Removing the Burden of Student Loans

Undeterred by its eviction from public parks in numerous cities, the Occupy movement is looking to other venues, among them college campuses.

Occupying universities is not just a matter of finding new encampment sites. It is also a means of asserting the connection between the current protests and the student activism of the 1960s, which in many ways paved the way for the current upheaval.

Those historical links have been in full view in Berkeley, where Occupy forces have been struggling to maintain an encampment at the University of California on the very spot where the Free Speech Movement was born nearly a half century ago. The call by that movement’s leader, Mario Savio, for students to throw their “bodies upon the gears” of the capitalist/military machine is echoed in the speeches in today’s Occupy general assemblies.

Berkeley also serves as a reminder that the universities are not that far removed from Wall Street. A 1998 agreement by UC-Berkeley to put its biotechnology research under the control of drug company Novartis (later Syngenta) was a key event in the corporatization of academia and was prominently featured in Jennifer Washburn’s 2005 book University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.

But perhaps the most compelling reason for Occupy efforts on college campuses is that they are the scene of the crime for the abuse that perhaps more than any other animates the current movement: the burden of student debt.

For many young Occupiers, who have never had a chance to take out a home mortgage on which to be foreclosed, their main relationship to Wall Street is through what they owe banks on the loans they amassed for their education. It is thus no surprise that some of the more common Occupy protest signs are those that say something like: “I have $80,000 in student loan debt. How can I ever pay that back?”

Occupiers are starting to move from simply bemoaning their student loans to rejecting the idea that those obligations have to be met. We’re seeing the emergence of a movement for student loan debt abolition.

To put this movement in context, it’s helpful to recall the modern history of higher education in the United States. Once the province of the upper class, colleges were transformed in the post-World War II era into a system for preparing a workforce that was becoming increasingly white-collar. The GI Bill and later the candidly named National Defense Student Loans were not social programs as much as they were indirect training subsidies for the private sector. The Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (later renamed Pell Grants) created in the 1970s brought young people from the country’s poorest families into the training system.

It was precisely this sense that they were being processed for an industrial machine that motivated many of the student protesters of the 1960s. As with many of today’s Occupiers, they ended up questioning the entire way of life that had been programmed for them.

Those challenges eventually ebbed, and the powers that be then pulled a cruel trick on young people. Once a college education had become all but essential for survival in society, students were forced to start shouldering much more of its cost. During the 1980s, the Reagan Administration slashed federal grant programs, compelling students to make up the difference through borrowing. As early as 1986, a Congressional report was warning that student loans were “overburdening a generation.”

Over the past 25 years, that burden has become increasingly onerous. Both Republican and Democratic Administrations exacerbated the problem by cracking down on borrowers who could not keep up with their payments, while at the same time giving the profit-maximizing private sector greater control over the system. That control was intensified by the privatization of the Student Loan Marketing Association (Sallie Mae) in the late 1990s and by the refusal of Congress for years to heed calls to get private banks out of the student loan business.

It was not until March 2010 that Congress, at the urging of the Obama Administration, eliminated the private parasites and converted billions in bank subsidies into funds for the expansion of the Pell Grant program. This was a remarkable step that will reduce future debt burdens, but by the time it occurred a great deal of damage had already been done.

During the past two decades, student loan debt has skyrocketed. Last year new loans surpassed $100 billion for the first time, and total loans outstanding are soon expected to exceed $1 trillion. According to the College Board, the typical recipient of a bachelor’s degree now owes $22,000 upon graduation. These numbers are all the more daunting in light of the dismal job prospects for graduates, millions of whom are unemployed or underemployed.

Given this history, young people are justified in viewing their student debts as akin to the unsustainable mortgages foisted on low-income home buyers by predatory lenders. President Obama recently announced some administrative adjustments to student loan obligations, but that will make only a small dent in the problem.

