Thursday, August 20, 2009

• America, End Your Fear Of Wall Street

Few Americans have the time to educate themselves on the operations of those who control the most critical elements at the heart of the Nation’s well being. The Kings of Wall Street have long coveted the absolute supremacy they now enjoy over the largest economy in the world. Their road to ascendancy has been long and methodical, but with the collapse of the mortgage and equity bubbles, the past year’s actions by those pillars of persuasive absolutism on Wall Street confirm that their dominance is unprecedented in American history.

A vast majority of Americans must have been astounded by Bernanke’s recent response to Congress’s request that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit the Federal Reserve’s financial transactions and assets. The following was the heart of Bernanke’s response, “… auditing ... would be highly destructive to the stability of the financial system, the dollar and our national economic situation.” The GAO is a legislative branch agency organized under the U.S. Congress. How is it possible that Bernanke would have had the guts to tell Congress to go fly a kite? This is the same Federal Reserve whose power Obama wants to expand? Does he really have a good grasp of the true nature of Wall Street and the functions of its insiders? Perhaps the $14 million he received from Wall Street bankers, investment firms and securities brokers during the election campaign are clouding his perception.

Bernanke not only screamed an emphatic, "no," but he had the gall to threaten Congress and the American people with economic destruction. How is such arrogance and power remotely possible? While it might be tolerated if coming from the oval office, it should not be tolerated from a banker. It is also, for anyone who is watching, an obnoxious affront to the Constitution as articulated in Article I, Section 8, “The Congress shall have power to … coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and … to borrow money on the credit of the United States.” Does this resemble anything we have witnessed during the past year? Not remotely.

Through a century of market ups and downs, interest rate fluctuations, mergers, acquisitions, political influence, lobbying and positioning insiders to the most powerful government and government related institutions, the Kings of Wall Street have nurtured and advanced their isolated power to a point where they are responsible to no one. After the Fed created hundreds of billions in bailout dollars to purchase unaudited toxic waste from its “friends,” these same friends paid themselves billions of dollars in bonuses. These were billions more than the amounts they distributed to their own shareholders, and the rationalizations were as asinine as the bonuses. Obama’s wishful thinking and promises of “oversight and transparency,” over trillions of Fed dispensations, have long been attenuated by the dissonance of fear. Stating that the Fed and Wall Street’s autonomy is complete, would be a gross understatement.

When Bernanke told Congress and the world that if AIG was not bailed out, the international economic order would come tumbling down, did the majority of his listeners believe him? Absolutely. Panic was being incessantly pounded into the public’s consciousness. Unless a handful of senior players from the banking sector didn’t get their way, the underpinnings of the global economy would disintegrate, and the world as we knew it would come to an immediate halt. Paulson chanted the refrain, and shortly thereafter so did Geithner, whose performance made sure that the message was delivered with the requisite amount of perspiration and earnestness accentuating the urgency. Above all, he underscored the fear.

Individuals, who could not care less about the health of America, just as they never cared about their firms’ clients, control the economic engines of this country. Their egos dictate their actions, and satisfaction of abnormal greed is the compelling priority. The details of the business, and its legalities, … be damned. Have we forgotten that when Lehman Brothers collapsed overnight, no one knew there had been a problem? None of its executives were familiar with the extent of the calamity when it hit their firm, nor did their books indicate where assets might be hiding or what claims might exist against them. Transparency? Due diligence? Forget being a shareholder looking for information since the senior executives, the CEO and the Board of Directors were oblivious. Was there any conscious human being near the top of the Lehman ladder who cared enough to raise doubts? Would he or she have been listened to? Not likely.

When you are too preoccupied picking out the leather for your new executive jet, or refurnishing your third mansion in Cap D’Antibe, you don’t have time to spend on corporate incidentals such as the details of an audited financial statement. Even if there had been a spare moment, you’d have to fly to that Bridge tournament in Chicago, … or some other urgent pastime where your “friends,” or your ego expect an appearance.

