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.

The Federal Reserve inflates another bubble, but not for you

If you haven’t experienced the “recovery” from the Great Recession the corporate media keeps insisting is here, that’s because “quantitative easing” is a new way to say “trickle-down.” In this latest version, the Federal Reserve has pumped trillions of dollars into financial markets to create a stock market bubble.

Panic at the New York Stock Exchange (image via U.S. Library of Congress)

Panic at the New York Stock Exchange (image via U.S. Library of Congress)

Other than a small secondary effect of re-animating real estate prices, a growing bubble in stock prices has constituted the extent of the economic impact. Good for the one percent, not so good for the rest of us.

“Quantitative easing” is the technical name for a Federal Reserve program in which it buys U.S. government debt and mortgage-backed securities in massive amounts. In conjunction with keeping interest rates near zero, quantitative easing is supposedly intended to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. A reduction in long-term interests rates would encourage working people to buy or refinance homes; for businesses to invest because they could borrow cheaply; and push down the value of the dollar, thereby boosting exports by making U.S.-made products more competitive.

In real life, however, the effect has been an upward distribution of money and an increase in speculation. This new form of trickle-down has not worked any differently than it did during the Reagan administration. Now that the Federal Reserve will gradually reduce the amount of bonds it purchases (announced last month) and perhaps end the program by the end of 2014, Wall Street and corporate executives worry that their latest party might be over.

What hasn’t changed, and won’t anytime soon, is the weakness of the global economy, particularly for the world’s advanced capitalist countries. If you aren’t making enough money to get by, you aren’t planning a shopping spree. If working people, collectively, continue to see wages erode, happy days are not at hand. They aren’t.

The top one percent has captured almost all of the “recovery,” which is why the corporate media continues to peddle its mantra. Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California, calculates that 95 percent of all U.S. income gains from 2009 to 2012 went to the top one percent. That result is an intensification of a pattern — Professor Saez calculates that 68 percent of all income gains for the longer period of 1993 to 2012 went to the top one percent.

Fueling a speculative binge

How is this connected to quantitative easing? The money borrowed by corporations has not gone toward investment or hiring new workers, but rather into buying back stock and speculation. Financiers and executives riding the crest of this wave of cheap money in turn use their gains to further speculate, or to buy expensive works of art, itself speculation that the wildly rising prices for collectible works will continue.

U.S. corporations bought back about $750 billion of their stock in 2013. When a corporation buys back its stock, it is spreading its profits among fewer stockholders, thereby boosting its stock price. That’s more profits for financiers and bigger bonuses for executives, achieved without investing in the enterprise.

The billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller in a television interview called the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program:

“[T]he biggest redistribution of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the rich ever. … I mean, maybe this trickle-down monetary policy that gives money to billionaires and hopefully we go spend it is going to work. But it hasn’t worked for five years.”

Mr. Druckenmiller said this on CNBC, a cable-television business news station whose anchors openly cheer news of rising corporate profits and celebrate wealth accumulation. The “five years” he mentioned is a reference to the three successive programs of quantitative easing that began in the final weeks of the Bush II/Cheney administration. In a separate report, CNBC journalist Robert Frank writes that it has become “increasingly clear” that the wealthiest one percent are the big winners:

“The largesse of the Federal Reserve over the past five years has amounted to one of the largest ever subsidies to the American wealthy — fueling record fortunes, record numbers of new millionaires and billionaires, and an unprecedented shopping spree for everything from Ferraris to Francis Bacon paintings. The prices of the assets owned by the wealthy, and the things they buy, have gone parabolic, bearing little relationship to the weak, broader economy. …

Fed policy has fueled a surge in the value of financial assets. Since the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans own 60 percent of financial assets, and the top 10 percent own 80 percent of the stocks, those gains in financial assets have gone disproportionately to a small group at the top.”

