Tuesday Reads


Good Morning!!

This is going to be another quick post, because my mom is having an emergency that I need to help her with. She lost her internet, TV, and phone, and Comcast is saying they can’t do anything till Friday! She told them she is 88 years old, so maybe they’ll get off their duffs sooner.

Meanwhile, she just has her cell phone and only 100 minutes. She can afford to pay if she goes over, but she’s Great Depression survivor and often panics over “wasting money.”

So let’s see what’s happening in the headlines.

NBC News: Janet Yellen confirmed as first female Fed chair. Another glass ceiling shattered!

Vice chair of the Fed since 2010, Yellen begins her four-year term as leader of the century-old bank on Feb. 1. With the economy rebounding from the depths of the recession but only modestly so far, many economists expect her to focus on how to nurture growth without putting it into overdrive, which could risk fueling inflation….

Under Bernanke, the Fed has driven short-term interest rates down to near zero and flushed money into the economy with huge bond purchases, which it has just started to ease. Yellen, a strong Bernanke ally, has supported those policies and is expected to continue them until concrete signs emerge of sustained improvement of the economy and job market.

In a written statement, President Barack Obama said Yellen’s approval means “the American people will have a fierce champion” who will protect them.

On the other hand,

Lobbyists for the banking and financial services sectors issued statements pledging to work with Yellen. Both industries have led a fight to water down restrictions imposed by Obama’s 2010 law overhauling how the nation’s financial system is regulated.

I hope Dakinikat will weigh in on this later on. My guess is she will pooh pooh the notion that anything is going to suddenly create inflation in this economy.

CNN on the latest media meme: The Polar Vortex.

From Boston to Washington to Atlanta, the polar vortex kept swinging Tuesday, a frozen ice chest hovering over more than 100 million people.

Temperatures in many areas were in the single digits, and well below zero with wind chills.

In the Deep South, hard freeze warnings were in effect from eastern Texas to the Florida Panhandle….

It’s even too cold for polar bears and penguins. At Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, Anana — a polar bear who never grew the thick layer of fat that bears in the Arctic do — had to be brought inside Monday. And at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, bald eagles and African penguins, “who are used to temperate climates,” were taken off exhibit until the weather warms up, the facility reported.

And from Think Progress: Everything You Wanted To Know About The ‘Polar Vortex’

the Arctic air that usually sits on top of our planet is “taking an excursion” south for a couple of days, leaving the North Pole “relatively warm” and our temperate region not-so-temperate. “Go Home Arctic, You’re Drunk,” he titledthe explanation.

“The Polar Vortex, a huge system of moving swirling air that normally contains the polar cold air, has shifted so it is not sitting right on the pole as it usually does,” Laden writes. “We are not seeing an expansion of cold, an ice age, or an anti-global warming phenomenon. We are seeing the usual cold polar air taking an excursion. So, this cold weather we are having does not disprove global warming.”

In fact, some scientists have theorized that the influx of extreme cold is actually fueled by effects of climate change. Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Science, told ClimateProgress on Monday that it’s not the Arctic who is drunk. It’s the jet stream.

“The drunk part is that the jet stream is in this wavy pattern, like a drunk walking along,” Francis, who primarily studies Arctic links to global weather patterns, said. “In other places, you could see the tropics are drunk.”

Basically, places that are usually cold are warmer and places that are usually warm are getting the cold air. Lots more at the link.

Here’s scary headline for you: Republicans Really Could Win It All This Year, by Larry Sabato. But take it with a grain of salt, because it’s a Politico story.

Another midterm election beckons, and over the next 10 months we’ll see headlines about a thousand supposedly critical developments—the “game changers” and the “tipping points.” But we all know there aren’t a thousand powerful drivers of the vote. I’d argue that three factors are paramount: the president, the economy and the election playing field. And, at least preliminarily, those three factors seem to be pointing toward Republican gains in both houses in the 2014 midterms.

Read all about it at the link. As a side note, Joseph Cannon has a post up about Sabato and his recent book on the JFK assassination. As usual, when Cannon writes about this subject, it’s highly enlightening. Check it out if you like connecting dots.

Here’s a wacky story from Oklahoma that Dakinicat sent me last night: Student Expelled for Casting a Spell.

