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michael-corbat

Citibank’s Michael Corbat, 2nd highest paid banker on the list.

In 2013 the top 27 executives at Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, and Ally —the five big financial institutions most responsible for the foreclosure crisis, and subject to the National Mortgage Settlement— paid themselves $296 million in cash and stock. Under the National Mortgage Settlement these banks were forced to write down principal debt on home loans in California. The average principal reduction they granted on 1st lien loans was about $137,000. 33,000 California borrowers benefited from this.

Had the banks applied the $296 million to further principal reduction, instead of using it to pay their top 27 executives, they could have wiped out debt on another 2,164 home loans, effectively saving about that many homes from foreclosure.

And if the banks applied the same sum they paid to their top 27 executives over the past 3 years (2011-2013), a total of $735 million, the could have reduced the 1st lien principal debt on 5,367 homes in California.

To put that in perspective, there were about 31,400 foreclosures in California in 2013, and 283,000 foreclosures between 2011 and 2013. It would have made a small, but significant, contribution to reducing the number of foreclosures and freeing up the finances of thousands of struggling households.

But instead the banks paid their CEOs, CFOs, COOs, VPs and Presidents millions. Average pay in 2011 for these bankers was $11 million each. Wells Fargo’s CEO John Stumpf led the list with over $19 million in compensation in 2013, followed Citibank executives Michael Corbat and James Forese. Three of JPMorgan Chase’s bankers (none of them the infamous Jamie Dimon) followed in the 4th, 5th, and 6th position pulling $16 and $17 million salaries and stock grants.

In 2014 the pay for these 27 executives, whose compensation is public record, will most likely be up yet again, easily topping $300,000,000.

ExecCompBanks

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cityoflondon

The City of London, the world’s most central financial hub and site of the biggest Eurodollar money market which LIBOR was created to govern.

The importance of uncovering the complete truth about the LIBOR rigging conspiracy cannot be overstated for local communities across the United States, especially here in California.

It’s been five years since a few academics and journalists began to dig up evidence that something was wrong with the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate, or LIBOR (pronounced appropriately as “lie-bore.”) The data that curious researchers were compiling couldn’t be explained using the prevailing definition of what LIBOR supposedly was: a trustworthy interest rate that accurately gauged the market price of borrowed US dollars held overseas by the world’s biggest banks. Instead, their findings pointed toward something other than an idealized neoliberal market, influenced only by impersonal supply and demand forces. Many began to realize that the data could easily be explained if the banks were rigging the LIBOR rate in their favor. Strange discrepancies in LIBOR’s correlation to other rates, and to the economic fundamentals of the bank companies responsible for formulating the rate, showed something seriously amiss, but it made sense if the banks were cheating.

The motives of the banks have been clear from the beginning. A few banks that dominate the marketplace for derivatives stand to make billions if LIBOR moves in their favor on particular days when contractual payments between them and their customers come due. They therefore suppressed the rates in order to skim billions of dollars off derivatives and investments. Later these same banks suppressed LIBOR rates to create the illusion that their balance sheets were robust during the financial crisis. This also allowed them further rounds of money-siphoning from their unwitting derivatives customers.

Barclays-logoUntil recently LIBOR rates have been set by a panel of banks that are members of the British Bankers Association (BBA). The BBA is a private industry group established almost 100 years ago to lobby for the financial industry in one of its global hubs, London. The BBA really came into power in the mid-1980s with the creation of LIBOR. LIBOR was created to further integrate the giant global money market in US dollars held in overseas banks or holding companies, and therefore unregulated by the US Federal Reserve. Called “Eurodollars,” because they originally were dollar savings accumulated in European banks, especially banks in London, these funds quickly became a de facto global currency. LIBOR began as a way for the banks to standardize investment products for these vast pools of American dollars flowing through Europe, and later Japan, the Middle East, and Latin America. By the 1990s LIBOR had become such an important set of interest rates, and US dollars held overseas had becomes such an important source of credit for US consumers, that LIBOR became the key global interest rate around which many financial products were pegged. As LIBOR became more and more important to the globalization of finance, it accrued a sort of official, trusty gloss; nearly everyone assumed that LIBOR was a market rate reflecting competition. Instead, LIBOR has probably all along been a fudged rate, determined less by vast market forces and invisible hands, and more by the vulgar self-interest and power of the elite banks that set LIBOR rates.

citiLast year government investigations into this globe-spanning crime —rightly called the biggest financial scam in all of history— led to multi-billion dollar fines against Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and UBS, the 7th, 8th, and 20th largest banks in the world, respectively. Criminal investigations spearheaded by US, UK, Japanese, Canadian, Swiss, and Singaporean authorities are ongoing and aimed at other banks such as Citigroup, JP Morgan, Bank of America, and other “too big to fail” institutions. More details of the crime will be forthcoming as e-mails, internal documents, phone tapes, text messages, and other evidence, is made public, and as the banks are forced to pay significant fines, and sign plea agreements.

