Beast of the Month - October 2008
The Wall Street $700 Billion Bailout Swindle, Gigantic Financial Scam
"I yam an anti-Christ..."
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
"This plan is immoral. This plan is a disgrace. It bails out people on Wall Street who have speculated and who would drive this economy into the ground unless we have some controls on them... What's happening is this bailout proposal helps the few at the expense of the many."
Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a rare voice of honesty, on the Wall Street swindle
Even in the world of Beasthood, what we refer to as "The Wall Street $700 Billion Bailout Swindle" took an unusual path to winning The Konformist Beast of the Month.
After all, the Wall Street bailout (or, as it has since been rebranded in much of the mainstream press, the Wall Street "rescue" - as, for some strange reason, the term "bailout" has led the plan to be viewed in the public as some sort of rip-off) didn't even exist before September 20th. That's when it was first proposed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, George W. Bush's point man for the continuing economic crisis. Of course, the fact that the bailout was cooked up by Bush and his minions was the first reason the public was rightfully skeptical about the whole scheme.
Which leads to the second reason: the amount. $700 billion, of course, is a hell of a lot of money. So the question needs to be asked, just how was this amount decided? Certainly there must have been some kind of elaborate economic study where the amount was derived from, right? Well, actually, according to Forbes Magazine, a Treasury spokeswoman explained: "It’s not based on any particular data point. We just wanted to choose a really large number.” Or, more to the point, a number large enough to put the public in a panic so they would quickly support it without debate.
This leads to the third reason: isn't there a bit of deja vu in this whole set-up? After all, the attempt to use hysteria to ram a controversial bill through Congress without debate, isn't this what happened after 9/11 with the Patriot Act? And wasn't this irrational propaganda push exactly what preceded the Iraq War as well? Hasn’t the American public played Charlie Brown to Bush's Lucy Van Pelt enough times to know that Team Bush can't be trusted?
The good news is that the public DID conclude Team Bush couldn't be trusted. According to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, sentiments on the bailout from voters was "universally negative" by a rate of 95 percent. Her assessment seemed to be echoed by her cohorts in Congress: California Senator Dianne Feinstein declared she had received more than 50,000 calls and letters over the bailout plan, with the overwhelming majority opposed to it. California's other Senator was more specific: according to Barbara Boxer, only 40 out of over 2,000 calls to her California office were for the bailout, and her D.C. office had opposition at 917 to 1. Meanwhile, a Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times September 19-22 poll found opposition to the bailout 55 to 31 percent, and a USA Today/Gallup September 24 survey found 56 to 22 percent that the public wanted Congress to pass a plan different from the Paulson proposal.
The bad news is that the negative public sentiments weren't echoed in the korporate media, which went out of its way to propagandize for the scam. The thinly concealed bailout PR went into overdrive after it was stunningly rejected in the House by a vote of 228 to 205 on September 29. Beyond the yellow journalism used to propagandize for the bailout, arm-twisting in the Beltway hit new lows. Southern Cal Congressman Brad Sherman had this to say about the DC political atmosphere: “The one thing that’s been proven is the absolute fear-mongering that’s being used to drive us is false. I’ve seen members turn to each other and say if we don’t pass this bill, we’re going to have martial law in the United States.” Despite this climate, a few politicians had some rather observant comments to make about the bailout. Spencer Bachus, a Republican, declared: "It caught all of us on the Hill by surprise. It was a gun to our head. And any time we rush on that stuff we make mistakes." Democrat Pete Stark of Northern California concluded: "I think we are being railroaded in the same manner we were to vote for Iraq." House Republican leader John Boehner called it class warfare, saying, "We should not be bailing out Wall Street on the backs of the American taxpayers." Dennis Kucinich was even more to the point, stating it was "too much money, in too short of a time, going to too few people, while too many questions remain unanswered... Is this the U.S. Congress or the board of directors at Goldman Sachs?" Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd (chairman of the Senate Banking Committee) summed it up thusly: "It does nothing in my view to help a single family save a home."
