When water is a commodity instead of a human right

The shutoff of water to thousands of Detroit residents, the proposed privatization of the water system and the diversion of the system’s revenue to banks are possible because the most basic human requirement, water, is becoming nothing more than a commodity.

The potential sale of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is one more development of the idea that water, as with any commodity, exists to produce private profit rather than to be a public necessity. And if corporate plunder is to be the guiding principal, then those seen as most easy to push around will be expected to shoulder the burden.

Thus, 17,000 Detroit residents have had their water shut off — regardless of ability to pay — while large corporate users have faced no such turnoff. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department began its shutoff policy in March with a goal of shutting off the water to 3,000 accounts per week. Residents can be shut off for owing as little as $150. That is only two months of an average bill.

Water is a human right, the people of Detroit say. (Photo by Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, amd Utility Shutoffs)

Water is a human right, the people of Detroit say. (Photo by Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs)

Detroit water rates have more than doubled during the past decade, according to Left Labor Reporter, and in June another 8.7 percent raise was implemented. Yet only in July, months after residential water shutoffs began, did the water department announce it would send warning notices to delinquent businesses. There is no report, however, that any business has had its water turned off.

About half of the city’s overdue water payments are owed by commercial and industrial customers. Forty offenders, according to the department, have past-due accounts ranging from around $35,000 to more than $430,000. One golf course operator is said to owe hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The same week that the residential water shutoffs began, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr put the water department up for sale. The department takes in about $1 billion in revenue per year, The Wall Street Journal reports, and collects more revenue than it spends. The system would potentially be a valuable asset for one of the multi-national corporations that have taken over privatized water systems around the world, mostly to the regret of the local governments and ratepayers.

Reversing the privatization of water

If Emergency Manager Orr succeeds in selling off Detroit’s water system, he will be bucking a trend. Dozens of cities in France and Germany have reversed earlier privatizations and are taking back their water systems after finding that higher prices and reduced services had been the norm post-privatization. French private water prices are on average 31 percent higher than in public water services. Five Pennsylvania towns that privatized their water saw their rates more than triple on average.

That rate differential shouldn’t come as a surprise — a government doesn’t need to generate a profit like a corporation. A water company, like any other capitalist enterprise, is expected to generate large profits for its investors and giant payouts to its executives, and thus must extract more money out of its property.

If the water system is privatized, Detroit’s city budget will receive a one-time boost, but forgo future revenues and lose control of a public good built with public money. Nor is there any guarantee that it would be sold at market value. A utility undervalued would produce quicker profits for any water company that got its hands on it, and every incentive is for it to be bought at as low a price as possible.

Banks, however, have already extracted huge profits from Detroit’s infrastructure. The water department is believed to have paid banks penalties of $537 million to escape its disastrous interest-rate default swaps. Instead of simply selling plain-vanilla bonds — paying bond holders a set amount on a set schedule — Detroit (like many municipal governments) became entangled in various complicated financial derivatives layered on top of its bonds.

Investment banks sold local governments interest-rate swaps as a form of insurance as a hedge against rising interest rates. But if interest rates went down — which they did — then the governments would be on the hook for large sums of money. (That rates would fall was predictable; central banks cut interest rates as a matter of routine during recessions.) Thanks to financial engineering falsely sold as “insurance,” the Financial Times reports it will cost Detroit $2.7 billion to pay back $1.4 billion in borrowing — this total includes $502 million in interest payments and $770 million as the cost of the derivatives.

The $537 million the Detroit water department handed to banks to escape continued extra payments to cover the swaps is more than four times the entire past-due water bill, residential and commercial, at the start of the water shutoffs in March.

Not so quick to challenge the banks

Yet there appears to be no effort to recoup any of that penalty money or to investigate if there was any illegality in the deals. Curt Guyette, writing for a Detroit alternative publication, Metro Times, said:

“Given the fact that former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is now is serving a decades-long sentence in federal prison for running the city as if it were a criminal enterprise when these deals went down, [was then in office] it doesn’t seem unreasonable to at least suspect that something shady might have been going on.

Nonetheless, Orr and the legal team from [corporate law firm] Jones Day — where Orr was a former partner, and which has as clients both Bank of America and a division of UBS — have, as the complaint [filed in federal court by community activists] points out, ‘failed to investigate the misconduct or take measures to recoup any portion of the $537 million in suspect termination fees paid to the banks.’ ”

Both Bank of America and UBS profited enormously from the interest-rate swaps. Emergency Manager Orr does not seem terribly bothered by democratic processes, however. He is going ahead with a separate plan to privatize Detroit’s parking department despite the fact that the City Council voted, 6-2, against it. The Detroit Free Press reports that the parking system generates $23 million in revenue with only $11 million in expenses. This would be another revenue stream leaving public hands, and the same needs of a private owner to generate profits would be expected to lead to the same results that privatizations of water systems and other public services have led.

The people of Detroit are fighting back, through demonstrations, lawsuits, appeals to the United Nations and in physically blocking crews assigned to turn off the water. Water is also being turned back on without asking for permission from authorities. Activists demand the immediate resumption of water service for everyone and to make water affordable. Detroit Debt Moratorium, for example, is calling for water bills to be capped at two percent of household income.

These efforts have borne some fruit as Emergency Manager Orr issued an order handing Mayor Mike Duggan managerial control over the water department in late July. The department subsequently declared a moratorium on water shutoffs until August 25.

A commodity is privately owned for the purpose of profit, regardless of human need; that the commodity is something as necessary as water does not alter that a commodity goes to those who can pay the most. The market determines who gets what, or if you get it at all — and the market is simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. The agony of Detroit is the logical conclusion of reducing social and economic decisions to market forces. Detroit just happens to the be the locality that got there first.

Federal Reserve talks jobs, but (in)action speaks louder than words

If you haven’t gotten a pay raise lately, you are not alone. The percentage of U.S. workers reporting no change in their renumeration remains near its all-time high, according to statistics kept by the San Francisco branch of the Federal Reserve.

