Why the Trump-led GOP Continues to be the Party of Massive Budget Deficits

From today’s LA Times:

The Trump administration proposed a spending plan on Monday that projects deficits as far as the eye can see, giving up the longtime Republican goal of a balanced budget to champion a spending plan replete with cash for a host of military programs and some domestic ones the president’s supporters might admire.

The budget calls for about $716 billion in annual defense spending, more than $100 billion above the level Trump requested last year. Add in the tax cut Republicans pushed through in December and the extra spending Congress approved just last week, and the result is a flood of red ink projected to send the national debt ever higher.

Trump’s budget anticipates deficits throughout the next 10 years even if Congress were to approve some $3 trillion in cuts over that same time period that he’s proposing for a wide range of federal programs. Both parties already rejected most of those cuts last year and have shown little interest in pursuing them.

The deficits persist even though the White House is forecasting extremely optimistic levels of economic growth. If growth falls short of those projections — most economists think it will — deficits would be higher still.

As a result, the budget marks something of a milestone — the Trump administration’s abandonment of the quest for budget balance that the Republican Party has claimed as a guiding light for years, at least rhetorically.

In reality, deficits have often soared under Republican presidents as the party has put cutting taxes ahead of balancing budgets on its list of priorities. In the past, however, Republican administrations have taken pains to at least come up with a budget that would balance on paper.

Read the complete article here.

When Wall Street Writes Its Own Rules, It’s An Age of Unprecedented Corruption

From today’s New York Times:

On July 25, 2013, a high-ranking federal law enforcement officer took a public stand against malfeasance on Wall Street. Preet Bharara, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, held a news conference to announce one of the largest Wall Street criminal cases the American justice system had ever seen.

Mr. Bharara’s office had just indicted the multibillion-dollar hedge fund firm SAC Capital Advisors, charging it with wire fraud and insider trading. Standing before a row of television cameras, Mr. Bharara described the case in momentous terms, saying that it involved illegal trading that was “substantial, pervasive and on a scale without precedent in the history of hedge funds.” His legal action that day, he assured the public, would send a strong message to the financial industry that cheating was not acceptable and that prosecutors and regulators would take swift action when behavior crossed the line.

Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC and one of the world’s wealthiest men, was never criminally charged, but his company would end up paying $1.8 billion in civil and criminal fines, one of the largest settlements of its kind. He denied any culpability, but his reputation was still badly — some might argue irreparably — damaged. Eight of his former employees were charged by the government, and six pleaded guilty (a few later had their convictions or guilty pleas dismissed). Mr. Cohen was required to shut his fund down and was prohibited from managing outside investors’ money until 2018.

Now, with the prohibition having expired in December, Mr. Cohen has been raising money from investors and is set to start a new hedge fund. He’ll find himself in an environment very different from the one he last operated in. His resurrection arrives as Wall Street regulation is under assault and financiers are directing tax policy and other aspects of the economy — often to the benefit of their own industry. Mr. Cohen is a powerful symbol of Wall Street’s resurgence under President Trump.

As the stock market lurched through its stomach-turning swings over the past week, it was hard not to worry that Wall Street could once again torpedo an otherwise healthy economy and to think about how little Mr. Trump and his Congress have done to prepare for such a possibility. Stock market turbulence typically prompts calls for smart and stringent financial regulation, which is not part of the Trump agenda. One of Mr. Trump’s first acts as president was to fire Mr. Bharara, who made prosecuting Wall Street crime one of his priorities. Mr. Trump has also given many gifts to people like Mr. Cohen.

Read the complete article here.

Market Update: Why Rising Wages Are Scaring the Hell Out of Stock Investors

From today’s Slate Magazine:

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Labor released a strong jobs report showing wages rising at their fastest rate since the Great Recession. Then, the stock market promptly began to plummet. The Dow Jones fell an amusingly on-the-nose 666 points—its worst day since the U.K.’s Brexit surprise. Global markets subsequently took a beating, and U.S. equities are still sliding as I write this today.

Why is good news for workers turning into bad news for shareholders? The answer is a useful illustration of why the stock market is often a poor guide to the overall health of the economy.

Right now, traders seem to be worried that if wages rise too fast, it will cause the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates in order to head off inflation down the road. When, earlier this year, the central bank suggested that it would raise rates, much of the market was skeptical, in part because inflation has been so subdued for so long. But faster pay gains for workers make it more likely the Fed will follow through, both because rising wages are a sign that the whole economy is heating up and because employers will eventually have to raise prices to keep up with the cost of labor.

