The Budget Fight Was the First Skirmish in the War for the Soul of the Democratic Party

Dec 12, 2014Richard Kirsch

Democrats had the leverage to nix a deal that opens the door to more Wall Street bailouts, but they caved in to Republican blackmail.

Progressives lost the battle over the budget last night because President Obama and a minority of Democrats took the side of Wall Street. It is the first of many losses we will see in the next two years as Republicans relentlessly pursue their corporate agenda. The bigger question is whether progressives will lose the war in the Democratic Party.

Democrats had the leverage to nix a deal that opens the door to more Wall Street bailouts, but they caved in to Republican blackmail.

Progressives lost the battle over the budget last night because President Obama and a minority of Democrats took the side of Wall Street. It is the first of many losses we will see in the next two years as Republicans relentlessly pursue their corporate agenda. The bigger question is whether progressives will lose the war in the Democratic Party.

Blowing up this budget deal should have been easy for Democrats. They were handed a perfect message: the Republicans are willing to shut down the government so they can bail out Wall Street the next time it wrecks the economy.

Democratic votes were needed because a group of 67 right-wing Republicans opposed the bill on the grounds that it did not go far enough in opposing the president’s executive order on immigration. The Republican split gave Democrats the leverage to demand that the bank bail-out provision be stripped from the bill.

But with President Obama twisting enough Democratic arms (57 in total) to give in to the Wall Street-engineered Republican blackmail, that powerful, winning message was diluted.

Democratic negotiators also agreed to the deal to repeal a provision of the Dodd-Frank law that prevents government bailouts of banks who engage in a form of risky trading. Their argument was “Republicans made us do it; it’s the best we could do.” But of course, with all the Wall Street money going to Democrats, that’s a convenient excuse. They can turn around and wink at the lobbyists who deliver Wall Street campaign contributions, playing a game in which the dupes are the American people.

The bailout of banks and Wall Street speculators remains deeply and broadly unpopular. It is an issue that generates anger among grassroots activists on the left and the right. For Americans who see Wall Street billionaires getting richer by gaming the system while families struggle to meet the basics, there could be no clearer contrast.

Progressive Democrats fought back. In a rapid-fire display of the energy and nimbleness of progressive organizations and champions in Congress, the deal was quickly exposed.

Senator Elizabeth Warren laid it out clearly on the Senate floor: “We put this rule in place because people of all political persuasions were disgusted at the idea of future bailouts… Republicans in the House of Representatives are threatening to shut down the government if they don’t get a chance to repeal it.”

In the House, progressive Democrats joined the call. California Rep. Maxine Waters, the senior Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, said, “We don't like lobbying that is being done by the president or anybody else that would allow us to support a bill that ... would give a big gift to Wall Street and the bankers who caused this country to almost go into a depression.”

The vigorous pushback from progressive groups and their allies in Congress convinced Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to break with the White House. Pelosi said that they were being “blackmailed” to vote for the bill, which she called “a moral hazard.” Still, Pelosi did not use her considerable powers of persuasion to get fellow Democrats to vote no.

For the next two years we will see Republicans do everything they can to deliver for corporate America at the expense of the American people. The only question is whether Democrats will enable them. Will President Obama continue to make compromise after compromise? Will Democrats in the Senate use the filibuster to block the Republican attack on working families? Will enough Democrats in the House keep coming to the rescue of a divided Republican Party?

We will see the same fight in the Democratic primary for president. Will Hillary Clinton break from the Wall Street wing of the party with which she aligned as a senator from New York? Will her challengers make the same sharp contrast that Senator Warren did, when she began her speech on the Senate floor by asking, “Who does Congress work for? Does it work for the millionaires, the billionaires, the giant companies with their armies of lobbyists or lawyers? Or does it work for all the people?”

As I wrote after the election last month, Democrats who used a populist economic message – who named the corporate villains and declared that “we all do better when we all do better” – won. Democrats who ran to the mushy middle lost.

But this is not just a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, it’s a fight for our very democracy. As Justice Louis Brandeis said almost a century ago, “We may have a democracy or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

Americans are yearning for champions who stand up for them. If we have any hope of changing the direction of our economy from enriching the rich at the expense of the rest of us and of recapturing our democracy from the CEO campaign contributors and Wall Street bag men, it will be because progressive forces and elected champions stand up not just to Republicans but to President Obama and any Democrat who takes the side of Wall Street against America’s working families.

It is clear that progressives and the American people will lose battle after battle in Congress over the next two years. The real question is whether we will lose the war. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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The Bipartisan Policy Center Gets It Wrong: The Lincoln Amendment is Critical to Financial Reform

Dec 11, 2014Mike KonczalAlexis GoldsteinCaitlin Kline

A wide variety of people, ranging from Senators Elizabeth Warren and David Vitter to Representative Maxine Waters and FDIC’s Thomas Hoenig, are trying to stop a last-minute attempt to remove an important piece of financial reform. They are all speaking up against a move to repeal the Lincoln Amendment using language written by Citigroup in the year-end budget process.

Given the wide variety of people against it, it’s interesting how few people are for it. One of the few institutions that has defended it is the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), whose Financial Regulatory Reform Initiative released a statement saying:

“The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act is consistent with BPC’s recommendations to repeal the Lincoln Amendment and to substantially increase funding for the SEC and CFTC.”

