Saturday, July 18, 2009

Easy Answers to the Cry of the Bankstas' Regrets

Have you heard the bankstas register their regrets about the national (or international) mayhem their wild playdays caused previously?

Me neither (not real regrets anyway). And as the game is gearing up again for the next stick-it-to-us bubble, do you think there should be any changes (at a minimum) to the financial derivatives regulations, or do you agree with JPMorgan (and Government Sex) that they are really, really going to play fair this time?

Robert Reich asks "Where are the antitrusters when we need them? Alternatively, why isn't the government charging Goldman and JPMorgan a large insurance fee for classifying both firms as "too big to fail" and therefore automatically bailed out if the risks they take turn sour? Instead, we've ended up with two giants that now have most of the casino to themselves, are playing with poker chips backed by taxpayers, and have a big say in what the rules of the game are to be." (Emphasis marks added - Ed.)

Besides Goldman Sachs, the Street's other surviving behemoth is JPMorgan.

Today it posted second-quarter earnings up a stunning 36 percent from the first quarter, to $2.7 billion.

The resurgence of JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs gives both banks more financial clout than any other players on the Street - allowing both firms to lure talent from everywhere else on the Street with multi-million pay packages, giving both firms enough economic power to charge clients whopping fees, and bestowing on both firms even more political heft in Washington.

. . . When JP Morgan repaid its federal bailout of $25 billion last month it was, like Goldman, freed from stricter government oversight. The freedom has also allowed JP, like Goldman, to take tougher and more vocal stands in Washington against proposed financial regulations they dislike.

JP is mounting a furious lobbying campaign against regulations that would funnel derivatives trading through exchanges where regulators can monitor them, and thereby crimp JP's profits. Now the Street's biggest derivatives player, JP has generated billions helping clients navigate these contracts and assuming counter-party risk in such transactions. Its derivatives contracts were valued at roughly $81 trillion at the end of the first quarter, representing 40 percent of the derivatives held by all banks, according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. JP has played down its potential risk exposure from these derivatives contracts, of course, but anyone who's been paying attention over the last ten months knows that unregulated derivatives have been at the center of the storm.

The tumult on the Street has also given both firms extraordinary market power. That's where much of the current profits are coming from.

JP used the crisis to snap up Bear Stearns in March and Washington Mutual last fall, with the amiable assistance of the Treasury. The deals have boosted JP's dominance in retail banking and prime brokerage, enabling it to charge its corporate clients heftier fees for lending and other financial services, and to corner more of the market in fixed-income and equities. JP also bolstered its earnings by helping other financial companies raise capital following the stress test results in May.

Antitrust law was designed to prevent just this sort of market power and political heft. The Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission should investigate the new-found dominance of Goldman and JP - and, if warranted, break them up.

Alternatively, Congress should impose a surtax on the newly-exclusive group of Wall Street firms, most notably Goldman and JPMorgan, which are now backed by implicit government bailout insurance guaranteeing that, should they get into trouble, taxpayers will keep them afloat. The surtax would approximate the economic benefit to these firms of such government largesse, which I'd estimate to be at least 50 percent of their profits from here on.

But they've already moved the mechanism that determines the profits to countries without taxes, right, Bob?

Our man in Havana (just kidding!), Paul Krugman, details, for your growing displeasure, The Joy of Sachs.

