Let’s start with the good news: Congress has passed an omnibus spending bill that will avert government shutdown, ensure that schoolchildren are getting enough salt, and free cattle farmers from greenhouse gas regulations. I guess the good news stopped with the first clause in that list, but still—soluble government! It does come at a cost, though. Remember the financial collapse triggered by an unstable derivatives market that required a trillion-dollar taxpayer bailout to correct? Trick question: we never corrected it. But banks are doing pretty well now, so they’re ready to leverage themselves into risky derivative trades again, and could they please do it with federal deposit insurance? Granted! Thus a key provision of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations is rolled back, and Congress recreates the conditions that preceded the worst economic collapse in three generations—falling gas prices and all.
In my surprisingly arduous attempt to find 2007 revenue figures for Citigroup yesterday, I ran across something called the plutonomy report. Back in 2005, Ajay Kapur—then CFA of Citigroup—produced this industry note describing investor and consumer behavior in economies where a very small portion of the population controls a very large portion of national wealth. He called such economies plutonomies. “The world is dividing into two blocs,” Kapur writes—“the plutonomy and the rest.” He lists the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK among the plutonomy nations and puts continental Europe and Japan “in the egalitarian bloc.” Here in plutonomy country, “the rich absorb a disproportionate chunk of the economy” and therefore hold primary influence over aggregate indicators like savings rates, account deficits, consumer spending, et cetera. In 2006, Kapur produced a follow-up to the first plutonomy report, in which he argues that plutonomy countries,
have seen the rich take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years, to the extent that the rich now dominate income, wealth and spending in these countries…the tech whizzes who own the pipes and distribution, the lawyers and bankers who intermediate globalization and productivity, the CEOs who lead the charge in converting globalization and technology to increase the profit share of the economy at the expense of labor, all contribute to plutonomy.
It’s a controversial argument, especially from a bank that defrauded consumer investors to enrich itself and a billionaire hedge fund manager the following year. People would probably get angry about it, except the second plutonomy report has been steadily disappearing from the interent since it leaked.
Possibly as an aftereffect of his symbiosis with the Beard of Reason, federal district court judge Jed Rakoff has blocked a settlement between the SEC and Citibank on the grounds that he has no way of determining whether the agreement was “fair, reasonable, adequate and in the public interest.” The answers to his questions are define “fair,” not really and nope. At issue in the case is whether the banking giant committed fraud when it assembled a $1 billion mortgage fund from high-risk loans that it then sold to clients, even as it shorted* the fund in its own investments. The SEC alleges that Citibank failed to inform investors that the mortgages in the fund had been deliberately selected to fail. As it often does, the federal enforcement agency agreed to let Citibank settle the case without admitting or denying any fault. Judge Rakoff, however, does not play that.