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Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank in the US, files for liquidation after huge losses in the mortgage market, a crippling loss of investor confidence, and its inability to find a buyer. Lehman’s collapse began as the mortgage market crisis unfolded in summer 2007, when its stock began a steady fall from a peak of $82 a share. Fears were based on the fact that the firm was a major player in the market for subprime and prime mortgages, and that as the smallest of the major Wall Street firms, it faced a larger risk that large losses could be fatal. As its crisis deepened in 2007 and early 2008, the investment bank defied expectations more than once, as it had many times before, such as in 1998, when it teetered after a worldwide currency crisis, only to strongly rebound. Lehman managed to avoid the fate of fellow investment bank Bear Stearns, which was bought by JP Morgan Chase at a bargain basement price under the threat of bankruptcy in March 2008 (see March 15, 2008). By summer, however, Lehman’s roller-coaster ride began to have more downs than ups. A series of write-offs accompanied new offerings to seek capital to bolster its finances. [New York Times, 9/16/2008]
US taxpayers express their lack of support of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP—see October 3, 2008) bailout bill to members of Congress, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and the Senate and House budget committee chairs—Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Barney Frank (D-NY), respectively—with phone calls, emails, and faxes, initially rallying the power and the numbers to defeat the bill that some call “a historic swindle.” [The Nation, 9/19/2008] According to the Congressional Quarterly, “[Senator Lindsey] Graham (R-FL) said that the deluge of public e-mails and telephone calls was comparable to several of the most contentious issues of the last decade.” Graham adds:
“It’s somewhere between impeachment and immigration.… This is intense, but I’ve seen worse.” [Congressional Quarterly, 9/28/2008]
The share price in the insurance giant AIG collapses to $4.76 amid fears over the company’s credit rating, which is subsequently cut by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. This means that the company needs additional capital, and it is given permission by New York State to access $20 billion in its subsidiaries. In addition, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase work to prepare a potential $75 billion lifeline. [Bloomberg, 9/16/2008; Bloomberg, 3/5/2009] However, this is not enough, and the US government will be forced to seize control of AIG the next day (see September 16, 2008).
AIG logo. [Source: American International Group (AIG)]In an historic move, the federal government bails out insurance corporation AIG with an $85 billion loan, giving control of the firm to the US government. After resisting AIG’s overtures for an emergency loan or other intervention to prevent the insurer from falling into bankruptcy, the government decided AIG, like the now-defunct investment bank, Bear Stearns, was “too big to fail” (see March 15, 2008). The US government will lend up to $85 billion to AIG. In return, the government gets a 79.9 percent equity stake in warrants, called equity participation notes. The two-year loan will carry a LIBOR interest rate plus 8.5 percentage points. LIBOR, the London InterBank Offered Rate, is a common short-term lending benchmark. The bailout comes less than a week after the government allowed a large investment bank, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., to fold (see September 14, 2008). As part of the loan agreement, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson insists that AIG’s chief executive, Robert Willumstad, steps aside. Willumstad will be succeeded by Edward Liddy, the former head of insurer Allstate Corp (see September 18, 2008). [Wall Street Journal, 9/16/2008] Shares in AIG drop to $3.75 on the news. [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009]
The insurance corporation AIG, which was recently bailed out by the US government (see September 16, 2008), makes $18.7 billion in payments to other world banks. The payments are related to credit default swaps, and are made in the three weeks after the bailout to institutions such as Goldman Sachs and Société Générale. [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009]
Mohammed bin Khalifa al-Thani, a member of the royal family of Qatar, pays $280.4 million for a 5% stake in the Icelandic Kaupthing Bank (see February 22, 2008). The bank’s shares have been falling on Iceland’s stock exchange, down 57% in the last twelve months, and the bank has been buying them back itself in an attempt to boost its stock price. The purchase makes al-Thani the third largest shareholder in the bank. [Forbes, 9/22/2008] Seventeen days later, the bank will be on the verge of collapse and will be seized by the government of Iceland. [Reuters, 10/9/2008]
The government of Iceland takes a 75 percent stake in the country’s third-largest bank, Glitnir, after the bank runs into short-term funding problems. [BBC, 2/2/2009]
China’s economic growth slumps to 6.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, down from 9 percent in the third quarter. The decline is due to the global financial crisis, but is close to market expectations of 7 percent. The National Bureau of Statistics comments, “The international financial crisis is deepening and spreading with continuing negative impacts on the domestic economy.” This means that China’s annual economic growth is only 9 percent, the lowest level for seven years. In the previous five years annual growth had been over 10 percent, making China the third-largest economy in the world. Following the release of the figures in early 2009, many economists, especially those at Western banks, believe China will expand by no more than 5-6 percent in 2009, which would be the weakest performance since 1990. “We expect growth of 6.0 percent for 2009 as a whole, with risks still skewed to the downside,” Royal Bank of Canada says in a commentary. Others agree the economy will remain weak in the first half but think Beijing will hit its target of 8 percent growth for all of 2009 as November’s 4 trillion yuan ($585 billion) stimulus package and much easier monetary policy kick in. “The government has realized the fact that the economy is declining and regards the 8 percent target as a political task. Therefore, I think we can achieve the goal,” says Jin Yanshi, chief economist at Sinolink Securities in Shanghai. [Reuters, 1/22/2009]
House of Representatives bill 1424, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), passes by a slim margin in both Congressional houses, and is immediately signed into law by President Bush. [White House, 10/3/2008]
Edward Liddy, the recently installed chief executive officer of troubled insurer AIG, says the company soon plans to repay the bailout loan it received from the US Federal Reserve (see September 16, 2008). To do this, it intends to sell life insurance operations in the United States, Europe, Latin America, South Asia, and Japan. Liddy says AIG has been contacted by “numerous” potential bidders, adding, “The values that we will receive from the assets we intend to dispose will be more than enough to repay the Fed facility.” [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009; Reuters, 4/17/2009]
The government of Iceland offers an unlimited guarantee for all savers in local banks. In addition, Iceland’s parliament passes emergency legislation enabling the government to intervene extensively in Iceland’s financial system. [BBC, 2/2/2009]
Trading in Iceland’s six biggest financial shares is suspended on the OMX Nordic Exchange Iceland. [BBC, 2/2/2009]
The government of Iceland takes control of the country’s second and third largest banks, Landsbanki and Glitnir; it already had a majority in Glitnir (see September 29, 2008). The financial crisis hit Icelandic banks so severely because they owe relatively more money than banks in other countries. When the crisis starts in earnest, they owe around six times the country’s total gross domestic product. Therefore, when the world’s credit markets dry up, they are unable to refinance their loans. [BBC, 2/2/2009]
The troubled insurer AIG, which was recently bailed out by the US government (see September 16, 2008), is given more money. In the additional bailout, the government enables AIG to borrow an extra $37.8 billion, on top of the originally provided $85 billion. This addition is provided after customers pull out of AIG’s securities-lending program. [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009]
Following the seizure of two Icelandic banks by that country’s government (see October 7, 2008), the British government invokes anti-terrorism legislation to seize Icelandic assets in Britain. Iceland’s Prime Minister Geir Haarde criticizes Britain, saying he is upset and shocked that it has used “hostile” anti-terrorism legislation to freeze Icelandic banks’ assets. However, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemns Iceland’s handling of the collapse of its banks and its failure to guarantee British savers’ deposits. He says Iceland’s policies are “effectively illegal” and “completely unacceptable.” Iceland will later threaten legal action against Britain. [BBC, 2/2/2009]
Iceland’s government takes control of the country’s biggest bank, Kaupthing. This follows a decision by the British government to invoke anti-terrorism legislation to freeze Icelandic assets in Britain (see October 8, 2008). [BBC, 2/2/2009]
The insurance giant AIG, which was recently bailed out by the US government (see September 16, 2008), is criticized over post-bailout spending, on news it spent $200,000 on hotel rooms and $23,000 on spa services after it got the government loan. In addition, AIG says that, as of two days previously, it had borrowed $70.3 billion from the government. [Reuters, 4/17/2009]
The Central Bank of Iceland cuts the country’s interest rate by 3.5 percent to 12 percent. Interest rates had previously been at a record high of 15.5 percent. [BBC, 2/2/2009]
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo says he is investigating what he calls “unwarranted and outrageous” spending by insurance giant AIG, which was recently bailed out by the US government (see September 16, 2008). Cuomo says he is seeking a full accounting of bonuses, stock options, and other perks. He wants AIG to either recover or rescind the payments. [Reuters, 4/17/2009]
Iceland’s financial authorities formally announce the establishment of new Glitnir, Landsbanki, and Kaupthing banks. The old banks were taken over by the government two weeks previously as their condition had deteriorated due to the global credit crisis (see October 7, 2008 and October 8, 2008). [BBC, 2/2/2009]
Edward Liddy, chief executive officer of the recently bailed-out insurance corporation AIG (see September 16, 2008), says that the $122.8 billion already offered by the government “may not be enough” to stabilize the company. The size of the bailout and favorability of the terms will be increased the next month (see November 10, 2008). [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009]
As reported by progressive media watchdog site Media Matters, many different conservative radio hosts repeat a falsehood about presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-IL) that originates on the Drudge Report. According to the original report, Obama told a radio audience in 2001 that he regretted the US Supreme Court did not pursue “wealth redistribution,” a concept some associate with socialism. Obama did not make such a statement; instead he said during that interview that it was a tragedy the civil rights movement “became so court-focused” in trying to bring about political and social equality. Minneapolis radio host Chris Baker misquotes Obama by claiming that he said “we gotta have economic justice and the Supreme Court ought to weigh in on redistributing wealth.” Baker adds: “Yeah, it’s too bad you kind of stuck with the Constitution as it was. It’s a tragedy that redistribution of wealth was not pursued by the Supreme Court. Can you believe that?” Baker also claims that Obama “wants to use the Supreme Court to reinterpret the Constitution in order to force the redistribution of wealth.” Baker is not the only radio host to repeat the falsehood. Sean Hannity tells his radio audience, referring to the 2001 interview, “Obama actually believes the Constitution is defective because it doesn’t allow judges to redistribute wealth.” He adds: “if he becomes president, [Obama] wants the Supreme Court and other federal courts to literally have the power to spread the wealth around and redistribute the wealth. Those are his words, his voice.” He goes on to say flatly, “Obama is a socialist.” Mark Levin tells his listeners, “what the [Supreme] Court should have done from Obama’s point of view was impose socialism from the bench.” Levin levels another false accusation against Obama: that he wants to reinterpret the 14th Amendment “to compel as a matter of constitutional law, the socialist agenda. In other words, constitutionalize redistribution of wealth.” Radio hosts Michael Savage, Jim Quinn, Brian Sussman, and others reiterate the claims, with Quinn telling listeners: “He just got done telling you that the Constitution’s only half-done. He needs to write the other half—you know, the other half where we decide how much we take from you and give to that guy down the street.” Like many of his colleagues, Sussman plays an edited clip of Obama’s 2001 statement to bolster his claims. [Media Matters, 10/28/2008; Media Matters, 11/6/2008]
The Central Bank of Iceland raises its key interest rate to 18 percent from 12 percent due to problems in the country’s banking system. [BBC, 2/2/2009]
The US’s two most popular conservative radio hosts, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, are repeatedly labeling the current economic collapse the “Obama recession,” even though the recession has started already, and President-elect Barack Obama was only elected on November 4 and will not assume the presidency until January 20, 2009.
Blaming Obama for Wall Street Plunge - According to reports by progressive media watchdog site Media Matters, Hannity’s guest Dick Morris, a conservative political operative, tells a Fox News audience on November 6 that the stock market plunge is directly attributable to Obama’s election and his intention to “raise the capital gains tax.” Hannity calls the stock market plunge “the Obama tanking.” On the same day, Limbaugh says on his show: “We have the largest market plunge after an election in history. Thank you, man-child Barack Obama.” [Media Matters, 11/7/2008] Hannity says on November 11 that Obama’s election is directly responsible for plunging stock market performances, telling his listeners: “Wall Street keeps sinking. Could it be the Obama recession: The fear that taxes are gonna go up, forcing people to pull out of the market?” On November 12, Limbaugh echoes Hannity’s characterization, telling his listeners that, as reported by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, “the recession isn’t President Bush’s fault. It’s the fault, catch this, of the president who hasn’t yet taken office. It’s an ‘Obama recession’; that’s what he’s calling it.” Matthews, clearly impatient with Limbaugh’s characterization, calls the host’s statement an example of “the bitter sore loser’s rhetoric we are hearing from the right these days.” [Media Matters, 11/12/2008]
Experts Credit Obama with Wall Street Stabilization - Experts refute Limbaugh’s and Hannity’s attribution of the nation’s economic calamity to Obama, with the Wall Street Journal giving Obama credit for a post-election upturn in the stock market and blaming “lame economic data” and the continuing “drumbeat of bailouts, potential bailouts, and worries about other bailouts” for the stock market’s poor performance. [Wall Street Journal, 11/12/2008] Fox News business commentator Eric Bolling credits Obama’s election with stabilizing the stock market until a dismal national employment report caused the market to drop again. And Fox Business Channel’s vice president, Alexis Glick, tells her audience on November 7: “I so did not believe that the market reaction over the past two days was about Obama. Wednesday morning we walked in, we saw the Challenger and Gray [planned layoff] numbers, we saw the ADP numbers, the weekly jobless claim numbers—yeah, well, they were basically in line, but we knew two days ago that this was going to be a bloody number. Frankly, we probably knew several months ago that it was going to be a bloody number.” The Wall Street Journal and New York Times both agree with Glick’s assessment. [Media Matters, 11/7/2008; New York Times, 11/7/2008]
Entity Tags: Alexis Glick, Media Matters, Barack Obama, Fox Business Channel, Eric Bolling, Dick Morris, New York Times, Chris Matthews, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Wall Street Journal
Timeline Tags: Global Economic Crises, Domestic Propaganda, 2008 Elections, 2010 Elections
The troubled insurance giant AIG seeks a modification of a bailout it received from the US government in September (see September 16, 2008), according to reports. An additional loan following the initial bailout has already been made (see October 8, 2008). However, AIG now wants to alter the terms of the bailout, extending the duration and lowering the interest rate. Shares in the company close at $2.11. [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009] AIG will obtain the modification within a few days (see November 10, 2008).
