Saturday, July 26, 2008
"MAKE FREDDIE AND FANNIE GO GREEN!" Attach Green Strings to Those $Billions of Bailout Greenbacks! Brent Blackwelder and James S. Henry
With Congress about to "lend" at least $300 billion to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation's two giant mortgage lenders, shouldn't we at least insist in getting some lending policies that help promote energy-efficient new housing for all this money?
For the full article, go here.
(Note: Brent Blackwelder is President of Friends of the Earth. He is not only a committed environmentalist but a straight arrow. Unlike the others on this page, he has never pocketed $millions from a $9 billion corporate earnings overstatement or mismanaged a gigantic corporation, let alone defended white-collar criminals, barred FBI agents from sharing intellligence with the CIA and DOD, or helped to shield former senior CIA and NSA officials from responsibility for 9/11.)
Thursday, July 24, 2008
"ATTACK OF THE GLOBAL PIRATE BANKERS!" The Great White Sharks at UBS and LGT James S. Henry
(Note: The following is an expanded version of our article that appeared in the July 22, 2008 online edition of The Nation, available here.)
Last week in Washington we got a rare look inside the global private banking industry, whose high purpose it is to gather up the assets of the world's wealthiest people and many of its worst villains, and shelter them from tax collectors, prosecutors, creditors, disgruntled business associates, family members and each other.
Thursday's standing-room-only hearing on tax haven banks and tax compliance was held by the US Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Michigan Senator Carl Levin, a regular critic of tax havens--except when it comes to offshore leasing companies owned by US auto companies. He presented the results of his Committee's six-month investigation of two of Europe's most venerable financial institutions - LGT Group, the largest bank in Liechtenstein and the personal fiefdom of Crown Prince Hans-Adam II and the royal family, with more than $200 billion in client assets; and UBS, Switzerland's largest bank and the world's largest private wealth manager, with $1.9 trillion in client assets and nearly 84,000 employees in fifty countries, including 32,000 in the United States.Kieber
The theatrics included videotaped testimony by Heinrich Kieber, a Liechtenstein computer expert in a witness protection program with a $7 million bounty on his head, for supplying a list of at least 1,400 LGT clients - some say more than 4,500 - to tax authorities in Europe and the United States; two former American clients of LGT, who took the Fifth Amendment; Martin Liechti, head of UBS international private banking for North and South America, who'd been detained in Miami since April, and who also took the Fifth; Douglas H. Shulman, our sixth IRS commissioner in eight years, who conceded that offshore tax evasion must be a "serious, growing" problem even though the IRS has no idea how large it is; and Mark Branson, CFO of UBS's Global Wealth Management group, who apologized profusely, pledged to cooperate with the IRS (within the limits of Swiss secrecy) and surprised the Committee by announcing that UBS has decided (for the third time since 2002) to "exit" the shady business of providing new secret Swiss accounts to wealthy Americans.
There were also several other potential witnesses whose importance was underscored by their absence. Peter S. Lowy, of Beverly Hills, another former LGT client who'd been subpoenaed, is a key member of the Westfield Group, the world's largest shopping mall dynasty, which has interests in and operates 55 US malls and 63 others around the world with a combined value of more than $60 billion, holds the lease for a new shopping mall at the reconstructed World Trade Center, has many other properties in Australia and Israel, and was recently awarded a L3 billion project for the UK's largest shopping mall, in time for the 2012 Olympics.
His lawyer, the renowned Washington fixer Robert S. Bennett, reported that Lowy was "out of the country" and would appear later, probably also just to take the Fifth. Perhaps he traveled to Australia, where his family is also reportedly facing an LGT-related tax audit. (Bennett's law partner, David Zornow, the head of Skadden, Arps' White Collar Crime practice, represents UBS's Liechti.)
Steven D. Greenfield, a leading New York City toy vendor and private equity investor whose business had been personally recruited by the Crown Prince's brother, went AWOL and did not bother to send a lawyer.
LGT Group declined to follow UBS's contrite example and also failed to appear.
Also missing from the roster were two prominent UBS executives: Robert Wolf, CEO of UBS Americas, who has reportedly raised over $500,000 for Barack Obama, bundled more than $370,850 for him this year from his bank alone, making UBS Obama's fifth-largest corporate donor, and had private dinners with the junior Senator from Illinois; and former Texas Senator Phil Gramm, vice chairman of UBS Securities LLC, a leading lobbyist for UBS until March, and until recently, John McCain's senior economics adviser. (In 1995, while preparing his own ultimately-unsuccessful race for the Republican Presidential nomination, Gramm commented memorably, "I have the most reliable friend you can have in American politics, and that's ready money.")
While neither of these UBS executives have been directly implicated in the tax scandal, both might reasonably be questioned about precisely what the rest of UBS in the States knew about the Swiss program, what it implies for US tax policy, and whether those who complain about UBS's knowing facilitation of tax fraud are just whining.
While they were on the subject of offshore abuses, the Senate might also have wanted to depose former top McCain fundraiser James Courter, who also resigned last week, after it was disclosed that his telecom firm, IDT, had been fined $1.3 million by the FCC for using a haven company in the Turks and Caicos to pay bribes to former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
This crowded docket, combined with the UBS mea culpa, almost distracted us from the sordid details of the Levin Committee's actual findings.
UBS: UBS opened its first American branch in 1939, and for all we know, has likely been facilitating tax fraud ever since, but the Senate investigation focused only on 2000 to 2007. During this period, even as UBS was sharply expanding its onshore US operations by acquiring Paine Webber, expanding in investment and retail banking, it also mounted a top-secret effort to recruit wealthy Americans, spirit their money to Switzerland and other havens and conceal their assets from the IRS.
