firstname.lastname@example.org (#GlobalSpring) | 11.05.2012 16:55 | London
Occupy London has published a map with 49 crisis criminals listed ahead of tomorrows "Meet the 1%" demonstration, which is part of a global wave of protests on May 12th and the month of May in general.
The map gives locations for Banks, Crisis Profiteers, Financial Services Funds, Hedge Funds, Lobbyists, Ratings Agencies, Stcok Exchanges and Tax Dodgers and the background to their contributions to the ongoing crisis.
Naomi Colvin from Occupy London said:
"The problems Occupy draws attention to are systemic and complex. That's why Meet the 1% will be a day of education, discussion and creative action that explores the links between different actors and shows where each reside: this is a London you may not see every day, but it's the one you're paying for. Getting on first-name terms with the 1% is an essential step towards deciding what to do about them – and finding a solution requires that as many people as possible are involved in the discussion.
Meet the 1% starts at 1pm at St Paul's churchyard – former site of Occupy LSX and our spiritual home – where Tent City University will be holding a special teach-out to explain just why the 1% are so deserving of our attention. Speakers will be talking about the operations of global finance, the international dimensions of the crisis – including what is happening elsewhere in Europe and beyond to mark this international day of action. Needless to say, we'll also be taking a good look at the impacts of austerity here in the UK.
With the agenda set, we'll be distributing our map. This identifies 49 separate targets, located all over central London – all implicated, in some way, with the financial crisis. Our targets range from the notorious to the undeservedly obscure; they include lobbyists, hedge funds and organisations profiteering from the creeping privatisation of the NHS. No longer will they be able to hide in the shadows.
Once the teach-out at St Paul's is concluded, we'll be heading off to one of those targets where another event is planned – the next of several to take place over the course of the day. We're not going to reveal in advance the route we're going to take, but you will be able to check our latest movements via Twitter: by texting "follow @occupymay" to 86444 you will be able to receive all the latest via text message. We can promise some surprises along the way – and you're very welcome to bring a tent with you, if you feel like it."
Quote from CiF
Background info on the map sectors - see occupylondon for locations and more info on specific companies and institutions
A common trend in mainstream analysis of the crisis has been to blame individual institutions or investment managers for ‘bad investment decisions’, claiming there was a conflict of interests between asset managers’ interest in continuing to invest clients’ funds in over-priced or under-yielding investments in order to keep the funds they manage, and the clients’ interest in not doing so as the risks associated with subprime loans were too great. However, this ignores the fact that the whole industry is based on what is known as the profit motive, and that such crises are therefore inevitable.
Like company directors, fund managers are bound by their fiduciary duties to ‘act in good faith’ in the ‘best interests’ of the company or the fund. These interests are almost always interpreted as maximising benefits for the shareholders or the owners, which in turn normally translates as profit maximisation and the ability to issue ever-greater dividends on investments. ‘External factors’, such as environmental or social impact, which might be detrimental to profit maximisation, are not supposed to be taken into consideration, except where they are deemed beneficial to the long-term interests of the company or fund itself.
A hedge fund typically pays its investment manager a management fee, which is a percentage of the assets of the fund, and a performance fee if the fund’s net asset value increases during the year. In addition, hedge fund managers typically invest their own money in the fund they manage, which serves to align their own interests with those of the investors in the fund. Thus, it is in both parties’ interest to maximise profits by any means possible, regardless of the long-term impact on the economy, society and the environment. Furthermore, the focus is on short-term share prices rather than long-term value for money.
The immediate trigger of the global financial crisis that started in 2008 was the bursting of the ‘housing bubble’, especially in the US, due to rising rates of defaults on ‘toxic’ mortgages given out by banks. Known as subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages, these were basically loans given to people who were less likely to be able to pay them back on schedule, and were therefore characterised by higher interest rates to make up for this higher credit risk.
