U.S. May See 150-200 More Bank Failures

US May See 150-200 More Bank Failures: Bove

Reuters
| 24 Aug 2009 | 01:07 PM ET

A prominent banking analyst said Sunday that 150 to 200 more U.S. banks will fail in the current banking crisis, and the industry’s payments to keep the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp afloat could eat up 25 percent of pretax income in 2010.

Richard Bove of Rochdale Securities said this will likely force the FDIC, which insures deposits, to turn increasingly to non-U.S. banks and private equity funds to shore up the banking system.

“The difficulty at the moment is finding enough healthy banks to buy the failing banks,” Bove wrote.

The FDIC is expected on August 26 to vote on relaxed guidelines for private equity firms to invest in failed banks, after critics said previously proposed rules were too harsh and would actually dissuade firms from making investments.

Bove said “perhaps another 150 to 200 banks will fail,” on top of 81 so far in 2009, adding stress to the FDIC’s deposit insurance fund.

Three large failures this year — BankUnited Financial in May, and Colonial BancGroup, Guaranty Financial Group in August — collectively cost the fund roughly $10.7 billion.

The fund had $13 billion at the end of March.

Regulators closed Guaranty’s banking unit on Friday and sold assets of the Texas-based lender to Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria. The FDIC agreed to share in losses with the Spanish bank.

Bove said the FDIC will likely levy special assessments against banks in the fourth quarter of this year and second quarter of 2010.

He said these assessments could total $11 billion in 2010, on top of the same amount of regular assessments. “FDIC premiums could be 25 percent of the industry’s pretax income,” he wrote.

Propping Up a House of Cards

February 28, 2009
Talking Business

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Next week, perhaps as early as Monday, the American International Group is going to report the largest quarterly loss in history. Rumors suggest it will be around $60 billion, which will affirm, yet again, A.I.G.’s sorry status as the most crippled of all the nation’s wounded financial institutions. The recent quarterly losses suffered by Merrill Lynch and Citigroup — “only” $15.4 billion and $8.3 billion, respectively — pale by comparison.

At the same time A.I.G. reveals its loss, the federal government is also likely to announce — yet again! — a new plan to save A.I.G., the third since September. So far the government has thrown $150 billion at the company, in loans, investments and equity injections, to keep it afloat. It has softened the terms it set for the original $85 billion loan it made back in September. To ease the pressure even more, the Federal Reserve actually runs a facility that buys toxic assets that A.I.G. had insured. A.I.G. effectively has been nationalized, with the government owning a hair under 80 percent of the stock. Not that it’s worth very much; A.I.G. shares closed Friday at 42 cents.

Donn Vickrey, who runs the independent research firm Gradient Analytics, predicts that A.I.G. is going to cost taxpayers at least $100 billion more before it finally stabilizes, by which time the company will almost surely have been broken into pieces, with the government owning large chunks of it. A quarter of a trillion dollars, if it comes to that, is an astounding amount of money to hand over to one company to prevent it from going bust. Yet the government feels it has no choice: because of A.I.G.’s dubious business practices during the housing bubble it pretty much has the world’s financial system by the throat.

If we let A.I.G. fail, said Seamus P. McMahon, a banking expert at Booz & Company, other institutions, including pension funds and American and European banks “will face their own capital and liquidity crisis, and we could have a domino effect.” A bailout of A.I.G. is really a bailout of its trading partners — which essentially constitutes the entire Western banking system.

I don’t doubt this bit of conventional wisdom; after the calamity that followed the fall of Lehman Brothers, which was far less enmeshed in the global financial system than A.I.G., who would dare allow the world’s biggest insurer to fail? Who would want to take that risk? But that doesn’t mean we should feel resigned about what is happening at A.I.G. In fact, we should be furious. More than even Citi or Merrill, A.I.G. is ground zero for the practices that led the financial system to ruin.

“They were the worst of them all,” said Frank Partnoy, a law professor at the University of San Diego and a derivatives expert. Mr. Vickrey of Gradient Analytics said, “It was extreme hubris, fueled by greed.” Other firms used many of the same shady techniques as A.I.G., but none did them on such a broad scale and with such utter recklessness. And yet — and this is the part that should make your blood boil — the company is being kept alive precisely because it behaved so badly.

When you start asking around about how A.I.G. made money during the housing bubble, you hear the same two phrases again and again: “regulatory arbitrage” and “ratings arbitrage.” The word “arbitrage” usually means taking advantage of a price differential between two securities — a bond and stock of the same company, for instance — that are related in some way. When the word is used to describe A.I.G.’s actions, however, it means something entirely different. It means taking advantage of a loophole in the rules. A less polite but perhaps more accurate term would be “scam.”

As a huge multinational insurance company, with a storied history and a reputation for being extremely well run, A.I.G. had one of the most precious prizes in all of business: an AAA rating, held by no more than a dozen or so companies in the United States. That meant ratings agencies believed its chance of defaulting was just about zero. It also meant it could borrow more cheaply than other companies with lower ratings.

