Multinational Monitor Editors Blog

The Medicare-for-All Moment

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There is only one solution to the twin problems of escalating health care costs and the epidemic of the uninsured: a Medicare-for-All, single payer system.

Unfortunately, the healthcare debate on Capitol Hill has evolved without serious consideration of the Medicare-for-All single payer health proposal. There are many reasons for this, but one is that many who actually support Medicare-for-All have claimed that the proposal is “not feasible.”

With the House leadership having settled on a single proposal, now is the time to set aside worries about feasibility. The House process is resolved. Members of Congress should have the opportunity to vote on the merits, up-or-down, on a Medicare-for-All single payer health proposal.

Whether they will have this chance is in the hands of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and likely to be decided today. Contact her right away to urge that the House be permitted to vote on a Medicare-for-All single payer health proposal. Call (202) 225-0100 or (as a second best alternative, submit comments on the Speaker’s web page.

Representative Anthony Weiner, D-New York, has proposed to introduce such a Medicare-for-All measure on the House floor in the form of an amendment to the leadership’s healthcare package. If a vote is permitted, it will mark the first time either house of Congress has voted on Medicare-for-All, and will be a landmark in the inevitable march to a national Medicare-for-All system.

Meanwhile, Representative Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, is seeking to enable states to implement their own Medicare-for-All single payer health initiatives. Representative Kucinich introduced an amendment in the House Education and Labor Committee to facilitate such action, by providing for waivers of ERISA (employee benefit) requirements for states adopting single payer plans. This amendment passed the committee with bipartisan support. If Speaker Pelosi decides to incorporate it into the leadership bill, it stands a good chance of becoming law.

Although there are reasons to be skeptical, one can hope that the health reform package that ultimately becomes law will significantly expand coverage and curb insurance industry abuses.

But it is certain that the health reform package will not solve the overwhelming problems of coverage, cost and quality of care facing the country. Solving those problems requires going to the source: the health insurance corporations.

With its private health insurance industry-dominated system, the United States spends far more than other wealthy nations on health care (at least 50 percent more than every country except Luxembourg) but sports middling health indicators.

The private health insurance industry-dominated system in the United States permits 45 million people to live without health insurance, denying them access to preventative and routine care, resulting in the death of at least 35,000 people a year.

The private health insurance industry-dominated system tolerates private health insurance companies making life-and-death rationing decisions for millions of people with only minimal accountability.

The private health insurance industry-dominated system lets private health insurers refuse to take sick people as customers and engage in endless manipulations to discard its customers if they do become sick.

The private health insurance industry-dominated system features a system in which medical bills and illness contribute to almost two of every three personal bankruptcies — even though three-quarters of these bankrupt people had insurance when they became sick.

Not least, the private health insurance industry-dominated health care system translates into a private health insurance industry-dominated political system. As a result, too many politicians refuse to consider real solutions.

There is a cure all for these ills. It is a Medicare-for-All, single-payer system, in which the government pays medical bills (thus operating as the “single payer”).

In a Medicare-for-All system, health care is available as a matter of right. No one is denied treatment because they can’t pay. No one is mandated to buy coverage. No one is denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions. No one goes bankrupt paying medical bills.

A Medicare-for-All system would save $350 billion – $400 billion a year in costs (up to $4 trillion over the 10-year period routinely analyzed by the Congressional Budget Office) –- enough to cover all of the uninsured. No scandalous CEO pay packages. No money siphoned out of the system by rent-seeking middlemen. No needless paperwork and bureaucracy.

A Medicare-for-All system succeeds by doing away with the private health insurance industry.

The powerful insurers, understandably, don’t like this idea. Yet despite waves of deceptive and misleading propaganda about the purported horrors of government-run insurance, the people do like the idea of Medicare-for-All — polls show it is supported by a majority of the public.

But insurance industry dollars have spoken louder than the people’s voices. And so Medicare-for-All hasn’t been given a serious hearing in Congress. Speaker Pelosi should at least enable a clean up-or-down vote. Call (202) 225-0100 and urge her to do so.

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November 3rd, 2009 at 10:03 am

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The Financial Crisis One Year Later: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

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One year ago, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, bringing to a head the growing chaos on Wall Street.

In the days and weeks that followed Lehman’s September 15, 2008, collapse, credit markets would freeze, the stock market plunged, the government took a controlling interest in AIG, Wachovia and Merrill Lynch merged themselves out of existence, the Congress approved a plan to spend $700 billion to bail out Wall Street, the Federal Reserve innovated an array of programs involving trillions of dollars worth of support for Wall Street and the credit markets, and the national economy — and much of the global economy — declined precipitously.

As the crisis unfolded, it quickly became commonplace to suggest that nothing would ever be the same, on Wall Street or in the national economy. The Wall Street goliaths had been humbled — and many had gone out of business, via merger or bankruptcy. Deregulation went out of style and even former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan indicated that the conceptual underpinnings of his deregulatory approach had proven flawed.

One year later, it is clear that the conventional wisdom emerging as the crisis developed was wrong.

Some things have changed dramatically — notably in the real economy — but Wall Street’s political power remains intact. No new rules are in place to prevent a recurrence of the crisis. Major questions remain about whether any such rules commensurate with the scale of the crisis — with the important exception of a new consumer financial protection agency — will be seriously considered.

The financial crisis has had a devastating impact on regular people — and the situation continues to worsen, even as the economy enters what may be a potential recovery.

Overall economic growth fell by more than 5 percent (on an annual basis) in the fourth quarter of 2008 and by more than 6 percent in the first quarter of 2009.

Thanks to this economic crash, the official unemployment rate is racing to 10 percent, with many believing it will persist at or near double digits through the end of 2010. The actual unemployment rate — taking into account underemployment and discouraged workers — has topped an astounding 16 percent. A staggering one in six workers is out of work or underemployed.

The poverty rate has worsened dramatically, just based on the available data for 2008 alone. The official poverty rate in 2008 was 13.2 percent, up from 12.5 percent in 2007. There were 39.8 million people in poverty in 2008, 2.5 million people more than the previous year. The 2008 poverty rate — and things have surely gotten worse — was the highest since 1997.