The San Francisco Fed’s “wage rigidity meter” — the percentage of “job stayers” who report receiving the same pay as one year earlier, rose above 15 percent in 2010 and has remained there since. For comparison, that figure was 11 percent in 2008, at the start of the global economic downturn and about six percent in the early 1980s, when this statistic first began to be tracked. For hourly workers, not surprisingly, conditions are even worse: More than 20 percent report no increase in pay, about triple the number in the early 1980s.

That is merely one additional piece of evidence — if any more be needed — that inequality is on the rise. Reuters reports that there is some discussion within the Federal Reserve to temporarily tolerate higher inflation as a “tradeoff” to encourage growth in wages and an accompanying boost to full-time employment. How serious this talk actually is might be signaled by this paragraph in the same Reuters report:

“Fed staff economists accepted in 2010 that labor’s share of annual U.S. output, which over a decade had dropped to around 56 percent from its long-term average of around 62 percent, was unlikely to recover.”

In other words, the Federal Reserve says inequality is here to stay. So perhaps tinkering with policy that possibly could make a marginal difference — even the Fed has to keep up appearances sometimes — is the most that might be expected. Contrast that with the enthusiasm with which the Fed has shoveled money into its “quantitative easing” programs — measures that have primarily acted to inflate a new stock-market bubble with a small secondary effect of re-animating real estate prices.

(Graphic by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

(Graphic by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

“Quantitative easing” is the technical name for a central bank going on an asset buying spree. In conjunction with setting low interest rates, it is a theoretical attempt to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. The Federal Reserve’s program buys U.S. government debt and mortgage-backed securities in massive amounts.

Through the end of June 2014, the Fed poured about US$4.1 trillion into three quantitative-easing programs since December 2008. The Bank of England had committed £375 billion to its Q.E. program as of the end of 2013.

Prior to the economic downturn, the Fed held between $700 billion and $800 billion of U.S. Treasury notes on its balance sheet, but, because of its quantitative-easing programs, it now holds more than $4 trillion. The Fed is in the process of winding down its buying spree with an intent to finish it in October. Instability is likely to occur when the Fed tries to unload its bloated piles of assets, and many of the world’s other central banks will seek to unload their assets as well.

The latest stock-market bubble, then, will burst as all others before it, with high debt loads dropping another anchor on the economy. A commentary in Forbes calculates that the level of borrowing used to buy stocks is already higher than it ever was during the 1990s stock-market bubble or the run-up before the 2008 crash as measured in inflation-adjusted dollars or as a ratio with the S&P 500 stock index.

What could the world’s governments have done with this massive amount of money had it instead gone to socially useful programs? Instead, trillions of dollars were spent to inflate another stock-market bubble. One more way the world’s wealthiest have gotten fatter while the sacrifices are borne by the rest of us.

And that is merely one way that inequality not only continues to grow, but is accelerating. From 2000 to 2009, labor productivity rose an average of 2.5 percent annually while real hourly wages rose only 1.1 percent, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculations — the biggest gap it has yet measured, going back to the late 1940s.

(Graphic by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

(Graphic by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

More recent figures, according to Reuters, indicate the gap continues to grow — from 2007 to today, average hourly wages have risen a total of 1.5 percent while productivity has increased by 11.4 percent. Nor is that a phenomenon limited to the United States. The International Labour Organisation calculates that wages in the world’s developed countries increased six percent from 1999 to 2011 while labor productivity increased about 15 percent.

If the employees are not receiving the benefits from their increased productivity, then it is the bosses and speculators who are grabbing it. Thus it is no surprise that the gap in wealth has increased more sharply than have incomes. A research paper written by Fabian T. Pfeffer, Sheldon Danziger and Robert F. Schoeni found that accumulated wealth has decreased for the majority of people since 1984. The median level of net worth — that is, the 50th percentile or the point where the number of people with more is equal to the number with less — has decreased by about 20 percent since 1984. By contrast, those at the 95th percentile have nearly doubled their net worth since 1984.

So much money has flowed upward that industrialists and financiers, and the corporations they control, have more money than they can possibly find investment for — this money is diverted into increasingly risky speculation in an attempt to find higher returns. Working people were handed the bill for the previous bubbles, and before we can get back on our feet the bursting of another bubble looms. Class war is raging, and it’s clear what side is winning.

Financiers seek to have fondest dreams come true through own secret trade deal

The financial industry has grown ever more powerful in recent decades, so perhaps the world’s governments believe it is only fitting that it has its own secret treaty. Similar to “free trade” agreements that curtail regulation of manufacturers, the Trade In Services Agreement’s Financial Services Annex, if passed, would eliminate the ability of governments to regulate the financial industry.

Incredible as it sounds, the annex, being negotiated in secret among 50 countries with continuing advice from lobbyists, would require signatory governments to allow any corporation that offers a “financial service” — that includes insurance as well as all forms of trading and speculation — to expand operations at will and would prohibit new financial regulations.

The driver of this offensive is the “investor-state dispute mechanism.” Deceptively bland-sounding, the “mechanism” is secret tribunals controlled by corporate lawyers that are commonly used under “free trade” agreements. Corporate executives angered because an environmental or safety rule keeps it from earning the highest possible profit can ask for a hearing at a designated tribunal to adjudicate its “dispute” with a government. Many of the judges who sit on these tribunals are corporate lawyers who otherwise represent corporations, and there is no appeal to their one-sided decisions.

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

The Financial Services Annex contains language identical to standard language used in “free trade” agreements that obligate “equal treatment” of all corporations. The practical effect of that language would result in the profits of speculators being elevated above all other human considerations, similar to proposed agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that would elevate corporate profits above all other considerations, should they come into force.

