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Entries in Wall Street (17)

Thursday
May072015

Hillary Comes to Hollywood for Money-Raising Shindigs

Hillary arrives in Hollywood today, to raise more than $2.5 million. Money and power mesh like peanut butter and jelly in WashingtonWall Street and Hollywood. The path toward influence is lined with the casualties or victories of status, wealth, and ego. Two presidential elections ago, Hollywood created its own underdog when it poured backing into the coffers of Barack Obama, shunning Hillary Clinton. But Hollywood loves a good comeback story in politics or on the silver screen. Enter Democratic presidential hopeful, Hillary and Hollywood money, Part II.

On May 7th, three private fundraisers kick off the first of many legs of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election Hollywood campaign. First, there is a breakfast reception at the Westwood home of Public Affairs consultant, Catherine Unger. Then comes a luncheon at the Pacific Palisades abode of Steven and Dayna Bochco. (Steven Bochco Productions contributed $373,000 to Democrats over the last four campaign cycles.) The main evening event takes place at the Beverly Park estate of Chairman and CEO of Saban Capital Group, Haim Saban, and his wife, Cheryl. The couple and the Saban family foundation are listed in the $10-$25 million bracket of the Clinton Foundation contributors. The crème-de-la-crème of Tinsel town will clank their glasses for their ‘Champion’ of inequality far above the inequality rampaging the City of Angels.

Co-hosting will be an assortment of legacy media heavy hitters including the Sabans, Casey Wasserman, a trustee of the William J. Clinton Foundation, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Event tickets are $2700, the maximum individual limit for primary period contributions. This would put Hillary Clinton’s May 7th Hollywood haul at about $2.6 million. More important than these initial outlays though, is their promise of solidarity. Hollywood stands ready for Hillary.

Indeed, Hollywood is expected to unite for a chance to spend money on Clinton’s campaign, in contrast to its prior loyalty abscess, which accelerated into cacophonous Barack Obama support early in the 2008 election cycle. The question is – will it spend as much? That answer will depend on the GOP and whether the rest of the Democratic field opens up, as with Senator Bernie Sanders’ April 29th declaration that he would run for president as a Democrat.

The Bigwig: Jeffrey Katzenberg

According to the Washington-based non-partisan, non-profit research group, Center for Responsive PoliticsDreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg reigns supreme over Hollywood glitterati in terms of most consistent and varied monetary support for the Democratic Party and its anointed ones.

Most people think of political contributions in terms of individual or aggregated corporate donations. That’s just the tips of the iceberg. Money flows into Capitol Hill in many forms. These include donating directly to candidates and bundling (or tapping all your rich friends and associates to contribute under your name before handing over a mega check). More ways to fork over dough consist of contributing to political action committees (PACs) or super PACs that do the same thing once removed, and ‘other’ avenues like paying $50K a pop to attend the Inaugural Ball, something stars such as Halle Berry, Sharon Stone, Neil Diamond and Jamie Foxx did for Obama’s 2009 victory gala.

Katzenberg was the top Hollywood bundler for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. Last year, shifting gears back to prep for the 2016 election, he co-hosted a fundraiser featuring Hillary Clinton that raised $2.1 million for the Democrats.

Hillary's Money and Social Circles

Hillary has been comfortable in these sorts of circles for decades, even before the days when Barbra Streisand serenaded her husband, former President Bill Clinton during his 1996 re-election bid, ensuring enthusiastic media coverage in the process. Then, A-listers like David Geffen and Steven Spielberg corralled Hollywood’s elite to pay up to $12,500 a piece to convene in an opulent Mediterranean-style manor, netting the Democratic Party around $3.5 million. Geffen also hosted intimate dinners, in which President Clinton and a dozen power-guests, such as Steve Jobs, Steve Tisch, and Lew Wasserman, former MCA studio chairman would mingle.

Hillary’s own fortune pales in comparison to some of these players. On a relative scale, she is more like the 99 percent to the 1 percent bracket of the Hollywood billionaires, but at those echelons, such distinctions get blurred in lieu of power.

