Saturday, December 31, 2011

Krugman on stimulus

I usually don't respond to Paul Krugman's blog posts. But last week he wrote about Stimulus and Ricardian Equivalence. The post gives a revealing view of his ideas, so it's worth making an exception.

Paul explains:
...think about what happens when a family buys a house with a 30-year mortgage.

Suppose that the family takes out a $100,000 home loan .... If the house is newly built, that’s $100,000 of spending that takes place in the economy. But the family has also taken on debt, and will presumably spend less because it knows that it has to pay off that debt.

But the debt won’t be paid off all at once — and there’s no reason to expect the family to cut its spending right now by $100,000. Its annual mortgage payment will be something like $6,000, so maybe you would expect a fall in spending by $6000; that offsets only a small fraction of the debt-financed purchase.
So, according to Paul, "Ricardian Equivalence," which is the theorem that stimulus does not work in a well-functioning economy, fails, because it predicts that a family who takes out a mortgage to buy a $100,000 house would reduce consumption by $100,000 in that very year.
How could anyone who thought about this for even a minute — let alone someone with an economics training — get this wrong?
How indeed?

The answer is, we didn't, and Paul got this one wrong.

We all agree that "Ricardian Equivalence" is how the economy would and should work, if there were no "frictions," or other problems.  Yes, even Paul, who writes
It [Ricardian Equivalence] is a dubious doctrine even done right; many people are liquidity constrained, and very few people have the knowledge or inclination to estimate the impact of current government budgets on their lifetime tax liability.
Read that carefully for admission of the converse: if the economy is functioning right, if people are not "liquidity constrained," if people are smart enough to recognize that today's deficits mean tomorrow's taxes, then Ricardian equivalence does hold and stimulus doesn't work. (More careful discussion with a few more ifs  here, here and here.)

So according to Paul, the prediction of a properly functioning economy is that people who take out a $100,000 mortgage consume $100,000 less in the first year; that they do not do so is proof stimulus works.

But of course it is not!  People who take out a $100,000 mortgage with $6,000 payments per year should spend about ... $6,000 per year less on other things. Much of that $6,000 comes out of rent they are no longer paying on the house or apartment they moved out of, so there is not necessarily any change in their consumption of housing services. Some of the $6,000 goes to principal payments, which are a form of saving, allowing the household to put less in the bank. So, in fact they need not change consumption or saving at all!

In fact the classic view predicts exactly what common sense predicts: No, the family does not make radical $100,000 changes in its consumption plans thank you very much.

But what about the extra $100,000 of "spending"? Doesn't the new house contribute to "aggregate demand?" What, in the classic view, goes down by $100,000?

The question is not the family's spending, but where did the $100,000 come from, and what were they going to do with the money?

Most likely, someone was saving money, and put it in a bank. If this family didn't take out the loan, another family would have (perhaps at an infinitesimally lower interest rate) done so, and the economy would have built a different house. Or perhaps the money came from an investor in mortgage-backed securities, who would have built a factory instead. These are where the $100,000 offset in aggregate demand comes from, and why the family's decision to take out the mortgage need have no effect on aggregate demand.

Can something go wrong in that process?  Sure. That's what real analyses of stimulus think about. But those like myself who, reading theory and evidence, come to the conclusion that stimulus doesn't work well, do not come to that conclusion because we think the family will spend $100,000 less!

To me, this example illustrates beautifully how Krugman "got this wrong." He never asked where the $100,000 loan came from!  In his analysis of  government borrowing and spending, he does not ask, who lent the money to the government, and what were they planning to do with it otherwise.  People "with an economics training" are supposed to remember lesson one -- follow the money and pay attention to budget constraints. His stimulus is manna from heaven, not borrowed money.

Good advice to anyone: If you get up one morning with the brilliant insight, "Bob Lucas thinks that a family who takes out a $100,000 mortgage will reduce consumption by $100,000," have a cup of coffee, settle down and think, "Wait, Bob's a pretty smart guy. Did I get this wrong somehow?" before hurling insults Bob's way in the New York Times' blog section.

(Note, this is about Krugman's analysis, not stimulus in general. There are plenty of serious analyses of fiscal stimulus that do not make simple logical errors. The plausibility of their assumptions and how they fit the data is an interesting topic. For another day.)

PS: Why is it my new year's resolution not to respond to Krugman blog posts?

Really, what do you do with a guy who insults fellow economists, while admitting in writing that he doesn't even read the opeds and blog posts that are the cause for his insults (let alone their actual academic work, where ideas can be documented and defended)?  He often doesn't even link or name the articles he's criticizing so his readers can decide for themselves!

If you don't believe me, look here , here, here, here and... well, I could go on. Just search his column for anyone he disagrees with. (And dear New York Times, is there anyone left in the journalistic ethics or fact-checking department?)

The best answer to that sort of thing is silence. Which I resolve to maintain, along with that diet and hitting the gym....

Friday, December 30, 2011

SEC Charges GE Funding Capital Market Services with Fraud Involving Municipal Bond Proceeds

The SEC charged GE Funding Capital Market Services with securities fraud for participating in a wide-ranging scheme involving the reinvestment of proceeds from the sale of municipal securities. They agreed to settle the charges by paying approximately $25 million, which will be returned to affected municipalities or conduit borrowers. The firm also entered into agreements with the Department of Justice, Internal Revenue Service, and a coalition of 25 state attorneys general and will pay an additional $45.35 million. In addition to fraudulently manipulating bids, GE Funding CMS made improper, undisclosed payments to certain bidding agents in the form of swap fees that were inflated or unearned. These payments were in exchange for the assistance of bidding agents in controlling and manipulating the competitive bidding process.
The settlements arise from extensive law enforcement investigations into widespread corruption in the municipal reinvestment industry. In the past year, federal and state authorities have reached settlements with four other financial firms, and 18 individuals have been indicted or pled guilty, including three former GE Funding CMS traders.
For a list of other financial institutions charged prior to the settlement with GE Funding CMS follow the link below.
SEC Charges GE Funding Capital Market Services with Fraud Involving Municipal Bond Proceeds

Judge Orders Plastics Executive to Pay $49.5 Million in SEC Case

The SEC has announced the successful resolution of its trial against a plastics industry executive charged with lying in SEC filings regarding his ownership of Musicland Stores Corporation stock. The executive and a trust he controlled have been ordered by a federal judge to pay $49.5 million in a final judgment against them. The executive failed to file truthful 13D forms and neglected to make other required filings, which are required when a person acquires beneficial ownership of more than 5 percent of a voting class of a company's publicly traded stock. Because of this the execute and the trust thereby materially misrepresented their ownership of Musicland stock.