The countries negotiating the Trade In Services Agreement (TISA) Financial Services Annex, which include the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and the 28 countries of the European Union, refer to themselves as the “Really Good Friends of Services.” If the “services” in question are services to the financial industry, then these governments are indeed really good friends.

If it is done in secret, it is for a reason

That we know anything at all about the Financial Services Annex is because the text has been published by WikiLeaks. Just as agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are being conducted in secret because, as former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk admitted, if people knew what was in the TPP, it would never pass, the annex is kept hidden from view, except for industry lobbyists.

The leaked text of the Financial Services Annex states it should be declassified “five years from entry into force of the TISA agreement or, if no agreement enters into force, five years from the close of the negotiations.” A deal designed to give financiers even more power over the economy is a state secret!

As with the ongoing “free trade” agreement negotiations, one should not hold one’s breath waiting for substantive information on TISA or the annex. The latest round of negotiations were held June 23 to 27 in Geneva, and here is what the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative reported, in full:

“The fourth round of TISA talks was positive and productive, with participants expecting to table offers by the end of this month. Additionally, the draft text of the agreement was further stabilized with the removal of all brackets concerning the ‘negative list’ approach. U.S. negotiators look forward to further work on this important agreement.”

Yep, that’s it. Despite that meaningless ode to bureaucratic blandness, the United States and the European Union are vying to introduce the most draconian language. WikiLeaks, in a press release accompanying its publication of the secret text, said:

“The US and the EU are the main proponents of the agreement, and the authors of most joint changes, which also covers cross-border data flow. … The draft Financial Services Annex sets rules which would assist the expansion of financial multi-nationals — mainly headquartered in New York, London, Paris and Frankfurt — into other nations by preventing regulatory barriers. The leaked draft also shows that the US is particularly keen on boosting cross-border data flow, which would allow uninhibited exchange of personal and financial data. … [T]he Agreement is being crafted to be compatible with [the General Agreement on Trade in Services] so that a critical mass of participants will be able to pressure remaining [World Trade Organization] members to sign on in the future.”

The intention is to make the agreement universal, solidifying the financial industry’s grip on the global economy.

A backdoor for Wall Street to eliminate Social Security?

Articles 1 and 2 of the Financial Services Annex place no limits on what constitutes covered “financial services”:

“This section/Annex applies to measures affecting the supply of financial services. … A financial service is any service of a financial nature offered by a financial service supplier of a Party. Financial services include all insurance and insurance-related services and all banking and other financial services.”

“Party” in the text refers to a signatory government. Among other provisions, the annex would require:

  • Countries to change their laws to conform to the annex’s text (Article 3).
  • Countries to “eliminate … or reduce [the] scope” of state enterprises (Article 5).
  • Prohibit any “buy local” rules for government agencies (Article 6).
  • Prohibit any limitations on foreign financial firms’ activity (articles 7 and 10).
  • Prohibit restrictions on the transfer of any data collected, including across borders (articles 8 and 11).
  • Prohibit any restrictions on the size or expansion of financial companies and a ban on new regulations (Article 15).
  • Require any government that offers financial products through its postal service to lessen the quality of its products so that those are no better than what private corporations offer (Article 22).

Beyond the dry, bureaucratic language in which the annex is written is the crucial matter of how the text will be interpreted. Already, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, a corporate parcel-delivery service sued Canada in an attempt to have the Canadian postal system dismantled. That attempt failed, but as the secret tribunals issue more and more rulings granting more and more “investors’ rights” that become precedents for the next dispute, it is no stretch to believe that a tribunal of three “really good friends” of the financial industry could issue a ruling that a government retirement system such as Social Security is an illegal restraint on private profit.

Wall Street has long desired a privatization of Social Security, and the Financial Services Annex might prove to be the ticket for it to achieve its most sought-after goal and thereby put other countries’ public retirement systems at risk. Articles 5 and 22 hold the potential for a tribunal to rule that a government financial service such as a national retirement system is an unfair state subsidy. Consider Goldman Sachs, where customers are referred to as “muppets” with the intention of “ripping eyeballs out.” The infamous “vampire squid” stands out among its financial-industry peers for its ability to, in the words of Matt Taibbi:

“hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage.”

The foregoing, of course, is the standard operating principal of the entire financial industry. Is this who you want to control the possibility of your retiring some day?

European privacy laws would also be in the crosshairs. The U.S. has proposed language allowing cross-border movements of personal data without restriction, while the E.U. (which is negotiating on behalf of its 28 member countries) has proposed language allowing data transfers ameliorated only by boilerplate language that exempts personal privacy unless it “circumvents” the annex — a loophole wide enough to drive a truck through.

Existing “free trade” agreements have similar boilerplate language supposedly granting exceptions for human health and safety, but other clauses requiring adherence to “international norms” supersede such exceptions, rendering them meaningless.

Speculators would have unconditional rights to profit

Article 20 contains language sponsored by the U.S. and the E.U. that would require investor disputes to be heard by a panel having “the necessary expertise relevant to the specific financial service” — an invitation for bankers to sit in judgment of such disputes — and Article 13 contains language pushed by the U.S. that is essentially identical to text typically found in “free trade” agreements requiring “equal treatment” of domestic and foreign corporations.

It is that “equal treatment” language that is the battering ram used by corporations to knock down national regulations on health, safety and the environment.

For example, Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement codifies the “equal treatment” of business interests in accordance with international law and enables corporations to sue over any regulation or other government act that violates “investor rights,” which means any regulation or act that might prevent the corporation from earning the maximum possible profit. Canada, in two separate cases, had to reverse bans on chemicals known to be dangerous to human health and pay millions of dollars to the chemical manufacturers.

In one of those chemical cases, the tribunal ruled that, when formulating an environmental rule, a government “is obliged to adopt the alternative that is most consistent with open trade.”

These are the types of precedents that will be used to further engorge financial speculators should TISA and its Financial Services Annex become law.