This program, aimed at people with a net worth of $40 million to $50 million each, was staffed by fifty to eighty senior calling officers and 1,000 client advisors. Based in Zurich, Geneva, and Lugano, each officer made two to ten surreptitious trips per year to the United States, calling on thirty to forty existing clients per visit and trying to recruit new ones by attending HNW (high net worth) watering holes like Miami's Art Basel and the UBS Regatta in Newport. By 2007, this program had garnered 20,000 American clients, with offshore assets at UBS alone worth $20 billion.
To achieve these results, UBS established an elaborate formal training program, which coached bankers on how to avoid surveillance by US customs and law enforcement, falsify visas, encrypt communications, secretly move money in and out of the country and market security products even without broker/dealer licenses.
Meanwhile, back in 2001, UBS had signed a formal "qualified intermediary" agreement with the US Treasury. Under this program, it agreed either to withhold taxes against American clients who had Swiss accounts and owned US stocks, or disclose their identities. However, when UBS's American clients refused to go along with these arrangements, the bank just caved in and lied to the US government. Eventually, it concealed 19,000 such clients, partly by helping to form hundreds of offshore companies. This cost the US Treasury an estimated $200 million per year in lost taxes.
In early July 2008, a US court approved a "John Doe" subpoena for UBS, demanding the identities of these 19,000 undisclosed clients. However, as of last week's Senate hearing, UBS has refused to disclose them. While it maintains that it is no longer accepting new Swiss accounts from Americans, it is also insisting on the distinction between "tax fraud" and "tax evasion," reserving full disclosure only for cases involving criminal tax fraud, which is much harder to prove under Swiss law. This means it may be difficult to ever know whether it has kept its commitments.
Ultimately UBS got caught, not by virtue of diligent law enforcement, much less the Senate's investigation, but by sheer accident. In late June, Bradley Birkenfeld, a senior private banker who'd worked with UBS from 2001 until late 2005 out of Switzerland, and then continued to service the same clients from Miami, pleaded guilty to helping dozens of wealthy American clients launder money. His name surfaced when his largest client, Igor Olenicoff, a Russian emigré property developer from Southern California, was accidentally discovered by the IRS to be reporting much less income tax than he needed to justify his $1.6 billion measurement on the Forbes 400 list of billionaires.
With Birkenfeld's help, Olenicoff succeeded in parking several hundred million of unreported assets offshore--including millions in accounts controlled by a Bahamian company that he said had been set by former Russian Premier Boris Yeltsin. Ultimately, Olenicoff settled with the IRS for $52 million in back taxes, one of the largest tax evasion cases in Southern California history, and also agreed to repatriate $346 million from Switzerland and Liechtenstein. In theory he faced up to three years of jail time, but--following standard US practice of going easy on big-ticket tax evaders who have no "priors"--he received only two years probation and three weeks of community service.
As noted, Olenicoff also gave up his UBS private bankers, including Birkenfeld, who plead guilty in June to facilitating tax fraud and is now awaiting sentencing--the first US prosecution of a foreign private banker in history. It was Birkenfeld's revelations, in turn, that led to the disclosure of UBS' program for wealthy Americans, and at least one-half of the Senate investigation.
The most important point is that this entire program would clearly have been impossible without the knowledge and approval of the bank's most senior officials in Switzerland, and probably some senior US executives as well -- although the Committee did not press this point. As former UBS CEO Peter Wuffli once said, "A company is only as ethical as its people." From this standpoint, we have reason to be concerned that UBS's behavior may repeat itself, so long as so many of these same senior executives remain in place.
LGT: For all its pretensions to nobility, Liechtenstein is well-known in the trade as the "place for money with the stains that won't come out," a flexible jurisdiction whose "trusts" and "foundations" are basic necessities for everyone from Colombian drug lords and the Saudi royals to the Suhartos, Marcoses, Russian oligarchs, and Sicilian mafia.
As detailed by the Senate investigation, LGT Group has certainly lived up to this reputation in the US market. It maintained a program that was, if anything, even more sophisticated and discreet than that of UBS for large fortunes. Among its specialties: setting up conduit companies in bland places like Canada, allowing clients to transfer money without attracting attention; leaving the designation of "beneficiaries" up to corporations controlled by potential beneficiaries themselves, a neat way of avoiding "know your customer" rules; rarely visiting clients at home, let alone mailing, e-mailing, or phoning them, certainly never from a Liechtenstein post office, Internet address, or area code; shifting the names of trust beneficiaries to very old folks just before death to make it look like a repatriation of capital was an inheritance.
In terms of precise trade craft, indeed, LGT had it all over UBS. It only really got caught red-handed when it tried to modernize and trusted Heinrich Kieber, a fellow citizen and IT expert ,who turned out to be either a valiant whistleblower, a well-paid extortionist (he was paid $7.5 million by the German IRS alone for his DVDs), or both.
So what do we learn from all this? Many will consider these revelations shocking. After all, just as the US government is facing a $500 billion deficit, millions of Americans are fighting to save their homes, cars, and college educations from the consequences of predatory lending, and inequalities of wealth and income are greater than at any time since the late 1920s, we learn that for decades, the world's largest banks have been helping wealthy Americans steal billions in tax revenues from the rest of us. At the very least, this suggests that it may be time to put the issue of big-ticket tax evasion, offshore and on, back on the front burner. But we also need historical perspective. Those who have studied this subject for decades also realize that achieving reform in this arena is not a matter of a few criminal prosecutions. It is a continuous game, requiring persistence and constant adaptations to the opponents, because we are playing against some of the world's most powerful vested interests, with huge fortunes at stake.
After all, offshore tax evasion by wealthy Americans is hardly new. For example, in May 1937, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. wrote a lengthy letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, explaining why tax revenues had failed to meet his expectations despite a sharp rise in tax rates. Some rich folks didn't mind paying up, given the hard times so many Americans were facing during the Depression. As Edward Filene, the Boston department store magnate, famously remarked, "Why shouldn't the American people take half their money from me? I took all of it from them." However, according to Morgenthau, many other rich people busied themselves inventing new ways to dodge taxes, notably by secreting funds offshore in brand new havens like the Bahamas, Panama, and.... Newfoundland!