To be sure, most of A.I.G. operated the way it always had, like a normal, regulated insurance company. (Its insurance divisions remain profitable today.) But one division, its “financial practices” unit in London, was filled with go-go financial wizards who devised new and clever ways of taking advantage of Wall Street’s insatiable appetite for mortgage-backed securities. Unlike many of the Wall Street investment banks, A.I.G. didn’t specialize in pooling subprime mortgages into securities. Instead, it sold credit-default swaps.

These exotic instruments acted as a form of insurance for the securities. In effect, A.I.G. was saying if, by some remote chance (ha!) those mortgage-backed securities suffered losses, the company would be on the hook for the losses. And because A.I.G. had that AAA rating, when it sprinkled its holy water over those mortgage-backed securities, suddenly they had AAA ratings too. That was the ratings arbitrage. “It was a way to exploit the triple A rating,” said Robert J. Arvanitis, a former A.I.G. executive who has since become a leading A.I.G. critic.

Why would Wall Street and the banks go for this? Because it shifted the risk of default from themselves to A.I.G., and the AAA rating made the securities much easier to market. What was in it for A.I.G.? Lucrative fees, naturally. But it also saw the fees as risk-free money; surely it would never have to actually pay up. Like everyone else on Wall Street, A.I.G. operated on the belief that the underlying assets — housing — could only go up in price.

That foolhardy belief, in turn, led A.I.G. to commit several other stupid mistakes. When a company insures against, say, floods or earthquakes, it has to put money in reserve in case a flood happens. That’s why, as a rule, insurance companies are usually overcapitalized, with low debt ratios. But because credit-default swaps were not regulated, and were not even categorized as a traditional insurance product, A.I.G. didn’t have to put anything aside for losses. And it didn’t. Its leverage was more akin to an investment bank than an insurance company. So when housing prices started falling, and losses started piling up, it had no way to pay them off. Not understanding the real risk, the company grievously mispriced it.

Second, in many of its derivative contracts, A.I.G. included a provision that has since come back to haunt it. It agreed to something called “collateral triggers,” meaning that if certain events took place, like a ratings downgrade for either A.I.G. or the securities it was insuring, it would have to put up collateral against those securities. Again, the reasons it agreed to the collateral triggers was pure greed: it could get higher fees by including them. And again, it assumed that the triggers would never actually kick in and the provisions were therefore meaningless. Those collateral triggers have since cost A.I.G. many, many billions of dollars. Or, rather, they’ve cost American taxpayers billions.

The regulatory arbitrage was even seamier. A huge part of the company’s credit-default swap business was devised, quite simply, to allow banks to make their balance sheets look safer than they really were. Under a misguided set of international rules that took hold toward the end of the 1990s, banks were allowed use their own internal risk measurements to set their capital requirements. The less risky the assets, obviously, the lower the regulatory capital requirement.

How did banks get their risk measures low? It certainly wasn’t by owning less risky assets. Instead, they simply bought A.I.G.’s credit-default swaps. The swaps meant that the risk of loss was transferred to A.I.G., and the collateral triggers made the bank portfolios look absolutely risk-free. Which meant minimal capital requirements, which the banks all wanted so they could increase their leverage and buy yet more “risk-free” assets. This practice became especially rampant in Europe. That lack of capital is one of the reasons the European banks have been in such trouble since the crisis began.

At its peak, the A.I.G. credit-default business had a “notional value” of $450 billion, and as recently as September, it was still over $300 billion. (Notional value is the amount A.I.G. would owe if every one of its bets went to zero.) And unlike most Wall Street firms, it didn’t hedge its credit-default swaps; it bore the risk, which is what insurance companies do.

It’s not as if this was some Enron-esque secret, either. Everybody knew the capital requirements were being gamed, including the regulators. Indeed, A.I.G. openly labeled that part of the business as “regulatory capital.” That is how they, and their customers, thought of it.

There’s more, believe it or not. A.I.G. sold something called 2a-7 puts, which allowed money market funds to invest in risky bonds even though they are supposed to be holding only the safest commercial paper. How could they do this? A.I.G. agreed to buy back the bonds if they went bad. (Incredibly, the Securities and Exchange Commission went along with this.) A.I.G. had a securities lending program, in which it would lend securities to investors, like short-sellers, in return for cash collateral. What did it do with the money it received? Incredibly, it bought mortgage-backed securities. When the firms wanted their collateral back, it had sunk in value, thanks to A.I.G.’s foolish investment strategy. The practice has cost A.I.G. — oops, I mean American taxpayers — billions.

