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Weekly Audit: Geithner, bailouts and the financial crisis

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The AIG bailout is one of the largest redistributions of wealth from ordinary taxpayers to bigwig bankers in history, one in which current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner played a key role. Newly uncovered emails reveal that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s New York Federal Reserve office urged AIG to conceal key information about the bailout from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

If Geithner was involved in those decisions, he could face charges of securities fraud. As John Nichols explains for The Nation, the quality of Geithner’s judgment is no longer in question—we already knew he committed plenty of errors while negotiating the AIG bailout as president of the New York Federal Reserve. The question now is whether Geithner needs to be prosecuted for misleading federal regulators.

AIG bet on the housing market with credit default swaps, a new form of financial derivative that helped the company score big profits during the housing boom. But when the market tanked, the company couldn’t cover its losses. AIG’s housing market gambles were completed with help from some of the largest banks in the world, including Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, and Citigroup. If AIG had filed for bankruptcy in September of that year, those banks would have been required to accept much lower payouts on those bets—as little as 10% of their face value.

Instead, when the government swooped in to save AIG, the banks ended up with amazing deals. As a chief negotiator in the AIG bailout, Geithner allowed Goldman and others to receive full payout at 100 cents on the dollar. That meant U.S. tax dollars were going to the banks with no strings attached. But Geithner refused to tell the public which banks were benefiting from the bailout for almost six months. He finally relented when the AIG bonus outrage boiled over in March.

Last week, we learned the most damaging development yet: Geithner’s New York Fed urged AIG to keep the SEC in the dark about its sweetheart deals for the banks. Withholding key information from the SEC can be a criminal offense, and if Geithner was involved in the push to mislead the SEC, he must be held accountable.

For now, the Obama administration is standing by Geithner, saying that the decision to pressure AIG against cooperating with the SEC “did not rise to his level at the Fed” last Friday. But as Mike Lillis notes for The Washington Independent, that explanation strains credulity:

The federal government had recently bailed out AIG to the tune of $180 billion; AIG was funneling that cash to other (already bailed out) Wall Street giants; the New York Fed was telling AIG not to disclose those payments; and that decision didn’t rise to the level of the Fed chairman?

Lately, the government hasn’t had a very good record on prosecuting financial crime. Prosecutors wouldn’t have uncovered a massive tax evasion scheme at Swiss banking giant UBS without the help of whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld. And the tax fraud was indeed massive—the Justice Department believes that UBS illegally helped shield over 19,000 wealthy clients from paying taxes.

But, as Amy Goodman reveals for Democracy Now!, in return for uncovering the biggest tax fraud in history, the Justice Department has successfully pushed to have Birkenfeld jailed for more than three years. By contrast, almost everyone involved in the scam is getting off with fines, probation, or less. What signal do you think this sends to other potential whistleblowers?

The housing boom encouraged banks to pour money into speculative investments outside the traditional mortgage market, especially by making loans to property developers to build high-end condominiums. When the housing bubble burst, it became clear that there were far more fancy condos than anybody wanted. Today, most economists expect the loans that financed these developments to prove nearly worthless.

As Alyssa Katz details for The American Prospect, scores of those buildings are now nearly vacant in New York City alone. In order to create these useless towers, developers cleared the land by forcing out tenants in affordable housing complexes, and shut down productive businesses. If these spaces are to be used productively—say, for affordable rental housing—banks and developers need to acknowledge that their market has tanked, accept their losses and move on.

Instead, Katz notes, federal regulators are letting banks apply very optimistic accounting values to these commercial real estate projects. This accounting creates illusory short-term profits for banks and eliminates incentives to let the land go to socially useful enterprises. If regulators don’t force banks to get serious about their commercial real estate losses, the government will effectively be subsidizing a rash of useless eyesores, allowing neighborhoods to decay in the process.

Subprime shenanigans from AIG, UBS and other banks helped tank the global economy. We’re still feeling the job fallout from a financial crisis that banks triggered over two years ago. Last week, the government reported that the economy lost 85,000 jobs in December, while the unemployment rate held even at 10%. David Moberg explains why we desperately need the Senate to approve a robust jobs bill in a blog for Working In These Times. A $174 billion package passed the House last month, but it’s a pittance compared to what the government has pledged to save Wall Street.

So how did we get here—saving the crooked jerks who created the mess while leaving everyone else out to dry? Kevin Drum’s story in Mother Jones on the bank lobby offers critical insight into the operations of the U.S. democratic process, and also stands up as one of a handful of investigative journalism masterpieces that have stemmed from the financial crisis. In the last dozen years, elite financiers have secured government approval to shoulder greater risks and pay bigger bonuses, despite a series of near-catastrophic financial market failures. Drum details the financial industry’s pervasive influence over lawmakers in Congress, key policymakers at the Federal Reserve and federal regulators in other agencies, influence often purchased outright with campaign contributions and massive lobbying efforts.

These days, the money still talks in American government. But the true economic coup is not financial. It’s ideological: Bankers have convinced leaders of both political parties that what’s good for Wall Street is always good for America, even if the cost of boosting the bottom line involves dismantling productive firms, ravaging neighborhoods with foreclosures or scamming poor people with massive overdraft fees.

“…There’s more to the finance lobby than just money and political influence,” Drum writes. “Their real power lies in the fact that they’ve so thoroughly changed our collective attitude toward financial regulation that sometimes they barely need to lobby in the traditional sense at all.”

This is precisely how we got stuck with banker apologists like Geithner, a Justice Department that punishes whistleblowers while letting corporate crooks go free, and why we’re allowing neighborhoods to rot away for no reason. We have to demand more from our government, regardless of which party is in power. If we don’t, we’ll get stuck with the same save-Wall-Street-first policies forever, regardless of the consequences for society.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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