Wonkbook: The financial system was systemically corrupt

July 20, 2012

Very few banks came out of the financial crisis looking good. But JPMorgan and Barclays were in that elite club. Their apparent rectitude raised the possibility -- as JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said over and over again -- that what we'd had were a few bad banks, not a hopelessly corrupted financial system. Fast forward a couple of years, and JPMorgan and Barclays are not looking so good anymore. And the particular way in which they're not looking so good points to the fact that we did, indeed, have a hopelessly corrupted financial system.

If you haven't been following the Libor scandal, read Dylan Matthews' great primer. But if you refuse to do even that, here it is in a few sentences: Libor is the rate at which banks lend to each other. It's considered a measure of how safe the financial system is. As such, many banks use it as a benchmark to set the rate on the consumer debt you and I buy -- they start with the Libor rate and then they add on whatever they think our risk is. But there's something odd about Libor: It's a rate the banks report themselves. And, in recent weeks, we've found out Barclays was lying about it.

In recent days, however, we've found out that it wasn't just Barclays lying about it. Everybody was lying about it. Citigroup was lying about it. German banks were lying about it. We know a number of banks -- though we don't know exactly who -- are talking to the feds about a settlement. We know HSBC, Deutsche Bank and JPMorgan Chase are being investigated.

On Wednesday, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, was asked about Libor. "The biggest impact is once more undermining the integrity of a system that has already been undermined substantially. There was this huge hole to dig out of in terms of getting trust back and now it's that much deeper."

Remember when Ronald Reagan said "trust, but verify"? Well, we've spent the last few years verifying. And when it comes to the financial system, the lesson is not to have too much trust.

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Top story: Gimme Gimme Libor

Dylan Matthews' Libor explainer: http://wapo.st/LZMUPF

The Libor scandal in one graphic: http://aol.it/LZVZYR

The Libor scandal shows the flaws in rate-setting. "It is an open secret in the banking world: the interest rates for many mortgages and loans are based on a benchmark that is largely guesswork. The flaws in the rate-setting process, which is used to determine the pricing for trillions of dollars of financial products, have been exposed by the latest banking scandal. Regulators around the world are investigating whether big banks gamed the rates for their own benefit before and after the financial crisis. But even if banks do not deliberately manipulate the rates, the benchmark remains vulnerable. Banks derive the rates from estimates rather than real market data. So the benchmark, a measure of how much banks charge each other for loans, does not necessarily represent actual borrowing costs. This weakness has only been exacerbated in recent years, as banks have mostly stopped lending to each other." Peter Eavis and Nathaniel Popper in The New York Times.

Libor rigging may have had upsides. "Is it possible that the ma­nipu­la­tion actually had an upside? As analysts assess the fallout, there has been a lot of fog and little clarity about the precise impact on the global economy, markets, investors and average consumers. While many lost because of the rigging, many others, aside from the banks, may have benefited...Barclays was found to have reported sometimes artificially low rates, so consumers whose mortgages, auto loans or student loans were linked to Libor may have paid less. On the other hand, investors who were paid interest based on the benchmark rate, which included investment funds and municipalities, would have lost out. Perhaps the most difficult question about the scandal is whether violating the public trust -- especially when much of the illegal activity occurred in the credit crisis of 2008 -- helped prop up the financial system overall." Zachary Goldfarb and Jia Lynn Yang in The Washington Post.

David Leonhardt talks Libor with Stephen Colbert: Is it more like a cupcake or like a terrorist? http://bit.ly/Oe2raG

A group of banks are considering a group settlement. "A group of banks being investigated in an interest-rate rigging scandal are looking to pursue a group settlement with regulators rather than face a Barclays-style backlash by going it alone, people familiar with the banks' thinking said. Such discussions are preliminary, and it is unclear if regulators will enter these talks, aimed at resolving allegations that banks attempted to manipulate the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, a benchmark that underpins hundreds of trillions of dollars in contracts. Still, there are powerful incentives for the banks to enter joint negotiations...The sources told Reuters that none of the banks involved now want to be second in line for fear that they will get similarly hostile treatment from politicians and the public." Katharina Bart and Diane Bartz in Reuters.

