Local Governments on Rampage Against Banks’ Manipulation of Credit Markets

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“When both government and the citizens start acting together, things are likely to change in a big way. There appears to be a unity of interests — the investors who thought they were buying bonds from a REMIC pool, the homeowners who thought they were buying a properly verified and underwritten loan from a pretender lender, and the local governments who were tricked into believing that their loans were viable and trustworthy based upon the gold standard of rate indexes. In many cases, the only reason for the municipal loan, was the illusion of growing demographics requiring greater infrastructure, instead of repairing the existing the infrastructure. As a result, the cities ended up with loans on unneeded products just like homeowners ended up with loans on houses that were always worth far less than the appraisal used.” — Neil F Garfield, www.livinglies.me

Editors Note: Hundreds of government agencies and local governments are on the rampage realizing that they were duped by Wall Street into buying into defective loan products. This puts them in the same class as homeowners who bought such loan products, investors who believed they were buying Mortgage Bonds to fund the loans, and dozens of other institutions who relied upon the lies told by the banks who were having a merry old time creating “trading profits” that were the direct result of stealing money and homes, and misleading the financial world on the status of the interest rates in the financial world. All loans tied to Libor (London Interbank Offered Rate), which was the gold standard,  are now in question as to whether the reset on those loans was true, correct or simply faked.

The repercussions of this will grow as the realization hits the victims of this gigantic fraud broadens into a general inquiry about most of the major practices in use — especially those in which claims of securitization were offered. It is now obvious that the deal proposed to pension funds and other investors was simply ignored by the banks who used the money to create faked trading profits, removing from the pool of investments money intended for funding loans that were properly originated and dutifully underwritten.

Cities, Counties, Homeowners and Investors are all victims of being tricked into loans that were simply unsustainable and were being manipulated to the advantage of the banks they trusted to act responsibly and who instead acted reprehensibly.

The ramifications for the mortgage and foreclosure markets could not be larger. If the banks were lying about the basics of the rate and the terms then what else did they do? As the Governor or of the Bank of England said, the business model of the banks appears to have been “lie More” rather than living up to the trust reposed in them by those who dealt with them as “customers.” Specifically, the evidence suggests that while the funding of the loan and the closing documents were coincidentally related in time, they specifically excluded any reference to each other, which means that the financial transaction as it actually occurred is undocumented and the document trail refers to financial transactions that did not involve money exchanging hands.

The natural conclusion created by the coincidence of the funding and the documents was to conclude that the two were related. But the actual instructions and wire transfers tell another story. This debunks the myth of securitization and more particularly the mortgage lien. How can the mortgage apply to a transaction described in the note that never took place and where the terms of the loan were different than what was expected by the creditors (investors, like pension and other managed funds) in the mortgage bond. The parties are different too. The wires funding the transaction are devoid of any reference to the supposed lender in the closing documents presented to borrowers. Thus you have different parties and different terms — one in the money trail, which was undocumented, and the other in the document trail which refers to transactions in which no money exchanged hands.

When the municipalities like Baltimore start digging they are going to find that manipulation of Libor was only one of several issues about which the Banks lied.

Rate Scandal Stirs Scramble for Damages

BY NATHANIEL POPPER

As unemployment climbed and tax revenue fell, the city of Baltimore laid off employees and cut services in the midst of the financial crisis. Its leaders now say the city’s troubles were aggravated by bankers’ manipulation of a key interest rate linked to hundreds of millions of dollars the city had borrowed.

Baltimore has been leading a battle in Manhattan federal court against the banks that determine the interest rate, the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, which serves as a benchmark for global borrowing and stands at the center of the latest banking scandal. Now cities, states and municipal agencies nationwide, including Massachusetts, Nassau County on Long Island, and California’s public pension system, are looking at whether they suffered similar losses and are weighing legal action.

Dozens of lawsuits filed by municipalities, pension funds and hedge funds have been consolidated into a few related cases against more than a dozen banks that are involved in setting Libor each day, including Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Deutsche Bank and Barclays. Last month, Barclays admitted to regulators that it tried to manipulate Libor before and during the financial crisis in 2008, and paid $450 million to settle the charges. It said other banks were doing the same, but none of them have been accused of wrongdoing. Libor, a measure of how much banks must pay to borrow money from one another in the short term, is set through a daily poll of the banks.

The rate influences what consumers, businesses and investors pay on a wide range of financial contracts, as varied as mortgages and interest rate swaps. Barclays has said it and other banks understated the rate during the financial crisis to make themselves look healthier to the public, rather than to make more money from clients. As regulators and lawmakers in Washington and Europe assess the depth of the Libor abuse and the failure to address it, economists and analysts are already predicting it could be one of the most expensive scandals to hit Wall Street since the financial crisis.

Governments and other investors may face many hurdles in proving damages. But Darrell Duffie, a professor of finance at Stanford, said he expected that their lawsuits alone could lead to the banks’ paying out tens of billions of dollars, echoing numbers from a recent report by analysts at Nomura Equity Research.

American municipalities have been among the first to claim losses from the supposed rate-rigging, because many of them borrow money through investment vehicles that directly derive their value from Libor. Peter Shapiro, who advises Baltimore and other cities on their use of these investments, said that “about 75 percent of major cities have contracts linked to this.”

If the banks submitted artificially low Libor rates during the financial crisis in 2008, as Barclays has admitted, it would have led cities and states to receive smaller payments from financial contracts they had entered with their banks, Mr. Shapiro said.

