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Monday, February 28, 2011

Simon Johnson Explains How Wall Street Continues to Try to Screw You

Simon Johnson has a brilliant ability to explain complicated (or not so complicated) financial issues. Remember those little folders with endless pages in tiny print explaining your credit card? Well think about them when you read Simon's thoughts below.

And if you have been reading this rant with any regularity, you know I adore Elizabeth Warren, now the only person in Washington whom you can count on to tell you the truth.

Read on:

The Baseline Scenario

What happened to the global economy and what we can do about it

Disinformation About The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

with 21 comments

By Simon Johnson

In Washington, before lobbyists try hard to destroy something, they first spread a great deal of disinformation about it. Thus the “End Users’ Coalition” (a front for the derivatives dealers) promotes its lobbying points as fake research. And “fiscal conservatives” attempt to distract from the fact that our largest banks brought us to the brink of budget disaster – this is their preparation for demolishing all vestiges of financial reform.

On a closely related front, there is now a concerted effort to undermine the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), mostly by spreading disinformation about its supposed lack of accountability.

This disinformation approach contains the standard elements of exaggeration, misdirection, and distraction (all quotes are via Fred Barnes):

  1. Slogans: “If you like TSA at the airport, you’ll love these guys” (Congressman Spencer Bachus).
  2. This is a major step towards dictatorship. “Its powers are very, very vast…. Who in the world would consider it appropriate to have one person appointed—one person!—to set the rules for the entire financial industry. It’s a tremendous overreach. It’s incredible to think about” (Senator Bob Corker)
  3. And it would be a one-person dictatorship. “”It would be dangerous to the American economy if Elizabeth Warren were put in that job by a recess appointment, thwarting the will of Congress…. [She would be] accountable to no one” (Senator Richard Shelby)

Naturally, none of this is remotely close to the facts – an important principle of disinformation is that it should create an alternative reality which, through repetition by apparently disparate and supposedly credible people, becomes regarded as containing an element of truth.

Elizabeth Warren, the interim head of the new agency, has in fact consulted widely with members of Congress (from both sides), as well as with the industry. There is a great deal of accountability, down to the level of explaining exactly how the agency will be structured and the principles that will guide its operation.

She has also shared with members of Congress the details of key personnel appointments, as well as the responsibilities that various people will have. Legislators have every right to ask tough questions about the details – and this is exactly what they have been doing.

The oversight mechanisms at work here are exactly the same as for existing regulators – the CFPB is largely a consolidation and streamlining of their powers. Of course, we might worry that legislative oversight of regulators in the past helped bring us to the brink of financial and fiscal disaster, but that is another matter (e.g., see Inside Job, which just won the Oscar for Best Documentary.)

A particular bone of contention is the role of Elizabeth Warren herself. She is currently Assistant to the President (i.e., a White House role), as well as a Special Advisor to the Secretary of the CFPB. She is not Director of the CFPB – nor is she currently the nominee for that position.

Some members of Congress are clearly positioning themselves for a bruising confirmation hearing – and sending signals that they will fight hard against any potential appointment of Professor Warren, presumably mostly on procedural grounds.

But everything about her current role, the timing of when and how the agency is established, and the confirmation hearings is exactly as laid down by the Dodd-Frank Act.

And remember that Ms. Warren was, until recently, head of the Congressional Oversight Panel for TARP – in other words, she had a prominent role overseeing part of the executive branch. She understands the need to be scrupulous and careful about process in the current situation. Her appointment calendar is posted on-line. By my count, she has met with more than 50 members of Congress in one-on-one meetings since September.

Elizabeth Warren stands for transparency. After decades of abuse, consumers of financial products deserve prices that are clearly stated up front, risks that are plainly visible, and absolutely nothing buried in the fine print. This kind of transparency allows people to comparison shop in an effective way; it will also spur market competition and encourage the kind of innovation that really benefits consumers. It’s time to end the deception that comes packaged with complicated agreements wrapped around hidden fees and all kinds of nasty surprises.

And please remind all members of Congress, regarding their oversight role during 2000-08, that despite everything Countrywide did, including the horrible way it treated consumers and the many apparent deceptions in its practices, Angelo Mozilo walked away a rich man. According to the research of Professors Sanjai Bhagat and Brian Bolton, as CEO between 2000 and 2008, Mr. Mozilo received over $90 million in salary and bonus and sold Countrywide stock worth over $500 million. (You must read the Bhagat and Bolton paper.)

Let’s have the substantive discussion, in the open — before Congress and elsewhere. Which way do we go next: Elizabeth Warren’s way, with transparency for all; or Angelo Mozilo’s way, with vast fortunes for a very few people and great misery for many?

This is not about being pro- or anti-market. This is about what kind of market you want: transparent or opaque; honest or based on deceit.

But rather than discussing the merits of the debate – and the real issues at stake – instead we are treating to phony procedural complaints and fake claims regarding how the Constitution is supposedly being undermined.

“No smoke without fire” is the principle that reasonable people often apply to stories they hear. If enough people are talking about an issue in a particular way, there must be some legitimate grounds for concern.

But, as any former official can tell you, while this presumption may be reliable in everyday life, it plays into the hands of politicians who wish to mislead you.

All the smoke around the CFPB is designed purely for mirrors; there is no merit to any of the accusations. This is the first stage in a careful and orchestrated campaign to undermine and eventually destroy the agency, with the ultimate goal of allowing some irresponsible elements in the financial industry to go back to the disgusting ways of 2000-08.

The Ethonal Outrage!

You may remember last fall when I reported on a 6,000 mile trip through the midwest. One of the most striking things about that trip were the endless fields of corn in Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska where soybeans once grew. The fields were vast and reached to the horizon.

The magazine The Week puts a price on this utter foolishness. Here is what they say today.

"Do biofuels raise food prices? Without a doubt. Forty percent of the U.S. corn harvest--enough to feed 350 million people for a year--now goes into ethanol production, which has increased 33% since 2008. The resulting spike in corn prices has pushed up the worldwide cost of meat, milk, and replacement crops like wheat, and soy."

Got the picture? Remember that it is your money going into the subsidies for the insane growth of corn for ethnol.

Wow! Education Cuts Explained!!

After today's comments on inflation, I just read Paul Krugman's column today. He could not have underscored my concerns any more thoroughly.

February 27, 2011

Leaving Children Behind

Will 2011 be the year of fiscal austerity? At the federal level, it’s still not clear: Republicans are demanding draconian spending cuts, but we don’t yet know how far they’re willing to go in a showdown with President Obama. At the state and local level, however, there’s no doubt about it: big spending cuts are coming.

And who will bear the brunt of these cuts? America’s children.

Now, politicians — and especially, in my experience, conservative politicians — always claim to be deeply concerned about the nation’s children. Back during the 2000 campaign, then-candidate George W. Bush, touting the “Texas miracle” of dramatically lower dropout rates, declared that he wanted to be the “education president.” Today, advocates of big spending cuts often claim that their greatest concern is the burden of debt our children will face.

In practice, however, when advocates of lower spending get a chance to put their ideas into practice, the burden always seems to fall disproportionately on those very children they claim to hold so dear.

Consider, as a case in point, what’s happening in Texas, which more and more seems to be where America’s political future happens first.

Texas likes to portray itself as a model of small government, and indeed it is. Taxes are low, at least if you’re in the upper part of the income distribution (taxes on the bottom 40 percent of the population are actually above the national average). Government spending is also low. And to be fair, low taxes may be one reason for the state’s rapid population growth, although low housing prices are surely much more important.

But here’s the thing: While low spending may sound good in the abstract, what it amounts to in practice is low spending on children, who account directly or indirectly for a large part of government outlays at the state and local level.

And in low-tax, low-spending Texas, the kids are not all right. The high school graduation rate, at just 61.3 percent, puts Texas 43rd out of 50 in state rankings. Nationally, the state ranks fifth in child poverty; it leads in the percentage of children without health insurance. And only 78 percent of Texas children are in excellent or very good health, significantly below the national average.

But wait — how can graduation rates be so low when Texas had that education miracle back when former President Bush was governor? Well, a couple of years into his presidency the truth about that miracle came out: Texas school administrators achieved low reported dropout rates the old-fashioned way — they, ahem, got the numbers wrong.

It’s not a pretty picture; compassion aside, you have to wonder — and many business people in Texas do — how the state can prosper in the long run with a future work force blighted by childhood poverty, poor health and lack of education.

But things are about to get much worse.

