Just inside the entrance to the U.S. Treasury, on the other side of a forbidding array of guard stations and scanners that control access to the Greek Revival building, lies one of the most beautiful interior spaces in all of Washington. Ornate bronze doors open inward to a two-story-high chamber. Chandeliers line the coffered ceiling, casting a soft glow on the marble walls and richly inlaid marble floor.
Today the Cash Room is used for press conferences, ceremonial functions, and departmental parties. And that’s too bad. If Treasury still used the room as it once did, then perhaps we’d have more of a clue about what happened to the billions of dollars that flew out of Treasury to selected American banks in the waning days of the Bush administration.
Last October, Congress passed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, putting $700 billion into the hands of the Treasury Department to bail out the nation’s banks at a moment of vanishing credit and peak financial panic. Over the next three months, Treasury poured nearly $239 billion into 296 of the nation’s 8,000 banks. The money went to big banks. It went to small banks. It went to banks that desperately wanted the money. It went to banks that didn’t want the money at all but had been ordered by Treasury to take it anyway. It went to banks that were quite happy to accept the windfall, and used the money simply to buy other banks. Some banks received as much as $45 billion, others as little as $1.5 million. Sixty-seven percent went to eight institutions; 33 percent went to the rest. And that was just the money that went to banks. Tens of billions more went to other companies, all before Barack Obama took office. It was the largest single financial intervention by Treasury into the banking system in U.S. history.
But once the money left the building, the government lost all track of it. The Treasury Department knew where it had sent the money, but nothing about what was done with it. Did the money aid the recovery? Was it spent for the purposes Congress intended? Did it save banks from collapse? Paulson’s Treasury Department had no idea, and didn’t seem to care. It never required the banks to explain what they did with this unprecedented infusion of capital.
Exactly one year has elapsed since the onset of the financial crisis and the passage of the bailout bill. Some measure of scrutiny and control has since been imposed by the Obama administration, but even today it’s hard to walk back the cat and trace the money. Up to a point, though, it’s possible to reconstruct some of what happened in the first chaotic and crucial three months of the bailout, when Treasury was still in the hands of Henry Paulson and most of the money was disbursed. Needless to say, there is no central clearinghouse for information about the tarp money. To get details of any kind means starting with the hundreds of individual recipients, then poring over S.E.C. filings, annual reports, and other documentation—in other words, performing the standard due diligence that the government itself failed to perform. In the report that follows, we have no more than dipped a toe into the morass, but one fact emerges clearly: a lot of the money wound up in the coffers of some very surprising institutions— institutions that should have been seen as “troubling” as much as “troubled.”
A Reverse Holdup
The intention of Congress when it passed the bailout bill could not have been more clear. The purpose was to buy up defective mortgage-backed securities and other “toxic assets” through the Troubled Asset Relief Program, better known as tarp. But the bill was in fact broad enough to give the Treasury secretary the authority to do whatever he deemed necessary to deal with the financial crisis. If tarp had been a credit card, it would have been called Carte Blanche. That authority was all Paulson needed to switch gears, within a matter of days, and change the entire thrust of the program from buying bad assets to buying stock in banks.
Why did this happen? Ostensibly, Treasury concluded that the task of buying up toxic assets would take too long to help the financial system and unlock the credit markets. So, theoretically, something more immediate was needed—hence the plan to inject billions into banks, whether or not they wanted or needed the money. To be sure, Citigroup and Bank of America were in precarious condition. So was the insurance giant A.I.G., which had already received an infusion from the Federal Reserve and ultimately would receive more tarp money—$70 billion—than any single bank. But rather than just aiding institutions in distress, Treasury set out to disburse money in a more freewheeling way, hoping it would pass rapidly into the financial system and somehow address the system-wide credit crunch. Even at this early stage, it was hard to escape the feeling that the real strategy was less than scientific—amounting to a hope that if a massive pile of money was simply thrown at the economy, some of it would surely do something useful.
On Sunday, October 12, between 6:30 and 7 p.m., Paulson made a series of calls to the C.E.O.’s of the biggest banks—the so-called Big 9—and asked them to come to Treasury the next afternoon for a meeting on the financial crisis. He was short on details, as he would be throughout the crisis. A series of e-mails obtained by Judicial Watch, a Washington public-interest group, offers a window on the moment. The C.E.O. of Citigroup, Vikram Pandit, had agreed to attend, but asked his staff to scope out the purpose. “Can you find out soon as possible what Paulson invite to VP [Vikram Pandit] for meeting at Treasury this afternoon is about?” a Citigroup executive in New York wrote the bank’s Washington office. When Citi’s high-powered lobbyist Nicholas Calio called Paulson’s office, he was told only that Pandit should attend.
Top Treasury staffers were likewise in the dark. Paulson’s chief of staff, James Wilkinson, sent out a 7:30 a.m. e-mail: “Can someone tell Michele Davis, [Kevin] Fromer and me who the ‘Big 9’ are?”
By midmorning, people finally had the names—Vikram Pandit, of Citigroup; Jamie Dimon, of J. P. Morgan Chase; Kenneth Lewis, of Bank of America; Richard Kovacevich, of Wells Fargo; John Thain, of Merrill Lynch; John Mack, of Morgan Stanley; Lloyd Blankfein, of Goldman Sachs; Robert Kelly, of the Bank of New York Mellon; and Ronald Logue, of State Street bank. Their destination was Room 3327, the Secretary’s Conference Room, on the third floor.
Paulson laid before them a one-page memo, “CEO Talking Points.” He wasn’t there to ask for their help, Paulson would say; he was there to tell them what he expected from them. To “arrest the stress in our financial system,” Treasury would unveil a $250 billion plan the next day to buy preferred stock in banks. Paulson’s memo told the bankers bluntly that “your nine firms will be the initial participants.” Paulson wasn’t calling for volunteers; he made it clear the banks had no choice but to allow Treasury to buy stock in their companies. It was basically a reverse holdup, with Paulson holding the gun and forcing the banks to take the money.
Some of the C.E.O.’s had misgivings, fearing that by accepting tarp money their banks would be perceived as shaky by investors and customers. Paulson explained that opting out wasn’t an option. “If a capital infusion is not appealing,” the memo continued, “you should be aware that your regulator will require it in any circumstance.” Paulson gave the bankers until 6:30 p.m. to clear everything with their boards and sign the papers.
Treasury had prepared a form with blank spaces for the name of the bank and the amount of tarp money requested. Each C.E.O. filled in the two blanks by hand—$10 billion, $15 billion, $25 billion, whatever—and then signed and dated the document. That was all it took.
“There Is No Problem Here”
But this was just the beginning. It’s one thing to call nine big banks into a room and give them what turned out to be a total of $125 billion. That required little more than a few hours. It’s quite a different matter to look out over the landscape of 8,000 other U.S. banks and decide which ones should get slices of the tarppie. Moreover, the guiding principle was never clear. Was it to give money to essentially sound banks, so that they could help inject more money into the credit markets? Was it to pull troubled banks into the clear? Was it both—and more?
Regardless, the mechanism to disburse all this money even more widely was an entity called the Office of Financial Stability. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a functioning office yet—it was just a name written into a piece of legislation. To lead it, Paulson picked Neel Kashkari, a 35-year-old former Goldman Sachs banker who had followed Paulson to Treasury when he became secretary, in July 2006. Kashkari was an odd choice to oversee a federal bailout of private companies. A free-market Republican, he had downplayed the gravity of the subprime-mortgage crisis only months before his appointment, reportedly sending the message to one gathering of bankers, “There is no problem here.”