Here’s what is most infuriating: Here we are now, fully aware of how these scams worked. Yet for all practical purposes, the government has to keep them going. Indeed, that may be the single most important reason it can’t let A.I.G. fail. If the company defaulted, hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of credit-default swaps would “blow up,” and all those European banks whose toxic assets are supposedly insured by A.I.G. would suddenly be sitting on immense losses. Their already shaky capital structures would be destroyed. A.I.G. helped create the illusion of regulatory capital with its swaps, and now the government has to actually back up those contracts with taxpayer money to keep the banks from collapsing. It would be funny if it weren’t so awful.

I asked Mr. Arvanitis, the former A.I.G. executive, if the company viewed what it had done during the bubble as a form of gaming the system. “Oh no,” he said, “they never thought of it as abuse. They thought of themselves as satisfying their customers.”

That’s either a remarkable example of the power of rationalization, or they were lying to themselves, figuring that when the house of cards finally fell, somebody else would have to clean it up.

That would be us, the taxpayers.

Government Bailout Hits $8.5 trillion

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Kathleen Pender

The San Francisco Chronicle

November 26, 2008

The federal government committed an additional $800 billion to two new loan programs on Tuesday, bringing its cumulative commitment to financial rescue initiatives to a staggering $8.5 trillion, according to Bloomberg News.

That sum represents almost 60 percent of the nation’s estimated gross domestic product.

Given the unprecedented size and complexity of these programs and the fact that many have never been tried before, it’s impossible to predict how much they will cost taxpayers. The final cost won’t be known for many years.

The money has been committed to a wide array of programs, including loans and loan guarantees, asset purchases, equity investments in financial companies, tax breaks for banks, help for struggling homeowners and a currency stabilization fund.

Most of the money, about $5.5 trillion, comes from the Federal Reserve, which as an independent entity does not need congressional approval to lend money to banks or, in “unusual and exigent circumstances,” to other financial institutions.

To stimulate lending, the Fed said on Tuesday it will purchase up to $600 billion in mortgage debt issued or backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and government housing agencies. It also will lend up to $200 billion to holders of securities backed by consumer and small-business loans. All but $20 billion of that $800 billion represents new commitments, a Fed spokeswoman said.

About $1.1 trillion of the $8.5 trillion is coming from the Treasury Department, including $700 billion approved by Congress in dramatic fashion under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The rest of the commitments are coming from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Federal Housing Administration.

Only about $3.2 trillion of the $8.5 trillion has been tapped so far, according to Bloomberg. Some of it might never be.

Relatively little of the money represents direct outlays of cash with no strings attached, such as the $168 billion in stimulus checks mailed last spring.

Where it’s going

Most of the money is going into loans or loan guarantees, asset purchases or stock investments on which the government could see some return.

“If the economy were to miraculously recover, the taxpayer could make money. That’s not my best guess or even a likely scenario,” but it’s not inconceivable, says Anil Kashyap, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

The risk/reward ratio for taxpayers varies greatly from program to program.

For example, the first deal the government made when it bailed out insurance giant AIG had little risk and a lot of potential upside for taxpayers, Kashyap said. “Then it turned out the situation (at AIG) was worse than realized, and the terms were so brutal (to AIG) that we had to renegotiate. Now we have given them a lot more credit on more generous terms.”

Kashyap says the worst deal for taxpayers could be the Citigroup deal announced late Sunday. The government agreed to buy an additional $20 billion in preferred stock and absorb up to $249 billion in losses on troubled assets owned by Citi.

Given that Citigroup’s entire market value on Friday was $20.5 billion, “instead of taking that $20 billion in preferred shares we could have bought the company,” he says.

It’s hard to say how much the overall rescue attempt will add to the annual deficit or the national debt because the government accounts for each program differently.

If the Treasury borrows money to finance a program, that money adds to the federal debt and must eventually be paid off, with interest, says Diane Lim Rogers, chief economist with the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that aims to eliminate federal deficits.

The federal debt held by the public has risen to $6.4 trillion from $5.5 trillion at the end of August. (Total debt, including that owed to Social Security and other government agencies, stands at more than $10 trillion.)

However, a $1 billion increase in the federal debt does not necessarily increase the annual budget deficit by $1 billion because it is expected to be repaid over time, Rogers said.

Annual deficit

A deficit arises when the government’s expenditures exceed its revenues in a particular year. Some estimate that the federal deficit will exceed $1 trillion this fiscal year as a result of the economic slowdown and efforts to revive it.

The Fed’s activities to shore up the financial system do not show up directly on the federal budget, although they can have an impact. The Fed lends money from its own balance sheet or by essentially creating new money. It has been doing both this year.

The problem is, “if you print money all the time, the money becomes worth less,” Rogers says. This usually leads to higher inflation and higher interest rates. The value of the dollar also falls because foreign investors become less willing to invest in the United States.

Today, interest rates are relatively low and the dollar has been mostly strengthening this year because U.S. Treasury securities “are still for the moment a very safe thing to be investing in because the financial market is so unstable,” Rogers said. “Once we stabilize the stock market, people will not be so enamored of clutching onto Treasurys.”

