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Entries in Wall Street (19)

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.

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