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The Smartest Guys in the Room.....are crooks

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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room.....are crooks

Postby admin » Mon May 03, 2010 10:12 am

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HUFFINGTON POST


Rep. Alan GraysonCongressman Alan Grayson represents Central Florida (FL-8).
Posted: May 3, 2010 11:42 AM

Last year, I asked the Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board who received $1 trillion in funds that the Fed handed out to domestic banks and financial institutions.He said, essentially, "I'm not going to tell you." More recently, I asked the Chairman of the Fed who received the half trillion dollars - that's $500,000,000,000 - that the Fed handed over to foreign central banks. He said he didn't know. Half a trillion dollars, and he doesn't know!

That kind of ignorance and arrogance must end. We need to audit the Fed. And now we're closer than ever.

The House passed our bill to conduct the first independent audit of the Fed in its 96-year history. Now it's time for the Senate to act.

A bipartisan group of Senators is pushing for an amendment to audit the Fed. This amendment is similar to the legislation that we passed in the House last year. It's called the Federal Reserve Accountability Amendment. It will ensure that the American people know to whom the Fed is lending our money.

The amendment is simple. If it passes, the Fed finally will be audited. Regarding all those billions that the Fed hands out like party favors, we will find out who, what, when, where and how. (We already know "why" - the answer to that question is "Wall Street Greed.") But if this amendment fails, the Fed can continue to make hand out our money to whomever it wants, without telling Congress or the American People.

We think we can pass the Senate Amendment, with your help. The amendment is already cosponsored by progressive heroes like Bernie Sanders, Pat Leahy and Russ Feingold. And joining us in this strange-bedfellows coalition are John McCain, Jim DeMint, David Vitter and Sam Brownback. (We hesitate to use the terms "bedfellows" and "David Vitter" in the same sentence, but that would be changing the subject.)

With such bipartisan support, you'd think that passing this legislation would be a slam dunk. Wrong. Wall Street bankers and their lobbyists are twisting arms and pouring millions into the campaign coffers of politicians on both sides of the political divide, to keep their sweetheart Fed loans under wraps. It's time to counter their influence-peddling by making the Senate listen to the united voice of the American People.
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room.....are crooks

Postby admin » Wed Apr 28, 2010 8:54 am

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‘God, What a Piece of Crap’

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/wha ... _20100428/

Posted on Apr 28, 2010

By Robert Scheer

It was the Perry Mason moment in the unraveling of what was left of Goldman Sachs’ reputation. Only in this case, it involved a grizzled former prosecutor, Sen. Carl Levin, rather than a genial defense attorney. The case was broken and the truth about the depth of Goldman’s corruption revealed in his startling cross-examination of Goldman Chief Financial Officer David Viniar.

The Michigan Democrat, citing the language of the internal e-mails of Goldman traders concerning the deceptive products they were selling, asked: “And when you heard that your own employees in these e-mails are looking at these deals said `God what a shitty deal. God, what a piece of crap,’ when you hear your own employees and read about those e-mails, do you feel anything?”

Viniar’s answer told us all we need to know about the banal but profound immorality of Goldman’s business culture: “I think that’s very unfortunate to have on e-mail.”

A flabbergasted Levin cut in with “On e-mail? How about feeling that way?” and Viniar, apparently moved by jeers of ridicule from the audience, conceded “I think it is very unfortunate for anyone to have said that in any form.” Pressed further by Levin asking, “How about to believe that and sell them?” the CFO finally conceded, “I think that’s unfortunate as well.” To which Levin responded, “That’s what you should have started with.”

But Goldman’s executives didn’t start with any such moral qualms or end with them, as was made clear in the testimony of Goldman Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein that followed. Blankfein basically pleaded ignorance about the company’s scams, making it clear that offering the details of such products was below his pay scale. That would be $68 million in 2007, the highest in Wall Street history, when Goldman’s bets against its customers paid off so handsomely. What was clear is that his job was to ensure the company’s immense year-end profitability with no questions asked about the methods used. “I did not know” he replied when asked about the details of the company’s trades, and at another point he added, “We’re not that smart.” Then there was “I don’t have any knowledge” on selling short, and finally, “We did not know what subsequently occurred in the housing market.”

What he did know is that the scoundrels in his mortgage betting rooms were, as with that high-flying London operation that got AIG so much loot before it exploded, raking in enormous profits. Such ignorance is bliss for a Goldman CEO who apparently is rewarded in inverse proportion to what he knows of the operation as long as he pays attention to the bottom line.

That was certainly the case for the man whom Blankfein succeeded the year before, Henry Paulson, when Paulson went off to serve as George W. Bush’s treasury secretary. As Paulson admits in his memoir, he was unaware that suspect mortgages were at the heart of the banking meltdown, even though he was head of Goldman when those toxic mortgage securities were developed.

And then there is that other Goldman-honcho-turned-public-servant Robert Rubin, who was a Goldman vice chairman before serving as Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary. In that Cabinet job, Rubin pushed through the Financial Services Modernization Act, which demolished the wall between investment and commercial banking. Ironically, that reversal of the New Deal regulations that had operated successfully for 60 years, the Glass-Steagall Act, was referenced by Blankfein in his Tuesday testimony explaining how Goldman and other firms spun out of control.

When asked by Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., how Goldman had morphed from a traditional investment bank backing sound business ventures to a market gambler in fanciful products, Blankfein attributed it, somewhat forlornly, to “a change in the sociology of the business that took place over the last 15 to 20 years.” He added, “I’m not sure that it was precipitated by the fall of Glass-Steagall or it caused Glass-Steagall to fall. …”

Of course there was nothing inevitable about the fall of Glass-Steagall in 1999, since it was the result of decades of lobbying by the financial industry. That change was followed by the total deregulation of financial derivatives by the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which Rubin had pushed and which President Clinton signed into law.

Clinton recently conceded that he got bad advice from Rubin on derivatives regulation, but he still holds to the notion that the reversal of Glass-Steagall was not harmful. No one listening carefully to the day of testimony by the various Goldman executives could accept the idea that these folks can function decently without strict boundaries.




Goldman Sachs chairman and chief executive officer Lloyd Blankfein gets ready to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Wall Street investment banks and the financial crisis on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room.....are crooks

Postby admin » Tue Apr 27, 2010 10:58 am

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William K. BlackAssoc. Professor, Univ. of Missouri, Kansas City; Sr. regulator during S&L debacle
Posted: April 27, 2010 01:00 PM
13 Bankers: The American Oligarchs And The Systemically Dangerous Institutions (SDIs) They Rule
We know that Simon Johnson and James Kwak have hit a nerve because Larry Summers, the administration's principal economic adviser and the man that carries water for what the authors rightly call the financial "oligarchs" -- has been forced into an open defense of the oligarchs' rule. Summers has kept a low profile and protected the oligarchs from substantive reform by using his power as gatekeeper to minimize the presentation of views by those that support effective financial regulation. Summers' ability to marginalize Paul Volcker demonstrates his power and success -- and the harm he causes the nation.

The issue that has caused Summers to publicly carry water for the oligarchs is the inherent insanity of allowing systemically dangerous institutions (SDIs) to continue. The oligarchs are all SDIs. Under the administration's own logic, if any SDI fails it creates a serious potential of causing a global financial crisis.

The administration (implicitly) asserts that the power to resolve failed SDIs removes this systemic risk. Treasury Secretary Geithner's prepared testimony before the House on April 20, 2010 argued:

No regulatory regime will be able to prevent major financial firms from reaching the point of insolvency. But a well-designed regulatory framework must put in place shock absorbers to contain the damage caused by a major firm's default (p.1).
The first sentence is a devastating admission that the administration's embrace of the oligarchs will, as the authors have warned, produce recurrent global financial crises. We know that "private market discipline" is an oxymoron -- the lenders and investors that are supposed to "discipline" fraudulent enterprises actually fund their growth. That means we have to rely on regulators to prevent future epidemics of "control fraud" (frauds in which those that control seemingly legitimate entities use them as "weapons" to defraud). But Geithner admits that "no regulatory regime" can be counted on to prevent the failure of an SDI -- which they claim exposes us to a global crisis.

Note the extreme vagueness of Geithner's solution to the future failures, which he concedes are inevitable, of the DSIs. What "shock absorbers" does he plan to put in place to prevent the failure of an SDI from causing the global crisis that he says their failure would normally cause?
Consider the not-so-hypothetical failure of Citicorp. It is the counterparty to tens of thousands of transactions. If it fails due to accounting control fraud -- and that is the most common reason an SDI fails -- then its capital requirement will be meaningless even if its increased. Accounting control fraud produces guaranteed, record (albeit fictional) "income" which can flow through to "capital" and meet any capital requirement under consideration. Alternatively, a bank can follow the Iceland strategy and lend the funds to those that will purchase its stock. This creates whatever level of fictional capital is required. Capital is an accounting concept. If you game the accounting the capital can be fictional. Capital requirements cannot stop accounting control frauds -- the principal cause of major bank failures. Note that Geithner implicitly admits this, because he admits that no regulatory regime can guarantee closure prior to insolvency -- even though the regulators are required by the Prompt Corrective Action Act to do so.

We demonstrated during the reregulatory phase of the S&L debacle that regulators that understand accounting control fraud can identify and close the frauds before they cause catastrophic failures, but Geithner and Summers cannot even bring themselves to use the "f word" -- fraud -- much less identify, constrain, and prosecute it.

Absent effective anti-fraud regulators, there is only one "shock absorber" that can be used once the looters have caused the catastrophic failure of an SDI. If Citicorp is insolvent by $400 billion there is only one "shock absorber" that can reduce (1) cascade failures among the counterparties and (2) sending a shock throughout the financial system as investors and creditors realize that there is an enormous bubble (whatever bubble comes next), that asset values are grossly inflated, and that there is widespread fraud covering up losses at many banks. That shock absorber is money -- massive amounts of money. The reality, which politicians like to assume away, is that most of this money will come from public funds. As long as banks are allowed to be so large that their failure can cause a crisis they will be bailed out. If, like Lehman, they are not bailed out their failure will cause so much damage that the subsequent SDI failures will be bailed out.

The authors correctly explain that the issue isn't simply economics. The oligarchs will be failed out because of their political power. As long as they are allowed to be SDIs they will have exceptional political power and they will use it to harm the public.

Simon Johnson and James Kwak have identified the financial oligarchs as the greatest threat to the global economy and our democracy. (I would add that their frauds create a criminogenic environment that also threatens our integrity.)

We know that the authors have scared the oligarchs and their political allies in both parties because of the money the oligarchs are spending to fend off serious regulatory reform and the fact that Summers has found it necessary to go public in his effort to protect the oligarchs. He was interviewed recently on PBS' Newshour.

JEFFREY BROWN: The too-big-to-fail issue, why not go further? Why not just limit the size of banks?
LAWRENCE SUMMERS: Jeff, that was the approach America took to banking before the Depression. That was the approach that America took to lending in the thrift sector before we had the S&L crisis.

Most observers who study -- who study this believe that to try to break banks up into a lot of little pieces would hurt our ability to serve large companies and hurt the competitiveness of the United States.

But that's not the important issue. They believe that it would actually make us less stable, because the individual banks would be less diversified and, therefore, at greater risk of failing, because they would haven't profits in one area to turn to when a different area got in trouble.

And most observers believe that dealing with the simultaneous failure of many -- many small institutions would actually generate more need for bailouts and reliance on taxpayers than the current economic environment.

The administration, rather than repudiating this ode to the oligarchs, joined Summers' chorus.
"Banks in the United States are proportionately smaller than in Canada and in many European countries," writes Matthew Vogel, a White House spokesman, in an e-mail to HuffPost. "We propose nothing to increase the size of financial institutions. In fact, we tighten the limit on liabilities to further prevent firms from growing excessively large and require firms to separate out their riskiest, proprietary trading activities."

Summers' comments are not honest. Economists and regulators have reached a consensus -- the SDIs are inefficiently large (as well as dangerously large). They harm our international competitiveness. His continued embrace of the regulatory "race to the bottom" is appalling. This is precisely the (logic-free) logic that Rubin, Summers, Greenspan and Patrick Parkinson used to convince Congress pass the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000 that destroyed Brooksley Born's effort to protect the public from credit default swaps (CDS).

Summers' argument rests on a (doubly) false dichotomy. First, the alternative to SDIs is not a nation of 100,000 banks that each has $1 million in assets. Banks can reach efficient scale without becoming so large that they become SDIs or oligarchs. Second, SDIs tend to survive not because they are more stable than smaller banks, but because they are bailed out when they get in trouble because of their power as oligarchs. It was the larger S&Ls, for example, that caused the severe losses during the S&L debacle.

