Archive for the ‘Matt Taibbi’ Category
“Rolling Stone” magazine published an excellent article on April 25, 2013 on the out-of-control illegality of the world’s big banks. The thrust of the piece is that banks are so big that government is scared to reign them in. But the problem is deeper than breaking up the big banks. It can’t be fixed unless you do two things. Features a synopsis of Prof. Jeffrey Sachs comments from last week.
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“Failure of Epic Proportions”: Treasury Nominee Jack Lew’s Pro-Bank, Austerity, Deregulation Legacy
Former bank regulator William Black and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi join us to dissect the career of Jack Lew, President Obama’s pick to replace Treasury Secretary Timothy Geither. Currently Obama’s chief of staff, Lew was an executive at Citigroup from 2006 to 2008 at the time of the financial crisis. He backed financial deregulation efforts while he headed the Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton. During that time, Clinton enacted two key laws to deregulate Wall Street: the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. Black, a white-collar criminologist and former senior financial regulator, is the author of “The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One.” A contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine, Taibbi is the author of “Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History.”
Matt Taibbi & William Black on Bailout Secrets & How New Foreclosure Deal Spares Banks from Justice
Four years after the massive bailout that rescued Wall Street, we look at the state of the financial sector with Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and former financial regulator William Black. In a new article for Rolling Stone, Taibbi argues the government did not just bail out Wall Street, but also lied on the financial sector’s behalf, calling unhealthy banks healthy and helping banks cover up how much aid they were getting. The government’s approach to the banks came under new scrutiny this week after it reached an $8.5 billion settlement for improprieties in the wrongful foreclosures on millions of American homeowners, including flawed paperwork, robo-signing and wrongly modified loans. The settlement will end an independent review of all foreclosures, meaning the banks could be avoiding billions of dollars in further penalties, in addition to criminal prosecution.
‘Secrets and Lies of The Bailout’
The federal rescue of Wall Street didn’t fix the economy – it created a permanent bailout state based on a Ponzi-like confidence scheme. And the worst may be yet to come. Read the story at Rolling Stone.
There are two things every American needs to know about Bank of America.
The first is that it’s corrupt. This bank has systematically defrauded almost everyone with whom it has a significant business relationship, cheating investors, insurers, homeowners, shareholders, depositors, and the state. It is a giant, raging hurricane of theft and fraud, spinning its way through America and leaving a massive trail of wiped-out retirees and foreclosed-upon families in its wake.
The second is that all of us, as taxpayers, are keeping that hurricane raging. Bank of America is not just a private company that systematically steals from American citizens: it’s a de facto ward of the state that depends heavily upon public support to stay in business. In fact, without the continued generosity of us taxpayers, and the extraordinary indulgence of our regulators and elected officials, this company long ago would have been swallowed up by scandal, mismanagement, prosecution and litigation, and gone out of business. It would have been liquidated and its component parts sold off, perhaps into a series of smaller regional businesses that would have more respect for the law, and be more responsive to their customers.
I can easily argue all that’s true.
So why did this happen? And is it limited to one firm?
Let’s dispose of the latter first — it most-certainly is not!
Let’s refer back to Citi’s former chief risk officer who testified under oath before the FCIC that the firm knew that by 2007 80% of the loans they were writing on houses did not meet their published quality guidelines. They sold them to investors anyway, much like a meat-packing house knowingly selling tainted meat to consumers.
The outrageous behavior of these institutions is not really much of a surprise when one looks at history. Glass-Steagall’s eviscertation by Greedscam and then it’s ultimate repeal (and ex-post-facto legalization of the Traveler’s merger at the same time) made clear that if you were a large financial institution you could do literally anything and not go to prison. This has been reinforced since in that virtually every one of the large financial institutions has committed for more than instances of chargable fraud; under “three strikes” laws were you or I to do the same thing we’d be cooling our heels serving a life sentence in prison.
The fraud and deception starts with our youth. A few years ago I was a chaperone for the local school (including my kid) on a “field trip” to a number of important everyday local institutions. One was the post office where the kids saw the process that mail goes through to get from the big truck to your local carrier’s bin on its way to your mailbox.