These recommendations they cite date back to a 2013 paper, “Better Path Forward on the Volcker Rule and the Lincoln Amendment,” that included arguments against pushing out swaps.

What’s their case, and does it hold up under scrutiny? We argue it does not. It misreads the purpose and scope of the Volcker Rule, disregards their own analysis on how financial reform should proceed, misses recent developments in the derivatives market, and ignores the issue of what an implicit government support means for exotic derivatives.

As a reminder, the Lincoln Amendment pushing out swaps (which we’ll refer to as 716) insists that the largest banks hold their exotic, customized, and non-cleared derivatives outside of their FDIC-insured entities in separately capitalized subsidiaries. 716 exempted most standardized derivatives, including interest rate and foreign exchange swaps, as well as cleared credit default swaps (CDS). This provision only applies to the odd and dangerous stuff.

So what are BPC's arguments?

716 and Volcker Accomplish Different Goals

Their core argument is that 716 is redundant, and therefore unnecessary, because of the Volcker Rule.  As they put it,“[L]ike the Volcker Rule, the Lincoln Amendment was intended to separate certain securities-related activities from traditional banking activities.” BPC further argues that with a “proper implementation of the Volcker Rule… the rationale for the Lincoln Amendment may no longer apply.”

This is not the case. The Volcker Rule is about risky activities, and focuses on eliminating the gambling risks associated with proprietary trading and exposure to certain types of investment funds. 716, on the other hand, is about risky products, and aims to reduce risk to the Deposit Insurance Fund (DIF) by utilizing separately capitalized entities for the riskiest derivatives.

While there is some overlap between the two, there are significant gaps. For instance, exemptions in the Volcker Rule allow some of the riskiest trades to be done within FDIC-insured entities -- things like making markets in bespoke, exotic, uncleared credit default swaps. Indeed, walking away from the financial crisis with an attitude that uncleared credit default swaps are no big issue is quite troubling. This puts the Deposit Insurance Fund at risk. 

716 complements Volcker by forcing the riskiest and most non-vanilla derivatives and CDS into a separately capitalized entity, something Volcker doesn’t do by itself. This helps protect the DIF in case a firm gets into trouble market-making bespoke trades that can’t be perfectly hedged – a Volcker-compliant activity. 

The Final Volcker Rule Isn’t Fully Implemented

Shockingly, BPC is violating its own analysis with this recommendation. In the 2013 paper, BPC “recommends a wait-and-see approach regarding the Lincoln Amendment until more experience can be gained from the Volcker Rule.” Only then, if the full implementation of the Volcker Rule is working well, could the Lincoln Amendment “be repealed without any negative effect.”

It is disturbing that the BPC supports this removal of the Lincoln Amendment before the Volcker Rule is fully implemented in mid-2015, and even before we've had time to see how it impacts the financial markets. It’s not even clear how they are judging whether the Volcker Rule is working the way they want, given that the data and metrics they rely on so heavily have only just begun to be reported to regulators, and are non-public.

Shoving a bank-written addition into a budget bill, not unlike the CFMA of 2000 which helped create the crisis, is the exact opposite of a “wait-and-see approach.”

Pushout Doesn’t Harm Bank Resolution

Another argument made against 716 was that it would complicate the ability of regulators to deal with a bank failure. BPC points out that regulators are empowered to grant a temporary stay to derivatives, preventing derivative creditors from grabbing collateral while others wait two days, as they did with Lehman Brothers. (Under bankruptcy, derivatives are exempt from this temporary stay, which can complicate and accelerate bankruptcy.)

Part of the argument is true: Dodd-Frank did grant the FDIC new powers under the Orderly Liquidation Authority, which allows them to force a 24-hour stay on derivatives (overriding the exemption), but this only applies to banks under FDIC purview.

BPC argued that the largest banks should be allowed to keep derivatives inside the FDIC accounts, so that they could utilize the FDIC’s OLA power. BPC writes that the 716 “subsidiaries would not enjoy the temporary stay on the unwinding of contracts that applies to banks under FDIC resolution procedures. Rapid termination of such contracts in the event of a bank failure would have a disruptive impact on financial markets."

But this argument is much less valid than it was when it was written, precisely because regulators are anticipating this problem. Eighteen of the major banks and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) agreed in October that they’d contractually apply temporary stays to derivatives. With wide agreement among the banks to apply temporary stays anyway, the proper course of action is to work through this process of standardizing derivatives for automatic stays across the financial sector, rather than trying to use taxpayer funds to backstop them.

Apart from the BPC arguments, we wish to raise an additional point:  

Should Policy Allow Firms to Capitalize on Market-Perceived Subsidies?

Keeping derivatives in FDIC-insured entities lowers their costs: creditors charge lower rates, as FDIC accounts are seen as having the backing of the federal government. And these FDIC accounts typically have higher credit ratings, which is why, in 2011, Bank of America moved derivatives from its Merrill Lynch subsidiary, which had just suffered a downgrade, into its FDIC-insured subsidiary, much to the chagrin of the FDIC.

As Peter Eavis writes in The New York Times, this directly helps Citigroup, who lobbied for and wrote the change, as they own a lot of CDS: “With some $3 trillion of exposure, the bank is one of biggest default swap dealers in the United States. Those swaps right now live inside an entity called Citibank N.A. that enjoys federal deposit insurance. Nearly $2 trillion of those swaps are based on companies or other entities with a junk credit rating.”

