Very interesting. I was not aware there was 2 sets of books.
That's precisely what Democratic and Republican politicians -- and the ruling-class parasites pulling their strings -- count
They also count on everyone being blissfully unaware of the following:
For over a decade, accountant Walter Burien has been trying to rouse the public over what he contends is a massive conspiracy and cover-up, involving trillions of dollars squirreled away in funds maintained at every level of government. His numbers may be disputed, but these funds definitely exist, as evidenced by the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) required of every government agency. If they don’t represent a concerted government conspiracy, what are they for? And how can they be harnessed more efficiently to help allay the financial crises of state and local governments? The Elusive CAFR MoneyBurien
is a former commodity trading adviser who has spent many years peering into government books. He notes that the government is composed of 54,000 different state, county, and local government entities, including school districts, public authorities, and the like; and that these entities all keep their financial assets in liquid investment funds, bond financing accounts and corporate stock portfolios. The only income that must be reported in government budgets is that from taxes, fines and fees; but the investments of government entities can be found in official annual reports (CAFRs), which must be filed with the federal government by local, county and state governments. These annual reports show that virtually every U.S. city, county, and state has vast amounts of money stashed away in surplus funds. Burien maintains that these slush funds have been kept concealed from taxpayers, even as taxes are being raised and citizens are being told to expect fewer government services.
It is hard to envision how all the municipal governments hording their excess money in separate funds could be complicit in a massive government conspiracy, but if that is not what is going on, why such an inefficient use of public monies? A Simpler Explanation
I got a chance to ask that question in April, when I was invited to speak at a conference of Government Finance Officers in Missouri. The friendly public servants at the conference explained that maintaining large “rainy day” funds is simply how local governments must operate. Unlike private businesses, which have bank credit lines they can draw on if they miscalculate their expenses, local governments are required by law to balance their budgets; and if they come up short, public services and government payrolls may be frozen until the voters get around to approving a new bond issue. This has actually happened, bringing local government to a standstill. In emergencies, government officials can try to borrow short-term through “certificates of participation” or tax participation loans, but the interest rates are prohibitively high; and in today’s tight credit market, finding willing lenders is difficult.
To avoid those unpredictable contingencies, municipal governments will keep a cushion of from 20% to 75% more than their budgets actually require. This money is invested, but not necessarily lucratively. One finance officer, for example, said that her city had just bid out $2 million as a 30-day certificate of deposit (CD) to two large banks at a meager annual interest of 0.11%. It was a nice spread for the banks, which could leverage the money into loans at 6% or so; but it was a pretty sparse deal for the city.Meanwhile, Back in California
That was in Missouri, but the figures I was particularly interested were for my own state of California, which was struggling with a budget deficit of $26.3 billion
as of April 2010. Yet the State Treasurer’s website says that he manages a Pooled Money Investment Account (PMIA)
[.pdf] tallying in at nearly $71 billion as of the same date, including a Local Agency Investment Fund (LAIF) of $24 billion. Why isn’t this money being used toward the state’s deficit? The Treasurer’s answer to this question, which he evidently gets frequently, is that legislation forbids it. His website
“Can the State borrow LAIF dollars to resolve the budget deficit?
“No. California Government Code 16429.3 states that monies placed with the Treasurer for deposit in the LAIF by cities, counties, special districts, nonprofit corporations, or qualified quasi-governmental agencies shall not be subject to either of the following:
“(a) Transfer or loan pursuant to Sections 16310, 16312, or 16313.
“(b) Impoundment or seizure by any state official or state agency.”
The non-LAIF money in the pool can’t be spent either. It can be borrowed, but it has to be paid back. When Governor Schwarzenegger tried to raid the Public Transportation Account for the state budget, the California Transit Association took him to court and won
. The Third District Court of Appeals ruled in June 2009 that diversions from the Public Transportation Account to fill non-transit holes in the General Fund violated a series of statutory and constitutional amendments enacted by voters via four statewide initiatives dating back to 1990.
In short, the use of these funds for the state budget has been blocked by the voters themselves
. Bond issues are approved for particular purposes. When excess funds are collected, they are not handed over to the State toward next year’s budget. They just sit idly in an earmarked fund, drawing a modest interest.What’s Wrong with This Picture?
