Thursday, May 06, 2010
THE GOLDMAN SACHS CASE Part III: "Jokers to My Right" James S. Henry
Well, la gente Americano may not know the difference between a synthetic CDO and a snow shovel, but the masses are clearly frothing for a taste of banquero al la brasa, fresh from the spit.
"Financial reform," whatever that means, is now far more popular than "health care reform." And it has only recently become even more so, in the wake of all the recent investigations and prosecutions -- Warren Buffett might say "persecutions" -- of the "demon bank" Goldman Sachs.
Evidently the masses' appetite for banker blood was only slightly sated by the SEC's April 16th civil charges against Goldman, Senator Levin's 11-hour show-trial of senior Goldman officials on April 27, and the "entirely coincidental" announcement on April 30th that the US Justice Department -- which is under strong political pressure to bring more fraud cases to trial, but also tends to screw them up -- has launched a criminal investigation into Goldman's mortgage trading.
In the wake of this populist uprising, Senate Republicans have suddenly adopted "financial reform" as their cause too, allowing the Senate to commence debate this week on Senator Dodd's 1600-page reform bill.
However, this promises to be a lengthy process. While reform proponents like US PIRG and Americans for Financial Reform were hoping for final action as early as this week, Senator Reid now expects to have a Senate bill by Memorial Day at the earliest, and Obama only expects to be able to sign a bill by September.
That's just two months ahead of the fall 2010 elections, so there's not much room for error. But the beleaguered Democrats may just be figuring that they'd rather bash banks than run on their rather mixed track record on health care reform, unemployment, climate change, and offshore drilling, let alone -- Wodin forbid -- immigration reform.
In any case, Senator Dodd's bill has now been through more permutations than a Greek budget forecast. The latest one discards the $50 billion bank restructuring fund as well as new reporting requirements that would helped to spot abusive lending practices.
These concessions apparently were part of retiring Senator Chris Dodd's Grail-like
quest for that elusive 60th (Republican) vote -- rumored to be hidden away and guarded by an ancient secret order known as "Maine Republicans."
A GOAT RODEO
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, leading Republicans, aided by several Democrats from big-bank states like New York, California, and Illinois, and countless lobbyists, have been trying to weaken other key provisions in the bill, which was already pretty tame to begin with.
The most important measures at issue pertain to derivatives and proprietary trading, the power of the new Consumer Financial Products Bureau (especially, according to Senator Shelby, the Federal Reserve's shameless power grab over orthodontists), the regulation of large "non-banks," and (interestingly, from a states' rights perspective) the power of states to preempt federal regulation.
On the other hand, the bill has also inspired dozens of amendments from a cross-section of Senators who appear to be genuinely concerned -- even apart from the opportunities for grandstanding -- that the Dodd bill isn't nearly hard-hitting enough.
Some of these amendments are purely populist anger-management devices that don't really have much to do with preventing future financial crises.
These include Senator Sanders' proposals to revive usury laws and audit the Federal Reserve, a proposal by Senators Barbara Boxer and Jim Webb for a one-time surtax on bank bonuses, Senator Mark Udall's proposal for free credit reports, and Senator Tom Harkin's proposal to cap ATM fees.
The very first amendment adopted was also in this performative utterance category: Senator Barbara Boxer's bold declaration that "no taxpayer funds shall be used" to prevent the liquidation of any financial company in "receivership."
Cynics were quick to point out that in any real banking crisis, this kind of broad promise would be unenforceable, since it would also be among the very first measures to be repealed.
Other proposed amendments sound like more serious attempts at structural reform.
These include the Brown-Kaufman amendment that tries to limit the number of "too big to fail" institutions by placing upper limits on the share of system-wide insured deposits and other liabilities held by any one bank holding company, and the Merkley-Levin amendment, which attempts to "ban" proprietary trading and hedge fund investments by US banks, and also defines tougher fiduciary standards for market-makers.
But so far neither of these measures has received the imprimatur of the Senate Banking Committee, let alone Senator Reid. This means that for all practical purposes they are may amount to escape valves for venting popular steam, but little more.
This is especially true, given the delayed schedule that Reid, Dodd, and the Obama Administration seem to have accepted, which will relieve the pressure for such reforms.
Furthermore, upon closer inspection, both proposals leave much to be desired. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that they dreamed up by Hill staffers on the midnight shift to appease the latest cause célèbre,
For example, the Brown-Kaufman amendment, highly touted by chic liberal "banking experts" like Simon Johnson, doesn't mandate the seizure and breakup of any particular large-scale financial institutions directly. Nor does empower the FTC to set tougher standards for competition in this industry, as it might have done, or even specify what kind of industry structure would be desirable from the standpoint of avoiding banking crises.
To a large extent that simply reflects the paucity of knowledge about the relationship between structure and behavior in financial services. As a bootstrap, the amendment specifies arbitrary caps on bank activities that may or may not be related to actual misbehavior -- for example, the share of "insured deposits" managed by any one bank holding company (≤ 10%), and the ratio of "non-deposit liabilities to US GDP" (≤ 2%).