“Unambiguously, state and local government agencies lost money because of the manipulation of Libor,” said Mr. Shapiro, who is managing director of the Swap Financial Group and is not involved in any of the lawsuits. “The number is likely to be very, very big.”

The banks have declined to comment on the lawsuits, but their lawyers have asked for the cases to be dismissed in court filings, pointing to the many unusual factors that influenced Libor during the crisis.

The efforts to calculate potential losses are complicated by the fact that Libor is used to determine the cost of thousands of financial products around the globe each day. If Libor was artificially pushed down on a particular day, it would help people involved in some types of contracts and hurt people involved in others.

Securities lawyers say the lawsuits will not be easy to win because the investors will first have to prove that the banks successfully pushed down Libor for an extended period during the crisis, and then will have to demonstrate that it was down on the day when the bank calculated particular payments. In addition, investors may have to prove that the specific bank from which they were receiving their payment was involved in the manipulation. Before it even reaches the point of proving such subtleties, however, the banks could be compelled to settle the cases.

One of the major complaints was filed by several traders and hedge funds that entered into futures contracts that are traded through the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and that pay out based on Libor. These contracts were a popular way to protect against spikes in interest rates, but they would not have paid off as expected if Libor had been artificially lowered.

A 2010 study cited in the suit — conducted by professors at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Minnesota — indicated that Libor was significantly lower than it should have been throughout 2008 and was particularly skewed around the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers.

A separate complaint filed in 2010 by the investment firm Charles Schwab asserts that some of its mutual funds, including popular ones like the Schwab Total Bond Market Fund, lost money on similar investments.

The complaints being voiced by municipalities are mostly related to their use of a popular financial contract known as an interest rate swap. States and cities generally enter into these swaps with specific banks so that they can borrow money in the bond market. They pay bondholders based on a floating interest rate — like an adjustable-rate mortgage — but end up paying their bankers a fixed rate through a swap. If Libor is artificially lowered, the municipality is stuck paying the same fixed rate, but it receives a smaller variable payment from its bank.

Even before the current controversy, some municipal activists have said that banks took advantage of the financial inexperience of municipal officials to sell them billions of dollars of interest rate swaps. Experts in municipal finance say that because of the particular way that cities and states borrow money, they are especially liable to lose out on their swaps if Libor drops.

Mr. Shapiro, who helps cities, states and companies negotiate these contracts, said that if a city had interest rate swaps on bonds worth $1 billion and Libor was artificially pushed down by 0.30 percent, which is what the lawsuits contend, that city would have lost $3 million a year. The lawsuit claims the manipulation occurred over three years. Barclays’ settlement with regulators did not specify how much the banks’ actions may have moved Libor.

In Nassau County, the comptroller, George Maragos, said in a statement that according to his own calculations, Libor manipulation may have cost the county $13 million on swaps related to $600 million of outstanding bonds.

A Massachusetts state official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of potential future legal actions, said the state was calculating its potential losses.

“We are deeply concerned and we are carefully analyzing all of our options,” the official said.

Anne Simpson, a portfolio manager at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System — the nation’s largest pension fund — said that the fund’s officials “are sifting through the impact, but there certainly is an impact.”

In Baltimore, the city had Libor-based interest rate swaps on about $550 million of bonds, according to the city’s financial report from 2008, the central year discussed in the lawsuit. The city’s lawyers have declined to specify what they think Baltimore’s losses were.

The city solicitor, George Nilson, said that the rate manipulation claims meant that the city lost out on money when it needed it the most.

“The injury we suffered during the time we suffered it hurt more because we were challenged budgetarily,” Mr. Nilson said. “Every dollar we lost due to illegal conduct was a dollar we couldn’t pay to keep open recreation centers or to pay police officers.”


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Bribery or Business as Usual?

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Editor’s Comment and Analysis:

There is only one way this isn’t an outright bribe that should land the senator in jail — and that is proving that he received nothing of value. Stories abound in the media about haircut rates given to members of government particularly by Countrywide, now owned by Bank of America. Now we see it on the way down where others go through hoops and ladders to get a modification of short-sale but members of Congress get special treatment.

The only way this could be considered nothing of value is if the banks that gave this favor knew that they didn’t lend the money, didn’t purchase the loan and didn’t have a dime in the deal. They can prove it but they won’t because the fallout would be that there are no loans in print and that there are no perfected mortgage loans. The consequence is that there can be no foreclosures. And it would mean that the values carried on the books of these banks are eihter overstated or entirely fictiouos. The general consensus is that capital requirments for the banks should be higher. But what if the capital they are reporting doesn’t exist?

We are seeing practically everyday how Congress is bought off by the Banks and yet we do nothing. How can you expect to be taken seriously by the executive branch and the judicial branch of goveornment charged with enforcing the laws? If you are doing nothing and complaining, it’s time to get off the couch and do something with the Occupy Movement or your own private war with the banks. If you are not complaining, you should be — because this tsunami is about to hit the front door of your house too whether you are making the payments or not.

The power of the new aristocracy in American and European politics is felt around the globe. People are suffering in the U.S., Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Greece and other places because the smaller banks in all those countries got taken to the cleaners by huge conglomerate Wall Street Banks. Ireland is reporting foreclosures and defaults at record rates. It was fraud with an effect far greater than any other act of domestic or international terrorism. And it isn’t just about money either. Suicides, domestic violence ending in death and mental illness are pandemic. And nobody cares about the little guy because the little guy is just fuel for the endless appetite of Wall Street. 

