Larry Summers appears to have a less than operational moral compass.
The former Treasury Secretary, now head of the National Economic Council (and presumed Fed chairman if Obama decides against recommending Bernanke for another term) was in the employ of hedge fund DE Shaw to the tune of $5 million for sixteen months while working with actively on Democratic economic policy, with the clear expectation that he would have a major role. In other words, Summers is already way too cozy with the financial services industry.
And now we have the latest, from Mark Amos (hat tip reader Marshall). I’ve put up some excerpts, and strongly recommend you read the entire piece.
Ames points out that a number of very big Wall Street firms made an unusual investment in a start-up, one Revolution Money, a “PayPal meets Mastercard” in the Steve Case “Revolution” sphere. Weirdly, the company says Summers was on the board, and Summers certainly was talking up to the media, but filings suggest otherwise. But while the exact nature of Summers’ relationship is unclear, he was certainly promoting the venture.
While Summers did terminate his relationship with the Revolution Money before the big players invested, fundraising and getting to closing documents is generally a lengthy process, so it is reasonable to surmise that Summers’ salesmanship and relationship with the company played a meaningful role in these banks’ decision to invest in a company with lousy performance, dubious prospects, and no obvious synergies. Amos notes the investees got off better in the stress tests than their brethren did. That may be happenstance, but it was reported that the stress tests were tougher on loans than on trading portfolios, and the investors in Revolution Money all had big capital markets operations.
The Ames piece is provocative, but it’s certain no explicit payoff was made. But the flip side is it is highly likely the banks invested to curry favor with Summers. Even if the only payoff was privileged access to him, that alone would be troubling,
Is Larry Summers taking kickbacks from the banks he’s bailing out?
Last month, a little-known company where Summers served on the board of directors received a $42 million investment from a group of investors, including three banks that Summers, Obama’s effective “economy czar,” has been doling out billions in bailout money to: Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley. The banks invested into the small startup company, Revolution Money, right at the time when Summers was administering the “stress test” to these same banks.
A month after they invested in Summers’ former company, all three banks came out of the stress test much better than anyone expected — thanks to the fact that the banks themselves were allowed to help decide how bad their problems were (Citigroup “negotiated” down its financial hole from $35 billion to $5.5 billion.)
The fact that the banks invested in the company just a few months after Summers resigned suggests the appearance of corruption, because it suggests to other firms that if you hire Larry Summers onto your board, large banks will want to invest as a favor to a politically-connected director…
According to filings obtained for this story, Summers first joined the board of directors of Revolution Money back in 2006 (when it was called “GratisCard…Revolution Money/GratisCard was a startup headed by former AOL chief Steve Case. Revolution Money billed itself as the Next Big Thing in online payment,…
In September 2007, Revolution Money announced that it had raised $50 million from a group of investors including Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank. Some found the investment strange even then, because normally big banks don’t get involved in seeding small startups — that’s the domain of venture capitalists, not mega-banks. Especially not in September, 2007, when these same megabanks were Chernobyling their way into full-fledged balance-sheet meltdown.
What seems clear is that at least part of Revolution Money’s success in raising funds is due to their star-studded board of directors — which included not only Larry Summers, but also the notorious Frank Raines, the former Fannie Mae chief whom Time Magazine named to its “25 People To Blame For The Financial Crisis” list. Raines is still a board member.
Over the next year and a half, Revolution Money didn’t quite live up to its promise of competing with PayPal or Visa/Mastercard. At least some of this could be attributed to the difficulty of starting up an online credit card company in the middle of a triple-cluster credit crunch, banking crisis and recession. But there is also evidence that the company wasn’t run well. Another one of Steve Case’s “Revolution” brand startups, “Revolution Health,” (which also features a star-studded board of directors including Carly Fiorina, Colin Powell, and several future-Obama Administration officials) essentially folded last autumn when it was sold to Everyday Health last September and merged into that company’s operations.
In spite of all of this, on April 6, 2009, Revolution Money announced the happy news: it had just successfully raised $42 million dollars in the most difficult market since the 1930s. The investors? Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley — bankrupt institutions that Larry Summers was transferring billions in bailout funds to.
At the very same time that these three megabanks were pouring millions into Summers’ former company, Obama’s economic team, starring Larry Summers, was subjecting these same banks to a “stress test” to decide how deep in shit these same banks really were. The banks wanted the government to fudge the results for obvious reasons — who wants the world to know how deep of a hole you’ve dug for yourself?
When the stress test results were finally released, the banks all came out with glowing reports that beat expectations and caused plenty of skepticism.
In an interview for this article, William Black, a former bank regulator who exposed the $160 billion Savings & Loan scandal and its ties to powerful U.S. Senators, remarked,“Summers wasn’t hired [by Revolution Money] for his expertise because he doesn’t have relevant expertise in this kind of credit card operation.”
“He’s not a techie. He doesn’t have business expertise,” Black said. “So this is solely someone hired for the name and contacts because he’s politically active and politically connected. And that’s made all the more clear by the fact that Frank Raines was put on the board at a time when he was pushed out in disgrace from Fannie Mae. Why? Because of his political connections.”
And it worked, as the recent investment shows.
“That’s the pattern of this entity,” said Black, “Which hasn’t been doing well financially and desperately needs to get money from others, and has been able to get money from banks at a time when [these same banks] largely stopped lending to productive enterprises. But with this politically-connected entity [Revolution Money], they’re happy to dump money.”
According to a company spokesperson, Summers resigned from the board of directors at Revolution Money this January, just three months before the banks invested. On one of Revolution Money’s main websites, Revolution Money Exchange, you could still see Summers’ name still listed as a director when this story was filed…
Whatever the case, Summers was pushing Revolution Money as recently as last September, in an interview with Portfolio magazine:
“I’ve enjoyed being involved with a number of smaller companies such as the Revolution Money venture….”..
His involvement wasn’t just incidental—if you look at the press releases, Larry Summers’ name is always touted as part of its selling point — one press release in 2007 refers to Summers as “Legendary.”
Moreover, Summers’ longtime chief of staff, Marne Levine, who also served as Summers’ chief of staff when he was in Treasury under Clinton and again at Harvard, joined Summers at Revolution Money, serving as “Director of Product Management.”
Black pointed out another sleazy aspect of Revolution Money’s pitch: it proudly boasted in late 2007 that it would make it easier than ever for people with low credit ratings to find access to lines of credit. In other words, Revolution Money billed itself as the ultimate ghetto loan shark.
According to a 2007 press release, the same one boasting of “Legendary” Larry Summers, “Unlike most bank credit card issuers who are limited to a narrow scope of credit approval guidelines specific to their bank, RevolutionCard seamlessly utilizes multiple partners to achieve unparalleled consumer approval rates.”
Nineteen months later, Larry Summers, now in control of the economy, told Meet The Press, “We need to do things to stop the marketing of credit in ways that addicts people to it and so that our households are again savings, and families are again preparing to send their kids to college, for their retirement and so forth.”
So once again, Larry Summers creates a problem that the rich profit from, then is put in charge of “fixing” it after vulnerable Americans have been picked clean.
Whether or not the three bailed-out banks’ investment in Revolution Money last month represents some kind of bribe or kickback or even the appearance of corruption is almost secondary, because the shameless cronyism is the problem, and this is the reason why America is in the horrible mess today.
“Polite society was supposed to impose social pressures to make sure this wasn’t tolerated,” Black said. “Like the old phrase about hogs being slaughtered. But now the hogs get even wealthier, even fatter.”