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Susan Smith-Harmon

Susan Smith-Harmon

Unemployment aid: What's at stake for US economy

Wednesday, 08 January 2014 02:22 Published in National News
   WASHINGTON (AP) — More than a million Americans lost their unemployment benefits late last month, when a temporary federal program expired. Congress is debating whether to restore the aid for three more months.
 
   A bill to do so cleared a key procedural hurdle in the Senate on Tuesday. But final passage remains unclear. Democrats say extending the aid would boost hiring and economic growth. But many Republicans say the benefits discourage the unemployed from seeking work and would widen the federal budget gap.
 
Some questions and answers about what's at stake for the U.S. economy:
 
Q. Who's affected?
 
A. Nearly 1.4 million Americans who have been unemployed for more than six months. No longer can people continue to receive checks longer than that. Hundreds of thousands of others will lose their benefits in coming weeks, when they, too, will max out on the six months of unemployment benefits that most states provide.
 
Q. What did the expired program provide?
 
A. Starting at the end of 2008, it gave unemployment payments to people who had exhausted their state benefits. In some cases, people were able to collect aid for nearly two years.
 
Q. Why have some Americans needed benefits for so long?
 
A. Mainly because the job market has remained weak even though the Great Recession officially ended more than 4½ years ago. Many Americans have been unemployed for well beyond six months. More than 5 million jobs were shed in 2009 alone. The national unemployment rate has dropped from a peak of 10 percent to 7 percent. But of the 10.3 million people who are still unemployed, nearly half have been without a job for more than six months, according to the Labor Department.
 
Q. Do extended benefits help the economy?
 
A. Many economists say they do. Unemployment checks help cover the rent, groceries and gasoline for millions of financially squeezed Americans, according to congressional Democrats. It boosts consumer spending and reduces dependence on other government welfare programs. All that lifts the economy slightly. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said in December that continuing the benefits for a full year would add 200,000 jobs and 0.2 percentage points to economic growth in 2014. To put that in context: The economy added an average of fewer than 200,000 jobs a month during 2013. That said, the economic benefit of a three-month extension would be much less.
 
Q. What about critics who argue that these benefits, in effect, pay people not to work?
 
A. Not quite. To receive benefits, an unemployed person is supposed to actively look for work. And supporters note that the checks average $256 a week, which still keeps things pretty close to the poverty line. Congress has renewed the extended benefits each year. But unlike previous yearlong extensions of the emergency benefits, this continuation would be for just three months.
 
Q. What's the cost to taxpayers?
 
A. Extending the benefits for three months would cost $6.4 billion. Most congressional Republicans don't want that sum tacked onto the budget deficit. So they plan to negotiate for additional spending cuts.
 
Q. What happens to people when they lose their unemployment benefits?
 
A. Many basically drop out of the economy. Some apply for Social Security disability benefits to get by, according to academic research. Because of changes to its system, North Carolina began cutting unemployment aid in July. The state's unemployment rate dropped from 8.8 percent in June to 7.4 percent in November. But that's not because lots of people suddenly found jobs. Since they were no longer receiving benefits, many discouraged workers gave up their search and were no longer counted as unemployed. So the state's unemployment rate fell for the wrong reason.
 
Q. But critics say extended unemployment benefits can actually hurt the economy. Why?
 
A. The argument is that extended benefits keep the unemployed on the sidelines, waiting for that perfect job that almost never materializes. Research shows that many employers ignore jobseekers with gaps of more than six months in their resume. When people are out of work that long, their skills start to erode, as does their earning potential, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former CBO director who has advised Republicans. He calls the program "a mixed blessing." Holtz-Eakin notes that unemployment benefits were created during the Great Depression to address temporary layoffs. It was never intended to be a job re-training or anti-poverty program, he says.

