In-depth analysis on Credit Writedowns Pro.

Matt Taibbi: Obama’s Big Sellout

Matt Taibbi is one of the few commentators in the mainstream media who is not worried about ‘access’ and has, therefore, been free to write much more critically about the economic crisis and reform efforts on Wall Street.

His first piece was a polemic against Goldman Sachs, which triggered a backlash against the venerated Wall Street firm due to its incestuous relationship with Washington.  Afterwards, he took on health care reform. Now, he is taking on the Obama Administration and its status quo bias. I have an excerpt below and a link to the full article. But, first, let me say a few words.

As you probably know, I have been quite disappointed with this Administration’s leadership on financial reform. While I think they ‘get it,’ it is plain they lack either the courage or conviction to put forward a set of ideas that gets at the heart of what caused this crisis. 

It was clear to many by this time last year that the President may not have been serious about reform when he picked Tim Geithner and Larry Summers as the leaders of his economic team.  As smart and qualified as these two are, they are rightfully seen as allied with Wall Street and the anti-regulatory movement. 

At a minimum, the picks of Geithner and Summers were a signal to Wall Street that the Obama Administration would be friendly to their interests. It is sort of like Ronald Reagan going to Philadelphia, Mississippi as a first stop in the 1980 election campaign to let southerners know that he was friendly to their interests.

I reserved judgment because one has to judge based on actions. But last November I did ask Is Obama really “Change we can believe in?” because his Administration was being stacked with Washington insiders and agents of the status quo.

Since that time it is obvious that two things have occurred as a result of this ‘Washington insider’ bias.  First, there has been no real reform. Insiders are likely to defend the status quo for the simple reason that they and those with whom they associate are the ones who represent the status quo in the first place. What happens when a company is nationalized or declared bankrupt is instructive; here, new management must be installed to prevent the old management from covering up past mistakes or perpetuating errors that led to the firms demise. The same is true in government.

That no ‘real’ reform was coming was obvious, even by June when I wrote a brief note on the fake reform agenda. It is even more obvious with the passage of time and the lack of any substantive reform in health care.

Second, Obama’s stacking his administration with insiders has been very detrimental to his party. I imagine he did this as a way to overcome any worries about his own inexperience and to break with what was seen as a major factor in Bill Clinton’s initial failings. While I am an independent, I still have enough political antennae to know that taking established politicians out of incumbent positions (Joe Biden, Janet Napolitano, Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Kathleen Sebelius or Tim Kaine) jeopardizes their seat.  So, the strategy of stacking his administration has not only created a status quo bias, but it has also weakened his party.

That’s it. I’ve said my piece.  Here is the Taibbi excerpt now. I don’t agree with everything Taibbi says and his tone is a lot more apoplectic than mine; but that is mostly stylistic. On the major point – that the Obama Administration is more of the same – he is right. Here he talks about the Citi bailout

“Just look at the timeline of the Citigroup deal," says one leading Democratic consultant. "Just look at it. It’s fucking amazing. Amazing! And nobody said a thing about it."

Barack Obama was still just the president-elect when it happened, but the revolting and inexcusable $306 billion bailout that Citigroup received was the first major act of his presidency. In order to grasp the full horror of what took place, however, one needs to go back a few weeks before the actual bailout — to November 5th, 2008, the day after Obama’s election.

That was the day the jubilant Obama campaign announced its transition team. Though many of the names were familiar — former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, long-time Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett — the list was most notable for who was not on it, especially on the economic side. Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist who had served as one of Obama’s chief advisers during the campaign, didn’t make the cut. Neither did Karen Kornbluh, who had served as Obama’s policy director and was instrumental in crafting the Democratic Party’s platform. Both had emphasized populist themes during the campaign: Kornbluh was known for pushing Democrats to focus on the plight of the poor and middle class, while Goolsbee was an aggressive critic of Wall Street, declaring that AIG executives should receive "a Nobel Prize — for evil."

But come November 5th, both were banished from Obama’s inner circle — and replaced with a group of Wall Street bankers. Leading the search for the president’s new economic team was his close friend and Harvard Law classmate Michael Froman, a high-ranking executive at Citigroup. During the campaign, Froman had emerged as one of Obama’s biggest fundraisers, bundling $200,000 in contributions and introducing the candidate to a host of heavy hitters — chief among them his mentor Bob Rubin, the former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs who served as Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton. Froman had served as chief of staff to Rubin at Treasury, and had followed his boss when Rubin left the Clinton administration to serve as a senior counselor to Citigroup (a massive new financial conglomerate created by deregulatory moves pushed through by Rubin himself).

Incredibly, Froman did not resign from the bank when he went to work for Obama: He remained in the employ of Citigroup for two more months, even as he helped appoint the very people who would shape the future of his own firm. And to help him pick Obama’s economic team, Froman brought in none other than Jamie Rubin, a former Clinton diplomat who happens to be Bob Rubin’s son. At the time, Jamie’s dad was still earning roughly $15 million a year working for Citigroup, which was in the midst of a collapse brought on in part because Rubin had pushed the bank to invest heavily in mortgage-backed CDOs and other risky instruments.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. It’s three weeks after the election. You have a lame-duck president in George W. Bush — still nominally in charge, but in reality already halfway to the golf-and-O’Doul’s portion of his career and more than happy to vacate the scene. Left to deal with the still-reeling economy are lame-duck Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a former head of Goldman Sachs, and New York Fed chief Timothy Geithner, who served under Bob Rubin in the Clinton White House. Running Obama’s economic team are a still-employed Citigroup executive and the son of another Citigroup executive, who himself joined Obama’s transition team that same month.

