Search

 

 

Monday
Apr182016

Doing God’s Work – Why Bernie Matters for New York, America, and the World

In the wake of the financial crisis, defending his firm against the wrath of public opinion in November 2009, Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, infamously quipped he was just "doing God's work.” The Lloyd Blankfein I knew when I was a managing director at Goldman Sachs was no comedian. The risk that the current construction of Wall Street banks still imposes upon the general economy is no joke.

Enter Bernie Sanders, the Brooklyn-born presidential contender that has never been paid to perform for Goldman. His message to break up the big banks into less complex components has been ripped apart as single-issue politics, naïve, out of touch with the reality of how things get done. This, from former New York Senator, Hillary Clinton, whose senatorial term covered the entire financial crisis build-up period. Especially for New Yorkers – this IS the most critical issue to consider on Tuesday.

The Big Six banks are bigger (in terms of deposits, assets, and trading market share) than before the financial crisis. This continues to cost taxpayers money.  They have settled various lawsuits and federal investigations for about $130 billion in fines since the crisis. Aside from individuals whose losses were directly caused by the associated practices, we collectively paid and pay for the public service hours of the United States Justice Department and Attorney General offices in handling these investigations and suits. Meanwhile, the remaining threat underlying these actions remains intact. CDOs (collateralized debt obligation at the heart of the financial crisis) get bought and sold daily. They’re called BOT’s now - bespoke tranche opportunities. Same old. Dodd-Frank did not change the size, complexity, inter-dependent relationships or estoric security engineering capabilities of any of the big banks. JPM Chase, the largest US (and New York-based) bank, cared so little about Dodd Frank's tepid requirement for a "living will" (a 'what-happens-now-plan' for after a crisis hits, liquidity dies and people are screwed anyway) that along with four other big banks, it didn't even bother to spend time putting  a plan together. Think about that.  Dodd-Frank is not pre-emptive security to begin with, and yet, a bank that benefitted from acquiring two other banks during the crisis, doesn't care about even pretending to be concerned with an emergency plan that doesn't involve government support.

New York based banks were involved in crimes ranging from mortgage securities fraud, to foreign exchange rate manipulation to interest rate rigging to violation of anti-money laundering laws to a host of other financial shenanigans.  Just last week, Goldman Sachs dusted off another $5 billion settlement (much of it tax-deductible) for misleading investors. It isn’t over. 

Big Banks retain big power, not just over susceptible politicians that financially gain from these relationships in a myriad of ways from campaign contributions to five-figure a plate fundraising dinners to Super PAC and Foundation millions, but over us – our deposits, financial assets and the stability of our economic futures.

Bernie’s overall answer regarding breaking up the banks and actually reducing their systemic risk to the Daily News was correct – it requires a coordinated effort – and the will – from the President, Congress, Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, and the American people. That’s how New York son, FDR got it done when he passed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that reduced the hazzard of Wall Street’s risk appetite. (Even Republican banks, such as Winthrop Aldrich then then-Chairman of Chase Bank, a legacy bank of JPM Chase, helped - AND - he broke up Chase, as his colleague James Perkins who ran National City Bank (now Citigroup) broke up his bank - before the law was passed.

It was Bernie that was invited to speak at the Vatican on unemployment, poverty, and creating an “economy that works for all people rather than just a few.” As long as the financial game remains rigged and its landscape unaltered, another tumultuous meltdown is inevitable - not impacting those at the top, but crushing the masses at the bottom. Ordinary. Everyday. New Yorkers.

We are about eight years from the onset of the global financial crash that cratered the economy, killed a couple of investment banks and sent the stocks of the surviving Big Six banks plummeting. They recovered with federal aid. Mega-socialism to Wall Street.  That cycle of banking-led problems and gross government negligence prevails today.

New Yorker’s should be concerned about Wall Street - not what might happen under Hillary's “plan” (or Trump's or Cruz’s lack thereof) but what is happening now - among other dangers and injustices, on-going multi-billion dollar fines supported by taxpayers and capitulating policies.

