Entries in Ben Bernanke (8)


Decisions: Life and Death on Wall Street by Janet M. Tavakoli: My Review

Janet Tavakoli is a born storyteller with an incredible tale to tell. In her captivating memoir, Decisions: Life and Death on Wall Street, she takes us on a brisk  journey from the depravity of 1980s Wall Street to the ramifications of the systemic recklessness that crushed the global economy. Her compelling narrative sweeps through her warnings about the dangers of certain bank products in her path-breaking books, speeches before the Federal Reserve, and in talks with Jaime Dimon.

She probes the moral complexity behind the lives, suicides and murders of international bankers mired in greed and inner conflict. Some of the people that touched her Wall Street career reflect broken elements of humanity. The burden of choosing money and power over values and humility translates to a loss for us all. 

To truly understand the stakes of the global financial game, you must know its building blocks; the characters, testosterone, and egos, as well as the esoteric products designed to squeeze investors, manipulate rules, and favor power-players. You had to be there, and you had to be paying attention. Janet was. That’s what makes her memoir so scary. In Decisions, she breaks the hard stuff down with humor and requisite anger. As a side note, her international banking life eerily paralleled my own - from New York to London to New York to alerting the public about the risky nature of the political-financial complex.

Her six chapters flow along various decisions, as the title suggests. In Chapter 1 “Decisions, Decisions”, Janet opens with an account of the laddish trading floor mentality of 1980s Wall Street. In 1988, she was Head of Mortgage Backed Securities Marketing for Merrill Lynch.  Those types of securities would be at the epicenter of the financial crisis thirty years later.

Each morning she would broadcast a trade idea over the ‘squawk box.‘ Then came the stripper booked for a “final-on-the-job-stag party.” That incident, one repeated on many trading floors during those days, spurred Janet to squawk, not about mortgage spreads, but about decorum. Merrill ended trading floor nudity and her bosses ended her time in their department. Her bold stand would catapult her to “a front row seat during the biggest financial crisis in world history.” Reading Decisions, you’ll see why this latest financial crisis was decades in the making.

In Chapter 2 “Decision to Escalate”, Janet chronicles her work with Edson Mitchell and Bill Broeksmit, who hired her to run Merrill’s lucrative asset swap desk after the stripper incident. Bill and Janet shared Chicago roots and MBAs from the University of Chicago. Janet became wary of the serious credit problems lurking beneath asset swap deals, many of which involved fraud. The rating agencies were as oblivious then, as they were thirty years later. Transparency was important to Janet. She and Bill “agreed to clearly disclose the risks—including [her] reservations about “phony” ratings.” Many Merrill customers with high-risk appetites didn’t care. They got burned when the underlying bonds defaulted.  Rinse. Repeat.

During that time, Janet penned a thriller, Archangels: Rise of the Jesuits, eventually published in late 2012. It probed the suspicious death of shady Italian banker Roberto Calvi. In June 1982, Calvi was found hanged from scaffolding under London’s Blackfriars Bridge. Ruled a suicide, the case re-merged in 2002 when modern forensics determined Calvi was murdered. Neither Bill nor Janet bought the suicide story; though Bill joked he’d never hang himself.   

Janet and I both moved to London in the 1990s, I left Lehman Brothers in New York for Bear Stearns in London in 1993 to run their financial analytics and structured transactions (F.A.S.T.) group. Those were heady days for young American bankers. We all wanted to be in London where the action was. Edson Mitchell and Bill Broeksmit wound up working for Deutsche Bank in London in the mid 1990s.

In 1997, Edson asked Janet to join him at Deutsche Bank given her expertise in structured trades and credit derivatives. The credit derivatives market was an embryonic $1 trillion. By its 2007 peak, it was $62 trillion. She declined.  Edson died three years later in a plane crash.

