Tag Archives: financial regulation

Things That Go Bump In The Night and Things That Are Making More Noise Than Sense

Another week of the Trumpster Fire, another week of news from a fire hose, and another week during which we, as news consumers, are required to filter wheat from chaff, and the relevant from the nearly irrelevant.  What things bumping in the night should be attended to? Which can be set off to the side and safely ignored for the moment.

Bumps With More Noise Than Significance

Preliminary public polling results.  The Press/Media is enamored of the latest rendition of The Great Blue Wave.  This is one of the least informative ways of filling one’s air-time.  First, national preference polling is interesting, but all elections are local.  While some members of the punditry are beginning to mouth the words “vote suppression,” and “gerrymandering,” not enough information and analysis has been shared about the effects of these GOP efforts to maintain control of the Congress, and of state elections. Secondly,  there are no national elections for Congressional seats — to state the perfectly obvious.  Those elections will be determined by candidate recruitment and quality, personnel and monetary resources, and campaign competence.  None of these, with the possible exception of shared mailing lists and big donors (monetary resources) is national in scope.  Third, some campaigns will be assisted by the efforts of third party groups. For example, are Union members out canvassing? Are students out doing registration drives?  Are small groups of activists providing services like rides to the polls? The extent and nature of these ancillary groups and their activities will have an impact, we just don’t know the extent to date.  None of this will be “news” to anyone who’s been paying attention to American civic life for the last few decades.

Just because it’s on the news doesn’t necessarily mean it’s important.  The occupant of the Oval Office and some members of the media are still playing the DC parlor game, “Who is Anonymous?” Or anonomus or anamonomous or whatever.  I’m still working on why this might be important.  For my money we still have staff in the executive branch who are willing to explode the national debt in service to tax cuts for the top 0.01% of American income earners, at ease with putting 12,000 children in “detention” facilities for an indefinite period, and quite pleased to allow health insurance companies to charge people with pre-existing medical conditions more for their premiums.  That these people will occasionally arise on their hind legs and proclaim the Great One has gone too far doesn’t impress me.  What would impress me?

How about more attention paid to this nugget:

“Besides family, one of the only people Trump continues to trust is Stephen Miller. “The op-ed has validated Miller’s view, which was also Steve Bannon’s, that there’s an ‘administrative state’ out to get Trump,” a Republican close to the White House said. “There is a coup, and it’s not slow-rolling or concealed,” Bannon told me. “Trump believes there’s a coup,” a person familiar with his thinking said.”

And thus our Oval Office Occupant (Or Triple Zero if spelled 0val 0ffice 0ccupant) is more heavily reliant on a blatantly racist, far right wing conspiracy fabulist, who stokes the Occupant’s most divisive tendencies?  This seems to call for more analysis, and yet the punditry still grasps the Who-Done-It? segment, or pontificates upon the “effect” of the infamous Op-Ed on the President’s “mind set.”  Clue number one a White Nationalist was influencing the 000 might have been the initial Muslim ban?  More clues — no DACA agreement  by Congressional Democrats was ever going to be satisfactory — no one ‘would care’ that there might be children separated from their parents at the southern border — it’s considered acceptable to move funds from FEMA and the Coast Guard to pay for more ICE detention facilities —  it’s supposed to be all right for asylum seeking families to be kept in these detention facilities indefinitely?

Things Not Making So Much Noise But Nevertheless Important

Health care and health insurance.  There is nothing the GOP would enjoy so much as repealing the last semi-colon and comma of the Affordable Care Act.  We’ve heard the “more competition” argument currently coming from the House Speaker before.  It doesn’t make any more sense now than it did then.  Health insurance is not a product analogous to purchasing a motor vehicle or any other consumer product.  One doesn’t choose to get hit by a bus, or hit with a cancer diagnosis, or hit with a complicated pregnancy — or even an uncomplicated one for that matter.

Consumer protection.  While the great fire hose emits its inundation of noise about all things Trumpian, consumer protections enacted to prevent yet another Wall Street melt down are under attack.  The student loan market is being “deregulated.”  Not a good thing.  The smaller issues involved in the Dodd Frank Act have been resolved with some bipartisan legislation, but the administration wants to go further — and the assortment of Goldman Sachs alums in the administration are being ever so helpful in this regard.  Left unchecked we’re going to see another round of de-regulation, which didn’t work out so well for us the last time.  Caveat Emptor American consumer — be careful before voting for any candidate who vows to cut red tape and diminish the “burdens” of regulations — like those preventing the next melt down in the Wall Street Casino.

It’s the Stupid Economy.   Yes. Wall Street has been doing quite nicely thank you very much. I maintain my position that the worst business news is readily available on most broadcast networks.  If a person believes that the DJIA represents the state of the American economy then they’re in for more surprises like the ones which emerged in 2007-08.   Information like real median household income trends is available from FRED, but before we get too excited note median household income numbers may be obscuring other figures like wages adjusted for inflation for full time employees.   Further, what’s being added in to the mix as “income?”  All income includes everything from unemployment benefits to returns on investments.  It’s those returns on investments that have made some very nice progress over the last ten years…wages maybe not so much.  We’re on our own to dive more deeply into the wage issues and income distribution data.  There’s some good news, some bad news, and some news to think about like the 16 straight quarters we’ve had of increasing domestic household debt.  So, it’s time for the question:  Are we seeing candidates for Congress who acknowledge the need for common sense controls on Wall Street casino operations? Who are aware and concerned for wage and salary workers and their economic security?  Are we getting more noise from the highly generalized pie in the sky theoretical visionaries who want us to believe that those with great wealth are going to buy all the homes, cars, washing machines, shoes, movie tickets, and restaurant meals necessary to keep the US economy rolling on?

I could use a little more light on these subjects, and perhaps a bit less bump in the night stuff about a “crisis on the border” (manufactured by the current administration) or “The Press Is Out To Get Me,” from Orange Blossom.   And, I’m looking for Congressional and Senate Candidates who will speak to me about how to fix problems, rather than shout at me about how to fix the blame for them.  I’d like for political discourse to make more sense than noise.