Those living in countries not yet part of these negotiations also have much to fear. Developing countries are mostly shut out of the TISA negotiations. The coalition group Our World Is Not For Sale, which includes more than 200 member organizations, writes:

“The proposed TISA is thus a cynical attempt of the major proponents of so-called ‘free trade’ and aggressive market opening to ensure that corporate wish lists can be fulfilled, without having to make any changes to existing WTO [rules] demanded by poor countries.”

A separate group of 341 civil-society organizations, in an open letter demanding ministers cease TISA negotiations, note that:

“The TISA negotiations largely follow the corporate agenda of using ‘trade’ agreements to bind countries to an agenda of extreme liberalization and deregulation in order to ensure greater corporate profits at the expense of workers, farmers, consumers and the environment. The proposed agreement is the direct result of systematic advocacy by transnational corporations in banking, energy, insurance, telecommunications, transportation, water and other services sectors, working through lobby groups.”

Red carpet for lobbyists, red-baiting for unions

The watchdog group Corporate Europe Observatory reports that the European Commission trade department, which is negotiating on behalf of the E.U.’s 28 countries, has met more than 20 times with the European corporate lobbying group leading the push for TISA, the European Services Forum (ESF), but has met only once with trade unions. In fact, the ESF was set up with the encouragement of the European Commission in the 1990s, leading to a situation “where the public authority lobbies business to lobby itself,” the Observatory said. On the other hand, the Commission has descended to red-baiting unions when they bring up their concerns:

“When the Commission meets concerns about its aggressive services liberalisation agenda, it reacts with ignorance and mockery. A staff member of the European Federation of Public Service Unions, told Corporate Europe Observatory about one of the Commission’s Civil Society Dialogue meetings: ‘When I voiced concerns over the way public services were being dealt with in the EU’s trade policy, one of the officials basically said ‘there is no going back to the Soviet Union.’ ”

Privatization über alles! The European Commission, the bureaucratic arm of the E.U., is free from democratic accountability and if even if it weren’t there would be little or no accountability considering that the four largest blocs within the European Parliament collectively holding 549 of the 751 seats are broadly in favor of “free trade” agreements; the main center-right and center-left blocs hold a majority of the seats between them.

Nor should help be expected from the other side of the Atlantic. Not only does the U.S. consistently push for the most draconian rules regardless of which party is in the White House but its trade representative, Michael Froman, is a former high-ranking executive at Citigroup Inc. who is a protégé of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, an architect of the Clinton administration’s 1990s dismantling of financial regulations, which led to the next decade’s economic collapse.

Multi-national corporations are well organized across borders; financiers and industrialists understand their common interests. If there is any hope to put an end to “free trade” agreements — and then go on the offensive to reverse those already in place — we had better do the same.

High court rules that financiers are more sovereign than Argentina

The victory handed to speculators by the United States Supreme Court over one of the world’s larger countries provides a lesson in where power actually lies. It is not in a government building.

Two June 16 decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court elevates the “right” of hedge-fund speculators to massive windfall profits above all other human considerations. That ruling is consistent with rulings handed down by the secret tribunals used to arbitrate disputes between corporations and national governments that arise under “free trade” agreements that elevate “investors’ rights” above environmental and labor laws.

Between these Supreme Court decisions, most of the attention has focused on the ruling that federal courts in the U.S. can order sovereign countries to hand over information on their assets to speculators. In other words, the U.S. legal system has formally declared it has jurisdiction over other countries. Arrogant as that ruling is, the more dramatic development was the court refusing to hear an appeal of lower-court rulings directing Argentina to pay $1.3 billion to holdout speculators that refused to accept terms agreed to by a large majority of bond holders.

Simply put, the U.S. legal system not only declares U.S. law applies around the world, but that it will be applied to benefit the most aggressively greedy.

The Puerto Madero district of Buenos Aires. (Photo by Juan Ignacio Iglesias)

The Puerto Madero district of Buenos Aires. (Photo by Juan Ignacio Iglesias)

Much of the commentary on this case has attempted to reduce it to a simple morality tale of a debtor being obligated to pay back its creditors. The lead speculator in this affair, hedge-funder Paul Singer, who is trying to be paid the full value of bonds on which he paid pennies on the dollar, has tried to paint it that way.

Reality, of course, is far more complex. So first it is useful to understand the odious nature of Argentina’s debt.

Military junta uses dirty war to impose austerity

Prior to the 1976 military seizure of power, Argentina was an industrialized country with active union and left-wing movements, a sizable middle class and large tracts of arable land. But the Argentine economic elite and the multinational corporations that operated there wanted Argentina turned into a low-wage haven. Only extreme violence would be able to achieve that goal.

Upon seizing power, the military handed over economic policy to a well-connected industrialist, José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, who ruthlessly implemented a severe neoliberal program of shock therapy, backed by a savage campaign of torture, “disappearances” and killings waged by the military and two allied fascist groups. The CGT union federation was abolished, strikes outlawed, prices raised, wages tightly controlled and social programs cut. As a result, real wages fell by 50 percent within a year. Because of the collapse of internal consumption caused by this austerity, ten percent of Argentina’s workforce was laid off in 1976 alone.

Tariffs were reduced deeply, leaving the country wide open to imports and foreign speculation, causing considerable local industry to shut. High interest rates led to more foreign speculation and an overvalued currency, further hurting national production. Against this backdrop, the dirty war was intensified — initially targeting leftists, the régime quickly began to eliminate students, lawyers, journalists and trade unionists.

This was the régime of which David Rockefeller, whose loans helped finance it, famously said, “I have the impression that Argentina has a regime which understands the private enterprise system.” Further economic contraction occurred, and for the last five years of the military junta, 1978 to 1983, Argentina’s foreign debt increased to US$43 billion from $8 billion, while the share of wages in national income fell to 22 percent from 43 percent.

Civilian control and formal democracy was re-established following the collapse of the junta, but the debt did not go away.