The mortgage crisis continues to worsen. More than 1.5 million foreclosures were filed through the first seven months of this year. By mid-2009, roughly a third of outstanding mortgage borrowers were underwater — meaning they owed more than the value of their home — and the number is growing. Mortgage modifications — almost none of which touch principal — do not come close to keeping pace. Goldman Sachs projects there will be 13 million foreclosures between the end of 2008 and 2014.

The causes of the financial crash continue unabated and in some cases have worsened.

Out-of-control compensation packages, linked to short-term profit performance, drove top Wall Street and big bank executives and traders to take reckless risks. For them, it was a game of heads we win, tails you lose: If their firms registered short-term profits, they received outrageous bonus packages; if there was a longer-term fallout, that would hurt shareholders, but they would have already pocketed their bonuses. Wall Street bonuses are already on track to match or exceed the glutinous pace of 2007.

Banks and other financial institutions deemed “too big to fail” engaged in wild speculation, secure in the knowledge that they would ultimately be backstopped by federal support. These behemoths helped generate the crisis as well by leveraging their political power to peel back the regulatory restraints on Wall Street. Now, thanks to a series of shotgun mergers, the banks are bigger than ever, and there is a greater combination of commercial banking and investment bank operations in single corporate entities.

The proliferation of exotic financial instruments led to massive leveraging and complicated interconnections among top firms that no one could track. The unraveling of these ties led to the downfall of AIG, among other things. While financial derivatives are justified as helping economic players hedge against risk, it turns out they are primarily speculative tools used overwhelmingly by a small number of players. This concentration of massive speculative betting continues, with five banks owning more than four-fifths of the notional value of all outstanding derivatives in the United States. The notional value of these banks’ derivatives exceeded $190 trillion in the first quarter of 2009.

Wall Street’s go-go years earlier this decade were fueled by a housing bubble and deceptive lending practices. Consumer rip-offs continue apace — and appear to be central to the banks’ business model. Overdraft fees alone will bring in more than $38 billion in revenue to the banks in 2009.

Meanwhile, the public is paying massively for rescuing Wall Street from itself. The Special Inspector General set up to oversee the bailout estimates that government agencies, including the Federal Reserve, will ultimately put out more than $23 trillion in various programs and supports related to the financial crisis. This total is almost three times what was spent on World War II, in adjusted dollars.

Most of these trillions will return to the Federal Reserve or the Treasury, but that hardly mitigates the scale of the public investment and risk committed to save Wall Street. And the Treasury Department is certain to lose tens of billions — quite likely hundreds of billions — in the deal.

The deregulation that led to the financial crisis, the bank-friendly immediate response to the crisis and the failure to impose meaningful restraints on Wall Street after the crisis can all be traced to Wall Street’s political power. Wall Street spent more than $5 billion on federal campaign contributions and lobbying from 1998 to 2008, and its fervent spending continues. The financial sector has spent more than $200 million on lobbying in 2009 alone.

In spring of this year, the banks defeated a proposal, which had been expected to pass, to authorize “cramdowns” of mortgages in bankruptcy. This modest measure would have permitted bankruptcy judges to adjust mortgage principal in bankruptcy, to help people stay in their homes. It would have had relatively limited application and likely would have helped the banks, which are hurt by foreclosures in an environment where they cannot sell houses from which they have evicted borrowers. But cramdown violates the banks’ ideological commitment to preventing adjustments of principal. They mobilized to defeat it, leading a frustrated Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin to say the banks “own the place” — meaning the Congress.

And now, the Financial Services Roundtable has openly announced its intention to “kill” the most important reform measures urged by the Obama administration: creation of a consumer financial protection agency.

Perhaps one of the most telling statistics is the number of stand-alone pieces of financial reform legislation passed, one year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers: zero.

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September 15th, 2009 at 10:03 am

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Tightening the Corporate Grip: The Stakes at the Supreme Court

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Can things get still worse in Washington?

Yes, they can. And they will, if the Supreme Court decides for corporations and against real human beings and their democracy in a case the Court will be hearing today, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Until reaching the Supreme Court last year, this case has involved a narrow issue about whether an anti-Hillary Clinton movie made in the heat of the last presidential election is covered by restrictions in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. However, in a highly unusual move announced on the last day of the Supreme Court’s 2008 term, the justices announced they wanted to reconsider two other pivotal decisions that limit the role of corporate money in politics.

The Court ordered a special oral argument on the issue, before the full start of their 2009 term in October.

The Court will today hear argument on whether prior decisions blocking corporations from spending their money on “independent expenditures” for electoral candidates should be overturned. “Independent expenditures” are funds spent without coordination with a candidate’s campaign. The rationale for such a move would be that existing rules interfere with corporations’ First Amendment rights to free speech.

Overturning the court’s precedents on corporate election expenditures would be nothing short of a disaster. Corporations already dominate our political process — through political action committees, fundraisers, high-paid lobbyists and personal contributions by corporate insiders, often bundled together to increase their impact, threats to move jobs abroad and more.

On the dominant issues of the day — climate change, health care and financial regulation — corporate interests are leveraging their political investments to sidetrack vital measures to protect the planet, expand health care coverage while controlling costs, and prevent future financial meltdowns.

The current system demands reform to limit corporate influence. Public funding of elections is the obvious and necessary (though very partial) first step.

Yet the Supreme Court may actually roll back the limits on corporate electoral spending now in place. These limits are very inadequate, but they do block unlimited spending from corporate treasuries to influence election outcomes. Rolling back those limits will unleash corporations to ramp up their spending still further, with a potentially decisive chilling effect on candidates critical of the Chamber of Commerce agenda.

The damage will be double, because a Court ruling on constitutional grounds would effectively overturn the laws in place in two dozen states similarly barring corporate expenditures on elections.

More than 100 years ago, reacting to what many now call the First Gilded Age, Congress acted to prohibit direct corporate donations to electoral candidates. Corporate expenditures in electoral races have been prohibited for more than 60 years.

