SIMON JOHNSON: OCC SELLS OUT TO BANKS: CONSUMERS DON’T COUNT

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CONSUMERS DON’T COUNT

EDITOR’S COMMENT: Fascism is a system in which the government is essentially run by business. The premise of fascism is that successful commerce (as measured by the government that is controlled by business) leads to a successful society. Italy tried it and we know what happened there. Like anywhere else,  including the United States, without the government being the referee in the marketplace, it is only BIG BUSINESS that succeeds — leaving small business, entrepreneurs, innovation, and consumers to eat dirt.

When regulators know their next job, and their future prospects will come from the banks they are regulating they essentially submit themselves to the control of their future employers. That is what has happened in banking. That is what has happened with our government. And that is why the elephant in the living room is being ignored.

The current PLAYBOOK of the banks, duly followed by most regulators and virtually all members of congress and virtually all legislatures around the country (except Hawaii?), is looking for a way out of the mortgage mess by having regulators intervene in what is essentially state law and what has clearly been gross negligence at best, and malfeasance or criminal activity on the part of the banks at worst. The victims are clearly identified — investors who bought the falsely valued mortgage bonds that were nothing like what was described and homeowners who bought the falsely valued loan products based upon falsely valued real estate in deals that were nothing like what was described.

In short, the Banks wish to use their unbridled control over government and in particular the regulators, to redefine banking, risk law and morality so that they can escape the criminal prosecution that followed the savings and loan scandal of the 1908’s where over 800 bankers went to jail. (yes that’s right, as a class, they have a prior criminal record, so this time their punishment should be worse).

While the main action is in court where the banks are losing ground every day just by looking at the truth, the facts, the evidence and the results of their mean-spirited creation of the illusion of securitization, citizens (consumers, past and present) must be ever vigilant and raise hell when they are doing something that is plainly bad for the country and bad for our children and grandchildren. Let your representatives and the regulators know in writing that you don’t approve of the job they are doing regulating the banks or in the handling of the foreclosure crisis which now looks like it will persist for decades.

The goal is NOT to preserve the health of the banks at all costs. The goal, as clearly set forth in our constitution and in case law going back centuries, is to protect and serve the members of the society that have agreed to a form of governing themselves. If that goal changes, then government is spurious. Government becomes our jailers instead of our protectors and if they won’t protect us against financial terrorism and we let them, what is to prevent them from deciding that it is “best for the country” (meaning themselves) to cease protecting us from anything else, including military threat.

May 19, 2011, 5:00 am

When Regulators Side With the Industries They Regulate

By SIMON JOHNSON
Today's Economist

Simon Johnson, the former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, is the co-author of “13 Bankers.”

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is one the most important bank regulators in the United States — an independent agency within the Treasury Department that is responsible for “national banks” (for more on who regulates what in the United States, see this primer).

Over the last decade, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency repeatedly demonstrated that it was very much on the side of banks, for example with regard to fending off attempts to impose more consumer protection. (James Kwak and I covered this in “13 Bankers,” and those details have not been disputed by the agency or anyone taking its side.)

After suffering some serious and well-deserved loss of prestige during the financial crisis of 2007-9, the comptroller’s office survived the Dodd-Frank reform legislation and is now back to pushing the same agenda as before. In its view and that of its senior staff — including key people who remain from before the crisis — the “safety and soundness” of banks requires, above all, not a lot of protection for consumers.

This is a mistaken, anachronistic and dangerous belief.

Probably the most egregious mistake made by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency during the subprime boom was to push back against state officials who wanted to curtail malpractice in housing loans, including predatory lending.

The comptroller’s office ultimately lost that case before the Supreme Court, but its delaying action meant that an important potential brake on abuse and excess was not available — which contributed to the worst business practices that took hold in 2006 and 2007 (see this nice summary or Eliot Spitzer’s account).

Naturally, post-debacle the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency talks an ostensibly better game but, as Joe Nocera put it, “it sure looks as though the country’s top bank regulator is back to its old tricks.” In discussions regarding a potential settlement on mortgage foreclosures — and how they have been handled — the comptroller’s office has supported an outcome that is more favorable to the banks (see the Nocera column for more details).

Now it is again insisting that federal regulation pre-empts the ability of states to regulate in a way that would protect consumers.

