Readers new to this site may be unfamiliar with our summer reruns, in which we reprise vintage NC posts that we think have stood the test of time pretty well.
We’ve done these more or less in chronological order (our last one was our post on the unveiling of the TARP), but we decided to skip ahead to one in 2010 because it focuses on a crucial bit of history that is too often overlooked, and were were reminded of it by a very good Frank Rich piece in New York Magazine on Obama’s failure to bring bankers to account.
Even Rich’s solid piece treats Obama more kindly that he should be. He depicts the President as too easily won over by “the best and the brightest) in the guise of folks like Robert Rubin and his protege Timothy Geithner.
We think this characterization is far too charitable. Obama had a window in time in which he could have acted, decisively, to rein the financial services in, and he and his aides chose to let it pass and throw their lot in with the banksters. That fatal decision has severely constrained their freedom of action, as we explain below.
This post first appeared on March 10, 2010
I’ve seldom seen so much rubbish written by people who ought to know better in a single day. Many critical thinkers have heaped the scorn and incredulity on three articles, one a piece on Rahm Emanuel slotted to run in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, another an artfully packed laudatory piece on Timothy Geithner by John Cassidy in the New Yorker and a more even handed looking one (I stress “looking”) in the Atlantic.
The main feature of the plan, of course, was – following the stress tests – to communicate effectively that there was a government guarantee behind every major bank or quasi-bank in the United States. Of course this works in the short-term – investors like such guarantees. But there’s a good reason we usually don’t guarantee all financial institutions – or act happy when other countries do the same. Unconditional bailouts lead to trouble, encouraging reckless risk-taking and undermining responsible governance. You can’t run any form of reasonable market system when some big players hold “get out of bankruptcy free” cards.
Banking expert Chris Whalen was so disturbed by the numerous distortions in the New Yorker piece that he had already fired off a long letter to the editor by the time I pinged him, with these starting paragraphs:
Jack Cassidy tells us that “Timothy Geithner’s financial plan is working—and making him very unpopular.” Unfortunately this is completely wrong. Cassidy’s comment just illustrates why the New Yorker has fallen into such obscurity, namely because it is more Vanity Fair than its vivacious sibling and unable to perform critical journalism.
In fact, the banking system is continuing to sink under bad loans and even worse securities losses. Telling the public that the banks are “fixed” is irresponsible. Unfortunately this false perception is widespread, including among major media such as CNBC and also with a number of my clients in the hedge fund world.
And from Marshall Auerback, who had a ringside view of the aftermath of the Japanese bubble:
Cassidy’s article brings to mind a retort by Chou En Lai when he was asked about the success of the French Revolution. He said, “It’s too early to tell”. Yet here we have John Cassidy from the New Yorker and Joshua Green from The Atlantic both making the assumption that the Geithner plan “worked”. This whole line about “taxpayers to recover bailout money” is based on an accounting fraud, because accounting abuses are the primary means by which TARP recipients have repaid bailout money — putting us at greater risk. That may seem paradoxical, but the rush to repay is driven by a desire to have unrestrained executive bonuses (a very bad thing associated with far greater accounting fraud and failures — requiring future, larger taxpayer bailouts) and accounting abuses produce the (fictional) ability to repay the United States (primarily by failing to recognize existing losses). The TARP recipients weakened their financial condition, and increased moral hazard, when they rushed to repay the TARP funds. Both factors increase the risk of making more expensive future bailouts more likely.
Yves here. The reason that people who can discern clearly what is afoot are so deeply disturbed is simple, and all the comments touch on it. The campaign to defend Geithner and Emanuel, both architects of the administration’s finance friendly policies has gone beyond what most people would see as spin into such an aggressive effort to manipulate popular perceptions that it is not a stretch to call it propaganda.
This strategy, of relying on propaganda to mask their true intent, has become inevitable, given the strategic corner the Obama Adminstration has painted itself in. And this campaign has become increasingly desperate as the inconsistency between the Adminsitration’s “product positioning” and observable reality becomes increasingly evident.
