Friday, August 17, 2012

Don't Expect Justice in a Corporatocracy

For any society to survive, much less thrive, it must be rooted in trust. The citizenry must trust the government and, most importantly, the justice system. It also helps if the people trust the banks that hold their money and finance their nation's economy.

However, that sort of trust is now virtually non-existent in our society.

According to a Gallup poll, only 18% of Americans — an all-time low — have confidence in banks. And a Pew Research survey found that Americans' trust in government is only marginally higher, at 22%.

Perhaps Americans have come to the conclusion that their government is colluding with the banks against their best interests. The examples are far and wide. In fact, they are so numerous that listing them all would be tedious, and reading them all would be cumbersome.

But, just to make the point, here are a few less than shining examples:

The SEC charged Wells Fargo with selling products tied to risky mortgage securities, causing municipalities and non-profits to suffer substantial losses as a result.

In response, Wells Fargo, the nation’s biggest consumer bank, recently agreed to pay a $6.5 million fine for these offenses without admitting or denying the charges.

Wells Fargo reported second-quarter pre-tax profits of $8.9 billion. This means that Wells Fargo will cough up a $6.5 million penalty from the nine-thousand-million dollar profit it made in just the second quarter of this year alone. That's about 0.07 percent of a single-quarter's profit.

Does this sound like justice to you? Will such a fine cause Wells Fargo to change its behaviors and practices? That's a rhetorical question.

A Senate report issued in July found that a "pervasively polluted" culture at HSBC allowed the bank to act as financier to clients moving shadowy funds from the world's most dangerous and secretive corners, including Mexico, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

The report said large amounts of Mexican drug money was likely to have passed through the bank. HSBC's U.S. division provided money and banking services to some banks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh that are believed to have helped fund al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

The U.S. unit of the London- based HSBC, Europe’s biggest bank, “offers a gateway for terrorists to gain access to U.S. dollars and the U.S. financial system,” according to the report.

Laundering money for criminal enterprises, including drug cartels, is nothing new for the Big Banks.

In 2010, Wachovia Bank (now owned by Wells Fargo) paid $160 million to resolve a criminal probe that Mexican cartels were using currency-exchange firms to launder cash through the bank.

British bank Standard Chartered recently agreed to a settlement of $340 million with New York’s top banking regulator, Benjamin Lawsky, over claims that it laundered hundreds of billions of dollars in tainted money for Iran and lied to regulators in the process.

The New York Department of Financial Services charged that the bank schemed with Iran for nearly a decade to hide from regulators 60,000 transactions worth $250 billion.

Lawsky’s office threatened to revoke the bank’s state license at a hearing scheduled this week, prompting Standard Chartered to settle. Such a move would have been a death knell for the bank.

For a bank that announced record profits of $6.78 billion in 2011, a $340 million fine is nothing more than a slap on the wrist. In fact, it amounts to just 5 percent of last year's profits. That sort of expense is simply calculated into the cost of doing business.

According to the New York Times, a trove of e-mails and memos detail an elaborate strategy devised by the bank’s executives to mask the identities of its Iranian clients and to thwart American efforts to detect money laundering.

In light of all this, it's tough for anyone to reasonably claim that justice was served because Standard Chartered paid a $340 million fine. Sadly, that sort of outcome is the rule, rather than the exception.

The report issued by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission nearly two years ago found that, by 2006, Goldman Sachs traders knew that they were selling dangerous investments packed with subprime home mortgages. Goldman was making big profits on these toxic investments, which they privately characterized as "junk," "dogs," "big old lemons" and "monstrosities."

These mortgage investment products eventually collapsed in value, bringing down the housing market and very nearly the American economy along with it.

Despite misleading investors about the risks of a mortgage-backed investment product known as Abacus (which Goldman was in fact betting against), Goldman Sachs was allowed to settle with the Securities and Exchange Commission for just $550 million.

Goldman had revenue of $28.8 billion and net income of $4.44 billion in 2011. Once again, the fine was merely a slap on the wrist that will not dissuade or prevent the Wall St. bank from similar behavior in the future. Such a penalty is merely calculated into its cost of doing business.

The SEC has also dropped its investigation into Goldman Sachs over a $1.3 billion mortgage bond known as Fremont Home Loan Trust 2006-E, even though it indicated earlier this year that charges were likely. Moreover, the Federal Housing Finance Agency had filed a lawsuit against Goldman alleging that it knew that Fremont, a subprime lender, was selling it mortgages certain to fail.

The Department of Justice also announced that it is ending its own Goldman investigation, launched after a congressional investigation chaired by senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) issued a report that found Goldman Sachs sold investments "in ways that created conflicts of interest with the firm’s clients and at times led to the bank's profiting from the same products that caused substantial losses for its clients.”