Kashkari and other Paulson aides cobbled together the Office of Financial Stability under immense time pressure. They press-ganged people from elsewhere in Treasury and from far-flung government departments. By the end of the year, there were more “detailees” on loan from other offices (52) than there were permanent staff (38). They were spread out all over Treasury, from the ground floor to the third. Some occupied space in leased offices six blocks away. It was a strange agglomeration of people—stretching from Washington to San Francisco—who had never worked together before.
There were no internal controls to gauge success or failure. The goal was simply to dispense as much money as possible, as fast as possible. When Treasury began giving billions to the banks, the department had no policies in place to ensure that the banks were using the money in ways that met the purposes of the program, however defined. One main purpose, as noted, was to free up credit, but there was no incentive to lend and nothing to stop a bank from simply sitting on the money, bolstering its balance sheet and investing in Treasury bills. Indeed, Treasury’s plan was expressly not to ask the banks what they did with the money. As the Government Accountability Office later learned, “the standard agreement between Treasury and the participating institutions does not require that these institutions track or report how they plan to use, or do use, their capital investments.” When the G.A.O. asked Treasury if it intended to ask all tarp recipients to provide such an accounting, Treasury said it did not—and would not. “There’s not a bank in this country that would lend money under [these] terms,” Elizabeth Warren, the chair of a Congressional Oversight Panel that was eventually charged by Congress with overseeing tarp activities, would tell a Senate committee.
There wasn’t even anyone within the tarp office to keep track of the money as it was being disbursed. tarpgave that job—along with a $20 million fee—to a private contractor, Bank of New York Mellon, which also happened to be one of the Big 9. So here was a case of a beneficiary helping to oversee a process in which it was a direct participant. Most of the tarp contracts—for everything from legal services to accounting—were awarded under an expedited procedure that government watchdogs regard as “high-risk,” because it lacks a wide array of routine safeguards. In its first three months of operation, the Office of Financial Stability awarded 15 contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to law firms, fiscal agents, management consultants, and providers of various other services. There was enormous potential for conflicts of interest, and no procedure to deal with them. When the possibility of conflict of interest was raised, two of the contractors voiced vague promises to maintain an “open dialog” and “work in good faith” with Treasury, and left it at that.
When Henry Paulson unveiled the bank-rescue plan, he emphasized that it wasn’t a bailout. “This is an investment, not an expenditure, and there is no reason to expect this program will cost taxpayers anything,” he declared. For every $100 Treasury invested in the banks, he maintained, it would receive stock and warrants valued at $100. This claim proved optimistic. The Congressional Oversight Panel that later reviewed the 10 largest tarp transactions concluded that Treasury “paid substantially more for the assets it purchased under the tarp than their then-current market value.” For each $100 spent, Treasury received assets worth about $66.
Ask and You Shall Receive
In those first few weeks, money gushed out of Treasury and into the tarp pipeline at a torrential rate. After giving $125 billion to the big banks, Treasury moved on to the second round, wiring $33.6 billion to 21 other banks on November 14 in exchange for preferred stock. A week later it sent $2.9 billion to 23 more banks. As noted, by the time Barack Obama took office, the tarp tab totaled more than a quarter of a trillion dollars. In its first six months, the new administration disbursed an additional $125 billion to banks, mortgage companies, A.I.G., and the big auto manufacturers.
To the public, the bailout looked like a gold rush by banks competing for tarp money. It was indeed partly that, but the reality is more complex. While some banks lobbied aggressively for tarp money, many others that had no interest in the money were pressured to take it. Treasury’s explanation is that regulators knew which banks were strongest and wanted to get more capital into their hands in order to free up credit. But it’s also true that spreading the money around to a large number of small and medium-size banks helped create the impression that the bailout wasn’t just for a few big boys on Wall Street.
It’s impossible to overstate how casual the process was, or how little Treasury asked of the banks it targeted. Like most bankers, Ray Davis, the C.E.O. of Umpqua Bank, a solid, respectable local bank in Portland, Oregon, followed with great interest all the news out of Washington last fall. But he didn’t see that tarp had much relevance to his own bank. Umpqua was well run. It wasn’t bogged down by a portfolio of bad loans. It had healthy reserves.
Then he got a call from a Treasury Department representative asking if Umpqua would like to participate in the Treasury program and suggesting it would be a good thing for Umpqua to do. Davis listened politely, but the fact was, he says, that Umpqua “didn’t need the funds. Our capital resources were very high.”
The next day, Davis was in his office when another call came through from the same Treasury representative. “Basically what he said was that the secretary of the Treasury would like to have your application on his desk by five o’clock tomorrow afternoon,” Davis recalls.
The “application” was the paperwork for a capital infusion, and Davis was told it would be faxed over right away. By now he was sold on participating. “Here was somebody from the secretary of the Treasury calling,” Davis says, “and complimenting us on the strength of our company and saying you need to do this, to help the government, to be a good American citizen—all that stuff—and I’m saying, ‘That’s good. You’ve got me. I’m in.’”
The most urgent task was to complete the application and get it back to Treasury the next day, and this had Davis in a sweat: “I pictured this 200-page fax that would take me three weeks of work crammed into one evening.” Imagine Davis’s surprise when a staff member walked in soon afterward with the official “Application for tarp Capital Purchase Program.” It consisted of two pages, most of it white space.
If tarp accomplishes nothing else, it has struck a mighty blow for simplicity in government. The application was only 24 lines long, and asked such tough questions as the name and address of the bank, the name of the primary contact, the amount of its common and preferred stock, and how much money the bank wanted. Anyone who has filled out the voluminous federal forms required in order to be eligible for a college loan would die for such an application. Davis recalls that, when the two faxed pages were brought to him, all he could say was “Really?” As soon as Umpqua’s application was approved, Treasury wired $214 million to Umpqua’s account.
What happened in Portland happened elsewhere across the country. Peter Skillern, who heads the Community Reinvestment Association, a nonprofit group in North Carolina, describes a conference he attended where bankers explained that they had been “contacted by their regulators and told by them that they would be taking tarp.”
One policy that tarp did decide to adopt was to keep confidential the name of any bank that was deniedtarp funds—but it never had to invoke this rule. In those early months, with billions being wired all across the country, no financial institution that asked for tarp money was turned away.
Small Bank, Sharp Teeth
With few restrictions or controls in place, bailout money found its way not only to banks that didn’t really need it but also to banks whose business practices left much to be desired. On November 21, $180 million in tarp money wound up in the affluent seaside community of Santa Barbara, California. The tarp dollars flowed mostly into the coffers of a beige, Spanish-style building on Carrillo Street, home to the Santa Barbara Bank & Trust.
This might appear to be just the kind of regional bank that Treasury had in mind as an ideal beneficiary oftarp. The bank has been a fixture in Santa Barbara for decades, serving small businesses as well as wealthy individuals. It sponsors Little League teams, funds scholarships to send local kids to college, and takes an active role in community groups. It plays up its “longstanding commitment to giving back to the communities we serve.”