California’s budget problems have caused its credit rating to be downgraded to just above that of Greece, driving the state’s interest tab skyward. In November 2009, the state sold 30-year taxable securities carrying an interest rate of 7.26%
. Yet California has never
defaulted on its bonds. Meanwhile, the too-big-to-fail banks, which would have defaulted on hundreds of billions
of dollars of debt if they had not been bailed out by the states and their citizens, are able to borrow from each other at the extremely low federal funds rate, currently set at 0 to .25% (one quarter of one percent). The banks are also paying the states quite minimal rates for the use of their public monies, and turning around and relending this money, leveraged many times over, to the states and their citizens at much higher rates. That is assuming they lend at all, something they are increasingly reluctant to do, since speculating with the money is more lucrative, and investing it in federal securities is more secure.
Private banks clearly have the upper hand in this game. Local governments have been forced to horde funds in very inefficient ways, building excessive reserves while slashing services, because they do not have the extensive credit lines available to the private banking system. States cannot easily incur new debt without voter approval, a process that is cumbersome, time-consuming and uncertain. Banks, on the other hand, need to keep only the slimmest of reserves, because they are backstopped by a central bank with the power to create all the reserves necessary for its member banks, as well as by Congress and the taxpayers themselves, who have been arm-twisted into repeated bailouts of the Wall Street behemoths. How the CAFR Money Could Be Used Without Spending It
California, then, is in the anomalous position of being $26 billion in the red and plunging toward bankruptcy, while it has over $70 billion stashed away in an investment pool that it cannot touch. Those are just the funds managed by the Treasurer. According to California’s latest CAFR, the California Public Employees’ Retirement Fund (CalPERS) has total investments of $360 billion
, including nearly $144 billion in “equity securities” and $37 billion in “private equity.” See the State of California Comprehensive Annual Financial Report
[.pdf] for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 2009, pages 83-84.
This money cannot be spent
, but it can be invested -- and it can be invested not just in conservative federal securities but in equity, or stocks. Rather than turning this hidden gold mine over to Wall Street banks to earn a very meager interest, California could leverage its excess funds itself, turning the money into much-needed low-interest credit for its own use. How? It could do this by owning its own bank
Only one state currently does this -- North Dakota. North Dakota is also the only state
projected to have a budget surplus by 2011. It has not fallen into the Wall Street debt trap afflicting other states, because it has been able to generate its own credit through its own state-owned Bank of North Dakota (BND).
An investment in the State Bank of California would not be at risk unless the bank became insolvent, a highly unlikely result since the state has the power to tax. In North Dakota, the BND is a dba
of the state itself: it is set up as “the State of North Dakota doing business as
the Bank of North Dakota.” That means the bank cannot go bankrupt unless the state goes bankrupt.
The capital requirement for bank loans is a complicated matter, but it generally works out to be about 7%. (According to Standard & Poor’s, the worldwide average risk-adjusted capital ratio
stood at 6.7 per cent as of June 30, 2009; but for some major U.S. banks it was much lower: Citigroup's was 2.1 per cent; Bank of America’s was 5.8 per cent.) At 7%, $7 of capital can back $100 in loans. Thus if $7 billion in CAFR funds were invested as capital in a California state development bank, the bank could generate $100 billion in loans.
This $100 billion credit line would allow California to finance its $26 billion deficit at very minimal interest rates, with $74 billion left over for infrastructure and other sorely needed projects. Studies have shown
that eliminating the interest burden can cut the cost of public projects in half. The loans could be repaid from the profits generated by the projects themselves. Public transportation, low-cost housing, alternative energy sources and the like all generate fees. Meanwhile, the jobs created by these projects would produce additional taxes and stimulate the economy. Commercial loans could also be made, generating interest income that would return to state coffers. Building a Deposit Base
To start a bank requires not just capital but deposits. Banks can create all the loans
they can find creditworthy borrowers for, up to the limit of their capital base; but when the loans leave the bank as checks, the bank needs to replace the deposits taken from its reserve pool in order for the checks to clear. Where would a state-owned bank get the deposits necessary for this purpose?
