Yalman Onaran and Michael McKee, Bloomberg News
It was 2004 and Tim Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, had a message for the Federal Open Market Committee in Washington. He told his 18 colleagues gathered around the long mahogany table that a clearinghouse was needed to monitor risks in the burgeoning $5 trillion market for credit-default swaps — the over-the-counter derivatives that would later spin out of control and help take down Wall Street.
In a move that may have foreshadowed his role as President Barack Obama’s Treasury secretary, Geithner over the next two years nudged financial firms to voluntarily clear a backlog of swap trades. They stopped short of creating a clearinghouse to bring more transparency to the market.
“Geithner was making noise on reining in derivatives, but he didn’t push hard enough,” says Jane D’Arista, a former economist at the Congressional Budget Office in Washington and a longtime Fed observer. “Maybe he’ll be more forceful now that he’s in a position with real power. But I’m not so sure.”
From his years as a Dartmouth College student and mid-level Treasury official through his stint at the New York Fed, Geithner, 47, has thrived as a backroom negotiator and conciliator. Now, as he struggles to rescue Wall Street from a crisis that happened on his regulatory watch, investors and economists question whether the 75th Treasury secretary can transform himself into a bold leader equal to the challenges ahead.
Wall Street executives have cheered Geithner’s nomination.
“Treasury Secretary Geithner possesses the intelligence and experience needed to partner with President Obama and his economic team to lead us to a recovery,” says Robert Wolf, head of UBS AG’s Americas unit based in Stamford, Connecticut.
The rookie secretary has already learned that the honeymoon won’t last long. After Geithner presented a $2.5 trillion financial rescue plan on Feb. 10, the Dow Jones Industrials tumbled 4.6 percent because investors found it bereft of details. Geithner also gave no indication that he would act quickly to dismantle the weakest of the banks, a move that Joseph Mason, a former bank regulator who teaches finance at Louisiana State University, says he should take now.
Japan prolonged its credit crunch and recession for almost a decade before it finally nationalized two of its biggest banks, the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan and Nippon Credit Bank, in 1998.
“The key to all our problems is the zombie banks,” Mason says. “We’re giving them money, which is not going to solve anything. We’re repeating the mistakes of Japan, which wasted a decade by not moving decisively against its zombie banks.”
No Treasury secretary since Henry Morgenthau, who served from 1934 to ‘45 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, has faced so many crises at once. After receiving $800 billion in loans, guarantees and capital injections since October, the financial industry is still hunkered down, unwilling or unable to put the wind back into the sails of capitalism. Geithner played a role in shaping the $787 billion stimulus plan, and now he and Lawrence Summers, head of the National Economic Council, must recommend to President Obama whether to give General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC an additional $14 billion in loans on top of the $17.4 billion Bush administration bailout or force them into bankruptcy. At the White House, the new Treasury secretary may have to compete for the president’s attention with Summers, his former mentor, and Paul Volcker, who has been clamoring for more power as chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board.
Geithner’s strengths — his methodical style and bureaucratic savvy — were honed over 21 years in government, as he dealt with crises from Asia to New York.
“He really understands process and decision making and how to advance an agenda,” says Michael Froman, who was former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin’s chief of staff. “Some people are just better at it than others, not just having the big idea but breaking it down into the several dozen steps that need to make it work. That’s Tim.”
The Treasury secretary’s experience at the New York Fed from 2003 to ‘08 gave him an inside view of Wall Street that will help him choose the best remedies for today’s crisis, says Alex Pollock, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a former president of the Chicago Federal Home Loan Bank. “He’s very well qualified,” Pollock says.
‘He’s Not Change’
President Obama delivered a fantastic speech Tuesday night. It’s tone alone will go a long way toward reassuring a nation mired in economic crisis.
And amazingly, there were many moments of bipartisan applause, like when Obama tackled corporate greed: “I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time, they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer. This time, CEOs won’t be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over.”
This was music to my ears, but as Robert Scheer astutely pointed out at The Nation, the problem Obama had in discussing regulation to fix our financial woes is that many of his top economic advisors, including Lawrence Summers, were responsible for gutting the regulatory system that helped cause this mess in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, Obama’s speech was strong, and hopefully it will symbolize a fundamental change in thinking from his economic team. But I’m just glad we have someone like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to help Obama make good on his demagoguery.
The independent senator from Vermont says we need a new Wall Street. He wants to confront the culture of greed head on, get rid of the CEOs of these corrupt financial institutions and establish a much stricter regulatory process.
Sanders has been a vocal critic of TARP spending from the beginning, and last month he called for the congressional TARP Oversight Panelto expand its focus and dig into the causes of the financial crisis, using subpoena power to expose the roots.