A civilian president, Carlos Menem, imposed an austerity program in the early 1990s in conjunction with selling off state enterprises at below-market prices. This fire sale yielded $23 billion, but the proceeds went to pay foreign debt mostly accumulated by the military dictatorship — after completing these sales, Argentina’s foreign debt had actually grown. The newly privatized companies then imposed massive layoffs and raised consumer prices.

By 1997, about 85 percent of Argentines were unable to meet their basic needs with their income. During this period, Argentina’s debt steadily mounted, leading to a scheme under which the debt would be refinanced. A brief pause in the payment schedule was granted in exchange for higher interest payments — Argentina’s debt increased under the deal, but the investment bank that arranged this restructuring racked up a fee of $100 million, the latest in a series of financial maneuvers that shipped a billion dollars to investment banks in ten years.

It all finally imploded at the end of 2001, when the government froze bank accounts and the country experienced so much unrest that it had five presidents in two weeks. The last of these presidents, Néstor Kirchner, suspended debt payments. Had Argentina resumed scheduled payments in 2005, interest payment alone on the debt would have consumed 35 percent of total government spending. Kirchner announced that Argentina intended to pay only 25 percent of what was owed and any group that refused negotiations would get nothing; in the end, Argentina paid 30 percent to bondholders who agreed to talk.

Vulture capitalist seeks extortionist gains

Approximately 93 percent of bondholders agreed to accept 30 percent of the face value — 30 percent is better than zero. Argentina has repaid these on a steady schedule and Argentine law forbids giving the holdouts a better deal. Some of the bonds held by the original holdouts were bought by NML Capital, a subsidiary of Paul Singer’s Elliot Capital Management, and another hedge fund, Aurelius Capital Management. These were the two whose lawsuits reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Including interest, the holdouts would walk off with $1.5 billion if paid in full. NML Capital, Argentine President Cristina Fernández said, would see a gain of 1,600 percent for bonds it bought for $48.7 million. “I don’t even think that in organized crime there is a return rate of 1,608 per cent in such a short time,” she said in a national address following the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, in which she said Argentina would not “submit to such extortion.”

Mr. Singer, the type of character for which the term “vulture capitalist” was coined, certainly has been persistent in attempting to collect the full face value of bonds for which he paid a small fraction of that value. In November 2012, he had an Argentine naval ship impounded in Ghana after earlier plotting to seize the presidential plane and artworks that were to have been shown at a Frankfurt book fair.

Among other exploits, he has demanded $400 million from the Republic of the Congo for bonds he bought for less than $10 million and compelled the government of Peru to pay him a 400 percent profit on the debt of two Peruvian banks he bought four years earlier. His specialty is buying debt at a small fraction of the face value and demanding full payment, regardless of the cost to others, and has become a billionaire through doing so.

In the imperialist crosshairs

A series of one-sided rulings in a federal trial court, upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, favored the hedge funds over Argentina. When the appeals reached the Supreme Court, the bond holders who agreed to accept 30 percent (a “haircut” in financial parlance) backed Argentina, fearing that there would be no money for them should Argentina be forced to pay off the holdouts at full face value. The U.S. government also sided with Argentina, fearing a precedent that could be used to enable it to be sued.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 is supposed to bar lawsuits in U.S. courts against non-U.S. governments, but a 7-1 bipartisan majority of the Supreme Court decided that the law is malleable when not convenient. The Argentine bonds were sold with a provision that New York law would be used to settle disputes related to them, which gave U.S. courts the excuse needed to extend U.S. law to Argentina.

Under New York law, investors must be treated equally. That provision could have been interpreted to mean the holdouts would get the same 30 percent payment in installments — which the Argentine government would have agreed to had they been willing to negotiate — but instead it was used as an opportunity to give more rights to speculators.

The practical effect of these rulings is that “investors” — hedge funds with the well-earned sobriquet of “vultures” — have been elevated above a national government. This is perfectly consistent with the decisions handed down by secret tribunals like the World Bank-affiliated International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes when “investors” sue governments under “free-trade” agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The hedge funds can leverage the U.S. legal system to enforce their will over Argentina in this case because the U.S. financial system is used to make payments to the bondholders who negotiated the 30 percent agreement with the South American country. Argentina could only continue to make those payments, while simultaneously refusing to pay anything to the holdouts, by doing so completely outside the U.S. financial system, which is possible but very difficult due to the system’s global reach. Moreover, those payees within the reach of the U.S. legal system would be susceptible to being sued by the holdouts.

Argentina has consistently said it has does not have the money to pay the holdouts and continue to meet its continuing obligations to the bondholders it has been paying, another reason for those bondholders to side with Argentina against the holdouts. The next payment is due June 30 — on that date, Argentina would be in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court should it not pay the full face value of the holdouts’ bonds. But if it does so, or simply agrees to pay more than 30 percent, the holdouts would likely demand to re-negotiate to get the same deal.

Immediate conflict doesn’t negate larger interests

What to do? One possibility is to up the ante. That is the recommendation of Argentina’s counsel at the New York corporate law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in a memorandum dated May 2, 2014:

“[T]he best option for the Republic could be to permit the Supreme Court to force a default and then immediately restructure all of the external bonds so that the payment mechanism and the other related elements are outside of the reach of American courts. Argentina wants to continue paying its restructured debt. The Courts, nevertheless, have placed it in a terrible position.”

Courts do not act in a vacuum, but ultimately express the interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers similar to any other component of a government in the capitalist system. It is certainly true that those interests are in conflict in this matter. Such a conflict is not unusual. The victory for one particular set of speculators here, however, serves to tighten the screws of austerity by further codifying the dominance of the most ruthless capitalists within the capitalist legal system.

