Archive for January, 2011

An Indictment of the Financial Sector

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

The purpose of the traditional blue-ribbon government panel has to been to study a serious problem and issue a report with vague explanations of causes and mushy policy prescriptions. The new report from the federal government’s Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission is a refreshing exception to the rule.

In the place of such nebulous prose, the 600-page-plus document is filled with pointed analyses of who did what wrong when. In other words, it names names. The FCIC acknowledges that it needed to delve into arcane subjects such as securitization and derivatives, but the report’s preface states:

To bring these subjects out of the realm of the abstract, we conducted case study investigations of specific financial firms—and in many cases specific facets of these institutions—that played pivotal roles. Those institutions included American International Group (AIG), Bear Stearns, Citigroup, Countrywide Financial, Fannie Mae, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Moody’s, and Wachovia. We looked more generally at the roles and actions of scores of other companies.

To get a sense of the scope of the rogues’ gallery of financial players, take a look at the report’s index, which, interestingly, is not in the official PDF but can be found on the website of the publisher that is issuing the commercial version.  There are dozens of entries for specific firms and even more for specific individuals. Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers, for instance, each have listings for about 40 different pages.

The FCIC does not just mention names; it assigns responsibility and soundly rejects the notion—expressed at commission hearings by major financial industry executives—that the crisis came as a complete surprise:

The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire. The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand, and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public.

It is satisfying that the report acknowledges the culpability of figures in both the private and the public spheres. Along with Wall Street villains, it fingers government institutions and officials, especially those with regulatory responsibilities:

The sentries were not at their posts, in no small part due to the widely accepted faith in the self-correcting nature of the markets and the ability of financial institutions to effectively police themselves. More than 30 years of deregulation and reliance on self-regulation by financial institutions, championed by former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and others, supported by successive administrations and Congresses, and actively pushed by the powerful financial industry at every turn, had stripped away key safeguards, which could have helped avoid catastrophe.

Figures such as current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and former SEC chair Christopher Cox are singled out for making misleading statements in 2008 about the gravity of the situation just before the crisis erupted. The report goes on to state:

Our examination revealed stunning instances of governance breakdowns and irresponsibility. You will read, among other things, about AIG senior management’s ignorance of the terms and risks of the company’s $79 billion derivatives exposure to mortgage-related securities; Fannie Mae’s quest for bigger market share, profits, and bonuses, which led it to ramp up its exposure to risky loans and securities as the housing market was peaking; and the costly surprise when Merrill Lynch’s top management realized that the company held $55 billion in “super-senior” and supposedly “super-safe” mortgage-related securities that resulted in billions of dollars in losses.

Finding that “a combination of excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency put the financial system on a collision course with crisis,” the FCIC cites the high leverage ratios at the leading investment banks and the fact that “the leverage was often hidden—in derivatives positions, in off-balance-sheet entities, and through ‘window dressing’ of financial reports available to the investing public.”

The report continues: “When the housing and mortgage markets cratered, the lack of transparency, the extraordinary debt loads, the short-term loans, and the risky assets all came home to roost. What resulted was panic. We had reaped what we had sown.” One chapter, covering the explosion of risky financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations is entitled “The Madness.”

Perhaps most damning is the FCIC’s finding of a “systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics” that “stretched from the ground level to the corporate suites.” For example, the report cites the case of the subprime lender Countrywide (later taken over by Bank of America):

As early as September 2004, Countrywide executives recognized that many of the loans they were originating could result in “catastrophic consequences.”  Less than a year later, they noted that certain high-risk loans they were making could result not only in foreclosures but also in “financial and reputational catastrophe” for the firm. But they did not stop.

All in all, the FCIC report paints an incriminating picture of the U.S. financial industry as well as the government regulators and private entities such as credit rating agencies that are supposed to put some checks on the unbridled pursuit of profit. In fact, the document in many ways reads like a criminal indictment. We would all be better off if some actual prosecutors pursued these leads.