There is a culture of omnipotence that has been very pervasive throughout all of Wall Street’s major firms during the past two decades. It has reached a level of absolute and supreme potency within a few of its more majestic mindsets like those at the top of firms such as Goldman and Morgan. These firms have by design created complex webs of interwoven corporate entities, crossing geopolitical borders with questionable practices beyond the boundaries of laws and oversight. Theirs has been a comfortable ride, since there is no will on the part of any government to provide intrusive oversight to the investment banking giants, therefore effective oversight is simply an ephemeral, wishful thought on the part of a cornered public.

The Morgan Stanley acquisition of Bear Stearns with a $30 billion taxpayer guarantee was a sweet gift handled between the boys, with little evidence of hard-nosed negotiating on behalf of American taxpayers. Obviously, reasonableness also never entered the room. Bailouts for Citigroup, AIG, Bank of America, Citigroup, and AIG were negotiated between friends, some friends only pretended to be working on behalf of the American taxpayers. When Treasury, The Fed and the heads of the major Wall Street firms, particularly Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, came together to make deals, their actions were not “negotiations” as defined in any normal dictionary. Who really represented taxpayer interests? No one. The Third Side, the taxpayer who will foot the major risk, was not in the room. Not only were taxpayers not in the room, but they were also swindled. There is no other way to describe the one sidedness of the structures that taxpayers were handed.

Taxpayers recapitalized banks under insanely bad terms and conditions, where they unwittingly guaranteed toxic asset, as occurred in the Citigroup bailout or when B. of A. acquired Merrill Lynch. Did anyone question B. of A.’s use of TARP funds to “acquire,” competitors? No-one representing taxpayer interests seemed to care, and quite to the contrary, Merrill’s losses were purposefully concealed from both investors and regulators. Did anyone negotiate hard with these banks, B. of A., Goldman and Citi, when as creditors to Chrysler, they forced its destruction instead of allowing the government to provide it with deals as sweet as the ones they had received themselves? Not much. Geithner and Bernanke were evidently not close friends of any Chrysler executives or employees residing in Detroit. They were, however, friends and colleagues of Wall Street.

We have written elsewhere on this post about Too Big To Fail, however, with the taxpayer’s willingness (through inept government) the crisis has created ever-larger monsters on Wall Street. America’s vast banking system has become weak and remains weak other than for those at the top of its food chain. The controlling players have not changed, and the economic contraction will continue. We have become numbed to the fact that when banks fail, the public pays. A few companies, under the aegis of a small band of individuals created the perfect environment for the implosion of the banking system through massive risk taking. Congress cheered actively from the sidelines. The Wall Street hands that were in large part responsible for the crisis now dictate government actions, and have effective control over the public purse. In the meantime, the Fed, standing squarely on the backs of all taxpayers, is doing the job of large banks that still refrain from injecting credit into the economy.

While megabanks trade publicly, there is a dearth of verifiable, or incisively auditable value that can be placed on them since it appears none of their executives know the extent of the worthless paper lurking deep in their bowels, and none of them would tell you if he knew. Admitting the size of the toxic assets would require enormous write-downs, and would affect their bonuses as well as the values of the company shares.

We should not get swayed into believing that Too Big To Fail is simply a remote concept dealing with enormous corporations with global reach. Too Big To Fail refers to individuals at the top of these financial giants with all of the substantial power that the companies they manage can wield. Too Big To Fail encapsulates the stupidity that brought the world to the brink of collapse. We are just a couple of mergers away from a global financial power that will be impossible for any government to regulate, although regulation already seems nonexistent for any of the current top players on the Street.

The markets are technically driven and managed by systems that maximize profits for those who control them, using technologies that very creative talent produced. There is no ceiling to that creativity, and no end to what might be done to restructure the financial underpinnings and superstructure of the nation’s economy. The talent is available, and all that is required is willingness to do so. Constitutionally there are possibilities, but relinquishing control over money is not an alternative Wall Street will readily agree to, yet, reversing the process is within the purview of Congress.