Her wealth still places her well into the 1/10th of 1 percent territory relative to the rest of the American population. In 2012, Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, ranked the third richest person in the executive branch, with a net worth of approximately $15.3 million. Her successor, John Kerry sits comfortably in first place with a net worth of $103 million as of 2013. (Obama ranks 8th wealthiest with $4.6 million.)

Obama’s Bundlers

Hillary Clinton is hoping to surpass the total of Obama’s contribution figures, including from Hollywood. In 2008, Obama and Senator John McCain posted bundlers by ranges, with the top ranges designated "$500,000 or more." Together, 536 elites directed at least $75.75 million to McCain, and 558 directed at least $76.25 million to Obama. Jeffrey Katzenberg topped Obama’s 2008 bundler listDavid Geffen from DreamWorks SKG was also in the $500,000 category.

Money flowed more plentifully for Obama’s 2012 re-election bid against Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, in the most expensive presidential campaign in US history. Again, the distinction between the wealthiest and everyone else was pronounced.

The top 100 individual donors to super PACs (plus their spouses) represented 1.0 percent of all individual donors to super PACs, but raised 67 percent of the super PAC (or ‘Outside Group’) money. All told, 769 elites handed $186.5 million to Obama's re-election efforts or the DNC. The TV/Movies/Music industry coughed up $12.1 million, not quite Wall Street’s levels of $22.85 million, but still commendable.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, who led Obama’s bundler group in general, with a total of $2.12 million to him or the Democrats from 1990-2012, was again in the $500,000 bucket, alongside Barry and Wendy Meyer of Warner Brothers, Colleen Bell of Bell-Phillip TV Productions, Mai Lassiter and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith of Overbrook Entertainment, and John Emerson from Capital Group Companies.

Katzenberg ranked 18th in the 2012 composite list across industries of Top Individuals Funding Outside Spending Groups with $3.15 million. Other Hollywood A-listers on that list included Director Steven Spielberg (who ranks in the $1-$5 million contributors group for the Clinton Foundation  with $1.1 million, Actor Morgan Freeman with $1 million, Comedian Bill Maher with $1 million, Haim Saban with $1.16 million, and billionaire Jerold A. Perenchio, CEO of Chartwell Partners with $4.1 million.

By early 2015, DreamWorks Animation announced cuts of 500 employees as part of its “strategic” plan to restructure its feature film business. It's a safe bet that those 500 former employees will not be attending many elite political festivities in Beverly Hills. Jeffrey and Marilyn Katzenberg dropped to 97th of the 100 top individual contributors for 2014, with $793,000. Hillary Clinton may provide grounds for a leap.

Hillary’s Celebrity and Celebrities

If it were up to Twitter and Facebook, Hillary would be running the White House already. She has more Twitter followers and Facebook likes than any Republican candidate that has already announced a bid for the Oval Office, plus Jeb Bush. She scores about 3.46 million Twitter followers and 2.1 million total Facebook likes.

On the GOP side, Ted Cruz tops the social media list with about 844,000 Twitter followers and also about 2.1 million Facebook likes. Rand Paul has 651,000 Twitter followers and 1.9 million Facebook likes. Marco Rubio has 732,000 Twitter followers and 1.1 million Facebook likes. Jeb Bush lags the GOP social media race with just 183,000 Twitter followers and 172,000 Facebook likes.

Aside from Hollywood’s legacy political-donor leaders and established celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Hillary is attracting a new more youthful demographic to her side. Lena Dunham offered Twitter support, but no funds as of yet. Kimberly Kardashian West donated $15,000 to the DNC last fall, under her company Kimsa Princess, Inc. and may come out publicly to support Hilary Clinton. America Ferrera backed Clinton in 2008 and will again. Olivia Wilde endorsed her. So did Scandal’s Kerry Washington and singer, Ariana Grande.

