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Tag Archive: JPMorgan Chase


Wall Street On Parade

Suspicious Deaths of Bankers Are Now Classified as “Trade Secrets” by Federal Regulator

By Pam Martens and Russ Martens: April 28, 2014

It doesn’t get any more Orwellian than this: Wall Street mega banks crash the U.S. financial system in 2008. Hundreds of thousands of financial industry workers lose their jobs. Then, beginning late last year, a rash of suspicious deaths start to occur among current and former bank employees.  Next we learn that four of the Wall Street mega banks likely hold over $680 billion face amount of life insurance on their workers, payable to the banks, not the families. We ask their Federal regulator for the details of this life insurance under a Freedom of Information Act request and we’re told the information constitutes “trade secrets.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the life expectancy of a 25 year old male with a Bachelor’s degree or higher as of 2006 was 81 years of age. But in the past five months, five highly educated JPMorgan male employees in their 30s and one former employee aged 28, have died under suspicious circumstances, including three of whom allegedly leaped off buildings – a statistical rarity even during the height of the financial crisis in 2008.

There is one other major obstacle to brushing away these deaths as random occurrences – they are not happening at JPMorgan’s closest peer bank – Citigroup. Both JPMorgan and Citigroup are global financial institutions with both commercial banking and investment banking operations. Their employee counts are similar – 260,000 employees for JPMorgan versus 251,000 for Citigroup.

Both JPMorgan and Citigroup also own massive amounts of bank-owned life insurance (BOLI), a controversial practice that pays the corporation when a current or former employee dies. (In the case of former employees, the banks conduct regular “death sweeps” of public records using former employees’ Social Security numbers to learn if a former employee has died and then submits a request for payment of the death benefit to the insurance company.)

Wall Street On Parade carefully researched public death announcements over the past 12 months which named the decedent as a current or former employee of Citigroup or its commercial banking unit, Citibank. We found no data suggesting Citigroup was experiencing the same rash of deaths of young men in their 30s as JPMorgan Chase. Nor did we discover any press reports of leaps from buildings among Citigroup’s workers.

Given the above set of facts, on March 21 of this year, we wrote to the regulator of national banks, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), seeking the following information under the Freedom of Information Act (See OCC Response to Wall Street On Parade’s Request for Banker Death Information):

The number of deaths from 2008 through March 21, 2014 on which JPMorgan Chase collected death benefits; the total face amount of BOLI life insurance in force at JPMorgan; the total number of former and current employees of JPMorgan Chase who are insured under these policies; any peer studies showing the same data comparing JPMorgan Chase with Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Citigroup.

The OCC responded politely by letter dated April 18, after first calling a few days earlier to inform us that we would be getting nothing under the sunshine law request. (On Wall Street, sunshine routinely means dark curtain.) The OCC letter advised that documents relevant to our request were being withheld on the basis that they are “privileged or contains trade secrets, or commercial or financial information, furnished in confidence, that relates to the business, personal, or financial affairs of any person,” or  relate to “a record contained in or related to an examination.”

The ironic reality is that the documents do not pertain to the personal financial affairs of individuals who have a privacy right. Individuals are not going to receive the proceeds of this life insurance for the most part. In many cases, they do not even know that multi-million dollar policies that pay upon their death have been taken out by their employer or former employer. Equally important, JPMorgan is a publicly traded company whose shareholders have a right under securities laws to understand the quality of its earnings – are those earnings coming from traditional banking and investment banking operations or is this ghoulish practice of profiting from the death of workers now a major contributor to profits on Wall Street?

As it turns out, one aspect of the information cavalierly denied to us by the OCC is publicly available to those willing to hunt for it. On March 24 of this year, we reported that JPMorgan Chase held $10.4 billion in BOLI assets at its insured depository bank as of December 31, 2013.

We reached out to BOLI expert, Michael D. Myers, to understand what JPMorgan’s $10.4 billion in BOLI assets at its commercial bank might represent in terms of face amount of life insurance on its workers. Myers said: “Without knowing the length of the investment or its rate of return, it is difficult to estimate the face amount of the insurance coverage.  However, a cash value of $10.4 billion could easily translate into more than $100 billion in actual insurance coverage and possibly two or three times that amount” said Myers, a partner in the Houston, Texas law firm McClanahan Myers Espey, L.L.P.

 

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Insurance policies pertaining to bankers’ suicides classified as containing ‘trade secrets’

Published time: April 29, 2014 19:09

AFP Photo / John Moore

AFP Photo / John Moore

After a recent rash of mysterious apparent suicides shook the financial world, researchers are scrambling to find answers about what really is the reason behind these multiple deaths. Some observers have now come to a rather shocking conclusion.

Wall Street on Parade bloggers Pam and Russ Martens wrote this week that something seems awry regarding the bank-owned life insurance (BOLI) policies held by JPMorgan Chase. Traditional life insurance policies ensure that the loved ones of the deceased are compensated fairly in the event of a death, but banks are investing billions in policies that let them receive untaxed payment with the passing of each employee. While it’s not unusual for major banks to take out policies that compensate companies in the event of an employee death, the Martens wrote, attempts to find out more about that practice have been peculiarly hard and have raised a red flag among bloggers like those at Wall Street on Parade.

Four of the biggest banks on Wall Street combined hold over $680 billion in BOLI policies, the bloggers reported, but JPMorgan held around $17.9 billion in BOLI assets at the end of last year to Citigroup’s comparably meager $8.8 billion.

Both banks are global financial institutions with commercial and investment banking operations, the Martens wrote, and each employs close to a quarter-of-a-million employees. Nevertheless, they say that JPMorgan has experienced a far greater rate of suicide among employees in recent months, particularly in the midst of a series of news reports documenting unusual leaps off buildings and other bizarre deaths that have taken the lives of JPMorgan staffers.

 

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Northeast Intelligence Network

Exposing what lies beneath the bodies of dead bankers and what lies ahead for us

By Douglas J. Hagmann

15 February 2014: I feel that this is one of the most important investigations I’ve ever done. If my findings are correct, each of us might soon experience a severe, if not crippling blow to our personal finances, the confiscation of any wealth some of us have been able to accumulate over our lifetimes, and the end of the financial world as we once knew it.  The evidence to support my findings exists in the trail of dead bodies of financial executives across the globe and a missing Wall Street Journal Reporter who was working at the Dow Jones news room at the time of his disappearance.

If the bodies were dots on a piece of paper, connecting them results in a sinister picture being drawn that involves global criminal activity in the financial world the likes of which is almost without precedent.  It should serve as a warning that we are at the precipice of something so big, it will shake the financial world as we know it to its core. It seems to illustrate the complicity of big banks and governments, the intelligence community, and the media.

Although the trail of mysterious and bizarre deaths detailed below begin in late January, 2014, there are others. Not only that, there will be more, according to sources within the financial world. Based on my findings, these are not mere random, tragic cases of suicide, but of the methodical silencing of individuals who had the ability to expose financial fraud at the highest levels, and the complicity of certain governmental agencies and individuals who are engaged in the greatest theft of wealth the world has ever seen.

It is often said that life imitates art. In the case of the dead financial executives, perhaps death imitates theater, or more specifically, the movie The International, which was coincidentally released in U.S. theaters exactly five years ago today.

We are told by the media that the untimely deaths of these young men and men in their prime are either suicides or tragic accidents. We are told what to believe by the captured and controlled media, regardless of how unusual or unlikely the circumstances, or how implausible the explanation. Such are the hallmarks of high level criminality and the involvement of a certain U.S. intelligence agency intent on keeping the lid on money laundering on a global scale.

