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A ‘Flawed’ SEC Program [A Retrospective “April Fool’s Day” Analysis]

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SEC Failed to Rein in Investment Banks [April Fool’s Day – 2015]

By Ben Protess, ProPublica – October 1, 2008 5:01 pm EDT

Editor’s Note: This investigative report was first published ten years ago. And so, we ask you to consider – on this April Fool’s Day 2019 – how [if] things have changed since then?  

***

Flag MOney

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The Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC] last week abolished the special regulatory program that it applied to Wall Street’s largest investment banks. Known as the “consolidated supervised entities” program, it relaxed the minimum capital requirements for firms that submitted to the commission’s oversight, and thus, in the view of some experts, helped create the current global financial crisis.

But, the SEC’s decision to ax the program currently affects no one, since three of the five firms that voluntarily joined the program previously collapsed and the other two reorganized.

The Decision – 18 Months Ago

The decision came last Friday, one day after the commission’s inspector general released a report [1] (PDF) detailing the program’s failed oversight of Bear Stearns before the firm collapsed in March. The commission’s chairman, Christopher Cox, a longtime opponent of industry regulation, said in a statement [2] that the report “validates and echoes the concerns” he had about the program, which had been voluntary for the five Wall Street titans since 2004.

The report found that the SEC division that oversees trading and markets was “not fulfilling its obligations. “These reports are another indictment of failed leadership,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) who requested the inspector general’s investigation.

The SEC program, approved by the commission in 2004 under Cox’s predecessor, William Donaldson, allowed investment banks to increase their amount of leveraged debt. But, there was a tradeoff: Banks that participated allowed their broker-dealer operations and holding companies to be subject to SEC oversight. Previous to 2004, the SEC only had authority to oversee the banks’ broker dealers.

Longstanding SEC rules required the broker dealers to limit their debt-to-net-capital ratio and issue an early warning if they began to approach the limit. The limit was about 15-to-1, according to the inspector general report, meaning that for every $15 of debt, the banks were required to have $1 of equity.

But the 2004 “consolidated supervised entities” program revoked these limits. The new program also eliminated the requirement that firms keep a certain amount of capital as a cushion in case an asset defaults.

Bear Sterns

As a result, the oversight program created the conditions that helped cause the collapse of Bear Stearns. Bear had a gross debt ratio of about 33-to-1 prior to its demise, the inspector general found. The inspector general also found that Bear was fully compliant with the programs’ requirements when it collapsed, which raised “serious questions about whether the capital requirement amounts were adequate,” the report said.

The report quoted Lee Pickard, a former SEC official who helped write the original debt-limit requirements in 1975 and now argues the 2004 program is largely to blame for the current Wall Street crisis.

“The SEC gave up the very protections that caused these firms to go under,” Pickard said in an interview with ProPublica. “The SEC in 2004 thought it gained something in oversight, but in turn it gave up too much public protection. You don’t bargain in a way that causes you to give up serious protections.”

Pickard, now a senior partner at a Washington, D.C.-based law firm, estimated that prior to the 2004 program most firms never exceeded an 8-to-1 debt-to-net capital ratio.

The previous program “had an excellent track record in preserving the securities markets’ financial integrity and protecting customer assets,” Pickard wrote [3] in American Banker this August. The new program required “substantial SEC resources for complex oversight, which apparently are not always available.”

Asked if he believes the 2004 program was a direct cause of the current crisis, Pickard told ProPublica, “I’m afraid I do.”

The New York Times reported Saturday that the SEC created the program after “heavy lobbying” for the plan from the investment banks. The banks favored the SEC as their regulator, the Times reported, because that let them avoid regulation of their fast-growing European operations by the European Union, which has been threatening to impose its own rules since 2002.