Stock prices reaching unsustainable levels

More speculative money is poured into stock markets because the heavy Federal Reserve buying of bonds dampens demand in that sector. Ted Levin, writing for the business publication SmallCap Network, summarizes this effect:

“[Q]uantitative easing involves buying long-term bonds, which in turn drives down the interest rates on these. The reason for this is that when there is a strong demand for bonds — which is exactly what quantitative easing artificially creates — bond issuers do not have to offer such high interest rates in order to attract investors. This in turn means that bonds are less attractive to non-governmental investors, and so they turn to stocks instead — driving up the price.

The second reason is that quantitative easing makes more capital available to businesses at lower rates. This allows them to swap high-cost debt for low-cost debt and buy back stock — improving their earnings per share and driving up the value of the remaining stock.”

The most basic measure of a stock, or the stock markets as a whole, is the “price/earnings ratio.” The P/E ratio is a company’s yearly profit divided by the price of one share. As of January 14, the P/E ratio for the S&P 500, the standard barometer, was at about 19.5 and has been rising steadily the past couple of years. A handful of times in history, the P/E ratio has risen above 20, only to crash each time. The historical average is 14.5 — meaning that stocks are currently overvalued.

Stock prices have become unmoored from underlying economic conditions — and are frequently pure speculation. Most trading is done through computer programs, often with a stock bought and sold in fractions of a second to take advantage of quick pricing changes, and increasingly exotic derivatives to draw in ever more speculative money by the wealthy who are awash in far more money that can possibly invest rationally.

Wall Street’s party will wind down as slowly and gently as the Federal Reserve can manage, and it may yet reverse itself and continue its quantitative-easing program. As of the end of December 2013, the Fed has spent a total of $3.7 trillion over five years on quantitative easing and the Bank of England has committed £375 billion to its quantitative easing.

How much could these enormous sums of money have benefited working people had this money instead been used to create jobs directly or for productive social investment? And these barrels of money thrown to financiers are merely the latest tranches — the U.S., E.U., Japan and China committed 16.3 trillion dollars in 2008 and 2009 alone on bailouts of the financiers who brought down the global economy and, to a far smaller extent, for economic stimulus. For the rest of us, it’s been austerity and mounting inequality.

Going beyond the obvious question of why such absurdly one-sided policies should be tolerated, it also necessary to ask: Why do we continue to believe an economic system that requires such massive subsidies “works”?

‘End-game’ conspiracy or business as usual?

The so-called “end-game” memo authored by Timothy Geithner and recently brought to light by investigative journalist Greg Palast certainly is interesting, but does not “prove” that a secret cabal set up the world for a financial collapse. The present-day neoliberal misery has far deeper roots than a handful of officials, no matter how odious.

Photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Last week, a memo written by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Geithner in 1997, when he was assistant secretary for international affairs in the U.S. Treasury Department, was published by Mr. Palast. The memo asked Lawrence Summers to directly call the chief executive officers of five key players in the financial industry — Bank of America, Citibank, Chase Manhattan, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch — to discuss “the end-game of [World Trade Organization] financial services regulations.”

In his accompanying story, Mr. Palast gets a little hyperbolic:

“When a little birdie dropped the End Game memo through my window, its content was so explosive, so sick and plain evil, I just couldn’t believe it. The Memo confirmed every conspiracy freak’s fantasy: that in the late 1990s, the top US Treasury officials secretly conspired with a small cabal of banker big-shots to rip apart financial regulation across the planet.”

It isn’t a secret that the finance ministries of governments in the world’s advanced capitalist countries are captives of the global finance industry, nor that the U.S. Treasury Department is Wall Street’s personal branch of government. It’s no secret that industrialists and financiers hold decisive influence over governments. The system is called capitalism. Mr. Palast has done excellent investigative work for years and he has once again provided a valuable service with his publication of the Geithner memo. But interesting as the memo is for its confirmation of the close collaboration between financiers and government, it would be a mistake to place too much emphasis on personalities.

Mr. Palast himself seems to realize this, writing:

“Does all this evil and pain flow from a single memo? Of course not: the evil was The Game itself, as played by the banker clique. The memo only revealed their game-plan for checkmate.”