Sanders’ vigilance and frankness, coupled with Obama’s rhetoric Tuesday night, gives me hope.
ZP Heller is the editorial director of Brave New Films. He has written for The American Prospect, AlterNet, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Huffington Post, covering everything from politics to pop culture.
The Treasury Department reached a deal late Thursday to take a stake of 30 to 40 percent in Citigroup as part of a third bailout of the embattled bank, according to several people close to the deal.
Vikram S. Pandit, the chief executive, will remain at the helm, but Citigroup will have to shake up its board so that it has a majority of independent directors, a move that federal regulators had already been pursuing.
Under the terms of the deal, the Treasury Department has agreed to convert up to $25 billion of its preferred stock investment in Citigroup into common stock.
It will convert its stake to the extent that Citigroup can persuade private investors, including several big foreign government investment funds, to do so alongside the government, two people close to the deal said.
The Treasury Department will match the private investors’ conversions dollar-for-dollar. That accounts for uncertainty in how big the government’s stake will be.
Citigroup and Treasury officials reached an agreement late Thursday night, but final details were still being worked out. The deal is expected to be announced Friday.
A Treasury spokeswoman did not return a phone call seeking comment. A Citigroup spokesman declined to comment.
The Obama administration deliberately stopped short of securing a majority or controlling interest in Citigroup, but will probably come under intense pressure to take a much larger role in shaping the bank’s direction. Taxpayers, after pumping more than $45 billion into the bank, have become Citigroup’s single largest shareholder. The government will not put in any additional money for now, but some analysts believe Citigroup may require more down the road.
The move is one of the most drastic steps federal officials have taken to prevent the collapse of an institution deemed “too big too fail,” as its downfall could send shockwaves through the global markets. The government also took a major ownership stake in the American International Group, and seized control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in September. So far, none of those deals have turned out well.
The Obama administration has tried to keep the banks in private hands and tried to stamp out talk of nationalization. But Citigroup’s plunging share price and its deteriorating financial condition made it almost inevitable the government would have to convert its stake.
The deal is expected to serve as a model for other financial institutions. Other major banks could find themselves in a similar position in the coming weeks if a new “stress test” that examines their ability to cope with rising losses shows they do not have sufficient capital, or the right amount of common stock, to appease regulators. Administration officials say they will convert the government’s existing preferred stock investments into common shares and, if necessary, make additional investments to stabilize the banks.
The Citigroup deal tries to address a potential shortfall of common stock, which investors and regulators now demand. Details remain murky, but the government has agreed to convert its investment at a price of as much as $5 a share, more than twice the value of Citigroup’s $2.46 closing share price on Thursday. That means the government’s stake could rise to as much as 40 percent, from 8 percent, giving taxpayers more risk, but more potential for profit if the company recovers.
Still it will severely dilute Citigroup’s existing shareholders. Those shareholders include longtime investors like Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal and Sanford I. Weill, its former chairman, and many large asset management and pension funds that manage money for ordinary investors.
Citigroup has been pursuing a similar conversion plan with several big preferred stock investors, including several government investment funds like the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and the Kuwait Investment Authority, as part of a broader financial restructuring.
By retiring the debt and issuing new shares of common stock, Citigroup can bolster it common equity position. So far, no preferred shareholders have agreed to swap their shares. And without the government alongside them, it is an even tougher sell because of fear their positions might be wiped out.
Citigroup officials hope the government’s additional support bolsters confidence and helps revive the company’s sunken stock price. The deal also frees up some several billion a year in additional capital because it no longer has to pay out the dividend to preferred stockholders.
But it does little to address the bank’s underlying problem: Citigroup may not have the earnings power to weather the tsunami of consumer losses expected over the next several quarters. That is because tens of billions of toxic mortgage-related assets remain stuck on its balance sheet. Until they are removed, few private investors will be willing to pour new capital into the bank.
So Citigroup (C) has proposed that the US taxpayer and other preferred shareholders convert up to $75 billion of preferred stock into common stock, thus bolstering the company’s tangible equity and putting it in less desperate need of a complete takeover.
And what will the US taxpayer get for this preferred stock conversion? 40% of the company for some of its $45 billion of preferred, say reports. The reports add that Citigroup’s goal here is to keep the US’s ownership under 50%, so this won’t be a de facto nationalization.
Well, that’s nice for Citigroup…and another ream-job for taxpayers.
Citigroup’s common equity is currently worth $10 billion. If the US were to convert all $45 billion of its preferred at the current stock price, it should end up with 80% of the company, not 40%.
For the US to convert $45 billion of preferred to common and only get 40% of the company, Citigroup’s existing common equity would have to be valued at $65 billion, not $10 billion, and the conversion price would have to be about $10 a share. Or the US would only be able to convert $4 billion of its $45 billion, which wouldn’t help Citigroup’s tangible equity ratio much.
