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The Big Takeover Part II
Matt Taibbi – Rolling Stone Magazine March 19, 2009
IV. THE POWER GRAB
So that's the first step in wall street's power grab: making up things like credit-default swaps and collateralized-debt obligations, financial products so complex and inscrutable that ordinary American dumb people — to say nothing of federal regulators and even the CEOs of major corporations like AIG — are too intimidated to even try to understand them. That, combined with wise political investments, enabled the nation's top bankers to effectively scrap any meaningful oversight of the financial industry. In 1997 and 1998, the years leading up to the passage of Phil Gramm's fateful act that gutted Glass-Steagall, the banking, brokerage and insurance industries spent $350 million on political contributions and lobbying. Gramm alone — then the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee — collected $2.6 million in only five years. The law passed 90-8 in the Senate, with the support of 38 Democrats, including some names that might surprise you: Joe Biden, John Kerry, Tom Daschle, Dick Durbin, even John Edwards.
The act helped create the too-big-to-fail financial behemoths like Citigroup, AIG and Bank of America — and in turn helped those companies slowly crush their smaller competitors, leaving the major Wall Street firms with even more money and power to lobby for further deregulatory measures. "We're moving to an oligopolistic situation," Kenneth Guenther, a top executive with the Independent Community Bankers of America, lamented after the Gramm measure was passed.
The situation worsened in 2004, in an extraordinary move toward deregulation that never even got to a vote. At the time, the European Union was threatening to more strictly regulate the foreign operations of America's big investment banks if the U.S. didn't strengthen its own oversight. So the top five investment banks got together on April 28th of that year and — with the helpful assistance of then-Goldman Sachs chief and future Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson — made a pitch to George Bush's SEC chief at the time, William Donaldson, himself a former investment banker. The banks generously volunteered to submit to new rules restricting them from engaging in excessively risky activity. In exchange, they asked to be released from any lending restrictions. The discussion about the new rules lasted just 55 minutes, and there was not a single representative of a major media outlet there to record the fateful decision.
Donaldson OK'd the proposal, and the new rules were enough to get the EU to drop its threat to regulate the five firms. The only catch was, neither Donaldson nor his successor, Christopher Cox, actually did any regulating of the banks. They named a commission of seven people to oversee the five companies, whose combined assets came to total more than $4 trillion. But in the last year and a half of Cox's tenure, the group had no director and did not complete a single inspection. Great deal for the banks, which originally complained about being regulated by both Europe and the SEC, and ended up being regulated by no one.
Once the capital requirements were gone, those top five banks went hog-wild, jumping ass-first into the then-raging housing bubble. One of those was Bear Stearns, which used its freedom to drown itself in bad mortgage loans. In the short period between the 2004 change and Bear's collapse, the firm's debt-to-equity ratio soared from 12-1 to an insane 33-1. Another culprit was Goldman Sachs, which also had the good fortune, around then, to see its CEO, a bald-headed Frankensteinian goon named Hank Paulson (who received an estimated $200 million tax deferral by joining the government), ascend to Treasury secretary.
Freed from all capital restraints, sitting pretty with its man running the Treasury, Goldman jumped into the housing craze just like everyone else on Wall Street. Although it famously scored an $11 billion coup in 2007 when one of its trading units smartly shorted the housing market, the move didn't tell the whole story. In truth, Goldman still had a huge exposure come that fateful summer of 2008 — to none other than Joe Cassano.
Goldman Sachs, it turns out, was Cassano's biggest customer, with $20 billion of exposure in Cassano's CDS book. Which might explain why Goldman chief Lloyd Blankfein was in the room with ex-Goldmanite Hank Paulson that weekend of September 13th, when the federal government was supposedly bailing out AIG.
When asked why Blankfein was there, one of the government officials who was in the meeting shrugs. "One might say that it's because Goldman had so much exposure to AIGFP's portfolio," he says. "You'll never prove that, but one might suppose."
