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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.

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LIBOR litigation to recoup damages after the biggest financial fraud in world history has been thrown out

A cartoon depiction of JP Morgan, the hyper-influential banker of the early 20th Century. Several of Morgan's banks and bank holding companies merged to form today what is known as JP Morgan Chase, one of the banks at the center of the LIBOR fraud.

A cartoon depiction of JP Morgan, the hyper-influential banker of the early 20th Century. Several of Morgan’s banks and bank holding companies merged to form today what is known as JP Morgan Chase, one of the banks at the center of the LIBOR fraud.

Sixteen banks at the core of the global financial system —including JP Morgan, Bank of America, and Citigroup— scored a major victory on Friday when a federal judge dismissed nearly all the charges brought against them by a group of plaintiffs that includes municipal governments, pension funds, bondholders, and other investors who lost billions of dollars as a result of LIBOR rigging. The ruling is a major setback, both legally, and financially, for those harmed by the LIBOR manipulation conspiracy. Among the most damaged are are thousands of local governments that were played like ATMs during the Financial Crisis by the banks. Banks used their power to set 3-Month and 1-Month LIBOR rates so as to extract potentially billions in interest rate swap payments from the public. Countless small investors lost equally huge sums of money as investments indexing LIBOR were rigged to pay out less. The lawsuit’s dismissal ensures that the banks will keep billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains. The ruling may also bolster the banks’ positions against ongoing investigations and settlements sought by government regulators in the US, Europe, and Japan.

Strangely, the judge’s order (available here) acknowledged the massive global fraud that caused financial damages to the public in favor a few wealthy institutions. However, Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald relied on technical legal arguments to throw out the core claims of the lawsuit. In other words, the ruling doesn’t deny that the crime occurred and that the Plaintiffs sustained serious damages, but still dismisses the claims.

“We recognize that it might be unexpected that we are dismissing a substantial portion of plaintiffs’ claims, given that several of the defendants here have already paid penalties to government regulatory agencies reaching into the billions of dollars,” concluded Judge Buchwald in her 161 page order. She justified this position, however:

“…these results are not as incongruous as they might seem.  Under the statutes invoked here, there are many requirements that private plaintiffs must satisfy, but which government agencies need not.  The reason for these differing requirements is that the focuses of public enforcement and private enforcement, even of the same statutes, are not identical.  The broad public interests behind the statutes invoked here, such as integrity of the markets and competition, are being addressed by ongoing governmental enforcement.”

Government regulators have already proven through their own investigations that LIBOR was rigged to enrich the banks at the expense of their customers and counterparties who entered into LIBOR-linked derivatives contracts, or purchased LIBOR-referencing securities. Beginning as early as 2005 Barclays, a member of the British Bankers Association, submitted false quotes to Thompson-Reuters, the company responsible for calculating and disseminating the different LIBOR rates each day. The false quotes were designed to skew LIBOR upward, or downward, by precise amounts, so as to benefit the positions of Barclays traders against their counterparties. In doing so Barclays violated securities laws and committed a fraud that harmed countless other market participants relying on LIBOR to value their financial deals.

To date Barclays, UBS, and the Royal Bank of Scotland have all paid fines for manipulating LIBOR rates. A Japanese subsidiary of UBS even pled guilty to criminal charges, but regulators targeted only the Japanese subsidiary so as to leave the Swiss holding bank UBS legally unscathed. The fines for these three banks totaled only $2.5 billion, probably much less than they gained by manipulating various LIBOR rates for more than a half decade. None of the banks have been criminally charged. Even so, Judge Buchwald said that authorities are adequately investigating and punishing the financial companies, and that civil litigation to recoup money and impose penalties does little to advance justice.

During the Financial Crisis beginning in late 2007, and through 2010, the banks manipulated 1 and 3-Month LIBOR rates downward in order to both give the impression that they were weathering the global liquidity crisis, and that investors should not withdraw their money or sell bank stock. (LIBOR is supposed to gauge the rate of interest at which a bank can secure a dollar loan from one of its peers, so lower rates appear to indicate a healthier bank balance sheet.) As credit markets froze up in 2007 and 2008, the banks hunted for cash to close out trades on losing positions and settle hefty credit default swap obligations, among other ballooning liabilities. The banks extracted bigger payments from their counterparties on swaps, and other derivatives contracts that use LIBOR to calculate interest rate payments, by further depressing LIBOR.

Much of this cash was squeezed from cities, counties, public schools, public hospitals, public utilities, ports, airports, and other agencies that purchased interest rate swaps to convert variable rate bond debt into fixed rates. The manipulation of LIBOR since 2007 likely impacted swaps hedging hundreds of billions in public debt, causing billions in inflated payments by local governments to the banks.

The City of Baltimore was a big purchaser of interest rate swaps used to hedge bond debt. Baltimore also purchased and held other LIBOR-linked derivatives as investments. Baltimore lost millions of dollars as a result of LIBOR manipulation, and filed its lawsuit against the banks in August of 2011. Other local governments soon joined Baltimore, creating a class action group of plaintiffs that potentially included hundreds or thousands of local governments across the United States.

Bondholders and other securities investors filed their own separate lawsuits alleging fraud and damages due to the bankers’ conspiracy. All of these cases were consolidated before Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in the Southern District Court, District of New York in 2012.

The local governments united behind Baltimore —including most recently the California cities of Richmond and Riverside, and counties of San Diego and San Mateo, as well as the East Bay Municipal Utility District, all of which filed their own lawsuits early in 2013— sought to recoup damages from the banks by using US anti-trust, and anti-racketeering laws under the Sherman Act, Clayton Act, and the RICO Act. Judge Buchwald ruled, however, that the Plaintiffs cannot sue under these laws because they have not sustained anti-trust damages, among other reasons.