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Filed under anti-immigration, banking, Economy, financial regulation, Health Care, health insurance, Heller, Nevada politics, Politics

Dear Congressman, Why Are You

From the Department of Thanks A Bunch But Don’t Do Me Any More Favors

“Nevada’s premiums on the health-care exchange are likely to increase by about $843 next year as a result of Congress’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate and a new Trump administration rule on short-term health insurance plans, according to a new report from the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

The report, released Friday, found that annual premiums nationwide will increase from an average of about $6,176 to $7,189 for the average 40-year-old, which is about a 16.4 percent increase. In Nevada, average premiums using the same benchmark are projected to rise from about $5,547 to $6,390, or an increase of about 15 percent.” [NVIndy]

All right, I’m not 40 years old and haven’t been for quite some time, but I can empathize with younger people trying to run households, raise kids, pay the bills, and keep it together.  What they don’t need is a 15% increase in their health insurance premiums.  And who does this help?  It doesn’t help promote the best practices of established health insurance corporations.  It doesn’t help those families who are facing rising costs for groceries and transportation.  It doesn’t help young people to sell them junk insurance that won’t actually cover expenses for major medical expenses for illness or injury.  It seems to primarily help the fly by night scam artists who want to sell insurance policies which barely deserve the name.  You can read the full report ?here.

From the Department of Questions to Ask Congress Critters which Don’t Include Why Are You An A–hole?

Dear Congressman ____ why is it impossible for you to vote in favor of a bill to require universal background checks for gun sales and transfers?  (It’s not like this doesn’t have massive support from the American people.  It’s not like this wouldn’t help to keep firearms out of the hands of individuals who shouldn’t have them in the first place.   And while we’re about it, what’s so impossible about limiting the size of magazines, or keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers?)

Dear Congressman ____ why, when banks had their most profitable quarter EVER, would you think it important to roll back the consumer protections of the Dodd Frank Act? [MoneyCNN] [Vox] [WaPo]

Dear Congressman ____ in what perverted universe is it considered acceptable to bait bears with donuts and bacon in order to kill them? To kill hibernating bears? To kill wolf pups? [NYMag]

Dear Congressman ____ Just what purpose is served by vilifying a Central American street gang and conflating its members with ALL immigrants to this great nation?  Criticizing a violent gang is laudable, conflating these people with ALL immigrants is inexcusable.  Since I’m not 40 years old and haven’t been for some time, I recall a time when this nation was recovering from a major war against a state which called Jews “vermin,” dehumanized them, and then used the appellation as an excuse to exterminate them.  Perhaps it’s time to have people, especially politicians, read (or re-read) Elie Wiesel’s Night.

Where does this lead?

“Wiesel’s prose is quietly measured and economical, for florid exaggeration would not befit this subject. Yet, at times, his descriptions are so striking as to be breathtaking in their pungent precision. He writes through the eyes of an adolescent plunged into an unprecedented moral hinterland, and his loss of innocence is felt keenly by the reader. His identity was strained under such conditions: “The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame.” Night.

When bad things are done by bad people, bad things happen to innocent people.

Or maybe it would simply be easier to ask, Dear Congressman ____ why are you an A-hole?

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Filed under ecology, financial regulation, Gun Issues, Health Care, health insurance, Immigration, Politics

Heads Up Nevada, We Could Once More Join The Sand States

Heads up, Nevada!  There’s another storm on the horizon, and it’s not meteorological, nor is it related to the proliferation of high powered rifles and stockpiles of ammunition.  It has to do with a crisis we thought we’d withstood and overcome.

We were one of the Sand States eight years ago, those with massive development projects in which homes were constructed, mortgages were offered, and then sold into secondary markets to be sliced, diced, tranched, and manipulated into financial products in the Wall Street Casino.  We know what happened next.  The investment banking sector collapsed, the financial markets were in ruins, and Nevadans felt the aftermath with unconscionable unemployment levels and lost income.

The response was the Dodd Frank Act, a set of regulations to control the excesses of the Wall Street Casino and investment banking practices.  The first major assault came from the House of Representatives last June:

“The House legislation, called the Financial Choice Act, would undo or scale back much of Dodd-Frank. The bill was approved 233 to 186. All but one Republican — Walter Jones of North Carolina — voted for the bill. No Democrats supported it.

Its major changes include repealing the trading restrictions, known as the Volcker Rule, and scrapping the liquidation authority in favor of enhanced bankruptcy provisions designed to eliminate any chance taxpayers would be on the hook if a major financial firm collapsed.

The bill also would repeal a new Labor Department regulation, largely still pending, that requires investment brokers who handle retirement funds to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own compensation, company profits or other factors.”

Representative Mark Amodei voted in favor of this bill, HR 10, on June 8, 2017.   What Representative Amodei voted for was to allow banks to play in the stock market with depositors money (remember deposits are guaranteed up to $250,000) and to allow financial advisers to recommend products to their customers which are not necessarily to the advantage of their retired clients, but which may happily enhance the financial advisers’ bottom lines.   In light of what happened to this Sand State in 2007-2008 Nevadans should be especially concerned about this.  But, wait, there’s more

Remember that one of the major problems for working Americans, Nevadans included, was the burden of pay-day lending?  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created by the Dodd Frank Act, is seeking to limit the negative impact of some of the more egregious practices in this sector of the banking industry.  Now the Comptroller of the Currency has another idea, publicized on October 5th:

“…the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency surprised the financial services world by making its own move—rescinding guidance that made it more difficult for banks to offer a payday-like product called deposit advance.”

Lovely, so now banks can “offer” those insidious high rate pay-day loans, only changing the name to “deposit advance,” and consumer will be right back on the hook.  At almost the same time as the CFPB issued a rule preventing pay day lenders from handing out loans without reviewing a customer’s capacity to repay the loans, the bankers get the green light to hand out “deposit advances.”

There is one bill in the US Senate which does offer some improvements on Dodd Frank, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Senator David Perdue (R-GA) have introduced a bill to address some of the problems for community banks.  There are more reasons to support this legislation than to oppose it, but beware of the rationalizations and gamesmanship.

