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Entries in Wall Street (20)

Friday
Dec092016

Trump’s Big Bait and Switch: How to Swamp Washington and Double-cross Your Supporters 

(This piece originally appeared in Tom Dispatch / December 8, 2016)

Given his cabinet picks so far, it’s reasonable to assume that The Donald finds hanging out with anyone who isn’t a billionaire (or at least a multimillionaire) a drag. What would there be to talk about if you left the Machiavellian class and its exploits for the company of the sort of normal folk you can rouse at a rally?  It’s been a month since the election and here’s what’s clear: crony capitalism, the kind that festers and grows when offered public support in its search for private profits, is the order of the day among Donald Trump’s cabinet picks. Forget his own “conflicts of interest.” Whatever financial, tax, and other policies his administration puts in place, most of his appointees are going to profit like mad from them and, in the end, Trump might not even wind up being the richest member of the crew. 

Only a month has passed since November 8th, but it’s already clear (not that it wasn’t before) that Trump’s anti-establishment campaign rhetoric was the biggest scam of his career, one he pulled off perfectly. As president-elect and the country’s next CEO-in-chief, he’s now doing what many presidents have done: doling out power to like-minded friends and associates, loyalists, and -- think John F. Kennedy, for instance -- possibly family.  

Here, however, is a major historical difference: the magnitude of Trump’s cronyism is off the charts, even for Washington. Of course, he’s never been a man known for doing small and humble. So his cabinet, as yet incomplete, is already the richest one ever. Estimates of how loaded it will be are almost meaningless at this point, given that we don’t even know Trump’s true wealth (and will likely never see his tax returns). Still, with more billionaires at the doorstep, estimates of the wealth of his new cabinet members and of the president-elect range from my own guesstimate of about $12 billion up to $35 billion. Though the process is as yet incomplete, this already reflects at least a quadrupling of the wealth represented by Barack Obama’s cabinet.

Trump’s version of a political and financial establishment, just forming, will be bound together by certain behavioral patterns born of relationships among those of similar status, background, social position, legacy connections, and an assumed allegiance to a dogma of self-aggrandizement that overshadows everything else. In the realm of politico-financial power and in Trump’s experience and ideology, the one with the most toys always wins. So it’s hardly a surprise that his money- and power-centric cabinet won’t be focused on public service or patriotism or civic duty, but on the consolidation of corporate and private gain at the expense of the citizenry.

It’s already obvious that, to Trump, “draining the swamp” means filling it with new layers of golden sludge, similar in color to the decorations that adorn buildings with his name, including the new Trump International Hotelon Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House where foreign diplomats are already flocking to curry favor and even the toilet paper holders in the lobby bathrooms are faux-gold-plated.

The rarified world of his cabinet choices is certainly a universe away from the struggling working class folks he bamboozled with promises of bringing back American “greatness.” And yet the soaring value of his cabinet should be seen as merely a departure point for our four-year (or more) leap into what is guaranteed to be an abyss of inequality and instability. Forget their wealth. What their business conflicts, relationships, and ideological stances indicate about what they’ll do to America is far more worrisome. And though Trump promised (and tweeted) that he’d be “completely out of business operations,” the possibility of such a full exit for him (or any of his crew) is about as likely as a full reveal of those tax returns.

Trumping History

There is, in fact, some historical precedent for a president surrounding himself with such a group of self-interested power-grabbers, but you’d have to return to Warren G. Harding’s administration in the early 1920s to find it. The “Roaring Twenties” that ended explosively in a stock market collapse in 1929 began, ominously enough, with a presidency filled with similar figures, as well as policies remarkably similar to those now being promised under Trump, including major tax cuts and giveaways for corporations and the deregulation of Wall Street. 

A notably weak figure, Harding liberally delegated policymaking to the group of senior Republicans he chose to oversee his administration who were dubbed “the Ohio gang” (though they were not all from Ohio). Scandal soon followed, above all the notorious Teapot Dome incident in which Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall leased petroleum reserves owned by the Navy in Wyoming and California to two private oil companies without competitive bidding, receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks in return. That scandal and the attention it received darkened Harding’s administration. Until the Enron scandal of 2001-2002, it would serve as the poster child for money (and oil) in politics gone bad. Given Donald Trump’s predisposition for green-lighting pipelines and promoting fossil fuel development, a modern reenactment of Teapot Dome is hardly beyond imagining.

Harding’s other main contributions to American history involved two choices he made. He offered businessman Herbert Hoover the job of secretary of commerce and so put him in play to become president in the years just preceding the Great Depression.  And in a fashion that now looks Trumpian, he also appointed one of the richest men on Earth, billionaire Andrew Mellon, as his treasury secretary.  Mellon, a Pittsburgh industrialist-financier, was head of the Mellon National Bank; he founded both the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), for which he’d be accused of unethicalbehavior while treasury secretary (as he still owned stock in the company and his brother was a close associate), and the Gulf Oil Company; and with Henry Clay Frick, he co-founded the Union Steel Company.  

He promptly set to work -- and this will sound familiar today -- cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations. At the same time, he essentially left Wall Street free to concoct the shadowy “trusts” that would use borrowed money to purchase collections of shares in companies and real estate, igniting the 1929 stock market crash. After Mellon, who had served three presidents, left Herbert Hoover’s administration, he fell under investigation for unpaid federal taxes and tax-related conflicts of interest.

Modernizing Warren G.