To facilitate AIG’s ability to complete its corporate restructuring, the New York Federal Reserve, as authorized by the US Federal Reserve, creates Maiden Lane II LLC and Maiden Lane III LLC to fund the purchase of certain multi-sector collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) from certain AIG Financial Products Corporation (AIGFP) counterparts. The Asset Portfolio purchase will be made in two stages, with Maiden Lane II LLC lending AIG $26.8 billion on November 25, 2008, and Maiden Lane III LLC lending AIGFP and its counterparties $2.5 billion on December 18, 2008 (see March, 2008). [Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 11/10/2008]
The terms of the bailout given to troubled insurance giant AIG are modified, following calls from the insurer (see October 22, 2008 and November 7, 2008). The conditions of the government bailout were set in September (see September 16, 2008), but the interest rate is now lowered and the term is extended from two years to three. In addition, the rescue package grows to $150 billion, including a $60 billion loan, a $40 billion capital investment, and about $50 billion to buy mortgage-linked assets owned by AIG or guaranteed by it through credit default swaps. AIG also announces a record loss (see July-September 2008). [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009]
Detroit’s Big Three CEOs testify for more than two hours in a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, using dire language to describe the financial straits that are threatening to bankrupt their companies. Chrysler LLC CEO Robert Nardelli says that without immediate help, his company could be forced into bankruptcy. “We cannot be confident that we will be able to successfully emerge,” he says. General Motors (GM) Corporation’s CEO, Rick Wagoner, adds that the failure of the industry would be “catastrophic,” causing the loss of 3 million jobs. Ford Motor Company CEO Alan Mulally tells the committee that if one of the automakers failed, the whole industry could be disrupted. “You’re here to get life support,” says ranking minority member Richard Shelby (R-AL). “Why aren’t you making money? How would you pay this money back?”
Financial Losses Worse than Originally Believed - The automakers say that their financial losses were worse than they at first thought, with Nardelli testifying that his company ran through $5 billion this year, including $3.3 billion in the third quarter, with only $6.1 billion on hand to last through the end of the year. Wagoner says that his firm would spend $15 billion by the end of 2008, and another $10 billion in 2009. Wagoner wants $10-$12 billion for GM, while Mulally and Nardelli want $7 billion for their respective corporations. Both Wagoner and Nardelli say that their companies will run out of money in a matter of months. One senator asks if the automakers would be willing to make monthly status reports on cash flow if the Senate agrees to the loan. Nardelli offers to take $1 a year as salary compensation; neither Mulally nor Wagoner did not make the same commitment. Nardelli also committed to Chrysler’s agreeing to consider new fuel efficiency standards. “We’d be open to any requirements,” he says.
Already Cut Costs, Moved to Restructure - The automakers testify how aggressively they have moved to cut costs, restructure, and revamp their product lines to be more competitive with foreign rivals, and say their companies were making progress until they were derailed by the credit crisis that has stalled the global economy and dried up consumer confidence. Auto sales are at their lowest level in at least 15 years, they say, dropping nearly 32 percent in October. As a testament to the seriousness of their financial crisis, the three automakers assure the committee that they would spend the requested $25 billion in the United States; however, they refuse to say that they would not come back for further bailout funding. Wagoner testifies that GM has cut $9 billion in costs since 2005. He touts labor agreements with the United Auto Workers that will further cut wage and health care expenses, and says that improvements in designing and manufacturing vehicles as well as developing fuel-saving technologies will also assist in reining in manufacturing costs. “As a result of these and other actions, we are now matching—or besting—foreign automakers in terms of productivity, quality and fuel economy,” he says. Wagoner assures the committee that the company was moving quickly to right its business. “We have more work to do in all aspects of our business,” Wagoner said. “This is hard stuff.” He said that GM would use some of the money to pay suppliers and pay for part of the Chevrolet Volt program.
UAW President Grilled - In his own testimony, United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger ranks the relative financial health of the Big Three as Ford being the most solvent, with Chrysler at number two, while General Motors may be at or near insolvency by the end of 2008. The UAW chief faces tough questions as well, as Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) pushes back on union work rules and the jobs bank. “I understand Mr. Gettelfinger has done a good job on behalf of all workers not working and being paid,” Corker says, calling the practice unacceptable in other businesses.
Disagreement among Democrats, Republicans - Democrats support a plan to subtract $25 billion from the $700 billion Wall Street bailout package, known as the Troubled Asset Recovery Program (TARP), while Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has joined the White House call to speed up money previously authorized for the automakers through an Energy Department loan program. “To basically change the qualifications of the money that we have already appropriated is a sound way to go forward,” said McConnell. House Democrats and many environmentalists oppose the use of the Energy Department loan, since it is approved only for projects that lead to significant fuel efficiency improvements. Carl Levin (D-MI) says that in order to get a bill, Republicans must write language that explains how they would quickly get $25 billion from the Energy Department program to automakers. But Levin is realistic about the long road they face. “Progress: No. Effort: Hell, yes. Big-time effort,” he says. “We haven’t seen progress and won’t see progress until we see the language from those who want to see the [Energy Department] funds.” Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) says she will “very reluctantly” agree to reworking the retooling loans if that was the only way to get help now. Other Senate allies of the auto industry, including Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Ken Salazar (D-CO), opposed the proposal to shift $25 billion from TARP. “I’m not sure we want to throw good money after bad,” Salazar says. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, says it will be nearly impossible to make a deal before Congress adjourns for the year later this week. “Reading the tea leaves, I just don’t think it’s going to happen,” Baucus says. “There’s not enough time given the opposition of the White House and opposition of the other side of the aisle.” Corker echoes the belief that nothing would get done this year, calling the hearings “the first step in a loan application.”
Further Hearings Slated - The CEOs will return to Capitol Hill for a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday, November 25. [Detroit News, 11/19/2008]
Entity Tags: United Auto Workers, Ford Motor Company, Debbie Stabenow, Chrysler, Carl Levin, Alan Mulally, General Motors, Senate Banking Committee, Max Baucus, Rick Wagoner, Robert Nardelli
Timeline Tags: Global Economic Crises
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) approves a $2.1 billion loan for Iceland, whose economy has been devastated by the global financial crisis. Iceland becomes the first Western European nation to get an IMF loan since Britain in 1976. [BBC, 2/2/2009]
Recently bailed-out insurance giant AIG sets the salary of its Chief Executive Officer Edward Liddy at $1 for 2008/9. It also freezes pay and scraps bonuses for its seven most senior executives. [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009] In addition, 50 more AIG executives will be locked out of pay rises in 2009. [Reuters, 4/17/2009]
The British retail chain Woolworths goes into administration with debts of £385m (about $580m). The administration was brought on by a cash crisis and a loss of backing by financial institutions that had lent it money, in particular Burdale and GMAC. It is the largest casualty of the global economic crisis in Britain so far, and its failure jeopardizes 30,000 jobs across the country. The British government had intervened to save the company, but only by encouraging last-minute talks between it and the lenders, which failed. No financial support from the taxpayer was offered. The administrator, the auditor Deloitte, appoints Hilco, a company specializing in reconstruction, to run the business. Hilco had been attempting to buy Woolworths before it went into administration. Deloitte says that stores will remain open during the Christmas period, and that it will attempt to find a new owner that can satisfy the company’s lenders. [Financial Times, 11/26/2008]
US government-seized mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac suspend foreclosures from November 26, 2008 until January 9, 2009. The six-week suspension on both foreclosures and evictions will give loan servicers time to implement streamlined loan modifications for struggling borrowers. Since September 6, 2008, Fannie and Freddie have been federal government-controlled and sponsored entities that own or guarantee $5.2 billion of the $12 billion US home mortgage market. They offer borrowers who are 90 days or more delinquent with high loan-to-income ratios a chance to modify their mortgage terms to decrease their monthly mortgage payments by roughly 38 percent of the homeowner’s monthly pretax salary. The companies say they plan to reduce interest rates for up to 5 years while lengthening repayment terms as much as 40 years to trim monthly payments. [Bloomberg, 11/20/2008]
The financial industry may cut as much as $2 trillion in credit card account lines over the next 18 months, according to Oppenheimer & Co analyst Meredith Whitney. This is in an effort to reduce damage risks from increasing customer delinquencies and defaults. “[W]e expect available consumer liquidity in the form of credit-card lines to decline by 45 percent,” she adds. According to Whitney, all three remaining major banks—Bank of America, Citigroup, and JP Morgan Chase—are planning or considering reducing credit lines across the board. Credit cards are the second source of liquidity available to consumers, behind wages from work. She criticizes the banking industry for offering ever fewer choices at a time when consumers need credit more than ever: “Pulling credit when job losses are increasing by over 50 percent year-over-year in most key states is a dangerous and unprecedented combination, in our view.” [Consumer Affairs.com, 12/1/2008; Reuters, 12/1/2008]
Recently bailed-out insurer AIG agrees to sell a bank unit serving clients in Asia and the Middle East for about $250 million. [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009] This is part of a program to sell business units in order to repay the government (see September 18, 2008).
The recently bailed-out insurer AIG and the US government say they have reached an agreement on toxic mortgage debt held by the company. The agreement will clear AIG of its obligations on about $53.5 billion in such debt. [Reuters, 4/17/2009]
Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly and former Bush administration political director Karl Rove tell listeners that media journalists are “overstating” the current economic problems in order to help the incoming Obama administration. O’Reilly asks Rove, “All right, so you are agreeing with me then that there is a conscious effort on the part of the New York Times and other liberal media to basically paint as drastic a picture as possible, so that when Barack Obama takes office that anything is better than what we have now?” Rove’s response: “Yes.” O’Reilly says that the “plot” is to “blame everything on Bush for quite a long period of time.” Rove calls the economic reporting little more than “scare tactics.” O’Reilly concludes: “All I want is an honest press. I’m not hoping one way or the other.” Amanda Terkel of the Center for American Progress observes: “For years, in fact, the Bush administration has tried Rove and O’Reilly’s strategy of insisting that nothing is wrong. Although the United States has been in a recession since December 2007, the Bush administration has continued to insist that the economy was strong. The result? A government unprepared to deal with ‘the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.’” [Think Progress (.org), 12/9/2008]
According to Jim Rogers, the co-founder of the Quantum Fund along with billionaire financier George Soros, the federal government’s efforts to fix the sector are “wrongheaded.” During a teleconference at the Reuters Investment Outlook 2009 Summit, Rogers says that the government’s $700 billion rescue package for the sector doesn’t address how banks manage their balance sheets, and rewards weaker lenders with new capital. More than two dozen banks have received infusions from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and some TARP funds are being used for acquisitions. [White House, 10/3/2008] “Without giving specific names, most of the significant American banks, the larger banks, are bankrupt, totally bankrupt,” says Rogers, now a private investor. “What is outrageous economically and is outrageous morally is that normally in times like this, people who are competent and who saw it coming and who kept their powder dry go and take over the assets from the incompetent,” he continues. “What’s happening this time is that the government is taking the assets from the competent people and giving them to the incompetent people and saying, now you can compete with the competent people. It is horrible economics.” [Reuters, 12/11/2008]
Edward Liddy, chief executive officer of recently bailed-out insurer AIG, pledges to repay taxpayers “every single penny we owe them.” The company currently has around $150 billion of the taxpayers’ money (see November 10, 2008). However, Liddy adds that the company will get the money by selling business units, and the timetable of such sales could change. AIG shares close at $1.73. [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009]
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says Iceland, which has been devastated by the global financial crisis, has taken the first important steps towards restoring financial stability. It says the key objective of stabilizing Iceland’s currency, the krona, is being met. [BBC, 2/2/2009]
Recently bailed-out insurer AIG agrees to sell one of its insurance subsidiaries, Hartford Steam Boiler, for $742 million. However, this is about a third less than it paid for the unit eight years ago. [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009] The unit is purchased by the German reinsurer Munich Re, which wants to expand its US business. [Reuters, 4/17/2009] This sale is part of a program to sell business units in order to repay AIG’s bailout loans to the government (see September 18, 2008).
Washington Post economics columnist Steven Pearlstein criticizes Mary Schapiro, President-Elect Barack Obama’s pick to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a financial market regulator. Pearlstein says that the selection of Schapiro, who has a long background in regulating the industry, is “as safe and predictable as it is disappointing.” He adds that Schapiro has some good qualities and would be a sound pick at another time. However, “The problem is that there is nothing in her record to suggest that she is likely to clean house at the agency and launch a brutal and sustained assault on Wall Street culture.”
Unethical Practices - Pearlstein adds: “Remember the good old days when corporations would routinely manipulate earnings so that they came out just as the analysts expected? Or when analysts used to issue buy recommendations for stocks they knew were lousy just because it helped their firms win investment-banking business? Or when brokerage firms would routinely put clueless customers in mutual funds that offered high commissions, not the best results? Or when investment banks would put aside shares in the hottest IPOs for the personal accounts of corporate chief executives who steered underwriting business their way? These practices weren’t secrets—to anyone even vaguely familiar with the industry, they were hidden in plain view. And yet for years, no regulator, including Schapiro, was willing to risk being demonized by the industry, criticized by Congress and overturned by the courts to do what was necessary to stop these practices.”