Those who want to eliminate the CFPB, gut its authority, or toss the Dodd Frank Act altogether may wish to convince us that (1) the entire act needs to be repealed to “enhance the free market,” or some other euphemism for re-opening the Wall Street Casino, (2) the CFPB places “burdensome” regulations on those pay day lenders who (bless their hearts) are only trying to provide more “options” for consumers.   This isn’t the most interesting or engaging story of the moment, but it is an issue Nevadans would do well to follow very closely.

We don’t need to be ground into the sand again.

 

 

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Filed under Amodei, Economy, financial regulation, Nevada, Nevada economy, Politics

The Not-So-Stealthy Attack on Americans

During this something less than merry Month of May the United States Senate is scheduled to take up the Regulatory Accountability Act which will make it all but impossible for our own government to protect citizens (and citizen consumers) from corporate depredation.  We have a warning:

“Among its most egregious provisions, the RAA sets an impossibly high burden of proof that agencies would have to meet before finalizing and implementing a new rule, such as a new air quality or food safety standard. The bill also requires agencies to conduct several rounds of cost-benefit analyses that give more weight to the compliance costs to industry than the benefits to Americans. Taken together, these provisions and others in the bill could lead to total gridlock in the agencies charged with protecting the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe; ensuring that products are safe before they enter the market; and reining in the worst financial market abuses.”

Interestingly enough the Big Corporate Interests don’t even bother to mention “small businesses” in their push — read shove — for this anti-consumer, anti-worker, anti-Main Street bit of legislation.

A better label would be the Unaccountability Act of 2017 — in that corporations would be protected from citizens who like drinking clean water and breathing clean air, eating healthy and uncontaminated food, driving safe cars, and being reasonably assured that Wall Street investment interests aren’t pulling a “de-regulation” extravaganza that could make the debacle of 2007-2008 seem mild by comparison.

If you enjoyed the scandals of Enron, the predatory behavior of Wells Fargo, the Great Recession brought on by Wall Street Casino operations — then you’ll love this draft to deregulate the major corporations.

On the other hand if one is appalled by the “Screw Grandma Milly” antics of the Enron crowd, if one isn’t concerned that the bank isn’t surreptitiously opening accounts (and charging fees) like Wells Fargo, or if one isn’t concerned that mortgages might be oversold, and fed into another giant bubble of derivative trading — then a phone call to the Solons of the Senate is required.

As the machinations of the Russians, the squirming of the administration, and the daily deluge of tweets from Dear Leader, suck the air out of the room, beware that major corporate interests are working through the halls of Congress.

This is the time to contact our Senators, Senator Dean Heller (who has made no secret of his affinity for deregulation) and Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto who is more likely to be amenable to the concerns of ordinary citizens.  The so-called “Regulatory Accountability” is nothing more than a not-so-stealthy attack on ordinary Americans by extraordinarily powerful corporate interests.

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Filed under conservatism, consumers, Economy, Enron, financial regulation, Heller, Nevada politics, Politics, public safety, secondary mortgage market, subprime mortgages

Trump’s Conflicted Interests

Trump Favorite Picture There is little more chilling today than this piece of information from Mother Jones concerning The Trumpster’s conflicts of interest:

That concern exists with Trump, but he presents a unique problem when it comes to conflicts of interest: He and his companies have borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars. These are loans that potentially afford his lenders leverage over Trump. This creates the possibility that Trump may find himself in the position of choosing between US interests and his lenders’ interests. There’s no better example of this than the $364 million Trump owes the struggling Deutsche Bank, which is staggering under fierce pressure from US financial regulators who want the bank to pay for its misdeeds during the run-up to the 2008 mortgage crisis. (Trump is in a real estate partnership that borrowed $950 million from a group of banks including a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank and the state-owned Bank of China.) (emphasis added)

The entire article is well worth the time it takes to read it.

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Filed under Economy, Politics

Capitalism Won’t Be Saved By Republicans

For the sake of this argument let’s assume that while capitalism may not be the most egalitarian system of resource management and allocation, it’s the best one we have to date.  It’s a bit like the definition of democracy – it isn’t perfect, but no one’s come up with anything better.  So, with this in mind we can propose that capitalism is worth saving.  But, saving from what?  And here I climb back on the hobby horse – we need to save free market capitalism from Financialism.

What is Financialism?  If you’ve just tuned in, I’ve been operating with the Armistead definition:

“Financialism is an economic system where the primary activity consists of creating and manipulating financial instruments.  Financial instruments…are in their original form firmly linked to economic reality.  However, when financialism sets in, financial instruments become progressively further removed from their role in supporting commerce in the real world and develop a life of their own.”  [Armistead]

When this “life of its own” comes in to play there are some serious problems for the underlying economy.  Michael Konczal summarizes the issue as succinctly as anyone:

“If you want to know what happened to economic equality in this country, one word will explain a lot of it: financialization. That term refers to an increase in the size, scope, and power of the financial sector—the people and firms that manage money and underwrite stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other securities—relative to the rest of the economy.

The financialization revolution over the past thirty-five years has moved us toward greater inequality in three distinct ways. The first involves moving a larger share of the total national wealth into the hands of the financial sector. The second involves concentrating on activities that are of questionable value, or even detrimental to the economy as a whole. And finally, finance has increased inequality by convincing corporate executives and asset managers that corporations must be judged not by the quality of their products and workforce but by one thing only: immediate income paid to shareholders.”

That second paragraph is a summation of what we’ve been looking at for the last 20 years.   If we were discussing capitalism we’d be talking about economic growth predicated on development in manufacturing, housing, infrastructure, energy, agriculture, primary industries, transportation, etc.  However, we’ve not been talking about capitalism, especially in the media. We’ve been lathered up and shaved by financialism.