In 2008, after raising $229.4 million (about one-tenth the amount her camp claims she will raise this time), Clinton left the 2008 presidential race in early June. Of her top dozen corporate donor sources, Wall Street came through for her over Hollywood. JPM Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch all placed above 21st Century Fox at 12th place.

According to a customized analysis for Forbes by the Center for Responsive Politics, only 12 people made both Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s top 50 Hollywood contributors list. And though the majority of those donors gave to both Clinton and Obama, only four of them ranked in both Clinton’s and Obama’s top 20. Those were Jeffrey and Marilyn Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and Clarence Avant, CEO of Interior Music Corp. It will be Clinton’s hope to raise that crossover rate.

In politics, business and media, bruised egos heal quickly when money is concerned. Big Hollywood players will still back the Democratic candidate they think will win. That’s how the game of money, politics and social status works. The smaller ones will follow.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes on May 4th

Monday
Apr202015

Decisions: Life and Death on Wall Street by Janet M. Tavakoli: My Review

Janet Tavakoli is a born storyteller with an incredible tale to tell. In her captivating memoir, Decisions: Life and Death on Wall Street, she takes us on a brisk  journey from the depravity of 1980s Wall Street to the ramifications of the systemic recklessness that crushed the global economy. Her compelling narrative sweeps through her warnings about the dangers of certain bank products in her path-breaking books, speeches before the Federal Reserve, and in talks with Jaime Dimon.

She probes the moral complexity behind the lives, suicides and murders of international bankers mired in greed and inner conflict. Some of the people that touched her Wall Street career reflect broken elements of humanity. The burden of choosing money and power over values and humility translates to a loss for us all. 

To truly understand the stakes of the global financial game, you must know its building blocks; the characters, testosterone, and egos, as well as the esoteric products designed to squeeze investors, manipulate rules, and favor power-players. You had to be there, and you had to be paying attention. Janet was. That’s what makes her memoir so scary. In Decisions, she breaks the hard stuff down with humor and requisite anger. As a side note, her international banking life eerily paralleled my own - from New York to London to New York to alerting the public about the risky nature of the political-financial complex.

Her six chapters flow along various decisions, as the title suggests. In Chapter 1 “Decisions, Decisions”, Janet opens with an account of the laddish trading floor mentality of 1980s Wall Street. In 1988, she was Head of Mortgage Backed Securities Marketing for Merrill Lynch.  Those types of securities would be at the epicenter of the financial crisis thirty years later.

Each morning she would broadcast a trade idea over the ‘squawk box.‘ Then came the stripper booked for a “final-on-the-job-stag party.” That incident, one repeated on many trading floors during those days, spurred Janet to squawk, not about mortgage spreads, but about decorum. Merrill ended trading floor nudity and her bosses ended her time in their department. Her bold stand would catapult her to “a front row seat during the biggest financial crisis in world history.” Reading Decisions, you’ll see why this latest financial crisis was decades in the making.

In Chapter 2 “Decision to Escalate”, Janet chronicles her work with Edson Mitchell and Bill Broeksmit, who hired her to run Merrill’s lucrative asset swap desk after the stripper incident. Bill and Janet shared Chicago roots and MBAs from the University of Chicago. Janet became wary of the serious credit problems lurking beneath asset swap deals, many of which involved fraud. The rating agencies were as oblivious then, as they were thirty years later. Transparency was important to Janet. She and Bill “agreed to clearly disclose the risks—including [her] reservations about “phony” ratings.” Many Merrill customers with high-risk appetites didn’t care. They got burned when the underlying bonds defaulted.  Rinse. Repeat.

During that time, Janet penned a thriller, Archangels: Rise of the Jesuits, eventually published in late 2012. It probed the suspicious death of shady Italian banker Roberto Calvi. In June 1982, Calvi was found hanged from scaffolding under London’s Blackfriars Bridge. Ruled a suicide, the case re-merged in 2002 when modern forensics determined Calvi was murdered. Neither Bill nor Janet bought the suicide story; though Bill joked he’d never hang himself.   