Even with these comments and widespread opposition, the fix was in. A slightly modified version of the bill was passed in the Senate on October 1, by a vote of 74-25. (To evade the Constitutional requirement that spending bills begin in the House, it was introduced as an "amendment" to an existing bill already passed by the House, replacing the entire text.) It was then resubmitted to the House, who this time passed the bill 263-171 on October 3rd. This despite the following issues:
* CONCENTRATED POWERS: The original proposal by Paulson made the Treasury Secretary's decisions non-reviewable by any court or administrative agency. On this point, noted economist Nouriel Roubini commented: "He's asking for a huge amount of power. He's saying, 'Trust me, I'm going to do it right if you give me absolute control.' This is not a monarchy." Frank Razzano, a former SEC attorney, described it as "dictatorial power unreviewable by the third branch of government, the courts, to try to resolve the crisis. We are taking a huge leap of faith." This point became so controversial, it was dropped from the final bill, but even without it, it provided one man unprecedented powers to influence and interfere with the economic marketplace with a gigantic sum of money.
* CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Making matters worse, the one man given these unprecedented powers was Paulson himself, the unelected Treasury head who impersonated Nero on a fiddle while the subprime crisis morphed into the financial crisis. (For this, Paulson received the prestigious BOTM trophy in April. Great job, Hank!) Paulson is the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, which stands to reap huge benefits from the plan, as do many of his former associates and colleagues. It is also plausible to assume Paulson will cover-up any criminal activity by corporations and executives involved in the financial meltdown. Congressman Peter DeFazio cynically suspected Congress was being "rolled by a Wall Street executive who is masquerading as the secretary of the Treasury."
* ALL THE MONEY WILL LIKELY DISAPPEAR: The bailout calls for using the $700 billion to buy toxic assets from banks. This means that the Treasury will receive the worst of the assets from Wall Street, the ones with the lowest likelihood of any return. Meanwhile, as noted on the Calculated Risk blog, the bill doesn't merely give the Treasury Secretary $700 billion to use as he pleases once, but rather a total of $700 billion at one time. This means if any money is actually returned to the Treasury, it can be poured back into Wall Street. Such a strategy seems doomed to leave the Treasury stuck with $700 billion in the most toxic of investments, with Wall Street off scot-free and the American taxpayer left holding the bag.
* WALL STREET EXECUTIVES GET A FREE RIDE: The plan calls for no limits on pay to CEOs and other executives of companies receiving the funds, a point that lead to deserved criticism. If the American public gives $700 billion to Wall Street in these tough economic times, shouldn't the heads of these companies (who created the crisis with their own reckless decisions) be willing to make some sacrifice in return? Not according to Paulson, who claims such limits would lead to companies not participating in the bailout. Despite much feigned outrage and finger wagging from the Democrats (including House Financial Services chairman Barney Frank stating that CEOs who refuse pay cuts are "selfish and unpatriotic") the final plan passed without changing this.
* COST: As previously pointed out, $700 billion is a lot of money. The amount would also likely push the 2009 budget deficit over $1 trillion, possibly even to the astounding level of $1.5 trillion. Even at $1 trillion, the amount of the deficit would be nearly 2.5 times the previous record amount set in 2004, and at 7 percent of GDP, it would best the previous record during 1983, when Ronald Reagan's "Voodoo Economics" and a major recession led to a 6 percent rate. This will fuel political demands for cuts in social services to the poor and middle class, while Wall Street executives continue to live large.
* $700 BILLION IS TIP OF THE ICEBERG: As noted by CNBC on September 21, Wall Street had already received $1.1 trillion dollars in bailout money this year already, meaning the total now amounts to $1.8 trillion. Meanwhile, Bloomberg TV analyst Marc Faber predicts the total bailout for Wall Street will eventually amount to an astounding $5 trillion. Economist Michael Hudson (who was Dennis Kucinich’s Chief Economic Advisor during his presidential campaign) has warned that funneling these gigantic sums of money into Wall Street is a "once in a century rip-off" that could lead to hyperinflation and the collapse of the dollar, the same things which destroyed Germany's Weimar Republic and created Hitler's Third Reich.