An Oklahoma high school suspended a

15-year-old student after accusing her of casting a magic spell

that caused a teacher to become sick, lawyers for the student

said on Friday.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it had filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on behalf of student Brandi Blackbear, charging that the assistant principal of Union Intermediate High School in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, suspended her for 15 days last December for supposedly casting a spell.

The suit also charged the Tulsa-area Union Public Schools with repeatedly violating Blackbear’s civil rights by seizing notebooks she used to write horror stories and barring her from drawing or wearing signs of the pagan religion Wicca.

“It’s hard for me to believe that in the year 2000 I am walking into court to defend my daughter against charges of witchcraft brought by her own school,” said Timothy Blackbear, Brandi’s father.

WTF?! So what we’re learning is that at least a teacher and presumably members of the administration of a school in Oklahoma believes it is possible to cast magic spells that make people sick? What century is this again?

Angela Merkel has broken her pelvis in a skiing accident. From CNN:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel fractured her pelvis in a skiing accident in Switzerland over the holidays, her spokesman told reporters Monday.
Merkel was cross-country skiing when the accident occurred. Spokesman Steffen Seibert did not disclose the date of the incident, but said her injuries are not thought to be serious and it is thought she will make a full recovery.

Merkel, who has been Chancellor of Germany since 2005, will need aid to walk over the next few weeks and will be canceling some of her commitments, Seibert said.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) said it will delay its party retreat, originally slated for January 10-11, as a result of her accident.

From The New York Times: JPMorgan Settles With Federal Authorities in Madoff Case

Before Bernard L. Madoff stole billions of dollars from his clients, and before he received a 150-year prison sentence for those crimes, JPMorgan Chase had a chance to warn federal authorities about his Ponzi scheme but never did.

On Tuesday, five years after Mr. Madoff’s arrest set off a panic on Wall Street and Washington, Mr. Madoff’s primary bank received a punishment of its own.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan imposed a $1.7 billion penalty on JPMorgan, striking a criminal settlement deal involving two felony violations. The prosecutors, essentially accusing the nation’s biggest bank of turning a blind eye to Mr. Madoff’s fraud, will force JPMorgan to pay the sum to his victims.

Later on Tuesday, federal regulators are expected to announce their own rebuke of the bank in a civil case. All told, JPMorgan is likely to pay some $2 billion to resolve the Madoff investigations, which will be fully detailed at a press conference scheduled for Tuesday afternoon at the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan.

Some bankers are going to lose some money and are being embarrassed. It’s something anyway. I’ll end on that positive note.

So . . . what stories are you following today? Please share your links in the comment thread.

Newsflash folks: This isn’t Market Capitalism, it’s Monopoly

I entered the world of commercial banking the same year that the Monetary Control Act of 1980 (MCA) got passed and signed by Jimmy Carter.  President Jimmy Carter was responsible for the first onslaught of deregulation of all kinds of industries which is important to think about.  It was a Democratic President that pulled the first card from the laws that were put into place to stop the banking crises that had plagued our country in the early years of capitalism.  I should also remind you that the country was founded on a system of economics called mercantilism.  Capitalism didn’t come into being until the early-to-mid-19th-century. (Note to Rick Perry: The US Revolutionary war was not in the 16th or  17th century.) We had series of financial crises in  the 1840s and then in 1870s .  The first one was in 1792 and a politician/financier caused it. 

We didn’t call them recessions bank then.  We called them Panics and they were sourced in banking and nascent financial markets.  They were the result of excessive speculation and/or some Bernie-Madoff-like figure and scheme.  In 1792, the panic was set off by William Duer who used his appointment to the US Treasury by Alexander Hamilton to use insider information in a similar way to Hedge Fund Manager Raj Rajaratnam who was just sentenced to 11 years in jail yesterday.  This is a very old story and really dates back to the birth of capitalism as we know it.

Hamilton was pretty appalled by Duer’s speculative activities.  He wrote this at the time.

“Tis time, there must be a line of separation between honest Men & knaves, between respectable Stockholders and dealers in the funds, and mere unprincipled Gamblers.”