Breaking up banks is not anti-bank, it's pro-people. That’s a distinction that Bernie (and the Vatican) have made. And one that wasn’t expressed during any of Hillary’s years as a New York Senator.

Bernie was criticized for not pointing to a “single” law over which to prosecute big banks in his Daily News interview. Bernie did far more - he underscored the systemic criminality intrinsic to each Wall Street settlement that centers on multiple manifestations of fraud through misleading investors and the public (which is against SEC laws). Not to mention the felony counts that New York-based JPM Chase and four other banks copped to regarding foreign-exchange rate rigging. These cases are settled because banks can afford to settle them, not because the lawsuits weren't predicated on criminal enterprise. They were. Since 2012, Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman's working group has agreed to $45 billion worth of settlements – with just New York-based banks.

If you break up a bank, you break up its ability to scam the public, to stuff loans into fraudulently presented toxic assets and trade them to unsuspecting pension funds. That's what Glass Steagall prevented for decades. You also reduce the cost of investigation and settlements. You reduce the possibility of anyone’s deposit account or mortage loan or insurance contract being held hostage during the next government bailout. You reduce the power inequality that spawns economic inequality. You create longer-lasting global stability. You vote for Bernie.

 

 

Tuesday
Apr052016

Brazilian Politics, Players, Panama and Perpetual Motion

There is no simplifying Brazil’s political or economic situation. Anyone “certain” about the outcome is sure to get smacked in its crossfires sooner or later. Corruption might be bi-partisan in the United States, legalized in many cases, but in Brazil, it’s the full multi-party monty. Eduardo Cunha, the Lower House speaker gunning for President (and political rival) Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment,  has just been fingered by the Panama Papers for stashing millions in Switzerland.

He was also under Carwash corruption investigations. No one so tainted, should risk throwing stones so blithely at a sitting, elected president. Brazil’s new Attorney General, Jose Eduardo Cardozo, said as much, yesterday, on the grounds there are no legal reasons to impeach her, and that doing so would be to “rip up the constitution.”

The domestic and international implications associated with Brazil’s internal turmoil transcend the walls of the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, a planned city that belies its far less organized and cohesive government.

The majority of national and foreign press outlets have considered the impeachment of Dilma Rouseff a foregone conclusion, a question of when, not if. Last week’s defection of the PMDB party, led by wannabe President, Michel Temer, the current Vice President hand-picked by PT (Worker’s Party) leader, Dilma Rouseff was deemed another sign of her pending removal. Waiting in the wings of power, Temer had written a letter on December 7, 2015, that went viral and became the butte of many jokes in Brazil. He complained that Dilma didn't trust him enough to give him real latitude in her government. She was right. Score one for female intuition at least.

But that impeachment conclusion is based on a lattice of shaky alliances whose loyalties, like Temer’s and the party he represents that historically sides with power not policy, can not be fully trusted.  And even so, Temer isn’t on solid ground.

Individual PMDB deputies don’t have to vote with their party’s leader, in the case of impeachment proceeding, or on anything for that matter. Brazil’s major newspapers lean pro-impeachment and thus, tend to overplay that stance publicly, skewing popular opinion and downplaying the horse-trading strategies of Dilma’s supporters. Brazilian newspaper, O Estado de São Paulo (Estadão), released their own math on April 2 regarding the impeachment situation in the House of Representatives.

According to their research, which only applies to 442 out of 513 deputies, 261 deputies are pro impeachment, 117 are against it, and 44 are undecided or waiting for more party direction. Even if one takes what politicians say in secret to a right-leaning paper for granted, these figures are actually better for the government than the opposition. Moving forward on impeachment requires 342 votes - which aren’t there.  The real situation can be recapped as follows:

1) There are 261 votes pro-impeachment (the core of the right-wing opposition plus some new deputies from the PMDB and some smaller party deputies);

2) There are 117 votes against impeachment (the core of left-wing parties plus loyal PMDB and small parties deputies);

3) There are 135 votes to be disputed (considering 55 undecided, 71 not localized and 9 that didn’t answer). So, by this report, the opposition needs 60% of the votes in dispute to secure impeachment.  Obviously, this is possible, but it is not certain.