We barely know what capitalism is anymore.  What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone says, “business news?”  If you said, “stock market report” that would reflect what the evening news gives you. Usually the Dow Jones Industrial Average comes first, and then ‘what drives it’ comes in commentary purporting to be analysis.  Consider the following reaction to inquiries about the strength of the economy in 2012:

“The stock market in the past has been a leading indicator, but that leading quality has weakened in recent years. Stock prices are driven by profits and profit growth. During the Great Recession, corporations have been able to maintain profitability by slashing employment to reduce costs. They have streamlined their operations and have squeezed more productivity out of their remaining workers. Thus, higher stock prices don’t necessarily mean a stronger economy, especially in terms of employment growth. That said, I do think the economy is on an upward path, with job growth of about 2 million expected for the national economy in 2012.” [SDUT]

And here we have an illustration of the third point Konczal was making:  Corporations are judged not by the quality of their products, the character of their work forces, the direction of their research and development – but by the immediate income paid to shareholders.

Couple this with the Shareholder Theory of Value, which Jack Welch once referred to as the “dumbest idea in the world,” and the financialist  incentive is to maximize productivity, prioritize immediate results, and ignore the stakeholders for the benefit of the shareholders.  Now, view the Epi Pen issue from the perspective of the shareholders – the object was to increase immediate shareholder value, but:

“While individual consumers may not have had a voice or recourse, the market did. Mylan may have improved its margins and ultimately driven higher returns and shareholder value, but within a week the price increase cost the company $3 billion in market cap and a stock tank of over 12% in 5 days.” [Fortune]

Ethics do matter, especially to stakeholders.  If there is a silver lining in this cloud it is that the stakeholders (individual consumers, school districts, emergency responders, local fire departments…) can place significant pressure on shareholders.  Breach the bounds of acceptable human behavior and the amorphous market will take a bit out of the corporate hide; illustrating former CEO Welch’s point precisely.

Now, let’s enter the political phase.  Republicans would love to dismantle the financial regulation structure which has curtailed some of the excesses of Financialism which precipitated the last Great Recession.  Out with Sarbanes-Oxley, Out with Dodd Frank, out with “excessive regulation.”   This is a recipe for disaster.  Regulation restrains, and restraint is what is needed to prevent capitalism from degenerating into financialism.

Again, a summation from Konczal:

“…the most important change will be intellectual: we must come to understand our economy not as simply a vehicle for capital owners, but rather as the creation of all of us, a common endeavor that creates space for innovation, risk taking, and a stronger workforce. This change will be difficult, as we will have to alter how we approach the economy as a whole. Our wealth and companies can’t just be strip-mined for a small sliver of capital holders; we’ll need to bring the corporation back to the public realm. But without it, we will remain trapped inside an economy that only works for a select few.”

Income inequality on steroids? More Bubbles? More volatility? And, more economic problems associated with those issues.  It will be up to Democrats to resist the financialization of the American system of capitalism because the Republicans are either trapped in its web or ignorant of its consequences.

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Filed under Economy, financial regulation

Who’s Heck Representing? A Look At The Advertising

Heck Trump Hat

A bit of time spent watching local television in the wilds of northern Nevada yields a real bundle of political advertising – much of which comes from the campaign to elect Representative Joe Heck to the U.S. Senate, but the fine print is almost more interesting than the ads themselves.

For example, during one broadcast of one network show, we’re treated to advertising from (1) the National Republican Senate Committee, two ads, (2) the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, (3) the National Rifle Association, (4) two ads from the American Chemistry Council, (5) two ads from the State Leadership Fund, (6) the National Association of Realtors, and 7) one ad from Heck’s campaign.

There’s nothing unusual about the NRSC running ads in a battle ground state, especially this season.  The others raise some questions.  For example, the US Chamber of Commerce isn’t a bit shy of publicizing its policy priorities.

There’s some interesting rhetoric therein, but the translations are fairly simple.  The Chamber wants:

“Regulatory Overreach—Guard against senseless regulations that wrongly attempt to eliminate all risk taking and innovation from the capital formation process. Work with regulators and Congress as they implement the Dodd-Frank Act and other regulations to ensure a more prudent approach to oversight and enforcement.”

Notice that the “risk” part of the equation isn’t clear – whose risk?  In the case of the Dodd Frank Act the idea was to reduce the risk to the American tax payer who was previously on the hook for Wall Street transgressions.  And that “innovation in capital formation” were those very creative, if highly dubious, financial ‘products’ Wall Street created in the run up to the last big collapse.   If we want a more ‘prudent approach’ to oversight then we need to keep to the spirit of the Dodd Frank Act and oppose any efforts on behalf of Wall Street casino operators who wish a return to the bad old days of rampant financialism.  Let’s look at something else the Chamber would like Representative Heck to support:

“Executive Compensation and Corporate Governance—Ensure careful and sensible rulemaking and implementation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) where needed and preserve the state-based system allowing decisions to be made through directors and shareholders. Reasonable policies must permit pay for performance and promote long-term shareholder value and profitability but not constrain reasonable risk taking and innovation.”

Shorter version:  Let the states with the least corporate regulation set the standards for determining the process for corporate management pay.  Notice the part about promoting “long term shareholder value?”  It’s not too hard to decipher this one.  Let the states with the lowest standards of regulation be the models, and executive compensation should be based on “shareholder value,” – the model which gets us pharmaceutical executives explaining blooming increases in drug prices – and “profitability,” not necessarily corporate investment in research and development.   Even shorter version: Let the corporations do what they want about executive compensation.   Let’s look at another source of support for Representative Heck.

The American Chemistry Council.  The ALEC associated trade organization is worried that Americans will take environmental warnings entirely too seriously.  Like having the Toxic Release Inventory not compiled or reported to the public as often – after all what we don’t know won’t hurt us?

