Senator Baldwin is Asking the SEC Questions About "Disgorge the Cash"

Apr 23, 2015Mike Konczal

A lot of people were surprised last month when the investment giant BlackRock flagged the rise in stock buybacks and dividend payments as a major economic concern. Its CEO argued that the “effects of the short-termist phenomenon are troubling both to those seeking to save for long-term goals such as retirement and for our broader economy,” and that this was being done at the expense of “innovation, skilled work forces or essential capital expenditures necessary to sustain long-term growth.”

They are right to be concerned. The cash handed back to shareholders in the form of buybacks and dividends was 95 percent of corporate profits in 2014, climbing from 88 percent the year before and 72 percent in 2010 and expected to go even higher in the future. These numbers are far above historical norms, but they are the culmination of a long process starting in the 1980s. Private investment remains a weak part of the recovery, and it is necessary to investigate the connection between corporate governance and those decisions.

With that in mind, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) has sent a letter to the SEC looking for answers on these issues. In particular, she flags whether the SEC’s mission to “foster capital formation and prevent fraud" is jeopardized by short-termism in the market. It will be good to see how the SEC responds, and which other senators and organizations join in with their concerns.

Personally, I’m happy that it quotes J.W. Mason’s work on profits and borrowing shifting from investment in a previous era to cash leaving the firm now. This issue is a major piece of our Financialization Project here at Roosevelt, and we will continue to develop it in the future.

I think there are two additional things of interest. One is that this relationship is becoming more of an interest for academic and popular scrutiny. Recent, high-level research is showing that as a result of short-termist pressures, “public firms invest substantially less and are less responsive to changes in investment opportunities, especially in industries in which stock prices are most sensitive to earnings news” compared to private firms before the Great Recession.

Second, this looks like a centerpiece agenda item for liberals going into 2016. Larry Summers’s Inclusive Prosperity report for the Center for American Progress discusses concerns over short-termism, noting, “it is essential that markets work in the public interest and for the long term rather than focusing only on short-term returns. Corporate governance issues, therefore, remain critical.”

The problem of short-termism was also in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s big speech on the future of the financial reform agenda, in which she noted we need to change the rules of the economy because we “too often reward short-term risk-taking instead of sustained, long-term growth” and allow CEOs to “manipulate prices in the short-term, rather than investing in the long-term health of their companies.”

And it will be central to work from the Roosevelt Institute about inequality coming next month. (Get excited!)

I’m not sure if the right has a response to this issue. One of their core policy goals, removing all taxes on capital, will certainly make the situation worse, as the Bush dividend tax cuts increased dividends payouts without encouraging any real investment or wage growth. If the Republicans want to have real answers about inequality and stagnation, it’s important that they tackle real questions. And short-termism is one of those essential questions.

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A lot of people were surprised last month when the investment giant BlackRock flagged the rise in stock buybacks and dividend payments as a major economic concern. Its CEO argued that the “effects of the short-termist phenomenon are troubling both to those seeking to save for long-term goals such as retirement and for our broader economy,” and that this was being done at the expense of “innovation, skilled work forces or essential capital expenditures necessary to sustain long-term growth.”

They are right to be concerned. The cash handed back to shareholders in the form of buybacks and dividends was 95 percent of corporate profits in 2014, climbing from 88 percent the year before and 72 percent in 2010 and expected to go even higher in the future. These numbers are far above historical norms, but they are the culmination of a long process starting in the 1980s. Private investment remains a weak part of the recovery, and it is necessary to investigate the connection between corporate governance and those decisions.

With that in mind, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) has sent a letter to the SEC looking for answers on these issues. In particular, she flags whether the SEC’s mission to “foster capital formation and prevent fraud" is jeopardized by short-termism in the market. It will be good to see how the SEC responds, and which other senators and organizations join in with their concerns.

Personally, I’m happy that it quotes J.W. Mason’s work on profits and borrowing shifting from investment in a previous era to cash leaving the firm now. This issue is a major piece of our Financialization Project here at Roosevelt, and we will continue to develop it in the future.

I think there are two additional things of interest. One is that this relationship is becoming more of an interest for academic and popular scrutiny. Recent, high-level research is showing that as a result of short-termist pressures, “public firms invest substantially less and are less responsive to changes in investment opportunities, especially in industries in which stock prices are most sensitive to earnings news” compared to private firms before the Great Recession.

Second, this looks like a centerpiece agenda item for liberals going into 2016. Larry Summers’s Inclusive Prosperity report for the Center for American Progress discusses concerns over short-termism, noting, “it is essential that markets work in the public interest and for the long term rather than focusing only on short-term returns. Corporate governance issues, therefore, remain critical.”

The problem of short-termism was also in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s big speech on the future of the financial reform agenda, in which she noted we need to change the rules of the economy because we “too often reward short-term risk-taking instead of sustained, long-term growth” and allow CEOs to “manipulate prices in the short-term, rather than investing in the long-term health of their companies.”

And it will be central to work from the Roosevelt Institute about inequality coming next month. (Get excited!)

I’m not sure if the right has a response to this issue. One of their core policy goals, removing all taxes on capital, will certainly make the situation worse, as the Bush dividend tax cuts increased dividends payouts without encouraging any real investment or wage growth. If the Republicans want to have real answers about inequality and stagnation, it’s important that they tackle real questions. And short-termism is one of those essential questions.

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Predatory Finance Has Hurt Our Universities, But Students Can Fight Back

Apr 13, 2015Dominic RusselRyan Thornton

Our tuition checks shouldn't be going to pay off debts from Wall Street's bad deals.

Our tuition checks shouldn't be going to pay off debts from Wall Street's bad deals.

The last few decades have not been kind to America’s local public institutions. Cities that once built state-of-the-art infrastructure are now struggling to fix potholes in the street. Public schools that were once the best in the world are lagging behind. Even our universities, which used to be gateways to a shot at a better life, are increasingly becoming too expensive for much of the population.

There’s no shortage of explanations for these problems, ranging from globalization to government waste to an aging population. These answers, however, all overlook the role that a growing Wall Street has played in changing the picture for public institutions.

In 1950, the financial sector accounted for about 3 percent of U.S. GDP; it now accounts for more than 6.5 percent. This financialization has given the big banks on Wall Street immense wealth and power, allowing them to extract greater and greater earnings from public and private borrowers. While the financial industry is reaping huge profits, it is individuals, not corporations, who pay an increasingly large share of the taxes that are supposed to support our public institutions. Since 1950, corporate tax contributions have dropped from 32 percent to only 17 percent despite corporations claiming a growing share of GDP. In contrast, individuals now pay 63 percent of taxes, up from 45 percent in 1950.

Our cities and schools—and all public institutions that rely on taxes to provide essential services—have felt the impact of this change. Facing slashed budgets, they have been forced to turn to the financial industry for loans. Undoubtedly, borrowing is necessary for financing extensive long-term capital projects; however, public institutions are increasingly compelled to secure loans for their short-term spending as well. Big banks are more than happy to accept the business of cities and universities desperate for funding, especially when the banks get to write the terms of the deal.

Wall Street’s profits are no longer solely built on interest from traditional “vanilla” loans. Instead, its banks have turned to high-risk, high-cost, and unnecessarily complex deals to further inflate their profits. Take interest rate swaps, for example. Swaps are a financial instrument devised by banks that allows cities and universities—those issuing bonds to finance long-term projects—to “swap” a variable interest rate for an agreed-upon fixed interest rate.

These interest rate swaps were deceptive from the very start. They were sold as protection from changing interest rates, but because exorbitant termination fees made refinancing extremely costly, they were essentially dangerous bets that would have only worked out if interest rates rose. And the deck was stacked against the cities and universities making these bets.