Scroll forward to the Castle Bank and Trust case of the early 1970s, when another IRS investigation of offshore banking disclosed a list of several hundred wealthy Americans who'd set up trusts in the Bahamas and Cayman Islands. Just as the investigation was picking up steam and the names were about to be publicized, a new IRS Commissioner came in and shut it down--officially because the otherwise-lawless Nixon Administration suddenly got concerned about due process. Few names on the list--a copy of which appears in my forthcoming book, Pirate Bankers, were ever investigated.
Scroll forward now to the late 1990s, when the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the European Union and the US Treasury once again became excited about offshore tax havens. As the EU launched its "savings tax directive" on cross-border interest, a Cayman banker surfaced to report that more than 95 percent of his nearly 2,000 clients were Americans, and the IRS discovered 1 million to 2 million Americans using credit cards from offshore banks. Meanwhile, the OECD's favorite tool became the "blacklist." A list of thirty-five to forty "havens" was evaluated on the basis of abstract criteria like the quality of anti-money laundering programs and the willingness to negotiate information sharing agreements.
Unfortunately this "name and shame" approach didn't have much success. First, the OECD had no success against jurisdictions like Monaco, Andorra, and Liechtenstein that are basically shameless. Second, the OECD's definition of "haven" was highly selective. It omitted many emerging havens like Dubai, the Malaysian island of Labuan, Estonia, Singapore, and for certain purposes even Denmark, whose importance has recently increased. As we'll see, it also ignored the role of major onshore havens like London and New York, which have been very attractive to the world's non-resident rich, especially from the developing world.
Third, blacklisting havens focused on the wrong dimension. As Senator Levin's hearing has underscored, the real problem is a global pirate banking industry that cuts across individual havens, and includes many of our largest, most influential commercial and investment banks, hedge funds, law firms, and accounting firms. From their standpoint, it doesn't much matter whether a particular haven survives, so long as others turn up to take their place in providing anonymity, security, and low-tax returns. Up to now, despite blacklisting, the supply of new tax haven vehicles has been very elastic.
On the other hand, as the UBS and LGT cases show, the dominant players in global private banking are relatively stable institutions--which makes sense, given their clients' need for stable sanctuaries. This suggests that it makes more sense to focus on regulating institutions than regulating or blacklisting physical places.
Until the UBS case, this seemed to be much more difficult than, say, beating up on some tiny and distant sultry island for shady people. Even now, after the Birkenfeld case supplied the first private banker prosecution, we have yet to see the first criminal prosecution of a top-tier private bank--apart from BCCI in the early 1990s, which had already failed and was hardly top-tier.
This is not because of a shortage of despicable behavior. For example, UBS, like most of its competitors in global private banking, has a long history of engaging in perfidious behavior, apologizing for it, and then turning back to the future. This includes UBS's involvement in South Africa's apartheid debt and the accounts scandals of the 1980s involving the Marcos family; Benazir Bhutto, Mobutu Sese Seko, Holocaust victims, and Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha in the 1990s; the 2001 Enron bankruptcy, and the Menem arms-purchasing scandal in Argentina; the 2003 Parmalat scandal; the 2004-2006 Iran/ Cuba/Saddam funds transfers scandal, for which it was fined $100 million by the Federal Reserve; the 2008 Massachusetts and New York securities fraud cases, and now the Birkenfeld matter. Furthermore, as the Committee report noted, UBS has a history of violating even its own policies. From this angle, unapologetic LGT is at least not hypocritical.
It is also well to remember that UBS and LGT are hardly the only global private banks involved in recruiting wealthy clients to move money offshore. The Committee report indicates a long list of other banks that also provided offshore services to American clients involved in the UBS and LGT cases--including Citibank (Swiss), HSBC, Barclays (Birkenfeld's original employer), Credit Suisse, Lloyds TSB, Standard Chartered, Banque du Gotthard, Centrum, Bank Jacob Safra, and Bank of Montreal. In addition, there are dozens of other non-US and US banks that are also active in the offshore US private banking market. This suggests the shortcomings of a case-by-case prosecutorial approach, and the value of designing regulations to improve behavior and provide ongoing feedback about taxpayer compliance.
In principle, one can imagine many such improvements in regulation, assuming a compliant Congress. For example, as proposed in the "Stop Haven Abuses Act" (S-681) introduced in 2006 and revised in February 2007 by Senators Levin, Coleman, and Obama, there would be a rebuttable presumption that offshore shell corporations and trusts are owned by those who establish them. This would eliminate the "Q.I. rule" exception, which allowed hundreds of UBS clients to avoid reporting to the IRS simply by moving their assets to into shell companies.
We could also institute many other changes, including an increase in the painfully short, three-year statute of limitations for investigating and proposing changes in offshore tax liabilities; tightening up on anti-money laundering legislation; levying withholding taxes against hedge funds; raising the penalties for abusive tax shelters, and requiring banks that open offshore entities for US clients to report them to the US Treasury.
However, most of these proposed rule changes have the flavor of stopgaps, technical gimmicks that are still far too focused on individual taxpayers rather than the private banking industry--the advisers, enablers, and systems operators. If we're right that this industry had become an unregulated, untaxed black hole--a multi-billion-dollar global "bad"--we need to focus on two key tasks.
The first is to create appropriate incentives for the global private banking industry to do the right thing. We need to find ways to tax the behavior of tax-evading institutions, their CEOs, senior managers, and even shareholders, to punish them for more misbehavior, and perhaps also reward them for bringing the money home with a brief one-time tax amnesty. In the short run, there have to be more Bradley Birkenfelds, more exposés, and more penalties for banks and bankers alike. Mere apologies, however heartfelt, should not be enough.
