Monday
Oct272014

Why the Financial and Political System Failed and Stability Matters

The recent spike in global political-financial volatility that was temporarily soothed by ECB covered bond buying reveals another crack in the six-year-old throw-money-at-the-banks strategies of politicians and central bankers. The premise of using banks as credit portals to transport public funds from the government to citizens is as inefficient as it is not happening. The power elite may exude belabored moans about slow growth and rising inequality in speeches and press releases, but they continue to find ways to provide liquidity, sustenance and comfort to financial institutions, not to populations.

The very fact - that without excessive artificial stimulation or the promise of it - more hell breaks loose - is one that government heads neither admit, nor appear to discuss. But the truth is that the global financial system has already failed. Big banks have been propped up, and their capital bases rejuvenated, by various means of external intervention, not their own business models.

Last week, the Federal Reserve released its latest 2015 stress test scenarios. They don’t even exceed the parameters of what actually took place during the 2008-2009-crisis period. This makes them, though statistically viable, completely irrelevant in an inevitable full-scale meltdown of greater magnitude. This Sunday, the ECB announced that 25 banks failed their tests, none of which were the biggest banks (that received the most help). These tests are the equivalent of SAT exams for which students provide the questions and answers, and a few get thrown under the bus for cheating to make it all look legit. 

Regardless of the outcome of the next set of tests, it’s the very need for them that should be examined. If we had a more controllable, stable, accountable and transparent system (let alone one not in constant litigation and crime-committing mode) neither the pretense of well-thought-out stress tests making a difference in crisis preparation, nor the administering of them, would be necessary as a soothing tool. But we don’t. We have an unreformed (legally and morally) international banking system still laden with risk and losses, whose major players control more assets than ever before, with our help.  

The biggest banks, and the US and European markets, are now floating on more than $7 trillion of Fed and ECB intervention with little to show for it on the ground and more to come. To put that into perspective – consider that the top 100 global hedge funds manage about $1.5 trillion in assets. The Fed’s book has ballooned to $4.5 trillion and the ECB’s book stands at $2.7 trillion – a figure ECB President, Mario Draghi considers too low. Thus, to sustain the illusion of international systemic health, the Fed and the ECB are each, as well as collectively, larger than the top 100 global hedge funds combined.

Providing ‘liquidity crack’ to the financial system has required heightened international government and central bank coordination to maintain an illusion of stability, but not true stability. The definition of instability is this epic support network. It is more dangerous than in past financial crises precisely because of its size and level of political backing.

During the Panic of 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary, Cortelyou announced the first US bank bailout in the country’s history. Though not a member of the government, financier J.P. Morgan was chosen by Roosevelt to deploy $25 million from the Treasury. He and a team of associates decided which banks would live or die with this federal money and some private (or customers’) capital thrown in.

The Federal Reserve was established in 1913 to back the private banking system in advance from requiring future such government injections of capital. After World War I, a Laissez Faire policy toward finance and speculation, but not alcohol, marked the 1920s. before the financial system crumbled under the weight of its own recklessness again. So on October 24, 1929, the Big Six bankers convened at the Morgan Bank at noon (for 20 minutes) to form a plan to 'save' the ailing markets by injecting their own (well, their customer’s) capital.  It didn’t work. What transpired instead was the Great Depression.

After the Crash of 1929, markets rallied, and then lost 90% of their value. Liquidity froze. Credit for the masses was as unavailable, as was real money. The combined will of President FDR and the key bankers of the day worked to bolster people’s confidence in the system that had crushed them - by reforming it, by making the biggest banks smaller, by separating bet-taking arms from those in which people could store, and borrow money from, safely. Political and financial leaderships collaboratively ushered in the reform measures of the Glass-Steagall Act.  As I note in my most recent book, All the Presidents' Bankers, this Act was not merely a piece of legislation passed in spirited bi-partisan fashion, but it was also a means to stabilize a system for participants at the top, middle and bottom of it. Stability itself was the political and financial goal.