Banks illegally manipulated the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), which was tied to many deals, and helped precipitate a financial crisis that led to near-zero interest rates that continue today. Because banks had negotiated the swaps contracts so that they would be paying the variable market rates, cities and universities ultimately ended up locked into deals in which they were paying as much as 50 times what the banks were paying—all of which went to Wall Street as profit.

Both of the schools we attend—the University of Michigan and George Mason University—entered into swap deals that have costs them millions. One swap at Michigan even protected banks by allowing them to terminate the deal if variable rates hit just 7 percent, while offering no protection for the university when rates actually sank near zero.

The current imbalance in power need not be the case. Increased transparency surrounding the fees and terms of public finance deals would allow students and taxpayers to oversee the officials and banks who use their money and hold them accountable. When university regents, trustees, or other executives receive or have received compensation from the financial institutions their school does business with (as was the case in a series of University of California swaps), they should immediately recuse themselves from financial decision making to avoid conflicts of interest. Cities, states, and universities can work together to bargain with banks or create public options for bond underwriting and borrowing.

In situations in which our public entities have been targeted by banks, we can organize and pressure our public leaders to regain the money we lost. The city of Detroit was able to reduce its bank payments from $230 million to $85 million by exposing the invalidity of a swap.

Because swaps were often marketed to public institutions as a safe protection from variable interest rates—not as risky bets—it may be possible to pursue legal action to reclaim some of the losses. One avenue to reclaim public funds is the regulatory framework of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, which mandates that municipalities be made fully aware of the risks and possible costs of entering into financial deals.

As students, we feel the impact of Wall Street every time we pay tuition. We put ourselves in thousands of dollars of debt to pay for school, but because most university borrowing is backed by student tuition, this personal debt simply begets institutional debt. All this borrowing means huge profits for the banks that finance debt, much of it coming from hidden fees and inflated payments on long-term deals with our schools.

However, as students we also have the unique opportunity to band together and make our collective voice heard. For a few years our well-being is the primary focus of a massive anchor institution, and our dollars are often the main source of its funding. We can demand better than the status quo by pressuring our schools to reclaim that money from wealthy bankers and put it back into our institutions.

If borrowing from the big banks was on fair terms and intended for long-term capital projects, it wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, instead of using our nation’s wealth to pay for education, increase our human and physical capital, and build our long-run potential for growth, we are using it to increase incomes for the wealthiest bankers.

We've reached a worst-case scenario, but it doesn't have to stay that way. By holding Wall Street accountable for how it plays with tuition and tax dollars, we can bring things back around so that public investment means improving society, not improving Wall Street's balances.

Dominic Russell is a sophomore at the University of Michigan and the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Policy Impact Coordinator for the Midwest. Ryan Thornton is a junior and Campus Network chapter head at George Mason University.

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How the End of GE Capital Also Kills the Core Conservative Talking Point About Dodd-Frank

Apr 10, 2015Mike Konczal

News is breaking that GE Capital will be spinning off most of its financing arm, GE Capital, over the next two years. Details are still unfolding, but, according to the initial coverage, “GE expects that by 2018 more than 90 percent of its earnings will be generated by its high-return industrial businesses, up from 58% in 2014.”

It’s good that our industrial businesses will be focusing more on innovating and services rather than financial shenanigans, but this also tells us two important things about Dodd-Frank: it confirms one of the stories about the Act and disproves the core conservative talking point about what the Act does.

Regulatory Arbitrage

A very influential theory of the financial crisis is that there were financial firms acting just like banks but without the normal safeguards that traditionally went with banks. There was no public source of liquidity or backstops through the FDIC or the Federal Reserve, a public good capable of ending self-fulfilling panics. There was no mechanism to wind down the firms and impose losses outside of the bankruptcy code. There weren’t the normal capital requirements or consumer protections that went with the traditional commercial banking sector.

Though we now call this regulatory arbitrage, at the time it was seen as innovation. GE Capital was explicitly brought up as a poster child for deregulation. You can see it in Bob Litan  and Jonathan Rauch’s 1998 American Finance for the 21st Century, which lamented the “twentieth-century model of financial policy” that, using transportation as an analogy, “set a slow speed limit, specified a few basic models for cars, separated different kinds of cars into different lanes, and demanded that no one leave home without a full tank of gas and a tune-up.” GE Capital was explicitly an example of a firm that could thrive with a regulatory regime that “focuses less on preventing mishaps and more on ensuring that an accident at any one intersection will not paralyze traffic everywhere else.”

This was very apparent in the regulatory space. The fact that GE owned a Utah savings and loan allowed it to be regulated under the leniency of the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), so it was able to work in the banking space without the normal rules in place. It was also able to use its high-level industrial credit rating to gamble weaker positions in the financial markets, arbitraging the private-sector regulation of the credit ratings agencies in the process.

How did that work out? First off, there was massive fraud. As Michael Hudson found in a blockbuster report, one executive declared that “fraud pays” and that “it didn’t make sense to slow the gush of loans going through the company’s pipeline, because losses due to fraud were small compared to the money the lender was making from selling huge volumes of loans.” Then there were the bailouts. The government backstopped $139 billion worth of GE Capital’s debts as it was collapsing and essentially had to manipulate the regulatory space to allow it to qualify for traditional banking protections. So much for not paralyzing traffic, and so much for the old rules not being important.

Dodd-Frank looked to normalize these regulations across both the shadow and regular banking sectors. It eliminated the OTS and declared GE Capital a systemically risky firm that has to follow higher capital requirements and prepare for bankruptcy with living wills just like we expect a bank to do, regardless of what kind of legal hijinks it is using to call itself something else. And GE Capital, faced with the prospect of having to play in the same field as everyone else, decided it should go back to trying to bring better things to life rather than making financial weapons of mass destruction. That’s pretty good news, and a process that should be encouraged and continued.

The Collapse of the Conservative Argument

But there’s one ask GE has as it spins off GE Capital, one that actually disproves the core conservative argument on Dodd-Frank. In the coverage, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt states directly, “GE will work closely with [the regulators at the Financial Stability Oversight Council] to take the actions necessary to de-designate GE Capital as a Systemically Important Financial Institution (SIFI).”

Dodd-Frank designates certain financial institutions, mostly over $50 billion in size, as systemically important. Or as the lingo goes, they get designated SIFI status. Those firms have stronger capital requirements and stronger requirements to be able to declare themselves ready for bankruptcy or FDIC resolution if they fail.

Conservatives, from the beginning, have made this the centerpiece of their story about Dodd-Frank. They argue that SIFI status is a de facto permanent bailout and claim that firms will demand to be designated as SIFIs because it means they will have a favored status. This status gives them easy crony relationships with regulators and allow them to borrow cheaply in the credit markets.

This has become doctrine on the right; I can’t think of a single movement conservative who has said the opposite. Examples of the mantra range from Peter Wallison of AEI writing “[t]he designation of SIFIs is a statement by the government that the designated firms are too big to fail” to Reason’s Nick Gillespie repeating that “everyone agrees [Dodd-Frank] has simply reinscribed too big to fail as explicit law.” (I love an “everyone agrees” without any sourcing.)

It’s also the basis of proposed policy. The Ryan budget cancels out the FDIC’s ability to regulate SIFIs, stating that Dodd-Frank “actually intensifies the problem of too-big-to-fail by giving large, interconnected financial institutions advantages that small firms will not enjoy.”

If that’s the case, GE should be desperate to maintain its SIFI status even though it is spinning off its GE Capital line. After all, being a SIFI means it gets all kinds of favored protections, access, and credit relative to other firms.

But, instead GE is desperate to lose it. This is genuine; ask any financial press reporter or analyst, and they’ll tell you that GE is very sincere when it says it doesn’t want to be designated as risky anymore, and is willing to take appropriate measures to remove the designation.