The White House argument that there is no reason to take on the U.S. banking oligarchs because the banking oligarchs in some other nations also have dominant power in their nations is bizarre. The administration does not get the most basic fact that Johnson & Kwak have documented - the financial oligarchs are bad for America. The fact that they are also bad for Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan and the UK adds to the case for destroying the power of our oligarchs.

The administration may be proposing no new laws to make the oligarchs even bigger, but it (1) has encouraged their growth through acquisitions of failed banks and (2) stood silent and useless as many of the SDIs have continued to grow. It is insane to allow the SDIs to continue to exist and it is doubly insane to allow, much less encourage, them to grow. Encourage everyone you know to read this book and learn why defeating the oligarchs is imperative for our economy and our democracy.
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room.....are crooks

Postby admin » Sun Apr 25, 2010 10:27 pm

California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer is a man with a lot of questions. On March 29, 2010 his office sent letters to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Barclays, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley asking about their Credit Default Swap practices. In his letter, he expressed worries that these firms - who are hired to market California's General Obligation (GO) bonds for the State and also sell many other municipal debt issuances across the United States -- also participate in the credit default swap (CDS) business of betting against these bonds.

Mr. Lockyer notes that the State of California has never defaulted on its' obligations, he asked each bank to explain why they both sell for the State on one hand and bet against the State with the other. Responses were due back by April 12, 2010 and the State of California posted all of the responses on the Treasurer's website at this URL http://www.treasurer.ca.gov/cds/index.asp.

Why is there a market in California defaults? Basically an opportunity for arbitrage - what I like to call a mathematical gap between reality and financial modeling - exists. In an article published by Bloomberg News on April 19 on L.A. Unified's latest bond issuance, they note that California has "the lowest-rated U.S. state, is ranked Baa1 by Moody's, three steps above non-investment grade, and A- by S&P, four levels above." Bookies call this the "spread" and so does Wall Street.

The language of the banks responses to California are steeped in the murky language of finance but translated into English the banks say the answer is because there's money to be made playing both sides of the street. In the finance business it's acceptable for institutions to happily take fees and commissions both on the "sell side" as they market California's debt to primary buyers and on the "buy side" making markets - that means promoting business - for people betting against that debt using, among other things, CDS. Of the banks asked, the response by Goldman Sachs was the most direct.

They explained that working both sides is fine and dandy because a "Chinese Wall" separates the two sides of their activities. The message is that California - or any municipality - is a client only of the sell-side. California is not a client of the buy-side on the other side of the "Chinese Wall. That's some other "client" in need of insurance because the rating agencies say your State isn't a risk free investment. In effect, they take the business position that the job of a Wall Street middleman is to make as much for the house from both business channels. The other banks admit they do this too though the demeanor of their letters seem somewhat less ebullient probably remembering that there's money to be made on the sell side.

The letters tell California State Treasurer Lockyer that CDS is actually a good thing because someone buying insurance on the predicted mathematical default probability somehow means they are creating a bigger market to buy more of it. Huh? That's what the letters say. The common theme says because someone buying California GO bonds can also buys CDS protection they can lever up and buy more GO bonds. They've hedged their position against California defaulting on its' debts even though it never has. Remembering that their sell-side services business is also lucrative, they also say that California's bonds are among the most desirable on the planet. This brings up two questions. One, are you sure that Chinese Wall is sound proof? And two, why do you need default insurance on bonds that don't default again?

Citigroup, one of California's staunchest sellers of tax-exempt municipal issuances, did note with what I felt was a hint of sympathetic frustration in their response that they thought the buy-side hype about California's so called modeled default spreads has been overblown and at times out of control. Insurance is about selling perceived risk even if that perception is purely mathematical. So maybe we need to ask if, just as people wonder if some ratings were pushed up to help sell certain types of now toxic securities, might there also be a need to see if we need to weed out systemic pressures to push risk spreads on CDS arbitrage?

If your head isn't hurting too badly yet read on. It gets weirder.

On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARR) Act. Part of this stimulus package created something called the Build America Bonds program known in finance circles as BAB's. Most municipal bonds are tax-exempt financial instruments. BAB's aren't. They are federally subsidized taxable bonds sharing some of the characteristics of corporate bonds.

BAB's opened a door for taxable bond investors, who had previously not been as active in this area, to become active speculating on municipals. In case you haven't figured it out by now the finance universe consists of micro-communities that get along about as well as the bi-polar opposites of the U.S. middle-class, Progressives and Tea Partiers. Taxable bond investors are used to working with corporate bonds. Unlike sovereign debt, corporations carry tangible default risks and corporate bond investors live by the motto that it's prudent to take on insurance to hedge their positions. So what happens when these people come to play in the municipal bonds sector?

Their deeply ingrained habits about the "investment tripod" of position, hedge and financing will begin to alter the market for municipal bonds. Corporate bond CDS spreads are based on the perceived problems of the company. Anything and everything imaginable is fair game for arguing what the spread should be. And these folks can be a mite jittery. Can Municipal BAB's be any less risky than a heavily government subsidized entity like General Motors? And so California's legendary polar politics, budget woes and legislative gridlock become the shrapnel far outweighing the payment history tapes.

Reading their letters, all of the respondents noted that they weren't quite sure what this means. Alignments of unsteadiness like that are significant in finance. BAB's are new, a very recent invention on the Obama Administration's watch. All of them were careful to assure California that this won't affect demand for the State's General Obligation bonds. But the letters also said the CDS desks of these institutions fully intend to continue to make markets from this new source of transaction clients interested in purchasing CDS insurance on things like BAB's. They also indicated the possibility that the CDS' written on these BAB's may result in an uptick in both rational and irrational analysis of municipal issuer default quality. That could make all municipal bonds harder to sell. Given that the credo of charge what the market will bear is almost irresistible to Wall Street, one needs to ask if the law of unintended consequences just manufactured another future systemic challenge to deal with.

One additional note, the statutory issuance window for BAB's ends in January, 2011. However, other federally subsidized taxable bond programs such as the Qualified School Construction Bond (QSCB) program authorized under the very recent Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act also exist. So it's not like these things are going to disappear. Per the Bloomberg article mentioned earlier and QSCB's trade more thinly than BAB's so the pressure to help them liquefy is even stronger.

My point is that finance is never quite as simple as calling for solutions one can make with a machete. Bill Lockyer's stack of letters deserves a broader reading. They are a canvas to learn a little more about the perturbations we make to the very complex system that is the U.S. economy.

Thanks to Tom Petruno from the L.A. Times for pointing me at the letters.


Follow Dennis Santiago on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DennisSantiago
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room.....are crooks

Postby admin » Sat Apr 24, 2010 3:53 pm

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/simon-johnson/the-sickening-abuse-of-po_b_550770.html
Simon JohnsonMIT Professor and co-author of 13 Bankers
Posted: April 24, 2010 05:53 PM
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The Sickening Abuse Of Power At The Heart Of Wall Street

Here's where we stand with regard to democratic discourse on the future our financial system: leading bankers will not come out to debate the issues in the open (despite being approached by reputable intermediaries after our polite challenge was issued) - sending instead their "astro turf" proxies to spread KGB-type disinformation.

Even Larry Summers, who has shifted publicly onto the side the angels (surprising and rather late, but welcome anyway), cannot - for whatever reason - bring himself to recognize the dangers inherent in our unstable and too-big-to-manage banks. Or perhaps he is just generating excuses that will justify not bringing the Brown-Kaufman amendment to the floor of Senate?

So let's take it up a notch.

I strongly recommend that the responsible congressional committees request and require all assistant secretaries at the US Treasury (and other relevant political appointees over whom they have jurisdiction) to appear before them early next week.

The question will be simple: Please share your calendar of meetings this weekend, and provide us with a complete accounting of people with whom you met and conversed formally and informally.

The finance ministers and central bank governors of the world are in Washington this weekend for the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund. As is usual, the world's megabanks are also in town in force, organizing big meetings and small dinners.

Through these meetings dutifully troop US treasury officials, providing in-depth and off-the-record briefings to investors.

Banks such as JP Morgan Chase and the other top tier financial players thus peddle influence, leverage their access, and generally show off. They accumulate information from a host of official contacts and discern which way policymakers - their "good friends" - are leaning.

And what is the megabank whisper mill working on? Ignore the "economic research" papers these banks put out; that is pure pantomime for clients-to-be-duped-later. I'm talking about what they are telling the market - communicated in specific, personal conversations this weekend.

They are telling people that, based on their inside knowledge, Greece and potentially other eurozone countries will default on their debt. Perhaps they are telling the truth and perhaps they are lying. Most likely they are - as always - talking their book.

But the question is not the substance of their whisper campaign this weekend, it is the flow of information. Have they received material non-public information from US government officials? Show me the calendar of the top 10 treasury people involved, and then we can talk about whom to summon from the private sector to testify - under oath - about what they were told or not told.

There is no question that the megabanks derive great power and enormous profit from their web of official contacts. We should reflect carefully on whether such private flows of information between governments and "too big to fail" banks are entirely suitable in today's unstable financial world.

Large global banks make money, in part, through nontransparent manipulation of information - this is the heart of the SEC charges against Goldman Sachs. But the problem is much broader: the Wall Street-Washington corridor is alive and well on its way to another crisis that will empower, enrich, and embolden insiders (public and private) while impoverishing the rest of us.

The big players on Wall Street are powerful like never before - and they use this power to press for information and favors from sympathetic (or scared) government officials. The big banks also appear hell-bent on abusing that power. One consequence will be further destabilizing global financial markets - watch carefully what happens to Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain at the beginning of next week.

It is time for Congress to step in with a full investigation of the exact flow of information and advice between our major megabanks and key treasury officials. Start by asking tough questions about exactly who exchanged what kind of specific, material, market-moving information with whom this weekend in Washington.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/simon-joh ... 50770.html
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room.....are crooks

Postby admin » Sat Apr 24, 2010 8:55 am

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Washington — Reuters
Published on Saturday, Apr. 24, 2010 10:06AM EDT
Last updated on Saturday, Apr. 24, 2010 11:01AM EDT
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. officials discussed making “serious money” in 2007 off the subprime crisis as mortgages were starting to falter in rapid numbers, according to a collection of e-mails released by a Senate panel Saturday.

“Of course we didn’t dodge the mortgage mess. We lost money, then made more than we lost because of shorts,” Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein said in an e-mail dating from November, 2007.

“Sounds like we will make some serious money,” Goldman Sachs executive Donald Mullen said in a separate series of e-mails from October, 2007, about the performance of deteriorating second-lien positions in a collateralized debt obligation, or CDO.

The United States Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations is holding a hearing on Tuesday with Mr. Blankfein and other Goldman executives, scheduled to testify about the role Goldman Sachs played in the financial crisis. The firm has been sued for civil fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission over its marketing of a CDO.

Commenting on the e-mails, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the subcommittee, said that they showed Goldman “made a lot of money by betting against the mortgage market.”

“Investment banks such as Goldman Sachs were not simply market-makers, they were self-interested promoters of risky and complicated financial schemes that helped trigger the crisis,” Mr. Levin said in a statement.

A representative of Goldman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Goldman plans to argue at Tuesday’s hearing that it was unsure where housing prices were headed and did not act against its clients’ interests, according to an internal document.

The investment bank did acknowledge shorting mortgage-related products at times, but says its decisions were prompted “not by any collective view of what would happen next, but rather by fear of the unknown.”

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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room.....are crooks

Postby admin » Thu Apr 22, 2010 4:03 pm

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Now we know the truth. The financial meltdown wasn't a mistake – it was a con
Hiding behind the complexities of our financial system, banks and other institutions are being accused of fraud and deception, with Goldman Sachs just the latest in the spotlight. This has become the most pressing election issue of all

Will Hutton
The Observer, Sunday 18 April 2010


Goldman Sachs was in the spotlight last November when demonstrators protested outside its Washington offices against executive bonuses. Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The global financial crisis, it is now clear, was caused not just by the bankers' colossal mismanagement. No, it was due also to the new financial complexity offering up the opportunity for widespread, systemic fraud. Friday's announcement that the world's most famous investment bank, Goldman Sachs, is to face civil charges for fraud brought by the American regulator is but the latest of a series of investigations that have been launched, arrests made and charges made against financial institutions around the world. Big Finance in the 21st century turns out to have been Big Fraud. Yet Britain, centre of the world financial system, has not yet levelled charges against any bank; all that we've seen is the allegation of a high-level insider dealing ring which, embarrassingly, involves a banker advising the government. We have to live with the fiction that our banks and bankers are whiter than white, and any attempt to investigate them and their institutions will lead to a mass exodus to the mountains of Switzerland. The politicians of the Labour and Tory party alike are Bambis amid the wolves.