At that point, interest rates and inflation will rise. Increased borrowing by the Treasury will also put upward pressure on interest rates.

Deflation a big concern

Today, however, the Fed is more worried about deflation than inflation and is willing to flood the market with money if necessary to prevent an economic collapse.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke “has ordered the helicopters to get ready,” said Axel Merk, president of Merk Investments. “The helicopters are hovering and the first cash is making it through the seams. Soon, a door may be opened.”

Rogers says her biggest fear is not hyperinflation and the social unrest it could unleash. “I’m more worried about a lot of federal dollars being committed and not having much to show for it. My worst fear is we are leaving our children with a huge debt burden and not much left to pay it back.”

Economic rescue

Key dates in the federal government’s campaign to alleviate the economic crisis.

March 11: The Federal Reserve announces a rescue package to provide up to $200 billion in loans to banks and investment houses and let them put up risky mortgage-backed securities as collateral.

March 16: The Fed provides a $29 billion loan to JPMorgan Chase & Co. as part of its purchase of investment bank Bear Stearns.

July 30: President Bush signs a housing bill including $300 billion in new loan authority for the government to back cheaper mortgages for troubled homeowners.

Sept. 7: The Treasury takes over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, putting them into a conservatorship and pledging up to $200 billion to back their assets.

Sept. 16: The Fed injects $85 billion into the failing American International Group, one of the world’s largest insurance companies.

Sept. 16: The Fed pumps $70 billion more into the nation’s financial system to help ease credit stresses.

Sept. 19: The Treasury temporarily guarantees money market funds against losses up to $50 billion.

Oct. 3: President Bush signs the $700 billion economic bailout package. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson says the money will be used to buy distressed mortgage-related securities from banks.

Oct. 6: The Fed increases a short-term loan program, saying it is boosting short-term lending to banks to $150 billion.

Oct. 7: The Fed says it will start buying unsecured short-term debt from companies, and says that up to $1.3 trillion of the debt may qualify for the program.

Oct. 8: The Fed agrees to lend AIG $37.8 billion more, bringing total to about $123 billion.

Oct. 14: The Treasury says it will use $250 billion of the $700 billion bailout to inject capital into the banks, with $125 billion provided to nine of the largest.

Oct. 14: The FDIC says it will temporarily guarantee up to a total of $1.4 trillion in loans between banks.

Oct. 21: The Fed says it will provide up to $540 billion in financing to provide liquidity for money market mutual funds.

Nov. 10: The Treasury and Fed replace the two loans provided to AIG with a $150 billion aid package that includes an infusion of $40 billion from the government’s bailout fund.

Nov. 12: Paulson says the government will not buy distressed mortgage-related assets, but instead will concentrate on injecting capital into banks.

Nov. 17: Treasury says it has provided $33.6 billion in capital to another 21 banks. So far, the government has invested $158.6 billion in 30 banks.

Sunday: The Treasury says it will invest $20 billion in Citigroup Inc., on top of $25 billion provided Oct. 14. The Treasury, Fed and FDIC also pledge to backstop large losses Citigroup might absorb on $306 billion in real estate-related assets.

Tuesday: The Fed says it will purchase up to $600 billion more in mortgage-related assets and will lend up to $200 billion to the holders of securities backed by various types of consumer loans.

Source: Associated Press

Net Worth runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. E-mail Kathleen Pender at kpender@sfchronicle.com.


Merrill Lynch Made 700 People Millionaires in 3.6 Billion Dollar Bonus Spree

Merrill bonuses made 696 millionaires: probe

02/12/2009 @ 8:28 am

Agence France-Presse

via RAW STORY

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WASHINGTON (AFP) – Merrill Lynch quietly paid out at least one million dollars bonus each to about 700 top executive even when the investment house was bleeding with losses last year, a probe has revealed.

They were part of 3.6 billion dollars in the firm’s bonus payments in December before the announcement of its fourth quarterly losses and takeover by Bank of America, the investigation by the New York state Attorney General’s office showed.

“696 individuals received bonuses of one million dollars or more,” New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said of the Merrill scandal in a letter to a lawmaker heading the House of Representatives financial services committee.

Cuomo said “these payments and their curious timing raise serious questions as to whether the Merrill Lynch and Bank of America boards of directors were derelict in their duties and violated their fiduciary obligations,” according to a copy of the letter.

Bank of America said recently it was aware of the amounts and timing of the bonuses even though previous reports had suggested the top bank was surprised by the payout.

Cuomo said in his letter to Democratic lawmaker Barney Frank that his office was also examining whether senior officials at both companies “violated their own fiduciary obligations to shareholders.

“If they did, this raises additional serious issues with regard to the inappropriate use of taxpayer funds,” he said.

“Merrill Lynch’s decision to secretly and prematurely award approximately 3.6 billion dollars in bonuses, and Bank of America’s apparent complicity in it, raise serious and disturbing questions,” he said.

