Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Don't need to be a weatherman to know which way this wind blows...the approaching storm

(Was in New York for the weekend. It was a melancholy visit; uplifting, affirming and yet downcast. Our current predicament is plain to many but these many, although often engaged in 'doing the good work', are for various reasons often a bit handcuffed in broadcasting from the highest cathedral that 'yes it is a great depression' and naming the responsible names without crypticism, fear of censor, or caveat.

My cloudiness was dispelled however by a ray of sunshine put forth by Chris Whalen at IRA in honor of the venerable Mark Pittman, as incendiary as anything I've seen him publish.

But first the transcript of Mark Pittman's interview with the Columbia Journalism Review {The Audit : TA} on Feburary 27, 2009 -AM

TA: How’d you get onto the crisis story?

MP: I had a conversation with a couple of people in late 2006/early 2007, and people were talking about what’s wrong with asset-backed securities and where all this is headed. I’d also covered derivatives contracts. When they first started doing credit-default swaps on companies, I covered that. That was like ‘99-2000. You could tell it was going to be a really hot thing.

When they started talking about doing derivatives on mortgage-backed securities , I was like “oh, man, that means the banks are scared!” That was 2006, and we wrote a whole series about this.

You always want to be around the hot story. If you’re not around the hot story, you’re screwed.

TA: So did you go into that pretty much full-time? How’d you convince your editors to let you do that?

MP: You know it really wasn’t hard. They’ve really let me take a lot of chances here, and they’re extremely generous with my time. They recognize it as an important part of the reporting process. They give me a lot of rope. They let me figure stuff out. That’s something that’s in real short supply with a lot of news organizations now. You’ve got to let reporters run and figure out what’s going on.

TA: Not many others have the resources to do much of that nowadays.

MP: Instead of doing the sixth sidebar on a bailout program that probably won’t work anyway, let the person figure out what’s actually happening. And you’ve got to let your people do that. We did a five-part series [the one that won the Loeb] on the whole idea of why the subprime crisis occurred, and it starts with this story about how a bunch of traders at Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan got together and said “We need a standard contract to be able to short the mortgage market.” As soon as I realized they were going to try and short the mortgage market I said, “Ohhh. That means they think the market is going down.”

TA: And these are the guys who’ve come out pretty okay in this.

MP: You’ll notice UBS and Merrill aren’t in the group. The thing about this entire series of events is this is so complicated and so intertwined that we don’t have —journalists are not qualified to cover the story. We don’t have the background. These guys are doing stuff that you had no idea was happening. The off-balance-sheet accounting stuff is crazy.

TA: Well, if the ex-chairman of the Fed Alan Greenspan, formerly regarded as a near god, didn’t understand what this stuff was, who did? He had access to all the people and all the information he could want.

MP: He had no idea what was going on. How is it possible for them to sell themselves, to an off-balance-sheet entity, risk that is now exploding all over everybody? Why would that be allowed and why would you be able to book a profit on this? Who was in charge of this?

We haven’t got to the bottom of this whole thing yet. Somebody’s going to do this big forensic—and it might be me!—somebody’s going to do the deep dive into how everything happened and they’re going to find out that this system was just on autopilot and was spinning money out to a whole bunch of people. And it included you and me.

TA: In the form of cheap credit?

MP: Yes. The spreads should never have gotten to that level.

This goes back to why AIG is all screwed up. The banks sold AIG all their risk in 2007, when it was really blowing up. AIG had sworn that they weren’t going to do any more of this and then (the banks) restuffed the CDO’s with new stuff. So (AIG) had newer collateral that they weren’t really aware of.

TA: So the banks were stuffing the CDO’s with new stuff but AIG didn’t know they were replacing the stuff?

MP: Right.

TA: An MBS, you can’t move things in or out, but a CDO you can. Are the banks liable for this? AIG got blown up, but these guys knew what they were doing.

MP: You know what, the lawsuits will have to sort that out. And it’s going to be going on for years. It’s going to be just a debacle. Congress is going to have go through and force people to say “Okay, so what did you do with this, and where did it go from here?” They need to have very talented investigators go in and find out what the deal is.

TA: Tell me how your cops background plays into what you’re doing now.

MP: You end up with a big BS detector as a cops reporter because the cops lie to you, the victims lie to you, the people helping the victims lie to you. And you’ve got to sort through and there will be a story that seems a certain way and it just won’t be—and you know it. That’s what this is about.

