Corporates just cannot lose in the welfare state
There was Lloyd Blankfein on Wednesday night, like the cat that got the cream, talking about the elevation of his firm Goldman Sachs into the world's premier share index, the Dow.
Blankfein was chatting on the banksters' TV channel of choice, CNBC, which conveniently glossed over the role of government in Goldman's good fortune. The Wall Street bail-out five years ago, and Goldman's access to "free money" ever since, has ensured not just its survival but the entrenched hegemony of Wall Street.
Now in America, and to a lesser extent in Australia, it is the government which presides over the fate of corporations and how much capital to allocate them. If you are small enough to fail, bad luck.
And as it is lobby groups which shape government policy, we now have a corporate welfare state. The free market is dead. State capitalism, and its plutocracy, thrives in its wake.
In the meantime, over the past five years, the number of people on food stamps in the US has risen from 8.6 per cent of households to 13.6 per cent, according to the Census Bureau. At the last tally, nearly 48 million Americans, some 85 per cent of them children, elderly or disabled, were on food stamps.
That may change.
On Thursday, as the market was hitting another record, Republicans pushed through a bill on Capitol Hill cutting the food stamp program by $US40 billion. The national debt is hard up against its latest "ceiling" at almost $US17 trillion. Naturally, it was not the poor blighters on food stamps who were in the headlines. The big news of the week was all about the relief on Wall Street which accompanied the decision of the Federal Reserve, against all expectations, to persist with its $US85 billion a month money-printing program.
Funny, "tapering" of the program, or quantitative easing, had been widely expected. The Fed could have started to wean the market off its liquidity "drip". It chose not to. Perhaps things are worse than we know. Inflation remains at bay. Perhaps they are just weak. In any case, the market lapped it up. Asset prices climbed steeply in the aftermath, including the Australian dollar.
It is via its quantitative easing program that the Fed - which is owned by the banks - has created trillions in new money. Washington issues the bonds, the Fed buys them and Blankfein and co are the brokers. Every day the Fed is asking for offers for its bonds, Goldman and its Wall Street confreres are on the other side of the deal.
But the money created by Fed chairman Ben Bernanke's big liquidity experiment has not trickled down. Things trundle along on Main Street.
Ironically, the very dollars created to stimulate the system wash about in Wall Street where hedge fund clients spend them and stimulate asset prices, such as shares in Goldman Sachs. Privatise the profits, socialise the losses.
So, for Blankfein, the effect of a government policy which began in 2008 with another Goldman boss turned Treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, has been to send Goldman shares hurtling into the elite 30-stock Dow index and enhance the bonuses for bankers who caused the mess in the first place.
It is a good thing that some of these insiders have become so rich that they feel free to speak their mind.
"This is the biggest redistribution of wealth ever," said billionaire investor Stanley Druckenmiller of the excesses of the five-year Fed program, in which the rich get richer and the poor poorer. It was great for rich people, he said, because they owned all the assets and prices were going up. "It's great for me. It's great for Warren Buffett."
Druckenmiller was the speculator who, with George Soros, infamously "broke the Bank of England" in 1992 when they worked out that the Brits didn't have enough coin in reserve to defend their currency. They shorted the pound and pocketed more than $1 billion in profits.
There were plenty of Wall Streeters who were surprised at the Fed's decision to keep printing money flat-chat. Already, the party has been going for five years and now the Fed is going down to the bottle'o for more slabs of beer.
Besides the gargantuan wealth transfer, the other trend in evidence this week was that regulators don't prosecute the big boys any more, only the small fry.
"Banking giant JPMorgan has agreed to pay $US920 million in fines over actions involved in last year's London Whale trading debacle," said the news story. Actions, trading debacle?
After HSBC's $2 billion fine for its money laundering "enterprise", and a $1.5 billion slap against UBS for its Libor rigging "activities", this was the third largest "settlement" for an "action" in history.
Here we call our settlements "enforceable undertakings". We hardly even bother with fines. What an ethically parallel universe. Imagine the unemployed brickie caught on several counts of "helping himself activities" at the local 7-Eleven.
He could tell police: "Jail is not acceptable. However, while not making any admissions, I do agree that the actions in question could constitute a possible violation of cash register deprivation laws and agree to a settlement of $126.35 which, on my fortnightly $751.70 disability support pension allowance, is commensurate with JP Morgan's $US920 million fine on its $US27 billion in revenues but more onerous than the Commonwealth Bank's enforceable undertakings regime."