Obviously, it is important that this topic is approached with the utmost respect for the families of those who died, that they be allowed to grieve for the loss of their loved ones in private. However, it is extremely important that the truth about what is happening in the global financial arena is not kept from us, as we will also be victims of a different nature.

 The missing and the dead: a timeline

The following is provided as a chronological list of those who have gone missing or been found dead under mysterious circumstances. It is important to note that this list consists of names of the most recent incidents. There are more that extend back through 2012 and beyond.

January 11, 2014

MISSING: David Bird, 55, long-time reporter for the Wall Street Journal working at the Dow Jones news room, went for a walk on Saturday, January 11, 2014 near his New Jersey home and disappeared without a trace. Mr. Bird was a reporter of the oil and commodity markets which happened to be under investigation by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for price manipulation.

January 26, 2014

DECEASED: Tim Dickenson, a U.K.-based communications director at Swiss Re AG, was reportedly found dead under undisclosed circumstances.

DECEASED: William Broeksmit, 58, former senior manager for Deutsche Bank, was found hanging in his home from an apparent suicide. It is important to note that Deutsche Bank is under investigation for reportedly hiding $12 billion in losses during the financial crisis and for potentially rigging the foreign exchange markets. The allegations are similar to the claims the institution settled in 2013 over involvement in rigging the Libor interest rates.

January 27, 2014

DECEASED:  Karl Slym, 51, Managing director of Tata Motors was found dead on the fourth floor of the Shangri-La hotel in Bangkok. Police said he “could” have committed suicide. He was staying on the 22nd floor with his wife, and was attending a board meeting in the Thai capital.

January 28, 2014

DECEASED:  Gabriel Magee, 39, a JP Morgan employee, died after reportedly “falling” from the roof of its European headquarters in London in the Canary Wharf area. Magee was vice president at JPMorgan Chase & Co’s (JPM) London headquarters.

Gabriel Magee, a Vice President at JPMorgan in London, plunged to his death from the roof of the 33-story European headquarters of JPMorgan in Canary Wharf. Magee was involved in “Technical architecture oversight for planning, development, and operation of systems for fixed income securities and interest rate derivatives” based on his online Linkedin profile.

It’s important to note that JPMorgan, like  Deutsche Bank, is under investigation for its potential involvement in rigging foreign exchange rates. JPMorgan is also reportedly under investigation by the same U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for its alleged involvement in rigging the physical commodities markets in the U.S. and London.

Regarding the initial reports of his death, journalist Pam Martens of Wall Street on Parade astutely exposed the controlled, scripted details of the media accounts surrounding Magee’s death in an article written on February 9, 2014. Ms. Martens writes:

“According to numerous sources close to the investigation of Gabriel Magee’s death, almost nothing thus far reported about his death has been accurate. This appears to stem from an initial poorly worded press release issued by the Metropolitan Police in London which may have been a result of bad communications between it and JPMorgan or something more deliberate on someone’s part.” [Emphasis added].

Ms. Martens also notes:

No solid evidence exists currently to suggest that the death was a suicide. In fact, there is a strong piece of evidence pointing in the opposite direction. Magee had emailed his girlfriend, Veronica, on the evening of January 27 to say that he was about to leave the office and would see her shortly. [Emphasis added].

Based on information she developed, it appears likely that Magee did not meet his fate on the morning his body was discovered, but hours earlier. Considering the possibility that Magee might now have died in the manner publicized, Ms. Martens offers speculation, and notes it as such:

If Magee became aware that incriminating emails, instant messages, or video teleconferences were not turned over in their entirety to Senate investigators or Justice Department prosecutors, that might be reason enough for his untimely death.

Looking at the death of Magee in the context of a larger conspiracy, it is difficult not to suspect foul play and media manipulation.

January 29, 2014

DECEASED: Mike Dueker, 50, who had worked for Russell Investment for five years, was found dead close to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State. Dueker was reported missing on January 29, 2014. Police stated that he “could have” jumped over a fence and fallen 15 meters to his death, and are treating the case as a suicide.

Before joining Russell Investments, Dueker was an assistant vice president and research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis from 1991 to 2008. There he served as an associate editor of the Journal of Business and Economic Statistics and was editor of Monetary Trends, a monthly publication of the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

In November 2013, the New York Times reported that Russell Investments was one of several investment companies that were under subpoena from New York State regulators investigating potential “pay-to-play” schemes involving New York pension funds.

February 3, 2014

DECEASED: Ryan Henry Crane, 37, was the Executive Director in JPMorgan’s Global Equities Group. Of particular relevance is that Crane oversaw all of the trade platforms and had close working ties with the now deceased Gabriel Magee of JPMorgan’s London desk. The ties between Mr. Crane and Mr. Magee are undeniable and outright troublesome. The cause of death has not yet been determined, pending the results of a toxicology report.

February 6, 2014

DECEASED: Richard Talley, 57, was the founder and CEO of American Title, a company he founded in 2001. Talley and his company were under investigation by state insurance regulators at the time of his death. He was found in the garage of his Colorado home by a family member who called authorities. Talley reportedly died from seven or eight “self-inflicted” wounds from a nail gun fired into his torso and head.

The enormity of the lie

One must look back far enough to understand the enormity of the lie and the criminality of bankers and governments alike. We must understand the legal restraints that were severed during the Clinton years and the congress that changed the rules regarding financial institutions. We must understand that the criminal acts were bold and bipartisan, and were designed to consolidate wealth through the destruction of the middle class. All of this is part of a much larger plan to establish a one world economy by “killing” the U.S. dollar and consequently, eradicating the middle class by a cabal of globalists that existed and continue to exist within all sectors of our government. The results will be crippling to not just the United States, but the entire Western world.

What began decades ago is now becoming more transparent under the Obama regime. Perhaps that’s the transparency Obama promised, for we’ve seen little else in terms of transparency with regard to the man known as Barack Hussein Obama. For those not locked into the captured corporate media, we’re starting to see the truth emerging. The truth is that we’ve been living under a giant Ponzi scheme and we, the American citizens, are the suckers. As illustrated by the list of dead bankers above, however, the power elite need a bit more time before the extent of their criminality is revealed. The need a bit more time to transfer the remaining wealth from middle-class America to their private coffers. Timing is everything, and a magic act only works when all props are in place before the illusion is performed. Only when their timing is right will the slumbering Americans realize the extent of the illusion by which they’ve been entranced, at which time they will be forced into submission to accept a financial reset that will ultimately subjugate them to a global economy. I contend that this is the reason for the recent spate of deaths, for those who met their tragic and untimely end had the ability to expose this nefarious agenda by what they knew or discovered, or what they would reveal under subpoena and the damage they could cause to the globalist financial agenda.

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A Rash of Deaths and a Missing Reporter – With Ties to Wall Street Investigations

By Pam Martens: February 3, 2014

Senator Carl Levin’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Is Probing Global Banks’ Involvement in the U.S. Commodities Markets

In a span of four days last week, two current executives and one recently retired top ranking executive of major financial firms were found dead. Both media and police have been quick to label the deaths as likely suicides. Missing from the reports is the salient fact that all three of the financial firms the executives worked for are under investigation for potentially serious financial fraud.