Janet and I both moved to London in the 1990s, I left Lehman Brothers in New York for Bear Stearns in London in 1993 to run their financial analytics and structured transactions (F.A.S.T.) group. Those were heady days for young American bankers. We all wanted to be in London where the action was. Edson Mitchell and Bill Broeksmit wound up working for Deutsche Bank in London in the mid 1990s.

In 1997, Edson asked Janet to join him at Deutsche Bank given her expertise in structured trades and credit derivatives. The credit derivatives market was an embryonic $1 trillion. By its 2007 peak, it was $62 trillion. She declined.  Edson died three years later in a plane crash.

In Chapter 3, “A Way of Life”, Janet describes her personal epiphany and public alerts about credit derivatives and the major financial deregulation that would impact us all. In 1998, she wrote the first trade book warning of those risks, Credit Derivatives: Instruments and Applications. A year later, on November 12, 1999, the Clinton Administration passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that had separated deposit taking from speculation at banks. In 2000, President Clinton signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act that prevented over-the-counter derivatives (like credit derivatives) from being regulated as futures or securities. His Working Group included former Treasury Secretary and former co-chair of Goldman Sachs, Robert Rubin, Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan,  

With Glass-Steagall gone, banks had the green light to gamble with their customers’ FDIC-insured deposits and enter investment-banking territory through mergers. They “used their massive balance sheets to trade derivatives and take huge risks.” Our money became their seed money to burn.

Once the inevitable fallout from this government subsidized casino unleashed the financial crisis of 2008, bank apologists, turned star financial journalists like Andrew Ross Sorkin would say the repeal of Glass Steagall had nothing to do with the crisis, since the banks that failed, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were investment banks, not commercial banks that acquired investment banks. That argument missed the entire make-up of the post-Glass Steagall financial system. Investment banks like Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs had to over-leverage their smaller balance sheets to compete with the conglomerate banks like Citigroup and JPM Chase. These mega banks in turn funded their investment bank competitors who concocted and traded toxic assets. They supplied credit lines for Countrywide’s subprime loan issuance. Everyone could bet on the same things in different ways.

While Janet’s 2003 book, Collateralized Debt Obligations & Structured Finance explained the architecture and risks of CDOs and credit derivatives, her 1998 book became an opportunists’ guide. One type of credit derivatives trade, a ‘big short’ that profited when CDOs plummeted in price, gained notoriety when Michael Lewis wrote a book by that name. Michael Burry, the man Lewis chronicled, ultimately testified before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that, among other things, he read Janet’s 1998 book before trading. Lewis wrote of the aftermath, Janet’s analysis contributed to the main event.  Taxpayers took the hit.

As the securitization and CDO markets exploded in the 2000s, credit derivatives linked to CDOs stuffed with subprime-loans became financial time bombs. Janet was one of a few voices with in-depth knowledge of the structured credit markets, sounding alarms. Her voice, and those of other skeptics (myself included) were increasingly “marginalized” by a media and political-financial system promoting the belief that defaulting loans stuffed into highly leveraged, non-transparent, widely-distributed assets wrapped in derivatives were no problem.

In early June 2010, Phil Angelides, Chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) questioned former Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince and Robert Rubin (who became Vice-Chairman of Citigroup after leaving the Clinton administration. ) They denied knowing Citigroup had troubles until the fall of 2007. Incredulously, Janet listened as Angelides accepted their denial even though Citigroup was hurting in the first quarter of 2007 due to their $200 million credit line to Bear Stearns whose hedge funds had imploded.

So many lies linger. According to Janet, “One of the most unattractive lies of the 2008 financial crisis was that investment bank Goldman Sachs would not have failed and did not need a bailout.” But then-Treasury Secretary and former Goldman-Sachs Chairman and CEO, Hank Paulson rejected an investment bid in AIG from China Investment Corporation while AIG owed Goldman Sachs and its partners billions of dollars on credit derivatives wrapping defaulting CDOs. That enabled him to arrange an AIG bailout to help Goldman Sachs recoup its money at US taxpayers’ expense. 

