Senate Gives “Audit the Fed” a Unanimous Victory

May 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By John Nichols

“The Fed can no longer operate in virtual secrecy,” declared Vermont independent Bernie Sanders Tuesday after the Senate voted 96-0 to add his “Audit the Fed” amendment to the financial regulatory reform bill.

The Senate amendment is not as muscular as the bipartisan legislation backed by the House, which was sponsored by Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, an aggressive progressive, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, an equally aggressive conservative with libertarian leanings. The Grayson-Paul bill authorizes audits by the Government Accountability Office of every item on the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet, including all credit facilities and all securities purchase programs; there would be exemption only for unreleased transcripts, minutes of closed-door meetings and the most recent decisions of the central bank. The Senate measure is narrower in its focus, but it would require the GAO to scrutinize some several trillion dollars in emergency lending that the Fed provided to big banks after the September 2008 economic meltdown.

The actual amount of public money that has been set aside for private banks is not known. That’s one reason why this audit is so important. But there can be no doubt that the figure is astronomical. The Center for Media and Democracy’s Wall Street Bailout Tally shows that since 2008, the U.S. government has flooded Wall Street banks and financial institutions with $4.7 trillion dollars in taxpayer money, mostly in the form of loans from the Fed reserve. The Fed has never told us which firms got these loans and what type of collateral American taxpayers got in return. This will now be revealed. We will also get an accounting of the Fed’s “stealth” bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac.

Sanders tried to pass a broader amendment, but when he faced roadblocks — and the prospect that audit language might be excluded entirely from the final bill — he agreed to propose an amendment outlining the one-time audit of post-meltdown Fed activity.  That did not sit well with all senators. Even as Republicans such as New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg tried to prevent any demand for transparency, Louisiana Republican David Vitter proposed tougher language along the lines what Grayson and Paul pushed through the House. While most Democrats and a number of Republicans opposed the tougher language, Sanders joined the most serious reformers in the Democratic caucus — Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold, Washington’s Maria Cantwell, North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan, Arkansas’s Blanche Lincoln, Virginia’s Jim Webb and Oregon’s Ron Wyden — in voting “yes.”

The Vitter amendment failed on a 62-37 vote and Feingold was especially disappointed.  “Unfortunately,” the Wisconsin progressive declared, “the defeat of the Vitter amendment means American taxpayers will still not have a complete picture of how one of the most powerful government agencies makes policy and spends their tax dollars.”

Still, Feingold acknowledged that, “Senator Sanders’ amendment will mean more transparency for the Federal Reserve, so the public will have a better idea of how it is spending taxpayer dollars.”

That transparency is consequential, noted Sanders. “Let’s be clear,” he explained, “when trillions of dollars of taxpayer money are being lent out to the largest financial institutions in this country, the American people have a right to know who received that money and what they did with it.  We also need to know what possible conflicts of interest exist involving the heads of large financial institutions who sat in the room helping to make those decisions.”

The “Audit the Fed” language that is included in the final legislation remains to be seen, as the differences between the House and Senate proposals will have to be reconciled by a conference committee. That will provide an opening for Grayson, Paul, Sanders and their allies to push for the broadest possible transparency. But, make no mistake, there will be pushback.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has repeatedly refused to respond to demands from Sanders and others for information about the banks that have been bailed out by the taxpayers — and that continue to pad their accounts with public dollars. President Obama, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and their aides are critics of the “Audit the Fed” push, as well.

So why, with so much official opposition, did the “Audit the Fed” movement win a 96-0 vote in the Senate? Campaigners on the left and right made the issue a high priority. A good deal of credit must go to Sanders and Paul — long-time critics of the Fed who opposed the 2008 Wall Street bailouts and then steered anger at those bailouts toward the “Audit the Fed” movement — which was boosted on the left by websites such as Jane Hamsher’s Firedoglake and on the right by the Paul-linked Campaign for Liberty, as well as by outspoken economists such a Dean Baker and watchdog operations such as CMD’s BanksterUSA project.

Ultimately, however, much of the credit must go to Grayson, who embraced Paul’s proposal — which had languished in the House — and led the campaign to get Democrats to sign on to the bill. As Hamsher says, “Tremendous credit goes to Alan Grayson. It was Grayson who decided to take up Ron Paul’s bill and bring Democratic support for it.

Sanders, who took some hits for compromising, also deserves credit at this point for making sure, even when he was forced to trim back on his amendment, that critical elements of the initial proposal by Paul — especially the defined role for the GAO — were retained. That will make it harder for the Obama White House and their allies in the congressional leadership to gut the audit language in the conference committee.

There will, as well, be additional fights:

“While passage of Senator Sanders’ amendment will provide some long overdue accountability and transparency for the Federal Reserve, the overall bill still needs a lot of work,” said Feingold. In particular, Feingold and other real reformers have focused on the need for the bill to restore the firewall between Main Street banks and Wall Street securities firms and insurance companies, which contributed to financial institutions growing “too big to fail.”