If you start typing Financial Panic into Google, you’ll start seeing a huge number of dates pop up.  From 1792 down to the present time, most of these panics have been clearly rooted in that same problem: speculative bubbles and banking malfeasance.

There’s a clear difference between the good old fashioned community banking that gave me my first job out of my masters program and what we have today.   Much of it is due to that first card pulled from the bottom of the financial market card house by Jimmy Carter in 1980.  You can read about the law at FRB Boston.  There were a lot of responsibilities placed on the FED for oversight at the time but the banks got a lot of benefits including increased access to borrowing money from the FED.  When I was working in Nebraska,  a bank was allowed one branch and a main office. There were restrictions on how far away the branch could be.  I worked for a small bank with a branch across the street at a big shopping center.   That local law was pulled down shortly thereafter because the banks wanted to branch every where into communities they did not know.  There are very few community banks left in the country where your banker knows if you’ll be good for your loan or not based on years of knowing you.

Most small and regional banks have been gobbled up by the top 4 or 5 financial institutions. The majority of financial assets sit in a handful of institutions.  That’s called monopoly, folks.  Monopolies require regulation, not free reign.  That’s basic classical economic theory and has nothing to do with Keynes and politics.  Any microeconomics 101 students should be able to explain why.  They are incredibly inefficient. We say they are not Pareto Efficient, which means some very specific things.  They overprice their products.  They restrict access to these products. They earn profits above and beyond what they should because the revenue far exceeds the productivity of the factors used to produce the service. They create a deadweight loss which is bad for every corner of the economy except for the monopolist.

We have gone from a system where lending risk is personalized and spread around a number of institutions to a situation where it’s all concentrated and automated in the hands of a few big banks. They also can invest in a lot of specious assets.  The banks continued to seek complete interstate banking and eventually got it. The Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994 gave them exactly what they wanted.  It also allowed bank holding companies to do things that they had previously been disallowed like hold subsidiaries that offered speculative investments.  Interestingly enough, it is much easier to become a bank holding company than it is to become a bank.  Many investment banks became bank holding companies to access borrowing through the Fed Window in 2008 when they had gambled away a good deal of their own capital.

This law was signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton. That’s only the commercial banking side.  The so-called shadow banking industry got freed to speculate at will and be closely aligned with banks and their guaranteed deposit when the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act  (GLBA) was signed by President William Clinton in 1999.  It repealed huge sections of the Glass Steagall Act that were put into place during the Great Depression to deal with all those financial panics that finally led up to the 1929 Bank Run.  If you’re unemployed and you’ve seen your housing equity and your retirement funds depleted, I’d suggest going to Phil Gramm’s house with placards and rotten eggs.  He’s the one mover and shaker that brought all this on to our heads and a symbolic tar and feathering would make me feel good, frankly. (Here’s an academic site with some brief notes on a Mishkin textbook on the history of the repeal of important banking laws for your reference.)

So, it goes with out saying that the minute these things were put into play from 1980 forward, it was only a matter of time before we started to repeating panics and would eventually get another Great Depression.  The panics started in the 1980s. I’d moved out of commercial banking and into the S&L business right before our first panic came.  When S&L’s started giving market rates of interest on their liabilities, they had to start giving new mortgage loans out at exorbitant prices.  My first one–in 1982–was for around 17%.  I got the banker discount which brought it down to 12%.  The problem was that all the liabilities were repricing to market and all the assets (loans) were still stuck at those 1950-1960 home loan interest rates of about 5%.  My dad was barely paying 4% because the bank he used also was funding his floor plan (that’s the cars he had on his inventory sheet as a new car dealer).  His floor plan interest was through the roof in those days because the usury laws had been suspended.  It was in the 20% levels just like credit card debt was at the time.  The commercial banks were seeing incredibly high prime rates of interest and the Savings and Loans were hemorrhaging money.  This is a problem of term mismatch when you rely on arbitrage profits, but I’ll avoid the lecture on that one!  The S&L crisis should’ve been the first cautionary tale from that Monetary Control Act.  I have some pretty wild stories from those days including the Treasurer that I worked for using GNMA futures to day trade to try to up our cash balances.  Illegal yes!  That’s if you’re caught! However, we were the least of the FSLIC’s problems at the time and he got away with it!

