CEO pay emerges as bailout barrier

Flying in the face of Congress and both presidential campaigns, Treasury is resisting efforts to impose pay limits on Wall Street executives and bankers whose companies stand to be helped by the government’s $700 billion rescue plan for the financial markets.

As markets reopen Monday, the issue is a surprising flash point between Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and House Democrats, who have drafted a bill giving Paulson much of what he wants but requiring that Treasury also demand “appropriate standards for executive compensation.”

Treasury argues that such requirements would make it harder to persuade companies to sell their troubled assets to the government. But Democrats, who otherwise admire Paulson, say that the former Goldman Sachs chairman is blind to the politics of the situation and the huge divide between the average taxpayer and the financial world now seeking relief from bad debts that have clogged the credit system — and that threaten the entire economy. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Here we are, supposedly, on the brink of global economic catastrophe, but the government’s rescue plan might fail if a few fat cats on Wall Street are forced to take a pay cut. Are they so well insulated from the impending calamity that the worst that could happen to them is that they could lose a multimillion dollar bonus?

The idea that constraints on excessive executive compensation in return for public funding could be described as “punitive” is absurd and obscene. What seems called for here is a new criminal designation: crimes against society.

This is a label that would apply to those offenses less egregious than genocide; crimes which might seem mundane in as much as they are far more commonplace but which involve harm to thousands or millions of people as the result of the ruthless pursuit of self-interest by those who wield immense economic or political power.

For those CEOs who would regard a pay cut as punitive, I would propose that the alternative would be that they be charged with the above described crimes against society and that they face the possibility of neither imprisonment nor fines but of destitution (through losing the right to own property) and public humiliation (through a 21st century equivalent of being placed in the stocks).

These parasitic CEOs should be grovelling in gratitude at the idea they might suffer something so minor as a pay cut. What sort of hyper-inflated vanity could regard such a thing as punitive?

A TIMELY REMINDER: How the Bush Administration stopped the states from stepping in to help consumers

Several years ago, state attorneys general and others involved in consumer protection began to notice a marked increase in a range of predatory lending practices by mortgage lenders. Some were misrepresenting the terms of loans, making loans without regard to consumers’ ability to repay, making loans with deceptive “teaser” rates that later ballooned astronomically, packing loans with undisclosed charges and fees, or even paying illegal kickbacks. These and other practices, we noticed, were having a devastating effect on home buyers. In addition, the widespread nature of these practices, if left unchecked, threatened our financial markets.

Even though predatory lending was becoming a national problem, the Bush administration looked the other way and did nothing to protect American homeowners. In fact, the government chose instead to align itself with the banks that were victimizing consumers.

Predatory lending was widely understood to present a looming national crisis. This threat was so clear that as New York attorney general, I joined with colleagues in the other 49 states in attempting to fill the void left by the federal government. Individually, and together, state attorneys general of both parties brought litigation or entered into settlements with many subprime lenders that were engaged in predatory lending practices. Several state legislatures, including New York’s, enacted laws aimed at curbing such practices.

What did the Bush administration do in response? Did it reverse course and decide to take action to halt this burgeoning scourge? As Americans are now painfully aware, with hundreds of thousands of homeowners facing foreclosure and our markets reeling, the answer is a resounding no. [continued…]

Loan titans paid McCain adviser nearly $2 million

Senator John McCain’s campaign manager was paid more than $30,000 a month for five years as president of an advocacy group set up by the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to defend them against stricter regulations, current and former officials say.

Mr. McCain, the Republican candidate for president, has recently begun campaigning as a critic of the two companies and the lobbying army that helped them evade greater regulation as they began buying riskier mortgages with implicit federal backing. He and his Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama, have donors and advisers who are tied to the companies.

But last week the McCain campaign stepped up a running battle of guilt by association when it began broadcasting commercials trying to link Mr. Obama directly to the government bailout of the mortgage giants this month by charging that he takes advice from Fannie Mae’s former chief executive, Franklin Raines, an assertion both Mr. Raines and the Obama campaign dispute.

