May 15

No Separation – No Peace

Jamie DimonEven if your only source of news is FOX and Friends, you must certainly have heard by now that the nation’s largest bank, JP Morgan Chase, suffered a loss of at least $2 billion–and likely much more–in a botched credit derivatives trade. The trade, which spurred an all but dog-and-pony show investigation by the FBI and renewed lip-service on Capitol Hill for strengthening Dodd-Frank‘s Volcker Rule and swaps regulations, involved a corporate bond hedging strategy gone horribly wrong. A London based trader for JP Morgan assembled a huge portfolio of derivative credit default swaps and sold them off to investors based upon the trader’s wrong-headed belief that corporate bonds owned by JP Morgan would perform well. The market believed otherwise, and the once “well-intentioned” hedging strategy blew up in the face of JP Morgan chief Jamie Dimon and the rest of the masterly minds who also carry keys to the executive washroom. Losses began to mount, and rather than accept the losses commensurate with the oft-cited free market’s value of the underlying assets and derivatives, Dimon chose instead to attempt to call off the dogs by whining to the federal government yet again. Dimon, long the golden-boy of Wall Street for his perceived risk management acumen, suffered a scathing blow to his egregious ego.

Barack Obama is fond of referring to Dimon as one of Wall Street’s best and brightest.

JP Morgan is one of the best-managed banks there is. Jamie Dimon, the head of it, is one of the smartest bankers we got and they still lost $2 billion and counting,” the president said. “We don’t know all the details. It’s going to be investigated, but this is why we passed Wall Street reform.

I don’t know which claim in this sentence is the most absurd. First, if Jamie Dimon is one of the smartest bankers we’ve got, who is the worst? Good grief. If you have a potential loss looming into the many billions of dollars on a unnecessary and risky bet that was permitted to spiral out of control on your watch, you’re not a genius. If you beg Congress to limit the rules that could potentially prevent the loss from taking place in the first place, you’re an idiot whose hubris has digested whatever tiny amount of good sense you had remaining. You are by no stretch of the imagination to be held out as some captain of finance worthy of the respect of the common man and bankers alike. If you insult those who are attempting to promulgate rules to prevent you–yes you–from destroying the economy and sending millions back to the unemployment lines and soup kitchens, you are a sociopath incapable of understanding the profound effect your actions have on other human beings. You’re just another banker Mr. Dimon, and there are hundreds of thousands of people within fifty miles of Wall Street capable of stepping into your shoes and replicating your results in an instant. I only wish Barack Obama understood that simple fact. Let me backpedal a bit. In fairness, I am sure that he does understand, he just isn’t willing to act upon this knowledge. Continue reading

Apr 17

AIG Illustrates Further Treasury Department Incompetence

Timothy GeithnerEvidence of further incompetence from Timothy Geithner and friends over at the Treasury Department surfaced recently in a report that uncovered a disturbing tax deal flowing from the 2008 $182 billion bailout of AIG and other companies. A tax loophole that under normal circumstances serves the important function of providing a corporation with a mechanism to reduce its tax burden following periods of significant loss was not closed to AIG following negotiations with the Treasury Department in 2008. In fact, the loophole was expanded through a special exemption. The tax mechanism referred to as a tax loss carryforward is part of the tax code at section 382 and it allows a corporation to essentially offset future profits with past net operating losses for a period of seven years in order to reduce its tax liability. Normally corporations that acquire other entities, or are acquired as in AIG’s case, are forbidden from claiming the tax loss carryfroward in order to disincentivise purchases or sales executed for the sole purpose of claiming another companies’ losses.

However, during the turbulent period following the bursting of the housing bubble, sub-prime mortgage debacle, and derivatives crash, Timmy Geithner hatched a plan to allow companies being asked, or asking, to take over troubled or failing companies an exception to an IRS rule amended in 1986 to specifically address the issue in controversy here. In AIG’s case, the exemption served to nullify the ownership change that took place when the United States government purchased a significant stake in the company. As such, AIG, which showed a near $20 billion profit in 2011, but will offset nearly 90% of its tax liability by writing down $17.7 billion.

“It’s an arcane and hard-to-follow way of disguising billion of dollars paid to firms that, for whatever reason, are politically favored,” says J. Mark Ramseyer, a Harvard law professor who wrote a paper on a similar tax treatment given to General Motors when it was taken over. “It’s one thing to announce through TARP that you’re going to give a firm a billion dollars. But if you issue a letter saying that the company can use a net operating loss that they would otherwise lose, that’s harder for people to follow,” he says, referring to the Troubled Asset Relief Program enacted in 2008 by the U.S. government to buy assets and equity from financial institutions to strengthen them. Besides AIG and GM, Citigroup, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac got tax breaks as part of their bailouts.

