Rove Thumbs Nose at Congress: Again

Today’s news cycles had a lot of bluster from GOP lackeys about the economy, President Obama’s birth certificate, and refusal of stimulus funds. But this is the real news:

Former Bush adviser Karl Rove was a no-show today at his scheduled deposition deadline for the House Judiciary Committee’s ongoing probe into the U.S. attorney firings — setting up a major decision for President Obama on how to respond to congressional subpoenas.

Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) subpeonaed Rove to find out what he knows about the Dec. 2006 firings which eventually toppled former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Yep, Rove knows where all the bodies are buried, and continually thumbs his nose at Congressional efforts to get at the truth.

I have been opposed to opening hearings on the warrantless wiretaps and possible war crimes because of the current economic crisis, but I am slowly changing my mind. I think that perhaps there will be no way to restore any trust in our government if we do not shine light on the past, and past transgressions.

It should begin with Mr. Rove and Mr. Cheney.

More on the US Attorneys’ Scandal

Wells, Wachovia and Sweet, Sweet Deals

During the early days of the financial meltdown, the news was that Wells Fargo Bank was set to acquire teetering Wachovia, but those reports were overshadowed by the news that the FDIC had brokered a deal with Citigroup for the acquisition.

If you read beyond the smear headlines that seem to dominate every major news source, you’ll discover the following:

  • The brokered deal by the FDIC would have Citigroup acquiring Wachovia for $1/share, down from over $4/share a year ago.
  • Citigroup’s offer only included the banking operation
  • The offer by Wells Fargo was for $7/share and included all operations of the company.
  • Wells Fargo has long been interested in expanding its presence to be competitive with Bank of America on the national banking landscape. An acquisition of Wachovia opens the door for them to become competitive while sparing the government $42 billion dollars of absorbed losses.
  • A Wells Fargo acquisition protects employees who hold shares of Wachovia in their retirement accounts from huge losses.

On its face, it would seem that a Wells Fargo acquisition of Wachovia is a far superior solution to the fire sale brokered by the FDIC.

Now both deals are mired in expensive, urgent litigation. As of this writing, New York State Supreme Court justice Charles E. Ramos had blocked the Wells Fargo merger. That injunction was lifted by an appeals court a few hours ago.

Meanwhile, the FDIC frets that other deals might not happen because…

The litigation could put regulators in a tough spot. The Wells Fargo deal may be better for taxpayers, but if it succeeds, in the future other financial institutions may not be willing to help the government, as Citigroup did, because of the risk that they might not reap the anticipated benefit.

I’ve heard this before. Specifically with respect to AT&T and illegal wiretaps. Where the Bush administration urged Congress to give immunity because otherwise there was no incentive for companies to cooperate.

Have you ever heard such bogus logic? The Citigroup deal was so sweet it was nearly saccharine. What more incentive would they have needed? The fact that the “benefit” to Citi would have come at the expense of employees and individual shareholders seems to carry no weight. Just as the Bush Administration’s whine about AT&T’s non-cooperation was bogus, given that they were operating under court orders and all…

I have never in my life seen such wanton greed and corruption displayed for the world to see. Let’s hope voters are keeping their eyes open.

Market Meltdown: Thoughts on Shadows, Secrets, and Shells

After reading Francine Hardaway, Dave Winer and Steve Gillmor today, it occurs to me that we are not under any obligation to accept the Bush Administration’s claim that their way is the only way out, or hand off incredible power to the Secretary of the Treasury with absolutely no understanding of how that power is to be used or how it will cure the problem.

Further, many have pointed out that the proposed bailout plan does not put a cure on the underlying disease that brought us to this place — out of control credit and lending practices locked inside an invisible, or shadow, banking system. As many other smarter people than I have pointed out, there is no instant cure for our financial market mess; there are too many players, too many vines branching out, and too many unknowns. But let’s start with mortgages as a place to dig our feet in.

The mortgages that are rocking the financial industry are still secured by real estate. The homes are, for the most part, still worth something, and when the market rebounds (which it will, just like it has many times in the past), they will regain their value. At the moment, many of these foreclosed homes (and office buildings, and parking lots and whatever else…) are vacant and waiting for someone to buy them. So we have a bunch of unoccupied homes that are bank-owned and worth less than what was loaned by the bank to purchase them.