Goldman Sachs claimed it was merely an intermediary in those deals. Janet exposed a different story – presenting a list of CDOs against which AIG wrote credit derivatives protection. Underwriters of such deals are legally obligated to perform appropriate due diligence and disclose risks. Goldman Sachs had been underwriter or co-underwriter on the largest chunk of them, an active, not intermediary role. Some deals were inked while Paulson was CEO.

In Chapter 4 “Irreversible Decision,Janet circles back to Deutsche Bank and her old boss, Bill. The SEC was investigating allegations that Deutsche Bank didn’t disclose $12 billion of credit derivatives losses from 2007-2010. In a 2011 presentation, Bill said the allegations had no merit. Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank faced investigations into frauds including LIBOR manipulation, helping hedge funds dodge taxes, and suspect valuation of credit derivatives.

Janet reveals the dramatic outcome of those investigations in Chapter 5, “Systemic Breakdown.” On January 26, 2014, Bill Broeksmit, 58, hung himself in his home in London’s Evelyn Gardens  (the block where I first lived when I moved to London for Bear Stearns.) She was shocked by the method. Bill had made clear his “aversion to death by hanging.” Those decades in finance had crushed him.  

Six months later, a Senate Subcommittee cited Deutsche Bank and Barclays Bank in a report about structured financial products abuse. Broeksmit’s email on synthetic nonrecourse prime broker facilities was Exhibit 26. Banks had placed a large chunk of their balance sheets at risk, flouting regulations, and enabling a tax scheme. From 2000 to 2013, the subcommittee reported hedge funds may have avoided $6 billion in taxes through structured trades with banks. 

Finally, in Chapter 6, “Washington’s Decision: “A Bargain,”” Janet reminds us that September 2015 marks the seventh anniversary of the financial crisis. She calls Paulson and Rubin  financial wrecking balls for their role in the crisis and cover-up.

She ends Decisions on the ominous note that “the government tried to hide the real beneficiaries of the bailout policies – Wall Street elites – behind a mythical idea of a “crisis of confidence” if we prosecuted, arrested, and imprisoned crooks. “

The real crisis of confidence though, is due to the clique of inculpable political and financial leaders. Alternatively, she writes, “If we indicted fraudsters, raised interest rates, and broke up too-big-to-fail banks, people would have more confidence in our government and in the financial system..” 

Instead, we get Ben Bernanke espousing the "moral courage" it took to use taxpayers’ money and issue debt against our future to subsidize Wall Street over the real economy, allegedly for our benefit. Big banks are bigger. Wealth inequality is greater. Economic stability has declined. The bad guys got away with it. Read Janet’s illuminating book to see how and to grasp the enormity of what we are up against. 

Friday
Dec052014

Steaming Mad about a Big Bank Con: Email from a Concerned Senior

Everyday I receive anguished emails from concerned citizens regarding the state of the economy, Wall Street, the political-financial system, and how their future stability is impacted by the powers that be. This one stood out for its clarity, as well as being indicative of one of the many ways in which the banking system regularly undermines people’s economic stability by targetting their savings accounts (which thanks to the Fed's zero-interest-rate policy receive no interest, and thus, no relatively risk-free returns) for high-fee asset management services.

The Clinton administration’s 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall, plus the two prior decades of various measures that weakened the intent of this 1933 Act that separated banks’ speculation activities from deposit and lending ones, has enabled big banks to engage in all manners of trading, leverage, and ill-concocted investment schemes, while holding trillions of dollars of individuals’ deposits.

It was Charles Mitchell, head of National City Bank (now Citigroup) back in the 1920s that realized if his bank could corner the deposits of ‘the Everyman’, it would be better positioned to engage in the bigger transactions that would catapult it to a financial superpower, as well as use the accounts for additive domestic gain. Nearly a century later, this aspect of converting depositor/savers to commission-providing risk-takers, provides fees to bankers, absent true responsibility for any related downside (as in the ‘past behavior is not indicative of future results’ small print.)  