The deaths began on Sunday, January 26. London police reported that William Broeksmit, a top executive at Deutsche Bank who had retired in 2013, had been found hanged in his home in the South Kensington section of London. The day after Broeksmit was pronounced dead, Eric Ben-Artzi, a former risk analyst turned whistleblower at Deutsche Bank, was scheduled to speak at Auburn University in Alabama on his allegations that Deutsche had hid $12 billion in losses during the financial crisis with the knowledge of senior executives. Two other whistleblowers have brought similar charges against Deutsche Bank.

Deutsche Bank is also under investigation by global regulators for potentially rigging the foreign exchange markets – an action similar to the charges it settled in 2013 over its traders’ involvement in the rigging of the interest rate benchmark, Libor.

Just two days after Broeksmit’s death, on Tuesday, January 28, a 39-year old American, Gabriel Magee, a Vice President at JPMorgan in London, plunged to his death from the roof of the 33-story European headquarters of JPMorgan in Canary Wharf. According to Magee’s LinkedIn profile, he was involved in “Technical architecture oversight for planning, development, and operation of systems for fixed income securities and interest rate derivatives.”

Magee’s parents, Bill and Nell Magee, are not buying the official story according to press reports and are planning to travel from the United States to London to get at the truth. One of their key issues, which should also trouble the police, is how an employee obtains access to the rooftop of one of the mostly highly secure buildings in London.

Nell Magee was quoted in the London Evening Standard saying her son was “a happy person who was happy with his life.” His friends are equally mystified, stating he was in a happy, long-term relationship with a girlfriend.

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JPMorgan Chase's offices in Hong Kong. The bank and its rivals have hired well-connected employees in China.
Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times JPMorgan Chase’s offices in Hong Kong. The bank and its rivals have hired well-connected employees in China.

In a series of late-night emails, JPMorgan Chase executives in Hong Kong lamented the loss of a lucrative assignment.

“We lost a deal to DB today because they got chairman’s daughter work for them this summer,” one JPMorgan investment banking executive remarked to colleagues, using the initials for Deutsche Bank.

The loss of that business in 2009, coming after rival banks landed a string of other deals, stung the JPMorgan executives. For Wall Street banks enduring slowdowns in the wake of the financial crisis, China was the last great gold rush. As its economy boomed, China’s state-owned enterprises were using banks to raise billions of dollars in stock and debt offerings — yet JPMorgan was falling further behind in capturing that business.

The solution, the executives decided over email, was to embrace the strategy that seemed to work so well for rivals: hire the children of China’s ruling elite.

“I am supportive to have our own” hiring strategy, a JPMorgan executive wrote in the 2009 email exchange.

In the months and years that followed, emails and other confidential documents show, JPMorgan escalated what it called its “Sons and Daughters” hiring program, adding scores of well-connected employees and tracking how those hires translated into business deals with the Chinese government. The previously unreported emails and documents — copies of which were reviewed by The New York Times — offer a view into JPMorgan’s motivations for ramping up the hiring program, suggesting that competitive pressures drove many of the bank’s decisions that are now under federal investigation.

The references to other banks in the emails also paint for the first time a broad picture of questionable hiring practices by other Wall Street banks doing business in China — some of them hiring the same employees with family connections. Since opening a bribery investigation into JPMorgan this spring, the authorities have expanded the inquiry to include hiring at other big banks. Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have previously been identified as coming under scrutiny. A sixth bank, UBS, is also facing scrutiny, according to interviews with current and former Wall Street employees. Neither JPMorgan nor any of the other banks have been accused of wrongdoing.

Still, the investigations have put Wall Street on high alert, said the current and former employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly. Some banks, they said, have adopted an unofficial hiring freeze for well-connected job candidates in China.

The investigation has also had a chilling effect on JPMorgan’s deal-making in China, interviews show. The bank, seeking to build good will with federal authorities, has considered forgoing certain deals in China and abandoned one assignment altogether.

The pullback comes just as JPMorgan had regained a significant share of the Chinese market. Its deal-making revived a few years after it escalated the Sons and Daughters program in 2009, an analysis of data from Thomson Reuters shows. In 2009, JPMorgan was 13th among banks winning business in China and Hong Kong. By 2013, once other banks had scaled back their Chinese business, it had climbed to No. 3. Other data shows that the bank was eighth in 2009 and — after losing market share in 2011 and 2012 — is now No. 4 in deal-making. While the hiring boom coincided with the increased business, the data does not establish a causal link between the two.

Yet the Securities and Exchange Commission and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, which are leading the JPMorgan inquiry, are examining whether the bank improperly won some of those deals by trading job offers for business with state-owned Chinese companies. The S.E.C. and the prosecutors, which might ultimately conclude that none of the hiring crossed a legal line, did not comment.

JPMorgan, which is cooperating with the investigation, also declined to comment. There is no indication that executives at the bank’s headquarters in New York were aware of the hiring practices. The six other banks facing scrutiny from the S.E.C. declined to comment on the investigations, which are at an early stage.

Economic forces fueled the hiring boom by Wall Street banks.

An era of financial deregulation in Washington coincided with a roaring economy in China, enabling questionable hiring practices to escape government scrutiny. The hiring became so widespread over the last two decades that banks competed over the most politically connected recent college graduates, known in China as princelings.

Goldman’s employee roster briefly included the grandson of the former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. And Feng Shaodong, the son-in-law of a high-ranking Communist Party official, worked with Merrill Lynch.

In recent months, though, federal authorities have adopted a tougher stance toward Wall Street firms suspected of trading jobs for government business. The S.E.C. and the Brooklyn prosecutors have bolstered enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which effectively bans United States corporations from giving “anything of value” to foreign officials to gain “any improper advantage” in retaining business. JPMorgan would have violated the 1977 law if it had acted with “corrupt” intent.

 

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 The mortgage crisis, fueled by racially discriminatory lending practices, destroyed 53% of African American wealth and 66% of Hispanic wealth.    Wall Street hedge funds and private equity firms have quietly amassed an unprecedented rental empire on the backs of those who fell victim the first time around.   Where is the justice?

~Desert Rose~
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The Empire Strikes Back: How Wall Street Has Turned Housing Into a Dangerous Get-Rich-Quick Scheme — Again

You can hardly turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about the nation’s impressive, much celebrated housing recovery. Home prices are rising! New construction has started! The crisis is over! Yet beneath the fanfare, a whole new get-rich-quick scheme is brewing.(Cover for the book of the same title by Bryan M. Chavis)

Over the last year and a half, Wall Street hedge funds and private equity firms have quietly amassed an unprecedented rental empire, snapping up Queen Anne Victorians in Atlanta, brick-faced bungalows in Chicago, Spanish revivals in Phoenix. In total, these deep-pocketed investors have bought more than 200,000 cheap, mostly foreclosed houses in cities hardest hit by the economic meltdown.

Wall Street’s foreclosure crisis, which began in late 2007 and forced more than 10 million people from their homes, has created a paradoxical problem. Millions of evicted Americans need a safe place to live, even as millions of vacant, bank-owned houses are blighting neighborhoods and spurring a rise in crime. Lucky for us, Wall Street has devised a solution: It’s going to rent these foreclosed houses back to us. In the process, it’s devised a new form of securitization that could cause this whole plan to blow up — again.

Since the buying frenzy began, no company has picked up more houses than the Blackstone Group, the largest private equity firm in the world. Using a subsidiary company, Invitation Homes, Blackstone has grabbed houses at foreclosure auctions, through local brokers, and in bulk purchases directly from banks the same way a regular person might stock up on toilet paper from Costco.

