Entries in Wall Street (16)

Monday
Apr202015

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. 

Friday
Dec052014

Steaming Mad about a Big Bank Con: Email from a Concerned Senior

Everyday I receive anguished emails from concerned citizens regarding the state of the economy, Wall Street, the political-financial system, and how their future stability is impacted by the powers that be. This one stood out for its clarity, as well as being indicative of one of the many ways in which the banking system regularly undermines people’s economic stability by targetting their savings accounts (which thanks to the Fed's zero-interest-rate policy receive no interest, and thus, no relatively risk-free returns) for high-fee asset management services.

The Clinton administration’s 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall, plus the two prior decades of various measures that weakened the intent of this 1933 Act that separated banks’ speculation activities from deposit and lending ones, has enabled big banks to engage in all manners of trading, leverage, and ill-concocted investment schemes, while holding trillions of dollars of individuals’ deposits.

It was Charles Mitchell, head of National City Bank (now Citigroup) back in the 1920s that realized if his bank could corner the deposits of ‘the Everyman’, it would be better positioned to engage in the bigger transactions that would catapult it to a financial superpower, as well as use the accounts for additive domestic gain. Nearly a century later, this aspect of converting depositor/savers to commission-providing risk-takers, provides fees to bankers, absent true responsibility for any related downside (as in the ‘past behavior is not indicative of future results’ small print.)  

But people should not act upon the “guidance” of the investment advisors resident at the very big banks where they keep their savings and other money – this leaves too much room for manipulation of their trust and money. And if legislation and politicians won’t divide these two financial items, people must do so for themselves.

For the evolution of institutionalized, government and central bank supported speculation has left populations footing the bill for bets taken beyond their knowledge and certainly, control. Even those people that believe they are taking the prudent steps with respect to their own financial situations as they approach old-age, are victims of a churn-and-burn mentality that incurs unnecessary fees and bonuses for the perpetuators, at their expense.

Having checked with the writer, who prefers to remain anonymous, I am leaving the contents of this email intact. The writer wanted others to know “how the nation’s banks target senior citizens and steal their life savings.“  These are the warning words I received from one of America’s seniors:

“Unlike many of the banks’ other schemes, this con is entirely avoidable if seniors and their families knew what to watch out for.

Here is how it works:

1. You are a conservative saver, and you have a large amount of money in the bank.  Since you are a “valued customer”, the bank gives you your own personal financial representative, with whom you build a relationship over time.  But this person is not on your side.  He will prod, coax, and sweet-talk you into moving your savings over to the bank’s investment arm.

2. If you do move your money over to the investment bank, your financial advisor will charge you high management fees (upwards of 1% of assets per year).  Moreover, you will pay big commissions on top of that.  But these won’t be disclosed as commissions – they will be incentives disguised in various ways that are buried deep within the fine print.  Since you don’t know about these, and since you trust the paid professional you’ve hired, you will be an easy victim.

3. Because of these incentives, your advisor will dump investments into your portfolio that may include: funds of funds (which charge layers upon layers of fees), IPO offerings that the bank can’t manage to sell off, complex structured products, variable annuities, and the like.  Anything the bank wants to get rid of, wishes to hawk, or gets a kickback to sell will be dumped into your account.  All the while, your advisor will be assuring you that these are excellent investments.

4. The result will be that you will almost certainly do worse than the market overall – at the very least, by the fees and commissions you pay (commissions that have been taken  –  stolen! – without your consent), and at worst, by scorching losses obtained via inappropriate investments.

5. If you figure out what has happened (and most people don’t, they will think that the market just did badly), you will have little recourse.  The bank will have forced you to sign a mandatory binding arbitration agreement that shuts you out of the court system.  Even if the bank has committed fraud, forgery, etc., it doesn’t matter.  The courts are closed to you.

6. If you manage to obtain a settlement or get a judgment from the arbitration forum, the results will almost certainly be kept confidential.  Therefore, the goings-on are kept quiet, and the banks can continue their practices unabated.

The victims of this fraud are not doing anything wrong or unreasonable.  They are working with large national banks.  They are hiring certified financial planners.  They are paying high management fees, so there is no expectation of anything “free”.  They are asking good questions and being reassured that their financial advisor is looking out for their best interest.  But they are being swindled nonetheless – because they don’t know about the hidden incentives, because they are unable to differentiate good investments from bad ones, and because they are being reassured by their advisor about how well they are doing compared to the market, even if the opposite is really true.