But then we are back to personalities:

“And the memo reveals a lot about Summers and Obama. While billions of sorry souls are still hurting from worldwide banker-made disaster, [Robert] Rubin and Summers didn’t do too badly. Rubin’s deregulation of banks had permitted the creation of a financial monstrosity called ‘Citigroup.’ Within weeks of leaving office, Rubin was named director, then Chairman of Citigroup — which went bankrupt while managing to pay Rubin a total of $126 million.”

Personal interest, yes, but ideology looms large

I’ve no argument against the accusation that Secretaries Summers and Rubin have personally enriched themselves to the tune of many millions of dollars. The facts speak for themselves. I am not suggesting that there is no personal interest at stake here; but the larger issue is that these Wall Street consiglieres are acting for ideological reasons. The logic of an entire economic structure led to deregulation and the disastrous consequences that flowed from it. The steps that culminated in the 2008 collapse that we continue to live with go back decades, before the careers of any of today’s capitalist mandarins.

The capitalist system has evolved into the present-day situation under its own inexorable demands. Our unholy Democratic triumvirate are merely the human material that fulfilled the necessary roles.

The problem isn’t greedy bankers, the problem is the system that enables the greedy bankers.

If those three hadn’t been there, someone else would have been and done the same. Has the switching between Democratic/Republican, or Liberal/Conservative, or Labour/Conservative, or Social Democratic/Christian Democratic, or Socialist/Union for a Popular Movement, made any difference in economic matters? The same dynamic that governs all enterprises under the capitalist system — expand or die — applies to the financial industry.

Enterprises that produce tangible goods and services compete for market share, swallowing each other as a natural strategy to become bigger. Ultimately, only a handful of corporations will dominate an industry, creating an effective monopoly that puts an end to competition and grants the executives and institutional shareholders who control them extraordinary wealth and power. The financial industry is no different, and deregulation is critically important to financiers’ ability to increase the size of their banks and hedge funds.

Relentless competition goads them (not reluctantly, of course) into demanding more deregulation, more privatization (to gain control of public wealth) and the opening of borders to capital. If a capitalist enterprise does not do this, its competitors will and put it out of business. As more wealth is amassed, the more power enterprises have to bend laws and rules more in their favor. The wealthier and more powerful the executives and financiers who control these enterprises become, the harsher the conditions they can impose on their employees.

A ventriloquist has to learn his lines

To put the “end-game” memo in perspective, Secretary Geithner was seeking to ensure that the U.S. government’s negotiating position was fully in alignment with the country’s largest financiers. His memo speaks for itself on this:

“Industry’s assessment of the prospects for success in December [1997] can be characterized as cautiously optimistic. … I believe the securities industry is broadly satisfied with the outlines of the deal.”

Secretary Geithner evidently believed that Secretary Summers would be the best person to discuss final negotiations with the pirates of Wall Street. Indeed, the latter speaks as a ventriloquist for the financial industry. I had low expectations for Barack Obama following his election, but when Secretary Summers’ selection as lead financial adviser was one of the president-elect’s first moves, I realized the Obama administration was going to be worse than I thought.

The World Trade Organization’s financial services regulations were implemented. The WTO announced in February 1999 that the regulations would go into effect because governments that accounted for more than 90 per cent of the global financial services market ratified the agreement. WTO rules forbid governments from limiting the size of financial firms; forbid “firewalls” that would separate commercial banking from risky speculation; and limits government oversight by subjecting domestic regulations to WTO review.

At that time, the WTO, as a global organization to which nearly all countries belong, was the primary treaty vehicle for imposing control over the world’s economies. The “Battle in Seattle” in late 1999, and subsequent global resistance, brought the process of using the WTO to further tighten control to a halt. As a result, there is now more stress on trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The European Union also exists to impose corporate dictatorship through erosion of national sovereignties and imposition of market “discipline,” which is nothing more than imposing the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers.

