Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Insider: Nomi Prins

As I've said, what's going on in terms of EM08 is sick but is the stuff of talk for forever. It really is unprecedented, and uncle scam has set new standards for theft.

One of the gratifying things about all this mess is discovering those that are getting down and telling it like it is, which here translates into seeing things as I do. Therefore, I must add to the list of recommendations I posted a bit ago, and add to it EM08's #1 draft pick, Nomi Prins.

I'm not excusing my unawareness of her, but I am an irregular listener to Pacifica Radio - apologies to my homeboy Don Bustany - where evidently she's held court a few times now with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now.

What makes people like Meredith Whitney so interesting to me are their bona fides, and Prins' cred is stellar in terms of this mess. Her econ blueblood is easily found on the web, with none other than Goldman under her belt.

Plus, her books have entertaining titles, a'la, It Takes a PIllage.

Right now, I can't think of much in filmmaking I'd rather do than assemble my dream team - David Cay Johnston, Meredith Whitney, Muhammad Yunus, Vinod Khosla, Prof. William Black, Matt Taibbi, Michael Lewis, and now, #1 draft pick Nomi Prins - take them to a resort for a month and have all kinds of discussions about EM08, from the run-up, the players both business & political, the companies, the machinations, and recommendations to the Obama administration for moving forward.

Of course, shoot everything.

Such a project would of course be massive, but would be great to have available via a site where updates and forums could be integrated into the process. And then, every year, have an annual confab of the participants, probably via webcam.

Oh well, the stuff of dreams and money; There's plenty of vid stuff of hers out there, which I may get to later, but I'm going to end this entry here with two articles in an inside/outside format, from that very smart gal, Nomi Prins.

Mother Jones, at:

How You Finance Goldman Sachs’ Profits
An insider’s view of Wall Street’s rebound.
—By Nomi Prins

Tue July 28, 2009 12:28 PM PST

This is perhaps the most important thing I learned over my years working on Wall Street, including as a managing director at Goldman Sachs: Numbers lie. In a normal time, the fact that the numbers generated by the nation's biggest banks can't be trusted might not matter very much to the rest of us. But since the record bank profits we're now hearing about are essentially created by massive federal funding, perhaps it behooves us to dig beneath their data. On July 27, 10 congressmen, led by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), did just that, writing a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke questioning the Fed's role in Goldman's rapid return to the top of Wall Street.

To understand this particular giveaway, look back to September 21, 2008. It was a frenzied night for Goldman Sachs and the only other remaining major investment bank, Morgan Stanley. Their three main competitors were gone. Bear Stearns had been taken over by JPMorgan Chase in March, 2008, Lehman Brothers had just declared bankruptcy due to lack of capital, and Bank of America had been pushed to acquire Merrill Lynch because the firm didn't have enough cash to survive on its own. Anxious to avoid a similar fate, hat in hand, they came to the Fed for access to desperately needed capital. All they had to do was become bank holding companies to get it. So, without so much as clearing the standard five-day antitrust waiting period for such a change, the Fed granted their wish.

Bank holding companies (which all the biggest financial firms now are) come under the regulatory purview of the Fed, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the FDIC. The capital they keep in reserve in case of emergency (like, say, toxic assets hemorrhaging on their books, or credit derivatives trades not being paid) is supposed to be greater than investment banks'. That's the trade-off. You get access to federal assistance, you pony up more capital, and you take less risk.

Goldman didn't like the last part. It makes most of its money speculating, or trading. So it asked the Fed to be exempt from what's called the Market Risk Rules that bank holding companies adhere to when computing their risk.

Keep in mind that by virtue of becoming a bank holding company, Goldman received a total of $63.6 billion in federal subsidies (that we know about—probably more if the Fed were ever forced to disclose its $7.6 trillion of borrower details). There was the $10 billion it got from TARP (which it repaid), the $12.9 billion it grabbed from AIG's spoils—even though Goldman had stated beforehand that it was protected from losses incurred by AIG's free fall, and if that were the case, would not have needed that money, let alone deserved it. Then, there's the $29.7 billion it's used so far out of the $35 billion it has available, backed by the FDIC's Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program, and finally, there's the $11 billion available under the Fed's Commercial Paper Funding Facility.

Tactically, after bagging this bounty, Goldman asked the Fed, its new regulator, if it could use its old risk model to determine capital reserves. It wanted to use the model that its old investment bank regulator, the SEC, was fine with, called VaR, or value at risk. VaR pretty much allows banks to plug in their own parameters, and based on these, calculate how much risk they have, and thus how much capital they need to hold against it. VaR was the same lax SEC-approved risk model that investment banks such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers used, with the aforementioned results.