Just consider the roll call beyond Goldman Sachs. In Ireland Sean FitzPatrick, the ex-chair of the Anglo Irish bank was arrested last month and questioned over alleged fraud. In Iceland last week a dossier assembled by its parliament on the Icelandic banks – huge lenders in Britain – was handed to its public prosecution service. A court-appointed examiner found that collapsed investment bank Lehman knowingly manipulated its balance sheet to make it look stronger than it was – accounts originally audited by the British firm Ernst and Young and given the legal green light by the British firm Linklaters. In Switzerland UBS has been defending itself from the US's Internal Revenue Service for allegedly running 17,000 offshore accounts to evade tax. Be sure there are more revelations to come – except in saintly Britain.

Beneath the complexity, the charges are all rooted in the same phenomenon – deception. Somebody, somewhere, was knowingly fooled by banks and bankers – sometimes governments over tax, sometimes regulators and investors over the probity of balance sheets and profits and sometimes, as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) says in Goldman's case, by creating a scheme to enrich one favoured investor at the expense of others – including, via RBS, the British taxpayer. Along the way there is a long list of so-called "entrepreneurs" and "innovators" who were offered loans that should never have been made. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman's CEO, remarked only semi-ironically that his bank was doing God's work. He must wake up every day bitterly regretting the words ever emerged from his mouth.

For the Goldmans case is in some ways the most damaging. The Icelandic banks, Anglo Irish bank and Lehman were all involved in opaque deals and rank bad lending decisions – but Goldman allegedly went one step further, according to the SEC actively creating a financial instrument that transferred wealth to one favoured client from others less favoured. If the Securities and Exchange Commission's case is proved – and it is aggressively rebutted by Goldman – the charge is that Goldman's vice-president Fabrice Tourre created a dud financial instrument packed with valueless sub- prime mortgages at the instruction of hedge fund client Paulson, sold it to investors knowing it was valueless, and then allowed Paulson to profit from the dud financial instrument. Goldman says the buyers were "among the most sophisticated mortgage investors" in the world. But this is a used car salesman flogging a broken car he's got from some wide-boy pal to some driver who can't get access to the log-book. Except it was lionised as financial innovation.

The investors who bought the collateralised debt obligation (CDO) were not complete innocents. They had asked for the bond to be validated by an independent expert into residential mortgage-backed securities – a company called ACA management. ACA gave the bond the thumbs-up on the understanding from Fabrice Tourre that the hedge fund Paulson were investing in it. But the SEC says Tourre misled them, a pivotal claim that Goldman denies. The reality was that Paulson was frantically buying credit default swaps in the CDO that would go up in price the more valueless it became – a trade that would make more than $1 billion. Worse, Paulson had identified some of the dud sub-prime mortgages that he wanted Tourre to put into the CDO. If the SEC case is true, this was a scam – nothing more, nothing less.

Tourre could see what was coming. In one email in January 2007 he wrote: "More and more leverage in the system. The whole building is about to collapse anytime now… only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab[rice Tourre] .. standing in the middle of all these complex highly leveraged exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstrosities". Fabulous Fab, like his boss, will not be feeling very fab today.

The cases not only have a lot in common – using financial complexity allegedly to deceive and then using so-called independent experts to validate the deception (lawyers, accountants, credit rating agencies, "portfolio selection agents," etc etc ) – but they also show how interconnected the financial system is. In Iceland Citigroup and Deutsche Bank covered the margin calls of distressed Icelandic business borrowers, deepening the crisis. Lehman uses the lightly regulated London markets and two independent British experts to validate that their "Repo 105s" were "genuine" trades and not their own in-house liability. The American authorities pursued a Swiss bank over aiding and abetting US nationals to evade tax.

Bankers will complain these cases all involve one or two misguided individuals, but that most banking is above board and was just the victim of irrational exuberance, misguided belief in free market economics and faulty risk management techniques. Obviously that is true – but, sadly, there is much more to the crisis. Andrew Haldane, executive director of the Bank of England, highlights the remarkable reduction in the risk weighting of bank assets between 1997 and 2007. Put simply, Europe's and the US's large banks exploited the weak international agreement on bank capital requirements in the so-called Basel agreement in 2004 to reclassify the risk of their loans and trading instruments. They did not just reduce the risk by 5 or 10%. Breathtakingly, they claimed their new risk management techniques were so wonderful that the riskiness of their assets was up to half of what it had been – despite property and share prices cresting to new all-time highs.

Brutally, the banks knowingly gamed the system to grow their balance sheets ever faster and with even less capital underpinning them in the full knowledge that everything rested on the bogus claim that their lending was now much less risky. That was not all they were doing. As Michael Lewis describes in The Big Short, credit default swaps had been deliberately created as an asset class by the big investment banks to allow hedge funds to speculate against collateralised debt obligations. The banks were gaming the regulators and investors alike – and they knew full well what they were doing. Simon Johnson's 13 Bankers shows how the major American banks deployed vast political lobbying power and money to create the relaxed regulatory environment in which all this could take place. In Britain no money changed hands. Gordon Brown offered light-touch regulation for free – egged on by the Tories, who wanted to go further.

This was the context in which Goldman's Fabulous Fab created the disputed CDOs, Sean FitzPatrick allegedly moved loans between banks and Lehman created its Repo 105s along with the entire "debt mule" structure revealed this weekend of inter-related companies to shuffle debt around its empire. London and New York had become the centre of an international financial system in which the purpose of banking became making money from money – and where the complexity of the "innovations" allowed extensive fraud and deception.

Now it has all collapsed, to be bailed out by western taxpayers. The banks are resisting reform – and want to cling on to the business practices and business model that has so appallingly failed. It is obvious why: it makes them very rich. The politicians tread carefully, only proposing what the bankers say is congruent with their definition of what banking should be. Labour and Tories alike are united in opposing improved EU regulation of hedge funds, buying the propaganda those operations had nothing to do with the crisis. Perhaps Paulson's trades at Goldman, and the hedge funds' appetite for speculating in credit default swaps, may disabuse them.

It is time to reframe the question. Banks and financial institutions should do what economy and society want them to do – support enterprise, direct credit to where it is needed and be part of the system that generates investment and innovation. Andrew Haldane – and the governor of the Bank of England – are right. We need to break up our banks, limit their capacity to speculate and bring them back to earth. Britain should also launch an official investigation into what went wrong – and hand the findings to the Serious Fraud Office. This needs to become this election campaign's number one issue – not one which either a compromised Labour party or a temporising Conservative party will relish. The Lib Dems, the fiercest critics of the banks, have begun to get very lucky.

Crisis timetable

September 2007 Funding problems at Northern Rock triggers the first run on a British bank. It is nationalised in February 2008.

April 2008 Bear Stern faces bankruptcy after a run on the company wipes out cash reserves in less than two days. Backed by the Federal Reserve, JPMorgan buys up shares at far below market value.

September 2008 Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy protection, becoming the first major bank to collapse since the start of the credit crisis.

December 2008 Bernard Madoff arrested for operating the largest Ponzi scheme in history.

January 2009 The Bank of England launches £200bn quantitative easing.

March 2010 Former chairman of Anglo Irish bank Sean Fitzpatrick is arrested in Dublin after failing to disclose details of loans worth millions from the bank.

April 2010 Northern Rock former directors, David Baker and Richard Barclay, are fined £504,000 and £140,000 for deliberately misleading analysts prior to nationalisation.

April 2010 The US Securities and Exchange Commission accuses Goldman Sachs of "defrauding investors by misstating and omitting key facts".

Joanna Aniel Bidar

• This article was amended on Monday 19 April and Tuesday 20 April. A reference to Anglo Irish looking after the Post Office's financial services was removed. Bank of Ireland is the Post Office's financial services provider. The original also referred to the US Inland Revenue Service. This has been corrected.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room.....are crooks

Postby admin » Wed Apr 21, 2010 10:39 pm

Dan Froomkin
Posted: April 21, 2010 04:28 PM
William Black Warns That Financial Reform Bill Won't Stop The Wall Street Crime Wave
First Posted: 04-21-10 04:28 PM | Updated: 04-21-10 09:00 PM

The securities fraud case against Goldman Sachs is a powerful reminder that the financial crisis responsible for millions of lost jobs and lost homes wasn't just the result of market vagaries and regulatory failure -- it was also the result of massive fraud at all levels of the financial system.

This epidemic of fraud has gone largely uninvestigated and almost entirely unprosecuted.

And the incentive structures that led so many people to intentionally take advantage of so many others for personal gain remains largely unaddressed by the legislation being considered in Congress.

Indeed, while there's plenty of talk of unwinding big banks, there's been little discussion of undoing the system that rewarded mortgage brokers for getting people to lie on their applications, sent more business to credit raters the fewer questions they asked, and encouraged massive investment banks to hide their losses and pitch investment vehicles designed to crash.

When you start to see fraud at the heart of the financial crisis, you turn to different people to explain what happened -- and to propose solutions. "Once you understand the implications of massively fraudulent practices," said James Galbraith, a progressive economist at the University of Texas, "it changes the professional community that has the principal say about interpreting the crisis."

Economists, he said, should move into the background -- and "criminologists to the forefront."

One such criminologist -- with a personal track record of two-fisted regulatory effectiveness during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s -- is William F. Black, now a professor at the University of Missouri and author of the book, "The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One".

Story continues below
Black sees what he calls "control fraud" at the heart of the financial crisis. "Control fraud," he explained, "is when the people controlling a seemingly legitimate entity use the entity as a weapon to defraud." It's fraud committed by design, by the people at the top.

"WaMu is a control fraud," he said, referring to the case of Washington Mutual Bank, the largest bank failure in history, where evidence suggests that executives knew about rampant fraud in their mortgage loans and didn't stop it, allowing them to report higher profits and get bigger bonuses.

"Lehman is a control fraud," he said, referring to the massive investment bank that went bankrupt after making a record numbers of mortgage loans based on little or no documentation (known as "liar's loans") and using accounting tricks to make the company look healthier than it was.

Criminologists, Black said, are trained to identify the environments that produce epidemics of fraud -- and in the case of the financial crisis, the culprit is obvious.

"We're looking at incentive structures," he told HuffPost. "Not people suddenly becoming evil. Not people suddenly becoming crazy. But people reacting to perverse incentive structures."

CEOs can't send out a memo telling their front-line professionals to commit fraud, "but you can send the same message with your compensations system, and you can do it without going to jail," Black said.

Criminologists ask "fundamentally different types of question" than the ones being asked.

"First we ask: Does this business activity, the way they're conducting it, make any sense for an honest firm? And we see many activities that make no sense for an honest firm."

One example is the "liar's loans." With something like 90 percent of them turning out to be fraudulent, they are not profitable loans to make -- unless you're getting paid based on volume, and unless the idea is to sell them off to someone else.

"We also ask: How it is possible that they were able to sell this stuff?" When it comes to toxic assets -- or securities built on top of them -- "all standard economic explanations say it should have been impossible to sell them."

The answer, in this crisis, is "the financial version of Don't Ask Don't Tell," Black said. Incentives for short-term profits and the resulting bonuses were so great that buyers preferred booking the revenue than looking too closely at what they were buying.

Black is concerned that the financial legislation currently being debated on Capitol Hill doesn't change the rules enough. He's concerned about loopholes in derivative regulation and thinks that demanding "skin in the game" won't actually help curb fraud.

Yes, "skin in the game" means that companies could go bankrupt if they place bad bets. But, he said. "if the corporation gets destroyed, that's not a failure of the fraud scheme." Former Lehman Brother CEO Richard Fuld, for instance, "walked away with hundreds of millions of net worth that would never have been created but for the fraud."

Black would like to see reform that ends regulatory black holes and that "requires not just rules" but approving regulators with teeth, to enforce them. Regulators should not be cozy with the entities they regulate; they should be skeptical. "Some of us have to stay skeptical, so that everyone else can trust," he said.

He also thinks it's important to address compensation -- both for executives and professionals. Black isn't calling for limits on executive pay, just for executives to keep their own promises to make bonuses based on long-term success, rather than short term. And he means really long-term. "The big bonuses, they come after 10 years, when they show it's real," Black said.

"Professional compensation has to be changed to prevent conflicts of interest," he said. Appraisers, accountants, ratings agencies and the like need to be rewarded for accuracy rather than amenability. Right now, Black said, "cheaters prosper."

Black was testifying on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, ironically enough sitting alongside Fuld, the former Lehman Brother CEO, who Inartfully dodged questions about what actually caused his bank's spectacular failure. Black didn't hold back.


WATCH Black's Testimony:

From the transcript (courtesy of Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher):

Lehman's failure is a story in large part of fraud. And it is fraud that begins at the absolute latest in 2001, and that is with their subprime and their liar's loan operations.