A few months ago another Texas miracle went the way of that education miracle of the 1990s. For months, Gov. Rick Perry had boasted that his “tough conservative decisions” had kept the budget in surplus while allowing the state to weather the recession unscathed. But after Mr. Perry’s re-election, reality intruded — funny how that happens — and the state is now scrambling to close a huge budget gap. (By the way, given the current efforts to blame public-sector unions for state fiscal problems, it’s worth noting that the mess in Texas was achieved with an overwhelmingly nonunion work force.)

So how will that gap be closed? Given the already dire condition of Texas children, you might have expected the state’s leaders to focus the pain elsewhere. In particular, you might have expected high-income Texans, who pay much less in state and local taxes than the national average, to be asked to bear at least some of the burden.

But you’d be wrong. Tax increases have been ruled out of consideration; the gap will be closed solely through spending cuts. Medicaid, a program that is crucial to many of the state’s children, will take the biggest hit, with the Legislature proposing a funding cut of no less than 29 percent, including a reduction in the state’s already low payments to providers — raising fears that doctors will start refusing to see Medicaid patients. And education will also face steep cuts, with school administrators talking about as many as 100,000 layoffs.

The really striking thing about all this isn’t the cruelty — at this point you expect that — but the shortsightedness. What’s supposed to happen when today’s neglected children become tomorrow’s work force?

Anyway, the next time some self-proclaimed deficit hawk tells you how much he worries about the debt we’re leaving our children, remember what’s happening in Texas, a state whose slogan right now might as well be “Lose the future.”

Inflation Explained

In the past 18 months the Federal Reserve Bank has flooded the economy with newly printed bills.

Since our book, The Great Recession Conspiracy, was released in June, 2009, we have advanced the idea that since the Congress and the Cowardly Lion were unwilling to face the huge national debt, their only solution would be to inflate the debt away. Nothing I have seen so far changes any of that.

Now the rate of inflation is measured by changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), and that is a somewhat complicated process. The explanation below is one of the clearest I have seen.

Here are some very important points for you to pay attention to in this material.

1) The CPI % Change Graph. Look at the medical expense line. That is a perfect picture of the idea we have been seriously trying to raise, Medical Costs are on track to bankrupt the entire country. Since Congress won't let that happen, inflation is their only way out.

And remember that there is NOT one single thing in Obamacare to change the direction or rate of change to that line.

2) Spend some time with the college tuition graph. It illustrates two of my concerns. First, is the fact that our well being into the future depends on having a better educated work force than any other country. This graph says we "are eating our seed corn", and that is inexcusably stupid.

The second concern is that this graph illustrates how we are rapidly becoming a two tier country, the really rich and the rest of us. Very quickly, the richy richest will be the only people who can afford college for their children. Remember that in the last ten years, the top 10% income households have increase the size of the GNP that they get by FOUR times while the median income of the average American family has DECREASED in real terms. They get richer, we get poorer. I think that is what is the basic reason for what is happening in Egypt, Tunis, et al.

3) Look at the CPI & Core Inflation Chart. If your income has not increased 30% in the last ten years, your share of the American GNP (the pie we all share) has been falling.

Read on: What Inflation Means to You: Inside the Consumer Price Index
February 20, 2011 new update

Note from dshort: The charts below have been updated to include the latest Consumer Price Index news release for the January data.

The Fed justified the current round of quantitative easing "to promote a stronger pace of economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with its mandate" (full text). In effect, the Fed is trying to increase inflation, operating at the macro level. But what does an increase in inflation mean at the micro level — specifically to your household?

Let's do some analysis of the Consumer Price Index, the best known measure of inflation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) divides all expenditures into eight categories and assigns a relative size to each. The pie chart below illustrates the components of the Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers, the CPI-U, which I'll refer to hereafter as the CPI.

The slices are listed in the order used by the BLS in their tables, not the relative size. The first three follow the traditional order of urgency: food, shelter, and clothing. Transportation comes before Medical Care, and Recreation precedes lumped category of Education and Communication. Other Goods and Services refers to a bizarre grab-bag of odd fellows, including tobacco, cosmetics, financial services, and funeral expenses. For a complete breakdown and relative weights of all the subcategories of the eight categories, see table 3 in the BLS's monthly Consumer Price Index Detailed Report.

The chart below shows the cumulative percent change in price for each of the eight categories since 2000.

Not surprisingly, Medical Care has been the fastest growing category. At the opposite end, Apparel has actually been deflating since 2000. Another unique feature of Apparel is the obvious seasonal volatility of the contour.

Transportation is the other category with high volatility — much more dramatic and irregular than the seasonality of Apparel. Transportation includes a wide range of subcategories. The volatility is largely driven by the Motor Fuel subcategory. For example, the spike in gasoline above $4-a-gallon in 2008 is readily apparent in the chart.

The Ominous Shadow Category of Energy

The BLS does not lump energy costs into an expenditure category, but it does include energy subcategories in Housing in addition to the fuel subcategory in Transportation. Also, energy costs are indirectly reflected in expenditure changes for goods and services across the CPI.

The BLS does track Energy as a separate aggregate index, which in recent years has been assigned a relative importance of 8.553 out of 100. In other words, Uncle Sam calculates inflation on the assumption that energy in one form or another constitutes about 8.55% of total expenditures. The next chart overlays the highly volatile Energy aggregate on top of the eight expenditure categories. We can immediately see the impact of energy costs in the Transportation category.

The next chart will come as no surprise to families footing the bill for college tuition. Here I've separately plotted the College Tuition and Fees subcategory of the Education and Communication expenditure category. Note that the steady staircase in this cost matches the annual cost increases in late summer for each academic year.

Core Inflation

Economists and policy makers (e.g., the Federal Reserve) pay close attention to Core Inflation, which is the overall inflation rate excluding Food and Energy. Now this is a somewhat peculiar metric in that one of the exclusions, Energy, is an aggregate that combines specific pieces of two consumption categories: 1) Transportation fuels and 2) Housing fuels, gas, and electricity. The other, Food, is the major part of the Food and Beverage category. I should explain that "beverage" for the BLS means alcoholic beverages. So coffee and Coca Colas are excluded from Core Inflation, but Budweiser and Jack Daniels aren't.

The next chart shows us the annualized rate of change (solid lines) and the cumulative change (dotted lines) in CPI and Core CPI since 2000.

Consumers, especially those who've managed expenses over several years, are most closely attuned to the top line.

Inflation and Your Household

The universal response is to moan over price increases and take delight when prices are cheaper. But in reality, households vary dramatically in the impact that inflation has upon them. When gasoline prices skyrocket, a two-earner suburban family with long car commutes suffers far more than the metro family with short subway commutes. And remember, Uncle Sam excludes energy costs from Core Inflation.

Households with high medical costs are significantly more vulnerable than comparable households with low expenses in this category.

The BLS weights College Tuition and Fees at 1.493% of the total expenditures. But for households with college-bound children, the relentless growth of tuition and fees can cripple budgets. Often those costs get bundled into loans that saddle degree recipients with exorbitant debt burdens. Consider the following numbers from the website:

  • Public four-year colleges charge, on average, $7,605 per year in tuition and fees for in-state students. The average surcharge for full-time out-of-state students at these institutions is $11,990.

  • Private nonprofit four-year colleges charge, on average, $27,293 per year in tuition and fees.
Of course, Mr. Bernanke would point out that, with a healthy dose of Core Inflation, those debt-burdened college grads will pay down the loans with inflated dollars.

Which brings us back to the Fed's efforts to increase the level of Core Inflation. At the macro level, Mr. Bernanke and his Federal Reserve team can doubtless make a theoretical argument for playing puppet master with inflation. But will their efforts — ZIRP and Quantitative Easing — achieve the desired goal?

The one thing we can be certain about is this: An increase in inflation will have a painful effect on lower income households, those on fixed incomes, those with higher ratios of transportation costs, and any household whose discretionary spending is more dream than reality.

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Public vs Private Jobs

With all the blah, blah about over paid, over privileged public employees, you should know these facts.

1) When total government employees compensation is compared with total private employees compensation, public employees are paid more, no question.

2) When that comparison is done using educational equivalents, there is no real difference between public and private employees.

3) But when that comparison is done using education and experience combined, private employees are WAY ahead.

I don't think that analysis includes California Prison Guards. That band of legal criminals retire at 50 with retirement pay of $100,000+. Mind you this job requires a full high school diploma.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

I dont'mean to beat on you, but......................

I explained our education problem earlier. Now the Economic Collapse writer explains why even untalented teachers should avoid becoming teachers. Where do we go from here???