The second challenge is to organize a global alliance around this issue. This is more difficult, although steps are already being taken. Global organizations like Tax Justice International, Oxfam GB, Friends of the Earth, Global Witness, and Christian Aid are converging on a new global campaign around the issue of havens and offshore tax evasion. They've been enlisting support for this effort from countries like Norway, Chile, Brazil, Spain, and France, organizations like the UNDP, the World Bank, and even the International Monetary Fund.
This is very exciting, but the organizers face one critical problem--the fact there are serious conflicts of interest among developed and developing countries. The fact is that the United States, the UK and other developed countries not only lose tax revenue to haven banking; they also profit from it, because their own banks are so deeply engaged in it, especially when it involves developing countries.
Back in April 1986, this author broke the story that Citibank was actually taking far more capital out of Latin America and other developing countries than it was lending to them, despite its reputation as the largest Third-World lender. Indeed, the business of helping Third-World elites decapitalize their own countries had become so large and lucrative that Citi's private banking group was the bank's single most profitable division.
To achieve that feat, Citigroup resorted to skullduggery and the flouting of local laws all over the planet. This included repeatedly sending teams of private bankers undercover to countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela; helping to set up thousands of shell companies and bank accounts in offshore havens and secretly transferring funds to them; teaching its clients money-laundering tricks like mis-invoicing and back-to-back loans; designing ways to communicate with clients that kept their financial secrets safe; and overall, concealing vast sums of flight capital from Third World tax authorities (and their competitors), while lobbying Congress to insure that any foreign capital that arrived in the United States enjoyed near-zero taxes and near-Swiss secrecy. For a time the resulting tax breaks and lax banking rules that applied to "nonresident aliens" from other countries made the United States, in effect, one of the world's largest tax havens.
In short, from the 1970s to the 1990s, banks like Citigroup, BankAmerica, and JP Morgan Chase (and UBS, Credit Suisse, RBS, Paribas and Barclays, etc.) were behaving throughout the Third World just as badly as UBS has recently been behaving here. And their very success laid the foundations for the global, private-haven banking industry with which the IRS is now struggling.
At the time, it seemed that their behavior was hurtful mainly to the developing world, which wasn't strong enough to hold Senate hearings and put Citibankers in jail. But lately it has become clear that the system has grown large enough to consume its creators.
In the last thirty years, fueled by the globalization of financial services, lousy lending, capital flight, and mind-boggling corruption, a relatively small number of major banks, law firms, accounting firms, asset managers, insurance companies, and hedge funds have come to launder and conceal at least $10 trillion to $15 trillion of private untaxed anonymous cross-border wealth.
Rich people the world over, including tens of thousands of wealthy Americans, are now free to opt in to this sophisticated, secretive, utterly unprincipled global private banking industry. They can become, in effect, residents of nowhere for tax purposes, citizens of a brave new virtual country, which offers its inhabitants unprecedented freedom from the taxes, regulations, and moral restraints that the rest of us take for granted. They wield enormous political influence even without paying taxes, merely by making contributions, threatening to withhold them--or better yet, threatening to abscond with their capital unless certain conditions are met. In a sense, this is the ultimate libertarian pipe dream: representation without taxation. But it is a nightmare for the rest of us, and we must design and organize our way around it.
Let me just add one paragraph for those in the audience who don’t automatically stand up and cheer every time someone figures out a new way to boost tax revenues, even through better law enforcement.
Why should we care whether Davy Jones is clever enough to fiddle with his IRS bill, even by way of offshore banks? Wouldn’t the funds just be wasted if they went to the government rather than to finance Davy’s yacht tender in Marbella? Or won’t the government just borrow and spend anyway, regardless of revenues?
Well, in these straightened times, with a gargantuan federal deficit, most state and local governments running out of debt capacity, stagflation, a weak dollar, private debt at record levels, and rising unemployment, just imagine that every extra dollar for that yacht tender is coming right out of the funds available for schools, teachers, hospitals, roads, police, and fire protection – local services. The free lunches have all been mortaged, or given away in capital gains tax cuts for the same social class that is also are evading what little taxes they still have to pay. Meanwhile, $1 spent on a yacht tender goes right to the bottom, while $1 spent on food, salaries, or even roads has a much greater multipler, and benefits a more deserving class.
Perhaps best of all, think of the difference between giving an exra $1 to the hard-working child care worker down the street, compared with $1 to some wealthy scion of a giant shopping mall dynasty who spends his life just trying to spend his inheritance.
About James S. Henry
James S. Henry is a New York-based investigative journalist who has written widely on the problems of tax havens, debt, and development. His most recent book, The Blood Bankers (Basic Books, 2005), examined where the money went that was loaned to eight developing nations. His forthcoming book, Pirate Bankers (2009), examines the history and structure of the global private banking industry.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
"DON'T LOOK DOWN!" The Emerging US Debt Crisis -- From Wall Street To Main Street By Way of Washington James S. Henry
As George Soros said this week, this may be "most serious financial crisis of our lifetimes" -- the worst since the S&L bailouts of the 1980s, and quite possibly since the Great Depression.
Of course the apocalyptic, self-hypnotic Mr. Soros has been over-predicting the penultimate "crisis of global capitalism" since at least 1987, when his first book, "The Alchemy of Finance," appeared. He also has a long history of profiting from short-side bets and Black Fridays.
However, the potential scope of this current US debt crisis is indeed enormous. The ultimate cost to taxpayers of the associated bailouts will almost certainly make the $29 billion March 2008 Bear Stearns bailout look like batting practice.
We already knew that the American economy was suffering from soaring energy and food prices, rising unemployment, and falling house prices, with several mid-sized banks at risk of failure. At least 2.5 million would-be homeowners are headed for mortgage foreclosures in 2008, credit card, auto loan, student loan, and home equity loan repayment problems have soared, and millions of ordinary citizens are discovering the high costs of not being "too big to fail."
Since early July, however, the continuing collapse of the housing market, on top of mounting debt problems in other sectors, has helped to produce a growing loss of confidence in many larger financial institutions, and bouts of near-panic and wild volatility on Wall Street.
