for trading that was clearly solely for their own account, what’s known as proprietary trading. Banks do other kinds of trading that can also make them money, or loses it. Figuring out which trades fall into which category isn’t always easy, and deciding how much risk is too much for which kind of transaction may be even harder. On these issues, how regulators decide to enforce the rules may be as important as the rules themselves. Some regulators may be concerned only with seeing that the markets operate smoothly, other regulators may actually try to prevent banks from trading that would blow up the bank and possibly the global financial system.

The banks say there is no way to distinguish between proprietary trading and hedging and market making. Paul Volker, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the guy the rule was named for; Volker says the distinctions aren't tough: “It's like pornography, you know it when you see it.”

Bottom line is that the banks are going to try to skirt the rules, and whittle them down a bit more before implementation, but if this fails, the logical next step is to make it real simple and reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act.

And here is why it will likely fail: the banks wrote the rules, it's all way too complicated, too big to fail is still a problem – only bigger, and nobody cares. Admit it, your eyes are starting to glaze over. Your concern is whether the ATM will spit out cash, will the bank process your payment to the electric utility, and maybe they can pass out a few mortgages from time to time. So, nobody will say much until the next credit freeze, or the next international crisis when everything goes to hell in a handbasket and the banks come begging for bailouts. When that happens, we can all shout bloody murder.

Don't worry. What could go wrong?

Right now, politicians are gathering in Washington to craft and pass a budget deal and avert another government shutdown, which could happen January 15, unless they can put together a deal. And it looks like they might be close to a deal to de-fuse this fiscal time bomb they set themselves.

Any tentative budget deal might allow spending to rise from the scheduled $967 billion for fiscal 2014 to around $1 trillion. While that increase in outlays would be offset by raising some government fees and possibly cutting federal workers' retirement benefits. The plan does not purport to be any "grand bargain" that would slash the federal deficit. They may have a deal in the next few days, but for right now, there is no deal.

GM is once again General Motors, and no longer Government Motors. The US Treasury sold its last shares yesterday. Bailouts from the Bush and Obama administrations helped GM avoid liquidation and instead reorganized in 2009 bankruptcy. In return, the Treasury became a shareholder in GM. The US said it lost about $10.5 billion on its investment of $49.5 billion, but that's not the entire story.

GM was returned to investment-grade status by Moody’s Investors Service in September after losing it eight years ago; it's back in the S&P 500 index (it had been kicked out back when it was facing bankruptcy). Share price is up over 40% year to date. They're making good cars that are winning awards. And they have a new CEO, Mary Barra, the first female CEO of an automotive company.

According to a study by the Center for Automotive Research, a total automobile-industry shutdown from a liquidation of GM and Chrysler would have cut 2.63 million jobs from the US economy in 2009.  The bailout saved or avoided the loss of $105 billion in transfer payments and the loss of personal and social insurance tax collection in 2009 and 2010.

Eight major technology companies have joined forces to call for tighter controls on government surveillance, issuing an open letter to President Obama arguing for reforms in the way the US snoops on people.
The companies said that while they sympathize with national security concerns, recent revelations make it clear that laws should be carefully tailored to balance them against individual rights. The letter reads in part: "The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution... This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It's time for a change."
The companies signing off on the letter include: AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo. It sure would have been nice if the tech companies had been loudly supporting intelligence reform before Snowden's disclosures.
And today, more than 500 authors delivered a petition urging the United Nations to create an international bill of digital rights that would enshrine the protection of civil rights in the internet age. The signatories say the capacity of intelligence agencies to spy on millions of people's digital communications is turning everyone into potential suspects, with worrying implications for the way societies work.
The petition says the extent of surveillance revealed by Snowden has challenged and undermined the right of all humans to "remain unobserved and unmolested" in their thoughts, personal environments and communications. "This fundamental human right has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations for mass surveillance purposes."
The statement adds: "A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space."
Demanding the right "for all people to determine to what extent their personal data may be legally collected, stored and processed", the writers call for a digital rights convention that states will sign up to and adhere to. "Surveillance is theft. This data is not public property, it belongs to us. When it is used to predict our behaviour, we are robbed of something else – the principle of free will crucial to democratic liberty."
Have you heard about the Doomsday File. Edward Snowden claims he didn't bring a single NSA document into Russia, but as journalist Glenn Greenwald has hinted, he may have access to a trove of pilfered documents stored on a data cloud. British and US intelligence officials tell Reuters they think he may have a "doomsday" cache containing highly classified material to ensure he won't be arrested or physically harmed. He's believed to have enough data to keep the bombshell reports coming for the next two years. It's unclear if intelligence agencies know where the data is stored, but somehow they're aware that at least three people have the passwords, which are only valid at certain times each day.
Of course today also the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. More than 100 current and former heads of state plus tens of thousands of others, attended the service at a soccer stadium in Soweto. Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa was booed. President Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro. It was a peculiar service, rambling and punctuated by high winds and a harsh rain. I think the best quote of the day goes to President Obama, who said: "Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done." And while there were many dignitaries, it was a day for the people, not the powerful.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Monday, December 09, 2013 - Corrupt Practices