If Obama rreally wants to galvanize the electorate, he must be proactive on the fierce urgency of NOW! Those were his words when he was a candidate and he owes us action because that urgency was felt in 2008 and is a vice around everyone’s neck now.

JPMorgan Chase & the Senator’s Short Sale:

It’s Hypocritical –But Is It Corrupt?

By Richard (RJ) Eskow

There’s a lot we have yet to learn about the story of Sen. Mike Lee, Tea Party Republican of Utah, and America’s largest bank. But we already know something’s very, very wrong:

Why is it that most Americans can’t get a principal reduction from Chase or any other bank, but JPMorgan Chase was so very flexible with a sitting member of the United States Senate?

The hypocrisy from Sen. Lee and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon overfloweth. But does the Case of the Senator’s Short Sale rise to the level of full-blown corruption? We won’t know until we get some answers.

People should be demanding those answers now.

When Jamie Met Mike

It’s not a pretty picture: In one corner is the Senator who wants to strike down Federal child labor laws and offer American residency to any non-citizen who buys a home with cash. In the other is the bank whose CEO said that the best way to relieve the crushing burden of debt on homeowners is by seizing their homes.

“Giving debt relief to people that really need it,” said Dimon, “that’s what foreclosure is.” That comment is Dickensian in its insensitivity – and Dimon’s bank offered real relief to the Senator from Utah.

The story of the short sale on Sen. Mike Lee’s home broke broke shortly not long after the world learned that JPM lost billions of dollars through trading that might have been illegal, and about which it certainly misled investors.

A Senator who doesn’t believe in child labor laws, and a crime-plagued bank that was just plunged into a trading scandal after losing billions in the London markets.

Why, they were practically made for one another.

Here in the Real World

This was also the week we learned from Zillow, one of the nation’s leading real estate data companies, that there are far more underwater homeowners than previously thought. Zillow collated all the information on home loans, including second mortgages, in order to develop this larger and more accurate number.

The new estimated amount of negative equity – money owed to the banks for non-existent home value – is $1.2 trillion.

Zillow found that nearly 16 million homeowners, representing roughly a third of all homes with a mortgage, were “underwater” (meaning they owe more than the home is now worth). That’s about 50 percent more than had been previously believed. Many of these homeowners are desperate for principal reduction, which would allow them to get back on their feet.

Banks can reduce the amount owed to reflect the current value of the house, which would lower monthly payments for many struggling homeowners. Another option is the “short sale,” in which the bank lets them sell the house for its current value and walk away. That would allow many of them to relocate in search of work.

But the banks, along with their allies in Washington DC, have been fighting principal reduction and resisting any attempts to increase the number of short sales. They remain out of reach for most struggling homeowners.

Mike’s Deal

But Mike Lee didn’t have that problem. Lee was elected to the Senate after buying his luxury home in Alpine, Utah at the height of the real estate boom. JPMorgan Chase agreed to a short sale, and it sold for nearly $400,000 less than the price Lee paid for it four years ago.

Sen. Lee says that he made a down payment on the home, although he hasn’t said how much was involved. But if he paid 15 percent down and put it $150,000, for example, then the Senator from Utah was just allowed to walk away from a quarter of a million dollars in debt obligations to JPMorgan Chase.

Let’s see: A troubled bank gives a sitting member of the United States Senate an advantageous deal worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? You’d think a story like that would get a little more attention than it has so far.

The Right’s Outrageous Hypocrisy

We haven’t seen this much hypocrisy in the real estate world since the Mortgage Bankers Association walked away from loans on its own headquarters even as its CEO, John Courson, was lecturing Americans their “legal obligation” and the terrible “message they would send” by walking away from their mortgages.

Then he did a short sale on the MBA’s headquarters. It sold for a reported $41 million, just three years after the MBA – those captains of real estate – paid $74 million for it.

The MBA calls itself “the voice of the mortgage banking industry.”

The hypocrisy may be even greater in this case. Sen. Mike Lee is a member in good standing of the Tea Party, a movement which began on the floor of Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a protest against the idea that the government might help underwater homeowners, even though many of the angry traders had enriched themselves thanks to government bailouts.

When their ringleader mentioned households struggling with negative equity, these first members of the Tea Party broke into a chant: “Losers! Losers! Losers!”

Mike Lee’s Outrageous Hypocrisy

Which gets us to Mike Lee. Lee accepted a handout of JPMorgan Chase after voting to end unemployment for jobless Americans. Lee also argued against Federal child labor laws, although he did acknowledge that child labor is “reprehensible.”

How big a hypocrite is Mike Lee? His website (which, curiously enough, went down as we wrote these words) says he believes “the federal government’s out-of-control spending has evolved into a major threat to our economic prosperity and job creation” and that he came to Washington to, among other things, “properly manage our finances”. Lee’s website also scolds Congress because, he says, it “cannot live within its means.”

As Ed McMahon used to say, “Write your own joke.”

Needless to say, Lee also advocates drastic cuts to Social Security and Medicare while pushing lower taxes for the wealthy – and plumping for exactly the same kind of deregulation which let bankers to run amok and wreck the economy in 2008 by doing things like … well, like what JPMorgan Chase just did in London.