If that’s the case, what’s left of the GOP argument?

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News is breaking that GE Capital will be spinning off most of its financing arm, GE Capital, over the next two years. Details are still unfolding, but, according to the initial coverage, “GE expects that by 2018 more than 90 percent of its earnings will be generated by its high-return industrial businesses, up from 58% in 2014.”

It’s good that our industrial businesses will be focusing more on innovating and services rather than financial shenanigans, but this also tells us two important things about Dodd-Frank: it confirms one of the stories about the Act and disproves the core conservative talking point about what the Act does.

Regulatory Arbitrage

A very influential theory of the financial crisis is that there were financial firms acting just like banks but without the normal safeguards that traditionally went with banks. There was no public source of liquidity or backstops through the FDIC or the Federal Reserve, a public good capable of ending self-fulfilling panics. There was no mechanism to wind down the firms and impose losses outside of the bankruptcy code. There weren’t the normal capital requirements or consumer protections that went with the traditional commercial banking sector.

Though we now call this regulatory arbitrage, at the time it was seen as innovation. GE Capital was explicitly brought up as a poster child for deregulation. You can see it in Bob Litan  and Jonathan Rauch’s 1998 American Finance for the 21st Century, which lamented the “twentieth-century model of financial policy” that, using transportation as an analogy, “set a slow speed limit, specified a few basic models for cars, separated different kinds of cars into different lanes, and demanded that no one leave home without a full tank of gas and a tune-up.” GE Capital was explicitly an example of a firm that could thrive with a regulatory regime that “focuses less on preventing mishaps and more on ensuring that an accident at any one intersection will not paralyze traffic everywhere else.”

This was very apparent in the regulatory space. The fact that GE owned a Utah savings and loan allowed it to be regulated under the leniency of the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), so it was able to work in the banking space without the normal rules in place. It was also able to use its high-level industrial credit rating to gamble weaker positions in the financial markets, arbitraging the private-sector regulation of the credit ratings agencies in the process.

How did that work out? First off, there was massive fraud. As Michael Hudson found in a blockbuster report, one executive declared that “fraud pays” and that “it didn’t make sense to slow the gush of loans going through the company’s pipeline, because losses due to fraud were small compared to the money the lender was making from selling huge volumes of loans.” Then there were the bailouts. The government backstopped $139 billion worth of GE Capital’s debts as it was collapsing and essentially had to manipulate the regulatory space to allow it to qualify for traditional banking protections. So much for not paralyzing traffic, and so much for the old rules not being important.

Dodd-Frank looked to normalize these regulations across both the shadow and regular banking sectors. It eliminated the OTS and declared GE Capital a systemically risky firm that has to follow higher capital requirements and prepare for bankruptcy with living wills just like we expect a bank to do, regardless of what kind of legal hijinks it is using to call itself something else. And GE Capital, faced with the prospect of having to play in the same field as everyone else, decided it should go back to trying to bring better things to life rather than making financial weapons of mass destruction. That’s pretty good news, and a process that should be encouraged and continued.

The Collapse of the Conservative Argument

But there’s one ask GE has as it spins off GE Capital, one that actually disproves the core conservative argument on Dodd-Frank. In the coverage, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt states directly, “GE will work closely with [the regulators at the Financial Stability Oversight Council] to take the actions necessary to de-designate GE Capital as a Systemically Important Financial Institution (SIFI).”

Dodd-Frank designates certain financial institutions, mostly over $50 billion in size, as systemically important. Or as the lingo goes, they get designated SIFI status. Those firms have stronger capital requirements and stronger requirements to be able to declare themselves ready for bankruptcy or FDIC resolution if they fail.

Conservatives, from the beginning, have made this the centerpiece of their story about Dodd-Frank. They argue that SIFI status is a de facto permanent bailout and claim that firms will demand to be designated as SIFIs because it means they will have a favored status. This status gives them easy crony relationships with regulators and allow them to borrow cheaply in the credit markets.

This has become doctrine on the right; I can’t think of a single movement conservative who has said the opposite. Examples of the mantra range from Peter Wallison of AEI writing “[t]he designation of SIFIs is a statement by the government that the designated firms are too big to fail” to Reason’s Nick Gillespie repeating that “everyone agrees [Dodd-Frank] has simply reinscribed too big to fail as explicit law.” (I love an “everyone agrees” without any sourcing.)

It’s also the basis of proposed policy. The Ryan budget cancels out the FDIC’s ability to regulate SIFIs, stating that Dodd-Frank “actually intensifies the problem of too-big-to-fail by giving large, interconnected financial institutions advantages that small firms will not enjoy.”

If that’s the case, GE should be desperate to maintain its SIFI status even though it is spinning off its GE Capital line. After all, being a SIFI means it gets all kinds of favored protections, access, and credit relative to other firms.

But, instead GE is desperate to lose it. This is genuine; ask any financial press reporter or analyst, and they’ll tell you that GE is very sincere when it says it doesn’t want to be designated as risky anymore, and is willing to take appropriate measures to remove the designation.

If that’s the case, what’s left of the GOP argument?

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Is the Solution for Jamie Dimon's Next Financial Crisis a Larger US Deficit?

Apr 10, 2015Mike Konczal

In JPMorgan’s latest shareholder newsletter (p. 30-34), Jamie Dimon walks through a narrative of the next financial crisis and why we should be worried about it. But instead of worrying, I think it points to interesting details of what we’ve learned from the last crisis, what we evidently haven’t learned, and where we should go next.

Here’s Matt Levine’s summary. Dimon makes two arguments: First, the new capital requirements, especially the liquidity coverage ratio (LCR) that requires banks to fund themselves with enough liquidity to survive a 30-day crisis, will be procyclical. This means they will bind the financial sector more tightly in a crisis and prevent it from being a backstop. This is made even worse by his second argument, which is that there’s a safe asset shortage. Each individual bank is much safer than before the crisis, but using safe assets to meet the LCR means there will be fewer out there to provide stabilization when a crisis hits.

To use Dimon’s language, “there is a greatly reduced supply of Treasuries to go around – in effect, there may be a shortage of all forms of good collateral” in a crisis. Meanwhile, new capital requirements, especially the LCR, mean that in a crisis banks won’t want to lend, roll over credit, or purchase risky assets, because they would be violating the new capital rules. As such, “it will be harder for banks either as lenders or market-makers to ‘stand against the tide’” and to serve as “the ‘lender of last resort’ to their clients.”

What should we make of the fact that Dimon’s target is the LCR, an important new requirement under constant assault by the banks? Four points jump out.

The first is that the idea that we should weaken capital requirements so banks can be the lender of last resort in a financial crisis is precisely what was disproven during the 2008 panic. One reason people use the term “shadow banking” to describe this system is that it has no actual means of providing liquidity and the backstops necessary to prevent self-fulfilling panics, and that was demonstrated during the recent crisis.

Rather than financial firms heroically standing against the tide of a financial panic, they all immediately ran for shelter, forcing the Federal Reserve to stand up instead and create a de facto lender-of-last-resort facility for shadow banks out of thin air.

It’s good to hear that Dimon feels JPMorgan can still fulfill this function in the next crisis, if only we weakened Basel. But we’ve tried before to let financial firms act as the ultimate backstop to the markets while the government got out of the way, and it was a disaster. Firms like AIG wrote systemic risk insurance they could never pay; even interbank lending collapsed in the crisis.

This is precisely why we need to continue regulating the shadow banking sector and reducing reliance and risks in the wholesale short-term funding markets, and why the Federal Reserve should actually write the rules governing emergency liquidity services instead of ignoring what Congress has demanded of it. No doubt there needs to be a balance, but if anything we are counting too much on the shadow banking sector to be able to take care of itself, not too little.

