The Senate’s vote for the Fed’s Chairman will be viewed as a crucial test for who stands with Wall Street and who stands with Main Street.
After some slightly encouraging rumblings in the contrary direction, it appears that the Senate is poised to confirm Ben Bernanke to a second term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Certain senators may be putting their jobs on the line when they do, however.
More and more, Main Street wants to know who stands with it. Mr. Bernanke is not seen as one of those figures. Having been part of the Greenspan-era bubble and then, even as Fed chairman himself, still blind to the dark clouds of financial crisis that were forming, his response was to shove an incomprehensible amount of money and support at Wall Street and the major banks. But he failed to come clean on the Fed’s dealings with the financial institutions that have been taking advantage of these generous programs and, in fact, has aggressively moved to prevent transparency and public scrutiny of them in a landmark case involving Bloomberg News.
Mr. Bernanke’s role in the AIG bailout, and in permitting the secret (at the time) payment of billions to other banks, including Goldman Sachs, is still not fully explained. In the nearly two years since this crisis was apparent and more than 12 months since Lehman Brothers was allowed to collapse, the Fed under Mr. Bernanke has failed to conduct any meaningful internal review as to what went wrong, what signals were missed and what steps the Fed needs to take to address them. At the very least, a vote on confirmation would seem premature until all the work by TARP’s inspector general, Neil Barofsky, is completed, including questions about AIG’s Fed-approved counterparty payments.
But Mr. Bernanke’s statement to legislators that he did as much as possible to prevent paying 100 cents on the dollar to Goldman is revealing on its face. Can you imagine the legendary Arthur F. Burns, who ran the Fed under President John F. Kennedy, or William McChesney Martin Jr., who served under a record five presidents, ever being blown off by some bankers who did not want to cooperate at a time of national crisis? Or is it a matter that Mr. Bernanke has grown so close to the big banks and their Wall Street cousins over the seven years he has been at the Fed that he just can’t say no to them? There is a reason why Wall Street itself is voting overwhelmingly in support of Mr. Bernanke’s second term, and it’s not because it thinks he’ll be great for Main Street.
Mr. Bernanke is a little like the $700 billion TARP legislation which he co-authored (with then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) in the fall of 2008. In a voice trembling with urgency, he told Congress that if it were not passed and implemented immediately, the entire economy would likely collapse. But the TARP was never used for its intended purpose. It did not address the main problems, as we predicted at the time. No toxic assets were ever bought up with it. It rattled many in Congress who thought they had been sold a bill of goods. And more than a year later, a couple of hundred billion of it has not been spent and still many additional costly initiatives were required to get the economy moving.
Has the reconfirmation of Ben Bernanke itself become something of a TARP, where what is being sold is not quite what is needed and will not be used for the intended purpose? Will the world really end if Mr. Bernanke is not reappointed? Or is there more risk of the opposite happening because he will miss other disasters that are brewing, just as he missed the early signs of the current one. Worse, will his cozy relationship with Wall Street end with a hideous price tag that drops like a rock at the doors of Main Street? Already, trillions in liquidity have been unleashed and the Fed’s balance sheet – a key measure of its lending to the financial system – has ballooned into the record trillions.
A clean break from the past of tolerated bubbles, missed signals and overly generous policies directed at the players who caused the problems in the first place is what is needed. Mr. Bernanke’s priorities, loyalties and convenient evasions have made him a poster boy for the discontent of Main Street and a part of what drives the forces of turbo populism.
Four years from now, Mr. Bernanke may very well be in office. But will President Obama and the senators who vote for confirmation and against the perceived interests of Main Street? It’s a role of the dice that should cause wise lawmakers to think twice.
It’s encouraging to hear that our earlier comparison between Fed Chairman Bernanke and Titanic Captain Smith was not lost on some senators.
Even a former Premier of Ontario claimed he was duped as he presided over this fraudster’s scheme.
The odd name YBM Magnex suddenly emerged from its shadowy past last week when the FBI placed Semion Mogilevich, its Russian mobster mastermind, on its “Ten Most Wanted” list. He is accused of swindling Canadian and U.S. investors out of $150 million in a complex international financial scheme. Authorities say the fraud involved preparing bogus financial books and records, lying to Securities and Exchange Commission officials, offering bribes to accountants and inflating the share values of YBM, which was headquartered in Newtown, Pennsylvania but whose stock was traded on Canada’s top exchange, the TSE (now TSX). The policing of potential fraud was a low priority for the TSE in those days, and the reputation of Canada’s capital markets suffered significantly during this period. So did confidence in its corporate governance.
There continues to be an active debate as to whether Canada is tough enough on white collar crime, and whether, without a single national securities commission, as I and others have long advocated, there can be any hope for a more robust enforcement regime.