In North Dakota, all the state’s revenues are deposited in the BND by law. Compare California, which has expected revenues for 2010-11 of $89 billion
[.pdf]. The Treasurer’s website
[.pdf] reports that as of June 30, 2009, the state held over $18 billion on deposit as demand accounts and demand NOW accounts (basically demand accounts carrying a very small interest). These deposits were held in seven commercial banks, most of them Wall Street banks: Bank of America, Union Bank, Bank of the West, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo Bank, Westamerica Bank, and Citibank. Besides these deposits, the $64 billion or so left in the Treasurer’s investment pool could be invested in State Bank of California CDs. Again, most of the bank CDs in which these funds are now invested are Wall Street or foreign banks
[.pdf]. Many private depositors would no doubt choose to bank at the State Bank of California as well, keeping California’s money in California. There is already a movement afoot to transfer funds out of Wall Street banks into local banks.
While the new state-owned bank is waiting to accumulate sufficient deposits to clear its outgoing checks, it can do what other startup banks do – borrow deposits from the interbank lending market at the very modest federal funds rate (0 to .25%).
To avoid hurting California’s local banks, any state monies held on deposit with local banks could remain there, since the State Bank of California should have plenty of potential deposits without these funds. In North Dakota, local banks are not only not threatened by the BND but are actually served by it, since the BND partners with them, engaging in “participation loans” that help local banks with their capital requirements.Taking Back the Money Power
We have too long delegated the power to create our money and our credit to private profiteers, who have plundered and exploited the privilege in ways that are increasingly being exposed in the media. Wall Street may own Congress
, but it does not yet own the states. We can take the money power back at the state level, by setting up our own publicly-owned banks. We can “spend” our money while conserving it, by leveraging it into the credit urgently needed to get the wheels of local production turning once again.
Public sector man sitting in a bar: “They’re trying to take away our pensions.”
Private sector man: “What’s a pension?”
-- Cartoon in the Houston ChronicleAs states struggle to meet their budgets, public pensions are on the chopping block, but they needn’t be. States can keep their pension funds intact while leveraging them into many times their worth in loans, just as Wall Street banks do. They can do this by forming their own public banks, following the lead of North Dakota—a state that currently has a budget surplus.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose recently proposed bill to gut benefits, wages, and bargaining rights for unionized public workers inspired weeks of protests in Madison, has justified the move as necessary for balancing the state's budget. But is it?
After three weeks of demonstrations in Wisconsin, protesters report no plans to back down. Fourteen Wisconsin Democratic lawmakers—who left the state so that a quorum to vote on the bill could not be reached—said Friday that they are not deterred by threats of possible arrest and of 1,500 layoffs if they don't return to work. President Obama has charged Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker with attempting to bust the unions. But Walker’s defense is:
“We're broke. Like nearly every state across the country, we don't have any more money."
Among other concessions, Governor Walker wants to require public employees to pay a portion of the cost of their own pensions. Bemoaning a budget deficit of $3.6 billion
, he says the state is too broke to afford all these benefits.Broke Unless You Count the $67 Billion Pension Fund . . .
That’s what he says, but according to Wisconsin’s 2010 CAFR
[.pdf] (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report), the state has $67 billion
in pension and other employee benefit trust funds, invested mainly in stocks and debt securities drawing a modest return.
A recent study
by the PEW Center for the States showed that Wisconsin’s pension fund is almost fully funded, meaning it can meet its commitments for years to come without drawing on outside sources. It requires a contribution of only $645 million annually to meet pension payouts. Zach Carter, writing
in the Huffington Post, notes that the pension program could save another $195 million annually just by cutting out its Wall Street investment managers and managing the funds in-house.
The governor is evidently eying the state’s lucrative pension fund, not because the state cannot afford the pension program, but as a source of revenue for programs that are not fully funded. This tactic, however, is not going down well with state employees.
Fortunately, there is another alternative. Wisconsin could draw down the fund by the small amount needed to meet pension obligations, and put the bulk of the money to work creating jobs, helping local businesses, and increasing tax revenues for the state. It could do this by forming its own bank, following the lead of North Dakota, the only state to have its own bank -- and the only state to escape the credit crisis.
This could be done without spending the pension fund money or lending it. The funds would just be shifted from one form of investment to another (equity in a bank). When a bank makes a loan, neither the bank’s own capital nor its customers’ demand deposits are actually lent to borrowers. As observed on the Dallas Federal Reserve’s website
, “Banks actually create money when they lend it.