Indeed, the crisis may now pose a "contagion" risk to a wide variety of companies with household names, like GM, Ford, and Chrysler, Citigroup, BankAmerica, Wachovia, Wells Fargo, Washington Mutual, investment banks like Lehman Brothers and UBS, airlines like US Air, Delta, and American Airlines, and debt-ridden hotel chains like Hilton.
The crisis may also threaten the solvency -- refinancing ability -- of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two gargantuan "government-sponsored enterprises" (GSEs) that have long been treated by investors as virtually risk-free, despite having private shareholders, private sources of capital, and no official government guarantee for their enormous debt.
Most Americans have probably never heard of these two giants. But they are at the very heart of the $21 trillion (capital) US housing sector. Originally there was just Fannie Mae, created in 1938 as a government-owned monopoly to add liquidity to housing and help realize the peculiar American desideratum of "every man a king in his own castle" -- as if renting castles or otherwise sharing their use might not sometimes be a wiser resource of national resources.
Of course this social objective soon proved to be extremely popular with a vast coterie of private interest groups -- including land owners, developers, builders, building supply companies, real estate agents, architects and engineers, landscapers, title companies, insurers, and real estate law firms, not to mention the private banks, credit unions, and savings and loan associations that usually provided the first line of lending for home mortgages, as well as the Wall Street investment banks that stood to take a nice cut out of assembling the private capital required for this venture.
In principal, the US Government might have simply declared that in order to achieve the noble goal of universal home ownership, it would provide direct government loans to homeowners, or, even better, just subsidize new house purchase with direct grants or tax credits, leaving the rest of the program to private housing markets to sort out. But this simple, direct approach smacked of "socialism," which every interest group, lobbyist, and Congressmen in Washington instinctively just new to be hopelessly inefficient.
The elegant alternative designed and pursued with the support of all these various interests was to have the US Government remain in the background as much as possible. Except for low-income people and veterans, which the private interest groups didn't much care about servicing anyway, it would channel most of its subsidies for mass home ownership through two vehicles -- providing (2) a tax deduction for "home mortgage interest," and (2) creating a "secondary market" for mortgages, where banks could easily sell off loans they had issued, in the interests of encourage them to issue still more.
WAR CRISIS #1
Forty years later, in 1968, a fateful Presidential election year, Lyndon Johnson faced a budget deficit because of the high costs of the increasingly-unpopular Vietnam War. Rather than raise taxes and stoke this opposition, he decided to use "off-balance sheet" gimmicks to reduce the US Government's deficit.
One of these was to half-privatize Fannie Mae, turning over ownership to private shareholders, hiring a coterie of very well-paid managers whose remuneration depended in large part on FNM's stock price, and sourcing more than 98 percent of its capital by floating bonds to non-USG investors.
At the same time, since it was just too much of a blatant goody-grab to privatize Fannie Mae as a monopoly, Johnson and the US Congress also created Freddie Mac to compete with it. Most economists usually don't expect to see much "competition" from an unregulated private duopoly like this one -- indeed, quite the opposite. But it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, especially to Congress, Wall Street, and the other interests at the trough, which stood to profit enormously from these two new bureaucracies.
Thirty years later, at least from a certain standpoint, all these maneuvers have succeeded beyond their proponents' wildest dreams.
First, for better or worse, more than 70 percent of American families now own their own homes, or at least possess them so long as they can still afford to service their mortgages.
True, we might well now permit ourselves a few second thoughts about the sustainability of the resulting overall pattern of urban development. Many single-family homes, for example, were constructed to take advantage of artificially-cheap mortgages, temporarily-cheap energy, heavily-subsidized roads, and temporarily-abundant open spaces. In the wake of our rising energy costs and climate crisis, the resulting low-density, highly-distributed network of isolated, oversized, energy-inefficient housing has become an urban planner's nightmare -- and yet another reason why Americans are experiencing so much frustration with their current "high-cost" lifestyles.
Second, the influence, economic and political, of the two giant pro-housing GSEs has grown way beyond what anyone ever expected.
They now guarantee more than $5.3 trillion of mortgages and related securities, almost half of all mortgages outstanding. Treasury Secretary Paulson's plan to secure their stability by having Congress approve an unspecified US government credit line to them may or may not be a successful stop-gap -- the US budget deficit is already likely to exceed $500 billion this year, even without it. But at least the Paulson approach would stop short of the risks posed by outright nationalization -- if US Government were forced to guarantee all this debt, this would nearly double the size of the public national debt overnight, and expose the Treasury to much larger losses on this "underwater" mortgage portfolio.
Furthermore, the central banks of countries like China, Japan, and Russia have also accumulated at least $1 trillion of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae debt, on top of $3.8 trillion of US Treasury liabilities that is held by foreigners -- including 57 percent of long-term Treasury bonds.
China alone reportedly holds more than $600 billion of GSE debt, one fifth of its $3.25 trillion national income.
More generally, the US current account deficit is now close to 5 percent of GDP, and may even soon start growing again relative to national income, further increasing dependence on foreign capital.
So this is no longer just a good old-fashioned “domestic US” debt crisis by any means. Since the US is (still) the world’s largest market, the engine of growth for many developing countries, and a traditional safe haven for investors and central banks all over the world, this may turn out to be the world’s first truly global debt crisis, affecting rich and poor countries alike.
Once we add up the potential losses of global wealth and income, if it were allowed to get out of control, it could easily dwarf the “S&L” debt criss of the 1980s, the Japanese debt crisis of the 1990s, and perhaps even the $4 trillion Third World debt crisis, where ultimate debt relief has totaled just $310 billion.
Not surprisingly, stock markets in China, Europe, and Japan have recently followed US stock markets into the tank.
It used to be a rule of thumb that whenever a Mexican or Argentine Finance Minister found it necessary to declare more than once a week that his country's currency was "really sound" and not about to be devalued, it was time to short the currency.
