Posts Tagged ‘implosion’

Curtailing public spending… a precursor to war…

December 24, 2009

OK… now wait for the scandals to keep piling up and the masses will revolt… same goes for California, Spain, Ireland, the UK, France Italy….

Social unrest has the pesky characteristic that makes it contagious and causes it to spread cross borders…

The count down to global war is on… 2013/2015 latest

Curtailing public services (mail service)

November 17, 2009

Chipping away at public services one item at the time….

As government is unable to expand credit markets and as most tax revenue is going towards debt service despite the lowest interest rates in history, public service must be curtailed.

Curtail enough public services (police, fire fighting, refuse disposal… health care…… pensions) in an environment where unemployment is rising at the same time that the power and business elites are implicated in scandal after scandal and you got yourself the ideal conditions for civil unrest.

Civil unrest means government will fall.

I know that. Some other people know that. Some politicians may know it too and of those that don’t know it, they can feel the winds of change bearing down on their little fiefdoms.

How do you prevent a total loss of power of the incumbents? You engineer a war of course and, at this rate, the next war will be a real war where Western society will be packed off to the front, civilian industry will be turned into war industry and food and energy will be rationed.

You may think I am off my rocker.

If I am right and, so far, empirical evidence tells me I am because:

The gargantuan amount of money that has been created in the past year alone has so far failed to work it’s multiplier magic on the overall economy

Graph: M1 Money Multiplier

And since the gargantuan sums that have been handed over to banks are just sitting there

FRED Graph

And because we still have significant overcapacity

Graph: Capacity Utilization: Total Industry

… and because of this…

FRED Graph

… and because of this…

FRED Graph

… and finally, in an economy that is 80% consumer based, because of this…

Graph: Personal Saving Rate

… if I am right (and the above data says I am) and we have entered a cyclical deflationary era, government won’t be able to expand credit markets no matter what it does and monetization of the debt issued by the treasury is not going to help if not to destroy the currency thus the economy.

Incidentally, considering that the Bank of International Settlements estimates global financial obligations to be worth at a minimum US$500Trillion and that world GDP was at one point hovering around US$50Trillion and that the majority of these derivatives are held by US and EU banks (and only four banks hold the lion share of the lot)… major global currencies are not going to take kindly to the moment in time when these obligations must be satisfied…

Can a Western government declare bankruptcy and, in one fell swoop, admit that, in fact, we are no better than your garden variety Mugabe?

I think not.

If any of the above indicators don’t start trending in the opposite direction we’ll have us a war by 2013/2015 latest.

As the main body of the iceberg emerges…(Induced overcapacity)

November 16, 2009

It is tough to proffer observations from what are widely considered the fringes of common sense. Because society generally is so caught up in running faster just to stay in place, running faster (or trying to) becomes the norm. Few can see merit in slowing down or, at least, adopting a measured pace so as to promote endurance.

An unchecked fiat monetary system inevitably leads to an accelerating inflationary dynamic. But as a dynamic that conforms to the law of diminishing returns, persistent, pervasive and aggressive inflation burns through the productivity phase quickly (when prices and wages rise across the board) and enters the speculative phase sooner than necessary. At that point, inflation manifests itself across the board in terms of cost of living but in terms of nominal earnings it manifests itself in fewer and fewer sectors until, towards the conclusion of the inflationary trajectory, it only manifests itself in the financial sector.

This is the point at which the character of government is the most distorted and its behavior aberrant. This is the point at which government has a vested interest in disregarding the letter of the law and even in colluding in practices that are criminal all in the hope to maintain a positive inflationary trajectory.

Bailing out failing companies is just such aberrant behavior. Companies fail because of a number of reasons including bad management. But as one of the inherent consequences of the inflationary cycle is to bring about excess industrial capacity, companies fail because when interest rates are the lowest in historic terms, credit markets can no longer be expanded thus demand is reduced.

Bailing out companies in an environment of gross overcapacity guarantees less revenue for every other company in the sector including for the beneficiary of the bailout.

Bailouts may temporarily work at earlier stages of the inflationary dynamic as credit markets have room to run. Take Japan as a for instance. Japan has been mired in a deflationary recession for the past twenty years. However, though they were much further along the inflationary dynamic than anyone else, Japan hobbled through the crisis because the rest of the world could still expand their credit markets and buy Japanese manufacturing.

Today however, that no longer seems the case. Global industrial capacity utilization is at the lows along with interest rates. Thus credit markets world wide are contracting. There are arguments to suggest that China’s credit markets are still expanding but nobody really knows. But even if that were the case, it is unclear whether China by itself can drag the rest of the world along.

Anyway. Bailing out companies when industrial capacity and debt burdens are the highest and interest rates the lowest only postpones the problem at greater cost to society.

Analysts expect more bailed-out firms to fail in the months ahead. Others may survive but will struggle to repay the government. Steven Rattner, the former head of the government’s efforts to bail out the auto industry, said recently that the full public investment in GM is unlikely to be repaid. Meanwhile, AIG is dismantling itself, selling healthy subsidiaries at what critics say are bargain prices in an all-out effort to get cash to repay the government.

