The Warning (2009)

“We didn’t truly know the dangers of the market, because it was a dark market,” says Brooksley Born, the head of an obscure federal regulatory agency — the Commodity Futures Trading Commission [CFTC] — who not only warned of the potential for economic meltdown in the late 1990s, but also tried to convince the country’s key economic powerbrokers to take actions that could have helped avert the crisis. “They were totally opposed to it,” Born says. “That puzzled me. What was it that was in this market that had to be hidden?”

In The Warning, veteran FRONTLINE producer Michael Kirk unearths the hidden history of the nation’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. At the center of it all he finds Brooksley Born, who speaks for the first time on television about her failed campaign to regulate the secretive, multitrillion-dollar derivatives market whose crash helped trigger the financial collapse in the fall of 2008.

“I didn’t know Brooksley Born,” says former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, a member of President Clinton’s powerful Working Group on Financial Markets. “I was told that she was irascible, difficult, stubborn, unreasonable.” Levitt explains how the other principals of the Working Group — former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin — convinced him that Born’s attempt to regulate the risky derivatives market could lead to financial turmoil, a conclusion he now believes was “clearly a mistake.”

Born’s battle behind closed doors was epic, Kirk finds. The members of the President’s Working Group vehemently opposed regulation — especially when proposed by a Washington outsider like Born.

“I walk into Brooksley’s office one day; the blood has drained from her face,” says Michael Greenberger, a former top official at the CFTC who worked closely with Born. “She’s hanging up the telephone; she says to me: ‘That was [former Assistant Treasury Secretary] Larry Summers. He says, “You’re going to cause the worst financial crisis since the end of World War II.”… [He says he has] 13 bankers in his office who informed him of this. Stop, right away. No more.'”

Greenspan, Rubin and Summers ultimately prevailed on Congress to stop Born and limit future regulation of derivatives. “Born faced a formidable struggle pushing for regulation at a time when the stock market was booming,” Kirk says. “Alan Greenspan was the maestro, and both parties in Washington were united in a belief that the markets would take care of themselves.”

Now, with many of the same men who shut down Born in key positions in the Obama administration, The Warning reveals the complicated politics that led to this crisis and what it may say about current attempts to prevent the next one.

“It’ll happen again if we don’t take the appropriate steps,” Born warns. “There will be significant financial downturns and disasters attributed to this regulatory gap over and over until we learn from experience.”

Vir: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/warning/

Povezava: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/warning/view/

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Inside the Meltdown (2009)

On Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008, the astonished leadership of the U.S. Congress was told in a private session by the chairman of the Federal Reserve that the American economy was in grave danger of a complete meltdown within a matter of days. “There was literally a pause in that room where the oxygen left,” says Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.).

As the housing bubble burst and trillions of dollars’ worth of toxic mortgages began to go bad in 2007, fear spread through the massive firms that form the heart of Wall Street. By the spring of 2008, burdened by billions of dollars of bad mortgages, the investment bank Bear Stearns was the subject of rumors that it would soon fail.

“Rumors are such that they can just plain put you out of business,” Bear Stearns’ former CEO Alan “Ace” Greenberg tells FRONTLINE.

The company’s stock had dropped from $171 to $57 a share, and it was hours from declaring bankruptcy. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke acted. “It was clear that this had to be contained. There was no doubt in his mind,” says Bernanke’s colleague, economist Mark Gertler.

Bernanke, a former economics professor from Princeton, specialized in studying the Great Depression. “He more than anybody else appreciated what would happen if it got out of control,” Gertler explains.

To stabilize the markets, Bernanke engineered a shotgun marriage between Bear Sterns and the commercial bank JPMorgan, with a promise that the federal government would use $30 billion to cover Bear Stearns’ questionable assets tied to toxic mortgages. It was an unprecedented effort to stop the contagion of fear that seemed to be threatening the rest of Wall Street.

While publicly supportive of the deal, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a former Wall Street executive with Goldman Sachs, was uncomfortable with government interference in the markets. That summer, he issued a warning to his former colleagues not to expect future government bailouts, saying he was concerned about a legal concept known as moral hazard.

Within months, however, Paulson would witness the virtual collapse of the giant mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and preside over their takeover by the federal government.

The episode sent shockwaves through the economy as confidence in Wall Street began to evaporate. Within days, in September 2008, another investment bank, Lehman Brothers, was on the brink of collapse. Once again, there were calls for Bernanke and Paulson to bail out the Wall Street giant. But Paulson was under intense political pressure from conservative Republicans in Washington to invoke moral hazard and let the company fail.

