What would you call this? Socialized capitalism? Subsidized banking? I would call it a dismal example of crony capitalism, one that will haunt us for generations. Just ask the AIG executives getting their bonuses. How do you get the Federal Reserve and taxpayers to bail you out, the government take you over after you take the most egregious financial risks ever -- and still get rewarded for epic failure?
Never before has so much money been literally loaned or given away to prop up the largest, most powerful financial firms in the country. It is a gunless crime, but one that must be prosecuted and end the public careers of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Presidential advisor Larry Summers and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Rounding off at $13 trillion, the bailout is almost as much as the US annual gross domestic product. That's almost the sum of all goods and services produced in our country in a year's time. Since we're still the largest single economic force on the planet, that's a profane amount of money.
The personal economic impact is simple and tragic. Money that could've been spent fixing a school, bridge, highway, rail line or pothole in your community will not get there. The paltry $787 economic stimulus package -- approved a year ago by Congress and judged by many economists such as Paul Krugman to be too small to be effective -- mostly was designed to bolster the unemployed, Medicaid programs, education funding and seed (not even completely fund) some public works projects such as high-speed rail and the "smart" electrical grid. If Congress had somehow spent even one-tenth of that $13 trillion on public works, we wouldn't have general unemployment of 10 percent and youth unemployment of more than 20 percent.
Keep in mind that the government has been fudging jobless rates for years to exclude those who have dropped off the unemployment reports because they have given up or are doing part-time or contract work. The real jobless number is between 15 and 30 percent -- the highest rates in inner cities. Could the bailout money have been put to better use in gang prevention, building infrastructure, medical research, college grants and fixing decrepit schools? Is there any question about that?
So where did our most powerful financial regulators go wrong? Were the financial behemoths too big to fail or just too corrupting to be ignored?
If Congress had sought to bail out every American instead of giving away cash to financial brigands, it would've had much more overall societal value since the financial debacle depressed retirement account and home equity values by 20-percent to 50-percent. Imagine now trying to rely upon your home's nest egg for retirement funds. Almost half of US mortgages are under water -- the home is worth less than the mortgaged value. Through no fault of their own, these folks have really become renters, yet are still obligated to pay property taxes, do maintenance and pay interest on their debts. Not so with the luckiest and most favored corporations on the planet, who benefited from the actions of a handful of government officials while Main Street America got the rawest financial deal ever.
Geithner Involved Behind the Scenes
Geithner's complicity in this debacle for the American taxpayer starts with his role as one of the brokers of the bailout as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank (FRBNY) in 2008. His role is documented by Neil Barofsky in his audit and Jan. 27 testimony. Barofsky is the special inspector general of the TARP (trouble asset relief program), the main bailout legislation authorized by Congress in late 2008. This narrative is a bit difficult to follow because it involves so many transactions and billions of dollars.
The main thrust of the Barofsky findings is that Geithner orchestrated a bailout of not only AIG, the largest US insurance company, but many of its financial partners. What business does a branch of the nation's central bank have propping up an insurer? It's never been quite clear. The Fed is charged with regulating the banking system. Why was it buying toxic derivatives and covering losses for mammoth investment banks like Goldman Sachs, which, at the time, was not really even a regulated entity under the Fed's purview? These are questions for Congress and the Justice Department to seriously ponder as it must seek to recover the ill-gotten gains of the bailout. Note: It certainly didn't hurt that Geithner's chief deputy was a former Goldman executive.
Let's start with Geithner's role in this caper. What's amazing is that Geithner's NY Fed actually created a new program (the curiously titled "Maiden Lane") to bail out AIG and its various counterparties in its decimated credit-default swap portfolio. The initial logic behind the massive rescue of the company and its partners is that it would prevent the ruin of the Western financial system. Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson also signed onto this saga.
If AIG failed then Goldman and European banks like UBS could fail as well, because then they would be sitting on worthless promises (the swaps and debt bundles) based on highly degraded debt (mortgage securities). That was the thinking at the time. It's a matter of speculation whether those institutions would have gone down, but it was fairly certain that the investment community would have engaged in massive short-selling that would have also resulted in credit-rating reductions. Somebody got hornswoggled and it wasn’t Goldman.
