October 14, 2008

The Worst Is Yet To Come: Blame Congress--And Obama

By Julian Dunraven, J.D., M.P.A.

Honorable Friends,

I hope you did not get too excited by the rise in the market yesterday. Our system is nowhere near stable, and even further from recovery. We have not even begun to address the fundamental problems that have come together in this crisis. What we have heard about is a large number of bad mortgage backed securities which created a strain on credit in the banks and spurred Congress to pass the foolish $850 billion bailout. The problem has now bled into the financial paper market, though. Without the financial paper market, and the short term loans it provides institutionally, credit in this country dries up entirely. Thus, the Fed is injecting an additional $1 trillion directly into the commercial paper market to try to keep things flowing. What you have not heard, is how terrifyingly extensive the disease actually is. Just listen to Bud Burrell’s interview to get a good idea.

We now have banks that are hugely overleveraged, often at a rate of more than 40:1 debt to assets. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae actually reached levels of almost 100:1. They also became hugely tied up with bad mortgage backed securities and other credit default swaps of derivatives, as did countless others. As we know, the consequences of this sort of behavior have been severe. However, the damage is much worse than the $850 billion bailout, or even the $1 trillion Fed remedy can handle. Over $58 trillion in derivatives liabilities has already been reported—and that covers only 10% of entities who engage in such trades. We have no idea how deep the poison really goes in the remaining 90%.

On top of this, we also have naked short selling (NSS) running through our ailing market like a fatal cancer. Short selling is where someone leases a security expecting its value to fall. He then sells the security to another. At the end of the lease, he repurchases the security, hopefully at a lesser price than it sold for originally, and returns it to the owner. NSS is similar, except that the seller sells the security before he is sure he can even lease it. As a result, people may pay for a security that cannot be delivered. This practice is illegal, but has not been enforced by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

This loathsome practice has contributed to the demise of Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Washington Mutual, IndyMac, Lehman Brothers, and AIG. Its practitioners presume to sell stock in these companies without ever obtaining that stock. They then drive down the stock price, often without ever delivering a single stock certificate. The companies collapse -- not from any balance sheet problems -- but from these phantom trades of non-existent stock. It is even happening in commodities such as gold and precious metals, where people are selling ownership certificates without ever having the gold to back it, and the buyer is none the wiser unless he tries to claim the actual gold. As these problems converge now, they have the very real potential of utterly obliterating our economy and the value of the dollar itself.

Does it surprise you that this corruption has grown so large? It should not. Congress has done nothing but encourage it. Congress repealed of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, which allowed for the sale of mortgage backed securities and blurred the line between lenders and investors. They passed Sarbanes-Oxley in 2001, along with mark to market accounting. The hastily crafted Act required hugely expensive accounting processes that did little but drive small business out of public trading while doing nothing to curtail corruption in larger institutions. Mark to market accounting also forced assets to be valued at the last sale of similar type whether or not that sale was representative of the asset in hand, thus skewing valuation. Our government then lifted the leverage rules in 2004. Previously, banks were limited to a ratio of 12:1 debts to assets. With the lifted rules, they ballooned into 40:1 ratios or higher. Next, despite Regulation SHO prohibiting naked short selling the SEC has never enforced it, and even gone so far as to falsify reports playing down the dangers of the practice. Finally, let us not forget all the inflationary tinkering the Fed did to prevent any real adjustment in the market that could have purged these problems before they became behemoths.

The real root of the mortgage problem, though, began with the Community Reinvestment Act of the Carter administration in 1977 and amplified by Clinton in 1995. This encouraged loans to people with no money down, no assets, and no income. It also created the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which has been abused to support the activities of ACORN and its fraudulent voter registration drives. Incidentally, ACORN was also Obama’s first employer. Freddie and Fannie, operating under the goals of this Act, hid their losses through massive corruption. As they cooked the books, they funneled large donations into Congress to fend off oversight and reforms attempted by Bush in 2001 and 2003, and later by McCain in 2005. The second largest recipient of those corrupt donations was Barack Obama, and after only three years in office.

As Burrell notes, the legal system the Congress has created is one ideally designed for organized crime—not free markets. It has created a perfect economic storm that threatens to engulf the whole world. Those responsible for leading us here, especially Sen. Obama, who now presumes to lead us as president, should be held accountable for their reckless and irresponsible actions.

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