As a quick, frustrating second point, it’s funny that regulators bent over backwards for the financial industry in addressing these issues with LCR, and yet the industry won’t give an inch in trying to dismantle it. That LCR is meant to adjust in a crisis and that the funds would be available for lending was emphasized when regulators weakened the rule under bank pressure, and it is explicitly stated in the final rule (“the Basel III Revised Liquidity Framework indicates that supervisory actions should not discourage or deter a banking organization from using its HQLA when necessary to meet unforeseen liquidity needs arising from financial stress that exceeds normal business fluctuations”).

If risk-weighting is too procyclical, which requires several logical leaps in Dimon’s arguments, the solution is to adjust those rules while raising the leverage ratio, not to pretend that the financial sector would be a sufficient ultimate backstop. Bank comments on tough rules like LCR are less give-and-take and more take-and-take.

But the third point is more interesting. Beyond whether or not the rules are too procyclical and unnecessarily restrictive in a crisis, there’s Dimon’s claim that there aren’t enough Treasuries to go around. If that’s the case, why don’t we simply make more Treasury debt? If the issue is a shortage of Treasuries needed to keep the financial sector well-capitalized and safe, it’s quite easy for us to make more government debt. And right now, with low interest rates and a desperate need for public investment, strikes me as an excellent time to do just that. Dimon is correct in his implicit idea that the financial markets, with enough financial engineering and private-market backstopping, can produce genuinely safe assets is a complete sham. This is a role for the government.

And for fun, a fourth point from Ben Walsh: Dimon says one of the biggest threats to the financial markets is that there isn’t enough U.S. debt. From January 2011: “Dimon Says Government Deficits, Spending Are New Global Risk.” We are risking a major rise in interest rates in the years following 2011 if we have trillion-dollar deficits, Dimon warned. How did that turn out?

Imagine how much worse shape we’d be in if we’d listened to Dimon.

So just as a friendly reminder: not only would more federal debt issued at incredibly low rates do cool things like rebuild schools, fix bridges, and give money to poor people, it would also serve as an important element of reducing the risks of the next financial crisis. This federal debt seems like a pretty useful thing to have around.

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In JPMorgan’s latest shareholder newsletter (p. 30-34), Jamie Dimon walks through a narrative of the next financial crisis and why we should be worried about it. But instead of worrying, I think it points to interesting details of what we’ve learned from the last crisis, what we evidently haven’t learned, and where we should go next.

Here’s Matt Levine’s summary. Dimon makes two arguments: First, the new capital requirements, especially the liquidity coverage ratio (LCR) that requires banks to fund themselves with enough liquidity to survive a 30-day crisis, will be procyclical. This means they will bind the financial sector more tightly in a crisis and prevent it from being a backstop. This is made even worse by his second argument, which is that there’s a safe asset shortage. Each individual bank is much safer than before the crisis, but using safe assets to meet the LCR means there will be fewer out there to provide stabilization when a crisis hits.

To use Dimon’s language, “there is a greatly reduced supply of Treasuries to go around – in effect, there may be a shortage of all forms of good collateral” in a crisis. Meanwhile, new capital requirements, especially the LCR, mean that in a crisis banks won’t want to lend, roll over credit, or purchase risky assets, because they would be violating the new capital rules. As such, “it will be harder for banks either as lenders or market-makers to ‘stand against the tide’” and to serve as “the ‘lender of last resort’ to their clients.”

What should we make of the fact that Dimon’s target is the LCR, an important new requirement under constant assault by the banks? Four points jump out.

The first is that the idea that we should weaken capital requirements so banks can be the lender of last resort in a financial crisis is precisely what was disproven during the 2008 panic. One reason people use the term “shadow banking” to describe this system is that it has no actual means of providing liquidity and the backstops necessary to prevent self-fulfilling panics, and that was demonstrated during the recent crisis.

Rather than financial firms heroically standing against the tide of a financial panic, they all immediately ran for shelter, forcing the Federal Reserve to stand up instead and create a de facto lender-of-last-resort facility for shadow banks out of thin air.

It’s good to hear that Dimon feels JPMorgan can still fulfill this function in the next crisis, if only we weakened Basel. But we’ve tried before to let financial firms act as the ultimate backstop to the markets while the government got out of the way, and it was a disaster. Firms like AIG wrote systemic risk insurance they could never pay; even interbank lending collapsed in the crisis.

This is precisely why we need to continue regulating the shadow banking sector and reducing reliance and risks in the wholesale short-term funding markets, and why the Federal Reserve should actually write the rules governing emergency liquidity services instead of ignoring what Congress has demanded of it. No doubt there needs to be a balance, but if anything we are counting too much on the shadow banking sector to be able to take care of itself, not too little.

As a quick, frustrating second point, it’s funny that regulators bent over backwards for the financial industry in addressing these issues with LCR, and yet the industry won’t give an inch in trying to dismantle it. That LCR is meant to adjust in a crisis and that the funds would be available for lending was emphasized when regulators weakened the rule under bank pressure, and it is explicitly stated in the final rule (“the Basel III Revised Liquidity Framework indicates that supervisory actions should not discourage or deter a banking organization from using its HQLA when necessary to meet unforeseen liquidity needs arising from financial stress that exceeds normal business fluctuations”).

If risk-weighting is too procyclical, which requires several logical leaps in Dimon’s arguments, the solution is to adjust those rules while raising the leverage ratio, not to pretend that the financial sector would be a sufficient ultimate backstop. Bank comments on tough rules like LCR are less give-and-take and more take-and-take.

But the third point is more interesting. Beyond whether or not the rules are too procyclical and unnecessarily restrictive in a crisis, there’s Dimon’s claim that there aren’t enough Treasuries to go around. If that’s the case, why don’t we simply make more Treasury debt? If the issue is a shortage of Treasuries needed to keep the financial sector well-capitalized and safe, it’s quite easy for us to make more government debt. And right now, with low interest rates and a desperate need for public investment, strikes me as an excellent time to do just that. Dimon is correct in his implicit idea that the financial markets, with enough financial engineering and private-market backstopping, can produce genuinely safe assets is a complete sham. This is a role for the government.

And for fun, a fourth point from Ben Walsh: Dimon says one of the biggest threats to the financial markets is that there isn’t enough U.S. debt. From January 2011: “Dimon Says Government Deficits, Spending Are New Global Risk.” We are risking a major rise in interest rates in the years following 2011 if we have trillion-dollar deficits, Dimon warned. How did that turn out?

Imagine how much worse shape we’d be in if we’d listened to Dimon.

So just as a friendly reminder: not only would more federal debt issued at incredibly low rates do cool things like rebuild schools, fix bridges, and give money to poor people, it would also serve as an important element of reducing the risks of the next financial crisis. This federal debt seems like a pretty useful thing to have around.

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Why Is Lehman Brothers Suing Georgetown from Beyond the Grave?

Apr 9, 2015Alan SmithAditya Pande

The ghost of Lehman Brothers is still haunting colleges and universities around the country, continuing to extract money from institutions even though the financial firm itself is long dead.

The ghost of Lehman Brothers is still haunting colleges and universities around the country, continuing to extract money from institutions even though the financial firm itself is long dead.

When Lehman Brothers Holdings declared bankruptcy in 2008, it was the fourth largest investment bank in the United States. The giant’s collapse was felt in all corners of the global economy, but at least that collapse was thought to be a thing of the past. Now, it turns out that Lehman Brothers lingers on as a bankruptcy group trying to collect debts from the schools it already fleeced in 2008.

In St. Louis, the haunting is public: Lehman is suing St. Louis University because it doesn’t feel the school paid a fair market value (equivalent to the termination fee at a given time) on some interest rate swap derivatives in 2008.