In May, the SEC dropped its probe of Lehman Brothers, even though an independent examiner appointed by the bankruptcy court of the defunct bank concluded that there were "actionable claims" against senior Lehman officers for using an accounting tool known as Repo 105 to book billions of dollars in phony sales to disguise the true extent of the bank's financial woes.

These are just the latest indications that the federal government has been neutered by Wall St. The revolving door between Washington and Wall St. has created a good old boys network, a corporate/political alliance that now controls our government. Our alleged leadership has been bought and paid for.

Regulation is dead. The industry's complaints about the burden of regulatory rules are absurd and fantastical.

Accountability and an adherence to the law are no longer expected from the Banksters. They do whatever they wish, gutting laws, ripping off their clients and paying meager fines to continue their perverted business as usual. Justice is only for regular people.

Ethics, scruples and moral decency are wholly absent. The government refuses to enforce its own laws and it allows bank lobbyists to water down others until they are meaningless.

More than 2,500 banking lobbyists are swarming the halls of Congress each week, fighting reform, meaning that the Big Banks now have five lobbyists for every member of Congress.

The Justice Department refused to pursue cases against Angelo Mozilo, the former head of the defunct mortgage giant Countrywide and Joseph Cassano, who ran the financial products division at AIG. These two men were central figures in the financial collapse, which led to the crisis that continues to destabilize our economy. And yet they remain free men.

I could go on and on with examples of paltry fines, dropped charges and cases that were never even opened. It's all so disgusting and disheartening. How can this nation claim to observe the rule of law when it refuses to uphold and enforce its laws?

How did the mega banks and corporations become exempt?

This nation's Supreme Court has upheld the absurd notion that corporations are people, due all the same rights under the law. While such a suggestion is absurd on its face, the deeper problem is that corporations — such as banks — are afforded an entirely separate set of rights and privileges that are not afforded to real, living, breathing, human citizens.

This nation's judicial, executive and legislative branches of government are all corrupt. How can anyone reasonably expect Wall St. or big business in general (Big Media, Big Energy, Big Agriculture, Big Pharma, Big Insurance, etc. ) to be otherwise? They are all part of the corruption.

The heart of the problem is that corporate financing of political campaigns has led to corporate control of our country. Corporations have bought our government and they now own it. They control the country and the government.

This nation is now a corporatocracy. We are officially the United States of Corporate America.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

First Deflation, Then Inflation

American workers have seen a 0.5 percent decline in the inflation-adjusted value of their paychecks over the past year. That decline is a worrisome development since the Consumer Price Index increased 1.7 percent over the 12 months ending in June.

Both data points are indicators of a struggling economy and raise the specter of deflation.

Though the inflation rate averaged 2.35 percent over the first six months of the year, the rate has gone down each and every month, dropping from 2.93 percent in January to 1.66 percent in June. That decline has paralleled the slowdown of the economy.

The inflation rate was below 2 percent in both May and June, a slower pace than the Federal Reserve would like. Historically, from 1914 to 2012, the United States inflation rate has averaged 3.36 percent.

Europe is already in recession, the U.S. economy has been slowing for six months, and the larger global economy is gradually losing steam right along with it. Recessions are, by definition, deflationary. That's the primary concern of the Federal Reserve at present.

While the falling prices associated with deflation might not seem like such a bad thing to the average consumer, falling wages are another thing altogether. Falling wages make debt repayment all the more difficult, and Americans are still saddled with onerous debts. Though total household debt fell from $12.7 trillion in 2008 to $11.4 trillion as of the first quarter of 2012, it is still enormous by any measure.

Given that the Fed has pumped trillions into the economy and banking system over the past few years, the typical concern should be price inflation. Yet, it is rather tame at the moment and is, in fact, declining.

To fend off signs of a double-dip recession, the Fed will continue to print money — lots of it. And it will continue buying Treasuries as well — lots of them. QE3 is just a matter of time. Through its purchases of additional government debt, the Fed hopes to prevent money from draining out of the financial system in a deflationary spiral.

But after lowering short-term rates to nearly zero, funneling oodles of money into the Big Banks and buying enough mortgage-backed bonds to drop mortgage rates to record-low levels, the question is, What more can the Fed do?

Even if money is made cheap and readily available, the Fed cannot force Americans to borrow. People with huge debts, falling wages, no jobs, or the fear of becoming unemployed, will not be persuaded to borrow.

And therein lies the problem: our entire economy is predicated on borrowing and lending for economic growth to occur. Money is created through borrowing. Without borrowing, there is less money and no growth. Absent growth, there are no jobs. And without jobs, there is no recovery.

The fear of so many economists is that the U.S. might be following Japan's path into a "lost decade" of our own.

That is a disturbing and worrisome possibility.

At some point, the Fed will have to mop-up, or extract, all those trillions of dollars in excess liquidity from the economy. If it is unable to do that quickly enough, and at will, then the focus will shift back to inflation — perhaps lots of it.