Should the end result of this case be that all parties agree to a payment level higher than 30 percent, would the speculators on the losing side be crestfallen? Regardless of the outcome, the precedent set here provides additional leverage for speculators in future financial deals. Not even the opinion of the U.S. government, the ultimate protector of corporate interests through its intelligence and military apparatuses and “free trade” agreements, was allowed to interfere with a bid to further tighten corporate power. That is what was at stake here, not the short-term interests of this or that speculator.

For Argentina, or any other subaltern country, to rid itself of odious debt and re-orient itself toward the greater good of its citizenry rather than the profiteering of speculators, will require entirely new structures in a different economic system.

Eminent domain to save homeowners a nice reform but falls well short

“Reverse eminent domain” — the seizure of mortgages by municipal governments to keep people in their homes — has yet to be put to the test, but the strong opposition mounted by Wall Street is perhaps negative proof that it is a good idea.

Financial industry opposition has so far cowed any government from actually implementing such a plan, even though one suit filed in California was thrown out as premature. That suit was aimed at Richmond, California, where the city government in July 2013 declared its intent to use eminent domain — U.S. laws ordinarily used to seize properties to clear land for construction projects — to buy mortgages and refinance them.

Cold feet on the part of some city council members has prevented Richmond from actually implementing its plan. But a second city on the other side of the country — Irvington, New Jersey — has voted to carry out a similar program. Fear of being the first has been a factor in the lack of action and if others announce similar intentions, perhaps an interesting experiment will yet be conducted.

Rosie the Riveter monument, Richmond, California

Rosie the Riveter monument, Richmond, California

The basic idea is this: A local government would buy the mortgage of a home at 80 percent of “fair market value,” which in these cases would be far less than what is owed on the mortgage, and then allow the homeowner to refinance at the new, lower amount. The new loan would be refinanced through a private company contracting with the local government.

This would not be an act of charity. The local government and the private finance company would split the profit that would result from the difference between what the homeowner would owe after the refinancing forced by the use of eminent domain (the property’s assessed “fair market value”) and the lower price at which the private finance company would buy the mortgage (80 percent of “fair market value”). The private company could not do this without a government using its power of eminent domain, which is the power to seize property for a public purpose.

The city council of Richmond, a poor city northeast of San Francisco, voted 4-3 in favor of this plan in July. Under California law, however, it can’t actually implement its plan unless the council has a “super-majority” of five votes, and that fifth vote has proved illusive. Opposed council members variously cite that no other city has stepped forward and a fear that the city would be too exposed to possible liability.

A small reform, not an overturning of economic relations

Although the banks and speculators who have profited enormously from the housing bubble would have you believe that refinancing mortgages proffered by predatory lenders is some sort of socialist outrage, the idea is in actuality a capitalist reform. The person most credited with conceptualizing the idea is a Cornell University professor, Robert Hockett, and he published a paper promoting it on the web site of the Federal Reserve’s New York branch.

The Federal Reserve? The part of the government that exists to see to the expensive needs of financiers hasn’t become a socialist bastion, has it? No, it surely hasn’t. Professor Hockett’s paper can’t be taken as, and isn’t, the policy of the New York Fed. But the mere fact of the Fed publishing it demonstrates that we are not discussing anything remotely resembling a threat to the capitalist order.

The paper simply acknowledges that providing assistance to “underwater” homeowners is the “best way” to assist them. Most mortgages have been bundled into pools of “mortgage-backed securities” nearly impossible to unravel; attempting to make a deal with the holders of these securitized mortgages, assuming they could even be determined, can be avoided by instead using local governments as the dealmakers. Professor Hockett advocates this in the context of refusing to blame homeowners for a bubble not of their making:

“[O]wing to asset-price bubbles’ status as collective action problems, it is doubtful that many homebuyers during the bubble years had much choice when it came to buying overvalued homes. That most homes were overvalued is what rendered the bubble a bubble. It therefore seems mistaken to blame homeowners as a class, or to characterize write-downs as per se unfair or morally hazardous.” [page 8]

Professor Hockett elsewhere argues that the plan would actually increase the value of the targeted loans. Writing on the Web of Debt Blog, he argues that the very fact that it is the loans “most deeply underwater” that are targeted is what makes the plan beneficial:

“[D]eeply underwater loans are subject to enormous default risk (just look at Fannie [Mae]’s and Freddie [Mac]’s [Securities and Exchange Commission] filings for a hint as to how high that risk is — nearly 70% for non-prime and 40% even for prime loans), such that one actually RAISES the actuarial value of the targeted loans by purchasing them and writing down principal so long as one targets the RIGHT loans. … The whole POINT of the plan is to target ONLY deeply underwater loans and associated securities that will be POSITIVELY affected. Those are EXACTLY the loans Richmond and other cities are looking at.” [emphases in original]

Predators profit, prices plunge

Cities like Richmond, with a large minority population, were particularly targeted by predatory lenders. Housing values in Contra Costa County, which includes Richmond, fell 47 percent in 2008 and another 24 percent in 2009. Prices have not recovered. The Richmond plan targets more than 600 mortgages, although that represents only a fraction of the city’s foreclosure-threatened houses.

The private company working with the city is Mortgage Resolution Partners, which refers to itself as a “community advisory firm” and says on its web site that it “will earn a government approved flat fee per mortgage — the same fee that any major bank earns today if it successfully modifies a loan under the federal government’s Home Affordable Modification Program.” (That fee is in addition to the expected profits to be shared with local governments.) The company’s head has worked as an asset manager for several financial companies.

Mortgage Resolution Partners pitched the plan to Richmond, whose Green Party mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, continues to support it. She led a community delegation across the bay to Wells Fargo to negotiate, only to have the bank lock its doors and refuse to negotiate. Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank were the two banks that sued the city last summer after its vote in favor of the reverse eminent domain plan.

A federal judge threw out the suit because no mortgages had yet been seized, but it is likely new suits would swiftly follow should Richmond or any other city begin to implement such a program. Moreover, the Obama administration’s Federal Housing Finance Agency has threatened sanctions against any jurisdiction that seizes mortgages. An additional threat, that of a capital strike against Richmond, seems to have dissipated, at least for now. A bond offering by Richmond in August 2013 was snubbed, but the city successfully sold $28 million worth of bonds last month.

