As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Brooksley Born And The Financial-Political Complex

I almost missed this one yesterday, but the WaPo had a profile of Brooksley Born, the lawyer who, while the Clinton Administration's Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, foresaw the coming crisis in unregulated derivatives, including credit default swaps, and staged an ultimately futile campaign to rein them in. Within this article are some of the most fascinating and unbelievable quotes from the men who led our financial efforts then - and some who continue to do so now.

You expect a house organ like the Wall Street Journal to respond to Born's concern over derivatives by saying, "the nation's top financial regulators wish Brooksley Born would just shut up." But this line just absolutely floored me:

Born's baptism as a new agency head in 1996 came in the form of an invitation. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan -- routinely hailed as a "genius," the "maestro," the "Oracle" -- wanted her to come over for lunch.

Greenspan had an unusual take on market fraud, Born recounted: "He explained there wasn't a need for a law against fraud because if a floor broker was committing fraud, the customer would figure it out and stop doing business with him."

This is the Randian mindset of the perfection of the market that has caused so much pain for so many millions of people. Greenspan either was literally so in thrall to the Masters of the Universe and his perfect little system that he found greed written out of the program, or so clever that he used transparently idiotic theories to simply allow legalized theft. Either way, everyone should know that this is the philosophy under which the United States, and really the world, financial system operated for three decades, directly from the mouth of its most powerful practitioner. Andrea Mitchell should resign in shame.

Sadly, however, it doesn't stop there.

That was just the beginning. By early 1998, Born had also tangled with Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, his deputy, Summers, and Securities and Exchange Commission head Arthur Levitt, not to mention members of Congress, financial industry heavyweights and business columnists. She wanted to release a "concept paper" -- essentially a set of questions -- that explored whether there should be regulation of over-the-counter derivatives. (Derivatives are so-named because they derive their value from something else, such as currency or bond rates.)

They warned that if she did so, the market would implode and predicted tidal waves of lawsuits. On top of that, Rubin told her, she didn't have legal authority to regulate the derivatives anyway [...]

In early 1998, Born's plan to release her concept paper was turning into a showdown. Financial industry executives howled, streaming into her office to try to talk her out of it. Summers, then the deputy Treasury secretary, mounted a campaign against it, CFTC officials recalled.

"Larry Summers expressed himself several times, very strongly, that this was something we should back down from," Waldman recalled.

In one call, Summers said, "I have 13 bankers in my office and they say if you go forward with this you will cause the worst financial crisis since World War II," recounted Greenberger, a University of Maryland law school professor who was Born's director of the Division of Trading and Markets. Summers declined to comment for this article.

The discordant notes crescendoed in April 1998 during a tension-filled meeting of the President's Working Group, a gathering of top financial regulators that periodically met behind closed doors at the Treasury Department. At that meeting, Greenspan and Rubin forcefully opposed Born's plans, Waldman said.

"Greenspan was saying we shouldn't do it," Waldman recalled. "Rubin was saying we couldn't do it."

The rest of it reads like a Hollywood potboiler, with Born trying to outmaneuver her more powerful counterparts, ultimately falling short even after being partially vindicated by the failure of Long Term Capital Management, and finally resigning. We're living with the consequences.

But surely you recognize some of the Democratic named involved in shutting Born down. Now let that color your impressions of this report (subs. req.):

Some banks are prodding the government to let them use public money to help buy troubled assets from the banks themselves.

Banking trade groups are lobbying the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for permission to bid on the same assets that the banks would put up for sale as part of the government's Public Private Investment Program.

The lobbying push is aimed at the Legacy Loans Program, which will use about half of the government's overall PPIP infusion to facilitate the sale of whole loans such as residential and commercial mortgages [...]

Some critics see the proposal as an example of banks trying to profit through financial engineering at taxpayer expense, because the government would subsidize the asset purchases.

Surely, Larry Summers would follow the refrain of the Maestro, that there couldn't possibly be any fraud because the customer would figure it out and stop doing the business. Of course, in this case, the "customer" and the vendor are... the same people.

James Kwak has more on this plan, which I pretty much expected (what's to stop the banks from using shell companies to buy up their own assets at the right price, with government guarantees, even if the Feds break precedent and reject this?). Kwak has a good short version of this: "It allows a bank to sell half of its toxic loans to Treasury – at a price set by the bank."

And he wants Tim Geithner and Sheila Bair to reject this. But the experience of Brooksley Born suggests that the problem with the incestuous political-financial complex is one of mindset. They view the goals of the banksters as superior to the goals of the country, or at best relatively aligned. And thus, regulating those complex financial instruments, or blocking clear giveaways of public money, somehow equals hurting the greater economy. Whether through dime-store philosophy or simply looking out for the interests of the wealthy - and themselves - we've become completely subservient to oligarchs who clearly value their success over that of the country. Which is fine for them - but there's nobody advocating for the greater public, warning of the dangers of runaway capitalism, arguing for a return to the core mission of finance, to smoothly flow capital to those who need it, rather than the Wild West show we still see today. In other words, there are no more Brooksley Borns. And even if there were, the system is so rotted that not even someone of her talent and determination can get the message through. Despite the worst financial crisis since the Depression.

But never mind, because we have "green shoots."

Here's the coda to the Born article, by the way:

Born keeps informed, but she has other concerns, bird-watching jaunts and trips to Antarctica to plan, mystery novels to read, four grandchildren to dote on. "I'm very happily retired," she says. "I've really enjoyed getting older. You don't have ambition. You know who you are."

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