28 November 2008
It has never been more clear how much corporations depend on We, the People for their very existence. Corporations are given the right to exist through a public charter. For public corporations, shareholders are bestowed with limited liability, and they benefit from a public system of securities regulation that gives investors confidence to invest. In the best of times, corporations benefit both from public goods (public roads and infrastructure, public investment in R&D) and targeted benefits (tax subsidies, loan guarantees, and much more). In the worst of times, as we now see, the largest corporations can expect massive public support. Bloomberg reports that the United States has already committed an amazing $7.76 trillion -- more than half of U.S. GDP -- in funds for bailouts, guarantees, share purchases, insurance programs, swaps and more.
Don't We, the People have the right to expect something in return?
How about starting with public release of the income tax returns of all corporations above a certain size (say, $10 million in assets)?
In October, a former Bush administration head of the Internal Revenue Service, Mark Everson, proposed exactly that in the Washington Post.
Wrote Everson, "Federal tax returns include important information about corporations beyond that available in financial statements. Making corporate returns available for public inspection would provide a powerful tool to analysts who follow companies and industries, and it would help others better evaluate counterparties and risk. It would assist other federal and state regulators, who currently are prohibited from reviewing the details of federal returns. (The IRS itself is precluded from sharing returns with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department except in narrow circumstances.) Large corporations file their federal tax returns electronically, so the data can easily be shared. Information returns filed by not-for-profits are already available online."
Disclosure of corporate income tax returns would help offset the intentional obscurity and complexity surrounding corporate records that has so directly contributed to the current financial crisis.
It would also lead to much better tax policy. President-elect Obama has stated that he and his administration will carefully review every budget expenditure, in order to save taxpayer dollars and eliminate or curtail programs that have outlived their usefulness or never should have been started. This is a welcome commitment. Aside from cutting wasteful Pentagon spending, however, the really big ways to improve the government's balance sheet are in eliminating unfair, inefficient corporate tax loopholes, and escapes to tax havens abroad.
The complexity of the tax code -- itself the product of long-term, persistent and intensive lobbying -- invites esoteric gaming by large corporations, aided and abetted by lawyers and accountants.
Some tax provisions are included in the Code with almost no one other than the lobbyists who wrote them understanding what their implications will be.
And some tax provisions are muscled through by powerful interests, but impose public costs not fully understood at the time of enactment, while offering minimal public benefits.
If corporate tax returns were made public, citizen advocates and other monitors would be able to root out tax abuses, and rally to have them repealed. The government -- that is, the taxpayers -- would stand to recoup tens of billions of dollars, or more, to be more appropriately allocated.
Corporations, naturally, would object to mandatory disclosure of their tax returns. They would claim a right to privacy. But corporations are legal fictions, not people with legitimate privacy concerns. There should be no corporate right to privacy.
Corporations would also argue that disclosing tax returns would force them to reveal proprietary information. But that claim pales beside the broad public interest in gaining access to corporate returns, especially in this period of cascading mega bailouts. And, if corporations can identify some narrow and legitimate right to proprietary protection, let them do so. Then those specific areas can be excluded from disclosure.
Disclosure of corporate tax returns would be administratively simple. As Everson notes, the IRS already requires that corporations file their returns electronically. And there are precedents even from the pre-digital age. Wisconsin, for example, required corporate tax returns to be disclosed, before modifying its rules several decades ago.
In the first week of December, the auto industry CEOs will again appear before the Senate Banking and House Financial Services committees, to make the case for receiving billions in tax payer bailout monies. Hopefully, they will find a way to get to Washington other than by chartering their corporate jets. Chairman Chris Dodd and Chairman Barney Frank should instruct the CEOs that they should come with their corporate tax returns in hand, ready to share them with the American people. That will open the gates for a new standard of openness that should apply to all corporations.
25 November 2008
Click above for the PDF. For a short interview on more general topics, see here.
City University of New York Graduate Center
November 14, 2008
1 hour 2 minutes
Or download MP3 file (42.7 MB)
(To download on a PC right-click on the above file and click ‘Save as’ or ‘Download to’. On a Mac Control-click instead of right-click.)
Very clear description of many of the sub-rip-offs of this broad-daylight mugging known as "the bailout." Also, it's interesting how a bailout of the automakers has been transformed into a gambit to break the UAW. Not surprising, but interesting, as is the coverage I've seen of the automaker bailout.
Make sure to click on this graphic.
Nov. 24 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. government is prepared to provide more than $7.76 trillion on behalf of American taxpayers after guaranteeing $306 billion of Citigroup Inc. debt yesterday. The pledges, amounting to half the value of everything produced in the nation last year, are intended to rescue the financial system after the credit markets seized up 15 months ago.
The unprecedented pledge of funds includes $3.18 trillion already tapped by financial institutions in the biggest response to an economic emergency since the New Deal of the 1930s, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The commitment dwarfs the plan approved by lawmakers, the Treasury Department’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. Federal Reserve lending last week was 1,900 times the weekly average for the three years before the crisis.