These rules reflected the not-very-controversial observation that for-profit corporations have a unique ability to gather enormous funds and that expenditures from the corporate treasury are certain to undermine democracy – understood to mean rule by the people. Real human beings, not corporations.

In arguing to uphold the existing corporate expenditure restrictions, the Federal Election Commission has emphasized these common sense observations.

“For-profit corporations have attributes that no natural person shares,” the FEC argues. Noting that corporations are state-created — not natural entities — the FEC explains that “for-profit corporations are inherently more likely than individuals to engage in electioneering behavior that poses a risk of actual or apparent corruption of office-holders.” The FEC also notes that corporate spending on elections does not reflect the views of a company’s owners (shareholders).

Although the signs aren’t good, there is no certainty how the Court will decide Citizens United. There is some hope that the Court will decide that it is inappropriate to roll back such longstanding and important campaign finance rules, in a case where the issue was not presented in the lower courts, and where the litigants’ dispute can be decided on much narrower grounds.

Public Citizen is organizing people to protest against a roll back of existing restrictions on corporate campaign expenditures. To join the effort, click here. People are pledging to protest in diverse ways — from street actions to letter writing — today, and in the event of a bad decision, and also networking for solutions to corporate-corrupted elections.

Ours is a government of the people, by the people, for the people — not the corporations and their money. Corporations don’t vote, and they shouldn’t be permitted to spend limitless amounts of money to influence election outcomes.

Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen. Public Citizen attorney Scott Nelson serves as counsel to the original sponsors of the McCain-Feingold law, who have filed an amicus brief in the case, asking that existing restrictions on corporate election expenditures be maintained.

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September 9th, 2009 at 10:03 am

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150 Years

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One hundred and fifty years jail time for Bernard Madoff is a good thing.

To listen to the victims of his swindle, or read their words, is to appreciate the very far-reaching ways in which Madoff’s quiet crime has wreaked havoc on the lives of thousands of families.

Federal District Judge Denny Chin was absolutely right in denouncing Madoff’s crimes as “extraordinarily evil,” and giving him the maximum sentence. Punishment is no substitute for prevention, but the sentence provides a modicum of justice to the victims and will exert some modest deterrent effect against future potential swindlers.

The 150-year sentence is headline grabbing, but what should surprise us is not that Madoff got such a long sentence, but that other corporate criminals escape with light sentences or no criminal prosecution at all.

In August 2006, U.S. Federal District Court Judge Judith Kessler adjudged the leading tobacco companies to have engaged in a 50-year long conspiracy to deceive the public about the health risks of smoking and to addict children to tobacco. Millions in the United States — and many more around the world — have died as a result of this conspiracy. But you won’t find any tobacco executives in jail for this “extraordinary evil.”

Twenty-five years ago, poisonous gas escaped from a factory run by the chemical company Union Carbide in Bhopal, India. Many thousands died, many more were debilitated or badly injured, and the plant site remains polluted. Despite charges of culpable homicide, executives from Union Carbide (now merged into Dow Chemical) were never tried or sent to jail.*

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Prince William Sound Alaska. Eleven million gallons of crude oil spilled onto 1,500 miles of Alaskan shoreline, killing birds and fish. The spill ruined the livelihoods of thousands of Native Americans, fishermen and others. The captain was convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to community service. Exxon pled guilty to misdemeanor violations of federal environmental laws. No executives went to jail.

Victims of horrendous human rights abuses and environmental destruction caused and abetted by oil companies operating in Burma (Unocal/Chevron), Nigeria (Shell and Chevron), Ecuador (Texaco/Chevron) and Indonesia (Exxon), among other places, have — with lawyers and international solidarity campaigns — waged heroic and increasingly successful efforts to obtain monetary compensation for the wrongs they have suffered. But there’s no prospect of CEO and executive perpetrators of those wrongs being criminally prosecuted.

For two decades, the multinational oil companies and the giant coal producers have engaged — and continue to engage — in a prolonged campaign to deny and discredit climate change science. In doing so, they have imperiled the planet and its people. Paul Krugman, properly, calls this treason against the planet. But while execution is the highest penalty for treason against country, treason against the planet won’t even get you the equivalent of a parking ticket.

What to make of the disparity between the appropriate sentencing for Bernard Madoff and the get-out-of-jail free approach for other leading corporate criminals and malefactors? There are a few lessons and conclusions.

First, the Madoff case differs from many of these other examples of corporate wrongdoing in that the individual perpetrator is so closely related to the victims. Although he was handling billions of dollars, Madoff had a skeleton staff, and he had personal connections with many of those he swindled. As a result, the victims and the public’s anger is visceral and very targeted — not directed at an amorphous giant corporation.

Second, Madoff’s victims have power. They have the ability to hire lawyers, and to organize for redress and retribution. Corporate crime victims in poor communities, or in poor countries, generally do not have this kind of power. Nor do those who will fall victim in the future to consequences of actions carried out today.

Third, and relatedly, the penalties for financial crimes are generally much stiffer than for other corporate crimes. The New York Times has an interesting feature comparing Madoff’s sentence to other white-collar, financial criminals, many of them convicted of Enron-era crimes; Madoff’s sentence is much longer, but the others received stiff penalties as well. By contrast, it is very rare to see a felony prosecution for corporate killings.

Finally, and most important, one of the signal powers of corporations is their ability to influence the law and culture so that their most heinous acts are not considered criminal. Knowingly addict millions of children to a deadly habit? Not a crime. Collaborate with military regimes and destroy lives and livelihoods in poor countries? Not a crime. Endanger the planet with greenhouse gas pollution — and then mobilize politically to block emergency efforts to save the earth? Not a crime.

The world is a little bit more just today, after the sentencing of Bernie Madoff. When other corporate culprits are sentenced comparably, the world will be a lot more just.

*Clarification: Executives from the U.S. parent company were charged in India, but never appeared, and are officially “absconders” from justice. Executives in India have been charged; their trial, which began in 1992, is ongoing.