Following a 10-day trial in May in federal court in Newark, N.J., a jury returned a verdict finding the executive liable for securities fraud and disclosure violations on all counts against him. The jury also found the MAAA Trust controlled by him liable for disclosure violations.

Judge Orders Plastics Executive to Pay $49.5 Million in SEC Case

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Fed's Mission Impossible

A Wall Street Journal Op-Ed  reviewing the latest  Fed's proposal (press release) to regulate big banks -- and, soon, everyone else. Here's the much more fun introduction, which we had to cut for space,
Imagine that your brother-in-law and his 5 buddies are heading for Las Vegas. Again. You already cosigned the refi on his house, and it was only a last-minute wire to the bail bondsman that got him out of the slammer last time.

So, you’re going to have another little kitchen-table talk about “the rules.” This time, no lending to your buddies (“limits on credit exposure”). No buying rounds of drinks (“limit dividend payouts and bonuses”). And for God’s sake, don’t lose it all on one silly bet (“stress test”). Keep some cash for the flight home (“liquidity provisions.”) No pawning the wife’s engagement ring for one last double-or-nothing (“leverage limits”). And if I hear there’s trouble, I’m going to come out myself and make sure you don’t overdo it. (“Early remediation”)

Sure, he says, with a twinkle in his eye. Because you both know he’s got your credit card, and you’re not going to let your sister live in poverty (“systemically important”). And you can’t talk about her dumping this lug (“breaking up the big banks”), or at least stopping these Vegas trips (“Volker Rule”), not unless you want to sleep on the couch for a month (“Dodd Frank”).
On to the real oped:

The Fed's Mission Impossible

The Federal Reserve last week announced its new "Enhanced Prudential Standards and Early Remediation Requirements" for big banks, as required by the Dodd-Frank law. You have to pity the poor Fed because it faces an impossible task.

The Fed's proposal opens with an eloquent ode to the evils of too-big-to-fail and moral hazard. And then it spends 168 pages describing exactly how it's going to stop any large financial institution from ever failing again.

More capital is at least a step in the right direction. But the Fed's capital proposals don't go nearly far enough. Putting less than one investor dollar at risk for every 10 borrowed dollars seems laughably low when we're guaranteeing the debts. With a 50-50 chance of a banking tsunami coming across the Atlantic from Europe, you wonder why the Fed is allowing any dividends at all.

But there's nothing here to solve the deeper problems. The last generation of smart MBAs got around capital requirements by pooling risky assets into "AAA" securities that had lower risk weights, and then putting those securities in special-purpose vehicles with off-balance-sheet credit guarantees. Voilà! Same risk, no capital. I can't wait to see what they come up with this time. Diligently following risk weights, European banks built capital ratios by selling good loans and keeping "risk-free" sovereign debt.

The Fed's proposed "credit limits" are a revealing mess. They seem simple and obvious—big banks can't bet more than 10% of their equity on a single counterparty.

But on second thought, it's not so obvious. This wasn't the problem we had in 2008. Banks didn't fail because they lent to other banks. We had a classic run: Investors pulled money from banks that lost a lot on mortgage-backed securities. Yes, banks take too much risk. But they have no incentive to take stupid undiversified counterparty risk.

Credit limits are not so simple either. Suppose you buy a $100 Bank of America bond. OK, you have $100 at risk, though usually there is some recovery in default. But what if they give you $102 of collateral, yet that collateral might be hard to sell or stuck in court for a while? How does a regulator measure that risk? Or what if loans from A to B are funneled through shell company C using derivatives? Ten percent of equity is less than 1% of assets, and a tiny fraction of gross exposures, so measuring it right will matter a lot.
How does the Fed address these problems? Read the 22 pages of overview with 39 separate explicit questions. Translation: Help! We have no idea how to measure and regulate "credit exposure" for modern banks.

The Fed's proposed "triggers" for "early remediation" are interesting attempts to regulate the Fed, not the banks. The Fed recognizes that last time "while supervisors had the discretion to act more quickly, they did not consistently do so." Triggers will force the machinery to action.

Or will they? You're a regulator facing a bank in trouble. If you label it in trouble, you will start a panic in markets. This is the inherent contradiction—your job is to prop up banks, not cause runs. We'll see.
The Fed goes on to a chilling list of "corporate governance" rules, gems such as: "The covered company's board of directors (or the risk committee) must oversee the covered company's liquidity risk management processes . . . [and] determine whether each line or product has created any unanticipated liquidity risk." Well, duh, isn't that what boards do? Why must this be written into federal regulations, with force and penalty of law?

The Fed's proposal exemplifies what a recent editorial in these pages described as Washington's "badly written bad rules." Everything under the sun gets regulated, with no attempt to measure benefits or costs. Sure, as the Fed make clear, Dodd-Frank is to blame, but it could fight back just a bit.

Big picture time. Is any of this going to work?

For 70 years, our government has sought to stop crises by guaranteeing more and more debts, explicitly with deposit insurance, or informally with predictable too-big-to-fail bailouts. Guaranteeing debts gives obvious incentives to gamble at taxpayer expense, so we try to limit risks with regulation. But big banks still have every incentive to avoid, evade and financial-engineer their way around the rules, and they have lots of lawyers, lobbyists and ex-politicians to pressure regulators to use their wide discretion. The government has lost this arms race time and time again. Will this new round of rules, and greater discretionary supervision, finally stop too big to fail?

The depressing scenario is that the six big banks will use this massive regulation as an anticompetitive fortress. We will have the same six big banks 30 years from now, spurred to even greater size with continuing subsidies, cheap Fed-provided financing, the government guarantee, and occasional bailouts. And a financial system as innovative as the phone company, circa 1965.