To increase its lure to investors, the company attracted some prominent independent directors, including David Peterson, a former premier of Ontario. In testimony some years later before the Ontario Securities Commission on the matter, Mr. Peterson admitted that he did not make notes at company board meetings and did not retain any records. He was, for a scheme like YBM and Mogilevich, the ideal slumbering director.
I was one of the first to write about the scam and the failures that led to it, in 1998. Below is one of those articles, published in the Financial Post more than a decade ago.
Wednesday, July 15, 1998
YBM simply the latest example
Top securities regulators asleep at the switch again
By J. RICHARD FINLAY
The Financial Post
History sometimes repeats itself. In Canada’s premier securities market the failure of regulators to respond to danger signals is becoming an alarming habit: Cartaway, Timbuktu, Bre-X, Delgratia.
The latest case involves YBM Magnex International Inc., whose trading was halted on the Toronto Stock Exchange in May amid questions over the company’s 1997 audit and in the wake of police raids on its corporate headquarters in Pennsylvania. The scandal bears such eerie similarities to the Bre-X Minerals Ltd. scam of just a year earlier one is tempted to conclude it is the fickle hand of fate that is writing this drama. But it is not fate. It is the recurring folly of this country’s top securities regulators.
Both Bre-X and YBM began their journey on the Alberta Stock Exchange. Listings on the TSE and inclusion on its prestigious 300 composite index followed for both companies. In April 1997, the exchange’s president, Rowland Fleming, assured investors the Bre-X debacle had “heightened the state of alert in our market surveillance department.” But, later that same month, YBM was added to the TSE 300 index.
TSE officials have since admitted they knew then of criminal investigations on two continents into an alleged Russian crime figure with a stake in YBM. However, neither the exchange nor the Ontario Securities Commission, which was also aware of the investigations, thought it advisable to disclose these facts to investors at the time of YBM’s listing and later stock offering. It is an omission that makes Canada’s top securities regulators potentially more culpable in the YBM fiasco than they were in Bre-X.
Another Bre-X-type danger signal was the extensive insider trading occurring before the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche Ltd. announced in May it was unable to certify YBM’s 1997 financial statements. The company’s president, Jacob Bogatin, and several officers sold more than $2 million worth of stock between late February and April.
Troubling too is the trading activity of Kenneth Davies, one of YBM’s independent directors and a member of its audit committee. He reportedly made a profit of nearly $250,000 selling YBM shares after the board learned Deloitte & Touche was suspending its audit of the 1997 figures but before that information was disclosed to the public.
Clearly, regulators need to be more alert to insider trading in companies with questionable track records. In addition to the police investigations they knew about, regulators had forced YBM to have its 1996 books re-audited, resulting in a restatement of material facts.
Directors of Bre-X also engaged in heavy insider trading before negative revelations that saw share values evaporate. For more than a year, the OSC has been investigating the Bre-X trades for possible securities law violations. Yet the regulator still hasn’t released any information, this despite its increased resources thanks to a changed funding formula — including a new chairman with an annual salary of more than $450,000 — and enormous public interest.
Also, the corporate governance practices of these two companies were well known to both the TSE and OSC, and to YBM’s legion of mutual fund and institutional investors. Bre-X had an insider-dominated board that violated exchange guidelines on good governance. YBM’s list of outside directors includes Owen Mitchell, who is also a director of First Marathon Securities Ltd., the company’s lead underwriter. Former Ontario premier David Peterson is also a director, while his law firm acts as Canadian solicitor of record for YBM. Peterson, like other directors, has also participated in the company’s generous stock option plan. TSE guidelines on corporate governance advise directors should keep themselves “free of relationships and other interests which could, or could reasonably be perceived to, materially interfere with the exercise of judgment in the best interests of the corporation.”
The parallels between Bre-X and YBM show how little the TSE and the OSC have learned — and how vulnerable the public is to regulators’ omissions that put their investments at risk. Since these issues involve the integrity of Ontario’s capital markets — a key Canadian asset in the global economy — it is time for Ontario Finance Minister Ernie Eves to order a review of what needs to be done to make the TSE and the OSC more vigilant. Neither Canada nor the investing public can afford to have such regulatory folly repeat itself another time.
J. Richard Finlay heads the Centre for Corporate & Public Governance.
There is a reason why the bank’s board appears little more than a bystander to the destruction of shareholder wealth. A good part of it has to do with its discredited governance structure.
Watching Citigroup’s shares crash through the 10 dollar level, then nine, then eight, seven, six -like some kind of inexorable countdown leading to the inevitable disaster- investors might be excused for asking, Where is the board? The answer is that it is stuck somewhere back in the 1940s, when it was considered bad form for directors to actually direct. (more…)
In a time when the restoration of confidence, perhaps more than even financial liquidity, is paramount in calming markets and providing stability, neither the Treasury secretary nor the chairman of the Fed acquitted themselves well this week.