“Give Me Your Wired, Your Wealthy, Your Upper Classes Yearning to Buy Cheap”

Lee has also co-sponsored a bill with Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senator from Wall Street New York, that would grant US residency to foreigners who purchase a home worth at least $500,000 – as long as they paid cash.

The Lee/Schumer bill would be a big boon to US banks – banks, in fact, like JPMorgan Chase. If it passes, the Statue of Liberty may need to be reshaped so that Lady Liberty is holding a book of real estate listings in her right hand while wearing a hat that reads “Million Dollar Sellers’ Club.”

Mike Lee’s bill would also have propped up the luxury home market, offering a big financial boost to people who are struggling to hold to the equity they’ve put into high-end homes, people like … well, like Mike Lee.

Jamie Dimon’s Outrageous Hypocrisy

Then there’s Jamie Dimon, who spoke for his fellow bankers during negotiations that led up to the very cushy $25 billion settlement that let banks like his off the hook for widespread lawbreaking in their foreclosure fraud crime wave.

“Yeah,” Dimon said of principal reductions for homeowners like Sen. Lee, “that’s off the table.”

Dimon’s been resisting global solutions to the negative equity problems for years. He said in 2010 that he preferred to make decisions about homeowners on a “loan by loan” basis.

The Rich Are Different – They Have More Mortgage Relief

“The rich are different,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, and (in a quote often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway) literary critic Mary Colum observed that ” the only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.”

And they apparently find it a lot easier to walk away from their underwater homes.There’s been a dramatic increase in short sales lately, and the evidence suggests that most of the deals have been going to luxury homeowners. Among other things, this trend toward high-end short sales the lie to the popular idea that bankers and their allies don’t want to “reward the underserving,” since hedge fund traders who overestimated next year’s bonus are clearly less deserving than working families who purchased a modest home for themselves.

Nevertheless, that’s where most of the debt relief seems to be going: to the wealthy, and not to the middle class.

Guess that’s what happens when loan officers working for Dimon and other Wall Street CEOs handle these matters on a “loan by loan” basis.

Immoral Logic

While this “loan by loan” approach lacks morality, there’s some financial logic to it. Banks typically have a lot more money at risk in an underwater luxury home than they do in more modest houses. A short sale provides them with a way to clear things up, recoup what they can, and get their books in a little more order than before. That’s why JPMorgan Chase has been offering selected borrowers up to $35,000 to accept short sales. You can bet they’re not offering that deal to middle class families.

There are other reasons to offer short sales to the wealthy: JPM, like all big banks, is pursuing very-high-end banking clients more aggressively than ever. That’s where the profits are. So why alienate a high-value client when they may offer you the opportunity to recoup losses elsewhere?

(“Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Dimon, but it’s London calling.”)

Corruption Or Not: The Questions

Both the bank and the Senator need to answer some questions about this deal. Here’s what the public deserves to know:

Could the writedown on the home’s value be considered an in-kind gift to a sitting Senator?

If so, then we have a very real scandal on our hands. But we don’t know enough to answer that question yet.

What are JPMorgan Chase’s procedures for deciding who receives mortgage relief and who doesn’t?

Dimon may prefer to handle these matters on a “loan by loan” basis, but there must be guidelines that bank officers can follow. And presumably they’ve been written down somewhere. Were they followed in Mike Lee’s case?

Who was involved in the decision to offer this deal to Mike Lee?

Offering mortgage relief to a sitting Senator is, to borrow a phrase, “a big elfin’ deal.” A mid-level bank officer isn’t likely to handle a case like this without taking it up the chain of command. So who made the final decision on Mike Lee’s mortgage?

It wouldn’t be unheard of if a a sensitive matter like this one was escalated to all the way to the company’s most senior executive – especially if that executive has eliminated any checks on his power, much less any independent input from shareholders, by serving as both the Chair(man) of the Board and the CEO.

In this, as in so many of JPM’s scandals, the question must be asked: What did Jamie know, and when did he know it?

Is Mike Lee a “Friend of Jamie”?

Which raises a related question: Is there is a formal or informal list of people for whom JPM employees are directed to give preferential treatment?

Everybody remembers the scandal that surrounded Sen. Chris Dodd when it was learned that his mortgage was given favorable treatment by Countrywide – even though the Senator apparently knew nothing about it at the time. The world soon learned then that Countrywide had a VIP program called “Friends of Angelo,” named for CEO Angelo Mozilo, and those who were on the list got special treatment.

Is there a “Friends of Jamie” list at JPMorgan Chase – and is Mike Lee’s name on it?

Were there any discussions between the bank’s executives and the Senator regarding the foreign home buyer’s bill or any other legislation that affected Wall Street?

Until this question is answered the issue of a possible quid pro quo will hang over both the Senator and JPMorgan Chase.

Seriously, guys – this doesn’t look good.

Was MERS used to evade state taxes and recording requirements on Sen. Lee’s home? 

JPMorgan Chase funded, and was an active participant, in the “MERS” program which was used, among other things, to bypass local taxes and legal requirements for recording titles.

As we wrote when we reviewed hundreds of internal MERS documents, MERS was instrumental in allowing banks to bundle and sell mortgage-backed securities in a way that led directly to the financial crisis of 2008. It also helped bankers artificially inflate real estate prices, encourage homeowners to take out loans at bubble prices, and then leave them holding the note (as underwater homeowners) after the collapse of national real estate values that they had artificially pumped up.