The only hope I see is that nimble, new small-enough-to-fail competitors will spring up and rebuild the financial system. But this is faint hope in the face of the vast discretionary powers in last year's Dodd-Frank financial legislation and the Fed's rules, which allow the government to step in whenever they decide that a financial risk is "systemically important."

What is not "systemically important?" How I can I build a new financial company that demonstrably causes no "systemic" danger—and is therefore not subject to the Fed's onslaught of regulation, discretionary supervision and "remediation"? How can I assure my creditors that they will receive the legal protections of bankruptcy court, and not be dragged into some arbitrary and politicized "resolution"?

The Dodd-Frank legislation never defines "systemic" or, more importantly, its absence. Under the law, the Financial Stability Council can just "determine" that any company might have "serious adverse effects on financial stability." They can consider any "factors that the Council deems appropriate." The Fed proposes to subject any company to "other requirements or restrictions" if it thinks existing rules do not "sufficiently mitigate risks to U.S. financial stability."

There is nothing to say that a risk to "financial stability" can't be, for example, taking profits away from the big six, or a failure that takes money away from an influential voting bloc. Don't laugh: Life insurance companies were bailed out in 2009 at least in part so they could keep up payments on guaranteed-return retirement products.

The Fed does not propose any such limit to its powers or describe how it will encourage a financial system free of too-big-to-fail firms. The Fed's report has instead a searching inquiry on how it can expand its powers, and how it can begin "designating" and regulating companies beyond the big banks.

If we are going to get out of the guarantee-regulate-bailout trap, we must legally define what is not too big, and what can, will and must—by absence of legal authority—fail. If the government won't break up too-big-to-fail banks, we must at least allow competition to do it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

SEC Adopts Net Worth Standard for Accredited Investors Under Dodd-Frank Act

The SEC has amended its rules to exclude the value of a person’s home from net worth calculations. These calculations are used to determine whether an individual may invest in certain unregistered securities offerings. The changes were made to conform the SEC’s definition of an “accredited investor” to the requirements of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

SEC Adopts Net Worth Standard for Accredited Investors Under Dodd-Frank Act

Monday, December 26, 2011

Health economics by anecdote

In a big-think post  "Is capitalism sustainable" on Project Syndicate, Ken Rogoff put in this little zinger
A third problem is the provision and distribution of medical care, a market that fails to satisfy several of the basic requirements necessary for the price mechanism to produce economic efficiency, beginning with the difficulty that consumers have in assessing the quality of their treatment.
Ok, a difficulty of the blogging/oped medium is that you have to keep things short, and I too hate to be quoted for little snippets out of context...But, really, Et tu Ken?

It's hard to know if the car mechanic is doing a good job. Get ready for the Federal takeover of the car industry. I can't tell B grade exterior from A grade interior plywood, so we need a Federal takeover of home rehab. Vets and dentists operate outside of the mass of stifling health care and insurance regulation, so I guess they're in for the treatment next.

Is it really that much harder to assess the quality of treatment for all health care than the other services we receive? For all medical care, not just extreme cases? Actually, my doctor complains that everyone who comes in has spent a week on the internet and knows too much about treatment options. The internet is ushering in a grand era of star ratings and consumer information.

Where is the evidence? Just this sort of armchair argument has been used for centuries (remember the guilds?) to justify competition-stifling regulation of all sorts of businesses.  Milton Friedman's PhD thesis showed that licensing doctors was good for raising doctor's salaries, but didn't do much for the quality of health care. (His later essay on health economics is still a classic.)

And as always, the real argument for the free market is not that the market is perfect, but that the government is usually far worse. Do we have any evidence that government regulators assess the quality of care better than the people whose lives and money are at stake? Is there any vaguely plausible way that the small asymmetric information in health care justifies the monstrous system we have constructed?

Rant over. But really, there is a lot of harm passing around anecdotes like these as if they are agreed-on economic facts, representing both documentation and a serious cost-benefit tradeoff of viable alternatives. 

(I've written a bit more on free-market heath insurance here. ) 

All the world's troubles in 10 minutes

Last month, John Taylor asked me to give some  lunch-time remarks at a conference on "Restoring Economic Growth" at the Hoover institution. "Oh," said John, "Just talk about what's going on in Europe and how to fix the U.S. economy. Keep it to about 10 minutes." As any economist knows, it's easy to talk for an hour and nearly impossible to talk for 10 minutes. Then I looked at my fellow panelists, who turned out to be George Schultz and Alan Greenspan. Heady company, I feel like a kid again.

The euro crisis,some emerging thoughts on how to create a run-free financial system, a review of why everything on the current policy agenda does not have a prayer of working, and a note of cation to economists'  collective habit of jumping from bright idea to policy. (There is a permanent version on my webpage)

In case you’re not reading the papers, we’re in financial crisis 3.0, a run on European banks stemming from their sovereign debt losses.

This is not high finance. European banks have been failing on sovereign debt since Edward III stiffed the Perruzzi in 1353. This is not a “multiple equilibrium,” a run of self-confirming expectations. People are simply getting out of the way of sovereign default, since it’s pretty clear that governments are at the end of the bailout rope.

By dutiful application of bad ideas and wishful thinking, the Europeans have turned a simple sovereign restructuring into a currency crisis, a fiscal crisis, a banking crisis, and now a political crisis. They could have had a lovely currency union without fiscal union. The meter in Paris measures length. The Euro in Frankfurt measures value. And sovereigns default, just like companies. They could do what George Schulz beautifully called the “simple obvious” things, and return to the kind of strong growth that would let them pay off large debts. Alas, the ECB is full in, both buying debt and lending to banks who buy debt, so now a sharp euro inflation – which is just a more damaging and wider sovereign default -- seems like the most likely outcome.

How did we get here? Financial crises are runs. No run, no “crisis.” People just lose money as in the tech bust. (Let me quickly plug here Darrell Duffie’s “Failure Mechanics of Dealer Banks.” This wonderful article explains exactly how our financial crisis was a run in dealer banks.)