How much tarp money made its way through S.B.B.&T. and into the local community is not known. But, as it happens, the bank also operates a little-known and controversial program far from the lush enclaves of Santa Barbara. Like an absentee landlord, the community bank with the “give back” philosophy in Santa Barbara turns out to be a big player in poor neighborhoods throughout the country. And not in a nice way. Outside Santa Barbara, S.B.B.&T. peddles what are known as refund-anticipation loans (rals)—high-interest loans to the poor that are among the most predatory around.
A ral is a short-term loan to taxpayers who have filed for a tax refund. Rather than waiting one or two weeks for their refund from the I.R.S., they take out a bank loan for an amount equal to their refund, minus interest, fees, and other charges. Banks operate in concert with tax preparers who complete the paperwork, and then the banks write the taxpayer a check. The loan is secured by the taxpayer’s expected refund. rals are theoretically available to everyone, but they are used overwhelmingly by the working poor. Ordinarily, the loans have a term of only a few weeks—the time it takes the I.R.S. to process the return and send out a check—but the interest charges and fees are so steep that borrowers can lose as much as 20 percent of the value of their tax refund. A recent study estimated that annual rates on somerals run as high as 700 percent.
Santa Barbara is one of three banks that dominate this obscure corner of the banking market—the other two being J. P. Morgan Chase and HSBC. But unlike the two big banks, for which rals are but one facet of a broad-based business, Santa Barbara has come to rely heavily for its financial well-being on these high-interest loans to poor people. Interest earned from rals accounted for 24 percent of the banking company’s interest earnings in 2008, second only to income generated by commercial-real-estate loans. Under pressure from consumer groups, some banks, including J. P. Morgan Chase, have lowered their ralfees. Not Santa Barbara. Chi Chi Wu, of the National Consumer Law Center, in Boston, calls Santa Barbara Bank & Trust “a small bank with sharp teeth.”
The U.S. Department of Justice and state authorities in California, New Jersey, and New York have taken action against tax preparers with whom S.B.B.&T. works, charging them with deceptive advertising and with preparing fraudulent returns. Santa Barbara later took a $22 million hit on its books because of unpaid refund-anticipation loans.
The bank insists that its tarp money didn’t go to finance ral. “The capital received by Santa Barbara Bank & Trust under the U.S. Treasury Department’s Capital Purchase Program was not intended nor is it being used to fund or provide liquidity for any Refund Anticipation Loans,” according to Deborah L. Whiteley, an executive vice president of Pacific Capital Bancorp, Santa Barbara’s parent company. Other banks that have received tarp money have made similar statements, contending that money received from Washington simply became part of their capital base and was not earmarked for any specific purpose. But in a conference call with analysts on November 21, Stephen Masterson, the chief financial officer of Pacific Capital Bancorp, admitted that tarp “obviously helps us .… We didn’t take the tarp money to increase our ral program or to build our ral program, but it certainly helps our capital ratios.”
Indeed, the infusion from Treasury may well have been a lifeline for Santa Barbara. The Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina, which has been tracking S.B.B.&T.’s finances and its ralprogram for years, concluded in 2008 that S.B.B.&T. would be losing money if it weren’t putting the squeeze on poor people around the country.
Gouging Needy Students
KeyBank of Cleveland is another institution that was given the nod by Treasury officials—and another bank whose lending practices prompt the question: What were they thinking?
Last fall KeyBank received $2.5 billion in tarp money. Its parent company is KeyCorp, a major bank holding company headquartered in Cleveland. With 989 full-service branches spread across 14 states, KeyCorp describes itself as “one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial services companies,” with assets of $98 billion. It also ranks as the nation’s seventh-largest education lender. In the summer of 2008, as banks and Wall Street firms were unraveling faster than they could count up their losses, KeyCorp delivered a decidedly upbeat report on its condition to investors. “Our costs are well controlled,” the company stated. “Our fee revenue is strong.…Our reserves are strong.…We remain well capitalized.”
What the report did not mention was a host of other problems. KeyCorp was in the midst of negotiations with the I.R.S. over questionable tax-leasing deals, and had had to deposit $2 billion in escrow with the government—forcing it to raise emergency capital and slash dividends after 43 consecutive years of annual growth. Meanwhile, consumer advocates had KeyBank in their sights because of the way it conducted its student-loan business, which they described as nakedly predatory. The Salt Lake Tribunereported that “KeyBank not only funds unscrupulous schools, it seeks them out, strikes up lucrative partnerships, and, in the process, suckers students into thinking the schools are legitimate.”
Over the years, thousands of students have secured education loans from KeyBank to attend a broad range of career-training schools—schools offering instruction in how to use or repair computers, how to become an electronics technician or even a nurse. One of the schools was Silver State Helicopters, which was based in Las Vegas and operated flight schools in a half-dozen states. During high-pressure sales pitches, people looking to change careers were encouraged to simultaneously sign up for flight school and complete a loan application that would be forwarded to KeyBank. Once approved, KeyBank, in keeping with long-standing practice, would give all the tuition money up front directly to Silver State. If a student dropped out, Silver State kept the tuition and the student remained on the hook for the full amount of the loan, at a hefty interest rate.
The same rule applied if Silver State shut itself down, which it did without warning on February 3, 2008. “Because the monthly operating expenses, even at the recently streamlined levels, continue to exceed cash flow,” an e-mail to employees explained, “the board has elected to suspend all operations effective at 5 p.m. today.” More than 750 employees in 18 states were out of work. More than 2,500 students had their training (for which they had paid as much as $70,000) cut short.
Silver State Helicopters was a flight school, but it might more accurately be thought of as a Ponzi scheme, according to critics. As long as there was a continual source of loan money, keeping the scheme afloat, all was well. KeyBank bundled the loans into securities, just as the subprime-mortgage marketers had done, and sold them on Wall Street. But when Wall Street failed to buy at an adequate interest rate, the money supply evaporated. As KeyBank dryly put it, “In 2007, Key was unable to securitize its student loan portfolio at cost-effective rates.” Without the loans—in other words, without the cooperation of Wall Street—the school had no income.
In February 2009, Fitch Ratings service, which rates the ability of debt issuers to meet their commitments, placed 16 classes of KeyCorp student-loan transactions totaling $1.75 billion on “Ratings Watch Negative,” signaling the possibility of a future downgrade in their creditworthiness.
Predator to the Rescue
The credit-card behemoth Capital One, an institution that many Americans probably don’t even realize is a bank, maintains its headquarters in McLean, in northern Virginia. Over the years, Capital One’s phenomenally successful marketing strategy has made the company the fifth-largest credit-card issuer in the U.S., and it has used its profits to expand into retail banking, home-equity loans, and other kinds of lending.
Capital One never revealed what it planned to do with the $3.5 billion tarp check it received from the U.S. Treasury on November 14, 2008, but three weeks later, the company bought one of Washington’s premier financial institutions, Chevy Chase Bank. To Washingtonians, Chevy Chase was a model corporate citizen. But outside Washington, it had a different reputation. The company’s mortgage subsidiary had engaged in practices that were at the core of the nation’s mortgage meltdown—risky loans with teaser interest rates that later went bad. The bank’s portfolio of mortgages from around the country was stuffed with a high percentage of so-called option arm—adjustable-rate mortgages with many different payment options. One of the most common kept a homeowner’s monthly payment the same for years, but the interest rate rose almost immediately. When the interest exceeded the amount of the monthly payment, the excess was tacked onto the principal, pushing homeowners ever deeper into debt. Having been lured by what a federal judge would call the “siren call” of this kind of mortgage, many Chevy Chase mortgage holders were on the brink of foreclosure, or had already fallen over the edge. By mid-2008, Chevy Chase’s “nonperforming” assets had tripled to $490 million since the previous September.
