Opinion

The Great Debate

from Breakingviews:

Does Italian capitalism prove that Darwin was right?

By Rob Cox

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

A procession of Italian industrialists and financiers slipped through the alleyways behind La Scala opera house two weeks ago to discuss the legacy of the man whose name adorns the piazza outside the building where they met: Enrico Cuccia. The group, ranging from a former Treasury minister to an iconoclastic fashion mogul, shared stories of the founder of Mediobanca, who’d passed away 14 years to the day. Yet for all the nostalgia that afternoon, absent was any obvious desire to turn back the clock to the days when Mediobanca was the unchallenged puppet-master of Italian business.

That’s surprising given the parlous state of corporate Italy. The uno-due punch of the financial and sovereign debt calamities has thrust the establishment into a profound crisis, one even more sweeping than the Tangentopoli corruption scandal that two decades ago sent dozens of Italy’s top businessmen and politicians into Milan’s San Vittore prison. The uniquely Italian form of capitalism conceived by Cuccia after World War Two is at last being consigned to history.

Though the revolution reshaping the nation’s economy is painful and prolonged, those with the most at stake know that Italy needs dramatic change. Deprived of the protections of the past – whether from the cash-strapped government in Rome or Mediobanca in Milan – Italian companies are at last being forced to play by the rules of global finance. Some 95 percent of the institutional investors who account for the bulk of trading on the Italian Stock Exchange are foreign. The survivors of this Darwinian selection will be the better for it.

Unlike the cyclical spikes in bankruptcy filings that typically accompany wrenching economic change in the United States, the evidence of Italy’s transformation is subtler, if wider-reaching. As companies pass the hat to investors beyond the Alps, they must transform their governance in ways that would have Cuccia turning in his grave on the banks of Lago Maggiore (assuming his body, stolen shortly after its 2000 burial, was ever in fact returned to its resting place).

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Yellen shows her hand

The difference between the Federal Reserve Board of Chairwoman Janet Yellen and that of her immediate predecessor Ben Bernanke is becoming clear. No more so than in their approach to the problem of joblessness.

Bernanke made clear that in the post-2008 economy, his principal goal was the creation of jobs, not curbing inflation. He settled on a figure, 6.5 percent unemployment, as the threshold that would guide his actions.

While remaining true to the spirit of Bernanke’s principal goal, Yellen and the rest of her board refined the target in their meeting on March 18 and 19, a change in approach that at first sent the wrong signal to the stock and bond markets. At the press conference following the meeting, Yellen said she would not be raising interest rates “for a considerable time,” which could mean “something on the order of around six months.”

Are banks too big to indict?

The great 19th century English jurist, Sir James Fitzjames Stephens, once wrote that murderers were hung not for reasons of revenge or deterrence — but to underscore what a serious breach of the social compact had been committed.

Federal District Judge Jed S. Rakoff was making a similar point when he recently called attention to the lack of criminal prosecutions in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Consider the 1980s Savings and Loan crisis. The losses were minuscule compared to this recent paroxysm, but they still led to hundreds of criminal convictions.

That looks highly unlikely here. The federal statute of limitations for fraud, generally five years, is rapidly running down. There are reportedly a few cases in process. But the odds are that if there are any indictments, they will be in the pattern of the indictment of Goldman Sachs banker Fabrice Tourre, who has been left holding the bag for a complex scheme to load up clients with worthless securities. Email trails leave little doubt that far more senior figures were aware of the purpose of the deal. The firm also executed other similar deals that haven’t been prosecuted.

Taking on the rating agencies

The credit rating agency, Standard & Poors, announced Monday that it was the target of a civil lawsuit by the Justice Department for its actions in rating the complex securities that played a major role in the 2008-2009 financial collapse.  The company also said that it had not been apprised of the details.  It is interesting that the other two major rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch made no announcements.

There is much that all the agencies should worry about.  What is publicly known — and it is a great deal — was laid out in the two-year Senate investigation led by Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), which ended with the release of a final report in spring, 2011.

The committee staff laid out a formidable case. As early as 2004 and 2005, and increasingly by 2006, the email chatter among the rating agency staffs suggested they were expecting a crisis.  One email said: “This is frightening. It wreaks of greed, unregulated brokers and ‘not so prudent’ lenders.” Staff analysts asked why the regulatory agencies hadn’t “come down harder on these guys.”  One wrote worriedly about the possibility of “another banking crisis.”

from Stories I’d like to see:

Crash winners, the litigation world series, and Defense budget boondoggles

1. Crash Winners

Here’s a new entry for the lists of winners and losers that get published this time of year: The ten lawyers, bankers, consultants or accountants who reaped the most from the financial disaster of the last three years.

The poster-boy would likely be Irving Picard, a partner at the Cleveland-based international law firm of Baker & Hostetler. Picard is the court-appointed trustee responsible for recovering money for Bernie Madoff’s victims. From the sketchy clips I’ve seen, it appears that Picard and his firm have already received more than $200 million in fees for their work from the court overseeing the cases. Is that true?

Then there are the lawyers involved in bringing and defending all those multi-hundred million-dollar and billion-dollar claims against the banks that packaged and re-sold troubled mortgages and other securities. Or the accountants, lawyers and bankers sorting out the assets and liabilities in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and and other implosions.

