Your AG Needs Your Opinion on the No-Investigation-Slap-on-the-Wrist “Settlement”

So the persistent buzz is that the AGs are close to a deal, despite the resistance of various AGs of the braver ilk, California and Nevada come to mind.  I vote that we all write to Arizona AG Tom Horne and urge him to show the courage of Nevada and hold out until investigations are complete (or even begun) and to insist that there be no waivers of criminal liability or other blatant pandering.

For Abigail Field on the “settlement,” read No, the Latest Bailed-Out-Bank Giveaway Won’t Help Housing

On another note, there was this article in the Awl, critiquing a recent New York magazine article:

Oh dear, here we go again: “Wall Street is a meritocracy, for the most part,” an irate but of course unnamed onetime Citigroup executive confides to junior father confessor Gabriel Sherman in this week’s hallucinatory New York magazine cover story, “The Emasculation of Wall Street.” “If someone has a bonus, it’s because they’ve created value for their institution.”

In the jumpy, suggestible universe of Gabe Sherman, Wall Street sleuth, things really are that simple: The beleaguered financial overclass creates value, in a rationally ordered system of maximally awarded talent. And the clueless public sector, intoxicated on post-meltdown regulatory prerogative, meddles with the primal forces of nature, skews executive compensation downward, panders to the blurry “populist” agenda of the Occupy Wall Street Crowd, generally foments market uncertainty and other forms of intolerable chaos so that presto, before you know it, we have “The End of Wall Street As They Knew It.”

In other words: To your crying towels, bankers! Correspondent Sherman is on the scene, and no howling distortion of recent financial history you care to offer is too outlandish for him to faithfully record! After duly huddling with a couple of dozen financial titans, our reporter has arrived at a chilling verdict: “what emerged is a picture of an industry afflicted by a crisis it would not be flip to call existential.”

Perhaps not—but what is exceedingly flip is brother Sherman’s account of the origins of the crisis.

Sure, there was that awkward business that sent the global finance sector to the brink of ruin, plus a devastating tsunami in Japan and whatnot—but the true culprit sending Wall Street titans back into their bedrooms to listen to Interpol on auto-repeat and cut themselves is of course the specter of government regulation. The Dodd-Frank financial reform act, a largely toothless measure lousy with loopholes and lobbying dosh, becomes in the alternate universe of Adam Moss’s New York magazine a rash bid to expropriate the expropriators. Even though the full provisions of the already anemic bill don’t go into effect until 2016, the very thought of a somewhat straitened financial playing field so terrifies Wall Street’s stout corridor of wealth creators that, well, they’re bidding farewell to the most valuable commodity of all—their big swinging dicks. “The government has strangled the financial system,” Dick Bove, an especially excitable and frequently mistaken bank analyst, tells Sherman. “We’ve basically castrated these companies. They can’t borrow as much as they used to borrow.”

You see, by force of the Volcker rule—a watered-down version of the central Glass-Steagall protections separating out commercial and investment banking that were disastrously repealed in 1999—Wall Street is re-thinking everything, from the scale of its year-end bonuses to its “core value to the economy.” And Bove, for one, preaches that all this doom-and-gloom thinking can’t help but be self-fulfilling: “These are sweeping secular changes taking place that won’t just impact the guys who won’t get their bonuses this year. We’ve made a decision as a nation to shrink the growth of the financial system under the theory that it won’t impact the growth of the nation’s economy.” Another unnamed informant tells Sherman that the financial industry is gearing up for a state of near permanent pay-austerity at the mere thought of the Volcker rule, which doesn’t kick in officially until July: “If you landed on Earth from Mars and looked at the banks, you’d see that these are institutions that need to build up capital and they’re becoming lower-margin businesses. So that means it will be hard, nearly impossible, to sustain their size and compensation structure.”

Never mind that this diagnosis is diametrically opposed to the Bove-ian school of market alarmism, which holds that banks are being starved of desperately needed leverage and credit; this unnamed fearmonger sees them in a frenzy to raise capital, and one thing the Volcker rule undeniably seeks to achieve is minimal capital requirements to prevent speculative lending from veering once more into toxic chaos.

No, for Sherman, all that’s needed to stoke the proper mood of Misean panic is to rouse the specter of frightened bankers, and a few quick-and-dirty quarterly profit reports.

From the moment Dodd-Frank passed, the banks’ financial results have tended to slide downward, in significant part because of measures taken in anticipation of its future effect. Since July 2010, Bank of America nosed down 42 percent, Morgan Stanley fell 25 percent, Goldman fell 21 percent, and Citigroup fell 16—in a period when the Dow rose 25 percent.

Other economic journalists might conclude that this downturn was a set of long-overdue market corrections, and given the broader turn around in the actual manufacturing economy, by no means an indication of worsening conditions—for investors and workers alike. Some radical others might even suggest that the shredded headcounts at the financial firms played a part in their own downturn in revenue. But while from his evidently privileged vantage in the driver’s seat of the Doc’s Time Machine, Sherman can divine all sorts of mischief arising from the yet-to-be-implemented provisions of Dodd-Frank, it does bear reminding that since 2010, BofA has been forced to eat a sizable portion of the toxic mortgage debt it acquired amid its spectacularly ill-advised purchase of Countrywide; Morgan has suffered tremendous losses in its Japanese operations and has, like most banks, been spooked by its exposure to the Euro-debt crisis (funnily enough, the firm’s US-based investment-banking operations—ie, the shop most directly affected by the dread Volcker rule, has booked profits amid all the tumult abroad); much the same general picture holds at Goldman, which as you may recall, has had more than its share of legal contretemps thrown into the bargain . As for Citigroup—the company whose very grotesque merged existence was the deregulatory excuse for repealing Glass Steagall—it’s been a basket case for so very long that a 16 percent loss in profits over the past two years seems cause for celebration, Volcker Rule or no Volcker Rule.


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