'Show Trials' - He then sets out his vision for what the new chairman should do, what he thinks Schapiro will not do: “We need an SEC chairman who is willing to move beyond narrow enforcement actions and no-fault consent decrees to stage a series of regulatory show trials that will expose in graphic detail how people think and behave at all levels of Wall Street firms. We need a chairman who will use the commission’s broad powers to fine and debar from the industry big-name directors, top executives, ratings agency officials and other gatekeepers whose nonfeasance resulted in significant losses for investors, customers and taxpayers. We need a chairman who will make effective use of the bully pulpit to expose other well-known industry practices that put the interests of Wall Street ahead of those of its customers.” [Washington Post, 1/7/2009]
Temasek Holdings, an arm of the government of Singapore, acquires shares in Bank of America. It does this by converting shares it had purchased in Merrill Lynch (see December 25, 2007 and July 29, 2008) into shares in Bank of America, which had recently purchased Merrill Lynch (see September 14, 2008). Temasek now owns 3.8 percent of Bank of America. [Reuters, 1/11/2009]
The California Nurses Association (CNA) releases the results of a study which found “a national single-payer style health care reform system would provide a major stimulus for the US economy by creating 2.6 million new jobs, and infusing $317 billion in new business and public revenues, with another $100 billion in wages into the US economy.” The study was conducted by the Institute for Health & Socio-Economic Policy (IHSP), a “non-profit policy and research group” that is “the exclusive research arm of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee.” In addition to the growth in jobs and revenues generated by covering the 47 million Americans who were uninsured as of 2006, the study also found that universal coverage “could be achieved for $63 billion beyond the current $2.1 trillion in direct health care spending,” according to the press release for the study, which also notes that this figure is “six times less than the federal bailout for CitiGroup, and less than half the federal bailout for AIG.” [CalNurses.org, 1/14/2009]
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh has already launched attacks on President-elect Barack Obama, including attempting to blame him for the global recession even though he has not yet taken office (see November 5-12, 2008). Today he tells his listeners that he hopes Obama’s administration is a failure. (Limbaugh’s words are publicly reported by the liberal organization ThinkProgress; his remarks are carried on his Web site, but are accessible only to those who pay for access.) Limbaugh says, “I disagree fervently with the people on our [Republican] side of the aisle who have caved and who say, ‘Well, I hope he succeeds.’” Limbaugh says “a major American print publication” has asked him to write a brief statement on his “hope for the Obama presidency.” Limbaugh’s response: “So I’m thinking of replying to the guy, ‘Okay, I’ll send you a response, but I don’t need 400 words, I need four: I hope he fails.” When Limbaugh is interrupted by someone in the studio laughing, he continues: “What are you laughing at? See, here’s the point. Everybody thinks it’s outrageous to say. Look, even my staff, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ Why not? Why is it any different, what’s new, what is unfair about my saying I hope liberalism fails? Liberalism is our problem. Liberalism is what’s gotten us dangerously close to the precipice here. Why do I want more of it? I don’t care what the Drive-By story is. [Limbaugh often refers to the mainstream media as the ‘drive-by media.’] I would be honored if the Drive-By Media headlined me all day long: ‘Limbaugh: I Hope Obama Fails.’ Somebody’s gotta say it.” [Think Progress, 1/20/2009]
NYU Economics Professor Nouriel Roubini tells Bloomberg News that, following the $350 billion injection by the Bush Administration, President Barack Obama will have to use as much as $1 trillion of taxpayer funds to shore up capitalization of the banking sector. “The problems of Citi, Bank of America and others suggest the system is bankrupt,” Roubini said. “In Europe, it’s the same thing.” Roubini also predicts that oil prices will continue to trade between $30 to $40 a barrel all year. Regarding commodities, Roubini said, “I see commodities falling overall another 15-20%. This outlook for commodity prices is beneficial for oil importers, it’s going to imply that economic recovery might occur faster, but from the point of view of oil exporters, this will be very negative.” [Street Insider.com, 1/20/2009; Bloomberg, 1/20/2009]
The Icelandic finance ministry says the country’s economy is forecast to shrink by 9.6 percent in 2009. In addition, it predicts no growth in 2010. [BBC, 2/2/2009]
The rating of a plane leasing unit owned by recently bailed-out insurer AIG is downgraded by Standard & Poor’s. This prompts the US government to cut lending to the business through a bailout program for commercial paper. [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009]
Amid reports of a $15.4 billion loss, $1.2 million in office redecorations and earlier-than-usual million-dollar bonuses using TARP funds, John Thain resigns as CEO of troubled firm Merrill Lynch, recently purchased by Bank of America.
Investigating Bonuses - While Thain forgoes a 2008 bonus, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating bonuses paid to Merrill executives in late December, right before the deal closed. Merrill normally pays bonuses in January or February. Cuomo is investigating performance bonuses for Merrill’s CEO and other top executives, calling the bonuses an “oxymoron” during such an “abysmal year.” According to Merrill’s securities filings, Thain’s salary was $750,000 last year.
$837,000 for Redecoration - “Spending company money on a lavish redo at a time when Merrill’s finances were rocky sends the wrong message,” said Amy Borrus, deputy director at the Council of Institutional Investors in Washington. “Given the dire straits that so many financial institutions are in, redecorating the corner office should be way down on their to-do lists.” Someone familiar with Thain’s New York office redecoration claims that the CEO paid decorator Michael Smith $837,000 and his purchases included $87,000 for area rugs, $25,000 for a pedestal table and $68,000 for a 19th century credenza. Smith, a Santa Monica, California-based decorator, was recently commissioned by Michelle Obama to decorate the White House.
35,000 Job Losses - Thain, a former executive for Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and the New York Stock Exchange, joins about 35,000 employees that Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis plans to eliminate over the next few years from the combined firms’ total of over 260,000 employees.
Abysmal Performance - Lewis’s credibility was undercut after Merrill reported a record fourth-quarter deficit. Lewis considered backing out of the deal after learning the extent of Merrill’s losses in December 2008, but went ahead with the buyout at the insistence of US regulators who provided a new $138 billion aid package. “There was a certain surprise that the Merrill losses were as steep as they were,” says James Post, a professor of corporate governance and business ethics at Boston University School of Management. “On top of that, I think Lewis didn’t think Thain was doing as much as he could to control the expenses and minimize the losses.” Shares in Bank of America, down 53 percent so far in 2008, slide another 14 percent to $5.71 by the close of New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Thain bought 84,600 shares in Bank of America, at $5.71 each, the day before his ouster, a filing showed. [Bloomberg, 1/22/2009]
New York University economist Nouriel “Dr. Doom” Roubini and Western Europe Finance and Banking analyst Elisa Parisi-Capone of RGE Monitor release new estimates for expected loan losses and writedowns on US originated securitizations:
Loan losses on a total of $12.37 trillion unsecuritized loans are expected to reach $1.6 trillion. Of these, US banks and brokers are expected to incur $1.1 trillion.
Mark-to-market writedowns based on derivatives prices and cash bond indices on a further $10.84 trillion in securities reached $1.92 trillion. According to flow-of-funds data, about 40% of these securities (and losses) are foreign-held. US banks and broker dealers are assumed to incur a share of 30-35%, or $600-700 billion in securities writedowns.
US-originated assets’ total loan losses and securities writedowns are expected to reach about $3.6 trillion. The US banking sector is exposed to half of this figure, or about $1.8 trillion (i.e. $1.1 trillion loan losses + $700bn writedowns).
As of the third quarter of 2008, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation-insured banks’ capitalization is $1.3 trillion; as of the same period, investment banks had $110bn in equity capital. Roubini and Parisi-Capone say that past recapitalization through the first release of the TARP funds for $230bn, and private capital of $200bn leaves the US banking system very nearly insolvent, should loss estimates materialize.
In order to restore safe lending, additional private and/or public capital of approximately $1 to 1.4 trillion is needed, thus calling for a comprehensive solution along the lines of a “bad bank” proposed by policymakers, or an outright restructuring through a new resolution trust corporation (RTC).
In September 2008, Roubini proposed a solution for the banking crisis that also addresses the root causes of the financial turmoil in the housing and the household sectors. The HOME (Home Owners’ Mortgage Enterprise) program combines an RTC to deal with toxic assets, a homeowners loan corporation to reduce homeowners’ debt, and a reconstruction finance corporation to recapitalize viable banks.
They concluded that total financial system losses will likely hit $3.6 trillion, half of which, according to Roubini, “will be borne by US firms,” and that the losses will overwhelm the US financial system which, in the third quarter of 2008, had a capitalization of $1.3 trillion in commercial banks and $110 billion in investment banks. [Bloomberg, 1/20/2009; AFP Reporter, 1/22/2009] Since September 7, 2006, Dr. Roubini, an economics professor at New York University, has been known as “Dr. Doom” after telling an audience of economists at the International Monetary Fund that an economic crisis was brewing in the coming months and years. He warned that the United States was likely to face a once-in-a-lifetime housing bust, an oil shock, sharply declining consumer confidence and, ultimately, a deep recession, and laid out a bleak sequence of events: homeowners defaulting on mortgages, trillions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities unraveling worldwide and the global financial system shuddering to a halt. These developments, he said, could cripple or destroy hedge funds, investment banks and other major financial institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. [New York Times Magazine, 8/15/2008]
Eric Cantor. [Source: Washington Post]House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) claims, falsely, that the Obama stimulus package would spend four times as much money on “lawn grass” as it allocates for small businesses. Cantor is referring to the plan’s $200 million allocation for renovating Washington’s National Mall, which fellow Republicans characterize as “earmarks” or “pork.” According to MSNBC and Fox News, Cantor claims: “When you’re seeing four times as much money spent on grass in Washington—that is actually lawn grass in Washington—than you do to help small businesses, that has your priorities backwards.… If you look at the bill that passed the ways and means committee yesterday, for every dollar spent to help small businesses, four dollars is being spent to help upkeep the grass on the lawns of Washington. Again, what does that have to do with a stimulus bill?” The Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive think tank, accuses Cantor of “completely invent[ing] the truth.” The draft version of the House stimulus plan allocates over four times as much money for “creating small business opportunity”—$880 million—than for renovating the National Mall. The figures also do not include the stimulus plan’s more than $20 billion in business tax cuts. CAP notes that spending money on infrastructure, such as the Mall renovations, is considered one of the most effective ways to stimulate the economy, creating “twice as many jobs as tax cuts.” The tax cuts that Cantor champions—mostly for large businesses and wealthy Americans—are, CAP says, among the least efficient ways to grow the economy. Cantor is also wrong in characterizing the Mall spending as money for “lawn grass.” The money will be allocated for, among other projects, repairing the Tidal Basin’s seawall, adding restrooms to the Mall, and renovating buildings and monuments in Washington’s Capitol district. CAP notes that “all of [this] will require new workers and create jobs.” [Think Progress, 1/23/2009]
Conservatives and Congressional Republicans attack President Obama’s economic stimulus plan with a variety of claims centering on “earmarks” or “Democratic pork.” One claim is that the stimulus package wastes hundreds of millions of dollars on funding for contraceptives. “You know, I’m concerned about the size of the package.” says House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). “And I’m concerned about some of the spending that’s in there, [about]… how you can spend hundreds of millions on contraceptives. How does that stimulate the economy?” [New York Post, 1/26/2009]
Reduces Costs to State, Federal Budgets - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) explains the rationale behind the funding: “Well, the family planning services reduce cost. They reduce cost. The states are in terrible fiscal budget crises now and part of what we do for children’s health, education, and some of those elements are to help the states meet their financial needs. One of those—one of the initiatives you mentioned, the contraception, will reduce costs to the states and to the federal government.” [Think Progress, 1/26/2009]
Limbaugh's Suggestion - Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh retorts that if Pelosi “wants fewer births, I have the way to do this and it won’t require any contraception: You simply put pictures of Nancy Pelosi… in every cheap motel room.… That will keep birthrates down because that picture will keep a lot of things down.” [Media Matters, 1/26/2009]
Savings of $700 Million - The language of the stimulus bill reads: “Under current law, the secretary [of health and human services] has the authority under section 1115 of the Social Security Act to grant waivers to states to allow them to cover family planning services and supplies to low-income women who are not otherwise eligible for Medicaid. The bill would give states the option to provide such coverage without obtaining a waiver. States could continue to use the existing waiver authority if they preferred.” The Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive think tank, explains that this portion of the stimulus bill “would not only aid states, but also provide preventative, cost-saving health care to help low-income women support their families and keep working.” According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the measure would save the nation $200 million over five years and $700 million over 10 years. States that choose not to participate in the program are not required to do so. Representative James Clyburn (D-SC) notes, “I think that Mr. Boehner is looking for one little sound bite rather than looking at the total package here and seeing what it will do for the American people.” [Think Progress, 1/26/2009]
Halliburton Co agrees to pay a $559 million fine to end an investigation of its former KBR subsidiary if the US government approves the settlement. KBR, formerly Kellogg Brown & Root, has long been accused of violating anti-bribery laws by paying kickbacks to Nigerian officials in return for “sweetheart deals” involving Nigeria’s oil and natural gas fields. The fine, if paid, will be the largest penalty in history against a US company for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA); the settlement would allow Halliburton to avoid having a government monitor put in place, but would require the company to hire an independent consultant to assess its compliance with anti-bribery laws. Halliburton would pay $382 million to the Department of Justice and $177 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission in “disgorgement.” KBR, which has become independent of Halliburton since the incidents in question, refuses to comment on the settlement. The government’s probe of Halliburton/KBR goes back over 20 years, to the construction and expansion of a gas liquefaction facility at Bonny Island, Nigeria. Halliburton has admitted that its agents probably bribed Nigerian officials, and former KBR CEO Albert Stanley has already pled guilty to charges stemming from the Bonny Island bribery scheme. Former Vice President Dick Cheney was Stanley’s immediate supervisor when Cheney was CEO of Halliburton. [Reuters, 1/26/2009]
Recently bailed-out insurer AIG says that it is looking for a buyer for a fund management unit. This is part of a program to sell business units in order to repay the government (see September 18, 2008). The fund manager operates 15 funds that had more than $12.4 billion in assets under management as of September 30, 2008. Bank of America and Merrill Lynch are helping AIG to find a buyer. [Reuters, 4/17/2009]
Yale economist Robert Schiller reflects on the genesis of the economic recession, tracing it back in part to policies pursued by the Bush administration for the 2004 presidential election effort. At that time, Schiller warned of a “housing bubble” caused by a plethora of bad loans and toxic debt, and called for re-regulation of the housing markets. His warnings were ignored. Schiller says: “The Bush strategists were aware of the public enthusiasm for housing, and they dealt with it brilliantly in the 2004 election by making the theme of the campaign the ownership society. Part of the ownership society seemed to be that the government would encourage home ownership and, therefore, boost the market. And so Bush was playing along with the bubble in some subtle sense. I don’t mean to accuse him of any—I think it probably sounded right to him, and the political strategists knew what was a good winning combination. I don’t think that he was in any mode to entertain the possibility that this was a bubble. Why should he do that? Attention wasn’t even focused on this. If you go back to 2004, most people were just—they thought that we had discovered a law of nature: that housing, because of the fixity of land and the growing economy and the greater prosperity, that it’s inevitable that this would be a great investment. It was taken for granted.” John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency since 2005, says he believes a lack of regulation caused the “housing bubble.” Dugan says: “A lot of mortgages got made to people who could not afford them and on terms that would get progressively worse over time, and that created the seeds of an even bigger problem. As the whole market became even more dependent on house-price appreciation, when house prices flattened and then started to decline the whole situation began to unravel. The question you have to ask yourself: Why did credit become so easy? Why would lenders make mortgages that became increasingly less likely to be repaid? Part of the answer is that there was a huge chunk of the mortgage market that was not regulated to any significant extent. The overwhelming proportion of subprime loans were being done in entities that were not banks and not regulated as banks—I’m talking here about mortgage brokers and non-bank mortgage lenders that could originate these mortgages and then sell them to Wall Street firms that could package them into new kinds of mortgage securities, which arguably could take into account the lower credit risks and still be salable to investors worldwide. Unfortunately, the theory was not in accord with the reality. Although they thought they had accurately gauged that risk, they too were in fact depending—when you get to the bottom of it—on house prices continuing to go up and up and up. And they did not.” [Vanity Fair, 2/2009]
Henry Paulson, the former secretary of the treasury, explains how the recession and market destruction came about on his watch. Part of his problem was his admitted lack of knowledge about regulation and regulatory authorities. “I easily could imagine and expected there to be financial turmoil,” he says. “But the extent of it, okay, I was naive in terms of—I knew a lot about regulation but not nearly as much as I needed to know, and I knew very little about regulatory powers and authorities. I just had not gone into it in that kind of detail. This’ll be the longest we’ve gone in recent history without there being turmoil, and given all the innovation in the private pools of capital and the over-the-counter derivatives and the excesses around the world, we figured that when there was turmoil, and these things were tested for the first time by stress, it would be more significant than anything else. I said at the time, I have a concern that every rally we’re going to have in the financial markets will be a false rally until we break the back of the price correction in real estate. And these things are never over until you have a couple of institutions go that surprise everyone. Bear Stearns can hardly be a shock (see March 15, 2008). But having said that, it’s one thing to see it intellectually and it’s another to see where we are.” [Vanity Fair, 2/2009]
Betsy McCaughey (R-NY), the former lieutenant governor of New York and a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, writes that health care provisions in the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan will affect “every individual in the United States.” McCaughey writes: “Your medical treatments will be tracked electronically by a federal system. Having electronic medical records at your fingertips, easily transferred to a hospital, is beneficial. It will help avoid duplicate tests and errors. But the bill goes further. One new bureaucracy, the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology, will monitor treatments to make sure your doctor is doing what the federal government deems appropriate and cost effective. The goal is to reduce costs and ‘guide’ your doctor’s decisions.” McCaughey says the provisions are similar to suggestions in the book Critical: What We Can Do About the Health Care Crisis, by former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), until recently Obama’s pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services. McCaughey writes that hospitals and doctors who do not use the system will be punished, by a federal oversight board to be called the Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research. Perhaps most worrisome is McCaughey’s claim that elderly Americans will be given reduced health care based on their age and expected productivity. “Medicare now pays for treatments deemed safe and effective. The stimulus bill would change that and apply a cost-effectiveness standard set by the Federal Council,” she writes. “The Federal Council is modeled after a UK board discussed in Daschle’s book. This board approves or rejects treatments using a formula that divides the cost of the treatment by the number of years the patient is likely to benefit. Treatments for younger patients are more often approved than treatments for diseases that affect the elderly, such as osteoporosis. In 2006, a UK health board decreed that elderly patients with macular degeneration had to wait until they went blind in one eye before they could get a costly new drug to save the other eye. It took almost three years of public protests before the board reversed its decision.… If the Obama administration’s economic stimulus bill passes the Senate in its current form, seniors in the US will face similar rationing. Defenders of the system say that individuals benefit in younger years and sacrifice later. The stimulus bill will affect every part of health care, from medical and nursing education, to how patients are treated and how much hospitals get paid. The bill allocates more funding for this bureaucracy than for the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force combined.” [Bloomberg News, 2/9/2009] McCaughey’s claims are very similar to the ones she made against the Clinton administration’s attempt to reform health care in 1994 (see Mid-January - February 4, 1994). They will be proven false (see July 23, 2009).