With Chevy Chase rapidly deteriorating, along came Capital One. Flush with tarp money, Capital One became a bailout czar of its own. It bought Chevy Chase for $520 million and assumed $1.75 billion of its bad loans. The purchase price was a fraction of what Chevy Chase would have brought before it wandered off into the wilderness of exotic mortgages and risky lending.
Meanwhile, even as it was bailing out Chevy Chase, Capital One was putting the squeeze on many thousands of its own credit-card holders, sharply raising their interest rates and imposing other conditions that made credit far more expensive and difficult to obtain. For many cardholders, rates jumped overnight from 7.9 percent to as much as 22.9 percent. Rather than using its multi-billion-dollar government infusion to prime the credit pump, Capital One in fact began turning off the spigot.
Capital One’s actions enraged its customers, many of whom had been cardholders for decades. The bank was engulfed with complaints. “The last I checked you were given money from the government for the specific purpose of freeing up credit to stimulate spending and help move the economy out of recession,” wrote a woman in Holland, Michigan. This was “just the opposite of what you did.” But other credit-card companies that received federal bailout money, such as Bank of America, J. P. Morgan Chase, and Citibank, would take the same route as Capital One, sharply raising interest rates, cutting off credit to millions of people, and frustrating the stated rationale for Treasury’s bailout.
After the Earthquake
Because all dollar bills are alike, and because follow-up tracking by the government has been so minimal, it’s often impossible to determine if any bank or other financial institution used tarp money for any particular, discernible purpose. Only A.I.G., Bank of America, and Citigroup were subject to any reporting requirements at all, and the reporting has been spotty. But what is possible to say is that tarpallowed many recipients to spend money in ways they would have been unable to do otherwise. It’s also the case that recipients of tarp money continued to behave as if a financial earthquake hadn’t just shaken the world economy.
The Riviera Country Club is about a mile from the Pacific Ocean, in a scenic canyon north of Los Angeles. Riviera is home to one of the most storied tournaments on the P.G.A. Tour. This year the tournament was sponsored by a tarp recipient, the Northern Trust Company of Chicago. Northern was founded more than a century ago to cater to wealthy Chicagoans, and not much about its clientele has changed since then, except that now the company caters to the wealthy not just in Chicago but everywhere. According to the bank, its wealth-management group caters to those “with assets typically exceeding $200 million.” The company manages $559 billion in assets—a sum nearly as great as what has so far been spent on the tarpprogram itself.
When Northern Trust received $1.6 billion in tarp funds, a spokesman for the bank said that it was “too soon to say specifically” how the money would be used. But the company’s president and C.E.O., Frederick Waddell, noted that “the program will provide us with additional capital to maximize growth opportunities.” Three months later, the bank sponsored the Northern Trust Open, flying in wealthy clients from around the country. To entertain them, the bank brought in Sheryl Crow, Chicago, and Earth, Wind & Fire. A Northern Trust spokesman declined to say how much all this cost, but explained that it was really just a business decision “to show appreciation for clients.”
Northern Trust was acting no differently from many other tarp recipients. One of the most blatant examples was Citigroup’s plan to buy a $50 million private jet to fly executives around the country. A public outcry forced Citigroup to abandon that scheme, but the bank quietly went ahead with a $10 million renovation of its executive offices on Park Avenue, in New York. Given that Citigroup had already gone to the government three times for tarp assistance totaling $45 billion, and was not a paragon of public trust, retrofitting the windows with “Safety Shield 800” blastproof window film may have just been common sense.
The excesses weren’t confined to big-city banks. A subsidiary of North Carolina–based B.B.&T., after accepting $3.1 billion in tarp money, sent dozens of employees to a training session at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Sarasota, Florida. TCF Financial Corp., based in Wayzata, Minnesota, sent 40 “high-performing” managers, lenders, and other employees on a junket in February to Cancún, soon after receiving more than $360 million in tarp funds.
By and large, the cash that went to the Big 9 simply became part of their capital base, and most of the big banks declined to indicate where the money actually went. Because of the sheer size of these institutions, it’s simply impossible to trace. Bank of America no doubt used a portion of its $25 billion in tarp funds to help it absorb Merrill Lynch. Citigroup revealed in its first quarterly report after receiving $45 billion intarp funds that it had used $36.5 billion to buy up mortgages and to make new loans, including home loans.
A.I.G., the largest single tarp beneficiary, wasn’t even a bank. The insurance company used its $70 billion in tarp funds to pay off a previous government infusion from the Federal Reserve. The original bailout money had flowed through A.I.G. to Wall Street firms and foreign banks that had incurred big losses on credit-default swaps and other exotic obligations. These were basically the casino-style wagers made by A.I.G. and the counterparties—wagers they lost. The government justified the help by saying it was necessary to prevent disruption to the economy that would be caused by a “disorderly wind-down” of A.I.G. The collapse of Lehman Brothers had occurred just days before the Fed took action, and the shock waves on Wall Street from yet another implosion might have been catastrophic. Bankruptcy court, where troubled corporations routinely wind down their disorderly affairs, would have been another option, though that prospect might not have quickly enough addressed the gathering sense of urgency and doom. We’ll never know. Certainly bankruptcy court would not have allowed A.I.G.’s clients to get full value for their bad investments.
Instead, A.I.G. was able to pay off its counterparties 100 cents on the dollar. The largest payout—$12.9 billion—went to Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment house presided over by Paulson before he moved into his Treasury job. Merrill Lynch, the world’s largest brokerage—then in the process of being taken over by Bank of America—received $6.8 billion. Bank of America itself received $5.2 billion. Citigroup, the nation’s largest bank, received $2.3 billion. But it wasn’t just Wall Street that benefitted. A.I.G. also funneled tens of billions of tarp dollars to banks on the other side of the Atlantic.
Some banks receiving tarp funds bristle at the notion that the taxpayer-funded program is a bailout. They say it is an investment in banks by the federal government, one that requires them to pay interest and ultimately pay back the money or face a financial penalty. In fact, many banks are making their scheduled payments to Treasury, and others have paid off billions of dollars in tarp funds (as well as interest). Totarp supporters, this is evidence of a sound investment. But at this stage it isn’t clear that every institution will be able to make the interest payments and buy back the government’s holdings. As of this writing, some banks, including Pacific Capital Bancorp, the parent of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust, have not been able to make their scheduled payments. No one can predict how many banks will ultimately come up short. But in the meantime tarp has been a very good deal for banks, because it gave them, courtesy of the taxpayers, access to capital that would have cost them substantially more in the private market, while exacting nothing from the beneficiaries in the form of a quid pro quo.
Based on the reluctance of many banks to take the money in the first place, and the swiftness with which other banks have repaid tarp funds, the main conclusion to be drawn is that relatively few were actually endangered. Rather than targeting the weak for relief—or allowing them to fail, as the government allowed millions of ordinary Americans to fail—Paulson and Treasury pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial system without prior design and without prospective accountability. What was this all about? A case of panic by Treasury and the Federal Reserve? A financial over-reaction of cosmic proportions? A smoke screen to take care of a small number of Wall Street institutions that received 100 cents on the dollar for some of the worst investments they ever made?