The Treasury Department argues that following nearly $200 billion in bailout cash, that AIG couldn’t make ends meet or attract capital, notwithstanding the obvious message that Treasury was sending to investors through the bailout: That AIG would not be permitted to fail. It is the height of arrogance to ask the American people to believe that attracting private capital would be difficult for a company guaranteed to remain viable by the United States Treasury Department. Yet Treasury continues its sell its pyramid scheme based primarily on the false idea that the entire world would have been eaten by dinosaurs if it did not funnel trillions of dollars to corporations.

“Allowing those companies to keep their NOLs made them stronger businesses, helped attract private capital and further stabilized the overall financial system,” Emily McMahon, the acting assistant secretary for tax policy, wrote in a Treasury blog post March 1. “It would have been counterproductive — and perhaps irresponsible to undermine the stability of those same institutions, at the height of the financial crisis, by imposing a tax code provision that was never intended to apply in this context,” she wrote.

Elizabeth Warren, architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFTC)–an agency many have high hopes will offer significant financial protections to the public–has called the AIG loophole a stealth bailout. It represents much more than that however. It represents more evidence that the Obama administration and the Treasury Department had and has in place a policy of providing any and every resource to corporations that caused the collapse of the world economy, while doing next to nothing to provide assistance to the public. Whether the efforts were conspiratorial in nature is irrelevant, as the ultimate effect is the same: The public retained its debts and losses, while the corporations were provided cash and loans to service their debts and a mechanism to further limit future liability through tax provisions not extended to the American people.

Perhaps lost in all of this is that as a result of this disturbing decisions at Treasury, that executives at AIG and other companies bailed out by the American taxpayer will receive larger bonuses, as their bonuses are tied to overall profitability. Less tax liability equals greater profits. While the Obama administration is fond of pointing out that many of the companies that were bailed our during the crisis have “paid the government back and have returned to profitability,” the bailout of AIG will ultimately cost the American people at least $22 billion. The President failed to remove Timothy Geithner after reports surfaced that he unabashedly failed to follow his directive to break up Citi. We have now learned that he cut private tax deals with AIG and other companies to guarantee limited tax liability for nearly a decade. President Obama’s retention of perhaps the most incompetent Treasury Secretary serving during my lifetime leads me to only one conclusion: That the President either tacitly or directly approved of his decisions.

Apr 09

Wall Street Hates Elizabeth Warren

Warren, ElizabethNormally Wall Street–much as it does even if in direct conflict with clients’ interests–hedges its bets when it comes to campaign contributions, donating equal amounts to both Democrats and Republicans. Not coincidentally it generally reaps similar benefits from each. How else can you explain Bill Clinton’s near dismantling of the derivatives market and imploding of Glass-Steagall? Occasionally however Wall Street comes across a candidate it revels in despising to its very core, and it has apparently found that candidate in Elizabeth Warren.

Warren more than doubled the fundraising totals in the first three months of 2012 of her Republican opponent Scott Brown. This fact alone is not all that interesting, as Brown is perceived as being vulnerable in the 2012 election. It is not surprising that campaign cash is finding its way to Warren given that the Democrats have an interest in winning back the seat once occupied by Ted Kennedy, most notably because recent polling has been favorable to the Harvard professor.

What is interesting is the staggering advantage that Scott Brown continues to maintain over Warren in campaign contributions from Wall Street. Brown has a thirteen to one advantage in raising cash from the financial, securities and investment sector. Warren is a well known proponent of investor rights. She served President Obama as an economic adviser helping to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and would have been tapped to head up that agency if President Obama had not caved to pressure from conservatives and Wall Street who claimed that Warren would be incapable of regulating fairly.

We certainly should not read into this that challenging and outing Wall Street represents a new and lucrative blueprint for electoral success. This course of action remains an almost certain path to election day suicide for the rank and file candidate. However, the strange times in which we live wherein Occupy Wall Street is able to occupy time on even the most conservative media outlets may just lift Warren to victory, and with any luck will provide the American public with a real voice on their behalf in fighting for investor rights.

I find it interesting that Wall Street, through its near complete ostracizing of Warren, indicates it has no faith in its own ability to corrupt her once she is elected. Many Mr. Smith’s have waltzed into two-party Washington with grand ideas of righting wrongs and vindicating the rights of small investors and the public generally, only to leave having governed much more like Bill Clinton. Quite frankly Wall Street has disappointed me this time, much like each of the pitchers who intentionally walked Barry Bonds during his record-shattering year. But Wall Street doesn’t like a challenge, which is why they hedge their political bets and dump billions into investments that are in direct conflict with their clients to begin with.