SEC Spokesman

A SEC spokesman declined to comment for this article, referring inquires to Chairman Cox’s statement. In the statement, Cox admitted the program “was fundamentally flawed from the beginning.” But Cox, a former Republican congressman from California, offered mild support for the program as recently as July when he testified before the House Committee on Financial Services. The program, among other oversight efforts, Cox said, had “gone far to adapt the existing regulatory structure to today’s exigencies.” He added that legislative improvements were necessary as well, and has since told Congress that the program failed.

More Questions

So why did the commission not end the program sooner? Some say that the program’s flaws only recently became apparent. “As late as 2005, the program seemed to make a lot of sense,” said Charles Morris, a former banker who predicted the current financial crisis in his book written last year, The Trillion Dollar Meltdown [4]. The SEC “didn’t know it didn’t work until we had this stress.”

And leverage does not always spell trouble. In a strong economy, leverage can also be attractive because it can increase the profitability of banks through lending.

In his recent statement, Cox said the inspector general’s findings reflect a deeper problem: “the lack of specific legal authority for the SEC or any other agency to act as the regulator of these large investment bank holding companies.”

Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson has called for a refining of the regulatory structure to reflect the global and interconnected nature of today’s financial system. In any case, the program’s failure can be seen in the disappearance of the participating banks: Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.

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Assessment

Merrill Lynch’s leverage ratio was possibly as high as 40-to-1 this year and Lehman Brothers faced a ratio of about 30-to-1, according to Bloomberg [5].

The Fed and Treasury Department forced Bear Stearns into a merger with JPMorgan Chase in March. And the last two months, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and sold their core U.S. business to British bank Barclays PLC, and Merrill Lynch was acquired by Bank of America. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, the two remaining large independent investment banks, changed their corporate structures to become bank holding companies, which are regulated by the Federal Reserve.

As these banks have folded or reorganized over the last several months, the Federal Reserve has largely assumed the SEC’s oversight responsibilities, though the commission will still have the power to regulate broker dealers.

Original Essay: http://www.propublica.org/article/flawed-sec-program-failed-to-rein-in-investment-banks-101

Conclusion

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On the Proposed Tax Cuts

Senate Debate on Extending 2001/2003 Tax Cuts

By Children’s Home Society of Florida Foundation

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The Senate Finance Committee conducted a hearing on July 14, 2010 to discuss the potential extension of tax cuts. In the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA) and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 (JGTRRA), there were tax reductions for nearly all Americans. The tax reductions continue through 2010, but are set to be repealed on January 1, 2011.

Proposals

The White House has proposed to extend these tax cuts for single persons with incomes under $200,000 ($250,000 for couples), but to increase the capital gain rate and top income tax brackets. Under the White House plan, the capital gain rate will increase from 15% to 20%, the 33% bracket increases to 36% and the 35% tax bracket is raised to 39.6%.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=income+tax&iid=238905″ src=”http://view1.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/238905/thinkstock-single-image/thinkstock-single-image.jpg?size=500&imageId=238905″ width=”337″ height=”506″ /]

The Senate

Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus (D-MT) opened the hearing by stating, “Americans are struggling to make ends meet, and we need to do all we can to put more money back in the hands of workers, middle-class families and small businesses so our economy can grow. I support extending the middle-class tax cuts permanently, as soon as possible, so working families can keep more of their hard-earned money.”

Sen. Baucus and the White House are both advocating a permanent extension of the tax cuts for low and middle-income taxpayers, with an increase in taxes for those in the upper brackets.

Ranking Member on the Senate Finance Committee Charles Grassley (R-IA) has repeatedly expressed concern about the increase of taxes on small business owners. He noted, “To those who are pushing the higher marginal rates, I say the burden is on you to show that you are not harming our primary job creators.” Sen. Grassley has noted that two-thirds of new jobs in the past decade have been created by the small business owners who will be subject to the higher taxes.