On the other hand, Lula is building deals with small parties, and therefore:

1) It is possible that the Worker’s Party (PT) will support the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB) in the Rio de Janeiro mayor election. By doing this, it is possible to turn most of those 12 and 5 votes that are pro-impeachment and undecided (maybe more in other parties because the PRB deputy is a popular evangelical church leader and owner of the second most important TV open channel in Brazil – Record TV);

2) The government is taking advantage of wobbly PMDB positions to negotiate with PP, PSD and PR deputies on the fence (examining the undecided votes of these three parties, gives 22 votes, and pro-impeachment votes could also change).

Separately, there’s Supreme Court Judge Marco Aurelio de Mello’s latest declaration. He just announced that Dilma could appeal to the Supreme Court in case of an impeachment, and that if this impeachment is made without proof of crime, she could win the appeal. He has opposed the overzealous nature of prosecutor, Sérgio Moro’s Carwash investigations.  Moro has the media fawning over him - he’s thin, attractive and clean-shaven (as compared to hefty, scruffier, former President “Lula”) But, he’s only an ambitious b-level judge (despite acting as a prosecutor), multiple slots below Marco Aurelio de Mello. Another wrinkle? If Dilma is found guilty of corruption, so would Temer be, as he’s been in her government since 2011.

Dilma denies any wrong-doing. It’s also not clear which law she ostensibly broke, and if breaking that particular law is an impeachable offense. Her oft-cited “pedaladas fiscais” actions (moving money into the public till from public banks) would be illegal under the Fiscal Responsibility Law. But, only if the monies remained there at the end of the fiscal year. They didn’t. She moved them back beforehand. This is sketchy, but common, and not necessarily illegal. However, her moves would not be illegal with respect to Public Budget Law, the operating law regarding responsibility crime and, consequently, impeachment.  

With all the scrutiny, no offical charges of corruption (that could describe deputies across the political spectrum) have yet been levied against Dilma. This is why many anti-impeachment demonstrators are calling the entire escapade a coup or “gulpe” as well as an anti-democracy, purely politically-motivated act.

None of that makes Dilma a great president, something many people on the left and right agree upon – for different reasons. She also had to contend with battered commodity prices and lower demand from China, which compromised Brazil’s economy. But it makes removing her more akin to a political coup (without the military involvement of the 1964 coup) than a measure of national justice. 

Still, the main conversation in Brazil’s streets revolves around speculation over Dilma’s survival or demise. Betting against Dilma is also a pro-market, investor-friendly sport. The market rallies when her prospects worsen. It has been tha way since she ran for her second presidential term in 2014. She won by a narrow margin, hence the anger in Brasilia. The environment, as esteemed economist, and former Finance Minister Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira, told me during a private meeting at his São Paulo home, “shows more hate than I have witnessed at any other time during my career.”

The idea of removing a left-wing government with a growing public debt to GDP ratio is embraced by the upper, business and new middle class (or upper middle class.) Current levels of social spending are seen as unnecessary even if they had helped tame inequality and provided services that all Brazilians enjoy.  Public debt to GDP stands at 66% up from 54% last year, and is predicted to grow to 70% (which would be about 34% lower than the 104% debt to GDP ratio of the United States.)

Right now, universities are free in Brazil. Engineers, economists, lawyers, and doctors can earn a top notch education without incurring the kind of crippling debt that similar students in the US face (and that Bernie Sanders is campaigning to remove.) With Dilma gone, Tuition subsidies would be cut. That’s one problem that students, regardless of their political ideologies would be hard-pressed to embrace. Health care, which is universal in Brazil , though the wealthier use private care as in many European countries, would be cut. Subsidies to the poor would be chopped as well.