Through World War II, the Cold War, and Vietnam, and until the dissolution of the gold standard, the financial system remained fairly stable, with banks handling their own risks, which were separate from the funds of citizens. No capital injections or bailouts were required until the mid-1970s Penn Central debacle. But with the bailout floodgates reopened, big banks launched a frenzied drive for Middle East petro-dollar profits to use as capital for a hot new area of speculation, Third World loans.

By the 1980s, the Latin American Debt crisis resulted, and with it, the magnitude of federally backed bank bailouts based on Washington alliances, ballooned. When the 1994 Mexican Peso Crisis hit, bank losses were ‘handled’ by President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary (and former Goldman Sachs co-CEO) Robert Rubin and his Asst. Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers via congressionally approved aid.

Afterwards, the repeal of the Glass Steagall Act, the mega-merging of financial players, the explosion of the derivatives market, and the rise of global ‘competition’ amongst government supported gambling firms, lead to increase speculative complexity and instability, and the recent and ongoing 2008 financial crisis.  

By its actions, the US government (under both political parties) has chosen to embrace volatility rather than stability from a policy perspective, and has convinced governments in Europe to follow suit. Too big to fail has been replaced by bigger than ever.

Today, the Big Six US banks are mostly incarnations of the Big Six banks in 1929 with a few add-ons due to political relationships (notably that of Goldman Sachs, whose past partner, Sidney Weinberg struck up lasting relationships with FDR and other presidents.) 

We no longer have a private financial system responsible for its own risk, regardless of how it’s computed or supervised. We have a system whose risk is shouldered by the federal government and its central bank entities, and therefore, the people whose deposits seed that risk and whose taxes and futures sustain it.

We have a private financial system that routinely commits financial crimes against humanity with miniscule punishments, as approved by the government. We don’t even have a free market system based on the impossible notion of full transparency and opportunity, we have a publicly funded betting arena, where the largest players are the most politically connected and the most powerful politicians are enablers, contributors and supporters. We talk about wealth inequality but not this substantial power inequality that generates it. 

Today, neither the leadership in Washington, nor throughout Europe, has the foresight to consider what kind of real stress would happen when zero and negative interest rate and bond-buying policies truly run their course and wreak further havoc on their respective economies, because the very banks supported by them, will crush people, now in a weaker economic condition, more horrifically than before.

The political system that stumbles to sustain the illusion that economies can be built on rampant financial instability, has also failed us. Past presidents talked of a square deal, a new deal and a fair deal. It’s high time for a stability deal that prioritizes the real financial health of individuals over the false one of financial institutions.

 

 

Sunday
Sep212014

Gateway Policies: ISIS, Obama and US Financial Boots-on-the-Ground

President Obama’s neo-Cold War is not about ideology or respect for borders. It is about money and global power. The current battle over control of gateway nations - strategic locations in which private firms can establish the equivalent of financial boots-on-the-ground - is being waged in the Middle East and Ukraine under the auspices of freedom and western capitalism (er, “democracy”). In these global gateways, private banks can infiltrate resource-rich locales fortified by political will, public aid and military support to garner lucrative market advantages. ISIS poses a threat to global gateway control that transcends any human casualties. That’s why Congress decided to authorize funds to fight ISIS despite the risk.

The common thread of today’s global gateway nations appears to be oil. But even more valuable are the multitude of financing deals that would accompany building new pipelines, arming allies, and reconstructing civil-war-torn countries. Indeed, hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake in America’s wars of  “principle.”

Middle-East Gateways: ISIS and Money

Obama’s recent public address on fighting ISIS  had a dash of economy sprinkled in. For him, US economic policy is foreign policy. It is also a product of an American political-financial expansionary land-and-resource grab that has been going on for decades. Obama’s execution may be far less authoritative than President Eisenhower’s. But his neo-financial Cold War has similar elements to those initiated by Eisenhower and the American banking elite in the 1950s when they collaborated to project American power into more countries, using the military and a combination of public and private capital, as tools.