Seeking ever-greater profits and competing for bigger market shares, banks had relaxed their underwriting standards (loan issuance conditions) and started giving riskier mortgages to less credit-worthy borrowers. At the same time, more and more people had been pushed to borrow money from banks to afford increasingly unaffordable houses and living costs, as their wages had remained stagnant for the last few decades.
Moreover, new financial products derived from or based on these loans enabled global financial institutions to invest in local housing markets, offset their risks and circumvent regulations. They included the bundling of subprime mortgages into mortgage-backed securities (MBS), derivatives known as collateralized debt obligations (CDO) sold to investors, and a form of credit insurance called credit default swaps (CDS). These products enabled financial institutions to find more money to finance subprime lending, extending the housing bubble and generating large fees for go-betweens. But as house prices declined and interest rates rose again, major institutions that had borrowed and invested heavily in subprime MBS and CDOs suffered significant losses. Defaults and losses on other loan types also increased significantly as the crisis expanded from the housing market to other parts of the global economy.
Investment banks, though often part of the same banking group, differ from traditional commercial banks in that they do not lend money directly to customers but help companies raise money through other means, such as issuing and selling securities. They also trade on behalf of their clients in other financial products, such as the derivatives mentioned above. In the aftermath of the crisis, it was proposed to re-separate banks’ high street businesses from their investment banking arms to protect ordinary people from the effects of similar crises in the future.
Although evidence suggests that the decline of mortgage underwriting standards was endemic in the sector, the following banks – many of which collapsed and were subsequently bailed out by government – have come to be more closely associated with the crisis.
Between 2000 and 2003, central banks across the world, following the US lead, significantly lowered their interest rates in order to encourage more borrowing and thereby ‘soften the effects’ of the bursting of the dot-com bubble. This allowed commercial banks to lower their own interest rates and encourage more people to take loans to meet rising living costs unmatched by stagnant wages. The bubble, of course, had to burst one day, and this cycle of economic boom and bust has been repeated time and again.
This was, in fact, a policy advocated by American economist and former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan to avoid recession. A model of perpetual economic growth driven by debt and borrowing and unsound financial policies are therefore partly to blame for the crisis. Indeed, Greenspan has recently admitted he had been “partially wrong” in his hands-off approach towards the banking industry, and that the credit crunch had left him in a state of “shocked disbelief”.
Here in the UK, Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, has been blamed for ‘failing to damp down’ the housing bubble by cutting interest rates faster so as to prevent the recession. Similarly, the head of the UK Financial Services Authority, Callum McCarthy, was accused of ‘systematic failures’ in handling the crisis. But such accusations, as indicated above, are rather short-sighted and do not address root cause of the problem, namely financial capitalism.
In addition to public spending cuts (student fees, social benefits, public sector jobs and so on), the crisis has been skilfully utilised by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government to accelerate the privatisation of public services. Of course this came as good news for private companies and their financiers, which saw great profit opportunities in the new fat contracts.
For example, many retailers were eager to take on benefit claimants who were being forced by the Jobcentre to do unpaid work at various work placements as part of new ‘workfare’ programmes. The list includes Poundland, Tesco, Asda, Argos, Primark and many others (Corporate Watch has documented this in detail). Following a wave of resistance by claimants and a lot of negative press, some of them, such as Burger King, Waterstones and Sainsbury’s, withdrew from the scheme. Then there are the companies that have taken over providing unemployment services, providing poorer services at higher costs, such as A4e, Atos, Ingeus and Working Links.
The biggest contracts, however, have been snatched by multinational outsourcing giants, such as Serco and G4S, that are taking over more and more public services across the board. Awarding a small number of fat contracts to a handful of big multinationals, which would then subcontract other smaller companies to actually provide services, seems to be a growing trend. Both Serco and G4S have recently won or renewed contracts to provide asylum accommodation, police and custody facilities, prisons and immigration detention centres, hospitals, schools, and so on and so forth. They are literally everywhere.
