Over the past month, with little media attention, both Citigroup and Merrill Lynch have received fines from regulatory bodies for failure to properly report their trading in derivatives – an opaque trading arena that played a significant role in bringing down both firms during the financial crisis. As reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2011, Citigroup received $2.5 trillion in cumulative, secret low cost loans from the Federal Reserve during the 2007-2010 financial crisis while Merrill received $1.9 trillion. These loans, many at almost zero interest rates, were made without the authorization or awareness of Congress. (See GAO chart below.) The loans to the two firms were on top of the publicly disclosed and Congress-approved TARP bailout funds.
Significant portions of the money loaned to Citigroup and Merrill Lynch were authorized by the Federal Reserve to be funneled to the broker-dealer subsidiaries of the firms in London – where it found its way into pursuits that remain undisclosed to this day. The GAO noted in its report:
“…without more complete documentation, how assistance to these broker-dealer subsidiaries satisfied the statutory requirements for using this authority remains unclear. Moreover, without more complete public disclosure of the basis for these actions, these decisions may not be subject to an appropriate level of transparency and accountability.”
Derivative losses in the tens of billions of dollars were a major contributor to the financial crisis of 2007-2010. Wall Street banks had used the same counterparty for many of their derivative trades, firms like AIG and Lehman Brothers, who lacked the money to make good on the trades. AIG received a $185 billion bailout from the taxpayer with about half of that money going to pay Wall Street banks for their derivative trades and other exposure to the banks. Lehman filed bankruptcy, leading to panic and contagion on Wall Street.
Because of the central role that derivatives played in the Wall Street crisis, which led to the worst U.S. economic downturn since the Great Depression, the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation that was passed in 2010 was supposed to prevent insured depository banks from holding dangerous levels of derivatives. Known as the “push out rule,” where derivatives would be pushed out of the insured banks, before that rule ever had a chance to take effect, Citigroup engineered its repeal.
On September 25, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) fined Citigroup $550,000 for failing to properly report derivative trades. One of the violations was defined as follows: “…Citi violated its reporting obligations by reporting ‘Name Withheld’ as the counterparty identifier for tens of thousands of swaps with counterparties in certain foreign jurisdictions.”
Today, for the second time in two years, the Financial Conduct Authority in the U.K. has fined Merrill Lynch (which was taken over by Bank of America during the financial crisis in 2008) for failure to properly report its derivative trades. Today’s action resulted in a fine of £34,524,000 over Merrill’s failure “to report 68.5 million exchange traded derivative transactions between 12 February 2014 and 6 February 2016.”
One of the most dangerous risks facing U.S. citizens is that they will succumb to Wall Street corruption-fatigue and allow these mega banks to plot their next plunder behind a dark curtain. Clearly, U.S. corporate media has already succumbed.
GAO Data on Secret Emergency Lending Programs During Financial Crisis
Harold Burson. Public Relations Titan, Served Merrill Lynch Through Six Consecutive CEOs Over Four Decades
Last week Jim Rutenberg penned a column for the New York Times titled Facing Down the Network that Produced Harvey Weinstein. Rutenberg explored the reasons that Weinstein’s decades of sexually harassing women and charges of assaults had not made it to the front pages of newspapers sooner. Correctly calling it “something akin to a protection racket,” Rutenberg defined it as a “network of aggressive public relations flacks and lawyers who guard the secrets of those who employ them and keep their misdeeds out of public view.”
That sentence brought to mind a 2009 Rachel Maddow program on MSNBC where she enumerated the ignominious historical milestones of the monster public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller, capping the history by calling it the “p.r. firm from hell.” Among her litany of its p.r. projects, Maddow cited: “…when Blackwater killed those 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, they called Burson-Marsteller. When there was a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, Bobcock & Wilcox, who built that plant, called Burson-Marsteller…The government of Nigeria, accused of genocide in Biafra, Burson- Marsteller. Philip Morris, Burson-Marsteller. Silicone breast implants, Burson-Marsteller. The government of Columbia trying to make all those dead union organizers not getting in the way of the new trade deal, they called Burson-Marsteller.”
One of Burson-Marsteller’s oldest clients is, of course, Merrill Lynch, a company that has been repeatedly charged with tolerating sexual harassment of women over the same four decades that Burson-Marsteller has been shining up its image as bullish on America and vested in the human spirit.
