Banking Badly

The markets are abuzz with speculation that the Obama Treasury Department may use a scheme known as a “bad bank” as a new gambit in trying to resolve the widening financial crisis. Despite its name, the concept does not involve pillorying corrupt and reckless financial CEOs for their sins—as President Obama in effect did Thursday in expressing outrage over Wall Street bonuses. On the contrary, it is a way of absolving banks for their misguided lending and investment practices by having the government acquire their tainted assets and place them in a separate entity.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is essentially what former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson insisted back in September was essential to the survival of capitalism. Yet after he steamrolled Congress into giving him authority to spend $700 billion on such purchases, he turned around and pursued an entirely different strategy of injecting massive amounts of capital into the banks. Since that approach failed to restore normalcy to the system, Paulson’s successor Timothy Geithner apparently wants to turn the clock back five months.

The mystique surrounding the bad bank idea comes from the fact that Sweden employed the technique to resolve a similar financial crisis 15 years ago. As the New York Times gushed recently: “With Sweden’s banks effectively bankrupt in the early 1990s, a center-right government pulled off a rapid recovery that led to taxpayers making money in the long run.”

Creating a bad bank is being depicted as an alternative to nationalization of major financial institutions. In fact, stock markets shot up on Wednesday after Geithner said the Administration would “do our best to preserve” the system of private ownership of banks.

What bad bank proponents tend to overlook is that the plan would probably involve nationalization as well. This is what happened in Sweden, where the government did not just relieve banks of non-performing loans and then leave them alone. Gota Bank, one of the weakest institutions, was nationalized and was compelled to merge with Nordbanken, which had been owned partly by the government but was then taken over completely (and privatized years later).

There are some other details about the Swedish experience worth noting. First, the government did not acquire the problem assets of all banks, though it did guarantee their obligations. The main bad banks were the ones spun off from Gota Bank and Nordbanken. Second, the troubled assets the government took over via entities called Securum and Retriva were mostly loans to commercial property owners and shares in industrial companies. Securum and Retriva took control of those properties, and when the commercial real estate market rebounded, they were able to sell off those holdings easily.

The financial world has gotten more complicated since the early 1990s. The toxic assets polluting the balance sheets of major U.S. financial institutions today are complex instruments such as mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations. These represent packages of large numbers of loans that cannot easily be disentangled. It is one thing to resell discrete office buildings and shopping malls but quite another to seize and resell thousands of bundled home mortgages. Does the federal government want to become a gargantuan version of those amoral people on late-night infomercials bragging about buying up and then reselling foreclosed homes?

Rather than wasting vast additional sums in a bad-bank bailout, why doesn’t the federal government direct its resources toward the creation of a “good” bank? The Federal Reserve is already acting not just as the lender of last resort to banks but has also provided loans to non-financial corporations by purchasing their commercial paper. Why stop there? If the for-profit banking system really is dysfunctional, then the solution may be to have the federal government step in to replace or supplement it in a major way. That’s the kind of intervention that may actually do us some good.

Merger of Miscreants

Monday may be remembered as the day when American big business announced some 50,000 layoffs, but one large company seemed to take a step toward growth. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer unveiled plans that day to acquire its smaller competitor Wyeth in a stock and cash deal estimated at $68 billion. Pfizer crowed that the merger would create “the world’s premier biopharmaceutical company.”

While the deal may grow Pfizer’s revenues, it’s unclear who will benefit. The combined workforce of the two companies will be slashed by nearly 20,000 jobs. This will continue a policy of downsizing pursued by Pfizer CEO Jeffrey Kindler (photo) since he came to the giant drug firm from McDonald’s, of all places, in 2006.

Although Pfizer claims that the merged company will be better positioned to “respond more quickly and effectively to meet changing health care needs,” it is doubtful that patients will gain much from the creation of the mega-corporation. Pfizer has been feasting on the profits generated by Lipitor, but the company’s patent rights to the cholesterol drug expire in 2011 and there is nothing major in its pipeline to replace it. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page sees the Wyeth acquisition as a sign of the “decline of innovation” in the drug industry.

Rather than developing new breakthrough products, companies like Pfizer seem mostly preoccupied with their legal issues. Kindler’s background, after all, is in litigation rather than science or even finance. Apart from patent issues, he has had to contend with the company’s regulatory problems. In fact, while everyone was focused on the merger, Pfizer announced that it had agreed to pay $2.3 billion (a record amount) to settle federal charges in connection with its off-label marketing of the now-withdrawn painkiller Bextra. The revelation was buried in a long press release announcing the company’s fourth-quarter financial results.

