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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Goldman Hires Bush Crony's PR Firm

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 12:48 PM EST

Yes, billions of dollars in bailouts and bonuses, counterparty fiascos, claims to be "doing God's work," and almost singlehandedly toppling the entire economy of Greece will do quite a number on your public image. For a general public that hardly knew who Goldman Sachs was before the crisis, the name now evokes feelings of disgust and mistrust, of "fat cat" bankers stuffing the pockets in their designer suits with taxpayer dollars in the greatest heist this country's ever seen. Quite simply, Goldman has a massive PR migraine that's only getting worse.

So, the New York Post reports, the firm's fearless, Bronx-born leader, Lloyd Blankfein, did what any rightminded corporate CEO would do: He brought in some PR muscle To spruce up Goldman's image Blankfein turned to Public Strategies, a slick Texas-based firm led by Dan Bartlett, a close confidante to George W. Bush and Karl Rove. From the Post story:

Earlier this month, Goldman clients and Wall Street analysts starting filling out an exhaustive, online questionnaire seeking to pinpoint exactly what people thought of Blankfein's firm. One question wanted survey participants to compare Goldman to other Wall Street banks—and names rivals JPMorgan Chase, UBS, Bank of America, Citigroup and Barclays. Respondents were asked to fill in blanks from least favorable to most favorable.

...

"For the first 139 years it wasn't that relevant to us to explain ourselves," Blankfein told Fortune recently. "And now it became very relevant and the press did an important thing for us, they pointed out to us that that was a deficiency in our strategy, not to reveal ourselves...I'm just trying to take pains, which we should have done all along, to make sure that people understand what we do in the world."

Yes, please, Lloyd—do explain to the people what exactly the purpose of a synthetic collaterized debt obligation is apart from a massive casino chip.

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Treasury Secretaries Back Volcker Rule

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 11:23 AM EST

Five former Treasury Secretaries, from Democratic and Republican administrations alike, voiced their support for the "Volcker Rule" on Sunday in a joint letter to the Wall Street Journal. The secretaries—Michael Blumenthal, Paul O'Neill, George Shultz, Nicholas Brady, and John Snow—said the rule, which would separate banks' riskier trading operations like hedge funds from their more staid commercial banking duties—wrote that "Banks benefiting from public support by means of access to the Federal Reserve and FDIC insurance should not engage in essentially speculative activity unrelated to essential bank services."

The former secretaries' support adds momentum behind the proposed regulation, offered by former Federal Reserve chairman and Obama ally Paul Volcker, going into a week when the Senate, led by banking committee chair Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), plans to unveil its version of comprehensive financial reform. (The House's version of financial reform, passed in December, gives the Treasury and the president the power to divest assets from banks if necessary.) Broadly speaking, the Volcker Rule is supported by Congressional Democrats involved in financial reform as well as many finance experts. Despite the massive amounts of speculation that fueled the economic meltdown, large financial institutions generally say they're more than capable of policing their own risky trading operations, and don't see the need to split those hedge funds and private equity funds from their rest of their company. We'll see sometime this week whether Dodd and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Dodd's latest partner in financial-reform talks, decide to include the Volcker Rule in their plans.

 

Obama's New Housing Band-Aid

| Sat Feb. 20, 2010 8:00 AM EST

Is President Obama's latest foreclosure fix, a $1.5 billion program targeting hard-hit states, another boondoggle in his housing rescue?

Earlier today, Obama announced in Las Vegas the program to tackling the housing crisis in states like Michigan, Nevada, Florida, and a few others by asking state and local Housing Finance Agencies, or HFAs, to create innovative new ways to address mounting foreclosures tailored to their areas. HFAs, in Obama's new plan, will submit program designs to the Treasury Department specifically geared to help homeowners who're unemployed, underwater (they owe more than their home is worth), or grappling with second mortgages on their homes. The $1.5 billion in funding will come from the bailout bill passed in 2008 that set aside $50 billion for housing-related programs, including the Home Affordable Modification Program. "The funding announced today will help target resources to those hardest hit markets, promoting innovation that tailors programs to meet local needs and complementing our national foreclosure relief efforts," said Shaun Donovan, the Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary.

The new program arrives at something of a crossroads for the housing industry. While a report by credit analyst TransUnion earlier this week found that mortgage delinquencies—traditionally a precursor to foreclosures—were at record levels, statistics released today by the Mortgage Bankers Association suggest that, as the organization's chief economist put it, we've reached "the beginning of the end" of the foreclosure crisis. Fewer people, the MBA found, are late on their loan payments, which points to a potential upturn on the horizon. With that in mind, Obama's new program could be a catalyst in that budding recovery.

Lending experts, however, voiced doubts over whether the program will really do all that much. "This latest effort is just a Band-Aid," said Kathleen Day with the Center for Responsible Lending. Day said what's needed is a housing relief program in which loan modifications are mandatory, which isn't the case with the multi-billion dollar Home Affordable Modification Program, Obama's flagship relief program. Running with the medical theme, Day went on to say, "Every additional Band-Aid helps, but we need take a more wholistic view of the patient and need a more fundamental diagnosis and prognosis."