And as Eavis points out, it’s very likely that a huge portion of Citigroup’s CDS are uncleared, as very few CDS overall are cleared: “Only about 10 percent of such swaps are centrally cleared, according to official surveys.”

Banks keeping derivatives in the FDIC accounts lower their cost of doing business, due to the market perception of an implicit government support. It should not be the role of policy to artificially lower the cost of bank borrowing, and as such we find the case for removing the Lincoln Amendment to be unconvincing.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Alexis Goldstein is a former Wall Street professional, who now serves as the Communications Director at Other98.org.

Caitlin Kline is a derivatives specialist at Better Markets.

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A wide variety of people, ranging from Senators Elizabeth Warren and David Vitter to Representative Maxine Waters and FDIC’s Thomas Hoenig, are trying to stop a last-minute attempt to remove an important piece of financial reform. They are all speaking up against a move to repeal the Lincoln Amendment using language written by Citigroup in the year-end budget process.

Given the wide variety of people against it, it’s interesting how few people are for it. One of the few institutions that has defended it is the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), whose Financial Regulatory Reform Initiative released a statement saying:

“The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act is consistent with BPC’s recommendations to repeal the Lincoln Amendment and to substantially increase funding for the SEC and CFTC.”

These recommendations they cite date back to a 2013 paper, “Better Path Forward on the Volcker Rule and the Lincoln Amendment,” that included arguments against pushing out swaps.

What’s their case, and does it hold up under scrutiny? We argue it does not. It misreads the purpose and scope of the Volcker Rule, disregards their own analysis on how financial reform should proceed, misses recent developments in the derivatives market, and ignores the issue of what an implicit government support means for exotic derivatives.

As a reminder, the Lincoln Amendment pushing out swaps (which we’ll refer to as 716) insists that the largest banks hold their exotic, customized, and non-cleared derivatives outside of their FDIC-insured entities in separately capitalized subsidiaries. 716 exempted most standardized derivatives, including interest rate and foreign exchange swaps, as well as cleared credit default swaps (CDS). This provision only applies to the odd and dangerous stuff.

So what are BPC's arguments?

716 and Volcker Accomplish Different Goals

Their core argument is that 716 is redundant, and therefore unnecessary, because of the Volcker Rule.  As they put it,“[L]ike the Volcker Rule, the Lincoln Amendment was intended to separate certain securities-related activities from traditional banking activities.” BPC further argues that with a “proper implementation of the Volcker Rule… the rationale for the Lincoln Amendment may no longer apply.”

This is not the case. The Volcker Rule is about risky activities, and focuses on eliminating the gambling risks associated with proprietary trading and exposure to certain types of investment funds. 716, on the other hand, is about risky products, and aims to reduce risk to the Deposit Insurance Fund (DIF) by utilizing separately capitalized entities for the riskiest derivatives.

While there is some overlap between the two, there are significant gaps. For instance, exemptions in the Volcker Rule allow some of the riskiest trades to be done within FDIC-insured entities -- things like making markets in bespoke, exotic, uncleared credit default swaps. Indeed, walking away from the financial crisis with an attitude that uncleared credit default swaps are no big issue is quite troubling. This puts the Deposit Insurance Fund at risk. 

716 complements Volcker by forcing the riskiest and most non-vanilla derivatives and CDS into a separately capitalized entity, something Volcker doesn’t do by itself. This helps protect the DIF in case a firm gets into trouble market-making bespoke trades that can’t be perfectly hedged – a Volcker-compliant activity. 

The Final Volcker Rule Isn’t Fully Implemented

Shockingly, BPC is violating its own analysis with this recommendation. In the 2013 paper, BPC “recommends a wait-and-see approach regarding the Lincoln Amendment until more experience can be gained from the Volcker Rule.” Only then, if the full implementation of the Volcker Rule is working well, could the Lincoln Amendment “be repealed without any negative effect.”

It is disturbing that the BPC supports this removal of the Lincoln Amendment before the Volcker Rule is fully implemented in mid-2015, and even before we've had time to see how it impacts the financial markets. It’s not even clear how they are judging whether the Volcker Rule is working the way they want, given that the data and metrics they rely on so heavily have only just begun to be reported to regulators, and are non-public.

Shoving a bank-written addition into a budget bill, not unlike the CFMA of 2000 which helped create the crisis, is the exact opposite of a “wait-and-see approach.”

Pushout Doesn’t Harm Bank Resolution

Another argument made against 716 was that it would complicate the ability of regulators to deal with a bank failure. BPC points out that regulators are empowered to grant a temporary stay to derivatives, preventing derivative creditors from grabbing collateral while others wait two days, as they did with Lehman Brothers. (Under bankruptcy, derivatives are exempt from this temporary stay, which can complicate and accelerate bankruptcy.)

Part of the argument is true: Dodd-Frank did grant the FDIC new powers under the Orderly Liquidation Authority, which allows them to force a 24-hour stay on derivatives (overriding the exemption), but this only applies to banks under FDIC purview.

BPC argued that the largest banks should be allowed to keep derivatives inside the FDIC accounts, so that they could utilize the FDIC’s OLA power. BPC writes that the 716 “subsidiaries would not enjoy the temporary stay on the unwinding of contracts that applies to banks under FDIC resolution procedures. Rapid termination of such contracts in the event of a bank failure would have a disruptive impact on financial markets."