In Chapter 3, “A Way of Life”, Janet describes her personal epiphany and public alerts about credit derivatives and the major financial deregulation that would impact us all. In 1998, she wrote the first trade book warning of those risks, Credit Derivatives: Instruments and Applications. A year later, on November 12, 1999, the Clinton Administration passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that had separated deposit taking from speculation at banks. In 2000, President Clinton signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act that prevented over-the-counter derivatives (like credit derivatives) from being regulated as futures or securities. His Working Group included former Treasury Secretary and former co-chair of Goldman Sachs, Robert Rubin, Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan,  

With Glass-Steagall gone, banks had the green light to gamble with their customers’ FDIC-insured deposits and enter investment-banking territory through mergers. They “used their massive balance sheets to trade derivatives and take huge risks.” Our money became their seed money to burn.

Once the inevitable fallout from this government subsidized casino unleashed the financial crisis of 2008, bank apologists, turned star financial journalists like Andrew Ross Sorkin would say the repeal of Glass Steagall had nothing to do with the crisis, since the banks that failed, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were investment banks, not commercial banks that acquired investment banks. That argument missed the entire make-up of the post-Glass Steagall financial system. Investment banks like Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs had to over-leverage their smaller balance sheets to compete with the conglomerate banks like Citigroup and JPM Chase. These mega banks in turn funded their investment bank competitors who concocted and traded toxic assets. They supplied credit lines for Countrywide’s subprime loan issuance. Everyone could bet on the same things in different ways.

While Janet’s 2003 book, Collateralized Debt Obligations & Structured Finance explained the architecture and risks of CDOs and credit derivatives, her 1998 book became an opportunists’ guide. One type of credit derivatives trade, a ‘big short’ that profited when CDOs plummeted in price, gained notoriety when Michael Lewis wrote a book by that name. Michael Burry, the man Lewis chronicled, ultimately testified before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that, among other things, he read Janet’s 1998 book before trading. Lewis wrote of the aftermath, Janet’s analysis contributed to the main event.  Taxpayers took the hit.

As the securitization and CDO markets exploded in the 2000s, credit derivatives linked to CDOs stuffed with subprime-loans became financial time bombs. Janet was one of a few voices with in-depth knowledge of the structured credit markets, sounding alarms. Her voice, and those of other skeptics (myself included) were increasingly “marginalized” by a media and political-financial system promoting the belief that defaulting loans stuffed into highly leveraged, non-transparent, widely-distributed assets wrapped in derivatives were no problem.

In early June 2010, Phil Angelides, Chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) questioned former Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince and Robert Rubin (who became Vice-Chairman of Citigroup after leaving the Clinton administration. ) They denied knowing Citigroup had troubles until the fall of 2007. Incredulously, Janet listened as Angelides accepted their denial even though Citigroup was hurting in the first quarter of 2007 due to their $200 million credit line to Bear Stearns whose hedge funds had imploded.

So many lies linger. According to Janet, “One of the most unattractive lies of the 2008 financial crisis was that investment bank Goldman Sachs would not have failed and did not need a bailout.” But then-Treasury Secretary and former Goldman-Sachs Chairman and CEO, Hank Paulson rejected an investment bid in AIG from China Investment Corporation while AIG owed Goldman Sachs and its partners billions of dollars on credit derivatives wrapping defaulting CDOs. That enabled him to arrange an AIG bailout to help Goldman Sachs recoup its money at US taxpayers’ expense. 

Goldman Sachs claimed it was merely an intermediary in those deals. Janet exposed a different story – presenting a list of CDOs against which AIG wrote credit derivatives protection. Underwriters of such deals are legally obligated to perform appropriate due diligence and disclose risks. Goldman Sachs had been underwriter or co-underwriter on the largest chunk of them, an active, not intermediary role. Some deals were inked while Paulson was CEO.

In Chapter 4 “Irreversible Decision,Janet circles back to Deutsche Bank and her old boss, Bill. The SEC was investigating allegations that Deutsche Bank didn’t disclose $12 billion of credit derivatives losses from 2007-2010. In a 2011 presentation, Bill said the allegations had no merit. Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank faced investigations into frauds including LIBOR manipulation, helping hedge funds dodge taxes, and suspect valuation of credit derivatives.