The salt marsh harvest mouse, currently receiving no funding from the Obama stimulus package. [Source: Environmental Protection Agency]Conservative opponents of the new stimulus package claim that the legislation allocates $30 million for saving the endangered salt marsh mouse, and would be spent entirely in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) district. The claim is part of a larger set of claims that the bill is “stuffed with Democratic pork” or “earmarks” (see January 23, 2009 and January 25-26, 2009). The claim is false, with Pelosi’s office calling it a “total fabrication” and examination of the bill finding no mention of any such funding allocation. The claim begins with an e-mail from an unidentified House Republican staff member, who claims that he was told by an unidentified federal agency source that if that agency were to receive stimulus money, it would spend “thirty million dollars for wetland restoration in the San Francisco Bay Area—including work to protect the salt marsh harvest mouse.” The e-mail identifies neither the agency nor the source, nor does it claim that the money is actually in the package. However, the story is quickly picked up and echoed by Republicans such as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Representative Mike Pence (R-IN), both of whom appear on Fox News stating the claim as unvarnished fact. Representative Dan Lundgren (R-CA) calls the supposed spending “absurd.” And House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) asks how $30 million “for some salt marsh mouse in San Francisco is going to help a struggling auto worker in Ohio?” The Drudge Report makes the same claim. And the Washington Times runs an article entitled “Pelosi’s mouse slated for $30m slice of cheese.” The House staffer who circulates the e-mail later acknowledges that the claim, as stated by Huckabee, Lundgren, and others, is erroneous. “There is not specific language in the legislation for this project,” he admits. However, the staffer claims: “If the bill passes, the project will be funded according to what the relevant agency told our staff. The bottom line is, if this bill becomes law, taxpayers will spend 30 million on the mouse.” Pelosi’s staff says that the $30 million is for federal wetland restoration projects such as the California State Coastal Conservancy, none of which will be spent on the salt marsh mouse or even in Pelosi’s district. Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill says: “There are no federal wetland restoration projects in line to get funded in San Francisco. Neither the Speaker nor her staff have had any involvement in this initiative. The idea that $30 million will be spent to save mice is a total fabrication.… This is yet another contrived partisan attack. Restoration is key to economic activity, including farming, fisheries, recreation, and clean water.” [Washington Times, 2/12/2009; Plum Line, 2/12/2009; Associated Content, 2/14/2009]
The new Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Dennis Blair, tells the Senate Intelligence Committee that the economic crisis, not global terrorism, is the biggest national security issue facing the US today. “The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications,” Blair says. If the crisis continues for more than two years, Blair says, governments could topple, with all the unrest that would entail. About 25 percent of the world’s governments, mostly in Europe and among former Soviet Union client states, have already experienced “low-level instability,” including government changes, because of the economic climate (see February 1, 2009). Blair also warns of “high levels of violent extremism” as seen during the downturn in the 1920s and 1930s, along with “regime-threatening instability.” He explains, “Besides increased economic nationalism, the most likely political fallout for US interests will involve allies and friends not being able to fully meet their defense and humanitarian obligations.” US allies in Europe are angry over the Obama stimulus bill’s provision to “Buy American,” Blair notes, and says the provision is being used to question the US’s leadership in shoring up the global economy and international financial structure. The biggest beneficiary of this global chaos, Blair says, could be China, if that nation’s government can “exert a stabilizing influence by maintaining strong import growth and not letting its currency slide.” Global coordination is essential to rebuild trust in the financial system and to ensure that the crisis does “not spiral into broader geopolitical tensions,” Blair recommends. [EUObserver, 2/13/2009]
According to economists and other finance experts, most of the major US banks are broke, awash in losses from bad bets that overwhelm the banks’ assets. [Link TV, 2/10/2009; Financial Times, 2/10/2009] None of the experts focus on individual banks, and there are exceptions among the 50 largest banks in the country. Consumers and businesses do not need to fret about their federally insured deposits, and even banks that are technically insolvent can continue operating, and could recover their financial health once the economy improves. Until there is a cure for banks’ bad assets, the credit crisis that is dragging down the economy will linger, since banks cannot resume the lending needed to restart commerce.
Suggested Response - Economists and experts say that the answer is a larger, more direct government role than the recently-unveiled Treasury Department plan. The Obama-Geithner plan leans heavily on sketchy public-private investment funding to buy up the banks’ troubled mortgage-backed securities. Experts say that the government needs to delve in, weed out the weakest banks, inject capital into surviving banks and sell off bad assets. “The historical record shows that you have to do it eventually,” said Adam Posen, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Putting it off only brings more troubles and higher costs in the long run.” The Obama administration’s recovery plan could help spur a timely economic spurt, and the value of the banks’ assets could begin to rise. Absent that, the prescription would not be easy or cheap. Estimates of the capital injection needed range from $1 trillion and beyond. By contrast, the commitment of taxpayer money is the $350 billion remaining in the financial bailout approved by Congress last fall.
Pessimism - In a new report Nouriel Roubini, professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University, estimates that total losses on loans by American financial firms and the fall in the market value of the assets they hold will reach $3.6 trillion, up from his previous estimate of $2 trillion. [Global Economic Monitor, 2/10/2009] Of the total, he calculates that American banks face half that risk, or $1.8 trillion, with the rest borne by other financial institutions in the United States and abroad. “The United States banking system is effectively insolvent,” Roubini says. [International Herald Tribune, 2/13/2009]
Recently bailed-out insurer AIG says that it has sold interests in two contracts tied to natural gas and oil for $60.5 million. This brings the total amount raised through a program of sales to repay the bailout money to the government (see September 18, 2008) to $2.4 billion. AIG shares close at 85 cents. [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009]
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) accuses the Obama administration of colluding with Democrats to include a “high-speed rail system” from “Las Vegas [Nevada] to Disneyland” in the administration’s economic stimulus package. “Tell me how spending $8 billion in this bill to have a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is going to help the construction worker in my district,” he demands. [US House of Representatives, 2/13/2009]
Claim at Odds with Facts - Boehner is joined in the claim by several of his House Republican colleagues, including Patrick McHenry (R-NC), Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), and Candice Miller (R-MI), as well as Republican Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jim DeMint (R-SC). Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) includes the claim in his response to President Obama’s address to Congress regarding the stimulus package. Many of these lawmakers add the accusation that the supposed rail line, which they call a “levitating train,” is an earmark inserted for Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-NV), whose state would benefit from the rail line. In reality, the stimulus bill does not set aside any money at all for a train of any kind between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The bill does provide $8 billion for unspecified high-speed rail projects, which includes “magnetic levitation,” or maglev, train systems. The money will be allocated by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, one of two Republican holdovers from the Bush administration in President Obama’s cabinet. A Department of Transportation spokesperson says it is “premature to speculate” about what exactly will be funded; the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense says there is “no way that this provision is an earmark for Senator Reid.” The governors of Nevada and California—both Republicans—have indicated they would support such a maglev line between those two cities. The nonpartisan site FactCheck.org writes: “We can’t predict the future, and it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that the Republican who is Obama’s transportation secretary will decide to devote the entire $8 billion to a project that is nowhere near shovel-ready and that the Federal Railroad Administration says is not cost-effective—all for the benefit of the Democratic majority leader. But we wouldn’t bet on it.” [FactCheck (.org), 2/25/2009; New York Times, 2/25/2009] The Center for American Progress notes that Republicans mock the idea of “levitating trains” because, apparently, “they [think] the term sounds funny.” FactCheck observes, “In truth, ‘levitating’ trains really do exist—but they are properly called maglev trains, and they are high-tech marvels” employed in Japan, among other places. [FactCheck (.org), 2/25/2009; Think Progress, 3/2/2009]
Plans Include Ohio Lines - While there are no plans for a train line of any kind between California and Nevada in the stimulus package, there are at least two proposals for rail lines in and out of Ohio, Boehner’s state. The plans under consideration include a Cleveland-Toledo-Chicago line and a Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati-Indianapolis line. [Think Progress, 2/13/2009]
Train to Las Vegas Brothel? - In March, a Republican House member will claim that the supposed “levitating train” will not just go to Las Vegas, but to a brothel. The claim is entirely false (see March 2, 2009).
Entity Tags: John McCain, Ray LaHood, Taxpayers for Common Sense, John Boehner, US Department of Transportation, Thaddeus McCotter, Jim DeMint, Patrick McHenry, Federal Railroad Administration, Bobby Jindal, Candice Miller, FactCheck (.org), Center for American Progress, Harry Reid
Timeline Tags: Global Economic Crises
Less than one month after his inauguration, President Barack Obama signs into law a $787 billion recovery package, stating that this will “set our economy on a firmer foundation.” However, Obama reiterates during the bill’s signing ceremony at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science that he will not pretend “that today marks the end of our economic problems, nor does it constitute all of what we have to do to turn our economy around. Today marks the beginning of the end, the beginning of what we need to do to create jobs for Americans scrambling in the wake of layoffs.” The legislative battle on the bill ended with only three Republican votes in the Senate and none in the House. As president-elect, Obama initially expected to spend between $675 billion and $775 billion on the recovery package, and the final number is almost exactly that. However, Congress included $70 billion worth of tax cuts in the bill they approved, although more than a few economists say $70 billion in tax cuts won’t create as many new jobs as $70 billion in spending would. According to the government’s Recovery (.gov) Web site, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act:
Saves and creates more than 3.5 million jobs over the next two years;
Takes a big step toward computerizing Americans’ health records, reducing medical errors, and saving billions in health care costs;
Revives the renewable energy industry and provides the capital over the next three years to eventually double domestic renewable energy capacity;
Undertakes the largest weatherization program in history by modernizing 75 percent of federal building space and more than one million homes;
Increases college affordability for seven million students by funding the shortfall in Pell Grants, increasing the maximum award level by $500, and providing a new higher education tax cut to nearly four million students;
Enacts the largest increase in funding of the nation’s roads, bridges, and mass transit systems since the creation of the national highway system in the 1950s;
Provides an $800 “Making Work Pay” tax credit for 129 million working households, and cuts taxes for the families of millions of children through an expansion of the Child Tax Credit;
Requires unprecedented levels of transparency, oversight, and accountability.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says Obama will seek additional stimulus/recovery funding if needed. [New York Times, 2/17/2009; recovery.gov, 2/17/2009]
President Obama names Earl Devaney to head the new Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board, a new agency designed to oversee the allocation and spending of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan. Devaney is a former Secret Service agent who, as the inspector general of the Department of the Interior, helped expose lobbyist corruption there; he will work closely with Vice President Joseph Biden, who will coordinate oversight of the stimulus spending. Devaney helped expose Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s dealings with the Interior Department, and helped finger former Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles, who later pled guilty to charges of lying to Congress over his acceptance of bribes. Devaney also led an investigation of workers at the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, where he discovered what he called a “culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” at the Denver and Washington offices of the service. [Associated Press, 2/22/2009]
An Iraqi war widow. [Source: Johan Spanner / New York Times]Iraqi women, particularly war widows, have an extremely difficult time surviving in their country, according to a profile by the New York Times. Of Iraqi women between 15 and 80 years of age, 740,000, or around one in 11, are estimated to be widows; only about 120,000 of those widows receive any governmental aid.
Depressed Living Conditions - Many of the widows profiled by the Times live, either alone or with the remnants of their families, in a trailer park for war widows in a poor section of Baghgad. Many other widows are not so fortunate; the trailer park, which houses 750 people, is among the very few aid programs available for the widows. Many of those widows and their children live in public parks or inside gas station restrooms. The sight of war widows begging on the street—or available as potential recruits for insurgents—is an everyday occurrence.