Lehman was the leading purveyor of liar's loans in the world. For most of this decade, studies of liar's loans show incidence of fraud of 90%. Lehman sold this to the world, with reps and warranties that there were no such frauds. If you want to know why we have a global crisis, in large part it is before you. But it hasn't been discussed today, amazingly.

Financial institution leaders are not engaged in risk when they engage in liar's loans -- liar's loans will cause a failure. They lose money. The only way to make money is to deceive others by selling bad paper, and that will eventually lead to liability and failure as well.

When people cheat you cannot as a regulator continue business as usual. They go into a different category and you must act completely differently as a regulator. What we've gotten instead are sad excuses.

Not all experts on fraud are as pessimistic about the current legislation as Black. Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor who worked for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in the Clinton administration, said he shares Black's view on the significance of fraud.

"I think it played a very big role in the crisis, and I think that the Goldman suit is only the beginning of what will be a full range of suits, not only by the SEC," Greenberger told HuffPost.

But, he said, "I think the legislation is getting at this from a different angle." The extreme bonuses that created such perverse incentives for executives were fueled mostly by the huge profits from the unregulated derivatives markets, he said.

Regulations that enforce transparency, ban certain kinds of derivatives, reduce transaction costs and narrow spreads will inevitably "shrink this market down... making it an honest market," he said. "The odds will be clear to everyone. And it is essentially going to force banks back into the business of making loans, which is what they should be doing."

Black also described control fraud in an interview with David Heath of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund in December:

So the person at the top sets a tone that is corrupt. Then he creates a financial incentive structure where you cheat, you make a lot of money. And when you don't cheat, not only do you not make a lot of money, you get in trouble. You get in trouble in the sense that you don't get your bonus, since you're not producing income, But worse, far more powerful, you keep your peers, your friends in the organization, from getting their bonuses.
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room.....are crooks

Postby admin » Wed Apr 21, 2010 11:46 am

Look at the date of this email, and then compare to reports about the recent shenanigans
regarding Goldman Sachs and the charges brought against the company by the SEC.

You will NOT get this kind of information from your "financial advisor".

29 May, 2009
Countercurrents.org
Wall Street's mantra is that markets move randomly and reflect the collective wisdom of investors. The truth is quite opposite. The government's visible hand and insiders control markets and manipulate them up or down for profit - all of them, including stocks, bonds, commodities and currencies.

It's financial fraud or what former high-level Wall Street insider and former Assistant HUD Secretary Catherine Austin Fitts calls "pump and dump," defined as "artificially inflating the price of a stock or other security through promotion, in order to sell at the inflated price," then profit more on the downside by short-selling. "This practice is illegal under securities law, yet it is particularly common," and in today's volatile markets likely ongoing daily.

Why? Because the profits are enormous, in good and bad times, and when carried to extremes like now, Fitts calls it "pump(ing) and dump(ing) of the entire American economy," duping the public, fleecing trillions from them, and it's more than just "a process designed to wipe out the middle class. This is genocide (by other means) - a much more subtle and lethal version than ever before perpetrated by the scoundrels of our history texts."

Fitts explains that much more than market manipulation goes on. She describes a "financial coup d'etat, including fraudulent housing (and other bubbles), pump and dump schemes, naked short selling, precious metals price suppression, and active intervention in the markets by the government and central bank" along with insiders. It's a government-business partnership for enormous profits through "legislation, contracts, regulation (or lack of it), financing, (and) subsidies." More still overall by rigging the game for the powerful, while at the same time harming the public so cleverly that few understand what's happening.

Market Rigging Mechanisms - The Plunge Protection Team

On March 18, 1989, Ronald Reagan's Executive Order 12631 created the Working Group on Financial Markets (WGFM) commonly known as the Plunge Protection Team (PPT). It consisted of the following officials or their designees:

-- the President;

-- the Treasury Secretary as chairman;

-- the Fed chairman;

-- the SEC chairman; and

-- the Commodity Futures Trading Commission chairman.

Under Sec. 2, its "Purposes and Functions" were stated as follows:

(2) "Recognizing the goals of enhancing the integrity, efficiency, orderliness, and competitiveness of our Nation's financial markets and maintaining investor confidence, the Working Group shall identify and consider:

(1) the major issues raised by the numerous studies on the events (pertaining to the) October 19, 1987 (market crash and consider) recommendations that have the potential to achieve the goals noted above; and

(2)....governmental (and other) actions under existing laws and regulations....that are appropriate to carry out these recommendations."

In August 2005, Canada-based Sprott Asset Management (SAM) principals John Embry and Andrew Hepburn headlined their report on the US government's "surreptitious" market interventions: "Move Over, Adam Smith - The Visible Hand of Uncle Sam" to prevent "destabilizing stock market declines. Comprising key government agencies, stock exchanges and large Wall Street firms," this group "is significant because the government has never admitted to private-sector membership in the Working Group," nor is it hinting that manipulation works both ways - to stop or create panic.

"Current mythology holds that (equity) prices rise and fall on the basis of market forces alone. Such sentiments appear to be seriously mistaken....And as official rhetoric continues to toe the free market line, manipulation has become increasingly apparent....with the active participation of selected investment banks and brokerage houses" - the Wall Street giants.

In 2004, Texas Hedge Report principals Steven McIntyre and Todd Stein said "Almost every floor trader on the NYSE, NYMEX, CBOT and CME will admit to having seen the PPT in action in one form or another over the years" - violating the traditional notion that markets move randomly and reflect popular sentiment.

Worse still, according to SAM principals Embry and Hepburn, "the government's unwillingness to disclose its activities has rendered it very difficult to have a debate on the merits of such a policy," if there are any.

Further, "virtually no one ever mentions government intervention publicly....Our primary concern is that what apparently started as a stopgap measure may have morphed into a serious moral hazard situation."

Worst of all, if government and Wall Street collude to pump and dump markets, individuals and small investment firms can get trampled, and that's exactly what happened in late 2008 and early 2009, with much more to come as the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression plays out over many more months.

That said, the PPT might more aptly be called the PPDT - The Plunge Protection/Destruction Team, depending on which way it moves markets at any time. Investors beware.

Manipulating markets is commonplace and as old as investing. Only the tools are more sophisticated and amounts involved greater. In her book, "Morgan: American Financier," Jean Strouse explained his role in the Panic of 1907, the result of stock market and real estate speculation that caused a market crash, bank runs, and hysteria. To restore confidence, JP Morgan and the Treasury Secretary organized a group of financiers to transfer funds to troubled banks and buy stocks. At the time, rumors were rampant that they orchestrated the panic for speculative profits and their main goals:

-- the 1908 National Monetary Commission to stabilize financial markets as a precursor to the Federal Reserve; and

-- the 1910 Jekyll Island meeting where powerful financial figures met in secret for nine days and created the private banking cartel Federal Reserve System, later congressionally established on December 23, 1913 and signed into law by Woodrow Wilson.

Morgan died early that year but profited hugely from the 1907 Panic. It let him expand his steel empire by buying the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company for about $45 million, an asset thought to be worth around $700 million. Today, similar schemes are more than ever common in the wake of the global economic crisis creating opportunities to buy assets cheap by bankers flush with bailout cash. Aided by PPT market rigging, it's simpler than ever.

Wharton Professor Itay Goldstein and Said Business School and Lincoln College, Oxford University Professor Alexander Guembel discussed price manipulation in their paper titled "Manipulation and the Allocational Role of Prices." They showed how traders effect prices on the downside through "bear raids," and concluded:

"We basically describe a theory of how bear raid manipulation works....What we show here is that by selling (a stock or more effectively short-selling it), you have a real effect on the firm. The connection with real value is the new thing....This is the crucial element," but they claim the process only works on the downside, not driving shares up.

In fact, high-volume program trading, analyst recommendations, positive or negative media reports, and other devices do it both ways.

Also key is that a company's stock price and true worth can be highly divergent. In other words, healthy or sick firms may be way-over or under-valued depending on market and economic conditions and how manipulative traders wish to price them, short or longer term.

The idea that equity prices reflect true value or that markets move randomly (up or down) is rubbish. They never have and more than ever don't now.

The Exchange Stabilization Fund (ESF)

The 1934 Gold Reserve Act created the US Treasury's ESF. Section 7 of the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreements made its operations permanent. As originally established, the Treasury ran the Fund outside of congressional oversight "to keep sharp swings in the dollar's exchange rate from (disrupting) financial markets" through manipulation. Its operations now include stabilizing foreign currencies, extending credit lines to foreign governments, and last September to guaranteeing money market funds against losses for up to $50 billion.

In 1995, the Clinton administration used the fund to provide Mexico a $20 billion credit line to stabilize the peso at a time of economic crisis, and earlier administrations extended loans or credit lines to China, Brazil, Ecuador, Iceland and Liberia. The Treasury's web site also states that:

"By law, the Secretary has considerable discretion in the use of ESF resources. The legal basis of the ESF is the Gold Reserve Act of 1934. As amended in the late 1970s....the Secretary (per) approval of the President, may deal in gold, foreign exchange, and other instruments of credit and securities."

In other words, ESF is a slush fund for whatever purposes the Treasury wishes, including ones it may not wish to disclose, such as manipulating markets, directing funds to the IMF and providing them with strings to borrowers as the Treasury's site explains:

"....Treasury has often linked the availability of ESF financing to a borrower's use of the credit facilities of the IMF, both to support the IMF's role and to strengthen assurances that there will be timely repayment of ESF financing."

The Counterparty Risk Management Policy Group (CRMPG)

Established in 1999 in the wake of the Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) crisis, it manipulates markets to benefit giant Wall Street firms and high-level insiders. According to one account, it was to curb future crises by:

-- letting giant financial institutions collude through large-scale program trading to move markets up or down as they wish;

-- bailing out its members in financial trouble; and

-- manipulating markets short or longer-term with government approval at the expense of small investors none the wiser and often getting trampled.

In August 2008, CRMPG III issued a report titled "Containing Systemic Risk: The Road to Reform." It was deceptive on its face in stating that CRMPG "was designed to focus its primary attention on the steps that must be taken by the private sector to reduce the frequency and/or severity of future financial shocks while recognizing that such future shocks are inevitable, in part because it is literally impossible to anticipate the specific timing and triggers of such events."

In fact, the "private sector" creates "financial shocks" to open markets, remove competition, and consolidate for greater power by buying damaged assets cheap. Financial history has numerous examples of preying on the weak, crushing competition, socializing risks, privatizing profits, redistributing wealth upward to a financial oligarchy, creating "tollbooth economies" in debt bondage according to Michael Hudson, and overall getting a "free lunch" at the public's expense.

CRMPG explains financial excesses and crises this way:

"At the end of the day, (their) root cause....on both the upside and the downside of the cycle is collective human behavior: unbridled optimism on the upside and fear on the downside, all in a setting in which it is literally impossible to anticipate when optimism gives rise to fear or fear gives rise to optimism...."

"What is needed, therefore, is a form of private initiative that will complement official oversight in encouraging industry-wide practices that will help mitigate systemic risk. The recommendations of the Report have been framed with that objective in mind."

In other words, let foxes guard the henhouse to keep inventing new ways to extract gains (a "free lunch") in increasingly larger amounts - "in the interest of helping to contain systemic risk factors and promote greater stability."

Or as Orwell might have said: instability is stability, creating systemic risk is containing it, sloping playing fields are level ones, extracting the greatest profit is sharing it, and what benefits the few helps everyone.

Michel Chossudovsky explains that: "triggering market collapse(s) can be a very profitable undertaking. (Evidence suggests) that the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulators have created an environment which supports speculative transactions (through) futures, options, index funds, derivative securities (and short-selling), etc. (that) make money when the stock market crumbles....foreknowledge and inside information (create golden profit opportunities for) powerful speculators" able to move markets up or down with the public none the wiser.

As a result, concentrated wealth and "financial power resulting from market manipulation is unprecedented" with small investors' savings, IRAs, pensions, 401ks, and futures being decimated from it.

Deconstructing So-Called "Green Shoots"

Daily the corporate media trumpet them to lull the unwary into believing the global economic crisis is ebbing and recovery is on the way. Not according to longtime market analyst Bob Chapman who calls green shoots "Poison Ivy" and economist Nouriel Roubini saying they're "yellow weeds" at a time there's lots more pain ahead.

For many months and in a recent commentary he refers to "the worst financial crisis, economic crisis and recession since the Great Depression....the consensus is now becoming optimistic again and says that we are going to go from minus 6 percent growth to positive growth in the second half of the year....my views are much more bearish....The problems of the financial system are severe. Many banks are still insolvent."