The other was a local bank in which they proudly showed off their vault and stated that they took deposits and made loans, leaving the impression that when you deposited money it was “safe” and when loans were made it was with money the bank actually had.
Both statements were lies, of course.
In truth lending out money you never received unbacked by anything is nothing more than counterfeiting — a naked short, if you will, on the currency. Yet this is the model we have today.
“One Dollar of Capital” solves this problem but makes the bubble-blowing games impossible. It also makes asset-stripping really, really difficult. Both of those salutary changes to our economic posture for the 99% would, of course, make the 1% earn their money instead of stealing it and thus are found unacceptable.
The real question is why we, the people, tolerate this crap. The game thus far since 2007 has been to run fear — claims of “tanks in the streets” and similar, all of which were you to do it would constitute a serious felony known as “terroristic threats.” So how is it that a Treasury Secretary gets away with it?
Well, again, because we the people allow it.
In short the screwings will continue until the people rise and demand it be stopped. Unfortunately the imbalances that the “powers that be” are trying to continue in an futile attempt to fake a “recovery” are simply digging a deeper and deeper hole when it comes to federal deficits and thus the inevitable size of the contraction that must come in government as a whole.
I was at an event on the Upper East Side last Friday night when I got to talking with a salesman in the media business. The subject turned to Zucotti Park and Occupy Wall Street, and he was chuckling about something he’d heard on the news.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” I said. “Why is that funny?”
“Well, I heard they’re trying to decide what bank to put their money in,” he said, munching on hors d’oeuvres. “It’s just kind of ironic.”
Oh, Christ, I thought. He’s saying the protesters are hypocrites because they’re using banks. I sighed.
“Listen,” I said, “where else are you going to put three hundred thousand dollars? A shopping bag?”
“Well,” he said, “it’s just, they’re protests are all about… You know…”
“Dude,” I said. “These people aren’t protesting money. They’re not protesting banking. They’re protesting corruption on Wall Street.”
“Whatever,” he said, shrugging.
These nutty criticisms of the protests are spreading like cancer. Earlier that same day, I’d taped a TV segment on CNN with Will Cain from the National Review, and we got into an argument on the air. Cain and I agreed about a lot of the problems on Wall Street, but when it came to the protesters, we disagreed on one big thing.
Cain said he believed that the protesters are driven by envy of the rich.
“I find the one thing [the protesters] have in common revolves around the human emotions of envy and entitlement,” he said. “What you have is more than what I have, and I’m not happy with my situation.”
Cain seems like a nice enough guy, but I nearly blew my stack when I heard this. When you take into consideration all the theft and fraud and market manipulation and other evil shit Wall Street bankers have been guilty of in the last ten-fifteen years, you have to have balls like church bells to trot out a propaganda line that says the protesters are just jealous of their hard-earned money.
Think about it: there have always been rich and poor people in America, so if this is about jealousy, why the protests now? The idea that masses of people suddenly discovered a deep-seated animus/envy toward the rich – after keeping it strategically hidden for decades – is crazy.
Where was all that class hatred in the Reagan years, when openly dumping on the poor became fashionable? Where was it in the last two decades, when unions disappeared and CEO pay relative to median incomes started to triple and quadruple?
The answer is, it was never there. If anything, just the opposite has been true. Americans for the most part love the rich, even the obnoxious rich. And in recent years, the harder things got, the more we’ve obsessed over the wealth dream. As unemployment skyrocketed, people tuned in in droves to gawk at Evrémonde-heiresses like Paris Hilton, or watch bullies like Donald Trump fire people on TV.
Moreover, the worse the economy got, the more being a millionaire or a billionaire somehow became a qualification for high office, as people flocked to voting booths to support politicians with names like Bloomberg and Rockefeller and Corzine, names that to voters symbolized success and expertise at a time when few people seemed to have answers. At last count, there were 245 millionaires in congress, including 66 in the Senate.
