Sunday, April 12, 2009

Here's One More...

If you have any curiosity at all about the government's priorities and its methods, here's an excellent piece, quoted in full, on the latest bank bailout plan. One doesn't have to be an expert in finance or economics to recognize that rotten egg smell emanating from this kind of sleight-of-hand Rube Goldberg device called the PPIP. At any rate, here's the change we didn't vote for...

Tragedy is turning into farce as the real intent of the bank rescue plan becomes apparent. Geithner and the banksters have adopted the playbook of a true fraud-and-deceit all-star: Enron.

No matter how cynical you get, it’s impossible to keep up.

- Lily Tomlin

Somewhere along the continuum, there is a point at which tragedy turns into farce. I’m starting to think we may have passed that point with this whole TARP/TALF fiasco.

From a comedy perspective, Turbo Timmy and his madcap schemes are the gift that keeps on giving. We’re scaling the heights of utter absurdity now... it’s like a Kurt Vonnegut novel come to life.

Just take this recent snippet from The Wall Street Journal, for instance:

The Treasury Department, facing criticism over its bank-rescue program, said it may allow a broader group of private investors to purchase toxic securities...

Last month, the Treasury said it would select fund managers based on certain criteria, including an ability to raise private capital and a minimum of $10 billion of eligible assets under management.

On Monday, the Treasury said a proposal won't necessarily be disqualified if firms don't meet all the criteria. The Treasury added that it is particularly interested in program participation by small, minority- or woman-owned businesses.

Hmm. Okay, so let me get this straight. First they start out with an eligibility hurdle so ridiculous, it sounds like a leftover Dr. Evil catchphrase from the Austin Powers movie. “You must have ten BILLION dollars...”

Then it hits them that gosh, ya know, that might have been a dumb idea.

So in a stroke of belated genius, they decide to 1) disregard their own proposal criteria – not change it, but just ignore it, mind you – and 2) turn the bank rescue program into some kind of warm and fuzzy feel-good “help the little guy” exercise, like an SBA loan program writ large.

Read the following in John Lovitz “liar” voice: We want to take all your money and give it to the banksters. No, wait. That sounds bad. We want to help the, ah, the billionaires. The poor, poor billionaires. No, wait – crap. That’s bad too. Here it is: We want to help minorities. Minorities and women. Yeah! Yeah, that’s the ticket...

An American Classic

The REALLY funny news, though, is that the PPIP (as it has been so christened) rescue plan now seems to be taking a page from one of the all-time greats of fraud and deceit.

I have to take this opportunity to share one of my favorite nuggets, a little story that was making its way around trading desks circa 2002:

Once there was a country bumpkin named Kenny – Kenny boy to his friends – and Kenny boy found himself in need of some money. Trouble was, he didn’t have a job and didn’t own a thing except a recently deceased pet goat. But Kenny boy was smart, and it didn’t take long for him to hatch a plan. Kenny boy called up all the farmers in the county and arranged a raffle for a blue-ribbon Holstein milking cow. On the day of the raffle, 100 farmers showed up and paid $50 per ticket, giving Kenny boy $5,000 to put in his pocket. Kenny boy drew the winning ticket and everybody went home. The next day, the raffle winner came by Kenny boy’s place to collect his prize. Kenny trotted out his expired pet. The farmer scratched his head and said “Son, that’s not a prize milking cow. That’s a dead goat.” So Kenny boy gave the farmer his fifty dollars back.

And as you might have guessed, Kenny boy’s last name was Lay and he grew up to found Enron.

Ah, Enron. Remember those guys? The giant tilted “E,” the ridiculous hubris, the bizarre commercials with the computerized “Why” voice... Classic stuff.

Enron worked hard to rip off rubes like the public officials of the state of California, who didn’t realize that deregulating electricity markets without knowing how the game was played was the rough equivalent of dumping a bucket of chum into a shark tank.

Enron also did all kinds of neat innovative things with “side pockets” and “special investment vehicles” and “off-balance-sheet partnerships,” even going so far as to use really cool Star-Wars-themed names like “Death Star” and “Chewco.”

In retrospect, who could have known that even as Enron was going down the tubes, our current crop of banksters were busy taking notes?

