Matt Taibbi has a new piece in Rolling Stone, using Senator Levin’s report on the financial meltdown to show that Goldman Sachs broke the law repeatedly. You have to take Taibbi with a grain of salt, especially when it comes to Goldman (here is the NY Times on the same report), but here is a stunning fact pattern on how prosecutions of financial crimes have gone steeply downhill in the past 20 years:
William Black was senior deputy chief counsel at the Office of Thrift Supervision in 1991 and 1992…. Black describes the regulatory MO back then. “Every year,” he says, “you had thousands of criminal referrals, maybe 500 enforcement actions, 150 civil suits and hundreds of convictions.”
But beginning in the mid-Nineties, when former Goldman co-chairman Bob Rubin served as Bill Clinton’s senior economic-policy adviser, the government began moving toward a regulatory system that relied almost exclusively on voluntary compliance by the banks. Old-school criminal referrals disappeared down the chute of history along with floppy disks and scripted television entertainment. In 1995, according to an independent study, banking regulators filed 1,837 referrals. During the height of the financial crisis, between 2007 and 2010, they averaged just 72 a year.
See yesterday’s post, and repeat. Names change, facts remain the same.
Yves Smith on the macro effects of oversized Wall Street pay.
I normally don’t love Paul Krugman, despite his Nobel Prize, since he is too strident and preachy and predictable, but this take on what really separates Right from Left in America is pretty interesting.
John Mearsheimer on American foreign policy and realpolitik.
John Cassidy on whether Wall Street adds value to society. Hint: it doesn’t. This is from the New Yorker, so it won’t be available online forever.
Law professor David Beatty compares American constitutional jurisprudence to how they do it in other countries. I’m no expert, but I found it fascinating.
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This article in The Big Money discusses how Goldman Sachs’ defense in the Abacus CDO case – that the buyers were sophisticated investors – isn’t entirely accurate, since those sophisticated investors (banks and pension funds) get a significant amount of money from regular folks like you and me. This is true, but it only gets at half the story. In the context of Wall Street, banks and pension funds are not considered the most sophisticated players.
The reality is that Wall Street has a hierarchy, and it’s measured by compensation. Generally speaking, the smartest people go to where they can make the most money. So if you are really sharp, you’re not likely to end up managing a pension fund’s investments and being a civil servant making $200k per year. You might settle for being a bond portfolio manger at a bank, making $500k. But if you are really smart and aggressive – in other words, a sophisticated player – you are going to end up at an investment bank putting together deals that can pay you several million dollars per year.
So Goldman’s “these were big boys” defense has two flaws. One, as The Big Money points out, the big boys got their money from the little guys. But two, the buyers may have been big boys, but the Goldman bankers pushing the CDOs were men. Speaking metaphorically, of course.
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.
Here is economist Simon Johnson’s take on the news that Goldman Sachs helped Greece hide the overwhelming debt that is currently forcing the European Union to bail out the birthplace of democracy.
Felix Salmon at Reuters savages Ruth Simmons, the President of Brown University and a member of Goldman’s board of directors. He points out how completely unqualified she is to provide governance to a financial firm, and how she seems more interested in the benefits her board membership can bring to her than she is in her fiduciary responsibility to shareholders. His points are true for many members of corporate boards. Board members need to provide tough, knowledgeable oversight, not a comfortable pillow for management’s decisions. The lack of strong boards is a major component in both corporate malfeasance and ludicrous executive pay schemes.
The NY Times recently wrote a story about how business schools are, in the wake of the financial meltdown, realizing that they need to teach future business leaders to think in creative, flexible and interdisciplinary ways. This is news? I’m no captain of industry, but to me it seems incredibly obvious that in business, like in the rest of life, the right way to make decisions is to pull together disparate data points to draw a conclusion, and then be willing to change that decision as new data comes in. Maybe the fact that this is news is what has been wrong with business schools all along.
National Affairs recently ran an article on financial markets and regulation that was the most clear-headed, non-ideological commentary I have seen. The author, Nicole Gelinas, makes five main points:
- Capital markets are important because they allocate a key resource (money!) among various projects and sources
- A free market of buyers and sellers, or lenders and borrowers, is the most efficient form of capital market
- Some regulation is essential to the smooth working of a free market
- This includes regulation of leverage, speculation and complicated instruments
- Explicit or implicit government guarantees (eg. too big to fail) distort the free market
But read the article yourself. It’s not long, and it’s awesome.