Even before the Occupy movement began, there was talk of a student loan debt abolition movement. Much of this talk was inspired by the writings of George Caffentzis, including a widely circulated article in the journal Reclamations. Caffentzis acknowledges the challenges to such a movement stemming from the fact that student loans are not repayable while borrowers are still in school: “Student loans are time bombs, constructed to detonate when the debtor is away from campus and the collectivity college provides is left behind.”

The advent of the Occupy movement is creating a new collectivity and a new way of thinking that addresses the call by Caffentzis for a “political house cleaning to dispel the smell of sanctity and rationality surrounding debt repayment regardless of the conditions in which it has been contracted and the ability of the debtor to do so.” Occupiers are also apt to be more receptive to Caffentzis’s argument that student debt should be seen not as consumer debt but in the context of education as an adjunct to the labor market.

A decade ago, many U.S. activists were building a Jubilee campaign for third world debt cancellation. We now need a similar effort here at home to liberate young people from the consequences of an educational financing system that has gone terribly wrong.

The Ghostbusters of Liberty Plaza

Protesting near the haunted One Liberty Plaza building

Occupy Wall Street’s decision to use Liberty Plaza in lower Manhattan as its base camp is meant to evoke comparisons to Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the focal point of the popular uprising in Egypt earlier this year.

Yet the concrete plaza (also known as Zuccotti Park) turns out to be a fitting symbol of the big business debacles that the new Occupy movement is condemning.

Looming over the space is a hulking 54-story office building known as One Liberty Plaza, which is part of the real estate portfolio of Brookfield Office Properties, also owner of the plaza itself. The skyscraper, completed in 1972, was originally the New York City headquarters of U.S. Steel.

By the time U.S. Steel moved into the building, the company had begun to lose market share and was embarking on an ill-fated diversification process. Within it few years it liquidated more than a dozen mills and spent more than $6 billion on the acquisition of Marathon Oil. It continued to shed mills, and in 1986 it purchased another oil company and changed its name to USX to reflect its retreat from the steel business.

After fighting off a takeover bid by corporate raider Carl Icahn, USX underwent more restructuring and finally decided to spin off its oil operations and reclaim the U.S. Steel name. After 9/11 it unsuccessfully tried to engineer a merger of all the U.S. integrated steel companies into something that would have resembled the steel trust assembled by J.P. Morgan at the beginning of the 20th Century. Today U.S. Steel is far overshadowed by foreign competitors, especially ArcelorMittal.

In 1980 U.S. Steel had sold One Liberty Plaza to Merrill Lynch, which was then riding high atop the stock brokerage business. A year after the sale, Merrill’s chief, Donald Regan, went to Washington to serve as Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration. Regan had initiated a process of diversification into international banking, real estate, insurance and other financial services.

Merrill, which had always prided itself on serving the individual investor, became increasingly involved in wheeling and dealing. In the early 2000s Merrill’s reputation was seriously tarnished by its close ties to the corrupt Enron Corporation and by allegations that its analysts were strongly touting dubious internet stocks for which Merrill was providing investment banking services.

In 2007 Merrill’s CEO Stan O’Neal was ousted after the firm was forced to take an $8.4 billion write-down linked to sinking securities backed by subprime mortgages. Amid the meltdown of Wall Street in September 2008, Merrill Lynch avoided following Lehman Brothers into oblivion only by agreeing to be taken over by Bank of America. There was later a furor when it came to light that Merrill rushed through some $3 billion in bonuses before the merger took effect.

In 1984 Merrill Lynch had agreed to sell One Liberty Plaza to the real estate firm Olympia & York (O&Y) and move its headquarters to the World Financial Center development that O&Y was building a few blocks away in Battery Park City.

O&Y, under the control of the Reichmann Family, first amassed holdings in Canada and then made a splash in the New York City real estate world with an aggressive series of purchases. By the mid-1980s it had become the largest real estate company in the world while also investing heavily in natural resources companies such as Gulf Canada. Its dizzying growth came to an end in 1992, when it could no longer handle its $18 billion in debt and was forced to file for bankruptcy.

