Category Archives for "Opinion"

How the Goldman Sachs Fraud Case Could Accelerate Wall Street Reform

Interesting story on how the Goldman Sachs vs. SEC case could help with financial reform.

When the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced Friday that it had filed a fraud action against Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS), the news hit the financial markets like a carefully targeted bomb.

The Goldman Sachs fraud case, which relates to the investment bank’s subprime-mortgage business, caused the financial giant’s shares to nosedive 12.8%. The fallout spread to the broader markets, too, causing the Dow Jones Industrial Average to drop 1.1% and the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index to skid 1.6%.

That reaction wasn’t overblown.

Depending on how rough the SEC wants to play it, the case has the potential to shut down the cartel known as Wall Street. It could even jump-start the kind of sweeping overhaul that legal or regulatory reformists have so far failed to launch.

How the Goldman Sachs Fraud Case Could Accelerate Wall Street Reform

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How to Fix the Tax Code

How to fix the tax code: Remove corporate, payroll, income, and investment (dividends and capital gains). Replace with a national sales tax.

PLUS

National lottery

Sales tax has to be calculated carefully to replace the lost tax revenue attributable now to the current taxes. Additionally, the sales tax should be made to be "progressive" – necessities are taxed at 0 or the lowest rates, luxuries at the highest rates. This is an easy exercise.

National lottery is "extra." It pays for the additional obligations we're faced with from social security and Medicare due to the aging population.

And it's mostly financed by old people who spend their social security now on state lotteries and bingo anyway 🙂

How Hot Money Is Wrecking the US Banking System

from Money Morning, my usual "What the hell is wrong with our government, the sky is falling" web site

[Editor's Note: The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.  insurance fund that protects your deposits is $20.9 billion in the red. One of every 11 U.S. banks is in trouble. And it's going to get worse. Neither the FDIC, the Federal Reserve  nor the Treasury Department will 'fess up that what's fueling bank failures  is a risky form of funding called 'brokered deposits." Industry insiders refer to them as 'hot money." Credit-crisis expert Shah Gilani spent months investigating the often-murky world of hot money. This story is excerpted from an in-depth report, which readers can access by clicking here.]

By Shah Gilani, Contributing Editor, Money Morning

When the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) released its list of 'problem banks" this week,  702 institutions holding $402.8 billion in assets were found to be in trouble.

That's the longest list in 17 years, and it's only going to get worse. In fact, regulators are expecting the number of troubled lenders to grow at an accelerating rate this year. They claim that an uptick in commercial-real-estate losses will serve as the key culprit.

But the real culprit – the one that regulators won't talk about publicly –  is the funding scheme banks employ to load themselves up on speculative loans. This scheme – far removed from most investor radar screens – has played a major role in the banking sector's growing woes, and will continue to contribute heavily to bank failures in years to come.

The centerpiece to this risky funding strategy is a funding vehicle known officially as a 'brokered deposit."    However, due to the narcotic-like effects brokered deposits can have on a bank's balance sheet, industry insiders have adopted a more-appropriate moniker – referring to them as 'hot money."

The Birth of 'Hot Money"Brokered deposits have helped banks grow explosively from tame domestic companions into muscular monsters that are capable of ripping the face off of economic prosperity when the lending institutions blow up.

To understand all the forces at play here, we need to look back nearly 50 years.

As far back as the 1960s, depositors searching for high-yielding savings and thrift accounts were matched up by brokers who steered them to banks offering the best yields.

Say, for example, you have $1 million that you want to deposit. A 'deposit broker" would take the cash, and break it up into several smaller portions, each of them below the maximum allowed to qualify for federal deposit insurance. Those deposits would be spread among banks that are customers of the broker.

That cash provides the banks with money that they can turn around and lend. And it also provides the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. with fees for its insurance fund.

But brokered deposits also have a dark side.