And we hate the rich? Come on. Success is the national religion, and almost everyone is a believer. Americans love winners. But that’s just the problem. These guys on Wall Street are not winning – they’re cheating. And as much as we love the self-made success story, we hate the cheater that much more.
In this country, we cheer for people who hit their own home runs – not shortcut-chasing juicers like Bonds and McGwire, Blankfein and Dimon.
That’s why it’s so obnoxious when people say the protesters are just sore losers who are jealous of these smart guys in suits who beat them at the game of life. This isn’t disappointment at having lost. It’s anger because those other guys didn’t really win. And people now want the score overturned.
All weekend I was thinking about this “jealousy” question, and I just kept coming back to all the different ways the game is rigged. People aren’t jealous and they don’t want privileges. They just want a level playing field, and they want Wall Street to give up its cheat codes, things like:
FREE MONEY. Ordinary people have to borrow their money at market rates. Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon get billions of dollars for free, from the Federal Reserve. They borrow at zero and lend the same money back to the government at two or three percent, a valuable public service otherwise known as “standing in the middle and taking a gigantic cut when the government decides to lend money to itself.”
Or the banks borrow billions at zero and lend mortgages to us at four percent, or credit cards at twenty or twenty-five percent. This is essentially an official government license to be rich, handed out at the expense of prudent ordinary citizens, who now no longer receive much interest on their CDs or other saved income. It is virtually impossible to not make money in banking when you have unlimited access to free money, especially when the government keeps buying its own cash back from you at market rates.
Your average chimpanzee couldn’t fuck up that business plan, which makes it all the more incredible that most of the too-big-to-fail banks are nonetheless still functionally insolvent, and dependent upon bailouts and phony accounting to stay above water. Where do the protesters go to sign up for their interest-free billion-dollar loans?
CREDIT AMNESTY. If you or I miss a $7 payment on a Gap card or, heaven forbid, a mortgage payment, you can forget about the great computer in the sky ever overlooking your mistake. But serial financial fuckups like Citigroup and Bank of America overextended themselves by the hundreds of billions and pumped trillions of dollars of deadly leverage into the system — and got rewarded with things like the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program, an FDIC plan that allowed irresponsible banks to borrow against the government’s credit rating.
This is equivalent to a trust fund teenager who trashes six consecutive off-campus apartments and gets rewarded by having Daddy co-sign his next lease. The banks needed programs like TLGP because without them, the market rightly would have started charging more to lend to these idiots. Apparently, though, we can’t trust the free market when it comes to Bank of America, Goldman, Sachs, Citigroup, etc.
In a larger sense, the TBTF banks all have the implicit guarantee of the federal government, so investors know it’s relatively safe to lend to them — which means it’s now cheaper for them to borrow money than it is for, say, a responsible regional bank that didn’t jack its debt-to-equity levels above 35-1 before the crash and didn’t dabble in toxic mortgages. In other words, the TBTF banks got better credit for being less responsible. Click on freecreditscore.com to see if you got the same deal.
STUPIDITY INSURANCE. Defenders of the banks like to talk a lot about how we shouldn’t feel sorry for people who’ve been foreclosed upon, because it’s they’re own fault for borrowing more than they can pay back, buying more house than they can afford, etc. And critics of OWS have assailed protesters for complaining about things like foreclosure by claiming these folks want “something for nothing.”
This is ironic because, as one of the Rolling Stone editors put it last week, “something for nothing is Wall Street’s official policy.” In fact, getting bailed out for bad investment decisions has been de rigeur on Wall Street not just since 2008, but for decades.
Time after time, when big banks screw up and make irresponsible bets that blow up in their faces, they’ve scored bailouts. It doesn’t matter whether it was the Mexican currency bailout of 1994 (when the state bailed out speculators who gambled on the peso) or the IMF/World Bank bailout of Russia in 1998 (a bailout of speculators in the “emerging markets”) or the Long-Term Capital Management Bailout of the same year (in which the rescue of investors in a harebrained hedge-fund trading scheme was deemed a matter of international urgency by the Federal Reserve), Wall Street has long grown accustomed to getting bailed out for its mistakes.