In a letter on May 12 to Senator Thomas Carper, Democrat of Delaware, the agency asserted that its pre-emption regulations are consistent with the Dodd-Frank Act (see this interpretation by Sidley Austin, a law firm, which I draw on). There is a lot of legalese in the letter but the basic issue is simple — are states allowed to protect their consumers vis-à-vis national banks, or do they have to rely on the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, despite its weak track record?

The comptroller’s office is clear — the states are pre-empted, meaning that national comptroller regulations will always overrule them on the issues that matter. (As a technical matter, the issue comes down to what is known as visitation: whether state-level authorities can gain access to bank documents if the bank or the comptroller’s office has not already determined that there is a problem.)

The American Bankers Association was, not surprisingly, delighted: “The O.C.C.’s action helps clarify the rules of the road for national banks and how they serve their customers.”

Richard K. Davis
, chief executive of U.S. Bancorp and then chairman of the Financial Services Roundtable, a powerful lobbying group, emphasized the importance of the pre-emption issue to national banks in March 2010, during the Dodd-Frank financial reform debate in the Senate: “If we had one thing to fight for, it would be to protect pre-emption.”

It is hard to know which would seem more incredible to a second grader: that we left in place the same agency that was responsible for a significant part of past misbehavior, or that this agency seems determined to continue with the same philosophy and policies.

The problem is not that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency sees its primary duty as the “safety and soundness” of the financial system. Rather, the danger to the public arises because it has consistently taken the view that the best way to protect banks — and keep them out of financial trouble — is to allow them to be harsh with consumers.

This is worse than short-sighted — it completely ignores all externalities, such as how business practices and ethics evolve, and it pays no attention to even the most basic macroeconomic dynamics, such as the fact that we have a credit cycle during which we should expect lenders to “race to the bottom” in terms of standards.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency should have been abolished by Dodd-Frank. Unfortunately, it is too late for Congress to revisit this issue. President Obama should at the very least nominate a new head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency — the job has been open since August of last year — and a serious reformer could make a great deal of difference.

Under its current leadership and with its current approach, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is putting our financial system into harm’s way. The lessons of 2007-9 have been completely lost on it. As Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”

“Keep your fingers crossed but I think we will price this just before the market falls off a cliff,” a Deutsche Bank manager wrote in February 2007

Internal emails indicate Deutsche Bank knew they were bankrolling toxic mortgages by Ameriquest and others

Internal emails indicate Deutsche Bank knew they were bankrolling toxic mortgages by Ameriquest and others

iWatch

In 2007, the report says, Deutsche Bank rushed to sell off mortgage-backed investments amid worries that the market for subprime loans was deteriorating.

“Keep your fingers crossed but I think we will price this just before the market falls off a cliff,” a Deutsche Bank manager wrote in February 2007 about a deal stocked with securities created from raw material produced by Ameriquest and other subprime lenders.

Deutsche Bank Analyst: Overpay For Our Assets, Or You’ll Regret It

By Zachary Roth – February 12, 2009, 3:49PM

For a while now, it’s seemed like Wall Street’s message to government has been: We screwed up. But if you don’t rescue us on our terms, you’re all gonna be in trouble.

But you don’t usually see that expressed quite as clearly as it was in a research memo sent out yesterday by a senior Deutsche Bank analyst, and obtained by TPMmuckraker.

In the memo — one of Deutsche’s daily “Economic Notes” sent out to the firm’s clients, and to some members of the press — Joseph LaVorgna, the bank’s chief US economist, essentially, appears to warn that if the government doesn’t pay high prices for the toxic assets on the books of Deutsche and other big firms, there will be massive consequences for the US economy.

Writes LaVorgna:

One main stumbling block to the purchasing of troubled assets has been pricing, specifically how does the government price a diverse set of assets in a way that does not put the taxpayer on the hook. However, this should not be the standard by which we judge the efficacy of the plan, because a more prolonged deterioration in the
economy will result in a higher terminal unemployment rate and a greater deterioration of the tax base. As such, the decline in tax revenues will crimp many of the essential services provided by the government. Ultimately, the taxpayer will pay one way or another, either through greatly diminished job prospects and/or significantly higher taxes down the line to pay for the massive debt issuance required to fund current and prospective fiscal spending initiatives.