When Congress approved the TARP on Oct. 3, Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson acknowledged the need for transparency and oversight. Now, as regulators commit far more money while refusing to disclose loan recipients or reveal the collateral they are taking in return, some Congress members are calling for the Fed to be reined in.
“Whether it’s lending or spending, it’s tax dollars that are going out the window and we end up holding collateral we don’t know anything about,” said Congressman Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican who serves on the House Financial Services Committee. “The time has come that we consider what sort of limitations we should be placing on the Fed so that authority returns to elected officials as opposed to appointed ones.”
Too Big to Fail
Bloomberg News tabulated data from the Fed, Treasury and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and interviewed regulatory officials, economists and academic researchers to gauge the full extent of the government’s rescue effort.
The bailout includes a Fed program to buy as much as $2.4 trillion in short-term notes, called commercial paper, that companies use to pay bills, begun Oct. 27, and $1.4 trillion from the FDIC to guarantee bank-to-bank loans, started Oct. 14.
William Poole, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said the two programs are unlikely to lose money. The bigger risk comes from rescuing companies perceived as “too big to fail,” he said.
The government committed $29 billion to help engineer the takeover in March of Bear Stearns Cos. by New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. and $122.8 billion in addition to TARP allocations to bail out New York-based American International Group Inc., once the world’s largest insurer.
Citigroup received $306 billion of government guarantees for troubled mortgages and toxic assets. The Treasury Department also will inject $20 billion into the bank after its stock fell 60 percent last week.
“No question there is some credit risk there,” Poole said.
Congressman Darrell Issa, a California Republican on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said risk is lurking in the programs that Poole thinks are safe.
“The thing that people don’t understand is it’s not how likely that the exposure becomes a reality, but what if it does?” Issa said. “There’s no transparency to it so who’s to say they’re right?”
The worst financial crisis in two generations has erased $23 trillion, or 38 percent, of the value of the world’s companies and brought down three of the biggest Wall Street firms.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average through Friday is down 38 percent since the beginning of the year and 43 percent from its peak on Oct. 9, 2007. The S&P 500 fell 45 percent from the beginning of the year through Friday and 49 percent from its peak on Oct. 9, 2007. The Nikkei 225 Index has fallen 46 percent from the beginning of the year through Friday and 57 percent from its most recent peak of 18,261.98 on July 9, 2007. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is down 78 percent, to $53.31, on Friday from its peak of $247.92 on Oct. 31, 2007, and 75 percent this year.
Regulators hope the rescue will contain the damage and keep banks providing the credit that is the lifeblood of the U.S. economy.
‘They Got Snookered’
The money that’s been pledged is equivalent to $24,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. It’s nine times what the U.S. has spent so far on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Congressional Budget Office figures. It could pay off more than half the country’s mortgages.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Bob Eisenbeis, chief monetary economist at Vineland, New Jersey-based Cumberland Advisors Inc. and an economist for the Atlanta Fed for 10 years until January. “The backlash has begun already. Congress is taking a lot of hits from their constituents because they got snookered on the TARP big time. There’s a lot of supposedly smart people who look to be totally incompetent and it’s all going to fall on the taxpayer.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, when almost 10,000 banks failed and there was no mechanism to bolster them with cash, is the only rival to the government’s current response. The savings and loan bailout of the 1990s cost $209.5 billion in inflation-adjusted numbers, of which $173 billion came from taxpayers, according to a July 1996 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, now called the Government Accountability Office.
The 1979 U.S. government bailout of Chrysler consisted of bond guarantees, adjusted for inflation, of $4.2 billion, according to a Heritage Foundation report.
The commitment of public money is appropriate to the peril, said Ethan Harris, co-head of U.S. economic research at Barclays Capital Inc. and a former economist at the New York Fed. U.S. financial firms have taken writedowns and losses of $666.1 billion since the beginning of 2007, according to Bloomberg data.
“This is the worst capital markets crisis in modern history,” Harris said. “So you have the biggest intervention in modern history.”
Bloomberg has requested details of Fed lending under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and filed a federal lawsuit against the central bank Nov. 7 seeking to force disclosure of borrower banks and their collateral.
Collateral is an asset pledged to a lender in the event a loan payment isn’t made.
“Some have asked us to reveal the names of the banks that are borrowing, how much they are borrowing, what collateral they are posting,” Bernanke said Nov. 18 to the House Financial Services Committee. “We think that’s counterproductive.”
The Fed should account for the collateral it takes in exchange for loans to banks, said Paul Kasriel, chief economist at Chicago-based Northern Trust Corp. and a former research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
“There is a lack of transparency here and, given that the Fed is taking on a huge amount of credit risk now, it would seem to me as a taxpayer there should be more transparency,” Kasriel said.
Bernanke’s Fed is responsible for $4.74 trillion of pledges, or 61 percent of the total commitment of $7.76 trillion, based on data compiled by Bloomberg concerning U.S. bailout steps started a year ago.
