FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What the Big Banks Have Won

by MIKE WHITNEY

The trouble started 24 months ago, but the origins of the financial crisis are still disputed. The problems did not begin with subprime loans, lax lending standards or shoddy ratings agencies. The meltdown can be traced back to the activities of the big banks and their enablers at the Federal Reserve. The Fed’s artificially low interest rates provided a subsidy for risky speculation while deregulation allowed financial institutions to increase leverage to perilous levels, creating trillions of dollars of credit backed by insufficient capital reserves. When two Bear Stearns hedge funds defaulted in July 2007, the process of turbo-charging profits through massive credit expansion flipped into reverse sending the financial system into a downward spiral.

It is inaccurate to call the current slump a “recession”, which suggests a mismatch between supply and demand that is part of the normal business cycle. In truth, the economy has stumbled into a multi-trillion dollar capital hole that was created by the reckless actions of the nation’s largest financial institutions. The banks blew up the system and now the country has slipped into a depression.

Currently, the banks are lobbying congress to preserve the “financial innovations” which are at the heart of the crisis. These so-called innovations are, in fact, the instruments (derivatives) and processes (securitization) which help the banks achieve their main goal of avoiding reserve requirements. Securitization and derivatives are devices for concealing the build-up of leverage which is essential for increasing profits with as little capital as possible. If Congress fails to see through this ruse and re-regulate the system, the banks will inflate another bubble and destroy what little is left of the economy.

On June 22, 2009, Christopher Whalen, of Institutional Risk Analysis, appeared before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, and outlined the dangers of Over-The-Counter (OTC) derivatives. He pointed out that derivatives trading is hugely profitable and generates “supra-normal returns”  for banking giants JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and other large derivatives dealers.  He also noted that, “the deliberate inefficiency of the OTC derivatives market results in a dedicated tax or subsidy meant to benefit one class of financial institutions, namely the largest OTC dealer banks, at the expense of other market participants.” As Whalen testified:

“Regulators who are supposed to protect the taxpayer from the costs of cleaning up these periodic loss events are so captured by the very industry they are charged by law to regulate as to be entirely ineffective….The views of the existing financial regulatory agencies and particularly the Federal Reserve Board and Treasury, should get no consideration from the Committee since the views of these agencies are largely duplicative of the views of JPM and the large OTC dealers.”

Whalen’s complaint is heard frequently on the Internet where bloggers have blasted the cozy relationship between the Fed and the big banks. In fact, the Fed and Treasury are not only hostile towards regulation, they operate as the de facto policy arm of the banking establishment. This explains why Bernanke has underwritten the entire financial system with $12.8 trillion, while the broader economy languishes in economic quicksand. The Fed’s lavish gift amounts to a taxpayer-funded insurance policy for which no premium is paid.

Whalen continues:

“In my view, CDS (credit default swaps) contracts and complex structured assets are deceptive by design and beg the question as to whether a certain level of complexity is so speculative and reckless as to violate US securities and anti-fraud laws. That is, if an OTC derivative contract lacks a clear cash basis and cannot be valued by both parties to the transaction with the same degree of facility and transparency as cash market instruments, then the OTC contact should be treated as fraudulent and banned as a matter of law and regulation. Most CDS contracts and complex structured financial instruments fall into this category of deliberately fraudulent instruments for which no cash basis exists.”

No one understands these instruments; they are deliberately opaque and impossible to price. they should be banned, but the Fed and Treasury continue to look the other way because they are in the thrall of the banks. This phenomenon is known as “regulatory capture”.

Credit default swaps (CDS) are a particularly insidious invention. They were originally designed to protect against the possibility of bond going into default, but quickly morphed into a means for massive speculation which is virtually indistinguishable from casino-type gambling. CDS can be used to doll-up one’s credit rating, short the market or hedge against potential losses. CDS trading poses a clear danger to the financial system (The CDS market has mushroomed to $30 trillion industry) but the Fed and other regulators have largely ignored the activity because it is a cash cow for the banks.

Whalen again:

“It is important for the Committee to understand that the reform proposal from the Obama Administration regarding OTC derivatives is a canard; an attempt by the White House and the Treasury Department to leave in place the de facto monopoly over the OTC markets by the largest dealer banks led by JPM, GS and other institutions….