Let’s look at that transaction: the school paid about $25 million in early termination fees on its interest rate swaps.* SLU didn’t necessarily want to bail out of these swaps, even though they were costing the school millions; it had to terminate them because Lehman Brothers, the counterparty to the deals, was going belly up. But in a lawsuit filed in December 2014, Lehman alleges that SLU’s termination payments were short of market value and that Lehman is in fact owed another $17.5 million on these swaps. 

Let's say that again: These swaps triggered in 2008 because of the Lehman bankruptcy. The school had to pay a termination fee because the firm that owned the swaps had effectively ceased to exist. And now that firm is suing the school because it wasn’t adequately compensated for its own failure.

Here’s where the story (and related research by the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network) gets really interesting: The ghost of Lehman isn’t just in St. Louis. Looking at the financial records of Georgetown University, there appears to be a similar story playing out in private but with even larger stakes.

Georgetown’s financials from 1998 onward are rife with big bond projects, but for now let’s focus specifically on auction rate security (ARS) bonds. These are economic devices where the interest rate paid on the bond is regularly reset through a public auction. The theory was that these auctions would allow the market to drive the interest rates to the lowest possible bidder each period; some even reset every week. These bonds were being marketed (sometimes by Lehman Brothers) as a highly liquid way to get some safe cash.

We’ve since learned that nothing could be further from the truth, as the rate markets for ARS bonds locked up in 2008 and borrowers like Georgetown were stuck paying double-digit interest rates. These bonds were more than simply investments that didn’t pan out; banks that sold the ARS bonds were also propping up the market by bidding on the rates in their own auctions, which created a false impression for buyers that the market was stable. These were bad deals made worse by illegal activity, and universities and municipalities across the country were suckered into them. When the banks eventually stopped keeping the market afloat, most such auctions failed, and the ARS market has been largely frozen since.

Although Georgetown is now almost entirely out of the ARS market and has brought down its variable-rate debt, getting rid of these increasingly expensive ARS bonds appears to have cost the schools millions in fees and even more in borrowing to pay off that debt.  Some of those bonds were underwritten by Lehman; some by other investment banks.

None of this even begins to capture the costs of the swaps, which is where this story started. The ARS bonds were cheap but had highly volatile interest rates. To mitigate these risky fluctuations, Georgetown bought interest rate swaps with Lehman Brothers. But like SLU, Georgetown did not realize it had made a deal with a potentially catastrophic downside. As the economy went into a tailspin in 2008, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to the bone and has kept them low since; money became available for next to nothing in an attempt to keep banks from freezing up completely. This also served to drive the fair value of interest rate swaps through the roof. The worse the economy got, the more the fair market value of Georgetown’s debt hedges grew. A final insult: As the ARS rates locked up ever higher, the floating index rates that the swaps were indexed to went down, so Georgetown was losing money on every part of every deal.

And finally, finally, Lehman Brothers, which had sold swaps to so many different colleges and universities around the country, went out of business, which resulted in Georgetown having to pay Lehman more than $53 million to terminate the seven swaps it had on May 12, 2009—again, swaps that were meant to hedge against the risky ARS bonds that were also, in some cases, sold by Lehman.

Fast forward to 2012, and a lawsuit from Lehman Brothers appears on Georgetown’s financial documents. This lawsuit is only mentioned in the financial statements and has not yet gone public, so we cannot say with certainty that the story is the same as in St. Louis. However, it appears as if the disparity between the “fair market value” calculation of what the swaps were worth in 2008 and the eventual payment Georgetown made to Lehman is about the same as in the SLU case.

For those keeping score at home, this means that Georgetown was hemorrhaging money to Lehman Brothers in at least four different ways:

  1. ARS bonds marketed by Lehman cost the university $6 million in interest rates and $8.34 million in debt restructuring costs.
  2. Approximately $77.8 million in payments on the seven interest rate swaps terminated in May 2009.
  3. More than $53.4 million in swap termination fees.
  4. Though still unconfirmed, all signs point to a lawsuit from Lehman to recoup what it claims are underpayments on the “market rate” of its swaps.

The full cost is probably even higher, as these calculations do not account for the fees Georgetown paid each time it got into a bond deal, nor for other deals that Lehman did not underwrite. Still, the bill is already north of $140 million, and we’ve only been looking at publicly available records.

It certainly seems as though Georgetown was hard done by in this case, and we plan to continue our research until we can present a full tally of how much Georgetown has lost and is continuing to lose to Wall Street.

Why does this matter? After all, Georgetown is a stable institution—not like Sweet Briar or liberal arts schools, where losses in the hundreds of millions could mean the difference between solvency and closing their doors. Neither is this a public institution, where public tax dollars are being funneled into Lehman’s grave. But even a storied private institution like Georgetown is feeling the pinch of millions of dollars being extracted, and that pinch is being passed on to students.

Tuition and fees will increase 4 percent at Georgetown next year, contributing to a nearly 40 percent increase since 2006 that shows no signs of slowing down. While there are many factors in the rapid rise of education costs borne by America’s students, including the “amenities arms race” and administrative bloat, the massive debt private colleges like Georgetown have accrued and the unbelievably expensive financial engineering that has come with it deserve a lion’s share of the blame. Lehman Brothers, having already managed to scrape more than $140 million from Georgetown’s coffers, is audacious in asking for more from beyond the grave. We must be equally audacious in demanding that Wall Street pay some part of the bill it’s left students since 2008.

Is your college or nonprofit involved in an ongoing lawsuit with Lehman Brothers? Let us know!

*Interest rate swaps are a type of derivative that allows an institution to lock in a loan at a fixed rate by “swapping” its existing variable-rate loan with a bank, an idea that becomes particularly toxic when the market crashes and interest rates plummet like they did post-2008. It’s the equivalent of taking out a mortgage at 5 percent a year and then finding out the next day that mortgages are now available at 1 percent. But, unlike mortgages, swaps cannot be refinanced or even “paid off” at will. To do so, one must pay an expensive termination fee equal to the total amount the bank expects to make over the entire life of the swap. It was a lose/lose proposition for the school once its bet that interest rates would stay high didn’t work out. 

Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.

Aditya Pande is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he studies international economics.

Thanks to Carrie Sloan and Alexandros Taliadoros for their contributions to this post.

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What John Oliver Can Tell Us about Foreclosure Fraud, Sweat Boxes and the Profit Motive

Mar 26, 2015Mike Konczal

John Oliver dedicated his main segment on last Sunday’s episode to the epidemic of municipal fees. He walks through several stories about tickets and citations that are overpriced and end up being more expensive for poor people because of a series of burdensome fees. This was one of the conclusions of the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, which argued that “law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.”

Oliver had a memorable phrase to describe how this system catches people and won’t let them go: he called it a “f*** barrel,” and started a NSFW hashtag on Twitter to draw attention to it.

But I had actually heard a similar (and safe-for-work) phrase for this years ago: the “sweat box.” Law professor Ronald Mann coined it in 2006 to describe how the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA) would affect consumer debt, and it applies to the criminal justice system now. The problems with this system also sound like the problems in mortgage debt servicing, which has been a focus here. It turns out that these issues are generalizable, and they illustrate some of the real dilemmas with privatization and introducing the profit-motive into the public realm.

The Sweat Box

First, the barrel/box. Credit card companies and other creditors really wanted BAPCPA to become law. But why? Mann argued that the act wouldn’t reduce risky borrowing, reduce the number of bankruptcies, or increase the recoveries these companies got in bankruptcy.