Then, thanks to the repeal of Glass-Steagall and subsequent removal of the firewall between investment companies and banks, we have these mortgages bundled into funds by the banks’ subsidiary broker-dealer (wholly owned by the bank holding company, of course), and sold to individual investors as “prudent investments”, intended to spread the risk among many. In theory, it’s great, because evidently no one foresaw the entire industry turning belly up at once and leave those investors holding the bag. As Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs become full-fledged bank holding companies tomorrow by decree of the Federal Reserve, the Glass-Steagall firewal evaporates forever.

What we have isn’t a meltdown of the traditional banking system. It’s a meltdown of the shadow banking system, the behind the mask, unnamed industry that relies on short-term credit to reap big profits which are plowed back into investments in commercial paper.

In 2007, the founder and CIO of PIMCO wrote the following:

Financial institutions fell for the ruse, and now we all suffer the consequences. Defaults are rising, the dollar’s sinking, and — good Lord! — even Google’s (Charts, Fortune 500) stock price is going down. Something must really be wrong.

It is. What we are witnessing is essentially the breakdown of our modern-day banking system, a complex of leveraged lending so hard to understand that Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke required a face-to-face refresher course from hedge fund managers in mid-August.

My Pimco colleague Paul McCulley has labeled it the “shadow banking system” because it has lain hidden for years, untouched by regulation, yet free to magically and mystically create and then package subprime loans into a host of three-letter conduits that only Wall Street wizards could explain.

And in March, there was this excellent description of the shadow banking system:

On Wall Street, of course, what you do not see can hurt you. In the past decade, there has been an explosion in complex derivative instruments, like collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps, that were intended primarily to transfer risk.

These products are virtually hidden from investors, analysts and regulators, even though they have emerged as being among Wall Street’s most outsized profit engines. They do not trade openly on public exchanges, and financial services firms disclose few details about them.

Used judiciously, derivatives can limit the damage from financial miscues and uncertainty, greasing the wheels of commerce. Used unwisely – when greed and the urge to gamble with borrowed money overtake sensible risk-taking – derivatives can become Wall Street’s version of nitroglycerin.

Bear Stearns’s vast portfolio of these instruments was among the main reasons for the bank’s collapse, but derivatives are buried in the accounts of just about every Wall Street company, as well as those of major commercial banks like Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. What is more, these exotic investments have been exported all over the globe, causing losses in places as distant from Wall Street as a small Norwegian town north of the Arctic Circle.

For years, this has been the shell game fueling Wall Street while ordinary folks just try to get through the day and pay their bills. Credit has been the currency driving the markets, and as it proved lucrative for US investors, so too did it prove lucrative for foreign investors. As I understand it, 41% of US Treasury bonds are owned by foreign investors. Call me naive, but it seems to me that the addiction to credit isn’t just on Wall Street, it’s in Washington, too.

As I wrote last Sunday, our war in Iraq is being fueled by issuance and purchase of US Bonds. Only US citizens aren’t the only ones buying them. As more debt is piled on more debt, we run the serious risk of having our margins called by the likes of China, Saudi Arabia, and others. In the meantime, the UK markets grow shakier by the minute, and we are all placed at risk of losing what little savings we’ve managed to accumulate, while Lehman executives share 2.5 billion in bonuses, courtesy of Barclays Bank, who skimmed the cream off the soured milk that was a respected investment bank.

Glenn Greenwald echoes my own thoughts on this:

What is more intrinsically corrupt than allowing people to engage in high-reward/no-risk capitalism — where they reap tens of millions of dollars and more every year while their reckless gambles are paying off only to then have the Government shift their losses to the citizenry at large once their schemes collapse? We’ve retroactively created a win-only system where the wealthiest corporations and their shareholders are free to gamble for as long as they win and then force others who have no upside to pay for their losses. Watching Wall St. erupt with an orgy of celebration on Friday after it became clear the Government (i.e., you) would pay for their disaster was literally nauseating, as the very people who wreaked this havoc are now being rewarded.

More amazingly, they’re free to walk away without having to disgorge their gains; at worst, they’re just “forced” to walk away without any further stake in the gamble. How can these bailouts not at least be categorically conditioned on the disgorgement of ill-gotten gains from those who are responsible? The mere fact that shareholders might lose their stake going forward doesn’t resolve that concern; why should those who so fantastically profited from these schemes they couldn’t support walk away with their gains? This is “redistribution of wealth” and “government takeover of industry” on the grandest scale imaginable — the buzzphrases that have been thrown around for decades to represent all that is evil and bad in the world. That’s all this is; it’s not an “investment” by the Government in any real sense but just a magical transfer of losses away from those who are responsible for these losses to those who aren’t.