Fueled by hot-money deposits, banks too often shift into a turbocharged growth mode. They expand into markets they don't know and concentrate their loans, instead of spreading their risks. When the music stops, as it did in 2008, these banks crash and burn.

As early as 1963, regulators tagged brokered deposits as problematic. They limited any bank's holding of them to only 5% of total deposits. Regulators were worried that upward pressure on interest rates from banks trying to attract depositors would spread across the economy. Later, some brave and stalwart regulators screamed that these deposits were causing bank failures and threatened the entire banking system.

In 1984, William M. Isaac, chairman of the FDIC, personally identified the origins of what would later become the U.S. savings and loan crisis. He railed about how S&Ls and thrifts were paying high yields to attract brokered deposits and using the money to make crazy, speculative loans and bets. He proposed killing the brokered deposits business altogether.

Banks, of course, loved brokered deposits. And they fought hard against the FDIC's initiative to kill the hot-money juggernaut.

Special interest groups were intent on seeing the brokered-deposit business flourish. And they'd already won some extraordinary trophies.

The Deposit Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980 proved to be their first bonanza. It removed the 5% limit on brokered deposits imposed by regulators in 1963. It phased out a ceiling on the interest rates that banks could pay. And it raised FDIC insurance from $40,000 to $100,000 (in 2008, insurance was raised to $250,000). The 1980 Act was shepherded through Congress by U.S. President Ronald Reagan's new treasury secretary, Donald T. Regan.

As fate would have it, Regan came to the Treasury Department from Merrill Lynch, which was one of the biggest players in the brokered-deposit business. Back then, it was Merrill Lynch, not Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS), running on the Washington inside track.

By 1984, the party was rocking and no one wanted anyone to take away the punch bowl. The FDIC's Isaac was trying to kill off brokered deposits. So was Edwin J. Gray, chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which regulated thrifts.

Both were slammed to the mat.

The Securities Industry Association (SIA), a lobbying powerhouse, joined deposit broker First Atlantic Investment Corporation Securities Inc. (FAIC), and sued to repeal the initiative. The duo won a quick victory. FAIC would later have the dubious distinction of having brokered the second-largest amount of deposits into thrifts that would subsequently fail.

A total of 1,043 thrifts failed during the S&L crisis. Taxpayers were stuck with a $124 billion cleanup bill.

The memory of it still haunts Isaac, the former FDIC chairman.

'The record of the 80's is clear," Isaac told me in an interview. 'We got flat out opposition from Treasury and Congress refused to back the regulators."

Little has changed since then: Special interests continue to steer us straight at the icebergs.

Isaac was replaced by L. William Seidman, who ran the FDIC from 1985-1991. Ironically, Seidman later joined the board of a new outfit called Promontory Interfinancial Network LLC.

Promontory's business: Brokering deposits.

When Bloomberg Markets magazine asked Seidman about the nature of the company he'd joined, he conceded there would be critics. But he had an answer ready.

'The question can be raised: `Is this what the government wanted when they put in deposit insurance?'," Seidman told his interviewer.

But then he answered his own question by stating that 'one man's loophole is another man's God-given right.''

Promontory Interfinancial is a rising star in the brokered-deposits business and is also a powerhouse special interest machine. Its list of founders reads like a 'Who's Who" of financial-sector regulation, and includes:

  • Mark Jacobsen, FDIC chief of staff from 1999-2002.
  • Eugene Ludwig, comptroller of the currency from 1993-1998.
  • And Alan Blinder, vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve from 1994-1996.

They know how the system works.

I asked Jacobsen, Promontory's co-founder, president and chief operating officer, about creating the firm and what it meant to be in the business. His response: 'The fact is, I have a different perspective now than I would when I was a former regulator."

Jacobsen makes an eloquent case for Promontory's business model. Although the firm has a product that mimic's traditional brokered deposits, Jacobsen's brainchild is actually a product called the Certificate of Deposit Account Registry Service, or CDARS.