More bailout money going to gross overcapacity… and I won’t even go into the legal or moral considerations inherent in this boondoggle.

But tucked inside the law was another prize: a tax break that lets big companies offset losses incurred in 2008 and 2009 against profits booked as far back as 2004. The tax cuts will generate corporate refunds or relief worth about $33 billion, according to an administration estimate.”

Aberrant? You bet. Immoral? Absolutely. Legal? Not in a presumably capitalist economy.

How long till we say enough?

Gold looking better by the day.

White House planning to use TARP

November 13, 2009

You can’t make this stuff up…

Budget experts said committing some TARP funds toward debt reduction could help calm concerns about the size and intent of the program.

Social unrest… simmering nicely…

November 10, 2009

Anger and discontent are reaching a boil as a lethal combination of economic corruption and political collusion are deleveraged across the United States.”

And you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet…. tip of the iceberg this is…

War by 2012/2015

I’m telling you again… (your pension and insurance contributions)

November 9, 2009

As I have written in several previous posts, the most recent report issued by the Bank of International Settlements (the banks’ bank) identified in excess of $500 Trillion Dollars in financial obligations (derivatives) worldwide.  These obligations are supported by a global economy that at one point was worth in the region of US$50 Trillion and is now dropping very fast.

So, global GDP is dropping fast but obligations worth easily 10x world GDP are still outstanding at the original value.

Who, you may ask is at the center of this web of derivatives?

Concentrated, in fact, among a mere handful of financial-services giants. About 80% of the derivative assets and liabilities carried on the balance sheets of 100 companies reviewed by Fitch were held by five banks: JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley. Those five banks also account for more than 96% of the companies’ exposure to credit derivatives.

The Fitch study concerned specifically the US market. However, other than the fact that the US economy makes up 70% of global GDP, I can guarantee that other major banks world wide are into derivatives up to their neck and in a deflationary environment, those obligations are going to come due sooner or later.

The problem of course, is that when the obligations are triggered, the asset base of companies will be greatly reduced in value making servicing those obligations next to impossible.

This is the reason governments in the West have shoveled untold billions into banks coffers.

The more astute observers amongst you will realize that our governments have shoveled “billions” into banks but the obligations run into the “trillions”.

This is where a bit of slight of hand comes to the rescue of government.

Government is supporting the banks in two major ways. On one hand, governments have appropriated public funds and given them to the banks. This was the visible part of government support and the officially sanctioned extent of the involvement of government. On the other hand, governments are allowing banks to disregard a swathe of accounting rules the application of which would render them immediately bankrupt. As banks are allowed to appear solvent, they also retain their investment grade rating.

And here is the slight of hand.

As solvent entities with investment grade rating, banks attract a large portion of institutional money like pension and insurance funds. Thus, the money you think you are paying towards your pension or life insurance for example, is invested by your fund manager in the shares of banks.

Thus, the government shoveled tax payers billions into the coffers of banks and then enabled the banks to attract billions more of taxpayers’ money.

Finding out that governments are also doing secret deals with banks is par for the course. We have a $500 Trillion problem on our hands that we are trying to solve with a few dozen Billions.

Accumulating gold bullion is looking every day better.

The state as oppressor

November 5, 2009

Towards the end of the inflationary dynamic, the state has a vested interest in disregarding the law.

If you’ve read my rants prior to this one, you know that my pet peeve is the monetary system. And although you may sympathize or even agree with my position, what very few of you will agree to is that the monetary system does not only affect the economy but also our social structure and the way we live our lives.

If towards the end of the inflationary cycle you agree that in order to maintain a positive inflationary trajectory government must disregard the law, I am almost sure you may have a harder time still understanding how unconstitutional behavior in matters of terrorism relate to inflation.

Excerpts from the article:

Yesterday, the Second Circuit — by a vote of 7-4 —  agreed with the government and dismissed Arar’s case in its entirety.  It held that even if the government violated Arar’s Constitutional rights as well as statutes banning participation in torture, he still has no right to sue for what was done to him.  Why?  Because “providing a damages remedy against senior officials who implement an extraordinary rendition policy would enmesh the courts ineluctably in an assessment of the validity of the rationale of that policy and its implementation in this particular case, matters that directly affect significant diplomatic and national security concerns” (p. 39).  In other words, government officials are free to do anything they want in the national security context — even violate the law and purposely cause someone to be tortured — and courts should honor and defer to their actions by refusing to scrutinize them.”

Reflecting the type of people who fill our judiciary, the judges in the majority also invented the most morally depraved bureaucratic requirements for Arar to proceed with his case and then claimed he had failed to meet them.  Arar did not, for instance, have the names of the individuals who detained and abused him at JFK, which the majority said he must have.  As Judge Sack in dissent said of that requirement:  it “means government miscreants may avoid [] liability altogether through the simple expedient of wearing hoods while inflicting injury” (p. 27; emphasis added).”