Shareholders and experts had expressed concern over Merrill’s 15.3 billion fourth-quarter loss, which caused Bank of America to request a second round of government bailout on January 16.

Bank of America’s shareholders voted to approve Merrill’s takeover on December 5.

Former Merrill Lynch chief executive John Thain, Bank of America chief administrative officer J. Steele Alphin and other top executives have been summoned to provide testimony in the probe.

“One disturbing question that must be answered is whether Merrill Lynch and Bank of America timed the bonuses in such a way as to force taxpayers to pay for them through the deal funding,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo said the Merrill Lynch bonus payment was “nothing short of staggering.”

While more than 39,000 Merrill employees received bonuses from the pool, the vast majority of these funds were “disproportionately distributed to a small number of individuals.”

“Indeed, Merrill chose to make millionaires out of a select group of 700 employees.”

Bank of America Throws Ten Million Dollar Super Bowl Party

T H I N K  P R O G R E S S

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Just weeks ago, the federal government extended $20 billion to Bank of America to keep it afloat, bringing its total in federal bailout dollars received to $45 billion. ABC News reports, however, that the bank managed to scrounge up millions of dollars to be an NFL sponsor and for “a five day carnival-like” Super Bowl party just outside the stadium:

The event — known as the NFL Experience — was 850,000 square feet of sports games and interactive entertainment attractions for football fans and was blanketed in Bank of America logos and marketing calls to sign up for football-themed banking products. […]

The bank refused to tell ABC News how much it is spending as an NFL corporate sponsor, but insiders have put the figure at close to $10 million. The NFL Experience was on top of that and was inked last summer, according to the bank.

The NFL said it was a “multi-million dollar” event and that it was also spending money to put on the event. A Super Bowl insider said the tents alone cost over $800,000.

The Huffington Post notes that this is the latest in a series of bailed-out banks that continue to spend lavishly on sports sponsorships.

Wall Street Bonuses Are Same As 2004

January 29, 2009

What Red Ink? Wall Street Paid Hefty Bonuses

Wall Street ArrestBy almost any measure, 2008 was a complete disaster for Wall Street — except, that is, when the bonuses arrived.

Despite crippling losses, multibillion-dollar bailouts and the passing of some of the most prominent names in the business, employees at financial companies in New York, the now-diminished world capital of capital, collected an estimated $18.4 billion in bonuses for the year.

That was the sixth-largest haul on record, according to a report released Wednesday by the New York State comptroller.

While the payouts paled next to the riches of recent years, Wall Street workers still took home about as much as they did in 2004, when the Dow Jones industrial average was flying above 10,000, on its way to a record high.

Some bankers took home millions last year even as their employers lost billions.

The comptroller’s estimate, a closely watched guidepost of the annual December-January bonus season, is based largely on personal income tax collections. It excludes stock option awards that could push the figures even higher.

The state comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, said it was unclear if banks had used taxpayer money for the bonuses, a possibility that strikes corporate governance experts, and indeed many ordinary Americans, as outrageous. He urged the Obama administration to examine the issue closely.

“The issue of transparency is a significant one, and there needs to be an accounting about whether there was any taxpayer money used to pay bonuses or to pay for corporate jets or dividends or anything else,” Mr. DiNapoli said in an interview.

Granted, New York’s bankers and brokers are far poorer than they were in 2006, when record deals, and the record profits they generated, ushered in an era of Wall Street hyperwealth. All told, bonuses fell 44 percent last year, from $32.9 billion in 2007, the largest decline in dollar terms on record.

But the size of that downturn partly reflected the lofty heights to which bonuses had soared during the bull market. At many banks, those payouts were based on profits that turned out to be ephemeral. Throughout the financial industry, years of earnings have vanished in the flames of the credit crisis.

According to Mr. DiNapoli, the brokerage units of New York financial companies lost more than $35 billion in 2008, triple their losses in 2007. The pain is unlikely to end there, and Wall Street is betting that the Obama administration will move swiftly to buy some of banks’ troubled assets to encourage reluctant banks to make loans.

Many corporate governance experts, investors and lawmakers question why financial companies that have accepted taxpayer money paid any bonuses at all. Financial industry executives argue that they need to pay their best workers well in order to keep them, but with many banks cutting jobs, job options are dwindling, even for stars.

Lucian A. Bebchuk, a professor at Harvard Law School and expert on executive compensation, called the 2008 bonus figure “disconcerting.” Bonuses, he said, are meant to reward good performance and retain employees. But Wall Street disbursed billions despite staggering losses and a shrinking job market.

“This was neither the sixth-best year in terms of aggregate profits, nor was it the sixth-most-difficult year in terms of retaining employees,” Professor Bebchuk said.

Echoing Mr. DiNapoli, Professor Bebchuk said he was concerned that banks might be using taxpayer money to subsidize bonuses or dividends to stockholders. “What the government has been trying to do is shore up capital, and any diversion of capital out of banks, whether in the form of dividends or large payments to employees, really undermines what we are trying to do,” he said.