The ideas of the world’s industrialists and financiers have become the dominant ideas of the world — these are continually disseminated through endless repetition through mass media, schools and a plethora of other institutions. Promoted political leaders will be be drawn from among those who positions replicate the dominant ideas and they can’t take office without dependence on the money of industrialists and financiers. The “end-game” memo opens a window into this process, but we shouldn’t mistake the window for the edifice.

Bush economist defends the 1% so you don’t have to

The mystery of why orthodox economists continue to insist on policies that only aggravate economic crisis ceases to be a mystery once we realize that it is ideology, not science. Orthodox, or “neoclassical,” economics is dominated by Chicago School thinking because its adherents’ motivation is to justify extreme inequality, accounting for the steadfastness of its adherents in the face of massive contrary evidence.

One of the Chicago School’s most significant leaders, Frank Knight, once wrote in an academic economics journal that professors should “inculcate” in their students that these theories are not debatable hypotheses, but rather are “sacred feature[s] of the system.” Yes, we must simply believe. But in case you don’t, mathematical formulae are deployed that purports to describe economic activity — this is a system that stresses individuality but in which human beings are missing. Economic activity is treated as a simple exchange of freely acting, mutually benefiting, equal firms and households in a market that automatically, through an “invisible hand,” self-adjusts and self-regulates to equilibrium.

Global distribution of wealthAmong the most widely read defenders of this system is N. Gregory Mankiw, a former chair of the council of economic advisers under former U.S. President George W. Bush. Professor Mankiw, currently the head of the economics department at Harvard University, recently wrote a paper straightforwardly titled, “Defending the One Percent.” Defending them, and the system that enables those at the top of the pyramid to acquire vast sums of wealth, is the job of economists like Professor Mankiw.

He is, by any reasonable standard, one of the most intellectually able defenders of the status quo; sophisticated enough to have on occasion said nice words about John Maynard Keynes, ordinarily a big no-no among conservative economists. (Professor Keynes was no radical but rather was clear-headed enough to know that capitalism is unstable and in need of government assistance to maintain itself, but so much as implying there could possibly be anything wrong with their magical system and the “invisible hand” that guides it is ordinarily beyond the pale.)

But although it is only fair to acknowledge that Professor Mankiw is more intellectually honest than most of his brethren, when we read his paper all the biases, absurd assumptions and turgid ideology that underlies orthodox economics is in plain sight. “Defending the One Percent” is a work of ideology — he argues that the wealthy are wealthy because they are more valuable than the rest of us.

He read it in a book, so it must be true

Professor Mankiw argues that inequality results from a technological-driven increase in demand for skilled labor that is not matched by a corresponding increase in the education of workers:

“[W]hen the pace of educational advance slows down, as it did in the 1970s, the increasing demand for skilled labor will naturally cause inequality to rise. The story of rising inequality, therefore, is not primarily about politics and rent-seeking but rather about supply and demand.” [page 4]

He offers no proof for this, merely saying that books he likes say it is so, therefore it is so. But research by the the Economic Policy Institute found that the rate of the increase in unemployment since the economic crisis began is higher among those with some college or a college degree than those with high school or less. Moreover, the rate of long-term unemployment has more than doubled during the past six years, a result following from the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings having been 3-to-1 or greater since September 2008.

Professor Mankiw attempts to argue his way around this by writing that astronomically high salaries are granted because the recipients are deserving:

“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.” [page 6]

Huh? Since when are people anointed to work in the financial industry? People self-select themselves to work there because they are extremely greedy and don’t care who or how many people they screw over as they extract wealth from all aspects of human activity. Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein may believe he is doing “God’s work,” but that doesn’t mean we have to believe the fairy tales of the one percent. That above passage is another reminder that orthodox economics rests on unexamined theoretical musings rather than on real life.

In orthodox theory, the “market,” in the human form of financiers, dispassionately allocates capital to where it is needed, but in reality the overwhelming majority of financial trading — the value of which dwarfs the value of the real economy — is speculation, mostly conducted in milliseconds by computer programs. Yearly profits estimated as high as US$21 billion are grabbed by large financial houses through computerized trading. It takes only 11 business days for financial speculators trade instruments and contracts valued at more than all the products and services produced by the entire world in one year. This is gambling with other people’s money, not dispassionate capital allocation.