If your "paper" is no good, meaning poorly rated by any of the compromised ratings agencies, you can't raise capital, or it costs too much. For an investment bank, that's a coup de grace. Witness what happened to Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers when "the Street" knew they were sitting on billions of worthless paper and default swap promises they couldn't back up with cash. That's one of the most pernicious dangers of an unregulated derivatives market. If they are not monitored by exchanges and backed by real money, they are gangrenous to the financial system. That's a battle for another day. By the way, you can thank Bill Clinton, Phil Gramm, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers for that deft yet disastrous bit of deregulation, circa 1999, which dismembered the strong Glass-Steagall Act of the New Deal.
The Goldman Goldmine
We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to give you this important public service announcement from Goldman Sachs to every level of government: "Thank you, thank you, oh thank you so much!"
As has been reported elsewhere, Goldman did fabulously during the bailout, so well that it actually expressed an institutional sense of guilt by switching its obscene government-subsidized cash bonuses to stock that couldn't be redeemed for five years.
Better yet, Goldman was the undisputed big winner that had been lucky even before the meltdown. The City of New York, cowed by Goldman's threat to walk away from its new headquarters building near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, doled out $49 million in job-grant, tax exemptions and energy discounts to Goldman. Wait, there's more. On top of that, the firm garnered an additional $66 million in benefits and managed to lower its financing costs by $175 million over 30 years, according to Bloomberg Markets magazine. Was Goldman some struggling little company financially challenged to stay in the Big Apple? The firm made a profit of roughly $11 billion last year.
Goldman, being the generous firm that it is, decided to share some of its wealth by earmarking $500 million "to provide education, capital and other forms of support to small business." How kind of them, considering that various agencies such as the FDIC provided Goldman debt guarantees of nearly $30 billion, a US Treasury cash infusion of $10 billion (Goldman has paid back $11.4 billion), and $13 billion for the bailout of AIG. The AIG cash infusion alone is estimated to have saved Goldman from about $10 billion in losses from toxic debt and default swaps.
For all of its sickening blather about trying to look virtuous and doing "God's work," Goldman is one of the most heavily subsidized firms on Wall Street. While many critics have suggested that the AIG bailout was really a lifeline to Goldman, nobody -- from Geithner to Bernanke -- has come clean about how lavishly the bailout engorged an already profitable Goldman, which actually bet against some of its clients before and during the meltdown.
The only bargain that could be identified in this sordid mess is that the firm got an astounding value for the paltry $31 million it spent in lobbying political parties since 1989. You can't find this deal at Wal-Mart, fellow Americans. Adding to its power base, Goldman also managed to have some swell friends in high places: Both Robert Rubin and Paulson came from Goldman to run the Treasury Dept. during key moments of the fleecing of the American taxpayer.
Better Than Vegas
Now let's get back to Geithner's curious relationship with Goldman. In effect, the NY Fed covered nearly all of the big, bad bets made by AIG and most of the high rollers in the unregulated and unbacked (by any regulated banking reserves) default-swap game. It was the equivalent of the government going to Las Vegas and saying that the worst gamblers would be completely covered without facing any losses -- along with "the house."
Here's what unfolded: the Fed decided to back AIG default swaps and those of their "counterparties," meaning banks all over the world on the other side of the bets. In Las Vegas, if you push all the chips to the middle of the table and lose everything on a bet, that's it. Unless you get more credit and more chips, you're done. The most the house is going to do is pay for your room and comp some meals -- and of course, more drinks.
A tough government negotiator would've said to AIG's counterparties, "you screwed up, but we don't want any trouble with Wall Street seeing what happened here and shorting you guys to hell, so we'll give you 20 cents on the dollar on this worthless stuff you're holding."
But the banks were much tougher players than cream-puff Geithner and told him they'd only accept 100% on what AIG owed them on the failed wagers. Geithner, it seems, didn't call their bluff and didn't press for "haircuts," meaning locking in losses and moving on. His staff recommended that they be paid 48 cents on the dollar, but Geithner wouldn't go for that. He told Congress that he wasn't really involved in all of this, anyway. Here's where Barofsky picks up the narrative:
"…the counterparties were effectively paid full face (par value) for the credit-default swaps, an amount far above their market value at the time…When asked by SIGTARP if the executives felt they had received their marching orders from Geithner, they responded, `yes, absolutely.'"