While this scandal might seem worlds away, concerning complex financial concepts and obscure money market instruments dealt by bankers out of skyscraper offices in the City of London, the importance of uncovering the complete truth about the LIBOR rigging conspiracy cannot be overstated for local communities across the United States, especially here in California.

ubsWhy? First, LIBOR has been used since the 1990s to determine cash flows on interest rate swaps that local governments have purchased from banks to insure themselves against wild swings in variable interest rates owed on billions of municipal debt. Messing with LIBOR messes with the payments due on these instruments.

Second, LIBOR has also been used as a main interest rate of reference for an array of investment products that yield a variable return, dipping and rising in concert with LIBOR. Local and state governments have used these investment products, called “municipal derivatives reinvestment products” to temporarily park public funds, while pension systems and government enterprises like utilities use them make investments. Governments and public agencies earn LIBOR rate returns on their dollars invested in numerous kinds of municipal derivatives, so if LIBOR is illegally fixed downward, they earn less income.

jp_morgan_chase_logo_2723Through both of these forms of exposure, local governments have potentially been harmed by LIBOR-fixing perpetrated by the banks, often times the very same banks that have sold them swaps or municipal derivatives investment products.

California is fast emerging as a center of investigation and litigation into the LIBOR-fixing conspiracy. California is the largest single municipal debt market in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. Last year alone the state of California and its cities, counties, school districts, and other public entities issued $65.7 billion in total public debt. Because of California’s regressive tax structure and chronic budget crises, the state’s multitude of governments have been among the most aggressive in issuing variable rate debt hedged with interest rate swaps.

The Golden State’s local governments have also been the largest purchasers of municipal derivatives contracts from banks because streams of tax and fee revenues often don’t match up with the dates that payments to public employees and contractors come due. Collusive suppression of LIBOR rates by the 16-member panel who were trusted to provide accurate quotes could mean that California local governments have paid untold millions to their interest rate swap counterparties (the banks) that should otherwise have remained in budgets and used to fund school construction, bus lines, street paving, water and sewerage services, etc.

In the 1990s and 2000s local governments across California increasingly issued bonds with variable rates. Investment bank underwriters and municipal debt advisers from the private sector encouraged variable rate bond financing because it promised lower interest rates for California’s cash-strapped municipalities. To hedge against the risk that variable rates might explode, as they did in the 1980s, the banks sold interest rate swaps to local governments. The swaps effectively converted floating rate debt into a fixed rate. Under a typical swap contract the bank seller agrees to pay a floating rate designed to mimic the variable rate interest on the bond debt, and in return the local government agrees to pay a fixed rate. I’ve written elsewhere about how this deal blew up and created a financial injustice when variable interest rates plummeted during and after the Financial Crisis, but the LIBOR rigging conspiracy adds to these harms. The US government bailed out the banks and assisted them in taking “toxic” derivatives assets off their hands, but stood idly by while cities, counties, and public agencies suffered without aid during the Financial Crisis, allowing derivatives instruments on the public’s books to blow up and drain budgets. At this very moment the banks perpetrated an illegal scam to suck even more money from the public via further depression of LIBOR.

Barclays, RBS, UBS, and other banks worked together to suppress LIBOR below even the depths to which it sank after 2008. A number of lawsuits filed by various cities, counties, and public agencies in California asserts the banks did this to skim off an unknown, but very large, amount of money from their public victims, and also to bolster their own balance sheets during the crisis. By suppressing LIBOR the banks ensured that the net difference between the variable rates they owed, and the fixed rates the public was paying on swaps, was wider than it would otherwise have been. This net difference meant that the public owed the banks higher amounts when the interest rate swap payments came due (usually twice a year).

For San Francisco this could mean that millions have been stolen from the capital budget of its Airport. SFO currently has seven interest rate swaps it has purchased to convert variable rate bond debt into synthetic fixed rates. The airport’s counterparties on its swaps included JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch (owned by Bank of America), and Goldman Sachs. Each of these banks likely benefited from conspiratorial suppression of LIBOR, even if it was by just a few basis points (hundredths of a percent). JP Morgan Chase and Merrill’s parent Bank of America are both members of the panel that sets LIBOR, and are both believed to have played a role in the conspiracy.

