Yves here. This important post explains why Scott Alvarez, the general counsel of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, needs to be fired. His responses to the plaintiffs’ questions at the AIG bailout trial weren’t simply evasive; they reveal a deep, almost visceral, dedication to defending the very policies that nearly destroyed the world economy as well as a salvage operation that favored financial firms over the real economy. We have embedded the transcripts from the first three days of the AIG bailout trial, which cover Alvarez’s performance on the stand, at the end of this post.
Alvarez was brought to the Fed by Alan Greenspan. As a staff lawyer, he helped implement bank deregulation policies such as ending supervision of primary dealers in 1992, refusing to regulate derivatives in 1996 (I recall gasping out loud when I first read about the Fed’s hands off policy), and implementing the rules that shot holes through Glass Stegall before it was formally repealed in 1999. Among those measures was giving a commercial bank, Credit Suisse, waivers to take a 44% stake one of the biggest investment banks, First Boston, in 1988 and assume control in 1990.
Alvarez also has a poor record as far as representing broad public interest in his tenure as General Counsel, which started in 2004. The Fed did an even worse job than the bank-cronyistic Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in enforcing Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act, a law that put restrictions on high-cost mortgage lenders. The Fed was also one of the two major moving forces behind the disastrous Independent Foreclosure Review, an exercise that promised borrowers who were foreclosed on in 2009 and 2010. The result instead was a fee orgy by the supposedly independent consultants, capricious and inadequate payments to former homeowners, and virtually no disclosure of what was unearthed during the reviews.
ves here. VoxEU has come to serve as a wonky alternative to the Financial Times comments section, which is Brit-speak for op-eds. While most FT comments are at least interesting and timely, now and again the pink paper serves as a venue where real policy players put a stake in the ground, sometimes in exclusive interviews but also in opinion pieces.
This article by David Miles of the Bank of England is clearly intended to reach a wider audience than the normal VoxEU piece. In it, he calmly and methodically tries to tell finance people that what they want from central bank forward guidance is tantamount to having their cake and eating it. Admittedly, the unreasonable expectations for what forward guidance can accomplish is partly central bankers’ own creation. In keeping, this piece suggests that a retreat from efforts at precision in forward guidance would probably be a plus.
As we said in our companion post today on the AIG bailout trial, former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg may have a case after all. Mind you, we are not fans of Greenberg. But far too much of what happened during the crisis has been swept under the rug, in the interest of preserving the officialdom-flattering story that the way the bailouts were handled was necessary, or at least reasonable, and any errors were good faith mistakes, resulting from the enormity of the deluge.
Needless to say, the picture that emerges from the Greenberg camp, as presented in the “Corrected Plaintiff’s Proposed Findings of Fact,” filed in Federal Court on August 22, is radically different. I strongly urge readers, particularly those with transaction experience, to read the document, attached at the end, in full. It makes a surprisingly credible and detailed case that AIG’s board was muscled into a rescue that was punitive, when that was neither necessary nor warranted. And the tactics used to corner the board were remarkably heavy-handed.
If nothing else, the legal slugfest over whether the US government did former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg a dirty by imposing tough terms on the failed insurer and giving the kid gloves treatment to the teetering-on-the-brink banks who were certain to be engulfed by an AIG collapse will be highly entertaining. Ben Bernanke, Hank Greenberg, and Timothy Geithner are all scheduled to go on the stand next week, to be grilled by America’s top trial lawyer, David Boies.
Yves here. As much as we we’ve been vocal supporters of many of the initiatives of the Occupy Wall Street movement, such as the excellent work of Occupy the SEC, the impressive relief efforts of Occupy Sandy, the success of local Occupy Homes groups in combatting foreclosures, the many projects of the Alternative Banking Group (including both a book explaining the crisis and its 52 Shades of Greed card deck, and last but not least, Strike Debt’s Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual.
Yves here. The word “collapse” may seem overwrought when applied to Europe, but cold-blooded, clear eyed colleagues who have good connections and have spent a bit of time there recently say things that are broadly similar to Ilargi’s take. Despite the conventional wisdom that the cost of a Eurozone breakup is catastrophically high
and thus will never take place, that confidence may prove to be the currency union’s undoing. Ideological rigidity about austerity is leading to policies that are crushing large swathes of the population. And Europe, unlike the US, had enough of a tradition of popular revolt that that uprisings, either on the street or in the ballot box, are real possibilities, as the sudden rise of the anti-EU right shows.