But people should not act upon the “guidance” of the investment advisors resident at the very big banks where they keep their savings and other money – this leaves too much room for manipulation of their trust and money. And if legislation and politicians won’t divide these two financial items, people must do so for themselves.

For the evolution of institutionalized, government and central bank supported speculation has left populations footing the bill for bets taken beyond their knowledge and certainly, control. Even those people that believe they are taking the prudent steps with respect to their own financial situations as they approach old-age, are victims of a churn-and-burn mentality that incurs unnecessary fees and bonuses for the perpetuators, at their expense.

Having checked with the writer, who prefers to remain anonymous, I am leaving the contents of this email intact. The writer wanted others to know “how the nation’s banks target senior citizens and steal their life savings.“  These are the warning words I received from one of America’s seniors:

“Unlike many of the banks’ other schemes, this con is entirely avoidable if seniors and their families knew what to watch out for.

Here is how it works:

1. You are a conservative saver, and you have a large amount of money in the bank.  Since you are a “valued customer”, the bank gives you your own personal financial representative, with whom you build a relationship over time.  But this person is not on your side.  He will prod, coax, and sweet-talk you into moving your savings over to the bank’s investment arm.

2. If you do move your money over to the investment bank, your financial advisor will charge you high management fees (upwards of 1% of assets per year).  Moreover, you will pay big commissions on top of that.  But these won’t be disclosed as commissions – they will be incentives disguised in various ways that are buried deep within the fine print.  Since you don’t know about these, and since you trust the paid professional you’ve hired, you will be an easy victim.

3. Because of these incentives, your advisor will dump investments into your portfolio that may include: funds of funds (which charge layers upon layers of fees), IPO offerings that the bank can’t manage to sell off, complex structured products, variable annuities, and the like.  Anything the bank wants to get rid of, wishes to hawk, or gets a kickback to sell will be dumped into your account.  All the while, your advisor will be assuring you that these are excellent investments.

4. The result will be that you will almost certainly do worse than the market overall – at the very least, by the fees and commissions you pay (commissions that have been taken  –  stolen! – without your consent), and at worst, by scorching losses obtained via inappropriate investments.

5. If you figure out what has happened (and most people don’t, they will think that the market just did badly), you will have little recourse.  The bank will have forced you to sign a mandatory binding arbitration agreement that shuts you out of the court system.  Even if the bank has committed fraud, forgery, etc., it doesn’t matter.  The courts are closed to you.

6. If you manage to obtain a settlement or get a judgment from the arbitration forum, the results will almost certainly be kept confidential.  Therefore, the goings-on are kept quiet, and the banks can continue their practices unabated.

The victims of this fraud are not doing anything wrong or unreasonable.  They are working with large national banks.  They are hiring certified financial planners.  They are paying high management fees, so there is no expectation of anything “free”.  They are asking good questions and being reassured that their financial advisor is looking out for their best interest.  But they are being swindled nonetheless – because they don’t know about the hidden incentives, because they are unable to differentiate good investments from bad ones, and because they are being reassured by their advisor about how well they are doing compared to the market, even if the opposite is really true.

These are professional con men that are swindling millions of seniors, every day, all over the country -- decimating their life savings in their final years. 

I know, because I have seen it happen.  And I am mad.  Steaming mad.”

 

This writer is not the only one that is steaming mad. So are millions of people - retirees that don’t have the luxury of ‘making it back’ and workers that aren’t getting paid enough to leave unnecessary money ‘on the table’ of brokers and advisors whose best interests are institutionally and legislatively their own. Heeding the warning in here, and separating one’s bank deposits from the bank’s asset management arm that views them as fee-fodder, would be one way to protect against the damage that this regulatory fusion of bank practices causes.