@nicholasdunbar Proposed Libor settlement boils down to: 'How much do we need to pay for you not to publish all our juicy emails?'http://reut.rs/LZMWXV

Wall Street may sue Wall Street over Libor. "Wall Street, grappling with mounting regulatory probes and investor claims over alleged interest-rate manipulation, may face yet another formidable foe: Itself. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) and Morgan Stanley (MS) are among financial firms that may bring lawsuits against their biggest rivals as regulators on three continents examine whether other banks manipulated the London interbank offered rate, known as Libor, said Bradley Hintz, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Even if Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley forgo claims on their own behalf, they oversee money-market funds that may be required to pursue restitution for injured clients, he said." Donal Griffin in Bloomberg.

Central bankers will consider scrapping Libor in September. "Central bankers and regulators will hold talks in September on whether the troubled global Libor interest rate can be reformed or whether it is so damaged that the benchmark of borrowing costs should be scrapped. Bank of England Governor Mervyn King told fellow central bankers in a letter that it was 'very clear that radical reforms of the Libor system are needed'. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and global financial regulator Mark Carney, who is also governor of the Bank of Canada, on Wednesday floated possible alternatives to the London interbank offered rate, which some bankers manipulated in the 2007-09 financial crisis." Randall Palmer in Reuters.

The scandal has hit Germany. "German banks are caught in the cross hairs of the global investigations into rate manipulations. Deutsche Bank and the now-defunct WestLB AG were both given positions on the panel that created the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, considered a prestigious posting at the time for a foreign bank. Now both are complying with regulator requests for documentation in an investigation into at least 15 global financial institutions to determine whether banks purposefully manipulated Libor rates last decade, in part to disguise high funding costs during the 2008 financial crisis." Laura Stevens in The Wall Street Journal.

Citi may have been the biggest Libor liar. "Earlier this week, Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit told analysts not to use Barclays' $450 million Libor settlement as a guidepost for what his firm might have to pay. And he could be right. Citigroup (C) might end up paying much more. A number of studies have shown that when it comes to lying about the key bank rate, Barclays was far from the worst offender. That title may belong to Citi. In early 2010, two economics professors from UCLA and the University of Minnesota looked at Libor manipulation and found that, at least according to one measure, Citi had misstated its lending rate by more than any other large U.S. bank in the run up to the financial crisis. The worst offender worldwide, according to the analysis, was the Royal Bank of Canada." Stephen Gandel in Fortune.

WEIL: The Justice Department let Barclays' executives off the hook. "Imagine you ran a too-big-to-fail bank under criminal investigation by U.S. prosecutors. Now ask yourself this: How much of your company’s money would you pay to have the Justice Department inoculate you personally against the prospect of any government charges? If you said 'the sky’s the limit,' you’re not alone. Prosecutors often settle claims against corporations in exchange for fines, while letting the executives off scot-free...In essence, although it didn’t mention him by name, the Justice Department publicly cleared Diamond of wrongdoing over the way he responded to a pivotal phone call from Paul Tucker...By all appearances, Barclays paid a lot of money for a deal that let its top executives off the hook, while prosecutors accepted Diamond’s version of events as part of the negotiations. That let them get a settlement and move on. Whatever its basis for concluding that Diamond’s story was the truth, the Justice Department owes the world an explanation." Jonathan Weil in Bloomberg.

WARREN: The Libor scandal shows we can't weaken Wall Street regulations. "The Libor scandal is more than just the latest financial deception to come to light. It exposes a fraud that runs to the heart of our financial system...Real accountability would mean prosecuting the traders and bank officials who violated federal laws and prosecuting the executives who knew what they were up to...But the heart of accountability lies deeper. It rests on acknowledging that we cannot trust Wall Street to regulate itself -- not in New York, London or anywhere else. The club is corrupt. When Mitt Romney says he will move to repeal all of the new financial regulations, he supports a corrupt system. When members of Congress grill regulators for being too tough on Wall Street and slash the budgets of the regulators charged with overseeing Wall Street, they prop up a corrupt system." Elizabeth Warren in The Washington Post.