The man who ran O&Y’s U.S. real estate operations was former New York deputy mayor John Zuccotti—the guy the park is named after. He stayed on after the bankruptcy filing, oversaw the sale of O&Y’s portfolio to Brookfield Properties and was kept in place by Brookfield. He is currently on the board of directors of what is now known as Brookfield Office Properties.  So far, Brookfield has avoided any fiascoes of its own.

Yet the previous owners of One Liberty Plaza—U.S. Steel, Merrill Lynch and Olympia & York—haunt the office building and Zuccotti Park. Their track record of foolhardy restructurings, reckless borrowing and unscrupulous investment practices are emblematic of the misdeeds of large corporations over the past few decades. Those practices have enfeebled the U.S. economy and diminished the living standards of all but a narrow slice of the population.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is, in effect, trying to exorcise these demons.  And the ranks of the ghostbusters in Liberty Plaza and elsewhere seem to be growing every day.

An Indictment of the Financial Sector

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.

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.

Barbarians on the Big Board

The barbarians have finally become full-fledged members of the business establishment. The buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., which for three decades has targeted publicly traded corporations, is about to start trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The one-time master of taking companies private is now taking itself public.

Seeing KKR featured on the business pages sparks flashbacks to the 1980s, when the firm was at the center of the largest transformation of corporate America since the days of the robber barons. Yet KKR is of interest not only for historical reasons. Its financial maneuvers harmed the American economy in ways that are still being felt today.

Fortune once called KKR founder Jerome Kohlberg Jr. “the spiritual father of the entire LBO industry,” LBO being short for leveraged buyouts – the process of buying control of a company using its own borrowing capacity. Frequently working with top executives who wanted to share in the windfall, KKR took over companies with the intention of restructuring them and later taking them public again at a fat profit. Workers were usually the ones who paid the price, through layoffs or intensified work.

Led by Henry Kravis and George Roberts (Kohlberg was pushed out), KKR used a series of such buyouts to became the country’s second largest conglomerate (after General Electric), with control of corporate trophies such as Beatrice, Safeway Stores and Owens-Illinois. A Business Week cover story dubbed Kravis “King Henry,” while Fortune dubbed him and his partner “Masters of the Buyout Game.”

The greed and reckless speculation of LBOs reached its apotheosis in 1988 in the battle for RJR Nabisco. KKR emerged victorious from the free-for-all and carried out what was then a record $25 billion takeover of the tobacco and food giant. The excesses of all involved inspired Time magazine to write that the process had “crossed an invisible line that separates reasonable conduct from anarchy.” Bryan Burrough and John Helyar titled their 1990 book about the takeover Barbarians at the Gate.

After the RJR Nabisco deal, the appetite for major LBOs waned, in large part because of the collapse of the market for the junk bonds that made most of those deals possible — a collapse hastened by the demise of Drexel Burnham Lambert amid an insider trading scandal. KKR survived, though its stature was considerably diminished. Its reputation took a big hit in 1991, when Sarah Bartlett’s book on the firm, The Money Machine, accused KKR of gouging its own investors, including public pension funds.

KKR held on during the deal drought of the 1990s and finally got its reward in the mid-2000s, when buyouts started to enjoy a resurgence. This time around, KKR and the other LBO firms, now operating under the sanitized rubric of private equity, avoided much of the risk of the dealmaking of the 1980s and shamelessly milked bought-out firms with bloated management fees. As a 2006 Wall Street Journal headline put it, “In Today’s Buyouts, Payday for Firms is Never Far Away.”

The Great Recession has put a crimp in the private equity game, but KKR could not resist one more big deal: itself. For the past three years it has struggled to go public in a convoluted process involving an offshore affiliate based in Guernsey. Now it finally seems to be succeeding, but this is hardly a cause for celebration.

