U.S. bailout program increased moral hazard: watchdog

October 21, 2009

Wed Oct 21, 2009 1:30am EDT
By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government’s $700 billion financial bailout program has increased moral hazard in the markets by infusing capital into banks that caused the financial crisis, a watchdog for the program said on Wednesday.

The special inspector general for the U.S. Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) said the plan put in place a year ago was clearly influencing market behavior, and he repeated that taxpayers may never recoup all their money.

The bailout fund may have helped avert a financial system collapse but it could reinforce perceptions the government will step in to keep firms from failing, the quarterly report from inspector general Neil Barofsky said.

He said there continued to be conflicts of interest around credit rating agencies that failed to warn of risks leading up to the financial crisis. The report added that the recent rebound in big bank stocks risked removing urgency of dealing with the financial system’s problems.

“Absent meaningful regulatory reform, TARP runs the risk of merely reanimating markets that had collapsed under the weight of reckless behavior,” the report said. “The firms that were ‘too big to fail’ last October are in many cases bigger still, many as a result of government-supported and -sponsored mergers and acquisitions.”

ANGER, CYNICISM, DISTRUST

The report cites an erosion of government credibility associated with a lack of transparency, particularly in the early handling of the program’s initial investments in large financial institutions.

“Notwithstanding the TARP’s role in bringing the financial system back from the brink of collapse, it has been widely reported that the American people view TARP with anger, cynicism and distrust. These views are fueled by the lack of transparency in the program,” the report said.

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Greenlight’s Einhorn holds gold, says U.S. policies poor

October 19, 2009

Mon Oct 19, 2009 2:25pm EDT

By Jennifer Ablan and Joseph A. Giannone

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Hedge-fund manager David Einhorn, who warned about Lehman Brothers’ (LEH) precarious finances before it collapsed, said on Monday he’s betting on rising interest rates and holding gold as a hedge for what he described as unsound U.S. policies.

“If monetary and fiscal policies go awry” investors should buy physical gold and gold stocks, Einhorn said at the fifth Annual Value Investing Congress in New York. “Gold does well when monetary and fiscal policies are poor and does poorly when they are sensible.”

Einhorn is president of Greenlight Capital, with more than $5 billion in assets under management.

“Over the last couple of years, we have adopted a policy of private profits and socialized risks — you are transferring many private obligations onto the national ledger,” he said.

Einhorn said, “Although our leaders ought to be making some serious choices, they appear too trapped in the short term and special interests to make them.”

According to a joint analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Committee for Economic Development and the Concord Coalition, the projected U.S. budget deficit between 2004 and 2013 could grow from $1.4 trillion to $5 trillion.

Last week when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House economic adviser Larry Summers spoke in interviews and on panel discussions, Einhorn said, “my instinct was to want to short the dollar but then I looked at other major currencies — euro, yen and British pound — and they might be worse.”

Einhorn added, “Picking these currencies is like choosing my favorite dental procedure. And I decided holding gold is better than holding cash, especially now that both offer no yield.”

(Reporting by Jennifer Ablan and Joseph A. Giannone; Editing by Kenneth Barry)


Bailed-out bankers to get options windfall: study

September 2, 2009

Wed Sep 2, 2009 11:14am EDT
By Steve Eder

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As shares of bailed-out banks bottomed out earlier this year, stock options were awarded to their top executives, setting them up for millions of dollars in profit as prices rebounded, according to a report released on Wednesday.

The top five executives at 10 financial institutions that took some of the biggest taxpayer bailouts have seen a combined increase in the value of their stock options of nearly $90 million, the report by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies said.

“Not only are these executives not hurting very much from the crisis, but they might get big windfalls because of the surge in the value of some of their shares,” said Sarah Anderson, lead author of the report, “America’s Bailout Barons,” the 16th in an annual series on executive excess.

The report — which highlights executive compensation at such firms as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Morgan Stanley (MS), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and Citigroup Inc. (C) — comes at a time when Wall Street is facing criticism for failing to scale back outsized bonuses after borrowing billions from taxpayers amid last year’s financial crisis. Goldman, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley have paid back the money they borrowed, but Bank of America and Citigroup are still in the U.S. Treasury’s program.

It’s also the latest in a string of studies showing that despite tough talk by politicians, little has been done by regulators to rein in the bonus culture that many believe contributed to the near-collapse of the financial sector.

The report includes eight pages of legislative proposals to address executive pay, but concludes that officials have “not moved forward into law or regulation any measure that would actually deflate the executive pay bubble that has expanded so hugely over the last three decades.”

“We see these little flurries of activities in Congress, where it looked like it was going to happen,” Anderson said. “Then they would just peter out.”