Last but not least, as public anger and dissent against these privatisation programmes grow, the government is increasingly resorting to repression and social control. The surveillance technologies and so-called ‘non-lethal’ crowd-control weapons used are all provided by private arms manufacturers such as BAE Systems, Boeing, Raytheon, Rolls Royce, Thales, Lockheed Martin and others (for more details, see our arms trade map). Even police officers and custody facilities are being privatised and taken over by G4S and Reliance.
Despite the fact that only 0.2% of jobs in the UK are in the arms industry, and arms make up only 1.5% of total exports, a massive 27% of government research expenditure goes to arms and 54% of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) staff are engaged in helping to sell arms. Defence has seen much fewer cuts than most other departments. Over the past five years, as the financial crisis unfolded, the Ministry of Defence spent £18 billion on the military campaign in Helmand, Afghanistan alone, while the conflict in Iraq cost the UK taxpayer £9.24 billion. Many of the crowd-control and surveillance technologies mentioned above, such as unmanned drones and toxic tear gases, are tested during these military adventures before they are deployed at home.
Financial Services Firms
Market economics claims that the level of risk is reflected in higher or lower interest rates or fees, allowing the market to automatically correct any imbalance through the what is known as the price mechanism. A number of mainstream economists have therefore argued that the lack of transparency about banks’ risk exposures prevented markets from correctly pricing the risks inherent in MBS and CDOs, thereby enabling the mortgage market to grow larger than it would have otherwise.
However, this ignores the fact that pricing mechanisms are not neutral but are devised and influenced by these self-serving financial institutions themselves. For example, it is now acknowledged by many that a widely used pricing model for CDS (Li’s Gaussian copula formula) was not properly understood and did not therefore reflect the level of risk that such new financial products introduced into the financial system. Thus, neither financial services firms nor the regulators were able to calculate the risks of these increasingly complicated financial products, relying instead on the information and the risk management methods provided by the banks themselves.
The accountancy and auditing firms listed below have not only contributed to the crisis by helping banks and hedge funds carry out their harmful activities, they also continue to help big business, through ‘creative’ accounting methods, get away with their crimes, avoid paying taxes, fabricate balance sheets, maintain an illusion of success and so on. For example, in January 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers (CwP) was fined a record £1.4m and given a rare ‘severe reprimand’ by the UK financial regulators for allowing JP Morgan Securities to “appear to be complying with rules” requiring that clients’ money are kept separate from the bank’s own investment funds in the lead-up to the crisis. Similarly, Ernst & Young (E&Y) was being investigated for failures in relation to its work for Lehman Brothers before its collapse in 2008. In 2009, 90 accountancy firms were investigated for selling ‘perfectly legal’ tax avoidance schemes.
Many mainstream economists and politicians have argued that banks’ use of complex financial instruments, such as off-balance sheet securitization and derivatives, made it difficult for creditors and regulators to monitor them and be able to predict or prevent the financial crisis. However, it is governments’ neoliberal policies that have allowed banks to develop and use such instruments. Since the 1970s, fiscal and monetary policies, particularly in the US and the UK, have emphasized deregulation as a means of encouraging business. This led to less oversight of banks’ activities and less disclosure of information about new activities undertaken by evolving financial institutions.
On 27 October 1986, in a day dubbed the financial ‘Big Bang’, the Thatcher government deregulated the financial market and introduced many radical measures including the abolition of fixed commission charges and of the distinction between ‘stockjobbers’ and ‘stockbrokers’ on the London Stock Exchange. In 1999, the Clinton government in the US repealed the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act, effectively removing the separation that previously existed between Wall Street investment banks and depository banks. Gordon Brown was a fan of ‘light touch’ regulation of the financial sector and a low-tax regime for foreign banks operating in London. In 2004, the US Securities and Exchange Commission relaxed the net capital rule, which enabled investment banks to substantially increase the level of debt they were taking on, fuelling the growth in subprime mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. As a result, depository banks such as Citigroup were allowed to move significant amounts of assets and liabilities off their balance sheets into other complex legal entities, masking weaknesses in the capital base of firms or the degree of leverage or risk taken. Off-balance-sheet entities had been used by Enron, for example, leading the company’s scandalous collapse in 2001. The SEC has recently conceded that self-regulation of investment banks contributed to the financial crisis.