Goldman knew it was juggling a hornet's nest in its relationship with AIG. Yet is has never been fully disclosed how much it benefited when Geithner and the Fed came to their rescue.
Here's Janet Tavakoli, a Chicago derivatives expert (from a Jan. 28 Huffington Post piece):
"The first bailout of AIG occurred in September 2008 when the FRBNY extended an $85 billion credit line to AIG. By the September 2008 initial bailout, Goldman Sachs had extracted $7.5 billion in collateral from AIG, and other banks that bought Goldman's CDOs also extracted billions from AIG (click here for details). Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein claims he had no idea AIG had trouble producing collateral. I knew AIG was headed for grave trouble more than a year before the September 2008 bailout and raised the issue with both Warren Buffett and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. Goldman Sachs claims to be a superior risk manager, yet asks the public to believe that it was clueless about AIG's distress, even though Goldman itself was a key contributor to it. Then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was CEO of Goldman Sachs at the time it put on these trades with AIG. Lloyd Blankfein was (and remains) CEO of Goldman and was the only Wall Street CEO at one of Paulson's bailout discussions. Stephen Friedman, then Chairman of the NY Fed, also served on Goldman's board."
It would have been prudent -- for American taxpayers at least -- if the Fed had simply loaned some money short term to the bankers at high rates to help them through the credit-default liquidity crisis. But the Fed extended an $85 billion line of credit to AIG. Keep in mind that was in addition to the $40 billion provided to AIG under the Congressional TARP plan. Where did all of this money go? Simply to cover bad bets (a few bonuses) and make everyone at their little table whole! If the integrity of the financial system was preserved by this one act, it's hard to say. There's no doubt as to how taxpayers ultimately fared: They will lose at least $30 billion on the AIG deals alone, according to Barofsky.
Geithner’s role has also troubled Dennis Kucinich, who heads a subpanel of the House Oversight committee. When Kucinich was grilling Geithner last week, this is what he told him:
“There was only one way for Goldman Sachs to get all of the billions they claimed from AIG, and that was if the New York Fed voluntarily agreed to give it to them,” Kucinich said. “If the Fed had fought for taxpayers, Goldman would have had to take some losses and the cost to the people could have been minimized.”
Congress Still a Do-Nothing
Congress has done nothing to regulate credit swaps to date, which were huge gambles made on the housing market that were only backed by empty corporate promises. We let that dirty bomb tick away at our collective peril. The next debacle won't even resemble the Titanic. It will be like every supertanker in the world running aground and bursting open in every major port. It's a global marketplace and everything is connected in the world of money. The next meltdown will take no prisoners.
The bigger question is how Geithner was able to cut these awful deals for the Fed and taxpayers behind closed doors and away from the scrutiny of Congress and the public. This is yet another reason why the Fed should be fully audited and never be permitted to be the main regulator of the banking and credit system. It's too close to the game because it's in the game as referee, player and printing money to cover its bad decisions.
All of this pales in comparison to how the Fed bailed out all of the largest banks and their counterparties by making as many loans as possible, buying toxic debt and allowing bonus-paying goliaths like Goldman to borrow from the Fed's discount money window at almost no cost. There is still no accounting of exactly who received all of the Fed's largesse. Bloomberg News sued the Fed to get this information and won, although the decision is on appeal. The case will probably go to the Supreme Court, where the conservative majority may even rule against the public's right to know. Maybe they'll even have the nerve to call it a "trade secret," one of the often-abused blanket exemptions used in Freedom-of-Information Act denials.
The bottom line, no matter what your political orientation is, the Fed, Treasury and Congress have to be held accountable for the bailout. One way of addressing the deep-seated sickness of the financial system is to adopt Paul Volcker's tough regimen of reforms, regulate all derivatives and impose a permanent tax on speculative trades. Another regulator -- not the Fed -- needs to police systemic risk. The biggest banks need to be broken up and separated from their investment banking/trading divisions. Insurance companies and "non-bank banks" like GE and American Express also need an independent federal regulator.