We're "piling public debt on top of private debt to socialize the losses; and at some point the back of (the) government('s) balance sheet is going to break, and if that happens, it's going to be a disaster." Short of that, he, Chapman, and others see the risks going forward as daunting. As for the recent stock market rise, they both call it a "sucker's rally" that will reverse as the US economy keeps contracting and the financial system suffers unexpected or manipulated shocks.

Highly respected market analyst Louise Yamada agrees. As Randall Forsyth reported in the May 25 issue of Barron's Up and Down Wall Street column:

"It is almost uncanny the degree to which 2002-08 has tracked 1932-38, 'Yamada writes in her latest note to clients.' " Her "Alternate Hypothesis" compares this structural bear market to 1929-42:

-- "the dot-com collapse parallels the Great Crash and its aftermath," followed by the 2003-07 recovery, similar to 1933-37;

-- then the late 2008 - early March 2009 collapse tracks a similar 1937-38 trajectory, after which a strong rally followed much like today;

-- then in November 1938, the market dropped 22% followed by a 26% rise and a series of further ups and downs - down 28%, up 23%, down 16%, up 13%, and a final 29% decline ending in 1942;

-- from the 1938 high ("analogous to where we are now," she says), stock prices fell 41% to a final bottom.

Are we at one today as market touts claim? No according to Yamada - top-ranked among her peers in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 when she worked at Citigroup's Smith Barney division. Since 2005, she's headed her own independent research company.

She says structural bear markets typically last 13 - 16 years so this one has a long way to go before "complet(ing) the repair process." She calls the current rebound "a bungee jump," very typical of bear markets. Numerous ones occurred during the Great Depression, 8 alone from 1929 - 1932, some deceptively strong.

Expect market manipulators today to produce similar price action going forward - to enrich themselves while trampling on the unwary, well-advised to protect their dollars from becoming quarters or dimes.

Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at lendmanstephen@sbcglobal.net.

Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to The Global Research News Hour on RepublicBroadcasting.org Monday - Friday at 10AM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on world and national issues. All programs are archived for easy listening.
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Postby admin » Wed Apr 21, 2010 7:37 am

Culture of greed under attack

The SEC finally is taking action against Wall Street.

Dateline: Tuesday, April 20, 2010

by Linda McQuaig

Anyone hoping to see the financial titans of Wall Street brought to heel couldn't help but feel glum when Barack Obama defended the latest round of grotesquely large bank bonuses.

"I, like most of the American people, don't begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system," the president said in a recent interview with BusinessWeek, commenting on the multimillion-dollar bonuses paid earlier this year to Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, and to Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs.


The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) laid fraud charges against Goldman for selling toxic investments.

What was most disturbing about Obama's comment was his apparent belief that Wall Street in some way resembles a free market — rather than a sheltered casino where bankers can get incredibly rich playing the odds and count on government to bail them out when the wheel goes against them.

"I know both those guys," said Obama, referring to Dimon and Blankfein. "They are very savvy businessmen."

Of course, business savvy is easier to come by when government can be counted on to help in a pinch. For instance, following the 2008 financial meltdown — triggered in part by the actions of JP Morgan, Goldman and other big banks — JP Morgan got a temporary injection of $25 billion from US taxpayers; Goldman got $10 billion.

But there was a glimmer of hope last week that Wall Street titans might finally get their comeuppance. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) laid fraud charges against Goldman for selling toxic investments without telling buyers that the investments were designed with help from a client — a client who was a hedge fund manager and who was betting they would fail.

Unsuspecting investors lost billions, while the hedge fund manager, John Paulson, personally walked away with $1 billion. (Paulson hasn't been charged, although some, including MIT business professor Simon Johnson, are urging charges against him.)

The unexpected charges by the SEC have sparked speculation Washington may finally be moving to bring the Wall Street casino/playpen under adult supervision.

So far, there's been little progress toward bringing back the sort of regulations that reined in financial speculation for many decades following the 1929 market crash.

And there's been little change in the culture of greed and entitlement, which gave the green light to banking abuses while depicting Wall Street billionaires as inspiring characters who show the rest of us how to live the American Dream.

In that spirit, a bestseller by Wall Street Journal reporter Greg Zuckerman actually celebrates the very trade that lies at the centre of the SEC charges against Goldman. Zuckerman's enthusiasm is obvious from the book's title: The Greatest Trade Ever.

In Zuckerman's telling, Paulson, the hedge fund manager who helped design the toxic investments peddled by Goldman, takes on heroic qualities as an "underdog" who overcame obstacles and "triumphed over the hubris" of Wall Street.

"Paulson was no singles hitter, afraid of risk," Zuckerman writes breathlessly. "Anticipating a housing collapse — and all that it meant — was Paulson's chance to hit the ball out of the park and win the acclaim he deserved."

The fact that Paulson's hit also helped bring down global financial markets, leaving millions suffering around the world, apparently doesn't prevent a "journalist" from concluding that fame and fortune are Paulson's just reward.

Another sentiment, probably more widely held, was captured in a handwritten sign held by protesters marching on Wall Street: "Jump, you fuckers".

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989 for writing a series of articles, which sparked a public inquiry into the activities of Ontario political lobbyist Patti Starr, and eventually led to Starr's imprisonment. In 1991, she was awarded an Atkinson Fellowship for Journalism in Public Policy to study the social welfare systems in Europe and North America.

She is author of seven books on politics and economics – all national bestsellers – including Shooting the Hippo (short-listed for the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction), The Cult of Impotence, All You Can Eat and It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet. Her most recent book is Holding the Bully's Coat: Canada and the US Empire.

Since 2002, McQuaig has written an op-ed column for the Toronto Star. This article, which appears here with permission, previously appeared in The Star.
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Postby admin » Tue Apr 20, 2010 8:50 pm

NEW YORK TIMES

April 19, 2010

When Wall Street Deals Resemble Casino Wagers

By ANDREW ROSS SORKIN

The government’s civil fraud case against Goldman Sachs raises so many provocative questions.

Did the firm deliberately mislead its clients who bought a mortgage-related investment without the knowledge that it was devised to fail? Was it fair that a bearish hedge fund manager helped to pick the parts of an investment marketed as bullish, so that he could bask in the winnings?

Who besides the vice president named in the lawsuit knew details of the deal in question? Were there other deals like this one?

But if there is a larger question, it is this:

n Why was Goldman, or any regulated bank, allowed to create and sell a product like the synthetic collateralized debt obligation at the center of this case? What purpose does a synthetic C.D.O., which contains no actual mortgage bonds, serve for the capital markets, and for society?

The blaring Goldman Sachs headlines of the last few days have given the public a crash course in synthetic C.D.O.’s. Many more people now know that synthetic C.D.O.’s are a simple wager.

In this case they were a bet on the value of a bundle of mortgages that the investors didn’t even own. (That’s why it is called a derivative.)

One side bets the value will rise, and the other side bets it will fall. It is no different than betting on the New York Yankees vs. the Oakland Athletics, except that if a sports bet goes bad, American taxpayers don’t pay the bookie.

“With a synthetic C.D.O., it’s a pure bet,” said Erik F. Gerding, a former securities lawyer at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton who is now a law professor at the University of New Mexico. “It is hard to see what the social value is — it’s hard to see why you’d want to encourage these bets.”

Social value is a timely question because regulating derivatives is the issue du jour in Washington as a set of proposed financial reforms moves though the Senate. The Obama administration’s plan includes a rule to require any banks that create a synthetic C.D.O. to keep a stake of at least 5 percent, in an effort to keep them accountable and eating their own cooking. But is that enough?

Because structuring derivatives like synthetic C.D.O.’s is so lucrative — $20 billion a year, by some estimates — it’s no surprise that Goldman Sachs is among the banks that oppose regulating them.

“The pushback on regulating derivatives is quite amazing,” said David Paul, president of the Fiscal Strategies Group, an advisory firm specializing in municipal and project finance. “It’s all just become a casino. They argue there is social utility — but you know intuitively this is wrong.”

Through their powerful lobbying arms, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and others have been trying to convince lawmakers that tough regulation on derivatives would stymie the capital markets.

“I believe that synthetic C.D.O.’s have a very useful purpose in facilitating the management of risk,” said Sean Egan, managing director of Egan-Jones Ratings, echoing the view of many in the industry. “Just as options have a valid position in the investment universe, so do synthetics. Such instruments facilitate the flow of capital.”

Unlike Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, Mr. Egan’s agency takes fees from investors, not issuers, for its research. Many critics of the big agencies say this approach presents fewer conflicts, presumably yielding a more honest assessment of an asset’s risk.

Still, Mr. Egan needs products to rate, so his position on derivatives is not that surprising. The core problem with the disputed C.D.O., and other structured finance transactions, was that “investors relied on flawed assessments of risk,” Mr. Egan said.

(By the way, we aren’t hearing lots of questions about the role the big agencies played in rating this Goldman C.D.O., but they clearly misrated it. If they had known that the hedge fund tycoon John A. Paulson had shaped the portfolio and was betting against it, would they have provided the same rating?) The Securities and Exchange Commission, in its suit, says that Mr. Paulson asked Goldman to help create a synthetic C.D.O. of lousy mortgage loans that he selected so he could bet that they would go down and then profit on their fall.

Of course, as with any bet of this sort, Goldman needed an investor to take the opposite position. Goldman found that in firms like IKB Deutsche Industriebank and ABN Amro. They weren’t told, however, that Mr. Paulson had heavily influenced which assets were included.

The case against Goldman could pivot on whether this omission was “material” to investors. Goldman says it wasn’t. It maintains that the investors got to see every mortgage in the basket, and that the manager of the deal, ACA Management, replaced some of Mr. Paulson’s picks with its own.

What’s more, Goldman has said over and over that it arranged these trades for sophisticated investors, not casual 401(k) savers. Goldman’s investors had the expertise and should have known better.

It’s an argument that, while true, makes some people cringe.

“It’s astonishing that they always say ‘sophisticated investors did this,’ ” said Mr. Paul, the financial adviser. “Look at the failure of Lehman and Bear. They were all sophisticated investors.”

This kind of high finance can numb the brain, and the legal questions are murky. But when you strip all of that away, this deal was nothing more than a roll of the dice.

Try this mental exercise: Imagine if, a few years ago, an influential investor like Warren Buffett, bullish on real estate, had asked Goldman to develop a synthetic C.D.O. made up of undervalued mortgages.

Now, imagine if Goldman had found John Paulson to take the opposite side of the trade and, lo and behold, a year later Mr. Buffett turned out to be right and Mr. Paulson lost his shirt. Would you call that fraud? Would you be very upset?

Maybe not, but Mr. Paulson sure would be. And he might be inclined to sue over it, especially if he found out that his bet had been rigged against him from the start. Which brings us back to the financial legislation being debated in Washington.

“Ultimately,” Mr. Gering, the securities lawyer, said, “litigation is a poor substitute for regulation.”

The latest news on mergers and acquisitions can be found at nytimes.com/dealbook.
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Postby admin » Tue Apr 20, 2010 11:04 am

Tuesday, April 20, 2010 12:08 PM EDT
Goldman earnings beat overshadowed by UK probe
By Steve Eder and Steve Slater

Goldman Sachs Group Inc reported blow-out quarterly earnings on Tuesday, but investors appeared to focus on the U.S. fraud case against the bank as Britain's market watchdog launched its own probe.

Goldman's results, which failed to bolster its sagging shares, came four days after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission accused the dominant Wall Street bank of defrauding investors by concealing that a prominent hedge fund manager helped structure a debt product tied to subprime mortgages and was betting against it.

Anton Schutz, president of Mendon Capital, said the rash of negative headlines had muted Goldman's beat on earnings.

"You've probably got some long-term long-holders selling stock because they are afraid," Schutz said. "You have shorts pressing it because they think they can run with it. How much bad news keeps coming in terms of regulators and suits? It is hard to know where the end is."

Goldman said first-quarter net income nearly doubled to $3.29 billion, bolstered by strength in fixed income trading and principal investments. The earnings of $5.59 a share easily beat analysts' average forecast $4.01, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

The bank reported its lowest-ever first-quarter compensation ratio, but it still set aside $5.5 billion for compensation and benefits in the period.

Goldman shares were down 1.3 percent at $161.13 in midday trading. The cost of insuring against potential default on the bank's bonds fell.

Goldman emerged as Wall Street's most influential bank after the financial crisis but has faced a backlash over its pay and business practices.

The bank's co-general counsel, Greg Palm, launched a rebuttal of the SEC charges during the bank's earnings conference call.

Palm said the firm was "very disappointed" that the SEC had brought charges and insisted that Goldman "would never mislead anyone."

He also said investors who lost money on the subprime mortgage product that is the focus of the SEC suit had a wealth of experience and background in such deals.

Palm faced questions about Goldman's failure to alert investors when it first received a so-called Wells Notice from the SEC regarding the agency's investigation. Palm insisted that Goldman would disclose any type of investigation or inquiry that it considered material.