Brazil’s inequality would grow, So would unrest, demonstrations and unemployment.  Even if Dilma is impeached and Temer remains somehow distant from being painted with the same brush of corruption being used against her, and embarks upon his austerity path – or ‘bridge to the future’ - economic conditions would still falter. That would make his position shakier with respect to the population (only a smattering of whom ever voted for him) and to interally hostile Machiavellian environment that characterize Brazil’s government. 

The alluring idea to those that want Dilma out, is the prospect of smooth sailing to a less left, more financially liberalized Brazil that would welcome foreign capital with even more open arms. But without her, waters could get much rougher. The anger of Brazilians could galvanize as the economy weakens.

This ramification may not be in the minds of most Brazilians, though strong opinions about her abound. The students in Porto Alegre, Brazil’s southern most important city, with whom I participated in a pro-democracy demonstration last Thursday (that drew the largest crowds yet, including people old and young, plus new additions to that cause) admit her many weaknesses (lying to them, being an ineffective negotiator, lacking the charisma of Lula, etc.). But they are equally skeptical of the politicians on ‘the other side’ and fearful of the future of the economy under their policies.  That said, one of my taxi drivers called her ‘that bitch.’ 

As more demonstrations are planned, and the numbers of pro-democracy citizens rise on the realization that any shifting in government leaders means the same corruption (or more), just different faces, deputies could think twice about their votes.  Dilma could keep her job by a sliver.

Because it’s Brazil though, every bit of this is in flux.  House of Cards isn’t popular here for no reason.  Meanwhile, the only thing that remains certain is uncertainty.

 

Monday
Mar142016

Think Brazil’s scandals have nothing to do with US banks? Guess again.

This weekend, millions of Brazilians took to major city streets (again) to protest the hydra of corruption gushing from Petrobras, Brazil’s largest oil company and the government amidst deepening economic recession. Calls for the impeachment of sitting Workers’ Party (PT) president (and former Chair of Petrobras), Dilma Rousseff filled the air.  (I can’t wait to see the frenetic state of things when I swing by there  in two weeks for talks and book research.)

It’s tempting to consider the spectacle as isolated to Brazil’s unique brand of political-corporate collusion, where pillaging state-run companies to line pockets of power players is standard practice.  But that doesn't do the whole story justice.  

In the US, bartering government contracts or certain legislation for billions of dollars of political donations falls under the umbrella of legalized bribery, better known as campaign contributions, including via SuperPacs, the elite’s favorite political currency thanks to Citizens United. Political stars leave Washington for cushy corporate board posts or lucrative speaking engagements, sometimes en route back to DC.

It’s similar in Brazil, where former President “Lula” allegedly bagged $8 million in post-presidential speaking gigs from six companies. Bill Clinton nabbed about $105 million since he left the White House. Exact comparisons of how much of either of those sets of fees were connected to companies practicing corporate corruption will be a topic for my book, or another time. One country’s public sector scandal is another country’s private sector cost of doing business. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Details aside, establishment corruption is a global virus. It may fester in a certain spot for longer periods or in greater concentration for awhile, but it’s omnipresent. It morphs to adapt to its environment and leaders. It moves like liquid. Because it links money and power, its also snakes through banks and political parties of all persuasions all over.  For now, the scene is Brazil, but the corruption under scrutiny is bigger than Brazil.

Broken Promises

(A version of the next section appeared in the February Issue of Strategic Intelligence where you can see sneak peaks of Artisans of Money and follow my colleagues, Jim Rickards and Tres Knippa.)

Things once looked so promising for Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run mega-oil company. In July 2006, the discovery of a massive pre-salt layer, 300 kilometers off the coast had the potential to transform Brazil into a leading oil producer.

The notion of “oil autonomy” even played a prominent role in Brazil’s 2010 presidential campaign. That platform helped secure the presidency for Lula’s protégé, Dilma Rousseff, who also happened to chair Petrobras’ board of directors from 2003 to 2010. Petrobras was destined to become the biggest oil company in the world.