Earlier this month, Harold Burson, a co-founder of Burson-Marsteller who served as its CEO for more than 35 years, published a book on his career, titled The Business of Persuasion. It includes a number of insights into just how cozy the firm’s relationship with Merrill Lynch was. In the book, Burson says “Burson-Marsteller’s professional relationship with Merrill Lynch was near seamless; we collaborated more as a team than as client and agency.” Burson indicates that he personally worked with six consecutive CEOs at Merrill Lynch over that almost four decade period: Don Regan, Roger Birk, William Schreyer, Dan Tully, David Komansky, and Stanley O’Neal. Paul Critchlow, who became the chief public relations officer at Merrill Lynch during that period, went to that spot directly from Burson-Marsteller according to Burson.
In the book, Burson also relates his trusted relationship with Don Regan, a CEO of Merrill Lynch who became U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Reagan and then his Chief of Staff during the President’s period of declining health. Just who was actually running the Reagan administration has been called into question by the video included in Michael Moore’s documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. In the film, Don Regan is standing by the side of the President as Reagan is giving a speech. Regan quietly, but tersely, barks into the President’s ear to “speed it up.” The President seems to understand who is really in charge and does Regan’s bidding without any show of irritation. (See video clip below.)
In Tales from the Boom Boom Room, Susan Antilla’s seminal book on the epidemic of sexual harassment and sexual assaults of women working on Wall Street, she cites studies conducted by psychologist Louise Fitzgerald, an expert on sexual harassment and discrimination of women. Fitzgerald had contacted 915 women who had filed sexual harassment or discrimination claims against Merrill Lynch and received 643 usable responses. Among the respondents, 37 percent said they had “been touched in a way that made them feel uncomfortable,” while only 1.7 percent “said that the person about whom they complained was punished.”
Fitzgerald says in the book that the rate of sexual harassment in Wall Street’s brokerage industry “was higher than it was in the military, for God’s sake, and that’s kind of amazing.”
It may be amazing to Fitzgerald, but not to those who have carefully studied the history of Wall Street’s serial sexual predatory behavior. Like the military, there is a heavy handiness about silencing the victim and, if that doesn’t succeed, there’s a private justice system on Wall Street that keeps the severity of decades of claims under wraps. That private justice system is not dissimilar to the military’s tribunals.
Hollywood women have moved the needle now in sharing their stories of sexual assaults and harassment. But it should be noted that one of the former highest ranking women on Wall Street, Sallie Krawcheck, a former CEO of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management from August 2009 to September 2011, was effectively saying “MeToo” in August of 2016, long before the Weinstein horrors were dominating the news. In a column headlined, I Ran Merrill Lynch, And the Movie “Equity” is Soft on Sexual Harassment on Wall Street, Krawcheck reveals the following personal experiences:
“Having spent my career on Wall Street and having run Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch, I’ve been asked again and again whether the movie is representative of what it was like to work on Wall Street. The answer is no. That’s in part because I lived through worse.
“How do you react when you’re a young banker, hunched over a colleague’s spreadsheet to help him work through a sticky math problem, and there’s another guy behind you pretending to perform a sex act on you?
“How do you react when you arrive at work every morning to find lewd pictures on your desk? Lewd as in: pictures of male nether regions. Photocopies. With all kinds of detail.
“How do you react when your boss (actually, your boss’s boss’s boss) is caught in a sex act with a woman in his office — by another woman he’s having an affair with — just a handful of yards from your desk?”
Is there a correlation between public relations firms spinning a culture of corruption into an altruistic corporate environment and the financial collapse of Wall Street in 2008? If there was not such a “protection racket” going on, would the public and the shareholders and the Boards of these firms be forced to rein in the abuses in a more timely fashion – say, before the company collapses?
Despite the global public relation powerhouse, Burson-Marsteller, massaging the image of Merrill Lynch for four decades, the firm financially collapsed into the arms of Bank of America in 2008. In Burson’s new book, he shares the following with his readers:“With a degree of pride, I can report that Bank of America is now one of our largest clients.”
Editor’s Note: The Editor of Wall Street On Parade, Pam Martens, was the lead named plaintiff in a high profile Federal class action lawsuit filed in 1996 which sought to overturn mandatory arbitration on Wall Street for civil rights plaintiffs and shine a bright light in the public courtroom on the egregious sexual harassment and sexual assault experienced by women on Wall Street. Martens walked away from the settlement crafted by the attorneys, which enshrined gag orders and left mandatory arbitration in place on Wall Street. That lawsuit is also profiled in Susan Antilla’s book, Tales from the Boom Boom Room.
Douglas Schoen, Author of “Why Democrats Need Wall Street” OpEd in the New York Times
America has now been through various iterations of “it’s time to stop bashing Wall Street” by writers who seem to easily get air time or plenty of print space to make their case. An OpEd in the New York Times today is the latest in this endless series. We’ll get to that column shortly, but first some necessary background.