Maintaining these fictions require straw men, and Professor Mankiw does not disappoint. (Don’t be put off by the academic jargon in the next quotation — it’s nowhere near as impressive as it might sound.) He claims that any “social planner”

“would require more productive individuals to work more. Thus, in the utilitarian first-best allocation, the more productive members of society would work more and consume the same as everyone else. In other words, in the allocation that maximizes society’s total utility, the less productive individuals would enjoy a higher utility than the more productive.” [page 14]

He is claiming that critics of inequality advocate that “more productive” workers be forced to work more than “less productive” workers. If you have never heard of such a thing, you are not alone. He then follows up with a still more absurd straw man, with this imagined “statement” that is supposed to summarize the thinking of inequality critics:

“ ‘[W]e should take some of their income away and give it to less productive members of society. While this policy would cause the most productive members to work less, shrinking the size of the economic pie, that is a cost we should bear, to some degree, to increase utility for society’s less productive citizens.’ ” [page 15]

Invent what your opponents didn’t say and attack it

Nobody argues that it is unfair that more productive workers earn more than less productive workers. It is just the opposite — inequality resides in the fact that wages and compensation bear little or no relation to productivity. Chief executive officers carry a large weight of responsibility but it is quite impossible that any CEO works 340 times harder than the average employee! It is gross inequality that effectively shrinks the economic pie, because if we don’t have money due to declining wages, we buy less, skipping on luxuries then stinting on necessities.

People at the top of the economic pyramid pour so much money into speculation because there aren’t enough investment opportunities, and because, during bubbles, speculation is more profitable than production. And as unemployment grows under the impact of shrinking demand, more workers begin to lose their skills. Hundreds of millions are out of work around the world at the same time that countless factories and offices sit idle; wages decline as industrialists continually move production to the places with the lowest wages, depressing wages and creating more unemployment. Top executives, and financiers, enjoy astronomical compensation because “markets” reward these behaviors — the “market” is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers.

They reap gigantic rewards because they extract wealth from everybody else and distribute it among themselves, not because, as Professor Mankiw argues, “the value of a good CEO is extraordinarily high.” [page 18] Profits are directly derived from surplus value — the large difference between what an employee produces and what an employee is paid.

Falling real wages have been quantified in separate articles in the International Productivity Monitor that found that wages have grown at a minuscule percentage of labor productivity in Canada and the United States. Although not as extreme, similar patterns have been found in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan by other researchers.

The Marxist economist Fred Moseley, in a detailed dismantling of Professor Mankiw’s body of work published in Real-World Economics Review, wrote:

“[Mankiw’s] marginal productivity theory is not able to explain why the real wage of production workers has remained stagnant in recent decades, in spite of continuing and significant increases in their productivity. In other words, this theory cannot explain why production workers are no better off today than they were a generation ago.”

It can’t because its ideological function is to obfuscate, not explain. In the real world, the race to the bottom — corporate globalization, multi-national monopolization, the erosion of progressive taxation, rising capital gains from ownership of property and financial instruments, and the weakening of trade unions — has led to rising inequality around the world. We might as well believe we lost our house because the big bad wolf blew it down rather than the bank foreclosing.

Wall Street plunders Detroit while pensioners take blame

The Detroit bankruptcy has been portrayed as a simple morality tale of city mismanagement, but the crucial role of financial industry chicanery has been conveniently ignored. Municipal debt is a largely unknown but very lucrative field — lucrative, that is, for speculators.

There are so many questions that can be asked about Detroit’s bankruptcy filing. What is Wall Street’s role in municipal debt? How is it that almost $300 million is available for a new ice hockey arena when there is no money for pensions? How is that business taxes can be cut by 80 percent at a time of fiscal crisis? Why did the total of pension liabilities suddenly increase fivefold from earlier this year?

