The Economy Has Caused Riots Before – In the Great Depression

Washington’s Blog reminds us that things got ugly during the last prolonged depression in the United States.  This interesting historical footage from the Great Depression shows what happens when large numbers of people are unemployed for years at a time, get desperate, and perceive that the game is rigged to the benefit of Wall Street.

This depression isn’t as deep or severe as the Great Depression – the bank bailouts and the 2009 Obama stimulus spending/tax cut bill (ARRA) made sure of that.  But as this week’s GDP numbers show, we simply aren’t growing enough to fully recover.  For workers, the nightmare is real.  With the #OccupyWallStreet movement (#OWS) growing stronger, spreading, and continuing now for well over 6 weeks, perhaps the Wall Street banks are having nightmares of their own about such scenarios as what happened in the video.  Could that be why JP Morgan Chase bank is making such large payoffs donations to the New York City Police department?  Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism fills us in:

Is JP Morgan Getting a Good Return on $4.6 Million “Gift” to NYC Police? (Like Special Protection from OccupyWallStreet?)

No matter how you look at this development, it does not smell right. From JP Morgan’s website, hat tip Lisa Epstein:

JPMorgan Chase recently donated an unprecedented $4.6 million to the New York City Police Foundation. The gift was the largest in the history of the foundation and will enable the New York City Police Department to strengthen security in the Big Apple. The money will pay for 1,000 new patrol car laptops, as well as security monitoring software in the NYPD’s main data center.

New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly sent CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon a note expressing “profound gratitude” for the company’s donation.

“These officers put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe,” Dimon said. “We’re incredibly proud to help them build this program and let them know how much we value their hard work.”

But what, pray tell, is this about? The JPM money is going directly from the foundation to the NYPD proper, not to, say, cops injured in the course of duty or police widows and orphans…

And look at the magnitude of the JP Morgan “gift”. The Foundation has been in existence for 40 years. If you assume that the $100 million it has received over that time is likely to mean “not much over $100 million” this contribution could easily be 3-4% of the total the Foundation have ever received.

Now readers can point out that this gift is bupkis relative to the budget of the police department, which is close to $4 billion. But looking at it on a mathematical basis likely misses the incentives at work. Dimon is one of the most powerful and connected corporate leaders in Gotham City. If he thinks the police donation was worthwhile, he might encourage other bank and big company CEOs to make large donations.

And what sort of benefits might JPM get? It is unlikely that there would be anything as crass as an explicit quid pro quo. But it certainly is useful to be confident that the police are on your side, say if an executive or worse an entire desk is caught in a sex or drugs scandal. Recall that Charles Ferguson in Inside Job alleged that the use of hookers is pervasive on Wall Street (duh) and is invoiced to the banks.

Or the police might be extra protective of your interests. Today, [Oct 5] OccupyWallStreet decided to march across the Brooklyn Bridge (a proud New York tradition) to Chase Manhattan Plaza in Brooklyn. Reports in the media indicate that the police at first seemed to be encouraging the protestors not only to cross the bridge, but were walking in front of the crowd, seemingly escorting them across…

The wee problem is that the police are in the street, and part of the crowd is also on the street (others are on a pedestrian walkway that is above street level). That puts them in violation of NYC rules that against interfering with traffic. Note the protest were aware fo the rules; they were careful to stay on the sidewalk on the way to the bridge.

…some (many?) the protestors who used the walkway and got across the bridge were also corralled and not permitted to proceed to the Chase plaza. Greg Basta, deputy director of the New York Communities for Change, told me by phone, based on multiple reports from people who participated in the march, that as soon as protestors got to the Brooklyn side of the bridge, they were kettled. Greg was under the impression that there were construction barricades at the foot of the bridge which made it impossible for the marchers not to walk on the street. Because the focus has been on the what happened on the bridge, the coverage of what happened to the rest of crowd is sparse.

Some confirmation in passing comes from MsExPat at Corrente (apparently some of the very first off the bridge were permitted to proceed):

My friends and I made it to the Brooklyn side okay–we ended up with about 350 other marchers in Cadman Plaza, a lovely 19th century park. What I didn’t find out until later is that several hundred people behind me also got kettled and barred from going all the way to Brooklyn. So I was among the lucky marchers in the middle.