* ZERO FOR THE POOR & MIDDLE CLASS: As early as March, The Konformist was noting the gross inequity in what was being pumped into Wall Street and what was being done for those facing foreclosure due to the subprime crisis. Cut to October, and still not a penny of federal money or help has gone to the American working class. It's time to call class warfare what it is. As Michael Hudson put it: "It’s not a bailout, it's a give away and it's a give away that will create a new Kleptocracy of billionaires."
Of course, all these objections are met by establishment mouthpieces with the following predictable refrain: "Well, we have to do something." Of course, "something" shouldn't mean "the worst plan cooked up by the most cynically exploitative political mob in the history of America." Here are some alternative views that could have been explored instead of Bush's Wall Street Swindle:
* New York Times economist Paul Krugman recommended the Treasury purchase equity capital instead of toxic assets. Instead of being stuck with bad investments, the Treasury would be invested in companies and could expect some returns from their $700 billion. This is precisely what was done during the S&L bailout and the highly successful Swedish banking rescue of the 1990s.
* In The Wall Street Journal, Hillary Clinton called for helping regular homeowners instead of just throwing money to Wall Street. She advocated creating a new Home Owners' Loan Corporation, modeled after the New Deal program. The HOLC would help homeowners refinance their mortgages, combined with a moratorium on foreclosures and freezing of rate hikes in ARM loans.
* Economist Nouriel Roubini combined reviving the HOLC along with a new Resolution Trust Corporation (used to recover funds during the S&L crisis) and Reconstruction Finance Corporation (another New Deal plan to provide liquidity to the banking system) to battle the crisis. He would also comment: "It is pathetic that Congress did not consult any of the many professional economists that have presented – many on the Monitor Finance blog forum – alternative plans that were more fair and efficient."
* Filmmaker Michael Moore may not be a respected economist or a politician, but his populist instincts are central to his popularity. On his Website, he advocated a policy that combined the following principals: have any bailout paid for by taxes on the wealthy, corporations and investors; equity capital in all banks for any bailout money; limiting executive pay to 40 times what their average worker makes (currently the average is an outrageous 400 to 1); rejection of the "deregulation" that has gone on since the eighties; breaking up giant corporations so the "It's too big to fail" bailout defense can't be used; focusing any bailout on homeowners and families rather than banks and corporations, including direct loans from the government to the public; and, almost as important, appointing a special prosecutor to indict any criminal behavior on Wall Street.
* Rosalind Resnick of Entrepreneur Magazine provided details of a plan that would flesh out Michael Moore's radical vision: loans to the public at the federal fund rate (the rate banking institutions get) of 2 percent for all homeowners to refinance mortgages, as well as to consumers for their credit card debt, auto loans and other debts. She argued such a plan "would cost U.S. taxpayers absolutely nothing" and would almost certainly jump start the economy, all while cutting out the middle man.
* Even conservative Republicans came up with a better plan than the Bush Team did. They proposed creation of a federal mortgage insurance plan funded by the banks themselves, thus making any "bailout" paid for solely by the industry itself. Granted, their proposal only deals with the symptoms of the economic crisis and still doesn't help the average family facing foreclosure, but at least it is paid for more fairly than the Paulson plan.
Of course, this leads to the greatest irony of the Wall Street bailout scam: though it was proposed by the Bush Administration, it was actually supported and pushed through thanks to the Democrats rather than the GOP. The divide was especially noted in the House: both times the bailout was voted on, the Democrats approved it by a majority (140-95 and 172-62) while the Republicans opposed it (65-133 and 91-108.) Part of the reason for Republican rejection is ideological: after decades of the right wing embracing the laissez faire economic philosophy espoused by Milton Friedman and the Chicago boys, it's hard to square that with advocating a $700 billion giveaway to the bankers without admitting your entire economic talking points have been a lie. But perhaps the better explanation is that after eight years of having their fortunes tied to George W. Bush and seeing where it's gotten them, GOP congressmen looked at an unpopular proposal created by an unpopular man and decided not to drink the Kool-Aid.
The Democratic Party showed no such wisdom. After sniveling to Shrub and his minions for so long, they pathetically caved in to a man with no political capital once again. This time, however, they can't whine like they did over the Patriot Act, Iraq or even the recent FISA bill that they were forced into it by the Republicans: the votes in Congress prove this has their fingerprints on it more than the Elephant Party.