Ambassador BridgeThese are questions that are rarely raised in the corporate media. Asking such questions disarms the narrative of public-employee retirees bleeding taxpayers dry and masks larger systemic issues. It is quite difficult to believe the same folks who brought you the economic crash of 2008, and five years and counting of hard times, are completely innocent of fleecing local governments. Indeed, they are not.

Although it is the stock market that draws the lions’ share of the public’s attention, the bond market is much larger (and, in turn, foreign exchange is a far bigger market than bonds). Municipal bonds, although a relatively small portion of the overall bond universe, are big business — US$3.7 trillion. Yes, you read that correctly — trillions of dollars. That is one big pot of money to tap, and tap it financiers do.

Why pay taxes when you can loan it and earn interest instead?

Absent from discussions about Detroit is why governments have to issue so much debt. The reason is not complicated: Big business, and the wealthy, would much rather loan money at interest to governments rather than pay taxes. It’s not only national governments that are in debt, it’s local and regional governments as well. That is so around the world, demonstrated most vividly by the ongoing European Union crises as one country after another imposes austerity in the face of unsustainable debt.

In North America, Detroit fulfills the same function as Greece does for Europe: A scapegoat. Although it is true that Detroit’s city government is due a share of the blame for poor management, larger economic and social forces, disinvestment and financial industry legerdemain loom much larger. Complex, and poorly understood, derivatives were decisive in Detroit’s fiscal downfall. When local governments had to borrow money (ordinarily to finance large infrastructure projects) in the past, they would issue “plain vanilla” bonds — a set amount of debt paying back a set amount of interest on a specific schedule. A safe, if conservative, investment for buyers of these bonds and  predictable payment terms for the issuer.

Wall Street wanted higher profits from this once staid market, so an ever more dizzying assortment of exotic instruments were conjured, allowing the financial institutions that handle these bond sales to skim off ever more money. Explaining how Wall Street plunders public finances, Alexander Arapoglou and Jerri-Lynn Scofield, wrote on AlterNet:

“Many municipalities invested in flawed ‘structured finance’ deals on the advice of bankers who said these complex transactions would give them a better deal than simpler, traditional products. So trusting public finance officials lined up to follow their advice — only to be told later that advice was not to be relied upon.

“Tellingly, few (if any) corporations used similar structures to meet their funding needs. Nor did the banks themselves. Unfortunately, these products didn’t work as advertised, and public funding costs exploded as a result.”

A common structure, the authors wrote, combines three instruments: variable-rate demand bonds, letters of credit and interest-rate swaps. These are supposed to be forms of insurance to protect cities from rising interest rates, but in actuality are designed to siphon money to the banks, in a classic game of “heads I win, tails you lose.” Municipal treasurers sought to pay below-market fixed interest rates for paying back long-term debt. But institutional investors want to be able to rapidly buy and sell such bonds. Variable-rate demand bonds enable bond buyers to get their money back on demand, in periods as short as a week. The AlterNet authors wrote:

“Alas, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. A bond that can be returned, with no penalty charges, every week doesn’t sound at all like the long-term infrastructure financing the city or state wanted. So banks promised municipal clients that if investors wanted to return bonds, the bank would find another buyer. Sounds like it might work out okay, right? But what would happen if no one wanted to buy these returned bonds?”

The necessity of answering that question leads to the letters of credit and interest-rate swaps, which are forms of insurance. On paper. When financial markets froze in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse in September 2008, nobody would buy the variable-rate demand bonds. The interest-rate swaps were sold to local governments as a hedge against rising interest rates. But the buyers of these products had to pay penalties because the bank’s credit ratings dropped and interest rates fell.

Interest rates fell because central banks like the Federal Reserve wanted to shovel piles of cheap money at “too big to fail” banks to keep them solvent. That interest rates would fall was quite predictable, as cutting rates is a standard tool of central banks during recessions.

