Archive for February, 2015

Banks Bite the Hand that Rescued Them

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

moneybags_handoutInvestment bank Morgan Stanley has disclosed that it will pay only $2.6 billion to settle U.S. Justice Department allegations that it deceived investors in the sale of toxic securities in the run-up to the financial meltdown.

I say “only” because the amount is substantially lower than the figures paid by Bank of America ($16.7 billion), JPMorgan Chase ($13 billion) and Citigroup ($7 billion) in similar cases. Thanks to the efforts of groups such as U.S. PIRG, we know that these amounts are less onerous than they appear because the companies are often allowed to deduct the payouts from their corporate income tax obligations.

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have been assembling data that does more to put the payouts in perspective. As part of an expansion of our Subsidy Tracker database to the federal level, we obtained information on the massive bailout programs implemented by the Federal Reserve in 2008 to stabilize the teetering financial system by purchasing toxic assets on the books of financial institutions and by serving as a lender of last resort.

These programs, with esoteric names such as the Term Auction Facility, the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility and the Term Securities Lending Facility, are not as well known as the Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, but the amounts involved are eye-popping. A 2011 paper by James Fulkerson of the University of Missouri-Kansas City estimates that the Fed made bailout commitments worth a total of more than $29 trillion. Yes, that’s trillion with a t.

We’ve been going through the recipient lists the Fed (reluctantly) made public for 11 bailout programs to match the entities to their parent companies. We’re not quite done with that process, but it appears that the totals for a few large banks, including Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase as well as Morgan Stanley, will end up being in excess of $1 trillion each (excluding repayment amounts). Our final figures will be released March 17, both in what we are calling Subsidy Tracker 3.0 and in an accompanying report.

It’s already clear that the settlement amounts paid by the banks (especially in after-tax terms) have been easily absorbed as costs of doing business. The Fed bailout data shows that another reason the banks have been little fazed by their legal expenses is that they received government assistance worth a thousand times more during their time of grave vulnerability in 2008 and 2009 — vulnerability that was largely of their own making due to reckless securitization of subprime mortgages and consumer loans.

After Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, the Fed was apparently willing to spare no expense in rescuing the other big financial players. Its efforts ensured the survival of the big banks that are riding high today. Perhaps the top executives of these banks should keep this fact in mind before criticizing the modest regulations put in place to save them (and us) from their excesses.

—————-

New in Corporate Rap Sheets: Entergy, the utility that has bet heavily on nukes and engages in creative billing.

Unions Back from the Dead

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

refinerystrikersRight-wing governors in states such as Illinois and Wisconsin, corporate front men such as Rick Berman, and an unholy alliance of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heritage Foundation are among those seeking to nail shut the coffin of what they see as a dying labor movement. Yet recent events allow unions to channel Mark Twain and declare that the reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.

As the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that strikes last year sank to their second lowest level since 1947, workers at oil refineries around the country have been walking picket lines. A simmering labor dispute between shippers and members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union may result in a work stoppage at West Coast ports.

Discussions of wage stagnation, which all too often are devoid of references to declining union membership rates, are starting to acknowledge the importance of collective bargaining. Mainstream columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times just published a piece headlined “The Cost Of a Decline In Unions” in which he cites research estimating that deunionization (which has brought membership levels below 7 percent in the private sector) may account for one-third of the rise of income inequality among men.

This comes after Kristof recites some of the obligatory criticisms (“corruption, nepotism and rigid work rules”), but he has seen the light in stating that “in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite.” He hedges a little bit at the end by saying “at least in the private sector, we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them” but the column is remarkable nonetheless.

Also remarkable is the announcement by Wal-Mart Stores that it will raise the wages of all its U.S workers to at least $9 an hour. Wal-Mart, the country’s largest private sector employer, remains entirely non-union, but the move is an indication of the impact that labor groups such as Making Change at Walmart and OUR Walmart have had on the giant retailer. Their work is far from done; $9 an hour is still too low and there are many other reforms the company needs to make. But the fact that Wal-Mart, which has a notoriously intransigent history, has budged is a significant achievement.

The non-traditional organizing at Wal-Mart is just one example of alternative approaches to building worker power. Others include the minority union model being tested by the United Auto Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee and the worker center model employed by groups such as ROC United.

Yet traditional collective bargaining still has a role to play, and not only in raising pay levels. The oil refinery walkout, for example, is not about wages (which are good, thanks to Steelworker contracts), but instead involve issues such as workplace safety. In an industry with companies such as BP, with its abysmal refinery safety record, that is no small matter. In fact, it can be a matter of life and death.

——————–

New in Corporate Rap Sheets: Dollar General, the king (for now) of deep discounters is facing pressure over the safety of its cheap merchandise.

Another Chance to Punish HSBC

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

swissleaksIt’s reassuring that the Justice Department is reportedly pushing a group of big banks, including Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, to plead guilty to felony counts in connection with their brazen manipulation of the foreign currency market.

Yet Justice also needs to undo the damage done by its ill-advised 2012 decision to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement with HSBC, which was allowed to pay $1.9 billion in settlements  rather than having to plead guilty to charges that it helped drug traffickers and terrorist groups evade money-laundering restrictions. Those practices had been detailed in a 300-page report by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, whose chair at the time, Sen. Carl Levin, called HSBC’s compliance culture “pervasively polluted for a long time.” A subsequent Matt Tiabbi Rolling Stone article about HSBC’s misdeeds quoted former Senate investigator Jack Blum as saying: “They violated every goddamn law in the book.”