“Today’s Wall Street Corruption Fun Fact”: MERS was operated by the Mortgage Bankers Association – the same group of real estate geniuses who lost $30 million on a single building in three years, then gave a little lecture on morality to the homeowners they’d been so instrumental in shafting.

Q&A

I was also asked some very reasonable questions by a policy advocacy group. Here they are, with my answers:

If this happened to the average American, would they be able to walk away from the mortgage as well?

If by “average American” you mean “most homeowners,” then the answer is: No. Although short sales are on the rise, most underwater homeowners have not been given the option of going through a short sale. Mike Lee was. The question is, why?

Will Mike Lee’s credit rating be adversely affected?

This is a very important question. The credit rating industry serves banks, not consumers, and it operates at their beck and call.

The answer to this question depends on how JPM handled the paperwork. Many (and probably most) homeowners involved in a short sale take a hit to their credit rating. If Lee did not, it smacks of special treatment.

Given the fact that it was JPMorgan who financed the loss, does that mean, indirectly through the bailout, that the taxpayers paid for Lee’s mortgage write-off?

That gets tricky – but in a moral sense, you could certainly say that.

Short Selling Democracy

There’s no question that this deal is hypocritical and ugly, and that it reflects much of what’s still broken about both our politics and Wall Street. Is it a scandal? Without these answers we can’t know. This was either a case of the special treatment that is so often reserved for the wealthy, or it’s something even worse: influence peddling and political corruption.

it’s time for JPMorgan Chase and Sen. Mike Lee to come clean about this deal. If they did nothing wrong, they have nothing to hide. Either way the public’s entitled to some answers.


SECRET BANKING ELITE: WHERE THE REAL DECISIONS ARE MADE

COMBO Title and Securitization Search, Report, Documents, Analysis & Commentary COMBO Title and Securitization Search, Report, Documents, Analysis & Commentary

Notable Quotes:

“The men share a common goal: to protect the interests of big banks in the vast market for derivatives, one of the most profitable — and controversial — fields in finance. They also share a common secret: The details of their meetings, even their identities, have been strictly confidential.”

“big banks influence the rules governing derivatives through a variety of industry groups. The banks’ latest point of influence are clearinghouses like ICE Trust, which holds the monthly meetings with the nine bankers in New York.”

“The banks also required ICE to provide market data exclusively to Markit, a little-known company that plays a pivotal role in derivatives. Backed by Goldman, JPMorgan and several other banks, Markit provides crucial information about derivatives, like prices.”

“None of the three clearinghouses would divulge the members of their risk committees when asked by a reporter. But two people with direct knowledge of ICE’s committee said the bank members are:

  • Thomas J. Benison of JPMorgan Chase & Company;
  • James J. Hill of Morgan Stanley;
  • Athanassios Diplas of Deutsche Bank;
  • Paul Hamill of UBS;
  • Paul Mitrokostas of Barclays;
  • Andy Hubbard of Credit Suisse;
  • Oliver Frankel of Goldman Sachs;
  • Ali Balali of Bank of America; and
  • Biswarup Chatterjee of Citigroup.”

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EDITOR’S ANALYSIS: For those of us tracking the strategies employed in courtrooms across the country and various foreclosure tactics, it has been obvious that there has been a single governing hand that is controlling the action. Hidden under the rubric of a risk control committee, this group actually makes all key decisions that affect the largest segment of the marketplace and thus the rest of the markets. These banks are operating for themselves, not in the interests of performing the service that Wall Street was always intended to do — create increasingly fluid access to the capital markets for businesses to innovate, start, grow, finance and merge.

They operate without any regulation. Quite the contrary. The decisions from this group actually effect both legislation that is proposed and passed and the rules and regulations of agencies that are supposed to be acting as referees to make sure the players don’t run amok. They dictate to government rather than the other way around and they create the strategies affect every individual in this country and many other countries. They are in essence a single virtual bank acting as though they are separate, each with profit centers that are strictly controlled by this elite group.

The upcoming WikiLeaks disclosures may have some references to this group which is comprised of the largest banks in the world and which exclude other large banks from membership, like Bank of New York/Mellon. Together they control the direction of the recession and how power is exercised by governments and central bankers around the world. That is because together they control nominal wealth many times the total currency in the world and “market value” that is roughly equal, at a minimum, to 2/3 of the GDP of the entire world.

We are at a crossroad whether we want to admit it or not. Either we simply give up and let bankers rule the world, or we stop them, disassemble them and bring them down to a size where they can be and are in fact regulated. But the choice is not up to government which now is owned by them as well. The choice is entirely up to the people — all the people — who ultimately, for the moment, have the power to dismiss the exercise of this kind of ultra vires power and bring things back to normal. Whatever we do, we are headed for turbulent times. The only real question is whether those turbulent times will be leading us down a path of abandoning our nation of laws or whether it will be as Teddy Roosevelt did, devoted to taking back the power for the people, by the people.

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A Secretive Banking Elite Rules Trading in Derivatives

By LOUISE STORY

On the third Wednesday of every month, the nine members of an elite Wall Street society gather in Midtown Manhattan.

The men share a common goal: to protect the interests of big banks in the vast market for derivatives, one of the most profitable — and controversial — fields in finance. They also share a common secret: The details of their meetings, even their identities, have been strictly confidential.

Drawn from giants like JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the bankers form a powerful committee that helps oversee trading in derivatives, instruments which, like insurance, are used to hedge risk.

