Shaming the Corporate Cheapskates

Buried among the many features of the financial reform bill passed by Congress is a provision that could get you a raise. For this to happen, however, you have to work for a large company that is uncomfortable with having it made public how little it pays its workers.

Section 953 of the Dodd-Frank bill deals with disclosures relating to executive compensation, not only at banks but at all publicly traded companies. One of the ways it seeks to rein in out-of-control CEO pay is by requiring firms to reveal how the amount paid to the head of the company compares to that received by the typical employee. The theory is that having this information made public would give pause to grasping CEOs and soft-touch board compensation committees.

The total compensation of chief executives (along with that of the four other highest paid executives) is already disclosed through the annual proxy statements companies have to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (which makes them public through the EDGAR online system, where the documents are designated as DEF 14A). Yet there have been no requirements relating to the disclosure of how much is paid to the CEO’s underlings.

Section 953 fills this gap by instructing companies to include in their future proxies the median of the annual total compensation paid to all employees apart from the CEO. They also have to calculate the ratio of that median to the CEO’s total bounty.

Those ratios will be fascinating to see, but just as interesting will be the figures on non-CEO pay themselves. For the first time, we will be able to make direct comparisons of the broad compensation practices of different companies within given industries or across sectors. Getting official data from the companies themselves will be an improvement on the selective information that now gets posted on websites such as Glass Door.

There will be limitations, of course. Congress should have required the disclosure of data specifically on hourly workers rather than lumping them in with higher-paid professionals and executives. It would also be preferable to have separate numbers on domestic and foreign employees. And it is likely that companies will exclude low-paid temps and (often misclassified) independent contractors in making their calculations.

Yet this information could still be put to good use. Having clear, company-specific data could help stimulate a much-needed movement to address the problem of wage stagnation in the United States. The reality of that stagnation is quite evident from overall labor market data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but it would be much more effective to point the finger at individual companies with low medians and seek to shame them for failing to provide adequate compensation to their workers.

The ability of employers to keep wages low stems from two classic sources: low unionization and high unemployment. We know all too well the story of how anti-union animus on the part of employers has pushed the percentage of private sector workers with collective bargaining protections to historic postwar lows. To the extent they are able, unions target individual companies such as Wal-Mart, T-Mobile and (until it was finally organized) Smithfield Foods for denying their workers the right to representation.

Unions and other advocacy groups also criticize specific companies that engage in mass layoffs, especially when they seem to be undertaken mainly to impress Wall Street.

Yet we rarely hear criticisms of particular companies for failing to hire new workers when conditions seem to warrant it. The “economy” is assumed to be to blame for the high levels of joblessness afflicting us, not deliberate decisions by corporations to keep their payrolls artificially lean. Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce made the absurd argument that overregulation is responsible for the anemic hiring situation. The Obama Administration responded by saying that weak consumer demand is the cause. Absent is the idea that corporations are failing in their responsibilities.

The unwillingness to chastise corporations is all the more bewildering in the face of growing evidence that business is hoarding cash instead of investing in job-creating ways. A front-page story in the Washington Post headlined COMPANIES PILE UP CASH BUT REMAIN HESITANT TO ADD JOBS notes that U.S. nonfinancial companies, buoyed by rising profits, are now sitting on $1.8 trillion in liquid reserves.

Why is there not more of an outcry about this behavior? Here’s an idea: pick companies with the most egregious combinations of rising profits and falling payrolls and press them to justify their boycott of U.S. workers. Once the new disclosure requirement kicks in, they could also be pushed to explain their low compensation levels. Business needs a strong reminder that it also exists to provide opportunities for people to earn a living.

A Corporate Full-Body Scan

The one redeeming feature of the abominable Supreme Court ruling on corporate electoral expenditures is the majority’s retention of the rules on disclaimers and disclosure. While opening the floodgates to unlimited business political spending, the Court at least recognizes that the public has a right to know when a corporation is responsible for a particular message and a right to information on a corporation’s overall spending.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy states: “The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

There’s no question that steps must be taken to mitigate the Citizens United ruling, whether through changes in corporation law, shareholder pressure, enhanced public financing of elections, or even a Constitutional amendment.