Become A Teacher? 10 Examples That Show Why Becoming A Teacher Is A Dead End In This Economy

Today budget cutters are on the rampage from coast to coast and often one of their first targets is public school teachers. What we have witnessed recently in Wisconsin is just one example of this. The truth is that you do not want to become a teacher if you want to have financial security in America today. Teacher salaries are being slashed from sea to shining sea. But to a certain extent the teachers that are having their wages cut are the fortunate ones. There are thousands upon thousands of teachers that have already been laid off, and there are tens of thousands more that are about to be laid off. It is absolutely brutal out there right now. So if you are thinking about becoming a teacher you might want to think twice. Not that there are a whole lot of other jobs that are more secure right now. The truth is that there is no such thing as a "safe job" in America today.

It is very unfortunate that what is going on right now is going to scare so many young people away from becoming a teacher because the next generation could definitely use some quality teachers.

But the truth is that it is getting really hard to honestly recommend that anyone become a teacher at this point. Just consider some of the following news stories that we have seen around the nation recently....

#1 In Providence, Rhode Island the school district plans to send out dismissal notices to every single one of its 1,926 teachers.

#2 Michigan has just approved a plan to shut down nearly half of the public schools in Detroit. Under the plan, 70 schools will be closed and 72 will continue operating.

#3 In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has laid off thousands of teachers and he cut a billion dollars from the state education budget.

#4 Bills in Wisconsin, Ohio, Tennessee, Indiana and Idaho would either significantly alter or completely take away the collective bargaining rights of public school teachers.

#5 The eyes of the whole country are on Wisconsin right now. Teachers there are very alarmed about the $900 million in cuts to school funding over the next two years that are being proposed.

#6 Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, recently said that his organization is projecting that 100,000 school employees in the state of Texas could lose their jobs.

#7 The current plan is for more than 4,500 New York City school teachers to be laid off after this current school years ends. This will be the most significant teacher layoffs in New York since the 1970s.

#8 In Los Angeles, more than 5,000 teachers will be receiving preliminary layoff notices due to budget cuts.

#9 Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval is being deeply criticized for the teacher pay cuts that he is proposing.

#10 is projecting that 161,000 teachers across the United States are in danger of losing their jobs this year alone.

So in light of the facts above, should we advise any of our young people to try to become a teacher?

The worst thing about all this for young teachers is that in many areas of the country there is a rule that says the last teachers hired are the first ones that get laid off.

That is another huge incentive for young people not to choose teaching as a profession.

So why are so many teacher layoffs happening?

Well, the truth is that most of our state and local governments are very deep in debt and have run out of money.

State and local government debt has reached at an all-time high of 22 percent of U.S. GDP, and hordes of state and local governments are teetering on the brink of insolvency at this point.

When there is no more money, the cuts have to come from somewhere. It is just really unfortunate that so many teachers are going to be put out onto the street.

People that have gone into the teaching profession have all spent a lot of time and money to get the education that they need to teach. If they are told that they can't do that anymore, what are they supposed to do?

Most of the time when teachers are forced out of the profession they end up having to take jobs that pay much less. In this economy, many ex-teachers will not be able to find jobs at all. Today, one out of every seven Americans is on food stamps, and sadly many teachers may soon be joining them.

So why don't we just raise taxes so that all of these teachers can keep their jobs? Well, the truth is that middle class Americans are already being taxed into oblivion. When you add up the dozens and dozens of different taxes that Americans pay each year the overall tax burden is absolutely frightening. There is only so much that you can squeeze out of the American people.

No, the truth is that the American people are taxed way too much already, and the big corporations and the ultra-wealthy have become experts at avoiding taxation. Our current tax system needs to be completely scrapped and replaced with something entirely new.

If our state and local governments had not been so addicted to debt, and if our economy had been managed correctly and if about a hundred other things had been done differently we would not be having these problems.

But here we are.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any easy answers.

This too good not to share

Today's Los Angeles Times has a story about Michele Obama working to improve the eating habits of children. If you have been reading this blog, you know this is something I would endorse and you know why.

The story reports on a unnamed radio right winger who is saying that the administration is killing American pedestrians by encouraging walking by adults.

Geezz...................who would thought!!

Be careful out there folks. A right wing radio host may run over you and then get out of the car and yell at you, "I warned you".

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Eveyrbody Walks!!

Biggest Fish Face Little Risk of Being Caught

So much for Angelo Mozilo taking the fall for the financial crisis.

Late last week, word leaked out that Mr. Mozilo, who had co-founded Countrywide Financial in 1969 — and, for nearly 40 years, presided over its astonishing rise and its equally astonishing fall — would not be prosecuted by the Justice Department. Not for insider trading. Not for failing to disclose to investors his private worries about subprime loans. Not for helping to create a culture at Countrywide in which mortgage originators were rewarded for pushing fraudulent loans on borrowers.

In its article about the Justice Department’s decision, The Los Angeles Times said prosecutors had concluded that Mr. Mozilo’s actions “did not amount to criminal wrongdoing.”

Just months earlier, the Justice Department concluded that Joe Cassano shouldn’t take the fall for the financial crisis either. Mr. Cassano, you’ll recall, is the former head of the financial products unit of the American International Group, a man whose enthusiasm for credit-default swaps led, pretty directly, to the need for a huge government bailout of A.I.G. There was a time when it appeared that there was no way the government would let Mr. Cassano walk. But it did.

And then there’s Richard Fuld, the man who presided over Lehman Brothers’ demise. Though he was the subject of an investigation shortly after the Lehman bankruptcy, it appears that prosecutors are moving on.

Most of the other Wall Street bigwigs whose firms took unconscionable risks — risks that nearly brought the global financial system to its knees — aren’t even on Justice’s radar screen. Nor has there been a single indictment against any top executive at a subprime lender.

The only two people on Wall Street to have been prosecuted for their roles in the crisis are a pair of minor Bear Stearns executives, Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, whose internal hedge fund, stuffed with triple-A mortgage-backed paper, collapsed in the summer of 2007, an event that anticipated the crisis. A jury acquitted them.

Two and a half years after the world’s financial system nearly collapsed, you’re entitled to wonder whether any of the highly paid executives who helped kindle the disaster will ever see jail time — like Michael Milken in the 1980s, or Jeffrey Skilling after the Enron disaster. Increasingly, the answer appears to be no. The harder question, though, is whether anybody should.

Aficionados of financial crises like to point to the savings-and-loan debacle of the 1980s as perhaps the high-water mark in prosecuting executives after a broad financial scandal. When the government loosened the rules for owning a thrift, the industry was taken over by aggressive entrepreneurs, far too many of whom made self-dealing loans using savings-and-loan deposits as their own personal piggy banks.

In time, nearly 1,000 savings and loans — a third of the industry — collapsed, costing the government billions. According to William K. Black, a former regulator who teaches law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, “There were over 1,000 felony convictions in major cases” involving executives of the thrifts. Solomon L. Wisenberg, a lawyer who writes for a blog on white collar crime, said, “The prosecutions were hugely successful.”

That is partly because the federal government threw enormous resources at those investigations. There were a dozen or more Justice Department task forces. Over 1,000 F.B.I. agents were involved. The government attitude was that it would do whatever it took to bring crooked bank executives to justice.

The executives howled that they were being unfairly persecuted, but the cases against them were often rooted in a simple concept: theft. And as prosecutors racked up victories in court, they became confident in their trial approach, and didn’t back away from taking on even the most well-connected thrift executives, like Charles Keating, who owned Lincoln Savings — and who eventually went to prison.

Today, Mr. Black says, the government doesn’t have nearly as many resources to pursue such cases. With the F.B.I. understandably focused on terrorism, there isn’t a lot of manpower left to dig into potential crimes that may have taken place during the financial crisis. Fewer than 150 of the bureau’s agents are assigned to mortgage fraud, for instance. Several lawyers who represent white collar defendants told me that outside of New York, there aren’t nearly enough prosecutors who understand the intricacies of financial crime and know how to prosecute it. It is a lot easier to prosecute people for old-fashioned crimes — robbery, assault, murder — than for financial crimes.

Which leads to another point: as Sheldon T. Zenner, a white collar criminal lawyer in Chicago, puts it, “These kinds of cases are extraordinarily difficult to make. They require lots of time and resources. You have some of the best, highest-paid and most sophisticated lawyers on the other side fighting you at every turn. You are climbing a really high mountain when you try to do one of these cases.”