These are professional con men that are swindling millions of seniors, every day, all over the country -- decimating their life savings in their final years. 

I know, because I have seen it happen.  And I am mad.  Steaming mad.”

 

This writer is not the only one that is steaming mad. So are millions of people - retirees that don’t have the luxury of ‘making it back’ and workers that aren’t getting paid enough to leave unnecessary money ‘on the table’ of brokers and advisors whose best interests are institutionally and legislatively their own. Heeding the warning in here, and separating one’s bank deposits from the bank’s asset management arm that views them as fee-fodder, would be one way to protect against the damage that this regulatory fusion of bank practices causes.

Monday
Sep082014

The People vs. Federal Bank Settlements and Liquidity Rules

Last week, in an interview with Bloomberg News, former Countrywide CEO, Angelo Mozilo gave the nation the middle finger. He expressed zero remorse or culpability for his very personal (and personally lucrative) role in the subprime crisis that catalyzed a global economic recession. Apparently baffled by a potential lawsuit that could be levied by the Los Angeles US Attorney’s Office, he said, ““Countrywide didn’t change. I didn’t change. The world changed.” After blaming the world, he ended his segment by stating, “We didn’t do anything wrong.”

To him, the culprit was the real estate collapse itself.  The same excuse was used by Big Six bank CEOs before multiple Congressional hearings and business news hosts. “OMG, how could we have known prices could GO DOWN?” By placing the blame on the ‘market’, they spun their actions as reactive or ancillary to its apparently random whims, as opposed to proactive on practices leading to crisis events.

The more temporal distance from those events and airtime given to the bankers that inflated the market before crashing it, and Treasury Secretaries that did ‘what they had to do’ in an emergency, the more the Mozillian narrative is cemented in the main annals of history and the plight of the public is rendered a footnote.  Yet, it was not just the loans themselves, but more so, the immense and profitable re-packaging and global re-distribution of those loans in a pyramid of toxic assets wrapped with credit derivatives that blew up in the face of the nation and the world, The economic implosion that followed ignited by the weight of such epic fraud and CEO directed salesmanship, impacted initial borrowers with conditions beyond their control, on top of initial fraud and voracious pushing of those loans to begin with. Thus, banks concocted $14 trillion worth of assets using $1.5 trillion of high-interest loans, compounding and adding to each bit of fraud, instability and risk along the way.

Forbes ranked Mozillo one of the top ten highest paid CEOs in 2006. By 2009, the SEC charged him with fraud for lying about the quality of the loans he sold to Bank of America and insider trading for pocketing $140 million from selling his stock when he knew those loans, and his company, were crumbling. He wound up paying a $22.5 million fine to settle the charge of misleading investors and $45 million for the insider trading charge – leaving him a cool $72.5 million.

But that’s in the past, and his recent denials merely reinforced the stances of Big Six bank leaders such as JPM Chase’s Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein, who expressed a modicum of media-trained contrition only after their settlements were done and dusted.

Much of the mainstream media finally got it right though, characterizing the Bank of America’s “record” $16.65 billion settlement for the bogus deal it is. Only $7 billion of the settlement is even remotely slated for borrowers, and even that is absent any binding rules on aid reaching them. The reality is, the borrowers that should get the most assistance - not because they embellished applications as the blame-the-victim folks say - but because they were duped by bankers and then crushed by an economy turned on its head due to fraudulent bank practices that were federally subsidized - are the ones that lost their homes years ago. Absent a settlement that makes banks buy them new homes, they remain screwed.

The overall tenor of the settlements is worse than their feeble size and structure. Department of Justice Attorney General, Eric Holder’s John Wayne we-got-em attitude belies the most broken of systems – one that leaves fraud, embezzlement and grand larceny unpunished, and stokes rampant wealth inequality in the process.