Market analyst Eric Salzman is more blunt. "If AIG went down," he says, "there was a good chance Goldman would not be able to collect." The AIG bailout, in effect, was Goldman bailing out Goldman.
Eventually, Paulson went a step further, elevating another ex-Goldmanite named Edward Liddy to run AIG — a company whose bailout money would be coming, in part, from the newly created TARP program, administered by another Goldman banker named Neel Kashkari.
V. REPO MEN
There are plenty of people who have noticed, in recent years, that when they lost their homes to foreclosure or were forced into bankruptcy because of crippling credit-card debt, no one in the government was there to rescue them. But when Goldman Sachs — a company whose average employee still made more than $350,000 last year, even in the midst of a depression — was suddenly faced with the possibility of losing money on the unregulated insurance deals it bought for its insane housing bets, the government was there in an instant to patch the hole. That's the essence of the bailout: rich bankers bailing out rich bankers, using the taxpayers' credit card.
The people who have spent their lives cloistered in this Wall Street community aren't much for sharing information with the great unwashed. Because all of this shit is complicated, because most of us mortals don't know what the hell LIBOR is or how a REIT works or how to use the word "zero coupon bond" in a sentence without sounding stupid — well, then, the people who do speak this idiotic language cannot under any circumstances be bothered to explain it to us and instead spend a lot of time rolling their eyes and asking us to trust them.
That roll of the eyes is a key part of the psychology of Paulsonism. The state is now being asked not just to call off its regulators or give tax breaks or funnel a few contracts to connected companies; it is intervening directly in the economy, for the sole purpose of preserving the influence of the megafirms. In essence, Paulson used the bailout to transform the government into a giant bureaucracy of entitled assholedom, one that would socialize "toxic" risks but keep both the profits and the management of the bailed-out firms in private hands. Moreover, this whole process would be done in secret, away from the prying eyes of NASCAR dads, broke-ass liberals who read translations of French novels, subprime mortgage holders and other such financial losers.
Some aspects of the bailout were secretive to the point of absurdity. In fact, if you look closely at just a few lines in the Federal Reserve's weekly public disclosures, you can literally see the moment where a big chunk of your money disappeared for good. The H4 report (called "Factors Affecting Reserve Balances") summarizes the activities of the Fed each week. You can find it online, and it's pretty much the only thing the Fed ever tells the world about what it does. For the week ending February 18th, the number under the heading "Repurchase Agreements" on the table is zero. It's a significant number.
Why? In the pre-crisis days, the Fed used to manage the money supply by periodically buying and selling securities on the open market through so-called Repurchase Agreements, or Repos. The Fed would typically dump $25 billion or so in cash onto the market every week, buying up Treasury bills, U.S. securities and even mortgage-backed securities from institutions like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, who would then "repurchase" them in a short period of time, usually one to seven days. This was the Fed's primary mechanism for controlling interest rates: Buying up securities gives banks more money to lend, which makes interest rates go down. Selling the securities back to the banks reduces the money available for lending, which makes interest rates go up.
If you look at the weekly H4 reports going back to the summer of 2007, you start to notice something alarming. At the start of the credit crunch, around August of that year, you see the Fed buying a few more Repos than usual — $33 billion or so. By November, as private-bank reserves were dwindling to alarmingly low levels, the Fed started injecting even more cash than usual into the economy: $48 billion. By late December, the number was up to $58 billion; by the following March, around the time of the Bear Stearns rescue, the Repo number had jumped to $77 billion. In the week of May 1st, 2008, the number was $115 billion — "out of control now," according to one congressional aide. For the rest of 2008, the numbers remained similarly in the stratosphere, the Fed pumping as much as $125 billion of these short-term loans into the economy — until suddenly, at the start of this year, the number drops to nothing. Zero.