“While promoting the chemical industry as vital to the economic health of the nation the ACC simultaneously lobbied against the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a public right-to-know program. Under TRI, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency annually reports on what industries release into the air, water and land. The ACC “has urged less frequent reporting since 1999.” ACC’s Michael Walls said, “Just because we’re used to doing something doesn’t mean we should accept the inherent high costs or burden of doing it.” The Bush administration supports changing the TRI so that fewer releases are reported, less frequently. EPA officials say they will “likely spend another year weighing the pros and cons” of the proposed changes, after the public comment period ends on December 5. According to federal records, the EPA “previously solicited comments from industry groups.” [SWatch]

In essence, the ACC is telling Nevada voters — “Vote for Joe Heck, and you won’t have to worry about toxic releases into our air and water – because you won’t know about them, and as a bonus, you can keep on using those plastic shopping bags to your heart’s content.”  And now we have the …

National Association of Realtors, who would like to remove:

“Overly stringent lending standards have continued to limit the availability of affordable mortgage financing for credit worthy consumers. Federal policymakers are weighing a number of proposals aimed at creating healthier housing and mortgage markets.”

Remember that time when lending companies were writing mortgages hand over fist over elbow, often to very tenuously credit worthy customers? The NAR would like very much to return to that scenario.   The result was the Housing Bubble, and we don’t need a repetition  of that debacle in Nevada.  We’re barely past the last version of exploding ARMs.

And then there’s the ubiquitous NRA, what more can we say but that any regulation of firearms is anathema to these radicals – even question One in Nevada which merely calls for the implementation of background checks to every gun sale. No, it doesn’t apply if your girl friend want to borrow a gun. No, it doesn’t apply to trading guns with your hunting partner! No, it doesn’t mean you can’t share your arsenal with family members! And, no it doesn’t mean the downfall of the democracy… that’s NRA hyperbole and most Nevadans know it.  The NRA hysteria is costing Americans 30,000+ lives every year, countless injuries, untold tragedy, and more suicides than we’d care to consider.  Who’s NOT in favor of limiting access to firearms to felons, fugitives, the adjudicated mentally ill, domestic abusers, and unsupervised juveniles??

So, the next time there’s a wave of Pro-Heck advertising on the TV screen, read the small print at the end …. Who is supporting Representative Heck and what do they want?

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Filed under financial regulation, Heck, Nevada politics

Wall Street May Not Be The Enemy: It’s the friends we need to watch

“Wall Street” is an extremely elastic catch phrase, useful for politicians of all stripes.  For example, we have Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) reminding us at every possible moment that he “voted against the bail out.” And, we have politicians from the other side of the aisle excoriating the traders for all the ills of modern America.  Both are off the mark.

Wall Street sign

First, beware the thinly veneered populism of Senator Heller.  Yes, he did vote against the bailout – an extremely safe vote at the time – but, NO he hasn’t stopped being the Bankers’ Boy he’s always been.  Let’s remember that while he was offering himself as the Little Guy’s Candidate he was voting on June 30, 2010 to recommit the Dodd-Frank Act to instruct conferees to expand the exemption for commercial businesses using financial derivatives to hedge their risks from the margin requirements in the bill.  Then, on June 30, 2010, he voted against the conference report of the Dodd-Frank Act.  Heller wasn’t finished.

In 2011 he and then Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) introduced S. 712 – a bill to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act.

“What S. 712 does is to (1) repeal measures which require banks to have a plan for orderly liquidation (another word for bankruptcy), (2) repeal requirements that banks keep records of transactions which would need to be transparent in case an “orderly liquidation” is in order, (3) repeal the establishment of an oversight committee to determine when a bank is becoming “too big to fail,” and is endangering the financial system — an early warning system if you will.  The new requirements governing (4) Swaps would also be repealed, along with the (5) Consumer Protection bureau.” [DB 2011]

Few could have been more obviously promoting the interests of Wall Street traders than Heller and DeMint. [DB 2012]  Few could have been more readily apparent in their enthusiasm to protect the financialists from the provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act including the Volcker Rule.

Volcker Rule

A word about the Volcker Rule:

“The Volcker Rule included in the Dodd-Frank Act prohibits banks from proprietary trading and restricts investment in hedge funds and private equity by commercial banks and their affiliates. Further, the Act directed the Federal Reserve to impose enhanced prudential requirements on systemically identified non-bank institutions engaged in such activities. Congress did exempt certain permitted activities of banks, their affiliates, and non-bank institutions identified as systemically important, such as market making, hedging, securitization, and underwriting. The Rule also capped bank ownership in hedge funds and private equity funds at three percent. Institutions were given a seven year timeframe to become compliant with the final regulations.” [SIFMA]

Yes, Senator Heller et. al., if the Dodd-Frank Act is repealed then the financialists on Wall Street may go back to gleefully trading all manner of junk in all kinds of packaging with no limits on bank ownership of hedge and private equity funds.  Let’s remind ourselves at this point that capitalism works.  It’s financialism that’s the problem.  Under a capitalist form of finance resources (investments) are moved from areas (funds) with a surplus to areas (businesses) with a scarcity of funds.  Under a financialist system capital (money) is traded for complex financial instruments (paper contracts) the value of which is open to question.  Not to put too fine a point to it, but the “instruments” seems to have whatever value the buyer and seller agree to whether the deal makes any sense or not.  The Dodd-Frank Act doesn’t forbid “financialism” but it does put the brakes on.

Notice, it puts the brakes on, but doesn’t eliminate the old CDOs.  Nor does it prevent the CDO with a new name: The Bespoke Tranche Opportunity.  It works like this:

“The new “bespoke” version of the idea flips that business dynamic around. An investor tells a bank what specific mixture of derivatives bets it wants to make, and the bank builds a customized product with just one tranche that meets the investor’s needs. Like a bespoke suit, the products are tailored to fit precisely, and only one copy is ever produced. The new products are a symptom of the larger phenomenon of banks taking complex risks in pursuit of higher investment returns, Americans for Financial Reform’s Marcus Stanley said in an email, and BTOs “could be automatically exempt” from some Dodd-Frank rules.” [TP]

Zero Hedge summed this up: “This is the synthetic CDO equivalent of a Build-A-Bear Workshop.” We’re told not to worry our pretty little heads about this because, gee whiz, CDOs got a bad reputation during the Big Recession of 2007-2008, when they were just “hedging credit exposure.”  Yes, and ARMs got a bad reputation when they were just putting people in houses… Spare me.

