Peasant Insurance, Greek Debts, and CLX Derivatives
Peasant Insurance, Greek Debts, and CLX Derivatives
Proposals for the Banking System
The hard lesson of banking history is that the liability side of banking is not the place for market discipline. Therefore, with banks funded without limit by government insured deposits and loans from the central bank, discipline is entirely on the asset side. This includes being limited to assets deemed ‘legal’ by the regulators and minimum capital requirements also set by the regulators.
Given that the public purpose of banking is to provide for a payments system and to fund loans based on credit analysis, additional proposals and restrictions are in order:
1. Banks should only be allowed to lend directly to borrowers, and then service and keep those loans on their own balance sheets. There is no further public purpose served by selling loans or other financial assets to third parties, but there are substantial real costs to government regarding the regulation and supervision of those activities. And there are severe consequences for failure to adequately regulate and supervise those secondary market activities as well. For that reason (no public purpose and geometrically growing regulatory
burdens with severe social costs in the case of regulatory and supervisory lapses), banks should be prohibited from engaging in any secondary market activity. The argument that these areas might be profitable for the banks is not a reason to extend government sponsored enterprises into those areas.
2. US banks should not be allowed to contract in LIBOR. LIBOR is an interest rate set in a foreign country (the UK) with a large, subjective component that is out of the hands of the US government. Part of the current crisis was the Federal Reserve’s inability to bring down the LIBOR settings to its target interest rate, as it tried to assist millions of US homeowners and other borrowers who had contacted with US banks to pay interest based on LIBOR settings. Desperate to bring $US interest rates down for domestic borrowers, the Federal Reserve resorted to a very high risk policy of advancing unlimited, functionally unsecured, $US lines of credit called ‘swap lines’ to several foreign central banks. These loans were advanced at the Fed’s low target rate, with the hope that the foreign central banks would lend these funds to their member banks at the low rates, and thereby bring down the LIBOR settings and the cost of borrowing $US for US households and businesses. The loans to the foreign central banks peaked at about $600 billion and did eventually work to bring down the LIBOR settings. But the risks were substantial. There is no way for the Fed to collect a loan from a foreign central bank that elects not to pay it back. If, instead of contracting based on LIBOR settings, US banks had been linking their loan rates and lines of credit to the US fed funds rate, this problem
would have been avoided. The rates paid by US borrowers, including homeowners and businesses, would have come down as the Fed intended when it cut the fed funds rate.
3. Banks should not be allowed to have subsidiaries of any kind. No public purpose is served by allowing bank to hold any assets ‘off balance sheet.’
4. Banks should not be allowed to accept financial assets as collateral for loans. No public purpose is served by financial leverage.
5. US Banks should not be allowed to lend off shore. No public purpose is served by allowing US banks to lend for foreign purposes.
6. Banks should not be allowed to buy (or sell) credit default insurance. The public purpose of banking as a public/private partnership is to allow the private sector to price risk, rather than have the public sector pricing risk through publicly owned banks. If a bank instead relies on credit default insurance it is transferring that pricing of risk to a third party, which is counter to the public purpose of the current public/private banking system.
7. Banks should not be allowed to engage in proprietary trading or any profit making ventures beyond basic lending. If the public sector wants to venture out of banking for some presumed public purpose it can be done through other outlets.
8. My last proposal for the banks in this draft is to utilize FDIC approved credit models for evaluation of bank assets. I would not allow mark to market of bank assets. In fact, if there is a valid argument to marking a particular bank asset to market prices, that likely means that asset should not be a permissible bank asset in the first place. The public purpose of banking is to facilitate loans based on credit analysis rather, than market valuation. And the accompanying provision of government insured funding allows those loans to be held to maturity without liquidity issues, in support of that same public purpose. Therefore, marking to market rather
than evaluation by credit analysis both serves no further public purpose and subverts the existing public purpose of providing a stable platform for lending.
Proposals for the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation)
I have three proposals for the FDIC. The first is to remove the $250,000 cap on deposit insurance. The public purpose behind the cap is to help small banks attract deposits, under the theory that if there were no cap large depositors would gravitate towards the larger banks. However, once the Fed is directed to trade in the fed funds markets with all member banks, in unlimited size, the issue of available funding is moot.
The second is to not tax banks in order to recover funds lost on bank failures. The FDIC should be entirely funded by the US Treasury. Taxes on solvent banks should not be on the basis of the funding needs of the FDIC. Taxes on banks have ramifications that can either serve or conflict with the larger public purposes presumably served by government participation in the banking system. These include sustaining the payments system and lending based on credit analysis. Any tax on banks should be judged entirely by how that tax
serves or doesn’t serve public purpose.
My third proposal for the FDIC is to do its job without any assistance by Treasury (apart from funding any FDIC expenditures). The FDIC is charged with taking over any bank it deems insolvent, and then either selling that bank, selling the bank’s assets, reorganizing the bank, or any other similar action that serves the public purpose government participation in the banking system. The TARP program was at least partially established to allow the US Treasury to buy equity in specific banks to keep them from being declared insolvent by the FDIC, and to allow them to continue to have sufficient capital to continue to lend. What the
TARP did, however, was reveal the total failure of both the Bush and Obama administrations to comprehend the essence of the workings of the banking system. Once a bank incurs losses in excess of its private capital, further losses are covered by the FDIC, an arm of the US government. If the Treasury ‘injects capital’ into a bank, all that happens is that once losses exceed the same amount of private capital, the US Treasury, also an arm of the US government is next in line for any losses to the extent of its capital contribution, with the FDIC covering any losses beyond that. So what is changed by Treasury purchases of bank equity? After the private capital is lost, the losses are taken by the US Treasury instead of the FDIC, which also gets its funding from the US Treasury. It makes no difference for the US government and the ‘taxpayers’ whether the Treasury covers the loss indirectly when funding the FDIC, or directly after ‘injecting capital’ into a bank. All that was needed to accomplish the same end as the TARP program- to allow banks to continue to function and acquire FDIC insured deposits- was for the FDIC to directly reduce the private capital requirements. Instead, and as direct evidence of a costly ignorance of the dynamics of the banking model, both the Obama and Bush administrations burned through substantial quantities of political capital to get the legislative authority to allow the Treasury to buy equity positions in dozens of private banks. And, to make matters worse, it was all accounted for as additional federal deficit spending. While this would not matter if Congress and the administrations understood the monetary system, the fact is they don’t, and so the TARP has therefore restricted their inclination to make further fiscal adjustments to restore employment and output. Ironically, the overly tight fiscal policy continues to contribute to the rising delinquency and default rate for
bank loans, which continues to impede the desired growth of bank capital.
Proposals for the Federal Reserve
Proposals for the Treasury
I conclude with my proposals to support aggregate demand and restore output and employment.
October 11, 2009
President, Valance Co.
Here’s the problem with that policy. Rising prices for housing have increased the cost of living and doing business, widening the excess of market price over socially necessary costs. In times past the government would have collected the rising location rent created by increasing prosperity and public investment in transportation and other infrastructure making specific sites more valuable. But in recent years taxes have been rolled back. Land sites still cost as much as ever, because their price is set by the market. Land itself has no cost of production. Locational value is created by society, and should be the natural tax base because a land tax does not increase the price of real estate; it lowers it by leaving less “free” rent to be paid to the banks.
The problem is that what the tax collector relinquishes is now available to be paid to banks as interest. And prospective buyers bid against each other until the winner is whoever is first to pay the land’s location rent to the banks as interest.