The key to minimizing the future damage that the kings of Wall Street might further inflict on the Nation is to bring their power and influence into the realm of reasonableness. This means bringing their propensity for size to within reason for any organization involved in pure “banking,” and focusing their attention to providing large and small companies with the services, particularly credit, which they require to remain open for businesses.

There is a lesson to be learned from the current debacle, while the window remains very clear, and before time and retrospect blur the current reality into a distorted sequence of lies as the months advance. In order of priority, the following should be considered for a sound America going forward.

1. Take back control of The Fed. Humans will be human therefore there are no guarantees that the people’s representatives will act with foresight, however, they will accountably serve under the canopy of transparency, and due diligence, rather than submit to the beck-and-call of those whose billions in annual bonus money stagger the imagination.
2. Take back control of money.
3. Segregate “Banking,” from “Investment Banking,” and everything else that seems to attach itself to the once-upon-a-time credibility of banking. Reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act (except as it pertains to the Fed) that was for the most part repealed in 1999 eliminating the restrictions of affiliations between banks and “investment banks,” … and don’t listen to any bankers who tell you different with stories about diversification reducing risk, or banks being completely capable of regulating themselves. We have seen the evidence. One very intelligent provision contained in the act is section #32 that prohibits banks from having interlocking directors. Such decree could well be applied to other industries where “Board of Directors,” has simply become an incestuous and corrupt exercise.
In the same process, throw out that brilliant piece of Congressional ingenuity called the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.
4. Cap the size of banks so that their executives more naturally demonstrate concern for soundness of lending decisions, and the well being and success of their regional customers. Banking should be a service, and should not be a casino where the management can pilfer the till as has been repeatedly demonstrated wantonly by the major Wall Street firms.
5. Allow the FDIC to do its job, and instruct it to play serious hardball with the risk takers who come into its line of sight.

This is not minor tweaking of the system. This is also not a call for the establishment of a consumer protection agency to police all things financial from credit cards to mortgages. Common sense dictates implementation of a structural reconstruction. The proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency would only be an ill-defined expansion of the government payroll, proliferating government reach into more corners of society. This make little sense since there are agencies already entrusted to protect consumers which are not doing their jobs. Proposing the launch of such an inappropriate meddling amoeba is evidence of government ignorance of the realities on Wall Street.

America, your government is lying to you. You’ve been had, and are being had. It has no idea what is going on with your money. Those few bureaucrats who have ensconced themselves in positions of unnatural power and influence, and who manage the joystick, won’t tell you the truth. Even more pathetic is the fact that neither Congress, nor the President, know enough about the mechanics of America’s economy to apply practical judgment decisions in the refashioning of the system, … nor, it seems, do they have the will to act. Considering the fact that the current administration continued the trend of installing those who had a healthy hand in packing the powder keg that ignited into the economic disaster now encumbering the nation, we cannot expect much change. The billions of dollars that politicians received from Wall Street over the past decade through campaign contributions and lobbying, was insurance on their continuing silence, and stifled any burgeoning ethics.

Taxpayers have become disillusioned by the abuse they have endured at the hands of special interests, and the lack of intelligent, common sense response from their elected officials. A broad swath of the electorate is wearied. Congress should pay attention to 2012, and the electorate should demonstrate a little selfishness. Taxpayers should look for some creative thinking instead of the tired old nursery rhymes dispensed from portable pulpits.

Banking is not a magical, abstract, or obscure foreign art, although some of the fringe elements have become complex by design, such as the proliferation of derivative financial instruments. Government is protecting special interests and is NOT forcing a restructuring of America’s financial system. Taxpayers should demand that capitalism be reinstated back into the banking system. They should demand that Wall Street’s power elite end its mortgaging of the American future. Taxpayers should ignore platitudes and bromides from Obama and Congress, and they demand a break-up of Wall Street’s major players.

Taxpayers should be lining up in the next elections to install individuals into Congress, no matter what party they might represent, who will take back control of the most important components of the economy, and ensure that the country has a chance at a sound future. The electorate should not allow the continuing concentration of financial power to accumulate in fewer and fewer irresponsible and egocentric hands.