Incensed by the advertisements, several current and former executives of the companies came forward to discuss the role that Rick Davis, Mr. McCain’s campaign manager and longtime adviser, played in helping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac beat back regulatory challenges when he served as president of their advocacy group, the Homeownership Alliance, formed in the summer of 2000. Some who came forward were Democrats, but Republicans, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed their descriptions. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — A major campaign story — one would think. But apparently not in the eyes of the editors of the NYT — it didn’t merit a place on the front page!

Cash for trash

Some skeptics are calling Henry Paulson’s $700 billion rescue plan for the U.S. financial system “cash for trash.” Others are calling the proposed legislation the Authorization for Use of Financial Force, after the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the infamous bill that gave the Bush administration the green light to invade Iraq.

There’s justice in the gibes. Everyone agrees that something major must be done. But Mr. Paulson is demanding extraordinary power for himself — and for his successor — to deploy taxpayers’ money on behalf of a plan that, as far as I can see, doesn’t make sense. [continued…]

Visible hands

When Hank Paulson, a successful investment banker turned Republican treasury secretary, caps his career by nationalizing two financial institutions so large that even Norman Thomas in his socialist heyday would have paused before taking them onto the government’s balance sheet, and a conservative central banker agrees to bail out an insurance company to the tune of $85 billion, you know that a fundamental change is underway. The day when that engine of capitalism, the financial market, was allowed to operate more or less unimpeded by government has passed. We are entering an era in which a high tolerance for risk is being replaced by the eager embrace of regulation, and where the overriding imperative, efficiency, has been replaced by an increasing desire for equity. [continued…]

A prescription for recovery

This week, Congress is expected to commit hundreds of billions of taxpayer funds to a revitalization program to halt our financial hemorrhaging. Twenty years ago, in the midst of another financial crisis, I was part of a banking industry effort to solve the savings and loan problem. The result of that effort was the Resolution Trust Corporation, which, under Bill Seidman’s masterful leadership, cleaned up the S&L mess in 48 months.

The situation then was very different. The S&L problem involved only one sector of the economy and was just 3 percent of gross domestic product. We were not so dependent on foreign savings, and the crushing pressure on our federal budget from tax policies and entitlements was far off. This crisis is many times larger than that created by the S&Ls. We are deeply dependent on savings from other countries, and our fiscal resources are limited and shrinking.

One lesson is clear: If Congress commits money without firm principles to guide its use, the cost to taxpayers will be far higher and the economy will remain weaker longer. Before the 1989 legislation, efforts to stem losses growing inside the S&L industry lacked firm principles; as a result, they did not remove the swelling tumor of losses and in some instances actually helped it grow. [continued…]

Paulson’s folly

The deal proposed by Paulson is nothing short of outrageous. It includes no oversight of his own closed-door operations. It merely gives congressional blessing and funding to what he has already been doing, ad hoc. He plans to retain Wall Street firms as advisers to decide just how to cut deals to value and mop up Wall Street’s dubious paper. There are to be no limits on executive compensation for the firms that get relief, and no equity share for the government in exchange for this massive infusion of capital. Both Obama and McCain have opposed the provision denying any judicial review of decisions made by Paulson — a provision that evokes the Bush administration’s suspension of normal constitutional safeguards in its conduct of foreign policy and national security.

Though the administration’s line is that these securities are not trading because of a crisis of confidence, so many are ultimately backed by loans that will not be paid back that they will eventually be sold for a fraction of their face value. Firms that have marked these securities down or have otherwise gotten them off their books have valued them at around 30 cents on the dollar or less. If Paulson had proposed such a deal in his old job as CEO of Goldman Sachs — putting $700 billion of the firm’s capital at risk in exchange for junk bonds of unknown value — he would have been fired in short order. But this is merely taxpayer money. [continued…]

Big financiers start lobbying for wider aid

Even as policy makers worked on details of a $700 billion bailout of the financial industry, Wall Street began looking for ways to profit from it.

Financial firms were lobbying to have all manner of troubled investments covered, not just those related to mortgages.

At the same time, investment firms were jockeying to oversee all the assets that Treasury plans to take off the books of financial institutions, a role that could earn them hundreds of millions of dollars a year in fees.

