Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Evil of Offshore Tax Havens

Robert Morganthau in the NYTimes:
The favorable tax rates encourage corporations to avoid paying American taxes by structuring complicated international transactions, like Apple’s “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,” recently described by The New York Times. But it’s not just the low tax rates that make these jurisdictions attractive to those following the rules. The secrecy of offshore jurisdictions allows some individuals and corporations to engage in outright tax fraud, costing America at least $40 billion each year. And that secrecy makes offshore tax fraud almost impossible for law enforcement to detect. When I was the Manhattan district attorney, we learned of offshore accounts only through whistle-blowers, cooperators and serendipity. Legislation shaped by Senators Carl Levin, Kent Conrad and Sheldon Whitehouse that would curb some of these tax abuses by giving the Treasury Department the muscle to respond when foreign governments hampered our tax enforcement was recently passed by the Senate, but awaits House action. Those reforms are long overdue but do not fully address the larger problem: financial secrecy laws in offshore jurisdictions. The secrecy laws in these tax havens are at the root of serious crimes: fraud, money laundering and international terrorism.

Corporate Corruption Increasing Dramatically in the US

Eduardo Porter in the NYTimes:
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Libor scandal is how familiar it seems. Sure, for some of the world’s leading banks to try to manipulate one of the most important interest rates in contemporary finance is clearly egregious. But is that worse than packaging billions of dollars worth of dubious mortgages into a bond and having it stamped with a Triple-A rating to sell to some dupe down the road while betting against it? Or how about forging documents on an industrial scale to foreclose fraudulently on countless homeowners?

The misconduct of the financial industry no longer surprises most Americans. Only about one in five has much trust in banks, according to Gallup polls, about half the level in 2007. And it’s not just banks that are frowned upon. Trust in big business overall is declining. Sixty-two percent of Americans believe corruption is widespread across corporate America. According to Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog, nearly three in four Americans believe that corruption has increased over the last three years.


In 2001, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked the United States as the 16th least-corrupt country. By last year, the nation had fallen to 24th place. The World Bank also reports a weakening of corruption controls in the United States since the late 1990s, so that it is falling behind most other developed nations.
The most pointed evidence that breaking the rules has become standard behavior in the corporate world is how routine the wrongdoing seems to its participants. “Dude. I owe you big time!... I’m opening a bottle of Bollinger,” e-mailed one Barclays trader to a colleague for fiddling with the rate and improving the apparent profit of his derivatives book.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

To Run a Bank Is to Steal

All banking executives should be put in jail. The latest reason-- the LIBOR scandal:
LIBOR stands for the London InterBank Offered Rate. So what does that mean? It's basically the rate that banks around the world are lending money to each other. And the way it's calculated is each day - the banks submit what rate they can afford to borrow money at - and the average of what all the banks submit becomes the LIBOR rate. But what's really important to remember here is - LIBOR doesn't just apply to the rate banks lend money to each other. It also applies to the rate that we consumers pay on several different types of loans - including mortgages, car loans, and credit card rates. So if those rates are manipulated by banks - and artificially driven higher - then it affects a lot of people - and leads to working people paying more on their loans. Which is exactly what happened. Earlier this week - the CEO and COO of Barclays bank resigned after it was revealed their bank was routinely manipulating LIBOR rates between 2005 and 2009. Barclays has since been hit with a $450 million fine for this criminal activity. But the question is - was Barclays alone in this? Or were other banks involved as well - and not only that - were governments and regulators involved in the scam too? Disgraced Barclays CEO Bob Diamond is alleging just that. As the Washington Post reported on Wednesday: "Fallen banking titan Bob Diamond on Wednesday described regulators on both sides of the Atlantic as partly complicit in a scandal involving the manipulation of a key interbank lending rate, telling a British parliamentary committee that government watchdogs had failed to act after his bank, Barclays, informed them of industry-wide irregularities during the U.S. financial crisis." So just how deep does this scandal go - and how much money did the banksters make this time screwing us?
Basically, the LIBOR rates were rigged, to screw over smaller fish-- in other words, all of us, via City and Local governments:
We know that the big banks conspired to manipulate Libor rates, with the approval of government authorities. We know that the Libor manipulation effected the world’s largest market – interest rate derivatives. But who are the biggest victims? Sometimes the big banks manipulated the Libor rates up, and sometimes down. Different groups of people got hurt depending which way the rates were gamed. Bloomberg’s Darrell Preston explained last year how cities and other local governments got scalped when rates were manipulated downward: In the U.S., municipal borrowers used swaps to guard against the risk of higher interest costs on variable-rate debt by exchanging payments with another entity and tying how much they pay to an underlying value such as an index. The agreements can backfire if rates move in unexpected directions, resulting in issuers making larger payments.The derivatives were often designed to offset the risks of increases in the short-term rates tied to auction-rate securities, fixing borrowers’ costs by trading their debt- service payments with another party. Instead, rates dropped. The yield on two-year Treasury notes fell from about 5.1 percent in June 2007 to a record 0.14 percent on Sept. 20. On Oct. 6, the U.S. Treasury sold $10 billion of five-day cash- management bills at 0 percent. Ellen Brown adds: For more than a decade, banks and insurance companies convinced local governments, hospitals, universities and other non-profits that interest rate swaps would lower interest rates on bonds sold for public projects such as roads, bridges and schools. The swaps were entered into to insure against a rise in interest rates; but instead, interest rates fell to historically low levels. This was not a flood, earthquake, or other insurable risk due to environmental unknowns or “acts of God.” It was a deliberate, manipulated move by the Fed, acting to save the banks from their own folly in precipitating the credit crisis of 2008. The banks got in trouble, and the Federal Reserve and federal government rushed in to bail them out, rewarding them for their misdeeds at the expense of the taxpayers. [The same thing happened in England.]
In other words, the banks convinced borrowers to insure against interest rates going UP, by engaging in swaps. However, the Fed LOWERED interest rates, which the banks knew about, meanwhile encouraging taxpayers to buy these insurance swaps and screwing over ordinary people.
How the swaps were supposed to work was explained by Michael McDonald in a November 2010 Bloomberg article titled “Wall Street Collects $4 Billion From Taxpayers as Swaps Backfire”: In an interest-rate swap, two parties exchange payments on an agreed-upon amount of principal. Most of the swaps Wall Street sold in the municipal market required borrowers to issue long-term securities with interest rates that changed every week or month. The borrowers would then exchange payments, leaving them paying a fixed-rate to a bank or insurance company and receiving a variable rate in return. Sometimes borrowers got lump sums for entering agreements. Banks and borrowers were supposed to be paying equal rates: the fat years would balance out the lean. But the Fed artificially manipulated the rates to the save the banks. After the credit crisis broke out, borrowers had to continue selling adjustable-rate securities at auction under the deals. Auction interest rates soared when bond insurers’ ratings were downgraded because of subprime mortgage losses; but the periodic payments that banks made to borrowers as part of the swaps plunged, because they were linked to benchmarks such as Federal Reserve lending rates, which were slashed to almost zero.
The whole thing is fairly complicated, and the last link has a lot more, but hopefully you will get the basic idea. Robert Scheer calls this the "Crime of the Century"