The second cautionary tale came with a  Long Term Capital Management that lost tons of money after the Russian Financial Crisis in 1998. That didn’t stop the GLBA at all however.  There was an earlier canary too.  That was Franklin Savings and Loan.  There’s actually a more recent example of the same.  That would be Granite Funds. LTCM made convergence trades that required huge sums of money and enormous leverage to be profitable.  They were eventually bailed out and wound down at a huge cost.  There is absolutely something wrong when we repeatedly have huge organizations collapse because of margin calls.   I point back up to the quote from Alexander Hamilton who got it the first time out.  We still haven’t learned the lessons from any of this because we’re ready and primed for the next financial crisis with European Sovereign Debt too.  The speculators are pulling the same tricks and we’re suffering from the same results.

So, the deal is that after about 100 years of horrible problems, we put a box around the speculators called Glass Steagall.  There is a new box proposed called the Volcker Rule.  The banks are kicking and screaming about even the smallest regulations to stick them back into their boxes.  We cannot afford to repeatedly coddle an industry that systematically creates huge social and economic costs on a regular basis when set free to do as it will. The Volcker Rule–in its current form–is pretty mild.  It’s no where near what ex Fed Chairman Paul Volcker originally offered but it’s a step in the right direction.  That’s why it’s first on my list of demands for OCCUPY activists.

Fitch Ratings on Friday said it sees potential for a delay in the adoption of a newly proposed rule barring banks from trading for their own profits, due to industry opposition that could lead to a political fight.

Banks’ opposition “will likely fuel a lengthy debate in Washington regarding the ultimate scope and precise implementation” of the Volcker Rule, Fitch said in a report released four days after federal banking regulators proposed the rules.

“There is a real possibility that controversy surrounding the proposal could delay the precise definition of restricted trading, particularly in a presidential election year when partisan debate over financial regulation will be intense,” Fitch said.

The rule, named after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, was required under the financial overhaul that became law last year. The rule would bar banks from trading for their own profit instead of on their clients’ behalf. Banks must hold investments for more than 60 days, and bank managers must make sure employees comply with restrictions.

The day after banking regulators and the Federal Reserve backed the rule, the Securities and Exchange Commission voted 4-0 to send the proposal out for public comment. The public has until Jan. 13 to comment on a rule that’s expected to take effect by July after a final vote by all the regulators. Banks would have until July 2014 to comply.

The industry has said that the proposal would put them at a disadvantage to banks in other countries.

Let me reiterate something I’ve said earlier.  The Scandinavian countries learned from their last disastrous banking crisis in the early 1990s and put their banks back into the box.  This was roughly the same time of our own S&L crisis and came from speculative bubbles.  They all come from speculative bubbles, excess risk taking, and extremely immoral behavior on the part of many bankers/brokers because the extraordinary profits that can be extracted on the ride up are incredible. The Canadians never let them out so they’ve basically been sitting pretty well during this last crisis.  None of these countries had the problems that we and other countries have had since then.  The Volcker Rule is the least we could do to start down the path to sanity.

I want to end this post by pointing out a new voice in the blogging community called Reformed Broker.  His real name is Joshua Brown.  He has written a Dear Wall Street letter that’s worth a read.  He now feels like I felt after living through the S&L crisis and then watching the insanity repeat with LTCM and the others in the late 1990s.  All this fol de rol tanked my 403(B) retirement account as badly as this last bit of craziness has tanked it again. Only this time I am 10 years closer to retirement. Oh, and this time they got my home equity in the process and my job.  The S&L crisis got my job and killed my ability to sell my house.  It also caused incredible damage to my father’s small business.  He sold it at a huge loss just to get out from under the stress that was killing him.  I’ve just about had it now with this nonsense, the bankers, and the politicians that enable them.  As I’ve said it’s been going on for some time and they need to be put back into the box.

I’m going way beyond fair use here, Josh but I wanted your voice to be read by our readers.  Please take this as a compliment and not a copy right violation!

In 2008, the American people were told that if they didn’t bail out the banks, there way of life would never be the same. In no uncertain terms, our leaders told us anything short of saving these insolvent banks would result in a depression to the American public. We had to do it!