More than five months after the bulk of the bailout money had been distributed into bank coffers, Elizabeth Warren plaintively raised the central and as yet unanswered question: “What is the strategy that Treasury is pursuing?” And she basically threw up her hands. As far as she could see, Warren went on, Treasury’s strategy was essentially “Take the money and do what you want with it.”
This article originally appeared in Vanity Fair, September, 2009
How did the economy get into this mess? Read Vanity Fair’s “Charting the Road to Ruin.”
From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression – and they’re about to do it again
Posted Jul 13, 2009 1:49 PM
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
By now, most of us know the major players. As George Bush’s last Treasury secretary, former Goldman CEO Henry Paulson was the architect of the bailout, a suspiciously self-serving plan to funnel trillions of Your Dollars to a handful of his old friends on Wall Street. Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s former Treasury secretary, spent 26 years at Goldman before becoming chairman of Citigroup — which in turn got a $300 billion taxpayer bailout from Paulson. There’s John Thain, the asshole chief of Merrill Lynch who bought an $87,000 area rug for his office as his company was imploding; a former Goldman banker, Thain enjoyed a multibilliondollar handout from Paulson, who used billions in taxpayer funds to help Bank of America rescue Thain’s sorry company. And Robert Steel, the former Goldmanite head of Wachovia, scored himself and his fellow executives $225 million in goldenparachute payments as his bank was selfdestructing. There’s Joshua Bolten, Bush’s chief of staff during the bailout, and Mark Patterson, the current Treasury chief of staff, who was a Goldman lobbyist just a year ago, and Ed Liddy, the former Goldman director whom Paulson put in charge of bailedout insurance giant AIG, which forked over $13 billion to Goldman after Liddy came on board. The heads of the Canadian and Italian national banks are Goldman alums, as is the head of the World Bank, the head of the New York Stock Exchange, the last two heads of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — which, incidentally, is now in charge of overseeing Goldman — not to mention …
But then, any attempt to construct a narrative around all the former Goldmanites in influential positions quickly becomes an absurd and pointless exercise, like trying to make a list of everything. What you need to know is the big picture: If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain — an extremely unfortunate loophole in the system of Western democratic capitalism, which never foresaw that in a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.
The bank’s unprecedented reach and power have enabled it to turn all of America into a giant pumpanddump scam, manipulating whole economic sectors for years at a time, moving the dice game as this or that market collapses, and all the time gorging itself on the unseen costs that are breaking families everywhere — high gas prices, rising consumercredit rates, halfeaten pension funds, mass layoffs, future taxes to pay off bailouts. All that money that you’re losing, it’s going somewhere, and in both a literal and a figurative sense, Goldman Sachs is where it’s going: The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth — pure profit for rich individuals.
They achieve this using the same playbook over and over again. The formula is relatively simple: Goldman positions itself in the middle of a speculative bubble, selling investments they know are crap. Then they hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage. Finally, when it all goes bust, leaving millions of ordinary citizens broke and starving, they begin the entire process over again, riding in to rescue us all by lending us back our own money at interest, selling themselves as men above greed, just a bunch of really smart guys keeping the wheels greased. They’ve been pulling this same stunt over and over since the 1920s — and now they’re preparing to do it again, creating what may be the biggest and most audacious bubble yet.
If you want to understand how we got into this financial crisis, you have to first understand where all the money went — and in order to understand that, you need to understand what Goldman has already gotten away with. It is a history exactly five bubbles long — including last year’s strange and seemingly inexplicable spike in the price of oil. There were a lot of losers in each of those bubbles, and in the bailout that followed. But Goldman wasn’t one of them.
BUBBLE #1 The Great Depression
Goldman wasn’t always a too-big-to-fail Wall Street behemoth, the ruthless face of kill-or-be-killed capitalism on steroids — just almost always. The bank was actually founded in 1869 by a German immigrant named Marcus Goldman, who built it up with his soninlaw Samuel Sachs. They were pioneers in the use of commercial paper, which is just a fancy way of saying they made money lending out shortterm IOUs to smalltime vendors in downtown Manhattan.
You can probably guess the basic plotline of Goldman’s first 100 years in business: plucky, immigrantled investment bank beats the odds, pulls itself up by its bootstraps, makes shitloads of money. In that ancient history there’s really only one episode that bears scrutiny now, in light of more recent events: Goldman’s disastrous foray into the speculative mania of precrash Wall Street in the late 1920s.
This great Hindenburg of financial history has a few features that might sound familiar. Back then, the main financial tool used to bilk investors was called an “investment trust.” Similar to modern mutual funds, the trusts took the cash of investors large and small and (theoretically, at least) invested it in a smorgasbord of Wall Street securities, though the securities and amounts were often kept hidden from the public. So a regular guy could invest $10 or $100 in a trust and feel like he was a big player. Much as in the 1990s, when new vehicles like day trading and etrading attracted reams of new suckers from the sticks who wanted to feel like big shots, investment trusts roped a new generation of regularguy investors into the speculation game.
Beginning a pattern that would repeat itself over and over again, Goldman got into the investmenttrust game late, then jumped in with both feet and went hogwild. The first effort was the Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation; the bank issued a million shares at $100 apiece, bought all those shares with its own money and then sold 90 percent of them to the hungry public at $104. The trading corporation then relentlessly bought shares in itself, bidding the price up further and further. Eventually it dumped part of its holdings and sponsored a new trust, the Shenandoah Corporation, issuing millions more in shares in that fund — which in turn sponsored yet another trust called the Blue Ridge Corporation. In this way, each investment trust served as a front for an endless investment pyramid: Goldman hiding behind Goldman hiding behind Goldman. Of the 7,250,000 initial shares of Blue Ridge, 6,250,000 were actually owned by Shenandoah — which, of course, was in large part owned by Goldman Trading.
The end result (ask yourself if this sounds familiar) was a daisy chain of borrowed money, one exquisitely vulnerable to a decline in performance anywhere along the line. The basic idea isn’t hard to follow. You take a dollar and borrow nine against it; then you take that $10 fund and borrow $90; then you take your $100 fund and, so long as the public is still lending, borrow and invest $900. If the last fund in the line starts to lose value, you no longer have the money to pay back your investors, and everyone gets massacred.
In a chapter from The Great Crash, 1929 titled “In Goldman Sachs We Trust,” the famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith held up the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah trusts as classic examples of the insanity of leveragebased investment. The trusts, he wrote, were a major cause of the market’s historic crash; in today’s dollars, the losses the bank suffered totaled $475 billion. “It is difficult not to marvel at the imagination which was implicit in this gargantuan insanity,” Galbraith observed, sounding like Keith Olbermann in an ascot. “If there must be madness, something may be said for having it on a heroic scale.”
BUBBLE #2 Tech Stocks
Fast-forward about 65 years. Goldman not only survived the crash that wiped out so many of the investors it duped, it went on to become the chief underwriter to the country’s wealthiest and most powerful corporations. Thanks to Sidney Weinberg, who rose from the rank of janitor’s assistant to head the firm, Goldman became the pioneer of the initial public offering, one of the principal and most lucrative means by which companies raise money. During the 1970s and 1980s, Goldman may not have been the planet-eating Death Star of political influence it is today, but it was a topdrawer firm that had a reputation for attracting the very smartest talent on the Street.