CDARS are 'reciprocal deposits." They allow local banks to bring in large depositors who might otherwise shop their funds around through other deposit brokers. The large deposits are broken up through CDARS and spread out across Promontory's member network of nearly 3,000 banks.

The bank receiving the large deposit doesn't miss out. It gets back an equivalent sum in small deposits from the network to use to fund its loan book and assets.

Promontory recently persuaded the FDIC to separate reciprocal deposits out from a calculation of total brokered deposits held by any one bank. Brokered deposits are subject to additional FDIC levies when the agency calculates what a financial institution must pay into the deposit-insurance fund. However, in spite of being statutorily defined as brokered deposits, CDARS won't be counted as such when the FDIC calculates those additional assessments.

This exception isn't lost on other banks, says Sherrill Shaffer, a professor of banking and financial services at the University of Wyoming who is also a former chief economist of the New York Federal Reserve Bank – and a one-time head of the Department of Supervision, Regulation and Credit at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

'When losses go up at the FDIC, premiums (on brokered deposits) go up in the next quarter," Prof. Shaffer said. 'So any banks not using CDARS end up cross-subsidizing those that do. To get around that, they have to sign up."

Financial Intrigue – Internet StyleIn the brokered-deposit universe, the deepest black hole exists in cyberspace.

A constellation of special interests is pushing brokered-deposit services. The weapon of choice is a powerful device known as 'listing services."

Listing services are nothing more than a cyberspace bulletin board where banks that advertise the rates on their certificates of deposits (CDs) can be linked up with consumers or institutions searching the Internet for the highest yields for their savings.

But it's also a gravity-free zone where the mere press of a button can cause 'hot money" to jump from one bank to another – effortlessly and instantaneously.

In spite of that reality, listing-service money isn't counted as a brokered deposit. Instead, it's counted as a 'core deposit" – which regulators define as a 'stable source of funding" for lending.

But here's the reality:

1.   Listing-service deposits are hot-money deposits advertised by banks that have to be rolled over or replaced when CDs mature. Far from being stable, these deposits actually create liquidity issues for banks.

2.   Because they are hot money disguised as core deposits, listing-service deposits can also mask capital-adequacy issues at a bank.

3.   Failing to distinguish between core deposits and hot money makes it tougher to assess risk at banks that accept those deposits.

4.   Because listing services are incorrectly classified – despite their risk – banks don't have to pay the higher deposit-insurance premiums assessed on other hot-money deposits. That means the FDIC isn't paid for the additional risk it's taking on by insuring these higher-risk deposits.

5.   Because listing services are counted as something that they're not, no one really understands the effect of listing-service deposits on bank operations.

The Search for SolutionsThe argument over brokered deposits, listing-service deposits and reciprocal deposits is a heated one.

While there may be nothing wrong with the public seeking high yields and government guarantees on their bank deposits, there is something wrong with what banks do with the funds they gather. Of course, there wouldn't be any problems if regulators were doing what they were supposed to be doing, monitoring the risks and growth trajectories of the banks that had funded themselves with hot money.

Advocates and the special interest groups that have protected, proliferated and profited from brokered deposits have a long list of reasons that banks should be permitted to continue their use. What's more, advocates say, it's not the brokered deposits that cause banks to fail: It's bad management of those assets that causes such failures.

The University of Wyoming's Prof. Shaffer sees it this way: 'The use of brokered deposits in some cases fund rapid growth, which has its own risks and in some cases substitutes for an outflow of deposits from individual depositors who are becoming concerned about the health of the bank," he said. 'In either of those applications, the use of brokered deposits can permit a bank to take on more risk than it otherwise would and that's the main way in which moral hazard arises."

The question to ask is this: Will the use of brokered deposits and other variable-cost and hot-money funding schemes be promoted as part of a policy to attempt to grow our banks out of this crisis?

Hopefully not: That strategy didn't work in the 1980s, didn't work recently, and won't work in the future.

