February 18, 2011

$6 Trillion in play: derivatives markets

Posted in Finance Reform, GOP, immigration, role of government, U.S. Economy tagged , , , , , , , , at 10:32 am by realitytax

Reuters is reporting on a ploy to stall the re-regulation of derivatives markets as proposed by the Dodd-Franks financial reform bill. GOP strategists are now asserting that rushed rule-making can’t become a higher priority than economic analysis, so we ought to slow down and (finally) do the sort of analysis that might have prevented the market crash and the resulting recession (if only we hadn’t let Wall Street insiders write their own rules for so long.)

signing of Dodd-Franks billAs I discussed earlier this week elsewhere, the provocatively-titled Wall Street Journal article “Study: Strict Derivatives Regulation Could Cost 130,000 Jobs” echoing the “government regulations hurt business” talking-point has been yet again defused — this time by professors John E.  Parsons and Antonio S. Mello, who pointed out, “It’s always possible to ignore the system-wide purpose of a regulation and claim it is costly due to the burden it imposes…”

“We have regulations controlling immigration, restricting tobacco and alcohol sales, establishing speed limits, and prohibiting the use of dangerous materials such as lead paint. We embrace regulations about what can’t be in our drinking water, and insuring we have the freedom to practice religion unfettered by the preferences of government agencies…

…laws about everything from voter registration to verifying the safety & efficacy of drugs because we know we can’t simply trust everybody to do the right thing if there’s no referee…

…the GOP has been persuaded to slow down the process of reforming Wall Street’s greedy, self-serving behaviors.”

Thomas A. Hayes

We’ve seen what happens on Wall Street without adequate oversight and regulation(s): the markets crashed, foreclosures destroyed home values, the economy went into a tail-spin. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the trickle-down effect is that millions of our friends and neighbors are unemployed at precisely the time when their highest-value asset, their home, has collapsed.

Compare the amount of money we’re talking about to the debt-ceiling or the budget for the entire U.S. Government. On Wall Street, in the derivatives market alone, $600 trillion is in play. That’s why the players, and the Chamber of Commerce, are lobbying so hard to be left alone, and trying to scare us with more jobs lost.

“…there is ‘no upside’ to imposing margin requirements on end users, said David Hirschmann, who heads the U.S. Chamber’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness.”

Victoria McGrane, from her article
Wall Street Journal February 13, 2011

Recovering our standing as the world leader in agriculture and industry, and creating the millions of jobs our country needs, won’t be enough to keep Wall Street greed from ruining our economy. We abandoned a “free market” approach to firefighting, because the profit motive led to really bad outcomes for the people that fire companies were supposed to protect. There are countless examples of systems that operate better in terms of the “common good” when we don’t let snake-oil salesmen operate unfettered in pursuit of their individual profit.

I’ve been pondering whether or not our financial markets can “create prosperity” other than for Wall Street insiders. It’s certainly not what the evidence suggests they’ve done lately; it’s hard to see an “upside” (to borrow David Hirschmann’s term) to heeding those with the most to gain by slowing down reforms when they’ve shown such willingness to abuse the system.

It’s harder still to trust the tired old assertions about government regulations being nothing more than interference that “burdens small business” which can be, and have been, so quickly, thoroughly debunked by simple logic.

This is not Somalia. The citizens of the United States don’t want an end to government; we want a return to the ideal that good government works “for the people” not the fatcats who game the system for profit at the expense of the majority of fair-minded, hard-working people. We want solutions, not sound-bites.

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October 2, 2009

Can the market create prosperity?

Posted in economic recovery, foreclosure crisis, mortgage reform, taxes, U.S. Economy tagged , , , , , , at 8:32 pm by realitytax

Some of our elected representatives in Washington say our big government can’t do anything well.  Ironically, while it’s true the federal government obviously did a slip-shod job of regulating the mortgage and banking industry, those elected officials are in charge of everything from what the government spends to how it runs, and many of them have been there for well over a decade, doing whatever it is they do to make it “better.”

We’ve tried less regulation; we’ve tried lowering taxes; we’ve outsourced to save money including using private contractors instead of the military to fight a war that obviously hasn’t stimulated the economy; we’ve tried everything the politicians could think of except privatizing our social security accounts – and most of us are glad that didn’t fly.

Where have they led us?