Perhaps the most likely factor to make reverse eminent domain work would be for it to be widely adopted. Irvington, New Jersey, a poor city bordering Newark, on March 25 became the second U.S. municipality to approve such a plan. Irvington has already been threatened with refusals to issue loans to the city’s government or to any of its residents — an illegal “red-lining” of an entire municipality. Several other cities, including Newark, have discussed reverse eminent domain plans, although San Bernardino County in California dropped its plans in the face of threatened court challenges.

These plans are not without legitimate controversy. Public pension funds are invested in all sorts of financial products, and widespread reductions in mortgages could affect others than banks and speculators. The California Public Employees Retirement System, which holds about $11 billion of mortgage-backed securities, has expressed concern about the Richmond plan, although it has not opposed it. Plan proponents, however, argue that value will be added because the mortgages most at risk of default will be the targets, avoiding default and allowing homeowners to remain in their homes.

There are no magic elixirs here. The voracious growth of financialization has ensnared retirement funds, meaning that write-downs of debt are not simple matters. There has been much swooning at first sight of the reverse eminent domain idea, and it certainly does have appeal because it would undoubtedly help victims of predatory lenders. Yet plans such as Richmond’s can be no more than temporary fixes helping small numbers of people; expecting the same economic system that has created such a colossal mess to clean up its mess will end in disappointment.

As long as financiers and landlords are allowed to haul in massive profits without constraint, struggling homeowners and renters alike will continue to having their homes subject to being taken away when a larger pot of profit beckons.

In the short term, creative solutions to ameliorate the predatory behavior of financial elites and provide some measure of stability to embattled communities should be welcomed. Nonetheless, it is tinkering at the margins. Lasting solutions, rooted in community control, will require dramatic structural changes far beyond what so far is contemplated.

State banks would mean jobs, credit and investment: Why don’t we?

One of the many problems with the current banking system is that your tax money helps fuel speculation. Unless there is a public bank that your local government can place deposits into, revenues are the playthings of big banks.

Some of that money will go toward investment via loans — at a hefty profit to the bank, of course — but a significant portion will go toward risky, socially harmful speculation. What if these public funds were instead put in a professionally run public bank? There would be more funds available for investment, significant savings on interest costs and more jobs would be created. That is the conclusion of a series of studies examining the issue.

The latest of these studies advocates that a Vermont state-government agency be converted into a state bank, run along the lines of the Bank of North Dakota, the only state bank in the United States. This study, prepared by researchers at the universities of Vermont and Massachusetts for the coalition group Vermonters for a New Economy, concludes that a Vermont public state bank would lead to more than 2,000 new jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars in increased economic output and a significant increase in funds available for investment.

Vermont maple syrup (photo by Gerald Zojer)

Vermont maple syrup (photo by Gerald Zojer)

Earlier, separate studies concluded that state banks in Oregon and Washington state would lead to thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of new revenue. Advocates of a state bank in California believe the creation of a public bank would lead to billions of dollars in benefits there. The Bank of North Dakota turns a profit on behalf of that state’s government while providing investments for local projects — an example that could be replicated elsewhere.

Vermont has a small population similar to North Dakota’s, and the researchers who prepared the Vermonters for a New Economy paper drew on North Dakota’s experience. The paper concludes that a Vermont state bank would result in:

  • 2,535 new jobs, including more than 1,000 in the first two years.
  • $192 million added to the state economy.
  • As much as $236 million in new money would be available for credit.
  • Savings of almost $100 million from reduced interest costs.

If it acts like a bank, why not make it a bank?

Such achievements would represent a considerable benefit for a small, rural state with 600,000 residents. The paper does not recommend that Vermont start a state bank from scratch, but rather convert an existing state agency, the Vermont Economic Development Authority, into one. The paper said the authority, in conjunction with two other state agencies that provide specialized loans, already carries out many of the functions of a bank. The authority is tasked with “providing loans and other financial support to eligible and qualified Vermont industrial, commercial and agricultural enterprises” by the state legislature, a mission similar to a state bank.

As of now, the Vermont state government deposits its revenues in two commercial banks, TD Bank (based in Toronto) and People’s United Bank (a regional bank based in Connecticut that swallowed a local bank previously used). Those two banks can, and do, use the money deposited by the Vermont government for any purpose its managers desire. Although the paper went out of its way to praise both for their willingness to lend locally, they have little obligation to do so. TD Bank, typical of large financial institutions, is heavily involved in speculation — it has a reported derivatives exposure of $3.8 trillion, a total more than four times more than its assets. There is risk here.

Were the state government to instead place its revenue in a state bank, all the funds (excepting those required to be held as reserves under applicable federal regulations) would be available for local investment, both as loans and for needed public infrastructure projects. Moreover, a state bank could borrow funds from the Federal Reserve at a much lower rate than by borrowing from a commercial bank and, by being able to use funds from its state bank, the government would float fewer bonds, saving on interest payments. The paper said:

“A public bank could direct as much credit as desired within fed reserve requirements, capital ratios, and prudent banking towards investment in-state lending agencies by partnering with them. A bank can also expand the amount of credit available through leveraging, which the [state] Treasurer and lending agencies cannot do.” [pages 10-11]

The paper calculates that, even with reserve requirements, there would be more than $200 million in new credit available, which could be directed toward useful investment rather than speculation. Because Vermont’s deposited revenue represents a minuscule percentage of TD and People’s United’s assets, and because a state bank would be much more focused on public needs, the proposed state bank’s credit would be in addition to, not a replacement for, commercial banking credit:

“[O]n the question of a public bank creating new credit or not, we find no evidence to support critics, and find that public bank lending will mostly add to existing credit within the state. Furthermore, even if public bank lending simply replaced existing lending by private banks, the results would still be highly beneficial.” [page 22]

What’s good for a small state is good for a bigger state

In addition to the other benefits, the profits from loans would be returned to the state. The Bank of North Dakota routinely produces profits for that state’s government while providing a reliable source of funding for local investment. There have been bills introduced into the Vermont Legislature to study the creation of a state bank, but so far have not advanced due to opposition by the Vermont Bankers Association.