The reason the number has dropped to nothing is that the Fed had simply stopped using relatively transparent devices like repurchase agreements to pump its money into the hands of private companies. By early 2009, a whole series of new government operations had been invented to inject cash into the economy, most all of them completely secretive and with names you've never heard of. There is the Term Auction Facility, the Term Securities Lending Facility, the Primary Dealer Credit Facility, the Commercial Paper Funding Facility and a monster called the Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility (boasting the chat-room horror-show acronym ABCPMMMFLF). For good measure, there's also something called a Money Market Investor Funding Facility, plus three facilities called Maiden Lane I, II and III to aid bailout recipients like Bear Stearns and AIG.
While the rest of America, and most of Congress, have been bugging out about the $700 billion bailout program called TARP, all of these newly created organisms in the Federal Reserve zoo have quietly been pumping not billions but trillions of dollars into the hands of private companies (at least $3 trillion so far in loans, with as much as $5.7 trillion more in guarantees of private investments). Although this technically isn't taxpayer money, it still affects taxpayers directly, because the activities of the Fed impact the economy as a whole. And this new, secretive activity by the Fed completely eclipses the TARP program in terms of its influence on the economy.
No one knows who's getting that money or exactly how much of it is disappearing through these new holes in the hull of America's credit rating. Moreover, no one can really be sure if these new institutions are even temporary at all — or whether they are being set up as permanent, state-aided crutches to Wall Street, designed to systematically suck bad investments off the ledgers of irresponsible lenders.
"They're supposed to be temporary," says Paul-Martin Foss, an aide to Rep. Ron Paul. "But we keep getting notices every six months or so that they're being renewed. They just sort of quietly announce it."
None other than disgraced senator Ted Stevens was the poor sap who made the unpleasant discovery that if Congress didn't like the Fed handing trillions of dollars to banks without any oversight, Congress could apparently go fuck itself — or so said the law. When Stevens asked the GAO about what authority Congress has to monitor the Fed, he got back a letter citing an obscure statute that nobody had ever heard of before: the Accounting and Auditing Act of 1950. The relevant section, 31 USC 714(b), dictated that congressional audits of the Federal Reserve may not include "deliberations, decisions and actions on monetary policy matters." The exemption, as Foss notes, "basically includes everything." According to the law, in other words, the Fed simply cannot be audited by Congress. Or by anyone else, for that matter.
VI. WINNERS AND LOSERS
Stevens isn't the only person in Congress to be given the finger by the Fed. In January, when Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida asked Federal Reserve vice chairman Donald Kohn where all the money went — only $1.2 trillion had vanished by then — Kohn gave Grayson a classic eye roll, saying he would be "very hesitant" to name names because it might discourage banks from taking the money.
"Has that ever happened?" Grayson asked. "Have people ever said, 'We will not take your $100 billion because people will find out about it?'"
"Well, we said we would not publish the names of the borrowers, so we have no test of that," Kohn answered, visibly annoyed with Grayson's meddling.
Grayson pressed on, demanding to know on what terms the Fed was lending the money. Presumably it was buying assets and making loans, but no one knew how it was pricing those assets — in other words, no one knew what kind of deal it was striking on behalf of taxpayers. So when Grayson asked if the purchased assets were "marked to market" — a methodology that assigns a concrete value to assets, based on the market rate on the day they are traded — Kohn answered, mysteriously, "The ones that have market values are marked to market." The implication was that the Fed was purchasing derivatives like credit swaps or other instruments that were basically impossible to value objectively — paying real money for God knows what.
"Well, how much of them don't have market values?" asked Grayson. "How much of them are worthless?"
"None are worthless," Kohn snapped.
"Then why don't you mark them to market?" Grayson demanded.
"Well," Kohn sighed, "we are marking the ones to market that have market values."