It also, oddly enough, had a reputation for relatively solid ethics and a patient approach to investment that shunned the fast buck; its executives were trained to adopt the firm’s mantra, “longterm greedy.” One former Goldman banker who left the firm in the early Nineties recalls seeing his superiors give up a very profitable deal on the grounds that it was a longterm loser. “We gave back money to ‘grownup’ corporate clients who had made bad deals with us,” he says. “Everything we did was legal and fair — but ‘longterm greedy’ said we didn’t want to make such a profit at the clients’ collective expense that we spoiled the marketplace.”
But then, something happened. It’s hard to say what it was exactly; it might have been the fact that Goldman’s cochairman in the early Nineties, Robert Rubin, followed Bill Clinton to the White House, where he directed the National Economic Council and eventually became Treasury secretary. While the American media fell in love with the story line of a pair of babyboomer, Sixtieschild, Fleetwood Mac yuppies nesting in the White House, it also nursed an undisguised crush on Rubin, who was hyped as without a doubt the smartest person ever to walk the face of the Earth, with Newton, Einstein, Mozart and Kant running far behind.
Rubin was the prototypical Goldman banker. He was probably born in a $4,000 suit, he had a face that seemed permanently frozen just short of an apology for being so much smarter than you, and he exuded a Spock-like, emotion-neutral exterior; the only human feeling you could imagine him experiencing was a nightmare about being forced to fly coach. It became almost a national clichè that whatever Rubin thought was best for the economy — a phenomenon that reached its apex in 1999, when Rubin appeared on the cover of Time with his Treasury deputy, Larry Summers, and Fed chief Alan Greenspan under the headline The Committee To Save The World. And “what Rubin thought,” mostly, was that the American economy, and in particular the financial markets, were over-regulated and needed to be set free. During his tenure at Treasury, the Clinton White House made a series of moves that would have drastic consequences for the global economy — beginning with Rubin’s complete and total failure to regulate his old firm during its first mad dash for obscene short-term profits.
The basic scam in the Internet Age is pretty easy even for the financially illiterate to grasp. Companies that weren’t much more than potfueled ideas scrawled on napkins by uptoolate bongsmokers were taken public via IPOs, hyped in the media and sold to the public for mega-millions. It was as if banks like Goldman were wrapping ribbons around watermelons, tossing them out 50-story windows and opening the phones for bids. In this game you were a winner only if you took your money out before the melon hit the pavement.
It sounds obvious now, but what the average investor didn’t know at the time was that the banks had changed the rules of the game, making the deals look better than they actually were. They did this by setting up what was, in reality, a two-tiered investment system — one for the insiders who knew the real numbers, and another for the lay investor who was invited to chase soaring prices the banks themselves knew were irrational. While Goldman’s later pattern would be to capitalize on changes in the regulatory environment, its key innovation in the Internet years was to abandon its own industry’s standards of quality control.
“Since the Depression, there were strict underwriting guidelines that Wall Street adhered to when taking a company public,” says one prominent hedge-fund manager. “The company had to be in business for a minimum of five years, and it had to show profitability for three consecutive years. But Wall Street took these guidelines and threw them in the trash.” Goldman completed the snow job by pumping up the sham stocks: “Their analysts were out there saying Bullshit.com is worth $100 a share.”
The problem was, nobody told investors that the rules had changed. “Everyone on the inside knew,” the manager says. “Bob Rubin sure as hell knew what the underwriting standards were. They’d been intact since the 1930s.”
Jay Ritter, a professor of finance at the University of Florida who specializes in IPOs, says banks like Goldman knew full well that many of the public offerings they were touting would never make a dime. “In the early Eighties, the major underwriters insisted on three years of profitability. Then it was one year, then it was a quarter. By the time of the Internet bubble, they were not even requiring profitability in the foreseeable future.”
Goldman has denied that it changed its underwriting standards during the Internet years, but its own statistics belie the claim. Just as it did with the investment trust in the 1920s, Goldman started slow and finished crazy in the Internet years. After it took a littleknown company with weak financials called Yahoo! public in 1996, once the tech boom had already begun, Goldman quickly became the IPO king of the Internet era. Of the 24 companies it took public in 1997, a third were losing money at the time of the IPO. In 1999, at the height of the boom, it took 47 companies public, including stillborns like Webvan and eToys, investment offerings that were in many ways the modern equivalents of Blue Ridge and Shenandoah. The following year, it underwrote 18 companies in the first four months, 14 of which were money losers at the time. As a leading underwriter of Internet stocks during the boom, Goldman provided profits far more volatile than those of its competitors: In 1999, the average Goldman IPO leapt 281 percent above its offering price, compared to the Wall Street average of 181 percent.
How did Goldman achieve such extraordinary results? One answer is that they used a practice called “laddering,” which is just a fancy way of saying they manipulated the share price of new offerings. Here’s how it works: Say you’re Goldman Sachs, and Bullshit.com comes to you and asks you to take their company public. You agree on the usual terms: You’ll price the stock, determine how many shares should be released and take the Bullshit.com CEO on a “road show” to schmooze investors, all in exchange for a substantial fee (typically six to seven percent of the amount raised). You then promise your best clients the right to buy big chunks of the IPO at the low offering price — let’s say Bullshit.com’s starting share price is $15 — in exchange for a promise that they will buy more shares later on the open market. That seemingly simple demand gives you inside knowledge of the IPO’s future, knowledge that wasn’t disclosed to the daytrader schmucks who only had the prospectus to go by: You know that certain of your clients who bought X amount of shares at $15 are also going to buy Y more shares at $20 or $25, virtually guaranteeing that the price is going to go to $25 and beyond. In this way, Goldman could artificially jack up the new company’s price, which of course was to the bank’s benefit — a six percent fee of a $500 million IPO is serious money.
Goldman was repeatedly sued by shareholders for engaging in laddering in a variety of Internet IPOs, including Webvan and NetZero. The deceptive practices also caught the attention of Nicholas Maier, the syndicate manager of Cramer & Co., the hedge fund run at the time by the now-famous chattering television asshole Jim Cramer, himself a Goldman alum. Maier told the SEC that while working for Cramer between 1996 and 1998, he was repeatedly forced to engage in laddering practices during IPO deals with Goldman.
“Goldman, from what I witnessed, they were the worst perpetrator,” Maier said. “They totally fueled the bubble. And it’s specifically that kind of behavior that has caused the market crash. They built these stocks upon an illegal foundation — manipulated up — and ultimately, it really was the small person who ended up buying in.” In 2005, Goldman agreed to pay $40 million for its laddering violations — a puny penalty relative to the enormous profits it made. (Goldman, which has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases it has settled, refused to respond to questions for this story.)
Another practice Goldman engaged in during the Internet boom was “spinning,” better known as bribery. Here the investment bank would offer the executives of the newly public company shares at extra-low prices, in exchange for future underwriting business. Banks that engaged in spinning would then undervalue the initial offering price — ensuring that those “hot” opening-price shares it had handed out to insiders would be more likely to rise quickly, supplying bigger firstday rewards for the chosen few. So instead of Bullshit.com opening at $20, the bank would approach the Bullshit.com CEO and offer him a million shares of his own company at $18 in exchange for future business — effectively robbing all of Bullshit’s new shareholders by diverting cash that should have gone to the company’s bottom line into the private bank account of the company’s CEO.