Potential Insurgency Recruits - Times reporter Timothy Williams writes: “As the number of widows has swelled during six years of war, their presence on city streets begging for food or as potential recruits by insurgents has become a vexing symbol of the breakdown of Iraqi self-sufficiency. Women who lost their husbands had once been looked after by an extended support system of family, neighbors, and mosques. But as the war has ground on, government and social service organizations say the women’s needs have come to exceed available help, posing a threat to the stability of the country’s tenuous social structures.”
'Too Many' Widows to Help - Leila Kadim, a managing director in the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, acknowledges that the situation will not change soon. “We can’t help everybody,” she says. “There are too many.”
Alternatives - Some engage in “temporary marriages,” Shi’ite-sanctioned unions lasting anywhere from an hour to a year and usually based on sex, to become eligible for government, religious, or tribal leaders. Others have become prostitutes. Others have joined the insurgency in return for steady pay. The Iraqi military says dozens of women have become suicide bombers, and that number is expected to increase.
Minimal Government Assistance - The government’s current stipend for widows is an ungenerous $50/month and an additional $12/month for each child; efforts to increase that stipend have not made progress. And only about one in six widows receive that small amount of money. Widows and their advocates say that to receive benefits they must either have political connections or agree to temporary marriages with the powerful men who control the distribution of government funds. Samira al-Mosawi, chair of the women’s affairs committee in Parliament, says: “It is blackmail. We have no law to treat this point. Widows don’t need temporary support, but a permanent solution.”
Paying Men to Marry Widows - One solution has been proposed by Mazin al-Shihan, director of the Baghdad Displacement Committee. Al-Shihan has introduced a proposal to pay men to marry widows. When asked why money shouldn’t go directly to the widows, al-Shihan laughs. “If we give the money to the widows, they will spend it unwisely because they are uneducated and they don’t know about budgeting,” he says. “But if we find her a husband, there will be a person in charge of her and her children for the rest of their lives. This is according to our tradition and our laws.” [New York Times, 2/22/2009]
Global recession fears deepen as uncertainty regarding bank bailout plans drives negative investor sentiment on Wall Street. The Dow Jones index closes down 196.01 points, or 2.7% at 7169.66, the lowest since October 1997. The S&P 500 index loses 2.9% to 747.94, below its lowest close since April 1997. Investors initially welcomed reports that the Feds would convert an earlier investment in Citigroup into a large common stock holding, but enthusiasm faded as long-standing uncertainty about the government’s ultimate plan for banks resurfaced to pull indexes lower. European stocks also retreat, sending the Dow Jones Stoxx 600 Index to a new six-year low. It slides 0.9% to 175.29, dropping for a second straight day and closing at its lowest level since March 13, 2008. National benchmark indexes dropped in 15 of the 18 western European markets. [National Business Review, 2/23/2009]
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank (EIB), and the World Bank pledge to invest €24.5 billion in countries such as Latvia and Hungary that have been hit by the global economic slump. In a joint statement, the three groups announce that the two-year joint initiative will include equity and debt financing, and access to credit and risk insurance aimed at encouraging lending, on top of the countries’ national government responses. The bailout is designed to “deploy rapid, large-scale and coordinated financial assistance… to support lending to the real economy through private banking groups, in particular to small-and medium-sized enterprises.… The response takes into account the different macroeconomic circumstances in, and financial pressures on countries in Eastern Europe, acknowledging the diversity of challenges stemming from the global financial retrenchment,” the groups add. The EBRD was founded in 1991 to assist the transition of former communist nations to market economies—investing across 30 countries including Ukraine, Moldova, and Russia. “The institutions are working together to find practical, efficient and timely solutions to the crisis in eastern Europe,” says EBRD President Thomas Mirow. [BBC, 2/27/2009]
Representative Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) expresses her outrage over the so-called “Disneyland to Las Vegas” train (see February 13, 2009 and After), saying she cannot believe President Obama’s economic stimulus plan has ”$1 billion wasted on a magnetic-levitation train from LA to Sin City.” When challenged by reporter Dick Spotswood over the disproven claim, Mack sends a staff member to “get him the bill, it’s right there, show him.” As Spotswood later reports, “A few minutes later, a staffer emerges with a copy and quietly says ‘it’s not in the bill.’” [Marin Independent Journal, 3/1/2009]
Citigroup logo. [Source: Citigroup]The latest government bailout gives Citigroup bond holders excellent terms and doesn’t provide the bank with new money. Instead, Citigroup cut expenses with the elimination of preferred stock dividends, and also converted shares into common equity at an above-market-value of $3.25, positioning itself to take the first hit if it encounters additional losses. Analysts are predicting that the company’s losses will continue to increase. Since the beginning of 2009, Citigroup’s stock has fallen 78 percent. “Debt holders could eventually be required to participate in further government-led restructuring actions,” Standard and Poor’s says. [Bloomberg, 3/2/2009] Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit tells investors that increasing the bank’s “tangible” common equity from $29.7 billion to as much as $81 billion should “take confidence issues off the table,” about the bank’s loss absorption ability. The bank lost $27.7 billion in 2008, and is predicted to lose $1.24 billion during the first six months of 2009. “There’s no difference here,” says Christopher Whalen, co-founder of Institutional Risk Analytics, a Torrance, California risk-advisory firm. “It won’t fix revenue, and you’re still going to see loss rates.” Whalen says that the government’s efforts are mainly protecting other financial institutions and foreign goverments that are Citigroup bonds holders. “The taxpayer is funding the operating loss and protecting the bondholders,” Whalen notes. “The subsidy for the banks will become one of the biggest lines in Washington’s budget.”
Government Should Organize Citigroup, AIG Bondholders - Whalen also says it would be better if the government organized Citigroup and insurer American International Group Inc. bondholders, since the insurer received a $150 billion US bailout, and also made a deal with the government to convert some of its debt to equity. US government investment fell by more than 50 percent, and the government plans to convert up to $25 billion of its preferred stock to common shares, gaining a 36 percent stake in the bank. At Friday’s closing price of $1.50, government investment is worth approximately $11.5 billion. The bank itself has a stock market value of $8.2 billion as of market closing on February 27.
Analyst: Investors Should Avoid Citigroup Shares - Richard Ramsden, head of a group of analysts at Goldman Sachs Group, recommends that investors avoid investing in Citigroup shares: “It is unclear whether this is the last round of capital restructuring, which means that existing equity may be further diluted in the future.” The bank’s move to convert preferred shares to common equity led Moody’s Investors Service to adjust its senior debt rating for the bank from A3 to A2. Standard and Poor’s also changed its outlook on the bank’s debt from negative to stable. “Citi will face a tough credit cycle in the next two years, which will likely result in weak and volatile earnings,” S&P analyst Scott Sprinzen says. “We cannot rule out the possibility that further government support may prove necessary.” With the first two Citigroup rescue bailouts, the US Treasury bought $45 billion of preferred stock, and the Federal Reserve and FDIC guaranteed the bank against all but $29 billion of losses on a $301 billion portfolio of assets. With the third bailout, the Treasury, the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and other preferred stockholders, agreed to take common stock at $3.25 a share, giving up dividends. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Charles Rangel (D-NY), says: “The administration and the past administration have tried so many different ways that we can only hope and pray that this time they get it right. It seems like with the banks it is a never-ending thing.” [Bloomberg, 2/28/2009]
Third US Rescue Forces Citigroup Board Changes - The Obama administration demonstrated its willingness to force changes on executives at top banks that receive taxpayer-funded rescue packages by pressing Citigroup to reorganize its 15-member board with new, more independent members. The move sends a message to Wall Street that there are consequences when taxpayer dollars are used to save them. “The government is the new boss, and the new executive committee is no longer on Park Avenue,” says Michael Holland who, as chairman and founder of New York’s Holland & Co., manages nearly $4 billion in investments. [Bloomberg, 3/2/2009]
Entity Tags: Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, Christopher Whalen, Charles Rangel, Alwaleed bin Talal, AIG (American International Group, Inc.), Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Vikram Pandit, US Department of the Treasury, Citigroup, Richard Ramsden, Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s, Michael Holland, Institutional Risk Analytics, Scott Sprinzen, US Federal Reserve
Timeline Tags: Global Economic Crises
On the same day AIG announces the biggest loss ever in corporate history (see October-November 2008), the bailout of the troubled insurer is again increased and its terms eased. First, the US Treasury and Federal Reserve announce a plan to spend up to $30 billion more on preferred shares. However, the Treasury says the dividend on preferred stock, previously 10 percent, might fall. In addition, the bailout’s terms and conditions are altered to give the insurer a billion-dollar-a-year break on interest and dividend payments. [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009; Reuters, 4/17/2009] The size of the bailout, initially $85 billion, has now more than doubled, and the terms have been eased repeatedly (see September 16, 2008, October 8, 2008, and November 10, 2008).
Fox’s Megyn Kelly. [Source: Huffington Post / 236 (.com)]Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) builds on the false claim that Democrats want to build a “levitating train” from Los Angeles to Las Vegas as a favor to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV—see February 13, 2009 and After). Franks tells a credulous Fox News anchor that the train will not only go to Las Vegas, but to the door of Nevada’s most famous brothel, the Moonlight Bunny Ranch. Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, repeating Franks’s claim, says: “It’s a super railroad, of sorts—a line that will deliver customers straight from Disney, we kid you not, to the doorstep of the Moonlight Bunny Ranch brothel in Nevada. I say, to the Moonlight Bunny Ranch brothel in Nevada. So should your tax dollars be paying for these kinds of projects?” Franks continues: “The majority leader of the US Senate, Harry Reid, has fought for this publicly and is committed to this project, even in the face of criticism.… If this is something that is truly the priority of the majority leader of the US senate, it’s pretty late in the day, Megyn.” No such earmark exists in either the stimulus package or Congress’s omnibus spending bill; when the Center for American Progress (CAP) asks Franks’s office to prove the claim, his staff refuses, and tells CAP to contact Reid’s office. There is a proposal to refurbish a historical rail line between Gold Hill, Nevada and Carson City, Nevada, a substantially different proposal than the “levitating brothel train” Franks claims is being proposed. (The Moonlight Bunny Ranch is actually in Carson City, which may explain the genesis of Franks’s claim.) Kelly asks Franks how politicians can be held accountable for such actions, and he responds, “Fortunately, people like yourself and Fox News are a tremendous help in that regard because they tell the people—you know, sunlight has a way of being an accountability all by itself” (see October 13, 2009). [Think Progress, 3/2/2009]
US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke tells a Senate committee that having to rescue the insurer AIG made him “more angry” than any other episode during the financial crisis. “AIG exploited a huge gap in the regulatory system, there was no oversight of the financial products division,” Bernanke says. “This was a hedge fund basically that was attached to a large and stable insurance company.” In addition, on this day stock in AIG closes at 43 cents. [Bloomberg, 3/5/2009]
John Boehner (R-OH), the House Minority Leader, calls on the Obama administration to implement a freeze on government spending, and for President Obama to veto a $410 billion spending bill. Boehner says recent spikes in unemployment figures are a sign of a worsening recession, and the only way to address the recession is to freeze government spending until the end of the fiscal year. He calls the spending bill, crafted in December with input from Congressional Democrats and Republicans as well as from the Bush White House, full of wasteful “earmarks” and “pork.” [Associated Press, 3/6/2009] Boehner introduces a resolution calling for the freeze in the House; it fails, even though all House Republicans present for the vote and eight Democrats vote for it. [Human Events, 3/6/2008] Two days after Boehner’s call for a spending freeze, conservative columnist David Brooks calls the proposal “insane” and blames the influence of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh for the idea. Brooks says that Limbaugh and the Republican Party is fixated on repeating a Reagan-era economic agenda. “The problem with them and the problem with Limbaugh in terms of intellectual philosophy is they are stuck with Reagan,” Brooks says. “They are stuck with the idea that government is always the problem. A lot of Republicans up in Capitol Hill right now are calling for a spending freeze in a middle of a recession/depression. That is insane. But they are thinking the way they thought in 1982, if we can only think that way again, that is just insane. And there are a lot of Republicans like David Frum… who are trying to say Reagan was right for his era, but it is time to move on. And there are just not a lot of them on Capitol Hill right now, and I think the party is looking for that kind of Republican.” [Huffington Post, 3/8/2009]
Republican House member Patrick McHenry (R-NC) admits that his party’s resistance to Democratic initiatives are designed to bring down the approval numbers for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and the Congressional Democratic leadership. Speaking of Republican resistance to the Democrats’ recent budget proposal and other economic initiatives from the Obama administration and House Democrats, McHenry says: “We will lose on legislation. But we will win the message war every day, and every week, until November 2010. Our goal is to bring down approval numbers for Pelosi and for House Democrats. That will take repetition. This is a marathon, not a sprint.” McHenry belongs to a group of Congressional Republicans helping to shape the party’s message in opposition to Obama and Congressional Democrats. Washington Post pundit Greg Sargent writes, “It’s likely that Dems will grab on to [McHenry’s] quote today to bolster their charge that Congressional Republicans aren’t interested in playing a constructive role in governing and see their hope for political revival in the eventual failure of the Democratic majority’s policies.” The article also cites a recent statement by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), who told a group of reporters that House Republicans would not bother crafting bills to provide alternatives to Democratic economic legislation: “I have been trying to get my Republican colleagues to understand that we are not in the legislative business. We will spend more time communicating [with the American people], because that is what we can do.” [National Journal, 3/7/2009; Plum Line, 3/9/2009]
Minority Leader: Comments 'Largely Correct, but Incomplete' - Through a spokesman, Boehner says of McHenry’s statement: “I think that’s largely correct, but incomplete. Obviously, as Leader Boehner has said repeatedly, we stand ready to work with the Speaker and the president when it is in the best interest of the American people. When we cannot work together, Republicans will offer better solutions—rooted in our principles—to the problems facing our country. If House Democrats push for the same tired liberal agenda of higher taxes to pay for more ineffective government spending, I imagine that their standing in the polls will suffer, but our first priority is doing the right thing for the American people, and we hope it is theirs as well.” Sargent notes: “My parsing of this is that Boehner believes that McHenry’s description of the party’s strategic goal as winning the message war and dragging down Dem poll numbers is ‘largely correct,’ but that McHenry left out the GOP’s willingness on principle to work with Dems and that the GOP’s ‘first priority is doing the right thing for the American people.’ That would appear to stop short of disagreeing with or criticizing McHenry.” [Plum Line, 3/10/2009]
McHenry's Previous Utterances - In April 2008, McHenry was reprimanded by the Pentagon for breaching operational security and and giving terrorists potentially useful information (see April 4-7, 2008). In February 2009, McHenry joined in falsely accusing the Obama administration of funding a “levitating train from Disneyland to Las Vegas” (see February 13, 2009 and After).