The report found that while executives continued to rake in tens of millions of dollars in compensation, 160,000 employees were laid off at the top 20 financial industry firms that received bailouts.

The CEOs of those 20 companies were paid, on average, 85 times more than the regulators who direct the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, according to the report.

(Reporting by Steve Eder; editing by John Wallace)


How Do I Know You’re Not Bernie Madoff?

June 15, 2009

by Paul Sullivan
The New York Times
Monday, June 15, 2009

Tony Guernsey has been in the wealth management business for four decades. But clients have started asking him a question that at first caught him off guard: How do I know I own what you tell me I own?

This is the existential crisis rippling through wealth management right now, in the wake of the unraveling of Bernard L. Madoff’s long-running Ponzi scheme. Mr. Guernsey, the head of national wealth management at Wilmington Trust, says he understands why investors are asking the question, but it still unnerves him. “They got their statements from Madoff, and now they get their statement from XYZ Corporation. And they say, ‘How do I know they exist?’ ”

When he is asked this, Mr. Guernsey says he walks clients through the checks and balances that a 106-year-old firm like Wilmington has. Still, this is the ultimate reverberation from the Madoff scandal: trust, the foundation between wealth manager and client, has been called into question, if not destroyed.

“It used to be that if you owned I.B.M., you could pull the certificate out of your sock drawer,” said Dan Rauchle, president of Wells Fargo Alternative Asset Management. “Once we moved away from that, we got into this world of trusting others to know what we owned.”

The process of restoring that trust may take time. But in the meantime, investors may be putting their faith in misguided ways of ensuring trust. Mr. Madoff, after all, was not charged after an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission a year before his firm collapsed. Here are some considerations:

CUT THROUGH THE CLUTTER Financial disclosure rules compel money managers to send out statements. The problem is that the statements and trade confirmations arrive so frequently, they fail to help investors understand what they own.

To mitigate this, many wealth management firms have developed their own systems to track and present client assets. HSBC Private Bank has had WealthTrack for nearly five years, while Barclays Wealth is introducing Wealth Management Reporting. But there are many more, including a popular one from Advent Software.

These systems consolidate the values of securities, partnerships and, in some cases, assets like homes and jewelry. HSBC’s program takes into account the different ways firms value assets by finding a common trading date. It also breaks out the impact of currency fluctuation..

These systems have limits, though. “Our reporting is only as good as the data we receive,” said Mary Duke, head of global wealth solutions for the Americas at HSBC Private Bank. “A hedge fund’s value depends on when the hedge fund reports — if it reports a month-end value, but we get it a month late.”

In other words, no consolidation program is foolproof.

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Everybody hurts…sometimes

March 11, 2009

The World’s Billionaires

03.11.09, 06:00 PM EDT
Luisa Kroll, Matthew Miller and Tatiana Serafin
Forbes.com

It’s been a tough year for the richest people in the world. Last year there were 1,125 billionaires. This year there are just 793 people rich enough to make our list.

The world has become a wealth wasteland. Like the rest of us, the richest people in the world have endured a financial disaster over the past year. Today there are 793 people on our list of the World’s Billionaires, a 30% decline from a year ago.

Of the 1,125 billionaires who made last year’s ranking, 373 fell off the list–355 from declining fortunes and 18 who died. There are 38 newcomers, plus three moguls who returned to the list after regaining their 10-figure fortunes. It is the first time since 2003 that the world has had a net loss in the number of billionaires.

The world’s richest are also a lot poorer. Their collective net worth is $2.4 trillion, down $2 trillion from a year ago. Their average net worth fell 23% to $3 billion. The last time the average was that low was in 2003.

Bill Gates lost $18 billion but regained his title as the world’s richest man. Warren Buffett, last year’s No. 1, saw his fortune decline $25 billion as shares of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) fell nearly 50% in 12 months, but he still managed to slip just one spot to No. 2. Mexican telecom titan Carlos Slim Helú also lost $25 billion and dropped one spot to No. 3.

It was hard to avoid the carnage, whether you were in stocks, commodities, real estate or technology. Even people running profitable businesses were hammered by frozen credit markets, weak consumer spending or declining currencies.

The biggest loser in the world this year, by dollars, was last year’s biggest gainer. India’s Anil Ambani lost $32 billion–76% of his fortune–as shares of his Reliance Communications, Reliance Power and Reliance Capital all collapsed.

Ambani is one of 24 Indian billionaires, all but one of whom are poorer than a year ago. Another 29 Indians lost their billionaire status entirely as India’s stock market tumbled 44% in the past year and the Indian rupee depreciated 18% against the dollar. It is no longer the top spot in Asia for billionaires, ceding that title to China, which has 28.

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