During the second week of July we were treated on at least three separate occasions to assurances by Treasury Secretary Paulsen, Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke, and the head of the FDIC that the GSEs and the vast majority of US banks really are "well capitalized" and nowhere close to failure.
Their job is complicated by the fact that this is an election year, when politicians are especially reluctant to take actions that would offend key constituents
This includes like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac themselves, for example. Since 2000 they have spent more than $190 million on lobbyists to press Congress and the White House for looser lending standards and weaker capital requirements.
They have also marshalled their allies on Wall Street, where investment banks receive hundreds of $millions each year in GSE underwriting fees; scores of real estate law firms across the country that live off the droppings of the FNM/ FRE mortgage documentation; and pro FNM/FRE "homebuyers" groups in every Congressional district.
Needless to say, all this influence peddling has not ben used to secure regulations that might constrain FRE/FNM growth and profitability. After all, even senior managers and stockholders of GSEs want to get rich.
FROM LYNDON'S WAR TO GEORGE'S
After two decades of financial deregulation and the growth of this powerful "housing-finance complex," therefore, all that was needed to create the speculative bubble and the spectacular bust that we've just seen was a compliant Federal Reserve and yet another Texas President who was reluctant to raise taxes to finance yet another unpopular war.
So, another 40 years later, we have inherited the very same combination of burst bubbles and excessive debts, heavily financed abroad and wasted at home, that we usually associate only with "submerging markets" in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Let's just hope that this time around, our newly President will have the intestinal fortitude to clean up these Augean stables when he takes office in January 2009. Otherwise we will continue to be plagued by self-interested deregulation -- on top of natural disasters like housing slumps, oil price spikes, and war-like Presidents from Texas.
(c) SubmergingMarkets, 2008
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
"HEY OBAMA: I WANT MY $$ BACK!" Barack, Lieberman, Republicans, and Red-Dog Dems Vs. the U.S. Constitution James S. Henry
Today the U.S. Senate voted 69 to 28 in favor of the FISA Amendments Act (H.R. 6304). This monstrosity not only grants complete retroactive immunity to leading telecommunications companies for violating our civil rights since 2001, but also opens the door to mass surveillance of US citizens without warrants, in blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution.
Unfortunately, for those of us who had taken Barack Obama at his word when he promised on numerous occasions to oppose -- or even filibuster -- against this completely unconstitutional bill, he decided to retreat rather than fight.
In doing so, Obama broke ranks with Senators Feingold, Clinton, Schumer, Dodd, Biden, Kerry, Reid, Byrd, Senator Kennedy if he'd been well enough to vote, and a majority of other progressive Senate Democrats, all of whom courageously voted against this horrific bill.
Instead, Barack Obama chose to stand with belligerent warmongers and crypto-Republicans like Joe Lieberman, dim-witted carnival barkers like Diane Feinstein, Evan Bayh, and Jay Rockefeller, plus nearly every single Republican in the Senate -- except for John McCain and Pete Sessions, who did not even bother to vote on this critical issue.
THE OLD SOFT SHOE
In explaining his FISA bill vote, Obama cited several arguments that turn out upon closer inspection to be completely disingenuous arguments, evidently concocted on the fly to conceal his political motives.
Second, Obama said he remained opposed to telecom immunity, and would vote to amend that provision in the bill -- as if this little bit of sugar excused the bitter pill left over after the amendment failed.
Third, and most important, Obama says that he is now convinced that unfettered wiretapping and email surveillance are needed to prevent yet another terrorist attack in the US.
In fact, as many other commentators have argued at length elsewhere, this kind of unfettered surveillance is neither necessary nor sufficient to prevent such attacks.
Furthermore, the very best evidence on 9/ll shows quite clearly that the Bush Administration's inability to prevent the attack had little to do with a shortage of intelligence, let alone any limitations on wiretapping powers under already-generous FISA procedures. Rather, the Bush Administration's failure to prevent 9/ll was due mainly to its incredibly incompetent -- nay, criminally negligent -- handling of abundant intelligence.
By reviving the old false dilemma that there is an intrinsic conflict between national security and constitutional rights, Obama has, in effect, just provided the Bush Administration a get-of -out-of-jail free card, and set back the quality of discourse on this issue at least six years.
And all this from a "professor of constitutional law!"
This was only the latest in a series of sharp right turns and U turns that the Junior Senator from Illinois has made in the wake of his primary victory over Senator Clinton just six weeks ago.
On issues ranging from gun control and abortion to civil liberties, campaign finance, nuclear power, the death penalty, and government support for faith-based initiatives, many of those who have worked hard for Obama and contributed to his campaign from very early on are now having "morning after" regrets -- you know, that awful feeling when you wake up next to someone you barely know, someone who looked a whole lot better the night before at 2 am on the dimly-lit dance floor, under the influence of hope, desire, grog, and near-sightedness.
Apparently now that Obama's the nominee-in-waiting, he pictures those of us on the Center/Left as the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, marooned on his mysterious tropical island with nowhere else to go.
He also probably thinks that his vote today makes it easier to convince "independents" and even some "Republicans" that he's not "soft" on national security.
In my experience, however, the vast majority of people who still consider themselves "Republicans" as of 2008 are beyond redemption, at least this side of the Inferno. On the other hand, many "independents" actually do give a hoot about the Bill of Rights.
The one thing we thought Barack was able to do was to stand up and defend basic principles in the face of the inevitable right-wing onslaught.
For millions of those who supported him because we thought he was the real "change" candidate, this was clearly not the kind of "change" we had in mind.
A HILLARY REVIVAL?
There's more than a month to go before the August convention, when 800 super-delegates are entitled to vote freely for the candidate they consider to be the most worthy.
We've also just waked up from the six-month primary binge to learn that it may indeed be Hillary who not only has the best positions on many of these key issues, but also has the courage to stick by her convictions.