” They simply extend accounting-entry bank credit, which is extinguished when the loan is repaid. Creating this sort of credit-money is a privilege available only to banks, but states can tap into that privilege by owning a bank.How North Dakota Escaped the Credit Crunch
Ironically, the only state to have one of these socialist-sounding credit machines is a conservative Republican state. The state-owned Bank of North Dakota (BND) has allowed North Dakota to maintain its economic sovereignty, a conservative states-rights sort of ideal. The BND was established in 1919 in response to a wave of farm foreclosures at the hands of out-of-state Wall Street banks. Today the state not only has no debt, but it recently boastedits largest-ever budget surplus
. The BND helps to fund not only local government but local businesses and local banks, by partnering with the banks to provide the funds to support small business lending.
The BND is also a boon to the state treasury. It has a return on equity of 25-26%
, and it has contributed over $300 million to the state (its only shareholder) in the past decade -- a notable achievement for a state with a population less than one-tenth the size of Los Angeles County. In comparison, California’s public pension funds are down more than $100 billion
—that’s billion with a “b”—or close to half the funds’ holdings, following the Wall Street debacle of 2008. It was, in fact, the 2008 bank collapse rather than overpaid public employees that caused the crisis that shrank state revenues and prompted the budget cuts in the first place.Seven States Are Now Considering Setting Up Public Banks
Faced with federal inaction and growing local budget crises, an increasing number of states are exploring the possibility of setting up their own state-owned banks, following the North Dakota model. On January 11, 2011, a bill to establish a state-owned bank was introduced in the Oregon State legislature
; on January 13, a similar bill was introduced in Washington State
; on January 20, a bill for a state bank was filed in Massachusetts
(following a 2010 bill that had lapsed); and on February 4, a bill was introduced in the Maryland legislature
for a feasibility study looking into the possibilities. They join Illinois
, and Hawaii
, which introduced similar bills in 2010, bringing the total number of states with such bills to seven.
If Governor Walker wanted to explore this possibility for his state, he could drop in on the Center for State Innovation (CSI), which is located down the street in his capitol city of Madison, Wisconsin. The CSI has done detailed cost/benefit analyses of the Oregon and Washington state bank initiatives, which show substantial projected benefits based on the BND precedent. See reports here
For Washington State, with an economy not much larger than Wisconsin’s, the CSI report estimates that after an initial startup period, establishing a state-owned bank would create new or retained jobs of between 7,400 and 10,700 a year at small businesses alone, while at the same time returning a profit to the state.A Bank of Wisconsin Could Generate “Bank Credit” Many Times the Size of the Budget Deficit
Economists looking at the CSI reports have called their conclusions conservative. The CSI made its projections without relying on state pension funds for bank capital, although it acknowledged that this could be a potential source of capitalization.
If the Bank of Wisconsin were
to use state pension funds, it could have a capitalization of more than $57 billion – nearly as large as that of Goldman Sachs
. At an 8% capital requirement, $8 in capital can support $100 in loans, or a potential lending capacity of over $500 billion. The bank would need deposits to clear the checks, but the credit-generating potential could still be huge.
Banks can create all the bank credit they want, limited
only by (a) the availability of creditworthy borrowers, (b) the lending limits imposed by bank capital requirements, and (c) the availability of “liquidity” to clear outgoing checks. Liquidity can be acquired either from the deposits of the bank’s own customers or by borrowing from other banks or the money market. If borrowed, the cost of funds is a factor; but at today’s very low Fed funds rate of 0.2%, that cost is minimal. Again, however, only banks can tap into these very low rates. States are reduced to borrowing at about 5% -- unless they own their own banks; or, better yet, unless they are
banks. The BND is set up as “North Dakota doing business as
the Bank of North Dakota.”
That means that technically, all of North Dakota’s assets are the assets of the bank. The BND also has its deposit needs covered. It has a massive, captive deposit base, since all of the state’s revenues are deposited in the bank by law. The bank also takes other deposits, but the bulk of its deposits are government funds. The BND is careful not to compete with local banks for consumer deposits, which account for less than 2% of the total. The BND reports that it has deposits of $2.7 billion and outstanding loans of $2.6 billion. With a population of 647,000, that works out to about $4,000 per capita in deposits, backing roughly the same amount in loans.