Bextra is not Pfizer’s only controversy. In October, for example, the New York Times published a story alleging that the company had manipulated the publication of scientific research to bolster the use of its epilepsy treatment Neurtonin for other disorders while suppressing research that didn’t support those uses. In 2006 the company was accused of testing an unapproved drug on children in Nigeria.

Pfizer’s bride-to-be Wyeth (formerly known as American Home Products) also has a record that is far from unblemished. The summary of legal proceedings in the company’s last annual financial report goes on for 14 pages. Most of the lawsuits are product liability cases involving hormone therapy, childhood vaccines, the anti-depressant Effexor, the contraceptive Norplant and, most importantly, the combination diet drug known as fen-phen, which was withdrawn from the market more than a decade ago after reports that its use was linked to possibly fatal heart valve damage. The findings unleashed a wave of tens of thousands of lawsuits against the company, including a case in Texas in which a jury awarded a single plaintiff more than $1 billion in damages. The company set up a $3.75 billion fund as part of the attempted resolution of a national class action case. Another $1.3 billion was added to the fund in 2006. Many plaintiffs opted out of the class and negotiated individual settlements with the company.

Big mergers are often justified with the claim that the combination will enhance product innovation. The main synergy likely to emerge from the marriage of Pfizer and Wyeth will be in its litigation department.

Is Change Coming to the Big Bailout?

In his confirmation hearing for the post of Treasury Secretary this week, Timothy Geithner spent a lot of time apologizing for his personal income tax peccadilloes. Perhaps he should have also expressed some contrition for his role, as head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in the failure of financial oversight that helped plunge the country into its current economic crisis. Geithner also played a part, albeit one subordinate to former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, in the disastrous bailout program that was supposed to clean up the mess created by Wall Street.

In his opening statement to the Senate committee, Geithner declared that the Obama Administration intends to “fundamentally reform” the bailout scheme, still known as the Troubled Assets Relief Program (or TARP) even though the original plan for the federal government to buy up those assets was abandoned in favor of capital infusions. Since it now appears Geithner will be confirmed by the Senate next week, he will have to make good on that commitment to reform. And not a moment too soon. A string of recent revelations shows that the system is more flawed than we realized.

There’s growing evidence that Treasury may not have been as diligent and impartial as it claimed when deciding which banks would get TARP money and which would be denied. Earlier this month, Fortune wrote about the case of OneUnited, a small Boston bank that received $12 million in TARP funds even though its regulator, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, had alleged it was operating without effective underwriting standards and practices. The bank was also making suspicious payments for a beachfront house and a Porsche SUV apparently used by its top executives. This week the Wall Street Journal reports that OneUnited’s TARP infusion came after Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chair of the House Financial Services Committee, made a plea on behalf of the bank.

While some financial institutions may have used political connections to get on the TARP gravy train, others tried to game the system. For example, Financial Week recently reported that a number of large insurance companies have acquired tiny banks and converted themselves into bank holding companies, potentially making them eligible for big capital infusions from the Treasury Department.

One bright spot is the position being taken by the TARP special inspector general, Neil Barofsky (photo), whose confirmation moved slowly through Congress but who is now cranking up his operation. Barofsky has just indicated that he intends to ask every TARP recipient how the funds are being used.

What a novel idea. After hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have been shoveled into the private, someone in the federal government is finally asking what’s being done with the money. It remains to be seen whether Geithner, once in office, makes a clean break with the Paulson debacle and follows Barofsky in demanding real accountability.

Transparent Intentions

In some of its first official acts, the Obama Administration has set the hearts of disclosure advocates atwitter at the prospect of a new era of open government. “For a long time now there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” said the new President. “Transparency and rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

After issuing a memorandum on openness and an executive order repealing restrictive Bush Administration policies on the release of government records, including those relating to former presidents, Obama said: “Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.”

Transparency will be an issue in some of the administration’s largest initiatives, especially the $800 billion or so that will be spent for economy recovery. The signs there look promising as well. The 258-page text of the proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 posted last week by the House Appropriations Committee includes some impressive provisions on disclosure. The bill calls for the creation of a special website called “to foster greater accountability and transparency in the use of funds made available in this Act” (Section 1226).