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June 30th, 2009 at 10:03 am

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The Good, the Bad, the Ugly: Financial Sector Regulation

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There are major gaps and shortcomings in the Obama administration’s financial regulatory proposals, formally released today, and the proposals alone leave the financial sector vulnerable to future crisis. Still, it’s nice to be able to say that the proposal does contain meaningful reforms.

Whether those meaningful reform proposals become law is no sure thing, and will depend on the administration’s willingness to stare down Wall Street — which still retains immense political power, despite its partial self-immolation — and on whether a mobilized public demands Congress act for consumers, not contributors.

The 85-page draft released today is qualitatively different than the bullet-point plans previously issued by the Treasury Department. It contains detailed proposals, spanning across the financial regulatory spectrum, not easily summarized. Here are only some key elements — first, the good, then the bad.

The Good

1. The administration supports creation of a strong Consumer Financial Regulatory Agency.

It proposes to give this new agency very strong powers, and jurisdiction over consumer protection rules — taking away authority from existing regulators (like the Federal Reserve) that have failed utterly to protect consumers. It favors simplicity and gives the new agency the authority to mandate financial firms offer “plain vanilla” loans along with the more complicated packages they prefer. It gives the agency authority to ban mandatory arbitration provisions that strip consumers’ right to go to court for redress of scams and rip-offs. And it establishes that the new agency’s rules will be a regulatory floor, with states permitted to adopt stronger protections.

2. The administration proposes to reduce speculative betting, through new standards on leverage.

One reason the financial crisis spun out of control was financial firms’ excessive use of “leverage” — borrowed money. Heavily leveraged, the top commercial banks and investment banks overreached with very risky loans and investments. The administration proposes that all systemically important financial firms be subjected to higher capital reserve standards (meaning they can rely less on borrowed money). The administration properly says these rules should apply to any systemically important firm, whether or not it is a bank. It defines systemically important as a firm “whose combination of size, leverage and interconnectedness could pose a threat to financial stability if it failed.” There are still important details to be worked out here, including how much capital such firms must maintain. And there is the very worrisome element that it is the Federal Reserve that is given primary responsibility for overseeing these systemically important firms.

3. Through “skin-in-the-game” rules, the administration aims to prevent predatory and reckless lending.

One reason lenders were willing to make so many predatory and bad-quality mortgages — including but not limited to the class of “subprime” loans — was that mortgage originators did not hold on to the loans. Mortgage brokers cut deals on behalf of banks and non-bank originators, which in turn sold the resulting mortgages to other banks. These banks, in turn, sliced and diced the mortgages, combined them into packages of pieces of thousands of other mortgages, and sold them to all kinds of investors. Because the initial lender did not maintain an ongoing interest in the mortgage, they did not have any incentive to ensure they were making a quality loan.

The administration proposes that loan originators be required to keep, at minimum, a 5 percent exposure in loans.

4. The administration seeks power to take over failing, systemically important financial firms.

The government already has such “resolution” power for commercial banks. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation regularly takes control over failing banks and “resolves” them outside of the bankruptcy process. This typically means selling off the failing bank to another bank, often after separating its good assets from bad. FDIC is expert at this process, moves very quickly, and averts the harmful consequences from extended bankruptcy processes.

The government does not have the legal authority to undertake comparable measures for important non-bank firms. This includes investment banks (think Lehman Brothers) and insurance companies (think AIG). Giving the government resolution power for non-banks should help control financial panic.

The Bad

1. The administration does not propose to do anything serious about executive pay and top-level compensation for financial firms.

The administration does support “say-on-pay” proposals, which give shareholders the right to a *non-binding* vote on executive compensation. But a non-binding vote isn’t worth too much; and, more importantly, shareholders are often willing to support excessive compensation while risky bets are paying off.

In terms of financial stability, the imperative is to do away with the Wall Street bonus culture, where executives and traders are given extraordinary bonuses — often four or more times base salary — based on annual performance. This bonus culture gives traders and executives alike an incentive to take big bets — because they get massive payoff if things go well, and don’t suffer if they go bad, or go bad sometime in the future.

This is a structural problem, not a symbolic one. Anyone who thinks pay isn’t of overriding importance in financial regulation should have been set straight by the desperation of the bailed out Wall Street firms to pay back their loans from the government. That desperation is overwhelmingly tied to a desire to escape the extremely modest pay standards issued by the Obama administration.

Besides financial stability, there are important questions of economic justice and taxpayer rights related to executive compensation. The Wall Street hotshots — including the major hedge fund players — have paid themselves unfathomable amounts of money over the last decade. They have set an aspirational standard for other executives and professionals, and helped drive wealth and income inequality to outrageous and unhealthy levels. Ultra compensation should be taxed at very high rates; and, at a bare minimum, the loopholes that let hedge fund managers pay taxes at about half the rate of regular folks must be closed. The case for aggressive tax reform on ultra rich financiers was overwhelming last year; now, with the financial system completely dependent on taxpayer largesse, there shouldn’t be anything left to debate. No one in finance can say they made their money just by working hard or being clever — their system was saved by the government.

2. The administration does not propose structural reform of the financial sector.

Although it proposes some meaningful regulatory reform, and modest alteration of the structure of regulatory agencies, the administration does not propose to alter the structure of the financial sector itself.

There is no discussion of returning to Glass-Steagall principles, to separate commercial banking from other financial activities including the speculative world of investment banking. Glass-Steagall was adopted during the Great Depression, as a response to financial abuses that closely parallel those of the previous decade. Repeal of Glass Steagall — following a decades-long erosion — came in 1999, and helped pave the way for the present crisis.

Nor is there any discussion of shrinking the size of goliath financial firms. Everyone now recognizes the problem of too-big-to-fail and too-interconnected-to-fail financial firms. The administration proposes to deal with the problem through regulation alone; a more fundamental approach would break up giant firms (or at least commit to prevent further consolidation going forward).

Addressing structure and size is important not only because of the economic power accreted by the goliaths, but because of their political strength — about which, see below.