This tax shift – to the benefit of the bankers, not homeowners – has made Mr. Obama’s hope of doubling U.S. exports during the next five years ring hollow. This is the upshot of “creating wealth” in the form of a debt-leveraged real estate and stock market bubble. Labor must pay more for debt-financed housing and education, not to mention payments to health insurance oligopoly and higher sales and income taxes shifted off the shoulders of financial and real estate.
Once the Republicans were certain which way the vote would go, they were able to voice some nice populist sound bites for the mid-term elections this November. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Sam Brownback of Kansas voted against Mr. Bernanke’s confirmation. Jim deMint of South Carolina warned that reappointing him would be “The biggest mistake that we’re going to make for a long time.” He added: “Confirming Bernanke is a continuation of the policies that brought our economy down.”
Among Democrats running for re-election, Barbara Boxer of California pointed out that by spurring the asset-price inflation, the Fed’s pro-Bubble (that is, pro-debt policy) has crashed the economy, shrinking employment. The Fed is supposed to protect consumers, yet Mr. Bernanke is a vocal opponent of the Consumer Finance Products Agency, claiming that the deregulatory Fed alone should be the sole financial regulator – seemingly an oxymoron.
Mr. Obama supports Mr. Bernanke and his State of the Union address conspicuously avoided endorsing the Consumer Financial Products Agency that he earlier had claimed would be the centrepiece of financial reform. Wall Street lobbyists have turned him around. Their logic was the same mantra that Connecticut insurance industry’s Sen. Chris Dodd repeated at the confirmation hearings: Mr. Bernanke has “saved the economy.”
How can the Fed be said to do this when the volume of debt is growing exponentially beyond the ability to pay? “Saving the debt” by bailing out creditors – by adding bad private-sector debts to the public sector’s balance sheet – is burdening the economy, not saving it. The policy only postpones the crisis while making the ultimate volume of debt that must be written off higher – and therefore more traumatic to write off, annulling a corresponding volume of savings on the other side of the balance sheet (because one party’s savings are another’s debts).
What really is at issue is the economic philosophy that Mr. Bernanke will apply during the coming four years. Unfortunately, Mr. Bernanke’s questioners failed to ask relevant questions along these policy lines and the economic theory or rationale underlying his basic approach. What needed to be addressed was not just his deregulatory stance in the face of the Bubble Economy and exploding consumer fraud, or even the mistakes he has made. Republican Sen. Jim Bunning elicited only smirks and pained looked as Mr. Bernanke rested his chin on his hand, as if to say, “I’m going to be patient and let you rant.” The other Senators were almost apologetic.
One popular (and thoroughly misleading) description of Bernanke that has been cited ad nauseum to promote his reappointment is that he is an expert on the causes of the Great Depression. If you are going to create a new crash, it certainly helps to understand the last one. But economic historians who have compared Mr. Bernanke’s writings to actual history have found that it is precisely his misunderstanding of the Depression that is leading him tragically to repeat it.
As a trickle-down apologist for high finance, Prof. Bernanke has drawn systematically wrong conclusions as to the causes of the Great Depression. The ideological prejudice behind his view is of course what got him his job in the first place, for as numerous observers have quipped, a precondition for being hired as Fed Chairman is that one does not understand how the financial system actually works. Instead of recognizing that deepening debt, low wages and the siphoning up of wealth to the top of the economic pyramid were primary causes of the Depression, Prof. Bernanke attributes the main problem simply to a lack of liquidity, causing low prices.
As my Australian colleague Steve Keen recently has written in his Debtwatch No. 42, the case against Mr. Bernanke should focus on his neoclassical approach that misses the fact that money is debt. He sees the financial problem as being too low a price level for assets to be collateralized for bank loans. And to Mr. Bernanke, “wealth” is synonymous with what banks will lend, under existing credit terms.
In 1933, the economist Irving Fischer (mainly responsible for the “modern” monetarist tautology MV = PT) wrote a classic article, “The Debt-Deflation Theory of the Great Depression,” recanting the neoclassical view that had led him to lose his personal fortune in the 1929 stock market crash. He explained how the inability to pay debts was forcing bankruptcies, wiping out bank credit and spending power, shrinking markets and hence the incentive to invest and employ labor.
Mr. Bernanke rejects this idea, or at least the travesty he paraphrases in his Essays on the Great Depression (Princeton, 2000, p. 24), as Prof. Keen quotes:
Fisher’ s idea was less influential in academic circles, though, because of the counterargument that debt-deflation represented no more than a redistribution from one group (debtors) to another (creditors). Absent implausibly large differences in marginal spending propensities among the groups, it was suggested, pure redistributions should have no significant macroeconomic effects.
The reality is that wealthy Wall Street financiers who make multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses spend their money on trophies: fine arts, luxury apartments or houses in gated communities, yachts, fancy handbags and high fashion, birthday parties with appearances by modish pop singers. (“I see the yachts of the stock brokers; but where are those of their clients?”) This is not the kind of spending that reflects the “real” economy’s production profile.
Mr. Bernanke sees no problem, unless rich people spend less of their gains on consumer goods and the products of labor than average wage earners. But of course this propensity to consume is precisely the point John Maynard Keynes made in his General Theory (1936). The wealthier people become, the lower a proportion of their income they consume – and the more they save.
This falling propensity to consume is what worried Keynes about the future. He imagined that as economies saved more as their income levels rose, they would spend less on goods and services. So output and employment would not be able to keep pace – unless the government stepped in to make up the gap.
Consumer spending is indeed falling, but not because economies are experiencing a higher net saving rate. The U.S. saving rate has fallen to zero – because despite the fact that gross savings remain high (about 18 percent), most is lent out to become other peoples’ debts. The effect is thus a wash on an economy-wide basis. (18 percent saving less 18 percent debt = zero net saving.)
The problem is that workers and consumers have gone deeper and deeper into debt, saving less and less. This is just the opposite of what Keynes forecast. Only the wealthiest 10 percent or so of the population save more and more – mainly in the form of loans to the “bottom 90 percent.” Saving less, however, goes hand in hand with consuming less, because of the revenue that the financial sector drains out of the “real” economy’s circular flow (wage-earners spending their income to buy the goods they produce) as debt service. The financial sector is wrapped around the production-and-consumption economy. So an inability to consume is part and parcel of the debt problem. The basis of monetary policy throughout the world today therefore should be how to save economies from shrinking as a result of their exponentially growing debt overhead.
Bernanke’s apologetics for finance capital: Economies seem to need more debt, not less
Bernanke finds “declines in aggregate demand” to be the dominant factor in the Great Depression (p. ix, as cited by Steve Keen). This is true in any economic downturn. In his reading, however, debt seems not to have anything to do with falling spending on what labor produces. Taking a banker’s-eye view, he finds the most serious problem to be the demand for stocks and real estate. Mr. Bernanke promises not to let falling asset demand (and hence, falling asset prices) happen again. His antidote is to flood the economy with credit as he is now doing, emulating Alan Greenspan’s Bubble policy.
The wealthiest 10 percent of the population do indeed save most of their money. They lend savings – and create new credit – to the bottom 90 percent, or gamble in derivatives or other zero-sum activities in which their gain (if indeed they make any) finds its counterpart in some other parties’ loss. The system is kept going not by government spending, Keynesian-style, but by new credit creation. That supports consumption, and indeed, lending against real estate, stocks and bonds enables borrowers to bid up their prices, enabling their owners to borrow yet more against these assets. The economy expands – until current revenue no longer covers the debt’s carrying charges.