“Too often the public is focused on the wrong piece of that number, the $700 billion that Congress approved,” said J.D. Foster, a former staff member of the Council of Economic Advisers who is now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “The other areas are quite a bit larger.”
Fed Rescue Efforts
The Fed’s rescue attempts began last December with the creation of the Term Auction Facility to allow lending to dealers for collateral. After Bear Stearns’s collapse in March, the central bank started making direct loans to securities firms at the same discount rate it charges commercial banks, which take customer deposits.
In the three years before the crisis, such average weekly borrowing by banks was $48 million, according to the central bank. Last week it was $91.5 billion.
The failure of a second securities firm, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., in September, led to the creation of the Commercial Paper Funding Facility and the Money Market Investor Funding Facility, or MMIFF. The two programs, which have pledged $2.3 trillion, are designed to restore calm in the money markets, which deal in certificates of deposit, commercial paper and Treasury bills.
“Money markets seized up after Lehman failed,” said Neal Soss, chief economist at Credit Suisse Group in New York and a former aide to Fed chief Paul Volcker. “Lehman failing made a lot of subsequent actions necessary.”
The FDIC, chaired by Sheila Bair, is contributing 20 percent of total rescue commitments. The FDIC’s $1.4 trillion in guarantees will amount to a bank subsidy of as much as $54 billion over three years, or $18 billion a year, because borrowers will pay a lower interest rate than they would on the open market, according to Raghu Sundurum and Viral Acharya of New York University and the London Business School.
Congress and the Treasury have ponied up $892 billion in TARP and other funding, or 11.5 percent.
The Federal Housing Administration, overseen by Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Steven Preston, was given the authority to guarantee $300 billion of mortgages, or about 4 percent of the total commitment, with its Hope for Homeowners program, designed to keep distressed borrowers from foreclosure.
Most of the federal guarantees reduce interest rates on loans to banks and securities firms, which would create a subsidy of at least $6.6 billion annually for the financial industry, according to data compiled by Bloomberg comparing rates charged by the Fed against market interest currently paid by banks.
Not included in the calculation of pledged funds is an FDIC proposal to prevent foreclosures by guaranteeing modifications on $444 billion in mortgages at an expected cost of $24.4 billion to be paid from the TARP, according to FDIC spokesman David Barr. The Treasury Department hasn’t approved the program.
Bernanke and Paulson, former chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, have also promised as much as $200 billion to shore up nationalized mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a pledge that hasn’t been allocated to any agency. The FDIC arranged for $139 billion in loan guarantees for General Electric Co.’s finance unit.
The tally doesn’t include money to General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC. Obama has said he favors financial assistance to keep them from collapse.
Paulson told the House Financial Services Committee Nov. 18 that the $250 billion already allocated to banks through the TARP is an investment, not an expenditure.
“I think it would be extraordinarily unusual if the government did not get that money back and more,” Paulson said.
In his Nov. 18 testimony, Bernanke told the House Financial Services Committee that the central bank wouldn’t lose money.
“We take collateral, we haircut it, it is a short-term loan, it is very safe, we have never lost a penny in these various lending programs,” he said.
A haircut refers to the practice of lending less money than the collateral’s current market value.
‘Mark to Market’
“If you mark to market today, the banking system is bankrupt,” Tobin said. “So what do you do? You try to keep it going as best you can.”
“Mark to market” means adjusting the value of an asset, such as a mortgage-backed security, to reflect current prices.
Some of the bailout assistance could come from tax breaks in the future. The Treasury Department changed the tax code on Sept. 30 to allow banks to expand the deductions on the losses banks they were buying, according to Robert Willens, a former Lehman Brothers tax and accounting analyst who teaches at Columbia University Business School in New York.
Wells Fargo & Co., which is buying Charlotte, North Carolina-based Wachovia Corp., will be able to deduct $22 billion, Willens said. Adding in other banks, the code change will cost $29 billion, he said.
“The rule is now popularly known among tax lawyers as the ‘Wells Fargo Notice,’” Willens said.
The regulation was changed to make it easier for healthy banks to buy troubled ones, said Treasury Department spokesman Andrew DeSouza.
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank said he was angry that banks used the money for acquisitions.
“The only purpose for this money is to lend,” said Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat. “It’s not for dividends, it’s not for purchases of new banks, it’s not for bonuses. There better be a showing of increased lending roughly in the amount of the capital infusions” or Congress may not approve the second half of the TARP money.
24 November 2008
23 November 2008
1994 State of the Union (bad sound)
Gore Vidal Interview, 1998
Gore Vidal Interview, 1999 (bad sound)
Dreaming of War: Blood for Oil
Gore Vidal Interview, 2006 (badly synched, but sound is fine)
I've opened up a ticket with C-SPAN's tech support to get these three fixed, especially the 1994 and 1999 ones, which are substantial.