For nearly 100 years we have tried to stop runs with government guarantees -- deposit insurance, generous lender of last resort, and bailouts. That stops runs, but leads to huge moral hazard. Giving a banker a bailout guarantee is like giving a teenager keys to the car and a case of whisky. So, we appoint regulators who are supposed to stop the banks from taking risks, in a hopeless arms race against smart MBAs, lawyers and lobbyists who try to get around the regulation, and though we allow – nay, we encourage and subsidize –expansion of run-prone assets.

In Dodd-Frank, the US simply doubled down our bets on this regime. The colossal failure of Europe’s regulators to deal with something so simple and transparent as looming sovereign risk hints how well it will work. (European banks have all along been allowed to hold sovereign debt at face value, with zero capital requirement. It’s perfectly safe, right?)

The guarantee – regulate - bailout regime ends eventually, when the needed bailouts exceed governments’ fiscal resources. That’s where Europe is now. And the US is not immune. Sooner or later markets will question the tens of trillions of our government’s guarantees, on top of already unsustainable deficits.

What financial system will we reconstruct from the ashes? The only possible answer seems to me, to go back to the beginning. We’ll have to reconstruct a financial system purged of run-prone assets, and the pretense that nobody holds risk. Don’t subsidize short-term debt with a tax shield and regulatory preference; tax it; or ban it for anything close to “too big to fail.” Fix the contractual flaws that make shadow-bank liabilities prone to runs.

Here we are in a golden moment, because technology can circumvent the standard objections. It is said that people need liquid assets, and banks must borrow short and lend long to provide such assets. But now, you could pay for coffee with an electronic transfer of mutual fund shares. The fund could hold stocks, or mortgage backed securities. Nobody ever ran on a (floating-NAV) mutual fund. With instant communication, liquidity need no longer coincide with fixed value and first-come first-serve guarantees. We also now have interest-paying reserves. The government can supply as many liquid assets as anyone wants with no inflation. We can live the Friedman rule.

Short-term debt is the key to government crises as well. Greece is not in trouble because it can’t borrow one year’s deficits. It’s in trouble because it can’t roll over existing debt. Governments can be financed by coupon-only bonds with no principal repayment, thereby eliminating rollover risk and crises. The new European treaty, along with wishing governments would mend their spending ways, should at least insist on long-maturity debt.

You may say this is radical. But the guarantee – regulate – bailout regime will soon be gone. There really is no choice. The only reason to keep the old regime is to keep the subsidies and bailouts coming. Which of course is what the banks want.

On to the US: Why are we stagnating? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows, really. That’s why we’re here at this fascinating conference.

Nothing on the conventional macro policy agenda reflects a clue why we’re stagnating. Score policy by whether its implicit diagnosis of the problem makes any sense: The “jobs” bill. Even if there were a ghost of a chance of building new roads and schools in less than two years, do we have 9% unemployment because we stopped spending on roads & schools? No. Do we have 9% unemployment because we fired lots of state workers? No.

Taxing the rich is the new hot idea. But do we have 9% unemployment – of anything but tax lawyers and lobbyists -- because the capital gains rate is too low? Besides, in this room we know that total marginal rates matter, not just average Federal income taxes of Warren Buffet. Greg Mankiw figured his marginal tax rate at 93% including Federal, state, local, and estate taxes. And even he forgot about sales, excise, and corporate taxes. Is 93% too low, and the cause of unemployment?

The Fed is debating QE3. Or is it 5? And promising zero interest rates all the way to the third year of the Malia Obama administration. All to lower long rates 10 basis points through some segmented-market magic. But do we really have 9% unemployment because 3% mortgages with 3% inflation are strangling the economy from lack of credit? Or because the market is screaming for 3 year bonds, but Treasury issued at 10 years instead? Or because 1.5 trillion of excess reserves aren’t enough to mediate transactions?

I posed this question to a somewhat dovish Federal Reserve Bank president recently. He answered succinctly, “Aggregate demand is inadequate. We fill it. ” Really? That’s at least coherent. I read the same model as an undergraduate. But as a diagnosis, it seems an awfully simplistic uni-causal, uni-dimensional view of prosperity. Medieval doctors had four humors, not just one.

Of course in some sense we are still suffering the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. Reinhart and Rogoff are endlessly quoted that recessions following financial crises are longer. But why? That observation could just mean that policy responses to financial crises are particularly wrongheaded.

In sum, the patient is having a heart attack. The doctors are debating whether to give him a double espresso or a nip of brandy. And most likely, the espresso is decaf and the brandy watered.

So what if this really is not a “macro” problem? What if this is Lee Ohanian’s 1937 – not about money, short term interest rates, taxes, inadequately stimulating (!) deficits, but a disease of tax rates, social programs that pay people not to work, and a “war on business.” Perhaps this is the beginning of eurosclerosis. (See Bob Lucas’s brilliant Millman lecture for a chilling exposition of this view).

If so, the problem is heart disease. If so, macro tools cannot help. If so, the answer is “Get out of the way.”

People hate this answer. They want to know “what would you do?” What’s the bold new plan? What’s the big new idea? Where is the new Keynes? They want FDR, jutting his chin out, leading us from the fear of fear itself. Alas, the microeconomy is a garden, not an army. It grows with property rights, rule of law, simple and non-distorting taxes, transparent rules-based regulations, a functional education system; all of George’s “simple obvious steps,” not the Big Plan for the political campaign of a Great Leader.

You need to weed a garden, not just pour on the latest fertilizer. Our garden is full of weeds. Yes, it was full of weeds before, but at least we know that pulling the weeds helps.

Or maybe not. This conference, and our fellow economists, are chock full of brilliant new ideas both macro and micro. But how do we apply new ideas? Here I think we economists are often a bit arrogant. The step from “wow my last paper is cool” to “the government should spend a trillion dollars on my idea” seems to take about 15 minutes. 10 in Cambridge.

Compare the scientific evidence on fiscal stimulus to that on global warming . Even if you’re a skeptic, compared to global warming, our evidence for stimulus -- including coherent theory and decisive empirical work -- is on the level of “hey, it’s pretty hot outside.” And compared to mortgage modification plans, strange “unconventional” monetary policy, the latest creative fix-the-banks plan, and huge labor market interventions, even stimulus is well-documented.