Top op-eds

1) RYAN: The U.S. needs a debt fix to avoid a lost decade. "Sluggish economic growth and our crushing burden of debt are the result of a broken federal government. Washington has a critical role in defending our natural rights, keeping the US safe and promoting opportunity for all, particularly society’s most vulnerable. Yet both political parties - for years - have pushed government beyond its core functions, increasing spending to unsustainable levels. Repeated rounds of incomplete quick fixes will only guarantee that the US enters its own lost decade or even a lost generation. Structural reforms that convincingly reduce debt and ignite growth are what we need to prevent those outcomes." Paul Ryan in The Financial Times.

2) KRUGMAN: The recovery isn't being held back because Barack Obama doesn't like rich people. "Not only do many of the superrich feel deeply aggrieved at the notion that anyone in their class might face criticism, they also insist that their perception that Mr. Obama doesn’t like them is at the root of our economic problems. Businesses aren’t investing, they say, because business leaders don’t feel valued. Mr. Romney repeated this line, too, arguing that because the president attacks success 'we have less success.' This, too, is crazy...There’s no mystery about the reasons the economic recovery has been so weak. Housing is still depressed in the aftermath of a huge bubble, and consumer demand is being held back by the high levels of household debt that are the legacy of that bubble. Business investment has actually held up fairly well given this weakness in demand. Why should businesses invest more when they don’t have enough customers to make full use of the capacity they already have?" Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

3) SCHNAPP: Med school grads earn less and take on more risk than business school grads. "Proposals for transforming compensation for physicians expose a peculiar difference between business- and medical-school graduates. MBAs can readily skate past even fairly egregious business misjudgments and misdeeds. An M.D. must bear the tangible cost of malpractice insurance, a very considerable one in such specialties as surgery and obstetrics. If a physician is tagged, fairly or even unfairly, with above-average professional failings, his insurance premiums skyrocket. Unlike the investment banker who presides over a major bungle, he may even lose the license to practice." John Schnapp in The Wall Street Journal.

4) GERSON: Educational federalism is a massive failure. "The boldest use of the waiver power, however, has come on the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB)...Right and left -- Republican governors and teachers unions -- have found rare ideological agreement on educational federalism. The only problem: Education is a massive failure of federalism. By the second half of the 20th century, America’s public schools were betraying many of the students in their charge, including the overwhelming majority of poor and minority students. In 2000, 5 percent of African American fourth-graders and 7 percent of their Hispanic peers were assessed proficient in math...There is room for improvement in NCLB -- some adjustments in standards, but mainly to make them more uniform and rigorous. These waivers provide money to states with fewer strings attached, an approach that failed for 40 years." Michael Gerson in The Washington Post.

5) ROLANDO: Retiree health benefits are to blame for the Postal Service's red ink. "There is indeed red ink, but the reasons are unrelated to the mail. In 2006 Congress required that, within the next decade, the Postal Service pre-fund future retiree health benefits for the next 75 years -- a burden no other agency or company faces. That accounts for 85 percent of all of the agency’s red ink since -- and more than 90 percent of the $6.46 billion shortfall from the first half of fiscal 2012. Before pre-funding began in 2007, the Postal Service had annual profits in the low billions." Fredric Rolando in The Washington Post.

Top long reads

Peter Whoriskey on drugs taxpayers spend billions on with no evidence that they work: "For years, a trio of anemia drugs known as Epogen, Procrit and Aranesp ranked among the best-selling prescription drugs in the United States, generating more than $8 billion a year for two companies, Amgen and Johnson & Johnson. Even compared with other pharmaceutical successes, they were superstars. For several years, Epogen ranked as the single costliest medicine under Medicare: U.S. taxpayers put up as much as $3 billion a year for the drugs. The trouble, as a growing body of research has shown, is that for about two decades the benefits of the drug -- including 'life satisfaction and happiness' according to the FDA-approved label -- were wildly overstated, and potentially lethal side effects, such as cancer and strokes, were overlooked."