KKR’s initial offering serves mainly as a reminder of how much the firm has done to bring about our current economic ills. KKR helped popularize the idea that wealth could be created out of thin air rather than real productive activity. Its buyouts were part of the inspiration for securitization and other machinations that precipitated the near meltdown of the financial system in 2008. Given that the interest paid on LBO debt was deductible on company tax returns, KKR’s buyouts also pioneered the dubious practice of having the federal government effectively subsidize wheeling and dealing, paving the way to the Big Bailout of Wall Street.

All those deals made Henry Kravis and George Roberts very rich, but they have left the country much poorer.

Using Financial Reform to Promote Deregulation

Growing public rage over Wall Street misbehavior has snapped the Senate out of its lethargy on financial reform. Amid the get-tough posturing, however, the impulse to lighten the regulatory “burden” on business has not completely disappeared.

When Senate Republicans unveiled their alternative approach to reform on April 26, buried in the document was a provision that called for less rather than more regulation. The GOP proposal would make smaller publicly traded companies exempt from a key provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (Sarbox, for short), the corporate accountability law enacted in 2002 in response to the accounting scandals at companies such as Enron and WorldCom.

The provision in question, Section 404, requires firms to maintain a system of internal controls to ensure the integrity of their financial statements, which must include an audited assessment of the adequacy of those measures. A breakdown in such controls is an invitation to financial fraud.

Senate Republicans would like to provide an immediate exemption to companies with a market capitalization of $150 million or less and would instruct the Securities and Exchange Commission to explore the possibility of setting the cutoff even higher. The SEC has already delayed implementation of the Section 404 requirement for smaller firms, and it convened a business-dominated advisory committee that recommended consideration of Sarbox relaxation for firms with market capitalization up to $787 million. The Commission, however, has refused to create a permanent exemption.

Truth be told, it is not just Republicans who are pushing the exemption idea. The financial reform bill that passed the House in December contains a Section 404 small-business exemption that was proposed – against the wishes of Financial Services Committee Chair Barney Frank – by Democrat John Adler along with Republican Scott Garrett, both of New Jersey. The amendment passed with the blessing of the Obama Administration, with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel personally lobbying members of the Committee on its behalf.  Senator Dodd, however, did not include a small-business exemption in his financial reform bill.

The Sarbox small-firm carve-out may win some friends in business circles, but it entails serious risks. Chief among them is that the exemption could serve as a stepping stone to further weakening or abolition of the entire law.

This is more than a remote possibility. Republicans make no secret of their distaste for Sarbox in general and have used this as a theme in criticizing the Dodd bill. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint called that bill “Sarbanes-Oxley on steroids,” adding: “Like Sarbanes-Oxley, it is reactionary legislation that’s more likely to hurt U.S. businesses than reform the financial system.” A recent Wall Street Journal editorial denounced Dodd’s bill as “a souped-up version of the Sarbanes-Oxley bill of 2002 – that is, a collection of ill-understood reforms whose main achievement will be to make Wall Street even more the vassal of Washington.”

Congress is not the only arena where Sarbanes-Oxley is under assault. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a challenge by the rabidly anti-regulation Competitive Enterprise Institute to the legitimacy of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which was created by Sarbox by regulate public accounting firms. Some legal observers believe that a high court ruling against the Board could lead to the demise of Sarbox in its entirety.

Even if this dark scenario does not come to pass, does it make sense to loosen the controls on smaller firms? Fraudulent behavior is hardly unknown among public companies of modest size. In fact, such companies have long been used as vehicles for criminal enterprises. A 1996 Business Week investigation found that “substantial elements of the small-cap market have been turned into a veritable Mob franchise, under the very noses of regulators and law enforcement.”

Lately, the focus has been on the sins of the financial giants, but that’s no reason to dilute oversight of smaller players. Now’s a time for tightening regulation across the board.

The (Investment) House Always Wins

Goldman Sachs, which has long prided itself on being one of the smartest operators on Wall Street, has apparently decided that the best way to defend itself against federal fraud charges is to plead incompetence. The firm is taking the position that it is not guilty of misleading investors in a 2007 issue of mortgage securities because it allegedly lost money – more than $90 million, it claims – on its own stake in the deal.