Take, again, the one big case that prosecutors have brought, against Mr. Cioffi and Mr. Tannin. The Bear Stearns executives had written numerous e-mails expressing their fears and anxieties as the fund began to sink. Prosecutors viewed those e-mails as smoking guns, proof that the men had withheld important information from their investors. Thanks largely to those e-mails, prosecutors saw the case as a slam dunk.

But it wasn’t. For every e-mail the executives wrote predicting the worst, they would write another expressing their belief that everything would be O.K. Besides, expressing such fears publicly would have doomed the fund, because liquidity would have instantly vanished. Instead of viewing Mr. Cioffi and Mr. Tannin as crooks, the jury saw them as two men struggling to make the best of a difficult situation. By the time the trial was over, the e-mails, in their totality, made the defendants seem sympathetic rather than criminal.

It seems safe to say that the government’s failure to convict those two Bear Stearns executives has caused prosecutors to shy away from bringing other cases. After all, the case against Mr. Cioffi and Mr. Tannin was supposed to be the easy one. By contrast, a case against Angelo Mozilo would have been, from the start, a much harder one to win.

Although the Justice Department never filed charges against Mr. Mozilo, one can assume that its case would have been similar to the civil case brought earlier by the Securities and Exchange Commission. (On the eve of the trial date last fall, the S.E.C. blinked and settled with Mr. Mozilo.) One of the S.E.C.’s charges was insider trading — that Mr. Mozilo sold nearly $140 million worth of stock after he knew the company was in trouble. But the defense countered by pointing out that Mr. Mozilo was selling his stock under an automatic selling program that top corporate executives often use — thus mooting the insider trading accusation.

Like the Bear Stearns executives, Mr. Mozilo had written his share of e-mails expressing worries about some of Countrywide’s loan practices. He called one of Countrywide’s subprime products “the most dangerous product in existence, and there can be nothing more toxic.” The government argued that Mr. Mozilo had a legal obligation to share that information with investors.

But this case, too, would have been awfully difficult to make. Countrywide’s descent into subprime madness was hardly a secret. It made all sorts of crazy adjustable rate mortgages that required no documentation of income; its array of products was also well known and disclosed to investors. Indeed, Mr. Mozilo was quite vocal and public in saying that the housing market was due to fall, and fall hard. But he always assumed that whatever its losses, Countrywide was so strong that it would be one of the survivors and would feast on the carcasses of its former competitors. No internal e-mail he wrote contradicted that belief.

Was there outright fraud at Countrywide? Of course there was. That is a large part of the reason that Bank of America, which bought Countrywide in early 2008, has struggled so mightily with the legacy of all the Countrywide loans now on its books. But most of the fraudulent actions at Countrywide took place at the bottom of the food chain, at the mortgage origination level. It has been well-documented that mortgage brokers induced borrowers to take loans that they never understood, and often persuaded them to lie on their loan applications.

That kind of predatory lending is against the law — and it should be prosecuted. But going after small-time mortgage brokers isn’t nearly as satisfying as putting the big guy in jail, especially a big guy like Mr. Mozilo, who symbolizes to many Americans the excesses and wrongdoing embodied in the subprime lending mess. The problem is that Mr. Mozilo, though he helped create the culture that made such predatory lending acceptable, never made the fraudulent loans himself. Legally, if not morally, he’s off the hook.

A few days ago, I listened to a recording of a lengthy interview with Mr. Mozilo conducted by investigators working for the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and posted recently on the commission’s Web site. It was a remarkable performance; Mr. Mozilo expressed no regrets and no remorse. He extolled subprime loans as a way to allow lower-income Americans to get a piece of the American dream and “really build wealth” — just like people used to do during the housing bubble. He bragged that Countrywide, unlike the too-big-to-fail banks, never took a penny of government money. He said that Countrywide had helped put 25 million Americans in homes.

His voice rising passionately, he said finally, “Countrywide was one of the greatest companies in the history of this country.”

Which is a final reason Mr. Mozilo would have been difficult to prosecute. Delusion is an iron-clad defense.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Real Evidence of a Two Tier Society

I have been talking about the growing two tier society in the U.S. and what it can do to end democracy. If you think I have been blowing hot air, read this piece from the new edition of Rolling Stone.

Warning: Do not read this on an empty stomach!

Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?

Financial crooks brought down the world's economy — but the feds are doing more to protect them than to prosecute them

Illustration by Victor Juhasz

Over drinks at a bar on a dreary, snowy night in Washington this past month, a former Senate investigator laughed as he polished off his beer.

"Everything's fucked up, and nobody goes to jail," he said. "That's your whole story right there. Hell, you don't even have to write the rest of it. Just write that."

I put down my notebook. "Just that?"

"That's right," he said, signaling to the waitress for the check. "Everything's fucked up, and nobody goes to jail. You can end the piece right there."

Nobody goes to jail. This is the mantra of the financial-crisis era, one that saw virtually every major bank and financial company on Wall Street embroiled in obscene criminal scandals that impoverished millions and collectively destroyed hundreds of billions, in fact, trillions of dollars of the world's wealth — and nobody went to jail. Nobody, that is, except Bernie Madoff, a flamboyant and pathological celebrity con artist, whose victims happened to be other rich and famous people.

This article appears in the March 3, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and will appear in the online archive February 18.

The rest of them, all of them, got off. Not a single executive who ran the companies that cooked up and cashed in on the phony financial boom — an industrywide scam that involved the mass sale of mismarked, fraudulent mortgage-backed securities — has ever been convicted. Their names by now are familiar to even the most casual Middle American news consumer: companies like AIG, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley. Most of these firms were directly involved in elaborate fraud and theft. Lehman Brothers hid billions in loans from its investors. Bank of America lied about billions in bonuses. Goldman Sachs failed to tell clients how it put together the born-to-lose toxic mortgage deals it was selling. What's more, many of these companies had corporate chieftains whose actions cost investors billions — from AIG derivatives chief Joe Cassano, who assured investors they would not lose even "one dollar" just months before his unit imploded, to the $263 million in compensation that former Lehman chief Dick "The Gorilla" Fuld conveniently failed to disclose. Yet not one of them has faced time behind bars.

Invasion of the Home Snatchers

Instead, federal regulators and prosecutors have let the banks and finance companies that tried to burn the world economy to the ground get off with carefully orchestrated settlements — whitewash jobs that involve the firms paying pathetically small fines without even being required to admit wrongdoing. To add insult to injury, the people who actually committed the crimes almost never pay the fines themselves; banks caught defrauding their shareholders often use shareholder money to foot the tab of justice. "If the allegations in these settlements are true," says Jed Rakoff, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York, "it's management buying its way off cheap, from the pockets of their victims."

Taibblog: Commentary on politics and the economy by Matt Taibbi

To understand the significance of this, one has to think carefully about the efficacy of fines as a punishment for a defendant pool that includes the richest people on earth — people who simply get their companies to pay their fines for them. Conversely, one has to consider the powerful deterrent to further wrongdoing that the state is missing by not introducing this particular class of people to the experience of incarceration. "You put Lloyd Blankfein in pound-me-in-the-ass prison for one six-month term, and all this bullshit would stop, all over Wall Street," says a former congressional aide. "That's all it would take. Just once."

But that hasn't happened. Because the entire system set up to monitor and regulate Wall Street is fucked up.

Just ask the people who tried to do the right thing.

Wall Street's Naked Swindle

Here's how regulation of Wall Street is supposed to work. To begin with, there's a semigigantic list of public and quasi-public agencies ostensibly keeping their eyes on the economy, a dense alphabet soup of banking, insurance, S&L, securities and commodities regulators like the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), as well as supposedly "self-regulating organizations" like the New York Stock Exchange. All of these outfits, by law, can at least begin the process of catching and investigating financial criminals, though none of them has prosecutorial power.

The major federal agency on the Wall Street beat is the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC watches for violations like insider trading, and also deals with so-called "disclosure violations" — i.e., making sure that all the financial information that publicly traded companies are required to make public actually jibes with reality. But the SEC doesn't have prosecutorial power either, so in practice, when it looks like someone needs to go to jail, they refer the case to the Justice Department. And since the vast majority of crimes in the financial services industry take place in Lower Manhattan, cases referred by the SEC often end up in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. Thus, the two top cops on Wall Street are generally considered to be that U.S. attorney — a job that has been held by thunderous prosecutorial personae like Robert Morgenthau and Rudy Giuliani — and the SEC's director of enforcement.