Janet reveals the dramatic outcome of those investigations in Chapter 5, “Systemic Breakdown.” On January 26, 2014, Bill Broeksmit, 58, hung himself in his home in London’s Evelyn Gardens  (the block where I first lived when I moved to London for Bear Stearns.) She was shocked by the method. Bill had made clear his “aversion to death by hanging.” Those decades in finance had crushed him.  

Six months later, a Senate Subcommittee cited Deutsche Bank and Barclays Bank in a report about structured financial products abuse. Broeksmit’s email on synthetic nonrecourse prime broker facilities was Exhibit 26. Banks had placed a large chunk of their balance sheets at risk, flouting regulations, and enabling a tax scheme. From 2000 to 2013, the subcommittee reported hedge funds may have avoided $6 billion in taxes through structured trades with banks. 

Finally, in Chapter 6, “Washington’s Decision: “A Bargain,”” Janet reminds us that September 2015 marks the seventh anniversary of the financial crisis. She calls Paulson and Rubin  financial wrecking balls for their role in the crisis and cover-up.

She ends Decisions on the ominous note that “the government tried to hide the real beneficiaries of the bailout policies – Wall Street elites – behind a mythical idea of a “crisis of confidence” if we prosecuted, arrested, and imprisoned crooks. “

The real crisis of confidence though, is due to the clique of inculpable political and financial leaders. Alternatively, she writes, “If we indicted fraudsters, raised interest rates, and broke up too-big-to-fail banks, people would have more confidence in our government and in the financial system..” 

Instead, we get Ben Bernanke espousing the "moral courage" it took to use taxpayers’ money and issue debt against our future to subsidize Wall Street over the real economy, allegedly for our benefit. Big banks are bigger. Wealth inequality is greater. Economic stability has declined. The bad guys got away with it. Read Janet’s illuminating book to see how and to grasp the enormity of what we are up against. 


The Global Economy Burns, While its Leaders Fiddle 

China is by no means a panacea of economic equality or perfect policy. It has a fast growing portion of billionaires and accounts for nearly a third of the world’s luxury goods consumption, while its per capita GDP ranks 125th globally, and 2.8% of Chinese live below the poverty line (according to ‘official’ stats).

In contrast, the US has an official poverty rate of 14%, though think tanks like the Economic Policy Institute, consider this estimate low. Still, in its latest 5-year economic plan, the Chinese government at least gave lip service to how to deal with its growing inequality - by increasing certain wages by 40%, decreasing taxes on the poor and increasing them on the rich.

The US government has no such strategy, except in campaign speeches, as reflected by our anemic economy. Instead, we witness inane partisan prattling over the deficit and what mini-budget modifications are needed to bring it into line, most of which would disproportionately detract from the people that had the least to do with inflating it. (i.e. anyone not running a bank or hedge fund.)

Yet, like our own, inequality figures will worsen for China, which will ultimately destabilize its economy. The result of attracting that menacing, mercurial entity called ‘global capital’ is inflated growth figures predicated on bulging service sectors and population wealth gaps. The more capital sloshing around a country, the more destabilized it becomes, and the more its leaders pretend that’s not the case. 

Global speculative capital (the kind flowing through any major financial entity) is cunning, aggressive, greedy, shortsighted, and yes, cowardly (it doesn’t stick around when things get shaky.) If it were a person, it would smack down minions of grandmothers and infants to get to the door of a fiery building first, and then deny burn victims healthcare. It hates rules, which is why it likes promoting the notion of markets free of them.

Individual investors in silver are the latest casualties of speculative capital’s fickleness. People that invested their own money in silver were snuffed by the entities that borrowed or invested other people’s money to do the same. The COMEX found the anti-speculation religion it never sought during run-ups of commodities prices for items like food and fuel, and raised silver trading margins.  Though those hikes were the prevalent reason for silver’s price plummet, all they really did was give fast capital a chance to book profits and alter course.

Any investment is subject to fundamental forces, like supply and demand or how much US economic policy is devaluing its currency. But, it’s more subject to speculative whims, like who's in and out, by how much and how fast, whether its a fund or an entire nation.