The reporters who didn’t question the tight, tight spreads [the narrow difference in interest rates offered by Treasury bills and other, less secure instruments] that were going on in corporate [bonds], it was wrong. Where is this demand coming from? How can you guys sell this issue in thirty minutes? Who the hell’s buying this stuff like that? We’re going to come to the answer that it was going off balance sheet, at least temporarily, and then it might be sold to other customers.

TA: So they were buying it themselves and…

MP: They were buying it themselves. Yeah. And not every deal. But you know what—it happened enough. We don’t have enough journalists in America who understand what a spread does, which is the essence of banking. I just finished Dean’s piece in Mother Jones recently. We’ve got 9,000 business journalists and maybe twenty of them know what a spread is. This is not business journalism’s finest hour. But it is our biggest opportunity ever.

TA: How does the Bloomberg terminal inform your reporting or help you find leads?

MP: Well, I’ll give you an example. The first best story that I did about this—I’m gonna brag about this—was in June of ‘07. It said that subprime bonds are failing and they’re failing at an alarming rate, and they’re going up a lot, and they all need to be downgraded. The ratings companies aren’t following their own criteria for what makes a bond a certain rating. I did that through data that’s available on the Bloomberg. We’ve got a function called DQRP, which gives you delinquency reports on every RMBS, dividing it up by category. So you can pick the worst bonds with the worst stuff and you can divide it up by rating—all kinds of sorting. Nobody has that but us.

TA: I didn’t even know that capability was out there.

MP: Hell yes, man. And it works. Then you can pull up each individual bond and you’ve got a complete description of its geographic reach—how much is in California, all kinds of great stuff. What a weapon! And if you know how to use it, it works pretty well.

TA: So what’s your prescription for business journalists? What do they need to know and do? Not everybody’s going to have a $20,000 a year Bloomberg terminal to play with.

MP: Hardly anyone has a Bloomberg machine and the ones that do don’t know how to use it

But you know what? The government needs to make this kind of data much more publicly available than it is now. We purchase a lot of this. But, for instance, a lot of the bond deals were (not subject to disclosure). And all the CDO’s were private placements. We know why—because they placed them with themselves. The number of secret deals going bad is astounding, it’s probably 90 percent of them were secret deals.

TA: Bloomberg’s got a ton of people on bonds, but I’ve said before that a part of why the business press failed here was that it has so many times more people covering equities than debt. And debt markets are many, many times the size of the equity markets. That’s kind of a major problem right there, right?

MP: It is huge. Most reporters, it’s shocking how few of them actually understand the difference between price and yield. Hardly any business journalist actually covers the financing. If you cover a company and all of a sudden their borrowing costs go from 100 (basis points) over to 250 or 300 over [meaning investors believe the risk has increased substantially], and no one asks a question. There’s a problem there when that happens and nobody asks a question. I think we have training issues in a huge way in our profession. We brought a knife to a gunfight.

TA: Does there need to be regulation just to simplify things to where it makes sense to more people?

MP: If it was all transparent the complexity wouldn’t matter. If the CDO market had had publicly available prospectuses with the contents of the CDO disclosed, we wouldn’t have this issue, because Bloomberg probably would have made fun of anybody who bought anything like this. But there was this enormous shadow banking system going on. We did a series about that, too. A lot of times people don’t see what we do.

TA: That’s one of the problems I’ve noticed. We’ve consciously tried at The Audit to make sure people are reading your stuff. I don’t think it’s become a habit for a lot of people even in the biz to go over to Bloomberg.

MP: It kinda bums you out, because you want to do things that have big (impact) because that’s why you’re in the business. And public policy would work a lot better if they actually understood what the hell was going on.

TA: Like adding up the total number of trillions that the government is on the hook for in this bailout. Nobody else is doing that but you. Why not?

MP: Because it’s a big pain. You start off with whatever you can remember off the top of your head—oh, they’re doing this, they’re doing that—you start writing it down on a piece of paper and you go “Wow, this is real money.” It starts adding up.

The thing that people don’t realize is that the Fed is now the “bad bank.” That’s just something that people don’t understand. They’ve taken collateral, and they refuse to tell us how they valued it…

We have numerous banks— dozens, maybe hundreds that are insolvent. And they become more insolvent every day because more people quit paying their mortgage loans, and more guys move out of the shopping center, and more people quit paying their credit cards. But nobody wants to have the adult conversation…We need to be honest about what the problem is here, how big it is, and how we’re going forward to clean it up, and who’s going to pay for it.

TA: Basically the charade that’s going on here is that they haven’t marked these assets down yet because that would show they’re insolvent.