Move Over Darth Vader

I bring up Enron in light of new revelations that propel this whole rescue plan debacle to new heights of criminality and avarice.. Feast your eyes on this tidbit from a recent Financial Times piece, “Bail-out banks eye toxic asset buys”:

US banks that have received government aid, including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase, are considering buying toxic assets to be sold by rivals [emphasis mine] under the Treasury’s $1,000bn (£680bn) plan to revive the financial system.

Spencer Bachus, the top Republican on the House financial services committee, vowed after being told of the plans by the FT to introduce legislation to stop financial institutions ”gaming the system to reap taxpayer-subsidised windfalls.”

Mr. Bachus added it would mark ”a new level of absurdity” if financial institutions were ”colluding to swap assets at inflated prices using taxpayers’ dollars.”

“Death Star” my foot... If this true, it makes the Enron chicanery of days past look positively Ewok-scaled in comparison.

And most likely it is true... a few weeks prior to the FT exclusive, the New York Post reported that Citigroup and Bank of America had already begun using TARP funds – billions given to them by the government that they were supposed to use to make loans – to instead “aggressively scoop up” more of the very toxic assets that blew them up in the first place.

The very idea that these banks could be buying up each other’s garbage – that they are even considering it – well, it just hurts my head, it’s so mind boggling. To understand why, let’s walk through a quick analogy.

Lawn Mowers and Government Loans

Imagine, for a moment, that I have a beat-up old mini-fridge in the back of my garage. It has a coolant leak, it’s a little moldy, and it smells like stale beer, but I’m pretty sure it still works.

Meanwhile, you happen to be in possession of a rusty old lawn mower. The blade is caked beyond recognition with fossilized grass clippings, the gunk that passes for oil has never been changed, and the thing takes twenty or thirty pulls to start... but you, too, are fairly certain your lawn mower “works.”

Now imagine that you and I make a deal. I will sell you my disgusting mini-fridge for the princely sum of a hundred thousand dollars. You, in turn, will sell me your ancient lawn mower for a hundred thousand dollars. I write a six-figure check out to you, and you write a six-figure check out to me.

Nothing’s really happened, right? All we’ve done is swap two crap assets, neither one worth fifteen bucks in the real world, and furthermore swapped an identical large chunk of change ($100,000) between our respective bank accounts.

But hold on! Did I mention that we both employ highly creative accountants?

Here’s the good news about our little swap. Thanks to our exchange, I can record a massive profit on my books... to the tune of $99,900, or whatever sum is left over above and beyond the book-entry carrying cost for my fridge. And you can do the same with your lawn mower.

In the real world, the only thing that happened is junk got swapped with junk. In fantasy-land accounting world, however, you and I both just conjured up fantastic profits out of thin air.

And it gets even better... did I mention that the government has generously granted me a non-recourse loan in order to provide the funds with which to buy your $100,000 lawn mower?

I didn’t actually have to move $100K out of my bank account and into yours, because $93,000 of it was covered by government loan. The same privilege was extended to you, of course.

And of course the proceeds of my loan were sent to you as cash... and the proceeds of YOUR loan were sent to ME as cash... which means the wonderful taxpayer ponied up TWICE – to the tune of $186,000 – to fund our little phantom transaction with real dollars.

See how great this is? We swap crap assets worth zilch, pretending they are actually worth $100,000... we record a massive profit on our books... and we collect real profit in the form of a $93,000 handout to both of us (the non-recourse loan).

Of course, someone will eventually scratch their head (just like Kenny boy’s farmer) and say, “Hey. We don’t have anything worth $100,000 here. We’ve got a disgusting mini-fridge and a rusty lawn mower.”

But by the time that happens, you and I will be in clover... and by definition we never had to pay back the loans anyway! Ain’t giant handouts grand?

To understand what the banks plan to do under the guise of the PPIP “rescue plan” by way of swapping toxic assets with each other, simply replace “mini-fridge” and “lawn mower” in the above example with “toxic asset A” and “toxic asset B.”

Then up the scale from $100,000 to hundreds of billions – all the way up to a cool trillion maybe – and there you go.

This is the fabulous Enron-style solution Turbo Timmy at the Treasury and Sheila Bair at the FDIC have laid out for us: “Death Star” and “Chewco” on steroids. They want to Enronize the whole damn financial system in an effort to save their connected masters (and grateful future employers) on Wall Street.

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