Financial derivatives cost Detroit dearly

Here’s how this scam worked for Detroit, according to Bloomberg, far from a news source hostile to the financial industry:

“The swaps were a bet on the direction of interest rates. Because rates fell rather than increasing, the city owes the banks. Under the terms of the contracts, cuts to the city’s credit ratings allowed the companies to demand the money. Under agreements in 2009, the city pledged casino revenue to cover the payments. [Emergency manager Kevyn] Orr gave the swaps payments, as secured debt, priority over retirees and holders of unsecured debt, including the pension borrowings. While swaps holders would take a 25 percent cut in payments, other creditors would receive much less.”

That last sentence refers to a deal that Emergency Manager Orr attempted to make before the declaration of bankruptcy, in which derivatives speculators would be paid far more than pensioners. Detroit absorbed losses totaling hundreds of millions of dollars due to these derivatives. The Financial Times reports that, due in part to the extra costs sustained from the derivatives, Detroit owes nearly double the principal — in other words, Detroit is effectively paying nearly 100 percent interest:

“As of the end of June, the negative value of the derivatives was almost $300m, according to material from Ernst & Young submitted as part of the bankruptcy court filings. By the time the city ultimately pays off the $1.4bn in borrowing, the total bill just from 2013 onwards will be over $2.7bn, or almost double the original debt, of which $770m will be the cost of the derivatives — far more than the $502m in interest payments, these filings add.”

Merrill Lynch (a subsidiary of Bank of America) and UBS sold Detroit the interest-rate swaps, and when interest rates fell and Detroit’s credit rating was cut, the city signed a deal that pledged tax revenues from the city’s casinos to cover its extra costs, according to the Financial Times. That transaction transformed UBS and Merrill Lynch from unsecured into secured creditors, putting them at the head of the payment line. Prior to the bankruptcy, the two investment banks offered to absorb a 25 percent cut to what they are owed, but at the same time municipal workers were asked to take a 90 percent cut.

Remember that government workers are not eligible for Social Security, so their pensions are what they will have to live on. The average Detroit city government pension is $19,000 a year.

Secured creditors are those who hold debt backed by some kind of legal claim to a physical asset of the city, such as, for example, Detroit’s bond obligations relating to its water and sewer department. Unsecured creditors face steep cuts, including the pension funds scapegoated for the fiscal crisis. Hedge funds are said to be buying up other unsecured Detroit debt, and the more these hedge funds extract, the less there will be for city workers. This is a tactic, used recently by hedge funds speculating on Argentine debt, in which debt is bought at pennies to the dollar with an eye toward getting much more out of the issuer.

A tool for financiers to extract billions of dollars per year

The cost to taxpayers from derivatives is enormous. A group called the ReFund Transit Coalition recently released a study, “Riding the Gravy Train,” in which it reported that researchers have found about 1,100 swap deals in the United States entered into by 100 government agencies that cumulatively are losing more than $2.5 billion per year. The coalition believes that there hundreds of other such deals out there not yet added to the total.

This comes at a time when four out of five transit agencies are cutting service or increasing fares in the wake of the economic downturn. Getting out of these deals is costly — for example, New York state recently paid $243 million to terminate a swaps deal, and $191 million of that fee is being financed by more borrowing.

But there’s plenty of money for corporate subsidies

As Detroit headed toward its declaration of bankruptcy, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder handed some presents to his wealthy benefactors. In December 2011, he signed two anti-union bills that render union membership as a condition of employment illegal; the language of the bills was virtually identical to “model” bills written by the infamous American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lavishly funded group that writes legislation for state legislatures that will directly benefit its corporate funders.

A less noticed gift by Governor Snyder is a massive tax cut for Michigan businesses that will be paid for by severe reductions in social spending and higher individual taxes. Taking effect in 2012, business taxes were cut by 80 percent (or $1.7 billion per year) under the excuse that such cuts will lead to job creation, although there is no evidence that such cuts actually lead to more jobs. In real life, jobs are created by demand for a product, not tax rates. Low-income people were already paying the largest share of their income in state and local taxes while those making more than $385,000 a year paid the smallest, and lower- and middle-income people are being hit with the highest increases in taxes.