Aside from general material on the stimulus program, the site is supposed to include detailed data on all contracts awarded and grants issued. However, the bill does state that “proprietary data that is required to be kept confidential under applicable Federal or State law or regulation shall be redacted before posting” (Section 201). Given the restrictive practices in some jurisdictions, this will require some watching.

Another provision of the legislation would create an Accountability and Transparency Board chaired by the President’s Chief Performance Officer (a new position created by Obama). The main aim of the board would be to “prevent waste, fraud and abuse,” but it would also be charged with overseeing practices regarding the reporting of contract and grant information. (Sections 1221-1225). Finally, the bill would require reporting on “the number of jobs created or sustained by the Federal funds…including information on job sectors and pay levels” (Section 12001).

If these provisions survive in the legislation that passes Congress, they will make the recovery act vastly more transparent than the bailout program carried out by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in recent months. The need to bring some openness to the bailout was expressed by Timothy Geithner, Obama’s choice to succeed Paulson, during his confirmation hearing this week. Although most of the hearing was taken up with Geithner’s personal tax fiddles, the nominee declared that the Obama Administration intends to “fundamentally reform” the bailout program with “tough conditions to protect the taxpayer and the necessary transparency to allow the American people to see how and where their money is being spent and the results those investments are delivering.”

This is what watchdog groups have been demanding since the bailout first started. Last month, more than 75 organizations led by Open the and the National Taxpayers Union sent an open letter to Congress demanding bailout transparency. They are now planning to relaunch that effort.

So far, the Obama Administration is saying all the right things about transparency and accountability, but it has a monumental task before it to make truly open government a reality. We need to make sure it does not cut any corners.

Note: This piece has been crossposted on the Good Jobs First sister blog Clawback.

Eyes on the Ties

Watch out, Big Brother—LittleSis is here. LittleSis is a new website that seeks to collect, assemble and analyze relationships among members of the corporate and political elites. Kevin Connor, a veteran researcher-campaigner for labor unions and community groups who co-founded the site, calls it “an involuntary Facebook for powerful people…It opens up elite networks for inspection.”

Like most ambitious web projects these days, LittleSis is based on “crowd sourcing”—the idea that you can depend on a large number of volunteers contributing small bits of information to create an effective information resource. The site welcomes all contributors but insists that any data posted be linked to a reputable online source. In a post on the site’s “Eyes on the Ties” blog, co-founder Matthew Skomarovsky said that references to Wikipedia, for example, would not be acceptable. The aim is to use primary source material as much possible.

While still in preliminary Beta form, LittleSis boasts that it has entries on more than 27,000 individuals. Searches can also be done on institutions, companies and other entities. Connor pointed me to the material on the exclusive Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia (reached by putting the club’s name in the search box on the main page). The names of 211 members are listed. You can either click on a person’s name to see his (the club is all-male) other affiliations, or you can click on one of several tabs to see summary data such as which political candidates club members have contributed to and which universities they attended.

Funded by the Sunlight Foundation, LittleSis is programmed to highlight relationships, so that, for example, any data added to an individual’s entry mentioning an institution will automatically also post to the entry for the institution.

LittleSis is an exciting project that reinvigorates the tradition of power-elite research pursued in the pre-internet era by authors such as Gabriel Kolko and William Domhoff. It also builds on previous online efforts such as TheyRule. It could become an invaluable tool to help us understand the powers that be and pursue campaigns that make them less powerful.

Note: Connor tells me that the LittleSis team is willing to make presentations about the site to organizations (presumably those with lots of researchers will be high on his list) to explain how it works and to encourage people to contribute. Contact him here.

Citigroup (1998-2009) R.I.P.

Citigroup was born illegitimate and, having recently become a ward of the federal government, is now in the process of being dismembered. It’s amazing what a difference a decade makes. In April 1998 financial wheeler dealer Sandy Weill (photo) defied federal laws preventing marriages among banks, brokerage houses and insurance companies and pushed through a then-astounding $70 billion merger between his Travelers Group and commercial banking giant Citicorp. Weill won his bet that Glass-Steagall restrictions would fall, and he created what was then the world’s largest financial institution.

The deal was a desperate attempt to achieve the 1990s dream of the financial supermarket—institutions that would meet the public’s every monetary need, from checking accounts and business loans to mutual funds, homeowners insurance and credit cards. It was also a reach for supposed greatness by Weill and his Citicorp counterpart John Reed. As Business Week put it at the time: “In addition to chutzpah, Reed, 59, and Weill, 65, are propelled by their shared desire to go out in a blaze of glory.”