Yet while these efforts progress, it is also worth taking advantage of the Court’s affirmation of the principle of transparency and push for even greater disclosure than what we have now. Groups such as the Sunlight Foundation are already moving in this direction.

The effort could begin with pressing the Federal Election Commission to tighten the existing reporting rules on what are known as “electioneering communications” and to enforce them more diligently.  But that’s not enough.

In the wake of Citizens United, we’ve got to demand more information on the many ways corporations exercise undue influence not only on elections but also on legislation, policymaking and public discourse in general. Now that Big Business is a much bigger threat to popular democracy, we have to subject corporations to intensive full-body scans to find all their hidden weapons of persuasion. The following are some of the areas to consider.

Lobbying. In his State of the Union Address, President Obama said that lobbyists should be required to disclose every contact with the executive branch or Congress. That’s fine, but why stop there? Many corporations do their lobbying indirectly, through trade associations which disclose little about their sources of funding. How about rules that require those associations to disclose the fees paid by each of their members and require publicly traded companies to disclose exactly how much they pay to belong to each of their various associations?

Front Groups. Corporations also indirectly seek to influence legislation and public opinion by bankrolling purportedly independent non-profit advocacy groups. Such front groups—such as those taking money from fossil-fuel energy producers to deny the reality of the climate crisis—do not have to publicly disclose their contributor lists. Why not require publicly traded companies, at least, to reveal all of their payments to such organizations?

Union-Busting. Encouragement of collective bargaining is still, in theory, official federal policy. Yet many companies violate the principle—and the rights of their workers—by using corporate funds to undermine union organizing campaigns. The existing rules on the disclosure of expenditures on anti-union “consultants” are too narrow and not vigorously enforced. That should change.

These are only a few of the ways that undue political influence and other forms of anti-social corporate behavior could be addressed through better disclosure. Yet, as we’ve seen, transparency by itself does not counteract corporate power unless something is done with the information.

This came to mind in reading the last portion of the Citizens United ruling. Not all five Justices in the majority went along with the idea of maintaining the disclaimer and disclosure rules. Parting with Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Alito, Justice Thomas argued not only that corporate independent expenditures should be unrestricted, but also that they should be allowed to take place under a veil of secrecy.

He bases his argument not on legal precedent, but rather on dubious anecdotal evidence that some supporters of California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 were subjected to threats of violence after their names appeared on public donor lists. Thomas thus suggests that corporations should be able to make their political expenditures anonymously to avoid retaliation.

While I am in no way advocating violence, I think activists need to use the information that becomes public as the result of expanded disclosure to make corporations pay a price for any attempts to buy our political system. If we can get them to worry about (non-violent) retaliation to the point that they limit their expenditures, then we will have gone a long way toward neutralizing the pernicious effects of the Citizens United ruling.

Misbehaving Contractors are Recovery Act Winners

ARRA logoThe federal government has awarded about $17 billion in direct contracts under the various provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Given the Administration’s commitment to accountability, one hopes that the contractors were chosen with the utmost care and that any companies with serious blemishes on their record were excluded.

If the timing had been a bit different, such a review could have been accomplished much more easily. The General Services Administration is in the process of implementing legislation passed by Congress last year that mandates the creation of a database on the integrity and performance record of federal contractors and grantees. In September GSA published a notice in the Federal Register about its plans for what is being called the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System, or FAPIIS. The comment period on the plan ended earlier this month. Perhaps the system will be operational before ARRA reaches the end of its two-year life.

Unfortunately, the public will never know the details of how FAPIIS is used to vet contractors for ARRA or any other program. The reason is that Congress caved in to pressure from the contractor community and prohibited public disclosure of the database, which will be available only to federal agencies for internal use.

Fortunately, the public still has access to the Federal Contractor Misconduct Database (FCMD), which was created and is maintained by the non-profit Project On Government Oversight (POGO). It served as the inspiration for FAPIIS, though POGO and other watchdog groups pushed for a public version of the federal database. The FCMD, which covers the 100 largest federal contractors, documents more than 700 cases of misconduct since 1995 that resulted in more than $26 billion in fines and penalties. It covers a wider range of misconduct than will FAPIIS.

