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How globalization changes capitalism, the economy and politics

Posts Tagged ‘Wall Street

Another stab at Goldman’s earnings

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2Q0910-Q-GS-cashflow

Accounting statements in accordance with the actual business are more and more becoming complex and bloated fixtures of financial institutions. At the end of third quarter 2008 Goldman Sachs listed six recent accounting developments on its consolidated financial statement 10-Q.

This changed dramatically for the most recent quarter and Goldman’s 17 accounting changes opened a new frontier for wild west style accounting. Though these days reading a financial statement and understanding it is almost impossible, tenacity can pay off and hopefully reveal some insight into the health of Wall Street’s former behemoths.

Under cash flow from operating activities there is a fixture called trading assets at fair value. There is nothing peculiar about this other than the fact that its value jumped beginning with the fourth quarter of 2008. Inquisitive minds might remember that a significant accounting change took place during this quarter.

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) introduced FAS 157-3 in October 2008. Staff Position 157-3 acknowledged the use of management estimates or assumptions in “Determining the Fair Value of a Financial Asset When the Market for That Asset Is Not Active”. In April 2009 this accounting rule was amended to FAS 157-4 to accept this kind of fair value estimates also to not orderly transactions with significantly decreased trading activity.

Goldman’s worst quarter ever was the third quarter ending August 29, 2008. This was the quarter before the accounting changes were implemented. During nine months ending August 2008 (GS fiscal year used to start in December before the firm changed its status to a bank holding company), cash flow item trading assets at fair value registered a meager inflow of $37.9 billion. A year earlier the company had even outflows of $92.7 billion on the same position.

From January to June 2009, in the first two quarters of the new bank holding company, inflows into this category of cash flow from operating activities had already taken off at $172.39 billion. A year earlier in the six months to May 2008 inflows came in at only $28.8 billion. The firm of course does not further specify trading assets at fair value and which assets create its cash flow. 

Since assets are designated fair value therefore not easily convertible to cash it is reasonable to assume that cash flow generated is associated with non-current assets. Associated cash flows are added back or subtracted from the income statement depending on inflows or outflows respectively. In that sense $172.39 billion of fair value inflows might have substantially contributed to positive earnings during the first two quarters of 2009.

I think is is fair to say that accounting change FAS 157-3 threw a lifeline to even our most venerable institutions on Wall Street. In the Huffington Post Nathan Lewis asked the question: Do We Need Goldman Sachs? Without FAS 157-3 this question would be redundant. Most likely GS would have already drowned in the stormy sea of mortgage backed securities and credit derivatives.

Could it be that recent celebrations on Wall Street are nothing but a smoke screen blowing hot air into the face of investors? In its August monthly report a congressional oversight panel (COP) evaluating troubled assets on the books of large and smaller BHCs came to the conclusion that a substantial portion of toxic assets from mortgage backed securities and real estate whole loans still remains on bank balance sheets.

Goldman Sachs and Bank of America are two examples of masterful deceit sanctioned by the appropriate agencies. I am beginning to think that former New York AG Spitzer is right and democratization of capital markets is no more.

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Written by Alfred

12. August 2009 at 4:53 pm

Bernanke in a town-hall meeting, shopping for popularity

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bernankeintownhallmeeting

Last Sunday Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve responded to questions from the public in a town-hall style meeting. For the first time in history an acting Federal Reserve chair stepped into the arena that is usually the prerogative of obligations among elected officials. We truly live in interesting times.

What could have provoked this extraordinary move by the chairman given the daunting unpopularity of cumulative actions taken by the Fed in the last twenty four months? The answer is already given in the question. Ben Bernanke is shopping for popularity in order to better his approval ratings. His term as chairman ends in January 31, 2010, when he is up for reappointment by president Obama.

I can only imagine it must have been scary and embarrassing for the chief to step in front of the very same audience he led down over the course of the last ten years. He certainly did not mean to inflict any harm upon his fellow countrymen, but together with his predecessor Greenspan he helped lay the foundations of a shaky economy based on bubble economics.

Sure he gave birth to many millionaires and even some billionaires, but for most people Greenspan’s and Bernanke’s policies were rather harmful. Certainly one cannot expect any sensational outcome of such meetings with both a preselected audience and preselected questions. Organizers won’t let that happen though the chairman won’t suffer any lasting damages. It would have been nice though to read Bernanke’s mind.

To his defense the chairman admitted that he was disgusted from bailing out giant Wall Street firms like AIG, Bear Stearns or Merrill Lynch and rescuing them from going bankrupt. Though we certainly respect his wish not to reside over a second Great Depression, of course we have to believe him that there were no other options at the time. I might also add we are not yet with absolute certainty out of the woods with regard to another Great one.

Asked about his too-big-to-fail policy he seemed to indicate sympathy for the public’s frustration and promised to make it better in the future. Though his credibility was called into question by reiterating his opposition to an independent outside audit of the Fed. Why no audit if he has nothing to hide? Yes there is the issue of independence of the Fed, but just how much independence was there say in the last ten years?!

The Federal bank closest to Wall Street, and therefore in a special position with regard to the nation’s largest financial institutions, is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. During the financial crisis Federal Reserve and Treasury Department officials made all major decisions, but the New York Fed executed them.

In the meantime the New York Fed has been criticized as too close to Wall Street. William Poole, a former Fed president, missed a longer-run perspective among the Fed’s staff. They adopted a trader mentality instead and did not pay enough attention to a system skewed towards too much risk taking by numerous bailouts of large Wall Street firms.

The Fed’s board of directors is composed of powerful bankers and corporate titans like Jamie Dimon, the head of JPMorgan Chase, and Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric’s chief. Richard Fuld had to resign after Lehman’s bankruptcy and Stephen Friedman called it quits over a conflict of interest with the other board he served, of investment power house Goldman Sachs. The corporate-federal officials network seems too tight to ever disintegrate.

It is not only the Federal Reserve that has to fear for its independence. The lobbying departments of large financial institutions have expelled their tentacles even into the Financial accounting Standards Board (FASB) of the United States and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) of Europe.

According to a recent report by an international team of former regulators and corporate officials, the Financial crisis Advisory Group deplored efforts by politicians to prescribe changes on accounting standards. The integrity of valued assets on the books of financial institutions should not be called into question in an effort to save those institutions from potentially harmful bets gone awry. In April, 2009, FASB already caved in to heavy financial lobbying and paused fair-value accounting rules for illiquid assets.

Beside all the regulatory and statutory powers bestowed on elected or appointed officials their most potent tool still remains the integrity of the person and organization in question. It is by no means sufficient for Fed chair Bernanke to communicate his objection to the bailouts on Wall Street even if it is within such an elaborate setting of a town-hall meeting. There is not enough meet on the bone to undo what has already happened.

A Gallop poll, conducted in mid-July, found that only 30% rated the Fed as doing an excellent/good job. The bank had the lowest score out of nine government agencies and it was down sharply from the 53% who still approved of the Fed’s job in 2003. This time even the CIA and the Internal Revenue Service scored better than the Fed. Bernanke will have to do better. It will most certainly be like walking a tightrope.

Wall Street – Washington Connection, Part I

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DimonandBlankfeininWashington

When we think about the financial crisis on Wall Street and in the economy we try to figure out why it happened, who was responsible and how can we prevent it from happening again in the future. Today we still have a lot more questions than we have answers, but the sun is beginning to shine, and one issue is starting to emerge which probably for years and years has been tucked away from the public’s view.

This crisis is pulling the blanket of secrecy from a bunch of Wall Street bankers smooching and spooning undercover with Washington’s big guys for the last several decades. Of course we would expect them to be somewhat embarrassed about busting their secret arrangements, maybe even flee the scene to break up their unholy unity for good. Much to our surprise none of this is actually happening.

Mr. Dimon, chairman and head of JPMorgan Chase, has sought to ratchet up his business of influencing Washington in late 2007, when the financial crisis hit and the democrats together with the Obama administration were beginning to settle in. Jamie Dimon together with Goldman’s Loyed Blankfein are among a rare breed of executives who have not jeopardized their companies by taking unwise decisions. Both CEOs in the meantime have returned all funds received from Treasury’s capital assistance programs (CAP).

These days JPMorgan’s chairman comes to town about twice a month and not twice a year as he used to. He met with Treasury secretary Geithner, White House economic advisor Lawrence Summers, and several lawmakers in recent months and gets a list from his staff to call a half-dozen public officials each week. He has made it a regular thing to nurse his precious Washington relations to make sure he is not kept out of the loop.

When JPMorgan wanted to return its TARP funds his influential connections helped him to ease the terms for banks allowing them to repay the money. In the end Washington caved in to Dimon’s complaints about limitations for hiring skilled foreigners and on executive pay. He also helped thwart attempts to lower the principal on mortgage payments which would have benefited homeowners.

Another contentious issue is Mr. Dimon’s objection to regulate the market for credit derivatives by keeping part of it independent from regulated clearing operations. Fees from underwriting over-the-counter credit derivatives are a major source of income for JPMorgan Chase.

Mr. Dimon’s connections to Washington date back to his day at Citigroup when he offered Mr. Rahm Emanuel, then senior advisor to president Bill Clinton, a job at the firm. Today Mr. Emanuel serves in the Obama administration as White House Chief of Staff. William Daley, former commerce secretary and influential Chicago lobbyist, is also currently on JPMorgan’s payroll. Mr. Dimon mindfully replaced some of his staff with wired democrats to better serve his Washington agenda. 

Most surprising is his connection to Treasury secretary Geithner. Mr. Dimon holds a seat on the board of the New York Federal Reserve. Mr. Geithner served as president of the NY Fed till he joined the Obama administration in January of this year. How can a CEO of a public company sit on the board of a federal regulator? That’s like John Gotti being a member of the U.S. Department of Justice.

For the first time this Monday JPMorgan Chase held a meeting of the firm’s board in the nation’s capital. Messrs. Geithner and Emanuel were both invited, but only the chief of staff first agreed to later withdraw not to appear too cozy with Wall Street bankers. This invitation is nonetheless testament to the arrogance of invincibility that has shrouded executives of our most powerful corporations.

In Washington nothing gets done without support from Wall Street and Wall Street knows it. Wallshington is more important and influential than the oil industry, the industrial complex or even the powerful military. This has never been so true like it is today with a handful of firms left unfettered from the crisis and government’s control. Their power is more concentrated in the hands of a few and therefore even more difficult to control.

Executives on Wall Street get whatever they wish from every administration or congress there is. This too big to fail monster is sucking the lifeblood of morality, decency and sustainability out of a societal fabric that once was the envy of the rest of the world.

In the latest report for the period ending July 17, 2009, the Treasury department listed employed funds under the Troubled Asset Relieve Program (TARP). The financial industry received $204.2 billion, $70.2 billion have been returned, leaving the industry with a total of $134 billion outstanding. In the automotive industry $77.8 billion from 79.9 are still owed to the taxpayer. Automotive suppliers received a more humble $3.5 billion. Targeted investments in Citygroup and Bank of America totaled $40 billion and asset guarantee programs for Citigroup another $5 billion. The Troubled Asset Loan facility (TALF) committed $20 billion. Rescuing troubled insurer AIG required another $69.8 billion.

To this day the financial and the automotive industry owe the taxpayer $350 billion, yet government has devoted only $18.7 billion in home affordable modification programs to avoid foreclosures. While taxpayers were required to fund the bailout of Wall Street with 350 billion dollars the financial industry is reluctant to modify loans and scores of families are still forced out of their homes.

This current administration with the most eloquent president since years will have a hard time to sell this to the general public. Wall Street firms reverting to old habits by once again doling out mega bonuses to their club members will not make it any easer.

Regulating Wall Street – just how much change can we expect?

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Obama-Blankfein

On the eve of the G-8/G-20 summit in L’Aquila the presidents of France and Brazil jointly published an article in The Huffington Post, the world’s first and famous internet newspaper, titled ‘Alliance for Change’. Their choice of this outlet speaks volume, men of such caliber never do anything without careful consideration.

The first thing comes to mind is a desire to reach a vast international audience more inclined to follow their vision of a new system of world governance. We can therefore assume that whatever it is they are suggesting is revolutionary enough to stir up some controversy and at least for now made them stay away from more traditional news channels.

What Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. daSilva are jointly suggesting is no less than a redundancy of the Group of 8 (G-8) in favor of a much wider allegiance of nations with respect to issues concerning global governance. A multilateral system that was conspicuously unrepresentative and lacking in coherence must be reformed to build a more just, developed and sustainable world.

The G-20 or similar to L’Aquila the G-8 together with the G-5/G-6 are both multilateral platforms on which to discuss various global issues in an interconnected framework. Those issues are indeed monumental and both presidents acknowledged the urgency of a multilateral system by highlighting most of the challenges that face the global community in the 21st century.

Peace and collective security require a wide-ranging reform of the U.N. Security Council. The voice of workers must be heard and their desire for more social justice and greater security met by strengthening the role and influence of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in global economic governance. Last but not least on the agenda of such an international framework is the enormously challenging task of regulation of international finance.

From Huff Post,  both presidents: The decisions taken by the G-20 to improve the regulation and oversight of international finance, to curb speculation, to crack down on tax havens and money laundering centers, and to foster growth must be implemented.