But what it would do is make it harder to start a bankruptcy, thanks to a wide variety of delaying tactics. The act did this “by raising filing fees, but also by lengthening the period between permitted filings and by imposing administrative hurdles related to credit counseling, debt relief agencies, and attorney certifications.” This kept distressed debtors in a period where they faced high fees and high interest payments, which would allow the credit card companies to collect additional revenue. Instead of trying to alter bankruptcy on the front or back ends, what it really did was give consumers fewer options and more confusion in the middle. It trapped them in a box (or over a barrel, if you will).

Mortgage Servicing

But this also sounds familiar to those watching the scandals taking place in servicer fraud as the foreclosure crisis unfolded over the past seven years. Servicers are the delegated, third-party managers of debts, particularly mortgage securitizations but also student debt. They sound disturbingly similar to the companies Oliver describes as managing municipal fees.

As Adam Levitin and Tara Twomey have argued, third-party servicing introduces three major agency problems. The first is that servicers are incentivized to pad costs, as costs are their revenues, even at the expense of everyone else. The second is that they will often pursue their own goals and objectives as the expense of other options, especially when they don’t ultimately care about the overall goals of those who hire them. And a third problem is that when problems do occur, they are often incentivized to drag them out rather than resolve them the best way possible.

Among other heart-breaking stories, Oliver walks through the story of Harriet Cleveland, who had unpaid parking tickets with Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery, however, outsourced the management of this debt to Judicial Correction Services (JCS). JCS followed this script perfectly.

JCS had every reason to increase its fees and keep them at a burdensome rate, as it was to be paid first. It was completely indifferent to public notions of the county that hired it, such as proportional justice or the cost-benefit ratio of incarceration, such that they threw Cleveland in jail once she couldn’t handle the box anymore. And it economically benefited from keeping Cleveland in the sweat box as long as possible, rather than trying to find some way to actually resolve the tickets.

For those watching the mortgage servicing industry during the foreclosure crisis, this is a very similar story. Mortgage servicers can pyramid nuisance fees knowing that, even if the loan goes into foreclosure when the debtor can’t handle the box, they will be paid first. They are ultimately indifferent to the private notion of maximizing the value of the loan for investors, so much so that, compared to traditional banks that hold loans directly, servicers are less likely to do modifications and do them in a way that will work out. And servicers will often refuse to make good modifications that would get the mortgage current, because doing so can reduce the principal that forms the basis of their fees.

The Perils of the Profit Motive

There are three elements to draw out here. The first is that these problems are significantly worse for vulnerable populations, particularly those whose exit options are limited by background economic institutions like backruptcy or legal defense. The second is that many of our favorite buzzword policy goals, be they privatization of public services or the market-mediation of credit, involve piling on more and more of these third-party agents whose interests and powers aren’t necessarily aligned with what those who originally hired them expected. Assuming good faith for a second, privatization of these carceral services by municipalities requires a level of control of third-party agents that even the geniuses on Wall Street haven’t been able to pull off.

But we see the sweat box when it comes to purely public mechanisms too, as we see in Ferguson. So the third takeaway is that this is what happens when the profit motive is introduced in places where it normally doesn’t exist. Introducing the profit motive requires delegation and coordination, and it can often cause far more chaos than whatever efficiencies it is meant to produce. Traditional banking serviced mortgage debts as part of the everyday functions within the firm. Putting that function outside the firm, where the profit-motive was meant to increase efficiency, also created profit-driven incentives to find ways to abuse that gap in accountability.

The same dynamics come into play with the profit motive is reintroduced into the municipal level. Our government ran under the profit motive through the 1800s, and it was a major political struggle to change that. Municipal fees are very much part of the reintroduction of the profit motive into city services. As libertarian scholar and Reason Foundation co-founder Robert Poole wrote in 1980 regarding municipal court costs, “Make the users (i.e., the criminals) pay the costs, wherever possible.” As Sarah Stillman found, this is what an “offender-funded” justice system, one that aims “to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers,” looks like now as for-profit carceral service providers shift their businesses to probation and parole. Catherine Rampell reports this as a total shift away from taxes and towards fees for public revenues, and the data shows it.

This is the model of the state as a business providing services, one in which those who use or abuse its functions should fund it directly. And it’s a system that can’t shake the conflicts inherent whenever the profit motive appear.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

John Oliver dedicated his main segment on last Sunday’s episode to the epidemic of municipal fees. He walks through several stories about tickets and citations that are overpriced and end up being more expensive for poor people because of a series of burdensome fees. This was one of the conclusions of the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, which argued that “law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.”

Oliver had a memorable phrase to describe how this system catches people and won’t let them go: he called it a “f*** barrel,” and started a NSFW hashtag on Twitter to draw attention to it.

But I had actually heard a similar (and safe-for-work) phrase for this years ago: the “sweat box.” Law professor Ronald Mann coined it in 2006 to describe how the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA) would affect consumer debt, and it applies to the criminal justice system now. The problems with this system also sound like the problems in mortgage debt servicing, which has been a focus here. It turns out that these issues are generalizable, and they illustrate some of the real dilemmas with privatization and introducing the profit-motive into the public realm.

The Sweat Box

First, the barrel/box. Credit card companies and other creditors really wanted BAPCPA to become law. But why? Mann argued that the act wouldn’t reduce risky borrowing, reduce the number of bankruptcies, or increase the recoveries these companies got in bankruptcy.

But what it would do is make it harder to start a bankruptcy, thanks to a wide variety of delaying tactics. The act did this “by raising filing fees, but also by lengthening the period between permitted filings and by imposing administrative hurdles related to credit counseling, debt relief agencies, and attorney certifications.” This kept distressed debtors in a period where they faced high fees and high interest payments, which would allow the credit card companies to collect additional revenue. Instead of trying to alter bankruptcy on the front or back ends, what it really did was give consumers fewer options and more confusion in the middle. It trapped them in a box (or over a barrel, if you will).

Mortgage Servicing

But this also sounds familiar to those watching the scandals taking place in servicer fraud as the foreclosure crisis unfolded over the past seven years. Servicers are the delegated, third-party managers of debts, particularly mortgage securitizations but also student debt. They sound disturbingly similar to the companies Oliver describes as managing municipal fees.

As Adam Levitin and Tara Twomey have argued, third-party servicing introduces three major agency problems. The first is that servicers are incentivized to pad costs, as costs are their revenues, even at the expense of everyone else. The second is that they will often pursue their own goals and objectives as the expense of other options, especially when they don’t ultimately care about the overall goals of those who hire them. And a third problem is that when problems do occur, they are often incentivized to drag them out rather than resolve them the best way possible.

Among other heart-breaking stories, Oliver walks through the story of Harriet Cleveland, who had unpaid parking tickets with Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery, however, outsourced the management of this debt to Judicial Correction Services (JCS). JCS followed this script perfectly.

JCS had every reason to increase its fees and keep them at a burdensome rate, as it was to be paid first. It was completely indifferent to public notions of the county that hired it, such as proportional justice or the cost-benefit ratio of incarceration, such that they threw Cleveland in jail once she couldn’t handle the box anymore. And it economically benefited from keeping Cleveland in the sweat box as long as possible, rather than trying to find some way to actually resolve the tickets.

For those watching the mortgage servicing industry during the foreclosure crisis, this is a very similar story. Mortgage servicers can pyramid nuisance fees knowing that, even if the loan goes into foreclosure when the debtor can’t handle the box, they will be paid first. They are ultimately indifferent to the private notion of maximizing the value of the loan for investors, so much so that, compared to traditional banks that hold loans directly, servicers are less likely to do modifications and do them in a way that will work out. And servicers will often refuse to make good modifications that would get the mortgage current, because doing so can reduce the principal that forms the basis of their fees.