And, we’d think that after the CDO debacle of 2007-2008, some one might have learned something somehow, but instead we get the Bespoke Tranche Opportunity and a big bubble in really really junky bonds.   That would be really really really junky bonds:

“Junk bonds are living up to their name right now. As we have noted in the past, the lowest-rated junk bonds may have inflated a $1 trillion bubble at the bottom of the debt market. The thing is, it never should have gotten that way.” [BusInsider]

Indeed, back in the bad old days no one could issue CCC bonds.  Now, we have Central Banks supporting Zombie Companies, low yield Treasuries making investors look to more “speculative” debt, and more demand for high yields meant that purveyors of Junk found a market for their garbage. [BusInsider] And, of course, someone out there is hedging all this mess.

Lemmings Here we meet the second problem with financial regulation in this great country.  Not only would the Bankers’ Boys like Senator Heller like to go back to the days of Deregulation, but the Financialists are hell bent on Yield! High Yield!  Even if this means supporting Zombie Companies which should probably just die already; even if this means allowing the sale of Bespoke Tranche Opportunities; and, even if this means selling bonds no one would touch only a few years ago.  The quarterly earnings report demands higher yields (As in: What Have You Done For Me In 90 Days Or Less) and investors jump like lemmings off the cliff.

We’ll probably keep doing this until someone figures out that in these schemes the chances are pretty good that “getting rich fast” more often means going broke even faster.  Thus the financialists package Bespoke Opportunities and C (for Crappy) Bonds.

Said it before, and will say it again:’  What needs to be done is —

  • Continuing to restrict the activity of bankers who want to securitize mortgages, under the terms of existing banking laws and regulations.
  • Continued implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act.

To which we should add, “restrict the creation and sale of artificial “investment” paper products which add nothing to the real economy of this country, and instead soaks up investment funds, and creates Bubbles rather than growth.

 

Read more atSIFMA, “Volcker Rule Resource Center, Overview.” Desert Beacon, “Deregulation Debacle,” 2012.  Desert Beacon, “Full Tilt Boogie,” 2011.  Think Progress, “High Risk Investments,” 2015.  Zero Hedge, “The Bubble is Complete,” 2015.  Bustle, “Is the ‘Big Short’ Right?, 2016.  Bloomberg News, “Goldman Sachs Hawks CDOs,” 2015.  Huffington Post, “Big Short, Big Wake Up Call,” 2016.  Market Mogul, “BTO, Deja Vu” 2016.  Business Insider, “Trillion Dollar Bubble,” 2016.  Business Insider, “Bubble Ready to Burst,” 2016.  Seeking Alpha, “OK, I get it, the junk bond miracle rally is doomed,” 2016.  Wolfstreet, “CCC rated junk bonds blow past Lehman moment,” 2016.

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Filed under Economy, financial regulation, Nevada politics, Politics

Break Up The Bank Bandwagon, or how to be unhelpful?

Break Up Big Banks bandwagon  Much of the debate on the Democratic Party side of the primary silly season is related to Wall Street – easy to demonize, more difficult to understand, and altogether more complicated than  sound-byte sized portions of political coverage will allow.  In other words, H.L. Mencken was probably right: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  Let’s start with the proposition that our economic issues can be resolved by breaking up the large banks.

Yes, 2007-2008 still stings. The Wall Street Casino that created financial market chaos was especially harmful in Nevada, one of the “sand states” in which the real estate bubble was augmented by avarice and the Wall Street appetite for securitization of highly questionable mortgage lending products, and practices.  Certainly, the call to break up the big banks resonates with a significant portion of the national as well as the Nevada population.   However, this “clear and simple” solution may not be the panacea on anybody’s  horizon.  Here’s why:

From a consumer’s prospective, big is not always “badder.”  I, for one, like the idea that my debit card is accepted in convenient locations throughout the country.  I’m technologically challenged so I don’t avail myself of many advances in remote deposits, and other mobile banking services, but I sympathize with those who do.  I also like making my primary banking decisions for myself, and I’m not – as a consumer/customer – particularly happy about the prospect of being dropped by my bank because it is “too big”, i.e. it has too many customers.   And, here we come to a second issue.

How do we define “big” and “too big?”  If we are defining “big” in terms of the amount of deposits then JPMorganChase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and USBankcorp  (the top five in total deposits) are targets for the break up.  Thus, if we “break up” any or all of these five based on the “size” – either the total assets or the total value of deposits – then how many customers must deal with the transition costs of moving their bank accounts?

Do we mean breaking up as in reinstituting the old Glass Steagall Act, and separating commercial and investment banking?  This action wouldn’t limit the banks based on assets or deposit values, but instead would constrict their banking activities.  This has some appeal, perhaps more so than just whacking up banks based on the size of their assets and deposits, but this, too, opens some questions.

One set of questions revolve around what we mean by “banking services?”  For example, if a person has an account with Fidelity investments, and one of the services associated with that account is a debit card or a credit card, then does this constitute a “bank-like” service?   There are banks offering brokerage accounts, and insurance services – reinstating the provisions of Glass Steagall would mean a customer would have to give up some services to retain others – or perhaps be dropped as the financial institution made its decision as to the camp it was joining – the commercial or the investment one.  If a person likes the idea of consolidating investment and commercial services, and doesn’t – for one example – have much if any need for things like certified checks, then an investment account with some “bank like” services could be the best option. For others, who like the idea of a “life-line” bank and the notion that some other ancillary services may come with it, then the traditional route would be more enticing.  However much a person may like the sound of “bring back Glass Steagall” there are situations in which this would mean some significant inconvenience and costs for customers and clients.

Another point which ought to be made is that all too often Glass Steagall and the Volcker Rule get mashed together as if they meant the same thing, or something close to it.   Let’s assume for the sake of this piece that what we all really want is a banking system which does not turn deceptive practices into major revenue streams, and which doesn’t allow banks to use deposits to play in the Wall Street Casino.