Yet, even after a crisis of this scale, most of the ‘solutions’ proposed by government have revolved around cosmetic measures that allow business to continue as usual and do not address the root causes of the problem. Indeed, western governments, following Britain’s lead, were happy to purchase ‘troubled assets’ and bail out failing banks, at enormous costs to the public purse, in order to save the system, whilst at the same time cutting public spending under the pretext that there isn’t enough money to run public services.
In October 2010 David Cameron formed a Business Advisory Group to “provide regular, high level advice on critical business and economic issues facing the country”. Its members included Dick Olver, chair of BAE Systems; Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline; Justin King, CEO of Sainsbury’s; Eric Schmidt, chair and CEO of Google; Sam Laidlaw, CEO of Centrica; and Stephen Green, chair of HSBC. Similarly, four of the eight members of the EU’s High-Level Group charged with framing Europe’s response to the financial crisis were financial industry insiders implicated in the crisis.
As the housing and credit bubbles were building, the financialisation process enabled the so-called shadow banking system, which includes investment banks and hedge funds, to both expand and become increasingly vulnerable to market shocks. Investment banks and hedge funds used derivatives (CDS, CDOs and synthetic CDOs) to make money essentially from betting, or enabling large wagers to be made, far beyond the actual value of the underlying mortgage loans. That’s why the losses were so much greater than the initial loans. The US federal government-owned mortgage-finance companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, had to be bailed out along with other failing investment banks. Yet, as ordinary people lost their savings, some hedge funds, such as George Soros’s Quantum Endowment and David Tepper’s Appaloosa Management, made billions from betting on the collapse of the subprime mortgage market. Hedge funds had played a similar role in previous global crises, such as in 1997-98, when the economies of a number of poorer countries were destroyed through the manipulation of their national currencies.
Evidence suggests that the most toxic mortgages were processed through the shadow banking system and that competition from these led traditional banks to lower their own underwriting standards and issue riskier loans. The new players were also more vulnerable to market shocks because of their so-called ‘maturity mismatch’ – they borrowed short-term in liquid markets to purchase long-term non-liquid assets. Yet, although these institutions had been playing an increasingly crucial role in the financial system, they were not subject to the same regulatory controls as commercial banks – hedge funds are generally run as limited partnerships, for example.
Hedge funds are essentially investment funds that specialise in particularly risky investments, often referred to as ‘alternative’ or ‘non-traditional’, and are only open for particular types of (rich) investors, such as wealthy individuals and institutions. They also employ controversial investment and trading strategies, such as heavy borrowing and short-selling (the latter was restricted in the aftermath of the crisis). The aim of such strategies is to achieve quick spectacular returns on investments, regardless of whether markets are rising or falling.
The UK is home to about 450 hedge funds, 80% of the European total.
Banks wield enormous power over policy-makers. This is mostly achieved through lobbying activities facilitated by powerful industry bodies, as well as PR companies and informal old boy networks. For example, the British Bankers’ Association, which represents over 200 banks and describes itself as “the voice of banking and financial services”, boasts that its mission is “influencing decision makers” and “promoting and defending the industry”. Indeed, its responses to the Treasury reports on the financial crisis and its ‘advice’ to the parliamentary select committee drafting the new Financial Services Bill reflect this mission very well.
Bank lobbyists or PR companies acting on their behalf routinely meet with politicians and decision-makers to try to influence policies and legislation in their favour. For example, Goldman Sach’s lobbying campaign to undermine political reforms on derivatives and alternative investment funds has, according to SpinWatch, included meetings with MEPs and their assistants, private dinners and unminuted ‘after office hours’ meetings, high-level conferences and targeted campaigns against European Commission officials. Similar tactics by the Royal Bank of Scotland and other banks have been reported.