That’s what brings the Bubble Economy down with a crash. Asset-price inflation gives way to crashing prices and negative equity for real estate and for much financial debt leveraging as well. It is in this sense that Prof. Bernanke’s blames the Depression on lower prices. When prices for real estate or other collateral plunge, it no longer can be pledged for more loans to keep the circular flow of lending and debt repayment in motion.
This circular financial flow is quite different from the circular flow that Keynes (and Say’s Law) discussed – the circulation where workers and their employers spent their wages and profits on consumer goods and investment goods. The financial circular flow is between the banks and their clients. And this circular flow swells as it diverts more and more spending from the “real” economy’s circular flow between income and spending. Finance capital expands relative to industrial capital*.
Higher prices in the “real” economy may help maintain the circular financial flow, by giving borrowers more current income to pay their mortgages, student loans and other debts. Mr. Bernanke accordingly sees FDR’s devaluation of the dollar as helping reflate prices.
Today, however, a declining dollar would make imports (including raw materials as well as key consumer goods) more costly. This would squeeze the budgets of most families, given America’s rising import dependency as its economy is post-industrialized and financialized. So Mr. Bernanke’s favored policy is to get banks lending again – not for the government to spend more on deficit spending on infrastructure, social services or other full employment projects. The government spending that Mr. Bernanke has endorsed is pure bailouts to the banks, insurance companies, real estate packagers and other Wall Street institutions so that they can support asset prices and thereby save the economy’s financial balance sheet, not its employment and living standards.
Euphemisms, oxymorons and internal contradictions
By Michael Hudson
The danger is that when Mr. Obama speaks of “stabilizing the economy,” he means trying to sustain the rise in compound interest and debt. This mathematical financial dynamic is autonomous from the “real” industrial economy, overwhelming it economically. That is what makes the present economic road to debt peonage so self-defeating.
Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be. So defaults are rising. The question that Mr. Obama should be addressing is how to deal with the excess of debt above the ability to pay – and of negative equity for the one-quarter of U.S. real estate that has a higher mortgage debt than the market price is worth. If the hope is still to “borrow our way out of debt” by getting the banks to start lending again, then listeners on Wednesday will know that Mr. Obama’s second year in office will be worse for the economy than his first.
How realistic is it to expect the speech to make clear that “we can’t go home again”? Mr. Obama promised change. “We simply cannot return to business as usual,” he said on Jan. 21, introducing the “Volcker plan.” But how can there be meaningful structural change if the plan is to return to an idealized dynamic that enriched Wall Street but not the rest of the economy?
The word “recession” implies that economic trends will return to normal almost naturally
Any dream of “recovery” in today’s debt-leveraged economy is a false hope. Yet high financial circles expect Mr. Obama to insist that the economy cannot recover without first reimbursing and enriching Wall Street. To re-inflate asset prices, Mr. Obama’s team looks to Japan’s post-1990 model. A compliant Federal Reserve is to flood the credit markets to lower interest rates to revive bank lending –interest-bearing debt borrowed to buy real estate already in place (and stocks and bonds already issued), enabling banks to work out of their negative equity position by inflating asset prices relative to wages.
The promise is that re-inflating prices will help the “real” economy. But what will “recover” is the rising trend of consumer and homeowner debt responsible for stifling the economy with debt deflation in the first place. This end-result of the Clinton-Bush bubble economy is still being applauded as a model for recovery.
We are not really emerging from a “recession.” The word means literally a falling below a trend line. The economy cannot “recover” its past exponential growth, because it was not really normal. GDP is rising mainly for the FIRE sector – finance, insurance and real estate – not the “real economy.” Financial and corporate managers are paying themselves more for their success in paying their employees less.
This is the antithesis of recovery for Main Street. That is what makes the FIRE sector so self-destructive, and what has ended America’s great post-1945 upswing.
There are two economies – and the extractive FIRE sector dominates the “real” economy
When listening to the State of the Union speech, one should ask just which economy Mr. Obama means when he talks about recovery. Most wage earners and taxpayers will think of the “real” economy of production and consumption. But Mr. Obama believes that this “Economy #1” is dependent on that of Wall Street. His major campaign contributors and “wealth creators” in the FIRE sector – Economy #2, wrapped around the “real” Economy #1.
Economy #2 is the “balance sheet” economy of property and debt. The wealthiest 10% lend out their savings to become debts owed by the bottom 90%. A rising share of gains are made in extractive ways, by charging rent and interest, by financial speculation (“capital gains”), and by shifting taxes off itself onto the “real” Economy #1.
John Edwards talked about “the two economies,” but never explained what he meant operationally. Back in the 1960s when Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, the term meant affluent vs. poor America. For 19th-century novelists such as Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli, it referred to property owners vs. renters. Today, it is finance vs. debtors. Any discussion of economic polarization betweens rich and poor must focus on the deepening indebtedness of most families, companies, real estate, cities and states to an emerging financial oligarchy.
Financial oligarchy is antithetical to democracy. That is what the political fight in Washington is all about today. The Corporate Democrats are trying to get democratically elected to bring about oligarchy. I hope that this is a political oxymoron, but I worry about how many people but into the idea that “wealth creation” requires debt creation. While wealth gushes upward through the Wall Street financial siphon, trickle-down economic ideology to fuel a Bubble Economy via debt-leveraged asset-price inflation.
The role of public spending – and hence budget deficits – no longer means taxing citizens to spend on improving their well-being within Economy #1. Since the 2008 financial meltdown the enormous rise in national debt has resulted from reimbursing Wall Street for its bad gambles on derivatives, collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps that had little to do with the “real” economy. They could have been wiped out without bringing down the economy. That was an idle threat. A.I.G.’s swap insurance department could have collapsed (it was largely in London anyway) while keeping its normal insurance activities unscathed. But the government paid off the financial sector’s bad speculative debts by taking them onto the public balance sheet.
The economy is best viewed as the FIRE sector wrapped around the production and consumption core, extracting financial and rent charges that are not technologically or economically necessary costs.
Say’s Law of markets, taught to every economics student, states that workers and their employers use their wages and profits to buy what they produce (consumer goods and capital goods). Profits are earned by employing labor to produce goods and services to sell at a markup. (M – C – M’ to the initiated.)
The financial and property sector is wrapped around this core, siphoning off revenue from this circular flow. This FIRE sector is extractive. Its revenue takes the form of what classical economists called “economic rent,” a broad category that includes interest, monopoly super-profits (price gouging) and land rent, as well as “capital” gains. (These are mainly land-price gains and stock-market gains, not gains from industrial capital as such.) Economic rent and capital gains are income without a corresponding necessary cost of production (M – M’ to the initiated). “Banks have lent increasingly to buy up these rentier rights to extract interest, and less and less to promote industrial capital formation. Wealth creation” FIRE-style consists most easily of privatizing the public domain and erecting tollbooths to charge access fees for basic necessities such as health insurance, land sites, home ownership, the communication spectrum (cable and phone rights), patent medicine, water and electricity, and other public utilities, including the use of convenient money (credit cards), or the credit needed to get by. This kind of wealth is not what Adam Smith described in The Wealth of Nations. It is a form of overhead, not a means of production. The revenue it extracts is a zero-sum economic activity, meaning that one party’s gain (that of Wall Street usually) is another’s loss.