Recall how we got here. Early in 2009, the banking industry was on the ropes. Both the stock and the credit default swaps markets said that many of the big players were at serious risk of failure. Commentators debated whether to nationalize Citibank, Bank of America, and other large, floundering institutions.
The case for bold action was sound. The history of financial crises showed that the least costly approach is to resolve mortally wounded organizations, install new management, set strict guidelines, and separate out the bad loans and investments in order to restructure and sell them. An IMF study of 124 banking crises concluded that regulatory forbearance, the term of art for letting impaired banks soldier on, found:
The typical result of forbearance is a deeper hole in the net worth of banks, crippling tax burdens to finance bank bailouts, and even more severe credit supply contraction and economic decline than would have occurred…
Shuttering sick banks is hardly a radical idea; the FDIC does it on a routine basis. So the difference here was not in the nature of the exercise, but its operational complexity.
This juncture was a crucial window of opportunity. The financial services industry had become systematically predatory. Its victims now extended well beyond precarious, clueless, and sometimes undisciplined consumers who took on too much debt via credit cards with gotcha features that successfully enticed into a treadmill of chronic debt, or now infamous subprime and option-ARM mortgages.
Over twenty years of malfeasance, from the savings and loan crisis (where fraud was a leading cause of bank failures) to a catastrophic set of blow-ups in over the counter derivatives in 1994, which produced total losses of $1.5 trillion, the biggest wipeout since the 1929 crash, through a 1990s subprime meltdown, dot com chicanery, Enron and other accounting scandals, and now the global financial crisis, the industry each time had been able to beat neuter meaningful reform. But this time, the scale of the damage was so great that it extended beyond investors to hapless bystanders, ordinary citizens who were also paying via their taxes and job losses. And unlike the past, where news of financial blow-ups was largely confined to the business section, the public could not miss the scale of the damage and how it came about, and was outraged.
The widespread, vocal opposition to the TARP was evidence that a once complacent populace had been roused. Reform, if proposed with energy and confidence, wasn’t a risk; not only was it badly needed, it was just what voters wanted.
But incoming president Obama failed to act. Whether he failed to see the opportunity, didn’t understand it, or was simply not interested is moot. Rather than bring vested banking interests to heel, the Obama administration instead chose to reconstitute, as much as possible, the very same industry whose reckless pursuit of profit had thrown the world economy off the cliff. There would be no Nixon goes to China moment from the architects of the policies that created the crisis, namely Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and Director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers.
Defenders of the administration no doubt will content that the public was not ready for measures like the putting large banks like Citigroup into receivership. Even if that were true (and the current widespread outrage against banks says otherwise), that view assumes that the executive branch is a mere spectator, when it has the most powerful bully pulpit in the nation. Other leaders have taken unpopular moves and still maintained public support.
Obama’s repudiation of his campaign promise of change, by turning his back on meaningful reform of the financial services industry, in turn locked his Administration into a course of action. The new administration would have no choice other that working fist in glove with the banksters, supporting and amplifying their own, well established, propaganda efforts.
Thus Obama’s incentives are to come up with “solutions” that paper over problems, avoid meaningful conflict with the industry, minimize complaints, and restore the old practice of using leverage and investment gains to cover up stagnation in worker incomes. Potemkin reforms dovetail with the financial service industry’s goal of forestalling any measures that would interfere with its looting. So the only problem with this picture was how to fool the now-impoverished public into thinking a program of Mussolini-style corporatism represented progress.
How did the Administration and financial services message control teams work together?
The first was the refusal to consider investigations of any kind. Obama is widely reported to have studied the early days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration for inspiration; it would be impossible for him to miss the dramatic steps FDR took, including supporting the continuation of a Senate Banking Committee investigation into the misdeeds of the Roaring Twenties, the Pecora Commission. The Pecora Commission not only kept the bankers on the defensive, but it also did the forensic work into the abuses. It was critical to bring the nefarious practices to light to devise durable and lasting reforms.