Apparently, most federal agencies did not pay close attention to the FCMD in awarding their ARRA contracts. An examination of the national Recovery Act contractor spreadsheet shows that many of those companies appear in POGO’s database as having been involved in cases of misconduct. They account for more than $6 billion in Recovery Act contract awards.

There are 12 contractors with more than one instance of misconduct and ARRA contracts of at least $150 million.* Here they are (listed by volume of ARRA contracts):

  • CH2M ($1.8 billion in ARRA contracts; 6 instances of misconduct with penalties of $2.8 million)
  • URS ($737 million in contracts; 4 instances and $2.4 million in penalties)
  • Northrop Grumman ($596 million in contracts; 29 instances and $821 million in penalties)
  • Battelle Memorial Institute ($522 million in contracts; 7 instances and $1.3 million in penalties)
  • Honeywell International ($472 million in contracts; 31 instances and $641 million in penalties)
  • Fluor ($469 million in contracts; 23 instances and $198 million in penalties)
  • SAIC ($312 million in contracts; 10 instances and $14 million in penalties)
  • Bechtel ($270 million in contracts; 15 instances and $359 million in penalties)
  • University of California ($270 million in contracts; 25 instances and $67 million in penalties)
  • Lockheed Martin ($180 million in contracts; 50 instances and $577 million in penalties)
  • University of Chicago ($163 million in contracts; 4 instances and $22 million in penalties)
  • Jacobs Engineering ($161 million in contracts; 2 instances and $37 million in penalties)

When the nation’s largest contractors have track records such as these, it is not surprising that Congress chose to keep its misconduct database a secret.

* In the case of joint ventures, the amount of the contract award is divided equally among the companies or institutions involved.

Stimulus Lobbying Pays Off for Major Contractors

K streetLast spring, when the ink was barely dry on the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), there was already concern about an emerging frenzy of lobbying on behalf of corporations seeking a slice of the stimulus pie.

The Obama Administration enacted rules designed to make ARRA lobbying more transparent. That didn’t work out very well, but the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board recently completed the release of the first round of quarterly disclosure reports by ARRA recipients. In part, these reports serve as a score card showing which companies won the great stimulus lobbying competition.

Beginning with a list of the largest direct federal contracts, I ran the names of the prime contractors through the invaluable lobbying database maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics. Many of the largest contracts went to joint ventures set up by major engineering companies to do clean-up work at nuclear facilities owned by the Department of Energy. In those cases I searched the names of the individual parent companies (and some universities) involved.

There are a total of 52 companies and institutions involved with the 50 largest ARRA contracts. Of these, 34 show up as clients in the Center’s lobbying database. These include large corporations such as Bechtel, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Motors and Ford—as well as smaller players. Also on the list are educational institutions such as the University of California, Stanford University and the University of Chicago.

So far in 2009, the 34 have spent a total of $65 million on lobbying the federal government. Of course, not all that lobbying can be attributed to the quest for stimulus contracts, but it shows in general terms that the ARRA winners include some of the biggest influence-peddlers in Washington.

Moreover, there is every reason to think that a significant portion of their lobbying efforts were focused on stimulus contracts. I searched the database of lobbyist disclosure reports provided by the Senate Office of Public Records. Of those 34 contractors, 24 show up as clients in 2009 lobbying reports in which the word “recovery” or “stimulus” is mentioned in the description of the specific issues on which the lobbyists reported working.

It’s not possible to determine how much of their spending went specifically to ARRA issues. But whatever portion of the $65 million was involved, it was money well spent for the contractors. The 24 that definitely had lobbyists working on ARRA matters ended up with stimulus contracts worth some $7.4 billion. That’s an impressive return on political investment.

Now we can only hope that these and other stimulus contractors crank up their hiring so taxpayers also get something significant out of this bonanza. According to the recent ARRA recipient reports, some of the projects being carried out by those two dozen firms have already created (or retained) a substantial number of jobs. Yet others, in a pattern seen in the overall ARRA contractor data, report few or no jobs despite having already received substantial sums for the projects.

Is the Recovery Act Stimulating Privatization?

AFSCMEKey portions of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, especially the state fiscal stabilization fund, are designed to prevent job loss among teachers and other state and local government employees. But what about the rest?

