Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Banks are lawless dictators? Whose side are the police on?

First, hat tip to Barry Ritholtz for the articles linked here. I read two of the articles, written on opposite sides of the planet, one after another, and suddenly the dangers confronting us in political instability were much clearer.

Back in June I wrote:

It used to be that the role of the state in financial market regulation was to ensure efficient market operations, promote transparency of prices and liquidity, protect consumers from abusive practices, and to resolve failed companies according to principles of equitable distribution of assets among like classes of creditors. If the role of the state now is to shield HFT, dark pool and OTC markets from transparency, provide liquidity where the market fails, oversee the orderly fleecing of consumers, and to ensure that some creditors of failing firms always win while others always lose, then we no longer have a market economy. And as virtually all these regulatory policies have evolved in the absence of public debate and legislative scrutiny, we also no longer have democratic governance of markets.

The deficit that worries me most in terms of the future of our civilisation is the legal accountability deficit - or anomie as I use it here. This deficit is huge and still growing rapidly as decisions are taken behind closed doors to shield lawless bankers from taxes or criminal sanctions and dedicate more and more public funds and/or monetary expansion to the same lawless bankers with too little public accounting, scrutiny or recourse.

This morning a commentary by Robert Fisk crystalised this concern as a political crisis in the offing: Bankers are the dictators of the West.

Let's kick off with the "Arab Spring" – in itself a grotesque verbal distortion of the great Arab/Muslim awakening which is shaking the Middle East – and the trashy parallels with the social protests in Western capitals. We've been deluged with reports of how the poor or the disadvantaged in the West have "taken a leaf" out of the "Arab spring" book, how demonstrators in America, Canada, Britain, Spain and Greece have been "inspired" by the huge demonstrations that brought down the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and – up to a point – Libya. But this is nonsense.

The real comparison, needless to say, has been dodged by Western reporters, so keen to extol the anti-dictator rebellions of the Arabs, so anxious to ignore protests against "democratic" Western governments, so desperate to disparage these demonstrations, to suggest that they are merely picking up on the latest fad in the Arab world. The truth is somewhat different. What drove the Arabs in their tens of thousands and then their millions on to the streets of Middle East capitals was a demand for dignity and a refusal to accept that the local family-ruled dictators actually owned their countries. The Mubaraks and the Ben Alis and the Gaddafis and the kings and emirs of the Gulf (and Jordan) and the Assads all believed that they had property rights to their entire nations. Egypt belonged to Mubarak Inc, Tunisia to Ben Ali Inc (and the Traboulsi family), Libya to Gaddafi Inc. And so on. The Arab martyrs against dictatorship died to prove that their countries belonged to their own people.

And that is the true parallel in the West. The protest movements are indeed against Big Business – a perfectly justified cause – and against "governments". What they have really divined, however, albeit a bit late in the day, is that they have for decades bought into a fraudulent democracy: they dutifully vote for political parties – which then hand their democratic mandate and people's power to the banks and the derivative traders and the rating agencies, all three backed up by the slovenly and dishonest coterie of "experts" from America's top universities and "think tanks", who maintain the fiction that this is a crisis of globalisation rather than a massive financial con trick foisted on the voters.

The banks and the rating agencies have become the dictators of the West.

The banks as dictators makes sense to me. In thinking about my dissatisfaction with financial regulation for much of the past decade, I see that a great deal of it is attributable to who the regulators see as their polity. Their idea of consultation on regulations is to ask the bankers, traders and rating agencies whether they approve. The idea of making public policy in the public interest if the bankers disapprove is unimaginable to them. And so the banks get the regulations they prefer - or at least did so until the crisis.

And my queasiness about David Cameron's behaviour in Brussels on Friday stems from the same concern. He threw his toys out of the pram and turned his back on the EU because they wouldn't guarantee to preserve the City from further taxation, regulation and scrutiny. It's very clear that the polity he was serving was not the United Kingdom's 62,300,000 people - but the one per cent that make their living in the City of London.

Immediately after reading the Fisk piece, I read the moving statement of Patrick Meighan, My Occupy LA Arrest.

My name is Patrick Meighan, and I’m a husband, a father, a writer on the Fox animated sitcom “Family Guy”, and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica.

I was arrested at about 1 a.m. Wednesday morning with 291 other people at Occupy LA. I was sitting in City Hall Park with a pillow, a blanket, and a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Being Peace” when 1,400 heavily-armed LAPD officers in paramilitary SWAT gear streamed in. I was in a group of about 50 peaceful protestors who sat Indian-style, arms interlocked, around a tent (the symbolic image of the Occupy movement). The LAPD officers encircled us, weapons drawn, while we chanted “We Are Peaceful” and “We Are Nonviolent” and “Join Us.”