There are new ideas and great new ideas. But there are also bad new ideas, lots of warmed over bad old ideas, and good ideas that happen to be wrong. We don’t know which is which. If we apply anything like the standards we would demand of anyone else’s trillion-dollar government policy to our new ideas, the result for policy, now, must again be, stick with what works and the stuff we know is broken and get out of the way.

But keep working on those new ideas!

SEC Adopts Dodd-Frank Mine Safety Disclosure Requirements

The SEC has adopted new rules outlining how mining companies must disclose the mine safety information required by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Under Section 1503 of the Dodd-Frank Act, mining companies are required to include information about mine safety and health in the quarterly and annual reports they file with the SEC. The Dodd-Frank Act disclosure requirements are based on the safety and health requirements that apply to mines under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which is administered by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). To read the full rules, follow the link below.

SEC Adopts Dodd-Frank Mine Safety Disclosure Requirements

SEC Charges Executives at Clean Coal Technology Company for Misstatements to Investors

The SEC charged the former CEO and CFO at a Minnesota-based clean coal technology company for making false and misleading statements to investors. The SEC separately charged a network of brokers who sold the company’s securities without being registered with the SEC to do so. Bixby Energy Systems raised at least $43 million from more than 1,800 investors through a series of purported private placement offerings of stocks, warrants, and promissory notes during a nine-year period. The company used this capital raising activity to help fund operations, pay salaries, and pay commissions to brokers that sold Bixby securities.

The SEC alleges that Bixby’s former CEO and former CFO made repeated misstatements both verbally and in writing to investors about the company’s core product – a machine that supposedly produced synthetic natural gas through a proprietary clean coal technology. They told investors that Bixby’s coal gasification machine was proven and operating when in fact it had substantial technological defects, did not function properly, and was at risk of self-destruction. The CEO and CFO never disclosed these problems to investors.

SEC Charges Executives at Clean Coal Technology Company for Misstatements to Investors

Sunday, December 25, 2011

How to destroy the middle class

In a splendid recent editorial piece, The New York Times  distilled every bad idea floating around the liberal policy agenda.

A few choice moments:
"Economic growth alone, ... would not be enough to restore the middle class"..."To lift wages requires generous tax credits for low earners, a higher minimum wage, and guaranteed health care" ... "Job training efforts" 
That is, after all, how our ancestors got off the farm.
"...the [jobs] bill recently filibustered by Republicans would have created an estimated 1.9 million jobs in 2012."
I didn't know the tooth fairy was making economic "estimates" these days.
..."unrelenting political pressure for principal write-downs of underwater loans, expanded refinancings for borrowers in high-rate loans, and forbearance for unemployed homeowners." 
Econ 101 quiz. What happens to the unemployment rate if you don't have to pay your mortgage so long as you don't get a job?
"..all forms of income to be taxed at the same rates"
That means dividends and capital gains at the 39.5%  rate. Well, at least it's consistent. If you don't believe in saving and investment, taxing the heck out of them should do the trick.  
 "a financial transactions tax."..."high-end tax increases.. to control the deficit"....  "public education, Social Security, unions, child care, affirmative action and, not least, campaign finance reform"
Read on, (how to destroy the) "Middle Class Agenda" at the New York Times

A continent of bad ideas

Why does noone see that Europe can have a nice currency union without fiscal union? I tried to put together this and some of the other bad ideas that I think are clouding the euro crisis debate in this post on the IGM/Bloomberg "business class" blog.

By artful application of bad ideas, Europe has taken a plain-vanilla sovereign restructuring and turned it into a banking crisis, a currency crisis, a fiscal crisis, and now a political crisis..

Read more here

Friday, December 23, 2011

SEC Charges California Company, Co-CEOs, and Attorney in Series of Fraudulent Schemes Pumping Company Stock

The SEC charged a purported heart monitoring device company and six individuals involved in a series of fraudulent schemes to artificially inflate the company’s stock. Among those charged are a former pro football player and a former Hollywood executive who were co-CEOs of Heart Tronics. An attorney who masterminded the scheme and brought in nearly $8 million in secret trades was also charged.
In addition to Heart Tronics, and the three individuals, the SEC charged three other individuals involved in the scheme, including the attorney ’s chauffeur and handyman , who carried out the fraud with him. The SEC also charged a stock promoter, as well as the trustee and stockbroker for a number of nominee accounts that the attorney used to unlawfully sell Heart Tronics stock.

In a parallel criminal investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice today announced the arrest of the attorney.
SEC Charges California Company, Co-CEOs, and Attorney in Series of Fraudulent Schemes Pumping Company Stock

SEC Charges Longtime Madoff Employee with Falsifying Documents to Deceive Regulators

The SEC charged a longtime Bernie Madoff employee with falsifying books and records in order to hide Madoff’s fraudulent investment advisory operations from regulators.

The SEC alleges that the employee, who worked at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC (BMIS) for more than 30 years, assisted in falsifying BMIS’s internal accounting records in order to misclassify hundreds of millions of dollars of income purportedly generated by BMIS’s investment advisory operations. The employee also falsified financial statements filed with the SEC and other regulators, as well as materials that were prepared to deceive SEC staff examiners, federal and state tax auditors, and other external reviewers.

“To keep his massive fraud alive, Madoff had to hide as many facts about his advisory operations as possible,” said George S. Canellos, Director of the SEC’s New York Regional Office. “Cotellessa-Pitz along with other senior BMIS personnel played a critical role in this effort by creating false documents to deceive federal and state regulators.”

The SEC previously charged BMI's Director of Operations with falsifying books and records to hide and obfuscate Madoff’s advisory operations. According to the SEC’s complaint against the employee, she played a central role in falsifying these records as directed by Madoff and the Director of Operations. Madoff used the false records to artificially improve the firm’s reported revenue and income as well as to deceive regulators who sought to review the firm’s operations and financial results.