Note: The report, dominated by a section of more than 400 pages endorsed by a majority of commissioners, also contains a 125-page dissent from the minority as well as 80 pages of endnotes. But that’s not all. The document indicates that it is not the sole repository of what the FCIC found:

A website—www.fcic.gov—will host a wealth of information beyond what could be presented here. It will contain a stockpile of materials—including documents and emails, video of the Commission’s public hearings, testimony, and supporting research—that can be studied for years to come. Much of what is footnoted in this report can be found on the website.

A critical researcher’s dream.

U.S. Workers Face Chinese Employers

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Much of the discussion of Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States is focused on China’s treatment of its dissidents and its workers, but another issue is becoming increasingly important: the treatment of U.S. workers by the Chinese companies that are rapidly expanding their presence in the United States.

Hu’s decision to include a stop in Chicago is not meant primarily as an homage to President Obama’s hometown. He wants to spotlight a Chinese-owned company called Wanxiang America, which from its suburban Chicago headquarters has built an auto parts and renewable energy conglomerate that has become the largest example of direct foreign investment in the U.S. from the People’s Republic.

Until recently, China accounted for a negligible portion of overseas money flowing into the American economy. But in the past two years there has been an enormous influx. The Washington Post cites a consulting company estimate that the Chinese stake has jumped to $12 billion since the beginning of 2009.

There’s every indication that number will continue to rise rapidly. The Chinese government is encouraging the trend to help protect its access to American markets, and the job-hungry U.S. seems to no longer have any of the objections that thwarted the efforts of Chinese companies to buy the oil company Unocal and the appliance firm Maytag a half dozen years ago.

Many U.S. observers are celebrating the arrival of Chinese capital, but this is actually a very dismaying state of affairs. The fact that companies from a country in which many workers are paid near-starvation wages find it economical to produce here says a lot about the dismal state of labor in the United States. The anti-union hostility of American employers has forced down pay rates in this country to the point that the U.S. is now considered a low-wage haven, at least among the countries of the developed world.

There’s no indication that investors coming from a dictatorship of the proletariat will do anything to reverse the decline of U.S. workers’ power. If anything, they will follow the pattern of companies from heavily unionized countries in Europe and Asia that eagerly embrace the culture of union-busting once they arrive on these shores.

Chinese investment in U.S. industry has already shown signs of anti-union animus. Not long after China International Trust and Investment Corp. (CITC) took over bankrupt Phoenix Steel in Delaware back in 1988 with the support of the United Steelworkers, the new operation, named CitiSteel, refused to recognize and bargain with the union, which had represented the Phoenix workforce for decades.

And when appliance-maker Haier Group became the first large Chinese company to build a factory from scratch in the United States, it chose South Carolina, one of the states most hostile to labor unions. In subsequent years, Chinese firms have continued to concentrate on right-to-work states. For example, Tianjin Pipe is planning to build a $1 billion production facility in Texas.

Today’s U.S. affiliates of Chinese companies are not entirely non-union. Wanxiang America has taken over unionized auto parts operations being shed by major U.S. companies, but many United Autoworkers members depart during the buyouts and other workforce reductions that accompany the change in ownership. The UAW has also survived GM’s sale of Nexteer Automotive to China’s Pacific Century Motors—a deal that went through after union members approved a contract that cut wage rates.

The ability of these companies to maintain good relations with their unions will depend in part on whether they engage in the kind of restructuring ploys favored by U.S. employers. It was not an encouraging sign when Neapco Components, an affiliate of Wanxiang America, announced last year that it was shutting down its manufacturing plant in Pottstown, Pennsylvania and transferring the operation to Nebraska, where state officials arranged for the company to get $1 million in federal stimulus funds to underwrite the move.

The larger labor relations challenge is the inevitable clash between Chinese and U.S. workplace cultures. Even in non-union companies, U.S. workers are used to a certain level of respect for individual rights. Many Chinese firms retain the remnants of a repressive collectivism. The Haier plant in South Carolina, for instance, is festooned with motivational banners exhorting workers to “make the impossible possible without an excuse.” The original Chinese managers there caused resentment by chastising individual workers for slip-ups in front of the entire workforce.

It remains to be seen how U.S. workers take to the pseudo-Maoism of contemporary Chinese business, but there’s no question that the rise of Chinese investment is another strong argument for the revival of an aggressive U.S. labor movement.