Within the political-financial establishment, the more things change, the more, it seems, they stay the same. As Trump moves ahead with his cabinet picks, several of them already stand out in a Mellon-esque fashion for their staggering wealth, their legal entanglements, and the policies they seem ready to support that sound like eerie throwbacks to the age of Harding.  Of course, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, so here are the top four of the moment (with more on the way).

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (net worth $2.9 billion)

Shades of Andrew Mellon, Ross, a registered Democrat until Trump scooped him up, made his fortune as a corporate vulture (sporting the nickname “the king of bankruptcy”).  He was notorious for devouring the carcasses of dying companies, spitting them out, and pocketing the profits.  He bought bankrupt steel companies, while moving $6.4 billion of their employee pension benefits to the rescue fund of the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation so he could make company financials look better. In the early 2000s, his steel industry deals bagged him an impressive $267 millionStripped of health-care benefits, retired steelworkers at his companies didn’t fare as well.   

Trump, of course, has promised the world to the sinking coal industry and out-of-work coal miners. His new commerce secretary, however, owned a coal mine in West Virginia, notoriously cited for hundreds of violations, where 12 miners subsequently died in an explosion.  

Ross also made money running Rothschild Inc.’s bankruptcy-restructuring group for nearly two-and-a-half decades. A member (and once leader) of a secret Wall Street fraternity, Kappa Beta Phi, in 2014 he remarked that “the one percent is being picked on for political reasons.” He has an art collection valued conservatively at $150 million, or 3,000 times the average American’s income of $51,000. In addition, he happens to own a Florida estate only miles down the road from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago private club.

While Trump has lambasted China for stealing American jobs, Ross (like Trump) has made money from China. In 2010, one of that country’s state-owned enterprises, China Investment Corporation, put $500 million in Ross’s private equity fund, WL Ross & Company. Ross has not disclosed whether these investments remain in his fund, though he told the New York Post that if Trump believes there are conflicts of interest among any of his investments, he would divest himself of them. In August 2016, his company had to pay a $2.3 million fine to the Securities and Exchange Commission to settle charges for not properly disclosing $10.4 million in management fees charged to his investors in the decade leading up to 2011.

In October, Ross assured Bloomberg that China will continue to be an investment opportunity.  As secretary of commerce, the world will become his personal business venture and boardroom, while U.S. taxpayers will be his funders. He is an ardent crusader for corporate tax cuts (wanting to slash them from 35% to 15%). As head of the commerce department, the man the Economist dubbed “Mr. Protectionism” in 2004 will be in charge of any protectionist policies the administration implements.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (family wealth $5.1 billion)

DeVos, the daughter of a billionaire and daughter-in-law of the cofounder of the multilevel marketing empire Amway, has had no actual experience with public schools. Unlike most of the rest of America (myself included), she never attended a public school, nor have any of her children. (Neither did Trump.) But she and her family have excelled at the arithmetic of campaign contributions. They are estimated to have contributed at least $200 million to shaping the conservative movement and various right-wing causes over the last half-century.  As she wrote in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in 1997, “My family is the biggest contributor of soft money to the Republican National Committee.” That trend only continued in the years that followed. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 1989 she and her relatives have given at least $20.2 million to Republican candidates, party committees, PACs, and super PACs. 

The center further noted that, “Betsy herself, along with her husband, Dick DeVos, Jr., has contributed more than $7.7 million to federal candidates, committees, and parties since 1990, including almost $4.8 million to super PACs.”  Her brother, ex-Navy SEAL Erik Prince, foundedthe controversial private security contractor Blackwater (now known as Academi). He also made two considerable donations to Make America Number 1, a super PAC that first backed Senator Ted Cruz and then Trump.

So whatever you do, don’t expect Betsy De Vos’s help in allocating additional federal funds to elevate the education of citizens who actually do attend public schools, or rather what Donald Trump now likes to call “failing government schools.” Instead, she’s undoubtedly going to promote privatizing school voucher programs and charter schools across the country and let those failing government schools go down the tubes as part of a Republican war on public education.  

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (net worth $25 million)

As the daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate, a former labor secretary for George W. Bush, and the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Chao’s establishment connections are overwhelming. They include board positions at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and at Wells Fargo Bank.  While Chao was on its board, Wells Fargo scammed its customers to the tune of $2.4 million, and incurred billions of dollars of fines for other crimes. She was silent when its former CEO John Stumpf resigned in a blaze of contriteness.   

In 2008, Chao ranked 8th in Bush’s executive branch in terms of net worth at  $16.9 million. In 2009, Politico reported that, in memory of her mother who passed away in 2007, she and her husband received a “personal gift” from the Chao family worth between $5 million and $25 million. In 2014, the Center for Responsive Politics ranked McConnell, with an estimated net worth somewhere around $22 million, as the 11th richest senator. As with all things wealth related, the truth is a moving target but the one thing Chao’s not (which may make her a rarity in this cabinet) is a billionaire.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (net worth between $46 million and $1 billion)

Hedge fund mogul and Hollywood producer Steven Mnuchin is the third installment on Goldman Sachs’s claim to own the position of Treasury secretary. In fact, when it comes to the stewardship of the country’s economy,Goldman continues to reign supreme.  Bill Clinton appointed the company’s former co-chairman Robert Rubin to Treasury in gratitude for his ability to bestow on him Wall Street cred and the contributions that went with it. George W. Bush appointed former Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO Hank Paulson as his final Treasury secretary, just in time for the “too big to fail” economic meltdown of 2007-2008.

Now, Trump, who swore he’d drain “the swamp” in Washington, is carrying on the tradition. The difference? While Rubin and Paulson pushed for the deregulation of the financial industry that led to the Great Recession and then used federal funds to bail out their friends, Mnuchin, who spent 17 years with Goldman Sachs, eventually made an even bigger fortune by being on the predatory receiving end of federal support while scarfing up a failed bank.