"We do not disclose every Wells Notice we get because that would not make sense," he said.

He said the firm has had "no conversations whatsoever" with the U.S. Department of Justice about potential charges beyond the SEC's civil case.

'RECKLESSNESS AND GREED'

Goldman's forecast-beating earnings came as Britain's Financial Services Authority (FSA) said it had started a formal investigation into Goldman Sachs International in relation to the SEC allegations. FSA said it would work closely with its U.S. counterpart.

UK Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said on BBC Radio, "We have got to look at the whole system of constituting and regulating banks. We need a system of regulation, a system of levying banks, which is internationally applied."

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, the UK's third-largest party, said the allegations against Goldman "are a reminder, if we needed one, of the recklessness and greed that disfigured the banking industry as a whole."

"We believe that Goldman Sachs should now be suspended in its role as one of the advisers to the government until these allegations are properly looked into."

The comment by Clegg, who is seen as a potential kingmaker in Britain's upcoming general election, highlighted an area of concern among some: that the fraud allegations could lead to client defections.

Goldman Chief Financial Officer David Viniar said Goldman was "distressed" by the wave of negative publicity and insisted that most customers remain loyal.

"We are out talking to our clients," he told analysts on the conference call. "You can see from our results last quarter that our clients still support us."

Some financial institutions are likely reviewing their dealings with Goldman during the financial crisis to see if they have any legal recourse. American International Group Inc took a loss of up to $2 billion last year as it ended credit default swaps it had written on some Goldman collateralized debt obligations.

On Friday, attorneys for Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc filed notices of subpoena for firms including Goldman, seeking access to documents and employees in an investigation of whether certain third parties interfered with and damaged Lehman's business.

Some firms may have issues hiring Goldman for advice, a financial institutions banker said. "You have to ask yourself what are they thinking: Are they thinking about whether they have got causes of action against Goldman and can they hire Goldman as an adviser on the one side while they may be seeking to recover on the other side?"

Palm, the co-general counsel, said German bank IKB, one of the main buyers of the synthetic CDO at issue in the SEC case, had reviewed the portfolio of mortgage bonds that comprised the product and suggested some changes, but fewer than did hedge fund manager John Paulson.

Goldman's alleged failure to disclose that Paulson helped design the CDO -- and bet against it -- is the main basis for the SEC case.

"If we had evidence that someone here was trying to mislead someone, we wouldn't condone that at all," Palm said.

IKB declined to comment on Palm's statements.

In what some observers viewed as an oblique dig at Goldman's troubles, Citigroup Inc Chief Executive Vikram Pandit said at the bank's annual shareholder meeting that "responsible finance" was the driving force behind the bank, which was bailed out more than any other major U.S. financial institution.

In the United States, political tensions were heightened by reports that the five SEC commissioners split along political lines last week in a vote on whether to file suit against Goldman. The three Democrats voted in favor of the legal action, while the two Republicans opposed it, according to press reports.

"I have my doubts about this attack on Goldman Sachs, for the simple reason that with two members of the SEC clearly against the indictment, it doesn't make (SEC Chairman) Mary Schapiro's job any easier," said David Buik, senior partner with BGC Partners in London.

(Reporting by Steve Eder in New York and Steve Slater in London; Writing by Christian Plumb; Additional reporting by Douwe Miedema and Jon Hopkins in London and Ed Taylor in Frankfurt; Editing by John Wallace)
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Postby admin » Mon Apr 19, 2010 2:44 pm

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Published: April 16, 2010
Months ago, Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story of The Times exposed Goldman Sachs’s practice of creating and selling mortgage-backed investments and then placing financial bets that those investments would fail. While appalling, it wasn’t clear whether the practice was also fraud. The Securities and Exchange Commission has now decided that it was, charging Goldman on Friday.

What Goldman's Conduct Reveals
What does the S.E.C. lawsuit against Goldman Sachs say about deregulation of the financial industry?
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Times Topics: Securities and Exchange Commission, U.S. | Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

We urge everyone to keep a close eye on this case. If it is handled correctly, it should finally answer the question of whether malfeasance — and not merely unbridled greed, incompetence and weak regulation — was also responsible for the financial meltdown.

Goldman insists that what it was doing was prudent risk management. In a letter published in its annual report, it argued that “although Goldman Sachs held various positions in residential mortgage-related products in 2007, our short positions were not a ‘bet against our clients.’ ” The bank also insists that the investors who bought the structured vehicles were sophisticated professionals who knew what they were doing.

The S.E.C. is now charging just the opposite.

It accuses Goldman of intentionally designing a financial product that would have a high chance of falling in value, at the request of a client, and lying about it to the customers who bought it. It says that Goldman allowed that client — John Paulson, a hedge fund manager — to pick bonds he wanted to bet against, and then packaged those bonds into a new investment.

Goldman then sold this investment to its clients, telling them the bonds were chosen by an independent manager, and omitted that Mr. Paulson was on the other side of the trade, shorting it, in the industry vernacular.

Five months after Goldman sold the investments, 83 percent of the bonds contained in the packaged securities were downgraded by rating agencies.

Goldman vigorously denies any wrongdoing, calling the S.E.C.’s charges “completely unfounded in law and fact.” It will undoubtedly assemble a daunting legal team and mount a vigorous defense. But if the S.E.C. makes its case, it will be a watershed moment, changing the dominant narrative of the financial crisis.

Up to now, the bankers have argued that the financial crisis was like what insurers call an “act of God,” an unforeseeable cataclysm over which they had no control. This has allowed them to shrug off responsibility, even as taxpayers bailed them out. It has allowed them to sleep soundly after collecting their huge bonuses. Goldman is not the only bank to have sold mortgage-backed securities and then bet against them. We suspect that after Friday, others on Wall Street may have a harder time sleeping.
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Postby admin » Thu Feb 25, 2010 10:31 pm

Banks Bet Greece Defaults on Debt They Helped Hide

By NELSON D. SCHWARTZ and ERIC DASH
Bets by some of the same banks that helped Greece shroud its mounting debts may actually now be pushing the nation closer to the brink of financial ruin.

Echoing the kind of trades that nearly toppled the American International Group, the increasingly popular insurance against the risk of a Greek default is making it harder for Athens to raise the money it needs to pay its bills, according to traders and money managers.

These contracts, known as credit-default swaps, effectively let banks and hedge funds wager on the financial equivalent of a four-alarm fire: a default by a company or, in the case of Greece, an entire country. If Greece reneges on its debts, traders who own these swaps stand to profit.

“It’s like buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house — you create an incentive to burn down the house,” said Philip Gisdakis, head of credit strategy at UniCredit in Munich.

As Greece’s financial condition has worsened, undermining the euro, the role of Goldman Sachs and other major banks in masking the true extent of the country’s problems has drawn criticism from European leaders. But even before that issue became apparent, a little-known company backed by Goldman, JP Morgan Chase and about a dozen other banks had created an index that enabled market players to bet on whether Greece and other European nations would go bust.
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Re: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Postby admin » Wed Feb 24, 2010 9:44 pm

www.Rollingstone.com URL: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/st ... out_hustle


Wall Street's Bailout Hustle

Goldman Sachs and other big banks aren't just pocketing the trillions we gave them to rescue the economy – they're re-creating the conditions for another crash

MATT TAIBBI

Posted Feb 17, 2010 5:57 AM
On January 21st, Lloyd Blankfein left a peculiar voicemail message on the work phones of his employees at Goldman Sachs. Fast becoming America's pre-eminent Marvel Comics supervillain, the CEO used the call to deploy his secret weapon: a pair of giant, nuclear-powered testicles. In his message, Blankfein addressed his plan to pay out gigantic year-end bonuses amid widespread controversy over Goldman's role in precipitating the global financial crisis.

The bank had already set aside a tidy $16.2 billion for salaries and bonuses — meaning that Goldman employees were each set to take home an average of $498,246, a number roughly commensurate with what they received during the bubble years. Still, the troops were worried: There were rumors that Dr. Ballsachs, bowing to political pressure, might be forced to scale the number back. After all, the country was broke, 14.8 million Americans were stranded on the unemployment line, and Barack Obama and the Democrats were trying to recover the populist high ground after their bitch-whipping in Massachusetts by calling for a "bailout tax" on banks. Maybe this wasn't the right time for Goldman to be throwing its annual Roman bonus orgy.

Not to worry, Blankfein reassured employees. "In a year that proved to have no shortage of story lines," he said, "I believe very strongly that performance is the ultimate narrative."

Translation: We made a shitload of money last year because we're so amazing at our jobs, so fuck all those people who want us to reduce our bonuses.

Goldman wasn't alone. The nation's six largest banks — all committed to this balls-out, I drink your milkshake! strategy of flagrantly gorging themselves as America goes hungry — set aside a whopping $140 billion for executive compensation last year, a sum only slightly less than the $164 billion they paid themselves in the pre-crash year of 2007. In a gesture of self-sacrifice, Blankfein himself took a humiliatingly low bonus of $9 million, less than the 2009 pay of elephantine New York Knicks washout Eddy Curry. But in reality, not much had changed. "What is the state of our moral being when Lloyd Blankfein taking a $9 million bonus is viewed as this great act of contrition, when every penny of it was a direct transfer from the taxpayer?" asks Eliot Spitzer, who tried to hold Wall Street accountable during his own ill-fated stint as governor of New York.

Beyond a few such bleats of outrage, however, the huge payout was met, by and large, with a collective sigh of resignation. Because beneath America's populist veneer, on a more subtle strata of the national psyche, there remains a strong temptation to not really give a shit. The rich, after all, have always made way too much money; what's the difference if some fat cat in New York pockets $20 million instead of $10 million?

The only reason such apathy exists, however, is because there's still a widespread misunderstanding of how exactly Wall Street "earns" its money, with emphasis on the quotation marks around "earns." The question everyone should be asking, as one bailout recipient after another posts massive profits — Goldman reported $13.4 billion in profits last year, after paying out that $16.2 billion in bonuses and compensation — is this: In an economy as horrible as ours, with every factory town between New York and Los Angeles looking like those hollowed-out ghost ships we see on History Channel documentaries like Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes, where in the hell did Wall Street's eye-popping profits come from, exactly? Did Goldman go from bailout city to $13.4 billion in the black because, as Blankfein suggests, its "performance" was just that awesome? A year and a half after they were minutes away from bankruptcy, how are these assholes not only back on their feet again, but hauling in bonuses at the same rate they were during the bubble?

The answer to that question is basically twofold:

1. They raped the taxpayer,

and

2. they raped their clients.

The bottom line is that banks like Goldman have learned absolutely nothing from the global economic meltdown. In fact, they're back conniving and playing speculative long shots in force — only this time with the full financial support of the U.S. government. In the process, they're rapidly re-creating the conditions for another crash, with the same actors once again playing the same crazy games of financial chicken with the same toxic assets as before.

That's why this bonus business isn't merely a matter of getting upset about whether or not Lloyd Blankfein buys himself one tropical island or two on his next birthday. The reality is that the post-bailout era in which Goldman thrived has turned out to be a chaotic frenzy of high-stakes con-artistry, with taxpayers and clients bilked out of billions using a dizzying array of old-school hustles that, but for their ponderous complexity, would have fit well in slick grifter movies like The Sting and Matchstick Men. There's even a term in con-man lingo for what some of the banks are doing right now, with all their cosmetic gestures of scaling back bonuses and giving to charities. In the grifter world, calming down a mark so he doesn't call the cops is known as the "Cool Off."

grift (grft) Slang
n.
1. Money made dishonestly, as in a swindle.
2. A swindle or confidence game.
v. grift·ed, grift·ing, grifts
v.intr.
To engage in swindling or cheating.
v.tr.
To obtain by swindling or cheating.
To appreciate how all of these (sometimes brilliant) schemes work is to understand the difference between earning money and taking scores, and to realize that the profits these banks are posting don't so much represent national growth and recovery, but something closer to the losses one would report after a theft or a car crash. Many Americans instinctively understand this to be true — but, much like when your wife does it with your 300-pound plumber in the kids' playroom, knowing it and actually watching the whole scene from start to finish are two very different things. In that spirit, a brief history of the best 18 months of grifting this country has ever seen:

CON #1 THE SWOOP AND SQUAT

By now, most people who have followed the financial crisis know that the bailout of AIG was actually a bailout of AIG's "counterparties" — the big banks like Goldman to whom the insurance giant owed billions when it went belly up.

What is less understood is that the bailout of AIG counter-parties like Goldman and Société Générale, a French bank, actually began before the collapse of AIG, before the Federal Reserve paid them so much as a dollar. Nor is it understood that these counterparties actually accelerated the wreck of AIG in what was, ironically, something very like the old insurance scam known as "Swoop and Squat," in which a target car is trapped between two perpetrator vehicles and wrecked, with the mark in the game being the target's insurance company — in this case, the government.