So on November 23rd, 2008, a deal is announced in which the government will bail out Rubin’s messes at Citigroup with a massive buffet of taxpayer-funded cash and guarantees. It is a terrible deal for the government, almost universally panned by all serious economists, an outrage to anyone who pays taxes. Under the deal, the bank gets $20 billion in cash, on top of the $25 billion it had already received just weeks before as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. But that’s just the appetizer. The government also agrees to charge taxpayers for up to $277 billion in losses on troubled Citi assets, many of them those toxic CDOs that Rubin had pushed Citi to invest in. No Citi executives are replaced, and few restrictions are placed on their compensation. It’s the sweetheart deal of the century, putting generations of working-stiff taxpayers on the hook to pay off Bob Rubin’s fuck-up-rich tenure at Citi. "If you had any doubts at all about the primacy of Wall Street over Main Street," former labor secretary Robert Reich declares when the bailout is announced, "your doubts should be laid to rest."

It is bad enough that one of Bob Rubin’s former protégés from the Clinton years, the New York Fed chief Geithner, is intimately involved in the negotiations, which unsurprisingly leave the Federal Reserve massively exposed to future Citi losses. But the real stunner comes only hours after the bailout deal is struck, when the Obama transition team makes a cheerful announcement: Timothy Geithner is going to be Barack Obama’s Treasury secretary!

Geithner, in other words, is hired to head the U.S. Treasury by an executive from Citigroup — Michael Froman — before the ink is even dry on a massive government giveaway to Citigroup that Geithner himself was instrumental in delivering. In the annals of brazen political swindles, this one has to go in the all-time Fuck-the-Optics Hall of Fame.

Wall Street loved the Citi bailout and the Geithner nomination so much that the Dow immediately posted its biggest two-day jump since 1987, rising 11.8 percent. Citi shares jumped 58 percent in a single day, and JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley soared more than 20 percent, as Wall Street embraced the news that the government’s bailout generosity would not die with George W. Bush and Hank Paulson. "Geithner assures a smooth transition between the Bush administration and that of Obama, because he’s already co-managing what’s happening now," observed Stephen Leeb, president of Leeb Capital Management.

Taibbi assumes intent and damns the actors as a result. He writes as if Froman and Geithner openly colluded in some way to favour Citi. But you don’t need to prove intent, you only need to prove motive. I don’t care if Froman or Geithner ‘intended’ to favour Citi over other institutions; I care whether they were mentally predisposed to helping Citi and other large institutions at the expense of others because they ascribed unwarranted and disproportionate importance to them. Unfortunately, cognitive regulatory capture leads to crony capitalism just as outright corruption would do.

There is a lot more at the link below.

Obama’s Big Sellout – Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

About 

Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.

7 Comments

  1. LavrentiBeria says:

    While I would not be wholly in accord with it, below is an interesting comment to Taibbi – and to anyone else who bought into the hype last year – that appeared beneath the article at Rolling Stone and which puts a somewhat different gloss on this question:

    “Good article, except your a year too late. How convenient. You should have been thinking about this before the election. The left is now crying their baby has crapped on them (this is hilarious cause he did it from day 1). For years the right was crying their baby crapped on them too (farm bill, prescription plan, on and on)

    Let me fill you in on something. This situation in government is nothing new to people with brains in this nation who vote 3rd party, whether that is for someone like Ralph Nader or Ron Paul.

    You are the typical ideologue if you think you get anything different from a Democrat or Republican. It has been that way in this nation for decades now.

    We have the unbalanced news media to thank for Obama, pushing him and his phony agenda down the sheep throats of this nation.

    Instead of trying to marginalize the tea party crowd, you should be marginalizing the major political parties and educating people. How many democratic voters even know about Barney Frank and all the involvement him and Dodd had in this collapse? Few, and those that do choose to ignore it. Don’t pick on that poor woman. Blinders are not a tea party problem, it is an ideologue problem brought on by an educational system that promotes agenda while suppressing free thought and a media that feeds on divisive reporting that fuels descent in the nation to boost ratings.

    Why not make yourself and all the other buffoons whom promoted and voted this clown in out to be idiots? That is exactly what you were.

    Well, we have you, your party and your media pals to thank for this president. If there is anything left of this nation in 4 years the 2 major parties can elect another clown into office.

    In 2010 and again in 2012, I will listen to the rhetoric of both sides, the lies from candidates and major media, the twisting of facts from so called journalists and again, I will vote 3rd party and shake my head. If it wasn’t so sick, it would be funny.”

    I wonder why it is that this party votes at all. I relieved myself years ago of the illusion that voting – even protest voting – was a justifiable behavior.

  2. alicia banks says:

    wow!!!
    excellent column!
    thanks for calling obama out!
    alicia banks
    eloquent fury

  3. David says:

    Corruption to the power of ten. Duplicate a DVD or go to a file sharing website and go to prison for 5 years and get slapped with a $250,000 fine. Undermine the world economy, throw 5 million people out of work and 4 million people out of their homes and get multi-million dollar bonuses and billions of dollars in government hands.

    I think the Democratic re-election slogan for 2012 should be “CRIME PAYS”

  4. robuzo says:

    “But you don’t need to prove intent, you only need to prove motive. I don’t care if Froman or Geithner ‘intended’ to favour Citi over other institutions; I care whether they were mentally predisposed to helping Citi and other large institutions at the expense of others because they ascribed unwarranted and disproportionate importance to them.”

    A very important point that makes me glad I took the time to read your post.