MacroScope

‘Our financial oligarchy’: Louis Brandeis slams too big to fail – in 1913

Chris Reese contributed to this post

In an article entitled “Our financial oligarchy,” published in Harper’s magazine in December 1913, Louis Brandeis, who three years later would be appointed to the Supreme Court, delivered a scathing critique of the banking sector that bears an uncanny resemblance to the charges against Wall Street today.

As the Libor scandal continues to widen, confidence in an already tarnished financial sector has been eroding further, having already taken a beating in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the massive Wall Street bailouts that followed. Five years later, banks are still seen as risky as their post-crisis actions not only fail to restore their reputations but actually push them deeper into disrepair.

Against that backdrop, Brandeis’ description of the rapid growth of investment banks and the expansion of their power in ways that make them behave like economically inefficient oligopolies sounds downright prophetic.

Here are some particularly relevant excerpts:

The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men, who, even if their actions be honest and intended for the public interest, are necessarily concentrated upon the great undertakings in which their own money is involved and who, necessarily, by every reason of their own limitations, chill and check and destroy genuine economic freedom. […]

The dominant element in our financial oligarchy is the investment banker. Associated banks, trust companies and life insurance companies are his tools. Controlled railroads, public service and industrial corporations are his subjects. Though properly but middlemen, these bankers bestride as masters of America’s business world, so that practically no large enterprise can be undertaken successfully without their participation or approval. […]

Repo market big, but maybe not *that* big

Maybe the massive U.S. repo market isn’t as massive as we thought. That’s the conclusion of a study by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that suggests transactions in the repurchase agreement (repo) market total about $5.48 trillion. The figure, though impressive, is a far cry from a previous and oft-cited $10 trillion estimate made in 2010 by two Yale professors, Gary Gorton and Andrew Metrick. The Fed researchers, acknowledging the “spotty data” that complicates such tasks, argue the previous $10-trillion estimate is based on repo activity in 2008 when the market was far larger, and is inflated by double-counting.

Repos are a key source of collateralized funding for dealers and others in financial markets, and represent a main pillar of the “shadow” banking system. The market was central to the downfalls of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns in the 2008 crisis, and now regulators from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on down are looking for a fix. Earlier this year, the New York Fed itself said it might restrict the types of collateral in so-called tri-party repos, after being dissatisfied with progress by an industry committee.

The study published by the New York Fed on Monday slices the complex market into five segments, mapping the flow of cash and securities among dealers, funds and other players. Because dealers represent about 90 percent of the tri-party market, the Fed study extrapolates that onto the broader repo market, to arrive at its estimates. Bottom lines: U.S. repo transactions total $3.04 trillion; U.S. reverse repo transactions total $2.45 trillion.

MIT’s Johnson takes anti-Dimon fight to Fed’s doorstep

Simon Johnson is on a mission. The MIT professor and former IMF economist is trying to push JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon to resign his seat on the board of the New York Fed, which regulates his bank. Alternatively, he would like to shame the Federal Reserve into rewriting its code of conduct so that CEOs of banks seen as too big to fail can no longer serve.

Asked about Dimon’s NY Fed seat during testimony this month, Bernanke argued that it was up to Congress to address any perceived conflicts of interest.

But Johnson says the Fed itself should be trying to counter the perception of internal conflicts. He told reporters in a conference call:

JP Morgan Houston janitor wants Jamie Dimon to walk in her shoes

Just as the proverbial shoemaker’s children can go without shoes so, apparently, can a cleaner of corporate office bathrooms not have time for a bathroom break. And with the lack of time to use one of the 24 bathrooms Adriana Vasquez must clean in a five-hour shift at the JP Morgan Chase Tower in Houston, Texas – 22 of them with multiple stalls – comes the absence of a living wage.

So on Tuesday, Vasquez had a question for JP Morgan Chief Jamie Dimon, whose bank is the prime tenant in the 60-story building where she cleans bathrooms five evenings a week.

“Why do you deny the people cleaning your buildings a living wage?” she asked Dimon after he testified about the bank’s multi-billion dollar trading loss in front of Congressional committees on financial institutions and consumer credit. Dimon said to call his office to arrange a meeting, according to the Service Employees International Union.