As the war in Iraq unfolded, and then morphed into disaster in its first several years, the world discovered the consequences when what is given with absolute assurance as the urgent reason for taking action turns out not to be the case.
As the current economic crisis unraveled, the Bush administration claimed that it had spotted the greatest danger to the economy and the credit markets in generations. Toxic mortgage based assets held by financial institutions were cited as the threat and a $700 billion government intervention was needed to buy them up.
As President George W. Bush said in September:
Under our proposal, the federal government would put up to $700 billion taxpayer dollars on the line to purchase troubled assets that are clogging the financial system.
It had to be done immediately, he said, or a grave and gathering peril in the financial system would make its pain felt soon on Main Street. The President painted a bleak picture of what the world would look like without the bailout.
More banks could fail, including some in your community. The stock market would drop even more, which would reduce the value of your retirement account. The value of your home could plummet. Foreclosures would rise dramatically. And if you own a business or a farm, you would find it harder and more expensive to get credit. More businesses would close their doors, and millions of Americans could lose their jobs. Even if you have good credit history, it would be more difficult for you to get the loans you need to buy a car or send your children to college. And ultimately, our country could experience a long and painful recession.
We expressed some skepticism on these pages as the President’s words were being digested. Portraying financial Armageddon if American taxpayers did not come up with the largest government expenditure in history struck us as not a very faint replay of the approach taken in Iraq, where the administration not only claimed that weapons of mass destruction posed an immediate threat but that it knew where they were.
So we posed the question nobody else it seemed was even considering:
Is America stumbling into a financial Iraq? … Are we dealing here with the financial equivalent of threatened mushroom clouds and weapons of mass destruction?
As it turned out, toxic assets, like weapons of mass destruction, were not the real problem. In the case of Iraq, they were never found. In the situation involving the credit crisis, none were ever bought under the government’s rescue plan. And a new solution was pursued instead: taking equity positions in financial institutions.
This week,Treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. announced that the original plan, the one upon which the $700 billion bailout was approved and which so many officials and commentators said was absolutely essential to financial stability, would be abandoned.
Even before the Bush-Paulson plan was approved by Congress, we had some doubts about its principal focus:
How the Bush bailout plan will be managed, what assets it will buy, how it will value and how long it will hold them are all undisclosed. It is hard not to be doubtful that the compromise proposal now being discussed will offer much more information. There is considerable dispute that the plan even addresses the fundamental problems in the banking sector.
And the astronomical $700 billion that Mr. Paulson initially insisted was needed in one fell swoop? Congress gave Mr. Paulson $350 billion and required reauthorization for the remaining amount. Mr. Paulson said he had no plans to ask for it now.
Elsewhere last week, the Fed refused requests by Bloomberg News and others to account for the more than two trillion dollars it has pushed out its lending window. It apparently believes the country is not entitled to know how much the Fed is lending, whom it is lending to, or details about the collateral that is being offered.
Both Fed chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Mr. Paulson have said that an absence of openness and transparency were factors that helped to create the current financial crisis in the first place. But transparency is something the Fed talks; it does not walk.
Last spring, we suggested what the Fed had said about the Bear Stearns collateral did not fully compute.
Actually, the Fed did not make a traditional $29 billion loan to JPMorgan Chase, as its official statements would have us believe. It was more of a wink-and-a-nudge deal to take on the poorer assets without going through the formality (and the barrage of questions that would follow) of actually purchasing them.
In a time when the restoration of confidence, perhaps more than even financial liquidity, is paramount in calming markets and providing stability, neither the Treasury secretary nor the chairman of the Fed acquitted themselves well this week. Mr. Paulson only added to the impression that what he and the administration say cannot be trusted or taken at face value. Mr. Bernanke showed his commitment to transparency is a one-way street. What the world needs from its leaders is candor, clarity and competency. It did not find these virtues in either man, which is why the actions of the secretary and the chairman are the Outrage of the Week.
The funny thing about prescience, Mr. Secretary, is that it should occasionally bear some relationship to the future, or even just next week.
Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr’s announcement today of yet another rejiggered financial recovery plan contained enough reversals in direction to make an Olympic swimmer dizzy. But it was his Carnac statement that really got our attention. He actually claimed to be prescient. Here’s part of what he said at today’s press conference:
We were prescient enough, and Congress was, that we got a wide array of authorities and tools under this legislation.
Here is a man who came from the upper tiers of Wall Street who apparently had no idea of the problems building in the credit default market or in the mortgage-backed securities field. His first priority as Secretary was helping to blunt the effects of what he claimed to be too much regulation that made business less competitive. He got off that train in a hurry.
