13 BANKERS: MIT’s Johnson Says Too-Big-to-Fail Banks Will Spark New Crisis

Review by James Pressley :BLOOMBERG REVIEWS

March 22 (Bloomberg) — Alan Greenspan, the master of monetary mumbo jumbo, leaned back in his chair and grew uncharacteristically forthright.

“If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big,” the former Federal Reserve chairman said when asked about the dangers of outsized financial institutions.

It was October 2009, and the man who helped make megabanks possible was sounding more like Teddy Roosevelt than the Maestro as he entertained what he called a radical solution.

“You know, break them up,” he told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “In 1911, we broke up Standard Oil. So what happened? The individual parts became more valuable than the whole.”

Greenspan the bank buster crops up near the end of “13 Bankers,” Simon Johnson and James Kwak’s reasoned look at how Wall Street became what they call “the American oligarchy,” a group of megabanks whose economic power has given them political power. Unless these too-big-to-fail banks are broken up, they will trigger a second meltdown, the authors write.

“And when that crisis comes,” they say, “the government will face the same choice it faced in 2008: to bail out a banking system that has grown even larger and more concentrated, or to let it collapse and risk an economic disaster.”

The banks in their sights include Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Though Wall Street may not like “13 Bankers,” the authors can’t be dismissed as populist rabble-rousers.

Cash for Favors

Johnson is an ex-chief economist for the International Monetary Fund who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kwak is a former McKinsey & Co. consultant. In September 2008, they started the Baseline Scenario, a blog that became essential reading on the crisis. When they call Wall Street an oligarchy, they’re not speaking lightly.

Drawing parallels to the U.S. industrial trusts of the late 19th century and Russian businessmen who rose to economic dominance in the 1990s, the authors apply the term to any country where “well-connected business leaders trade cash and political support for favors from the government.”

Oligarchies weaken democracy and distort competition. The Wall Street bailouts boosted the clout of the survivors, making them bigger and enlarging their market shares in derivatives, new mortgages and new credit cards, the authors say.

Suicidal Risk-Taking

These megabanks emerged from the meltdown more opposed to regulation than ever, the authors say. If they get their way — and they will, judging from current congressional maneuvering over President Barack Obama’s proposed regulatory overhaul — Wall Street will retain its license to gamble with the taxpayer’s money. This isn’t good for anyone, including the banks themselves, which often feel compelled by competitive pressure to take suicidal risks.

“There is another choice,” they write: “the choice to finish the job that Roosevelt began a century ago, and to take a stand against concentrated financial power just as he took a stand against concentrated industrial power.”

Obama finds himself in the middle of a struggle that has coursed throughout U.S. history — the struggle between democracy and powerful banking interests. The book’s title alludes to one Friday last March when 13 of the nation’s most powerful bankers met with Obama at the White House amid a public furor over bailouts and bonuses.

The material that sets this book apart can be found at the beginning and end. Chapters three through six present an all- too-familiar, though meticulously researched, primer on how the economy became “financialized” over the past 30 years.

Regulatory Arbitrage

Crisis buffs won’t miss much if they skip ahead to the last chapter, where the authors debunk arguments that curbing the size of banks is too simplistic. A more complex approach, they say, would invite “regulatory arbitrage, such as reshuffling where assets are parked.”

They propose that no financial institution should be allowed to control or have an ownership interest in assets worth more than 4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, or roughly $570 billion in assets today. A lower limit should be imposed on investment banks — effectively 2 percent of GDP, or roughly $285 billion, they say.

If hard caps sound unreasonable, consider this: These ceilings would affect only six banks, the authors say: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

“Saying that we cannot break up our largest banks is saying that our economic futures depend on these six companies,” they say. “That thought should frighten us into action.”

Though Jamie Dimon won’t like this (any more than John D. Rockefeller did), incremental regulatory changes and populist rhetoric about “banksters” are getting us nowhere. It’s time for practical solutions. This might be a place to start.

“13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown” is from Pantheon (304 pages, $26.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(James Pressley writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: James Pressley in Brussels at jpressley@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: March 21, 2010 20:00 EDT

By: Simon Johnson
The Baseline Scenario

Fed Ends Bank Exemption Aimed at Boosting Mortgage Liquidity: Bloomberg

By Craig Torres

March 20 (Bloomberg) — The Federal Reserve Board removed an exemption it had given to six banks at the start of the crisis in 2007 aimed at boosting liquidity in financing markets for securities backed by mortgage- and asset-backed securities.