While the bipartisan support for auditing the Fed represents a step in the right direction, Feingold is right when he says it is only one step on a long road toward addressing the way in which bad decisions by Congress “led to deregulation and the increased concentration of economic power and economic decision-making.”

John Nichols is Washington DC correspondent for The Nation magazine.

12-20

Warren Buffett’s Investment Advice for You

March 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Buffett Says Consumer Behavior May Be Forever Changed by Recession

By Katie Escherich and Bianna Golodryga

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett believes that the U.S. will emerge from the current economic recession “stronger than ever,” but he said the behavior of the American consumer may be forever changed.

“We were on a binge before,” the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway told “Good Morning America” in an exclusive interview. “I mean, we are not saving extraordinary sums now but the savings behavior has changed. … I don’t necessarily think that we will go back to behaving the way that we were two years ago.”

The man known as the “Oracle from Omaha” because of his history of successful investments, shared his top three pieces of advice for average Americans who want to grow their savings and keep their money safe.

Number one: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Number two: “Always look at how much the other guy is making if he is trying to sell you something.”

Number three: Don’t go into debt.

“Stay away from leverage,” he said. “Nobody ever goes broke that doesn’t owe money.”

The “binge,” he said, was fueled largely by over-borrowing by both individuals and companies.

“The U.S. public as a whole has gotten into problems from leverage, financial institutions have gotten into problems through leverage,” he said. “A long, long time ago a friend said to me about leverage, ‘If you’re smart you don’t need it, and if you’re dumb, you got no business using it.’”

At a time when many college graduates face uncertain futures and are struggling to find jobs, Buffett said he still believes that “investing in yourself is the best thing you can do. Anything that improves your own talents. And I always advise students to do that, high school students, college students and obviously investing in your children is, in some ways, investing in yourself.”

No matter what happens in the economy, “if you have true talent yourself, and you have maximized your talent, you have a terrific asset.”

Warren Buffett on Budget Deficit

Buffett showed some support for the idea of a second economic stimulus package, but cautioned that it should be handled differently to restore the American public’s confidence.

The number of earmarks included in the bill were “part of what has affected the American psyche,” he said. “When we go on and we talk about earmarks and that sort of thing, and then we get the kind of behavior we’ve got, I mean, that is not reassuring to the American public.”

He called the first stimulus “like taking half a tablet of Viagra and having also a bunch of candy mixed in, you know, as if everybody was putting in enough for their own constituents.”

He also cautioned that the American public will have to be patient and give the economy time to recover, particularly when it comes to the surplus of houses on the market that resulted from overbuilding.

“The American public will get disappointed, but it is going to take time to work through the overhang of houses, for example,” he said. “You can’t cure that in a day or a week or a month, so a stimulus doesn’t cure that.”

Buffett also expressed confidence in Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and dismissed rumors that the Fed chief may not return once his current term is up at the end of the year.

“Well, I think he should keep his job,” he said. “And as to what people say, well they are going to say something, they have always talked about Fed chairmen when their terms are coming up. But taking Bernanke out of the lineup would be like if you had the Ryder Cup, taking Tiger Woods out of it. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Buffett acknowledged that the actions taken by the government will lead to an even bigger budget deficit. “It will happen and I worry about it, but I would worry more if we weren’t doing anything right now.”

He compared the current situation to “a friend that is sinking in quicksand.”

“You throw them a rope and they tie it around themselves and a car pulls them out, they may dislocate a couple of shoulders but it’s still the right thing to do. And we are doing things which will have negative consequences down the road, but they are still the right thing to do to get us out of this particular economic quicksand that we are in.”

Warren Buffett on Health Care Reform

Asked if he agreed with President Obama that passing health care reform would help limit the ballooning budget deficit, Buffett replied, “I really don’t think that I’m an expert on health care,” but said the system needs to be drastically changed.

“I think it’s a moral imperative that everybody have access to health care,” he said. “It’s a terrible problem.”

Despite the pressing economic concerns, he said he would be in favor of the government devoting resources to devising a plan for health care reform “if there’s a well-thought-out program that actually promises to bring down the cost of health care.”

“We are spending 2 trillion plus on health care a year,” he said. “If we could come up with something that even maintains the present cost and promises not to have a greater-than-inflation rate of gain in the future, and brings health care to the people that aren’t getting it now, then I think that will be a huge improvement. I don’t think that is an easy task.”

In anyone’s lifetime, “you will see many recessions, some bubbles,” he said, but he’s optimistic about the future.

“If we sat down here [at the] start of the 20th century, and I said there is going to be the panic of 1907, there is going to be a world war. It will be followed by a Great Depression with 35 percent unemployment, and then we will have another war that it looks like we are going to lose, and then we are going to have a nuclear bomb like no one has ever seen … by the time I got through, you’d be crying. But the Dow went from 66 to 11,497 during that same century, and the average person’s standard of living went up 7 to 1. We have a system that unleashes human potential like nobody has ever seen, and it has done it in the past, it will do it in the future. So I’m a huge bull on America — it does let people like you and me do far more than we could have done 200 years ago.”

12-10