Debt deflation resulting from a distorted “financialized” economy
The problem that Mr. Obama faces is one that he cannot voice politically without offending his political constituency. The Bubble Economy has left families, companies, real estate and government so heavily indebted that they must use current income to pay banks and bondholders. The U.S. economy is in a debt deflation. The debt service they pay is not available for spending on goods and services. This is why sales are falling, shops are closing down and employment continues to be cut back.
Banks evidently do not believe that the debt problem can be solved. That is why they have taken the $13 trillion in bailout money and run – by it out in bonuses, or buying other banks and foreign affiliates. They see the domestic economy as being all loaned up. The game is over. Why would they make yet more loans against real estate already in negative equity, with mortgage debt in excess of the market price that can be recovered? Banks are not writing more “equity lines of credit” against homes or making second mortgages in today’s market, so consumers cannot use rising mortgage debt to fuel their spending.
Banks also are cutting back their credit card limits. They are “earning their way out of debt,” making up for the bad gambles they have taken with depositor funds, by raising interest rates, penalties and fees, by borrowing low-interest credit from the Federal Reserve and investing it abroad – preferably in currencies rising against the dollar. This is what Japan did in the “carry trade.” It kept the yen’s exchange rate down, and it is lowering the dollar’s exchange rate today. This threatens to raise prices for imports, on which domestic consumer prices are based. So easy credit for Wall Street means a cost squeeze for consumers.
The President needs a better set of advisors. But Wall Street has obtained veto power over just who they should be. Control over the President’s ear time has been part of the financial sector’s takeover of government. Wall Street has threatened that the stock market will plunge if oligarch-friendly Fed Chairman Bernanke is not reappointed. Mr. Obama insists on keeping him on board, in the belief that what’s good for Wall Street is good for the economy at large.
But what’s good for the banks is a larger market for their credit – more debt for the families and companies that are their customers, higher fees and penalties, no truth-in-lending laws, harsher bankruptcy terms, and further deregulation and bailouts.
This is the program that Mr. Bernanke has advised Washington to follow. Wall Street hopes that he will be kept on board. Mr. Bernanke’s advice has helped bolster that of Tim Geithner at Treasury and Larry Summers as chief advisor to convince Pres. Obama that “recovery” requires more credit.
Going down this road will make the debt overhead heavier, raising the cost of living and doing business. So we must beware of the President using the term “recovery” in his State of the Union speech to mean a recovery of debt and giving more money to Wall Street Jobs cannot revive without consumers having more to spend. And consumer demand (I don’t like this jargon word, because only Wall Street and the Pentagon’s military-industrial complex really make demands) cannot be revived without reducing the debt burden. Bankers are refusing to write down mortgages and other debts to reflect the ability to pay. That act of economic realism would mean taking a loss on their bad debts. So they have asked the government to lend new buyers enough credit to re-inflate housing prices. This is the aim of the housing subsidy to new homebuyers. It leaves more revenue to be capitalized into higher mortgage loans to support prices for real estate fallen into negative equity.
The pretense is that this is subsidizing the middle class, but homebuyers are only the intermediaries for government credit (debt to be paid off by taxpayers) to mortgage bankers. Nearly 90 percent of new home mortgages are being funded or guaranteed by the FHA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – all providing a concealed subsidy to Wall Street.
Mr. Obama’s most dangerous belief is the myth that the economy needs the financial sector to lead its recovery by providing credit. Every economy needs a means of payment, which is why Wall Street has been able to threaten to wreck the economy if the government does not give in to its demands. But the monetary function should not be confused with predatory lending and casino gambling, not to mention Wall Street’s use of bailout funds on lobbying efforts to spread its gospel.
It seems absurd for politicians to worry that running a deficit from health care or Social Security can cause serious economic problems, after having given away $13 trillion to Wall Street and a blank check to the Pentagon. The “stimulus package” was only about 5 percent of this amount. But Mr. Obama has announced that he intends on Tuesday to close the barn door by proposing a bipartisan Senate Budget Commission to recommend how to limit future deficits – now that Congress is unwilling to give away any more money to Wall Street.
Republican approval would set the stage for Wednesday’s State of the Union message promising to press for “fiscal responsibility,” as if a lower deficit will help recovery. I suspect that Republicans will have little interest in joining. They see the aim as being to co-opt their criticism of Democratic spending plans. But in view of the rising and well-subsidized efforts of Harold Ford and his fellow Corporate Democrats, the actual “bipartisan” aim seems to be to provide political cover for cutting spending on labor and on social services. Mr. Obama already has sent up trial balloons about needing to address the Social Security and Medicare deficits, as if they should not be financed out of the general budget by taxpayers including the higher brackets (presently exempted from FICA paycheck withholding).
Traditionally, running deficits is supposed to help pull economies out of recession. But today, spending money on public services is deemed “bad,” because it may be “inflationary” – that is, threatening to raise wages. Talk of cutting deficits thus is class-war talk – on behalf of the FIRE sector.
The economy needs deficit spending to avoid unemployment and poverty, to increase social spending to deal with the present economic shrinkage, and to maintain their capital infrastructure. The federal government also needs to increase revenue sharing with states forced to slash their budgets in response to falling tax revenue and rising unemployment insurance.
But the deficits that the Bush-Obama administration have run are nothing like the familiar old Keynesian-style deficits to help the economy recover. Running up public debt to pay Wall Street in the hope that much of this credit will be lent out to inflate asset prices is deemed good. This belief will form the context for Wednesday’s State of the Union speech. So we are brought back to the idea of economic recovery and just what is to be recovered.
Financial lobbyists are hoping to get the government to fill the gap in domestic demand below full-employment levels by providing bank credit. When governments spend money to help increase economic activity, this does not help the banks sell more interest bearing debt. Wall Street’s golden age occurred under Bill Clinton, whose budget surplus was more than offset by an explosion of commercial bank lending.
The pro-financial mass media reiterate that deficits are inflationary and bankrupt economies. The reality is that Keynesian-style deficits raise wage levels relative to the price of property (the cost of obtaining housing, and of buying stocks and bonds to yield a retirement income). The aim of running a “Wall Street deficit” is just the reverse: It is to re-inflate property prices relative to wages.
A generation of financial “ideological engineering” has told people to welcome asset-price inflation (the Bubble Economy). People became accustomed to imagine that they were getting richer when the price of their homes rose. The problem is that real estate is worth what banks will lend – and mortgage loans are a form of debt, which needs to be repaid.
I worry that Wednesday’s address will celebrate this failed era.
The contrast between Wall Street’s recovery and the failure of the “real” economy to recover its employment and consumption levels has enabled Republicans to depict Mr. Obama and his party as stalling against financial reform. Instead of fulfilling his election promise to become an agent of change, the past year has seen a continuity with the widely rejected Bush policies. Even the personnel remain the same. Over the weekend, Mr. Obama reiterated his endorsement for reappointing Helicopter Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chairman.
As ex officio lobbyist for high finance, Mr. Bernanke’s money drop seemed to land only on Wall Street. Now that it has emptied out the government’s credit in an unparalleled deficit, Mr. Obama is saying, “No more. I’m drawing the line. No further deficit.” There goes any hope for stimulating the “real” economy. Treasury apparatchik Tim Geithner, backed with his armada of administrators on loan from Goldman Sachs, is unlikely to support indebted labor, consumers or their companies in any way that does not benefit Wall Street first.