One of the keys to being able to ride roughshod over standing laws is the ability to escape scrutiny and/or the ability to escape prosecution. The end of the inflationary cycle must inevitably bring about a hardening of the institutions related to security and, gradually, to a militarization of civic institutions such as the police. As that is happening, the state also needs to make sure that whatever standing laws may exist in the land, they may not be brought to bear upon the administration.

Inflation as a deliberate policy is pernicious.

The only reason the government of a nation chooses a fiat monetary system is to have the ability to push inflation (creation of credit and money) faster than underlying economic activity.

Fiat money is a fantastic construct that would allow for fine tuning of the economy and mitigation of the effects of the natural ebb and flow of economic activity.

However, in a democratic context as incumbent administrations necessarily follow one another in the seat of power, fiat money can lead nowhere other than to the permanent expansion of inflation. It could not be otherwise because even assuming that economic conditions should call for reduced spending, no administration would accept to willingly decrease its budget.

The idea to make the central bank independent is supposed to facilitate just that process. As the guardian of interest rates and the fabricators of the currency, the central bank (the Fed in the USA) should act independently and manipulate interest rates according to economic activity.

However, that has never been the case. For whatever reason, central banks are not independent. The Fed certainly isn’t and as the US$ is the global reserve currency, by extension, neither are the other central banks. Certainly not the ones that matter.

Loading …
FRED Graph
The only logical reason for any government to adopt a fiat monetary system is so that it may pursue what it perceives is its legitimate raison d’etat. Tragically, the “raison d’etat” relates to the existence of the state which, initially, is pretty much an economic matter. However, as the magic of the inflationary dynamic wanes, la raison d’etat becomes ever more related to physical security.
Arar vs Ashcroft is only the manifestation of the aberration that is inevitable in a fiat monetary system. It’s happened before. We know how it ends.
Global conflict by 2013/2015

Something even uglier this way cometh… (government employment)

November 2, 2009

You’ve heard me screech that as the inflationary time line progresses government becomes progressively a larger actor in the economy. You’ve heard me wail that at the end of the inflationary dynamic, tax revenue dwindles forcing government to curtail public spending. You’ve heard me lament that as unemployment rises but social expenditure is curtailed, we would reach a flash-point making civil disorder very likely … and you’ve heard me howl that persistent and widespread civil disorder will be further fueled by rising scandals implicating politicians and the power elite leading eventually to the fall of governments across the West…. but that before that would happen, Western governments will engineer a war of global proportions….

Now read this courtesy of the team at Financial Sense (hat tip to Jasper on the VOY forum):

Significant excerpts:

As the chart shows us, the current year over year rate of [government payroll] contraction has no equal until we reach back to 1982

Although this may not be common knowledge, the bulk of government employees are found at the State and local levels of government. In fact, Federal government employment only accounts for 12.6% of total aggregate government employment as of September 2009-month end. That’s pocket change compared to State and local levels of employment. And of course the current cycle irony is that it’s the State and local governments that are hurting big time under the duress of not only infrastructure, maintenance and support, but pension issues, loss of Federal support payments, etc.

And then, this pearl with an accompanying chart

As of now, unfortunately for the US economy as a whole, government employees outnumber US manufacturing sector employees literally just shy of two to one. Now is the rhythm of government payrolls important enough for you?

This is a pearl because Western economies are largely service based economies. As I never tire to ask, in an economy that is 80% consumption, how much real wealth is being generated?

Essentially, when credit creation outpaces GDP progression by a wide margin (remember that even without considering corporate debt, household and government debt combined since 1980 has expanded 1200%  but GDP has only expanded by 100%) how much intrinsic value is there left in the economy to sustain those people that are losing their jobs?

This is not a question borne of idle curiosity. This is a question the answer to which is vital to understanding why I think we will be thrown into a world war by our “leaders”.

The research published recently indicates that we have entered and are fairly well into a deflationary cycle. I understand that opinions may diverge on whether we have or we haven’t and that’s fine.

However, what I feel is imperative is that all proponents of one type of “flation” or the other sit together and thrash out a hypothetical scenario of what would happen in case the “de” flationists should be right. Only once the perils and dangers of a deflationary outcome are identified and understood can we sit down with unions and economic actors and put forward a coherent argument as to what should be done at personal, household, corporate, union and government level in order to mitigate the repercussions of deflation.

But, for as long as government is hell bent on denying reality, then a world war is pretty much dialed-in.

When I say world war I don’t mean a war as we’ve had for the past forty years in remote backwaters against tin pot governments run exclusively by the armed forces without any sacrifice of the civilian population in the West. I mean a real war where the human and material resources of the West along with Western civilian industry will be marshaled and employed towards the war effort complete with rationing of food and electricity. That sort of war.

Accounting irregularities may be on the rise in the US

October 30, 2009

“May be”!!!!?????

Evidence of dereliction of duty, malfeasance and criminal collusion on the part of our governments abounds and is well documented.