The assumption seems to be that most of the job creation and retention will take place in the private sector. Yet one question that has received little attention since ARRA was signed by President Obama in February is whether the spending will contribute to the process of privatization and contracting-out of functions previously performed by public sector workers.

On October 15 the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board released the first batch of recipient reporting data covering some $15 billion in direct federal contracts. Although this is a small portion of overall ARRA spending (information relating to the much larger realm of federal grants to states and others will be released on October 30), it begins to shed some light on the privatization question.

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have been examining the universe of around 9,000 recipient reports summarized in a national spreadsheet available on the Recovery.gov website. Many of the entries are unremarkable. They involve contracts for functions such as manufacturing and construction that have traditionally been concentrated in the private sector. It is not surprising that the federal government gave an ARRA contract to Chrysler to supply vehicles and one to Clark Construction to build a new headquarters for the Coast Guard.

Yet many of the other entries appear to be part of the contracting-out phenomenon. You can tell this, first, by looking at the names of the contractors: one firm called Federal Contracting Inc. leaves little doubt as to its orientation. There are others that have a reputation for being involved in high-profile outsourcing deals. An example is IAP Worldwide Services, a politically connected firm (former Vice President Dan Quayle is on its board of directors) that got a controversial contract to take over management of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Or else you can look at the description of the projects. A company called 4W Solutions got a contract from NASA for “administrative activities, configuration management of documents, procurement-related analysis and support for report integration/administrative support for Cross-Agency Support construction contracts.”

To be a bit more systematic in our analysis, my colleagues and I decided to match the Recovery.gov list of contractors to the membership list of the Professional Services Council, the leading trade association for the federal outsourcing industry.

PSC’s members range from large and notorious contractors such as KBR (formerly the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root), Xe Services (formerly Blackwater) and CACI International (linked to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal) to small and obscure consulting firms. During its 27-year history, the association has sought to banish the use of the term “Beltway Bandit” to refer to federal contractors and has pushed for legislation that would maximize the amount of federal work that gets outsourced. It has also resisted the recent move toward insourcing.

We found that, of the 382 PSC members listed on the association’s website, about 50 are on the list of ARRA federal contract recipients (name variations make an exact count difficult). In all, these members and their affiliates have been awarded about 250 ARRA contracts with a total value of more than $800 million.

Some of these involve engineering and construction services, but others deal with functions that are more inherently governmental, such as a contract given to Deloitte Consulting to provide “program management oversight” for ARRA grants made by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In an economic crisis such as the current recession, all job creation is to be welcomed. But it would be a shame if some portion of Recovery Act money is being used in ways that do little more than shift work from the public sector to the private sector.

(Thanks to Tommy Cafcas, Caitlin Lacy and Leigh McIlvaine for their research help.)

Update: I should have mentioned that KBR and Xe Services are not among the recipients of ARRA contracts, but CACI has two.

Further update: We spent more time analyzing the spreadsheet and found many more ARRA contracts that can be attributed to PSC members through joint ventures, affiliates, etc.  Our tally is now about 470 contracts worth a total of about $3.5 billion. These include some huge contracts associated with clean-up projects at Department of Energy nuclear facilities.

Exposing the Executive Pay of Beltway Bandits

ARRA logoThe recipient reporting system mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is designed to inform the public on how federal stimulus spending is creating jobs. The just-released first phase of that system still has a considerable number of bugs to work out with regard to its job numbers, but it also represents a new step forward in making the operations of federal contractors more transparent.

The rules governing Recovery Act reporting include a requirement (FAR 52.204-11) that certain contractors disclose the amount of compensation paid to their five highest paid executives. These include companies that receive $25 million or more in federal governments as long as federal contracts account for 80 percent or more of their total revenue.

Publicly traded companies already report this information to the Securities and Exchange Commission in their proxy statements, which are made available to the public. The Recovery Act rule is unusual in that it extends executive compensation reporting to privately held firms, which typically keep such information to themselves.

In the new Recovery Act contract data, several hundred contractors provided compensation information, including many that apparently were not required to do so. As shown in the table below, 14 contractors reported compensation in excess of $1 million for their top executive (not including obvious glitches such as a modest-sized excavating company in Washington State that entered $986 million in the compensation column).