In theory, this group exists to safeguard the integrity of the multitrillion-dollar market. In practice, it also defends the dominance of the big banks.

The banks in this group, which is affiliated with a new derivatives clearinghouse, have fought to block other banks from entering the market, and they are also trying to thwart efforts to make full information on prices and fees freely available.

Banks’ influence over this market, and over clearinghouses like the one this select group advises, has costly implications for businesses large and small, like Dan Singer’s home heating-oil company in Westchester County, north of New York City.

This fall, many of Mr. Singer’s customers purchased fixed-rate plans to lock in winter heating oil at around $3 a gallon. While that price was above the prevailing $2.80 a gallon then, the contracts will protect homeowners if bitterly cold weather pushes the price higher.

But Mr. Singer wonders if his company, Robison Oil, should be getting a better deal. He uses derivatives like swaps and options to create his fixed plans. But he has no idea how much lower his prices — and his customers’ prices — could be, he says, because banks don’t disclose fees associated with the derivatives.

“At the end of the day, I don’t know if I got a fair price, or what they’re charging me,” Mr. Singer said.

Derivatives shift risk from one party to another, and they offer many benefits, like enabling Mr. Singer to sell his fixed plans without having to bear all the risk that oil prices could suddenly rise. Derivatives are also big business on Wall Street. Banks collect many billions of dollars annually in undisclosed fees associated with these instruments — an amount that almost certainly would be lower if there were more competition and transparent prices.

Just how much derivatives trading costs ordinary Americans is uncertain. The size and reach of this market has grown rapidly over the past two decades. Pension funds today use derivatives to hedge investments. States and cities use them to try to hold down borrowing costs. Airlines use them to secure steady fuel prices. Food companies use them to lock in prices of commodities like wheat or beef.

The marketplace as it functions now “adds up to higher costs to all Americans,” said Gary Gensler, the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates most derivatives. More oversight of the banks in this market is needed, he said.

But big banks influence the rules governing derivatives through a variety of industry groups. The banks’ latest point of influence are clearinghouses like ICE Trust, which holds the monthly meetings with the nine bankers in New York.

Under the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, many derivatives will be traded via such clearinghouses. Mr. Gensler wants to lessen banks’ control over these new institutions. But Republican lawmakers, many of whom received large campaign contributions from bankers who want to influence how the derivatives rules are written, say they plan to push back against much of the coming reform. On Thursday, the commission canceled a vote over a proposal to make prices more transparent, raising speculation that Mr. Gensler did not have enough support from his fellow commissioners.

The Department of Justice is looking into derivatives, too. The department’s antitrust unit is actively investigating “the possibility of anticompetitive practices in the credit derivatives clearing, trading and information services industries,” according to a department spokeswoman.

Indeed, the derivatives market today reminds some experts of the Nasdaq stock market in the 1990s. Back then, the Justice Department discovered that Nasdaq market makers were secretly colluding to protect their own profits. Following that scandal, reforms and electronic trading systems cut Nasdaq stock trading costs to 1/20th of their former level — an enormous savings for investors.

“When you limit participation in the governance of an entity to a few like-minded institutions or individuals who have an interest in keeping competitors out, you have the potential for bad things to happen. It’s antitrust 101,” said Robert E. Litan, who helped oversee the Justice Department’s Nasdaq investigation as deputy assistant attorney general and is now a fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. “The history of derivatives trading is it has grown up as a very concentrated industry, and old habits are hard to break.”

Representatives from the nine banks that dominate the market declined to comment on the Department of Justice investigation.

Clearing involves keeping track of trades and providing a central repository for money backing those wagers. A spokeswoman for Deutsche Bank, which is among the most influential of the group, said this system will reduce the risks in the market. She said that Deutsche is focused on ensuring this process is put in place without disrupting the marketplace.

The Deutsche spokeswoman also said the banks’ role in this process has been a success, saying in a statement that the effort “is one of the best examples of public-private partnerships.”

Established, But Can’t Get In

The Bank of New York Mellon’s origins go back to 1784, when it was founded by Alexander Hamilton. Today, it provides administrative services on more than $23 trillion of institutional money.

Recently, the bank has been seeking to enter the inner circle of the derivatives market, but so far, it has been rebuffed.

Bank of New York officials say they have been thwarted by competitors who control important committees at the new clearinghouses, which were set up in the wake of the financial crisis.

Bank of New York Mellon has been trying to become a so-called clearing member since early this year. But three of the four main clearinghouses told the bank that its derivatives operation has too little capital, and thus potentially poses too much risk to the overall market.

The bank dismisses that explanation as absurd. “We are not a nobody,” said Sanjay Kannambadi, chief executive of BNY Mellon Clearing, a subsidiary created to get into the business. “But we don’t qualify. We certainly think that’s kind of crazy.”

The real reason the bank is being shut out, he said, is that rivals want to preserve their profit margins, and they are the ones who helped write the membership rules.

Mr. Kannambadi said Bank of New York’s clients asked it to enter the derivatives business because they believe they are being charged too much by big banks. Its entry could lower fees. Others that have yet to gain full entry to the derivatives trading club are the State Street Corporation, and small brokerage firms like MF Global and Newedge.

The criteria seem arbitrary, said Marcus Katz, a senior vice president at Newedge, which is owned by two big French banks.

