Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Greatest Hoax in the History of Money: The Fed, the Banks, the Lies

The Greatest Hoax in the History of Money: The Fed, the Banks, the Lies

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It took the journalists at Bloomberg News two years - and presumably lots of legal fees - to pry information out of the Federal Reserve that should have been made public long ago. We now know that the Fed's secret $7.7 trillion lending program wasn't just the most massive bank bailout ever seen, and it wasn't just free money for mega-bankers - though it was certainly both of those things. It was also the greatest hoax in stock market history.

No, scratch that. It was the greatest hoax in the history of money. And it was built on lies. How many? Let us count the ways.

Here's the first one: The banks paid back all the money back that they were given. No, they didn't. They paid back the principal on these loans. But by obtaining loans at rates far below market value, we now know they received the equivalent of $13 billion in cash giveaways.

Here's another lie: Fed economists support a free-market economy.

Ben Bernanke is a conservative economist who claims to support a free-market system. But we now know that the Federal Reserve lent astonishing sums to US banks in secret, and Bernanke fought with all the resources at his disposal to ensure that this information didn't become public. He didn't just want it to be held back to avoid a panic during the crisis. He wanted it kept secret forever.

I don't know what you call somebody like that, but I know what you don't call him: A capitalist. Free markets need transparency, so that investors and customers can make informed decisions and 'the wisdom of the market' can prevail. Nobody wanted the market to do its job. When it came to banks, they wanted it to be blind, deaf, and dumb, unable to make sound judgments about their financial soundness.

They still want it that way. They don't want investors to know how badly Wall Street executives failed at their jobs. They don't want the free market to do what it does best - thin the herd so it's free of incompetent managers like the executives who still run our largest banks.

You can believe in the free market, or you can believe in today's Wall Street. But you can't do both.

Here's another lie, one that's spread by Dimon and others: Giant banks are more efficient. Size brings efficiency in other kinds of business, but these banks needed massive help. America's six largest banks accounted on any given day for an average of 63 percent of the debt on these loans. The only thing they're more efficient at is wringing free money out of government-created institutions.

And, wow. Jamie Dimon sure is a hypocrite. As Bloomberg noted:

JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon told shareholders in a March 26, 2010, letter that his bank used the Fed's Term Auction Facility "at the request of the Federal Reserve to help motivate others to use the system." He didn't say that the New York-based bank's total TAF borrowings were almost twice its cash holdings or that its peak borrowing of $48 billion on Feb. 26, 2009, came more than a year after the program's creation.

He also didn't mention that these favorable loans gave his bank nearly half a billion dollars in cash it otherwise wouldn't have had. Know what's convenient about that? It helps make up for the three-quarters of a billion Dimon's bank gave up to settle charges of bribery and corruption in Jefferson County, Alabama.

Chase borrowed massive sums of money, either because it was in bigger trouble than it has admitted or because it was bleeding an emergency public program out of greed. Either way, they weren't doing anybody a favor except themselves. How big a favor? Chase netted $457.9 million.

Citigroup's an even more extreme example. Once our largest bank (until continued mismanagement led to ongoing shrinkage). It only exists because Robert Rubin and other officials in the Clinton Administration, cleared the way for the largest merger in history with the enthusiastic support of the Republicans. That merger combined a bank with an insurance company, a harbinger of bad things to come in the risk area.

Citigroup's got the equivalent of a $1.8 billion gift, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan sneers at his critics, especially those who think you shouldn't foreclose on families without obtaining proof that you own their mortgage. "Oh, sure," he said in response to government demands, "we'll do our homework."

Bank of America's gift came to $1.5 billion.

Goldman Sachs shouldn't have been eligible for any Fed giveaways because it wasn't a commercial bank. But a special "waiver" allowed Goldman allowed to become commercial bank so it could be rescued from actions it took before it was a commercial bank. Before that it was an investment bank. Yet, strangely, it seems to have kept operating as an investment bank even after the transition, too, even though commercial banks aren't allowed to do that.

Understand that? Don't take it personally if you don't. You're not supposed.

Goldman Sachs's take? Just under $1 billion.

Washington's always telling us that bankers may have done naughty things, but they weren't illegal things. That gets us to our next lie: There's no evidence that bank executives have committed crimes. Thanks to Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, we may be about to discover whether that's true regarding foreclosures and mortgage filings. But when it comes to stock fraud, the evidence is already piling up.

The Federal Reserve and the US government may have stopped believing in the free market, but the law hasn't. It's a crime to deceive investors about the financial condition of your business, either by lying or by failing to provide the right information. Eliot Spitzer, who knows a thing or two about prosecuting financial crimes, hit the nail on the head when he asked: "where are the inquiries into the false statements made by the bank CEOs? And where are the inquiries about the Fed and Treasury officials who stood by silently as bank representatives made claims that were false, misleading, or worse?"

(Spitzer also proposes a five-point action plan that should be implemented immediately. His piece is well worth a read.)

How about this fib? The media's done a good job reporting on the banks. There's some great reporting going on out there -- Bloomberg, ProPublica, the Huffington Post, the Nation, the New York Times - but they're the exceptions.

Television's still a wasteland most of the time. Are you as sick of the "we got all the money back" line as I am? CNN personality Erin Burnett infamously used it to make an Occupy Wall Street demonstrator look stupid. But the reason he didn't know that because it isn't true. Banks paid back the principal but got a freebie from the interest. That's real money - billions of dollars of it.

You know that. I know that. But Erin Burnett, CNN financial reporter, doesn't seem to know that.

We're not condemning all television. Scott Pelley did a great report about homelessness on 60 Minutes just last week. But most channels haven't found the time to fully or accurately report on the enormity of this secret loan program. They've pretty much taken a pass on what, barring some ancient event I'm forgetting, is the greatest financial hoax in history.

And while we're on the topic of Occupy, let's thanking them for the fact we'll probably never hear this next lie again: "Wall Street and Main Street rise and fall together." Banks got massive giveaways. And despite their recent credit downgrade they're doing fine, thank you very much. The rest of the country? Not so much. In fact, let's do a quick inventory:

Robert Rubin made an estimated $155 million during his tenure at Citigroup.

One in four mortgages in this country is still underwater.

Brian Moynihan at Bank of America got promoted, then made that 'homework' wisecrack.

Twenty-four million Americans are un- or under-employed, including record numbers of young people and African-Americans.

The CEO of Goldman Sachs , Lloyd Blankfein, still has his job.

Poverty has soared to record levels since the financial crisis.

Erin Burnett, who made fun of a young demonstrator for not being aware of the misinformation she had repeated, still has an evening news program on CNN. She is engaged to be married to a Citigroup executive.

College graduates' unemployment rate rose last month, while the total amount of student loan debt in the United States is now greater than the total amount of credit card debt.

Jamie Dimon made a second career out of complaining that bankers are being unfairly criticized, even as Chase became the largest bank in the United States - and the world.

Jefferson County, Alabama, where Chase was forced to settle charges of bribing local officials, recently declared bankruptcy.

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