There is a saying that goes something like: “when fish smells, it begins from the head”.

Given what our “leaders” and various people in positions of authority are doing, is it any wonder that others should heed their examples?

Accounting irregularities are increasingly showing up in U.S. regulatory filings and corporate announcements.”


Nearly a third of corporate executives have expected that fraud and misconduct would rise in their organizations this year, according to a survey from accounting firm KPMG KPMG.UL in August. The most common causes of financial restatements are related to costs, expenses and revenue recognition problems, according to the Government Accountability Office.”

The GAO should know!

Backdoor taxes hit Americans with public financing in the dark

October 26, 2009

This article highlights information that is much too important to show excerpts for. I warmly suggest you read the whole thing because it will give you an idea of the scope, breadth and depth of this debacle. I will reproduce the full text of the article and intersperse my comments in brackets prefixed by “GR” in Italics.

Oct. 26 (Bloomberg) — Salvatore Calvanese, the treasurer of Springfield, Massachusetts, for four years, had a ready defense for why he risked $14 million of taxpayer money on collateralized-debt obligations laden with subprime mortgages in 2007.

He didn’t know what he was buying, he says, and trusted the financial professionals who sold them and told him they were safe.

“I thought they were money markets that were just paying more,” Calvanese said in an interview. “Nobody ever used the term ‘CDO,’ and I am not sure I would have known what that was anyway.” (GR: This, I remind you, from a “Treasurer”; a County Treasurer to boot. These are the type of people that are in charge of public funds)

Such financial mistakes, often enabled by public officials’ lack of disclosure and accountability for almost 90 percent of government financings in the $2.8 trillion municipal bond market, are costing U.S. taxpayers as much as $6 billion a year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg in more than a dozen states.

The money lost to taxpayers — when the worst recession since the Great Depression is forcing local governments to cut university funding, delay paying bills and raise taxes — is enough to buy health care for everybody in Minneapolis; Orlando, Florida; and Grand Rapids, Michigan, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Florida county commissioners sent deals to their favorite banks in an arrangement that led to criminal convictions. Pennsylvania school board members lost $4 million on an interest-rate swap agreement they didn’t understand in the unregulated $300 billion market for municipal derivatives.

Trouble With Swaps

Local agencies in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Miami and Oakland, California, spent $331 million to end interest-rate swaps with banks including JPMorgan Chase & Co. of New York and Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America Corp. during the past 18 months. The swaps, agreements to exchange periodic interest payments with banks or insurers, were intended to save borrowing costs. Payments increased instead.

New Jersey taxpayers are sending almost $1 million a month to a partnership run by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. for protection against rising interest costs on bonds the state redeemed more than a year ago, Bloomberg News reported Friday.

The interest-rate swap agreement, which the state entered in 2003 under former Governor James E. McGreevey, remained in place even after the state Transportation Trust Fund Authority replaced $345 million in auction-rate bonds that had fluctuating yields with fixed-rate securities last year.

Harvard Pays

Now, the 3.6 percent the trust fund is paying on the swap has pushed the cost on the original debt to 7.8 percent, the most the authority has paid since it was formed in 1985, according to records on its Web site. Canceling the swap before 2011 would require the state to pay an estimated $37.6 million fee, according to state records.

Even Harvard University, whose endowment of $26 billion makes it the world’s richest academic institution, fell for Wall Street’s financing in the dark: The Cambridge, Massachusetts- based university paid $497.6 million to investment banks during the year ended June 30 to cancel $1.1 billion of swaps. (GR: This from Harvard… that sacrosanct temple of knowledge)

The public needs more transparency in municipal debt transactions, said Elizabeth Warren, chairwoman of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Proposed reforms, such as an oversight agency for consumer finance, could help spur improvements, she said in an interview this month.

‘Worldview Change’

“We need a worldview change about transparency, and that includes municipal finance,” said Warren, a professor of bankruptcy law at Harvard Law School.

The public paid extra costs for borrowing with tax-exempt bonds because local governments resist providing investors the same level of disclosure as corporate borrowers, which file quarterly reports.

Municipalities typically file financial statements only once a year. Detroit, the largest U.S. city with a less-than- investment-grade credit rating, released its annual report for fiscal 2007 in March, more than 18 months later.

State and local governments that share more financial information than the minimum required pay yields as much as 0.20 percentage points lower than others, said Lisa Fairchild, professor and chairman of the finance department at Baltimore’s Loyola University Maryland, who produced a 1998 study on disclosure.

Applied across the tax-exempt bond market, that’s $5.6 billion a year, enough to buy more than 12,000 $465,608 pumper- tender fire trucks. That’s more than one truck for every county in the U.S. The rest could form a parade 50 miles (80 kilometers) long.

Build America Bonds

State and local governments that sold $43.8 billion of taxable Build America Bonds this year will pay $385 million a year more in interest than similarly rated corporate borrowers, based on data compiled by Bloomberg.