“It appears that the membership criteria were set so that a certain group of market participants could meet that, and everyone else would have to jump through hoops,” Mr. Katz said.

The one new derivatives clearinghouse that has welcomed Newedge, Bank of New York and the others — Nasdaq — has been avoided by the big derivatives banks.

Only the Insiders Know

How did big banks come to have such influence that they can decide who can compete with them?

Ironically, this development grew in part out of worries during the height of the financial crisis in 2008. A major concern during the meltdown was that no one — not even government regulators — fully understood the size and interconnections of the derivatives market, especially the market in credit default swaps, which insure against defaults of companies or mortgages bonds. The panic led to the need to bail out the American International Group, for instance, which had C.D.S. contracts with many large banks.

In the midst of the turmoil, regulators ordered banks to speed up plans — long in the making — to set up a clearinghouse to handle derivatives trading. The intent was to reduce risk and increase stability in the market.

Two established exchanges that trade commodities and futures, the InterContinentalExchange, or ICE, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, set up clearinghouses, and, so did Nasdaq.

Each of these new clearinghouses had to persuade big banks to join their efforts, and they doled out membership on their risk committees, which is where trading rules are written, as an incentive.

None of the three clearinghouses would divulge the members of their risk committees when asked by a reporter. But two people with direct knowledge of ICE’s committee said the bank members are: Thomas J. Benison of JPMorgan Chase & Company; James J. Hill of Morgan Stanley; Athanassios Diplas of Deutsche Bank; Paul Hamill of UBS; Paul Mitrokostas of Barclays; Andy Hubbard of Credit Suisse; Oliver Frankel of Goldman Sachs; Ali Balali of Bank of America; and Biswarup Chatterjee of Citigroup.

Through representatives, these bankers declined to discuss the committee or the derivatives market. Some of the spokesmen noted that the bankers have expertise that helps the clearinghouse.

Many of these same people hold influential positions at other clearinghouses, or on committees at the powerful International Swaps and Derivatives Association, which helps govern the market.

Critics have called these banks the “derivatives dealers club,” and they warn that the club is unlikely to give up ground easily.

“The revenue these dealers make on derivatives is very large and so the incentive they have to protect those revenues is extremely large,” said Darrell Duffie, a professor at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, who studied the derivatives market earlier this year with Federal Reserve researchers. “It will be hard for the dealers to keep their market share if everybody who can prove their creditworthiness is allowed into the clearinghouses. So they are making arguments that others shouldn’t be allowed in.”

Perhaps no business in finance is as profitable today as derivatives. Not making loans. Not offering credit cards. Not advising on mergers and acquisitions. Not managing money for the wealthy.

The precise amount that banks make trading derivatives isn’t known, but there is anecdotal evidence of their profitability. Former bank traders who spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements with their former employers said their banks typically earned $25,000 for providing $25 million of insurance against the risk that a corporation might default on its debt via the swaps market. These traders turn over millions of dollars in these trades every day, and credit default swaps are just one of many kinds of derivatives.

The secrecy surrounding derivatives trading is a key factor enabling banks to make such large profits.

If an investor trades shares of Google or Coca-Cola or any other company on a stock exchange, the price — and the commission, or fee — are known. Electronic trading has made this information available to anyone with a computer, while also increasing competition — and sharply lowering the cost of trading. Even corporate bonds have become more transparent recently. Trading costs dropped there almost immediately after prices became more visible in 2002.

Not so with derivatives. For many, there is no central exchange, like the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq, where the prices of derivatives are listed. Instead, when a company or an investor wants to buy a derivative contract for, say, oil or wheat or securitized mortgages, an order is placed with a trader at a bank. The trader matches that order with someone selling the same type of derivative.

Banks explain that many derivatives trades have to work this way because they are often customized, unlike shares of stock. One share of Google is the same as any other. But the terms of an oil derivatives contract can vary greatly.

And the profits on most derivatives are masked. In most cases, buyers are told only what they have to pay for the derivative contract, say $25 million. That amount is more than the seller gets, but how much more — $5,000, $25,000 or $50,000 more — is unknown. That’s because the seller also is told only the amount he will receive. The difference between the two is the bank’s fee and profit. So, the bigger the difference, the better for the bank — and the worse for the customers.

It would be like a real estate agent selling a house, but the buyer knowing only what he paid and the seller knowing only what he received. The agent would pocket the difference as his fee, rather than disclose it. Moreover, only the real estate agent — and neither buyer nor seller — would have easy access to the prices paid recently for other homes on the same block.

An Electronic Exchange?

Two years ago, Kenneth C. Griffin, owner of the giant hedge fund Citadel Group, which is based in Chicago, proposed open pricing for commonly traded derivatives, by quoting their prices electronically. Citadel oversees $11 billion in assets, so saving even a few percentage points in costs on each trade could add up to tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

But Mr. Griffin’s proposal for an electronic exchange quickly ran into opposition, and what happened is a window into how banks have fiercely fought competition and open pricing. To get a transparent exchange going, Citadel offered the use of its technological prowess for a joint venture with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which is best-known as a trading outpost for contracts on commodities like coffee and cotton. The goal was to set up a clearinghouse as well as an electronic trading system that would display prices for credit default swaps.

Big banks that handle most derivatives trades, including Citadel’s, didn’t like Citadel’s idea. Electronic trading might connect customers directly with each other, cutting out the banks as middlemen.