The key prosecutor in the 2012 case was Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and now President Obama’s choice to succeed Eric Holder as Attorney General. The deal is back in the news in connection with extraordinary revelations about the role of HSBC’s Swiss private banking unit in abetting widespread tax evasion by thousands of wealthy individuals from around the world.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), working in concert with news organizations around the world, adds another major dimension to the misconduct at HSBC. What ICIJ calls its Swiss Leaks project is based on a vast amount of internal bank data that former HSBC technology employee Hervé Falciani provided to tax authorities in various countries in 2010. A French official later re-leaked the data to Le Monde, whose staffers realized they had more information that they could possibility research on their own and so enlisted ICIJ and others, including 60 Minutes in the U.S., to join in the fun.

All this amounts to one of the most remarkable examples ever of collaborative investigative journalism on a global scale. The ICIJ site has links to investigations published not only in Western Europe but also in countries ranging from Ecuador and Argentina to Egypt and India. The geographic diversity stems from the fact that the leaked data relates to more than 100,000 HSBC clients in some 200 countries.

ICIJ takes pains to point out that there may be legitimate reasons for these people to have accounts in Switzerland, but it is clear that a substantial number of the clients were using them to conceal income from tax collectors. They also included individuals involved in unsavory pursuits such as arms trafficking, blood diamonds and bribery.

Some of the governments that received the data from Falciani have already begun bringing cases against individuals, but the revelations are also causing crises for some governments themselves. This is especially so in Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron is under fire for having chosen a former HSBC executive to serve as a minister.

Even more precarious is the position of HSBC itself, which stands accused of not just allowing rich people to open the secret accounts but also of actively assisting their tax dodging. The Guardian, for instance, is reporting that HSBC contacted clients to market techniques that would allow them to evade a system under which the bank was supposed to collect a sort of withholding tax on the secret accounts on behalf of European Union revenue authorities.

This brings things back to Loretta Lynch, who is not yet confirmed by the Senate but who is already facing pressure from the likes of Elizabeth Warren to come down harder on HSBC this time around. She should give in to those pressures.

Holder’s departure from the Justice Department creates an opportunity to end the shameful practice of letting unscrupulous large companies buy their way out of serious legal jeopardy with payments, which despite growing in size still do little to deter ongoing corporate crime.

Also see my updated Corporate Rap Sheet on HSBC.

Project Zero Corporate Taxes

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

bad-appleGoogle’s Project Zero works on computer security, but that name could more be more accurately applied to the efforts of high-tech giants and other large U.S. corporations when it comes to federal tax policy: they want to pay less and less, and ultimately nothing at all. President Obama’s new tax reform proposal could end up assisting the business campaign.

Obama is endorsing the long-standing business proposal for a reduction in the statutory rate (from 35 to 28 percent) while at the same time offering an even lower rate (14 percent) on repatriated foreign profits being held abroad and a 19 percent rate on future overseas business income (minus foreign taxes paid). The revenue from the tax on accumulated offshore earnings would be earmarked for infrastructure projects.

Much of the reaction to the plan has framed the offshore provisions as a big tax hit on companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Citigroup. The Business Roundtable accused Obama of seeking “steep tax increases on businesses that will negatively impact their competitiveness.”

This view make sense only if you take as the norm the current effective tax rate imposed on these cash hoards, which is zero. In reality, that cash — which in the case of Apple alone exceeds $130 billion — should be seen as the ill-gotten gains of systematic international tax dodging and thus hardly worthy of preferential tax treatment.

This was made clear with respect to Apple in a 2013 report by the Senate investigations subcommittee that described a wide array of loopholes and tricks used by the iPhone producer. Nonetheless, CEO Tim Cook came to Capitol Hill and testified that Apple was not using gimmicks but simply managing its foreign cash holdings prudently. Sen. Rand Paul was taken in by this deceit and declared that Apple was owed an apology.

Too many members of Congress are willing not only to accept the legitimacy of offshore cash hoards but also to go along with misguided schemes to “incentivize” companies to bring some of that money back home. Last month, Sen. Paul and his Democratic colleague Barbara Boxer called for a “tax holiday” that would allow the repatriation of foreign profits with a tax rate of only 6.5 percent. This would be a replay of 2005 holiday that brought some $300 billion back to the United States, but it turned out that very little of the money was used to stimulate investment and job creation, as proponents had promised. Instead, much of it was spent on corporate stock buybacks.

Although he is not using the term, Obama’s 14 percent proposal amounts to the same kind of dubious tax holiday scheme. His higher rate is being regarded in business circles as simply an opening offer that corporate lobbyists will bring down to “reasonable” levels.

The corporate position on repatriated profits looks all the more unreasonable in light of the recent financial performance of leading offshore cash hoarder Apple. The company has more money than it knows what to do with. In January it reported quarterly profits of $18 billion, thanks to the sale of a ridiculous number of iPhones. This was a record not only for Apple but was the biggest quarterly net in corporate history.

Apple may not be sure how to use that windfall, but like many other large companies it is certain what it does not want to do: pay its fair share of taxes.