The Bailout of Big American Banks Has Cost Trillions More Than We've Been Told

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Granted, the $700 billion dollar TARP bailout was a massive
bait-and-switch
.  The government said it was doing it to soak up toxic assets, and then
switched to saying it was needed to free up lending. It didn't
do that
either. Indeed, the Fed doesn't
want
the banks to lend.

True, as I wrote
in March 2009:

The bailout money is just going
to line the pockets of the wealthy, instead of helping to stabilize
the economy or even the companies receiving the bailouts:

  • A
    lot of the bailout money is going to the failing companies' shareholders
  • Indeed,
    a leading progressive economist says
    that the true purpose of the bank rescue plans is "a massive
    redistribution of wealth to the bank shareholders and their top
    executives"
  • The Treasury Department encouraged banks to use the
    bailout money to buy their competitors, and pushed
    through an amendment to the tax laws
    which rewards mergers in the
    banking industry (this has caused a lot of companies to bite off more
    than they can chew, destabilizing the acquiring companies)

And
as the New York Times notes,
"Tens of billions of [bailout] dollars have merely passed through
A.I.G. to its derivatives trading partners".

***

In other
words, through a little game-playing by the Fed, taxpayer money is
going straight into the pockets of investors in AIG's
credit default swaps and is not even really stabilizing AIG.

But
the TARP bailout is peanuts compared
to the numerous other bailouts the government has given to the giant
banks.

And I'm not referring to the $23
trillion
in bailouts, loans, guarantees and other known shenanigans
that the special inspector general for the TARP program mentions. I'm
talking about more covert types of bailouts.

Like what?

Guaranteeing a Fat Spread on Interest Rates

Well,
as Bloomberg notes:

 

The trading
profits of the Street is just another way of measuring the subsidy
the Fed is giving to the banks
,
said Christopher Whalen, managing director of
Torrance, California-based
Institutional
Risk Analytics. “It’s a transfer from savers to banks.”

 

The
trading results, which helped the banks report higher quarterly
profit than analysts estimated even as unemployment stagnated at a
27-year high, came with a big assist from the Federal Reserve. The U.S.
central bank helped lenders by holding short-term borrowing costs
near zero, giving them a chance to profit by carrying even 10-year
government notes that yielded an average of 3.70 percent last quarter.

 

The gap between short-term interest rates, such as what banks may
pay to borrow in interbank markets or on savings accounts, and
longer-term rates, known as the yield curve, has been at record
levels. The difference between yields on 2- and 10-year Treasuries
yesterday touched 2.71 percentage points, near the all-time high of
2.94 percentage points set Feb. 18.

 

Harry
Blodget explains:

The
latest quarterly reports from the big Wall Street banks revealed a
startling fact: None of the big four banks had a single day in the
quarter in which they lost money trading.

 

For the 63 straight
trading days in Q1, in other words, Goldman Sachs (GS), JP Morgan
(JPM), Bank of America (BAC), and Citigroup (C) made money trading for
their own accounts.

 

Trading, of course, is supposed to be a
risky business: You win some, you lose some. That's how traders
justify their gargantuan bonuses--their jobs are so risky that they
deserve to be paid millions for protecting their firms' precious
capital. (Of course, the only thing that happens if traders fail to
protect that capital is that taxpayers bail out the bank and the
traders are paid huge "retention" bonuses to prevent them from leaving
to trade somewhere else, but that's a different story).

 

But
these days, trading isn't risky at all. In fact, it's safer than
walking down the street.

 

Why?

 

Because the US government
is lending money to the big banks at near-zero interest rates. And the
banks are then turning around and lending that money back to the US
government at 3%-4% interest rates, making 3%+ on the spread. What's
more, the banks are leveraging this trade, borrowing at least $10 for
every $1 of equity capital they have, to increase the size of their
bets. Which means the banks can turn relatively small amounts of
equity into huge profits--by borrowing from the taxpayer and then
lending back to the taxpayer.

***

The
government's zero-interest-rate policy, in other words, is the
biggest Wall Street subsidy yet. So far, it has done little to increase
the supply of credit in the real economy. But it has hosed
responsible people who lived within their means and are now earning
next-to-nothing on their savings. It has also allowed the big Wall
Street banks to print money to offset all the dumb bets that brought
the financial system to the brink of collapse two years ago. And it
has fattened Wall Street bonus pools to record levels again.

Paul
Abrams chimes
in
:

To get a clear picture of what is going
on here, ignore the intermediate steps (borrowing money from the fed,
investing in Treasuries), as they are riskless, and it immediately
becomes clear that this is merely a direct payment from the Fed to the
banking executives...for nothing. No nifty new tech product has been
created. No illness has been treated. No teacher has figured out how
to get a third-grader to understand fractions. No singer's voice has
entertained a packed stadium. No batter has hit a walk-off double. No
"risk"has even been "managed", the current mantra for what big banks do
that is so goddamned important that it is doing "god's work".