Public-Private Power Grab

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

As unemployment rates remain stubbornly high around the country, the Republican winners of November’s gubernatorial races face a dilemma: How do they respond to the clamor for more job creation while holding true to their opposition to government activism. The answer, apparently, is to go with a gimmick.

In at least four states, the gimmick consists of proposing that the state agency responsible for business recruitment—and other functions such as awarding subsidies that come under the rubric of economic development—be handed over to the private sector. Governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa and Arizona are calling on legislators to approve the dismantling of commerce or development agencies and the transfer of their responsibilities—and their funding—to public-private partnerships (PPPs).

It turns out that economic development privatization is nothing new. My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have completed an analysis of the subject, which we’ve just published in a report titled Public-Private Power Grab.

We found that the idea is far from new but it is not a common or standard practice. Economic development PPPs date back more than 20 years, but only seven states currently allow private entities to control their business recruitment functions: Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. Several other states previously employed PPPs but abandoned them because of performance problems.

Most of the seven states that currently make use of economic development PPPs have experienced a variety of performance problems. These include the following:

  • Misuse of taxpayer funds
  • Excessive executive bonuses
  • Questionable subsidy awards by the subset of PPPs that have a role in that process
  • Conflicts of interest in subsidy awards
  • Questionable claims by the PPP about its effectiveness
  • Resistance to accountability

Two of the features of the PPPs that promote corruption are that, in addition to public funding, they accept contributions from corporations and that their boards are often chosen by the governor will little or no legislative oversight. What this means is that the PPPs may end up favoring those contributors in making subsidy awards, and those awards are likely to go to the governor’s major corporate campaign donors.

Such sleazy practices have been seen most clearly in Texas, where the state’s Emerging Technology Fund is run by a public-private partnership controlled by Gov. Rick Perry and has a tendency to give its subsidy awards to Perry’s donors. According to an investigation by the Dallas Morning News, those donors have collected more than $16 million from the fund.

In 2006 the St. Petersburg Times published a 6,000-word investigation on Enterprise Florida, finding a pattern of conflicts of interest among the PPP’s board. In a follow-up editorial, the newspaper wrote that Enterprise Florida “has shown itself to be a public-private venture only in the sense that the public pays and the private receives. Despite critical audits, legislative questions and gubernatorial promises of reform, the group has proved to be virtually immune to the normal checks and balances.”

Aside from corruption, the PPPs tend to be characterized by incompetence or poor judgment. For example, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) found itself in hot water last year when it was revealed it had approved a $9 million subsidy to a company headed by a convicted embezzler and scam artist.

The Indiana Economic Development Corporation, which is often cited as a model by today’s privatization proponents, lost much of its luster last year after a TV station found that many of the jobs IEDC had taken credit for creating did not in fact exist. A former Indiana budget official recently told a reporter that “most of the numbers [IEDC] gave us were either not true or could not be substantiated,” adding that he considered IEDC “a political organization that really only served to make it seem like the governor was doing something about the economy.”

When challenged about their poor record, the chief executives of the PPPs tend to complain about the criticism rather than addressing their substance. In the wake of a series of scandals in 2010 about the MEDC’s handling of tax credit awards, the entity’s executive committee issued an open letter of complaint to the media and the legislature.  Rather than addressing MEDC’s shortcomings, the letter made the dubious claim that the controversy might prompt companies to shun the state. “Political in-fighting is a clear warning to business that a state lacks a cohesive climate for economic development,” the letter stated, “and a clear signal to invest elsewhere.”

Not surprisingly, our report concludes that economic development PPPs are a bad idea. Unfortunately, advocates of privatization in this area and others have a tendency to ignore evidence and persist in their misguided belief that the private sector can always do everything better.

Aiding Corporate Outlaws

Friday, January 7th, 2011

In a move akin to asking burglars for suggestions on how to make security systems less effective, Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the new Republican-dominated House of Representatives, is consulting corporations and trade associations on regulatory policy.