At our darkest hour we gave these banks every single thing they asked for. We allowed investment banks to borrow money at zero percent interest rate, directly from the Fed. We gave them taxpayer cash right onto their balance sheets. We allowed them to suspend account rules and pretend that the toxic sludge they were carrying was worth 100 cents on the dollar. Anything to stave off insolvency. We left thousands of executives in place at these firms. Nobody went to jail, not a single perp walk. I can’t even think of a single example of someone being fired. People resigned with full benefits and pensions, as though it were a job well done.

The American taxpayer kicked in over a trillion dollars to help make all of this happen. But the banks didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. The banks didn’t seize this opportunity, this second chance to re-enter society as a constructive agent of commerce. Instead, they went back to business as usual. With $20 billion in bonuses paid during 2009. Another $20 billion in bonuses paid in 2010. And they did this with the profits they earned from zero percent interest rates that actually acted as a tax on the rest of the economy.

Instead of coming back and working with this economy to get back on its feet, they hired lobbyists by the dozen to fight tooth and nail against any efforts whatsoever to bring common sense regulation to the financial industry. Instead of coming back and working with the people, they hired an army of robosigners to process millions of foreclosures. In many cases, without even having the proper paperwork to evict the homeowners. Instead, the banks announced layoffs in the tens of thousands, so that executives at the top of the pile could maintain their outrageous levels of compensation.

We bailed out Wall Street to avoid Depression, but three years later, millions of Americans are in a living hell. This is why they’re enraged, this why they’re assembling, this is why they hate you. Why for the first time in 50 years, the people are coming out in the streets and they’re saying, “Enough.”

And one more time, let’s hear from Alexander Hamilton because it bears repeating!!!

“‘Tis time, there must be a line of separation between honest Men & knaves, between respectable Stockholders and dealers in the funds, and mere unprincipled Gamblers.”

I’ve added a link to Josh’s blog so you can go sample his writing any time you want.  He’s also on twitter as @ReformedBroker.  Okay, this is a little long, and a little like one of my lectures for financial institutions, but I thought you might appreciate how this thing came down and what needs to be done.  Like I said, we need to put them back into a box.  If they are to be free from the chance of bankruptcy, able to access US tax dollars at zero cost, and are still able to create Financial Panics by bad lending and investment practices we have no other chance.  This will repeat ad infinitum and will cost us our personal and national treasures.

Psychopaths in Charge

In 1991, Brett Easton Ellis published a brilliant satirical novel called American Psycho. The book is narrated by a young man, Patrick Bateman, a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Business School, who is now a fabulously wealthy Wall Street investment banker with a pricey apartment on Manhattan’s Upper west side. In other words, he’s a typical ’80s yuppie, benefiting from the “Reagan Revolution.”

Bateman is utterly materialistic and narcissistic, obsessed with things like getting a reservation at the most trendy, expensive restaurant of the moment and having a more perfectly designed and printed business card than any of the other yuppies he works with. He is engaged to another yuppie named Evelyn, but he doesn’t really have any feelings for her. She is just another status symbol for him to show off to his Wall Street colleagues.

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Bateman is filled with narcissistic rage. He begins torturing and murdering people–a homeless man, his secretary, a business associate, and more. The crimes become successively more violent and horrifying. In conversations with coworkers, he tells anecdotes about serial killers and even confesses his own crimes, but no one takes him seriously. These other numb, detached young men simply assume Bateman is joking and laugh at his bizarre, inappropriate remarks.

Toward the end of the book, there are hints that Bateman’s descriptions of violent murders could be hallucinations or fantasies–or they might have really happened. The interpretation is left to the reader.

Ellis told an interviewer that he wrote American Psycho at a time in his life when he was living an isolated, consumerist lifestyle, somewhat like Bateman’s:

He did not come out of me sitting down and wanting to write a grand sweeping indictment of yuppie culture. It initiated because my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension of “American Psycho” came from. It wasn’t that I was going to make up this serial killer on Wall Street. High concept. Fantastic. It came from a much more personal place…

American Psycho was not well received by reviewers–before or after publication. In fact, the original publisher, Simon & Schuster, cancelled their contract with Ellis based on “aesthetic differences.” The book was never released in hardcover, but was eventually published in a quality paperback edition by Vintage Books. After its publication, Ellis was on the receiving end of a flood of hate mail and even death threats.