As we sat there, encircled, a separate team of LAPD officers used knives to slice open every personal tent in the park. They forcibly removed anyone sleeping inside, and then yanked out and destroyed any personal property inside those tents, scattering the contents across the park. They then did the same with the communal property of the Occupy LA movement. For example, I watched as the LAPD destroyed a pop-up canopy tent that, until that moment, had been serving as Occupy LA’s First Aid and Wellness tent, in which volunteer health professionals gave free medical care to absolutely anyone who requested it. As it happens, my family had personally contributed that exact canopy tent to Occupy LA, at a cost of several hundred of my family’s dollars. As I watched, the LAPD sliced that canopy tent to shreds, broke the telescoping poles into pieces and scattered the detritus across the park. Note that these were the objects described in subsequent mainstream press reports as “30 tons of garbage” that was “abandoned” by Occupy LA: personal property forcibly stolen from us, destroyed in front of our eyes and then left for maintenance workers to dispose of while we were sent to prison.

When the LAPD finally began arresting those of us interlocked around the symbolic tent, we were all ordered by the LAPD to unlink from each other (in order to facilitate the arrests). Each seated, nonviolent protester beside me who refused to cooperate by unlinking his arms had the following done to him: an LAPD officer would forcibly extend the protestor’s legs, grab his left foot, twist it all the way around and then stomp his boot on the insole, pinning the protestor’s left foot to the pavement, twisted backwards. Then the LAPD officer would grab the protestor’s right foot and twist it all the way the other direction until the non-violent protestor, in incredible agony, would shriek in pain and unlink from his neighbor.

It was horrible to watch, and apparently designed to terrorize the rest of us. At least I was sufficiently terrorized. I unlinked my arms voluntarily and informed the LAPD officers that I would go peacefully and cooperatively. I stood as instructed, and then I had my arms wrenched behind my back, and an officer hyperextended my wrists into my inner arms. It was super violent, it hurt really really bad, and he was doing it on purpose. When I involuntarily recoiled from the pain, the LAPD officer threw me face-first to the pavement. He had my hands behind my back, so I landed right on my face. The officer dropped with his knee on my back and ground my face into the pavement. It really, really hurt and my face started bleeding and I was very scared. I begged for mercy and I promised that I was honestly not resisting and would not resist.

My hands were then zipcuffed very tightly behind my back, where they turned blue. I am now suffering nerve damage in my right thumb and palm.

I was put on a paddywagon with other nonviolent protestors and taken to a parking garage in Parker Center. They forced us to kneel (and sit--SEE UPDATE) on the hard pavement of that parking garage for seven straight hours with our hands still tightly zipcuffed behind our backs. Some began to pass out. One man rolled to the ground and vomited for a long, long time before falling unconscious. The LAPD officers watched and did nothing.

This account turned my stomach, as it demonstrates all too clearly that the sympathies of the state are with lawbreaking bankers and not the victimised masses bailing them out.

So that’s what happened to the 292 women and men were arrested last Wednesday. Now let’s talk about a man who was not arrested last Wednesday. He is former Citigroup CEO Charles Prince. Under Charles Prince, Citigroup was guilty of massive, coordinated securities fraud.

Citigroup spent years intentionally buying up every bad mortgage loan it could find, creating bad securities out of those bad loans and then selling shares in those bad securities to duped investors. And then they sometimes secretly bet *against* their *own* bad securities to make even more money. For one such bad Citigroup security, Citigroup executives were internally calling it, quote, “a collection of dogshit”. To investors, however, they called it, quote, “an attractive investment rigorously selected by an independent investment adviser”.

This is fraud, and it’s a felony, and the Charles Princes of the world spent several years doing it again and again: knowingly writing bad mortgages, and then packaging them into fraudulent securities which they then sold to suckers and then repeating the process. This is a big part of why your property values went up so fast. But then the bubble burst, and that’s why our economy is now shattered for a generation, and it’s also why your home is now underwater. Or at least mine is.

Anyway, if your retirement fund lost a decade’s-worth of gains overnight, this is why.

If your son’s middle school has added furlough days because the school district can’t afford to keep its doors open for a full school year, this is why.

If your daughter has come out of college with a degree only to discover that there are no jobs for her, this is why.

But back to Charles Prince. For his four years of in charge of massive, repeated fraud at Citigroup, he received fifty-three million dollars in salary and also received another ninety-four million dollars in stock holdings. What Charles Prince has *not* received is a pair of zipcuffs. The nerves in his thumb are fine. No cop has thrown Charles Prince into the pavement, face-first. Each and every peaceful, nonviolent Occupy LA protester arrested last week has has spent more time sleeping on a jail floor than every single Charles Prince on Wall Street, combined.

A deflationary collapse will lead to political instability. It always does, because deflation destroys the value of paper assets which are mostly held by the most wealthy - the 1 per cent. And when deflation destroys their assets, it destroys their power and creates a vacuum. We need to be very clear in such a case that the enemy of the people is not the state, because if the state uses its police powers to protect the guilty and punish the innocent, then popular resistance and revolt become all too probable.