So is that what Citigroup is trying to do here? Persuade the US goverment to convert to common stock at a price miles above the current trading price, screwing the US taxpayer yet again?
Or does Citigroup have some other secret plan up its sleeve whereby it can take up to $75 billion of debt (preferred stock) off its books and not end up diluting its current shareholders 90%?
AND so on the 29th day of his presidency, Barack Obama signed the stimulus bill. But the earth did not move. The Dow Jones fell almost 300 points. G.M. and Chrysler together asked taxpayers for another $21.6 billion and announcedanother 50,000 layoffs. The latest alleged mini-Madoff, R. Allen Stanford, was accused of an $8 billion fraud with 50,000 victims.
No one knows, of course, but a bigger question may be whether we really want to know. One of the most persistent cultural tics of the early 21st century is Americans’ reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news. We are plugged into more information sources than anyone could have imagined even 15 years ago. The cruel ambush of 9/11 supposedly “changed everything,” slapping us back to reality. Yet we are constantly shocked, shocked by the foreseeable. Obama’s toughest political problem may not be coping with the increasingly marginalized G.O.P. but with an America-in-denial that must hear warning signs repeatedly, for months and sometimes years, before believing the wolf is actually at the door.
This phenomenon could be seen in two TV exposés of the mortgage crisis broadcast on the eve of the stimulus signing. On Sunday, “60 Minutes” focused on the tawdry lending practices of Golden West Financial, built by Herb and Marion Sandler. On Monday, the CNBC documentary “House of Cards” served up another tranche of the subprime culture, typified by the now defunct company Quick Loan Funding and its huckster-in-chief, Daniel Sadek. Both reports were superbly done, but both could have been reruns.
The Sandlers and Sadek have been recurrently whipped at length in print and on television, as far back as 2007 in Sadek’s case (by Bloomberg); the Sandlers were even vilified in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch last October. But still the larger message may not be entirely sinking in. “House of Cards” was littered with come-on commercials, including one hawking “risk-free” foreign-currency trading — yet another variation on Quick Loan Funding, promising credulous Americans something for nothing.
This cultural pattern of denial is hardly limited to the economic crisis. Anyone with eyes could have seen that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire resembled Macy’s parade balloons in their 1998 home-run derby, but it took years for many fans (not to mention Major League Baseball) to accept the sorry truth. It wasn’t until the Joseph Wilson-Valerie Plame saga caught fire in summer 2003, months after “Mission Accomplished,” that we began to confront the reality that we had gone to war in Iraq over imaginary W.M.D. Weapons inspectors and even some journalists (especially at Knight-Ridder newspapers) had been telling us exactly that for almost a year.
The writer Mark Danner, who early on chronicled the Bush administration’s practice of torture for The New York Review of Books, reminded me last week that that story first began to emerge in December 2002. That’s when The Washington Post reported on the “stress and duress” tactics used to interrogate terrorism suspects. But while similar reports followed, the notion that torture was official American policy didn’t start to sink in until after the Abu Ghraib photos emerged in April 2004. Torture wasn’t routinely called “torture” in Beltway debate until late 2005, when John McCain began to press for legislation banning it.
Steroids, torture, lies from the White House, civil war in Iraq, even recession: that’s just a partial glossary of the bad-news vocabulary that some of the country, sometimes in tandem with a passive news media, resisted for months on end before bowing to the obvious or the inevitable. “The needle,” as Danner put it, gets “stuck in the groove.”
For all the gloomy headlines we’ve absorbed since the fall, we still can’t quite accept the full depth of our economic abyss either. Nicole Gelinas, a financial analyst at the conservative Manhattan Institute, sees denial at play over a wide swath of America, reaching from the loftiest economic strata of Wall Street to the foreclosure-decimated boom developments in the Sun Belt.
When we spoke last week, she talked of would-be bankers who, upon graduating, plan “to travel in Asia and teach English for a year” and then pick up where they left off. Such graduates are dreaming, Gelinas says, because the over-the-top Wall Street money culture of the credit bubble isn’t coming back for a very long time, if ever. As she observes, it took decades after the Great Depression — until the 1980s — for Wall Street to fully reclaim its old swagger. Not until then was there “a new group of people without massive psychological scarring” from the 1929 crash.
In states like Nevada, Florida and Arizona, Gelinas sees “huge neighborhoods that will become ghettos” as half their populations lose or abandon their homes, with an attendant collapse of public services and social order. “It will be like after Katrina,” she says, “but it’s no longer just the Lower Ninth Ward’s problem.” Writing in the current issue of The Atlantic, the urban theorist Richard Florida suggests we could be seeing “the end of a whole way of life.” The link between the American dream and home ownership, fostered by years of bipartisan public policy, may be irreparably broken.