That's fine with Barack Obama. His campaign appeared confused and fading when the financial crisis hit center stage in September. Thanks to his unblinking support for a Wall Street giveaway, Obama cheerleading in the korporate media (which has been objectively relentless throughout the past year) went through the roof, while Palin-fever and McCain became increasingly mocked. (Sarah and John's apparent utter cluelessness on the financial crisis - no doubt fueled by the previously mentioned blatant dichotomy of McCain-Palin supporting the bailout while still clinging to right-wing economics - certainly aided this deserved mocking.) Obama's nosedive in public opinion polls suddenly reversed, and if he does win the presidency, the financial crisis was the final turning point for him in the election. Still, the question has to be asked how much his change in fortune was due to his candidacy being financed by the same Wall Street now benefiting from the scam.
Then again, Obama isn't a lone nut in the Democratic Party going to bat for Wall Street, as the Congressional votes clearly shows. Indeed, despite their noted criticisms and mentions of widespread opposition to the bailout, Barbara Boxer, Sherrod Brown, Christopher Dodd, Diane Feinstein, Barney Frank and, of course, Hillary Clinton all voted for the bailout as well. It's interesting to note that, aside from the already discredited-in-the-establishment-media Dennis Kucinich, the two Democrats who would've had the most to say against the bailout at the start of 2008 were John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer, two men who had their political careers conveniently destroyed by sex scandals this year.
So while the 2008 financial crisis should be remembered as the final nail in the coffin for the miserable failure that is George W. Bush, it may instead be noted as the moment the Democratic Party, under the leadership of a smooth-talking charlatan, removed any pretense of being the party of the common man and instead fully embraced being the party of bankers and Wall Street. As Nouriel Roubini put it: "This is again a case of privatising the gains and socialising the losses; a bail-out and socialism for the rich, the well-connected and Wall Street. And it is a scandal that even Congressional Democrats have fallen for this treasury scam that does little to help millions of distressed, debt-saddled home-owners." Simply put, if the economic crisis of 2008 is the beginning of Great Depression II - and boy, sequels really do suck - then the bailout is like watching the New Deal in reverse, where the federal government is used to soak the public for the benefit of a criminal plutocracy.
In any case, we salute The Wall Street $700 Billion Bailout Swindle (and those behind it) as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, dudes!!!
After the bailout was approved, the stock market continued to dive, even though saving it was one of the supposed reasons for the bailout in the first place. On October 6, 2008, the Dow Jones sunk below 10,000 for the first time in four years, and by Inauguration Day 2009 it was below 8,000, after peaking at over 14,000 in 2007. Meanwhile, unemployment rose over 1.6 million the last three months of 2008, an astounding figure. The unemployment rate as 2008 ended was 7.2 percent.
The projected 2009 budget deficit now isn't $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion - it's $2 trillion, even before Barack Obama's supposed stimulus package. Add that to the picture, and it's an astounding $3 trillion deficit for 2009. Facing this budget crisis, Obama has proposed a "fiscal responsibility summit" for austerity measures on "entitlements" such as Social Security and Medicare. Can't say we didn't warn you...
The good news: the Treasury decided to use the bailout money to purchase preferred stock rather than toxic assets, meaning there is some hope for some return of investment. The bad news: the money has been targeted to bigger banks, leading to even more market consolidation, thus creating more "too big to fail" banks and ensuring further bailouts. Meanwhile, there is heavy suspicion Paulson has chosen winners and losers by settling his own petty vendettas in the process, one decided danger of giving one man unchecked powers.
By the end of 2008, total funds given to Wall Street in various ways was $8.5 trillion, higher than the predicted $5 trillion total cited by Bloomberg in September.
As noted in The Wall Street Journal, the nine biggest banks given $125 billion during 2008 in bailout money owed executives $40 billion. This means nearly a third of the money handed out will be pocketed by wealthy insiders. It the ratio stays the same, the bailout will give over $220 billion to banking executives.
Thanks to John "JT" Tully of Broadcatching.wordpress.com for help on this article.
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