In fact, Goldman would have us believe that it took a bath in the overall mortgage security arena. This story line is a far cry from the one put forth a couple of years ago, when the firm was being celebrated for anticipating the collapse in the mortgage market and shielding itself – though not its clients. In a November 2007 front-page article headlined “Goldman Sachs Rakes in Profit in Credit Crisis,” the New York Times reported that the firm “continued to package risky mortgages to sell to investors” while it reduced its own holdings in such securities and bought “expensive insurance as protection against further losses.” In 2007 Goldman posted a profit of $11.6 billion (up from $9.5 billion the year before), and CEO Lloyd Blankfein took home $70 million in compensation (not counting another $45 million in value he realized upon the vesting of previously granted stock awards). Some bath.

Goldman is not the only one rewriting financial history. Many of the firm’s mainstream critics are talking as if it is unheard of for an investment bank to act contrary to the interests of its clients, as Goldman is accused of doing by failing to disclose that it allowed hedge fund operator John Paulson to choose a set of particularly toxic mortgage securities for Goldman to peddle while Paulson was betting heavily that those securities would tank.

In fact, the history of Wall Street is filled with examples in which investment houses sought to hoodwink investors. Rampant stock manipulation, conflicts of interest and other fraudulent practices exposed by the Pecora Commission prompted the regulatory reforms of the 1930s. Those reforms reduced but did not eliminate shady practices. The 1950s and early 1960s saw a series of scandals involving firms on the American Stock Exchange that in 1964 inspired Congress to impose stricter disclosure requirements for over-the-counter securities.

The corporate takeover frenzy of the 1980s brought with it a wave of insider trading scandals. The culprits in these cases involved not only independent speculators such as Ivan Boesky, but also executives at prominent investment houses, above all Michael Milken of Drexel Burnham. Also caught in the net was Robert Freeman, head of risk arbitrage at Goldman, who in 1989 pleaded guilty to criminal charges. When players such as Freeman and Milken traded on inside information, they were profiting at the expense of other investors, including their own clients, who were not privy to that information.

During the past decade, various major banks were accused of helping crooked companies deceive investors. For example, in 2004 Citigroup agreed to pay $2.7 billion to settle such charges brought in connection with WorldCom and later paid $1.7 billion to former Enron investors. In 2005 Goldman and three other banks paid $100 million to settle charges in connection with WorldCom.

In other words, the allegation that Goldman was acting contrary to the interest of its clients in the sale of synthetic collateralized debt obligations was hardly unprecedented.

What’s not getting much attention during the current scandal is that in late 2007 Goldman had found another way to profit by exploiting its clients, though in this case the clients were not investors but homeowners.

Goldman quietly purchased a company called Litton Loan Servicing, a leading player in the business of servicing subprime (and frequently predatory) home mortgages. “Servicing” in this case means collecting payments from homeowners who frequently fall behind in payments and are at risk of foreclosure. As I wrote in 2008, Litton is “a type of collection agency dealing with those in the most vulnerable and desperate financial circumstances.” At the end of 2009, Litton was the 4th largest subprime servicer, with a portfolio of some $52 billion (National Mortgage News 4/5/2010).

Litton has frequently been charged with engaging in abusive practices, including the imposition of onerous late fees that allegedly violate the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. It has also been accused of being overly aggressive in pushing homeowners into foreclosure when they can’t make their payments.

Many of these complaints have ended up in court. According to the Justia database, Litton has been sued more than 300 times in federal court since the beginning of 2007. That year a federal judge in California granted class-action status to a group of plaintiffs, but the court later limited the scope of the potential damages, resulting in a settlement in which Litton agreed to pay out $500,000.