San Francisco’s pension system may have also been raided by the banks through its speculative investments in swaps. According to the most recent audit of the San Francisco Retirement System’s portfolio, the city’s pension system holds two interest rate swaps on its books with a notional value of $15 million. In prior years, SFERs held other swaps. In 2010, the Retirement System’s audit showed three interest rate swaps with a total notional value of $41 million. Over the last two years these swaps drained $5.3 million from the pension system, and some of these losses might have been due to the downward manipulation of LIBOR. Also on the Retirement System’s books are other investments in bank loans, options, and other securities that might have been impacted by the LIBOR fraud.

San Francisco’s LIBOR damages are probably small in comparison to other local governments and public agencies. The East Bay Municipal Utility District has already filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging damages from bank rigging of LIBOR. The water district’s complaint, filed in January of 2013, alleges that LIBOR suppression drained potentially millions, again from interest rate swap agreements with some of the very banks that sit on the LIBOR-panel: Citibank, JP Morgan Chase, and Bank of America. East Bay MUD lists nine interest rate swaps potentially affected by LIBOR rigging in its lawsuit.

East Bay MUD’s swaps had a total notional amount of $481 million in 2012, according to the utility’s most recent financial report. Downward manipulation of LIBOR by just 10 to 50 basis points (1/10th to 1/2 of a percent) could have drained between $481,000 to $2,400,000 through East Bay MUD’s swap payments every six months. Over a few years, say the conspiracy’s 2007-2010 time-frame alleged in EBMUD’s lawsuit, this would add up to millions of dollars stolen by the banks.

EBMUDswaps

The cities of Richmond, San Diego, and Riverside, and the County of San Mateo, are other California governments that have now filed lawsuits against the banks responsible for setting LIBOR. All of these lawsuits have been consolidated into a larger class action case currently being heard in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, before Judge Naomi Buchwald. There are now about two dozen LIBOR manipulation lawsuits that have been filed and consolidated in New York. The lead case is the City of Baltimore and the New Britain Firefighters’ and Police Benefit Fund lawsuit against the 16-bank LIBOR panel, filed in April of 2012.

More California cities, counties, and public agencies are expected to file their own lawsuits soon, however. CalPERS, which has numerous investments that fluctuate in value and yield with LIBOR, is also said to be investigating its own exposure to rate rigging.

future-generations-debtCalifornia Watch published a very important story last month about the massive debt loads that capital appreciation bonds have heaped upon at least 400 school districts in California. Called CABs for short, many cash-strapped districts have resorted to these types of bonds in order to finance necessary buildings and infrastructure upgrades. Unfortunately without CABs, and because of California’s gutted property tax and slack economy, it would otherwise have been impossible to fund school construction over the last half decade in many regions.

Unlike normal bonds used by local governments to finance capital projects, CABs allow for repayment of interest and principal spread over longer time frames, often with no need to begin paying back principal immediately. This means easy money here and now, but it also means that the borrower will pay back much more over the term of the bonds than a regular loan, sometimes as high as 23 times the original borrowed sum.

There’s one error in how California Watch framed their story, however. Following State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, the reporters and editors imply that CABs shift the debt burden onto future generations – the kids. It’s right there in the story title, “Controversial school bonds create ‘debt for the next generation’,” and then it gets restated in the intro:

[School district administrators] have borrowed $9 billion that will cost taxpayers $36 billion to repay over the next 40 years, according to data compiled by California Treasurer Bill Lockyer. He called it “debt for the next generation.”

“The average tenure of a school superintendent is about three and a half years, so they aren’t going to be around in most instances to worry about paying that off,” Lockyer said in an interview. “Nor will the voters, probably, that enacted it in the first place.”

The idea that California’s children will be stuck paying the the debts of their irresponsible parents might be a catchy news frame, but it’s not economically accurate. It also de-politicizes the issue at hand and gives the story an uncontroversial gloss because it’s the “next generation” in the abstract that is losing out.

What’s actually happening is not a shifting of the burden to future Californians yet unborn, but rather an immediate transfer of income between classes and races, with the working and middle class residents of these various school districts being forced to pay out a greater share of their incomes to a small elite of rentiers who will come to hold these capital appreciation bonds when their investment managers purchase them in the bond market.