Half of the contractors are part of publicly traded companies, and their compensation amounts match what was previously disclosed by those companies. The rest are privately held, meaning that this may well be the first time the pay of their top executives has been officially disclosed.

The most interesting of these is the huge consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton, which since fiscal year 2000 has been the recipient of more than $16 billion in federal contracts. It does business with many agencies, but it is especially close with the Pentagon. Last year it was the 22nd largest military contractor. The Recovery Act reports do not list executive names, but it likely that Booz Allen CEO Ralph W. Shrader was the one who was paid more than $8.4 million last year.

The Recovery Act does not include funding for military purposes, but it forces Pentagon contractors and other Beltway Bandits that happen to be privately held to reveal how richly they are rewarding their top executives with the help of taxpayer funds.

Top Compensation Amounts Reported by Recovery Act Federal Contractors

JOHNSON CONTROLS BUILDING AUTOMATION SYSTEMS LLC
$17,385,308

RAYTHEON TECHNICAL SERVICES COMPANY LLC
$15,056,151

BOOZ ALLEN HAMILTON INC.
$8,457,003

BALL AEROSPACE & TECHNOLOGIES CORP.
$8,111,298

ENERGYSOLUTIONS FEDERAL SERVICES, INC.
$6,336,752

ADVANCED CONSTRUCTION TECHNIQUES LTD
$2,724,660

DANYA INTERNATIONAL INC.
$2,363,143

ROLLS-ROYCE NORTH AMERICAN TECHNOLOGIES INC.
$2,025,860

WEST VALLEY ENVIRONMENTAL SERV
$1,955,909

SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH CORPORATION
$1,471,745

ORBITAL SCIENCES CORPORATION
$1,448,752

STG, INC.
$1,201,762

PARSONS INFRASTRUCTURE & TECHNOLOGY GROUP INC.
$1,128,070

ENVIRONMENTAL CHEMICAL CORPORATION
$1,016,426

Source: Analysis of the combined state spreadsheets provided at the Recipient Reported tab here.

Notes:

The figure for Johnson Controls Building Automation Systems is apparently the compensation of Stephen A. Roell, CEO of the parent company Johnson Controls Inc., which is publicly traded and thus already reported the compensation of its top officers through its SEC filings. The figure above is the same as that reported for Roell in the company’s latest proxy statement.

The figure for Raytheon Technical Services is the same as that reported for parent Raytheon’s CEO William H. Swanson in the company’s latest proxy statement.

Booz Allen is privately held. Its CEO is Ralph W. Shrader.

The figure for Ball Aerospace is the same as that reported for parent Ball Corporation’s CEO R. David Hoover in the company’s latest proxy statement.

The figure for EnergySolutions Federal Services Inc. is the same as that reported for parent EnergySolutions’ chief financial officer Philip O. Strawbridge in the company’s latest proxy statement.

Advanced Construction Techniques Ltd is privately held. Its president is James Cockburn.

Danya International Inc. is privately held. Its CEO is Jeffrey A. Hoffman.

The figure for Rolls-Royce North American is roughly the same (after currency conversion) as that reported for parent Rolls-Royce PLC chief executive Sir John Rose in the company’s annual report.

West Valley Environmental Services LLC describes itself as “a newly-formed company comprised of four companies – URS Washington Division, Jacobs Engineering Group, Environmental Chemical Corporation (ECC), and Parallax/Energy Solutions – with extensive experience conducting environmental cleanup at Department of Energy (DOE) sites across the United States.” Its compensation figure above is the same as that reported in the proxy statement of URS Corporation for URS Washington Division President Thomas H. Zarges.

Scientific Research Corporation is privately held. Its CEO is Michael Watt.

The figure for Orbital Sciences is the same as that reported by the company for CEO David W. Thompson in the company’s latest proxy statement.

STG Inc. is privately held. Its CEO is Simon S. Lee.

Parsons Infrastructure is a unit of privately held Parsons Corporation, whose CEO is Charles L. Harrington.

Environmental Chemical Corporation (which seems to prefer being called simply ECC) is privately held. Its CEO is Manjiv Vohra.