Meanwhile, individual lawsuits continue to be filed. Many of the more recent ones involve disputes over loan modifications. Complaints in this area persist even though Litton is participating in the Obama Administration’s Home Affordable Modification Program and is thus eligible for incentive payments through an extension of the Toxic Assets Relief Program.

There seems to be no end to the ways that Goldman manages to make money from toxic assets.  On Wall Street, as in Las Vegas, the house always wins.

BONUS FEATURE: Federal regulation of business leaves a lot to be desired, but it is worth knowing where to find information on those enforcement activities that are occurring. The Dirt Diggers Digest can help with our new Enforcement page, which has links to online enforcement data from a wide range of federal agencies. The page also includes links to inspection data, product recall announcements and lists of companies debarred from doing business with the federal government.

Throw the Bums Out — of the Boardroom

The financial reform bill just released by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd is facing a great deal of criticism for being too weak. Let me pile on by focusing on one of the less noticed parts of the bill: the provision dealing with the composition of financial institution boards of directors.

Among the many reasons for the financial debacle of the past few years was the failure of board members at the big commercial and investment banks to exercise any kind of meaningful oversight while the executives of those companies were applying the business principles of Charles Ponzi. This was a replay of what happened during the Enron and other corporate scandals of the early 2000s.

One of the key causes of feckless boards is the phenomenon of interlocking directorates — the tendency of large and powerful corporations to share directors. This happens when the chief executive of a big company or bank sits on the board of another corporate leviathan, or when retired business executives join multiple boards. In these cases the outside director can usually be counted on to endorse the strategies put forth by top management and to be generous when it comes to setting executive compensation policies. And perhaps be willfully ignorant when management is cooking the books.

According to the recent report from its bankruptcy examiner, that was the case when Lehman Brothers was engaged in its Repo 105 scam to hide the fact that its balance sheet was becoming overwhelmed by toxic assets. Prior to its collapse in 2008, the chair of the audit committee of Lehman’s board was the retired chief executive of Halliburton.

Tucked in Dodd’s 1,336-page bill is a short section (no. 164) that addresses the board issue by proposing a modification in what is known as the Depository Institutions Management Interlocks Act (DIMIA), an obscure law from 1978 that prohibits someone from sitting on the boards of more than one bank, depending on the size and location of the institutions. Dodd wants to apply DIMIA to the large nonbank financial companies that would be subject to additional regulation under his bill. In doing so he would bar the Federal Reserve from allowing any interlocks between those nonbank financial companies and large bank holding companies.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does not begin to address the corporate governance lapses that helped bring about the Wall Street meltdown. Those lapses showed that existing rules on corporate boards, such as those contained in the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, are not up to the task.

And we certainly can’t count on big financial institutions themselves to choose the best board members or even to exclude those whose track record should disqualify them. Citigroup made a big show last year of revamping its board, but the person it chose to chair that body was Jerry Grundhofer, who, in addition to being the former CEO of U.S. Bancorp, had served as a director of Lehman Brothers during its last ignominious year.

Another bailed out institution, Bank of America, also chose some new directors last year. Its choices included two former regulatory officials – Susan Bies of the Federal Reserve and Donald Powell of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation – whose agencies did little to detect or prevent the crisis. B of A also brought on Robert Scully, a former executive of Wall Street giant Morgan Stanley.

In the wake of the Enron scandal, groups such as the AFL-CIO called on companies on whose boards Enron’s outside directors also served to ease them out when they came up for reelection. In 2005 board members at Enron and at WorldCom had to pay millions of dollars of their own money to settle lawsuits brought by investors in the two companies brought down by fraud.

So far, those who served on the boards of the large banks have avoided a similar fate. It would be good to see them face litigation and public disapprobation, but at least they should be barred from continuing to serve on the boards of institutions where future financial crises may occur. Strengthening the rules against interlocks in a meaningful way would also help diminish cronyism in the boardroom.

Big Money requires the kind of strong external regulation that financial reform could conceivably bring about. That regulation should also make sure that institutions also have a decent first line of internal regulation in the form of truly independent and diligent board members.