Pity our new president. As he rolls out one recovery package after another, he can’t know for sure what will work. If he tells the whole story of what might be around the corner, he risks instilling fear itself among Americans who are already panicked. (Half the country, according to a new Associated Press poll, now fears unemployment.) But if the president airbrushes the picture too much, the country could be as angry about ensuing calamities as it was when the Bush administration’s repeated assertion of “success” in Iraq proved a sham. Managing America’s future shock is a task that will call for every last ounce of Obama’s brains, temperament and oratorical gifts.
The difficulty of walking this fine line can be seen in the drama surrounding the latest forbidden word to creep around the shadows for months before finally leaping into the open: nationalization. Until he started hedging a little last weekend, the president has pointedly said that nationalizing banks, while fine for Sweden, wouldn’t do in America, with its “different” (i.e., non-socialistic) culture and traditions. But the word nationalization, once mostly whispered by liberal economists, is now even being tossed around by Lindsey Graham and Alan Greenspan. It’s a clear indication that no one has a better idea.
The Obama White House may come up with euphemisms for nationalization (temporary receivership, anyone?). But whatever it’s called, what will it mean? The reason why the White House has been punting on the new installment of the bank rescue is not that the much-maligned Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is incapable of getting his act together. What’s slowing the works are the huge political questions at stake, many of them with consequences potentially as toxic as the banks’ assets.
Will Obama concede aloud that some of our “too big to fail” banks have, in essence, already failed? If so, what will he do about it? What will it cost? And, most important, who will pay? No one knows the sum of the American banks’ losses, but the economist Nouriel Roubini, who has gotten much right about this crash, puts it at $1.8 trillion. That doesn’t count any defaults still to come on what had been considered “good” mortgages and myriad other debt, whether from auto loans or credit cards.
Americans are right to wonder why there has been scant punishment for the management and boards of bailed-out banks that recklessly sliced and diced all this debt into worthless gambling chips. They are also right to wonder why there is still little transparency in how TARP funds have been spent by these teetering institutions. If a CNBC commentator can stir up a populist dust storm by ranting that Obama’s new mortgage program (priced at $75 billion to $275 billion) is “promoting bad behavior,” imagine the tornado that would greet an even bigger bank bailout on top of the $700 billion already down the TARP drain.
Nationalization would likely mean wiping out the big banks’ managements and shareholders. It’s because that reckoning has mostly been avoided so far that those bankers may be the Americans in the greatest denial of all. Wall Street’s last barons still seem to believe that they can hang on to their old culture by scuttling corporate jets, rejecting bonuses or sounding contrite in public. Ask the former Citigroup wise man Robert Rubin how that strategy worked out.
We are now waiting to learn if Obama’s economic team, much of it drawn from the Wonderful World of Citi and Goldman Sachs, will have the will to make its own former cohort face the truth. But at a certain point, as in every other turn of our culture of denial, outside events will force the recognition of harsh realities. Nationalization, unmentionable only yesterday, has entered common usage not least because an even scarier word — depression — is next on America’s list to avoid.
The US government may have to nationalise some banks on a temporary basis to fix the financial system and restore the flow of credit, Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, has told the Financial Times.
In an interview, Mr Greenspan, who for decades was regarded as the high priest of laisser-faire capitalism, said nationalisation could be the least bad option left for policymakers.
”It may be necessary to temporarily nationalise some banks in order to facilitate a swift and orderly restructuring,” he said. “I understand that once in a hundred years this is what you do.”
Mr Greenspan’s comments capped a frenetic day in which policymakers across the political spectrum appeared to be moving towards accepting some form of bank nationalisation.
“We should be focusing on what works,” Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, told the FT. “We cannot keep pouring good money after bad.” He added, “If nationalisation is what works, then we should do it.”
Speaking to the FT ahead of a speech to the Economic Club of New York on Tuesday, Mr Greenspan said that “in some cases, the least bad solution is for the government to take temporary control” of troubled banks either through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or some other mechanism.
The former Fed chairman said temporary government ownership would ”allow the government to transfer toxic assets to a bad bank without the problem of how to price them.”
But he cautioned that holders of senior debt – bonds that would be paid off before other claims – might have to be protected even in the event of nationalisation.
”You would have to be very careful about imposing any loss on senior creditors of any bank taken under government control because it could impact the senior debt of all other banks,” he said. “This is a credit crisis and it is essential to preserve an anchor for the financing of the system. That anchor is the senior debt.”