Regulatory reports on Bank of America, Citibank, HSBC Bank USA, JP Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo indicate that, as loan defaults of every kind soar, the institutions face “catastrophic losses” should economic conditions “substantially worsen.” Already suffering as a result of what the banks term “exotic investments,” the reports disclose that, as of December 31, 2008, current net loss risks from derivatives—quasi-insurance bets tied to loans or other underlying assets—have swelled to $587 billion. According to McClatchy journalists Greg Gordon and Kevin G. Hall, obscured in the year-end regulatory reports that they reviewed were figures reflecting a jump of 49 percent net loss in just 90 days.
Bailout Money Shoring Up Reserves - Taxpayer bailout money has already shored up four of the five banks’ reserves, with Citibank receiving $50 billion and Bank of America $45 billion, in addition to a $100 billion loan guarantee. According to their quarterly financial reports as of December 31:
JP Morgan had potential current derivatives losses of $241.2 billion, overrunning its $144 billion in reserves, and future exposure of $299 billion.
Citibank had potential current losses of $140.3 billion, outstripping its $108 billion in reserves, and future losses of $161.2 billion.
Bank of America reported $80.4 billion in current exposure, lower than its $122.4 billion reserve, but $218 billion in total exposure.
HSBC Bank USA had current potential losses of $62 billion, over three times its reserves, and potential total exposure of $95 billion.
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, which took over Charlotte, N.C.-based Wachovia in October 2008, reported current potential losses totaling almost $64 billion, below the banks’ combined reserves of $104 billion, but total future risks of about $109 billion. [McClatchy Newspapers, 3/9/2009; Idaho Statesman.com, 3/9/2009]
Having received over $170 billion in taxpayer bailout funds in the last five months, troubled insurance giant American International Group (AIG) pays executives nearly $200 million in bonuses. The largest are bonus payouts that cover AIG Financial Products executives who sold risky credit default swap contracts that caused huge losses for the insurer (see September 16, 2008). Despite a request by US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner for the insurance conglomerate to curtail future bonus pay—and AIG’s agreement to do so—the global insurer cuts bonus checks on Sunday, March 15, 2009, in order to meet a bonus payment agreement deadline. The Treasury Department has publicly acknowledged that the government does not have the legal authority to block current bonus payments, although AIG stated in early March that it suffered its largest corporate loss in history, when it reported fourth quarter 2008 losses of $61.7 billion.
Treasury Tried to Prevent Payments - An anonymous Obama administration official says that on March 11 Geithner called AIG Chairman Edward Liddy demanding that the CEO renegotiate the insurer’s present bonus structure. In a letter, Liddy informed Geithner that outside lawyers had advised AIG that the company could face lawsuits, should they not make the contractually obligated payments. “AIG’s hands are tied,” Liddy wrote, although acknowledging that, with the company’s fiduciary situation, he found it “distasteful and difficult” to approve and pay the bonuses. He wrote that the early 2008 bonus payments agreement was entered into prior to the company being forced last fall to obtain the first taxpayer bailout because of the company’s severe financial distress.
Some Monies Already Paid Out - A white paper generated by AIG asserted that the firm had already distributed $55 million in “retention pay” to nearly 400 AIG Financial Products employees. According to the white paper, the global entity “will labor to reduce 2009 bonus payment amounts,” trimming payouts by at least 30 percent this year. [Associated Press, 3/15/2009]
Troubled insurer AIG discloses that several US and European banks have been beneficiaries of the government’s bailout of the insurance company (see September 17-October 7, 2008). It announces that more than $90 billion was paid to various banks between the September bailout and the end of 2008. The banks include Goldman Sachs, Société Générale, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Merrill Lynch, and Bank of America. Goldman Sachs, which received $12.9 billion between mid-September and the end of December—making it the largest beneficiary, will later say it did nothing wrong by accepting payments to close out trades before and after the insurer was rescued. [Reuters, 4/17/2009]
Edward Liddy, chief executive officer of troubled insurer AIG, asks employees to repay part of their bonuses. The bonuses were to be paid out in late 2008 and earlier this month, but there has been a public outcry over them, due to the billions of dollars taxpayers have spent rescuing the company (see September 16, 2008 and March 15, 2009). According to Liddy, employees receiving more than $100,000 in bonuses should repay at least half. [Reuters, 4/17/2009]
The US House of Representatives passes a bill imposing a 90 percent tax on bonuses paid to AIG executives. The bonuses were set to be paid in December 2008 and earlier in the month, but there has been a public outcry against them, as the company had to be bailed out by the taxpayer six months ago (see September 16, 2008 and March 15, 2009). [Reuters, 4/17/2009] However, President Obama soon challenges the bill’s legality, saying: “I think that as a general proposition, you don’t wanna be passing laws that are just targeting a handful of individuals. You wanna pass laws that have some broad applicability. And as a general proposition, I think you certainly don’t wanna use the tax code to punish people.” The Democratic leadership in the Senate then says that it will wait and see what happens, instead of immediately acting on the bill forwarded by the House of Representatives. This effectively shelves the bill, although several of the executives give their bonuses back anyway (see March 24, 2009). [Politics Daily, 3/24/2009]
Fifteen of the top 20 beneficiaries of bonuses at troubled insurer AIG have given the payments back, says New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. The bonuses were to be paid out at the end of 2008 and earlier this month, but there was a public outcry over them as the taxpayer had spent about $180 bailing the company out (see September 16, 2008, March 15, 2009, March 18, 2009, and March 19, 2009). [Reuters, 4/17/2009]
President Obama signs legislation expanding and protecting US public parks and wilderness areas from oil and gas development, a dramatic reversal of Bush-era policy. The omnibus Public Land Management Act is described as the largest US conservation measure in 15 years. [CNN, 3/30/2009; Fox Business, 3/30/2009; Agence France-Presse, 3/31/2009]
Over 150 Measures - The bill is composed of over 150 individual measures passed by Congress. Among other initiatives, it creates 10 new National Heritage Areas, designates two million acres of federal lands in nine states as wilderness areas, sets out water conservation measures through the Bureau of Reclamation, alters several national park boundaries, and takes steps to drastically improve the quality of California’s San Joaquin River, potentially restoring salmon to that river and improving the quality of drinking water throughout the Bay Area. Scientist Monty Schmitt says of the San Joaquin reclamation project, “This is taking what many have said is a dead river, and bringing it back to life for over 150 miles.” Because of the bill, Obama says, the Navajo nation—over 80,000 Native Americans living in Arizona and New Mexico—will have “access to clean, running water for the very first time.” The legislation also includes the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act, named after the late Hollywood actor who was paralyzed from a riding accident, providing for paralysis research, rehabilitation, and care. Obama says that bill is “specifically aimed at addressing the challenges faced by Americans living with paralysis” and will work to improve their quality of life “no matter what the costs.” [CNN, 3/30/2009; Mercury News (San Jose), 3/30/2009; Agence France-Presse, 3/31/2009]
Bill Passed over Republican Opposition - The bill passed both the House and Senate by wide margins, but some Republicans oppose it, complaining that the bill imposed undue restrictions on oil drilling in rural areas. Some of the bill’s components had been blocked in recent years under the Bush administration. [Mercury News (San Jose), 3/30/2009]
Dick Morris discussing the economy on Fox News. [Source: Fox News]Conservative political pundit Dick Morris tells a Fox News audience that the recent G20 economic summit advocated a “global approach” to the current economic crisis, and discussed putting both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Reserve under the control of the International Monetary Fund—a position not advocated or discussed by anyone in the Obama administration. He worries that there will soon be what he calls “a supernational authority run by bureaucrats, not by elected officials, that will be telling the elected governments, including the United States, what its [economic] regulations should be.” President Obama is far more amenable to the idea of allowing a multinational authority to control the US economy, Morris insists, and adds that Obama intends to preside over what he calls “a global redistribution of income, downward,” using environmental policy as “an excuse.” “We’re about to meet Barack Obama the internationalist,” Morris continues, “not fighting for American interests, but looking for global coordination.” He concludes, “Those crazies in Montana who say, ‘We’re going to kill ATF agents because the UN’s going to take over’—well, they’re beginning to have a case.” [Media Matters, 3/31/2009]
In a speech to the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City President Thomas Hoenig declares that US banks’ ability to remain viable during a deeper recession—while undergoing federal government stress tests—demonstrates that most don’t need more taxpayer money. “Although the United States has several thousand banks, only 19 have more than $100 billion of assets,” Hoenig says. “After supervising authorities evaluate their condition, it is likely that few would require further government intervention.” Designed to demonstrate how much extra capital banks may need to survive a deeper economic downturn, the stress tests are to conclude by April 30, 2009, with the 19 biggest banks’ test results to be disseminated to President Barack Obama in meetings with his economic team. Hoenig reiterates his view that the government shouldn’t prop up failing financial institutions but take them over temporarily and wind them down, as with the 1984 takeover of Continental Illinois National Bank & Trust Co. “I encourage Congress to enact a new resolution process for systematically important firms,” he says. “There has been much talk lately about a new resolution process for systemically important firms that Congress could enact, and implement it as quickly as possible, but we do not have to wait for new authority. We can act immediately, using essentially the same steps we used for Continental. An extremely large firm that has failed would have to be temporarily operated as a conservatorship or a bridge organization and then reprivatized as quickly as is economically feasible. We cannot simply add more capital without a change in the firm’s ownership and management and expect different outcomes.” Hoenig declares that calling a firm “too big to fail” is a “misstatement” because a bank deemed insolvent “has failed.” “I believe that failure is an option,” he says. After the government’s fourth rescue of American International Group Inc. (AIG), Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke called for new powers to take over and sell off failing financial companies, and also called for stronger regulation to constrict risks that might endanger the financial system. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has the authority to take over failing firms, and dispose of their assets, but no such authority exists for non-banking financial firms such as a hedge fund or AIG, which have extensive links throughout the banking system. During a Q&A after his speech, Hoenig tells the audience that the Fed must be prepared to make a timely removal of its stimulus to deter a period of high inflation that could be likened to that of the early 1980s. “You cannot wait until you know for sure the economy is recovering,” Hoenig says, adding that “employment growth tends to lag” and may not be the best indicator of recovery. “We will watch every indicator of data that suggests we have a recovery under way.” He also says that if the US manages its economy well, the US dollar should remain the world’s reserve currency. “It is a matter of running your economy properly,” he says. “When the US does that, and I think we will, I think we will remain the largest, most successful reserve currency on the face of the earth.” [Bloomberg, 4/9/2009]
Wells Fargo, the second largest home lender in the US, posts a surprising record first-quarter profit, outperforming the most hopeful estimates on Wall Street. The bank’s earnings are the most since July 16, 2007, with shares down 33 percent in 2009. The report also states that Wachovia Corporation, acquired by Wells Fargo in October 2008, is exceeding expectations. According to data compiled by Bloomberg, Wachovia’s $101.9 billion in losses and writedowns are the most for any US lender, and its adjustable-rate home loans are considered among the industry’s riskiest. Yet, in its preliminary report, Wells Fargo states that acquiring Wachovia “has proven to be everything we thought it would be.” Official first-quarter results will be released the third week in April.
Other Banks Also Gain; Profits Expected - The preliminary earnings report rallies the stock market, and the S&P 500 caps a fifth consecutive weekly gain and adds 3.8 percent to a two-month high of 856.56, the longest stretch since the bear market began in October 2007. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rises 246.27, to 8,083.38. The largest US lender, Bank of America, gains 35 percent today; JPMorgan 19 percent, and Citigroup 13 percent. The 24-company KBW Bank Index surges 20 percent, its biggest one-day gain since May 1992. Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Chris Kotowski says of these firms, “Barring an act of God, they had better report some number that is in the black or potentially risk being involved in some of the most intense securities litigation on record.”
Accounting Rules May Have Helped Profit Statements - Christopher Whalen, a managing director of Risk Analytics, says that the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s relaxation of accounting rules may have helped banks—including Wells Fargo—report a profit. “Most analysts are expecting loss rates to be much, much higher than we have seen in the last 20 to 30 years, even longer,” he says. “Given that, provisions of the large banks are not high enough.”
Wells Fargo 'Underperforming?' - While Wells Fargo Chief Financial Officer Howard Atkins says that increasing the bank’s provision for loan losses to $23 billion is adequate compared with other large US banks, FBR Capital Markets analyst Paul Miller wrote in a report that the bank’s addition of a $4.6 billion provision was below his estimate of $6.25 billion. “We remain cautious based on what we don’t know.” Miller rates Wells Fargo shares “underperform” and said that the preliminary report did not contain the percentage of non-performing loans and trends in Wachovia’s option-adjustable rate mortgate portfolio, a percentage Miller deems important. Atkins says that Wells Fargo benefited from strong trading results at Wachovia’s capital markets business, which the bank continues to shrink. He said that the improvement will not reverse those plans. Approximately 75 percent of Wells Fargo’s mortgage applications are refinance. President Obama said that homeowner interest rates, at less than five percent, are the lowest since 1971, and that it was “money in their pocket” for homeowners. Wells Fargo’s biggest shareholder is Berkshire Hathaway Inc., an acquisitions and investments firm owned by Warren Buffett. [Bloomberg, 4/9/2009]
Entity Tags: Dow Jones Industrial Average, Christopher Whalen, Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., Bank of America, Wachovia Bank, N.A., Standard & Poor’s, Warren Buffett, Paul Miller, Howard Atkins, JP Morgan Chase, Chris Kotowski, Risk Analytics, New York Stock Exchange, Oppenheimer & Co.