Pecora Weeps

After J.P. Morgan was questioned by Congressional investigator Ferdinand Pecora during a 1930s investigation of the causes of the Great Crash, the legendary financier complained that Pecora (photo) had “the manners of a prosecuting attorney who is trying to convict a horse thief.” Morgan was also embarrassed when a Ringling Bros. publicity agent placed a diminutive circus performer on his lap in the middle of the proceedings.

At this week’s public hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the nation’s most powerful bankers were, unfortunately, treated with a lot more deference. Sure, there was one satisfying exchange between FCIC Chairman Phil Angelides and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein in which Angelides likened the firm’s practice of betting against the very securities it was peddling to clients to that of selling someone a car with faulty brakes and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer.

But those moments were rare. For the most part, the bankers came away unscathed. Most of the ten commissioners treated them not as suspected criminals whose misdeeds needed to be probed, but rather as experts whose opinions on the causes of the crisis were being solicited. This gave the bankers abundant opportunities to pontificate about industry and regulatory practices while avoiding any incriminating admissions about their own firm’s behavior.

For example, Commissioner Heather Murren, CEO of the Nevada Cancer Institute, asked Blankfein whether there should be “more supervision of the kinds of activities that are undertaken by investment banks?” This allowed him to babble on about the “sociology…of our regulation before and after becoming a bank holding company.”

The bankers seemed to have expected tougher questioning. Their opening statements sought to soften the interrogation by conceding some general culpability, though it was done in a mostly generic way. Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase admitted that “new and poorly underwritten mortgage products helped fuel housing price appreciation, excessive speculation and core higher credit losses.” John Mack of Morgan Stanley acknowledged that “there is no doubt that we as an industry made mistakes.” And Brian Moynihan, the new CEO of Bank of America, noted: “Over the course of the crisis, we, as an industry, caused a lot of damage.”

But much too little time was spent by the commissioners exploring how the giant firms represented on the panel contributed to that damage. A search of the transcript of the hearing produced by CQ Transcriptions and posted on the database service Factiva indicates that the word “predatory” was not used once during the time the four top bankers were testifying.

The commissioners failed to challenge most of the self-serving statements made by the bankers to give the impression that, despite whatever vague transgressions were going on in the industry, their own firms were squeaky clean. Even Angelides failed to pin them down. When he asked Blankfein to state “the two most significant instances of negligent, improper and bad behavior in which your firm engaged and for which you would apologize” the Goldman CEO admitted only to contributing to “elements of froth in the market.” Angelides asked whether that included anything “negligent or improper.” Blankfein again evaded the question and the Chairman gave up.

The bankers also went unchallenged in making statements that were incomplete if not outright erroneous. When Blankfein, for example, claimed that Goldman deals only with institutional investors and “high-net-worth individuals,” no one pointed out the firm’s ties to Litton Loan Servicing, which has handled large numbers of subprime and often predatory home mortgages.

The Goldman chief also made much of the fact that he and other top executives of the firm took no bonuses in 2008. That’s true, but he failed to mention that, according to Goldman’s proxy statement, he alone became more than $25 million richer that year when previously granted stock awards vested.

The bankers were at their slipperiest when it came to the few questions about the issue of being too big to fail. They would not, of course, admit to being too big, but in spite of every indication that the federal government would never allow another Lehman Brothers-type collapse to occur, they labored mightily to argue that they could conceivably go under. This notwithstanding the fact that a couple of them had just thanked U.S. taxpayers for the financial assistance their firms had received.

I suppose it’s possible that the Commission is saving its best shots for later stages of the investigation and its final report, but its handling of the banker hearing deprived the public of a chance to see some of the prime villains of the current crisis get a much-deserved tongue-lashing.

Back to the Barricades?

The news that Byron Dorgan and Christopher Dodd will not run for reelection has Democrats fretting that they will lose their 60-vote supermajority in the Senate and will no longer be able to get anything accomplished.