In one move, it bought 1,400 houses in Atlanta in a single day. As of November, Blackstone had spent $7.5 billion to buy 40,000 mostly foreclosed houses across the country. That’s a spending rate of $100 million a week since October 2012. It recently announced plans to take the business international, beginning in foreclosure-ravaged Spain.

Few outside the finance industry have heard of Blackstone. Yet today, it’s the largest owner of single-family rental homes in the nation — and of a whole lot of other things, too. It owns part or all of the Hilton Hotel chain, Southern Cross Healthcare, Houghton Mifflin publishing house, the Weather Channel, Sea World, the arts and crafts chain Michael’s, Orangina, and dozens of other companies.

“In other words, if Blackstone makes money by capitalizing on the housing crisis, all these other Wall Street banks — generally regarded as the main culprits in creating the conditions that led to the foreclosure crisis in the first place — make money too.”

Blackstone manages more than $210 billion in assets, according to its 2012 Securities and Exchange Commission annual filing. It’s also a public company with a list of institutional owners that reads like a who’s who of companies recently implicated in lawsuits over the mortgage crisis, including Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, UBS, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and of course JP Morgan Chase, which just settled a lawsuit with the Department of Justice over its risky and often illegal mortgage practices, agreeing to pay an unprecedented $13 billion fine.

In other words, if Blackstone makes money by capitalizing on the housing crisis, all these other Wall Street banks — generally regarded as the main culprits in creating the conditions that led to the foreclosure crisis in the first place — make money too.

An All-Cash Goliath

In neighborhoods across the country, many residents didn’t have to know what Blackstone was to realize that things were going seriously wrong.

Last year, Mark Alston, a real estate broker in Los Angeles, began noticing something strange happening. Home prices were rising. And they were rising fast — up 20% between October 2012 and the same month this year. In a normal market, rising home prices would mean increased demand from homebuyers. But here was the unnerving thing: the homeownership rate was dropping, the first sign for Alston that the market was somehow out of whack.

The second sign was the buyers themselves.

Click here to see a larger version

“I went two years without selling to a black family, and that wasn’t for lack of trying,” says Alston, whose business is concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods where the majority of residents are African American and Hispanic. Instead, all his buyers — every last one of them — were besuited businessmen. And weirder yet, they were all paying in cash.

Between 2005 and 2009, the mortgage crisis, fueled by racially discriminatory lending practices, destroyed 53% of African American wealth and 66% of Hispanic wealth, figures that stagger the imagination. As a result, it’s safe to say that few blacks or Hispanics today are buying homes outright, in cash. Blackstone, on the other hand, doesn’t have a problem fronting the money, given its $3.6 billion credit line arranged by Deutsche Bank. This money has allowed it to outbid families who have to secure traditional financing. It’s also paved the way for the company to purchase a lot of homes very quickly, shocking local markets and driving prices up in a way that pushes even more families out of the game.

“You can’t compete with a company that’s betting on speculative future value when they’re playing with cash,” says Alston. “It’s almost like they planned this.”

In hindsight, it’s clear that the Great Recession fueled a terrific wealth and asset transfer away from ordinary Americans and to financial institutions. During that crisis, Americans lost trillions of dollars of household wealth when housing prices crashed, while banks seized about five million homes. But what’s just beginning to emerge is how, as in the recession years, the recovery itself continues to drive the process of transferring wealth and power from the bottom to the top.

From 2009-2012, the top 1% of Americans captured 95% of income gains. Now, as the housing market rebounds, billions of dollars in recovered housing wealth are flowing straight to Wall Street instead of to families and communities. Since spring 2012, just at the time when Blackstone began buying foreclosed homes in bulk, an estimated $88 billion of housing wealth accumulation has gone straight to banks or institutional investors as a result of their residential property holdings, according to an analysis by TomDispatch. And it’s a number that’s likely to just keep growing.

“Institutional investors are siphoning the wealth and the ability for wealth accumulation out of underserved communities,” says Henry Wade, founder of the Arizona Association of Real Estate Brokers.

But buying homes cheap and then waiting for them to appreciate in value isn’t the only way Blackstone is making money on this deal. It wants your rental payment, too.

Securitizing Rentals

Wall Street’s rental empire is entirely new. The single-family rental industry used to be the bailiwick of small-time mom-and-pop operations. But what makes this moment unprecedented is the financial alchemy that Blackstone added. In November, after many months of hype, Blackstone released history’s first rated bond backed by securitized rental payments. And once investors tripped over themselves in a rush to get it, Blackstone’s competitors announced that they, too, would develop similar securities as soon as possible.

Depending on whom you ask, the idea of bundling rental payments and selling them off to investors is either a natural evolution of the finance industry or a fire-breathing chimera.

“This is a new frontier,” comments Ted Weinstein, a consultant in the real-estate-owned homes industry for 30 years. “It’s something I never really would have dreamt of.”

 

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 JPMorgan Chase jamie dimon
James “Jamie” Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

During the financial crisis, while Dr. Evil-ish Wall Street villains like Goldman and Lehman Brothers were getting all the bad press, pundits continually referred to J.P. Morgan Chase as the “good bank.” The myth of Chase as the finance sector’s one upstanding rock of rectitude reached its zenith in July of 2009 with an embarrassingly hagiographic piece in the New York Times entitled, “In Washington, One Bank Chief Still Holds Sway.” In that one, the paper breathlessly praised Jamie Dimon for emerging from “the disgrace of his industry” to become Barack Obama’s “favorite banker.”

Chase and Jamie Dimon kept that rep for a good long time. As late as 2011, Dimon’s name was being floated around Washington very seriously as a potential replacement for Tim Geithner’s Treasury Secretary post. Even when Dimon showed up on the Hill last year to testify (read: obfuscate) about the infamous “London Whale” episode, Senators on the banking committee – who, as writer George Zornick noted, had collected a cumulative $522,088 in donations from Chase – slobbered all over Dimon and shelved the important London Whale matter to ask the great genius’s advice on how to fix the economy.

Well, there’s some more news about the “good bank” – Chase is about to pay yet another ginormous settlement for cheating and stealing from the public. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will fine Chase “close to $1 billion” for manipulating energy prices in Enron-esque fashion in Michigan and California. The story is interesting in itself – and we’ll write more about it later – but for now, it’s just the fact of yet another massive settlement for this bank that’s so interesting.

In the three-year period between 2009-2012, Chase paid out over $16 billion in litigation costs. Noted financial analyst Josh Rosner of Graham Fisher slammed Chase in a report earlier this year, pointing out that these settlements and legal costs represented a staggering 12% of Chase’s net revenue during this time. There couldn’t possibly be a clearer demonstration of the modern banking model, in which companies break rules/laws as a matter of course, and simply pay fines as a cost – a significant cost – of doing business.

For sheer curiosity’s sake, I thought I’d list, in capsule form, some of the capers Chase has been caught up in in recent years:

• They were fined $153 million for the infamous “Magnetar” fund case, another scam in which a bank allowed a hedge fund to create a “born-to-lose” mortgage portfolio to bet against. Very similar to the Abacus case that’s at the heart of the ongoing “Fabulous Fab” trial;

 

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Too-Big-to-Fail Takes Another Body Blow

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Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. David Vitter hold a news conference to announce the details of 'Too Big to Fail' legislation.
Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. David Vitter hold a news conference to announce the details of ‘Too Big to Fail’ legislation.
Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call

 

Last week, on April 24th, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Louisiana Republican David Vitter introduced legislation called the “Terminating Bailouts for Taxpayer Fairness Act of 2013 Act,” or the “Brown-Vitter TBTF Act” for short. The bill is a gun aimed directly at the head of the Too-Big-To-Fail beast.