Wall Street did not accidentally run a barge aground and leave a small oil slick on the Hudson River. Wall Street did not accidentally release tainted lettuce that sickened a few dozen people. What Wall Street did was intentional and criminal: it financially engineered a toxic subprime house of cards which it knew from its own internal reviews was going to collapse; it then molded the toxic product into inscrutable bundles; it sold the bundles to unsuspecting investors around the globe while making side bets that it would all come crashing down. Then, after causing the greatest financial collapse in the United States since the Great Depression, Wall Street’s unrepentant scoundrels paid themselves billions of dollars in bonuses with taxpayer bailout funds.
One of the largest wrongdoers of this era, Citigroup, received the largest taxpayer bailout in history (over $2.5 trillion in loans, cash infusions and asset guarantees) and while this was occurring, one of its executives, Michael Froman, was staffing up the administration of the next President of the United States, Barack Obama, including an accepted recommendation for the head of the Justice Department.
Those who are lecturing the public to just get over it are either tone deaf, compromised or both.
In March 2016, the Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Bloomberg News, Matt Winkler, wrote an opinion piece for Bloomberg News titled “Stop Bashing Wall Street. Times Have Changed.” Winkler absurdly wrote: “Banks also have reined in most of the proprietary trading in derivatives that brought them into conflict with their depositors.”
In 2014 there was Politico’s Ben White preposterously asserting the following in a column headlined “How Washington beat Wall Street”: “In 2009, Washington went to war against big Wall Street banks hoping to blow up the kind of high-risk, high-reward strategies that helped spark the financial crisis. Five years later, that war is largely over. And Washington won in a blowout.”
The same day that White’s article ran, the Huffington Post published this retort from Dennis M. Kelleher, President and CEO of Better Markets, Inc., a public interest non-profit organization:
“Only in the warped, distorted, Alice-in-Wonderland world of Wall Street would one think ‘Washington went to war against big Wall Street banks’ or that ‘Washington won [the war] in a blowout,’ as said today in a Politico article…It may be counterintuitive, but the article reflects a fairy tale Wall Street loves to push. Not only that they have been picked on and been under/are under enormous pressure (almost all unfair, undeserved and counterproductive) by US and global regulators, politicians and policy makers, but, hey, they’ve lost and Washington won, so, ease up. No need to take any further action against the ginormous global too-big-to-fail banks that are bigger, more interconnected and dangerous than they were before the last crisis that they caused. No. Enough’s been done.
“Indeed, according to the article, the war is over. The American people should move on to other things. Washington should declare victory and return to its past practices of coddling the beaten Wall Street banks and cashing their campaign contribution checks. Nothing to do or see here.”
Before White, there was Maria Bartiromo’s appearance on Meet the Press in 2013 where she asserted that “We need to get beyond the conversation of is Wall Street evil.” Bartiromo spent two decades at CNBC before joining Fox Business Network in January 2014. At CNBC, as we previously reported, there appeared to be a co-branding operation in play between Bartiromo and Citigroup.
Now fast-forward to today’s OpEd in the New York Times, titled “Why Democrats Need Wall Street.” The column was written by Douglas Schoen, whose bio under the opinion piece offers simply this: “Douglas Schoen was a pollster and senior political adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 2000.” In reality, Schoen’s official bio at his website says he is “a founding partner and principle strategist for Penn, Schoen & Berland,” also known as PSB. In 2001, PSB was acquired by the marketing and communications juggernaut known as WPP, which owns the powerful strategic communications firm, Burson-Marsteller. The Worldwide President and CEO of Burson-Marsteller is serving simultaneously in the role of Chairman of PSB.
In the midst of the financial crisis in 2009, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow revealed that the disgraced insurance firm, AIG, which had backstopped Wall Street’s insane credit default swaps while failing to hold capital to pay them off and required a $185 billion bailout from the taxpayers, had hired Burson-Marsteller to “shine up” its image. (See Youtube video clip below.) Maddow described Burson-Marsteller as follows:
“Who’s Burson-Marsteller? Well, let me put it this way — when Blackwater killed those 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, they called Burson-Marsteller. When there was a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, Bobcock & Wilcox, who built that plant, called Burson-Marsteller. The Bhopal chemical disaster that killed thousands of people in India, Union Carbide called Burson-Marsteller. Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu — Burson-Marsteller. The government of Saudi Arabia, three days after 9/11 — Burson-Marsteller.
“The military junta that overthrew the government of Argentina in 1976, the generals dialed Burson-Marsteller. The government of Indonesia, accused of genocide in East Timor, Burson-Marsteller.