The only beneficiaries of the current OTC market for derivatives are JPM, GS and the other large OTC dealers…. Without OTC derivatives, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG would never have failed, but without the excessive rents earned by JPM, GS and the remaining legacy OTC dealers, the largest banks cannot survive and must shrink dramatically.” (Statement by Christopher Whalen to the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, Subcommittee on Securities, Insurance, and Investment, United States Senate, June 22, 2009)

The Geithner-Summers “reform” proposals are a public relations scam designed to conceal the fact that the banks will continue to maintain their stranglehold on OTC derivatives trading while circumventing government oversight. Nothing will change. Bernanke and Geithner’s primary objective is to preserve the ability of the banks to use complex instruments to enhance leverage and maximize profits.

The banks created the financial crisis, and now they are its biggest beneficiaries. They don’t need to worry about risk, because Bernanke has assured them that they will be bailed out regardless of the cost. Financial institutions that have explicit government guarantees are able to get cheaper funding because lending to the bank is the same as lending to the state.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

May 04, 2016
Kshama Sawant
It’s Not About Bernie: Why We Can’t Let Our Revolution Die in Philadelphia
Conn Hallinan
Baiting the Bear: Russia and NATO
Joshua Frank
Hanford’s Leaky Nuke Tanks and Sick Workers, A Never-Ending Saga
Paul Craig Roberts
TIPP: Advancing American Imperialism
Ted Rall
Hillary to Bernie Supporters: Don’t Vote for Me!
Eric Draitser
Hillary Clinton and Wall Street’s Neoliberal War on Latin America
Leslie Scott
The Story of Jill Stein: Putting People, Peace and the Planet Before Profits
Ann Garrison
Building the Greens Into a Mass Party: Interview with Bruce Dixon
Tom Clifford
Crying Rape: Trump’s China-Bashing
Lawrence Davidson
Getting Rid of Bad Examples: Andrew Jackson & Woodrow Wilson
Ellen Brown
Bank of North Dakota Soars Despite Oil Bust: A Blueprint for California?
Nelson Valdes
Is Fidel Castro Outside or Part of Mainstream Thinking? A Selection of Quotes
Jesse Jackson
Don’t Send Flint Down the Drain: Fix It!
Nathan Riley
Help Bernie Keep His Halo
Rivera Sun
Remembering Nonviolent History: Freedom Rides
Clancy Sigal
Rachel and the Isolationists: How Maddow Blew It
Laura Finley
Changing the Conversation About “The Woman Card”
CJ Hopkins
Coming this Summer … Revenge of the Bride of Sophie’s Choice
May 03, 2016
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Resumé: What the Record Shows
Michèle Brand – Arun Gupta
What is the “Nuit Debout”?
Chuck Churchill
The Failures of Capitalism, Donald Trump and Right Wing Terror
Dave Marsh
Bernie and the Greens
John Wight
Zionism Should be on Trial, Not Ken Livingstone
Rev. John Dear
A Dweller in Peace: the Life and Times of Daniel Berrigan
Patrick Cockburn
Saudi Arabia’s Great Leap Forward: What Would Mao Think?
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Electoral Votes Matter: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump
Chris Gilbert
Venezuela Today: This Must Be Progress
Pepe Escobar
The Calm Before the Coming Global Storm
Ruth Fowler
Intersecting with the Identity Police (Or Why I Stopped Writing Op-Eds)
Victor Lasa
The Battle Rages on in Spain: the Country Prepares for Repeat Elections in June
Jack Rasmus
Is the US Economy Heading for Recession?
Dean Baker
Time for an Accountable Federal Reserve
Ted Rall
Working for US Gov Means Never Saying Sorry
Dave Welsh
Hunger Strikers at Mission Police Station: “Stop the execution of our people”
John Eskow
The Death of Prince and the Death of Lonnie Mack
May 02, 2016
Michael Hudson – Gordon Long
Wall Street Has Taken Over the Economy and is Draining It
Paul Street
The Bernie Fade Begins
Ron Jacobs
On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan
Louis Yako
Dubai Transit
Bill Quigley
Teacher, Union Leader, Labor Lawyer: Profile of Chris Williams Social Justice Advocate
Patrick Cockburn
Into the Green Zone: Iraq’s Disintegrating Political System
Lawrence Ware
Trump is the Presidential Candidate the Republicans Deserve
Ron Forthofer
Just Say No to Corporate Rule
Ralph Nader
The Long-Distance Rebound of Bernie Sanders
Ken Butigan
Remembering Daniel Berrigan, with Gratitude
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail