Tales of the Vampire Squid

Great illustration of the classic movie The Sting by Francesco Francavilla

Matt Taibbi of the Rolling Stone spells out why Goldman Sachs is making all that money in a piece called “Wall Street’s Bailout Hustle”. The contents shouldn’t be new for any reader here because it basically spells out what we’ve been talking about for some time. Also, any avid reader of Yves over at Naked Capitalism or Karl Denninger at the Market Ticker will have also followed the heist of taxpayer monies. The good news is that the Rolling Stone has a much bigger audience. The bad news is that I don’t know at this point if what any of us say will really matter. The fix is in and has been in for some time.

We’ve talked about how by allowing the investment banks to become commercial banks,the FED opened the discount window to institutions that normally cannot borrow money there or for that matter borrow any where that cheaply. Having your marginal cost of capital suddenly go to close to zero lets you invest in a lot of projects whose net present value would not be positive otherwise. Unfortunately, these ‘projects’ weren’t things like inventory loans or loans for new equipment which are items that generally are funded by commercial banks. The proceeds of the Fed loans were used to buy up deep discounted (by the Treasury) financial assets from the remnants of a failing AIG.

So the scam–as we’ve talked about in several posts–was pretty easy. First, you borrow from the FED at close to zero per cent interest. Then you get inside information on what’s going to be stripped out of AIG by then NY Fed chairman Timothy Geithner (who sees to it that the price is discounted to Filene’s Basement-levels) and you buy. Then, the NY Fed pre announces a program to buy whatever bad investments you may have on your book (including those deeply discounted AIG assets that you just bought at giveaway prices) so that you and your competitors can shift the assets around several times from place to place and run the price up. Just when the price goes up to an unreasonable level, you sell it to the FED. Then you stand in line for your huge bonus check in a few months for being a Master of the Universe when just about any freshman who took an investments course at the local community college could’ve figured out the same thing. La voilà! Fait accompli!

It would’ve been much cheaper for all of us if they’d have just bought the AIG assets directly but for some reason a bunch of folks in Washington D.C. insisted that the ‘market’ set the price. So, instead of having a phony price set by the FED directly, we had a scammed price set by investment banks. Was all this so Obama could say he’s a good capitalist and not a socialist or was it just away to dance with them that brought you? As we’ve also talked about before, Goldman Sachs and the FIRE lobby invested heavily in the Obama campaign.

So, if you want it spelled out a little bit more completely–with some much better prose than I can come up with–you can visit the Taibbi article and weep for your hard earned tax dollars. Here’s a great example of that.

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.

No really. It’s a quote from the first paragraph. I swear I didn’t make it up. Nor did I make this up.

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: They raped the taxpayer, and they raped their clients.

So, it explains pretty clearly how Wall Street made that money in a sort’ve pulp fictionish way which hopefully will bring some attention back to culprits like Timothy Geithner who basically was the “loan arranger” of the sting on taxpayers. If that’s what it takes to wake folks up to the scam behind the masters of the universe, then so be it. WAKE THE FUCK UP FOLKS!


Market Manipulation 101 or How to Rob Fort Knox in front of a Congressional Panel

Every day, as the AIG saga unfolds, I have to wonder if there is any vestige of a functional regulatory scheme left in this country. I’ve already decided that there is no shred of decency left in any one whose hand came close to unraveling the insurance giant and its deals. I know this is an area where eyes glaze over, but really, it’s like solving a crime that even Miss. Marple couldn’t fathom. Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve been robbed.

It may be too complex for most journalists to report about, but the financial blog realm, full of individual investors, academics and pissed off Americans is keeping the story alive. The headline today from the Atlantic is there are $100 Million More in AIG bonuses. Don’t forget, we basically OWN this company so this is OUR money. Most voters are wise enough to know that this alone does not pass the threshold of decency. You don’t have to have a PHd with an emphasis on corporate governance to figure out that something is very wrong when people can bankrupt a company one year, and still collect bonuses the very next.

In the ongoing AIG bonus saga, the troubled insurer will distribute around $100 million in bonuses today, that’s likely much to the dismay of taxpayers who now own the firm. Despite the fact that AIG is technically under compensation restrictions, many so-called “guaranteed bonuses” that were in place before AIG’s collapse still must be honored by law. This is a regrettable situation, and speaks loudly to the messy problem that bailouts pose.

This is the headline today in many of the mainstream papers. This includes the NY Times that reports those bonuses may have been lowered by$20 million to lessen the blow. This is a mere trifling compared to what was pilfered from the dying AIG by Goldman Sachs as it was in the throes of death. Those Revenuers let Goldman Sachs pick clean the dead body of AIG before we got the bill for the funeral.