This has arbitrary consequences. Under the limits in the amendment, for example, Wells Fargo and Citigroup, the # 4 and #1 banks in the country by asset size, would nearly avoid any breakup, while JPMorgan and BankAmerica would feel much more pressure.
Meanwhile, evil Goldman Sachs' minimal .3% shares under both limits would leave it plenty of room to grow -- perhaps even by acquiring the extra share that the "Big Four" would have to spin off.
Furthermore, even the largest US institutions might be able to avoid the caps by devoting more attention to large-scale private banking customers, whose deposits and other investments would avoid these regulations, or by conducting more of their risky business through offshore banking centers.
Indeed, this also suggests a key problem with the Merkley-Levin amendment as well: it is a US solo act. It completely ignores the fact that even our largest banks, and the US financial system as a whole, are part of a competitive global financial market.
As this week's Greco-European financial crisis has underscored, to be effective, bank regulation and structural reform must be conducted on a coordinated international basis. Unilateral initiatives only drive bad behavior to the myriad of under-regulated offshore and onshore financial centers.
From this perspective, I'm surprised that Senator Levin, a long-time critic of offshore financial centers, has proceed in such a ham-handed way with this. This was his year to finally round up global support to crack down on offshore centers -- a precondition for effective global bank regulation. Instead he decided to target Goldman and pursue this wayward, sloppy attempt at unilateral reform -- as if the Isle of Man, Guernsey, Jersey, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands, let alone London and Zurich and Singapore and Hong Kong, are not waiting in the wings.
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
CONSOLIDATION (UNDER BOTH PARTIES)
First, as shown in the above chart, the US banking industry has indeed undergone a major structural transformation, especially December 1992. The following 15 years became the era of Wild West banking, when all the lessons that should have been learned from the Third World debt crisis were forgotten. It became an era of rampant deregulation, rising US public and private debt levels, and asset speculation.
The impacts on financial structure were far reaching and rapid. Back in December 1992, there were more than 13,500 banks, and the top four US banks accounted for less than 10 percent of the sector's jobs.
Already by 1998, there was a decided increase in this concentration level, to more than 20 percent. Today there are fewer than 8000 banks. The top 4 alone -- Citigroup, JPMorganChase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo -- now employ more than 800,000 people, over 40 percent of the US total. Indeed, together with the failed banks they acquired, the top four banks have accounted for almost all the sector's employment growth; the rest of the sector has shrunk.
Tiny Goldman has also been growing, but it now only accounts for about 18,900, less than 10 percent of any one of the top four.
This growing concentration is also reflected in most key US banking markets, especially the markets for deposits, overall bank loans, real estate loans in general, home mortgages, and credit derivatives. As indicated, in each of these markets, the market share commanded by top four banks has increased from less than 10 percent in 1992 to 40-50 percent or more by 2010. In the case of the credit derivatives market, the share now approaches 90 percent.
Nor has this increasing concentration been accounted for by superior performance. Indeed, the "big four" also now account for more than 78 percent of all bad home mortgages -- behind in payments, or suspended entirely. While some of that is accounted for by the acquisition of failing institutions, most of it is not.
THE ECONOMICS OF GOLDMAN BASHING
Third, once again, for the sake of Goldman bashers in the audience, as indicated above, its share of each of these key market indicators is trivial. Even in credit derivatives, the segment for which Goldman has taken such a beating, its market share today is just 8 percent, compared to the "Big Four's" commanding 88 percent. And Goldman's share of real estate loans, home loans, insured and uninsured bank deposits, and bad home mortgages are even lower.
Just to pick one example: today the "top 4" banks have more than $204 billion of bad home loans, compared with Goldman's $0.0 of such loans.
From this standpoint, the Levin hearings were a stellar example of completely ignoring industry economics. They singled out a smaller, more successful, widely-envied target for political scapegoating, while ignoring the much more economically much more important financial giants.
THE MORTGAGE-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
The key driver on the domestic side of all these developments is a political-economy complex that in the long run has had perhaps as profound an influence on our nation's political and economic system as the legendary "military industrial" complex. This is what we've called (in the first chart above) the "US mortgage-industrial complex," including financial institutions, real estate firms, and insurance companies. From 1992 to 2010, in comparable $2010, this industry spent an average of $2793 per day per US Senator and Congressman on federal campaign contributions and lobbying -- far more than the corresponding levels in the 1970s and 1980s.
Except for the insurance industry -- where health care reform efforts by Clinton and Obama tilted the giving -- Democrats and Republicans have more or less divided this kitty pretty evenly. It is also important to note that more than 71 percent of total federal spending by these industries from 1990 to 2010 was on lobbyists, not campaign contributions. While cases like the recent Citizens United decision may affect this balance,
Furthermore, within the financial services industry, the top four US banks alone have accounted for at least 20 percent of all spending on federal lobbying and campaign contributions (in comparable $2010) from 1992 to 2010. Investment banks as a group -- including Goldman, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, UBS, Credit Suisse, and their key predecessors, especially Paine Webber and Dean Witter -- added another 8 percent. But once again, by comparison, and contrary to its reputation as the premier political operator in Washington, Goldman Sach's share of total "real" spending on lobbying and contributions was relatively small -- just 2.2 percent.
