Monthly Archives: March 2009

Geithner and reality: keeping the deregulatory “counter-revolution” alive

For anyone who is interested here is a link to the testimony today of Treasury Secretary Geithner, who survived calls for his head this week with a little boost from the markets. Geithner is very busy these days making sure people think he is up to big things.

Don’t be fooled.

This package is aimed at defusing far more radical calls for restructuring the financial system in order to allow business lobbyists to carve up the reforms into tiny bite size pieces that can be easily digested.

If Geithner were serious about reform – well if he were serious he would not hold his job for long – but let’s assume we had the opportunity for serious reform, what would one have to confront?

The basic problem is that over the last several decades a conscious sophisticated effort begun by the United States Supreme Court under the leadership of Justice Louis Powell has slowly but effectively unraveled the regulatory framework put in place in the 1930s in the wake of the first global collapse of modern capitalism. The New Deal revolution, sealed after the war by a global labor-management consensus or social contract, was gradually undone on multiple levels.

Calling this counter-revolution “de-regulation” hardly does it justice. It was, in fact, the creation of an entirely new political economy, global in scope and massive in its complexity. It is, overwhelmingly, outside of the control of government much less the democratic polity.

Let’s take a single example: at the core of regulatory principles of the financial markets put in place in the 30s is the simple idea that if you sell a security such as stocks or bonds you must register that sale with the SEC including detailed information that must be provided to purchasers of the security prior to their decision to close the sale. The counter-revolution started by Justice Powell, however, made it acceptable to redefine the term “security” so that a wide range of new types of financial instruments were exempted from the registration requirements.

That, in turn, led to all sorts of investors being sold securities that they often did not understand. Examples abound: the collapse of Orange County, the Enron frauds, the crash of WorldCom and now the implosion of major investment banks, commercial banks, insurance companies and even government sponsored enterprises like Fannie and Freddie.

Thus, a simple proposal: if you want to begin the process of rebuilding a constructive and reliable means to channel our savings into productive investments that are socially useful, re-impose the basic requirements of our federal securities laws and require that sellers of these securities provide purchasers with the information they need to make an informed investment decision.

But as I said the de-regulation counter-revolution built an entirely new political economy. That political economy has been deeply damaged. But it has not sunk and so its beneficiaries will defend it. Geithner, of course, is their man in the Administration and once again today the market sent up a strong signal of support as they did on Monday when they realized that he was in trouble. They fear a turn to the left that might make their life a little too complicated.

So watch Geithner with interest – his role on the world stage right now is to defuse the possibility of genuine reform while maintaining the illusion of significant change. That produces a fascinating form of political theater.

The AIG Scandal – An Insurance Company that wants to be paid? Surprise, surprise…

I was interviewed on Oakland-based KTVU about the AIG scandal. You can watch it here.

A key point I was not able to work into the discussion: we need to keep in mind the larger picture here.

First, according to a must read profile of the AIG Financial Products unit in Rolling Stone, its 400 employees were paid some 3.5 billion dollars in salary and BONUSES over the last seven years, including $280 million to the group’s founder Joe Cassanno, a veteran of the junk bond fraud run by disgraced financier and now ex-con Michael Milken. And yet the US Treasury – led by Neel Kashkari – thought it essential to hand them $40 billion in new money last fall and only limit the bonuses paid to the top executives of the holding company, AIG parent, not AIG Financial Products!

Second, what value have these financial geniuses brought the US public for our $40 billion (followed by another $100 billion or so since, including a $30 billion line of credit a few weeks ago)? Instead of negotiating with their counter parties to whom they sold the Credit Default Swaps that were at the heart of the AIG-FP business model, they apparently just paid them off at 100 cents on the dollar!

Now, that’s the kind of insurance company I want.