What Cooked the World's Economy?

It wasn't your overdue mortgage.

The other key appointment is Attorney General. A century ago, when powerful trusts distorted the market system, we had AGs who relentlessly tracked and busted them. Today's crisis is missing, so far, an advocate as dynamic and energetic as the mortgage bankers, brokers, bundlers, raters, and quants who, in a few short years, littered the world with rotten loans, diseased CDOs, and lethal derivatives. During the Bush years, white-collar law enforcement actually dropped as FBI agents were transferred to antiterrorism. Even so, according to William Black, an effective federal litigator and regulator during the 1980s savings-and-loan scandal, by 2004, the FBI perceived an epidemic of fraud. Now a professor of law and finance at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, Black has testified to Congress about the current crisis and paints it as "control fraud" at every level. Such fraud flows from the top tiers of corporations-typically CEOs and CFOs, who control perverse compensation systems that reward cheating and volume rather than quality, and circumvent standard due diligence such as underwriting and accounting. For instance, AIGFP's Cassano reportedly rebuffed AIG's internal auditor.

The environment from the top of the chain-derivatives gang leaders-to the bottom of the chain-subprime, no-doc loan officers-became "criminogenic," Black says. The only real response? Aggressive prosecution of "elites" at all stages in this twisted mess. Black says sentences should not be the light, six-month slaps that white-collar criminals usually get, or the Madoff-style penthouse arrest.

As staggering as the Madoff meltdown was, it had a refreshing side-the funds were frozen. In the bailout, on the other hand, the government often seems to be completing the scam by quietly passing the proceeds to counterparties.

The advantage of treating these players like racketeers under federal law is that their ill-gotten gains could be forfeited. The government could recoup these odious gambling debts instead of simply paying them off. In finance, the bottom line is the bottom line. The bottom line in this scandal is that fantastically wealthy entities positioned themselves to make unfathomable fortunes by betting that average Americans-Joe Six-Packs and hockey moms-would fail.

Black suggests that derivatives should be "unwound" and that the payouts cease: "Close out the positions-most of them have no social utility." And where there has been fraud, he adds, "clawback makes perfect sense." That would include taking back the ludicrously large bonuses and other forms of compensation given to CEOs at bailed-out companies.

No one knows how much could be clawed back from the soiled derivatives reap. Clearly, it's not $600 trillion. William Bergman, formerly a market analyst at the Chicago Fed in "netting"-what's left after financial institutions pay each other off for ongoing deals and debts-makes a "guess" that perhaps only 5 percent could be recouped, which he concedes is unfortunately low. Still, that's $30 trillion, a huge number, more than 10 times what the Fed can deploy and over twice the U.S. gross domestic product. Such a sum, if recovered through the criminal justice process, could ease the liquidity crisis and actually get the credit arteries flowing. Not everyone would like it. What's left of Wall Street and hedge funds want their derivatives gains; so do foreign banks.


A tangle of secrecy, conflicts of interest, and favoritism plagues the process of recovery.

Lehman drowned, but Goldman Sachs, where Paulson was formerly CEO, was saved. The day before AIG reaped its initial $85 billion bonanza, Paulson met with his successor, Lloyd Blankfein, who reportedly argued that Goldman would lose $20 billion and fail unless AIG was rescued. AIG got the money.

Had Goldman bought from AIG credit derivatives that it needed to redeem? Like most other huge financial traders, Goldman has a secretive hedge fund, Global Alpha, that refuses to reveal its transactions. Regardless, Paulson's meeting with Blankfein was a low point. If Dick Cheney had met with his successor at Halliburton and, the very next day, written a check for billions that guaranteed its survival, the press would have screamed for his head.

The second most shifty bailout went to Citigroup, a money sewer that won last year's layoff super bowl with 73,000. Instead of being parceled to efficient operators, Citi received a $45 billion bailout and $300 billion loan package, at least in part because of Robert Rubin's juice. While Treasury Secretary under Clinton, Rubin led us into the derivatives maelstrom, deported jobs with NAFTA, and championed bank deregulation so that companies like Citi could mimic Wall Street speculators. After he joined Citi's leadership in 1999, the bank went long on mortgages and other risks du jour, enmeshed itself in Enron's web, tanked in value, and suffered haphazard management, while Rubin made more than $100 million.

Rubin remained a director and "senior counselor" at Citi until January 9, 2009, and is an economic adviser to Obama. In truth, he probably shouldn't be a senior counselor anywhere except possibly at Camp Granada. Like Greenspan, he should retire before he breaks something again, and we have to pay for it. (Incidentally, the British bailout, which is more open than ours and mandates mortgage relief, makes corporate welfare contingent on the removal of bad management.)

The third strangest rescue involved the Fed's announcement just before Christmas that hedge funds for the first time could borrow from it. Apparently, the new $200 billion credit line relates to recently revealed securitized debts including bundled credit card bills, student loans, and auto loans. Obviously, it's worrisome that the crisis may be morphing beyond its real estate roots.


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