The relationship between the SEC and the DOJ is necessarily close, even symbiotic. Since financial crime-fighting requires a high degree of financial expertise — and since the typical drug-and-terrorism-obsessed FBI agent can't balance his own checkbook, let alone tell a synthetic CDO from a credit default swap — the Justice Department ends up leaning heavily on the SEC's army of 1,100 number-crunching investigators to make their cases. In theory, it's a well-oiled, tag-team affair: Billionaire Wall Street Asshole commits fraud, the NYSE catches on and tips off the SEC, the SEC works the case and delivers it to Justice, and Justice perp-walks the Asshole out of Nobu, into a Crown Victoria and off to 36 months of push-ups, license-plate making and Salisbury steak.

That's the way it's supposed to work. But a veritable mountain of evidence indicates that when it comes to Wall Street, the justice system not only sucks at punishing financial criminals, it has actually evolved into a highly effective mechanism for protecting financial criminals. This institutional reality has absolutely nothing to do with politics or ideology — it takes place no matter who's in office or which party's in power. To understand how the machinery functions, you have to start back at least a decade ago, as case after case of financial malfeasance was pursued too slowly or not at all, fumbled by a government bureaucracy that too often is on a first-name basis with its targets. Indeed, the shocking pattern of nonenforcement with regard to Wall Street is so deeply ingrained in Washington that it raises a profound and difficult question about the very nature of our society: whether we have created a class of people whose misdeeds are no longer perceived as crimes, almost no matter what those misdeeds are. The SEC and the Justice Department have evolved into a bizarre species of social surgeon serving this nonjailable class, expert not at administering punishment and justice, but at finding and removing criminal responsibility from the bodies of the accused.

The systematic lack of regulation has left even the country's top regulators frustrated. Lynn Turner, a former chief accountant for the SEC, laughs darkly at the idea that the criminal justice system is broken when it comes to Wall Street. "I think you've got a wrong assumption — that we even have a law-enforcement agency when it comes to Wall Street," he says.

In the hierarchy of the SEC, the chief accountant plays a major role in working to pursue misleading and phony financial disclosures. Turner held the post a decade ago, when one of the most significant cases was swallowed up by the SEC bureaucracy. In the late 1990s, the agency had an open-and-shut case against the Rite Aid drugstore chain, which was using diabolical accounting tricks to cook their books. But instead of moving swiftly to crack down on such scams, the SEC shoved the case into the "deal with it later" file. "The Philadelphia office literally did nothing with the case for a year," Turner recalls. "Very much like the New York office with Madoff." The Rite Aid case dragged on for years — and by the time it was finished, similar accounting fiascoes at Enron and WorldCom had exploded into a full-blown financial crisis. The same was true for another SEC case that presaged the Enron disaster. The agency knew that appliance-maker Sunbeam was using the same kind of accounting scams to systematically hide losses from its investors. But in the end, the SEC's punishment for Sunbeam's CEO, Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap — widely regarded as one of the biggest assholes in the history of American finance — was a fine of $500,000. Dunlap's net worth at the time was an estimated $100 million. The SEC also barred Dunlap from ever running a public company again — forcing him to retire with a mere $99.5 million. Dunlap passed the time collecting royalties from his self-congratulatory memoir. Its title: Mean Business.

The pattern of inaction toward shady deals on Wall Street grew worse and worse after Turner left, with one slam-dunk case after another either languishing for years or disappearing altogether. Perhaps the most notorious example involved Gary Aguirre, an SEC investigator who was literally fired after he questioned the agency's failure to pursue an insider-trading case against John Mack, now the chairman of Morgan Stanley and one of America's most powerful bankers.

Aguirre joined the SEC in September 2004. Two days into his career as a financial investigator, he was asked to look into an insider-trading complaint against a hedge-fund megastar named Art Samberg. One day, with no advance research or discussion, Samberg had suddenly started buying up huge quantities of shares in a firm called Heller Financial. "It was as if Art Samberg woke up one morning and a voice from the heavens told him to start buying Heller," Aguirre recalls. "And he wasn't just buying shares — there were some days when he was trying to buy three times as many shares as were being traded that day." A few weeks later, Heller was bought by General Electric — and Samberg pocketed $18 million.

After some digging, Aguirre found himself focusing on one suspect as the likely source who had tipped Samberg off: John Mack, a close friend of Samberg's who had just stepped down as president of Morgan Stanley. At the time, Mack had been on Samberg's case to cut him into a deal involving a spinoff of the tech company Lucent — an investment that stood to make Mack a lot of money. "Mack is busting my chops" to give him a piece of the action, Samberg told an employee in an e-mail.

A week later, Mack flew to Switzerland to interview for a top job at Credit Suisse First Boston. Among the investment bank's clients, as it happened, was a firm called Heller Financial. We don't know for sure what Mack learned on his Swiss trip; years later, Mack would claim that he had thrown away his notes about the meetings. But we do know that as soon as Mack returned from the trip, on a Friday, he called up his buddy Samberg. The very next morning, Mack was cut into the Lucent deal — a favor that netted him more than $10 million. And as soon as the market reopened after the weekend, Samberg started buying every Heller share in sight, right before it was snapped up by GE — a suspiciously timed move that earned him the equivalent of Derek Jeter's annual salary for just a few minutes of work.

The deal looked like a classic case of insider trading. But in the summer of 2005, when Aguirre told his boss he planned to interview Mack, things started getting weird. His boss told him the case wasn't likely to fly, explaining that Mack had "powerful political connections." (The investment banker had been a fundraising "Ranger" for George Bush in 2004, and would go on to be a key backer of Hillary Clinton in 2008.)

Aguirre also started to feel pressure from Morgan Stanley, which was in the process of trying to rehire Mack as CEO. At first, Aguirre was contacted by the bank's regulatory liaison, Eric Dinallo, a former top aide to Eliot Spitzer. But it didn't take long for Morgan Stanley to work its way up the SEC chain of command. Within three days, another of the firm's lawyers, Mary Jo White, was on the phone with the SEC's director of enforcement. In a shocking move that was later singled out by Senate investigators, the director actually appeared to reassure White, dismissing the case against Mack as "smoke" rather than "fire." White, incidentally, was herself the former U.S. attorney of the Southern District of New York — one of the top cops on Wall Street.

Pause for a minute to take this in. Aguirre, an SEC foot soldier, is trying to interview a major Wall Street executive — not handcuff the guy or impound his yacht, mind you, just talk to him. In the course of doing so, he finds out that his target's firm is being represented not only by Eliot Spitzer's former top aide, but by the former U.S. attorney overseeing Wall Street, who is going four levels over his head to speak directly to the chief of the SEC's enforcement division — not Aguirre's boss, but his boss's boss's boss's boss. Mack himself, meanwhile, was being represented by Gary Lynch, a former SEC director of enforcement.

Aguirre didn't stand a chance. A month after he complained to his supervisors that he was being blocked from interviewing Mack, he was summarily fired, without notice. The case against Mack was immediately dropped: all depositions canceled, no further subpoenas issued. "It all happened so fast, I needed a seat belt," recalls Aguirre, who had just received a stellar performance review from his bosses. The SEC eventually paid Aguirre a settlement of $755,000 for wrongful dismissal.

Rather than going after Mack, the SEC started looking for someone else to blame for tipping off Samberg. (It was, Aguirre quips, "O.J.'s search for the real killers.") It wasn't until a year later that the agency finally got around to interviewing Mack, who denied any wrongdoing. The four-hour deposition took place on August 1st, 2006 — just days after the five-year statute of limitations on insider trading had expired in the case.

"At best, the picture shows extraordinarily lax enforcement by the SEC," Senate investigators would later conclude. "At worse, the picture is colored with overtones of a possible cover-up."

Episodes like this help explain why so many Wall Street executives felt emboldened to push the regulatory envelope during the mid-2000s. Over and over, even the most obvious cases of fraud and insider dealing got gummed up in the works, and high-ranking executives were almost never prosecuted for their crimes. In 2003, Freddie Mac coughed up $125 million after it was caught misreporting its earnings by $5 billion; nobody went to jail. In 2006, Fannie Mae was fined $400 million, but executives who had overseen phony accounting techniques to jack up their bonuses faced no criminal charges. That same year, AIG paid $1.6 billion after it was caught in a major accounting scandal that would indirectly lead to its collapse two years later, but no executives at the insurance giant were prosecuted.

All of this behavior set the stage for the crash of 2008, when Wall Street exploded in a raging Dresden of fraud and criminality. Yet the SEC and the Justice Department have shown almost no inclination to prosecute those most responsible for the catastrophe — even though they had insiders from the two firms whose implosions triggered the crisis, Lehman Brothers and AIG, who were more than willing to supply evidence against top executives.