Today, Ellis points out, the blood and gore that was so shocking in his 1991 book is all around us.

You see it in “Saw” movies or in “Hostel” or anywhere. The gore is mainstream. The stuff you see now wass unimaginable in 1991 and that’s one reason why it caught on. The availability of that kind of subject matter was limited. It was limited to maybe certain graphic novels or transgressive fiction or certain out-there horror films but it wasn’t part of the mainstream. the accessibility of it was unique. This is how we’re rolling now.

What I took from the novel when I first read it was that it was a perfect representation of the societal effects of Reaganism. In the ’80s, American culture became more materialistic, superficial, and value-free than ever before. Reaganism taught that “greed is good.” Becoming wealthy became the highest goal for many Americans. At the same time, anyone who was poor, sick, or disabled was reviled. Reagan made Social Darwinism fashionable again.

Under Reagan, we closed hospitals for the mentally ill and threw them into the streets to beg and to wander our cities muttering as they listened to the voices in their heads. The need for low-cost housing and maintaining public infrastructure was ridiculed, and poor families with children began to wander our city streets homeless, sleeping in their cars or in public parks. Meanwhile the rich continued to get richer, greedier, and more callous toward people who had less than they did.

What other result could we have expected than the America we live in today? We live in a country in which so many people are cold, callous, and calculating, seeking to amass as much money as possible at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. Investment bankers like Ellis’s Patrick Bateman are treated like gods, shielded from any negative effects of their own lying, cheating, and stealing.

Today the message I take from American Psycho is even more troubling to me than when I first read the novel years ago. I see Bateman’s serial murders as symbolic of the damage out-of-control capitalism is doing to us as a people. I look at our political leaders and see empty, cold, callous people with no core values except how to get the most money and power for themselves, and screw the rest of us. They are serial murderers too, only they manage to distance themselves from those they murder in their wars and through their pro-corporate, anti-human policies.

The America we live in today is much like the surreal world that Brett Easton Ellis created in American Psycho, except that we now have even more electronic gadgets, more stuff to do on the internet, more “reality” TV shows where we can ridicule fat people or people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or people trying to sing and dance. We have books and movies so violent that people become desensitized to depictions of blood and gore that seemed shocking in 1991. We are in decline in every way–our health, our incomes, our infrastructure, our rights, our values, our privacy. And the rich are richer and the poor are poorer now than at the end of the Ronald Reagan era.

I know I’m not the only one here who thinks we are being ruled by psychopaths–whether we’re talking about government officials or the heads of corporations. I really believe that, and I don’t mean it as hyperbole. I think the richest among us are the most likely to be detached and callous, because they don’t even have to see the poor and suffering people they are hurting with their greed. Their wealth insulates them from the daily struggles of the vast majority of Americans.

I think this is a subject that is worth talking about. Do you need to be at least a subclinical psychopath to be willing to do the kinds of immoral things government officials, corporate CEOs, and investment bankers do? Like lying in order to enter illegal wars so you can steal oil from other countries and murder hundreds of thousands of their citizens? Like sending young Americans to die for oil and a dying empire? Like taking jobs away from Americans and replacing them with slave labor in third world countries? Like throwing people out of their homes illegally? Like testing drugs on babies and children? Like polluting the water, air, and food with chemicals and refusing to clean up your messes?

I think you have to be a very sick person to do those things. And how is it different from what a serial killer does? First, government officials and corporate CEOs kill and maim and destroy people in far greater numbers and with more powerful weapons than a serial killer. Second, government officials and corporate CEOs don’t need to get close to the blood and death. They get other people to do their killing so they don’t have to see or hear their victims suffer.

So what exactly is a psychopath? Robert Hare, now emeritus professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia developed a checklist used by professionals to identify people with psychopathic tendencies.

People who are psychopathic prey ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit, violence or other methods that allow them to get with they want. The symptoms of psychopathy include: lack of a conscience or sense of guilt, lack of empathy, egocentricity, pathological lying, repeated violations of social norms, disregard for the law, shallow emotions, and a history of victimizing others.