SEC Charges Longtime Madoff Employee with Falsifying Documents to Deceive Regulators

Thursday, December 22, 2011

SEC Charges Former Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Executives with Securities Fraud

The SEC has charged six former top executives of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) with securities fraud, alleging they knew and approved of misleading statements claiming the companies had minimal holdings of higher-risk mortgage loans, including subprime loans.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac each entered into a Non-Prosecution Agreement with the Commission wherein each company agreed to accept responsibility for its conduct and not dispute, contest, or contradict the contents of an agreed-upon Statement of Facts without admitting nor denying liability. Each also agreed to cooperate with the Commission's litigation against the former executives.
"Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives told the world that their subprime exposure was substantially smaller than it really was," said Robert Khuzami, Director of the SEC's Enforcement Division. "These material misstatements occurred during a time of acute investor interest in financial institutions' exposure to subprime loans, and misled the market about the amount of risk on the company's books. All individuals, regardless of their rank or position, will be held accountable for perpetuating half-truths or misrepresentations about matters materially important to the interest of our country's investors."
SEC Charges Former Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Executives with Securities Fraud

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

SEC Halts Father-Son Ponzi Scheme in Utah Involving Purported Real Estate Investments

The SEC charged a father and son in Utah with securities fraud for selling purported investments in their real estate business that in reality was just a $220 million Ponzi scheme.
It is alleged that the father and son operated from a base in Fountain Green, Utah. They offered investors the opportunity to invest in LLCs to share ownership of large apartment complexes in eight states. The investors were solicited by word of mouth and through religious affiliation. The duo presented plans to buy apartment complexes, renovate and revamp, and then sell for a high profit. The investors were told they would share in the profit from the sales and also from rental income. The truth of the matter was that the investors money was really being depositing into large bank accounts, which were used for company and personal expenses, and to pay other investors. Since the complaint has been filed, the SEC obtained an emergency court order freezing the father and son's assets and companies. The scheme began in 2008 and involved 225 investors and more than $220 million.

SEC Halts Father-Son Ponzi Scheme in Utah Involving Purported Real Estate Investments

Monday, December 19, 2011

SEC Charges Options Trader for Illegal Short Selling Tactics

An options trader in the Chicago area has been charged by the SEC with violating short selling restrictions when he failed to locate and deliver the shares involved in short sales to broker-dealers and their institutional customers. He has agreed to pay more than $2 million to settle the SEC’s charges.

George S. Canellos, Director of the SEC's New York Regional Office said, “[he] avoided the cost of borrowing shares while engaging in complex short selling transactions, thus earning significant profits with minimal risk and gaining an advantage over legitimate participants in the market. We’ll continue aggressively to pursue and punish abusive short sellers who attempt to circumvent regulatory requirements to make more money.”

SEC Charges Options Trader for Illegal Short Selling Tactics

SEC Charges Seven Former Siemens Executives with Bribing Leaders in Argentina

Seven former Siemens executives have been charged by the SEC with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for their involvement in the company's decade-long bribery scheme to retain a $1 billion government contract to produce national identity cards for Argentine citizens. Siemens has previously been charged with FCPA violations by the SEC and has already paid $1.6 billion to resolve those charges.

The SEC alleges that the executives who maintained the scheme worked at Siemens and its regional company, Siemens Argentina. Siemens paid more than $100 million in bribes to such high-ranking officials as two former Argentine presidents and former cabinet members. The executives falsified documents and participated in meetings in the United States to negotiate the terms of bribe payments. In a parallel criminal action, the Department of Justice announced charges against former executives and agents of Siemens. They are charged with conspiracy to violate the FCPA and the wire fraud statue and wire fraud.

SEC Charges Seven Former Siemens Executives with Bribing Leaders in Argentina

Friday, December 16, 2011

SEC Charges "Shell Packagers" and Several Others in Penny Stock Scheme

The SEC alleges that Belmont Partners LLC and its President utilized fabricated and backdated documents to convince a transfer agent and an attorney writing an opinion letter to issue free-trading shares of Alternative Green Technologies Inc. (AGTI). The SEC also charged AGTI, its CEO, a business partner and stock promoters for their roles in the scheme that resulted in unknowing investors purchasing fraudulently issued AGTI shares without the protections afforded by the securities laws.

“Shell packagers who buy and sell public companies for use by fraudsters have no rightful place in our markets,” said David Rosenfeld, Associate Director of the SEC’s New York Regional Office. “These shell packagers not only sold the shell company, but created the false documents necessary to cause the transfer agent to issue shares that should never have been sold to the public.”

According to the SEC’s complaint, false documents were submitted to a transfer agent and an attorney, who relied on them to conclude that free-trading shares of AGTI could legitimately be issued. The fraud was aided by Belmont Partner and their CEO creating and sometimes backdating the false documentation, including a sham assignment of debt and a fabricated and backdated corporate resolution and convertible note. Then AGTI's CEO then used the illegally issued stock certificates to fund promotional campaigns promoting their stock. The stock promoters were charged with selling the unregistered securities.

SEC Charges "Shell Packagers" and Several Others in Penny Stock Scheme

SEC Enforcement Director's Statement on Citigroup Case

The SEC’s Director of the Division of Enforcement, Robert Khuzami, made the following statement on the Citigroup case:

Last month, a federal district court declined to approve a consent judgment because, in its view, the underlying allegations were ‘unsupported by any proven or acknowledged facts.’ As a result, the court rejected a $285 million settlement between the SEC and Citigroup that reasonably reflected the relief the SEC would likely have obtained if it prevailed at trial.

We believe the district court committed legal error by announcing a new and unprecedented standard that inadvertently harms investors by depriving them of substantial, certain and immediate benefits. For this reason, today we filed papers seeking review of the decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit..."