“The government of Nigeria, accused of genocide in Biafra, Burson- Marsteller. Philip Morris, Burson-Marsteller. Silicone breast implants, Burson-Marsteller. The government of Columbia trying to make all those dead union organizers not getting in the way of the new trade deal, they called Burson-Marsteller.
“Do you remember Aqua Dots? Little toy beads coded with something that turned into the date rape drug when kids put the beads in their mouths and all these kids ended up in comas? Yes, even the date rape Aqua Dots people called Burson-Marsteller.
“When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial. That`s why it was so creepy that Hillary Clinton`s pollster and chief strategist in her presidential campaign was Mark Penn, CEO of Burson-Marsteller.
“That’s also why it’s so creepy to learn that U.S. AIG, this four-times bailed out company that we [the U.S. taxpayers] own 80 percent of, is paying Burson-Marsteller to improve their image – with us. To make us like them more. It’s not enough to nearly bring down the world financial system and saddle us with having to save you, now you also have to saddle us with the knowledge that we’re paying the p.r. firm from hell.”
Should the New York Times be running this deeply conflicted content without fully explaining to the American people the tentacles of its author?
In 2013, when a division of CIT served as a joint lead arranger for a $370 million senior secured credit facility to the Weinstein Company, an executive of the lender, Kevin Khanna, issued a statement effusively praising the management of the Weinstein Company, stating:
“The Weinstein Co. is one of the premier Hollywood studios in the world and we are pleased to further expand our relationship with them through this recent financing. As a key player in the film financing sector, we pride ourselves in putting our knowledge to work on behalf of our clients to help them achieve their goals.”
Today, the Weinstein Company stands as the premier poster boy for mismanagement of its brand, reputation and franchise as sexual assault and sexual harassment charges, stretching over three decades, have been lodged against its co-founder and key executive, Harvey Weinstein. The charges have ricocheted around the world for almost two weeks with police investigations now open in New York and London. (Harvey Weinstein was fired by the Board a few days after the first story appeared in the New York Times and just two days before a second article would appear in the New Yorker, which added claims of rape by three women to the mushrooming scandal.)
Last year, Opus Bank was even more lavish in its praise for the Weinstein Company when it announced that it had provided $15 million of a $400 million senior credit facility which was “agented” by Union Bank.
Michael Allison, Co-President of Opus Bank and President of Opus’ Commercial Bank had this to say in a press release at the time:
“At Opus, we believe that by providing capital funding to mature, established and well run media and entertainment-related companies that are primed for disciplined and thoughtful growth and expansion, we can be a catalyst for the creation of new jobs and rebuilding of healthy, vital, and vibrant communities up and down the West Coast.”
But the Weinstein Company was the antithesis of a “well run media” company and was a complete failure at providing “disciplined” management. Its Board was aware of multiple prior settlements with women over charges of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein but renewed his employment contract anyway.
In 2013, Tony Beaudoin, a Senior Vice President at the time at Union Bank, told the Wall Street Journal that “The Weinstein Co. has instilled the highest confidence level in the banking market since its inception.” His remarks were made in the context of describing a large new credit facility it was participating in for the company.
Major banks have been involved in these credit facilities for at least the past five years, raising the question as to what law firms did the due diligence on the loans.
Also being pondered around Hollywood is how honest Harvey Weinstein was being with the Hollywood Reporter last year when he told it that the company had “no debt.” Weinstein is quoted as follows:
“The TV company is worth $500 million, $400 million at the worst. There is no debt. If we let go tomorrow, selling the library and selling the TV, the company is worth $700 million, $800 million in a worst-case scenario. And there is no debt.”
Weinstein could have meant that there was no long-term debt or bonds outstanding. But if you owe money to banks, it’s debt that you have to pay back and it reduces the value of the company accordingly.
In the same interview, the Chief Operating Officer of Weinstein Company, David Glasser, said this: “We’ve had a $500 million credit line for five years, in place with 14 of the biggest banks in the world, led by Union Bank.”
Among the 14 biggest banks in the world are the mega banks on Wall Street. Banks like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Citigroup. The funny thing is, we haven’t heard anything about their owning up to having loans or a credit line outstanding to the Weinstein Company. Glasser may have been engaging in hyperbole about “the biggest banks in the world,” or it could be that Wall Street (which has had decades of sexual harassment and assault charges leveled against it) would rather keep its relationship with the Weinstein Company under wraps.
Hurricanes, wildfires, the multiple investigations of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election and the calamity-du-jour in the Trump White House are gobbling up an outsized share of digital and print news pages at corporate media. What’s gone missing is intrepid, in-depth investigations of Wall Street’s latest scam against the public – even at corporate media outlets purporting to focus on Wall Street.