Hare’s checklist (the PCL-R) is used in combination with a semi-structured clinical interview (an interview with set questions that allows the interviewer to follow up with his or her own questions when appropriate) and a detailed review of medical and psychiatric records. The following are the 20 traits for the evaluator to watch for:

•glib and superficial charm
•grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
•need for stimulation
•pathological lying
•cunning and manipulativeness
•lack of remorse or guilt
•shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
•callousness and lack of empathy
•parasitic lifestyle
•poor behavioral controls
•sexual promiscuity
•early behavior problems
•lack of realistic long-term goals
•failure to accept responsibility for own actions
•many short-term marital relationships
•juvenile delinquency
•revocation of conditional release
•criminal versatility

Not all of these characteristics would have to be met for someone to be diagnosed as a psychopath.

Each of the twenty items is given a score of 0, 1, or 2, based on how well it applies to the subject being tested. A prototypical psychopath would receive a maximum score of 40, while someone with absolutely no psychopathic traits or tendencies would receive a score of zero. A score of 30 or above qualifies a person for a diagnosis of psychopathy. People with no criminal backgrounds normally score around 5. Many non-psychopathic criminal offenders score around 22.

The checklist was originally designed for evaluating prison inmates, but not everyone with psychopathic characteristics becomes a criminal. I am arguing that many of them go into business or politics, am I’m far from the only one to suggest that. In fact Hare himself co-wrote a book called Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. Other books that make similar arguments are The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, and The Psychopathy of Everyday Life: How Antisocial Personality Disorder Affects Us All, by Martin Kantor.

Just a bit about terminology. Psychopathy and Sociopathy are essential the same thing. Antisocial Personality Disorder is similar too, but could perhaps apply to people who wouldn’t score 30 on Hare’s checklist. I don’t know why the names of this disorder keep changing–it may just be because some psychiatrists see studying prison inmates as somewhat disreputable. Anyway, psychopathy is no longer listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (latest version: DSM IV-TR). Instead, it is subsumed under “antisocial personality disorder.” Here is the DSM-IV-TR criteria for APD:

A. There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:

1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest

2. deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure

3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead

4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults

5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others

6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations

7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

B. The individual is at least age 18 years.

C. There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.

D. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.

That official characteristics of APD are much less extreme than the ones on Hare’s checklist. I think it’s fairly obvious that many of our political and business leaders could meet at least three of those criteria. But can anyone argue that someone like Bernie Madoff could not be classified as a full-blown psychopath according to Hare’s criteria? What about Alan Simpson? What about someone like John Ensign or Mark Sanford? I believe I could make an argument for many more of our political and business leaders being either clinical or subclinical psychopaths.

There is some evidence that psychopathy is at least partly genetic, although most criminal psychopaths who have been studied had very abusive childhoods. There is also evidence for differences in the brains of psychopaths compared to typical brains.

I’m going to get into this topic in more detail in a future post. But for now, what do you think? Would it be useful for us to stop denying reality and accept that the psychopaths are in charge of our society?

SEC: Finally Functional?

The SEC seemed captured by insiders for so long and was so badly understaffed that it really was a pathetic excuse for a regulator.  All it seemed capable of doing was capturing media divas like Martha Stewart while the Bernie Madoffs were only caught when market down turns identified their PONZI Schemes.   Interestingly enough,  two Madoff employees were JUST arrested on Thursday as prosecutors are finally moving towards the Madoff family jewels. But, bigger things are afoot.

The SEC has finally gone after the bad guys with a little help from the FBI and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in what what can only be characterized as a major investigation. It took around three years to complete.  That means it actually got stated under the Bush years which is a shocker unto itself.

Have the SEC finally traded their aging white horses for some real stallions? This can only mean good news for the small investor and those of us who are stuck in institutional funds because Congress wants to pay back their FIRE friends by giving them our money to take to their casino.

The criminal and civil probes, which authorities say could eclipse the impact on the financial industry of any previous such investigation, are examining whether multiple insider-trading rings reaped illegal profits totaling tens of millions of dollars, the people say. Some charges could be brought before year-end, they say.