In Europe, the politicians know this. Even the police know this. No matter what I think of any British government, the conduct of the LA Police would be inconceivable here. The police killing just one career criminal this summer sparked nationwide riots. Brutalising non-violent protestors would have all of us on the streets.

There are values which are independent of financial assets. Those of us concerned to retain those values as a legacy for our children need to be vigilant as the bankers are only concerned with the values they can cash short term.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty."

Fisk and Meighan remind us that the people are sovereign. The protests are because our sovereignty is undermined when it is disrespected by bankers buying lawlessness or by the police or financial regulators using state powers against the public interest. We have a right as a free people to self-governance under the rule of law. We as a free people have a right to regulate financial services to ensure that it serves a socially constructive function in the economy. Applying the rule of law to bankers reinforces the principles of justice essential to capitalism and the preservation of private property. The banks are not sovereign, and do not have a right to laws, regulators and police that protect them and them alone. There's some work to do here, of course, but having the issue crystallised helps a lot.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Why I oppose Financial Stability

Financial Stability became a topic in the late 1990s, at a time of peak laxity in international financial supervision. The same minds which promoted the Financial Stability Forum (now the Financial Stability Board) also crafted the deeply flawed and destructive Basel II.

I have never understood why Financial Stability should be an objective of public policy. Desirable, measurable outcomes of benefit to the public should be the objectives of public policy. Stability is a silly and impractical goal in a capitalist economy. Success and failure of competitive firms are the basis for economic progress, capital allocation and market pricing. Capitalism requires recognition of failure, and failure always causes economic loss and some instability as past assumptions are re-examined and re-assessed more objectively in light of current painful reality.

The management of failure can contribute to better future outcomes, but only if the costs of failure are born by those who caused the failure and not by those innocent of it. The 1990s policies promoted by regulators during the Great Moderation aimed to forestall failure by disguising it, delaying it, and subsidising it. Since the collapse of securitisation and inter-bank credit markets in 2008, governments have been too willing to socialise the costs of failure (by then magnified with leverage) to taxpayers through serial bailouts.

One strength of the US banking system from the 1930s to the 1980s was that failures were dealt with quickly and certainly. Foreclosed properties had to be sold by banks within two years of repossession, leading to a quick and certain reallocation of assets from failed borrowers to new owners. The FDIC swiftly and mercilessly shut down failed banks. New owners - often buying at distressed prices - were encouraged to invest in making the assets productive and profitable. It was this simple recycling from failed managers to better managers that was largely behind the short recessions and strong recoveries during this period of American economic history. With forbearance now institutionalised at all levels of the US economy, we are seeing Japanification instead of recovery. And it is even worse just about everywhere else where dominant banks are much more influential.

Financial Stability - like national security - can never be objectively confirmed as achieved. It is more often used to disguise the ulterior aims of its proponents, or to misdirect attention in aid of bad public policy that harms rather than promotes the public interest. For example, the Greenspan Put was a brilliant mechanism for ensuring financial stability by preventing any adjustment of the markets in response to the S&L crisis or dot-com bust. The Bernanke Put and Paulson Plan were financial stability solutions to the securitisation fraud crisis that revealed the undercapitalisation of global banks and over-leveraging of real estate. Bank bailouts and special liquidity facilities were financial stability innovations to prevent mark downs of mis-priced and illiquid capital assets.

Rather than review whether massive financial deregulation and promoting concentration in a few incumbents was in the public interest, the Greenspan Put, Bernanke Put, liquidity facility innovations and public bailouts have disguised misallocation of capital by pumping the markets with taxpayer funds and monetary laxity whenever they began to flag. Financial Stability initiatives have therefore taught incumbent bankers that any disruption is an excuse to double down on bad bets as the central banks and state treasuries would flood enough cash to make bad bets come good. MF Global made this bet, and although it (and its clients) won't be collecting, I expect the creditors/counterparties that seized all its collateral assets expect to come out way ahead.

I oppose Financial Stability because it is the most misleading banner for a set of bad, harmful and expensive public policies protecting bad executive management and preventing recognition of realistic market outcomes.

So what would I promote instead? Resiliency and resolution. Resiliency means the ability to withstand stresses and shocks which will unavoidably arise in global, competitive markets. Resolution means the dispersion of assets to creditors - and competitors - when banks fail, in hopes the assets and enterprises will be better managed by other managers than the same ones that led the bank to failure. Together these two principles - if made the basis for public policy - would do more to restore sanity to global banking than anything else I can think of. Resiliency will favour more and better capitalisation, with a focus on marketable assets with transparent price discovery (e.g., traded on transparent markets and recorded on balance sheet). Speedy and certain resolution of failed banks will make management and shareholders conscious of the risks of failure falling first on them, then on unsecured creditors and bondholders, and never on the taxpayer.

We are a long way from adopting principles of resiliency and resolution, as demonstrated by the EU's continued efforts to forestall defaults while protecting incumbent managements and bondholders. Our policy makers continue to chase the chimera of financial stability, and make bad policies worse along the way.