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Wall Street Bailout, Congressional Cover-up, or Sarbanes-Oxley?

Politics / Credit Crisis Bailouts Sep 26, 2008 - 11:40 AM GMT

By: Steve_Selengut

Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleEvery new controversy demands a look at similar situations of the past. Just what is a bailout anyway? In the early 80's, Lee Iacocca arranged a government loan and tax concessions to bring Chrysler Corporation back from the brink of bankruptcy--- during the Carter Administration, to save you a Google.

The economic domino effect of a major corporate death was clear, and Congress acted wisely when it saved this American icon from extinction--- the loans were repaid. But was it poor management or shortsighted government that caused the problem. Politicians massaged and empowered the labor unions, implemented minimum wage legislation, and protected the steel industry from foreign competition.

Similar financial problems existed throughout the automotive industry and lower cost, better product was just starting to come ashore. Bailout or fix-up? Voteless corporations were perfect patsies then, and remain so today. But the average Joe's investment in the success of these perennial scapegoats for bad government has risen from zero dollars to all of our dollars. Every failure takes a piece of your retirement program with it.

All employed John Q's are investors; all taxpayers are investors; all Americans have a vested equity interest in the success of all publicly traded corporations in our "regulated capitalism" economy. Most politicians still can't connect the dots, and seem to be formulating policy based on the latest consensus of public blogs.

It wasn't the financial institutions that decided to make mortgage money available to practically anyone who wanted to own a home--- regulators permitted (encouraged) a relaxation of the qualification requirements. In effect, they enabled the predatory lending practices that misguided many first time homebuyers.

The easy-money lending practices, and sky rocketing housing prices, brought speculators into the mix and home flipping became as popular as Monday Night Football. Speculators accept the risks of loss; it's what they do. But allowing the creation of high risk where none is expected is unacceptable. The creative products developed by the financial institutions must be examined more closely and labeled more effectively.

Speculative bubbles always implode--- this time taking down speculators and marginally qualified homebuyers alike. It's ever so easy to blame the corporations, but who called off the regulators? Brokerage Firms have entire divisions whose only job is to make sure that nobody looks cross-eyed at any SEC regulation (real, contemplated, or anticipated).

The SEC itself requires full disclosure from all registrants. The interests of the customer are always placed first--- except of course, as was the case with Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), when an act of Congress prohibits the SEC from having a look. Could they have stemmed the tide? It doesn't matter. What matters is that complicated products are reviewed more carefully in the future.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have a similar tale not to tell. Congress was closely involved in their charade as well, with conflicts of interest that are certainly worthy of extensive investigations, but, again, not now. Now we need to get this credit driven economy out of the emergency room and back out there where it belongs, greasing the wheels of all industries, growing jobs, and reaffirming the strengths of our system.

This is not a situation where an innocent government is bailing out an evil industry that has lost its credibility (the financial sector deserves little credibility). This is an opportunity for Congress to save and strengthen an economy that has suffered from a government-initiated relaxation of lending rules, a government-mandated ban on regulation of derivative products, and accounting rules that just don't make sense for mortgage backed (or any fixed income) securities.

Politically, using the financial institutions as a scapegoat is easy and, judging from Internet polls, effective. John Q is furious, but at only half of the problem causers, and for the wrong reasons. How many of you have stopped making your mortgage payments just because the market value of your home has fallen?

Less than 5% would be a fair estimate. Yet a much more significant amount of the collective mortgage debt in the USA (not in any stage of default) has been arbitrarily erased from institutional balance sheets. Even within the "toxic" products the government would purchase, 80% of the loans are solid and meeting their monthly commitments. The cash flow from these products is more than adequate to keep things moving, were it not for Sarbanes-Oxley.

Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002, placing some very stringent, inappropriate, and inflexible reporting rules on financial institutions. Under this law, financial assets must be valued at fair market value--- even if they are not for sale! The Working Capital Model eliminates this problem entirely, but it is difficult to apply when the individual securities are not identifiable.

More than 95% of Americans are making their mortgage payments right on schedule, yet there is no market for the financial products that contain these mortgages. Consequently, balance sheets reflect trillions of dollars less than the maturity value of the securities held by the financial institutions.

Eureka! Regulate the product creating mechanism better, so that the productive value of the underlying assets is measurable. But, in the meantime, suspend the Sarbanes-Oxley restrictions and re-evaluate their applicability to packaged mortgage products in existence now.

Bonds, mortgages, preferred stocks, etc. are contracts that are honored 99% of the time. They are held for the income they promise. These promises are being met while the government tells holders that they can't be booked at full value. Have they all gone mad?

This is no bailout of an industry, it's a transfusion of capital needed to allow an industry to comply with legislation that just doesn't make sense. And while the politicians posture and pontificate, bluster and blame, banks are failing and irreparable harm is being done to John Q's nest egg--- yours and mine!

Telling me that my house has dropped in market value does me no harm, and I continue to make my monthly payments--- the lower (more realistic) market value may reduce my carrying costs. Telling banks that the mortgages they are collecting on need to be written down because they can't be sold is lunacy.

Tell John Q more about the source of the problem, and different heads will roll.

By Steve Selengut
Professional Portfolio Management since 1979
Author of: "The Brainwashing of the American Investor: The Book that Wall Street Does Not Want YOU to Read", and "A Millionaire's Secret Investment Strategy"

Disclaimer : Anything presented here is simply the opinion of Steve Selengut and should not be construed as anything else. One of the fascinating things about investing is that there are so many differing approaches, theories, and strategies. We encourage you to do your homework.

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Sandford Liebesman
27 Sep 08, 20:44
Wall Street Bailout, Congressional Cover-up, or Sarbanes-Oxley?

I did a search of the Sarbanes-Oxley Law and could not find a reference to support your comment that:

"Under this law, financial assets must be valued at fair market value---"

Please identify the section where this is written. Also, Please send me a copy of the exact words in the Law.


30 Sep 08, 02:48
Congress Cover Up

The sub-prime mortgages are not the problem, it's the derivatives that are the problem. They want to try and put a lid on the real timebomb that is going to go off in their faces soon. Relating the financial market problems to house foreclosures is an attempt to shift the focus away from Wall Street and place the blame on consumers.

The housing "crisis" is the scapegoat of a very much bigger problem which has not come to light in the mainstream media. The SEC was forbidden to look into the derivitaves market long ago and now the jig is up!

Hmmm.... I wonder who's running Congress anyway?

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