But this argument is much less valid than it was when it was written, precisely because regulators are anticipating this problem. Eighteen of the major banks and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) agreed in October that they’d contractually apply temporary stays to derivatives. With wide agreement among the banks to apply temporary stays anyway, the proper course of action is to work through this process of standardizing derivatives for automatic stays across the financial sector, rather than trying to use taxpayer funds to backstop them.

Apart from the BPC arguments, we wish to raise an additional point:  

Should Policy Allow Firms to Capitalize on Market-Perceived Subsidies?

Keeping derivatives in FDIC-insured entities lowers their costs: creditors charge lower rates, as FDIC accounts are seen as having the backing of the federal government. And these FDIC accounts typically have higher credit ratings, which is why, in 2011, Bank of America moved derivatives from its Merrill Lynch subsidiary, which had just suffered a downgrade, into its FDIC-insured subsidiary, much to the chagrin of the FDIC.

As Peter Eavis writes in The New York Times, this directly helps Citigroup, who lobbied for and wrote the change, as they own a lot of CDS: “With some $3 trillion of exposure, the bank is one of biggest default swap dealers in the United States. Those swaps right now live inside an entity called Citibank N.A. that enjoys federal deposit insurance. Nearly $2 trillion of those swaps are based on companies or other entities with a junk credit rating.”

And as Eavis points out, it’s very likely that a huge portion of Citigroup’s CDS are uncleared, as very few CDS overall are cleared: “Only about 10 percent of such swaps are centrally cleared, according to official surveys.”

Banks keeping derivatives in the FDIC accounts lower their cost of doing business, due to the market perception of an implicit government support. It should not be the role of policy to artificially lower the cost of bank borrowing, and as such we find the case for removing the Lincoln Amendment to be unconvincing.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Alexis Goldstein is a former Wall Street professional, who now serves as the Communications Director at Other98.org.

Caitlin Kline is a derivatives specialist at Better Markets.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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Daily Digest - December 11: We Don't Need Weakened Financial Regulations in the Spending Bill

Dec 11, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Democrats Revolt Against 'Wall Street Giveaway' In Deal To Prevent Government Shutdown (HuffPo)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Democrats Revolt Against 'Wall Street Giveaway' In Deal To Prevent Government Shutdown (HuffPo)

Zach Carter and Sabrina Siddiqui quote Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz on why a provision that will bring risky derivative trades under FDIC protection is a disaster.

Warren Leads Liberal Democrats’ Rebellion Over Provisions in $1 Trillion Spending Bill (WaPo)

Senator Warren is calling on House Democrats to withhold support of the spending bill unless this derivatives provision is removed, report Lori Montgomery and Sean Sullivan.

Congress' Backroom Pension-Cutting Deal is Even Worse Than Expected (LA Times)

Michael Hiltzik details the pension-cutting measure attached to the omnibus spending bill, which he says has far fewer protections for older retirees than originally implied.

The Wall Street Takeover of Charity (ProPublica)

Donor-advised charitable funds, which are run by financial firms, aren't increasing charitable giving as much as they're making money for the firms, writes Jesse Eisinger.

Walmart Illegally Punished Workers, Judge Rules (NYT)

Steven Greenhouse reports on a National Labor Relations Board decision in California, which found that Walmart managers had illegally intimidated workers for supporting unionizing efforts.

The Economic Threat to Cities Isn't Gentrification; It's the Opposite (Vox)

With gentrification comes a higher concentration of poverty, writes Danielle Kurtzleben, and increased economic segregation comes with less economic mobility.

New on Next New Deal

The Financial Regulation Congress Is Quietly Trying to Destroy in the Budget

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal explains why Section 716 of Dodd-Frank was implemented in the first place, and why weakening it today would put the economy and taxpayers at risk.

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Daily Digest - December 3: What If We Could Wave a Magic Wand Over the Economy?

Dec 3, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Steps Toward the “Good Economy” (Cato Institute)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter presents "magic wand" solutions to two problems holding back the economy: declining business formation and an unprepared labor force.

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Steps Toward the “Good Economy” (Cato Institute)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter presents "magic wand" solutions to two problems holding back the economy: declining business formation and an unprepared labor force.

Pregnant and Forced Off the Job (MSNBC)

In light of today's oral arguments in Young vs. UPS, which asks whether pregnant workers must be permitted reasonable accommodations, Irin Carmon profiles a similar pregnancy discrimination case.

Chicago Council Strongly Approves $13 Minimum Wage (NPR)

Bill Chappell reports on the overwhelming vote in favor of a $13-per-hour minimum wage. The legislation works incrementally, though, so Chicagoans won't see that wage until 2019.

Republicans Back to Raising Taxes on the Poor (NY Mag)

Jonathan Chait suggests that Republicans' new desire to end a set of tax breaks for low-income workers is tied to the president's new plans on immigration.

The Cycle of Republican Radicalization (TAP)

Paul Waldman points out that over the past few years, Republicans in Congress have pushed back so strongly on anything from the president that it's actually shifted voters rightward as well.

A Government Shutdown Can't Stop Obama's Immigration Plan—and John Boehner Knows It (TNR)

Refusing to fund the departments that deal with immigration won't stop the coming changes, writes Brian Beutler, which makes a shutdown threat pretty toothless.

Converting a Union Skeptic (The Atlantic)

Alana Semuels profiles Audra Rondeau, a Vermont home health care aide who was convinced to join a union not just for better wages and benefits, but for the good of her clients.