This was just 40 percent of what Citigroup spent, and less than 60 percent of what JPMorganChase spent during this same period.
C'mon guys -- Is it any really wonder that Jamie Dimon gets invited to the Obama White House for dinner while Lloyd Blankfein gets served for dinner on a spit up on the Hill?
Ironically, if it were just a question of a given institution's loyalty to the Democratic Party, Goldman -- and indeed Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns as well -- would have clearly had the inside edge. As shown below, these investment firms clearly preferred Democrats over the long haul.
Ironically, to paraphrase Senator Levin, especially in Goldman's case the Democratic Party appears at least so far to have "put its own interests and profits" first, basically turning a blind eye -- at least so far -- to the substantially much larger potential misbehavior of the "big four."
Meanwhile, when President Obama traveled to New York two weeks ago to give a speech on the urgent need for financial reform, the peripatetic Mr. Dimon could be found in Chicago. He was rumored to have met with CME and/or Board of Trade executives to prepare to invest in an exciting new "derivatives exchange," should JPMorgan need to transfer its substantial share of that business -- several times Goldman's market share, even in credit derivatives -- to an open exchange.
JOKERS TO MY RIGHT
So all this concentration of political and economic power in US financial markets would appear to make a strong prima facie case for a serious structural reform, perhaps even along the lines of the Brown-Kaufman amendment, n'est pas? Unfortunately, no.
As we argued earlier, that amendment sets very crude targets that bear little immediate relationship to bank misbehavior or even political influence. At worst, the caps might just force bad behavior like risky derivatives and hedge fund investing offshore. And the bill's current caps would, at best, just force banks like Cit, JPM, and BankAmerica to shed less than 10 percent of their market shares, setting them back to -- say -- 2005 levels.
In other words, they're not a substitute for effective regulation. But that puts us back in the chicken-egg problem with "regulatory capture."
My own particular solution to these dilemmas is suggested by the following chart -- although it also suggests
that the most opportune time to implement it has already come and gone. In terms of the current banal American political discourse, it would be probably be quickly dismissed as 'socialist," although that term is such a catch-all that it has really become virtually useless, except as a device for red-baiting timid liberals.
THE CHILEAN MODEL
So don't take my word for it; let's ask the ghost of Chile's General Pinochet, whom I'm quite certain no one ever accused of being a "socialist," at least not to his face. For years he was best known among economists as one of the key political proponents of Milton Friedman's so-called "Chicago School" of ultra-free market economics. But in February 1983, during a severe crisis when all the banks in Chile failed, Pinochet showed that he could be quite pragmatic -- with a little arm-twisting from from leading US banks, which threatened to cut off his trade lines if he didn't nationalize the banks' debts.
So, after swearing up and down that private debts and private banks would never be nationalized, Pinochet's government did so. Three to six years later, after restructuring the banks and cleaning them up, and privatizing their substantial investments in other companies, they were sold back to the Chilean people and the private sector -- for a nice profit. (Similar policies were also followed by "socialist" Sweden in the case of a 1990s banking crisis, but the Pinochet example provides a more instructive example for so-called conservatives. Much earlier, General Douglas MacArthur, a lifelong Republican, also employed similar pragmatic tactics in restructuring Japanese banks in the early 1950s.)
Now this is the plan that the US Treasury (under Paulson and then Geithner) might have adopted in the Fall 2008 - Spring 2010, if only it had not been so hide-bound -- and in the case of the Obama Administration, so wary of being termed a "socialist."
In hindsight, the economics of such a pragmatic temporary government takeover and reprivatization would have been compelling. At its market low in March 2009, the combined "market cap" of the "big four" banks was just $120 billion -- including $5 billion for Citi and $15 billion for Bank of American. This was a mere fraction of the capital and loans that were ultimately provided to them. (At that point Goldman's market cap had fallen to $37 billion from $80 billion a year earlier -- not as steep a decline as the giants, but clearly no picnic for its shareholders, either.)
Only a year later, while the "demon bank" Goldman has recovered to more or less where it was in June 2008, before the crisis, the market cap of the "top four" US banks is now nearly six times higher than its low in March 2009, and, indeed, at an all time high -- well above both previous peaks.
Too bad the US taxpayers have only captured a small fraction of that $500 billion industry gain.
Too bad the US Treasury hasn't exercized strong "socialist" control over these institutions, changing the way they behavior directly, and restructuring them in the interests of the economy as a whole before selling them back to the private sector.
Too bad that "big four" lobbyists are now back in force on the ground in Washington DC, influencing the fine print of the "financial reform" bill in ways that we will probably only understand years hence. Despite its woes, undoubtedly this will be a bumper year for political spending by the financial services industry.
Of course, President Obama IS now being widely demonized as a "socialist" -- anyway.
(c)JSH, SubmergingMarkets, 2010
May 6, 2010 at 02:10 AM | Permalink
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference