Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, October 21, 2009 10:46 pm

More odds and ends

  • The Galleon insider-trading case, in which billionaire Raj Rajaratnam was charged and the securities-rating firm Moody’s was implicated? Has been assigned to Judge Jed Rakoff. Yeah, this Jed Rakoff. (I hope the judge is taking extremely good care of his health, if you know what I mean, because he is making life intolerable for some very, very wealthy and powerful people.)
  • Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, who got us both into and out of the ’81-’82 recession, thinks we need to kind of restore the Glass-Steagall Act, which kept commercial banks from doing investments (and being dragged under when those investments went south) before its 1999 repeal. But he’s having trouble selling that idea to all the Goldman Sachs alumni on Team Obama.
  • If this hearing in fact happens tomorrow — I read or heard somewhere it could get delayed — it could get real ugly real fast for Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. Hell, it might even get ugly for current Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. I’d be OK with any and/or all suffering some consequences, because you don’t have to be a Harvard MBA to know Bank of America shareholders got screwed.
  • Speaking of Hank Paulson, turns out that while he was still secretary, he met in Moscow with the board of Goldman Sachs. But nothing improper happened. Really. Move along; nothing to see here. These are not the droids banksters you’re looking for.
  • Dana Perino, concern troll. Memo: advice on how to conduct yourself from a PR standpoint from someone who used to take money to call people traitors and supporters of terrorists is probably not worth what you’re paying for it.
  • Shorter Congressman Jeb Hanserling (R-Texas): I’m here to protect banks; screw the consumers.
  • Another Republican, this time John McCain, thinks another earmark, this one $325,000 for earthquake study in Memphis, is a waste of money, and once again is wrong. Three words: New Madrid Fault.
  • Shorter Timothy Noah: Whatever happened to, you know, reporting?; or, The public option was always popular, you morons — you just pretended otherwise or weren’t paying attention.
  • More Noah, because this is just so good and so true: “Political reporters are momentum junkies, forever plotting out momentary trends to infinity. If they were meteorologists, they’d interpret 90-degree temperatures in July to predict 160-degree temperatures in December.”
  • John Cole righteously dopeslaps neocon pinhead Pete Wehner.
  • Sure, Sarah Palin’s $29 book can become a bestseller — when you sell it for $9 or give it away with a magazine subscription.
  • The Bush and Obama administrations actually threatened not to share intelligence with the U.K. if it released evidence of our torture of a guy named Binyam Mohammed. (Yeah, let’s stop sharing info with our oldest and most trusted ally. Genius.) Fortunately, Britain’s highest court is calling their bluff.
  • The maker of Tasers, which has long claimed that Tasers aren’t lethal, now concedes that they might be, potentially, well, a little bit, um, lethal. I’m guessing someone finally talked to their lawyer and figured that just maybe they might want to do a little butt-covering.
  • Socialism … and its potential benefits.
  • OTOH, let’s foster competition and innovation, not hinder it.

Finally, a bit of a health-care roundup:

  • The House Judiciary Committee voted 20-9 today to strip the health-insurance industry of its federal antitrust exemption. This is such a good idea that three Republicans even went along with it. I dearly hope my own representative, Howard Coble, was one of them. (thomas.loc.gov hasn’t been updated yet so I don’t know.)
  • You can too get a hip replacement under the Canadian health-care system even if you’re of retirement age. Ignore the urban legends/propaganda.
  • Sen. Richard Burr’s health-care reform plan: fail. Not epic fail, not actual sabotage of what the bill purports to support, but also not enough recognition of certain economic and financial realities.
  • Expand Medicare to include — well, anyone who wants in? That’s a public option even some Blue Dogs can believe in.
  • And even if we choose a real public option, the Congressional Budget Office says it won’t cost as much as opponents have been claiming.
  • Apparently, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter had no idea that some people were unable to start their own businesses, or stuck in jobs they hate or aren’t suited for, because they can’t afford the health insurance costs they’d have to pay if they made those moves. I mean, c’mon, how imaginative do you have to be before that possibility occurs to you?
  • Last but not least, Al Franken humbles a Hudson Institute hack on health-care finance:


Senator Al Franken: I think we disagree on whether or not the healthcare reform we’re talking about now in Congress should pass. And you said that, kind of the way we’re going will increase bankruptcies. I want to ask you, how many bankruptcies because of medical crises were there last year in Switzerland?

Diana Furchtgott-Roth: I don’t have that number in front of me but I could find out and get back to you.