Politicians are very often a bunch of stoic bureaucrats, but no not this time. Sarkozy, daSilva and hopefully others at the recent summit are ready to see eye to eye maybe for the first time with their constituency and clearly acknowledge the vacuum of social justice pervading all layers of society in the 21st century.

This reinvigoration of literally common sense results on the one hand from the advent of Barak Obama and his new leadership in the U.S. and on the other hand from a massive global financial and economic crisis that threatens the very foundations of global world order.

The president of the U.S. has demonstrated his desire for change in many ways but has he been effective and is change indeed coming to Washington, as he has promised many times? The global economic crisis has made regulation of financial markets and the financial industry as a whole a top priority. 

Today Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, UBS and others are equipped with an almost unmitigated license to gamble and at the same time fall into the category of too big to fail. This is not sustainable and even the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) is now openly debating a breakup of these giant cathedrals of capitalism.

The Financial Stability Forum and its successor the Financial Stability Board (FSB) in Basel is working on new rules to give regulators more oversight in establishing important issues such as excessive leverage and forcing banks to provide for anti-cyclical periods with putting more money aside during boom times.

They are asking for an awful lot given the most recent history of the industry but nobody disagrees bold action is necessary because of the magnitude of the current crisis. At the eve of the London summit Nikolas Sarkozy threatened world leaders to quit the talks if president Obama and chancellor Gordon Brown would resist tough regulation.

They did not and so in the end it provoked Mr. Sarkozy to say that the page of the Anglo-Saxon model of free markets had been turned. German chancellor Angela Merkel called it a victory for common sense and Nobel Laureate and economist Stiglitz hailed it a historic moment for the world to admit the push for deregulation was wrong.

The joint communiqué of the London summit included a statement acknowledging major failures in regulation being the cause of the market turmoil. To avoid another crisis hedge funds, credit rating agencies, risk taking and executive pay are subject to stricter regulation in the future.

Just how much more regulation and who those regulators will be nobody knows at this point. It is hard to fathom that a bunch of bureaucrats will be able to reign in Wall Street executives and their armada of lobbyists swarming the hallways of congress. For regulators to push the breaks when everybody else wants to accelerate seems too much to ask, in particular given the history of failed regulations in the past.

A contentious issue in this whole regulation debate is the use of credit derivatives and their contribution to the current crisis. At a recent congressional hearing on a proposal to regulate over-the-counter derivatives congressman Sherman asked Treasury secretary Geithner: “Can you correct that misconception and make a clear statement now that derivatives that are sold today are not going to be the subject of bailouts for either the issuer or the purchaser?”

The secretary even after being asked several times refused to give an answer (the full transcript of the conversation can be seen here, video in video-center). Mr. Geithner’s refusal to cooperate highlights the difficulty of the enormous task that lies ahead.

On the one hand is the commitment to put on the breaks with tougher regulations for the sake of the sustainability of the system. On the other hand are all the safeguards put into place to make sure that this ambitious goal will not kill the golden goose. It is therefore no surprise that credit derivatives experience sort of a revival in the midst of a still slumping economy, mass layoffs and record taxpayer funded economic stimulus programs.

The president of France, Brazil and other nations are talking tough on regulation but in the meantime BAB is back on Wall Street. Today Goldman Sachs released the results for second quarter earnings and revealed that bonuses are indeed back. Goldman compensation may very well reach a record $1 million per employee this year.

For the second quarter the bank set aside a staggering $226,156 for every employee working for the firm. A couple of months ago with Wall Street and the World at the precipice of catastrophe, Goldman received a $10 billion bailout in taxpayer money.

It is no surprise Wall Street has a very short memory but this development gives me indeed little hope that regulation is being seriously considered in the hallways of power on Wall Street and in Washington. Just how much change will we get in the end? Probably not enough!

Criticizing Goldman Sachs – better late than never!

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During the last several decades Wall Street has become the great American money machine only to fall into disgrace during the current financial crisis. Many blame a proverbial greed that took hold during the great boom for the current financial and economic malaise. Today none of the highly regarded firms that once ruled the street still exist. Some have gone under, taken over by their bigger rivals, and even those that survived changed their status from investment firm into a more humble bank holding company.

One of those firms still around is Goldman Sachs. The firm founded in 1869 by a German Jewish immigrant, Marcus Goldman, has become the leader of the pack among Wall Street investment banks. In 1999 the firm went public and hence started their myth of infallibility and unlimited prosperity that surrounds Goldman up to this day.

