It’s widely known among tax professionals that the US does little in the way of tax enforcement, and the little that it does do is directed against individuals and small businesses.
What is not so widely known is how deep the institutional bias is in the IRS in favor of letting big corporate tax cheats get away with it.
Conventional wisdom is similar to the rationalization of weak enforcement at the SEC: that the agency is afraid that if they go after big companies, they’ll have the penalties and fines challenged in court, and they’ll often lose by virtue of being outgunned by better lawyer (yes, Virginia, even if you have a solid case, that doesn’t mean you’ll win at trial). And top tax litigators are among the most highly paid legal talent. I’m not up on current rates, but in the mid 1980s, Sumitomo Bank fought the IRS on a $100 million assessment and won. Their attorney was a solo practitioner who charged $1000 an hour.
It turns out that the picture is vastly worse than that.
Yves here. While investors remain fixed on how much more the Fed and the ECB will pump into financial assets via QE, Eurozone banks lumber on in their walking wounded state. Deflationary pressures and lousy growth grind down weak and even once-good borrowers. And it’s not as if the banks who lent to them in the first place were good shape themselves.
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the Fed’s hands off policy), and implementing the rules that shot holes through Glass Stegall before it was formally repealed in 1999.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.
ves here. The excuse that Deputy Attorney General Juan Cole offered for DoJ’s failure to prosecute financial fraud, that they were overmatched by “rocket science” isn’t just pathetic, it’s a flat out lie. I know people personally who were experts in mortgage backed securities and collateralized debt obligations who offered not just their expertise, but specific legal theories to state attorneys general, as well as members of the famed Mortgage Fraud Task Force and were ignored. Individuals with similar skills offered to train the SEC and were also turned down. The idea that prosecutors and regulators were up against complicated technology above their pay grade is a self-serving canard. They were repeatedly offered ways to get down the learning curve and rejected them.
Yves here. This post by Steven Horn about that shows the typical terms of an oil and gas rights lease for American Energy Partners buries the lead, in that Steve needs to give the context of how the lease came to be public before he turns to explaining how the lease rips off the party who signs it. Among other things, it requires the homeowner to have any mortgage made subordinate to the royalty agreement, something no lender will agree to. If the homeowner can’t get the subordination (a given), no royalties will be paid! As you’ll see, there are other “heads I win, tails you lose” terms in these agreement.
There’s nothing like seeing the good guys score a goal. We have two this evening. One is a win by David Sirota, whose reporting on San Francisco’s plan to shift up to 15% of retiree funds into hedge funds appears to have led to a climbdown by the city. Sirota uncovered an unreported conflict of interest by the consultant recommending the change, who also operates a hedge fund of funds. Admittedly, CalPERS’ recent announcement that it was exiting hedge funds entirely also put pressure on the city to reverse course.
But Gretchen Morgenson collected an even bigger scalp in the form of Blackstone halting a practice that she highlighted in a May article: that of taking “termination fees” when portfolio companies are sold. However, as we discuss later, as positive as this move appears, this is almost certainly Blackstone throwing a big, visible bone to investors in the hope of deterring an SEC enforcement action.
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.
Bill Black gives one of his best recaps ever of the “too big to jail” syndrome on Bill Moyers. For readers who missed the story, Black gave critical testimony in a Federal prosecution of small fry mortgage fraudsters. He helped persuaded the jury that in fact no fraud took place because the banks were willing to underwrite any predatory, poorly underwritten loan in the runup to the crisis. Black savages the posture of the Department of Justice in this case and in general.
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.