The 2008 crash, of course, birthed a whole generation of new bailout schemes. Banks placed billions in bets with AIG and should have lost their shirts when the firm went under — AIG went under, after all, in large part because of all the huge mortgage bets the banks laid with the firm — but instead got the state to pony up $180 billion or so to rescue the banks from their own bad decisions.
This sort of thing seems to happen every time the banks do something dumb with their money. Just recently, the French and Belgian authorities cooked up a massive bailout of the French bank Dexia, whose biggest trading partners included, surprise, surprise, Goldman, Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Here’s how the New York Times explained the bailout:
To limit damage from Dexia’s collapse, the bailout fashioned by the French and Belgian governments may make these banks and other creditors whole — that is, paid in full for potentially tens of billions of euros they are owed. This would enable Dexia’s creditors and trading partners to avoid losses they might otherwise suffer…
When was the last time the government stepped into help you “avoid losses you might otherwise suffer?” But that’s the reality we live in. When Joe Homeowner bought too much house, essentially betting that home prices would go up, and losing his bet when they dropped, he was an irresponsible putz who shouldn’t whine about being put on the street.
But when banks bet billions on a firm like AIG that was heavily invested in mortgages, they were making the same bet that Joe Homeowner made, leaving themselves hugely exposed to a sudden drop in home prices. But instead of being asked to “suck it in and cope” when that bet failed, the banks instead went straight to Washington for a bailout — and got it.
UNGRADUATED TAXES. I’ve already gone off on this more than once, but it bears repeating. Bankers on Wall Street pay lower tax rates than most car mechanics. When Warren Buffet released his tax information, we learned that with taxable income of $39 million, he paid $6.9 million in taxes last year, a tax rate of about 17.4%.
Most of Buffet’s income, it seems, was taxed as either “carried interest” (i.e. hedge-fund income) or long-term capital gains, both of which carry 15% tax rates, half of what many of the Zucotti park protesters will pay.
As for the banks, as companies, we’ve all heard the stories. Goldman, Sachs in 2008 – this was the same year the bank reported $2.9 billion in profits, and paid out over $10 billion in compensation — paid just $14 million in taxes, a 1% tax rate.
Bank of America last year paid not a single dollar in taxes — in fact, it received a “tax credit” of $1 billion. There are a slew of troubled companies that will not be paying taxes for years, including Citigroup and CIT.
When GM bought the finance company AmeriCredit, it was able to marry its long-term losses to AmeriCredit’s revenue stream, creating a tax windfall worth as much as $5 billion. So even though AmeriCredit is expected to post earnings of $8-$12 billion in the next decade or so, it likely won’t pay any taxes during that time, because its revenue will be offset by GM’s losses.
Thank God our government decided to pledge $50 billion of your tax dollars to a rescue of General Motors! You just paid for one of the world’s biggest tax breaks.
And last but not least, there is:
GET OUT OF JAIL FREE. One thing we can still be proud of is that America hasn’t yet managed to achieve the highest incarceration rate in history — that honor still goes to the Soviets in the Stalin/Gulag era. But we do still have about 2.3 million people in jail in America.
Virtually all 2.3 million of those prisoners come from “the 99%.” Here is the number of bankers who have gone to jail for crimes related to the financial crisis: 0.
Millions of people have been foreclosed upon in the last three years. In most all of those foreclosures, a regional law enforcement office — typically a sheriff’s office — was awarded fees by the court as part of the foreclosure settlement, settlements which of course were often rubber-stamped by a judge despite mountains of perjurious robosigned evidence.
That means that every single time a bank kicked someone out of his home, a local police department got a cut. Local sheriff’s offices also get cuts of almost all credit card judgments, and other bank settlements. If you’re wondering how it is that so many regional police departments have the money for fancy new vehicles and SWAT teams and other accoutrements, this is one of your answers.