If this is the case, then it might well do to let the Dodd Frank Act have a chance at more success.  For all the political palaver about this 2010 act, it has been successful.  As Seeking Alpha explains:

“Dodd-Frank did several things that promoted the culture change and reduced the likelihood that a large American bank will fail: (1) annual stress tests that forced a focus on risk management not only among risk managers but at every level of the bank; (2) establishment of the Consumer Finance Protection Board (CFPB), which has primary responsibility for consumer protection in the financial field without the conflicts of interests naturally experience by the banking regulators; (3) the Volcker Rule that removed proprietary trading from bank holding companies, thereby facilitating the cultural reform that I referred to above, and reducing the level of risk in banks’ assets; (4) enhanced capital requirements for large banks, which addressed the major weakness that permitted mortgage losses to turn into a financial debacle in 2008; and (5) living will requirements for large banks, which while perhaps unnecessary, are having the salutary effects of increasing liquidity in stressful situations and decreasing organizational complexity and thereby making big banks more possible to manage.”

In short, if the object is to make banks safer, better managed, and less likely to get themselves into the liquidity swamps of the pre-Dodd Frank era, then the act does, in fact, make the grade.   Those who would like a return to the bad old days, when banks could wheel, deal, and deceive, will find solace in the slogans of many Republican politicians calling for the repeal of the Dodd Frank Act.

Yet another set of questions relate to what breaking up the banks is supposed to accomplish; or to accomplish beyond Dodd Frank.  It’s easy to say that if a bank is too big to fail it is too big to exist. However, we still haven’t dealt with exactly what it means to be “too big.”  Like it or not, we do have a global economy.   Let’s take one example: “Global businesses want global banks. This makes intuitive sense for companies that manufacture, distribute, and sell products globally. 3M, for example, derives a majority of its sales from outside the United States, operates in more than 70 different countries, and sells products in over 200 countries.” [Brookings]

What does 3M do? Operate through a system of regional banks? (and increase costs)  Or, does 3m start using a foreign bank?  What does this do to American market share in global banking? And, we’re not just talking about 3m, what about Intel (82.4% sales overseas), Apple (62.3% sales overseas), General Electric (about 52% sales overseas in Africa, Asia, and Europe), Boeing (58.3% sales overseas), and Johnson & Johnson (53.2% sales in Europe)?  [AmMUSAToday]

At the risk of sounding too nuanced for blog posts of a political bent, I’d offer that the Break Up The Banks bandwagon has been on the road long enough, and has been a distraction from issues that have cost the American middle class (and those trying to achieve that level of financial security) dearly in the last 40 years.

Breaking up the big banks will not assist in the organization of American workers so that the power of the owners is balanced by the power of the workers.   What we DO need are government policies which support the unionization of employees. Policies which increase the minimum wage. Policies which improve wages and working conditions. And, policies which make education and training affordable.

Breaking up the big banks will not assist in establishing fair trade with the rest of the world. What we DO need are policies which promote the interests of American manufacturing, by American workers, in American plants.  We need policies which affirm our support for environmental responsibility.  We need policies implemented which promote modern technology and modern energy sources; with American ingenuity and labor.

Breaking up the big banks will not reform a financial system which too often rewards its components for short term gambling as contrasted with long term financial vision.  It will not replace the transformed and corrupted Shareholder Theory of Value among managers.  What we DO need is a system which rewards investment and replaces the fantasy of “Trickle Down” economics.

Perhaps it’s time to find a new bandwagon?  One that’s going in the desired direction, and not merely headed toward a successful election day performance?

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Filed under banking, Economy, financial regulation

No Free Lunch No Free Market

“The market is a human creation. It is based on rules that humans devise. The central question is who shapes those rules and for what purpose,” Reich concludes. “The coming challenge is not to technology or to economics. It is a challenge to democracy. The critical debate for the future is not about he size of government; it is about whom government is for.” [Robert Reich]

Bingo!  Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations, offered the Invisible Hand – and economists have been grabbing it ever since. IF, they mused, if all buyers and sellers were truly free then markets would achieve equilibrium and all will be well.  Everyone will act in their own self-interest, and the competition induced will benefit all.  There will be an equilibrium price – for anything – when the demand and the supply are equal.  However, there’s always been a flaw in this argument.

The cracks begin showing when it’s noted that “price” and “value” are not the same thing.  Truly, there is a “market value,” i.e. the price at which an asset would trade in a competitive auction setting, but this isn’t a definition of value.  Value is a qualifier we assign to things that are beneficial, significant, advantageous, or useful. Let’s digress a moment and review why this differentiation between price (even market price) and value is important.

Finance works best when it acts as the conduit for moving capital from places of surplus to places of scarcity.  In the simplest possible terms, finance allows the money in someone’s savings account to be invested in someone else’s business enterprise.   The owner of the savings account benefits from the earnings; the owner of the business enterprise benefits from the extra cash to expand his operations.   Not to put too fine a point to it, but when finance doesn’t move capital from surplus to scarcity then it’s not finance – all too often it’s merely gambling.

Additionally we should note that the the system itself is a gamble.  If I put in a $1000 investment in Widgets International Inc. then I’m betting my shares will either pay dividends, gain in price, or preferably both.  And now to return to “value.”  I’m taking a risk with my money, but I’m also hoping to invest in something of value – perhaps WI Inc. manufactures the best product on offer which helps nurses prevent bed sores from afflicting their patients.  I have $1000 on hand (surplus), Widgets International Inc. needs to expand to meet the demand for its product (scarcity) and finance allows the conduit to work toward mutual benefit.

However, what if I behave as though my $1000 really isn’t surplus? What if I make a side bet that the price of Widget International will go down?  In this instance I am buying a “financial product” which has precious little to do with the product the company is manufacturing, a bit more to do with how the company is managed, and a great deal to do with how a hedge fund can be used to “manage wealth.”   Or, to put it another way – to reduce risk.  Money (capital) slathered about in an effort to reduce risk isn’t part of that conduit for moving capital from surplus to scarcity, and it (as we’ve seen) is fraught with consequences.  The word “behave” is the key term.