But there may be a way to save us from more boom-to-bust cycles.

What if we took away the inside track of special interests that profit on the backs of taxpayers by insuring all bank deposits? What if we break up all the 'too-big-to-fail" banks and spread their pieces around the country to place credit closer to folks on Main Street?

What if we rewarded banks that made good loans and financed jobs, manufacturing, product innovation and productive service industries with tax incentives that they could use to lower the cost of credit to deserving borrowers or pass along to public shareholders? What if we facilitated our banks competing with other global players by making them share and diversify the risks and rewards associated with loan origination, underwriting, securitization and product innovation? What if there wasn't more or less regulation, just effective regulators doing the jobs they were supposed to be doing?

Jacobsen, the former FDIC chief of staff and Promontory co-founder, may have cut to the heart of the issue when he stated that no sweeping fix exists.

'Moral hazard is where the money is," he said.

[Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from Shah Gilani's special investigative report,'The Cold Truth About 'Hot Money:' How Brokered Deposits Became the Third Rail of the American Banking System." Among its revelations, the report presents the inside story on how back-dated accounting allowed IndyMac Bank to keep taking in brokered deposits before it failed, costing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) $10.4 billion. It portrays how Ally Bank propped itself up with its TV commercials (if you watch TV, you've seen them) and its Internet grab of brokered deposits.

Gilani, the report's author, is a retired hedge-fund manager who is also a well-known expert on the global credit crisis. In researching this report, Gilani conducted hundreds of interviews — which enabled him provide insights that just aren't available anywhere else. Check out the entire report. It's available – free of charge – by clicking here.]

Warning: This is Not Another Wall Street Conspiracy Theory, These are the Facts

This is an interesting story about the latest financial crisis, aka Mortgage Meltdown, Credit Crisis, the Day the Music Died…

Just last week, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on the U.S. Federal Reserve’s decision to directly pay billions of dollars to banks as part of its scheme to bail out insurance giant American International Group Inc. (NYSE: AIG).

According to committee Chairman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, the testimony that congressmen heard just didn’t “pass the smell test.”

What really stinks about the whole mess is not only the cover-up of what really happened and why, but the inability of anybody in Congress to actually do their homework and be able to frame pointed questions and get to the truth.

It’s not complicated, but it is convoluted. Here are the facts and some questions that Congress needs to ask – and that the American people deserve straight answers to.

Read the entire article here.

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This Time, It’s Different

Economic GrowthHave you ever heard those words before? No, me either :D

One of my "must read" newsletters is written by John Mauldin and it's called – appropriately – John Mauldin's Weekly E-Letter. I get it each week in my inbox; I suggest you do the same.

I will caution you, however, that it may scare the pants off of you! Lately (the last few years), his commentary has been rather harsh. But, hey, look at the economy!

All that said, I encourage you to read this week's letter. One astonishing number came out this week: GDP growth of 5.7 percent! Yay, roll out the marching band and dancing monkeys, the recession is over!

But wait.

The Statistical Recovery Has Arrived

Before we get into the main discussion point, let me briefly comment on today's GDP numbers, which came in at an amazingly strong 5.7% growth rate. While that is stronger than I thought it would be (I said 4-5%), there are reasons to be cautious before we sound the "all clear" bell.

First, over 60% (3.7%) of the growth came from inventory rebuilding, as opposed to just 0.7% in the third quarter. If you examine the numbers, you find that inventories had dropped below sales, so a buildup was needed. Increasing inventories add to GDP, while, counterintuitively, sales from inventory decrease GDP. Businesses are just adjusting to the New Normal level of sales. I expect further inventory build-up in the next two quarters, although not at this level, and then we level off the latter half of the year.

Did you catch that? If not for the build up of inventory, our economy grew by only 2 percent. And we know these things ALWAYS revise DOWN.

Read the rest of the letter here. I think you'll learn a lot; I always do.

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