Mr Greenspan’s comments came as President Barack Obama signed into law the $787bn fiscal stimulus in Denver, Colorado. Mr Obama will announce on Wednesday a$50bn programme for home foreclosure relief in Phoenix, Arizona. Meanwhile, the White House was working last night on the latest phase of the bailout for two of the big three US carmakers.
In his speech after signing the stimulus, which he called the “most sweeping recovery package in our history”, Mr Obama set out a vertiginous timetable of federal decisions in the coming weeks that included fixing the US banking system, submission next week of the 2009 budget and a bipartisan White House meeting to address longer-term fiscal discipline.
“We need to end a culture where we ignore problems until they become full-blown crises,” said Mr Obama. “Today does not mark the end of our economic troubles… but it does mark the beginning of the end.”
We have a remarkable ability to create our own monsters. A few decades of meddling in the Middle East with our Israeli doppelgänger and we get Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaida, the Iraqi resistance movement and a resurgent Taliban. Now we trash the world economy and destroy the ecosystem and sit back to watch our handiwork. Hints of our brave new world seeped out Thursday when Washington’s new director of national intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He warned that the deepening economic crisis posed perhaps our gravest threat to stability and national security. It could trigger, he said, a return to the “violent extremism” of the 1920s and 1930s.
It turns out that Wall Street, rather than Islamic jihad, has produced our most dangerous terrorists. You wouldn’t know this from the Obama administration, which seems hellbent on draining the blood out of the body politic and transfusing it into the corpse of our financial system. But by the time Barack Obama is done all we will be left with is a corpse—a corpse and no blood. And then what? We will see accelerated plant and retail closures, inflation, an epidemic of bankruptcies, new rounds of foreclosures, bread lines, unemployment surpassing the levels of the Great Depression and, as Blair fears, social upheaval.
The United Nations’ International Labor Organization estimates that some 50 million workers will lose their jobs worldwide this year. The collapse has already seen 3.6 million lost jobs in the United States. The International Monetary Fund’s prediction for global economic growth in 2009 is 0.5 percent—the worst since World War II. There are 2.3 million properties in the United States that received a default notice or were repossessed last year. And this number is set to rise in 2009, especially as vacant commercial real estate begins to be foreclosed. About 20,000 major global banks collapsed, were sold or were nationalized in 2008. There are an estimated 62,000 U.S. companies expected to shut down this year. Unemployment, when you add people no longer looking for jobs and part-time workers who cannot find full-time employment, is close to 14 percent.
And we have few tools left to dig our way out. The manufacturing sector in the United States has been destroyed by globalization. Consumers, thanks to credit card companies and easy lines of credit, are $14 trillion in debt. The government has pledged trillions toward the crisis, most of it borrowed or printed in the form of new money. It is borrowing trillions more to fund our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And no one states the obvious: We will never be able to pay these loans back. We are supposed to somehow spend our way out of the crisis and maintain our imperial project on credit. Let our kids worry about it. There is no coherent and realistic plan, one built around our severe limitations, to stanch the bleeding or ameliorate the mounting deprivations we will suffer as citizens. Contrast this with the national security state’s strategies to crush potential civil unrest and you get a glimpse of the future. It doesn’t look good.
“The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications,” Blair told the Senate. “The crisis has been ongoing for over a year, and economists are divided over whether and when we could hit bottom. Some even fear that the recession could further deepen and reach the level of the Great Depression. Of course, all of us recall the dramatic political consequences wrought by the economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, the instability, and high levels of violent extremism.”
The specter of social unrest was raised at the U.S. Army War College in November in a monograph [click on Policypointers’ pdf link to see the report] titled “Known Unknowns: Unconventional ‘Strategic Shocks’ in Defense Strategy Development.” The military must be prepared, the document warned, for a “violent, strategic dislocation inside the United States,” which could be provoked by “unforeseen economic collapse,” “purposeful domestic resistance,” “pervasive public health emergencies” or “loss of functioning political and legal order.” The “widespread civil violence,” the document said, “would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order and human security.”
“An American government and defense establishment lulled into complacency by a long-secure domestic order would be forced to rapidly divest some or most external security commitments in order to address rapidly expanding human insecurity at home,” it went on.
“Under the most extreme circumstances, this might include use of military force against hostile groups inside the United States. Further, DoD [the Department of Defense] would be, by necessity, an essential enabling hub for the continuity of political authority in a multi-state or nationwide civil conflict or disturbance,” the document read.
In plain English, something bureaucrats and the military seem incapable of employing, this translates into the imposition of martial law and a de facto government being run out of the Department of Defense. They are considering it. So should you.