Corrupt Practices
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 5 = 16,025
SPX + 3 = 1808
NAS + 6 = 4068
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.75%
OIL - .41 = 97.24
GOLD + 9.70 = 1241.40
SILV + .30 = 19.94

Next week the Fed FOMC will meet to determine policy. Today, three Fed big wigs gave speeches. We start with James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank; Bullard says: “A small taper might recognize labor market improvement while still providing the [Fed] the opportunity to carefully monitor inflation during the first half of 2014,” and if inflation doesn't return to something approaching a target of 2%, well the Fed could pause the taper.

In separate remarks, Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker said that the central bankers would discuss pulling back the pace of its asset purchase program but gave no indication of how the discussion could go.

 Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher said the central bank should begin to scale back its bond-buying “at the earliest opportunity,” because, “Money is cheap and liquidity is abundant. Indeed, it is coursing over the gunwales of the ship of our economy, placing us at risk of being submerged in financial shenanigans rather than in conducting business based on fundamentals.”
The taper talk spooked Wall Street traders but it's unlikely the Fed will taper at the December meeting. There is little harm in postponing the decision till the new year, particularly compared to the risks of pulling back too soon.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve reports that US net worth, a measure of household wealth, rose 2.6% to $77.3 trillion from July through September. Net worth reflects the value of homes, stocks, bank accounts and other assets minus mortgages, credit cards and other debts.

Net worth peaked at $69.1 trillion in Q3 2007, then dropped to $55.7 trillion in Q1 2009, for a loss of more than $13 trillion, and now it is up $21.6 trillion to $77.3 trillion. Adjusted for inflation, net worth is still about 1 percent below its pre-crisis peak, but both the stock market and home prices have continued to increase in the current October-December quarter.  Rising stock prices boosted Americans’ net worth $917 billion. Higher home values added another $428 billion.

The gains haven’t been equally distributed. The wealthiest 10 percent of households own about 80 percent of stocks. And home ownership has declined since the recession, particularly among lower-income Americans.

Total mortgage debt rose 0.9 percent from the previous quarter. Americans are also holding more consumer debt outside of mortgages, in the form of student loans, auto loans and credit cards. Consumer debt rose 6 percent from the previous quarter.

The flow of funds data from the Fed would indicate that QE has had an effect on the economy, it's still accurate to say it has been an unequal redistribution of wealth; with most of the gains going to Wall Street and little to none making it to Main Street. And then there is a question of the sustainability of the gains.

The other day, I talked about the fines in the JPMorgan $13 billion settlement and I raised the question of how the fines were calculated. Well it turns out they weren't really calculated as much as they were negotiated. It looks like the settlement agreement does not quantify the losses that form the basis for the civil penalty, or even provide an indication of how many violations the government determined occurred in connection with the issuance of the mortgage securities; according to the government, JPMorgan bankers regularly included loans in deals that did not meet the bank's underwriting guidelines and were "not otherwise appropriate for securitization." We just don't know the quantity and the actual losses associated with these toxic mortgages.

The breakdown of the $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan includes a $2 billion fine to prosecutors in Sacramento and $4 billion in relief to struggling homeowners in hard-hit areas like Detroit and certain neighborhoods in New York. The government earmarked the other $7 billion as compensation to federal agencies and state attorneys general across the country. In some settlements, the beneficiary of the fines is often the United States Treasury.