“You had a conservative secretary of the Treasury and conservative administration. There was right-wing criticism over Bear Stearns,” says Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

Paulson pushed Lehman’s CEO Dick Fuld to find a buyer for his ailing company. But no company would buy Lehman unless the government offered a deal similar to the one Bear Stearns had received. Paulson refused, and Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy.

FRONTLINE then chronicles the disaster that followed. Within 24 hours, the stock market crashed, and credit markets around the world froze. “We’re no longer talking about mortgages,” says economist Gertler. “We’re talking about car loans, loans to small businesses, commercial paper borrowing by large banks. This is like a disease spreading.”

“I think that the secretary of the Treasury could not fully comprehend what that linkage was and the extent to which this would materialize into problems,” says former Lehman board member Henry Kaufman.

Paulson was thunderstruck. “This is the utter nightmare of an economic policy-maker,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman tells FRONTLINE. “You may have just made the decision that destroyed the world. Absolutely terrifying moment.”

In response, Paulson and Bernanke would propose — and Congress would eventually pass — a $700 billion bailout plan. FRONTLINE goes inside the deliberations surrounding the passage of the legislation and examines its unsuccessful implementation.

“Many Americans still don’t understand what has happened to the economy,” FRONTLINE producer/director Michael Kirk says. “How did it all go so bad so quickly? Who is responsible? How effective has the response from Washington and Wall Street been? Those are the questions at the heart of Inside the Meltdown.”

Vir: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/meltdown/

Povezava: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/meltdown/view/

Breaking the Bank (2009)

Ken Lewis, the CEO of Bank of America, is in trouble: a stock collapse; a rocky merger; the worst fourth-quarter losses in at least 17 years; a stockholder revolt; an urgent need to raise more capital despite a $45 billion infusion from the federal government. And on top of that, he effectively has a new boss: President Barack Obama.

In Breaking the Bank, FRONTLINE producer Michael Kirk (Inside the Meltdown, Bush’s War) draws on a rare combination of high-profile interviews with key players Ken Lewis and former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain to reveal the story of two banks at the heart of the financial crisis, their rocky merger, and the government’s new role in taking over — some call it “nationalizing” — the American banking system.

It all began on that fateful weekend in September 2008 when the American economy was on the verge of melting down. Then-Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson, his former protégé John Thain, and Ken Lewis, one of the most powerful bankers in the country, secretly cut a deal to merge Bank of America and Merrill Lynch.

The merger of the nation’s largest bank and Merrill Lynch was supposed to help save the American financial system by preventing the imminent Lehman Brothers bankruptcy from setting off a destructive chain reaction. But it became immediately clear that it had not worked. Within days, the entire global financial system was collapsing.

In Washington, Secretary Paulson was determined to spend billions of government dollars to prevent the American banking system from dragging the country into a depression. That October, Lewis, Thain and other top bank CEOs found themselves at an emergency meeting at the Treasury Department. Paulson told the group they had no choice but to accept $125 billion of capital from American taxpayers in order to save the financial system. Initially, Bank of America’s CEO Lewis was supportive of the plan. “We are so intertwined with the U.S. that it’s hard to separate what’s good for the United States and what’s good for Bank of America,” Lewis tells FRONTLINE.

But some observers now say that Paulson’s injection of public capital was the beginning of unprecedented government involvement in the nation’s banking system, with consequences few understood.

“I think we nationalized the banks in the U.S. on that day,” former International Monetary Fund chief economist Simon Johnson says. “The government got a lot of say in how they are run, a lot of constraints, a lot of responsibility. A lot of downside risk was taken on that day.”

By December, Lewis was discovering what it meant to have the government as a partial owner. When fourth-quarter losses at Merrill grew to $15 billion, Lewis began to look for a way to get out of the deal. But in tense negotiations with government officials, Lewis was told he had no choice. If he did not go through with the merger, regulators threatened to change the bank’s management.

“Ken Lewis blinked, the full force of the government is being brought upon him. The rules of the game have changed,” Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Fitzpatrick says. “Ken Lewis is on top of the financial services world, but he’s not in charge. The government holds all the cards at the end of the day.”

