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Oakland’s leaders are currently investigating how the conspiracy of a few global financial companies to rig the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate affected the city’s finances. Sources in City Hall say that the theft may amount to more than $300,000.

Oakland’s losses are due most likely to interest rate swaps the city agreed to with several banks in the mid-2000s. In 2004 Oakland sold $117 million in variable rate bonds. The underwriters of these bonds, Bank of America and UBS attached interest rate swaps to these variable rate bonds. The swap payments involved a two way flow of funds between the city and the banks that was intended to convert the variable rates on the bond debt into a “synthetic” fixed rate.

Under the terms of the two deals with Bank of America and UBS, Oakland paid the banks 3.533 percent, and in return the banks paid 58 percent of the 1-Month LIBOR rate, plus a “spread” of 350 basis points (0.350 percent). The LIBOR-linked rates the banks paid Oakland were intended to mimic the variable rates on the bonds, thus passing through Oakland to service the bond debt, leaving Oakland paying the fixed rate of 3.533 percent (thus the “synthetic” label).

However, because UBS, Bank of America, and other banks that were part of the panel that set the different LIBOR rates, rigged LIBOR downward over various years, Oakland ended up paying more than it should have. It was theft, plain and simple, even though it occurred through a complex financial architecture invisible to most.

The terms of Oakland’s interest rate swap agreements with UBS and Bank of America can be viewed online here.

To assess just how much money was stolen from Oakland by UBS and Bank of America we must determine when, and by how much the banks manipulated the rates, and in what direction. Financial analysts employed by many local governments and public agencies are currently doing this tedious work, including inside Oakland’s finance and legal offices.

To help the public understand how the conspiracy worked, and just how much it may have affected Oakland, I’ve calculated the following guesstimate.

Let’s assume that since 2004 the banks rigged the LIBOR rate downward by an average of 50 basis points at any given time. This is a really sloppy and imprecise assumption as the banks might have rigged the rate upwards and downwards over time depending on what rates would have benefitted them in the ever-shifting world of finance. Rigged rates could have been jacked up a lot during some periods, while only a little bit during other periods, or downward by big and small margins. For the sake of simplicity let’s just assume the average impact of the LIBOR rigging conspiracy over the terms of Oakland’s swaps with UBS and Bank of America was negative 50 basis points, or -0.05%.

The following table shows what Oakland probably actually paid between 2004 when the swaps were signed, and 2008 when the city terminated the swaps (they were originally intended to run to 2026). Assuming the LIBOR rate wasn’t rigged would mean that after netting out Oakland’s fixed rate against the bank’s LIBOR-linked variable rate, Oakland paid the banks approximately $7.7 million.

OaklandActualSwapPayments

If LIBOR during this period was skewed on average by negative 50 basis points by the banks, it would mean that the variable rates paid by the banks to Oakland were lower. Under this scenario the net flow of payments would have been even further in the favor of the banks. The following table adds fifty basis points back to LIBOR, simulating what the banks should have paid in the absence of the conspiracy. Under this hypothetical scenario the banks should have only received $7.45 million from Oakland.

OaklandIdealSwapPaymentsAssumingLIBORRigging

The difference of a quarter million here is the amount that the banks might have stolen from Oakland.

Then there’s the termination payment that would have been made in the Spring or Summer of 2008 by Oakland to close out the swaps. These termination fees are calculated using the “fair value” of the swap. The swap’s value depends on where LIBOR is at, and where it’s trending. Thus if the banks had been rigging LIBOR downward over time, and pressing down very aggressively during the financial crisis, Oakland’s termination payments would also have been skewed in the favor of the banks. So an estimate of $300,000 seems to be a reasonable, if conservative, estimate of how much was stolen from Oakland by UBS and Bank of America.

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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.

The city finds it is no easy task to fight what is arguably the world’s most powerful financial corporation

A finance committee meeting of the Oakland City Council today grappled with the interest rate swap that has drained tens of millions of tax dollars over the last five years. A update from the city’s administrator about efforts to terminate the deal contained a harsh message most observers saw coming: Goldman Sachs, the city’s counterparty, absolutely refuses to terminate the swap at zero cost to the city, in spite of Oakland’s threat to cut the bank off from future business.

The swap in question was agreed to in 1997 as part of a larger bond deal in which Goldman Sachs underwrote $187 million in variable rate debt to keep the under-funded Police and Fire Retirement System pension fund solvent. The swap was intended to convert the variable rate on the bonds into a synthetic fixed rate of 5.67%.

But the swap with Goldman Sachs had an ulterior purpose also, one that virtually all the city’s elected officials have refused to own up to, and which has gone totally unreported in the press, except for this single article. This ulterior purpose was to free up $15 million to pay down debt on the Raiders Coliseum which had exploded in the city’s face after a disastrous business plan designed to lure the team back from Los Angeles. Later in 2003 the City Council again used the swap to create ‘free’ money to patch a budget hole. Council members amended the swap’s terms, switching the benchmark rate used to calculate Oakland’s payments to Goldman Sachs from SIFMA to LIBOR, a change that re-valued the swap $5.97 million in the bank’s favor. That revaluation was designed to produce an payment of the same sum from Goldman to the city. Oakland used the money to subsidize the Forest City Uptown real estate deal.

Using the swap to free up dollars to subsidize private business ventures like sports teams and real estate developers was a clear violation of the city’s swap and debt policies which it adopted in later years. Even so, the swap was mostly working as it was supposed to with respect to the variable rate bonds it hedged, and these half-too-clever schemes weren’t responsible for what happened next. In 2008 the financial crisis caused the federal government to drop central bank rates to virtually zero. LIBOR, which was already being manipulated downward by the banks that set that rate, followed fast by dropping below 1%. Oakland’s swap turned into a toxic asset overnight, draining millions of tax dollars during what has been arguably the city’s worst budget crisis in history.

