Two articles came out in the past week comparing Wall Street to a casino, pointing out that much of the activities of the big investment banks – like the synthetic CDO at the heart of the Goldman fraud case – provide no real value to society and are simply ways to bet on the direction of an event. In this case, the event was housing prices, but the articles ask how that bet is really any different than betting on the outcome of a baseball game or a roulette wheel.
What is particularly interesting is the source of these articles. One was an op-ed in the hyper-conservative Wall Street Journal, co-written by Niall Ferguson, a Harvard professor who is generally quite conservative, and Ted Forstmann, an equally conservative private equity financier. The other article was written by Andrew Ross Sorkin in his NY Times Dealbook. The Times is, of course, quite liberal, but Sorkin makes his living (quite lucrative, according to reports) by having great sources on Wall Street, and generally speaking you don’t keep those sources by insulting them in print.
For conservatives to publish against their leanings, and for ambitious journalists to publish against their career prospects, is a pretty big deal. They must have felt very strongly about the casino aspect of Wall Street to write those articles.
Just in! Here is Eliot Spitzer’s take on Wall Street as casino. You may discount him due to his hooker addiction, but he hits the nail on the head (so to speak) here.
Finally, more than a year after the financial crisis began, the first legal action took place with the SEC charging Goldman with fraud. I don’t have much to say about the actual fraud charge, except that in prior cases like this, the first charge is rarely the last. Once discovery begins and subpoenas start being issued, all the dirty documents and emails start to come out, and the dominoes begin to fall.
I do want to talk about John Paulson’s role in this affair. Paulson was not charged with fraud, and rightly not: he didn’t misrepresent anything. From a legal standpoint, Paulson didn’t do anything wrong. But what he did – paying Goldman to create a security purely so he could bet against it – just feels wrong. As Daniel Gross of Slate put it, this is like paying a construction company to build a shoddy high-rise so that you can buy insurance that pays off if the high-rise collapses, which you know it will, because you built it out of crappy materials. I was discussing this with my friend Bark for Daddy yesterday, and I fully admit that I can’t logically make a case for why Paulson was wrong. But there is just something unseemly about it.
Although not only do Paulson’s actions feel wrong, but if you take a step back and look at the big picture, a case can be made that they really were wrong. Paulson, as much as anyone on earth, knew that we were in a housing bubble; that’s why he was betting so hard against mortgage securities. So when he paid Goldman to create a $1 billion security made up of mortgages, he was adding to the bubble, and he knew it. He knew investors were going to lose an additional $1 billion, just so he could make more money.
And make money he did: Paulson took home $3.7 billion in pay in 2007. And speaking of feeling wrong, the fact that hedge fund managers – individuals – are regularly making $1 billion per year is also unseemly. Yes, they are doing so by producing big returns for their investors, and working within the system, but then maybe something is wrong with the system. Scoring $1 billion paydays by simply trading stocks, compared to entrepreneurs who get rich by building companies, again, just feels wrong.