Tag Archives: Troubled Asset Relief Program

The Great Bailout Debate.

The great bailout debate.

Tim Geithner, claims that bank bailouts were a critical part of getting the economy running again, while Neil Barofsky, says the Obama administration should have spent more time bailing out underwater homeowners who were crushed by the housing bust. Who’s right?

Well, like it or not, the banks had to be bailed out, the same way you’d bail out electrical utilities rather than let everyone go without electricity. They’re just too important to the rest of the economy. They clearly should have been more punitive but frankly, given the speed at which the tide rose back in the closing chapter of the Bush administration, there wasn’t time to structure anything. Morally right or wrong, we needed to spend a ton of money to rescue the banks, and stop the bleeding. Did they do what anyone would do if someone handed over a bag of money? Of course they did.

On the other hand, Mr. Barofsky makes a good point: consumer debt overhang has been hobbling the recovery ever since 2008, and it’s outrageous that so little money was spent rescuing consumers right along with the bankers. Obama should have pushed a lot harder for “cram down” legislation; Fannie and Freddie should have been enlisted to rewrite mortgages; money should have been airlifted into consumer pockets, either to spend or to pay down debt; and schemes should have been set up for homeowners who were too far gone, that allowed them to rent their homes back from the banks that foreclosed on them. In fact, my earlier proposal was and still is, force the banks to re-finance all mortgages at current assessed market values without owner qualification.

So, they are both right, but neither of them can get us out of this mess. The only way we are going to start this thing up again is for the US Government to force banks to open their credit spigots, ignore strategic mortgage defaults, start loaning money to sub-700’s again, and re-write all of the existing mortgages, essentially marking them to market (lovely irony here).

And we need to do this before Europe crashes and burns next year. How? We have leverage. What do the banks want more than anything? Where is their greatest source of potential profit? Investment banking. We make a devil’s bargain. The banks come to the credit and mortgage table, and the Government lets them continue to operate as a single entity, with commercial and investment combined.

We stop talking about Glass-Steagall, and we stop threatening to regulate derivatives. The banks open their checkbooks to small business, and they re-write all of the underwater mortgages. That stops the bleeding in housing, jump-starts the small-ball economy, and boosts consumer confidence.

Short of such a drastic measure, we head into 2013, sailing a doomed ship following a doomed course on a fatal journey into the abyss. 

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Money For Nothing.

I was trying to explain to my wife how credit default swaps work, and why we are not only in danger of another financial meltdown, but are probably closer than we were in 2007. I know, I’m a barrel of laughs. But, the next big bank failure, if it happens, will cost far more than the $800B we pissed away in the TARP bailout. This time we will be talking REAL money.

In the decade since credit-default swaps were invented, the market has exploded in size, to some $62 trillion of CDS deals outstanding from just $1 trillion in 2000, according to industry estimates. This dwarfs the size of the underlying bond issues.

Beyond concerns about its size, the CDS market seems to have become a weapon of mass speculation that is destabilizing international debt and even equity markets. That looks to be true in the subprime-debt-induced crisis of 2008 that still has the credit markets in a deep-freeze. At the height of the crisis, in the first quarter of 2007, the price of credit-default insurance for key financial companies zoomed to once-unimaginable heights, signaling rightly or wrongly the imminent default of their debt issues.

The run-up was induced partly by panic among debt holders and others seeking to hedge their financial exposure at any price. But other factors, some suggesting a deliberate attempt by bearish investors to sow doubt about a company’s financial condition and thus push up CDS prices, may have played a role. In the CDS market, a well-placed rumor of trouble, or snippet of negative analysis, can have an outsized impact on positions, because much like a put, the investor risks only the premium to control the action on a potentially large position. Buying CDS protection is the ultimate bear bet, and the incentive of CDS holders to accentuate the negative, particularly to the financial press, is almost irresistible.