The investigations, if they bear fruit, have the potential to expose a culture of pervasive insider trading in U.S. financial markets, including new ways non-public information is passed to traders through experts tied to specific industries or companies, federal authorities say.

One focus of the criminal investigation is examining whether nonpublic information was passed along by independent analysts and consultants who work for companies that provide “expert network” services to hedge funds and mutual funds. These companies set up meetings and calls with current and former managers from hundreds of companies for traders seeking an investing edge.

Finally, some one is going after these “expert networks” which are basically groups of people that sell inside information. Yves at Naked Capitalism--some one who worked in the market for years and has some way of knowing–has been on this for years. I’ve been buried in academia and at the FED for some time, but even I knew it was bad.

Yours truly has complained off and on over the years about “consulting” and “research” firms whose entire business model revolves around the procurement and sale of inside information. These companies solicit consultants, who in the vast majority of cases are employees of major corporations, to provide insight into what is going on at their employer’s operations. These vendors are generally smart enough to make their consultants sign various waivers, which have the effect of shifting liability on to the hapless chump paid a couple of hundred dollars an hour for an hour or two for information worth vastly more than than. They are effectively exploiting the contract worker’s lack of understanding of the finer points of SEC regulations and corporate policy.

We first wrote about this abuse with weeks of starting this blog, in January 2007, when a Wall Street Journal investigation of the biggest player in this space, Gerson Lerman, led to an investigation by the New York attorney general, Eliot Spitzer (the SEC reportedly had investigations underway, although it was not clear whether Gerson Lerman was a focus).

I have had my tinfoil hat theory on Spitzer’s fall from grace  for some time. My thought is that some one went after Client 9 deliberately to stop him from finding out more about these lucrative deals and other Wall Street nastiness.  He got taken down over a game of patty cake so these guys could continue their scam.  Traders can make boatloads of money with ex ante knowledge and enough money to make the trade. Also, remember even if you’re just doing the deal, your value as a trader and analyst goes up if your assets’ value goes up.  There’s a lot of money in this game and getting in on momentum at the ground floor is a beautiful thing.

Here’s one of the more egregious examples from the WSJ article.

Another aspect of the probe is an examination of whether traders at a number of hedge funds and trading firms, including First New York Securities LLC, improperly gained nonpublic information about pending health-care, technology and other merger deals, according to the people familiar with the matter.

Some traders at First New York, a 250-person trading firm, profited by anticipating health-care and other mergers unveiled in 2009, people familiar with the firm say.

A First New York spokesman said: “We are one of more than three dozen firms that have been asked by regulators to provide general information in a widespread inquiry; we have cooperated fully.” He added: “We stand behind our traders and our systems and policies in place that ensure full regulatory compliance.”

Right.  It was just very good analysis.  We’ll see how that stands up in court.

My guess is that there will be a good deal of shaking and quaking going on shortly because the names have yet to be released.  We will undoubtedly see some Goldman Sachs names among them.  Goldman Sachs appears to be a central player in those health care company mergers.  NY magazine is being vague right now, but the network of traders and investment bankers could shake up the Street and it’s about time.  They’re poking around now which probably means their lining up their fallen angels who are most likely to turn state’s evidence to avoid having more than just a few weekends with Bernie.

The characterization of the degree of insider trading by both the FBI and SEC is that this is part of a “pervasive” culture. I smell a huge class action suit in the works against a lot of funds.   It also further puts to rest the idea that the U.S. equities markets represent anything near a rational market since prices in this instance represent two tiers of agents.  One set that only have public information.  One set that’s privy to the out of school tales of contract workers.  This should turn some of the literature  in the investment area on its heels. That’s a good thing too.  I do so want to see the death of that random walk down Wall Street hypothesis once and for all.

AND I just hate that look of a smug investment banker in the morning; especially when they try to give the impression that that it’s all about their brilliance and not about their luck or a little illegal information.   This should be more fun to watch than a James Bond movie when Sean Connery was in his prime.  It may also breathe some life into that CNN show Parker/Spitzer because Spitzer is bound to have his own little insider information on the probe and my guess is he’ll try to parlay that into higher ratings for his current enterprise of journalistic pattycake with Parker.  Eliot Spitzer could may well have the last laugh on this.