Today, Obama said to the banking industry, “We want our money back and we’re going to get it.”
Has he forgotten that possession is nine-tenths of the law?
While Uncle Sam is normally able to defeat such long odds, all bets are off with our “Speak moderately and carry no stick” President. The fact that Obama is finally, after months of open intransigence by the big capital markets firms, saying a few mildly critical words is supposed to signal a change of posture. But he is clearly begging: “I’d urge you to cover the costs of the rescue not by sticking it to your shareholders or your customers or your citizens but by rolling back bonuses.”
Hint: urging gets you nowhere with this crowd.
Obama has been repeatedly praised for his soaring rhetoric, and I simply do not get it. It’s pretty easy to sound grand if you aren’t dispensing ideas that challenge the status quo. We are supposed to take his way-too-little-too-late finger shaking at the banksters seriously. By contrast, consider this section of FDR’s first inaugural address:
….the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.
Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.
Yves here. Admittedly, it is much easier telling Americans that the pursuit of lucre is a false god when most of the country is broke. But more is that FDR from the very outset set himself up as an opponent of rule by the banking classes. He depicts them as failures and calls them unscrupulous and selfish. By contrast, have were ever heard Obama even hint that bankers were less than ethical? Let’s see, last December, he called them “fat cats“! Ah yes, of course, everyone knows a cat will steal a sardine if you aren’t watching. Yeah, that Obama sure knows how to dress those bankers down!
As we discussed at greater length earlier this week, this new “get our money back” idea is pure three card Monte. Put the spotlight on the TARP so everyone will ignore all the other massive subsidies that the banks have gotten, continue to receive, and are abusing. Those who claim many banks have “paid back the TARP” are missing (more likely choosing to obfuscate) the point: the TARP calculus grossly understates of the gives and the gets here (although as we have said before and will say again, Obama’s focus on the TARP is pure political expediency).
The point of all these covert subsidies is to rebuild bank balance sheets through extra-Congressional processes. Post the hard fought battle to pass the TARP, and the fully deserved anger that dishonest process created, it would be hard to get another set of bank rescues passed, unless Team Obama had been willing to resolve the sickest ones (and they seem to react to hearing the “s” word, socialism, like a vampire reacts to garlic, so that was never going to happen).
Now in the S&L crisis, the US not only had funds allocated to winding down sick banks (and Congress was in fits over the allocation of working capital to the Resolution Trust Corporation) but it also had a stealth recapitalization program, namely Greenspan’s engineering of a very steep yield curve. As a result, banks sported much better earnings than anticipated and rebuilt their balance sheets. But this time, the Fed supports are far less covert (kinda hard to miss the ballooning of its balance sheet) and the banks are being pigs and undermining the purpose of this operation by skimming way too much off in employee pay. But it certainly appears no one has called the bankers into a private meeting and threatened them (and the regulators do hold the whip hand, even if they have been brainwashed into not recognizing that). Bernanke seems unable to see how his whole market manipulation program has been repurposed by the industry into welfare for the rich.
Merely paying back the TARP is grossly inadequate given the risks involved. As Roger Ehrenberg pointed out last summer:
The US taxpayer has been systematically looted out of hundreds of billions of dollars….Goldman Sachs is posting record earnings and will invariably be preparing to pay record bonuses, not nine months after the firm was in mortal danger? Whether anyone will admit it or not, without the AIG (read: Wall Street and European bank) bail-out and the FDIC issuance guarantees, neither Goldman nor any other bulge bracket firm lacking stable base of core deposits would be alive and breathing today.
Goldman….stood with the rest of Wall Street as a firm with longer-dated, less liquid assets funded with extremely short-dated liabilities….In exchange for giving the firm life (TARP, FDIC guarantees, synthetic bail-out via AIG, etc.), the US Treasury (and the US taxpayer by extension) got some warrants on $10 billion of TARP capital injected into the firm….. Lloyd Blankfein smartly paid the full $1.1 billion requested. He looked like a hero for doing so, a true US patriot repaying the US Government in full for its lifeline, thanking the US taxpayer in the process. $1.1 billion… $1.1 billion…Hmm…something doesn’t seem right. You know why it doesn’t seem right? BECAUSE THE US TREASURY MIS-PRICED THE FREAKING OPTION.
There is not a Wall Street derivatives trader on the planet that would have done the US Government deal on an arms-length basis. Nothing remotely close. Goldman’s equity could have done a digital, dis-continuous move towards zero if it couldn’t finance its balance sheet overnight. Remember Bear Stearns? Lehman Brothers? These things happened. Goldman, though clearly a stronger institution, was facing a crisis of confidence that pervaded the market. Lenders weren’t discriminating back in November 2008. If you didn’t have term credit, you certainly weren’t getting any new lines or getting any rolls, either. So what is the cost of an option to insure a $1 trillion balance sheet and hundreds of billions in off-balance sheet liabilities teetering on the brink? Let’s just say that it is a tad north of $1.1 billion in premium. And the $10 billion TARP figure? It’s a joke. Take into account the AIG payments, the FDIC guarantees and the value of the markets knowing that the US Government won’t let you go down under any circumstances. $1.1 billion in option premium? How about 20x that, perhaps more. But no, this is not the way it went down….
More important, despite the firms’ claims otherwise, >they are now effectively backstopped by the government, and they know it. They should be paying insurance premiums, NOW, hefty ones, for being beneficiaries of the “No more Lehmans” policy. But there is no desire for anything remotely resembling a full accounting from the crew in the Administration.