In one case, Goldman allegedly gave a multimillion-dollar special offering to eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who later joined Goldman’s board, in exchange for future i-banking business. According to a report by the House Financial Services Committee in 2002, Goldman gave special stock offerings to executives in 21 companies that it took public, including Yahoo! cofounder Jerry Yang and two of the great slithering villains of the financial-scandal age — Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski and Enron’s Ken Lay. Goldman angrily denounced the report as “an egregious distortion of the facts” — shortly before paying $110 million to settle an investigation into spinning and other manipulations launched by New York state regulators. “The spinning of hot IPO shares was not a harmless corporate perk,” then-attorney general Eliot Spitzer said at the time. “Instead, it was an integral part of a fraudulent scheme to win new investment-banking business.”
Such practices conspired to turn the Internet bubble into one of the greatest financial disasters in world history: Some $5 trillion of wealth was wiped out on the NASDAQ alone. But the real problem wasn’t the money that was lost by shareholders, it was the money gained by investment bankers, who received hefty bonuses for tampering with the market. Instead of teaching Wall Street a lesson that bubbles always deflate, the Internet years demonstrated to bankers that in the age of freely flowing capital and publicly owned financial companies, bubbles are incredibly easy to inflate, and individual bonuses are actually bigger when the mania and the irrationality are greater.
Nowhere was this truer than at Goldman. Between 1999 and 2002, the firm paid out $28.5 billion in compensation and benefits — an average of roughly $350,000 a year per employee. Those numbers are important because the key legacy of the Internet boom is that the economy is now driven in large part by the pursuit of the enormous salaries and bonuses that such bubbles make possible. Goldman’s mantra of “long-term greedy” vanished into thin air as the game became about getting your check before the melon hit the pavement.
The market was no longer a rationally managed place to grow real, profitable businesses: It was a huge ocean of Someone Else’s Money where bankers hauled in vast sums through whatever means necessary and tried to convert that money into bonuses and payouts as quickly as possible. If you laddered and spun 50 Internet IPOs that went bust within a year, so what? By the time the Securities and Exchange Commission got around to fining your firm $110 million, the yacht you bought with your IPO bonuses was already six years old. Besides, you were probably out of Goldman by then, running the U.S. Treasury or maybe the state of New Jersey. (One of the truly comic moments in the history of America’s recent financial collapse came when Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who ran Goldman from 1994 to 1999 and left with $320 million in IPO-fattened stock, insisted in 2002 that “I’ve never even heard the term ‘laddering’ before.”)
For a bank that paid out $7 billion a year in salaries, $110 million fines issued half a decade late were something far less than a deterrent — they were a joke. Once the Internet bubble burst, Goldman had no incentive to reassess its new, profit-driven strategy; it just searched around for another bubble to inflate. As it turns out, it had one ready, thanks in large part to Rubin.
BUBBLE #3 The Housing Craze
Goldman’s role in the sweeping global disaster that was the housing bubble is not hard to trace. Here again, the basic trick was a decline in underwriting standards, although in this case the standards weren’t in IPOs but in mortgages. By now almost everyone knows that for decades mortgage dealers insisted that home buyers be able to produce a down payment of 10 percent or more, show a steady income and good credit rating, and possess a real first and last name. Then, at the dawn of the new millennium, they suddenly threw all that shit out the window and started writing mortgages on the backs of napkins to cocktail waitresses and excons carrying five bucks and a Snickers bar.
None of that would have been possible without investment bankers like Goldman, who created vehicles to package those shitty mortgages and sell them en masse to unsuspecting insurance companies and pension funds. This created a mass market for toxic debt that would never have existed before; in the old days, no bank would have wanted to keep some addict ex-con’s mortgage on its books, knowing how likely it was to fail. You can’t write these mortgages, in other words, unless you can sell them to someone who doesn’t know what they are.
Goldman used two methods to hide the mess they were selling. First, they bundled hundreds of different mortgages into instruments called Collateralized Debt Obligations. Then they sold investors on the idea that, because a bunch of those mortgages would turn out to be OK, there was no reason to worry so much about the shitty ones: The CDO, as a whole, was sound. Thus, junkrated mortgages were turned into AAArated investments. Second, to hedge its own bets, Goldman got companies like AIG to provide insurance — known as creditdefault swaps — on the CDOs. The swaps were essentially a racetrack bet between AIG and Goldman: Goldman is betting the excons will default, AIG is betting they won’t.
There was only one problem with the deals: All of the wheeling and dealing represented exactly the kind of dangerous speculation that federal regulators are supposed to rein in. Derivatives like CDOs and credit swaps had already caused a series of serious financial calamities: Procter & Gamble and Gibson Greetings both lost fortunes, and Orange County, California, was forced to default in 1994. A report that year by the Government Accountability Office recommended that such financial instruments be tightly regulated — and in 1998, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a woman named Brooksley Born, agreed. That May, she circulated a letter to business leaders and the Clinton administration suggesting that banks be required to provide greater disclosure in derivatives trades, and maintain reserves to cushion against losses.
More regulation wasn’t exactly what Goldman had in mind. “The banks go crazy — they want it stopped,” says Michael Greenberger, who worked for Born as director of trading and markets at the CFTC and is now a law professor at the University of Maryland. “Greenspan, Summers, Rubin and [SEC chief Arthur] Levitt want it stopped.”
Clinton’s reigning economic foursome — “especially Rubin,” according to Greenberger — called Born in for a meeting and pleaded their case. She refused to back down, however, and continued to push for more regulation of the derivatives. Then, in June 1998, Rubin went public to denounce her move, eventually recommending that Congress strip the CFTC of its regulatory authority. In 2000, on its last day in session, Congress passed the now-notorious Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which had been inserted into an 11,000-page spending bill at the last minute, with almost no debate on the floor of the Senate. Banks were now free to trade default swaps with impunity.
But the story didn’t end there. AIG, a major purveyor of default swaps, approached the New York State Insurance Department in 2000 and asked whether default swaps would be regulated as insurance. At the time, the office was run by one Neil Levin, a former Goldman vice president, who decided against regulating the swaps. Now freed to underwrite as many housingbased securities and buy as much credit-default protection as it wanted, Goldman went berserk with lending lust. By the peak of the housing boom in 2006, Goldman was underwriting $76.5 billion worth of mortgagebacked securities — a third of which were subprime — much of it to institutional investors like pensions and insurance companies. And in these massive issues of real estate were vast swamps of crap.
Take one $494 million issue that year, GSAMP Trust 2006S3. Many of the mortgages belonged to secondmortgage borrowers, and the average equity they had in their homes was 0.71 percent. Moreover, 58 percent of the loans included little or no documentation — no names of the borrowers, no addresses of the homes, just zip codes. Yet both of the major ratings agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, rated 93 percent of the issue as investment grade. Moody’s projected that less than 10 percent of the loans would default. In reality, 18 percent of the mortgages were in default within 18 months.