In 2008, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), formed in 1934to insure the deposits of citizens at commercial banks, closed 25 banks, including the Pasadena-based IndyMac Bank. In early January 2009, the FDIC agreed to sell failed lender IndyMac to IMB HoldCo LLC, a company owned by a pack of private equity investors led by former Goldman Sachs partner Mnuchin of Dune Capital Management LP for about $13.9 billion. (They only had to put up $1.3 billion in cash for it, however.)

When the deal closed on March 19, 2009, IMB formed a new federally chartered savings bank, OneWest Bank (also run by Mnuchin), to complete the purchase. The FDIC took a $10.7 billion loss in the process. OneWest then set about foreclosing on IndyMac’s properties, the cost of which was fronted by the FDIC, as was most of the loss that was incurred from hemorrhaging mortgages. In other words, the government backed Mnuchin’s private deal big time and so helped give him his nickname, the “foreclosure king,” as he became an even wealthier man.

By October 2011, protesters were marching outside Mnuchin’s Los Angeles mansion with “Stop taking our homes” signs. OneWest soon became mired in lawsuits and on multiple occasions settled for millions of dollars. Nonetheless, Mnuchin sold the bank for a cool $3.4 billion in August 2015. Shades of the president-elect, he also left another beleaguered company, Relativity Media, where he had been co-chairman, two months before it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015.

Mnuchin’s policy priorities include an overhaul of the federal tax code (aimed mainly at helping his elite buddies), financial deregulation (including making the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 significantly more lenient for hedge funds), and a review of existing trade agreements. He has indicated no support for reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which separated commercial banks that held citizens’ deposits and loans from the speculative practices of investment banks until it was repealed in 1999 under the Clinton administration.

Gilded Government

Hillary Clinton certainly cashed in big time on her Wall Street connections during her career and her presidential campaign. And yet her approach already seems modest compared to Trump’s new open-door policy to any billionaire willing to come on board his ship. His new incarnation of the old establishment largely consists of billionaires and multimillionaires with less than appetizing nicknames from their previous predatory careers. They favor government support for their private gain as well as deregulation, several of them having already specialized in making money off the collateral damage from such policies.

Trump offered Americans this promise: "I'm going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people." In his world, best means rich, and serious means seriously shielded from the way much of the rest of the country lives. Once upon a time, I, too, worked for Goldman Sachs. I left in 2002, the same year that Steven Mnuchin did.  I did not go on to construct deals that hurt citizens. He did. Public spirit is a choice.

Aspiring to run government as a business (something President Calvin Coolidge tried out in the 1920s with dismal results for America), Trump is now surrounding himself with a crew of crony capitalists who understand boardroom speak, but have nothing in common with most Americans.  So give him credit: his administration is already one of the great political bait-and-switch productions in our history and it hasn’t even begun.  Count on one thing: in his presidency he’ll only double down on that “promise.”

 

Thursday
Jun252015

Jeb! All In! The Bush Dynasty (And Banker Friends) Go For Round Three 

[This piece has been adapted and updated from my book All the Presidents' Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power, now out in paperback. An intro by TomDispatch is here.] 

It’s happening. As expected, dynastic politics is prevailing in campaign 2016. After a tease about as long as Hillary’s, Jeb Bush (aka Jeb!) officially announced his presidential bid last week. Ultimately, the two of them will fight it out for the White House, while the nation’s wealthiest influencers will back their ludicrously expensive gambit.

And here’s a hint: don’t bet on Jeb not to make it through the Republican gauntlet of 12 candidates (so far). After all, the really big money’s behind him. Last December, even though out of public office since 2007, he had captured the support of 73% of the Wall Street Journal’s “richest CEOs.” Though some have as yet sidestepped declarations of fealty, count on one thing: the big guns will fall into line. They know that, given his family connections, Jeb is their best path to the White House and they’re not going to blow that by propping up some Republican lightweight whose father and brother weren’t president, not when Hillary, with all her connections and dynastic power, will be the opponent. That said, in the Bush-Clinton battle to come, no matter who wins, the bankers and billionaires will emerge victorious.

The issue of political blood and family lines in Washington is not new. There have been four instances in our history in which presidents have been bonded by blood. Our second president John Adams and eighth president John Quincy Adams were father and son. Our ninth president William Henry Harrison and our 23rd president Benjamin Harrison were grandfather and grandson. Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were cousins. And then, of course, there were our 41st and 43rd presidents, George H.W. and George W.

If Jeb becomes the 45th president, it will be the first time that three administrations share the same blood and “dynastic” will have a new meaning in America.

The Bush Legacy

The Bush political-financial legacy began when President Ronald Reagan chose Jeb’s father, George H.W., as his vice president. Reagan was also the first president to choose a Wall Street CEO, Donald Regan, as Treasury secretary. Then-CEO of Merrill Lynch, he happened to be a Bush family friend. And talk about family tradition: once upon a time (in 1900, to be exact), Jeb’s great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker, founded G.W. Walker & Company. It was eventually acquired by -- you guessed it! -- Merrill Lynch, which was consumed by Bank of America at the height of the 2008 financial crisis.

That merger was pressed by, among others, George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary (and former Goldman Sachs chairman and CEO), Hank Paulson. It helped John Thain, Paulson’s former number two at Goldman Sachs, who was by then Merrill Lynch’s CEO, out of a tight spot. Now chairman and CEO of CIT Group, Thain is also a prominent member of the Republican Party whosponsored high-ticket fundraisers for John McCain during his 2008 campaign. Expect him to be there for Jeb. Paulson endorsed Jeb for president on April 15th. That’s how these loops go.