The so-called 23-A exemptions, named after a section of the Federal Reserve Act that limits such trades to protect bank depositors, were granted days after the Fed cut the discount rate by half a percentage point on Aug. 17, 2007. Their removal, announced yesterday in Washington, is part of a broad wind-down of emergency liquidity backstops by the Fed as markets normalize.

The decision in 2007 underscores how Fed officials defined the mortgage-market disruptions that year as partly driven by liquidity constraints. In hindsight, some analysts say that diagnosis turned out to be wrong.

“It was a way to prevent further deleveraging of the financial system, but that happened anyway,” said Dino Kos, managing director at Portales Partners LLC and former head of the New York Fed’s open market operations. “The underlying problem was solvency. The Fed was slow to recognize that.”

The Fed ended the exemptions in nearly identical letters to the Royal Bank of Scotland Plc, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Deutsche Bank AG, and Barclays Bank Plc posted on its Web site.

Backstop Liquidity

The Fed’s intent in 2007 was to provide backstop liquidity for financial markets through the discount window. In a chain of credit, investors would obtain collateralized loans from dealers, dealers would obtain collateralized loans from banks, and then banks could pledge collateral to the Fed’s discount window for 30-day credit. In Citigroup’s case, the exemption allowed such lending to its securities unit up to $25 billion.

“The goal was to stop the hemorrhaging of risk capital,” said Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP LLC in Jersey City, New Jersey. “Investors were being forced out of the securities market because they couldn’t fund their positions, even in higher-quality assets in some cases.”

Using mortgage bonds without government-backed guarantees as collateral for private-market financing began to get more difficult in August 2007 following the collapse of two Bear Stearns Cos. hedge funds.

As terms for loans secured by mortgage bonds got “massively” tighter, haircuts, or the excess in collateral above the amount borrowed, on AAA home-loan securities rose that month from as little as 3 percent to as much as 10 percent, according to a UBS AG report.

Lehman Collapse

By February 2008, haircuts climbed to 20 percent, investor Luminent Mortgage Capital Inc. said at the time. After Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed in September 2008, the loans almost disappeared.

“These activities were intended to allow the bank to extend credit to market participants in need of short-term liquidity to finance” holdings of mortgage loans and asset- backed securities, said the Fed board’s letter dated yesterday to Kathleen Juhase, associate general counsel of JPMorgan. “In light of this normalization of the term for discount window loans, the Board has terminated the temporary section 23-A exemption.”

The “normalization” refers to the Fed’s reduction in the term of discount window loans to overnight credit starting two days ago from a month previously.

The Fed eventually loaned directly to securities firms and opened the discount window to primary dealers in March 2008. Borrowings under the Primary Dealer Credit Facility soared to $146.5 billion on Oct. 1, 2008, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers two weeks earlier. Borrowings fell to zero in May 2009. The Fed closed the facility last month, along with three other emergency liquidity backstops.

Discount Rate

The Fed also raised the discount rate a quarter point in February to 0.75 percent, moving it closer to its normal spread over the federal funds rate of 1 percentage point.

The one interest rate the Fed hasn’t changed since the depths of the crisis is the benchmark lending rate. Officials kept the target for overnight loans among banks in a range of zero to 0.25 percent on March 16, where it has stood since December 2008, while retaining a pledge to keep rates low “for an extended period.”

Removing the 23-A exemptions shows the Fed wants to get “back to normal,” said Laurence Meyer, a former Fed governor and vice chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers LLC in Washington. “Everything has gone back to normal except monetary policy.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Craig Torres in Washington at ctorres3@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: March 20, 2010 00:00 EDT

Federal Reserve Must Disclose Bank Bailout Records (Update5): We love Bloomberg.com

SHOCK & AWE …I’m betting! Thanks to Bloomberg for the lawsuit to DISCLOSE! Notice how both Bloomberg & Huffington are always the ones who go after the banksters…Because they probably don’t use the banksters to fund them!

By David Glovin and Bob Van Voris

March 19 (Bloomberg) — The Federal Reserve Board must disclose documents identifying financial firms that might have collapsed without the largest U.S. government bailout ever, a federal appeals court said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled today that the Fed must release records of the unprecedented $2 trillion U.S. loan program launched primarily after the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. The ruling upholds a decision of a lower-court judge, who in August ordered that the information be released.

