Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Citigroup ATM - Jack Lew and Tim Geithner escape mention in the bank settlement.

The Citigroup ATM, WSJ Editorial
Jack Lew and Tim Geithner escape mention in the bank settlement.The Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2014 7:37 p.m. ET

The Department of Justice isn't known for a sense of humor. But on Monday it announced a civil settlement with Citigroup over failed mortgage investments that covers almost exactly the period when current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew oversaw divisions at Citi that presided over failed mortgage investments. Now, that's funny.

Though Justice, five states and the FDIC are prying $7 billion from the bank for allegedly misleading investors, there's no mention in the settlement of clawing back even a nickel of Mr. Lew's compensation. We also see no sanction for former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who allowed Citi to build colossal mortgage risks outside its balance sheet while overseeing the bank as president of the New York Federal Reserve.

The settlement says Citi's alleged misdeeds began in 2006, the year Mr. Lew joined the bank, and the agreement covers conduct "prior to January 1, 2009." That was shortly before Mr. Lew left to work for President Obama and two weeks before Mr. Lew received $944,518 from Citi in "salary, payout for vested restricted stock," and "discretionary cash compensation for work performed in 2008," according to a 2010 federal disclosure report. That was also the year Citi began receiving taxpayer bailouts of $45 billion in cash, plus hundreds of billions more in taxpayer guarantees.

While Attorney General Eric Holder is forgiving toward his Obama cabinet colleagues, he seems to believe that some housing transactions can never be forgiven. The $7 billion settlement includes the same collateralized debt obligation for which the bank already agreed to pay $285 million in a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Justice settlement also includes a long list of potential charges not covered by the agreement, so prosecutors can continue to raid the Citi ATM.

Citi offers in return what looks like a blanket agreement not to sue the government over any aspect of the case, and waives its right to defend itself "based in whole or in part on a contention that, under the Double Jeopardy Clause in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, or under the Excessive Fines Clause in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, this Agreement bars a remedy sought in such criminal prosecution or administrative action." We hold no brief for Citi, which has been rescued three times by the feds. But what kind of government demands the right to exact repeated punishments for the same offense?

The bank's real punishment should have been failure, as former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair and we argued at the time. Instead, the regulators kept Citi alive with taxpayer money far beyond what it provided most other banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Keeping it alive means they can now use Citi as a political target when it's convenient to claim they're tough on banks.

And speaking of that $7 billion, good luck finding a justification for it in the settlement agreement. The number seems to have been pulled out of thin air since it's unrelated to Citi's mortgage-securities market share or any other metric we can see beyond having media impact.

If this sounds cynical, readers should consult the Justice Department's own leaks to the press about how the Citi deal went down. Last month the feds were prepared to bring charges against the bank, but the necessities of public relations intervened.

According to the Journal, "News had leaked that afternoon, June 17, that the U.S. had captured Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a key suspect in the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi in 2012. Justice Department officials didn't want the announcement of the suit against Citigroup—and its accompanying litany of alleged misdeeds related to mortgage-backed securities—to be overshadowed by questions about the Benghazi suspect and U.S. policy on detainees. Citigroup, which didn't want to raise its offer again and had been preparing to be sued, never again heard the threat of a suit."

This week's settlement includes $4 billion for the Treasury, roughly $500 million for the states and FDIC, and $2.5 billion for mortgage borrowers. That last category has become a fixture of recent government mortgage settlements, even though the premise of this case involves harm done to bond investors, not mortgage borrowers.

But the Obama Administration's references to the needs of Benghazi PR remind us that it could be worse. At least Mr. Holder isn't blaming the Geithner and Lew failures on a video.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Our Financial Crisis Amnesia - Remember the S&L crisis? Nobody else does either. And we'll soon forget about 2008 too

Our Financial Crisis Amnesia. By Alex J. Pollock
Remember the S&L crisis? Nobody else does either. And we'll soon forget about 2008 too.WSJ, July 9, 2014 6:50 p.m. ET

It is now five years since the end of the most recent U.S. financial crisis of 2007-09. Stocks have made record highs, junk bonds and leveraged loans have boomed, house prices have risen, and already there are cries for lower credit standards on mortgages to "increase access."

Meanwhile, in vivid contrast to the Swiss central bank, which marks its investments to market, the Federal Reserve has designed its own regulatory accounting so that it will never have to recognize any losses on its $4 trillion portfolio of long-term bonds and mortgage securities.

Who remembers that such "special" accounting is exactly what the Federal Home Loan Bank Board designed in the 1980s to hide losses in savings and loans? Who remembers that there even was a Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which for its manifold financial sins was abolished in 1989?

It is 25 years since 1989. Who remembers how severe the multiple financial crises of the 1980s were?

The government of Mexico defaulted on its loans in 1982 and set off a global debt crisis. The Federal Reserve's double-digit interest rates had rendered insolvent the aggregate savings and loan industry, until then the principal supplier of mortgage credit. The oil bubble collapsed with enormous losses.

Between 1982 and 1992, a disastrous 2,270 U.S. depository institutions failed. That is an average of more than 200 failures a year or four a week over a decade. From speaking to a great many audiences about financial crises, I can testify that virtually no one knows this.

In the wake of the housing bust, I was occasionally asked, "Will we learn the lessons of this crisis?" "We will indeed," I would reply, "and we will remember them for at least four or five years." In 2007 as the first wave of panic was under way, I heard a senior international economist opine in deep, solemn tones, "What we have learned from this crisis is the importance of liquidity risk." "Yes," I said, "that's what we learn from every crisis."

The political reactions to the 1980s included the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989, the FDIC Improvement Act of 1991, and the very ironically titled GSE Financial Safety and Soundness Act of 1992. Anybody remember the theories behind those acts?

After depositors in savings and loan associations were bailed out to the tune of $150 billion (the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation having gone belly up), then-Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady pronounced that the great legislative point was "never again." Never, that is, until the Mexican debt crisis of 1994, the Asian debt crisis of 1997, and the Long-Term Capital Management crisis of 1998, all very exciting at the time.

And who remembers the Great Recession (so called by a prominent economist of the time) in 1973-75, the huge real-estate bust and New York City's insolvency crisis? That was the decade before the 1980s.

Viewing financial crises over several centuries, the great economic historian Charles Kindleberger concluded that they occur on average about once a decade. Similarly, former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker wittily observed that "about every 10 years, we have the biggest crisis in 50 years."

What is it about a decade or so? It seems that is long enough for memories to fade in the human group mind, as they are overlaid with happier recent experiences and replaced with optimistic new theories.

Speaking in 2013, Paul Tucker, the former deputy governor for financial stability of the Bank of England—a man who has thought long and hard about the macro risks of financial systems—stated, "It will be a while before confidence in the system is restored." But how long is "a while"? I'd say less than a decade.

Mr. Tucker went on to proclaim, "Never again should confidence be so blind." Ah yes, "never again." If Mr. Tucker's statement is meant as moral suasion, it's all right. But if meant as a prediction, don't bet on it.

Former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, for all his daydream of the government as financial Platonic guardian, knows this. As he writes in "Stress Test," his recent memoir: "Experts always have clever reasons why the boom they are enjoying will avoid the disastrous patterns of the past—until it doesn't." He predicts: "There will be a next crisis, despite all we did."

Right. But when? On the historical average, 2009 + 10 = 2019. Five more years is plenty of time for forgetting.

Mr. Pollock is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and was president and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago 1991-2004.