Merrill Lynch

The latest journalist to press Mitt Romney on his tax returns is the ultra-resourceful Josh Tyrangiel of Businessweek. Here’s how he cleverly posed the question in a recent interview:  If you’re an investor and you’re looking at a company, and that company says that its great strength is wise management and fiscal know-how, wouldn’t you want to see the previous, say, five years’ worth of its financials?  Alas, no dice. Romney’s response:  I’m not a business.

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It took me a while, but I finally found time to read Michael Lewis's latest masterpiece, this one about the Irish financial meltdown. One of his extraordinary qualities is the ability to find fascinating characters. This scene concerns, at best, the third-most interesting character in the story: The bank analyst who had been most prescient and interesting about the Irish banks worked for Merrill Lynch. His name was Philip Ingram.

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[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]  Felix Salmon is chiding me for an "unconvincing" critique of Sebastian Mallaby's recent book on hedge funds, More Money Than God. He says shifting risk from banks to hedge funds would in fact make the system safe for failure:  Scheiber is worried that people like Morgan Stanley’s Howie Hubler — who lost $9 billion at what was essentially an in-house hedge fund — will simply now repeat their failures at standalone funds, if banks are barred from taking those kind of bets. But that misses the point.

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It's hard not to be somewhat encouraged by the announcement that Bank of America has reached a deal with Treasury to repay the $45 billion in "exceptional assistance" it received last fall and winter. BofA was one of two problem megabanks (the other being Citigroup) to receive such a mega-bailout, and at times looked like it would be years before it returned the cash. For both substantive and political reasons, the administration has good reason to breathe a little easier. (And, to its credit, it negotiated a pretty tough deal with the bank.

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Should Geithner Resign?

So far the members of Congress who think the Treasury Secretary should go don't quite constitute a full-blown caucus, much less anything resembling a majority. But they're expressing their opinions with increasing passion. Early this month Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell confessed that she was "not sure" why Geithner still had his job given his too-soft treatment of Wall Street.

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“Banking on the State” by Andrew Haldane and Piergiorgio Alessandri is making waves in official circles. Haldane, Executive Director for Financial Stability at the Bank of England, is widely regarded as both a technical expert and as someone who can communicate his points effectively to policymakers. He is obviously closely in line--although not in complete agreement--with the thinking of Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England. Haldane and Alessandri offer a tough, perhaps bleak assessment.

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Just when our biggest banks thought they were out of the woods and into the money, the official consensus in their favor begins to crack. The Obama administration’s publicly stated view--from the highest level in the White House--remains that the banks cannot or should not be broken up. Their argument is that the big banks can be regulated into permanently low risk behavior. In contrast, in an interview reported in the NYT this morning, Paul Volcker argues that attempts to regulate these banks will fail: “The only viable solution, in the Volcker view, is to break up the giants.

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Although higher capital requirements do seem like a no-brainer, Andrew Kuritzkes and Hal Scott offer some words of caution in the FT: The five largest US financial institutions subject to Basel capital rules that either failed or were forced into government-assisted mergers in 2008 – Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia and Merrill Lynch – had regulatory capital ratios ranging from 12.3 per cent to 16.1 per cent as of their last quarterly disclosures before they were effectively shut down.

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Laurence Grafstein: What financiers owe the public.

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Bank of America and the SEC were blasted on Monday in a ruling issued by a Federal District Judge. The two parties had proposed a settlement deal over bonuses that had been paid to Merrill Lynch last year. The judge, Jed Rakoff, not only rejected it; he criticized the ethics of the proposal: "the proposed Consent Judgement is neither fair, nor reasonable, nor adequate. It is not fair, first and foremost, because it does not comport with the most elementary notions of justice and morality," The entire (shockingly bold) ruling has been posted below.

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