Wisconsin has a population that is nine times the size of North Dakota’s. Other factors being equal, Wisconsin might be able to amass over $24 billion in deposits and generate an equivalent sum in loans – over six times the deficit complained of by the state’s governor. That lending capacity could be used for many purposes, depending on the will of the legislature and state law. Possibilities include (a) partnering with local banks, on the North Dakota model, strengthening their capital bases to allow credit to flow to small businesses and homeowners, where it is sorely needed today; (b) funding infrastructure virtually interest-free (since the state would own the bank and would get back any interest paid out); and (c) refinancing state deficits nearly interest-free.Why Give Wisconsin’s Enormous Credit-generating Power Away?
The budget woes of Wisconsin and other states were caused, not by overspending on employee benefits, but by a credit crisis on Wall Street. The “cure” is to get credit flowing again in the local economy, and this can be done by using state assets to capitalize state-owned banks.
Against the modest cost of establishing a publicly-owned bank, state legislators need to weigh the much greater costs of the alternatives – slashing essential public services, laying off workers, raising taxes on constituents who are already over-taxed, and selling off public assets. Given the cost of continuing business as usual, states can hardly afford not
to consider the public bank option. When state and local governments invest their capital in out-of-state money center banks and deposit their revenues there, they are giving their enormous credit-generating power away to Wall Street.http://globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=23664“Wisconsin Death Trip.” Mass Privatization as the "Final Stage" of Neoliberal Doctrine
by Prof Michael Hudson and Prof Jeffrey Sommers
March 12, 2011
On Wednesday evening, in a veritable Night of the Long Knives, Wisconsin's integrity was brutally murdered on the floor of the state Capitol in Madison. On 9 March, integrity and trust built up over a century was obliterated as Wisconsin state senators quickly reversed course and cleaved its budget "repair bill" in half. Financial items require a quorum, thus, collective bargaining was split off from the budget repair bill and voted on separately so as to permit its being voted on now. Even so, this still broke the state's open meeting law requiring 24 hours' notice to ensure transparency. Instead, the Wisconsin senate Republicans pulled out this new legislation without advance notice and began voting, leaving only a stunned Democratic legislator, Peter Barca, to read the open meeting law out loud to prevent the senators from voting. The senate voted over his objections anyway.
The Wisconsin brand has always centered on integrity. This was really about the only distinctive comparative advantage the state could lay claim to. Now, it is gone. With collective bargaining abolished, huge issues remain beyond labor. The privatization of public assets is now on the agenda, with the yet-to-be-voted-on budget repair bill.
Wisconsin is a state that invented Progressive Era Republican rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries under such progressive populists as Robert LaFollette. Under their tenure, rent-seeking
from the public domain and similar insider corruption were checked by a strong public sector anchored in integrity. The state's long history of reforms nurtured a prosperous middle class and made it a model of clean government, solid infrastructure, trade unionism and high value-added industry managed by socialists and the LaFollette Progressives.
Fast-forward to Scott Walker today. Representing a new breed apart from Wisconsin's earlier Republicans, he is seeking to re-birth the asset-grabbing Gilded Age
. A plague of rent-seekers
is seeking quick gains by privatizng the public sector and erecting tollbooths to charge access fees to roads, power plants and other basic infrastructure.
Economics textbooks, along with Fox News and shout radio commentators, spread the myth that fortunes are gained productively by investing in capital equipment and employing labor to produce goods and services that people want to buy. This may be how economies prosper, but it is not how fortunes are most easily made. One need only to turn to the 19th-century novelists such as Balzac to be reminded that behind every family fortune lies a great theft, often long-forgotten or even undiscovered.
But who is one to steal from? Most wealth in history has been acquired either by armed conquest of the land
, or by political insider dealing, such as the great US railroad land giveaways of the mid 19th century
. The great American fortunes have been founded by prying land, public enterprises and monopoly rights from the public domain, because that's where the assets are to take.
Throughout history the world's most successful economies have been those that have kept this kind of primitive accumulation in check. The US economy today is faltering largely because its past barriers against rent-seeking
are being breached.
Nowhere is this more disturbingly on display than in Wisconsin. Today, Milwaukee – Wisconsin's largest city, and once the richest in America – is ranked among the four poorest large cities in the United States. Wisconsin is just the most recent case in this great heist. The US government itself and its regulatory agencies effectively are being privatized as the "final stage" of neoliberal economic doctrine.