With respect to the anti-trust allegations, Judge Buchwald argued that LIBOR was never a “market” rate that banks competed among one another to set. Instead, Buchwald notes, rightly in fact, that LIBOR was a non-market endeavor that did not reflect an actual rate the banks borrowed money at, but a rate at which the banks claimed they could borrow money from one another. Because the banks were not in competition with one another to produce LIBOR, they cannot be said to have suppressed competition, or manipulated the market. The damages sustained by local governments as a result of LIBOR rigging cannot technically be said to have resulted from an anti-trust conspiracy, said Buchwald.

So even though the banks dishonestly rigged LIBOR, resulting in huge financial damages to countless counterparties and investors, under Buchwald’s reasoning the banks have not violated the letter of the Sherman Act and US anti-trust law. According to Buchwald:

“Regardless of whether defendants’ conduct constituted a violation of the antitrust laws, plaintiffs may not bring suit unless they have suffered an “antitrust injury.”  An antitrust injury is an injury that results from an anticompetitive aspect of defendants’ conduct.   Here, although plaintiffs have alleged that defendants conspired to suppress LIBOR over a nearly three-year-long period and that they were injured as a result, they have not alleged that their injury resulted from any harm to competition.  The process by which banks submit LIBOR quotes to the BBA is not itself competitive, and plaintiffs have not alleged that defendants’ conduct had an anticompetitive effect in any market in which defendants compete.  Because plaintiffs have not alleged an antitrust injury, their federal antitrust claim is dismissed. “

This of course will come as a surprise to close observers of the financial system; LIBOR became the underlying interest rate of reference for the global derivatives market precisely because it was assumed that it was an honest determination of the rate of interest, or price, which banks charge one another to secure dollar denominated loans. Indeed the motives of some of the banks to depress their individual LIBOR quotes between 2007 and 2010 indicates that each bank’s individual quote was compared to other banks to gauge the company’s health, making it a somewhat competitive measure of credit worthiness. Countless financial workers, from CEOs to floor traders, have assumed for years now that LIBOR was a market rate. Even Bloomberg News, the financial industry’s favorite online news and data source, lists LIBOR under its “market data” tab.

But even if LIBOR had taken on some pseudo-market characteristics, and even though it was believed to be an honest determination of lending rates, Judge Buchwald is correct in noting that LIBOR was never a mechanism of the “free markets” which anti-trust laws are designed to regulate. Instead, as I have pointed out elsewhere, LIBOR was always “a club of powerful banks inventing the price of money, and expecting that other banks, corporations, and even sovereign states would accept their word.” This raises a fundamental question that the LIBOR lawsuits have proven incapable of addressing. Because they are predicated on anti-trust laws, these lawsuits assume free markets in which some participants abused ill-gotten power to distort otherwise fair prices. The current financial system is not a “free market,” and bank rates are inherently political in nature.

The second law around which Baltimore and other local governments built their case was the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO. Here Judge Buchwald ruled that the Plaintiffs have no case against the banks under RICO, first because of a 1995 law that virtually exempts financial criminals from being subject to RICO law, and because of the global nature of the crime.

The Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLRA) was written by the financial industry and passed after an intensive lobbying effort that included spending millions on the elections campaigns of both Republican and Democratic Senators and Representatives by the world’s biggest banks. Under the PSLRA, crimes by financial companies that would otherwise be subject to RICO, are instead exempted under the rationale that they are better dealt with under securities fraud law.

The PSLRA also made it more difficult for scammed governments and customers to sue powerful financial companies; securities fraud lawsuits can only be filed and advanced with strong evidence of wrongdoing before trial. RICO lawsuits, on the other hand, can be filed with less evidence, relying on the pre-trial discovery process to turn up more facts and build a stronger case. This informational asymmetry that greatly disempowers the public, and small fish in the financial markets, and favors the big banks, brokers, and traders, was precisely the point of the PSLRA, and even though President Clinton vetoed the law upon its passage in 1995, the Congress, in a rare show of bi-partisan cooperation, and swimming in financial industry cash and influence, overturned his veto.

As if this legal roadblock isn’t enough to kill the RICO claims, Judge Buchwald added that the global nature of the LIBOR fraud exempts the crime and the criminals from prosecution under RICO. “RICO applies only domestically, meaning that the alleged “enterprise” must be a domestic enterprise,” ruled Buchwald in her decision. “However, the enterprise alleged by plaintiffs is based in England,” where the British Bankers Association is based, and where Eurodollar securities are traded. So in this case the global nature of the financial system serves to put the banks beyond the reach of the US law.

Judge Buchwald relied on other technical aspects of federal and state laws to dismiss the LIBOR Plaintiffs’ claims, including the the statute of limitations under the Commodities Exchange Act. The CEA’s statute of limitations is two years from the point in time that the harmed parties become aware of the potential crime. Under a complicated chain of reasoning including the publication dates of various press reports and academic articles raising doubt’s about LIBOR’s assumed validity, Judge Buchwald dismissed any claims against the banks stretching back to manipulation of LIBOR prior to May 29, 2008, and barred most other possible claims related to LIBOR manipulation before April 15, 2009, leaving virtually only instances of LIBOR rigging after that date as crimes that the Plaintiffs can sue for damages over.

The Plaintiffs bringing the LIBOR lawsuits forward could not be reached before press time, but they still have the ability to appeal the decision if they so choose.

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.

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.”