The idea that public debt is a burden to future generations rests on the idea that the current generation is acting as a spendthrift, carelessly buying what they want now in a fit of irresponsible pleasure seeking, and allowing the payments to come due in later years. This is wrong, however. We’ve known this generational theory of indebtedness to be wrong for over a century. One of the earlier logical refutations of the future-generations debt burden myth was provided by political economist Arthur Pigou. In his classic A Study In Public Finance Pigou wrote:

“It is sometimes thought that whether and how far an enterprise or enterprises ought to be financed out of loans depends on whether and how far future generations will benefit from it. This conception rests on the idea that the cost of anything paid for out of loans falls on future generations while the cost met out of taxes are borne by the present generations. Though twenty-five years ago this idea could claim some respectable support, it is now everywhere acknowledged to be fallacious.”

Twenty-five years prior to the time Pigou laid out this refutation was 1898.

Rather than constituting inter-generational transfers of wealth, Pigou explains how these are transfers of wealth in the present.

“[…]interest and sinking fund on internal loans are merely transfers from one set of people in the country to another set, so that the two sets together —future generations as a whole— are not burdened at all [….] it is the present generation that pays.”

Like a lot of liberal economists of his era, Pigou unfortunately also managed to obscure the inherently political nature of the problem by referring to “set[s] of people.” By “set” he really means that income and wealth is being transferred via debt between different classes. Large public debts tend to work as redistributive mechanisms that allow the truly wealthy to claim much larger shares of the total national income through the regressive taxes paid the working and middle classes.

This is exactly what’s happened with respect to California’s capital appreciation bonds. After decades of tax cuts, primarily via property taxes, and cuts to federal income and capital gains taxes passed on to local governments as cuts to federal aid to states, the wealthiest Americans now possess more of the income and wealth pie than they have since roughly the late 1920s. Lacking these untaxed dollars that have piled up in the bank accounts of the top 1 to 5 percent of America’s wealthiest residents, local governments have resorted to ever-increasingly desperate forms of debt financing to pay for everything from schools to healthcare. The wealthy have loaned their politically-gotten surplus of dollars to governments that no longer have the power to tax. The result is a current transfer of even more income and wealth to the rich in the form of higher interest rates paid back over longer periods.

Paul Krugman has commented on the fallacy of the future-generations debt burden trope also, and his take is worth reading for further clarity.

What the California Watch reporters did do well is name the names of some of the financial advisors and debt underwriters who have gotten rich off the fees they charge for recommending CABs to school districts. It will probably come as no surprise that the likes of Piper Jaffray and Goldman Sachs, among others, have made millions by facilitating the CAB boom. Financial advisors like Caldwell Flores Winters, Dale Scott & Co., and KNN Public Finance have reaped millions also.

Need I point out that the finance sharks who staff these companies are of course the same high net worth individuals who own the bond funds that gobble up CABs and other debt securities?

When Bill Clinton was elected in 1993 US Treasury bond yields were trading around 5 percent. Within a year prices dipped and yields shot upward of 8 percent. The bond market —meaning a relatively elite coterie of highly paid investment managers working for the largest global banks, insurance companies, and mutual funds— was sending a signal to the new administration: cut spending, reduce the federal deficit, and do whatever else necessary to reverse possible inflationary forces. Inflation is the mortal enemy of the rentier whose profits depend on interest rates outpacing the growth of prices.

Clinton complied. As a first-term president hoping for a sequel, Clinton knew that US government bond prices and yields respond to changes in monetary policy. If the bond market’s major players wanted to cause trouble by selling their holdings, as they were already doing, it would become costly to finance federal government. If the bond market’s masters could be appeased, they would hold their securities, purchase more, and yields would drop. Clinton’s team set a contractionary monetary policy in motion. Luckily the economy grew in spite of these measures during Clinton’s first term, leading to his re-election. That appeasing the bond market’s masters also required imposing austerity measures above and beyond what the Democrats had planned for upset some liberals in the administration.

It was in this fix that Clinton adviser James Carville famously quipped, “I used to think that if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or as a .400 baseball hitter. But now I would like to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.”

That sentiment about sums up the relationship between capital, perhaps most purely personified in the financial rentiers who buy and sell government bonds, and the state, personified by the countless local and state governments always seeking to borrow capital, and always intimidated by those who have it. Capitalism may have emerged as a mercantilist system sometimes at odds with the monarchs and priests who ran early state bureaucracies. Capitalism may have undergone an industrial revolution and seen various phases of hegemony in which the merchant and manufacturer have called the shots, but capitalism’s real center of power all along has been the financier. Lest we forget, the financier emerged not as the venturesome investor supporting the expansion of companies and funding the ideas of private entrepreneurs. Rather, the financier emerged first to fund the state and its wars. Ever since there has existed a relationship between private capital and the government defined by the rentier’s thirst for yields that outpace inflation, and exchange rate changes, and the state’s thirst for access to debt financing.