Which brings me to my point, such as it is. If a bailout of Wall Street is inevitable for our own protection, I want it on my terms. If I have to finance it, I want to do it in a way that’s going to benefit ME, the taxpayer. I want a return on my investment, not more taxes to service the debt owed to China.

Let’s start by making a citizen’s margin call. We actually do have clout, because it’s our 401(k) and pension money fueling the new investments that keep the pyramid on track as we move forward. Let’s tell the government we will make our investments in US bonds which may only be owned by US citizens, earmarked only for the purpose of retiring debt to foreign investors.

Let’s also insist that we don’t act with haste on any bailout of Wall Street. Any emergency measures taken at this time should be just that — emergency measures, for a very short period of time (3-6 months, maximum), while a longer-term plan which includes full disclosure, appropriate sanctions, and full recovery efforts of whatever assets and profits are left to recover.

Finally, there can be no — I repeat, NO — blank check granted for this bailout. No power without oversight, no action without proper accountability and recourse. None. Because it’s worth remembering this important fact, again courtesy of Glenn Greenwald:

What’s most vital to underscore is that the beneficiaries of this week’s extraordinary Government schemes aren’t just the coincidental recipients of largesse due to some random stroke of good luck. The people on whose behalf these schemes are being implemented — the true beneficiaries — are the very same people who have been running and owning our Government — both parties — for decades, which is why they have been able to do what they’ve been doing without interference. They were able to gamble without limit because they control the Government, and now they’re having others bear the brunt of their collapse for the same reason — because the Government is largely run for their benefit.

Lest you doubt, let me remind you that Jeb Bush served as a financial consultant to Lehman from 2007 on. Here’s an added bonus:

Sitting behind McCain was former Gov. Jeb Bush, who was hired a year ago by Lehman Brothers as a financial consultant. As governor, Bush served on the three-member State Board of Administration that agreed to let the state’s retirement fund buy a series of mortgage-backed securities from Lehman Brothers that turned out to be troubled. The subsequent steep drop in value prompted a $9 billion run on the fund last December by local governments who had invested their money in the SBA managed fund. Lehman also manages two funds for the SBA, which is also heavily invested in some Lehman securities.

All I can say to that is that the good people of Florida should really think hard before electing someone Jeb and George endorse, if they hope to keep what little retirement savings they have left.

Stunning Coup Attempt of 2008: Right Here, Right Now

When I wrote about the bailout bill this morning two things happened. First, I was focused on the staggering, mind-numbing numbers. And second, even though intuition told me there would be something about this plan as insidious as the Patriot Act, I didn’t imagine it to be quite as bold and brazen as it was.

Fortunately, others did. It’s stunning in its audacity and simplicity.

In essence, the bailout as proposed represents the largest transfer of Congressional power to the executive branch in United States History, as well as the shift of public funds into corporate hands. Worse yet, there’s this:

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

Read that a couple of times. Let it sink in. The Treasury Secretary has been elevated above the rule of law. In essence, we are being asked to fork up 700 billion dollars to give to the Treasury Secretary with no accountability and no recourse. Imagine that. Then go read all of Larisa Alexandrovna’s article on Huffington Post.

If ever the words “fierce urgency of now” had any meaning, they must have meaning here. They must. Alexandrovna is absolutely right when she calls for us all to stand against this in unison, regardless of party:

You are no longer Republicans, Democrats, or any shade of voter. You do not live in a swing state or a solid colored state. You are simply this: an American. That is the only side that matters. So call your members of Congress and demand, no, declare that unless they do their duty to the Constitution and to us, we will move to the streets – not because we want to, but because our founding fathers demanded this duty of each and every citizen in the face of such a domestic enemy. Demand – as is your right – that this bill be voted against and demand – as is your right – that the people plotting this treachery be held to account. We are either a nation of laws or we are no longer a democracy. Pick a side, because there won’t be another time, another moment, another chance to be a patriot.

She’s right. There is no crisis more urgent, more in need of our attention, than this. Because if we, the people, do not stop this end run around the rule of law and balance of powers, we will live in the dictatorship we deserve.