FRONTLINE’s Breaking the Bank tells the story of Lewis’ struggle to survive in this new financial order, where public outrage and government edicts are now as important to banking as shareholders and deposits. With his bank on the brink, Lewis now finds himself the subject of a shareholder revolt, congressional indignation, presidential pressure and the increasingly conflicting demands of private investors and government officials.

“This is more than a story about just one man or one bank,” says producer Michael Kirk. “This is the story of the most important change in the relationship between government and private business in a generation.”

Vir: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/breakingthebank/

Povezava: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/breakingthebank/view/

Ten Trillion and Counting (2009)

All of the federal government’s efforts to stem the tide of the financial meltdown have added hundreds of billions of dollars to an already staggering national debt, a sum that is expected to double over the next 10 years to more than $23 trillion. In Ten Trillion and Counting, FRONTLINE traces the politics behind this mounting debt and investigates what some say is a looming crisis that makes the current financial situation pale in comparison.

The journey begins as FRONTLINE correspondent Forrest Sawyer takes viewers to a secret location: the Treasury’s debt auction room, where the U.S. government sells securities backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.” On this day, the government is auctioning $67 billion of Treasury securities. The money borrowed will be used to fund services and programs that the government cannot pay for through tax revenues alone.

Observers warn that the United States’ reliance on borrowing to fund essential programs is a dangerous gamble. For the first time, investors are beginning to question the ability of federal government to meet its growing financial obligations, and fading confidence can have dire consequences. “You might have a situation where there is one day when the government says we need to sell several billion dollars of bonds, and nobody shows,” Economist reporter Greg Ip tells FRONTLINE. “No money to pay the Social Security checks, no money to give to the states for their Medicaid programs. Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.”

Yet more borrowing is exactly what the Obama administration plans to do: hundreds of billions to bail out the banks and other financial institutions; tens of billions more for the auto industry; $275 billion for homeowners and mortgage lenders; and a giant $787 billion stimulus package to jump-start an economy spiraling downward. Just like the Bush administration before it, Obama and his team are going to borrow big.

“That’s the paradox of the situation that we’re in now,” observes Matt Miller, author of The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. “Government has got to run big deficits to stimulate the economy, deficits that would have been unthinkable … because government’s the only entity with the wherewithal to prop up a demand in the economy when businesses and consumers are all pulling back.”

Vir: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tentrillion/

Povezava: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tentrillion/view/

The Card Game (2009)

As credit card companies face rising public anger, new regulation from Washington and staggering new rates of default and bankruptcy, FRONTLINE correspondent Lowell Bergman investigates the future of the massive consumer loan industry and its impact on a fragile national economy.

In The Card Game, a follow-up to the Secret History of the Credit Card and a joint project with The New York Times, Bergman and the Times talk to industry insiders, lobbyists, politicians and consumer advocates as they square off over attempts to reform the way the industry has done business for decades.

“The card issuers could do anything they want,” Robert McKinley, CEO of CardWeb.com, tells FRONTLINE of the industry’s unchecked power over consumers. “They could change your interest rate. They could impose an annual fee. They could close your account.” High interest rates along with more and more penalty fees drove up profits for the industry, Bergman finds, as the banks followed the lead of an aggressive upstart: Providian Bank. In an exclusive interview with FRONTLINE, former Providian CEO Shailesh Mehta tells Bergman how his company successfully targeted vulnerable low-income customers whom Providian called “the unbanked.”

“They’re lower-income people-bad credits, bankrupts, young credits, no credits,” Mehta says. Providian also innovated by offering “free” credit cards that carried heavy hidden fees. “I used to use the word ‘penalty pricing’ or ‘stealth pricing,'” Mehta tells FRONTLINE. “When people make the buying decision, they don’t look at the penalty fees because they never believe they’ll be late. They never believe they’ll be over limit, right? … Our business took off. … We were making a billion dollars a year.”

It took the economic collapse in the fall of 2008 to set the stage for potentially historic change in the consumer credit business. President Obama and his team pushed through a credit card reform bill in May, and they’re now looking to establish a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency. But the banking and financial services industries contribute huge amounts of money to Congress — and the jury is still out on whether the new regulations can pass. “It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s a modest step,” says Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren. “It’s a set of very discrete new laws. And the credit industry instantly set to work on how they could run around them. By itself, that set of rules won’t change the game.”

“It’s hard for them to get a bill through the U.S. Senate when the industry is pouring money into Washington,” says Martin Eakes of the Center for Responsible Lending of the banks’ political clout. “As Sen. [Dick] Durbin from Chicago recently said, ‘the banks, even as unpopular as they are right now in this crisis, still own this place.'”