On February 5, 2009, the Fed granted Goldman's request. This meant that not only was Goldman getting big federal subsidies, but also that it could keep betting big without saving aside as much capital as the other banks. Using VaR gave Goldman more leeway to, well, accentuate the positive. Yes, Goldman is a more risk-prone firm now than it was before it got to play with our money.

Which brings us back to these recent quarterly earnings. Goldman posted record profits of $3.4 billion on revenues of $13.76 billion. More than 78 precent of those revenues came from its most risky division, the one that requires the most capital to operate, Trading and Principal Investments. Of those, the Fixed Income, Currency and Commodities (FICC) area within that division brought in a record $6.8 billion in revenues. That's the division, by the way, that I worked in and that Lloyd Blankfein managed on his way up the Goldman totem pole. (It's also the division that would stand to gain the most if Waxman's cap-and-trade bill passes.)

Since Goldman is trading big with our money, why not also use it to pay big bonuses? It's not like there are any strings attached. For the first half of 2009, Goldman set aside $11.4 billion for compensation—34 percent more than for the first half of 2008, keeping them on target for a record bonus year—even though they still owe the federal government $53.6 billion, a sum more than four times that bonus amount.

But capital is still key. Capital is the lifeblood that pumps through a financial organization. You can't trade without it. As of June 26, 2009, Goldman's total capital was $254 billion, but that included $191 billion in unsecured long-term borrowing (meaning money it had borrowed without putting up any collateral for it). On November 28, 2008 (4Q 2008), it had only $168 billion in unsecured long-term borrowing. Thus, its long-term unsecured debt jumped 14 percent. Though Goldman doesn't disclose exactly where all this debt comes from, given the $23 billion jump, we can only wonder whether some of it has come from government subsidies or the Fed's secret facilities.

Not only that, by virtue of how it's set up, most of Goldman's unsecured funding comes in through its parent company, Group Inc. (Think the top point of an umbrella with each spoke being a subsidiary.) This parent parcels that money out to Goldman's subsidiaries, some of which are regulated, some of which aren't. This means that even though Goldman is supposed to be regulated by the Fed and other agencies, it has unregulated elements receiving unsecured funding—just like before the crisis, but with more of our money involved.

As for JPMorgan Chase, its profit of $2.7 billion was up 36 percent for the second quarter of 2009 vs. the same quarter last year, but a lot of that also came from trading revenues, meaning its speculative endeavors are driving its profits. Over on the consumer side, the firm had to set aside nearly $30 billion in reserve for credit-related losses. Riding on its trading laurels, when its consumer business is still in deterioration mode, is not a recipe for stability, no matter how much cheering JPMorgan Chase's results got from Wall Street. Betting is betting.

Let's pause for some reflection: The bank "stars" made most of their money on speculation, got nearly $124 billion in government guarantees and subsidies between them over the past year and a half, yet saw continued losses in the credit products most affected by consumer credit problems. Both are setting aside top-dollar bonuses. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon mentioned that he's concerned about attracting talent, a translation for wanting to pay investment bankers big bucks—because, after all, they suffered so terribly last year, and he needs to stay competitive with his friends at Goldman. This doesn't add up to a really healthy scenario. It's more like bad déjà vu.

As a recent New York Times article (and many other publications in different words) said, "For the most part, the worst of the financial crisis seems to be over." Sure, the crisis may appear to be over because the major banks of Wall Street are speculating well with government subsidies. But that's a dangerous conclusion. It doesn't mean that finance firms could thrive without the artificial, public-funded assistance. And it certainly doesn't mean that consumers are any better off than they were before the crisis emerged. It's just that they didn't get the same generous subsidies.

Additional research by Clark Merrefield.


Mother Jones, at:

Obama Banking Too Much On Banks

In his Wall Street speech, the president outlines reforms—but they don’t go deep enough.
—By Nomi Prins

Mon September 14, 2009 8:53 AM PST

On Monday—one year after the once-mighty Lehman Brothers collapsed in the nation’s biggest bankruptcy—President Obama addressed the state of the economy and again outlined his proposals for what he calls reform. The location—Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street, near the New York Stock Exchange and New York Federal Reserve Bank—was fitting. George Washington took his presidential oath there, a precursor for how intertwined Washington and Wall Street would become. And Obama’s speech indicates that he’s still making the grave error of mistaking the health of Wall Street for the health of the American economy.

Obama chose not to deliver his speech on, say, the streets of Bend, Oregon, or Fresno, California, which provide different indicators of our economic predicament. That’s because Washington’s approach to the crisis has been to focus on the banking system, throw a few crumbs to citizens, and hope everything else will magically work itself out.