In essence, the Fed was telling Congress to lay off and let the experts handle things. "It's like buying a car in a used-car lot without opening the hood, and saying, 'I think it's fine,'" says Dan Fuss, an analyst with the investment firm Loomis Sayles. "The salesman says, 'Don't worry about it. Trust me.' It'll probably get us out of the lot, but how much farther? None of us knows."
When one considers the comparatively extensive system of congressional checks and balances that goes into the spending of every dollar in the budget via the normal appropriations process, what's happening in the Fed amounts to something truly revolutionary — a kind of shadow government with a budget many times the size of the normal federal outlay, administered dictatorially by one man, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke. "We spend hours and hours and hours arguing over $10 million amendments on the floor of the Senate, but there has been no discussion about who has been receiving this $3 trillion," says Sen. Bernie Sanders. "It is beyond comprehension."
Count Sanders among those who don't buy the argument that Wall Street firms shouldn't have to face being outed as recipients of public funds, that making this information public might cause investors to panic and dump their holdings in these firms. "I guess if we made that public, they'd go on strike or something," he muses.
And the Fed isn't the only arm of the bailout that has closed ranks. The Treasury, too, has maintained incredible secrecy surrounding its implementation even of the TARP program, which was mandated by Congress. To this date, no one knows exactly what criteria the Treasury Department used to determine which banks received bailout funds and which didn't — particularly the first $350 billion given out under Bush appointee Hank Paulson.
The situation with the first TARP payments grew so absurd that when the Congressional Oversight Panel, charged with monitoring the bailout money, sent a query to Paulson asking how he decided whom to give money to, Treasury responded — and this isn't a joke — by directing the panel to a copy of the TARP application form on its website. Elizabeth Warren, the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, was struck nearly speechless by the response.
"Do you believe that?" she says incredulously. "That's not what we had in mind."
Another member of Congress, who asked not to be named, offers his own theory about the TARP process. "I think basically if you knew Hank Paulson, you got the money," he says.
This cozy arrangement created yet another opportunity for big banks to devour market share at the expense of smaller regional lenders. While all the bigwigs at Citi and Goldman and Bank of America who had Paulson on speed-dial got bailed out right away — remember that TARP was originally passed because money had to be lent right now, that day, that minute, to stave off emergency — many small banks are still waiting for help. Five months into the TARP program, some not only haven't received any funds, they haven't even gotten a call back about their applications.
"There's definitely a feeling among community bankers that no one up there cares much if they make it or not," says Tanya Wheeless, president of the Arizona Bankers Association.
Which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what should be happening, since small, regional banks are far less guilty of the kinds of predatory lending that sank the economy. "They're not giving out subprime loans or easy credit," says Wheeless. "At the community level, it's much more bread-and-butter banking."
Nonetheless, the lion's share of the bailout money has gone to the larger, so-called "systemically important" banks. "It's like Treasury is picking winners and losers," says one state banking official who asked not to be identified.
This itself is a hugely important political development. In essence, the bailout accelerated the decline of regional community lenders by boosting the political power of their giant national competitors.
Which, when you think about it, is insane: What had brought us to the brink of collapse in the first place was this relentless instinct for building ever-larger megacompanies, passing deregulatory measures to gradually feed all the little fish in the sea to an ever-shrinking pool of Bigger Fish. To fix this problem, the government should have slowly liquidated these monster, too-big-to-fail firms and broken them down to smaller, more manageable companies. Instead, federal regulators closed ranks and used an almost completely secret bailout process to double down on the same faulty, merger-happy thinking that got us here in the first place, creating a constellation of megafirms under government control that are even bigger, more unwieldy and more crammed to the gills with systemic risk.
In essence, Paulson and his cronies turned the federal government into one gigantic, half-opaque holding company, one whose balance sheet includes the world's most appallingly large and risky hedge fund, a controlling stake in a dying insurance giant, huge investments in a group of teetering megabanks, and shares here and there in various auto-finance companies, student loans, and other failing businesses. Like AIG, this new federal holding company is a firm that has no mechanism for auditing itself and is run by leaders who have very little grasp of the daily operations of its disparate subsidiary operations.