Adm. Blair warned the Senate that “roughly a quarter of the countries in the world have already experienced low-level instability such as government changes because of the current slowdown.” He noted that the “bulk of anti-state demonstrations” internationally have been seen in Europe and the former Soviet Union, but this did not mean they could not spread to the United States. He told the senators that the collapse of the global financial system is “likely to produce a wave of economic crises in emerging market nations over the next year.” He added that “much of Latin America, former Soviet Union states and sub-Saharan Africa lack sufficient cash reserves, access to international aid or credit, or other coping mechanism.”
“When those growth rates go down, my gut tells me that there are going to be problems coming out of that, and we’re looking for that,” he said. He referred to “statistical modeling” showing that “economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they persist over a one to two year period.”
Blair articulated the newest narrative of fear. As the economic unraveling accelerates we will be told it is not the bearded Islamic extremists, although those in power will drag them out of the Halloween closet when they need to give us an exotic shock, but instead the domestic riffraff, environmentalists, anarchists, unions and enraged members of our dispossessed working class who threaten us. Crime, as it always does in times of turmoil, will grow. Those who oppose the iron fist of the state security apparatus will be lumped together in slick, corporate news reports with the growing criminal underclass.
The committee’s Republican vice chairman, Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, not quite knowing what to make of Blair’s testimony, said he was concerned that Blair was making the “conditions in the country” and the global economic crisis “the primary focus of the intelligence community.”
The economic collapse has exposed the stupidity of our collective faith in a free market and the absurdity of an economy based on the goals of endless growth, consumption, borrowing and expansion. The ideology of unlimited growth failed to take into account the massive depletion of the world’s resources, from fossil fuels to clean water to fish stocks to erosion, as well as overpopulation, global warming and climate change. The huge international flows of unregulated capital have wrecked the global financial system. An overvalued dollar (which will soon deflate), wild tech, stock and housing financial bubbles, unchecked greed, the decimation of our manufacturing sector, the empowerment of an oligarchic class, the corruption of our political elite, the impoverishment of workers, a bloated military and defense budget and unrestrained credit binges have conspired to bring us down. The financial crisis will soon become a currency crisis. This second shock will threaten our financial viability. We let the market rule. Now we are paying for it.
The corporate thieves, those who insisted they be paid tens of millions of dollars because they were the best and the brightest, have been exposed as con artists. Our elected officials, along with the press, have been exposed as corrupt and spineless corporate lackeys. Our business schools and intellectual elite have been exposed as frauds. The age of the West has ended. Look to China. Laissez-faire capitalism has destroyed itself. It is time to dust off your copies of Marx.
HOUSTON — Stopping what it called a “massive ongoing fraud,” the Securities and Exchange Commission on Tuesday accused Robert Allen Stanford, the chief of the Stanford Financial Group, of fraud in the sale of about $8 billion of high-yielding certificates of deposit held in the firm’s bank in Antigua. Also named in the suit were two other executives and some affiliates of the financial group.
In the complaint, filed in Federal District Court in Dallas, the S.E.C. accused Mr. Stanford and two associates — James M. Davis, a director and chief financial officer of Stanford Group and the Antigua-based bank affiliate, and Laura Pendergest-Holt, the chief investment officer of both organizations — with misrepresenting the safety and liquidity of the uninsured CDs.
The CDs were sold by Stanford International Bank through the firm’s registered broker-dealer and investment adviser, which are in Houston. Both the bank, which claims $8.5 billion in assets and 30,000 clients in 131 countries, and the brokerage unit, which operates about 30 offices in the United States, were named in the S.E.C. suit. Stanford Financial asserts that it advises about $50 billion in assets.
Shortly after 10 a.m. Central time, about 40 police officers and other law enforcement officials simultaneously entered Stanford Group’s two office buildings in Houston. Many of the law enforcement personnel carried large black briefcases. Stanford group’s headquarters are in two offices in Houston, one within a tower of the Houston Galleria shopping mall, and the other across the street.
A spokesman for Stanford Group declined to comment.
Law enforcement officials hung up two white signs stating thatthe offices of Stanford Financial Group was temporarily closed. “The company is still in operation but under the management of a receiver,” the signs read.
In its complaint, the S.E.C. said it could not account for the $8 billion in assets that were housed in the Antigua bank after issuing subpoenas for bank records and to various witnesses. Most witnesses, including Mr. Stanford, Mr. Davis, and the Antigua-based bank’s president, failed to appear to testify nor did they produce documents shedding light on the assets.
Ms. Pendergest-Holt said in testimony to the S.E.C. that she could not account for the assets, asserting that Mr. Stanford and Mr. Davis were the only ones with access to the bank’s assets.
In the complaint, the S.E.C. called “improbable, if not impossible” claims by the offshore bank that it paid “significantly” higher returns on its CDs because of the high quality of its investments.