“Glory” is not exactly the way to describe the subsequent ten years of controversy, scandal and unwise investment and lending practices. Weill and Reed, each with the title of co-chief executives, bickered openly with each other. The company’s private banking operation was caught up in a money laundering investigation. Its credit card operations had to pay $45 million to settle lawsuits charging that consumers were improperly charged late fees. The bank was accused of enabling some of Enron’s accounting fraud. It was also embroiled in the WorldCom accounting scandal and had to pay $2.65 billion to settle lawsuits brought by investors in the failed telecommunications company.

But one of the worst moves was the decision in 2000 to acquire Associates First Capital, a pioneer in the subprime lending market that would later help to weaken the entire banking system. The acquisition, like the creation of Citigroup itself, was part of the mindset of trying to cover all corners of the financial services industry and of pumping up business even when transactions were excessively risky. The company touted plans to clean up the disreputable subprime business, but even that was a sham. According to the Wall Street Journal (7/18/02), branch offices were notified ahead of time when undercover “mystery shoppers” were being sent in to investigate loan origination practices.

Chuck Prince, who was named CEO in 2003, tried to clean up Citigroup in part by selling off pieces of the supermarket such as the Travelers life insurance business. Ultimately, though, Prince himself was disposed of as well. Yet the leviathan’s problems continued. Now his successor, Vikram Pandit, is taking a similar approach of lopping off parts of the company in the vain hope this will do the trick.

The just-announced decision to spin off the Smith Barney brokerage business into a joint venture with Morgan Stanley will bring in a much needed cash infusion of $2.7 billion. Yet it appears Citi is still living in a state of denial. It put out a press release headlined “Morgan Stanley and Citi to Form Industry-Leading Wealth Management Business Through Joint Venture.” What it really should have said is: “we screwed up royally, and despite getting tens of billions of taxpayer dollars, we’ve got to sell off some of our assets that are still worth something.” We’ll see how long the bravado continues as the company is forced to cut off more of its many limbs.

Satyam’s Fraudulent “Maquiladora of the Mind”

It was only a few years ago that a group of offshore outsourcing companies based in India seemed poised to take over a large portion of the U.S. economy. Business propagandists insisted that work ranging from low-level data input to skilled professional work such as financial analysis could be done faster and much cheaper by workers hunched over computer terminals in cities such as Bangalore. The New York Times once described one of these offshoring companies as “a maquiladora of the mind.”

Among the most aggressive of the Indian firms was Satyam Computer Services Ltd., which signed up blue-chip clients such as Ford Motor, Merrill Lynch, Texas Instruments and Yahoo. In a 2004 report I wrote for the U.S. high-tech workers organization WashTech, I found that Satyam was also among the offshoring companies that were doing work for state government agencies. It was hired, for example, as a subcontractor by the U.S. company Healthaxis to develop a system for handling applications for medical insurance services provided by the Washington State Health Care Authority. As it turned out, Healthaxis’s contract was terminated, allegedly because of late delivery and poor quality in the work done by Satyam.

The Washington State fiasco may have been an early omen of things to come. Satyam has just admitted that for years it cooked its books and engaged in widespread financial wrongdoing. The revelation came in a letter sent to the company’s board of directors by Satyam founder and chairman B. Ramalinga Raju (photo), who simultaneously tendered his resignation.

Raju wrote that what started as “a marginal gap between actual operating profit and the one reflected in the books” eventually “attained unmanageable proportions” as the company grew. The fictitious cash balance grew to more than US$1 billion. “It was like riding a tiger,” Raju colorfully wrote, “not knowing how to get off without being eaten.”

While admitting that he engaged in very creative accounting, Raju insisted he did not personally benefit from the fraud, denying for instance that he had sold any of his shares in the company. I guess it is meant to be some consolation that among his sins Raju is not guilty of insider trading.

Apart from Raju, the party most on the hot seat is the company’s auditor, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, whose Indian unit gave Satyam’s financial reports a clean bill of health. The Satyam scandal is being called India’s Enron. It should probably also be called India’s Arthur Andersen as this seems to be another case in which an auditor was either oblivious to widespread accounting misconduct by one of its clients or complicit in it.

Some soul-searching is probably also in order for the many large U.S. corporations that have not hesitated to take jobs away from American workers and ship the work off to Indian companies such as Satyam. The revelation that much of the work has been going to a crooked company is all the more galling.