During the long primary season, I had many heated arguments with Hillary supporters about the value of her vaunted "experience." Now I finally understand what they were talking about -- not just that she has a Graduate Degree in Government 101, but that there's a solid core of values that she's defended for decades.
For my money, Barack, by comparison, is looking more and more like the Manchurian Candidate -- another ad hoc Madison Avenue concoction that arises out of our seemingly inexhaustible supply of hope, desire, grog, and near-sightedness.
At the very least, all this should be enough to earn Hillary Clinton the VP slot on the Democratic Party ticket. Clearly we need her to provide a rudder for this campaign -- rather than, say, the irascible Senator Webb, the ex-Republican from Virginia who also voted today in favor of the shameless FISA betrayal.
Of course to many of us, Hillary's one glaring fault was her original position on the war. Now that Obama's positions on so many issues -- perhaps even his timetable for withdrawing from Iraq -- have been shown to be, politically speaking, up for sale, that one error in judgment does not seem quite so fatal.
True, Barack and Michele still seem a little more personable and fresh than Hillary and Bill. But the bloom is definitely off the rose. We'll just have to see how well the charm holds up, once the Democrat Convention is over and Karl and the Rovettes open up their little bag of dirty tricks.
What's already clear is that on this matter of fundamental principle, the US Constitution, this Great Black Hope from Chicago has just turned out to have a very broad bright yellow streak right down the middle of his bowling shirt.
So, at least until Hillary Clinton joins him on the ticket, I for one am demanding my money back.
Meanwhile, for those of you who still care about the Bill of Rights, here's what the ACLU has to say about today's capitulation by the Democratic Party's latest addition to the ranks of "Beltway bandits:"
Today, elected officials in Washington sold out the Constitution -- again.
Cowed by the Bush administration’s pre-election scare tactics, the Senate passed privacy-stealing FISA legislation undermining your Fourth Amendment rights.
This is not a “compromise,” as some in Congress would have us believe. The only thing they compromised is your freedom. Donate to the ACLU, and stand up for your rights. (This link will open a page with your information already filled in.)
The FISA Amendments Act allows for mass, untargeted and warrantless surveillance of all communications coming into and out of the United States. And to top it off, it hands immunity to telecom companies for their role in domestic spying. This means your phone calls can be tapped and emails read with virtually no proof of threat, and there's no chance to learn how the telecoms invaded your privacy.
It’s outrageous, unconstitutional and un-American. That’s why the ACLU is prepared to challenge this unconstitutional law the moment President Bush signs it -- and you can rest assured they’ll be meeting our lawyers in court.
Help the ACLU protect your privacy. Donate now to the ACLU to defend your rights.
In one fell swoop, Congress has not only legalized the Bush administration’s secret NSA spying program, it has given the government even more power to listen to our phone calls and read our emails than even the Bush administration illegally claimed for itself under its secret program. And, by granting telecoms immunity, it greatly harmed the chances of ever learning the extent of the administration’s lawless actions.
Stand with the ACLU in defending your rights. Support the ACLU’s lawsuit and all of our other critical work defending the Constitution.
In defense of freedom,
Anthony D. Romero
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
THE EDUCATION OF DR. PHIL GRAMM UBS Role Raises Basic Questions About McCain's Key Economic Adviser James S. Henry
-- Peter Wuffli, x UBS CEO
John McCain has long since admitted that he has a great deal to learn when it comes to economics. But it turns out that his own chief economic advisor, former US Senator Dr. Phil Gramm, has also needed rather extensive retraining lately. Unfortunately this has been acquired mainly at the expense of millions of US home buyers, honest taxpayers, former Enron employees, and would-be enforcers of our (bank-driven, loophole-ridden) anti-money laundering laws.
Gramm, a somewhat goofy-looking, deceptively slow-talking business economist from Georgia, spent 12 years teaching economics at Texas A&M before getting elected to Congress as a conservative Democrat in 1978. By 1982 he'd switched sides, joining the Reagan Revolution to become one of the Republican Party's most outspoken champions of deregulation, tax cuts, and spending controls -- so long as this didn't affect his pet interest groups.
In the next two decades, Dr. Gramm was perhaps the Senate's leading proponent of financial services deregulation, weakened restrictions commodity trading, credit cards, consumer banking, and predatory lending practices, in addition to leading the fight against Hillary Clinton's health insurance reforms. As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee from 1996 to 2000, he was a key author of legislation that eliminated most of the legal barriers between US banks, brokerages, investment banks, and insurance companies that had been in place since the 1930s.
Phil was also a determined opponent of tougher IRS tax enforcement, and a principal author of a 2000 law that exempted companies like Enron from regulation for online energy trading activities. Of course this made sound economic sense. After all, Phil's wife Wendy was a member of Enron's board, and Enron was Phil's largest corporate contributor in the 1990s.
In 2000-2002, both before and after 9/11, Phil also became the key opponent of tougher anti-money laundering regulations, and -- not coincidentally-- one of the largest recipients of contributions from the powerful financial services lobby. Among independent journalists, all this helped to make him known by a variety of sobriquets, including "Foreclosure Phil," "Slick Philly," and "The Personal Representative of the Bank of Antigua."
This track record stood Dr. Gramm in good stead when it came time to seek new employment in 2003, after the Republicans lost control of the Senate. Naturally enough, he gravitated toward his friends in the global private banking industry, whose noble calling it is to gather the assets of the world's wealthiest people and protect and conceal them from taxes, regulation, and expropriation, not to mention embittered family members, ex-lovers and business partners, and each other.
Since 2002, Dr. Gramm has served as Vice Chairman of UBS Investment Bank, which is owned by UBS AG, the largest Swiss bank, the world's 16th largest commercial bank, and the world's largest private asset manager, with more than 80,000 employees and offices in 50 countries.