The economy will need years to recover from the steep plunge in 2008, unemployment is still rising, mortgage foreclosure rates are problematic while home prices tumble, banks are being closed at a record pace, and institutions “too big to fail” are on the verge of filing bankruptcy despite the former administrations attempts to rescue them by propping up their finances with billions of tax dollars.

On the other hand, gas is back down under $3 a gallon – who would have imagined that was a good price 5 years ago? Still, that’s what the middle class is cheering about today (it sure isn’t the price of education or health insurance.)

When was the last time you say “Made in America” on the label of something you bought? Plants sit idle while manufacturing jobs continue to dwindle. Where have we been investing? In derivatives – financial products so complex that the people who buy and sell them can’t really tell you how they work. Once upon a time we heard about the huge growth of jobs in the service sector, but if you call for service you’re as likely to get a machine answering the call as a person, and when it’s a person they’re often overseas – who knew we could outsource service sector jobs?

The President’s got a real rat’s nest on his hands with the economy. Depending who you listen to he’s either put the foxes in charge of the chicken coop or hired the people who made the mess in the financial markets to clean it up.  The former would be a disaster, obviously, but even the latter is rather daunting (and yes, I know, banks hire former bank robbers, computer security firms hire former hackers, but that doesn’t make me comfortable.) Granted, Obama’s shown a desire to invest in America, to get people back to work, but he’s still a relative newcomer and the entrenched powers that be in both major parties were there – in charge – as all these problems brewed up this ugly mess in the first place. There’s enough blame to go ’round on Capitol Hill when it comes to the economy. One man by himself cannot create – or recapture – our American Dream.

It’s not enough to “stimulate” the private sector and create green jobs; our leaders have to insure that the sorts of abuses which led to this crisis won’t recur. The abuses of the public trust are not confined to Wall Street, they’re also there on K Street, First Street, and South Capitol Street… and consumers are justified in being dubious that the people who left this series of overlapping errors unattended are the proper ones to lead us out of the resulting crisis.  The denizens of the Capitol have shown a propensity for bickering and posturing, but little in the way of solutions has emerged – to the point that the executive branch is now authoring legislative proposals since the two parties can’t agree on how to move forward together.

It’s time to invest in us and our future – in infrastructure and education, and in making sure that anybody who works for a living can afford to stay healthy and enjoy the retirement they’ve earned.  I’m not advocating isolationism, mind you, but multi-national corporations aren’t helping anybody but themselves. Small businesses that put local people to work and keep the profits within our communities are the engine that can power economic recovery. Tax breaks for mega-corporations end up being bonuses for already-rich CEOs – what trickles down is being funneled through lobbyists right back to Congress, apparently.

We pay our taxes so the government can do what is necessary for the common good.  Seems to me all the government’s done for most of the past 10 or more years is grow larger. What have our Senators and Representatives done but watch as the entire system melted down? OK, granted, they did just boost their own budget, and sure, CEOs and lobbyists are still pulling down a good paycheck, with full benefits – but what about the rest of us?

March 24, 2009

Information in the open changes the way business was done in DC.

Posted in foreclosure crisis, Obama administration, President Barack H. Obama, taxes, U.S. Economy tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:09 am by realitytax

President Obama told the National Conference of State Legislatures last week that, “Decisions about how Recovery Act dollars are spent will be based on the merit…” and stressed that maximizing job creation, making health care affordable, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, and other projects that manifest “enduring benefits” to taxpayers must take priority.

President Barack H. ObamaUnder the recently issued guidance from the Obama administration (which some were hoping wouldn’t appear) lobbyists seeking an administration member’s time to discuss a “Recovery Act” project must submit their requests in writing so that correspondence can be posted online, just as with the topics of meetings between administration officials and lobbyists on stimulus efforts. This is not business as usual for DC lobbyists; this is a refreshing degree of openness at a time when voters are very curious about how their money is parceled out, and echoes his warnings to mayors last month that the President would “will call them out” on wasteful uses of stimulus dollars.

As history shows us, when we let Wall Street and lobbyists handle their own affairs in smoke-filled back rooms and over martinis at the country club, jobs and sustainable wealth fall by the wayside while cash flows to the wealthiest investors. Curiously enough, income disparities shrink while job creation and government revenues increase if, and when, the wealthy are taxed – it causes them to invest rather than hoard their capital.