Of course a half-millennium of history, of economic accumulation, nation building, imperialism, and urbanization has radically transformed the relationship between capital and the state. The nexus of the state’s powers, to borrow, spend and tax, and capital’s powers, to fund and accumulate, has grown incredibly complex. There are countless institutional variations of this meshing of government and business across nations and sub-national governments. (And this of course is to say nothing of the still multi-trillion dollar “informal economies” of mutual aid and criminal venture that escape and subvert the regulated channels of capital and the fiscal state.)

In the US, however, we see the most fine-tuned, rationalized, and massive combination of private capital and state finances. For all the variations between states and among the multitudes of counties and cities in the federal system, the public’s finances are remarkably standardized, and capital’s role, and the power it wields over the people at all levels of government is rather the same whether you’re in Seattle or Puerto Rico.

And what is capital’s role today in the public finance of the United States? What is the power of the bank, the private bond holder, the fund manager, or the broker over the various governmental units of the commonwealth? The state and capital are certainly co-dependents; capital depends on the state’s powers of monopoly violence, law, and regulation; and the state depends on capital for its fiscal life. Capitalism is defined by the private ownership of capital, however. Thus the state itself exists in a world in which fiscal power can only be borrowed and taxed, and not manifested by powers intrinsic to the state itself.

Enough theory though, what of the actual world we inhabit?

What this means for all of us living in actual communities, bounded by the fiscal authority of cities, counties, and states, inside units of government that do not even have the power to print money or set central bank rates, what this means is that a small number of financial institutions that control enormous concentrated pools of capital have a strange kind of power over our collective lives. These modern day lords of finance determine the terms on which our communities’ may access credit and capital. The few banks, insurers, and brokers that dominate public finance markets hold enormous sway over our decisions about whether and how to invest in schools, clean up the environment, pay for public safety, provision healthcare and housing. Or to do the opposite of these very things, to disinvest in public schools, subsidize polluting corporations, build prisons for the poor and luxury apartments for the rich – after all, our politics are hardly always beneficent attempts to provision public goods.

The rentiers do not often directly influence the what, where, and why of public spending, but they do control the how and when. Their over-arching goal isn’t to pick specific winners and losers in local politics – although there are dominant political philosophies popular among the lords of municipal finance, various conservative hues informed by fears of inflation, and hostile to other practical options that tend to foster egalitarian relations (think full employment policies like deficit spending, for example). Really though they don’t care much if cities spend the people’s credit on affordable housing and hospitals or five star hotels and casinos. They only care that they maximize the wealth that can be extracted from the public through claims they make on future state revenues. They draw the blood of cities, mindful that taking too much will kill the patient, but always pushing the limits to secure a maximum rate of return.

Gold in the vault, treasure.

Last week I mingled with the contemporary lords of municipal finance at one of their annual industry conventions, the Bond Buyer’s California Public Finance Conference. This particular gathering holds an important place on the calendars of the financiers. California is the biggest single market for public debt in the United States. With its numerous agencies and regional authorities, its 58 counties and 482 cities, California contains 38 million residents, and encapsulates a $2 trillion economy, a big chunk of which includes state and local spending on everything from the salaries of 352,000 public employees who teach millions of children in hundreds of school districts across the state, to paying the salaries of 31,000 more government workers employed to lock up roughly 400 out of every 100,000 of the state’s residents, mostly Black and Latino men from Los Angeles and the Bay Area cities. Prisons, schools, roads, airports, sewers, bridges, utilities, water, railways, housing, hospitals….

The fiscal affairs of California’s state agencies and local governments are complex due to the state’s tax system, sabotaged as it was by conservative libertarians in the late 1970s who mostly were just interested in securing the interests of parochial real estate rentiers, mere millionaires, apartment owners and small-time commercial real estate tycoons. In doing so they crippled cities and counties, creating an opening for global financial companies to increase their overall claims on the state’s tax receipts. The mismatch between California’s flow of tax revenues, and its actual budgetary requirements, both in terms of timing and magnitudes, makes the Golden State desperate for, well, gold, and lots of it. It’s these gargantuan borrowing needs of California governments that makes the state more important, and lucrative to the financiers than probably any other state. No other market offers so much capacity and has such a desperate need for borrowing throughout the year.