3. The administration’s approach to regulating financial derivatives is too timid.

To its credit, the administration proposes to repeal recent deregulatory statutes and establish regulation of financial derivatives. But its plan does not go far enough. It creates a regulatory exemption for customized derivatives — a loophole that will create lots of business for corporate lawyers ready to change terms in derivative contracts so that they differ somewhat from standardized terms.

Nor does the administration propose to ban classes of dangerous financial instruments that cannot be justified. A clear example of a product that should be banned is a credit default swap — a kind of insurance against a certain outcome, like the inability of a bondholder to make required payments — in which neither party has a stake in the underlying transaction. Such credit default swaps have no insurance component, and are nothing more than bets — but they are bets that can vastly exceed the value of the transaction being bet on, and can spread financial contagion, as AIG demonstrated. George Soros argues that all credit default swaps basically share this feature, and should be banned altogether.

The administration proposal also fails to require that exotic financial instruments be subjected to pre-approval requirements. Under such an approach, financial firms would be required to show that new instruments offer some social benefit, and do not pose excessive risk.

4. The administration does not propose to empower consumers.

There is enormous merit to the proposal for a Consumer Financial Products Agency. But it is not a substitute for giving consumers the power to organize themselves to advance their own interests. Simply mandating that financial firms include in bills and statements (whether mailed or e-mailed) an invitation to join an independent consumer organization would facilitate tens of thousands of consumers — and likely many more — banding together to make sure the regulators do their job, and to prevent Wall Street from “innovating” the next trick to scam borrowers and investors.

The Ugly

Identifying the merits and gaps in the administration’s proposal is important. But the proposal does not exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t become law just because the administration has proposed it.

The Wall Street types don’t know shame. Having benefited from literally trillions of dollars of taxpayer largesse, one might expect that they would be embarrassed to lobby on Capitol Hill. Or, that Members of Congress would be unsympathetic to their pleas.

But that’s not how Washington works. Having spent $5 billion on political investments over the last decade, Wall Street continues to pour cash into the political process — and those investments continue to pay handsomely.

To understand how things work, consider the fate of the proposal to give bankruptcy judges the power to adjust mortgages, so that they could reduce the principal owed on loans on homes now worth less than value of the loan. Then-candidate Barack Obama campaigned in favor of such “cram-down” provisions. In a rational world, banks would agree to these adjustments to principal on their own, because they do better if people stay in their homes and continue paying on the loan, rather than by forcing foreclosure. Not long ago, it was widely expected that cram-down would quickly become law. But the banks deployed their lobbyists, and this vital though totally inadequate measure was defeated in May. The Obama administration sat quietly by.

Now, Wall Street is already trashing the good parts of the administration’s proposals.

“Congress is not going to impose a ‘skin-in-the-game’ requirement on all loans,” Jaret Seiberg, an analyst with Washington Research Group, a division of Concept Capital, flatly tells American Banker.

The Chamber of Commerce and other industry groupings are attacking the idea of a Consumer Financial Product Agency, including with the extraordinary claim that it will improperly relieve consumers of their duty to do “due diligence” on financial products.

Hedge funds are hiring ever more lobbyists and floating the claim that the administration’s requirements for some modest disclosure requirements for secretive hedge funds could do more damage than good. One purported reason: the disclosures may be too complicated for regular people to understand.

There’s no question that Wall Street is going to mobilize — is already mobilized — to defeat the administration’s positive proposals.

What remains very much in question is the administration’s willingness to engage in bare-knuckled political fighting to defend these proposals, as well as whether the public will be mobilized to support these and other moves to control Wall Street.

A new public interest coalition — Americans for Financial Reform — aims to do just that, but they are fighting on occupied territory. As Senator Majority Whip Richard Durbin says, “the banks are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”

[Disclosure: My organization, Essential Action, is a member of Americans for Financial Reform.]

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June 17th, 2009 at 10:03 am

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The IMF Accountability Moment

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The Obama administration’s budgetary Machiavellianism has backfired.

Seeking to avoid a direct up-or-down vote on a proposal to send $108 billion to the International Monetary Fund, the administration, at the last moment, had the money stuck into a supplemental appropriations bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That maneuver turned out to be too clever by a turn.

Republicans in the House of Representatives — opposed to the process by which the IMF money was added, frustrated with the IMF unaccountability and critical of international institutions in general — have announced they will oppose the appropriations bill.

Meanwhile, 51 antiwar Democrats in the House voted against the appropriations bill when it was first under consideration, and 41 Democrats (overlapping substantially but not entirely with the 51 antiwar Democrats) have raised concerns about funding the IMF without attaching meaningful conditions.

This unlikely coalition is poised to defeat the supplemental, unless the administration can peel off 18 of the antiwar Democrats to support the bill. The administration may need more than 18 if other Democrats vote against the bill because of the IMF money (this might include Blue Dog Democrats who object to the budgetary impact of the IMF funding and the ways in which the IMF money will aid European banks, as well as progressives).

Defeating the bill will be a meaningful statement against the wars, and against unconditional money for the IMF.

The White House and Congressional leadership are pressuring Progressive Dems to support the supplemental, warning of the cost of dealing a legislative defeat to President Obama. Whether they can stand up to the pressure — and thus the outcome of the supplemental — will depend in significant part on how much the public mobilizes to urge a vote against the wars and the IMF. You can take action through this “Citizen Whip” site maintained by firedoglake.com.

Emanuel of course wields enormous power, but his arguments are misplaced. A defeat on the supplemental will be self-inflicted, not the work of progressives unsympathetic to the president.

If the administration and House leadership are unable to garner sufficient votes to pass the supplemental, they can pull the IMF funding. Republicans will support a war-only bill. But antiwar forces will have shown their seriousness and power.

And, the administration can seek funding for the IMF later this year, hopefully moving through normal legislative procedures. That would enable a legitimate debate over the merits of IMF funding. Critics would raise concerns that the money will be used to bail out European banks that lent recklessly in Eastern Europe. Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey has highlighted this issue, and noted the incongruity of aiding the European banks while Europe refuses to employ the stimulative measures adopted by the United States and China, among others.