In other words, it's AIG's rip-roaringly shitty business model writ almost inconceivably massive — to echo Geithner, a huge, complex global company attached to a very complicated investment bank/hedge fund that's been allowed to build up without adult supervision. How much of what kinds of crap is actually on our balance sheet, and what did we pay for it? When exactly will the rent come due, when will the money run out? Does anyone know what the hell is going on? And on the linear spectrum of capitalism to socialism, where exactly are we now? Is there a dictionary word that even describes what we are now? It would be funny, if it weren't such a nightmare.
VII. YOU DON'T GET IT
The real question from here is whether the Obama administration is going to move to bring the financial system back to a place where sanity is restored and the general public can have a say in things or whether the new financial bureaucracy will remain obscure, secretive and hopelessly complex. It might not bode well that Geithner, Obama's Treasury secretary, is one of the architects of the Paulson bailouts; as chief of the New York Fed, he helped orchestrate the Goldman-friendly AIG bailout and the secretive Maiden Lane facilities used to funnel funds to the dying company. Neither did it look good when Geithner — himself a protégé of notorious Goldman alum John Thain, the Merrill Lynch chief who paid out billions in bonuses after the state spent billions bailing out his firm — picked a former Goldman lobbyist named Mark Patterson to be his top aide.
In fact, most of Geithner's early moves reek strongly of Paulsonism. He has continually talked about partnering with private investors to create a so-called "bad bank" that would systemically relieve private lenders of bad assets — the kind of massive, opaque, quasi-private bureaucratic nightmare that Paulson specialized in. Geithner even refloated a Paulson proposal to use TALF, one of the Fed's new facilities, to essentially lend cheap money to hedge funds to invest in troubled banks while practically guaranteeing them enormous profits.
God knows exactly what this does for the taxpayer, but hedge-fund managers sure love the idea. "This is exactly what the financial system needs," said Andrew Feldstein, CEO of Blue Mountain Capital and one of the Morgan Mafia. Strangely, there aren't many people who don't run hedge funds who have expressed anything like that kind of enthusiasm for Geithner's ideas.
As complex as all the finances are, the politics aren't hard to follow. By creating an urgent crisis that can only be solved by those fluent in a language too complex for ordinary people to understand, the Wall Street crowd has turned the vast majority of Americans into non-participants in their own political future. There is a reason it used to be a crime in the Confederate states to teach a slave to read: Literacy is power. In the age of the CDS and CDO, most of us are financial illiterates. By making an already too-complex economy even more complex, Wall Street has used the crisis to effect a historic, revolutionary change in our political system — transforming a democracy into a two-tiered state, one with plugged-in financial bureaucrats above and clueless customers below.
The most galling thing about this financial crisis is that so many Wall Street types think they actually deserve not only their huge bonuses and lavish lifestyles but the awesome political power their own mistakes have left them in possession of. When challenged, they talk about how hard they work, the 90-hour weeks, the stress, the failed marriages, the hemorrhoids and gallstones they all get before they hit 40.
"But wait a minute," you say to them. "No one ever asked you to stay up all night eight days a week trying to get filthy rich shorting what's left of the American auto industry or selling $600 billion in toxic, irredeemable mortgages to ex-strippers on work release and Taco Bell clerks. Actually, come to think of it, why are we even giving taxpayer money to you people? Why are we not throwing your ass in jail instead?"
But before you even finish saying that, they're rolling their eyes, because You Don't Get It. These people were never about anything except turning money into money, in order to get more money; valueswise they're on par with crack addicts, or obsessive sexual deviants who burgle homes to steal panties. Yet these are the people in whose hands our entire political future now rests.
Good luck with that, America. And enjoy tax season.
(From Issue 1075, April 2, 2009)
Also see The Big Takeover Part I
Last updated 28/03/2009
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