The modern public finance industry has devised innumerable novel products for California’s governments in perpetual search for more elastic money. No longer does the market rest on auction rate general obligation bonds – the boring traditional securities traded once upon a time by prudent Anglo-Saxon men with degrees from Yale and Stanford, managing their balanced portfolios, clipping their coupons in the same Manhattan and San Francisco offices where bonds were bought and sold over a century ago.

Government entities now routinely borrow using revenue anticipation notes tied to expected tax or fee income collected later in the annual cycle. Expectations are more speculative. The volatility of the economy weighs heavily on everything. Bonds and notes have proliferated into numerous varieties tied to specific taxes or fees and now often have variable interest rates.

California municipalities like Oakland and Sonoma County invented the pension obligation bond to pay down scandalously expensive pensions for retired cops and bureaucrats, and devised parcel taxes and other tax overrides to pair with said debts.

Cities like San Francisco devised lease revenue bonds to channel incomes generated by public assets like parking garages, parking meters, buses and street cars, to investors.

Cities and counties across the state have utilized lease-leaseback and sale-leaseback deals, tax increment financing, business improvement districts, private activity bonds, and numerous other novel finance arrangements to raise capital over the past several decades. All raised money, but at what cost? As the types of debt instruments have grown in number and complexity, and their financial impact on communities becomes more difficult to discern, what has become clear is how these products enable private parties to harvest value from the social product of the city.

In the 1990s and early 2000s even more complicated and opaque financial innovations multiplied in both the asset and liability columns of the public’s books. Cities, counties, and other agencies agreed to complicated interest rate swap agreements to trade variable rate debt payments for synthetic fixed obligations on billions in nominal debt. Other derivatives like guaranteed investment contracts (GICs) or even CDOs were purchased by local governments because the banks told them they were safe, temporary places to park public dollars. Some public officials even gambled on derivatives.

Along with these innovations in public finance (which often costs governments dearly, even if the financiers made their bucks back) are new experiments in infrastructure procurement. So-called public private partnerships have been authorized for highway and road projects across the state, and there’s even a courthouse in Long Beach that will be built and managed by private companies who will in essence lease it back to the state. Proponents of these forms of privatization claims such complicated P3 agreements will stretch public dollars across a greater number projects, getting more miles of asphalt out of every borrowed dollar. Whether they will or not remains to be seen. The track record is mixed on California’s first two P3 highways. Even so the state’s big public pension funds are rumored to be interested in placing money with infrastructure investment funds controlled by private equity groups and investment banks.

What they do immediately accomplish is clear. P3 deals provide yet another way for private investors to make claims on the wealth that the people as a social totality generate. Alongside these privatized highways, the Golden State’s ports are now being handed over to private consortiums of financiers who back terminal operating corporations. It’s yet another twist on the privatization of infrastructure that stops short of actually selling the assets off to investors, but still provides them with all the benefits a private owner would have.

The Bond Buyer’s California Public Finance Conference included all the chatter you would expect about these and other opportunities for the lords of finance to magnify their claims on the social capacity to produce wealth. A workshop was scheduled to discuss San Francisco’s privatized road Presidio Parkway, effectively sold to a German construction company and a French bank. It’s a model privatization project that is soon to be replicated in the Los Angeles region with other highways. Spanish, German, French, Australian, and US corporations and investment banks are said to be circling Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other regions in search of billion dollar infrastructure concessions. Toll roads that will be owned by private investors were discussed in another workshop under the guidance of a managing director from JP Mogan Securities. Another workshop delved into profitable investment strategies for those looking to purchase “distressed” debt from struggling cities, of which there are plenty in California. “Asset sales and other ways of restoring fiscal balance,” was one of the conference’s concluding sessions. Schwarzenegger tried to sell off state buildings during the last months of his presidency in 2010. The net proceeds would have been about $1.2 billion for two dozen edifices. California’s budget gap was almost $10 billion in 2011.

But before the main event and all these insightful workshops promoting strategies to intensify extraction of profits from the state was a pre-conference luncheon and discussion for the investors seeking an inside track. In the Merchant’s Exchange building, described as the city’s “commercial club,” a place “where city leaders and businessmen [meet] to socialize and address the issues of the day,” Bond Buyer conference attendees crowded in for lunch with California’s Treasurer Bill Lockyer. Lockyer told the audience, mostly middle-aged men in grey and blue suits with short haircuts, that he plans to sell $7.5 billion in state bonds through the next fiscal year, a big jump over the previous twelve months.