Even worse has been Mr. Obama’s rehabilitation of Clinton Rubinomics deregulator Larry Summers as chief advisor, sidelining Paul Volcker until he was hurriedly flown back from political Siberia, as if to soften the leak by the Wall Street Journal on January 15 that Mr. Obama and the Democrats were not unhappy to see Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Products Agency die stillborn, despite Mr. Obama promise that the agency was “non-negotiable.”
Democrats insist that politics had nothing to do with the timing of Mr. Obama’s 180-degree turn and sudden infusion of passion for the “Volcker rule” to re-separate commercial banking from its casino capitalist outgrowth. The photo-op with Mr. Volcker was intended to provide at least a semblance of regulation of the sort that was normal before Mr. Summers and other Clinton-Gore era “Democratic Leadership Committee” operatives had backed Republicans to repeal Glass-Steagall. They are now back in the White House, and the Democrats have failed every litmus test involving finance, insurance and real estate – the FIRE sector, which remains the major campaign contributor and lobbyist for both parties.
Democrats up for re-election this November are jumping ship. On Friday, within just 72 hours of the Massachusetts vote, Barbara Boxer and other Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee came out against reappointing Mr. Bernanke. Republican leaders already had taken a head start on opposing him. Still, many Democrats have found enough born-again populism to sacrifice Mr. Bernanke, and perhaps Messrs. Summers and Geithner as well.
It is bad enough that Mr. Obama has not joined in the criticism of Mr. Bernanke for having refused to regulate mortgage fraud or slow the bubble economy even when the law required him to do so. And it is bad enough that Mr. Bernanke has been so willfully blind as to deny that the Fed was fueling the Bubble with low interest rates and a refusal to regulate fraud. What he calls the “free market” is what many consider to be consumer fraud.
The widening public perception of Mr. Obama’s first year as being a Great Continuity with the Bush Administration has enabled Republicans to position themselves for this year’s mid-term elections – and 2012 – by reminding voters how they opposed the bank bailout back in September 2008, when Mr. Obama supported it. Now that support for Wall Street has become the third rail in American politics, they may appoint a standard bearer who voted against the bailout.
This is ironic. George W. Bush ran for president saying: “I’m a uniter, not a divider,” and proceeded to divide the country (needing only 50 Senate votes plus the Vice Presidential tie-breaker to do it). Mr. Obama promised change, but then decided that he wants to be bipartisan (and insisting that he needs 60 votes; many are asking whether, if he had them, he then would say that he needed 90 votes to get the Baucuses and Bayhs, Liebermans and Boehners on board for his promised change). On Tuesday he is scheduled to invite Republicans to participate in a joint committee on the budget deficit – to get Republicans on board for tax increases to finance future giveaways to their mutual Wall Street constituency. They probably will say “no.” This should enable him to make a clean break. But then he would not be who he is.
For opportunists in both parties, the trick is how to wrap pro-Wall Street policies in enough populist rhetoric to win re-election, given that the FIRE sector remains the key source of funding for most political campaigns. The contrast between rhetoric and policy reality is the basic set of forces pulling Wednesday’s State of the Union address this Wednesday – and for the next two years. The real question is thus whether Mr. Obama’s promise to make an about-face and back financial reform will remain merely rhetorical, or actually be substantive?
Putting Mr. Obama’s speech in perspective
Spending a year hoping to get Republicans to sign onto health care almost seems to have been a tactic to give Mr. Obama a plausible excuse for stalling rather than to address what most voters are mainly concerned about: the economy. Subsidizing the debt overhead and the debt deflation that is shrinking markets and causing unemployment, home foreclosures and a capital flight out of the dollar has cost $13 trillion in just over a year – more than ten times the anticipated shortfall of any public health insurance reform or an entire decade of the anticipated Social Security shortfall.
Not only are voters angry, so are the community organizers and Mr. Obama’s former Harvard Law School colleagues with whom I have spoken. Instead of providing help in slowing the foreclosure process or pressuring banks to renegotiate, his solution is for the Fed to flood the banking system with enough money at low enough interest rates to re-inflate housing prices. What Mr. Obama seems to mean by “recovery” is that consumers once again will be extended Bubble-era levels of debt to afford housing at prices that will rescue bank balance sheets.
It is an impossible dream. American workers now pay about 40% of their take-home pay on housing, and another 15% on debt service – even before buying goods and services. No wonder our economy has lost its export markets! Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be.
The moral is that the solution to any given problem – in this case, how to make Wall Street richer by debt leveraging – creates a new problem, in this case bankruptcy for high-priced American industry. The cost of living and doing business is inflated by high financial charges, HMO and insurance charges, and debt-inflated real estate prices. This has made Mr. Obama’s Wall Street constituency richer, but as the Chinese proverb expresses the problem: “He who tries to go two roads at once will get a broken hip joint.”
Banks have not paid much attention to Mr. Obama’s urging them to renegotiate bad mortgages. Their profits lie in driving homeowners out of their homes if they do not stay and fight. What is needed is to help debtors fight against junk mortgages issued irresponsibly beyond their reasonable means to pay.
When homeowners do fight, they win. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, I spoke to community leaders who organized neighborhood protests blocking evictions from being carried out. I spoke to lawyers advising that victims of predatory mortgages insist that the foreclosing parties produce the physical mortgages in court. (They rarely are able to do this.) These people feel they are getting little help from Washington.
And last Friday, Nomi Prins, Bob Johnson and other financial insiders voiced fears that the “Volcker Rule” separating commercial banking from casino derivatives gambling will end up being gutted by so many loopholes (such as letting banks to write their contracts out of their London branches) that it will end up merely rhetorical, not substantive. Financial lobbyists have the upper hand in detoothing and disabling attempts to reduce their power or even to enact simple truth-in-lending laws.
Two opposing lines of advice to Mr. Obama
Over the weekend Sen. John McCain suggested that Mr. Obama should reach out to Republicans in his State of the Union address. Bush advisor Karl Rove advised him to move to “the center” – what most people used to call the right wing of the spectrum. The Republicans blame Mr. Obama’s deepening unpopularity on his alleged move to the left.
It is more realistic to say that he has been perceived as being too little for change, too centrist while the economy is polarizing. It certainly seems unlikely that he will now turn on his FIRE-sector backers. His plan is that real estate prices can be re-inflated on enough credit – that is, enough more mortgage debt – to enable the banks to work out of the negative equity position into which their loan portfolios and investments have fallen.
The inherent impossibility of this plan succeeding is the main problem that we may expect from this Wednesday’s State of the Union address. Mr. Obama will promise to cut taxes further for working Americans, but his financial policy aims to raise the cost of their housing, their debt service and the cost of buying pensions. Some trade-off!
America’s debt overhead exceeds the means to pay. Rhetoric alone cannot solve this problem, even when delivered with Mr. Obama’s rhetorical élan. Its solution requires a policy alternative more radical than his current advisors are willing to accept, because the inevitable solution must be to write down debts to reflect the capacity to pay under today’s market conditions. This means that some banks and creditors must take a loss.
In the 2008 election campaign, Rep. Dennis Kucinich kept spelling out precisely what law he had introduced to Congress to effect each change he proposed. Mr. Obama never descended to this concrete level. But after spending a year treading water, he now must be asked to do so.
For starters, the litmus test for commitment to change should be to rapidly push through the Consumer Finance Protection Agency while the Democrats still have their political Viagra fillip from last Tuesday – and before Wall Street lobbyists wield their bankrolls.