Read the complete article here.

How Wells Fargo and Federal Reserve Struck Deal to Hold Board Accountable

From today’s New York Times:

On a Thursday evening in mid-January, a group of top Wells Fargo executives sat down for dinner in an upscale surf-and-turf restaurant near the White House. At nearby tables, power brokers ate seafood on ice and sipped cocktails out of copper mugs.

The Wells Fargo executives — including the chief executive, Timothy J. Sloan, and the finance chief, John R. Shrewsberry — enjoyed their crab legs, but they were in Washington on unpleasant business. The Federal Reserve planned to impose tough sanctions on the San Francisco-based bank for years of misconduct and the shoddy governance that allowed it.

The executives’ mission, according to three people directly involved in the negotiations, was to avoid further shaking investor confidence in the bank and its management team.

Officials at the central bank had a different goal, according to people familiar with their thinking. They wanted to send a message to the Wells board that it would be held responsible for the company’s behavior.

After three weeks of frenzied negotiations, deal was announced on Friday night that represented a milestone in the evolving relationship between regulators and banks. Wells Fargo, one of the country’s largest banks, was banned from getting bigger until it can convince regulators that it has cleaned up its act.

Read the complete article here.

Justice Department Dismisses Corruption Case Against Menendez

From today’s New York Times:

The Department of Justice on Wednesday dismissed all the remaining charges against Senator Robert Menendez, a decision that underscores how a 2016 Supreme Court ruling has significantly raised the bar for prosecutors who try to pursue corruption cases against elected officials.

The motion to dismiss comes less than two weeks after prosecutors said they were intent on retrying Mr. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and it allows him to run for re-election without having to face a second trial.

The Justice Department on Wednesday cited last week’s decision by Judge William H. Walls to throw out several charges the senator had faced, including bribery counts stemming from accusations that Mr. Menendez lobbied on behalf of a wealthy Florida eye doctor in exchange for political donations. All charges against the doctor, Salomon Melgen, were also dismissed.

“Given the impact of the court’s Jan. 24 order on the charges and the evidence admissible in a retrial, the United States has determined that it will not retry the defendants on the remaining charges,” said Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, declining to provide any more details about the agency’s rationale.

The unraveling of the case against Mr. Menendez is the latest example of how difficult it has become to win public corruption cases after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to overturn the conviction of the former Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, who had been accused of accepting luxury items, loans and vacations in exchange for helping a businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Read the complete article here.

CFPB to reconsider rule on payday loans

From CNN Money Edition:

The watchdog agency said in a statement Tuesday that it intends to “reconsider” a regulation, issued in October, that would have required payday lenders to vet whether borrower can pay back their loans. It also would have restricted some loan practices.

If the rule is thrown out or rewritten, it would mark a major shift for an agency that had zealously pursued new limits on banks and creditors before Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s budget director, became the CFPB’s acting director.

Mulvaney took over the top job at the CFPB in November following a leadership scramble. A vocal critic of the CFPB when it was run by President Obama appointee Richard Cordray, Mulvaney since said the agency would cut back on burdensome regulations.

Tuesday’s announcement does not amount to a formal repeal of the payday lending rule. But it does cast doubt on whether it will ultimately be implemented.

Payday loans provide those in need with small amounts of cash — typically between $200 and $1,000. The money needs to be paid back in full when a borrower receives his or her next paycheck, and such loans often come with exorbitantly high interest rates.

Consumer advocates that have supported the CFPB’s restrictions on the loans say such transactions often take advantage of people in desperate financial situations.

“The CFPB thoroughly and thoughtfully considered every aspect of this issue over the course of several years,” Karl Frisch, executive director of progressive group Allied Progress, said in a statement. “There is no reason to delay implementation of this rule — unless you are more concerned with the needs of payday lenders than you are with the interests of the consumers these financial bottom-feeders prey upon.”

The sentiment was echoed in a statement by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat who helped create the CFPB.

“Payday lenders spent $63,000 helping Mick Mulvaney get elected to Congress and now their investment is paying off many times over. By scrapping this rule, Mulvaney will allow his campaign donors to continue to generate massive fees peddling some of the most abusive financial products in existence,” Warren said.

Read the complete article here.