Take control back from Wall Street, demand transparency, and quit bailing out firms that should be allowed to fail. Stop being mesmerized by the pretense and illusion that was perfected under Alan Greenspan. Take back control of the money supply before another crisis turns a struggling economy with escalating debt, into a long term depressed economy.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

• Obama & Middle Class Income Tax Increases

The recession is dealing a hard blow to government revenues with tax receipts expected to drop 18 percent this year. The big question being lathered across the Nation, but not being answered honorably by the Administration, revolves around tax increases. The double-speak and denials are only adding annoyance to the feelings surging around the stress already felt by the taxpayers. Not only will the “middle class” be saddled with fresh tax increases, but so will you and your neighbor if you live in America.

The strategy of repeatedly pretending that only the wealthy are going to pay for the massive spending increases is quickly getting old and not believable. From the mansions in Beverly Hills to the park benches of Central Park, all residents will be sending more dollars to the government in one way or another. This is not about new tobacco or alcohol consumptions taxes, or even about the massive tax-grab that will come from Cap And Trade, this is about new tax measures, and new taxes on everything that can be squeezed for cash starting with your income. Forget the campaign promises you almost believed about middle-class tax cuts, and forget Sunday meet-the-press equivocations by well-trained emissaries like Geithner and Summers. Your taxes are about to increase dramatically.

The Administration is very demonstrably building a government well beyond anything that national revenues will be able to support either in the mid-term, or the long-term. With the Nation stuck in a long-term economic quagmire hurting all taxpayers who are already feeling the weight of chronic tax-creeping, the imposition of obvious and visible new income taxes is politically dangerous. The sophistication of the speciousness will find new levels of creativity during the coming weeks.

The White House will no doubt launch a campaign to “talk-up” the economy in the hope that positive proclamations will make them so. Reality is that unemployment, well above the claimed 10%, is somewhere around 16% when you include “marginally attached workers” as well as those employed “part time for economic reasons,” calculated as the “U-6 rate” by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment increasing is neither a turn around, nor a bottom to the recession, and is a far different reality from the “8% or less” predicted by the Administration when it launched its stimulus program. So much for rose-colored forecasting by economists.

Tax receipts are apparently down by 22 percent on individual incomes, and are down 57 percent on the corporate front. When you blend that with a deficit that will surge to almost $2 trillion this year, and a National debt accelerating past $11.6 trillion, your options are limited. We can assume that cutting federal spending is an ideological impossibility, leaving the government with two principal choices, and neither induces positive tingles up your spine. You can be asked to sacrifice and have your income taxes increased massively, or the dollar’s value can be allowed to drop significantly as more of them get printed. The likely path will be a less harmful blend of both of these alternatives. The key will be to allow the dollar’s value to slide gradually so that there are no sudden shocks striking at the heart of national and international markets. International creditors like China will be irritated, but will accede to the gradual process of easing down the dollar. Forget the doomsday scenarios, however, America will take years to work its way out of this recession, then pay off past and current government spending sprees, on its way to growing through the new financial demands on its treasury that will surface over the next decade from baby boomers, social security and healthcare.

In order to initiate an advance on the lengthy economic turnaround, the joy ride of debt-spending-with-wanton-abandon mindset enjoyed by Bush and continued by Obama must be brought to a close. Deficit growth cannot continue on a path exceeding the rate of economic growth. The Administration should surface out of its decision closet, and become resolutely emphatic on a course of action that will reverse the deficit's current trend. Obama’s next address to the Nation should be, “I know I promised that if you made under $250,000 per year, you would not see your taxes increased a single dime. Not your income tax. Not your payroll tax. Not your capital gains tax. No tax. I was wrong. I was hasty in forming that covenant with the electorate. We are a government living beyond its means, with currently no end in sight to the discrepancy. Here is my plan for an overhaul of the tax code, and what it will mean to every single one of you. You can expect your income taxes to increase an average of ten percent, for starters. Now, about a national sales tax, …”

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