We think the government should do the following: estimate the highest price it can pay for the various toxic assets residing on financial institution balance sheets which would still return the principal to taxpayers.

One leading economist described the memo to TPMmuckraker as a “ransom note” to the US government. And David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors, who writes such research memos for his own clients, acknowledged that the memo, like all such communications, could be interpreted as an attempt to influence policy-makers.

Still, seeing the memo as a threat to the government to drive the softest of bargains wouldn’t be entirely fair. Kotok that cautioned that the effects of a single analyst’s memo are limited: “Joe LaVorgna doesn’t have enough clout to hold the US government hostage.”

LaVorgna himself was blunt: “I don’t write editorials,” he told TPMmuckraker.

At the very least, the memo can be seen as a frank statement of position from the chief economist of a major bank: if the government doesn’t cave and buy up all the banks’ toxic assets at inflated prices, the country will suffer.

Nice fix we’ve got ourselves into.


Ohio Attorney General Fights Against Wall Street, Joining More Attorneys General

October 11, 2010

Ohio Attorney General Fights Against Wall Street

By MICHAEL POWELL

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Back East, at the corner of Broad and Wall Streets, the view is swell. The Dow is soaring, and bankers look pleased.

But here on East Broad Street, the mood is gloomier. At least 90,000 residential and commercial foreclosure notices will be filed in Ohio this year. Pension funds for teachers, secretaries and janitors have suffered grave losses. And multitudes of the unemployed in Ohio now speak of turning to prayer.

Ohio’s attorney general, Richard Cordray, might be seen as their pinstriped avenger.

“There’s a belief here that Wall Street is a fixed casino and it’s back in business, and we’re left holding the bag,” said Mr. Cordray, whose office overlooks East Broad. “It’s important for us to show we’ll go after a company that does wrong.”

Mr. Cordray in two years in office has demonstrated a willingness to sue early and often, filing lawsuits against global financial houses, rating agencies, subprime lenders and foreclosure scammers. He has wrested about $2 billion so far, a string of gilded pelts: a $475 million Merrill Lynch settlement, $400 million from Marsh & McLennan and $725 million from the American International Group.

Last week, he filed suit against GMAC Mortgage, accusing the loan servicer of filing fraudulent affidavits in hundreds of Ohio foreclosures.

His office has returned money to investors, pension funds, schools and cities. And he has directed millions to agencies fighting foreclosure.

“We see what Washington doesn’t: the houses lying vacant, the eyesore stripped for copper piping with mattresses out back,” Mr. Cordray says. “We bailed out irresponsible banks, but we forgot about everyone else.”

It speaks to this political age that such words are more rarely heard from federal regulators, who walk quietly and carry big bailout checks. Instead state attorneys general, in this case, a sandy-haired 51-year-old Democrat who sits about 400 miles from Washington, are giving full throat to popular outrage.

If Eliot Spitzer, the former New York attorney general, was the prototype of this breed, a handful of current ones, like Mr. Cordray, Martha Coakley of Massachusetts, Lisa Madigan of Illinois, Tom Miller of Iowa and Roy Cooper of North Carolina, lay claim to his mantle. Like recessionary scouts, they spot trouble, like a rapacious foreclosure-rescue operator, a predatory credit card company or a financial firm draining a pension fund.

Ms. Coakley secured millions of dollars in mortgage modifications from Countrywide Financial and reached a $102 million settlement with Morgan Stanley over its role in financing the subprime loans that fed the housing crash in Massachusetts.

“We were the first to go after predatory loans — we’re not waiting for federal agencies to act,” Ms. Coakley said.

Some express skepticism, suggesting that such lawsuits are emotionally pleasing but economically destructive. Former Senator Michael DeWine, a Republican who is running against Mr. Cordray, a Democrat, in the November election, has implied that Mr. Cordray wields an antibusiness cudgel. Better to rely on federal regulators, others argue, to constrain global corporations.

That strikes James E. Tierney, director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia, as a bit beside the point.