During the Dodd-Frank negotiations a few years ago, Brown teamed up with Delaware Democrat Ted Kaufman to introduce an amendment that would have physically capped the size of the biggest banks. The amendment was bold and righteous but was slaughtered on the floor by a 61-33 margin, undermined by leaders of both parties – 27 Democrats voted against it.

Brown-Vitter offers a different and, in a way, more elegant solution to the problem than Brown-Kaufman. Rather than impose size limits, it simply insists that banks with over $500 billion in assets maintain higher capital reserves than are currently required. Companies like J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Bank of America will have to keep capital reserves of about 15 percent, about twice the current amount.

The bill only has such tough requirements for just those few megabanks, which sounds unfair, except that the aim of the bill, precisely, is to level the playing field. Right now, the biggest U.S. banks enjoy a massive inherent market advantage in that they’re able to borrow money far more cheaply than other banks, because everybody on earth knows the government will never let them fail and will always bail them out in a pinch, making their debt essentially U.S.-government guaranteed. Studies have shown that these banks borrow money at about 0.8 percent more cheaply than other banks, and that this implicit government subsidy is worth about $83 billion a year just to the top 10 banks in America. This bill would essentially wipe out that hidden subsidy and make the banks bailout-proof.

As soon as Brown-Vitter was introduced, a very interesting thing happened. The Independent Community Bankers of America, or ICBA, issued a press release boosting the bill. “ICBA strongly supports this legislation,” the release read, “and urges all community banks to join the association in advocating passage of legislation to end too-big-to-fail.”

This was a big thing. It was the first time since the crisis that a prominent financial industry group opposed the will of the TBTF banks. I remember covering Dodd-Frank and being told by a number of members in the House and the Senate that the sentiment of many community bankers was for breaking up or at least curtailing the power of companies like Chase and Bank of America, but that the community banking lobby was not yet prepared to take that step.

But now, after the London Whale, the LIBOR scandal, the outrageous HSBC settlement and nearly five years of rapacious market-dominating behavior by these state-backed banks, the community banks have finally split off from TBTF.

This is another in a series of defections on this issue that in the past year has included many Republican politicians, numerous important financial regulators (even the New York Fed has taken a semi-stand against TBTF) and, hilariously, the creator of Too-Big-To-Fail himself, former Citigroup CEO and legendary lower-Manhattan raging asshole Sandy Weill. Weill was the man for whom the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed back in the nineties, so that his already-completed Citigroup merger could be legalized. But even he came out last year and said we have to break up the banks.

Naturally, there was going to be a response to Brown-Vitter from Wall Street. And we got it last week, shockingly not from one of the banks or a lobbying firm connected to the banks, but from the Standard and Poor’s ratings agency – supposedly a strict, humorlessly conservative auditor that should always abhor risk and look favorably upon greater safety and security. The very fact that such a company came out against a bill forcing banks to have safer balance sheets is in itself absolute proof of how completely fucked and corrupt our current system is.

The S&P report, entitled “Brown-Vitter Bill: Game-Changing Regulation For U.S. Banks”, is so incredibly hysterical in its tone that, reading it, one cannot help but deduce that people on Wall Street are genuinely afraid of this bill. The paper essentially hints that forcing banks to retain more capital could lead to world financial collapse, the onset of a new Ice Age, mammoths roaming Nebraska, etc. “The ratings implications of the Brown-Vitter bill, if enacted, for all U.S. banks would be neutral to negative,” the report read. In the second paragraph, it reads:

If congress enacts the bill as proposed, Standard and Poor’s Ratings Services would have concerns about the economic impact on banks’ creditworthiness stemming from the transition to substantially higher capital requirements.

Having a ratings agency bent to monopolistic bank influence give a bad rating to a piece of legislation designed to . . . curb monopolistic bank influence is a bad surrealistic joke, like a Rene Magritte take on lobbying – Ceci nest pas une Too-Big-To-Fail!

Remember, one of the primary causes of the financial crisis in the first place was the corruption of the independent ratings agencies. In the crisis years, companies like S&P and Moody’s and Fitch were so desperate to avoid losing business from the big investment banks (who paid the ratings firms to rate products like mortgage-backed securities) that these companies often gave embarrassingly overenthusiastic grades to a generation of toxic assets.

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in its final report placed blame for the crisis squarely on the shoulders of these firms. “The three credit rating agencies were key enablers of the financial meltdown. The mortgage-related securities at the heart of the crisis could not have been marketed and sold without their seal of approval,” the FCIC report read. “This crisis could not have happened without the rating agencies.”

So intellectually compromised ratings agencies were guilty before, because they were too quick to help Too-Big-To-Fail banks sell bad products into the world marketplace.

Now, an intellectually-compromised ratings agency is helping sell the very Too-Big-To-Fail system in an attempt to beat back a reform bill – an agency that once stated explicitly that it does not take public positions on legislation.

Years ago, Standard and Poor’s was involved a similar situation. In the mid-2000s, the Senate was considering creating a regulatory body with receivership powers that could have oversight over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. S&P, seemingly doing the bidding of Fannie and Freddie (which wanted no part of any new regulatory oversight), warned that such legislation might lead to a downgrade of the so-called Government-Sponsored Entities, or GSEs. In other words, if you pass this bill, we’re going to take a financial axe to Fannie and Freddie.

When then-Senator John Sununu asked then-S&P president Kathleen Corbet if it didn’t seem to her like the ratings agency was meddling in the legislative process by issuing such a dire warning, Corbet testily replied in the negative.

“First of all, Senator,” she said. “Standard & Poor’s does not advocate positions on any legislation.”

With that in mind, here are some of passages from S&P’s new report, “Brown-Vitter Bill: Game-Changing Regulation For U.S. Banks”:

If the requirements force banks to deleverage, a credit crunch could ensue and the U.S. economy might be thrown off course . . . the U.S. banking industry could become less competitive in world financial markets . . . All in all, the bill’s goal of ending TBTF could lead to unintended consequences – a destabilized financial system.

So Standard and Poor’s does not advocate positions on any legislation, mind you. It just thinks the world as we know it will end if this particular bill passes.

In reality, of course, about the only things that would be “destabilized” if TBTF ended would be the compensation packages for a small group of overpaid banking executives like Jamie Dimon. Another consequence might be that ratings agencies would actually have to work for a living, and earn reputations for honesty and integrity in the market, instead of getting endless streams of free money from big banks to give sparkly AAA ratings to every half-baked security or derivative instrument their obese, Fed-fattened clients cranked out.

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Foreclosure compensation checks arrive, but anger some homeowners

Families who endured years of anguish or lost their homes due to banks wrongly reporting they were behind on their mortgage payments are calling the compensation payments resulting from a government settlement, many of which number in the low hundreds, “insulting.” NBC’s Lisa Myers reports.

Millions of American homeowners who have struggled with foreclosures are now receiving checks for compensation from the companies that serviced their mortgages — part of the federal government’s efforts to resolve the foreclosure crisis. But some of those receiving checks tell NBC News that the payments are an insult that neither punishes the banks enough for “deficient” practices nor helps harmed homeowners recover.

Karen Pooley, 50, of Seattle, told NBC News that she fell behind on her mortgage after losing her job in the building industry in early 2009, and received a notice of default in February 2010.