There is talk in the press about the Democrats not even pressing forward with the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. The argument is that if they can’t get their health care plan by the Senate in the face of HMO and drug company lobbyists, what chance do they have when it comes on to taking on predatory Wall Street lenders?
It is a false worry – or even worse, an excuse to continue doing nothing. Republicans were able to mobilize populist opposition to the health-care bill by representing it as adding to the cost of relatively healthy young adults forced into the arms of the HMO monopolies. But it is much harder for the Republicans to buck financial reform and still strike their pose as opposing Wall Street. Proposing strong legislation against Wall Street will force politicians of both parties to show their true colors. If they don’t jump on board the best and most popular law the Democrats can draw up, they will lose their ability to pose. And what is populist politics these days without such a pose?
If the Democrats do not force the debt reform issue, we must conclude that they don’t really want financial restructuring. This is what Celinda Lake, pollster for the losing Democratic senate candidate last Tuesday, found that most voters believed to be the case: “When six times more people think that the banks benefited from the stimulus than working families, you’ve got a problem. And it’s not just a problem with what Martha Coakley did in her campaign” she wrote in her day-after report. “Voters are still voting for the change they voted for in 2008, but they want to see it. And right now they think they’ve got economic policies for Washington that are delivering more for banks than Main Street.”
Mr. Obama needs to signal a change of heart by replacing his failed deregulatory-era trio of Summers, Bernanke and Geithner with advisors who will focus more on the “real” economy than on Wall Street’s shadow economy.
I don’t see him doing this. I will discuss how to pierce what I expect to be Wednesday evening’s rhetorical fog in Part II of this article tomorrow.
By L. Randall Wray*
The reforms sound good. It is always too easy to criticize reform for not going far enough. However, the nature of this proposal seems to indicate that Obama still does not understand the scope of the problem. Let me provide what I believe to be more than mere quibbles:
1. The financial bail-out was not needed and would do nothing to prevent another great depression. We had a liquidity crisis that could have been resolved in the normal way, through lending by the Fed without limit, to all financial institutions, and without collateral. That is how you end a liquidity crisis. But that has nothing to do with the Paulson/Rubin/Geithner plans that variously bought bad assets, injected capital, and provided guarantees — in an amount estimated above $20 trillion. None of that was necessary and none of it prevented collapse of the economic system. Banks are still massively insolvent. If we wanted to leave insolvent institutions open, all we had to do was to use forbearance. And, in truth, that is the only reason they are still open for business.
2. And of course, none of that had any benefit at all for Main Street. Indeed, we could have closed down the top 20 banks (responsible for almost all of the mess) with no impact on the economy. The only thing that has helped was the fiscal stimulus package. That will soon run out, and although it helped it was far too small. Obama has zero chance of getting more money for Main Street unless he can convince Congress and the public that he has changed his ways. The reforms he has announced fall short.
3. The financial system is not healthier today. Indeed, it is much more dangerous. The Bush and Obama administrations reacted to the crisis by encouraging and subsidizing consolidation of the sector in the hands of gargantuan and dangerously insolvent institutions. The sector is essentially run by a handful of rapacious institutions that have made out like bandits because of the crisis: Goldman, JP Morgan, Citi, Chase and Bank of America. All of these are systemically dangerous. All should be closed. Today.
4. Yes, the lobbyists are a problem. What do you expect when you operate a revolving door between Wall Street and the administration? Goldman essentially runs the Treasury. The lobbyists are in Washington to meet with their former colleagues, and to oil that revolving door. There is only one solution: ban all former employees of the financial sector from government employment (including roles as advisors), and prohibit all government employees from ever working for a Wall Street firm.
5. It is not enough to subject banks to the requirements of the Volcker Rule. Any institution that has access to the Fed and to the FDIC should be prohibited from making ANY KINDS OF TRADES. They should make loans, and purchase securities, and then hold them. (An exception can be made for government debt.) They should perform underwriting and due diligence to ensure that the assets they hold meet appropriate standards of risk. And then they should bear all the risk through maturity of the assets. They should not be allowed to offload assets, much less to short assets that they sell, while knowing they are trash (Goldman’s favorite strategy). They should not be able to hedge risks through derivatives. They should not be allowed to purchase credit default “insurance” to protect themselves. They should not be allowed to move risk off balance sheet. They should not be involved in equities markets. Any behemoth that does not like these conditions can hand back its bank charter and become an unprotected financial institution. Those that retain their charters will be treated as public-private partnerships, which is what banks are. They put up $5 of their own money, then gamble with $95 of government (guaranteed) money. The only public purpose they serve is underwriting-and that only works if they hold all the risks.
6. Obama ignores fraud. It is rampant in the financial sector. Indeed, it has no doubt increased since the crisis. Where do you think all of those record profits come from? It is a massive control fraud, based on Ponzi (or Bernie Madoff) schemes. This must be investigated. Fraudulent institutions must be shut down. Management must be prosecuted and jailed. Only if Obama is willing to take on fraud will we know that he really is about hope and change. He has got to start with the Rubin, Geithner and Summers team. Fire them, then investigate them. That is change I can believe in-and an end to “business as usual”, as Obama put it.
*This post was first published on New Deal 2.0
By Michael Hudson*
But the Wall Street executives were careful not to blame the government. This was not just an attempt to avoid antagonizing the Congressional panel. The last thing Wall Street wants is for the government to change its behavior.
I think the Wall Street boys are playing possum. Why should we expect them to explain their strategy to us? To understand their game plan, the Commissioners had to wait for the second day of the hearings, when Sheila Bair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) spelled it out. Their first order of business is to make sure that the Federal Reserve Board is designated the sole financial regulator, knocking out any more activist regulators – above all the proposed Consumer Financial Products Agency that Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren has helped design. Wall Street also is seeking to avert any thought of restoring the Glass-Steagall Act in an attempt to protect the economy from having merged retail commercial banking with wholesale investment banking, insurance, real estate brokerage and kindred arms of high finance.
Perception – and exposure – of this strategy is what made the second day’s hearing (on Thursday) so important. From Sheila Bair down to state officials, these administrators explained that the problem was structural. They blamed government and the financial sector’s short-run time frame.
The past few years have demonstrated just how thoroughly the commercial and investment-banking sector already has taken control of government. Having succeeded in disabling the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to such an extent that it refused to act even when warned about Bernie Madoff, deregulators did not raise a protest against the junk accounting that was burying the financial system in junk mortgages and kindred accounting fraud.
The Comptroller of the Currency blocked local prosecutors from moving against financial fraud, citing a small-print rule from the Civil War era National Bank Act giving federal agencies the right to override state agencies. Passed in the era of wildcat banking, the rule aimed to prevent elites from using crooked local courts to protect them. But in the early 2000s it was Washington that was protecting national banking elites from state prosecutors such as New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer and his counterparts in Massachusetts and other states. This prompted Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to remind the Angelides Commission that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision were “actively engaged in a campaign to thwart state efforts to avert the coming crisis.”*
By far the major enabler was the Federal Reserve Board (FRB). Acting as the banking system’s lobbying organization, its tandem of Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke fought as a free-market Taliban against attempts to introduce financial regulation. Working with the Goldman Sachs managers on loan to the Treasury, the Fed managed to block attempts to rein in debt pyramiding.