The full statement can be found at: SEC Enforcement Director's Statement on Citigroup Case

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Jon Corzine, Bernie Madoff, And Why The SEC Should Directly Regulate Investment Advisors - Forbes

I have certainly been critical of FINRA in the past, and it certainly makes its share of mistakes, but this piece in Forbes is a bit aggressive and over the top.
The argument here is that because FINRA did not catch Madoff, and gave Corzine a waiver on his securities examinations, the SEC should regulate investment advisors. That, with all due respect to Forbes and the author, makes no sense.
First, let's be clear. My firm belief is that the SEC should regulate investment advisors, and I am even firmer in my belief that FINRA should not be allowed anywhere near investment advisors. That being said, the Forbes article is off base for a couple of reasons.
First, the SEC IS the entity that is responsible for regulating investment advisors, at least those with in excess of 30 million dollars under management.
Second, using Madoff as an example is not such a great example, since the SEC was the regulator with primary responsibiltiy for oversight of Madoff - the fraud occured for the most part at his investment advisory firm, which was regulated by the SEC, not FINRA.
And third, we are going argue against FINRA as a regulator because it waived examinations for Corzine? Really? I can think of at least a dozen reasons not to give FINRA oversight of investment advisors - waiving the examinations for Corzine, while a terrible move both on an regulatory and public relations front, is not in the top 20 reasons to deny them that authority.
At the top, FINRA tries. Its executives talk a good game, but they are terrible at getting their message down to the staff, who still, in far too many instances, treat brokers and firms as if they are criminals, conducting exams with a "gotcha!" mentality, and constantly looking for the "career making" error in every examination they conduct. It is absurd, and not good regulatory policy. The Corzine incident was an embarrassment. The forging of documents during an SEC investigation is unforgiveable, and would result in a permant bar from the industry if a brokerage firm executive pulled such a stunt.
And, lets keep in mind that although you would never know it from dealing with them, FINRA is a membership organization, it is owned, operated and controlled by the big firms. Independent broker-dealers and investment advisors are NOT part of that association, and are competitors to the brokerage industry. In fact, I would imagine that many of the executives in the investment advisory world went to that side of the industry to get away from the very issues that FINRA cannot shake - it is owned, lock, stock and barrell by the large firms.
In what other industry would a regulated entity be permitted to continue in operations with tens of millions of dollars in fines, with multiple, systemic violations, year after year? That could only occur when the regulated entity is in control of the regulator.
We don't need FINRA expanding its power and authority over yet another facet of the financial industry, increasing its ability to quash competition. If we want sound regulatory oversight, it needs to come from an independent entity, not one that would love to see the regulated put out of business.
Jon Corzine, Bernie Madoff, And Why The SEC Should Directly Regulate Investment Advisors

SEC Charges GlaxoSmithKline Subsidiary and Former CEO With Defrauding Employees in Stock Plan

Stiefel Laboratories Inc is a subsidiary of pharmaceutical company GlaxoaSmithKline and was the world's largest private manufacturer of dermatology products. The SEC alleges that the subsidiary omitted information from employees and lead them to believe their stock was worth much less than it truly was. They then bought back the stock for a greatly undervalued price.

Stiefel Labs purchased more than 750 shares of company stock from shareholders between November 2006 and April 2007 at a price of $13,012 per share. Stiefel Labs' CEO knew that five private equity firms had submitted offers to buy preferred stock in November 2006 based on equity valuations of Stiefel Labs that were approximately 50 to 200 percent higher than the valuation later used for stock buybacks. There were also an additional 1,150 shares that were bought between July 2007 - June 2008 and Dece 2008 - April 2009.

SEC Charges GlaxoSmithKline Subsidiary and Former CEO With Defrauding Employees in Stock Plan

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Joint Statement on Regulation of OTC Derivatives Markets

The SEC and other regulators released the following statement:

"Leaders and senior representatives of the authorities responsible for regulation of the over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives markets in Canada, the European Union, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and the United States met yesterday in Paris.

The meeting included Steven Maijoor, Chair of the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA); Jonathan Faull, Director General for Internal Market and Services at the European Commission; Ashley Alder, Chief Executive Officer of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission; Masamichi Kono, Vice-Commissioner of the Japan Financial Services Agency; Teo Swee Lian, Deputy Managing Director (Financial Supervision) of the Monetary Authority of Singapore; Mary Condon, Vice-Chair of the Ontario Securities Commission; Louis Morisset, Superintendent of Securities Markets at l’Autorité des Marchés Financiers du Québec; Gary Gensler, Chairman of the United States Commodity Futures Trading Commission; and Mary Schapiro, Chairman of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission.

Since mid-2011, the authorities have engaged in a series of bilateral technical dialogues on OTC derivatives regulation. The meeting, held at ESMA headquarters in Paris, is the first time the authorities have met as a group to discuss their implementation efforts.

In the meeting, the authorities addressed the cross-border issues related to the implementation of new legislation and rules to govern the OTC derivatives markets in their respective jurisdictions.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the authorities agreed to continue bilateral regulatory dialogues and to meet as a group again in early 2012."

Joint Statement on Regulation of OTC Derivatives Markets

Monday, December 12, 2011

SEC Charges Wachovia with Fraudulent Bid Rigging in Municipal Bond Proceeds

The SEC charged Wachovia Bank N.A. with fraudulently engaging in secret arrangements with bidding agents to improperly win business from municipalities and guarantee itself profits in the reinvestment of municipal bond proceeds. Over a period of eight years, the SEC alleges that Wachovia fraudulently rigged at least 58 municipal bond reinvestment transactions, generating millions of dollars in illicit gains.

“Wachovia won bids by playing an elaborate game of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,’ rather than engaging in legitimate competition to win municipalities’ business,” said Robert Khuzami, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement.

Wachovia agreed to settle the charges by paying $46 million to the SEC, which will be returned to affected municipalities or conduit borrowers. The settlements arise out of long-standing parallel investigations into widespread corruption in the municipal securities reinvestment industry.

SEC Charges Wachovia with Fraudulent Bid Rigging in Municipal Bond Proceeds

Friday, December 9, 2011

SEC Halts Prime Bank Scheme by Washington DC Law Firm and Pennsylvania Company

The SEC announced that it has filed charges and obtained an emergency court order to halt a prime bank scheme in which the perpetrators stole investor funds to purchase luxury cars, take a trip to the Bahamas, and pay the bills of a Washington D.C. law firm. The two individuals being charged are a Pennsylvania resident and a Washington D.C. attorney who defrauded at least 13 investors out of more than $2 million since August 2010.