Some of the sponsors of the Bond Buyers’ annual California conference.

The elephant in the room?, California’s reputation as the most indebted state, and the recent bankruptcy of Stockton. The financiers, packed into the Merchant Exchange’s lavish Julia Morgan Ballroom, 15 floors above the “Wall Street of the West,” the intersection of Montgomery and California Streets, speculated with one another between speeches about the ability of local governments to repay debt. Would defaults ensue? Their co-dependence on the state was apparent, their anxiety palpable.

These fears were quickly addressed by speakers from credit rating agencies and current and former city officials. Their general conclusion was to assure the investors: “I genuinely believe these cities are outliers,” said Bill Statler, a conservative public finance director retired from San Luis Obispo who is well-liked by the rentiers. The fear among bondholders with Stockton, Vallejo, and few other California cities that have gone into bankruptcy, has everything to do with privilege, and maintaining their capital against the general deflation that has struck most plebeians. They should not be subject to the loss of capital that workers, children, the poor and elderly of indebted cities are.

James Spiotto, a lawyer who represents a few lords of municipal finance, complained of unfairness to capital: “the bondholders and insurers’ concern is, look, if we provide money to help these people are we just second-class citizens?” Such histrionics is typical when profitable yields are threatened by the collapse of a community due to growing poverty and geographic disinvestment whose social realities are brutal and violent on the ground. Stockton and Vallejo have become harsh places to live for those who cannot escape behind the walls of gated communities and private schools. Those left behind in California’s hollowed out post-industrial, post-Prop 13, post-dotcom, post-housing bubble towns have been abandoned by corporate capital and the state’s wealthy households, but are still expected to pay back debts that harken back to prior eras and bygone social contracts.

An ad in the Bond Buyers’ conference guide, shoe shines brought to you by BNY Mellon, the largest custodial bank in the world, entrusted with the funds of thousands of governments and agencies.

“During the Great Depression we saw 5000 bankruptcies. We’re not seeing anything like those sorts of numbers,” Statler reassured the bondholders. “Does Stockton tell us anything? There’s over 400 cities in California that just emerged from the worst economic crisis in over seventy years, and just a few have declared bankruptcy.” Bankruptcy could require that the lords of municipal finance take a hair cut, a loss on their returns, rather than requiring public employees to be axed, schools to close down, and healthcare services to be withdrawn. Most of the professionals who work for local governments in their finance offices are fiscal conservatives who, thanks in no small part to meet-and-greets like the Bond Buyer conference, identify more with the rentiers who lend the money, than the working families in the cities who employ them. It’s routine for public finance officials to make upwards of $100,000.

Oakland is one of California’s most bled patients. The “five-and-dime” port city across the Bay from imperial San Francisco has issued billions in bonds and notes over several decades, not always under favorable terms. Scott Johnson, Oakland’s finance director, was called on to address the rentiers, as a representative of on their most lucrative, but also troubled sites of wealth extraction. Johnson’s message was reformist in tone, explaining austerity reforms his team of budget crafters has advanced.

“We have trained our city council,” said Johnson of the lengths his staff have gone to keep local elected officials from seeking to restore badly needed services. “We keep them better informed about the realities. There have been many times in closed session negotiations with the labor unions, if there’s a surplus of funds, members of the City Council will say, ‘can’t we give some of that back?'” Johnson sees his job as inspiring fiscal discipline in his bosses, the City Council, in order to appease the bond markets and secure cheaper loans. It’s a situation of forced austerity not unlike that described by James Carville.

“When I came in as finance director the reserve was low, and we had to work with the Council and employees to re-establish reserve levels,” said Johnson, who actually makes a relatively modest salary compared to others in his position, about $83,000 in total compensation last year. By comparison Mark Bichsel, the finance director of Piedmont, the affluent “city of millionaires” in the hills above Oakland, indeed completely surrounded by Oakland like some archaic city-state that has raised the drawbridge around the moat to protect its exorbitant home values from the working class urban swamp below, earned $243,000 last year.

Reserves are maintained to ensure the rentiers that their bonds will reap full repayment, of course. A city is by no means required by any natural laws of economics to maintain high reserves, or to comply with many other austere measures favored by today’s public finance professionals. The existence of such standards is more a measure of the power of capital over local government, than a measure of any sort of rational or humane economic system.