The bonds, for which the federal government subsidizes 35 percent of interest costs, pay an average yield that’s 0.8 percentage points more, relative to benchmark rates, than yields for corporate securities with the same credit ratings, the data show.

As a result, it costs New Jersey road authorities, Georgia sewer districts and other agencies more to borrow, even though they, unlike corporations, can raise fees or taxes to make up for deficits. Corporations are at least 90 times more likely to default than local governments, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Discounted to their present value, those additional payments by municipal borrowers add up to $6.1 billion over the life of the debt.

‘It’s Horrendous’

“I think it’s horrendous, but it’s very hard to get anybody to pay much attention to it,” said Stanley Langbein, a law professor at the University of Miami and a former tax counsel at the U.S. Treasury in Washington.

Underwriters — banks or securities firms that guarantee the purchase of debt issuers’ bonds — have an interest in keeping prices low, and yields high, because it means higher returns for them and the first investors, Langbein said.

Many Build America bonds traded at higher prices immediately after agencies sold them, a sign that taxpayers lost, he said.

The Government Finance Officers Association, a professional group based in Chicago, warns municipalities of “competing objectives” in their relationships with underwriters. Many don’t heed that warning, said Christopher “Kit” Taylor, who was the top regulator of the municipal bond market from 1978 to 2007.

‘Stockholm Syndrome’

“They’re suffering from Stockholm syndrome,” he said, referring to the psychological phenomenon in which hostages begin to identify with and grow sympathetic to their captors. “They are being held hostage by their investment bank.”

Public officials shunned competitive bids for more than 85 percent of the $308.9 billion in new tax-exempt bond sales in the first nine months of this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s up from 17 percent in 1970 and 68 percent in 1982, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Most borrowing costs that state and local taxpayers incur are set in private negotiations. Finance professionals say no- bid sales allow them to market debt to particular investors, helping issuers find demand when credit markets are tight.

The method boosts interest rates by as much as 0.06 percentage point, according to several academic studies reviewed by the GAO.

Excess Fees

Palm Beach County, Florida, paid $880,000 in excess bank fees and as much as $1.3 million a year in unnecessary interest because its commissioners sold bonds without bids, according to a county report in April.

Each commissioner nominated his or her favorite bank and work was parceled out on a rotating basis, the report showed. That allowed former commissioner Mary McCarty to steer more than $600 million in debt issues to banks that employed her husband, Kevin McCarty, according to federal charges that led to guilty pleas from both this year.

After the McCartys were charged, the county adopted a policy stating a preference for competitive bond sales. When bonds are sold by negotiation, a financing committee will circulate a request for proposals, evaluate them and then recommend an underwriter to commissioners, said Liz Bloeser, Palm Beach’s budget director.

No Bids

Beaver County, Pennsylvania, commissioners haven’t taken bids for bond underwriters since 1986, county records show. After relying on the same firm for more than two decades, they paid as much as $2.8 million more than they had to on a bond sale in January, based on trading records from the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, which oversees the tax-exempt bond market.

Using the same underwriter repeatedly for negotiated sales increases borrowing costs each time, according to a study published in the Winter 2008 edition of the Municipal Finance Journal. The study found that if an issuer had used the same bank twice before, its borrowing cost on $100 million of 10- year bonds increased by more than $1 million over the life of the debt.

Other financial mistakes can be difficult to quantify. Taylor, who studied government finances for 30 years as the executive director of the MSRB, said as many as five out of 10 local governments “aren’t getting the best deal by a long shot” on their investments.

Overpaid for Securities

Apache County, Arizona, overpaid its broker almost $500,000 for U.S. government securities, county records show. A price check would have caught the problem. The county has no record that it ever did one.

Many local officials are unprepared for Wall Street’s sales pitches, said Mary Christine Jackman, Maryland’s director of investments in Annapolis.

“When you combine people who are less sophisticated with people who can sell as those on Wall Street usually can, you end up with a very big problem,” she said. Jackman tries to offer basic training and advice to small municipalities, she said.

There are more than 89,000 cities, counties, school districts and other municipal authorities in the U.S., according to data from the Census Bureau. Each year, about 5,000 people attend training sponsored by the Government Finance Officers Association, which has 18,000 members, said Jeff Esser, the group’s executive director.

‘Doing Nothing’

The GFOA has never tried to make a comprehensive tally of its members’ educational attainment or professional backgrounds, he said. He added that during his 30 years with the organization, he has seen “a significant increase” in members’ education, training and professionalism.

Supervisors in Mohave County, Arizona, took issue with the professionalism of its treasurer, Lee Fabrizio, during an investigation last year in which employees reported that he played a lot of golf and was rarely in the office.

“It’s nice to get this paycheck for doing nothing,” Fabrizio told employees once, according to the July 2008 report by the county manager.

Fabrizio, who received a $56,500 annual salary, said he doesn’t remember making that statement and was in the office every day. He said he played nine holes of golf a day for two hours at lunchtime.