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Daily Digest - December 1: Low Consumer Confidence is Boosting the Minimum Wage Fight

Dec 1, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Consumer Confidence Down Despite Economic Upswing (Melissa Harris-Perry)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Consumer Confidence Down Despite Economic Upswing (Melissa Harris-Perry)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren ties business support for a higher minimum wage to the drop in consumer confidence: business owners know people need money to spend.

Five Economic Trends to Be Thankful For (NYT)

In the spirit of the holiday, Neil Irwin looks on the bright side of this year's economic news, highlighting trends like lower gas prices and increases in people voluntarily quitting their jobs.

The Big Business of Small Wage Gains (WSJ)

Justin Lahart suggests that the growth of large employers lessens worker's bargaining power over wages by giving them fewer options to choose from.

U.S. Cities Making It Harder to Feed the Homeless (The Guardian)

Suzanne McGee questions why 22 cities have passed ordinances that make it more difficult to feed the homeless in public places, seemingly motivated by downtown "revitalization."

An Udderly Bad Job (In These Times)

Joseph Sorrentino reports on the exceedingly poor labor practices that characterize the dairy industry. The sometimes-dangerous work includes low pay, no overtime, and no worker's comp.

Real World Contradicts Right-Wing Tax Theories (AJAM)

With California raising taxes and seeing higher job growth than Kansas, which cut taxes, David Cay Johnston says the real-world data disproves Republican theories.

New on Next New Deal

There Will Be Another Michael Brown: Millennial Perspectives on Ferguson

Campus Network members and staff respond to last week's news that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson will not stand trial for the shooting of Michael Brown.

Universities Can Prevent the Race to the Bottom for Labor Standards

Roosevelt Institute Associate Director of Networked Initiatives Alan Smith and Campus Network Midwest Regional Coordinator Julius Goldberg-Lewis argue that universities must set better standards for doing business in a tech-driven era.

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Dirty Deals: How Wall Street's Predatory Deals Hurt Taxpayers and What We Can Do About It

Nov 18, 2014

Download the report by Saqib Bhatti.

Download the report by Saqib Bhatti.

The financialization of the United States economy has distorted our social, economic, and political priorities. Cities and states across the country are forced to cut essential community services because they are trapped in predatory municipal finance deals that cost them millions of dollars every year. Wall Street and other big corporations engaged in a systematic effort to suppress taxes, making it difficult for cities and states to advance progressive revenue solutions to properly fund public services. Banks take advantage of this crisis that they helped create by targeting state and local governments with predatory municipal finance deals, just like they targeted cash-strapped homeowners with predatory mortgages during the housing boom. Predatory financing deals prey upon the weaknesses of borrowers, are characterized by high costs and high risks, are typically overly complex, and are often designed to fail.

Predatory municipal finance has a real human cost. Every dollar that cities and states send to Wall Street does not go towards essential community services. Across the country, cuts to public services and other austerity measures have a disparate impact on the working class communities of color that were also targeted for predatory mortgages and payday loans, further exacerbating their suffering.

The primary goal of government is to provide residents with the services they need, not to provide bankers with the profits they seek. We need to renegotiate our communities’ relationship with Wall Street. We can do this by implementing common sense reforms to safeguard our public dollars, make our public finance system more efficient, and ensure that our money is used to provide fully-funded services to our communities. Taxpayers do trillions of dollars of business with Wall Street every year. It is time we start making our money work for us.

Key Recommendations
  • Transparency: Officials should disclose all payments for financial services and conduct an independent investigation of all financial deals to identify predatory features.
  • Accountability: Cities and states should take all steps to recover taxpayer dollars when bank deal unfairly with them, including taking legal action, renegotiating bad deals, and refusing future business.
  • Reducing Fees: Officials should identify financial fees that bear no reasonable relationship to the costs of providing the service and use their leverage as customers to negotiate better deals.
  • Collective Bargaining with Wall Street: Cities and states should agree to a common set of guidelines for an efficient municipal finance system and refuse business with any bank that does not abide by them, creating a new industry standard.
  • Creating Public Options for Financial Services: Cities and states should determine which services they could do themselves more cheaply if they hired the right staff, and make a plan to insource those functions.
  • Establishing Public Banks: Cities and states should establish public banks that are owned by taxpayers, can deliver a range of services, including municipal finance, and provide capital for local investment.

Read: "Dirty Deals: How Wall Street’s Predatory Deals Hurt Taxpayers and What We Can Do About It," by Saqib Bhatti.

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Daily Digest - November 14: Strikes on Capitol Hill, the Post Office, and Walmart

Nov 13, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Take 5: CTU's Fight Against Risky Financial Deals, Ed Policy Under Rauner (Catalyst Chicago)

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Take 5: CTU's Fight Against Risky Financial Deals, Ed Policy Under Rauner (Catalyst Chicago)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Saqib Bhatti criticizes the Chicago Public Schools for diving deeper into overly risky financial deals, which he says were misrepresented by the banks.

Capitol Workers Ask Obama for Pay 'More Like Costco and Less Like Walmart' (The Guardian)

Workers who serve meals in the Capitol's dining facilities went on strike Wednesday to protest their poverty-level wages, writes Jana Kasperkevic. This is the first strike of federally contracted workers to include Capitol workers.