Seeking to revive the anti-regulatory fervor of the Reagan era, Issa is throwing around fabricated numbers ($1.7 trillion) about the cost of business compliance with government rules and bogus claims about the negative impact of regulation on job creation. And in an unambiguous signal that corporate interests are now to be considered paramount, he has been sending letters to scores of companies and associations asking for their deregulatory wish lists.

Issa’s office declined to disclose a complete list of those sent the love letters, but Politico reports that the recipients include trade groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute, and individual companies such as Toyota, Duke Energy, Bayer and FMC Corp.

Of all these names, FMC is probably the least well known, but it is a good example of the kind of corporation that will probably benefit the most if Issa and his colleagues have any success – i.e. a company with an abysmal track record.

FMC is a $3 billion chemical company that produces pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and specialty chemicals for food processing and other industries. Headquartered in Philadelphia, the company dates back to the invention of an insecticide pump by John Bean in the 1880s. From the 1920s onward it functioned as a conglomerate, acquiring a wide range of food processing and chemical firms (it was also a military contractor for a period of time).

It was through these acquisitions that FMC assumed responsibility for some of the most hazardous production facilities and waste sites in the country. For example:

In 1977 FMC’s South Charleston, West Virginia plant was shut down under court order for discharging carbon tetrachloride (used in cleaning agents) into drinking-water supplies of communities along with Kanawha and Ohio rivers. After FMC and two of its executives were indicted in federal court on charges of conspiring to conceal excessive discharges at the plant, the company agreed to pay a fine of $35,000 and to place $1 million in escrow to finance future water pollution studies. In 1983 an explosion at the plant killed one worker and injured three others. OSHA later determined that safety violations by the company contributed to the conditions that caused the accident.

In 1983 FMC agreed to spend $6 million to clean up a hazardous waste site in Minnesota that threatened the drinking water supply of Minneapolis. The cleanup at the munitions plant in the town of Fridley, where chemical wastes were buried for more than two decades, involved the treatment of up to 58,000 cubic yards of soil for contaminants such as trichloroethylene.

In 1995 about 6,250 pounds of phosphorus trichloride spilled from an overfilled tank onto the ground, reacted with rainwater and sent a toxic cloud of hydrochloric acid from the FMC plant in Nitro, West Virginia.

In 1998 the EPA fined FMC $209,600 for underreporting Toxic Release Inventory data related to a phosphorous processing plant on the Shoshone-Bannock Fort Hall Reservation near Pocatello, Idaho. Later that year, FMC and the EPA reached agreement on a consent decree to resolve other violations at the plant by requiring the company to spend approximately $158 million on remedial measures. FMC also agreed to a penalty of $11.8 million, a record at the time for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

In 1999 FMC reached agreement with the EPA and the Justice Department regarding the cleanup of the Avtex Fibers Superfund site in Front Royal, Virginia, which FMC owned and operated from 1963 to 1976. Avtex bought the facility in 1976 but shut it down in 1989 under the weight of some 2,000 environmental violations related to many years of contamination with asbestos, lead and other toxic substances. FMC agreed to spend about $100 million for the clean-up of the site, considered the biggest environmental problem area in the state.

By 2000, FMC had been named as a potentially responsible party in connection with about 30 locations on the federal government’s National Priority List of hazardous waste sites.

Add to all of this FMC’s involvement over the years in cases involving price fixing, sex discrimination, defrauding the federal government and other violations of laws and regulations. In 2000 it paid $80 million to settle a whistle-blower lawsuit challenging the safety of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles the company was producing for the U.S. Army.

In recent years FMC has restructured itself, spinning off many of its operations. But it continues to battle with the federal government over regulatory issues. Its biggest fight has concerned the controversial pesticide carbofuran, sold by FMC under the name Furadan. In 2006 the Bush EPA finally acknowledged the product was so dangerous for humans and for animals that it should be completely banned, as the European Union has done.  The slow process of removing the product from the market has continued ever since, with FMC kicking and screaming in protest.

The company has been largely unsuccessful in its legal challenge up through the appellate level and has been considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. It may now hope for relief from Congress instead.

The deregulatory juggernaut is nothing more than an effort to aid and abet the country’s worst corporate outlaws. We’ll be in big trouble if Issa and his ilk succeed.