Consider today’s front page of the Wall Street Journal: there’s an article on health care; central banks and stimulus; Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters; how Blackstone Group is on the prowl for retail investors; and a curious report on long-haul truckers cooking up jambalaya and Thai peanut pork (you can’t make this stuff up). There is nothing about an investigation of a mega Wall Street bank; the dangers these behemoths continue to pose to taxpayers and the U.S. economy; nothing about Wall Street’s return to its jaded ways that led to the epic financial crash of 2008 – despite the fact that all of this is happening and timely and the public has a right to be reading about it in a paper whose beat is ostensibly Wall Street.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought Dow Jones & Company in late 2007 after a century of ownership by the Bancroft family. The purchase just happened to come at a time when the Federal Reserve had secretly begun to funnel what would end up totaling $16 trillion in cumulative low-cost loans to bail out the Wall Street mega banks and their foreign counterparts.
In 2011, the Pew Research Center released a study on how front page coverage had changed since the News Corp. purchase of the Wall Street Journal. Pew found that “coverage has clearly moved away from what had been the paper’s core mission under previous ownership—covering business and corporate America. In the past three and a half years, front-page coverage of business is down about one-third from what it had been in 2007, the last year of the old ownership regime.”
What is not down but “up” at the Wall Street Journal is its defense of the Wall Street banking giants’ indefensible practices on its editorial and opinion pages.
One of the most striking examples of the changing face of corporate media coverage of Wall Street was an October 20, 2013 editorial in the Wall Street Journal headlined:“The Morgan Shakedown.” The unsigned editorial began with this:
“The tentative $13 billion settlement that the Justice Department appears to be extracting from J.P. Morgan Chase needs to be understood as a watershed moment in American capitalism. Federal law enforcers are confiscating roughly half of a company’s annual earnings for no other reason than because they can and because they want to appease their left-wing populist allies.”
Actually, there was a very good reason for the $13 billion settlement – but the intrepid investigative reporting on that subject would be done by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone – not by the paper still calling itself the “Wall Street” Journal. Taibbi revealed that the U.S. Justice Department had actually settled on the cheap and had failed to reveal to the public that it had the most credible of eyewitnesses to mortgage fraud at JPMorgan Chase – a securities attorney who worked there and had reported the fraud to her supervisors. The attorney, Alayne Fleischmann, told Taibbi that what she witnessed in JPMorgan’s mortgage operations was “massive criminal securities fraud.”
Taibbi’s in-depth report on the matter made the editorial board at the Wall Street Journal appear naïve or captured by Wall Street. It raised the added embarrassing question as to why the Wall Street Journal was out of touch with the details of the Justice Department’s investigation.
As recently as two months ago, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board was again attempting to write a revisionist history of the criminal conduct on Wall Street that led to the 2008 financial crisis – the greatest economic bust in America since the Great Depression. Under the subhead “Bankers haven’t gone to jail because they haven’t committed crimes,” the editorial board wrote:
“Politicians and journalists have made careers of lamenting that too few bankers have been convicted of crimes. They overlook that, at least in America, to prove a crime you have to have enough evidence and that a mistake is not necessarily criminal.”
Again, the Wall Street Journal is seriously out-of-touch with its beat. In order “to prove a crime,” the U.S. Justice Department has to actually use one of the many weapons in its arsenal – like subpoenas and wiretaps. That didn’t happen because President Barack Obama put the wrong men in charge at the Justice Department. Again, that intrepid reporting didn’t make its way into the public domain via the Wall Street Journal but via the PBS program, Frontline, and producer Martin Smith. The 2013 program indicated that there wasn’t even a pretense of a real investigation by the Justice Department against the biggest Wall Street banks. The relevant portion of the transcript reads as follows:
MARTIN SMITH: We spoke to a couple of sources from within the Criminal Division, and they reported that when it came to Wall Street, there were no investigations going on. There were no subpoenas, no document reviews, no wiretaps.
LANNY BREUER [head of the DOJ Criminal Division at the time]: Well, I don’t know who you spoke with because we have looked hard at the very types of matters that you’re talking about.
MARTIN SMITH: These sources said that at the weekly indictment approval meetings that there was no case ever mentioned that was even close to indicting Wall Street for financial crimes.
Breuer announced he was stepping down one day after the program aired.
The lurking danger for shareholders and investors and U.S. taxpayers is that systemic contagion is once again building up among the handful of mega banks on Wall Street that control an obscene share of the nation’s deposits and assets. Ferreting out that information and bringing it to the front page may not be popular with Wall Street advertisers or their legions of lawyers. But it’s essential to maintaining an engaged, free press.