As vice president, George H.W. co-ran a task force with Donald Regan dedicated to breaking down the constraints of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, so that Wall Street banks could become ever bigger and more complex. Once president, Bush promoted deregulation, while reconfirming Alan Greenspan, who did the same, as the chairman of the Federal Reserve. In 1999, after President Bill Clinton (Hillary!) finished the job that Bush had started by overseeing the repeal of Glass-Steagall, banks began merging like mad and engaging in increasingly risky and opaque practices that led to the financial crisis that came to a head in George W.’s presidency.  In other words, it’s a small world at the top.

The meaning of all this: no other GOP candidate has Jeb's kind of legacy political-financial power. Period. To grasp the interconnections between the Bush family and Wall Street that will put heft and piles of money behind his candidacy, however, it’s necessary to step back in time and see just how his family helped lead us to this moment of his.

Bush Wins

By the time George H.W. Bush became president on January 20, 1989, the economy was limping. Federal debt stood at $2.8 trillion. The savings and loan crisis had escalated. Still, his deregulatory financial policies remained in sync with those of the period’s most powerful bankers, notably Citicorp chairman John Reed, Chase (now JPMorgan Chase) Chairman Willard Butcher, JPMorgan chief Dennis Weatherstone, and Bank of America Chairman Tom Clausen.

With the economic odds stacked against him, Bush also remained surrounded by his most loyal, business-friendly companions in Washington, who either had tight relationships with Wall Street or came directly from there. In a preordained arrangement with President Reagan, Bush retained Nicholas Brady, the former chairman of the board of the blue-blood Wall Street investment bank Dillon, Read & Co., as Treasury secretary.

Their ties, first established on a tennis court, extended to Wall Street and back again. In 1977, after Bush had left the directorship of the CIA, Brady even offered him a position at Dillon, Read & Co. Though he didn’t accept, Bush later enlisted Brady to run his 1980 presidential campaign and suggested him as interim senator for New Jersey in 1982. The press dubbed Brady Bush’s “official confidant.”

The new president appointed another of his right-hand men, Richard Breeden (who had drafted a “Blueprint for Reform” of the banking industry as directed by a task force co-headed by Bush), as his assistant for issues analysis and later as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Then, on February 6, 1989, Bush unveiled his plan to rescue the ailing savings and loan (S&L) banks. Initial bailout estimates for 223 firms were put at $40 billion. It only took the Bush administration two weeks to raise that figure to $157 billion. On the offensive, Brady stressed that this proposal wasn’t a bailout. Instead, it represented “the fulfillment of the Federal Government’s commitment to depositors.”

A few months later, under Alan Greenspan’s Fed, JPMorgan Securities, the investment banking subsidiary of JPMorgan Chase, became the first bank subsidiary since the Great Depression to lead a corporate bond underwriting. Over the next decade, commercial banks would issue billions of dollars of corporate debt on behalf of energy and public utility companies as a result of Greenspan’s decision to open that door and Bush’s deregulatory stance in general. A chunk of it would implode in fraud and default after Bush’s son became president in 2001.

The S&L Blowout

The deregulation of the S&L industry between 1980 and 1982 had enabled those smaller banks, or thrifts -- focused on taking deposits and providing mortgages -- to compete with commercial banks for depositors and to invest that money (and money borrowed against it) in more speculative real estate ventures and junk bond securities. When those bets soured, the industry tanked. Between 1986 and 1989, 296 thrifts failed. An additional 747 would shut down between 1989 and 1995.

Among those, Silverado Banking went bankrupt in December 1988, costing taxpayers $1.3 billion. Neil Bush, George H.W.’s son, was on the board of directors at the time. He was accused of giving himself a loan from Silverado, but denied all wrongdoing.

George H.W.'s second son, Jeb Bush, had already been dragged through the headlines in late 1988 for his real estate relationship with Miguel Recarey Jr., a Cuban-American mogul who had been indicted on one charge of fraud and was suspected of racking up to $100 million worth of Medicare-related fraud charges.

Meanwhile, the president was crafting his bailout plan to stop the S&L bloodletting. On August 9, 1989, he signed the Financial Institution Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act, which proved a backdoor boon for the big commercial banks. Having helped stuff the S&Ls with toxic real estate products, they could now profit by selling the bonds that were constructed as part of the bailout plan, while the government subsidized the entire project. Within six years, the Resolution Trust Corporation and the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation had sold $519 billion worth of assets for 1,043 thrifts that had gone belly up. Key Wall Street banks were involved in distributing those assets and so made money on financial destruction once again. Washington left the public on the hook for $124 billion in losses.

The Bush administration and the Fed’s response to the S&L crisis (as well as to a concurrent third-world debt crisis) was to subsidize the banking system with federal and multinational money. In this way, a policy of privatizing bank profits and socializing their losses and risks became embedded in the American political system.

The New Banking Game in Town: “Modernization”

The S&L trouble sparked a broader credit crisis and recession. Congress was, by then, debating the “modernization” of the financial services industry, which in practice meant breaking down remaining barriers within institutions that had separated deposits and loans from securities creation and trading activities. This also meant allowing commercial banks to expand into nontraditional banking activities, including insurance provision and fund management.

The Bush administration aided the bankers by advocating the repeal of key elements of the Glass-Steagall Act. Related bills to dismantle that Depression-era act won the support of the House and Senate banking committees in the fall of 1991, though they were defeated in the House in a full vote.  Still, the writing was on the wall. What a Republican president had started, a Democratic one would soon complete.

