I’ve heard many politicians talk about what they believe were the causes of the financial meltdown of 2008 and the money problems facing our federal, state, and local governments today. These causes include: collective bargaining, pensions, healthcare costs for public workers; subprime mortgages taken out by poor people who couldn’t actually afford to buy homes; the high costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Many of these same politicians rarely put the blame for the financial crises we are experiencing in this country today on the cost of waging two wars—or on the financial shenanigans of the big banks of Wall Street.
In February of 2010, Mike Elk wrote an article for the Huffington Post titled How Big Banks’ Greek-Style Schemes Are Bankrupting States Across the U.S. In it, he talked about a financial instrument called the “interest rate swap”—which is a kind of unregulated derivative.
Here’s an excerpt from Elk’s article:
Just when you thought Wall Street couldn’t get any more clever in their attempts at predatory lending, they have.
Big Banks have created an exotic financial instrument that is the equivalent of a payday loan for cash-strapped state and local governments, innocently labeled an “interest rate swap.”
In the United States, states and local governments cannot run deficits. This year states face a $357 billion budget shortfall and local governments are facing an additional $82 billion budget shortfall. States have begun cutting basic services like snow removal, reduced garbage pickup, and in Colorado Springs they went to the pawn shop – selling police helicopters on the Internet.
In a desperate effort to meet budget needs, states and local governments over the last decade have gone to the big banks to ask for exotic instruments known as interest rate swaps. These desperate state and local governments were taken advantage of in the same way that Greece was by Goldman Sachs. Likewise, these swaps are threatening the economic health of local cities and states.
Shouldn’t there be more discussion on news programs and in Congress about these “exotic financial instruments” that may be a big contributing factor to the poor financial health in which many of our states and municipalities find themselves?
In Looting Main Street, an article Matt Taibbi wrote for Rolling Stone in the spring of 2010, the author detailed how interest rate swaps were helping to bankrupt Jefferson County, Alabama. Jefferson County’s troubles began when it had to finance a new sewer project and went looking for money. Then the vultures of Wall Street came swooping into town.
In 1996, the average monthly sewer bill for a family of four in Birmingham was only $14.71 — but that was before the county decided to build an elaborate new sewer system with the help of out-of-state financial wizards with names like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase. The result was a monstrous pile of borrowed money that the county used to build, in essence, the world’s grandest toilet — “the Taj Mahal of sewer-treatment plants” is how one county worker put it. What happened here in Jefferson County would turn out to be the perfect metaphor for the peculiar alchemy of modern oligarchical capitalism: A mob of corrupt local officials and morally absent financiers got together to build a giant device that converted human shit into billions of dollars of profit for Wall Street …
And once the giant shit machine was built and the note on all that fancy construction started to come due, Wall Street came back to the local politicians and doubled down on the scam. They showed up in droves to help the poor, broke citizens of Jefferson County cut their toilet finance charges using a blizzard of incomprehensible swaps and refinance schemes — schemes that only served to postpone the repayment date a year or two while sinking the county deeper into debt. In the end, every time Jefferson County so much as breathed near one of the banks, it got charged millions in fees. There was so much money to be made bilking these dizzy Southerners that banks like JP Morgan spent millions paying middlemen who bribed — yes, that’s right, bribed, criminally bribed — the county commissioners and their buddies just to keep their business. Hell, the money was so good, JP Morgan at one point even paid Goldman Sachs $3 million just to back the fuck off, so they could have the rubes of Jefferson County to fleece all for themselves.
According to Taibbi, the original cost for the sewer project was estimated to be about $250 million. That amount was reported to have ballooned into a total indebtedness of $5 billion for Jefferson County over the years. Because of the sewer debacle, the county was not only “saddled with an astronomical debt on its sewer project, it also saw a downgrade in its overall credit rating, which left it paralyzed in its attempts to borrow money to pay for general expenditures.” This is why people’s sewers bills exploded by 400%! This is why the county had to lay off many of its employees—who also lost their health insurance. This is also why Jefferson County had to file for bankruptcy last fall.
Bloomberg reported that Jefferson County’s Chapter 9 filing left creditors like JP Morgan “facing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses” and that it could “revive concern that defaults may rise in the $2.9 trillion municipal bond market.” The filing also leaves county residents uncertain as to how much they may be charged for sewage fees in order to repay the debt. Bloomberg also reported that JP Morgan agreed to a $722 million settlement with the SEC in 2009 “over payments its bankers allegedly made to people tied to county politicians in order to win business.” According to a Reuters report, at least twenty-two individuals have been convicted on charges of corruption, bribery, and fraud.
So…corrupt county officials and contractors have gone to jail. So…JP Morgan pays a multi-million-dollar fine to the SEC. So what? Does it fix things for all the people in Jefferson County who lost their jobs and health insurance because unethical politicians, contractors, and bankers were made to pay for their crimes? Does it help the poor people who can’t afford to pay their water and sewer bills? Does it help the poorest residents of Birmingham who say they can no longer afford to pay for running water?
One gentleman who lives in Birmingham says he has found it cheaper to purchase water from a gas station and to pay a sanitation company to remove waste from his “porta-potty” than to pay his water and sewer bill—which can amount to $300 some months. One Birmingham woman said that after she pays her water and sewer bill she doesn’t have much money left from her monthly $600 Social Security check to pay for food and electricity.
And so it goes. No help for the poor of Jefferson County. Yet, the wizards of Wall Street who are helping to bankrupt our communities are making a killing!
I’d say we need some REAL financial reform in this country NOW…before we become a third world country. Shouldn’t interest rates swaps and other “exotic financial instruments” be regulated? What do you think?
Jefferson County Files for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy Protection (JEFFCOnline—The Offical Website of Jefferson County, Alabama)
Jefferson County, Alabama: Screwed By Wall Street, Still Paying (Rolling Stone)
Alabama county files biggest municipal bankruptcy (Yahoo/Reuters)
The Fleecing of Alabama: The Bills Come Due (Bloomberg)