The second World Bank President and 1950s Chairman of Chase Bank, John McCloy, and ascending and later Chase Chairman David Rockefeller both had aspirations to financially penetrate the Middle East. So did other major bankers. The US government and its banks first focused on Beirut as a gateway to the Middle East. Eisenhower dispatched military personnel to Beirut in 1958 not because he cared about the Lebanese, but because of the attractiveness of the country’s potential as a gateway to the region. By the 1970s, oil and money relationships between Chase and Saudi Arabia and Egypt grew, as they did with Iran and the Shah. Rockefeller's relationship with the Shah, who kept his family money with Chase, ignited the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Before that, the US government and its military contractors made billions of dollars from arms deals with Iran. 

Citigroup opened its first Iraq branch in September 2013, ten years after George W. Bush began his Iraq War while facing a recessed American economy. A decade ago, the Bush administration selected JPM Chase to manage billions of dollars of financing for Iraq imports and exports. JPM Chase also opened a branch in Iraq last year to compete with Citigroup for current gains. Billions of dollars in new pipeline funding and other projects are now up for grabs in Iraq. If the US supports the Iraqi government (against ISIS), these banks, as well as oil and infrastructure-building companies are poised to get more of a chunk of that money. Citigroup is already a forerunner for arranging a $2 billion loan for Boeing Jets to Iraq. As Iraq's Deputy Transport Minister Bangen Rekani said in April, “We need a lot of funds...we’re in a race to complete the maximum number of projects in a short time.” 

Regarding Syria, Obama’s plea for showing strength worked. Congress voted in rare bipartisan fashion to fund the moderate Syrian rebels or “free Syrian army rebels.” According to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, initial assistance would be “small arms, vehicles and basic equipment like communications, as well as tactical and strategic training.” That could just be the beginning. He also said, “as these forces prove their effectiveness on the battlefield, we would be prepared to provide increasingly sophisticated types of assistance."  We’ve been down this road before, positioning the military to gain financial access to an area relative to our competition. It’s lasted for years and killed thousands of people, while not accomplishing the stated goal of curtailing terrorist threats or activities.

It gets complicated from there. Moderate Syrian rebels have been fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the US would support against ISIS. The US thinks these forces would cease fighting against al-Assad to fight ISIS instead, though the US claims it is not directly cooperating with  al-Assad. 

Despite this, the US financial hope is that once the dust clears from all these regime changes we support militarily, there will be demand for massive reconstruction and resource extraction projects that our private banks can take care of alongside the IMF and World Bank. At a press conference in Beirut in June, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim told the international community that the World Bank would help to rebuild Syria (at a cost of $150 billion after an “internationally recognized government” was put in place) as well as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq during their 'recovery' from years of war. Mega reconstruction profits are at stake for private firms in symbiotic partnerships  with these international entities. So too, are the requirements for austerity and loosely regulated financial markets as the Western “reform” bargains that accompany them. 

“Wars on terror” serve as a distraction in public and media discourse from a bipolar economy. The September releases of the US Census Report and the Federal Reserve Consumer Finance Survey revealed an ongoing trend toward greater income and wealth inequality. We remain 8 million jobs below pre-crisis levels, adjusted for population growth. Real wages have stagnated or declined. Employers have no incentive to provide well-paying jobs amidst ample desperation in the ranks of the unemployed. We are a mess at home.

Rather than deal with this, the US is trying to prevent terrorism from blocking private bank and corporate expansions and profit elsewhere. ISIS has already caused Iraq to delay its first mega project-finance deal. The $18 billion Basra-Aqaba oil pipeline would extend through Jordan to the Red Sea, pumping a million barrels of crude oil per day, as well as 258 million cubic feet of gas.  That’s a hefty financial incentive for which to use public funds.

Truth be told, the game of global gateway finance is a closed one. And there’s still Russia (and China) playing at the same table. In August 2014, Russia’s biggest oil company, Lukoil, estimated construction of the first branch of a pipeline to Iraq’s West Qurna-2 field at a cost of up to $1 billion. Lukoil holds a 75% stake in West Qurna-2 and has invested over $4 billion in the project, which is already producing more than 200,000 barrels of oil per day.