In the meantime, the Bush administration was covering all the bases when it came to the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which would be the nail in the coffin of decades of banking constraint. As commercial bankers pushed to enter non-banking businesses, Richard Breeden, Bush’s SEC chairman, began championing the other side of the Glass-Steagall divide -- fighting, that is, for the rights of investment banks to own commercial banks. And little wonder, since such a deregulation of the financial system meant a potential expansion of Breeden’s power: the SEC would be tasked with monitoring the growing number of businesses that banks could enter.

Meanwhile, Wendy Gramm, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), promoted another goal the bankers wanted: unconstrained derivatives trading. Gramm had first been appointed chair of the CFTC in 1988 by Reagan (who called her his “favorite economist”) and was then reappointed by Bush. She was determined to push for unregulated commodity futures and swaps -- in part in response to lobbying from a Texas-based energy trading company, Enron, whose name would grow far more familiar to Americans in the years to come. While awaiting legislative approval, bankers started sending their trading exemption requests to Gramm and she began granting them.

9/11 Overshadows Enron

In early 2001, in the fading light of the rosy Clinton economy and an election result validated by the Supreme Court, the second President Bush entered the White House. A combination of Glass-Steagall repeal and the deregulation of the energy and telecom sectors under Clinton catalyzed a slew of mergers that consolidated companies and power in those industries upon fabricated books. The true state of the economy, however, remained well hidden, even as it teetered on a flimsy base of fraud, inflated stocks, and bank-created debt. In those years, the corporate and banking world still appeared glorious amid so many mergers. But the bankers’ efforts to support those transactions would soon give way to a spate of corporate bankruptcies.

It was the Texas-based energy-turned-trading company Enron that would emerge as the poster child for financial fraud in the early 2000s. It had used the unregulated derivatives markets and colluded with bankers to create a slew of colorfully named offshore entities through which the company piled up debt, shirked taxes, and hid losses. The true status of Enron’s fictitious books and those of other corporate fraudsters nonetheless remained unexamined in part because another crisis garnered all the attention. The 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center, blocks away from where many of Enron’s trading partners were headquartered (including Goldman Sachs, where I was working that day), provided the banking industry with a reprieve from probes. The president instead called on bankers to uphold national stability in the face of terrorism.

On September 16, 2001, George W. famously merged financial and foreign policy. “The markets open tomorrow,” he said. “People go back to work and we’ll show the world.” To assist the bankers in this mission, Bush-appointed SEC chairman Harvey Pitt waived certain regulations, allowing corporate executives to prop up their share prices as part of a plan to demonstrate national strength by elevating market levels.

That worked -- for about a minute. On October 16, 2001, Enron posted a $681 million third-quarter loss and announced a $1.2 billion hit to shareholders' equity. The reason: an imploding pyramid of fraudulent transactions crafted with banks like Merrill Lynch. The bankers were now potentially on the hook for billions of dollars, thanks to Enron, a client that had been bulked up through the years with bipartisan support.

Amid this financial turmoil, Bush was focused on retaliation for 9/11. On January 10, 2002, he signed a $317.2 billion defense bill. In his State of the Union address, he spoke of an “Axis of Evil,” of fighting both the terrorists and a strengthening recession, but not of Enron or the dangers of Wall Street chicanery.

In 2001 and again in 2002, however, corporate bankruptcies would hit new records, with fraud playing a central role in most of them. Telecom giant WorldCom, for instance, was found to have embellished $11 billion worth of earnings. It would soon supplant Enron as America’s biggest fraud of the moment.

Bush Takes Action

On July 9th, George W. finally unveiled a plan to “curb” corporate crime in a speech given in the heart of New York’s financial district. Taking the barest of swipes at his Wall Street friends, he urged bankers to provide honest information to investors. The signals were now clear: bankers had nothing to fear from their commander in chief. That Merrill Lynch, for example, was embroiled in the Enron scandal was something the president would ignore -- hardly a surprise, since the company’s alliances with the Bush family stretched back decades.

Three weeks later, he would sign the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, purportedly ensuring that CEOs and CFOs would confirm that the information in their SEC filings had been presented truthfully. It would prove a toothless and useless deterrent to fraud.

And then the president acted: on March 19, 2003, he launched the invasion of Iraq with a shock-and-awe shower of cruise missiles into the Iraqi night sky. Two days later, by a vote of 215 to 212, the House approved his $2.2 trillion budget, including $726 billion in tax cuts. Shortly thereafter -- a signal to the banking industry if there ever was one -- he appointed former Goldman Sachs Chairman Stephen Friedman director of the National Economic Council, the same role another Goldman Sachs alumnus, former co-Chairman Robert Rubin, had played for Bill Clinton.

By the end of 2003, grateful bankers were already amassing funds for Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. A bevy of Wall Street Republicans, including Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO Henry Paulson, Bear Stearns CEO James Cayne, and Goldman Sachs executive George Herbert Walker IV (the president’s second cousin), became Bush “Pioneers” by raising at least $100,000 each.

The top seven financial firms officially raised nearly three million dollars for George W.’s campaign. Merrill Lynch emerged as his second biggest corporate contributor (after Morgan Stanley), providing more than $586,254. The firm’s enthusiasm wasn’t surprising. Donald Regan had been its chairman and the Bush-founded investment bank G.H. Walker and Company, which employed members of the family over the decades, had been absorbed into Merrill in 1978. Merrill Lynch CEO Earnest “Stanley” O’Neal received the distinguished label of “Ranger” for raising more than $200,000 for Bush’s reelection campaign. It was a sign of the times that O’Neal and Cayne hosted Bush’s first New York City reelection fundraiser in July 2003.