Franken: I can tell you how many it was. It’s zero. Do you know how many medical bankruptcies there were last year in France?

Furchtgott-Roth: I don’t have that number but I can get back to you if you like.

Franken: The number is zero.
…

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009 8:15 pm

When government doesn’t govern

Susan Antilla at Bloomberg has some suggestions about what we might do with the Securities & Exchange Commission, inasmuch as it is utterly failing to do its job, i.e., protect the interests of investors:

  • Shoot it like a horse with a broken leg. Problem is, to extend the metaphor, any new colts/fillies sired to replace it likely would have the same orthopedic problem. “There is a reason it is the way it is,” Antilla quotes Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at Consumer Federation of America and a member of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, as saying, “and it’s because of the deference that Congress and various administrations have to the financial services industry.”
  • Move the enforcement division to where most other government enforcement is housed: the Justice Department. As Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzalez have shown us, it wouldn’t be completely immune from political pressure there, but it would be better protected there than it is now.
  • Appoint commissioners from the investment community, not the broker/dealer community. But again, you run into “the deference that Congress and various administrations have to the financial services industry.” Even if a president were bold enough to appoint them, the Senate would never confirm them.

And the deference goes even further:

In 2006, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations actually set up a hotline for firms that were feeling put out about being investigated. Amazingly, the hotline offers regulated firms “senior-level attorneys” to help resolve complaints.

The investing public, in the meantime, is relegated to filling out an online form when it has a complaint. An improved SEC might consider giving investors access to the top people and letting the brokerage firms sit there and fume if they don’t like the way they’re being treated.

Yeah, that’s gonna happen, particularly after our supposedly non-activist Supreme Court overrules 100 years of legislative precedent and lets corporations make unlimited political contributions.

There is one bright side: Current SEC chairwoman Mary Schapiro, in addition to being at best inept, may have a potentially fatal conflict-of-interest problem:

[Schapiro] was in charge of the self-regulators at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority when the organization was staunchly defending the greatest gift ever to the brokerage industry: mandatory arbitration of investor disputes.

It’s worth noting that Finra is a defendant in three lawsuits dating from Schapiro’s tenure. One of them, by Standard Investment Chartered Inc., names Schapiro as a defendant and seeks to make unredacted versions of certain documents public. Those might wind up embarrassing the woman in charge of the SEC if they show that she misled brokerage firm members about the “special member payments” they got when Finra was formed in 2007.

You probably haven’t heard the last on this one: On Sept. 11, Standard and Finra heard from the court that the case had been assigned to Jed Rakoff.

Who, you ask, is Jed Rakoff?

I’m glad you asked. This is Jed Rakoff:

A federal judge on Monday rejected a $33 million settlement between the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Bank of America and accused the regulators of falling down on the job.

Manhattan Federal Judge Jed Rakoff said the proposed settlement – over bonuses paid to Merrill Lynch executives just before the bank took over Merrill – was little more than a sham to “provide the SEC with the facade of enforcement and the management of the bank with a quick resolution to an embarrassing inquiry.”

“The notion that Bank of America shareholders, having been lied to blatantly in connection with the multibillion-dollar purchase of a huge, nearly bankrupt company, need to lose another $33 million … in order to ‘better assess the quality and performance of management’ is absurd,” the judge wrote in a scathing ruling.

The SEC sued Bank of America on Aug. 3, claiming bank bosses lied to shareholders when they asked for permission to buy the nearly bankrupt Merrill Lynch for $50 billion.

The SEC charged Bank of America signed off on a plan to pay up to $5.8 billion in bonuses to the executives who ran Merrill Lynch to the brink.

In statements to shareholders, Bank of America said it had not agreed to such bonuses.

The same day the SEC sued, regulators agreed to a settlement with Bank of America and the $33 million fine.

The SEC claimed such a fine would actually help shareholders – alerting them that bad decisions had been made and enabling them to better assess the quality of bank management.

Rakoff called the SEC’s logic “absurd” and told both sides to be ready for trial by Feb. 1, 2010.

Quoting Oscar Wilde – who once said a cynic is someone “who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” – the judge said the settlement suggested a “cynical relationship” between the bank and the SEC.

“The SEC gets to claim that it is exposing wrongdoing on the part of Bank of America in a high-profile merger; the bank’s management gets to claim that they have been coerced into an onerous settlement by overzealous regulators,” the judge wrote.

He added that “all this is done at the expense, not only of the shareholders, but also of the truth.”

If I were Mary S., and I’m glad I’m not, I’d be shipping resumes.

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