Postal Workers to Address Service Cuts at National Rallies (AJAM)

Ned Resnikoff reports on the demonstrations planned for Friday by the American Postal Workers Union, which is protesting cuts that would eliminate jobs and lead to slower delivery.

Walmart Workers Stage Sit-In At California Store Ahead Of Black Friday (Buzzfeed)

Yesterday's first-of-it's-kind protest involved about 25 Walmart workers in Southern California, reports Claudia Koemer, who draws parallels to retail strikes of the 1930s.

The Number of Unemployed Exceeds the Number of Available Jobs Across All Sectors (Working Economics)

Elise Gould says that since unemployed workers outnumber job openings across all sectors, the problem in the labor market must be a broad lack of demand, not a skills gap.

Great News: Lots of Americans Just Quit Their Jobs (Vox)

Danielle Kurtzleben says the sharp increase in the quits rate in September is a sign of economic health, since people don't leave jobs without expecting to find another.

Why Women Should Get the Rest of the Year Off (The Nation)

Bryce Covert quips that since women make only 78 percent of what men make, it's time for women to take a vacation – not just from their jobs, but from the second shift at home as well.

New on Next New Deal

The UNC Coup and the Second Limit of Economic Liberalism

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal says the University of North Carolina's financial aid rules demonstrate how current liberal policy pits the middle class against the poor for access to goods and services.

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In Blowout Aftermath, Remember GDP Growth Was Slower in 2013 Than in 2012

Nov 5, 2014Mike Konczal

In the aftermath of the electoral blowout, a reminder: the Great Recession isn't over. In fact, GDP growth was slower in 2013 than in 2012. Let's go to the FRED data:

There's dotted lines added at the end of 2012 to give you a sense that throughout 2013 the economy didn't speed up. Even though we were another year into the "recovery" GDP growth slowed down a bit.

There's a lot of reasons people haven't discussed it this way. I saw a lot of people using year-over-year GDP growth for 2013, proclaiming it a major success. A problem with using that method for a single point is that it's very sensitive to what is happening around the end points, and indeed the quarter before and after that data point featured negative or near zero growth. Averaging it out (or even doing year-over-year on a longer scale) shows a much worse story. Also much of the celebrated convergence between the two years was really the BEA finding more austerity in 2012. (I added a line going back to 2011 to show that the overall growth rate has been lower since then. According to David Beckworth, this is the point when fiscal tightening began.)

Other people were hoping that the Evans Rule and open-ended purchases could stabilize "expectations" of inflation regardless of underlying changes in economic activity (I was one of them), a process that didn't happen. And yet others knew the sequestration was put into place and was unlikely to be moved, so might as well make lemonade out of the austerity.

And that's overall growth. Wages are even uglier. (Note in an election meant to repudiate liberalism, minimum wage hikes passed with flying colors.) The Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances is not a bomb-throwing document, but it's hard not to read class war into their latest one. From 2010 to 2013, a year after the Recession ended until last year, median incomes fell:

When 45 percent of the electorate puts the economy as the top issue in exit polls, and the economy performs like it does here, it's no wonder we're having wave election after wave election of discontentment.

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In the aftermath of the electoral blowout, a reminder: the Great Recession isn't over. In fact, GDP growth was slower in 2013 than in 2012. Let's go to the FRED data:

There's dotted lines added at the end of 2012 to give you a sense that throughout 2013 the economy didn't speed up. Even though we were another year into the "recovery" GDP growth slowed down a bit.

There's a lot of reasons people haven't discussed it this way. I saw a lot of people using year-over-year GDP growth for 2013, proclaiming it a major success. A problem with using that method for a single point is that it's very sensitive to what is happening around the end points, and indeed the quarter before and after that data point featured negative or near zero growth. Averaging it out (or even doing year-over-year on a longer scale) shows a much worse story. Also much of the celebrated convergence between the two years was really the BEA finding more austerity in 2012. (I added a line going back to 2011 to show that the overall growth rate has been lower since then. According to David Beckworth, this is the point when fiscal tightening began.)

Other people were hoping that the Evans Rule and open-ended purchases could stabilize "expectations" of inflation regardless of underlying changes in economic activity (I was one of them), a process that didn't happen. And yet others knew the sequestration was put into place and was unlikely to be moved, so might as well make lemonade out of the austerity.

And that's overall growth. Wages are even uglier. (Note in an election meant to repudiate liberalism, minimum wage hikes passed with flying colors.) The Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances is not a bomb-throwing document, but it's hard not to read class war into their latest one. From 2010 to 2013, a year after the Recession ended until last year, median incomes fell:

When 45 percent of the electorate puts the economy as the top issue in exit polls, and the economy performs like it does here, it's no wonder we're having wave election after wave election of discontentment.

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Did the Federal Reserve Do QE Backwards?

Oct 30, 2014Mike Konczal

QE3 is over. Economists will debate the significance of it for some time to come. What sticks out to me now is that it might have been entirely backwards: what if the Fed had set the price instead of the quantity?

To put this in context for those who don’t know the background, let’s talk about carbon cooking the planet. Going back to Weitzman in the 1970s (nice summary by E. Glen Weyl), economists have focused on the relative tradeoff of price versus quantity regulations. We could regulate carbon by changing the price, say through carbon taxes. We could also regulate it by changing the quantity, say by capping the amount of carbon in the air. In theory, these two choices have identical outcomes. But, of course, they don't. It depends on the risk involved in slight deviations from the goal. If carbon above a certain level is very costly to society, then it’s better to target the quantity rather than the price, hence setting a cap on carbon (and trading it) rather than just taxing it.