Pooley said she’s been fighting to save her home from foreclosure for the past three years.   Believing that her servicer did not follow legal procedures, she said she has contested the foreclosure through her state’s foreclosure process, and managed to stop three foreclosure sales.  She said she also has tried to get authorities to investigate.

Last month, she received her settlement payment, a check for $300.

“It was more than pathetic. It was insulting,” Pooley told NBC News. “I spent more in money on postage providing government agencies with detailed descriptions of what had happened in my case.”

Timothy Platt, 52, a truck driver from Indianapolis, told NBC News he’s also been fighting to save his home from foreclosure the past three years.  He claims his servicer made a mistake, declaring he and his wife behind on their mortgage when they were not.  Platt is suing the servicer, but has found trying to prove his case frustrating.

“They (the banks) have misrepresented the facts,” he wrote to NBC News in an email last month, “they have insisted on pursuing foreclosure.” 

On Thursday morning, Platt emailed NBC News, saying his settlement check had just arrived. It was for $500.

“It’s kind of like a, like a slap in the face,” Platt told NBC News during a stopover in Chicago.  “We’ve been trying to work through this for three years now, and we have no help whatsoever, and we’ve lost lots.”

Both homeowners believe their mortgage servicers are in the wrong.  Each has gone to court to prevent the servicers from taking their homes.  Their respective servicers declined to comment to NBC News.

The compensation payment checks, which range from $300 up to $125,000, are part of the Independent Foreclosure Review Payment Agreement announced in January between federal regulators and 13 mortgage servicing companies, which were subject to enforcement actions for “deficient practices in mortgage loan servicing and foreclosure processing.”  Deficient practices have included errors and misrepresentations and the “robo-signing” of documents.

The regulators are the U.S. Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

The recipients of the checks are mortgage loan borrowers whose homes were in any stage of a foreclosure process during 2009 or 2010, and whose mortgage servicers were among the 13 companies, or their subsidiaries or affiliates.  Compensation payment checks, which began going out April 12, have so far been sent to 3.7 million homeowners. In all, 4.2 million eligible mortgage loan borrowers will receive them.

The 13 servicers are: Aurora, Bank of America, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, MetLife Bank, Morgan Stanley, PNC, Sovereign, SunTrust, U.S. Bank, and Wells Fargo.

According to the OCC’s online FAQ about the agreement, the servicers agreed “to provide more than $9.3 billion in cash payments and other assistance to help borrowers. The sum includes $3.6 billion in direct cash payments to eligible borrowers and $5.7 billion in other foreclosure prevention assistance, such as loan modifications and forgiveness of deficiency judgments.”

By comparison, the five largest banks alone – Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorganChase, Bank of America – earned $60 billion in total profits last year.

Payout guided by ‘the matrix’
What determines how much homeowners receive?

The largest payouts – $125,000 – are going to 1,082 members of the military wrongly foreclosed upon, and to just 53 homeowners across the country foreclosed upon even though they never missed a mortgage payment.  But most of the recipients – almost 2 million homeowners – will get the smallest payments of $300 to $600.

How much each homeowner gets depends on a complicated financial matrix designed by the regulators.

“In determining the payment amounts,” reads a recent OCC press release, “borrowers were categorized according to the stage of their foreclosure process and the type of possible servicer error.  Regulators then determined amounts for each category, using the financial remediation matrix published in June 2012 as a guide, incorporating input from various consumer groups.”)

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Published on Mar 31, 2013

Dimitri Lascaris: New director of SEC was a Wall St. defense attorney who will now regulate former clients

Some four years after the 2008 financial crisis, public trust in banks is as low as ever. Sophisticated investors describe big banks as “black boxes” that may still be concealing enormous risks—the sort that could again take down the economy. A close investigation of a supposedly conservative bank’s financial records uncovers the reason for these fears—and points the way toward urgent reforms.

By and

Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s CEO, testifying last summer before the House Financial Services Committee about his bank’s sudden $6 billion loss. (Jacqueline Martin/AP)

 

The financial crisis had many causes—too much borrowing, foolish investments, misguided regulation—but at its core, the panic resulted from a lack of transparency. The reason no one wanted to lend to or trade with the banks during the fall of 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, was that no one could understand the banks’ risks. It was impossible to tell, from looking at a particular bank’s disclosures, whether it might suddenly implode.

For the past four years, the nation’s political leaders and bankers have made enormous—in some cases unprecedented—efforts to save the financial industry, clean up the banks, and reform regulation in order to restore trust and confidence in the American financial system. This hasn’t worked. Banks today are bigger and more opaque than ever, and they continue to behave in many of the same ways they did before the crash.

Consider JPMorgan’s widely scrutinized trading loss last year. Before the episode, investors considered JPMorgan one of the safest and best-managed corporations in America. Jamie Dimon, the firm’s charismatic CEO, had kept his institution upright throughout the financial crisis, and by early 2012, it appeared as stable and healthy as ever.

One reason was that the firm’s huge commercial bank—the unit responsible for the old-line business of lending—looked safe, sound, and solidly profitable. But then, in May, JPMorgan announced the financial equivalent of sudden cardiac arrest: a stunning loss initially estimated at $2 billion and later revised to $6 billion. It may yet grow larger; as of this writing, investigators are still struggling to comprehend the bank’s condition.

The loss emanated from a little-known corner of the bank called the Chief Investment Office. This unit had been considered boring and unremarkable; it was designed to reduce the bank’s risks and manage its spare cash. According to JPMorgan, the division invested in conservative, low-risk securities, such as U.S. government bonds. And the bank reported that in 95 percent of likely scenarios, the maximum amount the Chief Investment Office’s positions would lose in one day was just $67 million. (This widely used statistical measure is known as “value at risk.”) When analysts questioned Dimon in the spring about reports that the group had lost much more than that—before the size of the loss became publicly known—he dismissed the issue as a “tempest in a teapot.”

Six billion dollars is not the kind of sum that can take down JPMorgan, but it’s a lot to lose. The bank’s stock lost a third of its value in two months, as investors processed reports of the trading debacle. On May 11, 2012, alone, the day after JPMorgan first confirmed the losses, its stock plunged roughly 9 percent.

The incident was about much more than money, however. Here was a bank generally considered to have the best risk-management operation in the business, and it had badly managed its risk. As the bank was coming clean, it revealed that it had fiddled with the way it measured its value at risk, without providing a clear reason. Moreover, in acknowledging the losses, JPMorgan had to admit that its reported numbers were false. A major source of its supposedly reliable profits had in fact come from high-risk, poorly disclosed speculation.

It gets worse. Federal prosecutors are now investigating whether traders lied about the value of the Chief Investment Office’s trading positions as they were deteriorating. JPMorgan shareholders have filed numerous lawsuits alleging that the bank misled them in its financial statements; the bank itself is suing one of its former traders over the losses. It appears that Jamie Dimon, once among the most trusted leaders on Wall Street, didn’t understand and couldn’t adequately manage his behemoth. Investors are now left to doubt whether the bank is as stable as it seemed and whether any of its other disclosures are inaccurate.

The JPMorgan scandal isn’t the only one in recent months to call into question whether the big banks are safe and trustworthy. Many of the biggest banks now stand accused of manipulating the world’s most popular benchmark interest rate, the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), which is used as a baseline to set interest rates for trillions of dollars of loans and investments. Barclays paid a large fine in June to avoid civil and criminal charges that could have been brought by U.S. and U.K. authorities. The Swiss giant UBS was reportedly close to a similar settlement as of this writing. Other major banks, including JPMorgan, Bank of America, and Deutsche Bank, are under civil or criminal investigation (or both), though no charges have yet been filed.