The time-honored scheme in which controlling capital cons ordinary people (or governments) to join it before crashing or heading for the hills has devastated many individuals and economies. That ploy ran rampant during the crash of 1929. Banks put up their ‘own’ capital, which was really borrowed capital, to spur individuals to do the same with their savings. When banks pulled out, people were hosed thrice – through the loss of their savings, the decimation of their bank accounts that the powerhouses used for speculative purposes  -  under the guise of – serving their clients, and by a raging Depression that killed jobs and hopes.

Not much has changed. Matt Taibbi’s recent excoriation of Goldman Sachs reveals how gray the line is between screwing and screwing, one’s clients. Only now, when banks lose money, governments and central banks reward them with trillions of dollars of subsidies, using the excuse of aiding the population and avoiding larger catastrophe. They say things like - it takes time to increase employment, but we can waste no time in propping up our financial system. Or - pensions and teachers caused budget failures, but we’ll keep holding excess reserves, borne of debt, for banks in case they need it, and pay interest on it.

We are in an ongoing global economic depression. The signs are everywhere, even as they are lost on economic leaders that put private banks and short-term speculative capital before citizens and long-term working capital. Central banks use other people’s future money in the form of debt to do this. No central bank holds, and thus enables, more national debt than the Federal Reserve.

I hate to keep repeating this, but until someone of some ability to do anything gets it, I’m going to keep going. Last week, Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke, co-enabler with Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner (among others) of our ballooning debt and mis-prioritized economic policy, urged Congress for another debt cap increase, or else.  The guy holds about  $2.5 trillion of debt on his books, being used for – nothing helpful to the general economy. A simple transfer would solve the debt cap problem in a nanosecond. Going a step further, a simple exchange of any of the $1.5 trillion of excess bank reserves receiving interest from the Fed, would do the same.  Instead of defaulting on, how about retiring, some debt? Thinking outside the box.

All around the world, the bodies and countries with the most power keep screwing people (some like IMF head, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, literally) and entire nations, while supporting their banking systems.  Last week, S&P announced it would downgrade Portugal if it didn’t play ball with the IMF and EU over its 4-year 78E billion-bailout program in return for hacking public programs.

Echoing our own Congressional goons spewing spending cuts in the face of inadequate revenues and for-bank-manufactured mega-debt, the S&P noted, “Two-thirds of the projected savings in [Portugal’s] 2012 budget will likely come from spending cuts.”

On a roll, the IMF also declared Italy needs ‘structural reform’, meaning labor market reform, less public ownership and more private investment to “unlock its growth potential.” (aka invite more speculative capital at its earliest convenience.)

Meanwhile, thousands of people are again striking in Greece, as the IMF and EU discuss more austerity measures, following the bank bailout that provoked public outrage a year ago, and a rating downgrade by S&P. The EU remains more concerned with investors regaining confidence in Greece than economic stability of its citizens. Then, there’s Ireland, for whom its last bailout didn’t dent its 14.5% unemployment rate, or fill in the gaping holes its banks dug.

In short, the global ‘remedy’ for depressed economies and debt-bloated banking sectors remains to do  – more of the same - and pretend  this will beget a different outcome. Yet, there is no way this strategy will result in more stable economies.  What we can expect instead is further widespread deterioration.



Obama's Budget Banter Omission: The Banks Broke the Bank

Since the White House announced its 2012 budget, the requisite punditry stream has been breaking down its specific pluses and minuses. I could grab illustrative quotes from various places and people, or add to the analytical details, but for the most part, it boils down to something like this:

GOP and GOP supporters: Obama didn't make enough spending cuts, he's not taking this whole budget thing seriously. Oh, and about the cuts he did suggest with regard to corporate tax benefits, high-end mortgage-holder deductions and (his-own) extension of wealthy individual Bushian tax breaks - well, that's just plain anti-American and - will kill jobs. (The fact that corporations were contributing just 6.6% and 7.2% in 2009 and 2010, of the total federal tax receipts, a 50% drop relative to the rate before the financial crisis, or about $150 billion per year, isn't relevant in the scheme of things.) Now, where can we cut another $100 billion? 