This same debate on the tradeoff between price and quantity intervention is relevant for monetary policy, too. And here, I fear the Federal Reserve targeted the wrong one.

Starting in December 2012, the Federal Reserve started buying $45 billion a month of long-term Treasuries. Part of the reason was to push down the interest rates on those Treasuries and boost the economy.

But what if the Fed had done that backwards? What if it had picked a price for long-term securities, and then figured out how much it would have to buy to get there? Then it would have said, “we aim to set the 10-year Treasury rate at 1.5 percent for the rest of the year” instead of “we will buy $45 billion a month of long-term Treasuries.”

This is what the Fed does with short-term interest rates. Taking a random example from 2006, it doesn’t say, “we’ll sell an extra amount in order to raise the interest rate.” Instead, it just declares, “the Board of Governors unanimously approved a 25-basis-point increase in the discount rate to 5-1/2 percent.” It announces the price.

Remember, the Federal Reserve also did QE with mortgage-backed securities, buying $40 billion a month in order to bring down the mortgage rate. But what if it just set the mortgage rate? That’s what Joseph Gagnon of the Peterson Institute (who also helped execute the first QE), argued for in September 2012, when he wrote, “the Fed should promise to hold the prime mortgage rate below 3 percent for at least 12 months. It can do this by unlimited purchases of agency mortgage-backed securities.” (He reiterated that argument to me in 2013.) Set the price, and then commit to unlimited purchases. That’s good advice, and we could have done it with Treasuries as well.

What difference would this have made? The first is that it would be far easier to understand what the Federal Reserve was trying to do over time. What was the deal with the tapering? I’ve read a lot of commentary about it, but I still don’t really know. Do stocks matter, or flows? I’m reading a lot of guesswork. But if the Federal Reserve were to target specific long-term interest rates, it would be absolutely clear what they were communicating at each moment.

The second is that it might have been easier. People hear “trillions of dollars” and think of deficits instead of asset swaps; focusing on rates might have made it possible for people to be less worried about QE. The actual volume of purchases might also have been lower, because the markets are unlikely to go against the Fed on these issues.

And the third is that if low interest rates are the new normal, through secular stagnation or otherwise, these tools will need to be formalized. We should look to avoid the herky-jerky nature of Federal Reserve policy in the past several years, and we can do this by looking to the past.

Policy used to be conducted this way. Providing evidence that there’s been a great loss of knowledge in macroeconomics, JW Mason recently wrote up this great 1955 article by Alvin Hansen (of secular stagnation fame), in which Hansen takes it for granted that economists believe intervention along the entirety of the rate structure is appropriate action.

He even finds Keynes arguing along these lines in The General Theory: “Perhaps a complex offer by the central bank to buy and sell at stated prices gilt-edged bonds of all maturities, in place of the single bank rate for short-term bills, is the most important practical improvement which can be made in the technique of monetary management.”

The normal economic argument against this is that all the action can be done with the short-rate. But, of course, that is precisely the problem at the zero lower bound and in a period of persistent low interest rates.

Sadly for everyone who imagines a non-political Federal Reserve, the real argument is political. And it’s political in two ways. The first is that the Federal Reserve would be accused of planning the economy by setting long-term interest rates. So it essentially has to sneak around this argument by adjusting quantities. But, in a technical sense, they are the same policy. One is just opaque, which gives political cover but is harder for the market to understand.

And the second political dimension is that if the Federal Reserve acknowledges the power it has over interest rates, it also owns the recession in a very obvious way.

This has always been a tension. As Greta R. Krippner found in her excellent Capitalizing on Crisis, in 1982 Frank Morris of the Boston Fed argued against ending their disaster tour with monetarism by saying, "I think it would be a big mistake to acknowledge that we were willing to peg interest rates again. The presence of an [M1] target has sheltered the central bank from a direct sense of responsibility for interest rates." His view was that the Fed could avoid ownership of the economy if it only just adjusted quantities.

But the Federal Reserve did have ownership then, as it does now. It has tools it can use, and will need to use again. It’s important for it to use the right tools going forward.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

QE3 is over. Economists will debate the significance of it for some time to come. What sticks out to me now is that it might have been entirely backwards: what if the Fed had set the price instead of the quantity?

To put this in context for those who don’t know the background, let’s talk about carbon cooking the planet. Going back to Weitzman in the 1970s (nice summary by E. Glen Weyl), economists have focused on the relative tradeoff of price versus quantity regulations. We could regulate carbon by changing the price, say through carbon taxes. We could also regulate it by changing the quantity, say by capping the amount of carbon in the air. In theory, these two choices have identical outcomes. But, of course, they don't. It depends on the risk involved in slight deviations from the goal. If carbon above a certain level is very costly to society, then it’s better to target the quantity rather than the price, hence setting a cap on carbon (and trading it) rather than just taxing it.

This same debate on the tradeoff between price and quantity intervention is relevant for monetary policy, too. And here, I fear the Federal Reserve targeted the wrong one.

Starting in December 2012, the Federal Reserve started buying $45 billion a month of long-term Treasuries. Part of the reason was to push down the interest rates on those Treasuries and boost the economy.