Naturally, everyone wanted a piece of it. Multinational banks wanted to finance it.  Speculators and pension fund managers bet on its success. Two years after the US financial crisis cratered the global banking system,  the energy sector provided mega banks fresh opportunity to manufactured and leverage debt. Subprime mortgages had gone cold. Oil was hot.  Petrobras was really hot.

On September 24, 2010, Petrobras raised $70 billion in the largest share issue ever. Three of the Big Six US banks, Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley, while simultaneously facing multi-billion dollar fraud suits in the US were global book runners. Brazilian bank, Banco Bradesco lead the offering. Banco Itau was another global book runner.

Brazil’s Enron: The Unraveling of Petrobras: 2014

In the energy and finance sectors, the bigger they are, the more crimes they’ve committed. Just as US energy company Enron imploded in a haze of fraud in 2001, Petrobras followed suit. In March 2014, Brazilian investigators discovered certain Petrobras employees had taken kickbacks for awarding lucrative contracts. Petrobras sourced the bribe money the old–fashioned way - cooking its books; inflating contract payments and artificially inflating asset levels. Potential fraud totaled $30 billion over a 15-year period and became the focus of national probes and international lawsuits.

 On March 17, 2014, Brazilian Federal Police arrested two men as part of "Operation Carwash," a federal investigation into associated money laundering activities. Paulo Roberto Costa, former head of Petrobras’ refining and supply department, and Alberto Youssef, infamous Brazilian money launderer, were convicted and later sentenced to 12 and 8 years in prison respectively for having masterminded the web of corruption. They were also allegedly involved in money laundering operations for the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) and right wing PP (Progressive Party).

Costa’s role in the corruption was international. In 2006, under his direction, a sketchy US acquisition took place. Petrobras purchased Houston-based refinery company, Pasadena, for $1.2 billion, about 30 times its worth. The purchase began at ten times its prior value, or $360 million for 50% of Pasadena, to be shared with Belgium energy firm, Astra. By July 2012, Petrobras paid an extra $820.5 million for its stake. 

On July 23 2014, Brazil’s public-spending watchdog organization, Union Accounting Tribunal (TCU) determined that Petrobras had overpaid for Pasadena. The kicker? Dilma had approved the purchase while Minister of Energy and president of Petrobras’ board of directors. It was a decision that was either crooked or dumb, or both.

Three months later, on October 29, 2014, Veja Magazine published illegally leaked testimony from Youssef accusing Rousseff and Lula of knowing details about Petrobras’ corruption 48 hours before the Presidential election. She won again anyway, but by a much slimmer margin. Petrobras didn’t do so well. During 2014, Petrobras stock dropped by 37.9%.  The decline continued.

More Unraveling and International Ire: 2015

By early 2015, not only was Petrobras mired in scandal, but also its foreign investors were livid. Lawsuits for billions of dollars of losses due to investors having been “misinformed” about Petrobras' true condition were stacking up.

Certain American banks were not blameless. Though they will argue it in the courts, they helped inflate Petrobras' debt burden without appropriate due-diligence, and advised clients to invest in Petrobras. Just like with Enron: big banks helped the firm become the sham it was and shareholders paid the price. That government corruption was also involved was either the cake or the icing depending on your point of view.

In New York, US Judge Jed Rakoff consolidated all the lawsuits against Petrobras and its bankers – Citigroup Global Markets, JP Morgan Securities and Morgan Stanley - into one large class action.

The nine largest Petrobras’ American Depository Shares (ADS) holders claimed losses of more than $50 million each. Amongst claimants were US pensions funds already engaged in suits against US banks for subprime related fraud, such as the Ohio Public Employees Retirement fund. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sued Petrobras. So did Pimco. The list is pretty long. Your pension fund may very well be on it.

Money!

With oil prices diving and scandal escalating, Petrobras needed money to make interest payments. Petrobras owes about $135 billion in loans and bonds (some estimates are lower) to banks and investors. China, Brazil’s largest trade partner came to its rescue last spring. On April 1, 2015, Petrobras signed a $3.5 billion financing agreement with the China Development Bank as part of a broader oil cooperation agreement with China. (On February 26, 2016, China Development Bank produced another lifeline –a $10 billion loan in return for oil supply that covers all Petrobras’ debt needs this year.)