The Fed had argued that disclosure of the documents threatens to stigmatize borrowers and cause them “severe and irreparable competitive injury,” discouraging banks in distress from seeking help. A three-judge panel of the appeals court rejected that argument in a unanimous decision.

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, “sets forth no basis for the exemption the Board asks us to read into it,” U.S. Circuit Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote in the opinion. “If the Board believes such an exemption would better serve the national interest, it should ask Congress to amend the statute.”

The opinion may not be the final word in the bid for the documents, which was launched by Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, with a November 2008 lawsuit. The Fed may seek a rehearing or appeal to the full appeals court and eventually petition the U.S. Supreme Court.

Right to Know

If today’s ruling is upheld or not appealed by the Fed, it will have to disclose the requested records. That may lead to “catastrophic” results, including demands for the instant disclosure of banks seeking help from the Fed, resulting in a “death sentence” for such financial institutions, said Chris Kotowski, a bank analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York.

“Whenever the Fed extends funds to a bank, it should be disclosed in private to the Congressional oversight committees, but to release it to the public I think would be a horrific mistake,” Kotowski said in an interview. “It would stigmatize the banks, it would lead to all kinds of second-guessing of the Fed, and I don’t see what public purpose is served by it.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, said the decision was a “major victory” for U.S. taxpayers.

“This money does not belong to the Federal Reserve,” Sanders said in a statement. “It belongs to the American people, and the American people have a right to know where more than $2 trillion of their money has gone.”

Fed Review

The Fed is reviewing the decision and considering its options for reconsideration or appeal, Fed spokesman David Skidmore said.

“We’re obviously pleased with the court’s decision, which is an important affirmation of the public’s right to know what its government is up to,” said Thomas Golden, a partner at New York-based Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP and Bloomberg’s outside counsel.

The court was asked to decide whether loan records are covered by FOIA. Historically, the type of government documents sought in the case has been protected from public disclosure because they might reveal competitive trade secrets.

The Fed had argued that it could withhold the information under an exemption that allows federal agencies to refuse disclosure of “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.”

Payment Processors

The Clearing House Association, which processes payments among banks, joined the case and sided with the Fed. The group includes ABN Amro Bank NV, a unit of Royal Bank of Scotland Plc, Bank of America Corp., The Bank of New York Mellon Corp., Citigroup Inc., Deutsche Bank AG, HSBC Holdings Plc, JPMorgan Chase & Co., US Bancorp and Wells Fargo & Co.

Paul Saltzman, general counsel for the Clearing House, said the decision did not address the “fundamental issue” of whether disclosure would “competitively harm” borrower banks.

“The Second Circuit declined to follow the decisions of other circuit courts recognizing that disclosure of certain confidential information can impair the effectiveness of government programs, such as lending programs,” Saltzman said in a statement.

The Clearing House is considering whether to ask for a rehearing by the full Second Circuit and, ultimately, review by the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

Deep Crisis

Oscar Suris, a spokesman for Wells Fargo, JPMorgan spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli, Bank of New York Mellon spokesman Kevin Heine, HSBC spokeswoman Juanita Gutierrez and RBS spokeswoman Linda Harper all declined to comment. Deutsche Bank spokesman Ronald Weichert couldn’t immediately comment. Bank of America declined to comment, Scott Silvestri said. Citigroup spokeswoman Shannon Bell declined to comment. U.S. Bancorp spokesman Steve Dale didn’t return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment.

Bloomberg, majority-owned by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, sued after the Fed refused to name the firms it lent to or disclose loan amounts or assets used as collateral under its lending programs. Most of the loans were made in response to the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Lawyers for Bloomberg argued in court that the public has the right to know basic information about the “unprecedented and highly controversial use” of public money.

“Bloomberg has been trying for almost two years to break down a brick wall of secrecy in order to vindicate the public’s right to learn basic information,” Golden wrote in court filings.

Potential Harm

Banks and the Fed warned that bailed-out lenders may be hurt if the documents are made public, causing a run or a sell- off by investors. Disclosure may hamstring the Fed’s ability to deal with another crisis, they also argued.

Much of the debate at the appeals court argument on Jan. 11 centered on the potential harm to banks if it was revealed that they borrowed from the Fed’s so-called discount window. Matthew Collette, a lawyer for the government, said banks don’t do that unless they have liquidity problems.

FOIA requires federal agencies to make government documents available to the press and public. An exception to the statute protects trade secrets and privileged or confidential financial data. In her Aug. 24 ruling, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in New York said the exception didn’t apply because there’s no proof banks would suffer.

Tripartite Test

In its opinion today, the appeals court said that the exception applies only if the agency can satisfy a three-part test. The information must be a trade secret or commercial or financial in character; must be obtained from a person; and must be privileged or confidential, according to the opinion.

The court said that the information sought by Bloomberg was not “obtained from” the borrowing banks. It rejected an alternative argument the individual Federal Reserve Banks are “persons,” for purposes of the law because they would not suffer the kind of harm required under the “privileged and confidential” requirement of the exemption.

In a related case, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in New York previously sided with the Fed and refused to order the agency to release Fed documents that Fox News Network sought. The appeals court today returned that case to Hellerstein and told him to order the Fed to conduct further searches for documents and determine whether the documents should be disclosed.

“We are pleased that this information is finally, and rightfully, going to be made available to the American public,” said Kevin Magee, Executive Vice President of Fox Business Network, in a statement.

Balance Sheet Debt

The Fed’s balance sheet debt doubled after lending standards were relaxed following Lehman’s failure on Sept. 15, 2008. That year, the Fed began extending credit directly to companies that weren’t banks for the first time since the 1930s. Total central bank lending exceeded $2 trillion for the first time on Nov. 6, 2008, reaching $2.14 trillion on Sept. 23, 2009.

More than a dozen other groups or companies filed friend- of-the-court briefs. Those arguing for disclosure of the records included the American Society of News Editors and individual news organizations.

“It’s gratifying that the court recognizes the considerable interest in knowing what is being done with our tax dollars,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Virginia.

“We’ve learned some powerful lessons in the last 18 months that citizens need to pay more attention to what’s going on in the financial world. This decision will make it easier to do that.”

The case is Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 09-04083, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (New York).

To contact the reporters on this story: David Glovin in New York at dglovin@bloomberg.net; Bob Van Voris in New York at vanvoris@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: March 19, 2010 16:15 EDT

also see  huffington post articles on this

HARVARD LAW AND ECONOMIC ISSUES IN SUBPRIME LITIGATION 2008

This in combination with A.K. Barnett-Hart’s Thesis make’s one hell of a Discovery.

 
LEGAL AND ECONOMIC ISSUES IN
SUBPRIME LITIGATION
Jennifer E. Bethel*
Allen Ferrell**
Gang Hu***
 

Discussion Paper No. 612

03/2008

Harvard Law School Cambridge, MA 02138

 

 ABSTRACT

This paper explores the economic and legal causes and consequences of recent difficulties in the subprime mortgage market. We provide basic descriptive statistics and institutional details on the mortgage origination process, mortgage-backed securities (MBS), and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). We examine a number of aspects of these markets, including the identity of MBS and CDO sponsors, CDO trustees, CDO liquidations, MBS insured and registered amounts, the evolution of MBS tranche structure over time, mortgage originations, underwriting quality of mortgage originations, and write-downs of investment banks. In light of this discussion, the paper then addresses questions as to how these difficulties might have not been foreseen, and some of the main legal issues that will play an important role in the extensive subprime litigation (summarized in the paper) that is underway, including the Rule 10b-5 class actions that have already been filed against the investment banks, pending ERISA litigation, the causes-of-action available to MBS and CDO purchasers, and litigation against the rating agencies. In the course of this discussion, the paper highlights three distinctions that will likely prove central in the resolution of this litigation: The distinction between reasonable ex ante expectations and the occurrence of ex post losses; the distinction between the transparency of the quality of the underlying assets being securitized and the transparency as to which market participants are exposed to subprime losses; and, finally, the distinction between what investors and market participants knew versus what individual entities in the structured finance process knew, particularly as to macroeconomic issues such as the state of the national housing market. ex ante expectations and the occurrence of ex post losses; the distinction between the transparency of the quality of the underlying assets being securitized and the transparency as to which market participants are exposed to subprime losses; and, finally, the distinction between what investors and market participants knew versus what individual entities in the structured finance process knew, particularly as to macroeconomic issues such as the state of the national housing market. 

 continue reading the paper harvard-paper-diagrams

 
 

 

‘Hail Mary’ to Warren Buffett: Untold Details of Lehman’s Fall

March 11, 2010, 6:15 PM ET

‘Hail Mary’ to Warren Buffett: Untold Details of Lehman’s Fall

By Matt Phillips

Doubtless, historians will be going over the mammoth 2,200 page report from the Lehman bankruptcy examiner for years to come.