But what if the Fed had done that backwards? What if it had picked a price for long-term securities, and then figured out how much it would have to buy to get there? Then it would have said, “we aim to set the 10-year Treasury rate at 1.5 percent for the rest of the year” instead of “we will buy $45 billion a month of long-term Treasuries.”

This is what the Fed does with short-term interest rates. Taking a random example from 2006, it doesn’t say, “we’ll sell an extra amount in order to raise the interest rate.” Instead, it just declares, “the Board of Governors unanimously approved a 25-basis-point increase in the discount rate to 5-1/2 percent.” It announces the price.

Remember, the Federal Reserve also did QE with mortgage-backed securities, buying $40 billion a month in order to bring down the mortgage rate. But what if it just set the mortgage rate? That’s what Joseph Gagnon of the Peterson Institute (who also helped execute the first QE), argued for in September 2012, when he wrote, “the Fed should promise to hold the prime mortgage rate below 3 percent for at least 12 months. It can do this by unlimited purchases of agency mortgage-backed securities.” (He reiterated that argument to me in 2013.) Set the price, and then commit to unlimited purchases. That’s good advice, and we could have done it with Treasuries as well.

What difference would this have made? The first is that it would be far easier to understand what the Federal Reserve was trying to do over time. What was the deal with the tapering? I’ve read a lot of commentary about it, but I still don’t really know. Do stocks matter, or flows? I’m reading a lot of guesswork. But if the Federal Reserve were to target specific long-term interest rates, it would be absolutely clear what they were communicating at each moment.

The second is that it might have been easier. People hear “trillions of dollars” and think of deficits instead of asset swaps; focusing on rates might have made it possible for people to be less worried about QE. The actual volume of purchases might also have been lower, because the markets are unlikely to go against the Fed on these issues.

And the third is that if low interest rates are the new normal, through secular stagnation or otherwise, these tools will need to be formalized. We should look to avoid the herky-jerky nature of Federal Reserve policy in the past several years, and we can do this by looking to the past.

Policy used to be conducted this way. Providing evidence that there’s been a great loss of knowledge in macroeconomics, JW Mason recently wrote up this great 1955 article by Alvin Hansen (of secular stagnation fame), in which Hansen takes it for granted that economists believe intervention along the entirety of the rate structure is appropriate action.

He even finds Keynes arguing along these lines in The General Theory: “Perhaps a complex offer by the central bank to buy and sell at stated prices gilt-edged bonds of all maturities, in place of the single bank rate for short-term bills, is the most important practical improvement which can be made in the technique of monetary management.”

The normal economic argument against this is that all the action can be done with the short-rate. But, of course, that is precisely the problem at the zero lower bound and in a period of persistent low interest rates.

Sadly for everyone who imagines a non-political Federal Reserve, the real argument is political. And it’s political in two ways. The first is that the Federal Reserve would be accused of planning the economy by setting long-term interest rates. So it essentially has to sneak around this argument by adjusting quantities. But, in a technical sense, they are the same policy. One is just opaque, which gives political cover but is harder for the market to understand.

And the second political dimension is that if the Federal Reserve acknowledges the power it has over interest rates, it also owns the recession in a very obvious way.

This has always been a tension. As Greta R. Krippner found in her excellent Capitalizing on Crisis, in 1982 Frank Morris of the Boston Fed argued against ending their disaster tour with monetarism by saying, "I think it would be a big mistake to acknowledge that we were willing to peg interest rates again. The presence of an [M1] target has sheltered the central bank from a direct sense of responsibility for interest rates." His view was that the Fed could avoid ownership of the economy if it only just adjusted quantities.

But the Federal Reserve did have ownership then, as it does now. It has tools it can use, and will need to use again. It’s important for it to use the right tools going forward.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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Daily Digest - October 23: A Complex Financial System Begets Complex Regulations

Oct 23, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Dodd-Frank Spawns Software to Comprehend Dodd-Frank (Marketplace)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Dodd-Frank Spawns Software to Comprehend Dodd-Frank (Marketplace)

Sabri Ben-Achour speaks to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal and others about the complexity of the Volcker Rule. Mike says the scrutiny of the courts has made some rules clunkier than necessary.

Unions Keep Pushing Emanuel to Challenge Interest Rate Hedges (Crain's Chicago Business)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Brad Miller has joined the push to convince the Chicago Board of Education to seek legal remedies for some bad financial transactions, writes Greg Hinz.

The Big Bank Backlash Begins (ProPublica)

Jesse Eisinger reports on the banks' take on current regulatory practices, after attending a conference where their lawyers discussed strategies for dealing with tough regulators.

Should the Poor Be Allowed to Vote? (The Atlantic)

Peter Beinart says voter ID laws are part of a long and unfortunate American tradition of distrusting poor people's ability to make reasoned political choices.

America's Middle Class Knows It Faces a Grim Retirement (LA Times)

Michael Hiltzik looks at a scary set of survey results from Wells Fargo, and says that expanding Social Security is the best option to ensure that retirement is possible for the middle class.

The Sharing Economy’s ‘First Strike’: Uber Drivers Turn Off the App (In These Times)

In what some are calling the first labor strike in the sharing economy, Uber drivers in five cities stopped picking up rides yesterday, reports Rebecca Burns.

Can Student Credit Unions Solve the College Affordability Problem? (The Nation)

Helene Barthelemy reports on a Columbia University group's attempt to open a fully student-run credit union on campus, with broad goals that include offering lower rate student loans.

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