Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

House Votes Against Bailout

Posted in Barack Obama, Economy, politics by allisonkilkenny on January 22, 2009

David Sirota

no-strings-bailout-1The 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.

Merrill Shocker: CEO Thain’s $87,000 Office Rug

Posted in Economy, politics by allisonkilkenny on January 22, 2009

Daily Beast

(Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg News / Landov)

(Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg News / Landov)

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.


Obama’s Economic Plan Is Not Going to Save Us

Posted in Barack Obama, Economy, politics by allisonkilkenny on January 22, 2009

The Nation

china_shanghai_stock_market_crash_recessionThe nation’s fast-darkening circumstances define the essential dilemma of Barack Obama’s presidency. His instinct is to govern by consensus, in the moderate middle ground of politics. Yet dire events are pushing the new president toward solutions more fundamental than those he had intended. The longer he resists taking more forceful action, the more likely it is that he will be overwhelmed by the gathering adversities.

Three large obstacles are blocking Obama’s path. The first is one of scale: his nearly $800 billion recovery package sounds huge, but it is perhaps two or three times too small to produce a turnaround. The second is that the financial system–still dysfunctional despite the bailouts–requires much more than fiscal stimulus and bailout: the government must nationalize and supervise the banks to ensure that they carry out the lending and investing needed for recovery. This means liquidating some famous nameplates–led by Citigroup–that are spiraling toward insolvency. The third is that the crisis is global: the US economy cannot return to normal unless the unbalanced world trading system is simultaneously reformed. Globalization has vastly undermined US productive strength, as trade deficits have led the nation into deepening debtor dependence.

While Washington debates the terms of Obama’s stimulus package, others see disappointment ahead. The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, an outpost of Keynesian thinking, expresses its doubts in emotional language that professional economists seldom use. “The prospects for the US economy have become uniquely dreadful, if not frightening,” Levy analysts reported. The institute’s updated strategic analysis warns that the magnitude of negative forces–the virtual collapse of bank lending, private spending, consumer incomes and demand–“will make it impossible for US authorities to apply a fiscal and monetary stimulus large enough to return output and unemployment to tolerable levels within the next two years.” Instead, the unemployment rate is likely to rise to 10 percent by 2010. Obama’s package amounts only to around 3 percent, annually, of GDP in a $13 trillion economy. Levy’s analysis calculates that it would require federal deficits of 8 to 10 percent of GDP–$2 trillion or more–to reverse the economic contraction. And yet, the institute observed, it is inconceivable that this level “could be tolerated for purely political reasons” or that the United States could sustain the rising indebtedness without terrifying our leading creditors, like China.

Stimulus alone by a single nation will not work, in other words, given the distorted economic system that Obama has inherited. The stern warning from the Levy analysts and other skeptical experts is that the United States has no choice but to undertake deeper systemic reforms right now, rather than wait for recovery. Will Obama have the nerve to tackle these fundamentals? To do so he would have to abandon some orthodox assumptions about free trade and private finance that he shares with his economic advisers.

The most obvious and immediate obstacle to systemic change is the dysfunctional financial system. It remains inert and hunkered down in self-protection, despite the vast billions in public money distributed so freely, no strings attached, in the last days of the Bush administration. We will learn soon enough whether Obama intends to start over with a more forceful approach. Obama and his advisers are eager to get another $350 billion in bailout funds, but they have remained silent on whether this will finance a government takeover of the system. Without such a move, the taxpayers will essentially be financing the slow death of failed institutions while getting nothing in return.

The most complex barrier to recovery is globalization and its negative impact on the economy. Given our grossly unbalanced trade, we have kept the system going by playing buyer of last resort–absorbing mountainous trade deficits and accumulating more than $5 trillion in capital debt to pay for swollen imports, while our domestic economy steadily loses jobs and production to other nations. Renewed consumer demand at home will automatically “leak” to rival economies and trading partners by boosting their exports to the US market–which subtracts directly from our GDP. This is the trap the lopsided trading system has created for recovery plans, and it cannot be escaped without fundamental reform.

To put it crudely, Obama’s stimulus program might restart factories in China while leaving US unemployment painfully high. In fact, some leakage may occur via the very banks or industrial corporations that taxpayers have generously assisted. What prevents Citigroup and General Motors from using their fresh capital to enhance overseas operations rather than investing at home? The new administration will therefore have to rethink the terms of globalization before its domestic initiatives can succeed.

A global recovery compact would require extremely difficult diplomacy but could be possible because it is in everyone’s self-interest. The United States could propose the outlines with one crucial condition: if the trading partners are unwilling to act jointly, Washington will have to proceed unilaterally. A grand bargain could start with US agreement to serve once again as the main engine that pulls the global economy out of the ditch. That is, the United States will have to continue as the buyer of last resort for the next few years, and China and other nations will have to bail us out with still more lending. In the short run, this would dig us into a deeper hole, but the United States could insist on a genuinely reformed system and mutually agreed return to balanced trade, once global recovery is under way.

Congress can enact the terms now–a ceiling on US trade deficits that will decline steadily to tolerable levels, as well as new rules for US multinational enterprises that redefine their obligations to the home economy. Unlike in other advanced nations, US companies get a free ride from their home government when they relocate production abroad. That has to change if the United States is to reverse its weakening world position. Tax penalties plus national economic policy can drive US multinationals to keep more of their value-added production at home. These measures can be enforced through the tax code and, if necessary, a general tariff that puts a cap on imports. Formulating these provisions now for application later, once the worst of the crisis is over, would give every player the time to adjust investment strategies gradually.

President Obama and his team may at first scorn the notion of saving the world while negotiating a bailout for the United States. They will be reluctant to talk about reforming the global system by threatening to invoke emergency tariffs. But we are in uncharted waters. Impossible ideas abruptly begin to seem plausible. Six months from now, if the Obama recovery does not materialize, the president may discover he has to reinvent himself.

William Greider has been a political journalist for more than thirty-five years. A former Rolling Stone and Washington Post editor, he is the author of the national bestsellers One World, Ready or Not, Secrets of the Temple, Who Will Tell The People, The Soul of Capitalism (Simon & Schuster) and–due out in February from Rodale–Come Home, America.