MP: But a lot of [the assets] have gone to the Fed, though, as collateral for loans. They’re still on their balance sheet, but you borrowed against them. We don’t know if those are cracked CDO’s or prime RMBS…

TA: That’s what you guys are suing (the Federal Reserve) for—to find out what the collateral is.

MP: Yeah, and that’s the secret part of the story that nobody wants to let you know.

TA: Because it’s worth pennies on the dollar or dimes on the dollar.

MP: Yeah, and then everybody’s going to go “Oh my God, we’re lending ninety cents on something that’s worth twenty or thirty?”

(Yes Virginia there is no collateral. -AM)

TA: They say they don’t want to disclose it because it would interfere with the markets, is that right?

MP: Their basic argument is this would cause chaos, and they’re probably right. But that doesn’t mean that the American taxpayer ought to be on the hook for this.

TA: Why would it cause chaos?

MP: Because people would realize that we’re lending eighty cents on the dollar for something that’s worth twenty cents.

TA: So political chaos?

MP: And maybe market chaos, too. Well, you know the market’s probably pretty savvy about this thing, and everybody knows what’s going on but we just haven’t communicated with the public.

(Here's a flashback: I have spoken to the heads of various Wall Street equity derivative trading desks and every single one of the senior managers told me that Bernie Madoff was a fraud. Of course no one wants undue career risk by sticking their head up and saying that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. As a result of this case several careers on Wall Street and in Europe will be ruined. Therefore, I have not signed nor put my name on this report. I am worried about the personal safety of myself and my family.'
-Harry Markopolos in 2005.

A ponzi by any other name will still destroy your standard of living. -AM

When you say “political chaos” you might well be right. That may be what it was. Congress is going to go “We’re lending this much money on this Triple-C security? What are we thinking here?”

TA: One thing I really like about you guys is in your reporting and writing, you have a sense of outrage that’s not in the Journal, say. This thing is so huge, and you guys are conveying the magnitude of it better than some, and there’s a sense of urgency that’s lacking elsewhere. Is this a conscious thing in the newsroom?

MP: We have been primary movers for transparency in markets since our existence. Bloomberg’s reason for being was to give the buy side enough tools so they wouldn’t get screwed by the investment banks. That’s what we’re about. So we’re a weapon for the buy side and a de facto weapon for every one who has a mutual fund. We just need to level the playing field and let everybody know what’s going on. This is from Matt Winkler on down. This is what we do.

It’s also that we realize this is a defining moment for business journalism and for Wall Street. I think that this organization, this news department, was built for this crisis. We’ve got more tools than anybody, we’ve got the will, we have the assets to go after this in a huge way. Everybody believes that in this room.

Hopefully, we will be able to inform the people enough to know how badly we’re getting screwed (laughs). We need to know how to prevent it from happening again, and we need to know who did it. There’s renewed energy on this front because we’ve staffed up the people who cover banks, the securities firms. We have a lot more people going at real estate and a bunch of different areas that this involves. That was a conscious move from meetings we started having in 2007. We hired people and we moved people from one area to another area.

Our issue is we have readers who are very interested in very small things. That’s why they have the terminal. It’s because they’re interested in natural gas or things that aren’t connected with the biggest story in twenty years, maybe longer. This is a big deal and it’s going to be going on—I swear to God I’m going to retire on this story, because it’s just going to keep happening.

(Melancholy thy essence is the last sentence above. And now Mr. Whalen carries the baton. -AM)

By Chris Whalen

To us, the confirmation hearings last week before the Senate Banking Committee only reaffirm in our minds that Benjamin Shalom Bernanke does not deserve a second term as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Including our comments on Bank of America (BAC) featured by Alan Abelson this week in Barron’s, we have three reasons for this view:

(Barrons: The seeming stability of the largest banks springs from government intervention in the securities markets, notably by dressing up the value of toxic assets by buying them in the open market, and gobs of subsidies, along with investors' speculative urge that makes raising fresh capital less than a Herculean task. Whalen's reservations about the outlook lead him to conclude the plan to repay the government loan is a great argument for why the Fed should be taken out of the business of bank supervision. The responsible position, he feels, would have been for the powers-that-be to nudge BofA to raise more capital now when the equity markets are accommodating and delay paying off the feds until the first half of next year is over. That way, they could better gauge how much of a hit the bank may have to eventually absorb from its various and sundry bum assets, on and off its balance sheet. -AM)

First is the law. The bailout of American International Group (AIG) was clearly a violation of the Federal Reserve Act, both in terms of the “loans” made to the insolvent insurer and the hideous process whereby the loans were approved, after the fact, by Chairman Bernanke and the Fed Board. The loans were not adequately collateralized. This is publicly evidenced by the fact that the Fed of New York (FRBNY) exchanged debt claims on AIG itself for equity stakes in two insolvent insurance underwriting units. What more need be said?