Cold-War Gateways: From Cuba to the Ukraine

The narrative of Russia's aggression vs. America’s fight for freedom dovetails with the turmoil going on in the Middle East. Both situations deflect attention from our country, which has greater inequality today than before Obama took office, despite a soaring stock market buoyed by the Fed's stimulus policy of pumping zero-interest rate money into banks providing them capital for all of these international adventures.

After Ukrainian President Poroshenko, a former banker and chocolate mogul, proclaimed the situation with Russia was much improved following his truce with Vladimir Putin, President Obama ratcheted up sanctions against Russia and corralled the rest of the Euro-squad to join him. This action was not about saving Kiev from pro-Russian rebels, but to reinforce the notion that the US is in financial control of the country. Poroshenko is no financial dummy, which is why he threw Putin and any potential Russian economic support under the bus, and high-tailed it to Washington for photo-ops and handouts.

These will come in the form of US government aid, more loans from the IMF and World Bank, plus complex transactions with US banks seeking more areas in which to funnel foreign capital, finance projects, and down the line, maybe securitize the resources of a new corner of the world and sell them to a fresh bunch of hungry speculators. The US has already provided $60 million in aid including food, body armor and communications equipment to the Ukraine to secure its place at this gateway table later.

Stepping back in time, my book, All the Presidents' Bankers illustrates how President Eisenhower's 1950s doctrine promoted a combination of US military and economic support to its non-communist allies. Aid from the then-new World Bank and IMF was provided in return for their commitment to provide open trade relationships and adapt policies advantageous to private western banks and corporations. The US government could thus achieve a dual military and financial stronghold. One such country was Cuba, which under Fulgencio Batista became a favorite spot from which to access Latin and South America. National City Bank (now Citigroup) established 11 branches in Havana alone, becoming Cuba’s principle US depository for American companies involved in the sugar industry and other businesses there. That changed with the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro, who, in 1960, nationalized foreign bank assets. Bankers looked elsewhere to expand, as did the US government.

In Obama’s political-financial strategy, similar gateway strategies are in play. Obama, like all US presidents since Castro came into power, did the communist-bravado thing and extended sanctions. US bankers will reenter Cuba when US policy changes after Castro is truly gone, as they have during several periods before, notably when National City Bank sent an entourage of bankers led by Chairman Charles Mitchell in the 1920s to explore sugar, nickel, and other deals that eventually soured in the 1929 Crash.

The Ukraine is a modern Cuba with more lucrative resources. As with other US financial gateways, Obama supported the Ukraine faction amenable to financial relationships with the US and Europe relative to Russia. Ten years ago, the Bush administration supported Ukrainian leaders sympathizing with the US vs. Russia as well.  None of this was because of any purported interest in dispersing democracy, but because the right leadership offers more capital market, foreign investment and resource control opportunities to private US firms.

The Ukraine signed a $10 billion shale gas deal with US oil giant Chevron to explore its Olesky gas deposit around the time it expressed a desire for closer partnerships with the EU. Its ousted ex-President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to subsequently shun an EU trade agreement in favor of  Putin's offer of cheaper gas and a $15 billion aid package provoked internal unrest, as did its weak economy. The US denounced Russian-backed President Yanukovych, until he left his post, for he represented a potential loss of money, power and more financial access. Ukraine stands between Russian oil producers and European and Asian consumers, and is poised to profit from any growing energy demands from Western Europe, as could Western private firms.  It also serves as a potential financial out-post for US banks hunting for the next hot resource-saturated capital market.

Ironically, on September 17, 2014, the National Bank of Ukraine did a 180 spin on its economic forecasts and promised positive growth of 1% next year. The government said this economic expansion would come through more favorable corporate and income tax laws that would attract outside investors along the lines of what the US and IMF and World Bank has wanted. (More private relationships of bankers with these entities are in All the Presidents’ Bankers.) The Ukraine received two parts of a $17 billion IMF bailout this year with the IMF saying it may need $19 billion more. This means a greater call on Ukraine’s future revenues in return for austerity measures and deregulated financial markets to private foreign interests.