In the case of Lehman Brothers, the SEC had a chance six months before the crash to move against Dick Fuld, a man recently named the worst CEO of all time by Portfolio magazine. A decade before the crash, a Lehman lawyer named Oliver Budde was going through the bank's proxy statements and noticed that it was using a loophole involving Restricted Stock Units to hide tens of millions of dollars of Fuld's compensation. Budde told his bosses that Lehman's use of RSUs was dicey at best, but they blew him off. "We're sorry about your concerns," they told him, "but we're doing it." Disturbed by such shady practices, the lawyer quit the firm in 2006.

Then, only a few months after Budde left Lehman, the SEC changed its rules to force companies to disclose exactly how much compensation in RSUs executives had coming to them. "The SEC was basically like, 'We're sick and tired of you people fucking around — we want a picture of what you're holding,'" Budde says. But instead of coming clean about eight separate RSUs that Fuld had hidden from investors, Lehman filed a proxy statement that was a masterpiece of cynical lawyering. On one page, a chart indicated that Fuld had been awarded $146 million in RSUs. But two pages later, a note in the fine print essentially stated that the chart did not contain the real number — which, it failed to mention, was actually $263 million more than the chart indicated. "They fucked around even more than they did before," Budde says. (The law firm that helped craft the fine print, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, would later receive a lucrative federal contract to serve as legal adviser to the TARP bailout.)

Budde decided to come forward. In April 2008, he wrote a detailed memo to the SEC about Lehman's history of hidden stocks. Shortly thereafter, he got a letter back that began, "Dear Sir or Madam." It was an automated e-response.

"They blew me off," Budde says.

Over the course of that summer, Budde tried to contact the SEC several more times, and was ignored each time. Finally, in the fateful week of September 15th, 2008, when Lehman Brothers cracked under the weight of its reckless bets on the subprime market and went into its final death spiral, Budde became seriously concerned. If the government tried to arrange for Lehman to be pawned off on another Wall Street firm, as it had done with Bear Stearns, the U.S. taxpayer might wind up footing the bill for a company with hundreds of millions of dollars in concealed compensation. So Budde again called the SEC, right in the middle of the crisis. "Look," he told regulators. "I gave you huge stuff. You really want to take a look at this."

But the feds once again blew him off. A young staff attorney contacted Budde, who once more provided the SEC with copies of all his memos. He never heard from the agency again.

"This was like a mini-Madoff," Budde says. "They had six solid months of warnings. They could have done something."

Three weeks later, Budde was shocked to see Fuld testifying before the House Government Oversight Committee and whining about how poor he was. "I got no severance, no golden parachute," Fuld moaned. When Rep. Henry Waxman, the committee's chairman, mentioned that he thought Fuld had earned more than $480 million, Fuld corrected him and said he believed it was only $310 million.

The true number, Budde calculated, was $529 million. He contacted a Senate investigator to talk about how Fuld had misled Congress, but he never got any response. Meanwhile, in a demonstration of the government's priorities, the Justice Department is proceeding full force with a prosecution of retired baseball player Roger Clemens for lying to Congress about getting a shot of steroids in his ass. "At least Roger didn't screw over the world," Budde says, shaking his head.

Fuld has denied any wrongdoing, but his hidden compensation was only a ripple in Lehman's raging tsunami of misdeeds. The investment bank used an absurd accounting trick called "Repo 105" transactions to conceal $50 billion in loans on the firm's balance sheet. (That's $50 billion, not million.) But more than a year after the use of the Repo 105s came to light, there have still been no indictments in the affair. While it's possible that charges may yet be filed, there are now rumors that the SEC and the Justice Department may take no action against Lehman. If that's true, and there's no prosecution in a case where there's such overwhelming evidence — and where the company is already dead, meaning it can't dump further losses on investors or taxpayers — then it might be time to assume the game is up. Failing to prosecute Fuld and Lehman would be tantamount to the state marching into Wall Street and waving the green flag on a new stealing season.

The most amazing noncase in the entire crash — the one that truly defies the most basic notion of justice when it comes to Wall Street supervillains — is the one involving AIG and Joe Cassano, the nebbishy Patient Zero of the financial crisis. As chief of AIGFP, the firm's financial products subsidiary, Cassano repeatedly made public statements in 2007 claiming that his portfolio of mortgage derivatives would suffer "no dollar of loss" — an almost comically obvious misrepresentation. "God couldn't manage a $60 billion real estate portfolio without a single dollar of loss," says Turner, the agency's former chief accountant. "If the SEC can't make a disclosure case against AIG, then they might as well close up shop."

As in the Lehman case, federal prosecutors not only had plenty of evidence against AIG — they also had an eyewitness to Cassano's actions who was prepared to tell all. As an accountant at AIGFP, Joseph St. Denis had a number of run-ins with Cassano during the summer of 2007. At the time, Cassano had already made nearly $500 billion worth of derivative bets that would ultimately blow up, destroy the world's largest insurance company, and trigger the largest government bailout of a single company in U.S. history. He made many fatal mistakes, but chief among them was engaging in contracts that required AIG to post billions of dollars in collateral if there was any downgrade to its credit rating.

St. Denis didn't know about those clauses in Cassano's contracts, since they had been written before he joined the firm. What he did know was that Cassano freaked out when St. Denis spoke with an accountant at the parent company, which was only just finding out about the time bomb Cassano had set. After St. Denis finished a conference call with the executive, Cassano suddenly burst into the room and began screaming at him for talking to the New York office. He then announced that St. Denis had been "deliberately excluded" from any valuations of the most toxic elements of the derivatives portfolio — thus preventing the accountant from doing his job. What St. Denis represented was transparency — and the last thing Cassano needed was transparency.

Another clue that something was amiss with AIGFP's portfolio came when Goldman Sachs demanded that the firm pay billions in collateral, per the terms of Cassano's deadly contracts. Such "collateral calls" happen all the time on Wall Street, but seldom against a seemingly solvent and friendly business partner like AIG. And when they do happen, they are rarely paid without a fight. So St. Denis was shocked when AIGFP agreed to fork over gobs of money to Goldman Sachs, even while it was still contesting the payments — an indication that something was seriously wrong at AIG. "When I found out about the collateral call, I literally had to sit down," St. Denis recalls. "I had to go home for the day."

After Cassano barred him from valuating the derivative deals, St. Denis had no choice but to resign. He got another job, and thought he was done with AIG. But a few months later, he learned that Cassano had held a conference call with investors in December 2007. During the call, AIGFP failed to disclose that it had posted $2 billion to Goldman Sachs following the collateral calls.

"Investors therefore did not know," the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission would later conclude, "that AIG's earnings were overstated by $3.6 billion."

"I remember thinking, 'Wow, they're just not telling people,'" St. Denis says. "I knew. I had been there. I knew they'd posted collateral."

A year later, after the crash, St. Denis wrote a letter about his experiences to the House Government Oversight Committee, which was looking into the AIG collapse. He also met with investigators for the government, which was preparing a criminal case against Cassano. But the case never went to court. Last May, the Justice Department confirmed that it would not file charges against executives at AIGFP. Cassano, who has denied any wrongdoing, was reportedly told he was no longer a target.

Shortly after that, Cassano strolled into Washington to testify before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. It was his first public appearance since the crash. He has not had to pay back a single cent out of the hundreds of millions of dollars he earned selling his insane pseudo-insurance policies on subprime mortgage deals. Now, out from under prosecution, he appeared before the FCIC and had the enormous balls to compliment his own business acumen, saying his atom-bomb swaps portfolio was, in retrospect, not that badly constructed. "I think the portfolios are withstanding the test of time," he said.

"They offered him an excellent opportunity to redeem himself," St. Denis jokes.

In the end, of course, it wasn't just the executives of Lehman and AIGFP who got passes. Virtually every one of the major players on Wall Street was similarly embroiled in scandal, yet their executives skated off into the sunset, uncharged and unfined. Goldman Sachs paid $550 million last year when it was caught defrauding investors with crappy mortgages, but no executive has been fined or jailed — not even Fabrice "Fabulous Fab" Tourre, Goldman's outrageous Euro-douche who gleefully e-mailed a pal about the "surreal" transactions in the middle of a meeting with the firm's victims. In a similar case, a sales executive at the German powerhouse Deutsche Bank got off on charges of insider trading; its general counsel at the time of the questionable deals, Robert Khuzami, now serves as director of enforcement for the SEC.

