Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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GOP: Now Finance Reform Is Good!

| Wed Apr. 21, 2010 6:11 AM PDT

It took them a week or so, but Republicans in the Senate finally realized that locking arms with big banks and their lobbyists does a doozy on your public image. Ever since Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made the disingenuous claim early last week that the current finance bill would create "endless taxpayer-funded bailouts," and soon after reports emerged that McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) had met with top hedge fund managers in New York to discuss reform with them, the GOP has looked like the party of Goldman Sachs at a time of boiling public anger at bankers and financiers.

Now, predictably, the GOP is backtracking. Yesterday, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-RI) told a Bloomberg radio station he hoped for a bipartisan solution on financial reform, and later on Tuesday, more top GOPers pared back the partisan fighting and extended their olive branches. "I'm convinced now there is a new element of seriousness attached to this, rather than just trying to score political points...I think that's a good sign," McConnell said, according to the Washington Post. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the banking committee and a leading voice on financial reform, said he believed the Senate was "going to get there" on financial reform, adding that "we've got a few days to negotiate, and the spirit is good." Several other Republicans, like the Maine senatorial duo of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, could ultimately lend a bipartisan imprimatur to a finance bill, too. (Though no one's forgotten Snowe's health care back-out, so I wouldn't hold my breath.)

All of this is quite a reversal for the Republicans, who only last week drafted a letter outright opposing the finance bill. All 41 Senate Republicans signed the letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.). But the reasoning behind their reversal is obvious: With the Goldman-SEC suit adding momentum to reform efforts (momentum that, some GOPers believe, might've been deliberately created), the GOP's opposition made them look like Wall Street's cronies. And with midterm elections to worry about, that's an image every politician right now wants to avoid.

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Geithner Defends Goldman's Gambling Chips

| Tue Apr. 20, 2010 12:19 PM PDT

At a packed hearing today on the 2,200-page autopsy of Lehman Brothers, a painstakingly detailed report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was asked about a obscure yet destructive financial product called a collateralized debt obligation (CDO). In particular, the questioner, Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), wanted to know Geithner's take on "synthetic" CDOs, which are complex derivatives whose value rose and fall depending on the swings in the housing market. (That allegedly rigged Goldman Sachs deal at the heart of the SEC's suit? Yep, a synthetic CDO.) Unlike regular CDOs, which are backed by pools of actual mortgage loans, synthetic CDOs take the gambling to a new level: They're not backed by actual loans at all. Instead they were created by Wall Street's rocket scientists when the stream of real loans ran out to fulfill the demand from investors clamoring to bet more on the housing market.

You're probably asking, What do synthetic CDOs mean to me? Well, other than helping to explode the economy, not much. In fact, there's been considerable doubts and hand-wrining on whether these products serve any purpose whatsoever. "With a synthetic CDO, it's a pure bet," Erik F. Gering, a former securities lawyer and now a law professor at the University of New Mexico, told the New York Times. "It is hard to see what the social value is—it's hard to see why you'd want to encourage these bets." 

Back to Geithner. What Rep. Donnelly asked the treasury secretary was this: If they're essentially explosive poker chips that helped topple the economy, do we need synthetic CDOs? Should we get rid of them? To no one's surprise, Geithner wavered. He vacillated. While he admitted that the logic fueling the rise of synthetic CDOs before the housing crisis—that the market would grow and grow and never stop—was horribly wrong, he chose not to disavow these products that have little, if any, purpose apart from speculative investing. "They do provide a useful economic function," Geithner said. Whether that function benefits anyone other than the people in the casino remains to be seen.

Bipartisan Finance Bill Alive?

| Tue Apr. 20, 2010 10:04 AM PDT

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-RI), a top senator with a hand in financial regulatory reform, held out hope today that the Senate's bill to rewrite the rules of our financial markets could still garner bipartisan support. "I hope we’ll do a negotiated compromise because there's not really a big partisan divide here," Gregg told a Bloomberg radio program. "It's just a question of getting it right."

The bill, which is set to hit the Senate floor tomorrow or Thursday, has become the latest lightning rod issue to divide the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sparked the partisan bickering by disingenuously saying the bill would lead to "endless taxpayer-funded bailouts"; soon after, all 41 Republicans in the Senate signed a letter opposing the current version of reform legislation. That divide between Democrats and Republicans has been exacerbated by an armada of Wall Street and other financial lobbyists seeking to water down the Senate's financial reform bill and play members of both parties off of each other. The challenge facing Democrats is rounding up one or two or three GOP votes to overcome Republicans' potential filibuster and pass the bill, which could be voted on as early as Monday of next week.