Mr. Bernanke ignored the very first lesson taught in business schools. This was the lesson taught by William Petty in the 17th century and used by economists ever since: The market price of land, a government bond or other security is calculated by dividing its expected income stream by the going rate of interest – that is, “capitalizing” its rent (or any other flow of income) into what a bank would lend. The lower the rate of interest, the higher a loan can be capitalized. At an interest rate of 10%, a $10,000 annual income is worth $100,000. At 5%, this income stream is worth $200,000; at 4%, $250,000. Mr. Bernanke thus rejected over three hundred years of economic orthodoxy in testifying recently that the Fed was blameless in fueling the real estate bubble by slashing interest rates after 2001. Financial fraud also was not to blame. Anointed with the reputation for being a “student of the Great Depression,” he showed himself to be clueless.
He is not really all that clueless, of course. His role is to play the “useful idiot” whom financial elites can blame to distract attention from how they have gamed the system. Wall Street’s first aim is to make sure that the Fed remains in control as the government’s central regulator – or in the present case, deregulator, able to disable any serious attempt to check Wall Street’s drive to load down the economy with yet more debt so as to “borrow its way out of the bubble.”
Public relations “think tanks” (spin centers adept in crafting blame-the-victim rhetoric) use simple Orwellian Doublethink 101 tactics to call this “free market” policy. Financial self-regulation is to be left to bankers, shifting economic planning out of the hands of elected representatives to those of planners drawn from the ranks of Wall Street. This centralization of authority in a public agency “independent” from control by elected representatives is dubbed “market efficiency,” with an “independent central bank” deemed to be the hallmark of democracy. The words “democracy,” “progress” and “reform,” are thus given meanings opposite from what they meant back in the Progressive Era a century ago. The pretense is that constraints on finance are anti-democratic, not public protection against today’s emerging financial oligarchy. And to distract attention from the road to debt peonage, financial lobbyists accuse governments strong enough to check the financial interest” of threatening to lead society down “the road to serfdom.”
Avoiding regulation by having the Fed “regulate,” with neoliberal deregulators in charge
All that is needed is to reduce the number of regulators to one – and to appoint a deregulator to that key position. The most dependable deregulator is the commercial banking system’s in-house lobbyist, the Federal Reserve. This requires knocking out potential rivals. But at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Sheila Bair is not willing to relinquish this authority. Her testimony last Thursday was buried on the back pages of the press, and her most trenchant written arguments lost in the hubbub caused by the earthquake in Haiti. Not reported by the media-of-record, her testimony should have been welcomed as intellectual dynamite.
For Ms. Bair the task requires blocking three key battles that the financial sector is waging in its war to control and extract tribute from the “real” economy of production and consumption. Her first policy to get the economy back on track is to ward off any plans that politicians might harbor to keep Wall Street unregulated. “Over the past two decades, there was a world view that markets were, by their very nature, self-regulating and self-correcting – resulting in a period that was referred to as the ‘Great Moderation’ [Mr. Bernanke’s notorious euphemism]. However, we now know that this period was one of great excess.” **
Banks are using the ploy familiar to readers of the Uncle Remus stories about B’rer Rabbit. When the fox finally catches him, the rabbit begs, “Please don’t throw me in the briar batch.” The fox does just that, wanting to harm the rabbit – who gets up and laughs, “Born and bred in the briar patch!” and hops happily away, free. This is essentially what the financial scenario would be under Federal Reserve aegis. “Not only did market discipline fail to prevent the excesses of the last few years, but the regulatory system also failed in its responsibilities. There were critical shortcomings in our approach that permitted excessive risks to build in the system. Existing authorities were not always used, regulatory gaps within the financial system provided an environment in which regulatory arbitrage became rampant …”
No more damning reason could be given for Congress to reject Mr. Bernanke out of hand, if not indeed to set about restructuring the Fed to bring it back into the Treasury, from which it emerged in 1914 in one of the most unfortunate Caesarian births of the 20th century. In detail, she explained how the Fed had acted as an agent of the commercial banks perpetrating fraud, protecting their sale of toxic mortgage products against consumer interests and indeed, the solvency of the economy itself. Nobody can read her explanation without seeing what utter folly it would be to put Creditor Fox in charge of the Debtor Henhouse.
Blocking creation of a Consumer Protection Agency
Ms. Bair’s second aim was to counter Wall Street’s attempt to block enactment of the Consumer Protection Agency. Its lobbyists have had a year to disable any real reform, and Washington obviously believes that it can be safely jettisoned. But Ms. Bair spelled out just how willful and egregious the Fed’s refusal to use its regulatory powers – and indeed, its designated responsibilities – has been. “Federal consumer protections from predatory and abusive mortgage-lending practices are established principally under the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act (HOEPA), which is part of the Truth in Lending Act (TILA). TILA and HOEPA regulations are the responsibility of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (FRB) and apply to both bank and non-bank lenders,” she explained. “Many of the toxic mortgage products that were originated to fund the housing boom … could have been regulated and restricted under another provision of HOEPA that requires the FRB to prohibit acts or practices in connection with any mortgage loan that it finds to be unfair or deceptive, or acts and practices associated with refinancing of mortgage loans that it finds abusive or not otherwise in the interest of the borrower.”
This was not done. It was actively thwarted by the Fed:
Problems in the subprime mortgage market were identified well before many of the abusive mortgage loans were made. A joint report issued in 2000 by HUD and the Department of the Treasury entitled Curbing Predatory Home Mortgage Lending … found that certain terms of subprime loans appear to be harmful or abusive in practically all cases. To address these issues, the report made a number of recommendations, including that the FRB use its HOEPA authority to prohibit certain unfair, deceptive and abusive practices by lenders and third parties. During hearings held in 2000, consumer groups urged the FRB to use its HOEPA rulemaking authority to address concerns about predatory lending. Both the House and Senate held hearings on predatory abuses in the subprime market in May 2000 and July 2001, respectively. In December 2001 the FRB issued a HOEPA rule that addressed a narrow range of predatory lending issues.
It was not until 2008 that the FRB issued a more extensive regulation using its broader HOEPA authority to restrict unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices in the mortgage market.
Warning that “the consequences we have seen during this crisis will recur,” Ms. Bair reiterated a recommendation she had earlier made to the effect that “an ability to repay standard should be required for all mortgages, including interest-only and negative-amortization mortgages and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs). Interest-only and negative-amortization mortgages must be underwritten to qualify the borrower to pay a fully amortizing payment.” The Fed blocked this common-sense regulatory policy. And by doing so, it became an enabler of fraud.
As the private-label MBS [Mortgage-Backed Securities] market grew, issuances became increasingly driven by interest-only, hybrid adjustable-rate, second-lien, pay-option and Alt-A mortgage products. Many of these products had debt-service burdens that exceeded the homeowner’s payment capacity. For example, Alt-A mortgages typically included loans with high loan-to-value ratios or loans where borrowers provided little or no documentation regarding the magnitude or source of their income or assets. Unfortunately, this class of mortgage products was particularly susceptible to fraud, both from borrowers who intentionally overstated their financial resources and from the mortgage brokers who misrepresented borrower resources without the borrower’s knowledge.
Improved consumer protections are in everyone’s best interest. It is important to understand that many of the current problems affecting the safety and soundness of the financial system were caused by a lack of strong, comprehensive rules against abusive practices in mortgage lending. If HOEPA regulations had been amended in 2001, instead of in 2008, a large number of the toxic mortgage loans could not have been originated and much of the crisis may have been prevented. The FDIC strongly supported the FRB’s promulgation of an “ability to repay” standard for high priced loans in 2008, and continues to urge the FRB to apply common sense, “ability to repay” requirements to all mortgages, including interest-only and option-ARM loans.