My sources, who also read the foreign language press, say that political fracture is underway and the Eurozone leadership is not taking anything remotely resembling adequate measures to halt its progress. That does not mean upheaval is imminent. But the flip side is this sort of unraveling tends to progress not via an clearly discernible decay path, but through sudden state changes.
Yves here. Richard Vague has been kind enough to allow us to feature an extract from his recent book, The Next Economic Disaster: Why It’s Coming and How to Avoid It. I first met Richard several years ago at the Atlantic Economy Summit. If my memory serves me correctly, he was then taken with the conventional view that debt was a dampener to growth…meaning government debt. The issue of what caused our economic malaise and what to do about it troubled him enough to lead him to make his own study, and he has come to reject the neoliberal view that government debt is problem and must therefore be contained.
This view implies, as many readers have pointed out, that the great lost opportunity of the crisis was restructuring mortgage debt. That would also have allowed housing prices to reset to levels in line with consumer incomes. Vague also mentions a less-widely-commeneted on debt explosion prior to the crisis, that of business debt. One big contributor was an explosion in takeover debt for private equity transactions. Indeed, a lot of experts were concerned about a blowup due to the difficulty of refinancing these deals in the 2012-2014 time horizon. But ZIRP and QE produced enormous hunger among investors for any type of asset with non-trivial yield, so the Fed enabled the deal barons to refinance on the cheap.
Yves here. Martin Khor focuses on the alarm created by the ruling against Argentina that allowed a Paul Singer’s NML, a vulture fund with a small position in Argentina’s bonds, to vitiate a hard-fought bond restructuring. The particularly ugly part that don’t get the attention warranted is that it is widely believed that Singer took a much larger position in credit default swaps, meaning he was seeking to create and betting on an Argentine default. And another ugly wrinkle is the role of private law in these processes. ISDA, a private organization, determines what is an event of default for credit default swaps.
Singer was on the committee that voted whether Argentina was in default (recall it had made payment under the restructuring to the trustee, Bank of New York, but BONY was barred by the court from remitting payment to the bondholders). This gave him a direct say in an event in which he had a large economic interest. And that was no lucky accident.
Yves here. The American higher education system has been sucking more and more of the economic life out of the children that supposedly represent our best and brightest, the ones with intelligence and self-disipline to do well enough to be accepted at college.
But even though the press has given some attention to how young adults, and sometimes their hapless parent/grandparent co-signers, can wind up carrying huge millstones of debt, there’s been comparatively less focus on the for-profit segment of the market. While their students constitute only 13% of the total college population, they account for 31% of student loans. Why such a disproportionately high debt load? As this post explains, the for-profit colleges are master predators, seeking out vulnerable targets like single mothers who will do what they think it takes to set themselves up to land a middle class job. This is the new American lower-class version of P.T. Barnum’s “a sucker is born every minute.” These social aspirants are easy to exploit because they haven’t gotten the memo that the American Dream is dead.
A new article in Bloomberg gives a well-researched overview of a mess-in-the-making that regulators are choosing to ignore: the leveraged loan market. For newbies, “leveraged loans” means “risky loans to big companies”. For the most part, they fund private equity buyouts and restructurings. The juicy fees on these financings, 1% to 5% of the amount raised, versus an average of 1.3% for junk bonds, is a big reason why none of the incumbents is particularly eager to change a market that is working just fine for them in its current, creaky form.
Yves here. While it remains an open question as to whether frenzied efforts to push investors even further out on the risk limb will come to fruition, the fact that so many measures are underway looks like an officially-endorsed rerun of early 2007. If the Fed indeed raises rates in the not-insanely-distant future, getting into subprime and other speculative credits is a quick path to losses. But even if the Fed and other central banks remain super-dovish, risky borrowers can and will go tits up independent of interest rates. Credit risk is not the same as interest rate risk, but the inability to get any return for the latter is producing an extreme underpricing of the former.
Yves here. While the impetus for Steve Keen’s post is the ECB’s latest pretense that it can and is doing something to combat deflation, he provides an excellent and short debunking of two widespread misconceptions about money and banking. The first myth is the money multiplier and the second is that reserves are the basis for bank lending.
Finance and social justice are linked issues, but the tone of reader comments suggest readers increasingly see them as separate. But steering clear of the more technical coverage of banking, economics, and financial markets plays into the elite financiers’ hands.