]http://globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=26420The State and Local Budget Crisis
by Michael Hudson
September 6, 2011
The cost of the 2011 cutbacks in federal spending will fall most directly on consumers and retirees by scaling back Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and social spending programs. The population also will suffer indirectly, by lower federal revenue sharing with U.S. states and cities. The following chart from the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA, Table 3.3) shows how federal financial aid has helped cities shift the tax burden off real estate, although the main shift has been off property taxes
onto income – and onto consumption (sales) taxes.State and local revenue, 1930-2007.
Untaxing real estate has served mortgage bankers by freeing more rental income (the land’s site value) to be paid as interest. Property taxes
have not absorbed anywhere near the rise in debt-leveraged housing and commercial prices. However, this has not lowered the cost of housing for most people. New buyers must pay a price that capitalizes the property’s rental value. Less and less of this payment has taken the form of local property taxes. More and more has been paid to mortgage lenders as interest. So cutting property taxes
has simply left more revenue to be capitalized into higher debt-financed prices.
While homeowners saw their carrying charges rise, they nonetheless felt more affluent as real estate prices rose – inflated on easier and easier credit terms. Prices rose faster than mortgage debt as long as (1) interest rates were declining; (2) loan maturities were stretched out (ultimately reaching the point of zero amortization rather than the old-fashioned 30-year self-amortizing mortgages); (3) down payments were shrinking toward zero (rather than requiring 20 percent equity as used to be the case) and indeed as “liars’ loans” led prices to be bid up recklessly; and finally (4) cities refrained from raising property taxes as fast as market prices were rising. This left more revenue to be capitalized into higher prices, providing capital gains that home owners were encouraged to treat like “money in the bank” – by taking out home equity loans. This rising mortgage debt was increasingly important in enabling people to maintain their living standards, especially as they had to pay more for housing. So what appeared to be affluence and rising net worth from the value of one’s home on the asset side of the balance sheet found its counterpart in debt on the liabilities side.
From the local fiscal vantage point, these debt-leveraged price gains represented uncollected user fees for the site value provided by public infrastructure and rising prosperity. The bankers ended up with the rising flow of rental value, not the cities. This obliged tax collectors to look to other sources of revenue. So homeowners paid out what they seemed to be saving in modest property taxes in the form of rising sales taxes and income taxes.
By 2008 these financial system’s easing of credit terms had reached its limit. No more room for credit inflation remained, so speculators began to withdraw from the market. (They accounted for about one-sixth of demand for housing.) When the credit spigot was turned off, prices plunged – leaving the debts in place. (So taking out a home-equity mortgage was not really like drawing down money from a piggy bank after all. Years of future income had to be diverted to spend for past shortfalls.)
Now that federal aid is falling – along with revenue from sales and income taxes – local budgets are falling into deficit. But for many cities and states, their constitutions and regulations prevent them from running deficits. So they face a number of hard choices.
It is hard to raise property taxes back toward earlier rates, because the rental income already has been pledged to the mortgage bankers. To tax heavily indebted property would lead to more foreclosures and abandonment. And the Obama Administration’s hope that banks somehow will use the Federal Reserve’s tsunami of cheap (0.25%) reserves and credit to re-inflate a new real estate bubble is in vain, because bankers have little interest in lending to property that is still sinking in market price. It is easier to speculate on interest-rate arbitrage with the BRICS and get a foreign-exchange premium as well, or simply to play the market. Banks report winnings in the derivatives trade day after day, with nary a loss – an indication of how poorly their hapless customers and other outsiders must be doing! So the path of least resistance for most cities and states is to cut back spending on public services, and above all on pension plan contributions.
The ultimate sacrifice (and the aim of financial predators) is to sell off public land and buildings, roads and other transportation services, sewer systems and other basic infrastructure. In this aim, the investment bankers are being aided and abetted by the credit ratings industry, threatening to downgrade cities that do not sell off their public domain. In this respect the financial end-game of privatization is similar in the United States to pressures by the European Central Bank to force the indebted PIIGS economies to engage in privatization sell-offs, Third World and post-Soviet style.
Just as in Europe, when revenues are squeezed and something must give – either debt service, payment to pensioners or current payments to labor – the financial sector is seeking to take all the available surplus for itself. This puts creditors in the forefront of today’s class war against labor.