China’s generosity stoked a competitive urge amongst US-Euro banks. There’s a reason for the phrase “throwing good money after bad” especially when it’s other people’s good money. On June 1, 2015, Petrobras issued $2.5 billion worth of a 100-year “century” bond with an annual yield of 8.45%. Deutsche Bank and J.P. Morgan coordinated operations for the first century bond issued by a Latin American company since 1997.

Foreign investor demand rendered the issue 5 times over-subscribed. Yet, mid-scandal Petrobras projections were based on crude oil prices of $60 and $70 per barrel for 2015 and 2016 when in fact oil prices closed 2015 nearer to $35 per barrel.

Big Banks were there to collect when the music stopped, too. On June 3, 2015, two years after Bank of America called Petrobras the “most indebted company in the world,” Petrobras invited it to run a $5 billion asset sale.

On July 17, 2015, Petrobras selected five banks to lead the IPO of BR Distribuidora, Petrobras’ fuel distribution unit that controls Brazil's largest gasoline network. They were Citigroup, Banco Bradesco, ItaúUnibanco, Banco do Brasil and BTG Pactual. 

You’ll notice that all three major US bank participants in the 2010 share issue bagged lucrative roles in Petrobras’ demise; Citigroup in the IPO spin-off, JPM Chase in the century bond issue, and Bank of America in the assets sales.

The US-lead suit against Petrobras and its bankers will get increasingly hostile.  On October 6, 2015, banks challenged the plaintiffs’ claims and tried to get the case dismissed. Rakoff said “No.” The suit is awaiting a trial date. (Petrobras Securities Litigation, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 14-09662.)

Petrobras has denied all allegations and claims to be the victim of a plot against it by contractors and corrupt politicians. On October 20, 2015, a pro-government commission cleared Dilma of wrongdoings, but that ship remains in the harbor. Both Dilma and Lula could be called for testimony as the US case unfolds.

Other Problems

On December 22, 2015, newly appointed Minister of Finance, N. Barbosa, announced Petrobras didn’t need a government injection – just higher oil prices. The next day, Brazil's antitrust authority, CADE, opened its own investigations into contract rigging associated with the 21 companies and 59 execs already under criminal probe.

Petrobras’ problems have hampered Brazil on multiple levels beyond scandal and an estimated $30 billion in GDP losses. Due to ongoing investigations, Petrobras stopped payments to other firms, including rigging companies. That sent some into bankruptcy and others to the brink, a factor that will depress their share prices and cause more defaults in 2016. Related sectors remain imperiled, including the steel, construction and banking sectors.

In addition, Brazil’s pension funds are in crisis. Unemployment and inflation, over 10 percent for the first time in 12 years, are rising sharply, despite high interest rates fashioned to contain inflation. Debt, defaults, jobs losses, lawsuits and currency devaluation don’t paint a rosy picture.

Three investigations about Lula’s connections with two companies prosecuted in Carwash Operation (OAS and Odebrecht) were opened on February 11, 2016, involving his country estate and beachfront apartment as well as other family holdings. On March 4, 2016, police stormed Lula’s home to take him in for questioning. Because it’s Brazil, the drama drove the Real and local markets higher; the idea of an imminent end to Dilma seen (by markets and many Brazilians, including her former supporters) as a preferred alternative to the opposition party’s own equally corrupt leader.

Dilma has proven resilient so far, but political instability over her Petrobras relationship and alleged “dipping” into state bank funds to pay other expenses, will continue to darken the doorstep of Brazil’s political system. We have 30 days to see whether her other coalition partner, the more centrist PMDB party, backs away from her, signaling a major reshuffling in Brasilia. Yet it’s not like members of the opposition party are scandal-free. Which brings us back to the trio of money, power and corruption, it may have geographical or cultural nuances, but its stench is universal.