Even after joining McCain's campaign during the summer of 2007, Dr. Gramm continued to serve as a registered Washington lobbyist for UBS from 2004 until April 2008, lobbying Congress to maintain weak restrictions on sub-prime lending and predatory lending.
In hindsight, Dr. Gramm's recent crusade for even more financial freedom turned out to be ill-timed, for several reasons.
First, this was hardly the moment for even more financial deregulation than the US had already digested in the 1990s. After 2002, on Dr. Gramm's watch, UBS became one of the most world's aggressive banks, helping to foment and finance the sub-prime lending crisis that has already cost nearly three million Americans their homes, generated more than $250 billion in bank losses, and driven a $7.7 trillion hole in global equity markets.
Since November 2007 UBS alone has written off $37 billions in mortgage-related assets, the largest write-off for any bank. In July 2007, UBS's McKinsey-trained CEO, Peter Wuffli, was forced to resign, and in April 2008 its $24 million -per-year Chairman, Marcel Ospel, was given the toe. Since then its stock price has plummeted more than 70 percent, to its lowest level since 2002.
Meanwhile, the bank also revealed itself to be curiously insensitive to US financial regulations. For example, in May 2004, it was fined $100 million by the US Federal Reserve for violating an embargo on funds transfers to countries like Iran and Cuba.
Finally, it now turns out that Dr.Gramm's colleagues at the bank have also been up to their eyeballs in yet another dubious business: helping up to 20,000 wealthy American tax cheats hide their wealth offshore and commit outright tax fraud, cheating the IRS out of tens of $billions in tax revenue.
Late last month, Bradley Birkenfield, a senior private banker who'd worked with UBS from 2001 until 2006 out of Switzerland, and then continued to service their clients out of Miami, pleaded guilty to helping dozens of his wealthy American clients launder their money. His name had originally surfaced when a Southern California billionaire property developer, Igor M. Olenicoff, had been discovered by the IRS to be paying much less income tax than his status on the Forbes 400 list status warranted.
With the help of Birkenfield and other UBS private bankers, Olenicoff, who'd first established offshore accounts as early as 1992, succeeded in parking at least several hundred million of unreported assets offshore.(Download bankers-indicment-in-florida.pdf)
Ultimately Olenicoff settled with the IRS for $52 million in back taxes, one of the largest tax evasion cases in Southern California history. He also agreed to repatriate $346 million that he had parked in Switzerland and Liechtentstein.
In theory he also faced up to 3 years of jail time, but in practice -- following the standard US practice of going easy on big-ticket tax evaders with no priors -- his maxmum exposure was just six months under standard US sentencing guidelines. Indeed, ultimately Olenicoff only got two years probation and 3 weeks of "community service."
One also gets the sense that this case was a bit like the cat pulling on the sweater yarn. According to Forbes, Olenicoff reported that many of his other foreign accounts were controlled by Sovereign Bancorp Ltd., a Bahamian company that he claimed had been set by former Russian Premier Boris Yeltsin.
In any case, in the process of making up for lost time with the IRS, Olenicoff also gave up his two UBS private bankers, Birkenfield, and According to Birkenfield, he was just one of more than 50 UBS private bankers who visited the US out of Switzerland each quarter. This case, the first US prosecution of a foreign private banker ever, signals that even the Bush Administration has become fed up with the estimated $100 billion per year in lost tax revenues that such practices are costing, and has decided to make an example of Dr. Gramm's employers.
UBS' sin was that it took "you be us" a step too far. Like other major global banks, UBS AG had signed a "qualified intermediary" agreement with the US Treasury in 200(x), giving its corporate word that it would either insure that its clients were not US citizens, or withhold appropriate taxes. But when UBS AG's American clients refused to go along with such arrangements, UBS just caved in and lied to the US Government.
As a result, despite his cooperation, Birkenfield, the former UBS private banker, is likely get serious jail time this August. Meanwhile, the DOJ has just issued a "John Doe" summons to UBS AG, requiring it to turn over the identify of its entire list of wealthy American clients. The head of UBS AG's Global Private Banking business unit has been arrested and detained in the US on "material witness" charges, pending resolution of this dispute. The private banker's wealthy clients are experiencing the tender mercies of the IRS's tax fraud department as we speak -- not only from this US case, but also from the recent scandal involving Liechtenstein's largest bank, where many UBS clients were also channeled. UBS's shareholders all over the globe must be quaking in their boots, fearing the bank could be subject to massive fines or even a corporate indictment that would prevent it from doing business in the US ever again.
QUESTIONS FOR DR. PHIL
The questions for Dr. Gramm arising out of these scandals are many.
- First, was Dr. Gramm completely unaware that UBS AG had organized this massive illicit global campaign to elicit capital flight from the US and other "honest-tax" jurisdictions, conceal it in low-tax havens like Liechtenstein, and completely shelter it from the taxes that ordinary taxpayers have little choice but to pay?
- Second, are any of these 20,000 wealthy tax cheats from Texas? Does Dr. Phil know any of them personally?
- Third, what kind of changes, if any, in laws pertaining to "qualified
intermediaries," offshore havens, private banking, and international
tax havens does Dr. Gramm believe are necessary? Would he, for example,
support the reform bill on foreign havens and "qualified intermediary" rules that Senators Levin and Obama have
co-authored? Precisely when will John McCain sign up to endorse that legislation?
- Fourth, what else has Dr. Phil learned from all these cases? Has he
changed any of his views on the morality of tax dodging, money laundering, and predatory lending? Is all this just a matter of "sauve qui peut" -- of whatever we can all get away with, especially the rich? Does John McCain agree with him on such matters? What then remains, alas, of "patriotism" and "national sacrifice," two of McCain's favorite leitmotifs?
- Finally, given that John McCain really does need sound advice on economic issues like the mortgage crisis, taxation, and money laundering from a "qualified intermediary" of his own, does all this experience really qualify Dr. Phil Gramm to fill the bill?
(c) SubmergingMarkets 2008