Vir: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/creditcards/

Povezava: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/creditcards/view/

Secret History of the Credit Card (2004)

In “Secret History of the Credit Card,” FRONTLINE® and The New York Times join forces to investigate an industry few Americans fully understand. In this one-hour report, correspondent Lowell Bergman uncovers the techniques used by the industry to earn record profits and get consumers to take on more debt.

“The almost magical convenience of plastic money is critical to our famously compulsive consumer economy,” Bergman says. “With more than 641 million credit cards in circulation and accounting for an estimated $1.5 trillion of consumer spending, the U.S. economy has clearly gone plastic.”

Millions of American families use their personal, general-purpose credit cards such as Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover to make ends meet; credit cards have been a discreet lifeline for families in financial straits.

But other consumers, like actor and author Ben Stein, use plastic purely for convenience. While it would appear that Stein — who says he charges a small fortune every month on his credit cards — is the ideal customer, in reality, he is what some in the industry call a “deadbeat.” That’s because he pays his balance in full every month.

The industry’s most profitable customers, the ones being sought by creative marketing tactics, are the “revolvers:” the estimated 115 million Americans who carry monthly credit card debt.

Ed Yingling, incoming president of the American Bankers Association, tells FRONTLINE that revolvers are “the sweet spot” of the banking industry. This “sweet spot” continues to grow as the average credit card debt among American households has more than doubled over the past decade. Today, the average family owes roughly $8,000 on their credit cards. This debt has helped generate record profits for the credit card industry — last year, more than $30 billion before taxes.

Some experts say the profitability of credit cards really began twenty-five years ago, when the banking industry successfully eliminated a critical restriction: the limit on the interest rate a lender can charge a borrower. Deregulation, coupled with a revolution in technology that enables the almost real-time tracking of personal financial information and the emergence of nationwide banking, has facilitated the widening availability of credit cards across the economic spectrum. But for some, the cost of credit is often far greater than it appears.

According to Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren, the credit card companies are misleading consumers and making up their own rules. “These guys have figured out the best way to compete is to put a smiley face in your commercials, a low introductory rate, and hire a team of MBAs to lay traps in the fine print,” Warren tells FRONTLINE.

Warren and other critics say that a growing share of the industry’s revenues come from what they call deceptive tactics, such as “default” terms spelled out in the fine print of cardholder agreements — the terms and conditions of which can be changed at any time for any reason with 15 days’ notice.

Penalty fees and rates are sometimes triggered by just a single lapse — a payment that arrives a couple of days or even hours late, a charge that exceeds the credit line by a few dollars, or a loan from another creditor which renders the cardholder “overextended” as defined by the nation’s three all-powerful credit bureaus. This flurry of unexpected fees and rate hikes come just when consumers can least afford them.

“[Banks are] raising interest rates, adding new fees, making the due date for your payment a holiday or a Sunday on the hopes that maybe you’ll trip up and get a payment in late,” says Robert McKinley, founder and chairman of Cardweb.com and Ram Research, a payment card research firm. “It’s become a very anti-consumer marketplace.”

Banking Association spokesman Yingling defends industry practices. Because the credit card business is basically unsecured lending, he says, the risks associated with the business must be offset.

But that’s of little consolation to consumers who may be in trouble. According to the Better Business Bureau, credit card and banking companies are the subject of a record numbers of complaints. “It’s not an accident that the banking and credit card business generates more complaints nationally, across the country, than any other industry…Out of one thousand industries that we track, they are number one,” says Pat Wallace, head of the San Francisco Bay Area Better Business Bureau. “There are irritated, unhappy, dissatisfied customers in this industry.”

As Professor Warren sees it, the industry is operating without fear of penalty. “There’s no regulator, and there’s no customer who can bring this industry to heel,” Warren says.

Vir: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/credit/

Povezava: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/credit/view/

Gramsci: Everything that Concerns People (1987)

Antonio Gramsci (January 22, 1891 – April 27, 1937) was an Italian writer, politician, political theorist, and linguist. He was a founding member and onetime leader of the Communist Party of Italy and was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime.

Gramsci was one of the most important Marxist thinkers in the 20th century. His writings are heavily concerned with the analysis of culture and political leadership and he is notable as a highly original thinker within modern European thought. He is renowned for his concept of cultural hegemony as a means of maintaining the state in a capitalist society.

Vir: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Gramsci