With the end of the pre-conference panels the financiers left the Merchants Exchange, walking down California Street to the Hyatt Hotel, where the main events were schedule for the next two days. Greeting them out front, a picket of workers, foreclosed homeowners, SEIU 1021’s militant rank and file, Occupy San Francisco activists, Oakland’s the Coalition to Stop Goldman Sachs, activists with ACCE, among other rabble. The Hyatt’s own cleaning staff are currently engaged in a battle with the hotel’s management, and some labor leaders urged public officials to boycott the Bond Buyer conference because of its location.

Across the broad and busy expanse of Market Street a woman yelling into a megaphone at the packs of tourists and suited professionals bee-lining from one tower to another: “are you disgusted by the homeless protesters camped out in front of the Federal Reserve?”

The US Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (est. 1913), not as old as the Bond Buyer Magazine (est. in 1891), and arguably too much the servant of the bond markets, was since September of 2011 the gathering point of Occupy protesters. Occupy San Francisco established a camp in front and stacked literature about economic inequality, political corruption, and policy brutality on tables for pedestrians to pick up. The police busted the camp and tables down several times. Like everywhere else Occupy on the ground has been a street battle between the activists and cops. “Don’t label it. Don’t call it Occupy!,” screamed the voice under the corporate towers of the city’s financial district, before the glass facade of the Federal Reserve.

“Call it waking up!”

Inside the Hyatt the conference officially began with a panel moderated by Ian Parker, a vice president at Goldman Sachs: “[the] global economic and interest rate environment, and how munis are priced as a result.” Parker runs the public sector and infrastructure banking group in Goldman’s west coast office, located just five blocks up from the Hyatt in the old Bank of America building.

Protesters outside the Bond Buyer conference.

As he set into his introductory remarks came shouts from the crowd, protesters who had infiltrated the conference. “Stop the swap! We demand that your company stop the swap with Oakland,” they yelled, lifting signs above the balding heads of piqued bankers and lawyers. Parker knew immediately who they were and what they wanted.

In 1997 Goldman Sachs signed an interest rate swap agreement with Oakland, promising cheaper rates on $187 million in bonds the city planned to sell the next year. The city’s leaders, influenced by their financial advisers and Goldman Sachs, tweaked the swap deal twice over the next seven years to create more funny money. When the economic crash came in 2008 Oakland was one of hundreds of local governments left holding a toxic swap derivative that sucked millions from the city every year.

The title of the panel about to be moderated by Parker couldn’t have been more appropriate given that the global interest rate environment, determined very much by the political decisions of central bankers and a handful of cartel-like corporate banks working through institutions such as the British Bankers Association’s LIBOR, have the power to raise or lower interest rates, a power that profoundly affects debt-strapped local governments.

Parker pleaded with the protesters, “we are negotiating,” and promised to meet with them later outside for a discussion. “The Goldman Sachs VP came up to us while we were chanting to say that yes, GS was in process of negotiating with Oakland, and that he’d come out later and talk to us about it,” said a member of the Coalition to Stop Goldman Sachs, the grassroots group that has been rallying for financial justice for their city for almost a year now. Quickly security guards threw out the troublemakers. Parker never emerged from the hotel. In response to the same demand made at the company’s annual shareholder’s meeting earlier this year, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein told another Oakland resident to buzz off: “That’s not how the financial system could work, and were we to do that, we would, frankly, be impairing the interest of our shareholders and the operations of our company. I don’t think it’s a fair thing to ask.”

2012 was a different kind of year for the Bond Buyer conference. The protest created buzz inside. One can only imagine the guilt and worry of various banking executives, wondering if the protest was specifically directed at them, probably hoping it was just abstract frustration. Or perhaps they found it funny, a source of amusement, content to tell one another that the hordes below know not of what they speak. But increasingly they do.

Detailed knowledge of the economy and public finance, how it actually works, who it harms, and who benefits, can be a dangerous thing. Revelations about the moral system of modern day usury that dominates public finance can be shocking and mobilizing moments. The complaints of bond investors who fear cities might treat them as “second class citizens” by reducing the profits they can harvest on public debt seem perverse when the real second class citizens, children, the poor, and the elderly, must endure school closures, crumbling streets, disappearing social services and the general disintegration of the safety net.

Oakland’s Scott Johnson said it best during his remarks to colleagues at the pre-conference luncheon. When asked what he and his staff in the city of Oakland are doing differently now in light of continuing crises and uncertainty, Johnson observed, “We work in a very political environment,” adding, “the public is paying attention to municipal finance now.”