Editor’s Note: The hearings on taxes are the first step in creation of a tax bill. Because the failure to act this year would result in repeal of all of the tax cuts, it is probable that there will be a tax bill prior to the end of 2010. However, with the shortened legislative calendar due to the fall elections, the tax bill is quite likely to be deferred until after the election.

Conclusion

Douglas Holtz-Eakin is President of the American Action Forum and was formerly the Congressional Budget Office Director. He testified that approximately one-half of the $1 trillion in business income that will be reported in 2011 will be subject to the higher 36% and 39.6% tax brackets. In his opinion these higher rates will reduce the willingness of small businesses to hire new employees.

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”Tremendous Upheaval” Over Estate Tax

An IRS Prediction by Senator Charles Grassley

By Robert Giese
bob.giese@chsfl.org

Senate Charles Grassley (R-IA) is the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. In a conference call with several reporters on June 2nd, 2010, he discussed the uncertain future of the estate tax.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=IRS&iid=8445371″ src=”9/2/0/5/IRS_Commissioner_Douglas_ec95.jpg?adImageId=13115806&imageId=8445371″ width=”380″ height=”571″ /]

The Proposal [Kyle-Lincoln Estate Tax Compromise]

Sen. Grassley noted that Sen. Jon Kyle (R-AZ) and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) have proposed that the Senate Finance Committee pass an estate tax bill with a $5 million per person exemption and a 35% top estate tax rate.

However, Grassley expressed the opinion that “the Finance Committee would like to take up consideration of legislation, but we aren’t assured by the majority leader that the bill passed out of committee will be taken up on the floor.”

Senate Rules

Under the Senate rules, even if the Finance Committee were to pass the Kyle-Lincoln estate tax compromise, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is not obligated to schedule a floor vote and could simply stall the legislation.

Assessment

In December of 2009, the House passed the Permanent Estate Tax Relief for Families, Farmers and Small Businesses Act of 2009. This makes permanent the 2009 estate exemption of $3.5 million and top estate tax rate of 45%. If the House and Senate are not able to take action on estate taxes by the end of 2010 then on January 1, 2011 the estate tax returns with a 55% top rate and an exemption of $1 million (plus indexed increases).

This would affect many medical professionals as well as hardworking Americans.

Conclusion

If this were to happen, Sen. Grassley stated that there will be a “tremendous upheaval at the grassroots of America.”

And so, we invite IRS head Douglas Shulman to respond. Your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are also appreciated. Feel free to review our top-left column, and top-right sidebar materials, links, URLs and related websites, too. Then, be sure to subscribe. It is fast, free and secure.

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Say it Ain’t So Kathy Sebelius

More HHS Nominee Tax Problems

[By Staff Reporters]56359795

Although it’s sounding more and more like comedian Bill Murray’s movie “Ground Hog Day”, according to Tracy Staton, Health and Human Services department secretary-nominee Kathleen Sebelius, became the second appointee for the agency to admit underpaying her taxes.

Unintentional Problems

Sebelilus fixed three years’ worth of returns due to “unintentional” problems, and paid almost $8,000 in back taxes and interest. The snafu may not be serious enough to jeopardize her nomination, however. Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus issued a statement saying the errors were “minor” and accidental, and that he supported her confirmation (The committee’s ranking Republican Charles Grassley is reserving judgment until after her confirmation hearing).

A Daschle “Do-Over”

We all know that Senator Tom Daschle’s nomination to head up HHS hit the wall after a tax review found he owed some $140,000 in back taxes and interest. Is this a similar KS do-over; aka “mulligan”?

Industry Indignation Index: 45

Assessment

More importantly, are these so-called healthcare demagogues and gurus aware that “perception is reality”; especially in the healthcare space where integrity and trust matters most? Or, as ME-P Publisher Dr. David Edward Marcinko wondered aloud,

“Do politicians and/or those of us in healthcare really believe we are above it all?

Link: http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2009/04/01/sebelius-runs-into-tax-problems-but-daschles-were-bigger

Conclusion

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