What this amounts to is the banks having, as allies, a massive armed police force who are always on call, ready to help them evict homeowners and safeguard the repossession of property. But just see what happens when you try to call the police to prevent an improper foreclosure. Then, suddenly, the police will not get involved. It will be a “civil matter” and they won’t intervene.
The point being: if you miss a few home payments, you have a very high likelihood of colliding with a police officer in the near future. But if you defraud a pair of European banks out of a billion dollars — that’s a billion, with a b — you will never be arrested, never see a policeman, never see the inside of a jail cell.
Your settlement will be worked out not with armed police, but with regulators in suits who used to work for your company or one like it. And you’ll have, defending you, a former head of that regulator’s agency. In the end, a fine will be paid to the government, but it won’t come out of your pocket personally; it will be paid by your company’s shareholders. And there will be no admission of criminal wrongdoing.
The Abacus case, in which Goldman helped a hedge fund guy named John Paulson beat a pair of European banks for a billion dollars, tells you everything you need to know about the difference between our two criminal justice systems. The settlement was $550 million — just over half of the damage.
Can anyone imagine a common thief being caught by police and sentenced to pay back half of what he took? Just one low-ranking individual in that case was charged (case pending), and no individual had to reach into his pocket to help cover the fine. The settlement Goldman paid to to the government was about 1/24th of what Goldman received from the government just in the AIG bailout. And that was the toughest “punishment” the government dished out to a bank in the wake of 2008.
The point being: we have a massive police force in America that outside of lower Manhattan prosecutes crime and imprisons citizens with record-setting, factory-level efficiency, eclipsing the incarceration rates of most of history’s more notorious police states and communist countries.
But the bankers on Wall Street don’t live in that heavily-policed country. There are maybe 1000 SEC agents policing that sector of the economy, plus a handful of FBI agents. There are nearly that many police officers stationed around the polite crowd at Zucotti park.
These inequities are what drive the OWS protests. People don’t want handouts. It’s not a class uprising and they don’t want civil war — they want just the opposite. They want everyone to live in the same country, and live by the same rules. It’s amazing that some people think that that’s asking a lot.
Matt Taibbi – Rolling Stone
I was surprised, amused and annoyed all at once when I found out yesterday that some moron-provocateur linked to notorious right-wing cybergoon Andrew Breitbart had infiltrated
a series of private e-mail lists – including one that I have been participating in – and was using them to run an exposé on the supposed behind-the-scenes marionetting of the OWS movement by the liberal media.
According to various web reports, what happened was that a private “cyber-security researcher” named Thomas Ryan somehow accessed a series of email threads between various individuals and dumped them all on BigGovernment.com, Breitbart’s site. Gawker is also reporting that Ryan forwarded some of these emails to the FBI and the NYPD.
I have no idea whether those email exchanges are the same as the ones I was involved with. But what is clear is that some private email exchanges between myself and a number of other people – mostly financial journalists and activists who know each other from having covered the crisis from the same angle in the last three years, people like Barry Ritholz, Dylan Ratigan, former regulator William Black, Glenn Greenwald and myself – ended up being made public.
There is nothing terribly interesting in any of these exchanges. Most all of the things written were things all of us ended up saying publicly in our various media forums. In my case, what I wrote was almost an exact copy of my Rolling Stone article last week, suggesting a list of demands for the movement. I said I thought having demands was a good idea and listed a few things I thought demonstrators could focus on. Others disagreed, and there was a friendly back-and-forth.
So I was amazed to wake up this morning and find that various right-wing sites had used these exchanges to build a story about a conspiracy of left-wing journalists. “Busted. Emails Show Liberal Media & Far Left Cranks Conspired With #OWS Protesters to Craft Message,” wrote one.
Breitbart’s site, BigGovernment.com, went further, saying that the Occupy Washington D.C. movement is “working with well-known media members to craft its demands and messaging while these media members report on the movement.”
The list, the site wrote, include:
…well known names such as MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan, Rolling Stone’s Matt Tiabbi [sic] who both are actively participating; involvement from other listers such as Bill Moyers and Glenn Greenwald plus well-known radicals like Noam Chomsky, remains unclear.