Libor reflects how much banks charge when they lend to each other; it is a measure of their confidence in each other. Now the rate has become synonymous with manipulation and collusion. In other words, one can’t even trust the gauge that is meant to show how much trust exists within the financial system.

Accusations of illegal, clandestine bank activities are also proliferating. Large global banks have been accused by U.S. government officials of helping Mexican drug dealers launder money (HSBC), and of funneling cash to Iran (Standard Chartered). Prosecutors have charged American banks with falsifying mortgage records by “robo-signing” papers to rush the process along, and with improperly foreclosing on borrowers. Only after the financial crisis did people learn that banks routinely misled clients, sold them securities known to be garbage, and even, in some cases, secretly bet against them to profit from their ignorance.

When we asked Ed Trott, a former Financial Accounting Standards Board member, whether he trusted bank accounting, he said, simply, “Absolutely not.”

Together, these incidents have pushed public confidence ever lower. According to Gallup, back in the late 1970s, three out of five Americans said they trusted big banks “a great deal” or “quite a lot.” During the following decades, that trust eroded. Since the financial crisis of 2008, it has collapsed. In June 2012, fewer than one in four respondents told Gallup they had faith in big banks—a record low. And in October, Luis Aguilar, a commissioner at the Securities and Exchange Commission, cited separate data showing that “79 percent of investors have no trust in the financial system.”

When we asked Dane Holmes, the head of investor relations at Goldman Sachs, why so few people trust big banks, he told us, “People don’t understand the banks,” because “there is a lack of transparency.” (Holmes later clarified that he was talking about average people, not the sophisticated investors with whom he interacts on an almost hourly basis.) He is certainly right that few students or plumbers or grandparents truly understand what big banks do anymore. Ordinary people have lost faith in financial institutions. That is a big enough problem on its own.

But an even bigger problem has developed—one that more fundamentally threatens the safety of the financial system—and it more squarely involves the sort of big investors with whom Holmes spends much of his time. More and more, the people in the know don’t trust big banks either.


 

After all the purported “cleansing effects” of the panic, one might have expected big, sophisticated investors to grab up bank stocks, exploiting the timidity of the average investor by buying low. Banks wrote down bad loans; Treasury certified the banks’ health after its “stress tests”; Congress passed the Dodd-Frank reforms to regulate previously unfettered corners of the financial markets and to minimize the impact of future crises. During the 2008 crisis, many leading investors had gotten out of bank stocks; these reforms were designed to bring them back.

And indeed, they did come back—at first. Many investors, including Warren Buffett, say bank stocks were underpriced after the crisis, and remain so today. Most large institutional investors, such as mutual funds, pension funds, and insurance companies, continue to hold substantial stakes in major banks. The Federal Reserve has tried to help banks make profitable loans and trades, by keeping interest rates low and pumping trillions of dollars into the economy. For investors, the combination of low stock prices, an accommodative Fed, and possibly limited downside (the federal government, needless to say, has shown a willingness to assist banks in bad times) can be a powerful incentive.

Yet the limits to big investors’ enthusiasm are clearly reflected in the data. Some four years after the crisis, big banks’ shares remain depressed. Even after a run-up in the price of bank stocks this fall, many remain below “book value,” which means that the banks are worth less than the stated value of the assets on their books. This indicates that investors don’t believe the stated value, or don’t believe the banks will be profitable in the future—or both. Several financial executives told us that they see the large banks as “complete black boxes,” and have no interest in investing in their stocks. A chief executive of one of the nation’s largest financial institutions told us that he regularly hears from investors that the banks are “uninvestable,” a Wall Street neologism for “untouchable.”

That’s an increasingly widespread view among the most sophisticated leaders in investing circles. Paul Singer, who runs the influential investment fund Elliott Associates, wrote to his partners this summer, “There is no major financial institution today whose financial statements provide a meaningful clue” about its risks. Arthur Levitt, the former chairman of the SEC, lamented to us in November that none of the post-2008 remedies has “significantly diminished the likelihood of financial crises.” In a recent conversation, a prominent former regulator expressed concerns about the hidden risks that banks might still be carrying, comparing the big banks to Enron.

A recent survey by Barclays Capital found that more than half of institutional investors did not trust how banks measure the riskiness of their assets. When hedge-fund managers were asked how trustworthy they find “risk weightings”—the numbers that banks use to calculate how much capital they should set aside as a safety cushion in case of a business downturn—about 60 percent of those managers answered 1 or 2 on a five-point scale, with 1 being “not trustworthy at all.” None of them gave banks a 5.

A disturbing number of former bankers have recently declared that the banking industry is broken (this newfound clarity typically follows their passage from financial titan to rich retiree). Herbert Allison, the ex-president of Merrill Lynch and former head of the Obama administration’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, wrote a scathing e-book about the failures of the large banks, stopping just short of labeling them all vampire squids. A parade of former high-ranking executives has called for bank breakups, tighter regulation, or a return to the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law, which separated commercial banking from investment banking. Among them: Philip Purcell (ex-CEO of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter), Sallie Krawcheck (ex-CFO of Citigroup), David Komansky (ex-CEO of Merrill Lynch), and John Reed (former co‑CEO of Citigroup). Sandy Weill, another ex-CEO of Citigroup, who built a career on financial megamergers, did a stunning about-face this summer, advising, with breathtaking chutzpah, that the banks should now be broken up.

Bill Ackman’s journey is particularly telling. One of the nation’s highest-profile and most successful investors, Ackman went from being a skeptic of investing in big banks, to being a believer, and then back again—with a loss of hundreds of millions along the way. In 2010, Ackman bought an almost $1 billion stake in Citigroup for Pershing Square, the $11 billion fund he runs. He reasoned that in the aftermath of the crisis, the big banks had written down their bad loans and become more conservative; they were also facing less competition. That should have been a great environment for investment, he says. He had avoided investing in big banks for most of his career. But “for once,” he told us, “I thought you could trust the carrying values on bank books.”

Last spring, Pershing Square sold its entire stake in Citigroup, as the bank’s strategy drifted, at a loss approaching $400 million. Ackman says, “For the first seven years of Pershing Square, I believed that an investor couldn’t invest in a giant bank. Then I felt I could invest in a bank, and I did—and I lost a lot of money doing it.”

A crisis of trust among investors is insidious. It is far less obvious than a sudden panic, but over time, its damage compounds. It is not a tsunami; it is dry rot. It creeps in, noticed occasionally and then forgotten. Soon it is a daily fact of life. Even as the economy begins to come back, the trust crisis saps the recovery’s strength. Banks can’t attract capital. They lose customers, who fear being tricked and cheated. Their executives are, by turns, traumatized and enervated. Lacking confidence in themselves as they grapple with the toxic legacies of their previous excesses and mistakes, they don’t lend as much as they should. Without trust in banks, the economy wheezes and stutters.

And, of course, as trust diminishes, the likelihood of another crisis grows larger. The next big storm might blow the weakened house down. Elite investors—those who move markets and control the flow of money—will flee, out of worry that the roof will collapse. The less they trust the banks, the faster and more decisively they will beat that path—disinvesting, freezing bank credit, and weakening the structure even more. In this way, fear becomes reality, and troubles that might once have been weathered become existential.