The American economy remains in dire straits, with one worker in six unemployed or underemployed. Yet Goldman Sachs just reported record quarterly profits — and it’s preparing to hand out huge bonuses, comparable to what it was paying before the crisis. What does this contrast tell us? First, it tells us that Goldman is very good at what it does. Unfortunately, what it does is bad for America. Second, it shows that Wall Street’s bad habits — above all, the system of compensation that helped cause the financial crisis — have not gone away. Third, it shows that by rescuing the financial system without reforming it, Washington has done nothing to protect us from a new crisis, and, in fact, has made another crisis more likely. Let’s start by talking about how Goldman makes money. Over the past generation — ever since the banking deregulation of the Reagan years — the U.S. economy has been “financialized.” The business of moving money around, of slicing, dicing and repackaging financial claims, has soared in importance compared with the actual production of useful stuff. The sector officially labeled “securities, commodity contracts and investments” has grown especially fast, from only 0.3 percent of G.D.P. in the late 1970s to 1.7 percent of G.D.P. in 2007. Such growth would be fine if financialization really delivered on its promises — if financial firms made money by directing capital to its most productive uses, by developing innovative ways to spread and reduce risk. But can anyone, at this point, make those claims with a straight face? Financial firms, we now know, directed vast quantities of capital into the construction of unsellable houses and empty shopping malls. They increased risk rather than reducing it, and concentrated risk rather than spreading it. In effect, the industry was selling dangerous patent medicine to gullible consumers. Goldman’s role in the financialization of America was similar to that of other players, except for one thing: Goldman didn’t believe its own hype. Other banks invested heavily in the same toxic waste they were selling to the public at large. Goldman, famously, made a lot of money selling securities backed by subprime mortgages — then made a lot more money by selling mortgage-backed securities short, just before their value crashed. All of this was perfectly legal, but the net effect was that Goldman made profits by playing the rest of us for suckers. And Wall Streeters have every incentive to keep playing that kind of game. The huge bonuses Goldman will soon hand out show that financial-industry highfliers are still operating under a system of heads they win, tails other people lose. If you’re a banker, and you generate big short-term profits, you get lavishly rewarded — and you don’t have to give the money back if and when those profits turn out to have been a mirage. You have every reason, then, to steer investors into taking risks they don’t understand. And the events of the past year have skewed those incentives even more, by putting taxpayers as well as investors on the hook if things go wrong. I won’t try to parse the competing claims about how much direct benefit Goldman received from recent financial bailouts, especially the government’s assumption of A.I.G.’s liabilities. What’s clear is that Wall Street in general, Goldman very much included, benefited hugely from the government’s provision of a financial backstop — an assurance that it will rescue major financial players whenever things go wrong. You can argue that such rescues are necessary if we’re to avoid a replay of the Great Depression. In fact, I agree. But the result is that the financial system’s liabilities are now backed by an implicit government guarantee. Now the last time there was a comparable expansion of the financial safety net, the creation of federal deposit insurance in the 1930s, it was accompanied by much tighter regulation, to ensure that banks didn’t abuse their privileges. This time, new regulations are still in the drawing-board stage — and the finance lobby is already fighting against even the most basic protections for consumers. If these lobbying efforts succeed, we’ll have set the stage for an even bigger financial disaster a few years down the road. The next crisis could look something like the savings-and-loan mess of the 1980s, in which deregulated banks gambled with, or in some cases stole, taxpayers’ money — except that it would involve the financial industry as a whole. The bottom line is that Goldman’s blowout quarter is good news for Goldman and the people who work there. It’s good news for financial superstars in general, whose paychecks are rapidly climbing back to precrisis levels. But it’s bad news for almost everyone else.
And we know what that means now. I just wonder if we'll have pulled out of this deep d/recession before the next one hits. Thanks, Obama! Suzan ________________

3 comments:

Beach Bum said...

"Where are the antitrusters when we need them? Alternatively, why isn't the government charging Goldman and JPMorgan a large insurance fee for classifying both firms as "too big to fail" and therefore automatically bailed out if the risks they take turn sour?

The answer to both these question involves the fact that the banks own the United States government. Heard recently someone say that the banks have the largest and most active lobbyist group on Capitol Hill.

Beach Bum said...

And we thought the "Big Tobacco" companies were buttholes.

Suzan said...

Agreed, BB.

They are buttholes, all of them, and much worse. They are (actually) murderers, thieves, rapists and con artists who steal from their grandmothers - in that order.

Love ya,

S