UPDATE: On October 30 Recovery.gov published a revision of the contractor data that fixed various formatting problems and added names to the executive compensation figures. For more details, see here.

Barofsky’s Bailout Bible

sigtarp-logoRejecting the evasion and obfuscation that has characterized most official pronouncements about the federal bailout of the financial and auto industries, Neil Barofsky has a talent for cutting through the crap. The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (or SIGTARP) speaks plainly and makes no compromises in his pursuit of accountability.

Barofsky’s aggressive watchdog style is in full display in a document he just submitted to Congress and released to the public. Despite having the unassuming title of Quarterly Report, it is actually the most lucid and comprehensive analysis of the bailout program published to date.

The part of the report that has received most press attention is the warning that the Public-Private Investment Program promoted by Treasury Secretary Geithner to deal with toxic bank assets is quite vulnerable to fraud. This is just one of a slew of ways that Barofsky argues that the TARP program lacks adequate safeguards. To help make up for these limitations, the SIGTARP office is proceeding with half a dozen audits and is coordinating its efforts with various federal law enforcement agencies.

Barofsky’s 250-report also contains what amounts to a textbook and statistical abstract about the bailout. He reminds us that TARP is not one but a dozen different programs with various objectives. (Citigroup, for instance, has gotten three different forms of assistance.) He carefully explains each one and provides a wealth of quantitative as well as qualitative detail. There’s even a tutorial on securitization. Among the data that I believe are being made public for the first time are a table showing the dividends paid by banks receiving capital infusions and an eleven-page appendix providing the status of every one of the common stock warrants the Treasury Department received from TARP recipients.

Also included are details of the administrative and operational costs incurred by the Treasury Department in connection with TARP, including $6.9 million to PricewaterhouseCoopers, $5.7 million to Bank of New York Mellon and $2 million to Ernst & Young as well as about $10 million to various law firms.

This single SIGTARP document, produced by an entity with a staff of only 35, does more to clarify the bailout than the combined efforts of the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and other banking regulators over the past seven months. This is not a case, however, in which clarification creates greater confidence. One comes away from Barofsky’s report with the sense that the bailout is a vast Rube Goldberg contraption that requires careful monitoring. Fortunately, Neil Barofsky is on the case.

Note: Another useful new resource on TARP is the website just launched by Bailout Watch, an initiative led by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Economic Policy Institute, OMB Watch, OpenThegovernment.org, Project On Government Oversight, and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Blurring the Bailouts

This is the time of year when most U.S. public companies file their 10-K annual reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which in turn makes them available to the public through its IDEA web page (formerly EDGAR). These reports include sections in which management discusses the firm’s performance over the past year and tries to put the best face on the financial results.

Many companies are, of course, reporting disappointing results this time around, but perhaps the most awkward filings are the ones being made by companies that had to get bailed out by the federal government to get through the year. Let’s take a look at how they are talking about being wards of the state.

We don’t yet know how General Motors is dealing with this challenge, since it notified the SEC that its 10-K will be late. So let’s focus on two of the other biggest supplicants: Citigroup and AIG. The first lesson, apparently, is not to use the term “bailout” when talking about being bailed out. The term appears nowhere in either firm’s 10-K.

Citi instead employs the bland statement that “the Company benefited from substantial U.S. government financial involvement.” Substantial, indeed. Citi matter-of-factly describes the capital infusions, loss-sharing agreements and loan guarantees through which the feds have made a commitment potentially costing several hundred billion dollars to keep the giant bank holding company afloat. With all the references to UST and USG, a casual reader might think Citi was referring to conventional investors rather than the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. Government.

AIG adopts a more narrative approach, writing that: “By early Tuesday afternoon on September 16, 2008, it was clear that AIG had no viable private sector solution to its liquidity issues. At this point, AIG received the terms of a secured lending agreement that the NY Fed was prepared to provide.” This does not quite capture the gravity of events that the New York Times, for example, reported on in a front-page story headlined: FED IN AN $85 BILLION RESCUE OF AN INSURER NEAR FAILURE; U.S. GETS CONTROL; POLICY REVERSAL ARISES FROM GROWING FEAR OF GLOBAL CRISIS.