How Citi sank itself on the Fed’s watch

By Nicholas Dunbar
The opinions expressed are his own.

Much of the financial crisis can be blamed on bankers who created complex products that allowed them to exploit and monetize less sophisticated investors, borrowers and bank shareholders. However, no account of the financial crisis is complete without an account of the inept regulators who permitted these activities to flourish, causing the crisis to become much worse than it might have been. Among these regulators, most surprising is the story of the New York Fed, supposedly the most sophisticated in its approach to risk. As I recount in this excerpt from my book, The Devil’s Derivatives and as staff at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington DC discovered, the New York Fed was in thrall to what in 2007 was the largest US bank – Citigroup – with disastrous results. -Nicholas Dunbar

The Federal Reserve may have been at the top of the U.S. regulatory pecking order, but within the Fed itself, the New York branch was top dog when it came to regulating banks. This was hardly surprising given the dual importance of Wall Street as the engine room of the bond markets and as the base for the largest multinational U.S. banks. It was only natural that industry risk-management innovations like VAR were first identified by staff in the New York Fed’s markets divi- sion, such as Peter Fisher, who transmitted the ideas to the rest of the regulatory community.

Ever since the regulatory blessing of VAR in the mid-1990s, the New York–based multinational banks had been growing rapidly. By 2003, when William McDonough retired as New York Fed president and was replaced by Timothy Geithner, an ambitious former Treasury and International Monetary Fund bureaucrat, bank supervision was equally important to markets.

Autocrats rule, democrats flounder

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia, claimed the Presidency, the supreme leadership of his country, once more last week with – at least in public – an assurance which amounted to nonchalance. The man whom he had made current President of Russia, Dmitri Medvedev, proposed to the party he had created, United Russia, that he be its candidate for the next presidential elections, to be held next year.

He told the party congress that, should he be elected, he would appoint Mr. Medvedev as Prime Minister. A straight switch, requiring only the imprimatur of the people – who, grateful for stability, rising prices and an increase in the status of their country – are expected to give it.

For a country which has been turbulent for a quarter of a century, this promises the smoothest of transitions. Mr. Putin was president – succeeding Boris Yeltsin – for two terms, from 2000 to 2008. Mr. Medvedev kept the seat warm for a further four years: and if re-elected, Mr. Putin can expect two more presidential terms, till 2020 (when he will be 68) – a longer tenure of power than any other major elected leader since the war. This, of course, assumes he remains popular: but while both his own and his party’s ratings have fallen, both easily outstrip every other individual or party in the state.

Washington’s long con

By Maureen Tkacik
The opinions expressed are her own.

There’s a scene in Ray Nagin’s Hurricane Katrina memoir from the Monday night after the storm in which twenty or thirty mysterious security guards, toting three guns apiece, suddenly descend upon the bombed out Hyatt city officials are using as a command center and commence measuring perimeters, laying down wires and barking orders. “We’re here to protect the mayor!” their apparent leader proclaims. “Everyone else leave!”

Nagin watches, “hallucination-like”, as his two preposterously outmanned bodyguards give the guards their best “Oh, hell no” glares, then politely asks the guards: “Who are you guys, and who sent you?” He has well-founded suspicions they are Blackwater mercenaries hired by the local business community, but the leader won’t divulge anything, so he and his staffers just keep asking the same questions of every guard they can corner, until the entire team suddenly vanishes en masse, “Ninja-like, as quickly and quietly as they arrived.”

Of the unnervingly frequent Bush Administration flashbacks I suffered reading Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, Nagin’s staredown of the elite hired guns is the one Obama never manages to repeat.

from James Saft:

Icelandic mulishness wins the day

Iceland's remarkable return to growth shows once again that in this crisis the best policy is often the one that will make international partners most angry.

Having been reviled and chastised when it refused to make good the outsize debts of its banks, Iceland this week capped a striking turnaround when it announced that its economy expanded by 1.2 percent in real terms in the most recent quarter, its first such rise in two years.

This is in stark contrast to Ireland, whose pliability and inability as a member of the euro zone to act unilaterally leaves it with a still crashing economy which must service ever more debt by making ever deeper cuts to public spending.

from Entrepreneurial:

Why America’s small businesses are becoming like banks

By Terra Terwilliger
The opinions expressed are the author's own.

Over two years after the start of the Great Credit Crisis, banks are still not lending money. But big businesses know exactly where to go for a quick, interest-free loan … the little guy. Even as corporate profits recover, big companies continue to squeeze their small vendors, stretching out payment terms and writing late checks. Unfortunately, this blatant exploitation is damaging the small business economic engine that drives half of US GDP.

A friend who owns a small consulting company recently received notice from a Fortune 500 client that henceforth their payment terms would be extended from 90 to 120 days. No discussion, no recourse, just a fancy legalese version of “we’re going to start paying you later because it’s better for us, so get used to it.”

That’s as if your employer casually one day sent you a letter saying that they were going to start paying you 30 days late. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t be able to tell your landlord, the gas company and the supermarket the same thing. Your bills still have to be paid on time.

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