Timeline Tags: Global Economic Crises
The insurer AIG, bailed out by the US government the previous year (see September 16, 2008), is in talks with the US Federal Reserve over extra credit, according to the Financial Times. The negotiations concern a $5 billion credit line that could be used to facilitate the sale of the company’s aircraft leasing business. [Reuters, 4/17/2009]
FreedomWorks logo. [Source: FreedomWorks]The progressive news and advocacy site Think Progress profiles FreedomWorks, a conservative lobbying firm that uses the practice of “astroturfing” to press its agenda home. FreedomWorks is one of the organizations behind the anti-tax “tea party” movement (see April 8, 2009). The organization denies that it is “astroturfing”—creating fake “citizens groups” that purport to be spontaneously organized grassroots organizations—and compares its work to that of liberal activism group MoveOn.org. However, Think Progress notes that MoveOn is a citizen-organized group, while FreedomWorks is headed by former Republican activists and corporate officials, and is funded by oil, energy, and tobacco companies. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and current Washington lobbyist (R-TX) leads FreedomWorks. [Think Progress, 4/14/2009]
'Amateur-Looking' Astroturfing Sites - Last year, the Wall Street Journal exposed FreedomWorks’ use of “amateur-looking” Web sites for its “astroturf” groups to bolster their credibility as purported “citizen groups” pushing for corporate interests (see May 16, 2008). [Think Progress, 4/14/2009]
Represented by PR Firm with GOP Links - FreedomWorks is represented by the Washington public relations firm Shirley & Banister Public Affairs. Shirley & Banister also represents conservative organizations such as the National Rifle Association, Citizens United, news outlet Human Events, and organizer Richard Viguerie’s direct-mail firm. (It also represents the Bradley Foundation, a conservative funding organization that in 2008 gave $25,000 to both FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity [AFP], gave FreedomWorks $75,000 in 2009, and is considering a grant request from AFP.) One of Shirley & Banister’s partners is Craig Shirley, a veteran Republican PR operative who helped develop the overtly racist 1988 “Willie Horton” political ad (see September 21 - October 4, 1988). Progressive MSNBC host Rachel Maddow tells her audience: “This is a perfect system for the Republican Party. It’s a constant feedback loop. The Republican Party activists stir up fear and anger on the Internet… Fearful, angry people go to town hall events and then Republican Party officials say they are just responding to that anger and they have no idea where it came from. It’s [a] perfect cycle. Rile them up with made-up stuff and then sympathize with them that are so riled.” [MSNBC, 8/14/2009; MSNBC, 8/17/2009]
Led by Millionaires - Three of FreedomWorks’ most prominent senior officials are millionaires. Armey makes over $500,000 a year working for the organization, and lives in a Texas home valued at $1.7 million. FreedomWorks president Matthew Kibbe lives on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, in a home valued at $1.17 million. Board member Steve Forbes, the billionaire publisher of Forbes magazine, lives in a New Jersey home valued at $2.78 million, owns a chateau in France, and recently sold a private island in Fiji and a palace in Morocco. [Wall Street Journal, 5/16/2008]
FreedomWorks Supports Armey's Lobbying Efforts - Armey’s lobbying firm, DLA Piper, represents pharmaceutical firms such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, medical device supplier SleepMed, health care provider Metropolitan Health Networks, and another pharmaceutical firm, Medicines Company. One member of FreedomWorks’s board of directors is Richard Stephenson, the founder and chairman of Cancer Treatment Centers of America. He is also the president of International Capital and Management Company, which runs a hospital consulting company. The president of FreedomWorks is Matt Kibbe, the former senior economist for the Republican National Committee and the former chief of staff for Representative Dan Miller (R-FL). FreedomWorks is organizing protests against health care reform that would cut into pharmaceutical firms’ profits. DLA Piper represents a number of life insurance firms; FreedomWorks has organized support for the deregulation of the insurance industry. DLA Piper represents not only several American oil firms, but also Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on energy related issues such as maintaining the close ties between the US and the UAE. US oil firms are deeply involved in the UAE’s oil industry. [Center for Responsive Politics, 2009; Think Progress, 4/14/2009; MSNBC, 8/12/2009] In August 2009, after reporting on FreedomWorks, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow will tell her audience: “Washington lobbyists and health care executives and former Republican Party officials have just as much a right to shout down the policy debate about health care reform as anyone else does. These folks have just as much a right to try to derail this entire process as anyone else does. But we have a right to know who they are and who is paying them for their efforts. These guys are pros. This is an industry. This is beltway politics being organized and played out in town halls across the country.” [MSNBC, 8/12/2009] DLA Piper has also received $830,000 this year, so far, from the pharmaceutical firm Medicines Company; the same firm paid DLA Piper $1.5 million in 2008. [MSNBC, 8/7/2009]
FreedomWorks Lobbying on Behalf of DLA Piper? - In August 2009, Maddow will ask, “[W]hy are DLA Piper’s clients relevant?” She answers herself, “There appears to be some pretty good evidence that when you pay Dick Armey’s lobbying firm, DLA Piper, you get what Dick Armey’s grassroots organization FreedomWorks does.” In the first half of 2007, the American Council of Life Insurers paid DLA Piper $100,000 to lobby on its behalf. During that time span, FreedomWorks began lobbying Congress on a “grassroots” basis to deregulate the life insurance industry. Maddow will sarcastically ask: “And, of course, perhaps it is just mere coincidence that FreedomWorks happened to have a newfound, ideological, purist grassroots commitment to life insurance deregulation at the same time the American Council of Life Insurers hired Dick Armey’s lobbying firm. It could just be a coincidence. Could be, right?” In 2006, DLA Piper began lobbying for the Senado de Republica, the Mexican Senate, for the purpose of “enhancing US-Mexico relations.” At the same time, FreedomWorks began promoting itself as “one of the few organizations willing to aggressively promote meaningful immigration reform.” In 2004, during the Bush administration’s push to privatize Social Security, a single mom from Iowa was introduced at a White House economic conference as a supporter of privatization. That mom was a FreedomWorks employee. Maddow will say: “This is how FreedomWorks does their work. They try to create the impression that their just regular grassroots Americans without any financial or political interests in the outcome of these policy fights.” [MSNBC, 8/12/2009]
Entity Tags: MoveOn (.org), Steve Forbes, Think Progress (.org), Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Wall Street Journal, Matt Kibbe, Bristol-Myers Squibb, DLA Piper, Medicines Company, FreedomWorks, Dick Armey
Timeline Tags: US Health Care, Domestic Propaganda, 2010 Elections
President Barack Obama implements a home mortgage rescue plan that he says will prevent as many as 9 million Americans from losing their homes to foreclosure. Obama says that turning around the battered economy requires stemming the continuing tide of foreclosures. He says that the housing crisis that began last year set many other factors in motion and helped lead to the current, widening recession. “In the end, all of us are paying a price for this home mortgage crisis,” Obama says. “All of us will pay an even steeper price if we allow this crisis to deepen. The American dream is being tested by a home mortgage crisis that not only threatens the stability of our economy but also the stability of families and neighborhoods. While this crisis is vast, it begins just one house and one family at a time.” Of the nearly 52 million US homeowners with a mortgage, about 13.8 million, or nearly 27 percent, owe more on their mortgage than their home is currently worth. Obama’s plan contains three initiatives:
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac homeowners owing between 80 and 105 percent of what their homes are worth can refinance their mortgage. Prior to implementation of the rescue plan, only those borrowers with at least 20 percent home equity could refinance. Refinancing at a lower rate may save borrowers thousands of dollars yearly on their mortgage payments.
Banks will be encouraged to work with homeowners to modify existing mortgages, which is different from refinancing. The Bush administration plan, “Hope for Homeowners,” passed late in 2008, tried to do what Obama has now accomplished, but, since banks were not eager to modify terms to help people stay in their houses, the Bush plan is considered a failure. Under Obama’s plan, banks who received TARP funding will have to participate and, if they do not, Obama may request that the Congress allow bankruptcy judges to modify mortgage terms. Before Obama’s new plan, judges already had the power to modify mortgage terms on a homeowner’s second and third homes, although not on their primary residences.
Interest rates will be kept low by having the Treasury Department buy up mortgage-backed securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in the hope of re-inflating the market for mortgage-related products, even if Treasury may be overpaying for toxic assets in a market with few, if any, other buyers. [Mother Jones, 2/18/2009; CNN, 4/16/2009]
The insurance company AIG sells its US auto insurance unit to Zurich Financial Services AG for $1.9 billion. This will make the Swiss company the third largest US personal line insurer. [Reuters, 4/17/2009] This sale is part of an AIG program to sell business units in order to repay bailout loans to the government (see September 18, 2008).
An image of the proposed Co Op Canyon, inspired by the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi Indians. [Source: InHabit]The Los Angeles design firm Standard submits a proposal for a fully sustainable, solar-powered arcology for the Re:Vision Dallas design challenge. The proposal, Co Op Canyon, is inspired by the cliffside villages of the ancient Anasazi Indians, who used sunlight to heat their homes (see 1200 and After). The winner of the challenge could have their design built by Dallas developers on a city block already set aside for the project. Co Op canyon would house up to 1,000 residents, who would be almost completely independent and sustainable between the solar energy, rainwater collection, and agriculture from the community gardens. The community would have a communal kitchen, gathering area, child care facility, fitness center, and retail space. It is designed to have a near-zero carbon footprint. [InHabitat, 6/8/2009]
A press investigation reveals that corporate interests are behind a supposedly grassroots effort to block Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (see May 26, 2009) from ascending to the high court. Raw Story reporters Larisa Alexandrovna and Muriel Kane have learned that the Committee for Justice (CFJ), an organization they call “an astroturf group established by big business in July 2002 to create an appearance of popular support for President Bush’s judicial nominees,” is taking the lead in the effort to oppose the Sotomayor nomination. The head of the CFJ, Curt Levey, lambasted Sotomayor as an “intellectual lightweight” the day of her nomination (see May 26, 2009), and has made regular media appearances since then attacking her as racist and biased. CFJ was created in 2002 by Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), who recruited Washington lawyer C. Boyden Gray to “create a fake grassroots organization” to support conservative, pro-business jurists such as Charles Pickering and Chief Justice John Roberts. Gray, a former White House counsel, received the support of former President George H. W. Bush, Republican political adviser Karl Rove, and former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour. Gray has a strong history of creating “astroturf” organizations, which are lobbying and activist groups supposedly founded and led by ordinary citizens but that in fact are created and funded by large political and corporate interests. CFJ is one of the most successful of these creations, and has often been successful in placing pro-business judges on the bench. CFJ and other astroturf organizations founded or assisted by Gray have been funded by, among other firms, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, insurance giant AIG, and the Ameriquest Capital Corporation, receiving over $100 million since 1998. CFJ’s board includes Stan Anderson, the legal advisor to the Chamber of Commerce; John Engler, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers; former Republican governor Frank Keating, now president of the American Council of Life Insurers; and former Republican Senator Connie Mack. [Raw Story, 6/5/2009]
Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, National Association of Manufacturers, Sonia Sotomayor, Stan Anderson, Trent Lott, US Chamber of Commerce, Muriel Kane, Wal-Mart, Larisa Alexandrovna, John Engler, AIG (American International Group, Inc.), Karl C. Rove, Committee for Justice, Charles Pickering, Clayland Boyden Gray, Connie Mack, Curt Levey, Frank Keating, John G. Roberts, Jr, Home Depot, Haley Barbour, George W. Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush, Ameriquest Capital Corporation, American Council of Life Insurers
Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda
Wells Fargo & Co. confirms that it is not one of the 10 megabanks that will repay TARP capital and also says it is not hastening to repay the money. There had been rumors, perhaps because it had objected to the TARP funding in 2008, that Wells was prepared to write a check to repay its $25-billion TARP infusion—at any given moment—to escape government restrictions on executive pay, dividends, etc., but these rumors are now found to be false. The San Francisco-based bank bought Wachovia Corporation last year when it was on the verge of collapse and in its statement Wells cites its need to focus on assimilating loss-ridden Wachovia. “We want to pay back the government’s investment on behalf of the US taxpayer at the earliest practical date, but we haven’t applied yet to our regulators to repay the investment,” the statement says. From the beginning, Wells Chairman Richard Kovacevich stoked anti-TARP sentiment and opposed his bank’s inclusion in the program. Mr. Kovacevich said then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson “forced” the money on the bank because Mr. Paulson believed that all of the nation’s largest banks should have been TARP participants so that none appeared to be singled out for federal involvement. Mr. Kovacevich also attacked the government’s “stress test” of the 19 major banks to determine whether they had enough capital to survive a worse-than-expected economy over the next two years. “We do stress tests all the time on all of our portfolios,” Kovacevich said, according to Bloomberg News. “We share those stress tests with our regulators. It is absolutely asinine that somebody would announce we’re going to do stress tests for banks and we’ll give you the answer in 12 weeks.” On May 7, the Federal Reserve judged Wells and nine other major banks short of capital and Wells was ordered to raise $13.7 billion in additional capital by November 2009. The following day, Wells quickly raised $8.6 billion in a stock sale. Wells says it will “work closely with our regulators to determine the appropriate time to repay the TARP funds while maintaining strong capital levels.” [Los Angeles Times, 6/9/2009]
The Congressional Oversight Panel, charged with monitoring the $700 billion TARP, says that as long as banks keep large amounts of toxic assets on their books, regulators should conduct stress tests on them. Noting that the worst-case unemployment rate used in recent bank stress tests will soon be surpassed, panel chair and Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren tells Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, “We have not actually broken through the worst-case scenario, but the numbers are bad and they’re heading in the wrong direction.” The Congressional Oversight Panel, which includes a former senator and a current member of the House of Representatives, also advocates replicate periodic tests as long as banks hold “appreciable amounts” of illiquid mortgage securities. Warren says the “US unemployment rate average for 2009, now at 8.5 percent, will soon exceed the 8.9 percent as the worst-case scenario used in regulators’ capital evaluations of the 19 largest US bank holding companies.” Unemployment climbed to 9.4 percent in May; many analysts expect the rate to increase. “The worst-case scenario number for 2009 is in fact not the worst case. We’re going to see worse numbers,” Warren affirms. Ordered for the top 19 US bank holding companies by the US Treasury Department, the panel’s monthly report says the stress tests used a risk-modeling approach that, in its totality, was “reasonable and conservative.” However, the panel also says that an external party would find it impossible to imitate the loss projections forming the core of the tests. Warren adds that to ensure they are valued properly, the oversight panel will also review transactions in which banks repurchase stock warrants from the Treasury. Valuation of warrants, intended to provide taxpayers a potential for gains from government capital injections, will be a key focus of the panel’s July report. While the panel’s report acknowledges that the stress tests had a positive effect on market confidence, it cautions against assigning too much value to them. “They do not model bank holding company performance under ‘worst case’ scenarios and, as a result, they do not project the capital necessary to prevent banks from being stressed to near the breaking point,” the panel says. Warren notes her oversight board was rebuffed although it “pressed really hard on the Fed” for more stress test details. She adds that the Treasury under Secretary Timothy Geithner has been more open. She also tells lawmakers that giving the panel subpoena power would make it easier to acquire documents and testimony from officials at Treasury and the Federal Reserve. [Reuters, 6/9/2009]
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Robert Reich, former labor secretary under President Clinton, says: “I believe that there’s no doubt that we’re going down to government intervention everywhere, government ownership unprecedented in this country. And it’s a long road and a slippery slope. Essentially, capitalism has swamped democracy. The Bush administration started the bank bailouts because the financial system had overreached with wild speculation and was on the verge of breaking down. Tim Geithner and [President] Obama are continuing these big bank bailouts, and I happen to think the bailouts have not worked very well, except as a kind of socialism for big corporations. There’s no such thing as pure capitalism without rules and regulations that set limits on profit making, because otherwise it’s everybody out for themselves. Otherwise, nobody can trust anybody. Otherwise, it’s the law of the jungle.… We rely upon government to set the boundaries—this can’t happen because it’s fraud, that can’t happen because you’re stealing something, this can’t happen because you’re imposing a huge burden on other people. Unless you have a democratic system that allows the rules to be created not by the companies but by the people and the people’s representatives reflecting what the public needs—not what the corporations need—you’re going to have a system that is not a democracy and not democratic capitalism. It’s super capitalism without the democracy. People pressuring their individual Congress members and Obama standing up to the banking industry will force real regulation. There will be no recovery in the sense of going back to where we were because the old path was unsustainable. If we don’t lift middle class wages, if we don’t get some control over Wall Street, if we don’t have genuine health care reform, if we don’t do something about the environment and global warming, we will not have a recovery. The next downturn is going to be worse than the downturn we just had, so there’s no going backwards. In every conversation I’ve participated in with the president, I was left with the impression that he understood this very, very well. I think most of the people around him understand this. The question is can he pull this off? Can he overcome the vested interests? It will be a clear indication of his toughness with regard to the willingness to twist arms and demand that the public interest be foremost.” [Bill Moyers Journal, 6/12/2009]
The World Bank predicts a 2.9 percent contraction in the global economy and adds that unemployment and poverty will continue to rise in developing nations in 2009. The revised previous estimate of a 1.7 percent decline causes a slide in US and European stocks and commodities. Three months ago, the World Bank issued a new estimate of 2 percent in 2010. Although the S&P 500 remains up 33 percent from its 12-year low in March, since June 12, the index has fallen 5.1 percent. Last week, the S&P 500 lost 2.6 percent, as a turndown in crude oil wounded fuel producers and Standard & Poor’s rating agency downgraded 18 banks’ credit ratings. Speaking in Paris today, economics professor Nouriel Roubini—who predicted the current financial crisis as early as 2006—says the global economy could suffer another slump due to higher oil prices and increasing budget deficits. “I see the worry of a double whammy” because of energy costs and fiscal burdens, thus increasing the risk of a setback in the economic recovery. He says that oil might rise to $100 a barrel. The increase in the value of the dollar blunted the appeal of commodities as an alternative investment, and sent copper, gasoline and oil prices lower. Amid the resignations of two more board members, bringing the total of departing directors to seven since April, Bank of America stock falls 6.1 percent to $12.41, the bank’s steepest intraday decline since May 15. It is expected that at the end of their two-day meeting on June 24, Federal Reserve officials might announce that the US is showing signs of surfacing from the worst recession in 50 years, although, after their last meeting in April, they announced that the economy would “remain weak for a time.” It is anticipated that central bankers will keep the benchmark interest rate in the range of zero to 0.25 percent. [Bloomberg, 6/22/2009]
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) spent $314.3 million to shut down 16 banks in June 2009, according to reports released today. The federal insurer closed seven banks on June 25, pushing the number of bank failures for 2009 to 52, more than double the failures for all of 2008. The late June closures included six Illinois regional banks, all controlled by one family whose bank business model, according to the FDIC, “created concentrated exposure in each institution.” The FDIC says that the failure of the six family-owned banks is due to the banks’ investments in collateralized debt obligations and other losses. The failures and subsequent government takeover of the Illinois banks brought total 2009 Illinois bank failures to 12. Local and regional banks have been especially hard hit by plummeting home values that devalued mortgage-backed assets, while rising unemployment rates forced increased numbers of consumers to default on their loans.