But we bloggers are writing the first draft now. And there’s plenty of good fodder on Lehman’s final days, including fresh details on its effort to get support from billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

Now, it’s well known that Lehman reached out to Buffett in its final months. The Journal’s Scott Patterson wrote about the Oracle’s decision to pass on Lehman in a story back in December.

But the level of detail provided by this report is pretty astounding. It offers a pretty amazing snapshot of Buffett’s conversation with Lehman CEO Dick Fuld as well as a remarkable window on how the Oracle negotiates during times of crisis.

The report really reads like a novel, so we’ll just give you the sections here:

Fuld and Buffett spoke on Friday, March 28, 2008. They discussed Buffett investing at least $2 billion in Lehman. Two items immediately concerned Buffet during his conversation with Fuld. First, Buffett wanted Lehman executives to buy under the same terms as Buffett. Fuld explained to the Examiner that he was reluctant to require a significant buy‐in from Lehman executives, because they already received much of their compensation in stock. However, Buffett took it as a negative that Fuld suggested that Lehman executives were not willing to participate in a significant way. Second, Buffett did not like that Fuld complained about short sellers. Buffett thought that blaming short sellers was indicative of a failure to admit one’s own problems.

Following his conversation with Buffett, Fuld asked Paulson to call Buffett, which Paulson reluctantly did. Buffett told the Examiner that during that call, Paulson signaled that he would like Buffett to invest in Lehman, but Paulson “did not load the dice.” Buffett spent the rest of Friday, March 28, 2008, reviewing Lehman’s 10‐K and noting problems with some of Lehman’s assets. Buffett’s concerns centered around Lehman’s real estate and high yield investments, lending‐related commitments derivatives and their related credit‐market risk, Level III assets and Lehman’s securitization activity. On Saturday, March 29, 2008, Buffett learned of a $100 million problem in Japan that Fuld had not mentioned during their discussions, and Buffett was concerned that Fuld had not been forthcoming about the issue. The problems Buffett saw in the 10‐K along with Fuld’s failure to alert Buffett to the issue in Japan cemented Buffett’s decision not to invest in Lehman.

At some point in their conversations, Fuld and Buffett also discovered that there had been a miscommunication about the conversion price. Buffett was interested only in convertible preferred shares. Buffett told Fuld that he was willing to agree to a $40 conversion price per share, while Fuld thought Buffett was offering to buy in at “up‐ 40,” or 40% above the current market price, which would have been about $56 per share. On Friday, March 28, 2008, Lehman’s stock closed at $37.87. Fuld spoke to Lehman’s Executive Committee and several Board members about his conversations with Buffett. Lehman recognized that an investment by Buffett would provide a “stamp of approval.” However, Lehman already had better offers for its April capital raise, and Lehman did not think it could give a better deal to Buffett at the same time it gave a less attractive deal to others. On Monday, March 31, 2008, before Buffett could tell Fuld that he was not interested, Fuld called Buffett to say that Lehman could not accept his terms.

Last‐Ditch Effort with Buffett

[Hugh “Skip” E. McGee, III, the head of Lehman’s Investment Banking Division] contacted [President David L. Sokol, president of Berkshire Hathaway’s MidAmerican Energy] again in late August or early September 2008 and outlined Lehman’s “Gameplan” for survival, specifically SpinCo. During a subsequent telephone call with Sokol, McGee explained the “good bank/bad bank” scenario and stated that Lehman would need an investor. Sokol believed the e‐mail and call were intended to induce Sokol to pass that information on to Buffett, so Sokol briefed Buffett on SpinCo. Buffett thought the idea would not solve Lehman’s problems.

Sometime during the week prior to Lehman’s bankruptcy, McGee again reached out to Sokol with what both Sokol and McGee described to the Examiner as a “Hail Mary” pass. McGee asked, “Do you have any ideas to save us?” Sokol, who was bear hunting in Alaska at the time, told McGee that he did not.

Judging by the inclusion of the largely irrelevant bear hunting detail at the end, we can tell that this report was written by a frustrated novelist. (And they did an amazing job.) But what we find most remarkable is the insight these sections offer on how Buffett assesses companies.

It’s simple–but not easy–as he combines 10-K analysis with probing questions to management.

Are they willing to put their own money at risk? Are they being upfront? Are they giving investors the full story?

Clearly Buffett didn’t think so.