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Grotesque Plan for Detroit: Fleece Working People to Save the Banks

Municipal workers could be robbed of pension funds to pay big banks for payments due on interest rate swaps.
 
 
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The Detroit bankruptcy is looking suspiciously like the bail-in template originated by the G20’s Financial Stability Board in 2011, which exploded on the scene in Cyprus in 2013 and is now becoming the model globally. In Cyprus, the depositors were “bailed in” (stripped of a major portion of their deposits) to re-capitalize the banks. In Detroit, it is the municipal workers who are being bailed in, stripped of a major portion of their pensions to save the banks.

Bank of America Corp. and UBS AG have been given priority over other bankruptcy claimants, meaning chiefly the pensioners, for payments due on interest rate swaps they entered into with the city. Interest rate swaps – the exchange of interest rate payments between counterparties – are sold by Wall Street banks as a form of insurance, something municipal governments “should” do to protect their loans from an unanticipated increase in rates. Unlike ordinary insurance, however, swaps are actually just bets; and if the municipality loses the bet, it can owe the house, and owe big. The swap casino is almost entirely unregulated, and it is a rigged game that the house virtually always wins. Interest rate swaps are based on the LIBOR rate, which has now been proven to be manipulated by the rate-setting banks; and they were a major contributor to Detroit’s bankruptcy.

Derivative claims are considered “secured” because the players must post collateral to play. They get not just priority but “super-priority” in bankruptcy, meaning they go first before all others, a deal pushed through by Wall Street in the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005. Meanwhile, the municipal workers, whose pensions are theoretically protected under the Michigan Constitution, are classified as “unsecured” claimants who will get the scraps after the secured creditors put in their claims. The banking casino, it seems, trumps even the state constitution. The banks win and the workers lose once again.

Systemically Dangerous Institutions Are Moved to the Head of the Line

The argument for the super-priority of derivative claims is that nonpayment on these bets represents a “systemic risk” to the financial scheme. Derivative bets are cross-collateralized and are so inextricably entwined in a $600-plus trillion house of cards that the whole financial scheme could go down if the betting scheme were to collapse. Instead of banning or regulating this very risky casino, Congress has been persuaded by the masterminds of Wall Street that it needs to be preserved at all costs.

The same tortured logic has been used to justify the fact that the federal government deigned to bail out Wall Street but not Detroit. Supposedly, the mega-banks pose a systemic risk and Detroit doesn’t. On July 29th, former Obama administration economist Jared Bernstein pursued this line of reasoning on his blog, writing:

[T]he correct motivation for federal bailouts — meaning some combination of managing a bankruptcy, paying off creditors (though often with a haircut), or providing liquidity in cases where that’s the issue as opposed to insolvency – is systemic risk. The failure of large, major banks, two out of the big three auto companies, the secondary market for housing – all of these pose unacceptably large risks to global financial markets, and thus the global economy, to a major industry, including its upstream and downstream suppliers, and to the national housing sector.

Because a) there’s not much of a case that Detroit is systemically connected in those ways, and b) Chapter 9 of the bankruptcy code appears to provide an adequate way for it to deal with its insolvency, I don’t think anything like a large scale bailout is forthcoming.