As we’ve noted in The IRA previously, we think the AIG insurance operations are more problematic than the infamous financial products unit where the credit default swaps pyramid scheme resided. And we doubt that any diligence was performed by Geither and/or the FRBNY staff on AIG prior to the decision taken by Tim Geithner to make the loan.

Of interest, members of the Senate Banking Committee who want more background on the AIG fiasco, particularly who did what and when, need to read the paper by Phillip Swagel, “The Financial Crisis: An Inside View,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring 2009, The Brookings Institution.

We hear in the channel that Fed officials were furious when Swagel, who served at the US Treasury with former Secretary Hank Paulson, published his all-to-detailed apology. We understand that several prominent members of the trial bar also are interested in the Swagel document.

Last week the Senate Banking Committee spent a lot of time talking with Chairman Bernanke about why payouts were made to AIG counterparties like Goldman Sachs (GS) and Deutsche Bank (DB), but the real issue is why Tim Geithner and the GS-controlled board of directors of the FRBNY were permitted to make the supposed “loans” to AIG in the first place. The primary legal duty of the Fed Board is to supervise the activities of the Reserve Banks. In this case, Chairman Bernanke and the rest of the Board seemingly got rolled by Tim Geithner and GS, to the detriment of the Fed’s reputation, the financial interests of all taxpayers and due process of law.

Martin Mayer reminded us last week that the Fed is meant to be “independent” from the White House, not the Congress from which its legal authority comes by way of the Constitution. Nor does Fed independence mean that the officers of the Federal Reserve Banks or the Board are allowed to make laws. None of the officials of the Fed are officers of the United States. No Fed official has any power to make commitments on behalf of the Treasury, unless and except when directed by the Secretary. Given the losses to the Treasury due to the Fed’s own losses, this is an important point that members of the Senate need to investigate further.

The FRBNY not only used but abused the Fed’s power’s under Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act. In AIG, the FRBNY under Tim Geithner invoked the “unusual and exigent” clause again and again, but there is a serious legal question whether the then-FRBNY President and the FRBNY’s board had the right to commit trillions without any due diligence process or deliberate, prior approval of the Fed Board in Washington, as required by law. The financial commitments to GS and other dealers regarding AIG were made always on a weekend with Geithner “negotiating” alone in New York, while Chairman Bernanke, Vice Chairman Donald Kohn and the rest of the BOG were sitting in DC without any real financial understanding of the substance of the transactions or the relationships between the people involved in the negotiations.

Was Tim Geithner technically qualified or legally empowered to “make deals’ without the prior consent of the Fed Board? We don’t think so. Shouldn’t there have been financial fairness opinions re: the transactions? Yes.

(The seduction of Barry Dunham. -AM)

We understand that the first order of business in any Fed audit sought by members of the Senate opposed to Chairman Bernanke’s re-appointment is to review the internal Fed legal memoranda and FRBNY board minutes supporting the AIG bailout. These documents, if they exist at all, should be provided to the Senate before a vote on the Bernanke nomination. Indeed, if the panel established to review the AIG bailout and related events investigates the issue of how and when certain commitments were made by the FRBNY, we wouldn’t be surprised if they find that Geithner acted illegally and that Bernanke and the Fed Board were negligent in not stopping this looting of the national patrimony by Geithjner, acting as de facto agent for the largest dealer banks in New York and London.

(Damn Chris you are on fire. -AM)

The second strike against Chairman Bernanke is leadership. In an exchange with SBC Chairman Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Bernanke said that he could not force the counterparties of AIG to take a haircuts on their CDS positions because he had “no leverage.” Again, this goes back to the issue of why the loan to AIG was made at all.

Having made the first error,Bernanke and other Fed officials seek to use it as justification for further acts of idiocy. Chairman Dodd look incredulous and replied “you are the Chairman of the Federal Reserve,” to which Bernanke replied that he did not want to abuse his “supervisory powers.” Dodd replied “apparently not” in seeming disgust.

We have been privileged to know Fed chairmen going back to Arthur Burns. Regardless of their politics or views on economic policies, Fed Chairmen like Burns, Paul Volcker and even Alan Greenspan all knew that the Fed’s power is as much about moral suasion as explicit legal authority. After all, the Chairman of the Fed is essentially the Treasury’s investment banker. In the financial markets, there are times when Fed Chairmen have to exercise leadership and, yes, occasionally raise their voices and intimidate bank executives in the name of the greater public good. AIG was such as test and Chairman Bernanke failed, in our view.