Aside from the appalling fact of these assholes stealing private emails and bragging about it in public, the whole story is completely absurd. None of the people on the list, as far as I know, are actually organizers of OWS — I know I’m not one, anyway.
In fact, I was surprised by the entire characterization of this list as being some kind of official wing of OWS. I thought it was just a bunch of emails from friends of mine, talking about what advice we would give protesters, if any of them asked, which in my case anyway they definitely did not.
This whole episode to me underscores an unpleasant development for OWS. There is going to be a fusillade of attempts from many different corners to force these demonstrations into the liberal-conservative blue-red narrative.
This will be an effort to transform OWS from a populist and wholly non-partisan protest against bailouts, theft, insider trading, self-dealing, regulatory capture and the market-perverting effect of the Too-Big-To-Fail banks into something a little more familiar and less threatening, i.e. a captive “liberal” uprising that the right will use to whip up support and the Democrats will try to turn into electoral energy for 2012.
Tactically, what we’ll see here will be a) people firmly on the traditional Democratic side claiming to speak for OWS, and b) people on the right-Republican side attempting to portray OWS as a puppet of well-known liberals and other Democratic interests.
On the Democratic side, we’ve already seen a lot of this behavior, particularly in the last week or so. Glenn Greenwald wrote about this a lot last week, talking about how Obama has already made it clear that he is “on the same side as the Wall Street protesters” and that the Democratic Party, through the DCCC (its House fundraising arm), has jumped into the fray by circulating a petition seeking 100,000 party supporters to affirm that “I stand with the Occupy Wall Street protests.”(I wonder how firmly the DCCC was standing with OWS sentiment back when it was pushing for the bailouts and the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act).
We’ve similarly heard about MoveOn.org jumping into the demonstrations and attempting, seemingly, to assume leadership roles in the movement.
All of this is the flip side of the coin that has people like Breitbart trying to frame OWS as a socialist uprising and a liberal media conspiracy. The aim here is to redraw the protests along familiar battle lines.
The Rush Limbaughs of the world are very comfortable with a narrative that has Noam Chomsky, MoveOn and Barack Obama on one side, and the Tea Party and Republican leaders on the other. The rest of the traditional media won’t mind that narrative either, if it can get enough “facts” to back it up. They know how to do that story and most of our political media is based upon that Crossfire paradigm of left-vs-right commentary shows and NFL Today-style team-vs-team campaign reporting.
What nobody is comfortable with is a movement in which virtually the entire spectrum of middle class and poor Americans is on the same page, railing against incestuous political and financial corruption on Wall Street and in Washington. The reality is that Occupy Wall Street and the millions of middle Americans who make up the Tea Party are natural allies and should be on the same page about most of the key issues, and that’s a story our media won’t want to or know how to handle.
Take, for instance, the matter of the Too-Big-To-Fail banks, which people like me and Barry Ritholz have focused on as something that could be a key issue for OWS. These gigantic institutions have put millions of ordinary people out of their homes thanks to a massive fraud scheme for which they were not punished, owing to their enormous influence with government and their capture of the regulators.
This is an issue for the traditional “left” because it’s a classic instance of overweening corporate power — but it’s an issue for the traditional “right” because these same institutions are also the biggest welfare bums of all time, de facto wards of the state who sucked trillions of dollars of public treasure from the pockets of patriotic taxpayers from coast to coast.
Both traditional constituencies want these companies off the public teat and back swimming on their own in the cruel seas of the free market, where they will inevitably be drowned in their corruption and greed, if they don’t reform immediately. This is a major implicit complaint of the OWS protests and it should absolutely strike a nerve with Tea Partiers, many of whom were talking about some of the same things when they burst onto the scene a few years ago.
The banks know this. They know they have no “natural” constituency among voters, which is why they spend such fantastic amounts of energy courting the mainstream press and such huge sums lobbying politicians on both sides of the aisle.
