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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, b ut 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.

 
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