Chairman Bernanke does not seem to understand that leadership is a basic part of the Fed Chairman’s job description and the wellspring from which independence comes. The handling of AIG by Chairman Bernanke and the Fed Board seems to us proof, again, that Washington needs to stop populating the Fed’s board with academic economists who have no real world leadership skills, nor operational or financial experience. Just as we need to end the de facto political control of the banksters over America’s central bank, we need also to end the institutional tyranny of the academic economists at the Federal Reserve Board.

The third reason that the Senate should vote no on Chairman Bernanke’s second four-year term as Fed Chairman is independence. While Bernanke publicly frets about the Fed losing its political independence as a result of greater congressional scrutiny of its operations, the central bank shows no independence or ability to supervise the largest banks for which it has legal responsibility. And Chairman Bernanke has the unmitigated gall to ask the Congress to increase the Fed’s supervisory responsibilities. As we wrote in The IRA Advisory Service last week:

“Indeed, if you want a very tangible example of why the Fed should be taken out of the business of bank supervision, it is precisely the TARP repayment by Bank of America (BAC). The responsible position for the Fed and OCC to take in this transaction is to make BAC raise more capital now, when the equity markets are receptive, but wait on TARP repayment until we are through Q2 2010 and have a better idea on loss severity for on balance sheet and OBS exposures, HELOCs and second lien mortgages, to name a few issues. Apparently allowing outgoing CEO Ken Lewis to take a victory lap via TARP repayment is more important to the Fed than ensuring the safety and soundness of BAC.”

One close observer of the mortgage channel, who we hope to interview soon in The IRA, says that given the recent deterioration of mortgage credit, it is impossible that BAC has not gotten its pari passu portion of the losses which are hitting the FHA. The same source says that using conservative math, FHA has another $75 billion in losses to take, with zero left in the FHA insurance fund. Worst case for FHA is double that number, we’re told. How could the Fed believe that BAC, which is the biggest owner of mortgages and HELOCs, is immune from this approaching storm? Because the Fed is cooking the books of the largest banks.

The observer confirms our view that trading gains on the books of banks such as BAC are due to the Fed’s open market purchases, which drove up prices for MBS and other types of toxic waste. In effect, the Fed’s manipulation of the prices of various toxic securities is giving the largest US banks and their auditors a “pass” on accounting write-downs in Q4 2009 and for the full year – assuming that MBS prices do not drop sharply before the end of the month.

Question: Is not the Fed’s manipulation of securities prices and the window-dressing of bank financial statements not a violation of securities laws and SEC regulations?

(Answer: Oh hell yes! -AM)

Of note, in her column on Sunday about the widely overlooked issue of second lien mortgages, “Why Treasury Needs a Plan B for Mortgages,” Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times writes that “Unfortunately, there is a $442 billion reason that wiping out second liens is not high on the government’s agenda: that is the amount of second mortgages and home equity lines of credit on the balance sheets of Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup. These banks – the very same companies the Treasury is urging to modify loans that they service – have zero interest in writing down second liens they hold because it would mean further damage to their balance sheets.”

Thus the Fed is not only allowing insolvent zombie banks to repay TARP funds before the worst of the credit crisis is past, but the “independent” central bank is engaged in a massive act of accounting fraud to prop up prices for illiquid securities and thereby help banks avoid another round of year-end write downs, the banks the Fed supposedly regulates. This act of deliberate market manipulation suggests that the Fed’s bank stress tests were a complete fabrication. Only by artificially propping up prices for illiquid securities can the Fed make the banks look good enough to close their books in 2009 and, most important, attract private equity investors back to the table.

Of note, the perversion of accounting rules in the name of helping the largest global banks is also well-underway in the EU. Our friends at CFO Zone published a comment on same last week that deserves your attention: “International Accounting Standards Board has ‘disgraced itself.’

(Let's see; a 'violation', 'hideous', 'not adequately collateralized', 'doubt that any diligence', 'used but abused', 'acted illegally', 'failed', 'de facto political control of the banksters over America's central bank', 'institutional tyranny', 'cooking the books', 'violation of securities laws and SEC regulations', 'massive act of accounting fraud','deliberate market manipulation', 'complete fabrication', and 'perversion of accounting rules'. His next interview on Bubblevision or Hee-Haw ought to be interesting. -AM)

1 comment:

I-Man said...

Nothings changed...