 

Nor
has any credit been extended to allow the real value-producers to meet
payroll, to reserve a stadium, to purchase capital equipment, to hire
employees. Nothing.

 

Congress should put an immediate halt to this
practice. Banks should have to show that the money they are borrowing
from the Fed is to provide credit to businesses, or consumers, or
homeowners. Not a penny should be allowed to be used to purchase
Treasuries. Otherwise, the Fed window should be slammed shut on their
manicured fingers.

 

And, stiff criminal penalties should be
enacted for those banks that mislead the Fed about the destination of
the money they are borrowing. Bernie Madoff needs company.

There
is another type of guaranteed spread that allows the giant banks to
make money hand over fist. Specifically, the Fed pays the big banks interest to borrow
money at no interest and then keep money parked at the Fed itself.
(The Fed is intentionally doing this for the express
purpose
of preventing too much money from being lent out to Main
Street. That's just dandy.)

The giant banks are receiving
many other covert bailouts and subsidies as well.

Too Big As Subsidy

Initially, the fact that the
giant banks are "too big to fail" encourages
them to take huge, risky gambles
that they would not otherwise
take. If they win, they make big
bucks. If they lose, they know the government will just bail them out.
This is a gambling subsidy.

The very size of the too big to
fails also decreases the ability of the smaller banks to compete. And -
since the government itself helped make the giants even bigger - that
is also a subsidy to the big boys (see this).

The monopoly power given to the big banks (technically an "oligopoly")
is a subsidy in other ways as well. For example, Nobel prize winning
economist Joseph Stiglitz said
in September that giants like Goldman are using their size to
manipulate the market:

"The main problem that Goldman
raises is a question of size: 'too big to fail.' In some markets, they
have a significant fraction of trades. Why is that important? They
trade both on their proprietary desk and on behalf of customers. When
you do that and you have a significant fraction of all trades, you have
a lot of information."

Further, he says, "That raises the
potential of conflicts of interest, problems of front-running, using
that inside information for your proprietary desk. And that's why the
Volcker report came out and said that we need to restrict the kinds of
activity that these large institutions have. If you're going to trade
on behalf of others, if you're going to be a commercial bank, you can't
engage in certain kinds of risk-taking behavior."

The
giants (especially Goldman Sachs) have also used high-frequency program
trading which not only distorted
the markets
- making up more than 70% of stock trades - but which
also let the program trading giants take a sneak peak at what the real
(aka “human”) traders are buying and selling, and then trade on the
insider information. See this, this,
this, this
and this.
(This is frontrunning,
which is illegal; but it is a lot bigger than garden variety
frontrunning, because the program traders are not only trading based on
inside knowledge of what their own clients are doing, they are also
trading based on knowledge of what all other traders are doing).

Goldman
also admitted
that its proprietary trading program can "manipulate the markets in
unfair ways". The giant banks have also allegedly used their Counterparty
Risk Management Policy Group
(CRMPG) to exchange secret
information and formulate coordinated mutually beneficial actions, all
with the government's
blessings
.

In addition, the giants receive many
billions in subsidies
by receiving government guarantees that they
are "too big to fail", ensuring that they have to pay lower interest
rates to attract depositors.

Derivatives

The government's failure to rein in
derivatives or break up the giant banks also constitute enormous
subsidies, as it allows the giants to make huge sums by keeping the
true price points of their derivatives secret. See this and this.

Toxic Assets

The PPIP program - which was supposed to reduce the toxic assets held by banks - actually increased them, and just let the banks make a quick buck.

In
addition, the government suspended mark-to-market valuation of the
toxic assets held by the giant banks, and is allowing the banks to
value the assets at whatever price they desire. This constitutes a huge
giveaway to the big banks.

As one writer notes:

By
allowing banks to legally disregard mark-to-market accounting rules,
government allows banks to maintain investment grade ratings.

By
maintaining investment grade ratings, banks attract institutional
funds. That would be the insurance and pension funds money that is
contributed by the citizen.

As institutional money pours in, the stock price is propped up ....

Mortgages and Housing

PhD economists John Hussman and Dean Baker
(and fund manager and financial writer Barry Ritholtz) say that the
only reason the government keeps giving billions to Fannie and Freddie
is that it is really a huge, ongoing, back-door bailout of the big
banks.

Many also accuse Obama's foreclosure relief programs as being backdoor bailouts for the banks. (See this, this and this).

Foreign Bailouts

The big banks - such as JP Morgan
- also benefit from foreign bailouts, such as the European bailout, as
they are some of the largest creditors of the bailed out countries, and
the bailouts allow them to get paid in full, instead of having to write
down their foreign losses.

These
are just a few of the secret bailouts programs the government is giving
to the giant banks. There are many other bailout programs as well. If
these bailouts and subsidies are added up, they amount to many tens -
or perhaps even hundreds - of trillions of dollars.


And then there is the cost of debasing the currency in order to print
money to fund these bailouts. The cost to the American citizen in less
valuable dollars will be truly staggering.