Why were there no inquiries into how the firms that needed bailouts got themselves into a mess? This was an obvious and comparatively easy avenue of inquiry which would make a great deal of useful background accessible and identified issues for further examination. For instance, after the rescue of UBS, the Swiss Federal Banking Commission required UBS to provide an extensive report of what went wrong, and also had the bank make considerable portions of that information public, via a special report to its shareholders. Yet no US firm has been asked to make any explanation of how it managed its affairs so badly as to require extensive public support to keep from failing.
The choice here was obvious. A refusal to investigate was tantamount to a refusal to reform. A good understanding of what had happened was essential, not merely to develop sound new rules, but also to keep the industry from muddying the waters, which would be easy to do, given how complex and opaque many of the products are
More compelling evidence of the Administration’s lack of interest in reining in the money-changers came via Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s first presentation on his reform plan, which was more accurately a plan to have a plan. It was widely criticized for its sketchiness, but most observers missed the true significance. Had the Obama transition team done any serious thinking about the financial crisis? Obviously not, because you don’t need to think too hard if the game plan is to go back to business as usual to the extent possible. Geither’s presentation came nearly three weeks after Obama was sworn in, and all its initiatives were Bush/Paulson wine in new bottles: a new go at the failed idea of having the government overpay for bad bank assets; “stress tests” to put more discipline around the process of handing out TARP funds to the needy; and a mortgage modification program which pretended to be able to square the circle of saving borrowers without taking on investors in mortgage securitizations.
Geithner’s not-much-of-a-plan exemplified the second tool in the Obama campaign to sell doing as little as possible to the financiers: the Theory of Positive Thinking.
That notion has a proud tradition in America and was much in evidence in the run-up to the crisis. It promises that the economy will be fine as long as everyone thinks happy thoughts about it. For instance, I noted in a March 2007 blog post that while the tone of the Financial Times as of March 2007 had become generally grim, the US had become a Tinkerbell market, where valuations are held aloft by faith, and participants conspire to stoke true belief. And as the crisis wore on, other magical personages intervened. As a hedge fund manager who writes as Augustus Melmotte noted,
The market responded with enthusiasm to reports that the Tooth Fairy has agreed to acquire Lehman. The purchase price has not yet been determined and will be set by Dick Fuld wishing upon a star, clicking his heels three times, and being transported back to that magical place where Lehman still sells for over $70 per share….. Meanwhile, the SEC has announced an investigation of mean, evil, bad short-seller David Einhorn. …. Einhorn reportedly suggested that the Tooth Fairy does not exist and that wishing upon a star is not a wholly reliable price discovery mechanism. Christopher Cox, chairman of the SEC, said, “Vicious rumors attacking the Tooth Fairy will not be tolerated. Our entire financial system and indeed the American way of life depend on the Tooth Fairy and wishing upon a star…” The SEC is reportedly planning to set up re-education camps for short-sellers.
Remember that the US has an entire cable channel devoted to the Theory of Positive Thinking, namely CNBC, and a goodly portion of the financial media falls into CNBC-style cheerleading with more than occasional abandon.
Now it is true that this idea has a kernel of truth. John Maynard Keynes attributed the Depression to a change in investor “liquidity preferences,” which meant they had suddenly become very risk averse and preferred to hold cash until they felt conditions had improved, with devastating consequences for economic activity. Uncertainty can morph into a self-reinforcing downcycle. But it is one thing to use confidence boosting as a tool, quite another to regard it as a magic bullet. Merely clapping our hands all together will not cure the long-standing ailments in the economy.
Moreover, the Theory of Positive Thinking has been used, upon occasion, to suggest that conditions will only deteriorate if the public examines the financial services industry critically. It isn’t hard to see whose interests benefit from that posture.