The Perils of the Profit Motive

There are three elements to draw out here. The first is that these problems are significantly worse for vulnerable populations, particularly those whose exit options are limited by background economic institutions like backruptcy or legal defense. The second is that many of our favorite buzzword policy goals, be they privatization of public services or the market-mediation of credit, involve piling on more and more of these third-party agents whose interests and powers aren’t necessarily aligned with what those who originally hired them expected. Assuming good faith for a second, privatization of these carceral services by municipalities requires a level of control of third-party agents that even the geniuses on Wall Street haven’t been able to pull off.

But we see the sweat box when it comes to purely public mechanisms too, as we see in Ferguson. So the third takeaway is that this is what happens when the profit motive is introduced in places where it normally doesn’t exist. Introducing the profit motive requires delegation and coordination, and it can often cause far more chaos than whatever efficiencies it is meant to produce. Traditional banking serviced mortgage debts as part of the everyday functions within the firm. Putting that function outside the firm, where the profit-motive was meant to increase efficiency, also created profit-driven incentives to find ways to abuse that gap in accountability.

The same dynamics come into play with the profit motive is reintroduced into the municipal level. Our government ran under the profit motive through the 1800s, and it was a major political struggle to change that. Municipal fees are very much part of the reintroduction of the profit motive into city services. As libertarian scholar and Reason Foundation co-founder Robert Poole wrote in 1980 regarding municipal court costs, “Make the users (i.e., the criminals) pay the costs, wherever possible.” As Sarah Stillman found, this is what an “offender-funded” justice system, one that aims “to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers,” looks like now as for-profit carceral service providers shift their businesses to probation and parole. Catherine Rampell reports this as a total shift away from taxes and towards fees for public revenues, and the data shows it.

This is the model of the state as a business providing services, one in which those who use or abuse its functions should fund it directly. And it’s a system that can’t shake the conflicts inherent whenever the profit motive appear.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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Seven Ways Chicago Can Put Working Families Before Wall Street

Mar 24, 2015Saqib Bhatti

The ReFund America Project released a new report this morning, “Our Kind of Town: A Financial Plan that Puts Chicago’s Communities First.” The report lays out a plan for getting Chicago’s finances back on track without painful austerity measures, which exacerbate economic inequality by forcing working families to shoulder the cost.

The ReFund America Project released a new report this morning, “Our Kind of Town: A Financial Plan that Puts Chicago’s Communities First.” The report lays out a plan for getting Chicago’s finances back on track without painful austerity measures, which exacerbate economic inequality by forcing working families to shoulder the cost.

Over the last month, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the credit ratings of the City of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to near junk level. Last week, Fitch Ratings followed by cutting CPS’s rating to just one notch above junk. Even though the major credit rating agencies are unreliable institutions, rife with conflicts of interest, a history of missed calls, and a reputation for using their ratings to push political agendas, these downgrades have put the issue of financial management front and center in Chicago's political debate. Questions about how best to manage the city’s money shine a spotlight on the competing interests of Chicago residents and the powerful Wall Street firms that have been profiting from the city’s financial problems.

In the developing world, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank require financially distressed governments to enact painful cuts in order to obtain financing. Moody’s and Fitch are similarly using these downgrades to push an austerity agenda in Chicago. These downgrades will benefit Wall Street firms because the city and CPS will be forced to take out more expensive products like credit enhancements and bond insurance to boost investor confidence in their bonds. Already, the city and CPS are on the hook for a combined $300 million in penalties connected to interest rate swaps as a result of these downgrades. But all of this is wholly unnecessary because none of Chicago’s governmental units are actually in any danger of defaulting on their bonds.

Moreover, this response will come at the expense of community services like education, mental health, and parks programs. Many politicians are already using the downgrades to call for austerity measures that would take a toll on Chicago’s most vulnerable residents and to justify slashing government workers’ pensions, in violation of the Illinois Constitution. State Representative Ron Sandack has even introduced a bill in the Illinois Legislature to allow municipalities to file bankruptcy in order to circumvent the state constitution’s protection of public pension funds.

The current discourse ignores the simple reality that the city is not spending too much on either public services or workers. The real problem with Chicago’s budget is that the city is hemorrhaging money on predatory financial deals with Wall Street banks and not properly taxing its wealthiest corporations and residents. Chicago needs a proactive agenda that puts the needs of communities first. In the short term, this includes measures like:

  • Recovering losses from predatory municipal finance deals. The City of Chicago, its related governmental units, and their pension funds should take all steps to recover taxpayer dollars when banks deal unfairly with them. This includes taking both legal and economic action to try get out of bad deals like interest rate swaps and recoup lost money.
  • Reducing financial fees by 20 percent across the board. The City of Chicago, its related governmental units, and their pension funds should press for negotiations demanding 20 percent reductions on all financial fees to force Wall Street firms to share in the sacrifices that Chicagoans are being forced to make every day.
  • Insourcing pension fund management. The City of Chicago and its related governmental units should bring investment management in-house for a significant portion of their pension funds’ investments, by hiring qualified staff with a proven record of effective management instead of paying Wall Street firms tens of millions of dollars each year to accomplish the same goal.
  • Ending corporate tax subsidies and tax breaks. The City of Chicago should end all corporate tax subsidies and tax breaks to major corporations, and claw back subsidies given to corporations in exchange for job creation if they did not live up to their goals of creating jobs for city residents. This includes tax subsidies from the city’s tax-increment financing (TIF) programs.

In the longer run, Chicago needs structural solutions. This includes:

  • Collective bargaining with Wall Street. The City of Chicago, its related governmental units, and their pension funds should identify financial fees that bear no reasonable relationship to the costs of providing the service and join with other cities in the region and across the country to create a new industry standard for fees and refuse to do business with any bank that does not abide by that standard.
  • Creating a public bank. The City of Chicago should establish a public bank that is owned by taxpayers and can deliver a range of services, including municipal finance, and provide capital for local economic development and affordable housing in Chicago’s neighborhoods.
  • Raising progressive revenue. The City of Chicago should work to raise progressive revenue by instituting measures like a graduated city income tax to force high earners to pay their fair share, a commuter tax on suburban residents who work in the city, and the LaSalle Street Tax on financial transactions at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Board Options Exchange. All of these likely require state approval, so the mayor would have to petition the state for authorization. California and Minnesota have both enacted progressive revenue measures in recent years that have helped solve their respective budget crises.

These steps will allow Chicago to reclaim power in its relationship with Wall Street and create a financial regime in the city that will put the interests of Chicago’s communities first.

Saqib Bhatti is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and Director of the ReFund America Project.

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The Sweet Briar Dilemma: Will Predatory Lending Take Down More Colleges?

Mar 16, 2015Alan Smith

After 114 years of educating young women in rural Virginia, Sweet Briar College recently announced that the 2015 academic year would be its last. It’s closing its doors, administrators say, because its model is no longer sustainable.

After 114 years of educating young women in rural Virginia, Sweet Briar College recently announced that the 2015 academic year would be its last. It’s closing its doors, administrators say, because its model is no longer sustainable.

There are plenty of people coming out of the woodwork to explain Sweet Briar's problems. Dr. James F. Jones, the school’s president, claims that there are simply not enough people who want to attend an all-women's rural liberal arts school (though application numbers and some pundits disagree); he blames the discount that the school was giving to low-income students for the institutional budget shortfall. Billionaire investor Mark Cuban says that Sweet Briar has fallen victim to the student loan bubble and that students are unwilling to commit the money to attend, which sounds a lot like the blame-the-homeowner narrative that came out of the 2008 financial crisis.  Others are wringing their hands that small colleges in general are doomed.   

These takes are varied and complex, but they are all missing an important point: that predatory banking practices and bad financial deals played an important and nearly invisible role in precipitating the school’s budget crisis.  

A quick look at Sweet Briar’s audited financial reports (easily available in public records) reveals enough confusing and obfuscating financial-speak to last a lifetime, but a few days of digging did manage to unearth a series of troubling things.  