If the concepts of price and value are problematic in a discussion of American economics, then our Economic Man as described by Adam Smith is also at issue:

“Economic Man makes logical, rational, self-interested decisions that weigh costs against benefits and maximize value and profit to himself. Economic Man is an intelligent, analytic, selfish creature who has perfect self-regulation in pursuit of his future goals and is unswayed by bodily states and feelings. And Economic Man is a marvelously convenient pawn for building academic theories. But Economic Man has one fatal flaw: he does not exist.” [Harvard]

The “convenient pawn” became the cornerstone of neoclassical economic theory.  The theory elevated the pawn, and the pawn returned the compliment by rationalizing everything from child labor to global out-sourcing.   The Magic Market would “equalize” everything, and all would be well.  In fact, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and there is no such thing as a free market.

In fact, if we skip the jargon (such as a trader saying “I make markets”) what we understand is that traders in the financial sector are sales personnel who have products to sell to prospective buyers.   Last time we looked those sales personnel, the buyers, and the sellers were all human beings – or human beings managing various and sundry enterprises.  Even if  trading is  computerized, someone – some human being – had to program those computers, which still have no innate capacity to count beyond 0 to 1.  There are some benighted souls who believe that if we have just enough “self monitoring,” and more elegant algorithms those messy, inconsistent human beings will no longer screw up the financial markets.  Again, we’d have to ask, “Who is writing those algorithms?” And,  how much “self-monitoring” is good enough?   There are markets, but they are certainly not free of human beings – humans being the brokers, the agents, the buyers, and the sellers.

“Who shapes the rules, and for what purpose?”

We have rules for all manner of human transactions.   When sharing a meal we don’t eat the mashed potatoes with our hands. When getting an invitation with an “RSVP” we don’t wait until after the event to respond.  A soccer match is played with only 11 on each side.  The FAA has rules for take offs and landings to minimize the risk of collisions.   And we have rules for financial markets.   Why? Because a market is simply a transaction between two human agents – buyer and seller – no matter how computerized.

One thing we did learn during the debacle of 2007-2008 was that some investment houses were selling products on which they could calculate a price but they were incapable of determining the product’s value. In some instances the artificiality of the product and its distance from anything tangible, such as a home mortgage, made it impossible to determine what the product was actually worth.  All too much of the Stuff had a “market price” but turned out to have no value in the last analysis.  Thus the demise of Lehman Brothers.

There are some questions at the intersection of economics and politics in 2016:

  • Do we want an unfettered market for financial products? Do we want rules advantageous to the sellers of products in the financial markets? Do we want rules advantageous to the buyers in financial markets? Do we want rules which protect the general public from irresponsible or anti-social behavior on the part of the buyers and sellers?
  • Do we want those who write the rules for the transactions in the financial markets to have the interests of the general public in mind?
  • Do we support agencies which enforce rules designed to restrain the behavior of buyers and sellers in the financial markets?
  • Do we encourage investment or speculation?
  • Should our system of taxation reward work or wealth?

We can focus down on a single issue illustrative of the general regulatory environment – this past July a Senate Committee was taking testimony on a proposed rule that investment advisers place the client’s interest first when deciding upon investments in retirement accounts. One member of the panel offered that the rule would “cost” the investors some $80 billion because financial firms would simply raise fees to make up the profit differential if they couldn’t put their own interests before the interests of their retirement account clients. [Litan pdf]  However, what didn’t go unchallenged was that the study cited by the panel member was financed by the Capital Group, a corporation which definitely stands to benefit if the proposed rule from the Department of Labor is not implemented. [BostonGlobe]

The question highlights the element of freedom:  Is the investment adviser free to purchase elements in a portfolio which enhance the profitability of his firm, or must the adviser give first priority to those investments which will best serve the clients’ interests?  Is the client free to assume his agent (investment adviser) is acting in his or her best interests?  Is the client free to know how investment portfolio decisions are made?  It isn’t a question of whether or not the “market” is “free,” it’s a question of who is free to do what.

Consider for a moment a situation in which a large employer has selected a financial advisor to manage its retirement program.  There are three human agencies at play: the employer, the employees, and the financial advisors.  And, because there are human beings involved we should assume that these relationships are contractual. If the financial advisors are placing their own interests above those of the retirees, then must the employer seek to break the contract? Under what conditions and at what expense?  Are the employees free to take their contribution elsewhere? But, what of the employer’s contributions?   In the rarefied theoretical academic version of a Free Market this would never happen – all the pawn would march neatly across the board. However, this isn’t a theoretical academic version – this is real life – and if the financial advisor is “free” to act in his or her firm’s interest, what happens to the contributions of the employer and the employee? If they act in their self interest then they must cut ties with the advisors.  If the adviser is “free” to act in his or her self interest the employer and the employees lose value in their retirement investments; if the employer and employees are “free” to act in their own self interest the adviser loses the account.   We are left asking: Who is going to write the rules of our economic game? Or to put it in economic-political terms:

“The most important political competition over the next decades will not be between the right and left, or between Republicans and Democrats. It will be between a majority of Americans who have been losing ground, and an economic elite that refuses to recognize or respond to its growing distress.”  [Reich]

References/Recommended Reading:  John Lanchester, “Money Talks: Learning the Language of Finance,” New Yorker, 8/4/2014.  Craig Lambert, “The Marketplace of Perceptions.” Harvard Magazine, March-April 2006.  Michael Blanding, “The Business of Behavioral Economics,” Forbes, August 2014.  Adam Ozimek, “The Future  Irrelevancy of Behavioral Economics,” Forbes, September 2015.  Dan Ariely, “The End of Rational Economics,” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2009.  Paul Krugman, “How did economists get it so wrong?” New York Times Magazine, September 2009.  Noah Smith, “Finance has caught on to behavioral economics, Bloomberg View, June 2015.  Robert Litan, Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, Senate HELP, July 21, 2015. (pdf) Annie Linsky, “Warren…Brookings Institution,” Boston Globe, September 29, 2015.  Robert Reich, “How the pro-corporate elite has rigged the system against the rest of us,” Alternet, September 29, 2015.

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Filed under Economy, financial regulation