The problem with concentrating on the banking system is that it allows the administration to present an overly optimistic assessment of its actions. "The storms of the past two years are beginning to break," Obama pronounced, attributing this to a government that "moved quickly on all fronts, initializing a financial stability plan to rescue the system from the crisis and restart lending for all those affected by the crisis." He continued: "By taking aggressive and innovative steps in credit markets, we spurred lending not just to banks, but to folks looking to buy homes or cars, take out student loans, or finance small businesses. Our home ownership plan has helped responsible homeowners refinance to stem the tide of lost homes and lost home values."

Those steps were certainly aggressive. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, the government, from the Federal Reserve to the Treasury Department, has flushed the banking systems and other components of the financial markets with $17.5 trillion worth of loans, guarantees, and other forms of support. About another $1 trillion has been provided to citizens through the recovery package, first-time homeowner tax benefits, auto purchase credits, and approximately $800 billion to help guarantee the loans of certain lenders—which somewhat helps borrowers, but helps lenders more.

But these measures have hardly brought the economy back from the brink. They brought Wall Street back from capital starvation and prevented the possibility of more big banks going bankrupt—instead of the slew of smaller and mid-size ones that have since met the same fate as Lehman Brothers. Taking credit for stabilizing the financial system after feeding it with massive amounts of federal money is like a teacher bragging about turning around the academic performance of a failing student after handing them all the answers to the big tests.

Here’s how the economy is really faring (and how Washington is failing to take adequate steps to fix it):

* National unemployment is at 9.7 percent, higher than last year’s 5.8 percent, with double digit jobless rates in 139 metropolitan areas this July, compared to 14 last July.
* The number of foreclosures is greater than last year: nearly 2 million new foreclosure filings occurred in the first half of 2009, up 15 percent from the same period in 2008.
* While homes in some areas have begun to slowly sell again, they are doing so at deeply depressed prices, in many instances below their mortgage value.
* Wall Street bonuses are back to pre-crisis levels. For some firms, such as Goldman Sachs, they are even higher.
* Bank leverage, or excessive borrowing on the back of risky assets—a major cause of the meltdown—is rising again.
* Geithner recently reported that his program to enable private financial firms to buy up toxic assets with government help will wind up costing less than the $1 trillion he had first envisioned. However, he did not mention that there are less toxic assets available to buy partly because the Fed has allowed banks to use some toxic assets as collateral in return for cheap loans.
* Big banks are bigger than they were last year. Since the Fed blessed more mergers last fall, the nation’s three largest banks—Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo—hold the maximum percentage of legally permissable US deposits or more.
* Mid-size and smaller banks keep closing. This year, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has closed 92 banks and depleted its deposit insurance money in the process.
* We still don’t have detailed information on the trillions of dollars of loans the Fed handed out to the banking sector or about the quality of the collateral banks provided in return.

Obama did acknowledge that the picture isn’t entirely rosy. He also outlined his ideas for avoiding another catastrophe: reshuffle the decks of regulatory agencies, slap a few trading constraints on some derivatives, and create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). But while Obama's rhetoric was stern—"normalcy cannot lead to complacency," he vowed—the proposals themselves are hardly sweeping.

Obama’s plan calls for eliminating the Office of Thrift Supervision and providing greater oversight by the Fed of “systemically important” institutions. The Senate is trying to water that down, in part because some members of both parties in Congress remain skeptical about the power of the Fed itself. The Senate also wants to consolidate regulatory authority into fewer entities, but leave oversight to a council of regulators. Of course, consolidating regulatory oversight only works if regulators are doing their jobs and the banking system is transparent enough to allow them to do so.

The last leg of Obama’s proposal would be establishing the CFPA, which would monitor financial products in an effort to protect consumers from risky instruments such as subprime mortgages. Legislation to create such an agency is expected to be taken up this year by the House Financial Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass).

A strong CFPA is a sensible plan. Right now there is no other body imbued with the power not just to protect consumers but also to foster the general economic stability that would be achieved by closely monitoring the integrity of financial products. This proposal has drawn the most ire from the banking community, so you know it’s good. The Chamber of Commerce launched a $2 million ad campaign to convince people that a CFPA would mean that local butcher couldn’t extend credit to his customers without government interference.

But Obama's reforms do not strike deeply enough. The banking crisis has been subdued, not fixed, because of enormous amounts of government assistance. Ignoring that fact, and failing to overhaul the sector, leaves us open to another crisis. And the next round will be worse, because there is now so much more federal money invested in the banks.

Simply funding the banking system without reforming it is an expensive and dangerous game. Obama is capable of truly fixing things—by dividing up the Wall Street mega-banks with a new Glass Steagall Act, thereby enabling the success of more extensive regulatory reforms. Or, he could introduce a set of cosmetic changes that allow banks to keep doing what they did before last year’s crisis and that put us on the path for the next one.


Nomi Prins is an economist and frequent contributor for Mother Jones. Her most recent book is It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street. To read more articles by Nomi Prins, click here.