Bad news for American consumer rights, as CFPB director announces departure

Richard Cordray, the head of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is stepping down at the end of the month. The bureau was created in the wake of the financial crisis and has recovered $12 billion from financial firms on behalf of consumers, but Republicans have fought Cordray and the bureau, claiming its very existence is illegal and that it has harmed consumers by stifling lending.

Listen to the NPR Roundtable discussion about his announcement, and what it means for American consumers here.

Trump appointees, this time in USDA, continue to violate federal ethics laws

From today’s New York Times by Danielle Ivory and Robert Faturechi:

At a private meeting in September, congressional aides asked Rebeckah Adcock, a top official at the Department of Agriculture, to reveal the identities of the people serving on the deregulation team she leads at the agency.

Teams like Ms. Adcock’s, created under an executive order by President Trump, had been taking heat from Democratic lawmakers over their secrecy. What little was publicly known suggested that some of the groups’ members had deep ties to the industries being regulated.

Ms. Adcock, a former pesticide industry executive, brushed off the request, according to House aides familiar with the exchange, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly. Making the names public, they recalled her saying, would trigger a deluge of lobbyists.

In fact, interviews and visitor logs at the Agriculture Department showed that Ms. Adcock had already been meeting with lobbyists, including those from her former employer, the pesticide industry’s main trade group, CropLife America, and its members. CropLife pushes the agenda of pesticide makers in Washington, including easing rules related to safety standards and clean water.

Ms. Adcock, who left the trade group in April, maintained contact with her former industry allies despite a signed ethics agreement promising to avoid for one year issues involving CropLife as well as matters that she had lobbied about in the two years before joining the government.

In one meeting, Ms. Adcock discussed issues banned by the ethics agreement with an executive who had been her lobbying partner weeks earlier at CropLife, according to the accounts of participants and the visitor logs, obtained through a public records request by The New York Times and ProPublica.

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the U.S.D.A. who also spoke on behalf of Ms. Adcock, said she had not violated her ethics agreement by meeting with her former industry allies. He also denied that Ms. Adcock had discussed issues related to her previous lobbying at the meeting, or that she had suggested that her deregulation team would be swamped by lobbyists if names of its members were released.

“The career ethics officers at U.S.D.A. agree that this is not a violation of the ethics agreement that Rebeckah Adcock signed,” said Mr. Murtaugh, citing a 2009 memo by the Office of Government Ethics.

Others dispute that interpretation of the memo; the ethics office declined to say whether the memo applied to the meeting, citing its policy not to discuss individual cases.

Read entire article here.

ParadisePapers show Trump Commerce Secretary Has Ties to Putin Cronies

From today’s Slate Magazine by Daniel Politi:

Looks like it’s Panama Papers Part Two. The non-profit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists began publishing on Sunday what it is calling the Paradise Papers. More than a year after the organization’s network of journalists around the world shook up politicians in several countries with leaked data on offshore havens, another trove of documents taken from a Bahamas-based firm promises to expose how companies and the wealthy use complicated structures to skirt taxes. Most of the more than 13.4 million documents, which were analyzed by a group of more than 380 journalists in 67 countries, are from Bermudan law firm Appleby.

Among the most explosive revelations so far involves news that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross shares business interests with close allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which he failed to fully disclose during confirmation hearings. The documents show Ross continues to have a significant interest in a shipping firm that has a Russian energy company as one of its main clients. The owners of that company include Putin’s son-in-law and an oligarch under U.S. sanctions. The stake in the firm is held in Cayman Islands, just like much of the commerce secretary’s massive wealth that has been estimated at more than $2 billion.

The Commerce Department is not disputing the allegations. Ross “recuses himself from any matters focused on transoceanic shipping vessels, but has been generally supportive of the administration’s sanctions of Russian and Venezuelan entities,” a spokesman said. “He works closely with Commerce Department ethics officials to ensure the highest ethical standards.”

Lawmakers who were part of Ross’ confirmation hearings say they feel duped. During the process, Ross was asked about his ties to Russia and his investment in another shipping company, but Navigator never came up. Sen. Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut told NBC News that the general impression was that Ross had gotten rid of his stakes in Navigator, and they didn’t know about the firm’s ties to Russia. “I am astonished and appalled because I feel misled,” Blumenthal said. “Our committee was misled, the American people were misled by the concealment of those companies.” Ethics experts say that even if there is nothing illegal about the arrangement, it still raises several ethical questions because one of the lead voices in the administration’s trade policy could make money from business with Russia.