The financial crisis on Wall Street reached even into the halls of Goldman’s upper echelons. As part of the Federal Reserve’s effort to save the financial industry from collapsing GS received billions of dollars of taxpayer monies in the from of TARP funds. In June 2009 GS was among 10 firms able to pay back all the money they received from the government. Sure enough some weeks later GS announced that it soon will be in a position to grant the highest compensation package ever to its employees. (see also: CEO needed for some – historic bonuses for others)

No talk about the new modesty on Wall Street now that GS is free from government influence, but the rest of us is still marred by economic contraction and financial hardship the likes of it we have not seen since the Great Depression. So how come that Goldman seems to be invulnerable and does not feel the pain?

Matt Taibbi, writer for the Rolling Stone, a magazine also known for its often enigmatic and controversial political coverage, lashes out at Goldman: The Great American Bubble Machine. He follows through by trying to explain how Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression.

from Matt Taibbi’s blog: If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain, an extremely unfortunate loophole in the system of Western democratic capitalism, which never foresaw that in a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.

The drain that has the capacity to defeat democracy is according to Taibbi relative simple: Goldman positions itself in the middle of a speculative bubble, selling investments they know are crap. Then they hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage. Finally, when it all goes bust, leaving millions of ordinary citizens broke and starving, they begin the entire process over again, riding in to rescue us all by lending us back our own money at interest, selling themselves as men above greed, just a bunch of really smart guys keeping the wheels greased.

Matt sees the same pattern of a basic scam going as far back as the Great Depression, and most recently identifying Goldman’s role during the internet bubble, the housing bust and even the huge spike in oil prices.

from Matt Taibbi’s blog: Goldman did it by persuading pension funds and other large institutional investors to invest in oil futures agreeing to buy oil at a certain price on a fixed date. ….. Between 2003 and 2008, the amount of speculative money in commodities grew from $13 billion to $317 billion, an increase of 2,300 percent. By 2008, a barrel of oil was traded 27 times, on average, before it was actually delivered and consumed.

The nice thing about Taibbi is that he also does not refrain from name-calling, namely those who graduated from GS only to end up later in some important government position. Former GS CEO Henry Paulson and Bush’s secretary of Treasury, the architect of Wall street’s bailout funneled trillions of dollars to his friends in the industry. Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, joined GS in 1966 where he stayed as Co-Chairman till 1992 only to end up later as chairman of Citigroup. John Thain, Robert Steel, Joshua Bolton, Mark Patterson, Ed Liddy, the head of the World Bank, the head of the New York Stock Exchange and two heads of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York were all on Goldman’s pay list at some point or another.

Not surprisingly Taibbi focuses on Robert Rubin, the former Goldman banker turn Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, whose persona was hyped as the smartest person ever to walk the face of the Earth. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which allowed investment banks, commercial banks and insurance companies to engage in merger, was one of the political hall marks achieved by Clinton’s then Treasury secretary Rubin.

In 1998 Travelers Insurance group, the owner of brokerage firm Smith Barney, announced a $76 billion merger with US bank Citigroup. The deal closed after the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in November 1999. A few months later after Clinton’s term in the White House had expired, Jeff Rubin became chairman of Citycorp, which after the merger with Salomom Smith Barney created the largest financial services company in the World. During his tenure at Citicorp Rubin earned several hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation. Today Citicorp is at the center of the storm on Wall Street and subsequently the global economy.

Taibbi modifies a misconception of mostly blaming Republicans for Wall street’s deregulation. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall-Act which is according to many at the core of the current financial crisis, is clearly the result of politics made by Democrats. In fact Goldman has very long standing and deep ties with the Democratic party. GS was the number one campaign tributer to president Obama. 

Regardless of which political party is to blame most, it seems obvious that Goldman graduates by occupying important government positions could deliver to their parent firm whatever they wanted and needed. Paulson’s bailout of insurance giant AIG serves as good example. Thanks to the bailout GS got paid in full for their bad bets. Homeowners or retirees who lost their live savings in the current crash are not that lucky. Taibbi concludes: The collective message of all of this – the AIG bailout, the swift approval for its bank-holding conversion, the TARP funds – is that when it comes to Goldman Sachs, there isn’t a free market at all. 

Nobel laureate Stieglitz calls Goldman the great American revolving door, through which the firm’s executives first leave only to end up in some high level government position. Once this has expired they enter the firm again through its revolving door and continue their ill gotten endeavors. In doing so they effectively block much needed financial reform of the financial services industry.

read also: Goldman Sachs – Weltmacht mit Drehtür, DIE ZEIT, 02.07.2009 Nr. 28

from Wikipedia this list of former GS alumni certainly reads like a who-is-who among American power brokers:

GSalumni