Jesse M. Brill, a lawyer and expert on executive compensation, said government bailout programs like the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, should be made more transparent.

“We are all flying in the dark,” Mr. Brill said. “Companies can simply say they are trying to do their best to comply with compensation limits without providing any of the details that the public is entitled to.”

Bonuses paid by one troubled Wall Street firm, Merrill Lynch, have come under particular scrutiny during the last week.

Andrew M. Cuomo, the New York attorney general, has issued subpoenas to John A. Thain, Merrill’s former chief executive, and to an executive at Bank of America, which recently acquired Merrill, asking for information about Merrill’s decision to pay $4 billion to $5 billion in bonuses despite new, gaping losses that forced Bank of America to seek a second financial lifeline from Washington.

A Treasury Department official said that in the coming weeks, the department would take action to further ensure taxpayer money is not used to pay bonuses.

Even though Wall Street spent billions on bonuses, New York firms squeezed rank-and-file executives harder than many companies in other fields. Outside the financial industry, many corporate executives received fatter bonuses in 2008, even as the economy lost 2.6 million jobs. According to data from Equilar, a compensation research firm, the average performance-based bonuses for top executives, other than the chief executive, at 132 companies with revenues of more than $1 billion increased by 14 percent, to $265,594, in the 2008 fiscal year.

For New York State and New York City, however, the leaner times on Wall Street will hurt, Mr. DiNapoli said.

Mr. DiNapoli said the average Wall Street bonus declined 36.7 percent, to $112,000. That is smaller than the overall 44 percent decline because the money was spread among a smaller pool following thousands of job losses.

The comptroller said the reduction in bonuses would cost New York State nearly $1 billion in income tax revenue and cost New York City $275 million.

On Wall Street, where money is the ultimate measure, some employees apparently feel slighted by their diminished bonuses. A poll of 900 financial industry employees released on Wednesday by eFinancialCareers.com, a job search Web site, found that while nearly eight out of 10 got bonuses, 46 percent thought they deserved more.

Paul J. Sullivan contributed reporting.

The 20 Senators Who Voted For Wall Street Bailout But Against Auto Industry Rescue

THINK PROGRESS DEC 12, 2008

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Last night, the Senate failed to approve the auto rescue package, voting 52-35 in favor of proceeding on the bill — just eight short of the 60 votes that were needed. Over on the Wonk Room, Dan Weiss takes a look at the 20 senators who voted for the Wall Street bailout but voted against the auto rescue last night (as well as the 10 others who skipped the vote last night, but voted for the financial bailout):

New SEC Chief Mary Schapiro/Getty

Yes to TARP, No to auto Yes to TARP, Absent for auto
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT)
Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT)
Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC)
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK)
Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN)
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN)
Sen. John Ensign (R-NV)
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH)
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Sen. Kay Hutchison (R-TX)
Sen. John Isakson (R-GA)
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ)
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)
Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL)
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)
Sen. John Thune (R-SD)
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE)
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX)
Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID)
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE)
Sen. John Kerry (D-MA)
Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR)
Sen.Ted Stevens (R-AK)
Sen. John Sununu (R-NH)

Biden was tending to transition duties, while Kerry was in Poznan, Poland, participating in U.N. climate change talks. Alexander was home recovering from surgery. Why did these other Senators feel auto workers weren’t as deserving as Wall Street? We’d like to know. If you see statements from them, please let us know by email or in the comments section.

UpdateSen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher in his heyday, was scheduled to appear Sunday at a sports card show in Taylor, Michigan to sign autographs. “But Bunning was kicked off the schedule after he helped derail an auto-industry loan package in the Senate Thursday night.” (HT: TP commenter cali)

Guess What? That Whole "Limit on Executive Pay" Thingy in Bailout is Bunk

Executive Pay Limits May Prove Toothless
Loophole in Bailout Provision Leaves Enforcement in Doubt

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 15, 2008; A01

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Congress wanted to guarantee that the $700 billion financial bailout would limit the eye-popping pay of Wall Street executives, so lawmakers included a mechanism for reviewing executive compensation and penalizing firms that break the rules.

But at the last minute, the Bush administration insisted on a one-sentence change to the provision, congressional aides said. The change stipulated that the penalty would apply only to firms that received bailout funds by selling troubled assets to the government in an auction, which was the way the Treasury Department had said it planned to use the money.

Now, however, the small change looks more like a giant loophole, according to lawmakers and legal experts. In a reversal, the Bush administration has not used auctions for any of the $335 billion committed so far from the rescue package, nor does it plan to use them in the future. Lawmakers and legal experts say the change has effectively repealed the only enforcement mechanism in the law dealing with lavish pay for top executives.

“The flimsy executive-compensation restrictions in the original bill are now all but gone,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), ranking Republican on of the Senate Finance Committee.