The payment schedule for Oakland’s interest rate swap with Goldman Sachs: Assuming LIBOR stays below 1%, Goldman’s obligation to pay Oakland 65% of the 1-month LIBOR rate of a given notional amount in each year until 2021 means that the bank is obligated to pay Oakland virtually nothing. Meanwhile, the city pays 5.6775% of the same notional amount. The operative rate is the net rate produced by subtracting the lower rate from the higher rate. So if LIBOR doesn’t move over the next 9 years, Oakland will be stuck paying upwards of 5% on the decreasing notional amount as determined in the swap contract and summarized in the above table. (Source: “Comprehensive Annual Financial Report,” City of Oakland, FY July 1, 2010 – June 30, 2011, p. 75)

In the Summer of 2012 Oakland’s City Council was spurred to action by the Coalition to Stop Goldman Sachs, a grassroots collection of activists who pointed out the injustice of Goldman’s federal bailout while the bank continued to collect money from the city on a swap deal turned sour by political decisions, and also by the illegal conspiracy of banks that set LIBOR.

Oakland’s elected officials, aware that their constituents were demanding strong action, drew a line in the sand and demanded that the bank terminate the swap at zero cost to the city (it has been valued around $14-16 million in current dollars). If the bank refused, a resolution passed by the full council states that the city will debar the bank from future business, an option already vetted by the City Attorney Barbara Parker.

Goldman Sachs now appears to be calling what the bank thinks is a bluff by city officials. Goldman, which supposedly assigned senior level staff to negotiate with the city, has offered to terminate the swap, but is demanding that Oakland pay fair market value. Oakland’s assistant city administrator for finance, Scott Johnson, delivered a report to City Council members today offering three options:

1. The city can stick with the swap till 2021, making the contractual payments which are pegged at 5.6775% minus 65% of LIBOR, which currently amounts a net rate of 5.54% of $68.9 million. That’s about $3.8 million dollars this year, and similarly calculated, but smaller amounts in future years.

2. The city can issue two promissory notes (essentially obligations to pay a fixed debt) due over the next two years, totaling about $14.7 million dollars to Goldman Sachs. The $14.7 million is the current market value of the swap, about the same amount the yearly payments described above in option 1 would total out to by 2021 (discounted of course to current dollars). Goldman may or may not have offered to take a few hundred thousand off the termination payments through a promissory note, either by not charging interest on the notes, and/or knocking some value off the swap’s termination price, but the city’s administrator was only able to report vague offers made by the bank’s employees to consider doing this. Goldman has offered no firm promise to reduce the termination price.

3. Under the third option presented by the city administrator, the city can continue to negotiate with Goldman Sachs, exploring other means of ending the swap, but it was made clear that Goldman Sachs considers the deal sacred, and the bank will not agree to a termination without some kind of lucrative gain.

Assistant city administrator Scott Johnson also reported that Oakland might have already incurred as much as $100,000 in expenses paid to outside counsel, most likely the BLX Group, a company hired to advise the city about how to terminate the swap.

Members of the finance committee were not pleased with the report. Council member Patricia Kernighan made it clear that the report lacked any details or hard numbers to inform any decisions.

Council member Desley Brooks was visibly annoyed by the staff recommendations, noting that the report, and three options presented by the city administrator, contradicted what the council had directed staff to do back in July when they passed the original resolution calling for the swap’s termination. That resolution called on Goldman to cancel the swap at no cost to the city, and if the bank refused the city would move ahead with debarment. “We need to stop doing business with Goldman Sachs. We have a debarment process,” said Brooks.

Council member Ignacio De La Fuente went the furthest, saying he felt the city should try to find a way to simply stop making the swap payments, in addition to ceasing other business with the bank. “We have to call them on this,” said De La Fuente. “I think we should stop paying.”

Brooks focused the discussion back on the council’s original position saying “the only thing to discuss is how to move forward with some campaign to build pressure against them to terminate the swap. We need to initiate the debarment process.”

Kernighan, who wasn’t initially very interested in the swap issue, made her irritation with the bank known, adding, “Goldman Sachs clearly is not taking this very seriously. If that’s the way they’re going to be, well then fine, we just wont do business with them anymore.” She also expressed concern that negotiations with the bank over the swap were already becoming too costly for the city.

Members of the Coalition to Stop Goldman Sachs told the council members during the public comment period that they supported taking a firm stand against the bank. Beth Kean, a member of ACCE and the Coalition summed up what the council members themselves seemed to be thinking: “Goldman Sachs is basically telling us to go stick it.”

Maurice Peaslee, another member of the Coalition, surmised that Goldman’s offer to cancel the swap in two years time through the use of promissory notes could just be another attempt to outmaneuver Oakland. “If interest rates go up in the future, then the value of the swap goes down. Goldman Sachs is probably betting that interest rates are going to go up in the future.”

“If we agree to a payment of say $12 million now,” Peaslee explained, “but LIBOR goes up, the value of the swap should only be $8 million.” In other words, Goldman’s offer could just be yet another effort to squeeze extra dollars from the city. A promissory note would create an obligation for Oakland to make a set of $7 million payments within two years, whereas sticking with the swap has the possibility that the total cost to the city could actually drop as LIBOR rises.

“Apparently we are not sending a strong enough message,” said Joe Keffer, an organizer with SEIU 1021, and also a member of the Coalition. “We’ve got to make it clear their days are numbered.”

When it comes to business with Oakland, members of the finance committee seemed to agree. The finance committee directed staff to move head with the process for debarring the bank from future business, something that must go through the council’s rules committee and then be voted on by the whole council. It’s likely this won’t happen until early next year when several new council members take office.

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.”