There's something so morally repugnant about the bailout that it smells like year-old fish. If government officials were truly misled or complicit in a massive deception, let's get a special prosecutor involved. There were certainly many dense levels of conflict of interest with Paulson, and possibly Geithner's staff. Did Goldman dictate the terms of its indirect handout? What did Geithner know? Was the situation really that dire that it took trillions of dollars to fix without directly involving Congressional scrutiny? How is it that the megabanks -- JP Morgan Chase, Citi, Goldman -- got assets and books of business on the cheap and got bigger when they swallowed Merrill, Wachovia and Bear Stearns? We don't need a temporary inspector general on this case. We need a federal prosecutor. Is Patrick Fitzgerald available?
As Janet Tavakoli noted to me in an email:
"There should be a thorough fraud audit. That doesn’t mean one is accusing anyone of fraud, only that if fraud exists, the audit will be thorough enough to uncover it. It is prudent to do a thorough inspection of the way our TARP money is being handled. Barofsky’s assertion that he was misled (about the French banks, the “need” to pay 100 cents on the dollar, the need for redactions, and more) by the Fed when he wrote his November 2009 report is the same as admitting that he was not competent to handle his role. Barofsky’s report was a huge disappointment."
What would make little sense is for any banker to apologize. It’s like having a cheetah apologize for eating an antelope. Bankers make money with other people's cash, especially if it's just handed to them without any strings. That's what they do. It's pointless to parade them in front of Congressional committees for tongue lashings without any threat of indictment. I no more expect them to be contrite than I expect athletes to be role models or actors intellectuals. Banks are not in the social responsibility business, but they do owe a tremendous debt to society. They are not doing God's work.
Let's take the $1.7 trillion in writedowns banks took due to the debacle and call it blood money. To put that amount of money in perspective, $1.7 trillion is more than the individual 2009 GDPs of Brazil, India, Canada and Australia. The $13 trillion bailout tab is about as much as the combined GDP of Europe. Either amount would buy a lot of health care, high-speed rail, schools and college scholarships.
Bankers gamed the system and got away with it because the system was corrupted. They should not be able to walk away as if nothing happened. Millions are losing their homes because of their behavior. Millions have taken 20-percent-plus haircuts in their retirement funds.
Tax everyone who got Fed or TARP money, as President Obama has suggested. Have the proceeds deposited into a national trust fund to rebuild this country and restore jobs along with a prohibition against lobbying against meaningful financial reform (fie on the Supreme Court conservative majority).
In concert with curbing financial industry abuses, we need to demand the elimination of the filibuster rule (it's not in the constitution) and pass the Fair Elections Now Act. As long as corporate money has unlimited influence in Congress, public interest legislation is dead in the water.
And let's dispense with the idea that the bailout was designed to save jobs and fix the economy. President Obama needs to be honest about the core mission of the bailout: It was to save Goldman and the rest of the megabanks, which have failed the country and their shareholders. They are too big not to be dismembered.
Then there's the matter of Geithner, who completely compromised the interests of the people and must go. He'll eventually get his reward and he knows it. His outlandish banking favor means that Wall Street will pay it forward and bury him with untold riches somewhere down the road. But it was our money and future he was playing with; it shouldn't be paid forward, it should be paid back.
John F. Wasik is the author of The Audacity of Help (www.audacityofhelp.net) and 12 other books (www.johnwasik.com).
Sources: For Neil Barofsky's 1/26/2010 testimony and audit summary before Congress, see (http://www.sigtarp.gov/reports/testimony/2010/Testimony%20Jan%2027_2010_House%20Committee%20on%20Oversight%20and%20Government%20Reform.pdf).
The excellent piece in Bloomberg Markets "In Goldman We Trust:" http://www.bloomberg.com/news/marketsmag/ spells out Goldman's myriad subsidies.Also consult Janet Tavakoli's incisive piece in Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/janet-tavakoli/congress-exposes-potentia_b_440361.html