The S.E.C. accused the bank and its affiliates of falsely stating in marketing materials that client funds were placed in liquid financial instruments, when in fact they were invested in private equity funds and real estate. On Nov. 28, Stanford International Bank quoted a rate of 5.375 percent on a $100,000 three-year CD, compared with rates of less than 3.2 percent at American banks. The bank recently has offered rates of more than 10 percent on five-year CDs, the filing stated.
In the complaint, the S.E.C. requested that the defendants’ assets be frozen and that a receiver be appointed to take control of business operations. It also requested that the assets of the bank and other offshore units be repatriated. And the agency asked that Mr. Stanford and the other named executives be required to surrender their passports.
The S.E.C. has come under fire in Congress and the media for ignoring repeated warnings over a period of years about the Bernard L. Madoff, who is accused of running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. While investigators have been looking at Mr. Stanford and his financial empire’s activities for many months, the scrutiny into the too-good-to-be-true returns on the CDs increased substantially after the Madoff case.
Oddly enough, even the Stanford operation was touched by Mr. Madoff. Despite the fact the Antigua-bank assured investors in a report in December 2008 that it had no “direct or indirect” exposure Mr. Madoff’s funds, the bank suffered an estimated $400,000 in losses, apparently through investments in so-called “feeder funds.”
Additionally, the S.E.C. accused Stanford Capital Management, another Houston-based investment advisory unit, of inflating the performance of its $1.2 billion-asset Stanford Allocation Strategy mutual fund in promoting it to prospective investors.
The complaint also accused the offshore banking unit and the Houston-based broker dealer of violating provisions of the Investment Company Act of 1940 in failing to register as an investment company.
The U.S. House today publicly rebuked the Obama administration’s economic team, voting overwhelmingly to disapprove the second half of the Wall Street bailout money that Obama has been demanding. Because this resolution of disapproval was rejected by the Senate, the House’s vote does not have the force of law (both chambers would have needed to pass the bill in order to block the money). However, this is a major victory for the progressive movement in that the House has formally gone on record against kleptocracy.
What’s great about this vote is its juxtaposition of true bipartisanship with Beltway buypartisanship. Indeed, as the roll call shows, the House vote for the resolution of disapproval forged a coalition of about a third of the Democratic caucus, and most of the Republican conference – all voting for a progressive cause: namely, preventing Wall Street from ripping off the American taxpayer. Though we are led by the media to believe that “centrism” means corporatism, this vote is the kind of populist bipartisan coalition that reflects the real centrism in the country at large – a centrism where the “center” is decidedly against letting big corporations raid the federal treasury.
Couple this vote with the House’s vote yesterday to attach more strings to the bailout money, and with our work in getting the Senate – through Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) – to pass a bailout regulation bill, and we’re seeing real progress – or, dare I say, the possibility of real, actual, substantive change.
Let’s remember that this economic fight isn’t over – not by a longshot. The Politico reports that at his confirmation hearing, incoming Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner – one of the architects of the current kleptocratic bailout – suggested that he may ask Congress for even more bailout money. That means the House’s display of strong bipartisan opposition and our work getting the Senate to support tough restrictions is laying the groundwork for the next fight. As these successes accrue, we could also be changing the fundamental dynamics. It’s entirely possible that if/when Geithner comes back to Congress asking for more money, he will submit legislation that is – at its origination – far more progressive in transparency, oversight, and objectives than the original bailout, knowing that it must be more progressive to have a shot at passing the new Congress.
So all in all, we should be pretty unhappy that another $350 billion of taxpayer cash – or roughly $1,100 for every man, woman and child in America – is likely headed to Wall Street, no strings attached. But other than failing to stop that money (an almost impossible task because the new president could have effectively vetoed his way to the money), the legislative wrangling over the bailout has been a huge success for the progressive movement. We’ve helped build a bipartisan coalition in Congress on these issues, and forced the new administration to – at least rhetorically through letters – acknowledge the deep concerns we have with kleptocracy. In defeat, we have scored some real victories that we can build off of.
In a Daily Beast/CNBC exclusive, Charlie Gasparino reveals how Merrill Lynch’s CEO spent over $1 million and hired the Obamas’ decorator to redecorate his office last year—even as the firm faced a financial crisis.
UPDATE: Bank of America has just announced that Thain will leave the firm, less than a month after its merger with Merrill.
In early 2008, just as Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain was preparing to slash expenses, cut thousands of jobs and exit businesses to fix the ailing securities firm, he was also spending company money on himself, senior people at the firm say.
According to documents reviewed by The Daily Beast, Thain spent $1.22 million of company money to refurbish his office at Merrill Lynch headquarters in lower Manhattan. The biggest piece of the spending spree: $800,000 to hire famed celebrity designer Michael Smith, who is currently redesigning the White House for the Obama family for just $100,000.