Government by Goldman Sachs for Goldman Sachs

The bankers helped tip the scales in Bush’s favor. On November 3, 2004, he won his second term in a tight election. By now, bankers from Goldman Sachs had saturated Washington. New Jersey Democrat Jon Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs chairman and CEO, was on the Senate Banking Committee. Joshua Bolten, a former executive director at the Goldman Sachs office in London, was director of the Office of Management and Budget. Stephen Friedman, former Goldman Sachs chairman, was one of George W.’s chief economic advisers as the director of the National Economic Council. (He would later become chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Board, only to resign in May 2009 amid conflict of interest charges concerning the pile of Goldman Sachs shares he held while using his post to aid the company during the financial crisis.)

Meanwhile, from 2002 to 2007, under George W.’s watch, the biggest U.S. banks would fashion nearly 80% of the approximately $14 trillion worth of global mortgage-backed securities (MBS), asset-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, and other kinds of packaged assets created in those years. And subprime loan packages would soon become the fastest-growing segment of the MBS market. In other words, the financial products exhibiting the most growth would be the ones containing the most risk.

George W. would also pick Ben Bernanke to replace Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Bernanke made it immediately clear where his loyalties lay, stating, “My first priority will be to maintain continuity with the policies and policy strategies during the Greenspan years.”

In 2006, two years after persuading the SEC to adopt rules that enabled many of the “assets” being created to be undercapitalized and underscrutinized, the president selected former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson to be his third Treasury secretary. Joshua Bolten, who had by then had become White House Chief of Staff, arranged the pivotal White House meeting between the two men that sealed the deal. As Bush wrote in his memoir, Decision Points, “Hank was slow to warm to the idea of joining my cabinet. Josh eventually persuaded Hank to visit with me in the White House. Hank radiated energy and confidence. Hank understood the globalization of finance, and his name commanded respect at home and abroad.”

Under Bush, Paulson, and Bernanke, the banking sector would buckle and take the global economy down with it.

Goldman Trumps AIG

Insurance goliath AIG stood at the epicenter of an increasingly interconnected financial world deluged with junky subprime assets wrapped up with derivatives. When rating agencies Fitch, S&P, and Moody’s downgraded the company’s credit worthiness on September 15, 2008, they catalyzed $85 billion worth of margin calls. If AIG couldn’t find that money, Paulson warned the president, the firm would not only fail, but “bring down major financial institutions and international investors with it.” According to Bush’s memoir , Paulson convinced him. “There was only one way to keep the firm alive,” he wrote. “The federal government would have to step in.”

The main American recipients of AIG’s bailout would, in fact, be legacy Bush-allied firms: Goldman Sachs ($12.9 billion), Merrill Lynch ($6.8 billion), Bank of America ($5.2 billion), and Citigroup ($2.3 billion). Lehman crashed, but Merrill Lynch and AIG were saved. The bankers with the strongest alliances to the Bush family (and the White House in general) needed AIG to survive. And it did. But the bloodletting wasn’t over.

On September 18, 2008, George W. would tell Paulson, “Let’s figure out the right thing to do and do it.” He would later write, “I had made up my mind: the U.S. government was going all in.” And he meant it.  During his last months in office, the Big Six banks (and marginally other institutions) would thus be subsidized by an “all-in” program designed by Bernanke, Paulson, and Geithner -- and later endorsed by President Barack Obama.

The bankers’ unruliness had, however, already crippled the real economy. Over the next few months, Bank of America, Citigroup, and AIG all needed more assistance. And in that year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average would lose nearly half its value. At the height of the bailout period, $19.3 trillion in subsidies were made available to keep (mostly) American bankers going, as well as government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

As George W. headed back to Texas, the economy and markets went into free fall.

The Money Behind Jeb

Jump seven years ahead and, with the next Bush on the rise and the money once again flowing in, it’s still the age of bankers. Jeb already has three mega super PACs -- Millennials for Jeb, Right to Rise, and Vamos for Jeb 2016 -- under his belt. His Right to Rise Policy Solutions group, which, as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, is not even required to disclose the names of its donors, no less the size of their contributions, is lifting his contribution tally even higher. None of these groups have to adhere to contribution limits and the elite donors who contribute to them often prove highly influential. After all, that’s where the money really is. In the 2012 presidential election, the top 100 individual contributors to super PACs and their spouses represented just 1% of all donors, but gave a staggering 67% of the money.

Of those, Republican billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, donated $92.8 million to conservative groups, largely through “outside donor groups” like super PACs that have no contribution limits. Texas billionaire banker mogul Harold Simmons and his wife, Annette, gave $26.9 million, and Texas billionaire homebuilder Robert Perry coughed up $23.95 million. Nebraska billionaire (and founder of the global discount brokerage TD Ameritrade) John Joe Ricketts dished out $13.05 million. Despite some early posturing around other candidates with fewer legacy ties, these heavy hitters could all end up behind Bush 45. Dynasties, after all, establish the sort of connections that lie in wait for the next moment of opportune mobilization.

“All in for Jeb” is the mantra on Jeb’s official website and in a sense “all in,” especially when it comes to national bankers, has been something of a mantra for the Bush family for decades. With a nod to his two-term record as Florida governor, Jeb put it this way: “We will take command of our future once again in this country. I know we can fix this. Because I've done it.”