This is why you should be concerned, and you might want to understand how the counterfeit value derivative con game works. It’s a game of “I pretend, you pretend, we all pretend, and the taxpayer pays in the end”. here’s how it goes:

1) I’ll create an instrument, a credit default swap (CDS); an unregulated insurance contract with no capital requirements, with a certain “notional” value. Notional value is just something I assign. It does not have to be attached to or backed by any real asset or actual money/principal, but I can pretend as if it is. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notional_amount)

2) As a seller, I will just declare that this swap covers the full value of a certain company,or contract, etc., if credit event Y happens. I receive lucrative insurance premiums and fees for my unbacked promise. The CDS’s value is based in nothing more than my promise to pay. I don’t have to have adequate capital reserves on hand, but I can pretend as if I do perhaps with some mini-reserves based on objective-seeming risk ratios calculated by my mathematical models. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_default_swap)

3) As a buyer, you can then buy as many of these CDS’s as you want, even for a single default. If you are really sure something is going to tank you can insure it 30 times over (or a 100 or 1,000) and get 30 (or 100 or 1,000) times the return when it goes bust! In regulated insurance, it is illegal to insure beyond the full replacement value of the underlying asset. Not so with CDS’s. The seller has gotten 30x the premiums and the buyer gets 30x the value in the event of default. As a buyer of this phony “insurance” you don’t have a stake in the affected properties, but you can pretend you do.

4) As buyer and seller of CDS’s, either one can assign our risks to a third party through another contract, and pretend as if we are covered in case our own game playing blows up in our faces. This allows us to retain even less reserve capital and spend freed-up funds on more high-risk, high-(pseudo) return speculation. (The monster that ate Wall Street.)

5) We can purchase and sell of these derivative contracts to each other at unlimited rates to generate massive volume and huge fees and profits. We can simply hyper-cycle risk and take our chunk each time. According to the Bank of International Settlements, as of June 2011, total over-the-counter derivatives contracts had an outstanding notional value of 708 trillion dollars, ( 32.4 trillion dollars in CDS’s alone). Where does this kind of money come from, and what does it refer to? We don’t really know, because over-the-counter derivatives are not transparent or regulated.

With regulated economic markets, when an underlying real asset is impaired (i.e. the company in question is bankrupt, the mortgage has defaulted, etc.), market value is assessed, default insurance is paid up to replacement or full value, bond holders and stock holders make claims on remaining value and the account is closed. There is no need for bailouts because order and proportion of compensation has been established and everything is attached to the value of the underlying asset.

When the unreal, counterfeit economy intrudes, we have a situation where a person can put in an unregulated, but recognized, claim to be paid a thousand times over, in case of impairment. Say market participants have negotiated for a bankrupt company a 70% payback for bondholders and 36% payback for insurance claims, and I come with not one but rather 1,000 CDS claims demanding to be paid for each CDS. Where does that money come from? Well, if it were regulated insurance, I would have to be invested in the company in some way, my bond or stock payout would be limited by the actual asset value of the company, and my insurance payout would be limited as well. However, since I am unregulated and unrestrained, the money due me has to come from the CDS seller and my contractual agreements with that company (say AIG). AIG could easily have sold 1,000 different unregulated insurance policies to the same person or a million CDS’s to a hedge fund, and when AIG could not pay up, it was threatened with insolvency, under which both its regulated and unregulated insurance policies and investments would become impaired.

In fact there is abundant evidence that hedge funds (i.e. Magnetar) did in fact multi-insure certain portfolios while simultaneously pressuring the portfolio managers to select risky investments to ensure that the portfolios would crash. This is the opposite of a traditional “stake,” and this is the disease that modern derivatives bring—profit from intentional market destruction. This chaotic state of affairs and its cascading implications for other interlinked parties and counterparties (read “too big to fail banks”), essentially resulted in economic extortion to force a huge public bailout of the whole crooked mess (totaling somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 – 14 trillion dollars in giveaways, loans and guarantees starting in 2008 in the U.S. alone.

Instead of agreeing to the extortion temporarily to prevent collapse and then aggressively pursuing orderly investigation, prosecution, and receivership, regulators and world leaders have simply covered up the events and even rewarded the perpetrators. No wonder the market goes up dramatically when there is talk about another quantitative easing (Fed bailout) or emergency rescue (government/taxpayer bailout). These financial game players already know that an open public spigot is on its way, pouring real capital directly into their pockets.