But the 8th Amendment prohibits excessive fines; something the Supreme Court has defined as fines that would be grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense. The government can look beyond the actual amount involved in the case and also consider the harm done to others, the need for deterrence, and such other matters as justice may require. And since the settlement was negotiated, JPMorgan could hardly argue now that the fines are excessive.

As far as the deterrence factor, the government failed horribly on that front. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon probably had little to no direct involvement in the troubled mortgage deals, even if he did preside over the company and set policies. He did sign off on the annual reports, and under Sarbanes Oxley, he should have had, at the very least, some awareness. Dimon walks scot-free.

But what about the investment bankers who were involved in underwriting and selling the dubious mortgage deals that led to the massive penalty? They appear to be doing just fine as well. Indeed, until last month, three of the top bankers responsible for the deals still worked at JPMorgan. And one of them, the guy in charge of managing risk for the securitization group, is now in charge of the division that monitors risk for the entire bank.

JPMorgan claims that many of the toxic mortgages originated through Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual, the two failed financial institutions that JPMorgan scooped up in the financial crisis. What about the investment bankers who were involved in underwriting and selling the dubious mortgage deals at Bear and WaMu? Well, the head of Bear Stearns' mortgage division (also named in the suit) is now a partner at Goldman Sachs and he's the global head of the bank's mortgage trading division. Another head from Bear's bond business (also named in the suit) is now the head of Deutsche Bank's corporate banking and securities division. Another mortgage chief from Bear ended up as a chief of mortgage products for Bank of America. Other bankers involved in the mortgage scam have retired, but there doesn't seem to be anything in the settlement that would prevent them from continuing in the industry.

So, the bottom line is that there was no individual accountability in the settlement, there was not full disclosure of crimes committed, or any significant attempt to quantify the actual losses, and of course there was no admission of wrongdoing; absent those factors, settlements like these continue to reward and incentivize illegal conduct.

Meanwhile, you'll recall that in August JPMorgan disclosed that the SEC was investigating the bank's hiring practices in China; specifically that the bank favored hiring people from prominent Chinese families in order to win investment banking business. Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that emails uncovered in that investigation appear to clearly indicate that they knew they were crossing the line. In one email, an executive said that hiring sons and daughters of powerful people in China "almost has a linear relationship" with winning assignments. The documents even include spreadsheets that list the bank's "track record" for converting hires into business deals. And the email goes on: “You all know I have always been a big believer of the Sons and Daughters program."

So, the program even had a name, and everybody knew it, except apparently for the upper level executives back in New York, who remarkably remained clueless about the Sons and Daughters program, or the types of trades executed by the London Whale, or the toxicity of the mortgage loans by the mortgage department, or anything else.

Anyway, JPMorgan could be indicted under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act which prohibits American companies from paying money or offering anything of value to foreign officials for the purpose of "securing any improper advantage."  Under the Act, the gift doesn't have to be linked to any particular benefit to the American firm as long as it's intended to generate an advantage its competitors don't enjoy. Of course, JPMorgan has spreadsheets to prove they got a big bang for their bribery buck. But the point is that the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is strict.

By comparison, we don't even require that American corporations disclose to their own shareholders the payments they make to American politicians. If a Wall Street bank wants to hire the child of a prominent politician – go ahead. And of course the politicians and the technocrats regularly enjoy the revolving door between Washington DC politics and Wall Street corporate offices.

The list of public officials with past or present ties to Wall Street reads like a government phone book: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is now head of Warburg Pincus; budget director Peter Orszag works for Citigroup; Don Regan (Merril Lynch); Robert Rubin (Goldman, Citigroup); Phil Gramm (UBS); Alan Greenspan (Pimco); and that's just a quick sample.

In the Citizens United case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority: “if the First Amendment has any force it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”

Of course, we all know that money talks. JPMorgan has the spreadsheets that prove that money talks in China. And we have to Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to punish bribery. But in the US, we don't have a strict Corrupt Practices Act because the people that write the laws sold us out. Sorry, but you know it's true.