The modification reflects how the rapidly shifting nature of the crisis and the government’s response to it have led to unexpected results that are just now beginning to be understood. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a critical report this month about the financial industry rescue package that said it was unclear how the Treasury would determine whether banks were following the executive-compensation rules.

Michele A. Davis, spokeswoman for the Treasury, said the agency is working to develop a policy for how it will enforce the executive-compensation rules. She would not say when the guidance would be issued or what penalties it might impose. But she said the companies promised to follow the rules in contracts with the department.

The final legislation contained unprecedented restrictions on executive compensation for firms accepting money from the bailout fund. The rules limited incentives that encourage top executives to take excessive risks, provided for the recovery of bonuses based on earnings that never materialize and prohibited “golden parachute” severance pay. But several analysts said that perhaps the most effective provision was the ban on companies deducting more than $500,000 a year from their taxable income for compensation paid to their top five executives.

That tax provision, which amended the Internal Revenue Code, was the only part of the law that contained an explicit enforcement mechanism. The provision means the IRS must review the pay of those executives as part of its normal review of tax filings. If a company does not comply, the IRS can impose a tax penalty. The law did not create an enforcement mechanism for reviewing the other restrictions on executive pay.

If a firm violates the executive-compensation limits, department officials said, the Treasury could seek damages, go to court to force compliance, or even rescind the contracts and recover the bailout money. “We therefore have all the remedies available to us for a breach of contract,” Davis wrote in an e-mail.

Legal experts said those efforts could be complicated if the Treasury outlines the penalties after companies have received bailout money. David M. Lynn, former chief counsel of the Securities and Exchange Commission‘s division of corporation finance, said courts have sometimes placed limits on the government’s ability to impose penalties if there was no fair warning.

“Treasury might find its hands tied down the road,” said Lynn, who is also co-author of “The Executive Compensation Disclosure Treatise and Reporting Guide.”

Congressional leaders are also concerned that the Treasury might simply choose not to enforce the rules or be unwilling to impose financial penalties that could further weaken a firm and send the economy deeper into a tailspin.

The Bush administration at first opposed any restrictions on executive pay, congressional aides said. The original three-page bailout proposal presented to lawmakers in September contained no mention of such limits. “Treasury was pretty clear that they thought doing this exec-comp stuff would limit the effectiveness of the program,” said a Democratic congressional aide involved in the negotiations, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity. “They felt companies might not take part if we put in these rules.”

Congressional leaders disagreed. By the morning of Saturday, Sept. 27, the final day of marathon negotiations on the bill, draft language relating to taxes and containing the enforcement provision applied to all companies participating in the bailout programs, Democratic and Republican congressional aides said. But then Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and his deputies began pushing for the compensation rules to differentiate between companies whose assets are purchased at auction and those whose assets or equity are purchased directly by the government, the aides said.

Congressional leaders from both parties thought Paulson wanted the distinction for extraordinary cases like American International Group, which the government seized in September. He wanted to be able to push executives out of companies that the government controlled and have the flexibility to bring in strong new executives, said one senior congressional aide.

“The argument that they were making at the time is that the direct investment was going to be used only in circumstances where the company was AIGed, so to speak,” said a senior Democratic congressional aide.

Davis, the Treasury spokeswoman, confirmed that the Treasury pushed to place fewer restrictions on executives at companies receiving capital infusions, but she gave a different explanation. She said many of those firms are more stable and are being encouraged to participate in the bailout to strengthen the overall system. “The provisions for failing institutions should come with more onerous conditions than those for healthy institutions whose participation benefits the entire system,” she said.

Lawmakers agreed to the Treasury’s request that the measure apply only to executives at companies whose assets were bought by the government through auctions. In the executive-compensation tax section, a new sentence saying that eventually was inserted.

Meanwhile, Paulson repeatedly told lawmakers that he did not plan to use bailout funds to inject capital directly into financial institutions. Privately, however, his staff was developing plans to do just that, Paulson acknowledged in an interview.

Although lawmakers hailed the rules as unprecedented new limits on executive pay, several were unhappy that the law was not stricter.

Under pressure from Congress, the Treasury issued regulations in October on executive compensation and applied the tax-deduction limits to all companies receiving bailout funds, although the legislation did not require it for firms that received direct capital injections. But the Treasury failed to issue guidelines requiring the IRS or any other agency to enforce the rules, and it also failed to explain how the restrictions would be enforced.

The Treasury’s regulations also instructed firms to disclose more compensation information to the Securities and Exchange Commission. But officials at the SEC do not think they have the authority to force companies to disclose the kind of pay information required by the bailout law, according to people familiar with the matter, though they hope companies will cooperate. John Nester, an SEC spokesman, declined to comment.

Senators on the Finance Committee have expressed concern to Paulson and are now considering whether they should amend the law to apply the enforcement mechanism to all firms participating in the bailout.