The only way the Goldmans and Citis and Bank of Americas can survive is if they can suck up popular political support indirectly, either by latching onto such vague right-populist concepts as “limited government” and “free-market capitalism” (ironic, because none of them would survive ten minutes without the federal government’s bailouts and other protections) or, alternatively, by presenting themselves as society’s bulwark against communism, lefty extremism, Noam Chomsky, etc.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying one thing: beware of provocateurs on both sides of the aisle. This movement is going to attract many Breitbarts, of both the left and right variety. They’re going to try to identify fake leaders, draw phony battle lines, and then herd everybody back into the same left-right cage matches of old. Whenever that happens, we just have to remember not to fall for the trap. When someone says this or that person speaks for OWS, don’t believe it. This thing is bigger than one or two or a few people, and it isn’t part of the same old story.
Matt Taibbi – Taibblog
A power play is underway in the foreclosure arena, according to the New York Times.
On the one side is Eric Schneiderman, the New York Attorney General, who is conducting his own investigation into the era of securitizations – the practice of chopping up assets like mortgages and converting them into saleable securities – that led up to the financial crisis of 2007-2008.
On the other side is the Obama administration, the banks, and all the other state attorneys general.
This second camp has cooked up a deal that would allow the banks to walk away with just a seriously discounted fine from a generation of fraud that led to millions of people losing their homes.
The idea behind this federally-guided “settlement” is to concentrate and centralize all the legal exposure accrued by this generation of grotesque banker corruption in one place, put one single price tag on it that everyone can live with, and then stuff the details into a titanium canister before shooting it into deep space.
This is all about protecting the banks from future enforcement actions on both the civil and criminal sides. The plan is to provide year-after-year, repeat-offending banks like Bank of America with cost certainty, so that they know exactly how much they’ll have to pay in fines (trust me, it will end up being a tiny fraction of what they made off the fraudulent practices) and will also get to know for sure that there are no more criminal investigations in the pipeline.
This deal will also submarine efforts by both defrauded investors in MBS and unfairly foreclosed-upon homeowners and borrowers to obtain any kind of relief in the civil court system. The AGs initially talked about $20 billion as a settlement number, money that would “toward loan modifications and possibly counseling for homeowners,” as Gretchen Morgenson reported the other day.
The banks, however, apparently “balked” at paying that sum, and no doubt it will end up being a lesser amount when the deal is finally done.
To give you an indication of how absurdly small a number even $20 billion is relative to the sums of money the banks made unloading worthless crap subprime assets on foreigners, pension funds and other unsuspecting suckers around the world, consider this: in 2008 alone, the state pension fund of Florida, all by itself, lost more than three times that amount ($62 billion) thanks in significant part to investments in these deadly MBS.
So this deal being cooked up is the ultimate Papal indulgence. By the time that $20 billion (if it even ends up being that high) gets divvied up between all the major players, the broadest and most destructive fraud scheme in American history, one that makes the S&L crisis look like a cheap liquor store holdup, will be safely reduced to a single painful but eminently survivable one-time line item for all the major perpetrators.
But Schneiderman, who earlier this year launched an investigation into the securitization practices of Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and other companies, is screwing up this whole arrangement. Until he lies down, the banks don’t have a deal. They need the certainty of having all 50 states and the federal government on board, or else it’s not worth paying anybody off. To quote the immortal Tony Montana, “How do I know you’re the last cop I’m gonna have to grease?” They need all the dirty cops on board, or else the whole enterprise is FUBAR.
In addition to the global settlement, Schneiderman is also blocking an individual $8.5 billion settlement for Countrywide investors. He has sued to stop that deal, claiming it could “compromise investors’ claims in exchange for a payment representing a fraction of the losses.”
If Schneiderman thinks $8.5 billion is an insufficient, fractional payoff just for defrauded Countrywide investors, then you can imagine how bad a $20 billion settlement for the entire industry would be for the victims.
In that particular Countrywide settlement deal, it looks like Bank of New York Mellon, the New York Fed, Pimco and other players negotiated on behalf of defrauded investors. They told the Times they were happy with the deal, but investors outside the talks told Gretchen they weren’t happy with the settlement.