Summarizing her 54-page written testimony orally, Ms. Bar commented that, “looking back, I think if we had had some good strong constraints at that time, just simple standards like … you’ve got to document income and make sure they can repay the loan . . . we could have avoided a lot of this.”*** But the same day on which her testimony was capsulized, the Wall Street Journal leaked the story that “Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd is considering scrapping the idea of creating a Consumer Financial Protection Agency … as a way to secure a bipartisan deal on the legislation,” that is, a deal with “Richard Shelby of Alabama, who has referred to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency as a ‘nanny state.’ … The banking industry has spent months lobbying aggressively to defeat the creation of the CFPA. ‘One of our principal objections all along is that you would have a terrible conflict on an ongoing basis between a separate consumer regulator and the safety and soundness regulator, with the bank constantly caught in the middle,’ said Ed Yingling, chief executive of the American Bankers Association trade group.”**** The idea is that a “conflict” between an institution seeking to protect consumers – and indeed, the economy – from an in-house banking lobbying institution (the Fed), backed by the Treasury safely in the hands of Goldman-Sachs caretakers on loan is “inefficient” rather than a necessary democratic safeguard! But the paper gave more space crowing over the likely defeat of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency than it did to Ms. Bair’s eloquent written testimony!
Avert any thought of re-enacting Glass-Steagall
On the institutional level, Wall Street’s managers want to ward off any threat that the Glass-Steagall legislation might be revived to separate consumer deposit banking and money management from today’s casino capitalism. This is what Paul Volcker has urged, but it is now obvious that Pres. Obama appointed him only for window dressing, much like that of Pres. Johnson said of J. Edgar Hoover: he would rather have him inside his tent pissing out than outside pissing in. Appointing Mr. Volcker as a nominal advisor effectively prevents the former Fed Chairman from making hostile criticisms. Pres. Obama simply ignores his advice to re-instate Glass-Steagall, having appointed as his senior advisor the major advocate of the repeal in the first place – Larry Summers, along with the rest of the old Rubinomics gang taken over from the Clinton administration.
Ms. Bair explained why Wall Street’s preferred “reforms” along the current line – maintaining the “too big to fail” financial oligopoly intact, along with the Bush-Obama deregulatory “free market” ideology – threatens to return the financial system to its bad old ways of crashing. To Wall Street, of course, this is the “good old way.” Wall Street is consolidating the finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sector across the board into oligopolistic conglomerates “too big to fail.”
But being realistic under the circumstances, Ms. Bair avoided taking on more of a battle than likely can be won at this time. “One way to address large interconnected institutions,” she proposed, “is to make it expensive to be one. Industry assessments could be risk-based. Firms engaging in higher risk activities, such as proprietary trading, complex structured finance, and other high-risk activities would pay more” for their deposit insurance, to reflect the higher systemic risks they are taking. This suggestion is along the lines of proposals (made for over half a century now) to set different reserve requirements or capital adequacy requirements for different categories of bank loans.
Alas, she acknowledged, the Basel agreements regarding capital adequacy standards are being loosened rather than tightened. “In 2004, the Basel Committee published a new international capital standard, the Basel II advanced internal ratings-based approach (as implemented in the United States, the Advanced Approaches), that allows banks to use their own internal risk assessments to compute their risk-based capital requirements. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence is that the Advanced Approaches will lower capital requirements significantly, to levels well below current requirements that are widely regarded as too low.” She criticized the new, euphemistically termed “Advanced Approach” as producing “capital requirements that are both too low and too subjective.” The result is to increase rather than mitigate financial risk.
The need for tax reform to accompany financial reform
Beyond the scope of the FDIC or other financial regulatory agencies is the symbiosis between financial and fiscal reform.
For example, federal tax policy has long favored investment in owner-occupied housing and the consumption of housing services. The government-sponsored housing enterprises have also used the implicit backing of the government to lower the cost of mortgage credit and stimulate demand for housing and housing-linked debt. In political terms, these policies have proven to be highly popular. Who will stand up to say they are against homeownership? Yet, we have failed to recognize that there are both opportunity costs and downside risks associated with these policies. Policies that channel capital towards housing necessarily divert capital from other investments, such as plant and equipment, technology, and education—investments that are also necessary for long-term economic growth and improved standards of living. *****
Conclusion: Pushing the economy even deeper into debt beyond the ability to pay
The banking system’s marketing departments have set their eyes on the economy’s largest asset, real estate, as its prime customer. The major component of real estate is land. For years, banks lent against the cost of building, using land (tending to rise in value) as the borrower’s equity investment in case of downturn. This was the basic plan in lending 70%, then 80% and finally 100% or even more of the real estate price to mortgage borrowers. The effect is to make housing even more expensive.
Suppose that Wall Street succeeds in its strategy to re-inflate the Bubble Economy. Will this create even larger problems to come, by making the costs of living even higher as labor and industry become even more highly debt leveraged? That is the banking sector’s business plan, after all. The aim of bank marketing departments – backed by the Obama administration – is to steer credit to re-inflate the bubble and thus save financial balance sheets from their current negative equity position.
This policy cannot work. One constraint is the balance of payments. The competitive power of U.S. exports of the products of American labor is undercut by the fact that housing costs absorb some 40% of labor’s family budgets today, other debt 15%, FICA wage withholding 12%, and various taxes another 20%. U.S. labor is priced out of world markets by the economy’s FIRE sector overhead even before food and essential needs of life are bought. The “solution” to the financial sector’s negative equity squeeze thus threatens to create even larger problems for the “real” economy. Ms. Bair appropriately concluded her written testimony by commenting that the context for the present discussion of financial reform should be the fact that “our financial sector has grown disproportionately in relation to the rest of our economy,” from “less than 15 percent of total U.S. corporate profits in the 1950s and 1960s … to 25 percent in the 1990s and 34 percent in the most recent decade through 2008.” While financial services “are essential to our modern economy, the excesses of the last decade” represent “a costly diversion of resources from other sectors of the economy.”
This is the same criticism that John Maynard Keynes levied in his General Theory, citing all the money, effort and genius that went into making money from money in the stock market, without actually contributing to the production process or even to tangible capital formation. In effect, we are seeing finance capitalism autonomous from industrial capitalism. The problem is how to restore a more balanced economy and rescue society from the financial sector’s self-destructive short-term practices.
*Sewell Chan, “A Call for More Regulation at Fiscal Crisis Inquiry,” The New York Times, January 15, 2010. William Black provides the classic narrative in The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One. He documents how the FBI’s anti-fraud teams and those of other agencies were reduced to merely skeleton levels, overseen by do-nothing deregulatory ideologues of the sort who served as enablers to Wall Street’s Bernie Madoffs.
***Tom Braithwaite, “Deposits regulator points finger of blame at Fed,” Financial Times, January 15, 2010.
****Damian Paletta, “Consumer Protection Agency in Doubt,” Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2010.
*****The Wall Street Journal cut this passage from the on-line version of Friday’s article by John D. McKinnon and Michael R. Crittenden, “Financial Inquiry Widens to Include Past Regulators,” January 15, 2010.
On-line transcripts of the hearings are available at
Prof. Hudson has just republished a new and expanded edition of his Trade, Development and Foreign Debt, a history of theories of international trade and finance. It is available from Amazon.com.
The Fed’s failures were legion, but five are worthy of particular note.
SECRET EMAILS SHOW GEITHNER’S NYFED FORCED AIG TO HIDE DATA
By L. Randall Wray