So far, the Big Six banks - JPM Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs (and nominally Morgan Stanley) - and their expensive (and largely tax deductible) legal teams have successfully negotiated about $106 billion in mortgage (fraud) related settlements with federal or state governments. Of this, given the language of their settlements (not the benevolent press release versions), at the most $32 billion may get to some borrowers one day. Even that depends on banks upholding promises to do things like reduce existing principal balances that would only help people who haven’t already lost their homes. Banks might also provide minimal funds for people with the stomach for endless phone calls with "customer-service" representatives to access them. These, however, have proven relatively fruitless over the past six years since Obama unveiled his HAMP program - which was supposed to require from banks what these settlements do.

In addition, the Big Six settlements are negligible compared to the damage their practices (and the practices of the investment banks they bought at the onset of the crisis rendering them bigger) considering that since 2006, there have been foreclosure actions brought against nearly 15 million homes. With an average value of about $191,000 per home, the total value represented by those foreclosure actions is approximately $2.8 trillion - a far cry from $106 billion.

Let this sink in. Our government and bankers settled on $32 billion in maybe-aid to borrowers relative to $2.8 trillion of foreclosed properties many of which are being scooped up by hedge and private equity funds financed by the same big banks. Not only that. These banks have been able to access money at close to 0 percent interest courtesy of the Federal Reserve for nearly six years. Yet, rather than reducing mortgage principals with that extra cheap money, they stockpiled a record volume of $2.5 trillion in excess reserves at the Federal Reserve for which they are reaping 0.25% interest – higher interest than they give their mere mortal customers.  

The Big Three banks bagged some major headlines for their settlement figures. But the devil is in the details of who gets the money. Bank of America’s largest $16.65 billion settlement is part of $61.6 billion in government-negotiated mortgage-related penalties. Of these, only $15.6 billion is vaguely slated for borrowers.  

For Citigroup, the total value of federally settled penalties of $13.35 billion includes just $4.29 billion for borrowers. For JPM Chase, total federally-settled penalties tally $21. 76 billion. Of this, $8.2 billion might wind up with borrowers one day.

Of the $106 billion in Big Six bank settlements, just $1.68 billion are with the SEC whose job it is to protect the public from securities violations (which over-valued toxic assets comprised of fraudulent loans are in my book, but I don’t run the SEC.) 

Compare that with a litany of items of power and wealth inequality in motion. First, at the height of the government-sponsored bailout and subsidization period of late 2008 through early 2009, more than $23 trillion of loan facilities, subsidies and other aid were offered to mostly the Big Six Banks. Second, Wall Street bonuses for the time from the settlements and through their negotiation periods (2006-2013) were $221.6 billion

Third, the Fed has compiled a $4.4 trillion book of Treasury and mortgage securities to keep rates down and securities prices up, providing banks a metric with which to mark similar mortgage securities on their books at artificially high prices, without having to alter mortgage principals for borrowers, as part of the bargain. The Fed claims this strategy is to create jobs, not to reinvigorate banks and bank bonuses.

Finally, the total assets of the Big Six banks are valued at $9.6 trillion. On September 4th, US regulators, including the Federal Reserve, presented their idea for protecting us from future big bank risk– something called a new liquidity rule. Under this rule, each big bank would need to stash away $100 billion in cash or 'cash-like' assets in case of emergencies, a big bank piggy bank if you will.  But, all the new rule does is require big banks to hold a whopping 1% more cash then they did before the crisis.

Banks lobbied regulators the same way they settled with the justice department, ultimately getting off the hook for potentially having to hold $200 billion instead of $100 billion, less they not be able to speculate with the extra $100 billon (they argued that extra $100 billion was for extending credit to customers).  To put this new ‘safety’ rule into perspective, consider that in 2007, before the financial crisis, JPM Chase held $40 billion in cash vs. $1.5 trillion of assets, or 2.7% of them. Under the new rule, it would need to keep $100 billion in cash vs. the $2.4 trillion assets it now holds courtesy of the government triarch of former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, former NY Federal Reserve President-cum-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and former Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, or 4%. This excercise is not about fashioning a broad financial safety net - it's just another regulatory mirage presented as reform by the powers that be.

Absent convictions, or at least a public trial where at least arguments over what consituties felony fraud and exortion can be exposed, these settlements reflect just 1% of the Big Six bank assets, all of which grew since the crisis began, on the back of government and Fed policy and support. Rather than being a determinant of justice, they represent a reinforcement of the power oligarchy that aligns government and banking elites on one side of the economy and the broader population on the other. None of this bodes well for the next crisis.