“A.I.G. has taxpayers over a barrel,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, in a statement on Tuesday night. “The Obama administration has been outmaneuvered. And the closed-door negotiations just add to the skepticism that the taxpayers will ever get the upper hand.”

A.I.G. first promised the retention bonuses to keep people working at its financial products unit, which traded in the derivatives that imploded in September 2008, leading to the biggest government bailout in history.

The contracts, which were established in December 2007, were intended to keep people from leaving the company and called for the bonuses to be paid in regular installments to more than 400 employees in the unit. The final payment, which was for about $198 million, was due in mid-March, but was accelerated to Wednesday as part of the agreement to reduce its size.

Fearing a firestorm like the one last spring, A.I.G. had been working with the Treasury’s special master for compensation, Kenneth R. Feinberg, on a compromise that would allow it to keep its promise in part, without offending taxpayers.

So, the bonuses plays into the theme of the moment–Populist Outrage–which is driving everything from angry teabots to high ratings for media screamers like Glenn Beck. It hides a bigger problem. What is going on behind the schemes in the books and the deals as we attempt to bailout a group of bad gamblers is far worse. Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism lays out some of the issues on HuffPo as well as a series of thread at her own blog. While we rage at the bonuses, the real crime happened behind the curtains, where you’re not supposed to notice Timothy Geithner, pulling the strings and blowing the steam from the giant talking head of Glenn Beck.

Although the focus of press and public attention has been the decision to pay out “100%”, this issue has not been framed as crisply as it should be. Remember, the underlying transactions were crap CDOs that the banks (or bank customers, a subject we will turn to later) owned, and on which the banks had gotten credit default swaps from AIG. The Fed in fact paid out WELL MORE than 100% on the value of the AIG credit default swaps by virtue of also buying the CDOs.

That is one simple paragraph to describe the scheme behind the bailout of AIG. The facts are nearly beyond belief and as Congressman Dennis Kucinich put it, the testimony provided by Timmy-in-the-Well-again Geithner and among others doesn’t “pass the smell test.” I’m not sure how you miss the smells coming from an open, festering mass grave. But, the majority of Americans, and Congressio Critters, seem to think it could be just a few dead birds in the attic. The evil is the ledger accounts at the New York Fed.

Smith says the details show the FED as either captured regulator exhibiting ‘crony behavior’ or the behavior of Geithner was duplicitous and merits legal action. That is even mild. Her Huffpo article lays out the arguments for both scenarios. Either way, Giethner’s NY Fed comes off badly and Paulson and the Bush Treasury come off as co-conspirators to a heist.

Another article which demonstrates palpable anger at both the ineffective Fed and Congress is written in the financial/investment blog Money Morning by Shah Giliani who is a retired Hedge Manager. Again, the lack of knowledgeable staff could be the reason the pieces to the puzzle are being put together outside of the mainstream media. It could be the story is too complex to be glamorous and deemed beyond the reach of the average 5th grade reading level achieved at most major newspapers. It’s even possible no one wants to take on the financial industry. The deal is what happened as outlined in the testimony–had some one on that Congressional Panel actually had a background in something other than professional politics subsidized by the FIRE lobby and a plethora of worthless law degrees and knew finance–should’ve caused outrage around the country and sent subpoenas flying out of the justice department and the SEC. The central players in this are Goldman Sachs and the New York Fed whose people are so entrenched now in the Treasury and the West Wing that you have to wonder if there ever will be enough justice left in this country to counteract what should be the cries of lynch mobs. Following through with the legal obligations to pay out the bonuses–with the smallish $20 million concession–is just the sprinkles on the cake. Perhaps it’s easier to pay them than to have the AIG financiers talk about the details as the FED and Treasury unwound their deals.

The rationale for what is essentially the breaking of so many laws is the rescue of the U.S. and the world from another Great Depression. There are always ignoble deeds, however, done in the name of the most noble causes. This should go down in the press and in history as The Great U.S. Treasury and Financial Market Heist. The last two secretaries of Treasury-Paulson and Geithner–should be hauled before a government tribunal and stuck in Gitmo with the rest of the terrorists and enemies of the state. The dirty details follow the fold.

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Who Holds Wall Street Accountable?

If your answer included any of number regulators or congress with its oversight duties or the traditional media with its watchdog of the public duties sorta answer, that would be a wrong answer. There were so many articles today about past and present Wall Street tomfoolery that I almost forgot to check the Wall Street Journal or The Hill. Instead, I”m relying on my subscriptions to things I’m supposed to be reading in the bath tub with Chopin playing in the background and a glass of Pinot Grigio nearby. Today, the best read came from Vanity Fare and was written by Andrew Ross Sorkin. (My Vanity Fare showed up today along with my latest copy of The Economist with the cover shouting “After the Storm: How to make the best of the Recovery.” ) My bottom line is still that Wall Street caused this and they are not only NOT cleaning it up, they are not being cleaned up.