Schneiderman apparently listened to those voices instead of the Mellon-Fed-BofA crowd, which infuriated the insiders who struck the actual deal. In a remarkable quote given to the Times, Kathryn Wylde, the Fed board member who ostensibly represents the public, said the following about Schneiderman:
It is of concern to the industry that instead of trying to facilitate resolving these issues, you seem to be throwing a wrench into it. Wall Street is our Main Street — love ’em or hate ’em. They are important and we have to make sure we are doing everything we can to support them unless they are doing something indefensible.
This, again, is coming not from a Bank of America attorney, but from the person on the Fed board who is supposedly representing the public!
This quote leads one to wonder just what Wylde would consider “indefensible,” given that stealing is pretty much the worst thing that a bank can do — and these banks just finished the longest and most orgiastic campaign of stealing in the history of money. Is Wylde waiting for Goldman and Citi to blow up a skyscraper? Dump dioxin into an orphanage? It’s really an incredible quote.
The banks are going to claim that all they’re guilty of is bad paperwork. But while the banks are indeed being investigated for “paperwork” offenses like mass tax evasion (by failing to pay fees associated with mortgage registrations and deed transfers) and mass perjury (a la the “robo-signing” practices), their real crime, the one Schneiderman is interested in, is even more serious.
The issue goes beyond fraudulent paperwork to an intentional, far-reaching theft scheme designed to take junk subprime loans and disguise them as AAA-rated investments. The banks lent money to corrupt companies like Countrywide, who made masses of bad loans and immediately sold them back to the banks.
The banks in turn hid the crappiness of these loans via certain poorly-understood nuances in the securitization process – this is almost certainly where Scheniderman’s investigators are doing their digging – before hawking the resultant securities as AAA-rated gold to fools in places like the Florida state pension fund.
They did this for years, systematically, working hand in hand in a wink-nudge arrangement with clearly criminal enterprises like Countrywide and New Century. The victims were millions of investors worldwide (like the pensioners who saw their funds drop in value) and hundreds of thousands of individual homeowners, who were often sold trick loans and hustled into foreclosure when unexpected rate hikes kicked in.
In a larger sense, even the (often irresponsible) people who simply bought more house than they could afford were victims of this scam. That’s because in many of these cases, credit simply would not have been available to those people had the banks not first discovered a way to raise vast sums of money dumping crap loans on an unsuspecting market.
In other words: if Bank of America hadn’t found a way to sell worthless subprime loans as AAA paper to the Chinese and the Scandavians in May, you can be sure that it wouldn’t be going back to Countrywide in June to lend out more money for more subprime loans.
And Countrywide, in turn, wouldn’t then have been sending masses of reps out into the ghettoes to offer juicy home loans to undocumented immigrants and refis to confused old ladies on social security.
This is as bad as white-collar crime gets. But to Wylde, it doesn’t rise to the level of being “indefensible.” Until they do something worse than this, we apparently should support the banks, and make sure they don’t have to pay more than a fraction of what they made off of this kind of crime.
What is most amazing about Wylde’s quote is the clear implication that even a law enforcement official like Schneiderman should view it as his job to “do everything we can to support” Wall Street. That would be astonishing interpretation of what a prosecutor’s duties are, were it not for the fact that 49 other Attorneys General apparently agree with her.
In Schneiderman we have at least one honest investigator who doesn’t agree, which is to his great credit. But everyone else is on Wylde’s side now. The Times story claims that HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and various Justice Department officials have been leaning on the New York AG to cave, which tells you that reining in this last rogue cop is now an urgent priority for Barack Obama.
Why? My theory is that the Obama administration is trying to secure its 2012 campaign war chest with this settlement deal. If Barry can make this foreclosure thing go away for the banks, you can bet he’ll win the contributions battle against the Republicans next summer.
Which is good for him, I guess. But it seems to me that it might be time to wonder if is this the most disappointing president we’ve ever had.
Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone Magazine