Nobody wants to be left out of Treasury’s proposal to buy up bad assets of financial institutions. [continued…]

When atheists attack

The problem, as far as our political process is concerned, is that half the electorate revels in Palin’s lack of intellectual qualifications. When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country. “They think they’re better than you!” is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. “Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!” Yes, all too ordinary.

We have all now witnessed apparently sentient human beings, once provoked by a reporter’s microphone, saying things like, “I’m voting for Sarah because she’s a mom. She knows what it’s like to be a mom.” Such sentiments suggest an uncanny (and, one fears, especially American) detachment from the real problems of today. The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security … the list is long, and Sarah Palin does not seem competent even to rank these items in order of importance, much less address any one of them. [continued…]

The evolution of John McCain

Despite the media feeding frenzy, we still may be asking ourselves, “Just who exactly is Sarah Palin?” Mixed in with the Davy-Crockett-meets-SuperMom vignettes — all those moose hunting, ice fishing, snowmobiling, baby-juggling, and hockey-momming moments — we’ve also learned that she doesn’t care much for her former brother-in-law and wasn’t afraid to use her office to go after his job as a state trooper; that she was for the “bridge to nowhere” before she was against it; that she’s against earmarks unless they benefit her constituents; that she can deliver a snappy wisecracking speech, thinks banning books in libraries is okay, considers herself a pit bull with lipstick, and above all else, wants to drill the ever-lovin’ daylights out of every corner of her home state (which John McCain’s handlers have somehow translated into being against Big Oil, since she insisted on a marginally bigger cut of the profits for Alaskans).

Oh, and — not that this is very important to Americans or the planet — she now thinks that global warming might possibly be human-made… sorta… though she didn’t before, despite the fact that the state she governs is on the frontline of climate change. And, of course, she’s a classic right-wing, fundamentalist Christian: against abortion — check; against same-sex marriage — check; against stem-cell research — check; favors teaching Creationism in public schools — check.

It’s that last item, her willingness to put Creationism up against the teaching of evolutionary science in the classroom on a he-says-she-says basis, that’s far more revealing of just who our new Republican vice presidential candidate is than we generally assume. It deserves the long, hard look that it hasn’t yet gotten. Most Democrats and progressives tend to think of the teaching of Creationism as a mere sidebar item on their agenda of political don’t-likes, but it’s not. Sarah Palin’s bias towards Creationism is a window into her political soul and a measure of John McCain’s hypocrisy. [continued…]

Steering the McCain campaign, a lot of old Bush hands

When Gov. Sarah Palin flew home to Alaska for the first time since being named the Republican vice presidential nominee, she brought along at least half a dozen new advisers to conduct briefings, stage-manage her first television interview and help her prepare for a critical debate next month.

And virtually every member of the team shared a common credential: years of service to President Bush.

From Mark Wallace, a Bush appointee to the United Nations, to Tucker Eskew, who ran strategic communications for the Bush White House, to Greg Jenkins, who served as the deputy assistant to Bush in his first term and was executive director of the 2004 inauguration, Palin was surrounded on the trip home by operatives deeply rooted in the Bush administration.

The clutch of Bush veterans helping to coach Palin reflects a larger reality about Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign: Far from being a group of outsiders to the Republican Party power structure, it is now run largely by skilled operatives who learned their crafts in successive Bush campaigns and various jobs across the Bush government over the past eight years. [continued…]

Pakistani Taliban suspected in Marriott Hotel blast

The massive explosion that devastated the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, Saturday – killing at least 53 people and wounding hundreds – is being seen as a warning from Islamist militants over the Pakistani government’s cooperation with the United States.

The hotel, which is popular with both diplomats and other foreigners, was struck by at least one truck filled with more than a ton of explosives in one of the country’s worst acts of terrorism. The Czech ambassador and two Americans and about a dozen foreigners were among the dead.

“This was definitely a clear signal that this is no longer a safe place for foreigners, especially Americans,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, an independent security analyst based in the city. “And it’s a message to the Pakistani government: ‘Can you handle us?’ ” [continued…]

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