Another example is the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA), which has been described as “the most powerful and effective lobbying force in the recent history of financial markets”. ISDA has led the fight against reforms on derivatives in the EU and the US. The hedge fund lobby group, the Alternative Investment Management Association (AIMA), and the European Private Equity Venture Capital Association (EVCA) have played a similarly effective role in blocking any meaningful regulation of the damaging practices of speculation in the financial sector.
In the lead-up to the 2008 crisis, all the three major credit rating agencies listed below granted safe ratings to the toxic MBS and CDOs, which was later proved to be erroneous. Rating agencies are private companies that assess companies, organisations, national economies and financial products for their credit worthiness, charging an undisclosed percentage of the deal. As these ‘independent’ credit ratings are widely recognised in the financial world, they often have a great impact on prices and interest rates, to the extent that their verdicts often turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. Yet they have sometimes also proven to be very wrong. Both Lehman Brothers and AIG were granted A ratings right up to their collapse. Enron’s rating remained at investment grade until four days before the company went bankrupt, despite the fact that credit rating agencies had been aware of the company’s problems for months.
There is evidence that one of the reasons for such ‘mistakes’ is the cosy relationship between credit rating agencies and their big clients – banks and multinational corporations. Ratings agencies are paid a commission per rated security by the bank that arranges the deal, so if the bank suspects it is unlikely to get a good rating, it will simply go to another rating agency that is prepared to grant it a better rating.
The disastrous game of financialisation is most evident in stock exchanges. These are places where financial products such as derivatives are issued and traded alongside commodities such as oil and metals. Share prices rise and fall depending on a number of factors that are often not well understood by the investors or speculators themselves, including economic and political conditions in a given country, changing perceptions or changing consumer trends. Such information (or misinformation) is often provided by financial services companies as a service.
Much of the media hype around the financial crisis focused on ‘rogue’ financial speculators, as opposed to the good, old capitalist investors. It was often argued that, unlike investment, speculation is not based on thorough economic analysis but on hasty betting decisions. However, in the world of finance, there is not really a clear distinction between speculators and investors. Both seek to profit from price differences. The only difference is that the former often look at the short-term and the latter at the long-term. It is true, however, that practices such as short-selling, or the selling of borrowed stocks or futures to make a quick buck on fluctuating prices, may cause prices to deviate from the the norm, especially when speculators trade on misinformation, or if they simply get it wrong.
This may sometimes create a ‘bubble’ in which prices rise dramatically above the underlying value of the commodity in question. Such periods of increasing speculative purchasing are typically followed by a period of speculative selling, in which prices fall dramatically, leading in extreme cases to crashes or financial crises. For example, the dramatic rises in oil prices in 2008 have been blamed on manipulative speculation by hedge funds trading in oil futures on the IntercontinentalExchange, which was founded by Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and BP.
There has been a lot of media attention, public anger and grassroots actions targeting a very limited number of companies that have been found to be avoiding taxes, most notably Vodafone and the Arcadia Group, which owns many high street brands including Topshop, Topman, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Miss Selfridge, Evans, Wallis and BHS. However, tax avoidance schemes and practices are much more widespread than these few targets may suggest. Most of the banks and multinational corporations already mentioned are guilty of tax avoidance. A combination of a political ideology that puts business interests first, strong links and revolving doors between government and business, and creative accounting tricks, mean that most large companies are able to run ‘perfectly legal’, highly abusive tax avoidance schemes, while ordinary people are told to tighten their belts.
For example, many of the healthcare companies listed above have some sort of tax avoidance scheme in place: Care UK routes £8m a year in interest payments on loan notes issued in the Channel Islands; Spire is channelling £65m a year through a Luxembourg subsidiary of Cinven, its private equity owner, almost wiping out its taxable UK earnings; Circle is owned by companies and investment funds registered in tax havens including the British Virgin Islands, Jersey and the Cayman Islands; and Ramsay has used a subsidiary in the Cayman Islands to finance the purchase of a French health company for its Australian parent company.
Original article on IMC London: http://london.indymedia.org/articles/12206