I’m also checking out Matt Taibbi and TaibBlog now that his infamous vampire squid article in July’s Rolling Stone defined the shadowy world of Goldman Sachs better than just about any thing I’ve recently read. Matt’s blog today takes on naked selling or ‘naked swindling’ in the succinct framing of the Wall Street Deal that I now consider better jargon than that of the derivatives blah blah blah that I was taught in any of my PhD level corporate finance or investment classes. I may be able to do the proof for the Black Scholes formula but I will never be able to prove its social usefulness.

Actually, this takes me back to the Grey Lady and my first read of the day about the now bankrupt Simmons Bedding company that was the cash cow purposely inflicted with mad cow disease. Now days, it’s still more about the arbitrage deal and the leveraged deal that produces dividends than it is about what a company produces and the lives of the workers and long time managers who produce valuable stuff. It’s no longer build it and they will come. It’s leverage it to the hilt, take your dividends now, and find the next sucker with the next model that can hyperactivate the milking machine. It’s another real life example of Gordan Gekko and the greed is good speech. Spend some time with the Simmons story before you hit Taibblog and definitely the Sorkin article in Vanity Fare. It’ll put you in the right frame of mind.

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Zombie Regulation

zombie-road-signPublic Policy chaos is hard to miss these days. One moment it’s which health plan will make its way through the blue dogs in the Senate and the liberals in the house. The next moment it’s escalation of military actions in Afghanistan; probably where the original quagmire reference was developed at the dawn of time. Look this way!!! No look that way!!! Then there’s the forgotten war against financial risk excess. I could create a pretty good argument that much of the chaos might be to distract us from the rumblings still coming from the Wall Street fault line. Good thing the Europeans are looking, because it seems that we’re certainly not. That means they’ll be at least one safe place to put your money, eventually. Unfortunately, it won’t be here.

The Chief Executive of the Vampire squid was in Germany this week telling the Europeans exactly what they wanted to hear (h/t to myiq2xu). This should’ve elicited the “D’oh” heard round the world. Problem is, no one in the U.S. is listening. We have yet to see any serious proposal to regulate and standardize the types of complex financial derivatives that nearly brought the world economy to it’s knees less than a year ago.

Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, on Wednesday admitted that banks lost control of the exotic products they sold in the run-up to the financial crisis, and said that some of the instruments lacked social or economic value.

In a speech to the Handelsblatt banking conference in Frankfurt, he also repeated an attack, first made in the spring, on Wall Street compensation practices, calling the furore over bankers’ pay “understandable and appropriate”.

The startling message from the head of the world’s most high-profile investment bank echoes comments by Lord Turner, chairman of the Financial Services Authority, the UK regulator, who provoked controversy last month when he questioned the social value of much investment banking activity.

Mr Blankfein said: “The industry let the growth and complexity in new instruments outstrip their economic and social utility as well as the operational capacity to manage them.”

This is so true. When it takes an army of lawyers to work on one tranche and the contracts it involves, when it takes HDR-clusterfuckmath that requires physicists turned financiers to price the silly things, and when the resolution process is so whacked that it can take months to figure out who owns what, you’ve got control problems. Even more true is the fact that investments in these products doesn’t really create anything of value. It ties capital up in arbitrage and speculation rather than placing it the hands of entrepreneurs that actually create products and services. Top it off with cash out flows via bonuses from stock holders to what amounts to a professional gambling class and you’re bound to create a major clusterfuck eventually. So, given the clusterfuck last year, why aren’t we rewriting financial law?

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When Will They Ever Learn?

The Blogging Econ heads are still news makers today as we have more and more reports of record profits at Goldman pigs-playing-poker1Sachs and examples of blatant corportist propaganda at CNBC. I learned yesterday that many folks are listening, it just isn’t necessarily the ones shaping and setting policy. We also see a completely unsustainable budget coming down the pipe per the Director of the CBO. Why is it that policy makers seem to want us in dire straights? Are their sources of campaign funds so sacred that they’re willing to bring down the U.S. economy? Where does a Cassandra start?

Matt Taibbi and Paul Krugman focus in on the GS profits. So, I’m all for making a decent rate of return, that’s necessary to keep a company in business and it’s required to attract capital to grow a market. However, record setting, extraordinary profits are symptoms of a market out-of-whack. In the most simplest of analysis it could mean there are minimally too few providers of a service which can also lead to some form of market manipulation, information hiding, or information asymmetry allowing them to reap extraordinary profits. I basically think we’re seeing GS game the market based on raiding underpriced AIG assets with a free source of capital. This means the profits are straight from taxpayer funding. No wonder these guys don’t want to pony up any equity to us based on profitability and want to dump TARP funds (with their compensation restrictions) as quickly as possible. How can Washington miss that they’re back at their same old games?