This may sound far-fetched, but the financial crisis of 2008 was very much caused by a perverse series of legal incentives that often made failed investments worth more than thriving ones. Our economy was like a town where everyone has juicy insurance policies on their neighbors' cars and houses. In such a town, the driving will be suspiciously bad, and there will be a lot of fires.

AIG was the ultimate example of this dynamic. At the height of the housing boom, Goldman was selling billions in bundled mortgage-backed securities — often toxic crap of the no-money-down, no-identification-needed variety of home loan — to various institutional suckers like pensions and insurance companies, who frequently thought they were buying investment-grade instruments. At the same time, in a glaring example of the perverse incentives that existed and still exist, Goldman was also betting against those same sorts of securities — a practice that one government investigator compared to "selling a car with faulty brakes and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer of those cars."

Goldman often "insured" some of this garbage with AIG, using a virtually unregulated form of pseudo-insurance called credit-default swaps. Thanks in large part to deregulation pushed by Bob Rubin, former chairman of Goldman, and Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, AIG wasn't required to actually have the capital to pay off the deals. As a result, banks like Goldman bought more than $440 billion worth of this bogus insurance from AIG, a huge blind bet that the taxpayer ended up having to eat.

Thus, when the housing bubble went crazy, Goldman made money coming and going. They made money selling the crap mortgages, and they made money by collecting on the bogus insurance from AIG when the crap mortgages flopped.

Still, the trick for Goldman was: how to collect the insurance money. As AIG headed into a tailspin that fateful summer of 2008, it looked like the beleaguered firm wasn't going to have the money to pay off the bogus insurance. So Goldman and other banks began demanding that AIG provide them with cash collateral. In the 15 months leading up to the collapse of AIG, Goldman received $5.9 billion in collateral. Société Générale, a bank holding lots of mortgage-backed crap originally underwritten by Goldman, received $5.5 billion. These collateral demands squeezing AIG from two sides were the "Swoop and Squat" that ultimately crashed the firm. "It put the company into a liquidity crisis," says Eric Dinallo, who was intimately involved in the AIG bailout as head of the New York State Insurance Department.

It was a brilliant move. When a company like AIG is about to die, it isn't supposed to hand over big hunks of assets to a single creditor like Goldman; it's supposed to equitably distribute whatever assets it has left among all its creditors. Had AIG gone bankrupt, Goldman would have likely lost much of the $5.9 billion that it pocketed as collateral. "Any bankruptcy court that saw those collateral payments would have declined that transaction as a fraudulent conveyance," says Barry Ritholtz, the author of Bailout Nation. Instead, Goldman and the other counterparties got their money out in advance — putting a torch to what was left of AIG. Fans of the movie Goodfellas will recall Henry Hill and Tommy DeVito taking the same approach to the Bamboo Lounge nightclub they'd been gouging. Roll the Ray Liotta narration: "Finally, when there's nothing left, when you can't borrow another buck . . . you bust the joint out. You light a match."



And why not? After all, according to the terms of the bailout deal struck when AIG was taken over by the state in September 2008, Goldman was paid 100 cents on the dollar on an additional $12.9 billion it was owed by AIG — again, money it almost certainly would not have seen a fraction of had AIG proceeded to a normal bankruptcy. Along with the collateral it pocketed, that's $19 billion in pure cash that Goldman would not have "earned" without massive state intervention. How's that $13.4 billion in 2009 profits looking now? And that doesn't even include the direct bailouts of Goldman Sachs and other big banks, which began in earnest after the collapse of AIG.

CON #2 THE DOLLAR STORE

In the usual "DollarStore" or "Big Store" scam — popularized in movies like The Sting — a huge cast of con artists is hired to create a whole fake environment into which the unsuspecting mark walks and gets robbed over and over again. A warehouse is converted into a makeshift casino or off-track betting parlor, the fool walks in with money, leaves without it.

The two key elements to the Dollar Store scam are the whiz-bang theatrical redecorating job and the fact that everyone is in on it except the mark. In this case, a pair of investment banks were dressed up to look like commercial banks overnight, and it was the taxpayer who walked in and lost his shirt, confused by the appearance of what looked like real Federal Reserve officials minding the store.

Less than a week after the AIG bailout, Goldman and another investment bank, Morgan Stanley, applied for, and received, federal permission to become bank holding companies — a move that would make them eligible for much greater federal support. The stock prices of both firms were cratering, and there was talk that either or both might go the way of Lehman Brothers, another once-mighty investment bank that just a week earlier had disappeared from the face of the earth under the weight of its toxic assets. By law, a five-day waiting period was required for such a conversion — but the two banks got them overnight, with final approval actually coming only five days after the AIG bailout.

Why did they need those federal bank charters? This question is the key to understanding the entire bailout era — because this Dollar Store scam was the big one. Institutions that were, in reality, high-risk gambling houses were allowed to masquerade as conservative commercial banks. As a result of this new designation, they were given access to a virtually endless tap of "free money" by unsuspecting taxpayers. The $10 billion that Goldman received under the better-known TARP bailout was chump change in comparison to the smorgasbord of direct and indirect aid it qualified for as a commercial bank.

When Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley got their federal bank charters, they joined Bank of America, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase and the other banking titans who could go to the Fed and borrow massive amounts of money at interest rates that, thanks to the aggressive rate-cutting policies of Fed chief Ben Bernanke during the crisis, soon sank to zero percent. The ability to go to the Fed and borrow big at next to no interest was what saved Goldman, Morgan Stanley and other banks from death in the fall of 2008. "They had no other way to raise capital at that moment, meaning they were on the brink of insolvency," says Nomi Prins, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs. "The Fed was the only shot."

In fact, the Fed became not just a source of emergency borrowing that enabled Goldman and Morgan Stanley to stave off disaster — it became a source of long-term guaranteed income. Borrowing at zero percent interest, banks like Goldman now had virtually infinite ways to make money. In one of the most common maneuvers, they simply took the money they borrowed from the government at zero percent and lent it back to the government by buying Treasury bills that paid interest of three or four percent. It was basically a license to print money — no different than attaching an ATM to the side of the Federal Reserve.

"You're borrowing at zero, putting it out there at two or three percent, with hundreds of billions of dollars — man, you can make a lot of money that way," says the manager of one prominent hedge fund. "It's free money." Which goes a long way to explaining Goldman's enormous profits last year. But all that free money was amplified by another scam:

CON #3 THE PIG IN THE POKE

At one point or another, pretty much everyone who takes drugs has been burned by this one, also known as the "Rocks in the Box" scam or, in its more elaborate variations, the "Jamaican Switch." Someone sells you what looks like an eightball of coke in a baggie, you get home and, you dumbass, it's baby powder.

The scam's name comes from the Middle Ages, when some fool would be sold a bound and gagged pig that he would see being put into a bag; he'd miss the switch, then get home and find a tied-up cat in there instead. Hence the expression "Don't let the cat out of the bag."

The "Pig in the Poke" scam is another key to the entire bailout era. After the crash of the housing bubble — the largest asset bubble in history — the economy was suddenly flooded with securities backed by failing or near-failing home loans. In the cleanup phase after that bubble burst, the whole game was to get taxpayers, clients and shareholders to buy these worthless cats, but at pig prices.

One of the first times we saw the scam appear was in September 2008, right around the time that AIG was imploding. That was when the Fed changed some of its collateral rules, meaning banks that could once borrow only against sound collateral, like Treasury bills or AAA-rated corporate bonds, could now borrow against pretty much anything — including some of the mortgage-backed sewage that got us into this mess in the first place. In other words, banks that once had to show a real pig to borrow from the Fed could now show up with a cat and get pig money. "All of a sudden, banks were allowed to post absolute shit to the Fed's balance sheet," says the manager of the prominent hedge fund.

The Fed spelled it out on September 14th, 2008, when it changed the collateral rules for one of its first bailout facilities — the Primary Dealer Credit Facility, or PDCF. The Fed's own write-up described the changes: "With the Fed's action, all the kinds of collateral then in use . . . including non-investment-grade securities and equities . . . became eligible for pledge in the PDCF."

Translation: We now accept cats.

The Pig in the Poke also came into play in April of last year, when Congress pushed a little-known agency called the Financial Accounting Standards Board, or FASB, to change the so-called "mark-to-market" accounting rules. Until this rule change, banks had to assign a real-market price to all of their assets. If they had a balance sheet full of securities they had bought at $3 that were now only worth $1, they had to figure their year-end accounting using that $1 value. In other words, if you were the dope who bought a cat instead of a pig, you couldn't invite your shareholders to a slate of pork dinners come year-end accounting time.

But last April, FASB changed all that. From now on, it announced, banks could avoid reporting losses on some of their crappy cat investments simply by declaring that they would "more likely than not" hold on to them until they recovered their pig value. In short, the banks didn't even have to actually hold on to the toxic shit they owned — they just had to sort of promise to hold on to it.

That's why the "profit" numbers of a lot of these banks are really a joke. In many cases, we have absolutely no idea how many cats are in their proverbial bag. What they call "profits" might really be profits, only minus undeclared millions or billions in losses.

"They're hiding all this stuff from their shareholders," says Ritholtz, who was disgusted that the banks lobbied for the rule changes. "Now, suddenly banks that were happy to mark to market on the way up don't have to mark to market on the way down."

CON #4 THE RUMANIAN BOX

One of the great innovations of Victor Lustig, the legendary Depression-era con man who wrote the famous "Ten Commandments for Con Men," was a thing called the "Rumanian Box." This was a little machine that a mark would put a blank piece of paper into, only to see real currency come out the other side. The brilliant Lustig sold this Rumanian Box over and over again for vast sums — but he's been outdone by the modern barons of Wall Street, who managed to get themselves a real Rumanian Box.

How they accomplished this is a story that by itself highlights the challenge of placing this era in any kind of historical context of known financial crime. What the banks did was something that was never — and never could have been — thought of before. They took so much money from the government, and then did so little with it, that the state was forced to start printing new cash to throw at them. Even the great Lustig in his wildest, horniest dreams could never have dreamed up this one.

The setup: By early 2009, the banks had already replenished themselves with billions if not trillions in bailout money. It wasn't just the $700 billion in TARP cash, the free money provided by the Fed, and the untold losses obscured by accounting tricks. Another new rule allowed banks to collect interest on the cash they were required by law to keep in reserve accounts at the Fed — meaning the state was now compensating the banks simply for guaranteeing their own solvency. And a new federal operation called the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program let insolvent and near-insolvent banks dispense with their deservedly ruined credit profiles and borrow on a clean slate, with FDIC backing. Goldman borrowed $29 billion on the government's good name, J.P. Morgan Chase $38 billion, and Bank of America $44 billion. "TLGP," says Prins, the former Goldman manager, "was a big one."

Collectively, all this largesse was worth trillions. The idea behind the flood of money, from the government's standpoint, was to spark a national recovery: We refill the banks' balance sheets, and they, in turn, start to lend money again, recharging the economy and producing jobs. "The banks were fast approaching insolvency," says Rep. Paul Kanjorski, a vocal critic of Wall Street who nevertheless defends the initial decision to bail out the banks. "It was vitally important that we recapitalize these institutions."

But here's the thing. Despite all these trillions in government rescues, despite the Fed slashing interest rates down to nothing and showering the banks with mountains of guarantees, Goldman and its friends had still not jump-started lending again by the first quarter of 2009. That's where those nuclear-powered balls of Lloyd Blankfein came into play, as Goldman and other banks basically threatened to pick up their bailout billions and go home if the government didn't fork over more cash — a lot more. "Even if the Fed could make interest rates negative, that wouldn't necessarily help," warned Goldman's chief domestic economist, Jan Hatzius. "We're in a deep recession mainly because the private sector, for a variety of reasons, has decided to save a lot more."

Translation: You can lower interest rates all you want, but we're still not fucking lending the bailout money to anyone in this economy. Until the government agreed to hand over even more goodies, the banks opted to join the rest of the "private sector" and "save" the taxpayer aid they had received — in the form of bonuses and compensation.

The ploy worked. In March of last year, the Fed sharply expanded a radical new program called quantitative easing, which effectively operated as a real-live Rumanian Box. The government put stacks of paper in one side, and out came $1.2 trillion "real" dollars.

The government used some of that freshly printed money to prop itself up by purchasing Treasury bonds — a desperation move, since Washington's demand for cash was so great post-Clusterfuck '08 that even the Chinese couldn't buy U.S. debt fast enough to keep America afloat. But the Fed used most of the new cash to buy mortgage-backed securities in an effort to spur home lending — instantly creating a massive market for major banks.