Aside from downplaying the gravity of their bailouts, the Citi and AIG 10-Ks are less than lucid on what led up to their troubles. In describing conditions in 2008 that led to a $27 billion net loss, Citi takes no responsibility. The causes, instead, are said to have been “continued losses related to the disruption in the fixed income markets, higher consumer credit costs, and a deepening of the global economic slowdown.” Contrast this to its 10-K of two years ago, which stated: “We enter 2007 with good business momentum, as we expect to see our investment initiatives generate increasing revenues, and are well-positioned to gain from our balanced approach to growth and competitive advantages.” In other words, when things are going well, management strategy gets the credit; when the red ink begins to gush, impersonal market forces are to blame.

AIG, which reported an astounding $99 billion net loss for the year, also paints itself as a victim of conditions outside its control, saying “the 2008 business environment was one of the most difficult in recent decades.” The difference with Citi is that AIG’s management is blunter about the continuing dismal prospects for the company. The notes to its financial statements include a section entitled “Going Concern Considerations” that raises the possibility that the company may need yet more government assistance and that, even then, its survival is far from a sure thing.

Perhaps the most telling parts of the reports are the sections in which the companies have to disclose significant legal proceedings in which they are involved. It takes more than 7,000 words for AIG to summarize all of its legal problems, including about a dozen securities fraud class action cases. Citi engages in a similar recitation.

While the two companies are still in a state of denial about their responsibility both for their own circumstances and for the larger financial crisis (as illustrated in the image above from Citi’s website), the existence of these legal proceedings may see to it that they are eventually held accountable for their financial misdeeds.

A Missed Opportunity

In three public appearances—town hall meetings in Indiana and Florida as well as a prime-time news conference—President Obama has achieved a rhetorical tour de force in promoting the economic recovery legislation now before Congress. His remarks have skillfully discredited the government-bashing and market fundamentalism that have dominated U.S. political discourse for the past quarter century.

One of Obama’s most effective points has been the need to turn the current crisis into an opportunity. He argues that proposed spending provisions relating, for instance, to school construction, renewable energy development, and the computerization of medical records will help both in boosting short-term economic activity and in providing the basis for longer-term improvements in education, energy independence and healthcare efficiency. Rarely has the case for public investment been made so passionately and so eloquently.

Would that the same could be said about the speech given by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (photo) about the Administration’s plan for revamping the financial bailout. First, it felt odd for a cabinet officer to be introduced by a member of Congress—Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd. Second, the speech was surprisingly vague on some key points, and Geithner did not take any questions.

The speech began with a recitation of the dismal features of the ongoing financial crisis, which he seemed to attribute more to loose monetary policies than to the predatory practices that saddled so many homeowners with unsustainable mortgages. Geithner spoke of failures in the regulatory system without mentioning that, until nominated for the Treasury post, he was part of that system as the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That awkward fact may explain why his criticism of the bailout policies pursued by his predecessor Henry Paulson was rather muted. “The actions your government took were absolutely essential,” Geithner insisted, “but they were inadequate.” A lot of adjectives come to mind about Paulson’s track record. “Inadequate” is hardly the most apposite.

When it came to the plan itself, Geithner seemed mainly concerned to give the appearance of dynamism, even resorting to quasi-military terminology in saying that Treasury and other agencies “will bring the full force of the United States Government to bear to strengthen our financial system.”

And what will this force seek to achieve? Geithner then switched to a medical metaphor to say that banks will be subjected to a “comprehensive stress test.” This seemed to mean a closer look at their balance sheets. But instead of suggesting any crackdown on institutions whose financial records reveal past shenanigans, Geithner suggested that those banks with more serious problems will be given access to a new “capital buffer” provided by Treasury. In other words, more bailout money for those institutions that screwed up the most.

The Treasury Secretary went on to describe a Public-Partnership Investment Fund that would “leverage private capital” to begin a process of relieving banks of the toxic assets that are now said to be the reason why credit is not flowing. Yet Geithner did not adequately explain why the financial markets would suddenly become enamored of assets that they are currently shunning.