Big ticket items included $87,000 for an area rug, four pairs of curtains for $28,000, a pair of guest chairs for $87,000 and fabric for a “Roman Shade” for $11,000.
The other big ticket items Thain purchased include: $87,000 for an area rug in Thain’s conference room and another area rug for $44,000; a “mahogany pedestal table” for $25,000; a “19th Century Credenza” in Thain’s office for $68,000; a sofa for $15,000; four pairs of curtains for $28,000; a pair of guest chairs for $87,000; a “George IV Desk” for $18,000; six wall sconces for $2,700; six chairs in his private dining room for $37,000; a mirror in his private dining room for $5,000; a chandelier in the private dining room for $13,000; fabric for a “Roman Shade” for $11,000; a “custom coffee table” for $16,000; something called a “commode on legs” for $35,000; a “Regency Chairs” for $24,000; “40 yards of fabric for wall panels,” for $5,000 and a “parchment waste can” for $1,400.
The documents also show that Thain signed off on the purchases personally. “Labor to relamp the six wall sconces” cost $3,000, and Thain authorized the payment of another $30,000 to pay the expenses Smith incurred in doing the work. Thain has hired Smith—whose celebrity client list includes Steven Spielberg, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cindy Crawford and Sir Evelyn de Rothschild—to design and decorate his private residences. They include a Manhattan apartment at 740 Park Avenue, and his 10-acre mansion in Rye, NY.
Thain was tapped to run Merrill Lynch as the firm suffered massive losses from investments tied to the depressed real estate market under his predecessor Stan O’Neal, who was ousted in late 2007. Those losses continued through 2008, forcing Thain and his management team to sell the brokerage firm to Bank of America in mid-September or face near certain liquidation as investors fearing further losses began pulling lines of credit and other financing.
Just last week, Bank of America announced that Merrill has suffered an unexpected loss of $15 million for the fourth quarter of 2008, nearly collapsing BofA’s purchase. Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis said that without $138 billion in government assistance, including the infusion of $20 billion from the federal government he would have pulled out of the Merrill deal, which was approved by BofA shareholders in early December.
Thain has come under pressure in recent weeks after several top executives at Merrill, including brokerage chief Bob McCann and investment banking head Greg Fleming, abruptly resigned from the firm citing differences with Thain. People close to Lewis say his relationship with Thain was further strained by the recent massive loss. Lewis himself has faced withering criticism for rushing the buy Merrill for $28 billion after less than two days of due diligence.
“I don’t want to convey to you that Ken was delighted in mid-December when he found out about the losses, in fact he was pissed at Thain,” one person at BofA who is close to Lewis told The Daily Beast earlier in the week. “He’s not doing anything about Thain now because it isn’t clear whether Thain should have told him sooner. So at least for now, Ken is sticking with Thain.” (A spokeswoman for Thain denied a rumor inside Merrill that Thain is poised to step down from the firm.)
It’s unclear how the disclosure of the personal expenses will effect now Thain’s position. Thain signed off on the purchases in January, people close to Merrill say, when Merrill was still an independent firm and when some analysts believed the company was poised for a rebound with Thain as the new CEO. Thain came to Merrill after a largely successful stint as CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, where he converted the not-profit entity to a public company. Before that, he was a long-time executive at Goldman Sachs, where he served as former CEO Hank Paulson’s No. 2.
Still others say spending so much company money on personal items shows incredibly bad judgment on the part of Thain since Merrill was in the middle of a financial crisis that ultimately led to its demise as an independent company. At the time, Thain was preaching the virtues of cost control, telling employees to reduce expenses including car services, entertainment and travel. In addition to the personal expenses on his office, documents show Thain paid his driver $230,000 for one year’s work, which included the driver’s $85,000 salary and bonus of $18,000, and another $128,000 in over-time pay. Drivers of top executives are often paid about half that amount.
“If this is accurate it has shades of Dennis Kozlowski’s $6,000 shower curtain,” said investor Doug Kass of Seabreeze Capital Management, in a reference to former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski who was convicted of fraud and is serving prison time for improperly spending millions of dollars on personal items. While there is no evidence that what Thain did is either illegal or of the magnitude of the spending by Kozlowski, Kass said “Merrill was on the fence and Thain came into save the company. It’s still a lot of money and there is no rationalization for something like this.”
Charles Gasparino appears as a daily member of CNBC’s ensemble. Gasparino, in his role as on-air Editor, provides reports based on his reporting throughout the day and has broken some of the biggest stories affecting the financial markets in recent months. He is also a columnist for Trader Monthly Magazine, and a freelance writer for the New York Post, Forbes and other publications.