Another major firm, Bank of America, was caught hiding $5.8 billion in bonuses from shareholders as part of its takeover of Merrill Lynch. The SEC tried to let the bank off with a settlement of only $33 million, but Judge Jed Rakoff rejected the action as a "facade of enforcement." So the SEC quintupled the settlement — but it didn't require either Merrill or Bank of America to admit to wrongdoing. Unlike criminal trials, in which the facts of the crime are put on record for all to see, these Wall Street settlements almost never require the banks to make any factual disclosures, effectively burying the stories forever. "All this is done at the expense not only of the shareholders, but also of the truth," says Rakoff. Goldman, Deutsche, Merrill, Lehman, Bank of America ... who did we leave out? Oh, there's Citigroup, nailed for hiding some $40 billion in liabilities from investors. Last July, the SEC settled with Citi for $75 million. In a rare move, it also fined two Citi executives, former CFO Gary Crittenden and investor-relations chief Arthur Tildesley Jr. Their penalties, combined, came to a whopping $180,000.

Throughout the entire crisis, in fact, the government has taken exactly one serious swing of the bat against executives from a major bank, charging two guys from Bear Stearns with criminal fraud over a pair of toxic subprime hedge funds that blew up in 2007, destroying the company and robbing investors of $1.6 billion. Jurors had an e-mail between the defendants admitting that "there is simply no way for us to make money — ever" just three days before assuring investors that "there's no basis for thinking this is one big disaster." Yet the case still somehow ended in acquittal — and the Justice Department hasn't taken any of the big banks to court since.

All of which raises an obvious question: Why the hell not?

Gary Aguirre, the SEC investigator who lost his job when he drew the ire of Morgan Stanley, thinks he knows the answer.

Last year, Aguirre noticed that a conference on financial law enforcement was scheduled to be held at the Hilton in New York on November 12th. The list of attendees included 1,500 or so of the country's leading lawyers who represent Wall Street, as well as some of the government's top cops from both the SEC and the Justice Department.

Criminal justice, as it pertains to the Goldmans and Morgan Stanleys of the world, is not adversarial combat, with cops and crooks duking it out in interrogation rooms and courthouses. Instead, it's a cocktail party between friends and colleagues who from month to month and year to year are constantly switching sides and trading hats. At the Hilton conference, regulators and banker-lawyers rubbed elbows during a series of speeches and panel discussions, away from the rabble. "They were chummier in that environment," says Aguirre, who plunked down $2,200 to attend the conference.

Aguirre saw a lot of familiar faces at the conference, for a simple reason: Many of the SEC regulators he had worked with during his failed attempt to investigate John Mack had made a million-dollar pass through the Revolving Door, going to work for the very same firms they used to police. Aguirre didn't see Paul Berger, an associate director of enforcement who had rebuffed his attempts to interview Mack — maybe because Berger was tied up at his lucrative new job at Debevoise & Plimpton, the same law firm that Morgan Stanley employed to intervene in the Mack case. But he did see Mary Jo White, the former U.S. attorney, who was still at Debevoise & Plimpton. He also saw Linda Thomsen, the former SEC director of enforcement who had been so helpful to White. Thomsen had gone on to represent Wall Street as a partner at the prestigious firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell.

Two of the government's top cops were there as well: Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Robert Khuzami, the SEC's current director of enforcement. Bharara had been recommended for his post by Chuck Schumer, Wall Street's favorite senator. And both he and Khuzami had served with Mary Jo White at the U.S. attorney's office, before Mary Jo went on to become a partner at Debevoise. What's more, when Khuzami had served as general counsel for Deutsche Bank, he had been hired by none other than Dick Walker, who had been enforcement director at the SEC when it slow-rolled the pivotal fraud case against Rite Aid.

"It wasn't just one rotation of the revolving door," says Aguirre. "It just kept spinning. Every single person had rotated in and out of government and private service."

The Revolving Door isn't just a footnote in financial law enforcement; over the past decade, more than a dozen high-ranking SEC officials have gone on to lucrative jobs at Wall Street banks or white-shoe law firms, where partnerships are worth millions. That makes SEC officials like Paul Berger and Linda Thomsen the equivalent of college basketball stars waiting for their first NBA contract. Are you really going to give up a shot at the Knicks or the Lakers just to find out whether a Wall Street big shot like John Mack was guilty of insider trading? "You take one of these jobs," says Turner, the former chief accountant for the SEC, "and you're fit for life."

Fit — and happy. The banter between the speakers at the New York conference says everything you need to know about the level of chumminess and mutual admiration that exists between these supposed adversaries of the justice system. At one point in the conference, Mary Jo White introduced Bharara, her old pal from the U.S. attorney's office.

"I want to first say how pleased I am to be here," Bharara responded. Then, addressing White, he added, "You've spawned all of us. It's almost 11 years ago to the day that Mary Jo White called me and asked me if I would become an assistant U.S. attorney. So thank you, Dr. Frankenstein."

Next, addressing the crowd of high-priced lawyers from Wall Street, Bharara made an interesting joke. "I also want to take a moment to applaud the entire staff of the SEC for the really amazing things they have done over the past year," he said. "They've done a real service to the country, to the financial community, and not to mention a lot of your law practices."

Haw! The line drew snickers from the conference of millionaire lawyers. But the real fireworks came when Khuzami, the SEC's director of enforcement, talked about a new "cooperation initiative" the agency had recently unveiled, in which executives are being offered incentives to report fraud they have witnessed or committed. From now on, Khuzami said, when corporate lawyers like the ones he was addressing want to know if their Wall Street clients are going to be charged by the Justice Department before deciding whether to come forward, all they have to do is ask the SEC.

"We are going to try to get those individuals answers," Khuzami announced, as to "whether or not there is criminal interest in the case — so that defense counsel can have as much information as possible in deciding whether or not to choose to sign up their client."

Aguirre, listening in the crowd, couldn't believe Khuzami's brazenness. The SEC's enforcement director was saying, in essence, that firms like Goldman Sachs and AIG and Lehman Brothers will henceforth be able to get the SEC to act as a middleman between them and the Justice Department, negotiating fines as a way out of jail time. Khuzami was basically outlining a four-step system for banks and their executives to buy their way out of prison. "First, the SEC and Wall Street player make an agreement on a fine that the player will pay to the SEC," Aguirre says. "Then the Justice Department commits itself to pass, so that the player knows he's 'safe.' Third, the player pays the SEC — and fourth, the player gets a pass from the Justice Department."

When I ask a former federal prosecutor about the propriety of a sitting SEC director of enforcement talking out loud about helping corporate defendants "get answers" regarding the status of their criminal cases, he initially doesn't believe it. Then I send him a transcript of the comment. "I am very, very surprised by Khuzami's statement, which does seem to me to be contrary to past practice — and not a good thing," the former prosecutor says.

Earlier this month, when Sen. Chuck Grassley found out about Khuzami's comments, he sent the SEC a letter noting that the agency's own enforcement manual not only prohibits such "answer getting," it even bars the SEC from giving defendants the Justice Department's phone number. "Should counsel or the individual ask which criminal authorities they should contact," the manual reads, "staff should decline to answer, unless authorized by the relevant criminal authorities." Both the SEC and the Justice Department deny there is anything improper in their new policy of cooperation. "We collaborate with the SEC, but they do not consult with us when they resolve their cases," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer assured Congress in January. "They do that independently."

Around the same time that Breuer was testifying, however, a story broke that prior to the pathetically small settlement of $75 million that the SEC had arranged with Citigroup, Khuzami had ordered his staff to pursue lighter charges against the megabank's executives. According to a letter that was sent to Sen. Grassley's office, Khuzami had a "secret conversation, without telling the staff, with a prominent defense lawyer who is a good friend" of his and "who was counsel for the company." The unsigned letter, which appears to have come from an SEC investigator on the case, prompted the inspector general to launch an investigation into the charge.

All of this paints a disturbing picture of a closed and corrupt system, a timeless circle of friends that virtually guarantees a collegial approach to the policing of high finance. Even before the corruption starts, the state is crippled by economic reality: Since law enforcement on Wall Street requires serious intellectual firepower, the banks seize a huge advantage from the start by hiring away the top talent. Budde, the former Lehman lawyer, says it's well known that all the best legal minds go to the big corporate law firms, while the "bottom 20 percent go to the SEC." Which makes it tough for the agency to track devious legal machinations, like the scheme to hide $263 million of Dick Fuld's compensation.