A more straightforward portion of Geithner’s plan is the idea of injecting at least $500 billion and perhaps up to $1 trillion from the Federal Reserve to unfreeze the market for consumer and business borrowing. A big part of this market relates to credit cards, so the Administration seems to be suggesting that we try to ride out the recession by using more plastic.

Geithner left perhaps the most important feature of the plan—foreclosure assistance—for last and then said it was too soon to announce full details.

Apart from laudable provisions relating to transparency (including a new disclosure website), there is not much in the Geithner plan that represents a fundamental break from the Paulson approach to the crisis. According to the New York Times, Geithner resisted calls from other Administration officials to take a tougher approach toward the big banks. The result is a new plan that, aside from the restrictions on executive compensation, continues to coddle the large financial institutions that brought the country to its current precarious condition.

By putting its financial policy in the hands of a man who seems to have accepted the cowboy culture of Wall Street, the Obama Administration is wasting the opportunity to use the crisis to achieve fundamental change in the banking system. Instead, the new transparency measures may end up revealing that the Geithner plan is headed for the same dead end as that of his predecessor.

A Complete Break?

The contradictory impulses of the federal government were on full display today. At one location on Capitol Hill, a group of so-called Senate moderates were meeting to strip some $80 billion out of the Obama Administration’s economic recovery plan. According to press accounts, they were mainly targeting proposed spending related to education, ranging from Head Start programs to Pell grants for college students. I guess they are telling us that in these hard times we shouldn’t be lavishing taxpayer funds on fat cat students.

Meanwhile, in another part of Capitol Hill, the Senate Banking Committee heard testimony from Elizabeth Warren (photo), Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel that was created by the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) legislation enacted last fall. Warren gave a preview of her panel’s new report that will contain estimates that, in its purchases of capital stakes in major banks, the Bush Treasury Department overpaid by some $78 billion.

Want to take bets on which group—students or banks—end up keeping their $80 billion?

Warren’s statement was based on a valuation study of a sample of the banks that got federal infusions. “Despite the assurances of then-Secretary Paulson, who said that the transactions were at par,” Warren said, “Treasury paid substantially more for the assets purchased under the TARP than their then-current market value.”

Being generous, Warren said that Treasury may have overpaid as part of a deliberate policy to increase the amount of assistance being given to the banks to enhance the stabilization effort. As I see it, the overpayment could just as easily be seen as incompetence or a corrupt conveyance of value by Treasury officials to their friends in the financial community.

Warren was joined at the hearing by Neil Barofsky, the TARP Special Inspector General, whose testimony echoed her concern about the failure of Treasury to explain the criteria it applied in making its TARP payouts last year. Barofsky also expressed frustration about the refusal of the TARP recipients to reveal what they are doing with the funds. Yet he made it clear that the era of non-accountability is over. Barofsky said his office is moving ahead with plans to ask all recipients for an accounting, and in some cases—such as Bank of America—he is launching an audit of where the TARP money went. Even more tantalizing was Barofsky’s statement that his office has “opened several criminal investigations.”

Warren and Barofsky’s aggressive approach meshes with the Obama Administration’s stance on executive pay, which was announced in the wake of revelations that bailed out Wall Street firms had distributed a total of some $18 billion in end-of-the-year bonuses. It’s unfortunate that the plan does not apply to the many companies and their executives who already took the money (from taxpayers) and ran (to the bank to deposit their bonus checks). Yet, given the likelihood that many more corporations will be receiving federal help in the months to come, some top executives may finally have to endure some sacrifices.

What worries me, however, is that the Administration’s assault on executive pay may be an effort to placate the public in advance of the big new bailout plan that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is expected to announce next week—a plan that could include the creation of a “bad bank” to allow financial institutions to unload their toxic assets onto the taxpayers. Cracking down on the compensation of bank executives feels good, but it will not relieve the pain of another ill-conceived giant bailout.

Given the state of the economy, more federal intervention may be inevitable. Yet Geithner will have to make it perfectly clear next week that the Obama Treasury Department has made a complete break with the irresponsible and opaque policies of the former Paulson regime.

Note: Transparency is an issue not only for the TARP program, but also for the economic recovery plan. The stimulus legislation includes provisions for federal disclosure of money flows, but a new coalition is also calling for greater transparency in the way the states will use those funds.