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Cleaning up the mess that remains

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At least the Obama administration isn’t saying “Mission Accomplished.”

In marking the anniversary of Lehman Brothers’ demise, the administration understandably focused on how far we’ve come since, and on the various exit strategies in the works.

Lehman Brothers has been at the center of the narrative of what went wrong last year, and that makes it much easier for the administration to tell a story of triumph rather than the more uncomfortable legacy of dysfunctional companies and hidden toxic assets.

Coinciding with President Barack Obama’s speech in New York, the Treasury released a paper today, titled “The Next Phase of Government Financial Stabilization and Rehabilitation Policies.”

Obama urging Wall Street to do the right thing

In his speech, Obama emphasizes that big banks should take it upon themselves to give back to the community after the tax payer has done so much to put them on them on the road to recovery. While I agree with the point in theory, I’m not sure Wall Street is built to think about the moral imperative of creating a better society when it’s primary goal is to make money.

Wall Street, and I use this term broadly, has already demonstrated that when it’s presented with a  choice, it chooses the money. While many bristle at the thought of more regulation, especially when it means it could undermine financial innovation – God forbid – one of the important take aways from the crisis should be there needs to be a counterweight to greed. The industry cannot regulate itself.

from Rolfe Winkler:

A healthcare failure could save Obama

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The rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid threaten to destroy the nation's fiscal future, but President Obama is pushing for healthcare reform that would increase costs. Instead, he should refocus his presidency on paying down debt.true-national-debt-updated1

America's obligations over the next 75 years now surpass $62 trillion, up 8 percent since last year. And a new report released today by the Peterson Foundation suggests that total will go even higher if the House's health care legislation is passed.

Why the U.S. needs a Value Added Tax

Swelling deficits and an aging population leave few palatable options when it comes to taxes.

The best choice by far would be the creation of a new value added tax — a “money machine” that can bring in huge sums with relatively little effort. America is alone among rich nations in not charging a VAT, and its continued unwillingness to do so will make it harder to cope with the fiscal challenges ahead.

Stones and glass houses, offshore tax haven edition

One of the week’s more amusing stories takes us to the sun-kissed shores of the Cayman Islands, scuba diver’s paradise, magnet for hedge funds and – until very recently – world-beating tax haven.

The financial crisis has not been kind to the Caymans. Hundreds of hedge funds have collapsed and global banks have slashed jobs. As if this was not enough, President Barack Obama in the spring launched a crackdown on tax havens that forced a number of Caribbean islands, including the Caymans, to embrace greater transparency – after a fashion.

Debt on autopilot

At first glance this week’s budget projections paint President Obama as a spendthrift. The White House itself offered a grim glimpse of a future in which U.S. debt more than doubles to $17.5 trillion in a decade — an increase of nearly $10 trillion.

Merely servicing the U.S. debt will cost more than America currently spends on either defense or social security.

The mirage of U.S. healthcare

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On healthcare, the White House is struggling with a political riptide that threatens to drag it into deep water.

Americans, as they contemplate change, have suffered a weakness of nerve. The main reason is that nearly two thirds of Americans are apparently happy with their healthcare coverage, for all its deficiencies. Repeated reassurances from President Obama that those who like the existing set-up will not be forced to change, have had little effect.

Wall Street’s $4 trillion kitty

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matthewgoldstein.jpgThe Obama administration’s plan for reining in derivatives leaves unchecked one of Wall Street’s dirty little secrets: the ability of a derivatives dealer to redeploy cash collateral that gets posted by one of its trading partners.

On Wall Street, this practice of taking collateral and reusing it is called rehypothecation. In essence, it’s a form of free money for derivatives dealers to use as they please — even to repost it as collateral to finance their parent company’s own borrowings.

from Rolfe Winkler:

White House: 10-yr deficit now $9 trillion

Some breaking news from Reuters about an updated deficit projection:

The Obama administration will raise its 10-year budget deficit projection to approximately $9 trillion from $7.108 trillion in a report next week, a senior administration official told Reuters on Friday.

The higher deficit figure, based on updated economic data, brings the White House budget office into line with outside estimates and gives further fuel to President Barack Obama's opponents, who say his spending plans are too expensive in light of budget shortfalls.

The government’s foreclosure flop

The Obama administration has attacked the problem of rising home foreclosures with a humanitarian zeal. Their program — the most ambitious in generations — was intended to save up to four million people from being thrown out of their homes.

A few months on, this $75 billion policy has been a humiliating flop. Only about 270,000 mortgages have been modified since the scheme was announced in February, according to government figures, and if past experience is anything to go by, half of those could be delinquent again within six months.

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