"It's such a mismatch, it's not even funny," Budde says.

But even beyond that, the system is skewed by the irrepressible pull of riches and power. If talent rises in the SEC or the Justice Department, it sooner or later jumps ship for those fat NBA contracts. Or, conversely, graduates of the big corporate firms take sabbaticals from their rich lifestyles to slum it in government service for a year or two. Many of those appointments are inevitably hand-picked by lifelong stooges for Wall Street like Chuck Schumer, who has accepted $14.6 million in campaign contributions from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and other major players in the finance industry, along with their corporate lawyers.

As for President Obama, what is there to be said? Goldman Sachs was his number-one private campaign contributor. He put a Citigroup executive in charge of his economic transition team, and he just named an executive of JP Morgan Chase, the proud owner of $7.7 million in Chase stock, his new chief of staff. "The betrayal that this represents by Obama to everybody is just — we're not ready to believe it," says Budde, a classmate of the president from their Columbia days. "He's really fucking us over like that? Really? That's really a JP Morgan guy, really?"

Which is not to say that the Obama era has meant an end to law enforcement. On the contrary: In the past few years, the administration has allocated massive amounts of federal resources to catching wrongdoers — of a certain type. Last year, the government deported 393,000 people, at a cost of $5 billion. Since 2007, felony immigration prosecutions along the Mexican border have surged 77 percent; nonfelony prosecutions by 259 percent. In Ohio last month, a single mother was caught lying about where she lived to put her kids into a better school district; the judge in the case tried to sentence her to 10 days in jail for fraud, declaring that letting her go free would "demean the seriousness" of the offenses.

So there you have it. Illegal immigrants: 393,000. Lying moms: one. Bankers: zero. The math makes sense only because the politics are so obvious. You want to win elections, you bang on the jailable class. You build prisons and fill them with people for selling dime bags and stealing CD players. But for stealing a billion dollars? For fraud that puts a million people into foreclosure? Pass. It's not a crime. Prison is too harsh. Get them to say they're sorry, and move on. Oh, wait — let's not even make them say they're sorry. That's too mean; let's just give them a piece of paper with a government stamp on it, officially clearing them of the need to apologize, and make them pay a fine instead. But don't make them pay it out of their own pockets, and don't ask them to give back the money they stole. In fact, let them profit from their collective crimes, to the tune of a record $135 billion in pay and benefits last year. What's next? Taxpayer-funded massages for every Wall Street executive guilty of fraud?

The mental stumbling block, for most Americans, is that financial crimes don't feel real; you don't see the culprits waving guns in liquor stores or dragging coeds into bushes. But these frauds are worse than common robberies. They're crimes of intellectual choice, made by people who are already rich and who have every conceivable social advantage, acting on a simple, cynical calculation: Let's steal whatever we can, then dare the victims to find the juice to reclaim their money through a captive bureaucracy. They're attacking the very definition of property — which, after all, depends in part on a legal system that defends everyone's claims of ownership equally. When that definition becomes tenuous or conditional — when the state simply gives up on the notion of justice — this whole American Dream thing recedes even further from reality.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Facts About Social Security

I have been reading and listening to Doyle McManus for over twenty years now and he fits the definition "straight arrow" perfectly. You can trust him to lay out the facts about Social Security.

As you read Doyle's commentary below, pay particular attention to;

1) The size of the average Social Security check and then remember that for 10,600,000 Americans that is their ONLY source of income to live on. And Paul Ryan and John Boehner and other rich bastard Republicans want to take that trivial amount away from them. The great Republican fool from Wyoming, Alan Simpson, describes those 10,600,000 people as scum sucking on the teat of the country.

2) How removing the cap on Social Security ends the Social Security "problem" forever. So here is the choice; some rich rat bastard Wall Street banker gets to buy another top of the line Rolex watch, or some one's grandmother starves to death. Yes, it is just that simple.

As you can tell, this bunch of crap annoys me greatly. That the richest country in the world can let millions of its citizens live on the edge of starvation so that the top 1% of the population can buy another Porche and Rolex should outrage you too.


Social Security: Just the facts

The national pension plan is not in immediate trouble. But if major adjustments aren't made, funds will run short by the time today's 30-year-olds retire.

Doyle McManus

February 24, 2011


A reader from Manhattan Beach wrote last week to ask for help in understanding the heated debate over Social Security.

Is the national pension plan part of the federal deficit problem, or isn't it? Is the program heading for bankruptcy, or is it sound?

One side, retired attorney Arthur Armstrong noted in his e-mail, "asserts that we have a real problem, to which Social Security is a major contributor. But [the other side] states that there's no problem with Social Security. What's a citizen supposed to believe?"

A good question. As an issue, Social Security is a little like Israel: Different sides interpret the same information, and sometimes the same words, very differently. But here's a stab at laying out the unshaded facts.

Social Security hasn't been part of the federal deficit since 1984, the last time its finances were reformed. But it's still part of the federal government's overall fiscal problem, and, if major adjustments aren't made, Social Security funds will run short by the time today's 30-year-olds retire.

From 1984 until last year, Social Security collected more in taxes than it paid out in benefits, and that surplus — the Social Security trust fund — has been invested in federal bonds. (Some skeptics deride those as mere IOUs, but they're not much different from 10-year Treasury bills; the federal government has a legal obligation to pay them back.)

But last year, partly because of the recession and partly because a swell of baby boomers is starting to retire, Social Security collected less in taxes than it paid out. That will happen again this year and for every year in the foreseeable future, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office.

That doesn't mean Social Security is in immediate trouble. The program merely has to redeem some of the IOUs in its $2.5-trillion trust fund. But it's a problem for the federal government, which has to come up with that money from somewhere else — and at this point, that will mean new borrowing.

So, that's the short-term budget issue: Social Security is about to start calling in its markers from the federal government, which will put additional strain on the budget.

The long-term issue is that the Social Security trust fund — the sum of all those surpluses since 1984, plus interest — is projected to run out of money in 2037. That's not as long from now as it sounds; if you're 30, you'll be reaching retirement age of 67 about then.

What happens in 2037? If nothing is changed, Social Security will have to cut benefits by an estimated 22% to stay within the revenue it collects in payroll taxes. But nobody wants that to happen.

And that's where the debate comes back, as the Manhattan Beach reader correctly observed, to "political philosophy."

Liberal Democrats revere Social Security as the cornerstone of the social safety net, point out that benefits aren't overly generous (currently less than $13,000 a year on average), and say the problem could largely be solved by eliminating the income ceiling on Social Security taxes. (Currently, the tax is paid only on the first $106,800 a taxpayer earns in a year. Those who make more than that pay no Social Security tax on their additional earnings.)

Conservative Republicans hate the idea of increasing taxes, so they look for other ways to solve the problem — without, however, cutting benefits that retirees are receiving now, since that would be political suicide. Some, like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, have proposed an entirely new system for the next generation based on individual investment accounts instead of one big shared trust fund.

And, in the middle, a lot of politicians — including President Obama — are looking for some kind of compromise fix.

Their starting point, at the moment, is the report of Obama's debt commission, chaired by former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former Bill Clinton aide Erskine Bowles. Simpson and Bowles proposed raising the payroll tax on high-income earners, raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 (very gradually, over the next 65 years), adjusting the formula for cost-of-living increases in benefits and increasing benefits for low-income retirees.

Obama didn't endorse any of the Simpson-Bowles proposals, but he didn't reject any either. Instead, in his budget message, he called on Congress to "come together now, in bipartisan fashion, to strengthen Social Security for the future." Obama rejected "privatizing" the system or "slashing" future benefits, but other than that, he wrote, "all measures to strengthen solvency will be on the table."

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and others are working on a proposal that would take all of the debt commission's recommendations (not only those on Social Security) and write them into law. The idea would be to strike what Conrad has called a "grand bargain" to persuade Democrats to accept spending cuts they don't like and Republicans to accept tax increases they don't like.

But they're a long way from agreeing.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised liberal activists that Social Security would be "off the table," a comment that angered Republicans — although a Democratic aide noted that Reid actually said only that "privatizing or eliminating Social Security" should be off the table.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) wants to put Social Security on a side table. "We need to move on Social Security, but let's put it on a track that runs parallel but separate to deficit reduction."

Coburn and other Republicans say it's got to be on the table.

And privately, members of Congress on both sides say a compromise is reachable, but only if they act fast, before the presidential election season begins in earnest this fall.

Fixing Social Security, they say, is the easy part. You want a difficult problem? Try fixing the finances of Medicare. But that's for another column.