@BCAppelbaum: An infuriating, heartbreaking story about the medication that used to cost Medicare the most money.

Bill McKibben on the new math of global warming: "If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven't convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere - the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe. Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation - in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the 'largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.' The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet's history."

Alternative rock interlude: Black Francis plays "I Burn Today" for 89.3 The Current.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: Bad news for housing; readmission rates stay high; a new cybersecurity bill; the drought may get worse; and a watermelon explodes slowly.

Economy

Previously owned home sales fell in June. "Housing markets that just two years ago struggled with a glut of homes are now facing a new problem: There are fewer properties to lure buyers. Sales of previously owned homes fell 5.4% in June from May to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.37 million, the National Association of Realtors said Thursday. While above the sales level of a year ago, the number nonetheless disappointed analysts because other recent housing indicators have signaled stronger improvement...Some economists and the Realtors' group attributed last month's decline to a sharp drop in the number of homes on the market, leaving would-be buyers with less to choose from." Nick Timiraos and Kelsey Gee in The Wall Street Journal.

@NickTimiraos: June's home sales report is the weakest in 8 months, but it's still better than 15 of the 16 months before that.

@goldfarb: It looks like this may well be the second worst quarter of GDP growth since the recession ended.

Senate Democrats are dropping an estate tax plan. "Senate Democratic leaders are eliminating a provision to tax wealthy estates in order to shore up support within their ranks for President Barack Obama’s election-year tax plan, senators and aides said Thursday. Since there was no consensus in the Senate Democratic Caucus over the levels to tax estates transferred after a person’s death, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told senators Thursday he’d drop that provision...The original version of the Senate Democrats’ tax legislation included a provision that set the maximum estate tax rate at 45 percent for estates valued at more than $3.5 million. Right now, there’s a 35 percent rate for estates worth more than $5.12 million. But if Congress doesn’t act, estates worth $1 million could be hit with a 55 percent tax rate next year." Manu Raju and Seung Min Kim in Politico.

Extending tax cuts for the rich would cost about $80 billion a year. "A Republican proposal to preserve tax cuts for the nation’s wealthiest households next year would cost about $80 billion more than a Democratic proposal to extend the cuts solely for middle-class taxpayers, according to official estimates released Thursday. The GOP measure, introduced by Senate Republicans, would devote an additional $50 billion to retaining the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for taxpayers in the top two tax brackets. Reducing the estate and gift tax, which disproportionately benefits the wealthy, would eat up another $31 billion, according to cost estimates by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation. All told, the Republican measure would add $300 billion to next year’s budget deficit, the JCT said. A competing Democratic proposal to extend the Bush tax cuts only on income under $250,000 would increase the deficit by about $223 billion next year." Lori Montgomery in The Washington Post.

Time is running out for the SEC to pursue financial crisis fraud. "Five years after the financial crisis began to unfold, questions are arising about whether federal securities regulators are running out of time to pursue alleged fraud. The answer, as usual, depends on who you ask. Some courts have ruled that the Securities and Exchange Commission can only obtain civil penalties for fraud within five years of the activity taking place. More recently, the influential federal district court in Manhattan ruled that time runs out five years after the SEC discovers or should have discovered the alleged fraud.Either way, the agency is pressing up against deadlines -- at least in matters that arose early in the financial crisis, which erupted in mid-2007, legal experts said...The SEC has charged 110 entities or individuals in financial crisis-related cases and collected $1.6 billion in penalties, the agency said." Dina ElBoghdady in The Washington Post.

Lawmakers are pushing a bill to let payday lenders operate under federal rules. "A bipartisan team of House lawmakers is pushing new legislation that would allow nonbank lenders, including those typically known as payday lenders, to choose to operate under a federal charter and avoid dealing with a patchwork of often conflicting state laws. Supporters, which include an influential group of online providers of short-term, small-dollar loans, say the measure would help consumers who can't get affordable credit from traditional sources such as credit cards and bank loans, especially given the current tight lending environment in which only consumers with sterling credit scores can obtain loans. More than a dozen states either outright or indirectly ban payday lending, for instance, while others have varying laws governing short-term lending that some industry players says makes it harder to get new products to the market and keeps costs higher than they need to be." Victoria McGrane in The Wall Street Journal.