At the heart of the problem is a worry about the accuracy of banks’ financial statements. Some of the questions are basic: How do banks account for loans? Can investors accurately assess the value of those loans? Others are far more complicated: What risks are posed by complex financial instruments, such as the ones that caused JPMorgan’s massive loss? The answers are supposed to be found in the publicly available quarterly and annual reports that banks file with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Financial Accounting Standards Board, an independent private-sector organization, governs the accounting in these filings. Don Young, currently an investment manager, was a board member from 2005 to 2008. “After serving on the board,” he recently told us, “I no longer trust bank accounting.”

Accounting rules have proliferated as banks, and the assets and liabilities they contain, have become more complex. Yet the rules have not kept pace with changes in the financial system. Clever bankers, aided by their lawyers and accountants, can find ways around the intentions of the regulations while remaining within the letter of the law. What’s more, because these rules have grown ever more detailed and lawyerly—while still failing to cover every possible circumstance—they have had the perverse effect of allowing banks to avoid giving investors the information needed to gauge the value and risk of a bank’s portfolio. (That information is obscured by minutiae and legalese.) This is true for the complicated questions about financial innovation and trading, but it also is true for the basic questions, such as those involving loans.

At one point during Young’s tenure, some members of the Financial Accounting Standards Board wanted to make banks account for loans in the same way they do for securities, by recording them at current market values, a method known as “fair value.” Banks were instead recording the value of their loans at the initial loan amount, and setting aside a reserve based on their assumptions about how likely they were to get paid back. The rules also allowed banks to use different methods to measure the value of the same kind of loans, depending on whether the loans were categorized as ones they planned to keep for a long time or instead as ones they planned to sell. Many accounting experts believed that the reported numbers did not give investors an accurate or reliable picture of a bank’s health.

After bitter battles, turnover on the board, worries about acting in the middle of the financial crisis, and aggressive bank lobbying, the accounting mandarins preserved the existing approach instead of switching to fair-value accounting for loans. Young believes that the numbers are even less reliable now. “It’s gotten worse,” he says. When we asked another former board member, Ed Trott, whether he trusted bank accounting, he said, simply, “Absolutely not.”

The problem extends well beyond the opacity of banks’ loan portfolios—it involves almost every aspect of modern bank activity, much of which involves complex investment and trading, not merely lending. Kevin Warsh, an ex–Morgan Stanley banker and a former Federal Reserve Board member appointed by George W. Bush, says woeful disclosure is a major problem. Look at the financial statements a big bank files with the SEC, he says: “Investors can’t truly understand the nature and quality of the assets and liabilities. They can’t readily assess the reliability of the capital to offset real losses. They can’t assess the underlying sources of the firms’ profits. The disclosure obfuscates more than it informs, and the government is not just permitting it but seems to be encouraging it.”

Accounting rules are supposed to help investors understand the companies whose shares they buy. Yet current disclosure requirements don’t illuminate banks’ financial statements; instead, they let the banks turn out the lights. And in that darkness, all sorts of unsavory practices can breed.

We decided to go on an adventure through the financial statements of one bank, to explore exactly what they do and do not show, and to gauge whether it is possible to make informed judgments about the risks the bank may be carrying. We chose a bank that is thought to be a conservative financial institution, and an exemplar of what a large modern bank should be.

Wells Fargo was founded on trust. Its logo has long been a strongly sprung six-horse stagecoach, a fleet of which once thundered across the American West, loaded with gold. According to the firm’s official history, “In the boom and bust economy of the 1850s, Wells Fargo earned a reputation of trust by dealing rapidly and responsibly with people’s money.” People believed Wells Fargo would keep their money safe—the bank’s paper drafts were as good as the gold it shipped throughout the country.

For a century and a half, Wells Fargo stock was also like gold, which is what led Warren Buffett to buy a stake in the bank in 1990. Since then, Buffett and Wells Fargo have been inextricably linked. As of fall 2012, Buffett’s firm, Berkshire Hathaway, owned about 8 percent of Wells Fargo’s shares.

Today, Wells Fargo still prominently displays the stagecoach logo at branches, in advertising, on the 12,000-plus ATMs that dot the country, and even at the bank’s museum stores. There, visitors can buy wholesome, family-friendly items: a stagecoach night‑light; stagecoach salt and pepper shakers; a hand-painted ceramic stagecoach pillbox. These are more than tchotchkes. They are emblems of the bank’s honest and honorable mission.

Buffett’s impeccable reputation has rubbed off on the bank. Wells Fargo is widely regarded as the most conservative of the nation’s biggest banks. Many investors, regulators, and analysts still believe its financial reports reflect a full, fair, and accurate picture of its business. The market value of Wells Fargo’s shares is now the highest of any U.S. bank: $173 billion as of early December 2012. The enthusiasm for Wells Fargo reflects the bank’s good reputation, as well as one seemingly simple fact: the bank earned solid net income of nearly $16 billion in 2011, up 28 percent from 2010.

To find out what’s behind that fact, you have to read Wells Fargo’s annual report—and that is where we began our adventure. The annual report is a special document: it is the place where a bank sets forth the audited details of its business. Although banks also submit unaudited quarterly reports and other periodical documents to the SEC, and have conference calls with analysts and shareholders, the annual report gives investors the most complete and, supposedly, reliable picture.

(Today, big banks have to answer to a dizzying litany of regulators—not only the SEC, but also the Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and so on. The disclosure regimes vary, adding to the confusion. Banks confidentially release additional information to these regulators, but investors do not have access to those details. That regulators have these extra, confidential disclosures isn’t much comfort: given the inability of regulators to police the banks in recent years, one of the only groups that investors trust less than bankers is bank regulators.)

Wells Fargo’s most recent annual report, covering 2011, is 236 pages long. It begins like a book an average person might enjoy: a breezy journey through a year in a bank’s life. On the cover, that stagecoach appears. The first page has a moving story about a customer. The next few pages are filled with images of guys in cowboy hats, a couple holding hands by the ocean, cupcakes, and solar panels. In bold 50‑point font, Wells Fargo reports that it contributed $213.5 million to nonprofits during the year, and it even does the math to make sure we appreciate its generosity: “$4.1 million every week or $585,000 every day or $24,000 every hour.” The introduction’s capstone is this: “We don’t take trust for granted. We know we have to earn it every day in our conversations and actions with our customers. Here’s how we try to do that.”

The sheer volume of “trading” at Wells Fargo suggests that the bank is not what it seems.

Fortunately for Wells Fargo, most people do not read past the introduction. In the pages that follow, the sunny faces of satisfied customers disappear. So do the stories. The narrative is replaced by details about the bank’s businesses that range from the incomprehensible to the disturbing. Wells Fargo told us it devotes “significant resources to fulfilling all reporting requirements of various regulators.” Nevertheless, these disclosures wouldn’t earn anyone’s trust. They are littered with language that says nothing, at length. The report is riddled with progressively more opaque footnotes—the financial equivalent of Dante’s descent into hell. Indeed, after the friendly introduction, the report ought to bear a warning to the inquisitive reader intent on truly understanding the bank’s financial positions: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

The first circle of Wells Fargo’s version of the Inferno, like Dante’s Limbo, merely hints at what is to come, yet it is nonetheless unsettling. One of the main purposes of an annual report is to tell investors how a company makes money. Along these lines, Wells Fargo splits its businesses into two apparently simple and distinct parts—“interest income” and “noninterest income.” At first blush, these two categories appear to parallel the two traditional sources of banking income: interest from loans and customer fees.

 

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