Read the entire article here.

Pence casts deciding vote in Senate to deny consumers rights to sue banks

From today’s Washington Post by Ken Sweet:

Call it a win for “the swamp.”

President Trump and Republicans in Congress handed Wall Street banks a big victory by effectively killing off a politically popular rule that would have allowed consumers to band together to sue their banks.

The 51-50 vote in the Senate, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote, means bank customers will still be subject to what are known as mandatory arbitration clauses. These clauses are buried in the fine print of nearly every checking account, credit card, payday loan, auto loan or other financial services contract and require customers to use arbitration to resolve any dispute with his or her bank. They effectively waive the customer’s right to sue.

The banking industry lobbied hard to roll back a proposed regulation from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that would have largely restricted mandatory arbitration clauses by 2019. Consumers would have been allowed to sue their bank as a group in a class-action lawsuit. Individual consumers with individual complaints would still have to use arbitration under the rules.

President Trump is expected to sign the Senate resolution into law, overturning yet another Obama-administration initiative. Trump spent months of the 2016 campaign accusing his opponent Hillary Clinton of being in the pocket of the big banks and therefore unwilling to take on Wall Street.

At least among voters, the CFPB’s regulations had bipartisan support. A poll done by the GOP-leaning American Future Fund found that 67 percent of those surveyed were in favor of the rules, including 64 percent of Republicans. Other polls on the subject show similar levels of support.

The overturn marks a significant victory for Wall Street. After the financial crisis, Congress and the Obama administration put substantial new regulations on how banks operated and fined them tens of billions of dollars for the damage they caused to the housing market. But since Trump’s victory last year, banking lobbyists have felt emboldened to get some of the rules repealed or replaced altogether. Top or near the top of the list was the CFPB’s arbitration rules.

“(The) vote is a giant setback for every consumer in this country. Wall Street won and ordinary people lost. This vote means the courtroom doors will remain closed for groups of people seeking justice and relief when they are wronged by a company,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, in a statement.

The big banks and its lobbyist groups are calling this a victory for U.S. consumers, saying that arbitration is faster and the rules would have been an economic stimulus package for class-action trial lawyers. They also cite statistics from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s own 2015 study that show that the average award from a class-action lawsuit is roughly $32 while an award from arbitration is $5,389.

But reality is more complicated. At best, the banking industry’s arguments twist the truth.

The reason why the award for most class-action suits is small is because people don’t typically sue individually his or her bank over a small sum of money, like an overdraft charge or account service fee, because it’s not worth the financial effort to recover a $10, $25, or $35 fee. Arbitration cases are less common, and usually involve more substantial disputes, hence the larger awards. Also the majority of consumers resolve their dispute with their banks in person, typically at a branch or over the phone.

If the CFPB’s rules had gone into effect, companies like Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Equifax would have been exposed to billions of dollars in lawsuits for future bad behavior. The Center for Responsible Lending estimates the U.S. banking customers paid $14 billion dollars in overdraft fee last year, and the industry has gotten in trouble in the past for shady tactics like transaction reordering, where a bank would reorder a day’s debits and withdrawals to extract the most overdraft fee income from its customers that day.

To overturn the CFPB’s rule, Congress used the Congressional Review Act. The CRA allows Congress to overturn any executive agency’s rules or regulations with a bare majority vote, but more importantly, the law prohibits that agency from issuing any “substantially similar” regulations without Congressional authorization. That means that until Congress passes a law to restrict arbitration, the CFPB’s hands are now permanently bound on this issue.

The political winds are in Wall Street’s favor going forward. Cordray’s term at the CFPB will end in mid-2018 but he is expected to step down before then to make a run for Governor of Ohio. Trump will be able to choose his own appointee and will likely pick someone more likely to favor the banks.

The CFPB was created after the financial crisis as part of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform law that passed in 2010. The bureau was crafted to be independent and powerful, funded by the Federal Reserve instead of through the traditional Congressional appropriations process. Its director has considerable authority to pursue issues he or she considers important and generally cannot be removed from office.

There’s another major financial consumer protection now pending in front of Congress focused on the payday lending industry. The CFPB finalized new regulations weeks ago that would severely restrict the ability for payday lenders to make loans that its customers, often the poor and financially desperate, cannot afford. The payday lending industry is pushing hard to overturn these rules using the same process that was used to overturn the arbitration rules.