Like most consumers, I associate the phrase “thank you” with Citigroup THANKYOU Marks, which the financial-services giant uses in its customer rewards programs. When I hold the door open for a little girl and she says “thank you,” I suffer a moment of confusion. How has this child become employed by Citigroup, and why has my act of courtesy earned me THANKYOU Mark rewards? But then I remember that, oh yeah, trademark violations have diluted the THANKYOU Mark brand to the point where people started using it in non-rewards point contexts. It’s the kind of infringement on intellectual property that has become too common in the modern world. Fortunately, Citigroup has fought back against such lawlessness by filing suit against AT&T for using “thanks” and “AT&T thanks” in its own marketing materials.
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.
It’s Monday, and politics nerds across the nation are waking up and shouting, “Let’s get ready to increase federal oversight of financial markets and/or ruuuuuummmbbblllllllllllleeee!” directly into the ears of their spouses or cats. It’s go time, motherhumpers, and Broadway Chris Dodd is going to throw the long bomb (regulation of derivatives markets) down the sideline (gray area separating conventional banks from hedge funds they operate) to hit Chuck Schumer in a curl route (narrative of Republican obstructionism) in the hopes that he can run it into the end zone (future in which Argentinian-style currency collapse has not forced us all to do weird Japanese pornography to pay our electric bills.) It seems like the game day metaphor is breaking down now—not least because the Patriots have decided not to show up. You know who the Patriots are, right? They’re the Republican party, defenders of Real America, whose concern for Main Street has led them to promise a filibuster against the attempt to regulate Wall Street. And the Combat! blog staff has been tailgating since 6:30, too. Put your shirts back on, interns.