Predatory lending local government version

This story is on the front page of Business Week:

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing is struggling to save his city from fiscal calamity. Unemployment is at a record 28% and rising, while home prices have plunged 39% since 2007. The 66-year-old Bing, a former NBA all-star with the Detroit Pistons who took office 10 months ago, faces a $300 million budget deficit—and few ways to make up the difference.

Against that bleak backdrop, Wall Street is squeezing one of America’s weakest cities for every penny it can. A few years ago, Detroit struck a derivatives deal with UBS (UBS) and other banks that allowed it to save more than $2 million a year in interest on $800 million worth of bonds. But the fine print carried a potentially devastating condition. If the city’s credit rating dropped, the banks could opt out of the deal and demand a sizable breakup fee. That’s precisely what happened in January: After years of fiscal trouble, Detroit saw its credit rating slashed to junk. Suddenly the sputtering Motor City was on the hook for a $400 million tab….

Detroit isn’t suffering alone. Across the nation, local governments and related public entities, already reeling from the recession, face another fiscal crisis: billions of dollars in fees owed to UBS, Goldman Sachs (GS), and other financial giants on investment deals gone wrong.

Charm Offensive

The seeds of this looming disaster were sown during the credit boom, when Wall Street targeted cities big and small with risky financial products that promised to save them money or boost returns. Investment bankers sold exotic derivatives designed to help municipalities cut borrowing costs. Banks and insurance companies constructed complicated tax deals that allowed public utilities, transit authorities, and other nonprofit organizations to extract cash immediately from their long-term assets. Private equity firms, pointing to stellar historical gains, persuaded big public pension funds to plow billions of dollars into high-cost investments at the peak of the market. Many of the transactions shared a striking similarity: provisions that protected the banks from big losses and left the customers on the hook for huge payouts.

Now, as many of those deals sour, Wall Street is ramping up its efforts to collect from Main Street. "The banks stuffed customers with [questionable investments] and then extorted money from the customers to get rid of them," says Christopher Whalen, managing director at research firm Institutional Risk Analytics. …

The financial struggles of America’s cities and towns stand in stark contrast to Wall Street, where bonuses at some firms are expected to reach record levels in 2009, less than a year after the peak of the financial crisis. To keep public outrage from reaching a boiling point, banking chiefs are embarking on a charm offensive. Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who recently sparked controversy when he told a Times of London reporter that his firm was "doing God’s work," pledged on Nov. 17 to invest $500 million in small businesses and charities. (That amounts to roughly 3% of the $16.7 billion Goldman expects to pay its employees this year.)…

Without a federal fix, strapped municipalities like Detroit could be forced to slash vital services even more. The city’s public schools, which had been putting off paying textbook suppliers and other vendors, aren’t likely to see their funding rise now that banks are taking a bite out of the city’s budget. The Royal Oak school district is eliminating after-school music programs and asking parents to pay $100 per child to play sports. "We’ve had to demolish programs because of the squeeze," says Thomas L. Moline, the district’s superintendent.

The evidence of looting is mounting. More at the link below.


Wall Street Plays Hardball – Business Week

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