The Douchebag Who Conned The World

Stephen Foley (From New York)

The Independant

cox-hiresCHRIS COX

Investors around the world are counting the spiralling cost of the biggest fraud in history, a $50bn scam that has ensnared billionaire businessmen and tiny charities alike and whose tentacles have stretched further and deeper than anyone imagined.

The fallout from the arrest of the Wall Street grandee Bernard Madoff was continuing to grow last night, as institution after institution detailed the extent of their possible losses, and the victims in the UK were headlined by HSBC and the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is majority-owned by the British Government.

A charity set up by the Hollywood director Steven Spielberg was among those revealed to be among the victims, along with a foundation set up by Mort Zuckerman, one of the richest media and property magnates in the United States, dozens of Jewish organisations, sports team owners and a New Jersey senator.

But the biggest confessions were coming from Wall Street, from the City of London and from the headquarters of European banks and from banks around the world. They have poured billions of dollars into Mr Madoff’s too-good-to-be-true investment fund, which appeared to post double-digit annual returns come rain or shine.

RBS said that it could take a hit of £400m if American authorities find there is nothing left of the money Mr Madoff had pretended to be investing for many years. HSBC, Britain’s largest bank, said a “small number” of its clients had exposure totalling $1bn in Mr Madoff’s funds.

The Spanish bank Santander, which owns Abbey and the savings business of Bradford & Bingley in the UK, could be on the hook for $3.1bn. Japan’s Nomura said it has hundreds of millions of dollars at risk. City analysts said that even banks who invested only on behalf of clients could end up on the hook, because clients are almost certain to sue for bad advice.

Mr Madoff confessed last week that his business was “all one great big lie”. The investment returns were fake, and he had been paying old clients with money from new ones. In its conception, the scam is a classic. In its size, it is breathtaking, eclipsing anything seen before. He personally estimated the losses at $50bn, according to the FBI, and as investors owned up to their exposure yesterday that did not seem impossible. For 48 years, until Thursday morning, Mr Madoff was one of Wall Street’s best-respected investment managers, able to harvest money from a vast network of contacts and to trade on his name as a former chairman of the Nasdaq stock exchange.

His arrest has further shaken confidence in the barely regulated hedge fund industry, which is already suffering some of the worst times in its short history. Mr Madoff – who is now on a $10m bail and under orders not to leave the New York area – was able to operate his fraud under the noses of regulators for many years.

Mort Zuckerman, the owner of the New York Daily News and one of the 200 richest Americans, said that one of the managers of his charitable trust had been so taken by Mr Madoff that he invested $9bn with him, including all the money from Mr Zuckerman’s trust. “These are astonishing numbers to be placed with one fund manager,” he said. “I think we have another break in whatever level confidence needs to exist in money markets.”

Nicola Horlick, the British fund manager known as Superwoman for juggling her high-flying City career with bringing up five children, turned her fire on US regulators. Her Bramdean Alternatives investment fund had put 9 per cent – about £10m – with Mr Madoff. She told BBC Radio: “This is the biggest financial scandal, probably in the history of the markets.”

JP Morgan Buys Washington Mutual

WASHINGTON -(Dow Jones)– JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) acquired Washington Mutual Inc. (WM) via a bidding process, after the thrift became the biggest bank failure in U.S. history, regulators announced late Thursday.

“With insufficient liquidity to meet its obligations, WaMu was in an unsafe and unsound condition to transact business,” the Office of Thrift Supervision said in a release.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. took over as receiver of the thrift and held a bidding process that resulted in the takeover by JPMorgan, it said.

JPMorgan said in separate releases that it would pay the FDIC about $1.9 billion for all deposits, assets and certain liabilities of Washington Mutual’s banking operations. It also plans to sell $8 billion in common stock.

That payment means the FDIC’s national deposit-insurance fund won’t take a hit from WaMu’s demise, said FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair in a conference call with reporters.

“There will be no cost to the deposit insurance fund,” she said.

The acquisition of the $307 billion thrift marks the latest upheaval in the U.S. financial crisis that has claimed some of the biggest firms Wall Street this month, including government bailouts of insurer American International Group Inc. (AIG) and mortgage giants Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE).

The Seattle-based company, which has been wracked by heavy losses in the mortgage crisis, suffered outflows of deposits totaling $16.7 billion since Sept. 15, the OTS said. WaMu, the largest savings association overseen by the agency, had more than $188.3 billion in deposits as of June 30, with 2,200 branch offices in 15 states.

“The housing market downturn had a significant impact on the performance of WaMu’s mortgage portfolio and led to three straight quarters of losses totaling $6.1 billion,” OTS Director John Reich said in the release, saying that conditions had deteriorated in the last three months.

The ownership change won’t impact the bank’s depositors or other customers, the OTS said, with branches scheduled to open Friday as usual.

However, while senior debt holders will have first claim to any asset recovery, shareholders could be wiped out.

-By Tom Barkley, Dow Jones Newswires; 202-862-9275; tom.barkley@dowjones.com