But even this new Band-Aid is no guarantee to stop the bleeding in the housing market. As Herb Allison, the Treasury's TARP czar, told reporters in a conference call today, the new $1.5 billion program was created to "foster innovation" and promote outside-the-box ways for addressing housing problems specific to hard-hit areas but potentially applicable on a national level. Innovation, however, is no easy, quick task, and to think that HFAs will generate novel ideas for stemming foreclosures in a month or two is probably wishful thinking. Allison said rules on the program would be issued in two weeks, and that the application process would begin sometime after that, though he declined to elaborate further. All of which is say, even if Obama's new housing Band-Aid generates smart new ideas for helping homeowners, it won't be happening anytime particularly soon.

Man Bulldozes Home over Foreclosure

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 6:41 PM EST

A bit of truly bizarre news from Foreclosureland.

Faced with foreclosure, Terry Hoskins, a struggling homeowner in Moscow, Ohio, decided to bulldoze his $350,000 home rather than let his bank, RiverHills Bank, take it from him. "When I see I owe $160,000 on a home valued at $350,000, and someone decides they want to take it—no, I wasn't going to stand for that, so I took it down," Hoskins told TV station WLWT in Ohio. The story goes on to say:

Hoskins said the Internal Revenue Service placed liens on his carpet store and commercial property on state Route 125 after his brother, a one-time business partner, sued him.

The bank claimed his home as collateral, Hoskins said, and went after both his residential and commercial properties.

The Moscow man used a bulldozer two weeks ago to level the home he'd built, and the sprawling country home is now rubble, buried under a coating of snow.

"As far as what the bank is going to get, I plan on giving them back what was on this hill exactly (as) it was," Hoskins said. "I brought it out of the ground and I plan on putting it back in the ground."

(H/T Calculated Risk)

Credit Card Fee Blitz Escalates

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 8:30 AM EST

On Monday, the second phase of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009—a major overhaul that boosts safeguards against unfair interest-rate hikes, excessive penalties, and other predatory practices—goes into effect, so of course big banks are doing their best to shift the cost of these new changes onto consumers themselves through higher rates and tricky new fees. Among its many provisions, the Credit CARD Act, as it’s called, will require credit card issuers to offer fair notice of changes in interest rates, ban universal default practices, and let consumers opt in to overdraft protection. The first phase of the CARD Act went into effect last fall; the third and final phase is slated for late August. Not to be outdone, though, banks are ensuring the burden of these new regulations don't fall on them.

Citigroup, for instance, recently sent letters to many of its Citi Card customers informing them of a new annual fee of $60. The only way to avoid that fee, the letter says, is to either spend more than $2,400 each year, after which the fee would be credited back to cardholders, or to pay off your debts and close the account. A Citigroup spokesman said the fee was "necessary given the increasing costs of doing business." The message, of course, is simple: Spend more money through the bank, which in turn increases the likelihood Citigroup will collect late fees and other charges, or take your business elsewhere. As one Citi Card holder told Mother Jones, "What they're doing is getting rid of prudent customers."

And that's just one example of what banks and credit card companies are up to in reaction to legislation like the Credit CARD Act. According to IndexCreditCards.com, a comprehensive site with data on credit card offerings, interest rates for consumers jumped by 0.42 percentage points in the past month, and the average rate offered to new customers, 16.7 percent, is the highest since 2005, with rates for both reward and non-reward cards continuing to climb. "We're clearly seeing one of the unintended consequences of the new law," IndexCreditCards.com founder Adam Jusko said in a statement. "We seem to be going from a marketplace in which a relatively few cardholders got into deep trouble to one in which the misery is more evenly spread."

What consumer advocates hope, however, is that the savings from the CARD Act will outweigh the banking industry’s efforts to pass costs along to consumers. By cutting retroactive rate increases and “hair-trigger” penalty interest rates, the CARD Act could save consumers more than $10 billion a year, according to the Pew Charitable Trust’s Safe Credit Cards Project. Pew also is pushing for an overhaul of late fees charged to cardholders, which the organization says are far too excessive right now. “We are seeing instances where Americans are being charged excessive penalties for exceeding their credit limits by even one dollar," Nick Bourke, the head of the Safe Credit Cards Project, said recently. "A $39 fee for exceeding a credit limit by just a few dollars, or for missing a $70 minimum payment deadline by a few hours, is difficult to justify as 'reasonable' or 'proportional' under the factors identified in the new law."

In late August, the Federal Reserve will issue a definition of what "reasonable and proportional" penalties for credit cards should be, which will be the third and final phase of the CARD Act. "We encourage regulators to implement strong rules that directly address disproportionate penalties," says Pew's Bourke.

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