In regulatory actions and legal courts, unregulated insurance claims should simply be declared null and void when applied to real assets and real compensation. “You have no stake, therefore you have no claim. Your agreement was with a third party that did not have adequate capital to pay for a contract with you. Take them to court.” Or “You have an imaginary claim for imaginary damage. Here’s your imaginary money. Your deal was private and unregulated, then it should be settled in private between companies without public intervention or support.”

Did that happen? Of course not. AIG had collapsed and commingled its unregulated private and regulated public functions, and Congress had allowed it to do so years ago, with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. Because the wall came down between regulated and unregulated activity, transparent and “shadow” markets, traditional and investment banking, this private fiat virus broke quarantine and the resulting contagion cannot be put back in the lab.

World leaders and their regulators blinked and did nothing, and the counterfeit private fiat (backed by nothing) has metastasized and infiltrated “genuine” public fiat (backed by our country’s productivity, if not by gold), and more and more actual money and productivity in the form of austerity is being thrown at a gargantuan and unrecoverable sea of counterfeit obligation. How can you exceed 700 trillion dollars in unregulated derivatives alone? It’s easy when market players are buying and selling from each other and when people can buy an infinite number of claims, insurances, and guarantees on credit events rather than assets.

When banks are allowed to mark-to-model and then claim somehow that their back-and-forth trading and abstract multiplication of asset value is real, then all bets are off (or “on” depending upon which side of the fence your sitting). Is it any wonder that the market for derivatives has grown another 100 trillion over the last two years? “Let’s see, I know. We’ll concoct value and you’ll pay us real money for it? Of course we are going to keep doing it! Why not another 100 trillion!” This probably is not going to stop until there is massive world-wide outcry and political change, a “black swan event,” or both. Let’s hope the first gains steam along with some long-overdue accountability for fraudsters, and some actual regulations are put in place to prevent another eruption, but the way Congress has behaved so far, it is hard to see how that would get done. Dodd-Frank? Your’e kidding, right?

A $100 trillion in derivatives in the last two years? Almost 50% more than at the height of the pre-crash in 2007?

Imagine what would happen if Greece takes the money from Germany, the IMF and the ECB, and then drops out of the Eurozone and defaults. Then, Italy says hey! Why should we stay in this thing, and then drops out and defaults as well, followed closely by Portugal, Spain and Ireland. All of those big banks co-partied to one another on all those worthless bonds and heavily positioned, once again, in derivatives. No underlying assets. And, the traders just keep on trading. Wow!


Where Is the Volcker Rule?

Three years ago, a financial crisis threatened to bring down the United States economy and to spread economic disaster around the world. How far have we come in preventing any kind of recurrence? And will the much-discussed Volcker Rule – attempting to limit the risks that big banks can take – play a positive role as we move forward?

Bad loans were the primary cause of the 2007-8 financial debacle. When the full extent of the problems with those loans became apparent, there was a sharp fall in the values of all securities that had been constructed based on the underlying mortgages – and a collapse in the value of related bets that had been made using derivatives.

The damage to the economy became huge because these losses were not dispersed throughout the economy or around the world. Rather, many of the so-called toxic assets were held by the country’s largest banks. Financial institutions that used to lend to consumers and businesses had instead become drawn into various forms of gambling on the booming mortgage market (as well as on commodities, equities and all kinds of derivatives). “Wall Street gets the upside and society gets the downside” was the operating principle.

And what a downside that proved to be.

Henry M. Paulson Jr., Treasury Secretary at the time, said the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, was needed to buy those troubled assets from the banks. But this quickly proved unwieldy, so TARP pumped roughly half a trillion dollars into bank equity. The Federal Reserve backed this up with an enormous amount of liquidity through more than 21,000 transactions.

The additional government debt as a direct result of this finance-induced deep recession is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office at around 50 percent of gross domestic product, roughly $7 trillion.

These are staggering numbers. And this system of big banks taking outsize risks, failing and imposing huge damage on the rest of us has to stop. This ball is now firmly in the regulators’ court.