This is from Taibbi who basically lays it out. They’re taking our tax dollars and buying assets with tax dollar in government-selected subsidized fire sales, creating arbitrage profits (some through their own huge market shares now that much of their competition is gone) and churning themselves some nice bonuses. In music, that’s called riding the gravy train. It’s a no risk, no brainer, no lose situation. Why would that require bonuses? [You can mark my words on this. They looted (with government enabling) AIG and the next one up will be CIT.]

So what’s wrong with Goldman posting $3.44 billion in second-quarter profits, what’s wrong with the company so far earmarking $11.4 billion in compensation for its employees? What’s wrong is that this is not free-market earnings but an almost pure state subsidy.

Krugman, a microeconomist with specializations in trade theory, sees it too.

The American economy remains in dire straits, with one worker in six unemployed or underemployed. Yet Goldman Sachs just reported record quarterly profits — and it’s preparing to hand out huge bonuses, comparable to what it was paying before the crisis. What does this contrast tell us?

First, it tells us that Goldman is very good at what it does. Unfortunately, what it does is bad for America.

Second, it shows that Wall Street’s bad habits — above all, the system of compensation that helped cause the financial crisis — have not gone away.

Third, it shows that by rescuing the financial system without reforming it, Washington has done nothing to protect us from a new crisis, and, in fact, has made another crisis more likely.

Meanwhile, back in the Main Stream Media, also known as the Wall Street and K Street propaganda factory, CNBC has tired to rosy up Dr. Doom’s forecasts to enable its masters arbitrage profits. Roubini made it clear that his views on the economy have remained unchanged despite the attempts to make it look otherwise.

Nouriel Roubini, the economist whose dire forecasts earned him the nickname “Doctor Doom,” said after markets closed Thursday that earlier reports claiming he sees an end to the recession this year were “taken out of context.”

“It has been widely reported today that I have stated that the recession will be over ‘this year’ and that I have ‘improved’ my economic outlook,” Roubini said in a prepared statement. “Despite those reports … my views expressed today are no different than the views I have expressed previously. If anything my views were taken out of context.”

Several business news outlets, picking up on a report initially from Reuters, earlier Thursday cited Roubini as saying that the worst of the economic financial crisis may be over.

The New York University professor was quoted by Reuters as saying that the economy would emerge from the recession toward the end of 2009.

Reports of his comments helped trigger a late rally in the stock market.

Did you read that bit about triggering a late rally in the stock market? Pity the poor suckers that believed CNBC and of course, watch the deposits grow of the folks that placed the offsetting market transactions. And, let’s see, which market insiders would probably know that was BS? I don’t think you have to be Ms. Marple or an SEC investigator to figure that one out. It was just a simple mistake, wasn’t it?

Factors Explaining Future Federal Spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (Percentage of GDP)
Factors Explaining Future Federal Spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (Percentage of GDP)

Another thing that really has sugared my cookies is this report coming out of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) one of the few bastions of economic thought in the beltway that tries to look out for the real constituents of Washington D.C.. The Director of the CBO,Doug Elmendorf, had this to say to a Senate Committee followed by a post to his blog.

The current recession and policy responses have little effect on long-term projections of noninterest spending and revenues. But CBO estimates that in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, the federal government will record its largest budget deficits as a share of GDP since shortly after World War II. As a result of those deficits, federal debt held by the public will soar from 41 percent of GDP at the end of fiscal year 2008 to 60 percent at the end of fiscal year 2010. This higher debt results in permanently higher spending to pay interest on that debt. Federal interest payments already amount to more than 1 percent of GDP; unless current law changes, that share would rise to 2.5 percent by 2020.

There’s also his bottom line.

Under current law, the federal budget is on an unsustainable path, because federal debt will continue to grow much faster than the economy over the long run. Although great uncertainty surrounds long-term fiscal projections, rising costs for health care and the aging of the population will cause federal spending to increase rapidly under any plausible scenario for current law. Unless revenues increase just as rapidly, the rise in spending will produce growing budget deficits. Large budget deficits would reduce national saving, leading to more borrowing from abroad and less domestic investment, which in turn would depress economic growth in the United States. Over time, accumulating debt would cause substantial harm to the economy.

Okay, am I just being a little too wonky here or are these three things perfectly clear to any one who has the audacity to be informed?

Norway, anyone?
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