Similar bills have been introduced in other states, which have also faced considerable headwinds, despite (or because of) similar conclusions.

A study by the Center for State Innovation found that a state bank in Oregon could help create or retain 6,900 to 8,800 additional small-business jobs, make $1.3 billion available in new credit and earn profits for the state after only three years. Another study by the same organization focusing on Washington state predicted that a state bank there would created as many as 10,000 small-business jobs, make $2.6 billion available in new credit and also begin turning a profit after three years.

Advocates of a California state bank believe that it would generate $133 billion in credit becoming available for the largest U.S. state. A bill to study this issue was passed by the state legislature, but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. The Bank of North Dakota reported net income of $82 million in 2012 — what would such a bank return in bigger states?

Ultimately, however, the stranglehold of financiers can not be reformed away. It can only be eliminated by converting all banking into a public utility for the broad benefit of society with speculation firmly prohibited.

Getting to there from here is a long road, but successful public state, provincial and regional banks replicated around the world would set a good example, and demonstrate that the staggering cost of a financial industry that continues to run amok is not a burden that we are forced to live with. If we have no control over the economy and our working lives, democracy is an illusion.

Grip of giant banks on the economy stronger than ever

“Too big to fail” banks are bigger than ever. Holding the global economy hostage, extracting profits from every aspect of human activity and remaining well above the reach of the law are simply business as usual — not to mention extremely profitable.

The six largest banks in the United States — each among the world’s largest — reported composite net income of $91 billion for 2013. Yep: $91 billion in cold cash, for only six enterprises, and that total is the profit after paying out their colossal salaries and bonuses.

Wells Fargo Plaza, HoustonTo put the total in further perspective, the six banks enjoyed a profit margin of 19.1 percent. By way of comparison, the average corporate profit margin in mid-2013 was 9.3 percent. It would seem that financiers have managed to trudge on despite suffering the critiques of people who refuse to believe that their multimillion-dollar compensation is a God-given right.

No less than an authority than Gregory Mankiw says that’s so. Professor Mankiw was the chair of the council of economic advisers under former U.S. President George W. Bush and is currently the head of the economics department at Harvard University. But if you are expecting scholarship from someone with such credentials, you will be disappointed. For example, he wrote in his paper, “Defending the One Percent”:

“Those who work in commercial banks, investment banks, hedge funds and other financial firms are in charge of allocating capital and risk, as well as providing liquidity. They decide, in a decentralized and competitive way, which firms and industries need to shrink and which will be encouraged to grow. It makes sense that a nation would allocate many of its most talented and thus highly compensated individuals to this activity.”

So there you have it: Financiers do not self-select on the basis of lust for money without regard for the damage they do to others, but are anointed by society. Do you recall a referendum selecting them? I do not, either.

Accountability? How quaint!

Opportunities for upward flow of money were not in short supply last year. Here are the 2013 full-year results for the six largest banks, as reported by the companies themselves last week:

• JPMorgan Chase & Co.: net income of $17.9 billion on revenue of $96.6 billion. That was JPMorgan’s profit after setting aside $8.7 billion to cover legal expenses.
• Bank of America Corp.: net income of $11.4 billion on revenue of $89.8 billion.
• Citigroup Inc.: net income of $13.9 billion on revenue of $76.4 billion. Although Citigroup’s 2013 net income was close to double that of 2012, it was nonetheless considered disappointing! Not even Citigroup is immune from the pitiless system it and its peer institutions have created. Its stock price has dropped several points since last week, meaning the market is demanding it squeeze out more profits.
• Wells Fargo & Co.: net income of $21.9 billion on revenue of $83.8 billion.
• The Goldman Sachs Group Inc.: net income of $8.0 billion on revenue of $34.2 billion. Those profits are after compensation and benefits totaling $12.6 billion. The average compensation for a Goldman Sachs employee for 2013 was $383,000, lower than the $399,000 of 2012. Oh the humanity!
• Morgan Stanley: net income of $17.9 billion on revenue of $96.6 billion.

How big are these six banks? So big that they hold 67 percent of all the assets in the U.S. financial system, considerably more than they held five years ago.

Cause the crash and then profit from it

And what “services” do these too-big-to-fail financial institutions provide? Matt Taibbi, in the Rolling Stone article that gave Goldman Sachs the memorable moniker of “vampire squid,” summarized:

“Goldman positions itself in the middle of a speculative bubble, selling investments they know are crap. Then they hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage. Finally, when it all goes bust, leaving millions of ordinary citizens broke and starving, they begin the entire process over again, riding in to rescue us all by lending us back our own money at interest.”

Goldman Sachs and its peer intitutions seek to extract money from every aspect of human activity. These, and other banks, have never had to accept responsibility for bringing down the world’s economy. Other than a few individuals who have been hauled into court because their scheming was too blatant to ignore (who are always tagged “rogue traders” as if they don’t operate within a well-established system), it’s business as usual.

Why should the we be at the mercy of a tiny elite that knows no limits to its rapaciousness? A crucial component of a better world would be a drastically shrunken banking system, under democratic community control, oriented toward human need and rational investment, and prohibited to engage in any speculation. Banking should be a public utility. The point of a market is to serve humanity — yet under the current world capitalist system, human beings exist to serve markets. And markets are nothing but the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers.

Financiers may see themselves as untouchable monarchs when they look into a mirror, but we need not swallow such nonsense any more than our ancestors did when they ceased to believe that a king is chosen by God to rule over everyone.