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How Wall Street Hustles America's Cities and States Out of Billions

Many powerful interests have jumped at the opportunity to use the crisis to eviscerate what’s left of the welfare state.
 
 
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We all know that America’s cities and towns are in the throes of a deep financial crisis. And are told, over and over, what’s supposedly behind it: unreasonable demands by grasping state and municipal workers for pay and pensions. The diagnosis is a grotesque cartoon. Many of the biggest budget busters are on Wall Street, not Main Street.

In a country as big and locally diverse as the U.S., any number of wacky pay and pension schemes are likely to flourish, though some of the most outrageous turn out to cover not workers, but legislators.  But overall state and local pay has not been growing faster than in the private sector for equivalent work for many years now. 

What has driven cities and towns to the brink is not demands from their workforce but the collapse of national income and the ensuing fall in tax collections. Or, in other words, the Great Recession itself, for which Wall Street and the financial sector are principally to blame. But many powerful interests have jumped at the opportunity to use the crisis to eviscerate what’s left of the welfare state, roll back unionization to pre-New Deal levels, and keep cutting taxes on the wealthy. The litany of horror stories that now fills the media is ideal for their purposes.

The selective character of this press campaign became obvious last week. As the latest wave of stories started rolling in the wake of elections in California and Wisconsin, a striking piece of evidence surfaced that flies in the face of the conventional narrative. The Refund Transit Coalition, a coalition of unions and public interest groups, put out a study that documented in stunning detail how Wall Street banks have for years been hustling American cities, states, and regional authorities out of billions of dollars. But save for Gretchen Morgenson’s “Fair Game” column for the New York Times, the study drew almost no attention.

At a time when cities and states are taking hatchets to services and manically raising fees and fares, the group’s analysis merits a closer look and a much, much wider audience.

Its starting point will be familiar to anyone who recalls the debate over financial “reform” of the last few years. In the bad old days of pre-2008 deregulated finance, bankers started pedaling hot new “structured finance” products that they claimed were perfect for the needs of clients who had thrived for decades using cheaper, plain vanilla bonds and loans. The new marvels – swaps and other forms of so-called “derivatives” whose values changed as other securities they referenced fluctuated in value – were often complex and frequently not priced in any actual market. Their buyers thus had difficulty understanding how they really worked or how they might be hurt by purchasing them. 

In many documented cases, buyers also had only faint ideas about how profitable these products were to the houses selling them. One befuddled Pennsylvania school board, for example, diffidently quizzed J.P. Morgan Chase: “The school-board official knew they were getting $750,000 for entering into a ‘swaption’ with J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. They wanted to know what was in it for the bank. They wanted to know the price. They seem like reasonable requests. ‘I can’t quantify that to you,’ the banker told them. ‘It is not a typical underwriting and I can’t quantify that for you and there’s no way that I can be specific on that.’” 

One popular product involved an “interest rate” swap built into a bond deal. In these, as the Transit study explains, some hapless municipal authority brings out a bond and commits to making fixed payments to buyers. That sounds like any other old fashioned bond offer. But here’s the twist. In the swap version, the bank offers, for a handsome charge, to pay a variable fee to the issuer of the bonds. The idea was that the money could be used to make payments owed to the bond buyers. Payments were supposed to vary with the course of interest rates. The contrivances were heralded as protecting issuers against a rise in rates and saving them money on their payments.

But there was a catch: If rates fell, then banks could make out big, while issuers faced disaster, because the latter still had to make the fixed payments on their bonds, while the banks’ payments would shrink as rates fell. In effect, issuers were gambling on interest rates and betting they somehow knew better than the banks what was going to happen. And, ah, yes, the final touch: With old style bonds, you could refinance if rates fell; with the new fangled derivatives, the banks made sure to impose huge termination fees.

The result, for years now, has been literally billions of dollars of losses for cities, states, and other local authorities, including school boards and state college loan agencies. Locked in by the termination fees, they can stay in the swaps and pay and pay as the banks’ payments to them dwindle. Or they can buy their way out of the swaps at preposterous prices – Morgenson indicated that New York State recently paid $243 million dollars to get out of some swaps, of which $191 million had to be borrowed.

The Refund Transit study concentrated on local transit systems. Some of its numbers are stunning. The study pegged annual swap losses at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (Boston area) at $25.8 million and suggested that the MBTA will “lose another $254 million on these swaps” before they lapse. The study added that the MBTA was losing money on swaps even before the crisis, with total losses running in the “hundreds of millions” of dollars.

In Charlotte, site of the Democratic Convention, the study suggests that swaps with Bank of America and Wells Fargo cost the area transit system almost $20 million a year – something to think about as the President gives his scheduled acceptance speech at Bank of America Stadium.

Other localities that the study suggests are wracking up big annual losses include Chicago ($88 million), Detroit ($54 million), frugal Chris Christie’s State of New Jersey ($83 million), New York City ($113.9 million), Philadelphia ($39 million), and San Francisco ($48 million).

The study includes a useful table of the main banks benefiting from these arrangements. They include all the usual suspects: Besides Bank of America and Wells Fargo: Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, J. P. Morgan Chase, UBS, and AIG, among others. Most were recipients of TARP funds, while all have profited from super cheap Federal Reserve financing, Fed, Freddie, and Fannie purchases of mortgage backed securities, and extended deposit guarantees as well as tax concessions granted by the Treasury in the wake of the 2008 disaster. 

Given all the other advantages conferred on our Too Big To Fail Banks by the government and both major political parties, it would be a stretch to argue that the toleration of these swaps by federal, state, and local authorities – and the press, which in virtually all areas has defaulted on reporting the basic facts – constitutes the greatest outrage of all. But it is high time that they came in for full public scrutiny. These products were obviously very risky; few agencies that bought them appear to have understood this.

Despite some reforms aimed at eliminating crude “pay for play” deals, state and local finance remains a area rife with conflicts of interest. The whole series of deals needs to be investigated, the advisers who recommended them to the authorities need to be identified, the full losses added up, and responsibility fixed for the continuing series of bad decisions. Many State Attorneys General and general counsels also need to explain why they have not more aggressively publicized these arrangements and challenged them in court. (A New York court ruled that such deals were private contracts, not securities; that should have brought forth howls of protests and immediate legal fixes.) It is high time citizens, instead of banks, start occupying the transit authorities, school boards, and other state and local entities that are so vital to communities and real people.

Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and Contributing Editor at AlterNet.
 
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