DEMs and DEM supporters: Obama inherited a bum economy, bum budget and bum deficit from Bush. And, he's turning around the crap hand he was dealt, slowly.  That means he has to cut back on some important programs, but he's gonna champion a high-speed railway, electric cars (to drive along side the high-speed railway?), and clean energy initiatives, and those will most certainly put millions of people back to work. Yes, he appointed Tim Geithner, one of the lead bank bailout builders, whose Treasury department colluded with the Fed, under Ben Bernanke, the other guy Obama kept on deck to help the economy, to increase the amount of US Treasury debt to $9.4 trillion from $5.4 trillion since the financial system began inhaling subsidies in the fall of 2008, and went on to post record bonuses and profits. But, he had no choice.

The intent of the actual discourse kind of makes me imagine a burning building across the street, raging flames, engulfing smoke, crumbling over its foundation, and there are two people watching, one's a Democrat and one's a Republican. While the fire intensifies, they are arguing over whether it's better to use a thimble or a teaspoon of water as an extinguisher aid. Somewhere, off in the distance, is an engineer trying to figure out how to rebuild the building over its ashes.

The sad truth is that the budget deficit is a direct outcome of the economic policies that were adopted by both parties over the years. National debt nearly doubled under Bush, and continued to grow under Obama, while the financial system pillaged the country for trillions of dollars twice - first, during the leveraged build-up to the economic collapse, and then, via a stockpile of creative subsidization awards afterwards, the underlying debt build-up for which, lingers like a bad hangover.

Unless the real economy becomes healthier, more people are employed and we institute a far more progressive tax and distribution structure, there is simply no mathematical way, to balance this budget.

So, there is no silver bullet amount of spending cuts that is sufficient to balance it either, particularly as long as we are only looking at, and debating about, the spending side of the US balance sheet, and only a portion of the non-discretionary component, at that. Quibbling over whether Obama is cutting enough or not enough, is quibbling over the wrong question. Obama showcasing just the cuts as these 'hard choices' that will get us more towards balance, is meaningless. It is equally misleading for the GOP  to focus on a separate subset of potential spending cuts, and conclude that this extra $100 billion will do the trick. Making $1.1 trillion of cuts over ten years, all things equal, with a projected deficit per year that's higher than that, won't balance any budget, for any political party.

You know what would have been really cool?

If Obama had just said - you know what - the budget can't be balanced, deal with it. And you know why? Because over the past two years, the economy, that was trashed by the banking sector, still sucks. And, during the entirety of the Bush administration, while prepping the economy to suck, debt to pay for wars and tax cuts kept growing. And, when the banking system was facing the abyss, we opened our checkbooks, we stimulated the hell out of it, but we did it mostly through issuing Treasury debt and the magical Fed printing machines - so it doesn't show up in the budget that we're all debating, except for a couple hundred billion to Fannie and Freddie and what remains of the stellar TARP project. And you know what? I admit that was a stupid thing to do. It was stupid when it started under Bush, and it was stupid when it continued under me and the economic team I appointed to keep it going. The bailout binge increased our public debt by 50% under my reckless economic advisors, Treasury Secretary, the Federal Reserve. And, hell if other countries decide to dump Treasuries in bulk, and their interest rates rise, and Bernanke can't QE them down fast enough, our budget deficit will gap like the Grand Canyon. 

Meanwhile folks, we need revenue. Just like banks need profits to pay bonuses. And, that's something that can only be remedied through a healthier economy - not just for corporations, stock market investors and banks - that are sitting on $2 trillion in cash, with $1 trillion parked at the Fed  - but for the general population that still counts 26 million people under or unemployed, not to mention a historically high 48.9% unemployment rate for youth, rising food and basic needs costs, continued foreclosures on entire families, and health insurance rates that will double within the next three years. You know what, when this country needed revenue in the past, Republican presidents and congresses did the math. Now, it's my turn. Let the GOP explain exactly how a lower corporate tax contribution created more jobs in the past two years, and while they're trying to figure that out, I'm gonna show some real leadership, and do everything I can - not to balance the budget - but to balance our economy.

Oh well.