The real battle between the US and Russia is over the gateway countries in political flux. The real winners will be the private banks and oil companies that will reap the strategic benefits from gateway control over related markets and resources, supported by military and political might, and augmented with speculative capital for years to come. American and global citizens, oblivious to all this, will be the losers in this global shell game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday
Sep152014

From Voting on Scottish Independence to Taming Speculation

In a dead heat and with three days to go before the Scottish referendum on independence, most media and economist arguments - beyond those regarding emotional debates of identity, heritage and autonomy – are increasingly fear-driven. 

For those advocating Scotland embrace its status quo, the panic-inducing exchange goes like this:  if Scotland votes for independence, it will become a debt-saddled wannabe player with no control over its currency or means to raise extra funds during financial crises, the EU will close its doors and NATO will balk at membership unless Scotland continues to house nuclear arms within its borders.

Many mainstream articles, including the recent New York Times op-ed by Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman have poured added more economic panic to the fire. Writing “Be afraid, be very afraid” Krugman promoted a big brother as protector argument. The UK may not make decisions, or allocate tax or resource revenues along the majority of Scottish people’s desires, but when the financial excrement hits the fan, it will save its sidekick. This the UK has done through measures like bailouts and quasi-bank-nationalization (aka Northern Rock), not necessarily on behalf of the population, but for the banks. The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) was a recipient of the UK government’s generosity during the 2008 crisis.

Ironically, having received a 46 billion pound bailout from the UK government, RBS has now threated to move its registered headquarters to the UK for fear of higher taxes, greater regulations, or lack of future bailouts, in the event that Scotland votes for independence. This, to me, is a point in favor of independence.  Iceland did well deploying its independent status to divert monies to benefit its citizens rather than foreign banks.

If an independent Scotland does embrace strategies for broad-based economic stability and reduced income inequality, it could become a stronger country. This would be a positive outcome, even considering the limitations of currency-setting control that Krugman mentions. Protection from the most risky capital flows and practices is a cheaper crisis preventative measure in today's complex, private-bank driven global financial system, than the ability of a central bank to manipulate currency levels anyway.

As far as Krugman is concerned, an independent Scotland would be saddled with similar economic pain to Spain, but without the sunshine. Having just spent several weeks in Spain, and many in Scotland during the 7 years I lived in London, I am an enthusiastic supporter of sunshine and Scottish deerhounds,  but it must be said that both countries enjoy stunning landscapes. But first, Scotland isn’t seeking to give up use, or proportionate control, of the pound; it is merely seeking a more autonomous position from which to influence the pound. Plus, its resource revenues dwarf those of Spain, so its footing would be stronger in that regard. Secondly, Spanish banks, kneecapped by bad real estate debt, certainly suffered in recent years. The Spanish economy and public suffered more.  But this was mostly due to the flow of foreign speculative capital that had no allegiance to Spain or any country. Unlike Scotland, Spain had fewer reserves to make up for the financial shortfalls that followed these aggressive capital movements.

It seems Krugman's contends that if Scotland severs politically from the United Kingdom, it will face trouble trying to control its currency and all hell will break loose. But the situation in Spain wasn’t about currency control or lack thereof. Government choices and risky banking policy hurt Spain. After the collapse of its real estate bubble that German banks (along with UK banks) helped to inflate, Germany pressed the ECB to bail out certain big Spanish banks in which Germany had a financial interest. The public was not a consideration. The Euro was an excuse.

A “freer” Scotland would have the opportunity to better monitor rogue capital flows and foreign bank practices in a more stable manner for its population. It could find ways to direct longer-term funds bound to the future of the country, rather than embrace short-term bets bound to nothing. 

There’s no economic reason, given current guidelines, for an independent Scotland to be sidelined from the EU, NATO, or the pound, so those fears seem far-fetched. But, perhaps if the September 18th vote supports independence, Scots will feel more empowered about having a say in their country, rather than feel disenchanted due to their economic needs not being met by Westminster’s choices. That could in turn shape the tenor of ongoing compromises. The possibility of such greater individual engagement is an exciting prospect, no matter what road bumps come along the way.