Madoff-related fraud to cost JPMorgan $2.5 billion

Wednesday, 08 January 2014 02:16 Published in National News
   NEW YORK (AP) — For more than 15 years, there were signs something was amiss with what federal prosecutors in Manhattan call the "703 account" at JPMorgan Chase & Co.
   Money was being transferred back and forth for no reason. The account holder was recording double-digit returns on investments that were too good to be true. The bank itself was worried enough about possible fraud to withdraw its own investments from him.
   The name on the account was Bernard Madoff and on Tuesday JPMorgan paid a steep price for keeping quiet about its suspicions.
   Federal authorities announced the nation's largest bank will add to its other costly financial woes by forfeiting a record $1.7 billion to settle criminal charges alleging it turned a blind eye to the Madoff fraud, plus pay an additional $543 million to settle civil claims by victims. It also will pay another $350 million civil penalty for what the Treasury Department called "critical and widespread deficiencies" in its programs to prevent money laundering and other suspicious activity.
   The bank failed to carry out its legal obligations to guard against money laundering while Madoff "built his massive house of cards," George Venizelos, head of the FBI's New York office, said at a news conference.
   Madoff banked at JPMorgan through what court papers referred to as the "703 account." In 2008, the bank's London desk circulated a memo describing JPMorgan's inability to validate his trading activity or custody of assets and his "odd choice" of a one-man accounting firm, the government said.
    In late October 2008, it filed a suspicious activity report with British officials. In the weeks that followed, JPMorgan withdrew about $300 million of its own money from Madoff feeder funds. The fraud was revealed when Madoff was arrested in December 2008.
   "Despite all these alarm bells, JPMorgan never closed or even seriously questioned Madoff's Ponzi-enabling 703 account," said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. "On the other hand, when it came to its own money, JPMorgan knew how to connect the dots and take action to protect itself against risk."
   In a statement, JPMorgan said it recognized it "could have done a better job pulling together various pieces of information and concerns about Madoff from different parts of the bank over time."
   It added: "We do not believe that any JPMorgan Chase employee knowingly assisted Madoff's Ponzi scheme."
   Prosecutors called the $1.7 billion the largest forfeiture by a U.S. bank and the largest Department of Justice penalty for a Bank Secrecy Act violation.
   The settlement includes a so-called deferred prosecution agreement that requires the bank to acknowledge failures in its protections against money laundering but also allows it to avoid criminal charges. No individual executives were accused of wrongdoing.
   The agreement resolves two felony violations of the Bank Secrecy Act in connection with the bank's relationship with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, the private investment arm of Madoff's former business. The civil penalty was imposed by the Treasury Department's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
   Criminal charges will be deferred for two years as JPMorgan admits to its conduct, pays the $1.7 billion to a fund established for victims of Madoff's fraud and reforms its anti-money laundering policies, prosecutors said.
   A statement of facts included in the agreement describes internal communications at JPMorgan expressing concerns about how Madoff was generating his purported returns. As early as 1998, a JPMorgan fund manager wrote that the returns were "possibly too good to be true" and there were "too many red flags."
   In more recent years, executives were disturbed by the fact that Madoff wouldn't let the bank examine his books, the statement of facts says.
   "How much do we have in Madoff at the moment?" a bank analyst wrote in a 2008 email. "To be honest, the more I think about it, the more concerned I am."
   When Madoff finally revealed to the FBI that his investment advisory business was a Ponzi scheme, fictitious account statements for thousands of clients showed $60 billion in assets. Of the roughly $17.5 billion in principal that was real, most of it was gone.
   Since then, a court-appointed trustee has recovered more than $9.78 billion — including a portion of the JPMorgan civil payout — to redistribute to clients that invested directly with Madoff. The $1.7 billion criminal forfeiture and will go to a second victims' pool, already with $2.35 billion, that is processing claims from clients of so-called "feeder funds" that also invested heavily with Madoff.
   The JPMorgan settlement is the latest in a series of major deals it has made to resolve its legal troubles. In November, the bank agreed to pay $13 billion over risky mortgage securities it sold before the financial crisis — the largest settlement to date between the Justice Department and a corporation.
   The more than $2.5 billion that JPMorgan is paying comes from a company that reported $21.3 billion in net income for 2012. JPMorgan already has set aside $23 billion this year to cover settlement and litigation costs — including the $13 billion.
   The settlement of criminal charges "is good, but still inadequate to stop what can only be called a one-bank crime spree," said Dennis Kelleher, the president of Better Markets, a group that advocates strict financial regulation.
   "Once again, not a single individual working for JPMorgan Chase has been held accountable. Banks do not commit crimes; bankers do," Kelleher said in a statement. "Until individuals, including executives, are held personally liable, fined and jailed, the crime spree will continue."
   Asked why no individual bankers were charged, Bharara said the settlement was the best option under the law.
   "Obviously, the statement of facts recites in great detail some of the roles that various individuals played with the overall systemic failure," he said. "But in the interest of justice, you've got to look at every case individually and our view was at this point the obvious charge was against the bank. ... This is a statute directed against institutional failure and institutional deterrence and that's why it was brought the way it was today."
   The fate of former St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. will be in the hands of a three member state disciplinary panel.  The Missouri office that oversees lawyers has refused a plea agreement regarding Bosley's mishandling of client funds.  
   The former mayor admitted in court last month to charges that he failed to keep adequate records, combined personal and client funds and even used client funds to pay personal expenses.  
   Alan Pratzel of the Missouri Supreme Court's Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that documents Bosley filed to clear up a settlement dispute were "insufficient."  So today, Bosley and state prosecutors must submit punishment recommendations to the panel which will decide his fate.
   Punishment can range from a reprimand up to disbarment.
   Bosley served one term as mayor of St. Louis in the mid 1990s.
 

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