And yes friends, that’s not all. Michigan, on a per capita basis, spends more money on corporate subsidies than any other U.S. state — a total of $6.2 billion per year. When we add these corporate subsidies with the business tax cuts, that’s almost $8 billion per year of subsidies handed out. Note that the total amount of unfunded pension obligations cited by Emergency Manager Orr is $3.5 billion — and that number may be inflated. (More on that below.) Yet there is a steady propaganda barrage that insists the problem is retirees and current workers expecting to be able to retire some day.

So the problem of pensions is easily solvable. Michiganders outside Detroit shouldn’t have to pay, some might say. But that ignores that the state, certainly the counties surrounding Detroit, benefits from the city’s infrastructure. Corporations that once had operations in Detroit benefited from the investments the city made in its physical environment and from the workers who were educated in public schools and universities. The city’s social amenities also provide benefits that cross borders. Corporations and better-off people fled to the suburbs — to the north, crossing county lines — to avoid paying for such services, a familiar tactic of capital.

But some infrastructure, evidently, is worth an investment. At the same time pensioners on fixed incomes are facing large cuts and city services are drastically reduced, $283 million of public money are proposed to be lavished on a new ice hockey arena, for a team (the Detroit Red Wings) owned by Mike Ilitch, who is worth $2.7 billion. This in an area that is already paying off two football stadiums, and has two arenas in current use.

Detroit can do this because a separate entity, the Detroit Development Authority, will hand out the subsidies, and the authority has a special stream of revenue from property taxes that its can tap before revenues are sent to the city treasury. Ultimately, the state is said to control these funds, and as it is the state that forced Detroit’s declaration of bankruptcy, it could divert that money to, say, fixing street lights or repairing ambulances.

Is the size of Detroit’s pension shortfall being inflated?

One final question is: What is the size of the pension shortfall? As recently as February 2013 — five months before the bankruptcy filing — Detroit’s unfunded pension liability was listed as $650 million by the state, yet Emergency Manager Orr has claimed the liability is $3.5 billion without providing any details as to the reasons for the fivefold increase. The investment management firm BlackRock, in an analysis on the ramifications of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing, said:

“There is question as to whether the [emergency manager’s] plan is inflating pension and [other post-employment benefits] liabilities. … This $3.5 billion now represents nearly one-third of the amount Detroit owes to its unsecured creditors, and raises required pension contributions to approximately 100% of the city’s $1 billion forecasted budget deficit over the next five years.”

The dramatic increase in the size of the pension liabilities seems to be based on a report prepared by an actuarial consultant that used a different methodology to calculate the liabilities — but the emergency manager refuses to release the report. Meanwhile, there are indications that the consultant did a less than rigorous job of tallying its numbers. Cate Long, writing in the MuniLand blog, in discussing this issue, asked:

“A ‘very rough preliminary guesstimate’ is what Orr was using in his ‘good faith’ negotiations and is now taking to bankruptcy court? … Pension calculations can seem to be a form of voodoo. Moody’s applies a lower discount rate, like the [consultant’s] report did, to pension liabilities, while the two other major raters do not. Pension liability methodologies are, in essence, just opinions. … Orr could help everyone understand his case by releasing the [consultant’s] report for study by actuaries and others.”

As recently as 2005, Detroit’s pension obligations were fully funded. But when the pensions’ portfolios suffered losses from the economic downturn, the city government decided to issue bonds to fulfill its obligations. A series of refinancings, underwriting fees and penalties for credit-rating cuts has cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars. It is currently impossible to say definitively that Emergency Manager Orr is artificially inflating the pension shortfall, but it is not difficult to see the rationale for doing so: The greater the liability, the deeper the cuts that can be imposed, especially on pensions.

Austerity comes in many flavors, but it is never the financial industry that has to cut back. Detroit’s mayors and councilmembers can, and should, be taken to task for failing to investigate the snake oil financiers were selling them, but that does not ameliorate the rapacious grabbing of public money by the snake-oil salespeople. The financial industry does not create wealth, it confiscates wealth. The time is long past to chop off the vampire squid’s tentacles and reduce banking to a public utility serving the public interest under democratic control.