A single swap on a bond issued in June 2008 cost Sweet Briar more then a million dollars in payments to Wachovia before the school exited the swap in September 2011. While it is unclear exactly why they chose 2011 to pay off the remainder of the bond early, they paid a $730,119 termination fee. For a school that was sorely strapped for cash, these fines and the fees that accrued around this deal (which are hard to definitively pick out from financial documents) couldn't have come at a worse time.  

Just how big a deal are these numbers? The school has a relatively small endowment even among small liberal arts colleges: currently valued at about $88 million, with less then a quarter of that total completely unrestricted and free to spend. But in 2014, the financial year that appears to have been the final straw for Sweet Briar, total operating revenues were $34.8 million and total operating expenditures were $35.4 million, which means that the deficit the school is running is actually smaller than the cost of any of the bad deals it’s gotten itself into with banks. 

All of this puts in a very stark light the fact that the early retirement of debt (in other words, the losses the school suffered on the overall value of the bonds it had taken out because it decided to pay them back early) cost the school over $9 million in 2011 and more than $13 million in 2012. Why did the school accrue these costs? We have no way of knowing if it was bad advice from bankers, negligent trustee members covering a mistake, or a well-intentioned plan that hit at the wrong time.  

What we can say, though, is that a million dollars here and a million dollars there adds up to real money that was desperately needed as Sweet Briar fought to stay afloat.  

We know that Wall Street collects higher fees on risky and complicated deals involving variable rate debt and hedging instruments, like the ones found in Sweet Briar's last few decades of financials, than from fixed rate debt deals. We know that they add on things like credit enhancements, further driving up the costs. We know that those higher fees mean that there is a clear financial incentive to sell schools, municipalities, and pension funds on these risky deals. And we know that it works in Wall Street's favor that someone like me can spend days digging into this stuff and still not be totally sure what the exact costs of these deals are.  

What we don't know is how all these things were allowed to happen at this particular school in this particular timeframe.  

Sweet Briar appears slated to close because it is a small organization without the resources to counter the huge information imbalance that has helped precipitate the financialization crisis. It is closing because it signed some terrible deals to get what must have felt like "needed" money at the time. You can see the reasons: a $14 million bond (with swaps) in 2001 for campus improvements. A $10 million bond in 2006 to pay off other bonds that had revealed their ugly side and were costing the school too much to be allowed to fully mature. But, as has so often been the case in everything from municipal finance to personal home loans, there was a problem in the small print. Like many other colleges, what appeared to be vital and even beneficial deals turned out to be nothing of the sort. Unlike many others, Sweet Briar was already close enough to the financial brink that these ongoing debts made the difference between staying open and closing its doors.  

There are, of course, other very real pressures on Sweet Briar. Lower enrollment numbers do really hurt a school, and there are real questions about how to keep small, rural liberal arts institutions competitive in a higher education economy. None of these issues, however, compare to the fees, fines, penalties, and other losses that are all over Sweet Briar’s books. 

Is Sweet Briar the canary in the coalmine? Banks are certainly making obscene profits on the backs of the swap deals in the UC system, at the University of Michigan, and at American University — and those are the places that we’ve found in our first month of looking. While those schools are solvent enough that these swaps are not pushing them to the brink of closing, they are exacerbating budget shortfalls and passing debt on to students through increased costs. These deals are also clearly making money for many school trustees whose day jobs happen to be with the giant banks. Here I find myself agreeing with Mark Cuban, at least in part: these trends are a part of a vicious cycle of borrowing that is wholly unsustainable, and will eventually lead to a crisis.  

This is why the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network is working to track the ways in which financial institutions are extracting wealth from our colleges and universities, and make a clear case for demanding our money back. I hope that the storied institution of Sweet Briar can find a way to keep its doors open in 2016, but even if it fails, that failure should wake us up to predatory practices at colleges and universities around the country.   

Questions? Concerns? Interested in my math? Drop me a line.

Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.

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Daily Digest - February 27: We're Missing the Mark on Monetary Policy, and a Goodbye

Feb 27, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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The Roosevelt Institute has produced the Daily Digest five days a week since 2009, but its time has now come to an end. Today will be the final Daily Digest; however, we hope you'll subscribe to our weekly e-mail updates to stay in the loop with all the exciting work we're doing here at the Roosevelt Institute. You can also stay in touch with us on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for reading!

Corporate Borrowing Now Flows To Shareholders, Not Productive Investment: Study (IB Times)

Owen Davis reports on J.W. Mason's new white paper, "Disgorge the Cash," explaining how the paper fits into a growing body of research that suggests flaws in our basic understanding of economics.

Students Question Own Role in Participatory Budgeting (Columbia Spectator)

Sasha Zeints reports on a Campus Network event discussing students' role in participatory budgeting. Chapter president Brit Byrd says students are well-suited to participate as volunteers.

The Federal Reserve Speaks in Mumbo Jumbo. Here's How to Fix That. (The Week)

Referencing Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal, Jeff Sprots argues that the opacity of Federal Reserve statements could be solved by mandating a numerical target for the Fed.

The Real Meaning of $9 an Hour (Time)

Rana Foroohar says that Walmart's wage hike might not make a dramatic impact on the real economy, but it shows that workers can still get the largest companies in the world to change.

What Is ‘Middle-Class Economics’? (NYT)

Josh Barro points out that government policies that help the middle class are only able to produce small shifts. He says the best option might be to step back and hope positive trends continue.

The FCC Approves Strong Net Neutrality Rules (WaPo)

Cecilia Kang and Brian Fung report on the Federal Communications Commission's vote yesterday, which classified the Internet as a public utility to protect access for all.

New on Next New Deal

Make the Stop Overdose Stat Act a Priority for 2015

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Health Care Emily Cerciello explains why this bill targeting opioid overdose prevention should be on both parties' agendas this year.

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Daily Digest - February 26: Where Is All the Corporate Cash Going?

Feb 26, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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Why Companies are Rewarding Shareholders Instead of Investing in the Real Economy (WaPo)

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Why Companies are Rewarding Shareholders Instead of Investing in the Real Economy (WaPo)

Lydia DePillis looks at Roosevelt Institute Fellow J.W. Mason's new white paper on how the shift towards increased shareholder payouts since the 1980s has decreased corporate investment.

  • Roosevelt Take: Read J.W. Mason's paper, "Disgorge the Cash: The Disconnect Between Corporate Borrowing and Investment," here.

Hewlett-Packard Shows How to Fatten Shareholders While Firing Workers (LA Times)

Referencing J.W. Mason's paper for context on the impact of shareholder payouts on the larger economy, Michael Hiltzik explains how H-P has managed to fire workers and increase payouts at once.

Don't Wait Until 2016 to Make Political Change (HuffPo)

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network National Director Joelle Gamble argues for the need for young people to participate in governance, not just elections.

The Push for Net Neutrality Arose From Lack of Choice (NYT)

Steve Lohr speaks to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford, who agrees that the current approach to net neutrality makes sense while cable is most people's only option for high-speed Internet.

The Lawyer Who Went from Fighting for Guantánamo Bay Inmates to Going After Shady Banks (Vice)

David Dayen profiles Josh Denbeaux, a lawyer who is fighting back against foreclosure abuse in the courts and trying to develop class-action suits for homeowners facing illegal foreclosures.

New on Next New Deal

Launching Our Financialization Project with "Disgorge the Cash"

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal introduces our Financialization Project, which aims to define and explain the topic, as well as J.W. Mason's paper. Learn more about the project here.

Millennials Want More Than Obama’s Keystone Veto

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment Torre Lavelle says the veto isn't good enough, because Millennials are seeking a real commitment to transforming energy usage.

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