An employee’s grievance sparked the investigation and ultimately a state audit, which reported Aug. 28 that the treasurer bought corporate bonds with no evidence of competitive bidding, didn’t vet brokers’ backgrounds and continued to value a $5 million Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. bond at full cost even after the firm’s Sept. 15, 2008, bankruptcy.

Not an Expert

The Lehman bond was purchased in late 2007, when the treasurer put $50 million, about 25 percent of the county portfolio, into 11 corporate bonds, 10 of them in financial firms including Lehman and Bear Stearns Cos.

“Even if it was a bad investment, I wouldn’t have known the difference; I’m not an investment expert,” Fabrizio said, adding that he relied on his hired deputy for those decisions. The deputy e-mailed competing brokers and had them fill out questionnaires, he said.

The county never sanctioned him, and he was voted out of office last year.

The Lehman loss cost the 7,000-student district in Kingman, Arizona, the county seat, almost $1 million, according to Wanda Hubbard, the schools’ finance director. The real losers are taxpayers, who will be levied more as a result, she said. The owner of a $250,000 house in the district may pay $25 extra this year, Hubbard estimated.

‘Back-Door Tax’

“It was kind of a back-door tax increase,” she said.

Officials are up against increasingly sophisticated financial products, including interest-rate swaps and so-called swaptions. A swaption grants the owner the option to force a particular party into a swap.

The Butler Area School District in western Pennsylvania paid JPMorgan $5.2 million last year to cancel such a pact. The payment was about seven times more than the district had received under the contract. Statewide, 55 Pennsylvania school districts have paid counterparties to exit interest-rate swaps since 2003, according to state records.

Some officials now say they didn’t understand the deals.

“The financial guys would come in with a lot of stuff that nobody at the district understood,” Penelope Kingman, a former member of the Butler school board who voted against the deal, told Bloomberg News last year. “Local governments are entering into these without fully understanding what they are doing.”

Market Has Grown

While such contracts aren’t traded on regulated exchanges, the market for municipal derivatives has grown to as much as $300 billion annually, the MSRB says. Derivatives are a category of contracts whose value is tied to assets including stocks, bonds, commodities and currencies, or events such as changes in interest rates or the weather.

One type of derivative, the interest-rate swap, helped put Jefferson County, Alabama, on the brink of bankruptcy.

The county refinanced $3 billion of sewer debt in no-bid deals earlier this decade, issuing variable-rate bonds that were hedged with swaps. The plan backfired last year as the global credit crisis took hold. Interest payments due on the bonds more than tripled to 10 percent, while the swap income decreased.

Last week, the former president of the county commission, Larry P. Langford, went on trial in federal court in Tuscaloosa. Langford, now the mayor of Birmingham, pleaded not guilty in December to charges including bribery, conspiracy and filing false income tax returns.

‘Political Witch Hunt’

Prosecutors say he took cash, clothes and Rolex watches from a banker who received $7.1 million in fees on debt sales in 2003 and 2004. Langford has called the case “a political witch hunt.”

The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating whether Wall Street banks conspired with some brokers to rig bids and fix prices for municipal derivatives. The probe centers on interest-rate swaps and on investments that cities, states and schools buy with bond proceeds, according to subpoenas received by agencies in Alabama, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Mexico.

While many municipalities turn to professional consultants for guidance on derivatives, the MSRB reported in April that 73 percent of financial advisers who participated in the municipal bond market in 2008 weren’t subject to the board’s rules because they weren’t registered securities dealers.

Legislation Considered

Congress is considering legislation to regulate the financial advisers. Still, there are other gaps.

Federal law exempts the municipal market from rules regarding disclosure and enforcement that apply to companies. And transactions between broker-dealers and municipalities are rarely scrutinized by the self-regulatory agencies that banks and securities firms use to police themselves, including the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, said Taylor, the former MSRB chief.

Finra and other regulators presume that institutional clients are sophisticated enough to look after themselves, he said.

“Typically, what happens is, nobody looks,” he said. “Finra doesn’t look, the firm doesn’t look, the city council doesn’t look and the populace, the taxpaying populace, has no idea any of this is going on.” (GR: This is a typical case of people doing something just because everyone else is doing it regardless of whether they understand what they are doing or not)

Nancy Condon, a spokeswoman for Finra, declined to comment. The Strategic Programs Group of the authority’s enforcement department in May sent letters to dealers seeking information about interest-rate swaps, structured notes and other products they may have sold.

Enforcement Questions

Taylor questioned why the information-gathering hasn’t led to anything further.

“Finra wants the world to think it is doing something for investors and the good of the markets without actually bringing any enforcement actions or adopting any rulemaking,” he said.

In Orange County, the home of both Disneyland and the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, officials echoed the mistakes of 15 years ago by investing in another Wall Street innovation.

Robert Citron, who was county treasurer leading up to the 1994 bankruptcy, bought structured notes that paid off when short-term interest rates were lower than medium-term rates, and increased his gamble with funds from issuing new debt. The county lost $1.6 billion when interest rates rose.