The SEC alleges that they offered investors risk-free returns of up to 20 times the original investment within as few as 45 days through the purported “lease” and “trading” of foreign bank instruments in highly complex transactions involving unidentified parties and secretive “trading platforms.” Yet all the bank instruments and trading programs were entirely fictitious. Investors in schemes like this are often told that details are too difficult for non-experts to understand, and that secrecy is required for success. In this case, they used vague and complex terms to confuse investors, and claimed that confidentiality concerns prevented them from providing more details regarding the status of the investment. The D.C. attorney and her law firm acted as counsel for the Pennsylvania resident.

SEC Halts Prime Bank Scheme by Washington DC Law Firm and Pennsylvania Company

Thursday, December 8, 2011

SEC Announces National Seminar for Compliance Officers and Senior Personnel at Investment Management Firms

The SEC announced the opening of registration for its national seminar to help chief compliance officers and other senior personnel at investment management firms enhance their compliance programs for the protection of investors. The event will be held on Jan. 31, 2012, at the SEC’s Washington D.C. headquarters, and will include panel discussions to analyze compliance and other significant issues being faced by investment advisers and registered investment companies.

SEC Announces National Seminar for Compliance Officers and Senior Personnel at Investment Management Firms

SEC Charges Multiple Hedge Fund Managers with Fraud in Inquiry Targeting Suspicious Investment Returns

As part of the Aberrational Performance Inquiry, an initiative to combat hedge fund fraud by identifying abnormal investment performance, the SEC took enforcement action against three separate advisory firms and six individuals for various misconduct. The SEC alleges that they engaged in a wide variety of illegal practices in the management of hedge funds or private pooled investment vehicles, including fraudulent valuation of portfolio holdings, misuse of fund assets, and misrepresentations to investors about critical attributes such as performance, assets, liquidity, investment strategy, valuation procedures, and conflicts of interest.

Under the initiative, the SEC Enforcement Division’s Asset Management Unit uses proprietary risk analytics to evaluate hedge fund returns and red flags performance that appears inconsistent with a fund's investment strategy.

“We’re using risk analytics and unconventional methods to help achieve the holy grail of securities law enforcement — earlier detection and prevention,” said Robert Khuzami, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “This approach, especially in the absence of a tip or complaint, minimizes both the number of victims and the amount of loss while increasing the chance of recovering funds and charging the perpetrators.”

SEC Charges Multiple Hedge Fund Managers with Fraud in Inquiry Targeting Suspicious Investment Returns

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

SEC, US Attorney and FBI Announce 13 Charged in Connection with Securities Kickback Schemes

The SEC, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts and FBI today announced parallel cases filed in federal court against several corporate officers, lawyers and a stock promoter. The cases allege that the 13 defendants used kickbacks and other schemes to trigger investments in various thinly-traded stocks. The kickbacks, concealed by sham consulting agreements, were given to an investment fund representation for buying stock in specific companies. This representation was actually an undercover FBI agent.

These charges follow a year-long investigation focusing on preventing fraud in the micro-cap stock markets, which have become an increasingly common area for fraud and abuse. Microcap companies are small publicly traded companies whose stock often trades at pennies per share. As a result, many microcap companies do not file financial reports with the SEC, which makes it more difficult for investors to find information. In October 2010 and June 2011 similar cases were filed.

“The public has a right to invest in an honest and fair market. Companies that agree to pay illegal kickbacks harm investors and undermine fair competition in the markets,” said United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz. “Hard working Americans who invest their savings should not be subjected to backroom deals like those alleged today.”

SEC, US Attorney and FBI Announced 13 Charged in Connection with Securities Kickback Schemes

Monday, December 5, 2011

Woman Sues Bank of America Over Its Foreclosure Procedures

An Austin woman filed suit Thursday against Bank of America Corp., alleging the company fraudulently sought to foreclose on her home. The suit claims that the bank wrongly invalidated a loan modification agreement because it wasn't signed by her husband even though he died in 2007, more than three years before the agreement was made. Filed in state District Court in Travis County, the lawsuit by Maria Gonzales comes on the same day a Massachusetts lawsuit accused five of the nation's largest banks — including Bank of America — of deceptive foreclosure practices.

Friday, December 2, 2011

FINRA Fines Wells Investment Securities $300,000 for Misleading Marketing Tools

FINRA announced that it has fined Wells Investment Securities, Inc. $300,000 for using misleading marketing materials in the sale of Wells Timberland REIT, Inc., a non-traded Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT). As the wholesaler, Wells Investment Securities had the responsibility to review, approve and distribute the marketing materials. From May 2007 to September 2009 the 116 materials that were distributed contained misleading, unwarranted or exaggerated statements. The advertisements at issue did not make it clear to potential investors who might be seeking such favorable tax treatment, that the investment at issue was not yet a REIT. Therefore, it would not be able to offer the desired tax benefits at the time the ads were being used. The investigation has also found that Wells supervisory procedures failed to ensure the security of customer and proprietary information that was stored on laptops.

Brad Bennett, FINRA Executive Vice President and Chief of Enforcement, said, "By approving and distributing marketing materials with ambiguous and equivocal statements, Wells misled investors into thinking Wells Timberland was a REIT at a time when it was not a REIT. Firms need to be mindful that investors rely on marketing materials to disclose truthful, accurate and up-to-date information to help inform their investment decisions."

FINRA Fines Wells Investment Securitites $300,000 for Use of Misleading Marketing Materials for REIT Offering

Thursday, December 1, 2011

SEC Penalizes Investment Advisers for Compliance Failures

The SEC charged three investment advisers for failing to put in place compliance procedures designed to prevent securities law violations. This results from an initiative to actively prevent harm to investors by working with agency examiners to ensure that compliance programs are in place at firms. In two of the cases, the firms had been previously warned about compliance deficiencies.

The SEC Press Release states that "Under Rule 206(4)-7 of the Investment Advisers Act, which is known as the “Compliance Rule,” registered investment advisers are required to adopt and implement written policies and procedures that are reasonably designed to prevent, detect, and correct securities law violations. The Compliance Rule also requires annual review of the policies and procedures for their adequacy and the effectiveness of their implementation, and designation of a chief compliance officer to be responsible for administering the policies and procedures. " Specific details on the three cases can be found at the link below.

SEC Penalizes Investment Avisers for Compliance Failures