Critics would also focus on the contractionary policies — primarily reduced government spending and higher interest rates — that the IMF is imposing on borrowing countries hit by a global financial crisis not of their making. These policies are the opposite of the stimulative policies that the IMF recommends for rich countries, and directly contrary to the global stimulus that was the rationale for the decision of the G-20 (the world’s most economically powerful countries) to increase IMF resources by $750 billion.

On the ground in borrowing countries, these policies deepen the harmful impact of the economic crisis, and translate into serious human depredations. Less money is available for health, education and other key government programs; unemployment skyrockets; and families struggle to subsist.

The IMF’s favored contractionary policies also conflict with the economic logic of providing loans in the context of an economic crisis. “The main purpose of providing balance of payments support to a developing country in a time of recession or approaching recession is to enable the government to pursue the expansionary fiscal and monetary policies necessary to stabilize the economy,” explains the Center for Economic and Policy Research in a recent paper.

To be clear, the IMF has a response to these arguments: It says it has changed, and is much more reticent about demanding borrowing countries adopt contractionary policies than it once was. And, it says it aims to protect social spending in crisis-affected countries.

Putting it mildly, the evidence does not exactly comport with this story. But in any case, it is a claim that should be examined through a proper legislative process.

And, if the IMF takes the position that it only imposes contractionary policies when absolutely necessary, then it should be receptive to the top-line requests from IMF campaigners. These include demands that no contractionary conditions be included in IMF programs absent a quantitative showing that such conditions are necessary and cannot be delayed, and that health and education spending be exempted from IMF-mandated budget restraints.

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June 9th, 2009 at 10:03 am

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GM Nationalization: The Path Not Taken, Choices Still Ahead

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Whatever the woes of General Motors — and they are substantial — it does not follow that the government needed to drive the company into bankruptcy. With at least $50 billion in government supports undergirding the new GM, the Obama administration auto task force deciding GM’s fate could have steered the company away from bankruptcy court. If it had so chosen, it could have acquired the company outright — a much better course to advance the legitimate public interest in rescuing GM.

The purported rationale for bankruptcy was to deal with the problem of recalcitrant bondholders, owed $27 billion by GM and rejecting the GM/government offer of exchanging that debt for a 10 percent share in the New GM. It has been apparent for weeks that the bondholder problem could be addressed with some creative negotiations. By the end of last week, the government had found a way to be creative; having sweetened the pot, an accommodation with the bondholders was at hand.

But GM, under the aegis of the auto task force, filed for bankruptcy anyway, setting in motion a series of likely excessive factory shutdowns, needless dealership closings and anticipated cancellation of the rights of victims of defective GM cars.

Given the deal with the bondholders, the bankruptcy declaration was wholly discretionary and avoidable.

But the government had available a much better alternative to avoid bankruptcy than just cutting a deal with the bondholders. It could have simply taken complete control of the company.

Instead of declaring bankruptcy on Monday, the government could have announced the taking of GM through eminent domain.

The government could have paid shareholders the market price for their shares — worth less than $1 billion. It could have paid bondholders the market price for their bonds; trading at about 8 cents on the dollar, that would have totaled a little more than $2 billion. The UAW, which needs cash not equity to fund its healthcare benefit pool, could have been given preferred stock paying a substantial interest rate. (Assuming it could reach agreement on a shared vision for the restructured GM, the U.S. government could have decided to work in concert with the Canadian and Ontario governments — which will control 12 percent of the New GM.)

This would have been an aggressive approach — but less so than the administration’s maneuvers in bankruptcy.

With complete control of the company, the government could have explicitly set out to manage General Motors in the public interest. As Ralph Nader has said, this would not require micromanaging the company, but it would require managing it.

There are many different public management options. Consider the U.S. Postal Service as one example. It operates independently but under government supervision, and with some affirmative mandates and obligations. USPS is required to deliver on Saturdays, for example, even though it may be more profitable to cut Saturday service. It must deliver to the entire country, with a flat-rate first class stamp, even though it would likely make more money with limited service or differential rates.

A GM under public management would aim for a return to profitability — or at least breaking even. But it would take into account other public priorities. And it would focus on medium- and long-term objectives rather than short-term profitability.

A publicly managed GM would take pains to avoid excessive layoffs and would not needlessly close dealerships. A publicly managed GM would abandon GM management’s desire to move production for the U.S. market to low-wage countries. It would maintain decent wages, benefits and working conditions. It would not maneuver to deny victims of defective GM cars their day in court. It would prioritize safety in its new vehicle design.

Above all, a publicly owned and managed GM would invest heavily in new ecologically friendly technology. As part of a government plan to remake the nation’s transportation infrastructure, it would retool plants to meet growing demand for buses and trains.

Having decided not to pursue the full public ownership route, the Obama administration still finds itself about to own 60 percent of the New GM. This majority stake comes with some important limitations; with a significant portion of the company still trading publicly (10 percent immediately after bankruptcy, and more over time), the government will have legal duties to the minority shareholders.

Still, the government as majority shareholder will have ultimate control, and the long-term and socially appropriate investment practices can all be justified as in GM’s long-term interest.

The biggest problem is that the Obama administration explicitly disdains a desire to manage the company to advance the public interest. Even worse, the administration has stated its desire to begin selling off the government-held shares in GM in six to 18 months after the company emerges from bankruptcy; that posture puts a premium on measures to achieve short-term profitability … exactly the orientation that landed GM in its present predicament.

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June 3rd, 2009 at 10:03 am

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Bankrupt Thinking

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What in the world is the Obama administration thinking? The GM bankruptcy — entirely avoidable — seems designed to hurt every constituency it is supposed to assist.

First, as to the avoidability issue: There’s no doubt that chronic mismanagement and the deep recession have left GM in dire straits. But with the government pouring tens of billions of dollars into the company, it is clear that needed restructuring could have been done outside of bankruptcy. By last week, even the problem of bondholders who sought $27 billion from the company (the government and GM were offering a 10 percent stake in the new company) was moving to resolution. Yet the Obama administration’s auto task force has plunged GM into bankruptcy nonetheless. Why? There’s no obvious answer to that question.