Why AIG's Goldman Threat Is Good for You

| Tue Apr. 20, 2010 8:48 AM PDT

It may not look like good news, but if you're an American taxpayer, pay attention. AIG, the massive global insurer and beneficiary of billions of dollars in taxpayer cash, is eyeing a lawsuit against Goldman Sachs, a move clearly piggybacking on the Securities and Exchange Commission's announcement that it was suing Goldman for allegedly misleading its clients. The SEC's suit, filed on Friday, says Goldman created and sold a complex financial product called a collateralized debt obligation (CDO), whose value depended on the health of the subprime mortgage market, and that Goldman let a hedge fund trader wanting to bet against the housing bubble, John Paulson, pick basement-quality bonds to make up that CDO. More importantly, Goldman, the SEC alleges, failed to tell the buyers of that CDO that Paulson picked those bonds and that he was betting against those bonds and the housing market.

AIG's potential suit, the Financial Times reports, would center on "losses incurred on USD 6 billion of insurance deals on mortgage-backed securities similar to one that led to fraud charges against the US bank." In other words, AIG sold insurance against the failure of the Goldman bonds in question, from a family of bonds called Abacus. When those bonds inevitably failed, AIG had to pay out, recording losses of $2 billion. But now knowing that crucial information about the strength of those bonds was allegedly left out, AIG could have a case to make. 

The insurer, you'll remember, is a company largely buoyed by the American taxpayer—something to the tune of $134 billion, including the Federal Reserve and Treasury's support. Someday, a portion of those funds could make their way back into the government's coffers if and when AIG returns to full health. This suit against Goldman, however, could help AIG recoup some of its losses, which ultimately is a good thing for the American taxpayer that so generously kept a too-big-to-fail AIG from crumbling to the ground.

Obama, the Shareholder Activist?

| Tue Apr. 20, 2010 2:10 AM PDT

As the Senate's financial reform effort nears the final stretch, there's no mistaking the Obama administration's stance on regulating derivatives, the complex products that derive their value from underlying prices (the cost of wheat, say, or certain stock's value) and are used to both hedge risk and recklessly bet on the economy. Gary Gensler, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission which oversees derivatives, wants the opaque, $450 trillion over-the-counter derivatives market dragged fully into the open, so price, volume, and the structure of deals is transparent. Ditto Treasury Secretary Neil Wolin, who has said, "We cannot afford to wait to...bring transparency and oversight to derivatives." And Obama himself said last week he'll veto any bill if it lacks tough derivatives regulation. But is Obama and Co. truly doing all it can to back up all that tough talk on derivatives?

That's what one group, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, is essentially asking, on the eve of a vote on a major shareholder resolution set to be voted on today by shareholders of Citigroup. ICCR is calling on the US government to flex its shareholder muscle (at 2010's outset, the US government owned 27 percent of Citi) by voting its shares in support of a resolution, filed by ICCR, calling on Citi's board of directors to report on how the bank uses collateral for its derivatives trading and, more importantly, the bank's position on using their customers' money for derivatives trading. 

Such a report would shed plenty of light on the bank's derivatives policies, ICCR says, and would align with the calls for greater transparency from the White House, Treasury, and many lawmakers in Congress. "To adopt an inconsistent posture at this critical juncture on derivatives disclosure would be disastrous," says ICCR executive director Laura Berry, "both in terms of how Wall Street reads the signals from Washington and how seriously Congress sees the Obama administration as being in its support of vital financial services reform."

Unlike most bailed-out banks which have bought back their shares, the US government—and by extension the American taxpayer—still owns a significant chunk of Citi. Granted, the US' ownership in Citi has begun to dwindle, as the Treasury announced plans in March to sell off its stake throughout 2010. Still, nowhere near all of those stocks are sold. If the US government voted in favor of the resolution, it could provide some major heft to the broader calls for greater disclosure and regulation of derivatives.

At the moment, the signs suggest that "yes" vote is unlikely. The Treasury, which orchestrated the bailout, has consistently taken a hands-off stance regarding its stock holdings, and a Treasury spokeswoman, Meg Reilly, told Mother Jones yesterday that the department had no comment. Even in the resolution passes without the US government's help, it'd be a major victory for those trying to bring some sunshine to an insanely lucrative and wholly unregulated corner of our financial markets.

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