But notice even then that the procession to Chase Manhattan Plaza [correction, Cadman Plaza} was effectively barred. [Note JPM may have operations nearby, Bear Stearns had much of its back office there, and if the leases were cheap, JPM may have kept the space].

We simply don’t know whether the police would have behaved one iota differently in the absence of the JP Morgan donation. But it raises the troubling perspective that they might have. …

So far, the JP Morgan donation is an isolated example. But the high odds of continuing deep budget cuts at the state and local level open up the opportunity for corporate funding of preferred services, and with it, much greater private sector influence on the apparatus of government. This is a worrisome enough possibility to warrant a high degree of vigilance by all of us.

Too Big to Fail Should Be Too Big to Exist

Against Monopoly has a great graphic that shows a big part of the problem with our financial sector and our economy.

How the Too Big to Fail Banks Got  So Big

How the Too Big To Fail Banks Got So Big

The four banks shown above are the four largest banks in the U.S.: JP Morgan Chase, Citi, BofA, and Wells Fargo.  Together they dominate the financial industry. If you add in Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the domination is near complete.  They all received large bailouts in the 2008-09 crisis.  Today they are much larger than when we entered the crisis. As the graph shows, none of these banks grew so large by “natural” or “organic” means.  They didn’t grow because they offered better or more efficient services to customers.  They didn’t “win in the marketplace” by competing better.  They simply bought the competition.  It’s domination by merger.  The U.S. banking system which at one time was very competitive and decentralized with literally thousands of very competitive banks is now dominated by a few.  We call it oligopoly on the way to monopoly.

When very, very large banks get too big, they become “Too Big To Fail”.  That means, if the banks were allowed to fail because of bad decisions, bad management, or bad investments, it would set off a domino effect throughout the economy and financial system.  That would punish all of us and not just the bank’s owners.  This, of course, is what happened in 2008 when Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail.  It set off a financial panic where banks wouldn’t / couldn’t loan to each other (or anyone else).  Result:  big bailouts of big banks.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Yes, once we have a “too big to fail” bank and it fails, then there’s pretty much no choice but to bail them out.  There are choices about the structure of the bailout. We could have set up the bailouts in a way that the economy wins and the failed managers and bank owners suffered.  We didn’t.  The Federal Reserve, the Bush administration, and then the Obama administration made it a priority to keep the bank managers and bank owners whole.  The economy has suffered from a slow recovery partly as a result.

But bailouts shouldn’t be necessary because we shouldn’t allow the banks to become this big in the first place.  Again, we have a choice.  We could have prevented some or all of these mergers.  The laws are on the books to do it.  Washington, following the failed anti- antitrust philosophy of the Chicago school since the 1980’s simply doesn’t challenge many mergers these days.  It’s bad for campaign contributions.  Besides we’re supposed to believe that a market fairy will make it all right.  Instead of challenging and stopping some of these mergers, both the government and The Federal Reserve have actually facilitated and acted as match-maker for many of the mergers.  In March 2008, when Bear Stearns failed, The Federal Reserve offered a deal to JP Morgan Chase.  If Chase would buy Bear Stearns, The Fed would reimburse Chase for any losses over a set amount.  Heads Chase wins. Tails Chase wins.  Nice deal.

We have other choices as well.  In other industries historically when the private competition in the market led to monopoly or near-monopoly outcomes, the government chose to regulate the industry as a public utility.  We did it in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the electrical industry.  Your local electrical company wasn’t always a regulated utility.  At one time it was ravenous and rapacious private monopoly just like these banks are becoming.  When Standard Oil became a monopoly over a hundred years ago, we sued and broke it up into a bunch of other companies.

This complicity in allowing the big banks to become Too Big To Fail is among the types of policies that the protesters of #OccupyWallStreet want changed.  Me, too.

Fox, Hen House, Economic Advisors

President Obama, in his never ending desperate quest to be accepted by Congressional Republicans as being just like them, even if it means abandoning the changes he was elected to lead, has changed his lead economic advisors.  Simon Johnson in the NY Times observes:

President Obama is embarked on a major charm offensive with the business sector, as seen, for example, in the appointments of William M. Daley (formerly of JPMorgan Chase, now White House chief of staff) and Jeffrey R. Immelt (chairman and chief executive of General Electric and now also the president’s top outside economic adviser).