Whatever your broader issues with the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, one point about legislative intent in this law is clear: The regulators have the authority to cut banks down to size and return them to their historical role of intermediary between savers and borrowers.

As for size, the regulators have long ignored the existing guidelines and allowed the biggest banks to get bigger. We need to go in the opposite direction, and that includes cutting down to size the private megabanks, as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It also means taking advantage of the resolution authority and all associated provisions that Sheila Bair, the former chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, worked so hard to put into the Dodd-Frank Act.

As Jon Huntsman is arguing on the Republican campaign trail, too-big-to-fail banks simply need to be forced to break themselves up.

But we also need to make the megabanks less likely to fail. The easiest way to do that would be to require banks to have enough common equity to absorb losses.

But the bankers have pushed back hard, with Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase, leading the way with statements like this on capital requirements, which are known loosely as the Basel Accords: “I’m very close to thinking the United States shouldn’t be in Basel any more. I would not have agreed to rules that are blatantly anti-American.”

Dan Tarullo, responsible for this issue on the Federal Reserve Boardseems to support the idea of requiring significantly more equity in big banks, perhaps moving in the direction recommended by Anat Admati and her colleagues. But Mr. Tarullo appears to have lost that battle for now.

If we are not breaking up banks and if we are not requiring them to have reasonable levels of capital (thus limiting how much they can borrow relative to their equity), we must use all other available tools to stop the too-big-to-fail banks from taking excessive and ill-conceived risks.

This is where the Volcker Rule becomes so important. Named for Paul A. Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, and adopted as part of Dodd-Frank at the insistence of Senators Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, and Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, the Volcker Rule directs the regulators to get banks out of the business of betting on the markets.

The regulators are now determining how they plan to carry it out. Draft proposals are currently open for comment.

But the latest news on this front is not encouraging, as crucial regulators seem stuck in a “bigger is better, and anything goes for the biggest” mind set.

The Volcker Rule has some good points, including a requirement that trader compensation not be tied to speculative risk-taking, and that firms collect and report some essential data to regulators. But the current draft does too little to actually stop the banks’ risky practices.

The main problem is that the rule as drawn does not set out the clear, bright lines that banks and regulators need, nor does it provide for meaningful enforcement. Instead of drawing the lines, the proposed rule mandates that firms write many of the rules themselves.

There is some good news. At this point, it is only a proposed rule, and the public is able to comment. Organizations like Better Markets that promote the public interest within the regulatory process will be in there fighting to strengthen the proposed rule and make the final rule better.

Everyone who cares about real financial reform should do the same, but the regulators’ draft rule has made it harder to uphold the public interest than should have been the case. For example, the regulators ignored the breadth of the Volcker statute and focused instead on only a narrow slice of the bank’s balance sheet – just what the bank says is for “trading” purposes. Much else of what big banks do seems likely to escape scrutiny.

The regulators also have given very little guidance on conflicts of interest, on what should be considered high-risk assets or on what high-risk trading strategies should be permitted.

During a Senate hearing last week, Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, focused on another important problem – the lack of any restrictions on trading in the enormous Treasury securities market. The regulators will create a lot more paperwork for the banks, but if the current draft is adopted, the too-big-to-fail banks are not likely to be forced to stop doing much.

Last year Senator Levin said:

We hope that our regulators have learned with Congress that tearing down regulatory walls without erecting new ones undermines our financial stability and threatens our economic growth. We have legislated to the best of our ability. It is now up to our regulators to fully and faithfully implement these strong provisions.

From what we’ve seen so far, our regulators have not yet understood this message. They seem instead more in tune with Mr. Dimon, who insisted this year that regulators should back away from any effective implementation of the Volcker Rule:

The United States has the best, deepest, widest, most transparent capital markets in the world, which give you, the investor, the ability to buy and sell large amounts at very cheap prices. I wish Paul Volcker understood that.

Mr. Dimon — who is on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — seems to have forgotten the financial crisis, its impact on ordinary Americans and the utter fiscal disaster that ensued. Or perhaps he never noticed.