Economic viability will come only through repudiating the unfounded faith many Republicans have exhibited in trickle-down voodoo and unregulated capitalism, paired with self-serving definitions of sound-bite terms such as educational choice. We need a return to an ethic of service, work, and strong family values such as the first family demonstrates.

We need to restore confidence – both here and abroad – that the United States is a leading force on economic and moral issues, not a duplicitous, arrogant bully guilty of not practicing what we preach. Obama’s walking the walk.

Obama doesn't just talk

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September 23, 2008

The problem with deregulation

Posted in 2008 Elections, Rove and Rovian attack politics, U.S. Economy tagged , , , , , , , , , at 3:04 am by realitytax

Even if the Department of the Treasury recovers some the Wall Street bailout funds over time, the idea of spending perhaps $700 billion or more on top of our current national deficit is mind-boggling. Can somebody justify for me why countless families are losing their homes while executives at these “failed” and restructured corporations earned hundreds of millions of dollars but aren’t being asked to return any of it? Can you tell me?

Professor Roy GrowI heard an analogy from Professor Roy Grow, the Frank B. Kellogg Professor of International Relations in the Carleton College‘s Department of Political Science, to help you think about what’s set up the crisis on Wall Street. The international relations program was originated in 1937 by former Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Frank B. Kellogg, through the establishment at Carleton of the Kellogg Foundation for Education in International Relations.

I’ll paraphrase Professor Grow’s dialectical discussion:

Imagine you’ve got ten large, healthy, competitive men gathered together. Set the task for them: win a game of basketball. They’ve all played basketball before. In fact, they’re quite good at it. But this isn’t college, with some fans of both teams cheering them on, there won’t even be a referee to call fouls or out-of-bounds. All the rules they’ve dealt with learning the game? Effectively gone, because you’ve deregulated the game.

Who will win?

Why?

There’s a fundamental problem with deregulation of the kind – and scope – that has taken place on Wall Street. Once there’s no reward for playing by mutually agreeable rules the ONLY reward is winning – at any cost. The value of deregulation seemed so great: let free markets determine what’s best; let competition determine the practices without the restricting burden of oversight.

In what other industry would you have confidence enough to let the people with the most to gain act without regulation? Would car companies be so concerned with passenger safety without regulation? Would you want doctors to practice unregulated- no assurance they’d act with YOUR best interest in mind? Lawyers? Accountants? Toy Manufacturers? Food processors? I’m not suggesting there’s nothing good about a free-market economy, nor am I suggesting every insurance company or investment firm is run by greedy executives, but there have been snake-oil salesmen preying upon the unwary since before the dawn of history as nearly as I can determine.

At one time we might have run such fast talkers out of town, or even applied tar and feathers, or worse. The notion that we’d let them leave smiling, with everything they’d pilfered intact, on their own schedule and terms? That, my friends, is a farce.

We’ve got a big problem. We’ve left foxes guarding the chicken coop. To borrow a phrase freighted with partisan overtones, we need to be “as careful getting out as we were careless getting in…” to this mess. I don’t pretend to know what the solution is; economics is not my forte, nor that of most of my close associates. I do know this: hasty proposals abound in any perceived crisis, but unless you’ve already been expecting the problem and have a plan in place taking time to consider several reasoned solutions often yields superior outcomes to adopting either the first idea or the one advanced by the loudest voice.

I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that some have tried to use the crisis for their own political and/or financial gain. That confirms the readiness of snake-oil salesmen and their ilk to exploit any suffering for their own personal advancement, and demonstrates one peril of trusting the lofty ideal of a free-market to work to everyone’s mutual benefit in the never-ideal real world.

Given that it’s tax dollars about to be put to use to repair the damage, given the complexity of the system(s), and balancing that complexity against the obvious repercussions to inaction, I hope a transparent set of priorities will allow wiser men than me to conceive and begin to implement the kind of oversight that has obviously been missing from this segment of the economy for years.

Given, lastly, that Senator Barack Obama had the foresight to write publicly to both Fed Chairmen Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Paulson about his concerns over looming repercussions from the questionable lending practices at the foundation of this crisis in March of 2007: Obama’s got both the fundamental familiarity and the network of advisors to facilitate identifying fiscal policy changes that should be on the table. It’s unfortunate that such an exercise would likely disrupt Obama’s presidential campaign, but he and his team have already given the problem serious thought; they must be included in the process.

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