But what have we got to show, with regard to checking corporate abuses, for the past 12 months of Democratic control over the legislative branch as well as the White House? Last year this time, excitement over Obama’s election and the Democratic gains in Congress persuaded many activists that great things could once again happen in Washington. The big business agenda would supposedly no longer reign supreme, and progressives anticipated major legislative gains regarding healthcare coverage, financial regulation, the climate crisis and union organizing.

Now those expectations seem hopelessly naïve. Rather than radical changes, we’ve ended up with a disappointing series of half-measures, quarter-measures, and stalemates.

The biggest frustration is in the healthcare arena. We seem to be on the verge of getting a new system that will expand coverage and curb some of the most egregious insurance industry abuses, but these improvements come at a high cost. The final bill will likely have a strict individual mandate compelling those without coverage to become customers of a bunch of blood-suckers yet a weak employer mandate allowing many companies to avoid providing decent coverage to their workers. It will not seriously regulate insurance rates yet may end up penalizing union workers who gave up wage increases to get more generous benefits. The bill that squeaked through the Senate and is expected to form the basis of the final legislation is so compromised that veteran reformers such as Physicians for a National Health Program have called for its defeat.

After crippling the economy through reckless investments and forcing millions of homeowners into foreclosure, the big banks have largely been treated with deference by Congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration. Nothing has been done to break up institutions deemed too big to fail and thus able to extort massive taxpayer-funded bailouts. Despite loud complaints from bankers used to sumptuous pay packages, the federal government’s restrictions on executive compensation have been pretty indulgent. The bill that passed the House in December creates a new consumer protection agency for financial services, but it is unclear how much power it will have. And the bill lacks aggressive regulation of the exotic financial instruments that helped bring about the crisis. Separate legislation on credit cards that was enacted curbs some of the industry’s most outrageous practices but does nothing about usurious interest rates.

The climate bill passed by the House in June not only shunned strict emission limits in favor of the dubious cap-and-trade system, but it would allow many major polluters to avoid paying for their emission allowances for up to 20 years. And the overall emission reductions the bill envisions are far below the level needed to make a substantial dent in global warming.

And then there’s the Employee Free Choice Act, the key priority of the labor movement, which did so much to get Obama and many Democrats elected. The legislation has been in suspended animation for many months as Senate leaders apparently cannot muster enough votes to overcome intransigent opposition not only from Republicans but also from some Dems. EFCA remained stalled even after the AFL-CIO signaled it was open to compromise on the key issue of card-check organizing.

Overall, corporate interests have been remarkably successful over the past year in avoiding serious restraints on their freedom of action. Much of what the Democrats are accomplishing amounts to the appearance of reform. It gives the impression that corporate misbehavior is being addressed but is actually inoculating business against more stringent regulation. In the case of healthcare, the situation is even worse: by turning millions into captive customers, Congress is granting unprecedented power and legitimacy to a discredited industry.

There are plenty of obvious explanations for this dismal performance. It is easy to point to the corrupting effect of corporate campaign contributions and lobbying by former Congressional staffers as well as the pernicious role of conservative Democrats and egomaniacs like Joe Lieberman.

But the progressive movement also deserves some of the blame. The euphoria following the 2008 election gave rise to another bout of the delusion that serious change requires nothing more putting in office a certain number of people with the preferred party designation.

During the 1930s FDR is supposed to have told activists in a private meeting: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Although that quote has showed up in several blogs over the past year, the underlying message seems to have been lost on many of today’s activists. With the absence of substantial popular pressure, it has been easier for Congressional Democrats to succumb to the siren song of the corporate interests.

Ironically, it has been the woefully ignorant and confused tea party movement—serving as a witting or unwitting stalking horse for the corporate elite—that has lately shown the power of grassroots mobilization. Their positions make no sense, but the tea baggers have made sure that Congressional Republicans maintain a hard-right stance on everything.

Perhaps we will accomplish more if we return to our own barricades.