Based on Bush family history, by “we” he effectively meant the family’s billionaire and millionaire donors and its cavalcade of friendly bankers. Topping that list, though as yet undeclared -- give him a minute -- sits Adelson, who is personally and ideologically close to George W. In April, the former president was paid a Clintonian speaking fee of $250,00 for a keynote talk before the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting at Adelson’s Las Vegas resort. While Adelson has expressed concerns about Jeb’s lack of hawkishness on Israel when compared to his brother, that in the end is unlikely to prove an impediment. Jeb is making sure of that.  He recently told a gathering of wealthy New York donors that, when it came to Israel, his top adviser is his brother. (“If you want to know who I listen to for advice, it’s him.”)

Let’s be clear.  The Bush family is all in on Jeb and its traditional banking allies are not likely to be far behind.  There is tradition, there are ties, there is a dynasty to protect.  They are not planning to lose this election or leave the family with a mere two presidents to its name.

The Wall Street crowd began rallying behind Jeb well before his candidacy was official.  Private equity titan Henry Kravis hosted a 25-guest $100,000-per-head gathering at his Park Avenue abode in February, one of six events with the same entry fee. In March, Jeb had his first Goldman Sachs $5,000-per-person event at the Ritz Carlton in New York City, organized by Dina Powell, Goldman Sachs Foundation head and George W. Bush appointee for assistant secretary of state.  A more exclusive $50,000 per head event was organized by Goldman Sachs exec, Jim Donovan, a key fundraiser and adviser for Mitt Romney who is now doing the same for Jeb.

And then there’s the list of moneyed financiers with fat wallets still to get behind Jeb. New York hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, who donated more than any other conservative in the 2014 election, has yet to swoop in.  Given the alignment of his foreign financial policy views and the Bush family’s, however, it’s just a matter of time.

With the latest total super PAC figures still to be disclosed, we do know that Jeb’s Right to Rise super PAC claims to have raised $17 million from the tri-state (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) area alone so far. Its head, Mike Murphy, referred to its donors in a call last week as “killers” he was about to “set loose.” He intimated that the July disclosures would give opponents “heart attacks.” Those are fighting words.

Sure, all dynasties end, but don’t count on the Bush-Banker alliance going belly up any time soon. Things happen in this country when mountains of money begin to pile up. This time around, the Bush patriarchy will call in every chip. And know this: Wall Street will be going “all in” for this election, too. Jeb(!) and Hillary(!) will likely split that difference in the primaries, then duke it out in 2016. Along the way, every pretense of mixing it up with the little people will be matched by a million-dollar check to a super PAC. The cash thrown about in this election will be epic. It’s not the fate of two parties but of two dynasties that’s at stake.

Tuesday
May262015

Big Banks: Big Fines: Business As Usual

Last week, the Department of Justice announced that five major global banks had agreed to cop parent-level guilty pleas that rendered them all official corporate felons. The banks will pay more than $2.5 billion of criminal fines on top of a slew of past fines, plus regulatory and other fines of $3.1 billion, on top of a slew of past fines. It doesn't take a genius to see the pattern. Crime. Wrist-slap. Rinse. Repeat.

Here’s the thing. These kinds of penalties cause no financial damage; the profit was booked and releveraged long ago. The costs of the fines were set-aside in tax-deductible reserves awaiting this moment. Pleading guilty to one-count of felony level price rigging yet being allowed to maintain their status also alters nothing. These foreign currency exchange (FX) market manipulators – or “The Cartel” as they call themselves - Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase,  Barclays, The Royal Bank of Scotland, and UBS AG (who also received a $203 million fine for breaching its prior LIBOR manipulation settlement) will feel this punishment like an elephant feels a gnat, maybe even less.

As is customary after these sorts of fines are announced, the Department of Justice, aided in its investigations by a host of international regulatory and judicial bodies that are financed with taxpayer dollars and missed what was going on for years, waxed triumphant.

“Today’s historic resolutions,” remarked newly appointed Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, “serve as a stark reminder that this Department of Justice intends to vigorously prosecute all those who tilt the economic system in their favor; who subvert our marketplaces; and who enrich themselves at the expense of American consumers.”

She claimed that the penalties levied against these banks were commensurate with the “long-running and egregious nature of their anticompetitive conduct.” She further added that they “should deter competitors in the future from chasing profits without regard to fairness, to the law, or to the public welfare.”

But they won’t deter anything. Of that particular pack and this particular time, UBS was the only firm that agreed to pay extra for repeat crimes, but the rest of the crew are all repeat offenders in their own right who have had no restrictions placed on their might or market share as a result.

On the urban streets, recidivists get thrown behind bars. In the hallowed corridors of banking, financial goliaths only have to say they’re sorry, pay a fine, and promise not to do it again. In the real world, being tarred a felon makes it harder to get a job, a mortgage, and a personal loan. In the financial realm, it means business as usual following mildly unpleasant press releases and tiny fines from proud arbiters of justice and vigilance.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, some $140 billion worth of settlements against major banks have been announced by the Department of Justice, international regulators and class action legal teams. A normal person could be forgiven for losing focus of the details. It gets fuzzy after mortgage fraud and money laundering. By the time we reach manipulating LIBOR (London-Interbank-Offering-Rate) or rigging FX rates, it can seem mind numbing. Consider this, anything that costs you money has been influenced or manipulated by the big banks. Why? Because of their size and ability to use it against, or on the gray line of the law, to their advantage.