Cost of Insolvency

Payments from the resulting insolvency still cost more than $80 million annually, about 1.5 percent of the county’s proposed fiscal 2010 budget.

County supervisors responded by creating an oversight committee to monitor the treasurer and banning investments in derivatives and the use of leverage to amplify returns.

Under John Moorlach, the accountant who exposed the bad bets and succeeded Citron as treasurer, the county later invested in structured investment vehicles, or SIVs. Banks set up the pools of loans to shift risk from their own balance sheets. They borrowed money at short-term rates to finance longer-term investments such as British credit-card receivables or home mortgages.

Moorlach said he got into SIVs, which often yielded more than the county’s other investments, after a ratings officer from Fitch Ratings told him that such exotic instruments were becoming more mainstream. (GR: The ratings agencies have been shown to be partial and bought for since many years. And yet, no government authority bothered to dismantle any of them. Quite the contrary, they sponsored and rewarded rating agencies for volume of business)

By 2007, one year after Moorlach won election to the county’s board of supervisors and was succeeded as treasurer by Chriss Street, the investments in SIVs totaled more than $800 million. They made up 14 percent of a county investment pool that manages money for the county, schools and local agencies.

‘Weren’t Paying Attention’

The county sold one SIV at $6.4 million below par last year and so far has recovered about $30 million of the $80 million it invested in Whistlejacket Capital LLC, created by London-based bank Standard Chartered Plc. Whistlejacket, which listed Citigroup Inc. debt and U.K. home loans among its assets, went into receivership last year.

“Despite the oversight, despite the audits, they weren’t paying attention — and should have been,” said Terry Fleskes, a member of an independent panel that chastised the treasurer and county auditor in June for allowing more investments in complex financial products. Fleskes is a former controller at a unit of San Diego-based Sempra Energy.

“The lessons of the past have been forgotten,” the Orange County Grand Jury said in its report. The group, which doesn’t have the authority to compel changes, serves as a kind of ombudsman to examine county policies.

‘Best Stuff Around’

The structured vehicles were difficult to evaluate, Moorlach said. He relied on rating companies, which “were treating it like it was the best stuff around.”

“I think the rating agencies have a lot of explaining to do because of the overreliance by hardworking municipal treasurers,” he said. (GR: Rating agencies can be blamed for what were clearly partial and paid-for opinions on the safety of various investment instruments. However, this fact does not detract from the fact that a Treasurer should know what he is getting himself into. This is what fiduciary duty is all about. One thing is a bank clerk peddling investments to an individual consumer whom may not necessarily know better and would fully rely on the rating agency’s advice. An entirely different thing is when a “treasurer” too relies blindly on the agency advice especially considering that even a cursory look at their prospectus would highlight potential conflicts of interest.)

A Fitch spokesman, Kevin Duignan, declined to comment. (GR: No kidding! I wonder why.)

“It’s easy to point the finger at others,” said Bart Hildreth, dean of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta and a former finance director of Akron, Ohio. “The rating agency didn’t authorize the allocation of the money.”

Orange County auditor David Sundstrom said the amount at risk in SIVs was nothing like the leveraged wagers made by Citron.

“The controls compared to pre-bankruptcy are incredibly strong,” he said.

Out of SIVs

The county has exited all of its SIV investments except Whistlejacket, in which it has notes in a restructured successor that’s being liquidated. Taking into account interest earned, the county hasn’t lost on the SIVs, said Deputy Treasurer Keith Rodenhuis. Interest totaled $58.6 million, with $50.2 million in capital still outstanding in the Whistlejacket successor. County officials expect to get that money back in time, he said.

While Moorlach said Orange County did what it could, sending an analyst to London to investigate one SIV and examining financial reports, the investments may have been a mistake.

“If something’s taking up so much of your time, maybe it ain’t worth it,” he said in his Santa Ana, California, office, overlooking a courtyard where volunteers from local churches serve hot dinners and distribute essentials like socks and toilet paper to a 40-deep line of needy people.

King County, Washington, the home of Seattle, has recovered less than half of $207 million that it put into four failed SIVs. It sued rating companies in federal court this month, saying it was misled by their assessments.

No Clue

“There’s a basic rule of finance: Don’t get into anything you don’t understand,” said Michael Granof, an accounting professor at the University of Texas in Austin. “Many municipalities had no clue as to what they were buying.”

Apache County, Arizona, an area the size of Maryland where 70,000 people live among vast mesas dotted with shrubs, stuck to safe investments, such as U.S. Treasury securities and federal agency bonds. It just didn’t know how to value them.

County treasurer Katherine Arviso, a school administrator on the Navajo reservation for 40 years until she won election in 2004, said she arrived to find investment records packed away in boxes.

“I had to put the whole office back together,” she said.

Then came an August 2005 letter from Piper Jaffray Cos.’sBradley Winges, the head of sales and trading for the Minneapolis-based firm’s public finance group. He wrote that the firm had reviewed trades in the county’s account and found unacceptable commissions. The firm credited $247,060.79 to the county’s account.