This is the bookend to the Patriot Act, make no mistake. It’s time to say no.

(Bonus Link)

Merrill, Lehman, Bank of America: Financial Chaos?

With the news of Lehman’s frenzied courting of Barclay’s for a shotgun marriage, and the elopement of Merrill and Bank of America, everyone is nervous. On the Twitter stream, the buzz is that the end of America is nigh, that maybe even the end of the world is upon us.

This was not entirely unexpected. The ball was put in motion at the end of March when the subprime crisis finally burst into the public consciousness in a big way, Bear Stearns failed, and Lehman teetered on the edge.

Last week’s bailout of FreddieMac and FannieMae simply brought the next round of illiquid financial institutions to the fore.

Hear this: We have a situation, brought on by a national addiction to credit on an individual, corporate and governmental level. It’s not going to go away anytime soon. It’s not going to get easier.

As long as our government continues to finance the Iraq War with abandon, credit will be tighter, financial institutions will be as squeezed as the individual, and our nation will leverage the future of our children in the name of “national security”. Just as a reminder, the architect of the blueprint for the failure of these financial institutions can be laid directly at the feet of Phil Gramm, John McCain’s chief economic adviser. McCain continues to try to tell Americans he will not raise taxes and will extend the Bush tax cuts, but he does not admit that what he proposes is impossible.

This is important, because it goes straight to the heart of our faltering economy. There is no question that the debt we’re racking up in Iraq (last tally it was 3 TRILLION). Despite the Bush Administration promise that Iraqis would help foot the bill, the facts say otherwise. They have not contributed one penny to the debt the US has accumulated during our occupation of their country. Why should they? It’s not as if we were invited in, and asked to stay.

The continued shakiness of our financial institutions and Federal bailout responses are cause for concern, but not cause for panic. It is not time to make a run on the bank. It IS time to be smart about how your money is banked. Make sure you’ve got cash in FDIC-backed institutions, be prudent and get rid of as much personal debt as possible. (I have more suggestions here).

As a third-party pension administrator, I admit to having concern about how 401(k) investors are going to react to today’s news. As the single largest cash investor in US markets, it’s really important that participants in 401(k) plans react with caution, rather than on impulse. Retirement plans are long-term investments, and investors have an opportunity to buy at bargain-basement prices while the markets react to the Lehman/Merrill news. This is not a time to pull funds out of the market; it’s an opportunity to leverage the state of the market for future growth.

But on a higher level, all of us need to ask how much bleaker this economy will get before we’re staring down a full-fledged depression. While McCain and Bush try to tell us it’s in our heads, facts remain facts.

Paul Krugman:

To understand the problem, you need to know that the old world of banking, in which institutions housed in big marble buildings accepted deposits and lent the money out to long-term clients, has largely vanished, replaced by what is widely called the “shadow banking system.” Depository banks, the guys in the marble buildings, now play only a minor role in channeling funds from savers to borrowers; most of the business of finance is carried out through complex deals arranged by “nondepository” institutions, institutions like the late lamented Bear Stearns — and Lehman.

The new system was supposed to do a better job of spreading and reducing risk. But in the aftermath of the housing bust and the resulting mortgage crisis, it seems apparent that risk wasn’t so much reduced as hidden: all too many investors had no idea how exposed they were.

This is the problem in a nutshell. The twisty passages of current banking and securities law have done a wildly effective job of hiding vulnerabilities until it’s far too late to correct without drastic measures. The best solution is going to be a steady diet of transparency, mandatory disclosures, belt-tightening, and putting an end to the bleeding of our resources into Iraq.

Areas to watch: Insurance companies, who typically invest heavily in the mortgage markets but usually have lower liquidity needs than brokerage houses and banks, and the larger institutions like Bank of America and Citibank. As they consolidate and bring the troubled securities children under their corporate umbrella, there should be concern that they are not putting us at greater risk by concentrating exposure in one place.

Oh, and listen carefully to what John McCain has to say about this latest shakeout. My guess is that he will try to brush it off as less than it is or write it off to market adjustment. Don’t believe him. I cannot say this loudly enough. Attention should and must be paid to this. That doesn’t mean panic, it means heads-up, stay alert, and watch your back.

Someone should ask Sarah Palin how she’d handle this too. I’d love to hear her very detailed and experienced answer.