And what did the banks do with the proceeds? Among other things, they bought Treasury bonds, essentially lending the money back to the government, at interest. The money that came out of the magic Rumanian Box went from the government back to the government, with Wall Street stepping into the circle just long enough to get paid. And once quantitative easing ends, as it is scheduled to do in March, the flow of money for home loans will once again grind to a halt. The Mortgage Bankers Association expects the number of new residential mortgages to plunge by 40 percent this year.

CON #5 THE BIG MITT

All of that Rumanian box paper was made even more valuable by running it through the next stage of the grift. Michael Masters, one of the country's leading experts on commodities trading, compares this part of the scam to the poker game in the Bill Murray comedy Stripes. "It's like that scene where John Candy leans over to the guy who's new at poker and says, 'Let me see your cards,' then starts giving him advice," Masters says. "He looks at the hand, and the guy has bad cards, and he's like, 'Bluff me, come on! If it were me, I'd bet everything!' That's what it's like. It's like they're looking at your cards as they give you advice."

In more ways than one can count, the economy in the bailout era turned into a "Big Mitt," the con man's name for a rigged poker game. Everybody was indeed looking at everyone else's cards, in many cases with state sanction. Only taxpayers and clients were left out of the loop.

At the same time the Fed and the Treasury were making massive, earthshaking moves like quantitative easing and TARP, they were also consulting regularly with private advisory boards that include every major player on Wall Street. The Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee has a J.P. Morgan executive as its chairman and a Goldman executive as its vice chairman, while the board advising the Fed includes bankers from Capital One and Bank of New York Mellon. That means that, in addition to getting great gobs of free money, the banks were also getting clear signals about when they were getting that money, making it possible to position themselves to make the appropriate investments.

One of the best examples of the banks blatantly gambling, and winning, on government moves was the Public-Private Investment Program, or PPIP. In this bizarre scheme cooked up by goofball-geek Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, the government loaned money to hedge funds and other private investors to buy up the absolutely most toxic horseshit on the market — the same kind of high-risk, high-yield mortgages that were most responsible for triggering the financial chain reaction in the fall of 2008. These satanic deals were the basic currency of the bubble: Jobless dope fiends bought houses with no money down, and the big banks wrapped those mortgages into securities and then sold them off to pensions and other suckers as investment-grade deals. The whole point of the PPIP was to get private investors to relieve the banks of these dangerous assets before they hurt any more innocent bystanders.

But what did the banks do instead, once they got wind of the PPIP? They started buying that worthless crap again, presumably to sell back to the government at inflated prices! In the third quarter of last year, Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup and Bank of America combined to add $3.36 billion of exactly this horseshit to their balance sheets.

This brazen decision to gouge the taxpayer startled even hardened market observers. According to Michael Schlachter of the investment firm Wilshire Associates, it was "absolutely ridiculous" that the banks that were supposed to be reducing their exposure to these volatile instruments were instead loading up on them in order to make a quick buck. "Some of them created this mess," he said, "and they are making a killing undoing it."

CON #6 THE WIRE

Here's the thing about our current economy. When Goldman and Morgan Stanley transformed overnight from investment banks into commercial banks, we were told this would mean a new era of "significantly tighter regulations and much closer supervision by bank examiners," as The New York Times put it the very next day. In reality, however, the conversion of Goldman and Morgan Stanley simply completed the dangerous concentration of power and wealth that began in 1999, when Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act — the Depression-era law that had prevented the merger of insurance firms, commercial banks and investment houses. Wall Street and the government became one giant dope house, where a few major players share valuable information between conflicted departments the way junkies share needles.

One of the most common practices is a thing called front-running, which is really no different from the old "Wire" con, another scam popularized in The Sting. But instead of intercepting a telegraph wire in order to bet on racetrack results ahead of the crowd, what Wall Street does is make bets ahead of valuable information they obtain in the course of everyday business.

Say you're working for the commodities desk of a big investment bank, and a major client — a pension fund, perhaps — calls you up and asks you to buy a billion dollars of oil futures for them. Once you place that huge order, the price of those futures is almost guaranteed to go up. If the guy in charge of asset management a few desks down from you somehow finds out about that, he can make a fortune for the bank by betting ahead of that client of yours. The deal would be instantaneous and undetectable, and it would offer huge profits. Your own client would lose money, of course — he'd end up paying a higher price for the oil futures he ordered, because you would have driven up the price. But that doesn't keep banks from screwing their own customers in this very way.

The scam is so blatant that Goldman Sachs actually warns its clients that something along these lines might happen to them. In the disclosure section at the back of a research paper the bank issued on January 15th, Goldman advises clients to buy some dubious high-yield bonds while admitting that the bank itself may bet against those same shitty bonds. "Our salespeople, traders and other professionals may provide oral or written market commentary or trading strategies to our clients and our proprietary trading desks that reflect opinions that are contrary to the opinions expressed in this research," the disclosure reads. "Our asset-management area, our proprietary-trading desks and investing businesses may make investment decisions that are inconsistent with the recommendations or views expressed in this research."

Banks like Goldman admit this stuff openly, despite the fact that there are securities laws that require banks to engage in "fair dealing with customers" and prohibit analysts from issuing opinions that are at odds with what they really think. And yet here they are, saying flat-out that they may be issuing an opinion at odds with what they really think.

To help them screw their own clients, the major investment banks employ high-speed computer programs that can glimpse orders from investors before the deals are processed and then make trades on behalf of the banks at speeds of fractions of a second. None of them will admit it, but everybody knows what this computerized trading — known as "flash trading" — really is. "Flash trading is nothing more than computerized front-running," says the prominent hedge-fund manager. The SEC voted to ban flash trading in September, but five months later it has yet to issue a regulation to put a stop to the practice.

Over the summer, Goldman suffered an embarrassment on that score when one of its employees, a Russian named Sergey Aleynikov, allegedly stole the bank's computerized trading code. In a court proceeding after Aleynikov's arrest, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Facciponti reported that "the bank has raised the possibility that there is a danger that somebody who knew how to use this program could use it to manipulate markets in unfair ways."

Six months after a federal prosecutor admitted in open court that the Goldman trading program could be used to unfairly manipulate markets, the bank released its annual numbers. Among the notable details was the fact that a staggering 76 percent of its revenue came from trading, both for its clients and for its own account. "That is much, much higher than any other bank," says Prins, the former Goldman managing director. "If I were a client and I saw that they were making this much money from trading, I would question how badly I was getting screwed."

Why big institutional investors like pension funds continually come to Wall Street to get raped is the million-dollar question that many experienced observers puzzle over. Goldman's own explanation for this phenomenon is comedy of the highest order. In testimony before a government panel in January, Blankfein was confronted about his firm's practice of betting against the same sorts of investments it sells to clients. His response: "These are the professional investors who want this exposure."

In other words, our clients are big boys, so screw 'em if they're dumb enough to take the sucker bets I'm offering.

CON #7 THE RELOAD

Not many con men are good enough or brazen enough to con the same victim twice in a row, but the few who try have a name for this excellent sport: reloading. The usual way to reload on a repeat victim (called an "addict" in grifter parlance) is to rope him into trying to get back the money he just lost. This is exactly what started to happen late last year.

It's important to remember that the housing bubble itself was a classic confidence game — the Ponzi scheme. The Ponzi scheme is any scam in which old investors must be continually paid off with money from new investors to keep up what appear to be high rates of investment return. Residential housing was never as valuable as it seemed during the bubble; the soaring home values were instead a reflection of a continual upward rush of new investors in mortgage-backed securities, a rush that finally collapsed in 2008.

But by the end of 2009, the unimaginable was happening: The bubble was re-inflating. A bailout policy that was designed to help us get out from under the bursting of the largest asset bubble in history inadvertently produced exactly the opposite result, as all that government-fueled capital suddenly began flowing into the most dangerous and destructive investments all over again. Wall Street was going for the reload.

A lot of this was the government's own fault, of course. By slashing interest rates to zero and flooding the market with money, the Fed was replicating the historic mistake that Alan Greenspan had made not once, but twice, before the tech bubble in the early 1990s and before the housing bubble in the early 2000s. By making sure that traditionally safe investments like CDs and savings accounts earned basically nothing, thanks to rock-bottom interest rates, investors were forced to go elsewhere to search for moneymaking opportunities.

Now we're in the same situation all over again, only far worse. Wall Street is flooded with government money, and interest rates that are not just low but flat are pushing investors to seek out more "creative" opportunities. (It's "Greenspan times 10," jokes one hedge-fund trader.) Some of that money could be put to use on Main Street, of course, backing the efforts of investment-worthy entrepreneurs. But that's not what our modern Wall Street is built to do. "They don't seem to want to lend to small and medium-sized business," says Rep. Brad Sherman, who serves on the House Financial Services Committee. "What they want to invest in is marketable securities. And the definition of small and medium-sized businesses, for the most part, is that they don't have marketable securities. They have bank loans."

In other words, unless you're dealing with the stock of a major, publicly traded company, or a giant pile of home mortgages, or the bonds of a large corporation, or a foreign currency, or oil futures, or some country's debt, or anything else that can be rapidly traded back and forth in huge numbers, factory-style, by big banks, you're not really on Wall Street's radar.

So with small business out of the picture, and the safe stuff not worth looking at thanks to the Fed's low interest rates, where did Wall Street go? Right back into the shit that got us here.

One trader, who asked not to be identified, recounts a story of what happened with his hedge fund this past fall. His firm wanted to short — that is, bet against — all the crap toxic bonds that were suddenly in vogue again. The fund's analysts had examined the fundamentals of these instruments and concluded that they were absolutely not good investments.

So they took a short position. One month passed, and they lost money. Another month passed — same thing. Finally, the trader just shrugged and decided to change course and buy.

"I said, 'Fuck it, let's make some money,'" he recalls. "I absolutely did not believe in the fundamentals of any of this stuff. However, I can get on the bandwagon, just so long as I know when to jump out of the car before it goes off the damn cliff!"

This is the very definition of bubble economics — betting on crowd behavior instead of on fundamentals. It's old investors betting on the arrival of new ones, with the value of the underlying thing itself being irrelevant. And this behavior is being driven, no surprise, by the biggest firms on Wall Street.

The research report published by Goldman Sachs on January 15th underlines this sort of thinking. Goldman issued a strong recommendation to buy exactly the sort of high-yield toxic crap our hedge-fund guy was, by then, driving rapidly toward the cliff. "Summarizing our views," the bank wrote, "we expect robust flows . . . to dominate fundamentals." In other words: This stuff is crap, but everyone's buying it in an awfully robust way, so you should too. Just like tech stocks in 1999, and mortgage-backed securities in 2006.

To sum up, this is what Lloyd Blankfein meant by "performance": Take massive sums of money from the government, sit on it until the government starts printing trillions of dollars in a desperate attempt to restart the economy, buy even more toxic assets to sell back to the government at inflated prices — and then, when all else fails, start driving us all toward the cliff again with a frank and open endorsement of bubble economics. I mean, shit — who wouldn't deserve billions in bonuses for doing all that?

Con artists have a word for the inability of their victims to accept that they've been scammed. They call it the "True Believer Syndrome." That's sort of where we are, in a state of nagging disbelief about the real problem on Wall Street. It isn't so much that we have inadequate rules or incompetent regulators, although both of these things are certainly true. The real problem is that it doesn't matter what regulations are in place if the people running the economy are rip-off artists. The system assumes a certain minimum level of ethical behavior and civic instinct over and above what is spelled out by the regulations. If those ethics are absent — well, this thing isn't going to work, no matter what we do. Sure, mugging old ladies is against the law, but it's also easy. To prevent it, we depend, for the most part, not on cops but on people making the conscious decision not to do it.

That's why the biggest gift the bankers got in the bailout was not fiscal but psychological. "The most valuable part of the bailout," says Rep. Sherman, "was the implicit guarantee that they're Too Big to Fail." Instead of liquidating and prosecuting the insolvent institutions that took us all down with them in a giant Ponzi scheme, we have showered them with money and guarantees and all sorts of other enabling gestures. And what should really freak everyone out is the fact that Wall Street immediately started skimming off its own rescue money. If the bailouts validated anew the crooked psychology of the bubble, the recent profit and bonus numbers show that the same psychology is back, thriving, and looking for new disasters to create. "It's evidence," says Rep. Kanjorski, "that they still don't get it."

More to the point, the fact that we haven't done much of anything to change the rules and behavior of Wall Street shows that we still don't get it. Instituting a bailout policy that stressed recapitalizing bad banks was like the addict coming back to the con man to get his lost money back. Ask yourself how well that ever works out. And then get ready for the reload.

[From Issue 1099 — March 4, 2010]
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