Now it is hard to prove in a tidy way that the tone of financial press coverage had shifted suddenly, and decisively, to optimism as of early March. But many professional investors in my circle started regularly talking of cheerleading. Two Wall Street veterans, Sandy Lewis and William Cohan, weighed in on this pattern at the New York Times:
Whether at a fund-raising dinner for wealthy supporters in Beverly Hills, or at an Air Force base in Nevada, or at Charlie Rose’s table in New York City, President Obama is conducting an all-out campaign to try to make us feel a whole lot better about the economy as quickly as possible… We’re concerned that nothing has really been fixed. We’re doubly concerned that people appear to feel the worst of the storm is over — and in this, they are aided and abetted by a hugely popular and charismatic president and by the fact that the Dow has increased by 35 percent or so since Mr. Obama started to lay out his economic plans in March.
This result relied on more than mere dint of personality. A Pew Research Center study found that roughly government and businesses originated over half the economics-related news after the crisis. Obama himself “dominated” the key images and ideas. The reporting had a clear arc. The early coverage focused on the struggles over the stimulus plan and the banking industry plans, and as those faded, so did coverage of the crisis in any form. The tacit assumption was that the crisis was over, and the performance of the supposedly forward looking stock market was proof. But as anyone with a modicum of detachment could see, the market was a false positive, treating an aversion of utter disaster as an imminent return to normalcy.
The stock market has rallied over 60% from its early March lows, enabling the wounded banks to sell new equity to the public and avoid further contentious taxpayer-funded rescue measures. But the justification for the soft glove treatment of the banking classes, that what was good for them would prove to be good for everyone else, has proven to be wildly false. When the Dow levitated over 10,000, mainstream news outlets celebrated the event, with nary a mention of the continued train wreck in the real economy. As Matt Taibbi observed, “the dichotomy between the economic health of ordinary people and the traditional ‘market indicators’ is not merely a non-story, it is a sort of taboo — unmentionable in major news coverage.”
But banking boosterism has succeeded all too well, allowing Team Obama to fantasize that it can get away with creating Potemkin prosperity in lieu of waging the pitched battles needed to lay the groundwork for the real thing.
Indeed, the adoption of the Theory of Positive Thinking has virtually guaranteed that nothing will change, unless there is sufficient deterioration in the real economy or the financial markets to provide compelling counter-evidence. One example is the “paying back the TARP” charade. As the banks continued to post improved earnings, no matter how phony they were, they argued that they were now healthy and should be allowed to pay back the TARP funding that had been crucial to their survival. The reason they were so keenly motivated to do should have been reason enough to deny their request: namely, that they wanted to escape restraints on executive compensation, virtually the only demand that the government had made. But overpaying staff and keeping too little in the way of risk reserves was precisely the behavior that led to the near collapse of the financial system. Going back to business as usual would virtually guarantee more looting of major financial firms and another series of collapses.
But the Obama administration miscalculated badly. First, it bought the financiers’ false promise that massive subsidies to them would kick start the economy. But economists are now estimating that it is likely to take five years to return to pre-crisis levels of unemployment. Obama took his eye off the ball. A Democratic President’s most important responsibility is job creation. It is simply unacceptable to most Americans for Wall Street to be reaping record profits and bonuses while the rest of the country is suffering. Second, it assumed finance was too complicated to hold the attention of most citizens, and so the (non) initiatives under way now would attract comparatively little scrutiny.
But as public ire remains high, the press coverage has become almost schizophrenic. Obvious public relations plants, like Ben Bernanke designation as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year (precisely when his confirmation is running into unexpected opposition) and stories in the New York Times that incorrectly reported some Goldman executive bonus cosmetics as meaningful concessions have co-existed with reports on the abject failure of Geithner’s mortgage modification program. While mainstream press coverage is still largely flattering, the desperation of the recent PR moves versus the continued public ire and recognition of where the Adminsitrations’s priorities truly lie means the fissures are becoming a gaping chasm.
So with Obama’s popularity falling sharply, it should be no surprise that the Administration is resorting to more concerted propaganda efforts. It may have no choice. Having ceded so much ground to the financiers, it has lost control of the battlefield. The banking lobbyists have perfected their tactics for blocking reform over the last two decades. Team Obama naively cast its lot with an industry that is vastly more skilled in the the dark art of the manufacture of consent than it is.