For not one, but for more than five years, from December 2007 and January 2013, euro-dollar traders at Citicorp, JPMorgan, Barclays and RBS – “The Cartel” – used an exclusive electronic chat room to coordinate their trading of U.S. dollars and euros so as to manipulate the benchmark rates set at the 1:15 PM European Central Bank and 4:00 PM World Markets/Reuters fixing times in order to maximize their profits. 

They would withhold buying or selling euros or dollars if doing so would hurt open positions held by their co-conspirators. In the global game of profit extraction, these sometimes-competitors protected each other in a manner similar to two mafia families locking arms (or firing shots)  to keep a third away from encroaching on their territory.

Each bank will pay a fine “proportional to its involvement in the conspiracy.” Citicorp, who spent the longest time rigging the FX markets, from as early as December 2007 until at least January 2013, will pay a $925 million fine. Barclays will pay a $650 million fine and a $60 million criminal penalty for violating its 2012 non-prosecution agreement regarding LIBOR rigging. The firms will fire 8 people, though not the CEO.

JPMorgan Chase, involved from at least as early as July 2010 until January 2013, agreed to pay a $550 million fine; and RBS, involved from at least as early as December 2007 until at least April 2010, agreed to pay a $395 million fine. 

Citicorp, Barclays, JPMorgan Chase, RBS and UBS have each agreed to a three-year period of corporate probation and to cease all criminal activity. (I’ll take the under on  when the next set of criminal activity related settlements hits them. )

Adding in the $4.3 billion from their November, 2014 related settlements with US and European regulatory agencies, last week’s FX “resolutions” bring the total fines and penalties paid by these five banks –  just for their FX conduct – to about $10 billion. 

Citicorp settled for the largest criminal fine of $925 million, on top of a $342 million Fed penalty. The other banks were fined relative to the fractional portion of the crime time frame.  No jail sentences were imposed – not even a day of house arrest or ankle monitors.

Size does matter. Sort of. According to the agreements,  “the statutory maximum penalty which may be imposed upon conviction for a violation of Section One of the Sherman Antitrust Act is a fine in an amount equal to the greatest of: $100 million, twice the gross pecuniary gain the conspirators derived from the crime or twice the gross pecuniary loss caused to the victims of the crime by the conspirators.”

But since there’s no way the DOJ totaled all the fractional losses non-Cartel members felt over the five years (which would likely include your by the way), it means that they believe the five banks at most collectively made $5 billion over five years, or $1 billion each (give or take) or $200 million (give or take) each from FX manipulation per year. I’m calling hogwash on that; $200 million per year rigging FX rates would have been such a pocket change game that the Cartel would have lost interest in it quickly.

JPM Chase’s press release didn’t mention the word ‘felony’ instead opting for the more demure term ‘violation.’ In keeping with his normal reaction to the financial crimes of his company, JPM Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon used the “bad-apple defense.” Calling this latest revelation of felonious activity a “disappointment,” he stated, “The lesson here is that the conduct of a small group of employees, or of even a single employee, can reflect badly on all of us, and have significant ramifications for the entire firm. That’s why we’ve redoubled our efforts to fortify our controls and enhance our historically strong culture.”

That’s not quite true. Not only was the supervisor of Foreign Exchange at JPMorgan not fired, but as Wall Street on Parade reported last week, that “individual, Troy Rohrbaugh, who has been head of Foreign Exchange at JPMorgan since 2005, is now serving in the dual role as Chair of the Foreign Exchange Committee at the New York Fed, helping his regulator establish best practices in foreign exchange trading.”

Stock values of the Cartel-Five banks only mildly underperformed the overall market on the day of the announcement, since their chieftains made it clear that money had already been set in reserve for these fines. They rebounded the next day.  In other news, last Tuesday, Jamie Dimon’s annual pay package of $20 million passed a shareholder vote.  

As for Citicorp, the firm’s settlement with the Federal Reserve included the entry of a cease and desist order (for criminal activity) and a civil penalty of $342 million. Citi also reached a separate settlement  in a related private class action suit for $394 million.

Michael Corbat, CEO of Citigroup, said, “The behavior that resulted in the settlements .. is an embarrassment to our firm, and stands in stark contrast to Citi’s values.” He added, “We will learn from this experience and continue building upon the changes that we have already made to our systems, controls, and monitoring processes.”

Investigations of other crimes continue. The EU, for instance, is re-evaluating its [4-year on hold] antitrust probe into whether 13 of the world’s largest banks conspired to shut exchanges out of the credit-default swaps (CDS) market in the years surrounding the financial crisis. Goldman Sachs. Bank of America, Deutsche Bank AG, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and HSBC Holdings are among the multiple-offender banks accused of colluding in this game from 2006 to 2009.

The upshot is this. These fines don’t matter. Felony pleas are a nice touch, but none of these punishments impose solid structural change, nor is any being suggested. Putting the fines in perspective, Citicorp's criminal fine of $925 million is equal to 1/20th of 1 percent of its assets. For JPM Chase, the fine of $550 million is equivalent to about 1/50th of 1 percent of its assets.  Why would that deter anything?

Words of contrition from bank CEOs have repeatedly followed the unearthing of fresh crimes or settlements for correlated criminal or quasi-criminal behavior. Words of triumph from justice officials or regulators have proceeded more manipulations and discoveries. Aside from our tacit support for these banks by keeping our money with them or using them for more humble services, we citizens pay for the people-hours of public officials in a myriad of ways including funding the bodies that are supposed to keep us financially safe from bank shenanigans.

How many more crimes do these banks get to commit before these judicial and regulatory bodies, and the rest of Washington wakes up and breaks them up? Bigger banks, bigger crimes. Smaller banks, smaller crimes. At least, a size reduction would be a step in the right direction.