Short film interlude: Scary Smash, a story written and told by 5-year-old Brett Baligad.

Health Care

Many House Republicans want more votes against Obamacare. "A large bloc of House Republicans urged their leaders to hold more votes to block funding for the healthcare law. Joined by roughly half of the House GOP, Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) stated that efforts to subvert 'ObamaCare' must continue 'until we are successful.' 'We urge you not to bring to the House floor ... any legislation that provides or allows fund to implement ObamaCare,' they wrote in a letter, adding that all current implementation funds should be rescinded." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Hospital readmission rates remain high. "Hospitals are making little headway in reducing the frequency at which patients are readmitted despite a government campaign and the threat of financial penalties, according to Medicare data released Thursday. The federal government and health policy experts consider frequent readmissions a sign of the shortcomings of the nation’s health-care system, with more than one in five Medicare patients returning to the hospital within a month of discharge. Medicare in October will begin to penalize hospitals with higher than expected readmission rates as required by the 2010 federal health-care law...The Medicare data published Thursday on its Hospital Compare website showed that 19.7 percent of heart attack patients were readmitted within 30 days of discharge, a drop of only a 0.1 percentage point from the previous year’s figures." Jordan Rau in The Washington Post.

Domestic Policy

The White House backed discharging some student debt through bankruptcy . "The Obama administration urged Congress to make it easier for people to discharge a portion of certain student debt by filing for bankruptcy protection. The recommendation, in a report by the Education Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, wouldn't affect the vast majority of student debt, which is issued by the federal government. It would apply only to the roughly $150 billion, or 15% of total outstanding student debt, issued by private lenders such as SLM Corp.'s Sallie Mae and Wells Fargo & Co. Consumer bureau chief Richard Cordray said Congress should consider modifying a 2005 law that, except in rare circumstances, prohibits discharging private student loans through bankruptcy." Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.

@rortybomb: Just shy of 2-year bday, @CFPB puts out solid, quality report on private student loans, with strong recommendations. http://bit.ly/MNAcNS

A revised cybersecurity bill was introduced. "Senate Homeland Security Committee leaders Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced a revised version of their cybersecurity bill on Thursday. The latest version of the bill includes elements of a voluntary program outlined in a compromise framework drafted by a bipartisan group of senators led by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)...Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday put the new version of the bill on the Senate calendar...Lieberman had said he expects the Senate to take up the cybersecurity bill by the end of next week." Jennifer Martinez in The Hill.

Some House Republicans want action on the farm bill this month. "More than three dozen House Republicans -- including a member of the GOP leadership -- have joined Democrats to press Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to bring the farm bill to the floor this month. Behind Reps. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.), the bipartisan group of lawmakers says reauthorizing the bill, which expires Sept. 30, is necessary to ensure the nation's farmers 'can continue to provide an abundant, affordable and safe food supply.'...The letter was signed by 24 Democrats and 38 Republicans, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who is a member of GOP leadership as vice chairwoman of the House Republican Conference." Mike Lillis in The Hill.

Slow motion interlude: A watermelon explodes in slow motion.

Energy

The worst drought in over half a century is set to get worse. "The drought that has settled over more than half of the continental United States this summer is the most widespread in more than half a century. And it is likely to grow worse. The latest outlook released by the National Weather Service on Thursday forecasts increasingly dry conditions over much of the nation’s breadbasket, a development that could lead to higher food prices and shipping costs as well as reduced revenues in areas that count on summer tourism. About the only relief in sight was tropical activity in the Gulf of Mexico and the Southeast that could bring rain to parts of the South...The government has declared one-third of the nation’s counties -- 1,297 of them across 29 states -- federal disaster areas as a result of the drought, which will allow farmers to apply for low-interest loans to get them through the disappointing growing season." John Eligon in The New York Times.

Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Karl Singer and Michelle Williams.

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