On the eve of the September 2008 financial crash, cities such as Birmingham, Alabama and Chicago already were looking for ways to cope with the fiscal squeeze imposed by political pressures from the major local campaign contributors – the real estate and banking sectors – to cut property taxes. One seeming path of little resistance was to gamble in the Wall Street financial casino, hoping to make easy gains rather than making landlords, wage earners or consumers pay higher taxes.
Landlords and bankers encouraged this speculation as an alternative to taxing property. Landlords wanted to pay less in property taxes, and banks knew that whatever rental value buyers could save in the form of lower taxes would end up being used to bid up prices to capitalize into debt service for mortgages to buy properties up for sale.
Here is the dilemma that states and cities now face: So much urban property is sinking into negative equity territory that a rise in property taxes will lead to even more foreclosures and abandonments, and hence even lower fiscal returns. To avoid this, cities are seeing Chapter 9 bankruptcy as the main route to free themselves, especially from problems that stem from an unwarranted trust in bankers to help them out of the earlier fiscal squeeze by putting them into losing financial gambles. Orange County in California successfully sued Merrill Lynch to recover damages, and Birmingham also was awarded recovery payments from JP Morgan Chase.Birmingham and Chicago as microcosms of the national debt squeeze
Now that financial fraud has been decriminalized for all practical purposes, most financial victims are obliged to sue for reimbursement in civil court without much help from prosecutors. Birmingham, Alabama is a case in point. After a predatory financing arrangement to upgrade its sewers in 2008 forced its Jefferson County into bankruptcy, the Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C.) negotiated $75 million in fines and reimbursement of fees to be paid by JP Morgan Chase as lead lender and negotiator for the complex interest-rate swaps they had advised the country to take, ostensibly to protect its economic interest. The banks also forfeited nearly ten times this sum ($647 million) in termination fees. But the court-appointed receiver grabbed the $75 million settlement for payment on the debts the country still owed.
As usual, the banks had paid the fine and made reimbursement without admitting any wrongdoing. To the financial sector, deception and fraud is part of the game, after all, not a tactic that can be prosecuted as criminal. They paid their fines without admitting any wrongdoing, and without even admitting the S.E.C. charges. They merely paid up and kept silent – while the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service were still in the time-taking process of ruling on legal claims brought by Jefferson County. The case prompted bankers and bondholders to bring pressure on the state of Alabama to take responsibility (that is, take on the debt liability) all on behalf of statewide taxpayers, and to demand that all lawsuits brought for financial fraud to be dropped. “Responsibility” is supposed to be only for debtors, not for the financial sector itself. This is how the banks have managed to rewrite the laws, after all.
Jefferson County is now debating whether to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy to free itself from debts that can be paid only at the cost of disrupting economic continuity and living standards. The city’s debt quandary is a microcosm for the U.S. economy as a whole. Its lowest-income residents are burdened with financialized charges for sewer-system debt payments so far beyond their ability to pay that they face the same fate as Latvians, Irish and Greeks: As the local economy shrinks, they must move in order to find jobs – in places less debt-burdened and hence lower-cost. The “free market” choice is to emigrate to flee the debts imposed on their economies and on themselves personally.
Well-to-do Birmingham families have yards large enough to have their own septic tanks as an alternative to paying for access to sewers, but lower-income families living in small houses or apartment buildings lack this option. One county commissioner asked: “Why should the poor have to pay for the ill-gotten gain of some of these banks who poisoned the well in the very first place?” Other commissioners demanded that bondholders “bear the entire cost of a $20 million fund that is being created to help low-income residents pay their sewer bills.”
But the government usually provides relief only for creditors – above all, relief from criminal prosecution for their business plan that involved making loans beyond the debtors’ ability to pay. Some states have fraudulent conveyance laws to prevent this, as well as to prevent banks from misrepresenting the quality of their loans to outside investors. There are laws to punish appraisers who give false appraisals, and mortgage brokers who fill in false income reports to qualify for loans. But the S.E.C. has seen its staff and budget slashed and deregulators appointed to oversee its affairs. It has no authority to prosecute, only to make recommendations to the Justice Department, where Attorney General Eric Holder has followed the Obama Administration’s support of Wall Street, feeling no obligation to live up to the promises to make that a change from the Bush Administration’s similar lax behavior.