Why does it matter? It matters because bankruptcy may further tarnish GM’s already very weakened brand, and make recovery for the company much more difficult. It matters because it creates some unique problems. And it matters because it forecloses — or, at least makes more difficult — other ways to reorganize the company.

The GM/auto task force plan for bankruptcy and restructuring — shaped by a secretive, unaccountable group of Wall Street expats without expertise in the industry — seems designed above all to perpetuate GM as a corporate entity. Preserving corporate GM should be not an end, but a means to protecting workers and their communities, preserving the U.S. manufacturing base, forcing the industry onto an innovative and ecologically sustainable path, and advancing consumer interests. It fails to meet any of these objectives, in entirely avoidable ways.

GM probably needs to be downsized, but there are questions about the extent to which it should be downsized and the method. There are very significant questions about decisions being made to eliminate brands, close factories and terminate dealer relationships. The auto task force may well be needlessly costing tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs at auto plants and suppliers. It has authorized the closing of many hundreds of GM and Chrysler dealerships, even though these dealerships do not impose meaningful costs on the manufacturers. Dealership closings alone will result in more than 100,000 lost jobs.

While there is probably a need to reduce GM’s capacity, there is no need to cut worker wages and benefits. Auto worker wages contribute less than 10 percent of the cost of a car, so even the most draconian cuts will do little to increase profits. Yet the Obama administration’s auto task force helped push the United Auto Workers into further acceptance of a two-tier wage structure that will make new auto jobs paid just a notch above Home Depot jobs. This will drag down pay across the auto industry, with ripple effects throughout the entire manufacturing sector. Stunningly, the Obama administration brags that “the concessions that the UAW agreed to are more aggressive than what the Bush Administration originally demanded in its loan agreement with GM.”

The ultimate evidence of the task force’s disconnect from its public mission is its approval of GM plans to increase outsourcing production of cars for sale in the United States. GM has now disclosed its intent to begin production in China for sale in the United States. What is the possible rationale of permitting a company propped up with U.S. taxpayer funds to increase production overseas for sale in the U.S. market? The point of the bailout is not to make GM profitable at any cost, but to protect the communities that rely on the automaker, as well as U.S. manufacturing capacity.

Finally, if the Chrysler bankruptcy is a harbinger, the bankruptcy is likely to wipe out the legal claims of people injured by defective and dangerous GM cars.

None of this need be so. The government could have averted bankruptcy. It could have sent its plans to Congress for more careful review. It could have demanded that worker wages and conditions be maintained or improved, rather than worsened. It could have been more surgical in the downsizing it is requiring, and more forward-looking at preserving manufacturing capacity. The government could (and still can) choose to accept sucessorship liability in the New GM for the injuries inflicted on real people by Old GM.

Some of these avoidable harms can still be averted, if the Obama administration chooses to exert the control that attaches to owning 60 percent of GM. Unfortunately, President Obama says, to the contrary, that “our goal is to get GM back on its feet, take a hands-off approach, and get out quickly.”

More on a different way to manage the GM restructuring in my next column.

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June 1st, 2009 at 10:03 am

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No Blank Check for the IMF

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This month’s G20 meeting ended with one overriding tangible agreement: A commitment by the rich countries to provide more than $1 trillion in assistance (mostly in the form of loans) to developing countries.

This money is desperately needed. Although they had nothing to do with mortgage-backed securities or credit default swaps, developing countries are getting worst hit by the global economic meltdown. The World Bank conservatively estimates that 53 million more people will be trapped in deep poverty due to the crisis.

Fleeing foreign investors, plummeting remittance earnings, falling commodity prices and shrinking export markets are devastating developing countries, leaving them in dire need of infusions of hard currency.

So, the G20 move is to be applauded … except that the entire purpose of the G20′s assistance may be thwarted by the institution through which the G20 countries chose to channel most of the money: the International Monetary Fund (IMF). (There’s also the matter that the $1 trillion figure overstates what will actually be delivered, and includes previously pledged money.)

The logic of providing assistance to developing countries is to help them adopt expansionary policies in time of economic downturn. Yet the IMF is forcing countries in financial distress to pursue contractionary policies — exactly the opposite of the stimulative policies carried out by the rich countries (and supported by the IMF, for the rich countries).

The good news is this: The U.S. Congress can fix the problem, if it imposes conditions on the IMF before it agrees to authorize the U.S. contributions to the Fund.

For three decades, the IMF has imposed “structural adjustment” on the developing world, using different names. In exchange for providing loans and, more importantly, a stamp of approval needed to access donor money, the IMF requires countries to adopt a series of market fundamentalist policies. These include deregulation (including of financial services), privatization, opening to foreign investment, orienting economies to export markets, removing protections for local producers growing food or manufacturing for the local market, removing labor rights protections, cutting government budgets, raising interest rates, and more.

Furious at being subject to IMF dictates, over the past decade almost all middle-income countries paid back their loans to the IMF and refused to have anything to do with the institution. Only African and other poor countries remained under IMF control.

The financial crisis has breathed new life into the IMF. Now headed by a new Managing Director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Fund proclaims that it has changed. The days of harsh conditionality are over, it says.

That’s a pronouncement to be applauded … except that the evidence of actual change in IMF policy is disturbingly hard to find.

The Fund’s loans since September 2008 to countries rocked by the financial crisis almost uniformly require budget cuts, wage freezes, and interest rates hikes. These are exactly the opposite of the policies that make sense in recessionary conditions. They are exactly the opposite of the huge stimulus measures taken in the United States and other rich countries. They are the opposite of the interest rate reductions in the United States (now effectively at zero) and other rich countries.

In Ukraine, Georgia, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Pakistan, Serbia, Belarus and El Salvador, the IMF has told countries to cut government spending, an analysis by the Third World Network shows. This means less money for health, education and other vital priorities. Earlier this month, the IMF told Latvia — where the economy is expected to contract 12 percent this year — that its loans would be suspended until it further cuts spending.