“Is state action as effective as a federal regulator going after these companies? Absolutely not,” says Mr. Tierney, a former state attorney general for Maine. “But when regulators are too worried about giving offense, there’s no reason an enterprising attorney general can’t go in there,”

Born in Grove City, Ohio, Mr. Cordray was educated at Michigan State, Oxford and the University of Chicago Law School. A Supreme Court clerk, he also argued cases before the court. In 1987, he enjoyed a run as a five-time winner on the television show “Jeopardy!”

Somewhere along the way, he hankered for more. His father ran a program for mentally disabled people; his mother, a social worker, founded an organization of foster grandparents; and he wanted to enter the public sphere. Mr. Cordray began running for office.

His yearning often went unrequited; voters, he noted with a hike of the eyebrows, elected him state representative but rejected his run for Congress and an early attempt at state attorney general.

He shrugs.

“I really got my head pounded in over the years in politics,” Mr. Cordray says. “My wife thought I was nuts.”

Eventually, he downsized his ambitions, and ran successfully for Franklin County treasurer and later for state treasurer. And in 2008, he won a special election for attorney general.

Mr. Cordray is no William Jennings Bryan inveighing against the evils of monopoly capital. He can be eloquent about corporate misbehavior, in an eyes-downcast and soft-spoken fashion. (His language reads hotter on the page than it sounds in person.)

He is, however, tapping a populist tradition in Ohio. This is where politicians mounted challenges to the Standard Oil monopoly of John Rockefeller and where Senator John Sherman led a late 19th-century campaign to pass the Sherman Antitrust Act, which was the first law to require the federal government to investigate companies suspected of running cartels and monopolies.

Mr. Cordray carefully describes his allegiance to capitalism, although he says the financial crisis should explode forever the efficient-markets theory, popular with economists, that the best market is a self-correcting one. (Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” shares space on his office bookshelf with books by the urbane Keynesian John Kenneth Galbraith.)

“The notion that banks will just get things right over time is perhaps true,” Mr. Cordray says. “But over what time period, and at what terrible cost to the individual American?”

Certainly, he has not minced words in pursuing a steady stream of cases against corporations.

He accused Marsh & McLennan of conspiring to eliminate competition in the insurance business by generating fictitious quotes. He denounced three credit rating firms, Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investor Services and Standard & Poor’s, for giving inflated ratings to packages of troubled mortgages put together by the big investment houses. He says that Ohio pension funds lost close to half a billion dollars by investing in those triple-A rated securities.

And last October, he accused Bank of America officials of concealing critical facts in the acquisition of Merrill Lynch, even as that firm careened toward insolvency. Top bankers, he said, had not come remotely clean about the extent of the losses at Merrill and its bonuses.

The lawsuit against Bank of America was the first of its kind, although Mr. Cordray’s actions drew rather less press than a lawsuit filed months later by Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo of New York. Mr. Cuomo, whose skill with the tactical leak, news release and the lawsuit is considerable, tends not to work closely with his fellow state attorneys general, say two officials from states other than Ohio.

Attorneys general are perhaps more successful at extracting large sums of money than in changing corporate behavior. A Goldman Sachs or Marsh & McLennan, to this view, tends to see such settlements as a cost of doing business.

“The settlements are large, but the changes in behavior don’t seem to be that large,” said Daniel C. Richman, a former federal prosecutor and professor at Columbia Law School. “These targets have massive amounts of money to pay off and continue on their merry way.”

Raise this criticism to Mr. Cordray and he nods in agreement.

“In an ideal world, if the S.E.C. had done its job, that would be much better,” he said. “Our settlements make up for the losses fractionally.”

As it happens, Mr. Cordray now faces a more existential threat. Legal challenges to corporate misbehavior are not proven electoral gold. This year, Ms. Coakley, a Democrat, fell to Republican Scott Brown in a race to fill the Senate seat of Edward M. Kennedy.

And polls show Mr. Cordray running behind in his race with Mr. DeWine. He’s no natural glad-hander — he apologizes when he realizes he has automatically extended his hand at a luncheon. More paradoxical, he finds himself at risk of being identified with “them,” which is to say the establishment that Ohio residents view as having failed them.

Again, he shrugs. He is not inclined to blame voters for his troubles.

“Politicians are kind of like adolescents, always looking in the mirror and assuming that’s what people see,” he says. “But there’s a great anxiety out there, a great unease about our future. Most people are hurting, and they don’t have the time to pay attention to us.”

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