As the subprime disaster unfolded, he made a number of statements that indicated he did not fully grasp the enormity of what was happening. Only a few months ago, he asserted that the economy was strong and that the worst of the crisis was behind. After Bear Stearns collapsed, he said they had saved the financial system. He said the same thing after the AIG bailout. When he went before Congress, he presented a plan to buy up toxic assets which he said was absolutely critical to the survival of the credit market and to the well-being of Main Street. Approval was urgent. He seemed shocked that there had been such an over extension of leverage on Wall Street –the place where he had earned a fabulous living for decades.
In the weeks that followed, not a single mortgage-backed vehicle was bought in the famously vaguely crafted “reverse auction” process. Instead, and following the lead set by Great Britain and Europe, Mr. Paulson decided that banks needed capital investment. AIG got not one, but two more multi-billion dollar injections of cash, and the first deal was wiped out altogether. Meanwhile, stock markets continue their downward spiral, credit remains frozen for most consumers, and mortgages -which the original TARP fund was supposed to help- remain a major source of financial distress. Now, with the plan changed yet again under Mr. Paulson, not only is there no T(roubled) A(ssets) in the TARP, there is some question as to whether there is any (R)elief, or even a P(lan) at all. If this is the result of Mr. Paulson’s prescience, we all need a dose of the unseeing Mr. Magoo. Perhaps that’s what we really have, after all.
Looking at the debris that has followed the Treasury department everywhere it has gone in recent weeks, and the confusion that continues today, one gets the impression that Secretary Paulson might have trouble finding the door, much less divining the future.
When this bill of goods was first unveiled before the American public, we said it was unlikely to be successful because it was not targeting the right problem. We said it would be a boondoggle. Today, it was announced that the program would now turn its sights to the unease faced by the securitizers of credit cards and auto and student loans. Funny how they were never part of the original TARP. Still, it’s hard to be surprised. As we noted in September:
How the Bush bailout plan will be managed, what assets it will buy, how it will value and how long it will hold them are all undisclosed. It is hard not to be doubtful that the compromise proposal now being discussed will offer much more information. There is considerable dispute that the plan even addresses the fundamental problems in the banking sector…. There is no clear statement even as to the kind of weak assets the government proposes to buy, much less how they would be valued. I suspect it will soon work its way down to student loans, car loans and credit card debt.
The funny thing about prescience, Mr. Secretary, is that it should occasionally bear some relationship to the future, or even just next week.
The magnitude of the financial injury worldwide and the costs to repair it are breathtaking. But the loss of faith occasioned by what so many see as a colossal betrayal on the part of leaders and institutions may prove the most damaging of all.
The tenth month in the Gregorian calendar will go into history (please!) as the time when more money was lost by shareholders around the world and then found by governments to prop up the global financial system than any four-week period since civilization began. The amounts may well exceed ten thousand billion dollars when you consider the plunge in stock markets worldwide and the sums public treasuries are coming up with to bailout the banks and just about anything else that has a profit and loss statement.
The ultimate costs both human and financial of this economic carnage and unprecedented public monetary infusion will not be known for many years. The impact on the economy and monetary stability from the “solution” may carry unforeseen repercussions, just as the problem it is designed to solve went under the radar for too long. Without doubt, the interaction between capitalism and government has fundamentally shifted, as has confidence on the part of millions of citizens in the institutions they once admired but, alas, no longer even wish to be seen associating with. It may well be that a generation of investors which has lost so much will choose to forsake the stock market for the rest of their lives. Many young people could be left with an indelible impression of a system that can never be trusted, except that is to work profitably for a handful at the top until their folly and greed reaches the point where even they become its victims, too. The seeds of individual bitterness and social unrest have often been sown when the whirlwind of momentous events unearths the land.
Here’s a question –call it the ten trillion-dollar question: If bankers had done the jobs expected of them in a diligent fashion; if boards of directors had taken an interest in debt and leverage ¾two subjects that didn’t seem to be part of their vocabularies, much less on their agendas; if regulators had been breathing and perhaps even conscious; if policy makers had had the vision to see the possibility of failure and not just the mirage of endless prosperity, do you think all this would have happened? And what does it say about institutions and leaders in the 21st century that so many seemed incapable of exercising sound judgment and common sense, even when some were receiving compensation on a scale never seen in the history of professional managers?
The magnitude of the financial injury worldwide and the costs to repair it are, indeed, breathtaking. But the loss of faith occasioned by what so many see as a colossal betrayal on the part of leaders and institutions who acted as though they had the wisdom of prophets, but in truth had not even the foresight of blind men, may prove the most damaging of all. It is a lesson that will be remembered long after this October of the fleeting trillions has faded.