This should not be an uphill struggle – much of the corporate sector, particularly bigger and more global businesses, is doing well in terms of profits and presumably, at the highest levels, compensation. But when exactly will this approach deliver jobs and reduce unemployment? And does it increase risks for the future?

Republican rhetoric over the last two years was relentless in its assertion that the Obama administration was antibusiness. Supposedly, this White House attitude undermined private sector confidence and limited investment.

Simon also points out that corporate profits, and the financial, banking and multi-nationals in particular, have recovered quite nicely from the recession. Indeed, profits for them not only returned to record levels but recovered from the recession in record time. According to the President, our challenge is create jobs. I would certainly have to agree, as I’ve noted here and here. But these appointments don’t appear to help.  These guys have been part of the problem. They’re not part of the solution.  Catherine Rampell of the NY Times agrees:

In the wake of Jeffrey Immelt’s ascent to the chairmanship of President Obama’s jobs council, some commentators have questioned whether the leader of General Electric, a company that has sharply reduced its United States payrolls over the years, is the best person to be orchestrating a jobs revival.

Among executives of multinational companies, Mr. Immelt is hardly alone in having presided over a major reduction in domestic jobs amid a major increase in foreign jobs. Witness the following chart, which shows changes in domestic and foreign employment at American multinational companies from 1998 through 2008 (that is, the decade leading up to the financial crisis):

The chart is taken from testimony by Martin Sullivan, an economist and contributing editor with Tax Analysts, in a discussion of how international tax rules favor foreign, rather than domestic, job creation, especially by United States multinationals.

So the CEO of one of the largest multinationals on the planet is now advising the President on jobs creation.  The same guy who led that company to move thousands of jobs out of the U.S. and create new ones in other countries.But it’s not enough that Immelt’s the wrong guy to ask about how to create jobs.  The President is asking the fox for advise about protecting the hens.

Rampell also points out how one of Immelt’s pet proposal that he’s been pushing for a long time is for a “tax holiday” that allows U.S. based multinationals to repatriate foreign profits to the U.S. without paying tax.  In many cases the “foreign profits” of these multinationals are actually U.S.-earned profits that have been laundered through foreign subsidiaries using a variety of tax dodges and artificial internal transfer prices (see Dutch Sandwich for one example of how Google got it’s U.S. tax rate down to 2.4%).  So at a time when we are supposedly concerned about the deficit, the President is turning to one of the biggest tax dodgers around: GE.

To add further injury, let’s consider the inherent conflicts of interest.  GE, despite it’s recognizable brand name among consumers and it’s heritage as Thomas Edison’s creation, is not a the entreneurial industrial competitor it once was generations ago.  GE doesn’t  really compete in capitalistic free markets for consumers’ attention to make it’s money. GE works the government.  One of GE’s largest subsidiaries is also one of the largest military contractors dependent on the pentagon military budget. Up next is the power generation division is dependent on subsidies for the promotion of clean and renewable energy. Another huge subsidiary is the medical devices  unit which sells primarily to hospitals and doctors who in turn bill Medicare and health insurers – and healthcare spending is driving the fed government spending. The NBC subsidiary depends on the FCC for favorable decisions and protection from competition. And finally, the last major subsidiary is the financial services unit which benefitted from the bank bailouts.  Let’s face it, GE is a giant that depends primarily on the federal government for support. Yet, not only is Immelt, the GE CEO in a position to have the President’s ear on economic and budget issues, he’s doing it without resigning from GE. Can we all say “conflict of interest” folks?

The other appointee, William M. Daley, is resigning (for now) his position as a senior executive with JPMorgan Chase, the monster bank that the Feds bailed out and then they fought financial reform.  Let’s be real. Daley’s job lasts at most 2 years. Then he needs another job. He knows that. He also knows JP Morgan Chase will likely hire him back at a much increased salary – if he gives advice to the President favorable to JP Morgan Chase.

This isn’t representative democracy.  This isn’t even rule by some technocratic advisors.  This is crony capitalism, rule by an oligarchy.