So the banks responded in the fall of 2008 by pairing with ICE, one of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s rivals, which was setting up its own clearinghouse. The banks attached a number of conditions on that partnership, which came in the form of a merger between ICE’s clearinghouse and a nascent clearinghouse that the banks were establishing. These conditions gave the banks significant power at ICE’s clearinghouse, according to two people with knowledge of the deal. For instance, the banks insisted that ICE install the chief executive of their effort as the head of the joint effort. That executive, Dirk Pruis, left after about a year and now works at Goldman Sachs. Through a spokesman, he declined to comment.

The banks also refused to allow the deal with ICE to close until the clearinghouse’s rulebook was established, with provisions in the banks’ favor. Key among those were the membership rules, which required members to hold large amounts of capital in derivatives units, a condition that was prohibitive even for some large banks like the Bank of New York.

The banks also required ICE to provide market data exclusively to Markit, a little-known company that plays a pivotal role in derivatives. Backed by Goldman, JPMorgan and several other banks, Markit provides crucial information about derivatives, like prices.

Kevin Gould, who is the president of Markit and was involved in the clearinghouse merger, said the banks were simply being prudent and wanted rules that protected the market and themselves.

“The one thing I know the banks are concerned about is their risk capital,” he said. “You really are going to get some comfort that the way the entity operates isn’t going to put you at undue risk.”

Even though the banks were working with ICE, Citadel and the C.M.E. continued to move forward with their exchange. They, too, needed to work with Markit, because it owns the rights to certain derivatives indexes. But Markit put them in a tough spot by basically insisting that every trade involve at least one bank, since the banks are the main parties that have licenses with Markit.

This demand from Markit effectively secured a permanent role for the big derivatives banks since Citadel and the C.M.E. could not move forward without Markit’s agreement. And so, essentially boxed in, they agreed to the terms, according to the two people with knowledge of the matter. (A spokesman for C.M.E. said last week that the exchange did not cave to Markit’s terms.)

Still, even after that deal was complete, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange soon had second thoughts about working with Citadel and about introducing electronic screens at all. The C.M.E. backed out of the deal in mid-2009, ending Mr. Griffin’s dream of a new, electronic trading system.

With Citadel out of the picture, the banks agreed to join the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s clearinghouse effort. The exchange set up a risk committee that, like ICE’s committee, was mainly populated by bankers.

It remains unclear why the C.M.E. ended its electronic trading initiative. Two people with knowledge of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s clearinghouse said the banks refused to get involved unless the exchange dropped Citadel and the entire plan for electronic trading.

Kim Taylor, the president of Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s clearing division, said “the market” simply wasn’t interested in Mr. Griffin’s idea.

Critics now say the banks have an edge because they have had early control of the new clearinghouses’ risk committees. Ms. Taylor at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange said the people on those committees are supposed to look out for the interest of the broad market, rather than their own narrow interests. She likened the banks’ role to that of Washington lawmakers who look out for the interests of the nation, not just their constituencies.

“It’s not like the sort of representation where if I’m elected to be the representative from the state of Illinois, I go there to represent the state of Illinois,” Ms. Taylor said in an interview.

Officials at ICE, meantime, said they solicit views from customers through a committee that is separate from the bank-dominated risk committee.

“We spent and we still continue to spend a lot of time on thinking about governance,” said Peter Barsoom, the chief operating officer of ICE Trust. “We want to be sure that we have all the right stakeholders appropriately represented.”

Mr. Griffin said last week that customers have so far paid the price for not yet having electronic trading. He puts the toll, by a rough estimate, in the tens of billions of dollars, saying that electronic trading would remove much of this “economic rent the dealers enjoy from a market that is so opaque.”

“It’s a stunning amount of money,” Mr. Griffin said. “The key players today in the derivatives market are very apprehensive about whether or not they will be winners or losers as we move towards more transparent, fairer markets, and since they’re not sure if they’ll be winners or losers, their basic instinct is to resist change.”

In, Out and Around Henhouse

The result of the maneuvering of the past couple years is that big banks dominate the risk committees of not one, but two of the most prominent new clearinghouses in the United States.

That puts them in a pivotal position to determine how derivatives are traded.

Under the Dodd-Frank bill, the clearinghouses were given broad authority. The risk committees there will help decide what prices will be charged for clearing trades, on top of fees banks collect for matching buyers and sellers, and how much money customers must put up as collateral to cover potential losses.

Perhaps more important, the risk committees will recommend which derivatives should be handled through clearinghouses, and which should be exempt.

Regulators will have the final say. But banks, which lobbied heavily to limit derivatives regulation in the Dodd-Frank bill, are likely to argue that few types of derivatives should have to go through clearinghouses. Critics contend that the bankers will try to keep many types of derivatives away from the clearinghouses, since clearinghouses represent a step towards broad electronic trading that could decimate profits.

The banks already have a head start. Even a newly proposed rule to limit the banks’ influence over clearing allows them to retain majorities on risk committees. It remains unclear whether regulators creating the new rules — on topics like transparency and possible electronic trading — will drastically change derivatives trading, or leave the bankers with great control.

One former regulator warned against deferring to the banks. Theo Lubke, who until this fall oversaw the derivatives reforms at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said banks do not always think of the market as a whole as they help write rules.

“Fundamentally, the banks are not good at self-regulation,” Mr. Lubke said in a panel last March at Columbia University. “That’s not their expertise, that’s not their primary interest.”

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