08 August 2010

Chris Whalen: Nothing Has Changed Because It's The Fraud and Corruption, Stupid

Chris Whalen provides a devastating analysis of the Financial Reform legislation, and then goes on to eviscerate the Federal Reserve as regulator.

"Even as the big banks make a public show for the media of implementing the new Dodd-Frank law with respect to limits on own account trading and spinning off private equity investments, these same firms are busily creating the next investment bubble on Wall Street -- this time focused on structured assets based upon corporate debt, Treasury bonds or nothing at all -- that is, pure derivatives."

What I resent most about this current climate are the whispering campaigns and not so subtle attacks on the whistleblowers and victims: the unemployed, the homeless, the dislocated. These use stereotypes, character assassination, prejudice, and the darker elements of the human soul.

The better educated and fortunate members of the middle class are too often too willing to stand by and permit this without lifting a finger or saying a word, sometimes because it is to their benefit, or so they think. That is a mistake, because as history as shown, it is only a matter of time before the predators come for them.


Institutional Risk Analyst
Is Fed Supervision of Big Banks Really Changing?
By Chris Whalen

With the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform legislation, many financial analysts and members of the press believe that investment banking revenues and resulting earnings are in danger, but nothing is further from the truth. The Volcker Rule and other limitations on the principal trading and investment activities of the largest universal banks.

It is not own account trading but the derivatives sales desks of the largest BHCs whence the trouble lies. Even as the big banks make a public show for the media of implementing the new Dodd-Frank law with respect to limits on own account trading and spinning off private equity investments, these same firms are busily creating the next investment bubble on Wall Street -- this time focused on structured assets based upon corporate debt, Treasury bonds or nothing at all -- that is, pure derivatives. Like the subprime deals where residential mortgages provided the basis, these transactions are being sold to all manner of investors, both institutional and retail. It is the perverse structure of the OTC markets and not the particular collateral used to define these transactions that creates systemic and institution specific risk.

One risk manager close to the action describes how the securities affiliates of some of the most prominent and well-respected U.S. BHCs are selling five-year structured transactions to retail investors. These deals promise enhanced yields that go well into double digits, but like the subprime debt and auction rate securities which have already caused hundreds of billions of dollars in losses to bank shareholders, the FDIC and the U.S. taxpayer, these securities are completely illiquid and often come with only minimal disclosure.

The dirty little secret of the Dodd-Frank legislation is that by failing to curtail the worst abuses of the OTC market in structured assets and derivatives, a financial ghetto that even today remains virtually unregulated, the Congress and the Fed are effectively even encouraging securities firms to act as de facto exchanges and thereby commit financial fraud. Allowing securities firms to originate complex structured securities without requiring SEC registration is a vast loophole that Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) deliberately left open for their campaign contributors on Wall Street. But it must be noted these same firms have a captive, client relationship with the Fed and other regulators as well, thus a love triangle may be the most apt metaphor.

Of course retail investors love the higher yields on complex structured assets. Who can blame them for trying to get a higher yield than available on treasuries, while the Fed keeps rates at historic lows to, among other things, re-capitalize the zombie banks. The only trouble is that the firms originating these ersatz securities, as with the case of auction rate municipal securities, have no obligation to make markets in these OTC structured assets or even show clients a low-ball bid. And because of the bilateral nature of the OTC market, only the firm which originates the security will even provide an indicative valuation because the structures and models behind them are entirely opaque.

In fact, we already know of two hedge funds that are being established specifically to buy this crap from distressed retail investors as an when rates start to rise. The sponsors expect to make returns in high double digits by making a market for the clients of large BHCs who want to get out of these illiquid assets. But the one thing that you can be sure of is that nobody at the Fed or the other bank regulatory agencies know anything about this new bubble. As with the early warnings brought to the Fed about private loan origination and securitization activities as early as 2005, the central bank and other regulators are so entirely compromised by the political pull of the large banks that they will do nothing to get ahead of this new problem.

Consider a specific example:

Shall We Reward Incompetence? The Case of Sarah Dahlgren and the Fed of New York

Despite initial indications that Congress would reduce the scope of Federal Reserve's financial company supervision, in the end the Dodd-Frank legislation substantially increases the Federal Reserve's responsibility. Chairman Ben Bernanke and other Federal Reserve officials made the argument that the Fed's supervision function didn't do any worse than any other financial regulators -- an assertion we cannot validate. This combined with heavy lobbying by other Reserve Bank Presidents and the grudging acknowledgement to the Congress by Fed Chairman Bernanke and Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo that significant improvements are necessary ultimately won the day.

Given its second lease on regulatory life, one might expect that the Fed's bank supervision function would be gearing-up to take a fresh, smart, and tough line with respect to financial company oversight. However, a recent key supervisory officer appointment by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) indicates this may not be the case. The largest and most important of regional Reserve Banks appears to be going back to the future with its choice of Sarah Dahlgren as Head of Supervision. See FRBNY press release link.

If the name sounds familiar, that's because Ms Dahlgren has been at the center of many of the Federal Reserve's most embarrassing failures in the area of bank supervision and in particular with respect to the failure of American International Group (AIG). Going back in time now and remembering the period before the crisis, Dahlgren typified the arrogance and refusal of Fed officials to acknowledge warnings from various members of the financial community that the subprime mortgage market was melting down after years of unsafe and unsound lending and underwriting practices by the largest banks. Roger Kubarych, a former economist for the FRBNY, described the refusal of Fed officials to acknowledge the crisis in a 2008 interview with The IRA ('Fed Chairmen and Presidents: Roundtable with Roger Kubarych and Richard Whalen', October 30, 2008).

"It makes me so mad to think back how ignorant, arrogant, and dismissive she was with people who knew what they were talking about pre-crisis," one former Fed colleague told The IRA. Dahlgren was running the AIG show for the FRBNY. She ignored the recommendations from the Fed's own advisors and the Board of the FRBNY that AIG counterparties be forced to take haircuts. For her to ignore good advice on AIG and then deliberately take steps to hide that decision from the Congress and the public, and then be rewarded with a promotion, is quite disheartening..."

Read the rest here.