The IMF has also instructed almost all of these countries to raise interest rates, the Third World Network analysis shows.

The IMF has ballyhooed a new, low-conditionality lending program, known as the Flexible Credit Line. But that is available only to “good performing” countries — which will be the countries least in need of loans.

In some countries, there may be a modest loosening of Fund conditions. But the basic framework remains in place.

Putting on its best face at a meeting it convened in Tanzania on the impact of the financial crisis on Africa, the Fund said in a policy paper that a few poor countries might have some capacity to undertake small stimulative programs. “A few countries may have scope for discretionary fiscal easing to sustain aggregate demand depending on the availability of domestic and external financing.” But even then: “All this must be done carefully so as not to crowd out the private sector through excessive domestic borrowing in the often thin financial markets.”

But for countries in weak positions — the vast majority — “the scope for countercyclical fiscal policies is limited.”

And, the Fund continues to counsel against capital controls, which could limit the ability of foreign funds to enter and flee a country easily. This is of central importance, because it is concern about a currency attack that is the rationale for why poor countries cannot undertake stimulative measures. Capital controls would be the obvious remedy. But since the Fund rules them out a priori, countries are helpless, and denied the right to use the same Keynesian tools available to the rich countries.

The opportunity to win real change at the IMF is this: The new money for the Fund’s coffers has not yet arrived. The United States has pledged $100 billion of the $500 billion in new money that G20 countries said they would provide for the Fund (they also announced plans for an additional $250 billion through issuance of Special Drawing Rights, a kind of IMF currency).

Congress must approve the U.S. contribution. Congress can very reasonably attach conditions to any money for the IMF, so that IMF policies do not undermine the very purposes of providing money in the first place. The Congress can say, before the money goes to the IMF, the IMF must agree not to impose contractionary policies during times of recession, or at least provide a reasoned, quantitative justification for any such policies. The Congress can say, before the money goes to the IMF, that the IMF must exempt health and education spending from any government budget caps. The Congress can say, before the money goes to the IMF, that parliaments must be given the authority to approve any deals negotiated between the IMF and finance ministries.

People are growing a little tired of seeing hundreds of billions of dollars allocated without conditions and accountability. Congress must not sign a blank check for the IMF.

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April 13th, 2009 at 10:03 am

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What if the Obama Administration Treated Detroit like Wall Street?

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What if the Obama administration treated the auto industry like Wall Street?

There’d be no talk of potential bankruptcy, no firing of executives, no demands to shed failing subsidiaries, no demands for honest accounting, no insistence that creditors share some of the companies’ pain. And we certainly wouldn’t hear about re-writing contracts, heretofore described as sacrosanct.

Instead, we’d be hearing about a scheme to get private sector players “now sitting on the sidelines” to invest in absorbing the auto industry’s excess capacity.

We’d see the Treasury Department announcing a Public-Private Investment Plan to tap hedge funds’ pools of capital and expertise to create demand for autos that GM and Chrysler could manufacture but are presently unable to sell at a satisfactory price. These excess cars would be called “legacy assets” (the euphemism for failing mortgage-related securities, more widely called “toxic”).

If the plan really paralleled Treasury Secretary’s Timothy Geithner’s proposal for dealing with Wall Street’s toxic assets, it would “incentivize” the hedge funds to buy up hundreds of thousands or millions of cars, and hold them for later sale, when the overall economy improves. The idea would be that the private investors may be willing to pay a price below the list price, but above the price at which GM and Chrysler could actually sell their excess cars right now — a price high enough to help GM and Chrysler.

What would be the incentive for the private investors to take this gamble? The government would offer to contribute $13 for every dollar contributed by the hedge funds. Thus, an investor could spend $1 billion to buy cars — bought well below sticker price — while paying only $71 million out of pocket.

With that kind of deal, it’s possible the private investors would pay enough to help GM and Chrysler. In doing so, they would be taking on enormous risk — they would be betting that they someday could sell the cars for more than $1 billion — but if they couldn’t … well, taxpayers would bear all of the losses except for the $71 million.

Does this sound crazy?

It is.

The Treasury plan for the banks’ toxic assets is impossibly complex, but its core feature is a massive, disguised taxpayer subsidy to Wall Street (Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University roughly estimates the giveaway component as $276 billion, based on realistic assumptions about the risks embedded in buying the assets).

The Geithner plan for the banks contrasts starkly with the very tough and hard-headed approach taken by the Obama administration to the automakers.

The administration’s response to the automakers is deeply flawed. It should be faulted for continuing to demand still-more givebacks from unionized workers; for focusing too much on short-to-medium term results and not enough on investments in fuel efficiency and transformative technologies; and for threatening the use of bankruptcy, a move which would undermine efforts to direct the companies to major investments in R&D and sustainable technologies. These are very major problems.

But the overall approach is right in asserting: If the taxpayers are going to provide tens of billions in supports, then they have the right to make demands on the beneficiaries. They should demand the firing of CEOs who drove firms into insolvency. They should demand specific plans for transformation. They should demand creditors accept some of the cost of insolvency.

Why the tough love for Detroit and kid gloves for Wall Street? You can make up whatever story you like about the systemic importance of the financial sector as compared to auto manufacturing, but it is utterly uncompelling — especially as we move out of the phase of acute crisis and into chronic economic downturn.

There’s just no escaping that Wall Street has bought its gentle treatment through a long-term investment in Washington, the effect of which goes far beyond any specific policy. At the Treasury Department, they understand the point of view of Wall Street — there is a unity of culture between top officials at Treasury and Wall Street, not least because the decision makers at Treasury so often come from Wall Street. Treasury Department officials can’t imagine themselves in the shoes of auto executives, let alone auto workers.

The administration’s plan for the auto industry is deeply flawed, but at least it has the right attitude. Quick consideration of what it would like if the government treated Detroit like Wall Street shows how ridiculous the idea is.

What everyone should be asking is, What would it look like if the government treated Wall Street like Detroit? And, why isn’t that happening?

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April 1st, 2009 at 10:03 am

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