June 2009 Bank Failures FDIC Update through July 2, 2009 -
Founders Bank, Worth, Illinois, with approximately $962.5 million in assets, closed. The PrivateBank and Trust Company, Chicago, Illinois, agreed to assume all deposits, approximatedly $848.9 million.
Millennium State Bank of Texas, Dallas, Texas, approximately $118 million in assets, closed. State Bank of Texas, Irving, Texas, agreed to assume all deposits, approximately $115 million.
The First National Bank of Danville, Danville, Illinois, approximately $166 million in assets, closed. First Financial Bank, N. A., Terre Haute, Indiana, assumed all deposits, approximately $147 million.
The Elizabeth State Bank, Elizabeth, Illinois, approximately $55.5 million in assets, closed. Galena State Bank and Trust Company, Galena, Illinois, agreed to assume all deposits, approximately $50.4 million.
Rock River Bank, Oregon, Illinois, approximately $77 million in assets, closed. The Harvard State Bank, Harvard, Illinois, agreed to assume all deposits, approximately $75.8 million.
The First State Bank of Winchester, Winchester, Illinois, approximately $36 million in assets, closed. The First National Bank of Beardstown, Beardstown, Illinois, agreed to assume all deposits, approximately $34 million.
The John Warner Bank, Clinton, Illinois, with approximately $70 million in assets, was closed. State Bank of Lincoln, Lincoln, Illinois, agreed to assume all deposits, approximaedly $64 million.
Mirae Bank, Los Angeles, California, approximately $456 million in assets, closed. Wilshire State Bank, Los Angeles, California, agreed to assume all deposits, approximately $362 million.
MetroPacific Bank, Irvine, California, approximately $80 million in assets, closed. Sunwest Bank, Tustin, California, agreed to assume all non-brokered deposits, approximately $73 million.
Horizon Bank, Pine City, Minnesota, approximately $87.6 million in assets, closed. Stearns Bank N. A., St. Cloud, Minnesota, agreed to assume all deposits, excluding certain brokered deposits, approximately $69.4 million.
Neighbor Community Bank, Newnan, Georgia, approximately $221.6 million in assets, closed. CharterBank, West Point, Georgia, agreed to assume all deposits, approximately $191.3 million.
Community Bank of West Georgia, Villa Rica, Georgia, approximately $199.4 million in assets and approximately $182.5 million in deposits, approved for payout by the FDIC board of directors.
First National Bank of Anthony, Anthony, Kansas, approximately $156.9 million in assets, closed. Bank of Kansas, South Hutchinson, Kansas, agreed to assume all deposits, approximately $142.5 million.
Cooperative Bank, Wilmington, North Carolina, approximately $970 million in assets, closed. First Bank, Troy, North Carolina, agreed to assume all deposits, excluding certain brokered deposits, approximately $774 million.
Southern Community Bank, Fayetteville, Georgia, approximately $377 million in assets, closed. United Community Bank, Blairsville, Georgia, agreed to assume all deposits, approximately $307 million.
Bank of Lincolnwood, Lincolnwood, Illinois, approximately $214 million in assets, closed. Republic Bank of Chicago, Oak Brook, Illinois, agreed to assume all deposits, approximately $202 million. [CNN, 7/2/2009; FDIC.gov, 7/2/2009]
Eighteen consecutive months of job losses and an economy on the verge of collapse have left record numbers of US consumers either unable to pay their debts or chronically late in payments during the first quarter of 2009. According to the American Bankers Association, home equity loan delinquencies rose to 3.52 percent, from 3.03 percent of all accounts in the last quarter of 2008. Late payments on home equity credit lines climbed a record 1.89 percent, and an index of eight types of loans rose to 3.23 percent from 3.22 percent for a fourth consecutive quarter. In a telephone interview with Bloomberg, the American Bankers Association’s chief economist, James Chessen says: “The number one driver of delinquencies is job losses, which we’ve seen build and build. Delinquencies won’t come down without a dramatic improvement in the economy, and businesses will have to start hiring again.” For the first quarter of 2009, the US economy lost an average of 691,000 jobs in each of the quarter’s three months. According to a Bloomberg survey of 61 economists, since the recession began in December 2007, more than 6.5 million jobs have been cut, and the US economy will shrink in 2009 the most since 1946. Outstanding debt on bank card delinquencies rose a record 6.60 percent in first quarter 2009, from 5.52 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, indicating that unemployed borrowers are relying on bank cards, as housing prices corrode their home equity. The ABA stated that more borrowers are using cards to meet daily expenses following their job losses. US banks distributed 9.8 million credit cards from January through April 2009, a 38 percent decline from the same period a year earlier, with the average limit for a new bank card falling 3 percent to $4,594, according to data released by credit reporting agency Equifax. “There is less equity to draw on and certainly financial institutions have been scaling back the available lines of credit,” Chessen says. [Bloomberg, 7/7/2009; American Bankers Association, 7/7/2009]
While California grapples with budget problems as a result of the havoc wreaked by the global recession, a collection of banks—Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan Chase among them—say that commencing Friday, July 10, they will not accept state IOUs, adding pressure for the state to close its $26.3 billion budget gap.
IOUs Result of Credit Crisis - The banks initially made a commitment to accept IOU payments when the economically devastated state announced that it would issue more than $3 billion in IOUs beginning on or around July 1. Since the beginning of the year, state leaders have tried and failed to agree on a budget, and Governor Arnold Swarzenegger imposed monthly one to three-day monthly furloughs on at least 200,000 state employees; the furloughs are still in effect. The state began issuing IOUs—‘individual registered warrants’—to hundreds of thousands of creditors one day after the end of the 2009 fiscal year. John Chiang, California state controller, said, “Without IOUs, California will run out of cash by the end of July.” California’s annual budget is the eighth largest in the world. If the state continues issuing warrants, creditors will be forced to hold them until their maturity on October 2 or find other banks willing to honor them before maturity. The maturity of the IOUs will allow the state to pay back creditors directly at a 3.75 percent annual interest rate.
Response by California Bankers Association - California Bankers Association spokeswoman Beth Mills says that some banks might work with creditors to develop a short-term resolution, such as extending lines of credit to creditors. Mills says the banks were concerned that there aren’t processes in place to accept IOUs; she said that some of the banks were also worried about fraud issues, and notes that the July 10 deadline was not set by all banks. She adds that dozens of state credit unions would continue to accept IOUs.
Significance of California's Problems - Twelve percent of the nation’s gross domestic product comes from California and the state has the largest share of retail sales of any state. Retail consultant Burt P. Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, explains, “California is the key catalyst for US retail sales, and if California falls further you will see the US economy suffer significantly.” Flickinger warns of more national retail chain and brand suppliers bankruptcies. At one dollar for every 80 cents, the state sends more in tax revenues to the federal government than it receives in return. Although California’s deep recession primarily only affects the state itself, it could make it harder for a national economic recovery since, because of its size—38.3 million people—it affects businesses from Texas to Michigan. Even if lawmakers solve the state’s deficit swiftly, there will likely be more government furloughs and layoffs with tens of billions of dollars more in spending cuts. This could cause a ripple effect throughout the state’s economy and fear of even more job losses. Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center for the University of the Pacific at Stockton, predicts that one million jobs are expected to be lost in the state in two years, with unemployment estimated to peak at 12.3 percent in early 2010. In 2008, for the first time since the Great Depression, personal income of Californians declined. Income revenue fell 34 percent for the first five months of 2009. [Associated Press, 6/29/2009; Wall Street Journal, 7/7/2009]
Entity Tags: California Bankers Association, Bank of America, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Beth Mills, California, John Chiang, JP Morgan Chase, Jeff Michael, Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., Burt P. Flickinger, Citigroup, Strategic Resource Group
Timeline Tags: Global Economic Crises
Group of 8 (G-8) leaders from across the globe release a statement from their meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, saying that economic recovery from the worst recession since World War II is too frail for them to consider repealing efforts to infuse money into the economy. US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, European Commission President Jose Barroso, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev assembled for the annual gathering where Obama pressed to maintain an open door for additional stimulus actions. A new drop in stocks generated global concern that, to date, the $2 trillion already sunk into economies had not provided the economic bump that would bring consumers and businesses back to life. “The G-8 needed to sound a second wakeup call for the world economy,” Brown told reporters after the gathering’s opening sessions. “There are warning signals about the world economy that we cannot ignore.” A G-8 statement embraces options ranging from a second US stimulus package—advocated by some lawmakers and economists—to an emphasis by Germany on shifting the focus to deficit reduction.
What Next? - Disagreements over what to do next, as well as calls from developing nations to do more to counteract the slump, emphasize that the Group of 8 has little if any room to maneuver, since the largest borrowing binge in 60 years has, so far, failed to stop rising unemployment and has left investors doubting the potency of the recovery. Even as G-8 leaders held their first meeting, the Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) World Index of stocks continued a five-day slide, and the 23-nation index had dropped 8 percent since its three-month rally that ended on June 2. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) upgraded its 2010 growth forecast, saying the rebound would be “sluggish,” and urged governments to stay the course with economic stimuli. The IMF also said that emerging countries such as China would lead the way, with an expansion of 4.7 percent in 2010, up from their April prediction of 4 percent. “It’s a very volatile situation,” said European Commission President Barroso in a Bloomberg Television interview from L’Aquila. “We are not yet out of the crisis, but it seems now that the free fall is over.”
Exit Strategems Discussion - “Exit strategies will vary from country to country depending on domestic economic conditions and public finances,” the leaders conclude, but deputy US National Security Adviser Mike Froman tells reporters, “There is still uncertainty and risk in the system.” Froman says that although exit strategies should be drawn up, it’s not “time to put them into place.” The IMF forecasts that, in 2014, the debt of advanced economies will explode to at least 114 percent of US gross domestic product because of bank bailouts and recession-battling measures. German Chancellor Merkel, campaigning for re-election in September and the leading opponent of additional stimulus, warned against burgeoning budget deficits, which the IMF has predicted will rise to an average of 6 percent of the EU’s 2009 gross domestic product, from 2.3 percent in 2008. At last month’s European Union summit, Merkel pushed through a statement that called for “a reliable and credible exit strategy,” and insisted, “We have to get back on course with a sustainable budget, but with the emphasis on when the crisis is over.” [G8 Summit 2009, 7/2/2009; Bloomberg, 7/9/2009]
Entity Tags: Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) World Index, Mike Froman, Jose Manuel Barroso, International Monetary Fund, Taro Aso, National Security Council, Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi, Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown, Barack Obama, Standard & Poor’s, Stephen Harper, Dmitriy Medvedev
Timeline Tags: Global Economic Crises
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