Eventual Refund

Piper Jaffray eventually refunded $472,060.79, according to a settlement obtained by Bloomberg News under the state public records act. That’s more than double the $194,870 that the county, one of the poorest in the U.S., spent on immunization, teen pregnancy prevention and home health care last year. Apache County’s per capita income was $8,986 in the 2000 U.S. Census, less than half the U.S. figure, $21,587.

Three days after sending the letter, the firm fired broker Eric Ely, according to Finra records. Ely didn’t return telephone messages or respond to an e-mail seeking comment for this story.

From Oct. 20, 2003, to June 29, 2005, Ely executed 103 trades for Apache County, buying and selling bonds, according to a subsequent investigation conducted by Edward “Buzz” France, a former deputy county attorney.

Estimated Commissions

In a presentation to county supervisors, France estimated that Piper Jaffray earned commissions of just over $1 million on $158.6 million in principal, an average rate of 0.638 percent. Investment bankers told France the commissions should have been no more than 0.3 percent.

“Our clients’ interests come first,” Piper Jaffray said in a statement. “Four years ago, we discovered a situation in which we believed one employee had run counter to this guiding principle, and we proactively and quickly worked to rectify any client impact, and terminated the employee.”

There was no need for so many trades if the goal was steady, reliable returns, said Charles Anderson, the former manager of field operations for the tax-exempt bond division of the Internal Revenue Service.

A reasonable commission for the $158 million of securities that Apache County purchased would have been $50,000 to $100,000, said Thomas Tucci, head of U.S. government bond trading at RBC Capital Markets Corp. in New York, one of 18 firms that trade directly with the Federal Reserve.

Not Unusual

Basic financial mistakes trip up many local governments, said Kevin Camberg, a partner with Fester & Chapman P.C., a Phoenix accounting firm that has checked the books of Apache County and others in Arizona for the state auditor.

“It’s not as unusual as it should be,” he said.

France, the county investigator, never determined how Piper Jaffray was chosen to handle Apache County’s investment fund. The treasurer at the time, Betty Montoya, declined to comment on the selection process for this story.

Had the county checked Ely’s licensing history with Finra, which oversees almost 4,800 brokerage firms, it would have found previous allegations of infractions. Since 2002, investors have been able to access BrokerCheck reports of disciplinary histories online, said Condon, the Finra spokeswoman.

Ely paid $80,000 toward a $260,000 settlement of a customer’s 1989 complaint of “unauthorized and unsuitable transactions,” according to Finra records. Ely worked for Merrill Lynch & Co. from 1983 to 1990, the records show.

Settlement in Wyoming

In 2002, Piper Jaffray reached a $42,500 settlement of a customer’s allegations that Ely had purchased and sold securities contrary to Wyoming state law or local investment policy, the records show.

Ely, now affiliated with Public Asset Management Group in Greenwood Village, Colorado, and First Financial Equity Corp. in Scottsdale, Arizona, continued seeking business with small local governments. The broker gave a speech called Investment Management Alternatives for the School at a meeting of the Montana Association of School Business Officials in June 2008.

“He said he was interested in all the smaller players,” said Dustin Zuffelato, who attended as business manager of the 2,400-student Columbia Falls School District Six in Flathead County, Montana.

Zuffelato recommended that his school board consider investing about $8 million with Ely. The board declined, citing the logistical hurdles of switching investments from a pool managed by the county treasurer, he said. Zuffelato said he didn’t check for complaints against the broker first.

Investing 101

In June, the broker appeared again at the Montana schools conference, this time teaching a class called Investing 101.

In Springfield, Calvanese, the former city treasurer, said brokers told him he was investing in money-market funds.

City officials could have learned that they were really buying securities that bundle various issuers’ bonds or loans, or both, if they had insisted on seeing disclosure documents about the securities. Calvanese said in an interview that he rarely looked at such documents, which outline risks.

Calvanese was fired after the CDO investment came to light. He has filed suit challenging his dismissal.

Springfield officials and the Massachusetts attorney general argued that the city was misled by its brokers from Merrill Lynch, who sold it financial instruments that violated a state restriction on public investments. Calvanese said the brokers assured him the transaction complied with state law.

Merrill Lynch, now owned by Bank of America, returned the $14 million the city had invested, and agreed to pay an additional $300,000 in July.

A $75,000 portion of that money was set aside for educating municipal officials on investment management.

To contact the reporters on this story: Peter Robison in Seattle at; Pat Wechsler in New York at; Martin Braun in New York at

GR: The moral of the story is that for as long as things are going in one direction, nobody can be bothered to go and look at the detail. Those that do are considered party poopers and those that opt out of what everyone else is doing are routinely blamed for substandard performance and may even lose their jobs. On the other hand when public finances are being squandered and pillaged at the highest echelons of government, how can lower ranking administrations officials be blamed for doing what their bosses are doing? Acting on principle and moral standing will very easily make your life impossible during the blow off phase of the inflationary dynamic.