Fine print: hidden risks in your checking account

What’s the safest place for your money other than the mattress? A checking account backed by the U.S. government’s Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation comes pretty close. Right? A report from Pew Charitable Trusts highlights hidden fees and costs that chip away at accounts that consumers think of as a safe-haven for their cash.

Banks are continuing key banking practices that put consumers at financial risk and potentially expose them to high and unexpected costs for little benefit.

Take overdraft fees: they cost Americans $29.5 billion last year, according to the study. Here are some more detailed findings from the report:

Spanish bailout blues

100 billion used to be a big number. These days, it barely buys you a little time.

Euro zone finance ministers agreed on Saturday to lend Spain up to 100 billion euros ($125 billion) to shore up its ailing banks and Madrid said it would specify precisely how much it needs once independent audits report in just over a week. 

A bailout for Spain’s banks, struggling with bad debts since a property bubble burst, would make it the fourth country to seek assistance since the region’s debt crisis began, after Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

As financial conditions tighten, Fed may have to run to stay in place

Seemingly lost in the talk about whether or not the Federal Reserve should ease again is the idea that financial conditions have tightened and the U.S. central bank may have to offer additional stimulus if only to offset that tightening. Writes Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius:

Alongside the slowdown in the real economy, financial conditions have tightened. Our revamped GS Financial Conditions Index has climbed by nearly 50 basis points since March, as credit spreads have widened, equity prices have fallen, and the U.S. dollar has appreciated.

Goldman’s new GS Financial Conditions Index is based on the firm’s simulations with a modified version of the Fed’s FRB/US Model. It includes credit spreads and housing prices and has a closer relationship with subsequent GDP growth than the previous version of the index, the firm says. A 100-basis-point shock to the GSFCI shaves 1-1/5 percent from real GDP growth over the following year. Still, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds:

Channels of contagion: How the European crisis is hurting Latin America

If anything positive can be said to have come out of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, it may be that the theory arguing major economies could “decouple” from one another in times of stress was roundly disproved. Now that Europe is the world’s troublesome epicenter, economists are already on the lookout for how ructions there will reverberate elsewhere.

Luis Oganes and his team of Latin America economists at JP Morgan say Europe’s slowdown is already affecting the region – and may continue to do so for some time. The bank this week downgraded its forecasts for Brazilian economic growth this year to 2.1 percent from 2.9 percent, and it sees Colombia’s expansion softening as well. More broadly, it outlined some key ways in which Latin American economies stand to lose from a prolonged crisis in Europe.

Latin America has exhibited an above-unit beta to growth shocks in the U.S. and the euro area over the past decade; resilient U.S. growth until now had offset some of the pressure coming from lower Euro area growth, but U.S. activity is now weakening too.

The risk from China’s shadow banks

Many blame America’s shadow banking system, where dangers lurked away from the scrutiny of complacent regulators, for the massive financial crisis of 2008-2009. Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said in a speech on Thursday that he is now worried about the risks to China from its own version of the shadow banks.

During the recent credit boom fueled by the 4-trillion-yuan fiscal stimulus, off-balance-sheet lending by banks and private loans by nonbanks exploded. This shadow-banking lending activity accounted for an estimated 20 percent of China’s total loans in 2011. With the cooling of the real estate market and with slower economic growth likely in the near term, a large share of these loans could turn bad. And because these loans took place outside the view of regulators, the effect of a sudden disruption in repayment is virtually impossible to predict.

Fisher was highlighting this concern to suggest that, while China’s efforts to reform its currency system are welcome, the authorities must be careful not to open the country up to volatile capital flows at a time when the world financial system is already very fragile:

Is that a bailout in your pocket?

There was an awkward moment of tension at the Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles, when a buysider on one panel asked a Wall Street banker whether he had pocketed taxpayers’ bailout cash.

The tit-for-tat began when several panelists at the “Outlook for M&A” session began griping about the U.S. government’s tax policy, which they said dissuades corporations from bringing overseas profits back home because of punitive taxes.

The panelists – including James Casey, co-head of global debt capital markets for JP Morgan, Anthony Armstrong, an investment banker at Credit Suisse, and Raymond McGuire, global head of corporate and investment banking at Citigroup – predicted that the M&A market might get a big boost if the U.S. were to offer a tax holiday of sorts for repatriated profits.