Not that Goldman was personally at any risk. The bank might be taking all these hideous, completely irresponsible mortgages from beneath-gangster-status firms like Countrywide and selling them off to municipalities and pensioners — old people, for God’s sake — pretending the whole time that it wasn’t gradeD horseshit. But even as it was doing so, it was taking short positions in the same market, in essence betting against the same crap it was selling. Even worse, Goldman bragged about it in public. “The mortgage sector continues to be challenged,” David Viniar, the bank’s chief financial officer, boasted in 2007. “As a result, we took significant markdowns on our long inventory positions … However, our risk bias in that market was to be short, and that net short position was profitable.” In other words, the mortgages it was selling were for chumps. The real money was in betting against those same mortgages.
“That’s how audacious these assholes are,” says one hedgefund manager. “At least with other banks, you could say that they were just dumb — they believed what they were selling, and it blew them up. Goldman knew what it was doing.”
I ask the manager how it could be that selling something to customers that you’re actually betting against — particularly when you know more about the weaknesses of those products than the customer — doesn’t amount to securities fraud.
“It’s exactly securities fraud,” he says. “It’s the heart of securities fraud.”
Eventually, lots of aggrieved investors agreed. In a virtual repeat of the Internet IPO craze, Goldman was hit with a wave of lawsuits after the collapse of the housing bubble, many of which accused the bank of withholding pertinent information about the quality of the mortgages it issued. New York state regulators are suing Goldman and 25 other underwriters for selling bundles of crappy Countrywide mortgages to city and state pension funds, which lost as much as $100 million in the investments. Massachusetts also investigated Goldman for similar misdeeds, acting on behalf of 714 mortgage holders who got stuck holding predatory loans. But once again, Goldman got off virtually scot-free, staving off prosecution by agreeing to pay a paltry $60 million — about what the bank’s CDO division made in a day and a half during the real estate boom.
The effects of the housing bubble are well known — it led more or less directly to the collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG, whose toxic portfolio of credit swaps was in significant part composed of the insurance that banks like Goldman bought against their own housing portfolios. In fact, at least $13 billion of the taxpayer money given to AIG in the bailout ultimately went to Goldman, meaning that the bank made out on the housing bubble twice: It fucked the investors who bought their horseshit CDOs by betting against its own crappy product, then it turned around and fucked the taxpayer by making him pay off those same bets.
And once again, while the world was crashing down all around the bank, Goldman made sure it was doing just fine in the compensation department. In 2006, the firm’s payroll jumped to $16.5 billion — an average of $622,000 per employee. As a Goldman spokesman explained, “We work very hard here.”
But the best was yet to come. While the collapse of the housing bubble sent most of the financial world fleeing for the exits, or to jail, Goldman boldly doubled down — and almost single-handedly created yet another bubble, one the world still barely knows the firm had anything to do with.
BUBBLE #4 $4 a Gallon
By the beginning of 2008, the financial world was in turmoil. Wall Street had spent the past two and a half decades producing one scandal after another, which didn’t leave much to sell that wasn’t tainted. The terms junk bond, IPO, subprime mortgage and other once-hot financial fare were now firmly associated in the public’s mind with scams; the terms credit swaps and CDOs were about to join them. The credit markets were in crisis, and the mantra that had sustained the fantasy economy throughout the Bush years — the notion that housing prices never go down — was now a fully exploded myth, leaving the Street clamoring for a new bullshit paradigm to sling.
Where to go? With the public reluctant to put money in anything that felt like a paper investment, the Street quietly moved the casino to the physical-commodities market — stuff you could touch: corn, coffee, cocoa, wheat and, above all, energy commodities, especially oil. In conjunction with a decline in the dollar, the credit crunch and the housing crash caused a “flight to commodities.” Oil futures in particular skyrocketed, as the price of a single barrel went from around $60 in the middle of 2007 to a high of $147 in the summer of 2008.
That summer, as the presidential campaign heated up, the accepted explanation for why gasoline had hit $4.11 a gallon was that there was a problem with the world oil supply. In a classic example of how Republicans and Democrats respond to crises by engaging in fierce exchanges of moronic irrelevancies, John McCain insisted that ending the moratorium on offshore drilling would be “very helpful in the short term,” while Barack Obama in typical liberal-arts yuppie style argued that federal investment in hybrid cars was the way out.
But it was all a lie. While the global supply of oil will eventually dry up, the shortterm flow has actually been increasing. In the six months before prices spiked, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the world oil supply rose from 85.24 million barrels a day to 85.72 million. Over the same period, world oil demand dropped from 86.82 million barrels a day to 86.07 million. Not only was the shortterm supply of oil rising, the demand for it was falling — which, in classic economic terms, should have brought prices at the pump down.
So what caused the huge spike in oil prices? Take a wild guess. Obviously Goldman had help — there were other players in the physicalcommodities market — but the root cause had almost everything to do with the behavior of a few powerful actors determined to turn the oncesolid market into a speculative casino. Goldman did it by persuading pension funds and other large institutional investors to invest in oil futures — agreeing to buy oil at a certain price on a fixed date. The push transformed oil from a physical commodity, rigidly subject to supply and demand, into something to bet on, like a stock. Between 2003 and 2008, the amount of speculative money in commodities grew from $13 billion to $317 billion, an increase of 2,300 percent. By 2008, a barrel of oil was traded 27 times, on average, before it was actually delivered and consumed.
As is so often the case, there had been a Depression-era law in place designed specifically to prevent this sort of thing. The commodities market was designed in large part to help farmers: A grower concerned about future price drops could enter into a contract to sell his corn at a certain price for delivery later on, which made him worry less about building up stores of his crop. When no one was buying corn, the farmer could sell to a middleman known as a “traditional speculator,” who would store the grain and sell it later, when demand returned. That way, someone was always there to buy from the farmer, even when the market temporarily had no need for his crops.
In 1936, however, Congress recognized that there should never be more speculators in the market than real producers and consumers. If that happened, prices would be affected by something other than supply and demand, and price manipulations would ensue. A new law empowered the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — the very same body that would later try and fail to regulate credit swaps — to place limits on speculative trades in commodities. As a result of the CFTC’s oversight, peace and harmony reigned in the commodities markets for more than 50 years.
All that changed in 1991 when, unbeknownst to almost everyone in the world, a Goldmanowned commoditiestrading subsidiary called J. Aron wrote to the CFTC and made an unusual argument. Farmers with big stores of corn, Goldman argued, weren’t the only ones who needed to hedge their risk against future price drops — Wall Street dealers who made big bets on oil prices also needed to hedge their risk, because, well, they stood to lose a lot too.
This was complete and utter crap — the 1936 law, remember, was specifically designed to maintain distinctions between people who were buying and selling real tangible stuff and people who were trading in paper alone. But the CFTC, amazingly, bought Goldman’s argument. It issued the bank a free pass, called the “Bona Fide Hedging” exemption, allowing Goldman’s subsidiary to call itself a physical hedger and escape virtually all limits placed on speculators. In the years that followed, the commission would quietly issue 14 similar exemptions to other companies.
Now Goldman and other banks were free to drive more investors into the commodities markets, enabling speculators to place increasingly big bets. That 1991 letter from Goldman more or less directly led to the oil bubble in 2008, when the number of speculators in the market — driven there by fear of the falling dollar and the housing crash — finally overwhelmed the real physical suppliers and consumers. By 2008, at least three quarters of the activity on the commodity exchanges was speculative, according to a congressional staffer who studied the numbers — and that’s likely a conservative estimate. By the middle of last summer, despite rising supply and a drop in demand, we were paying $4 a gallon every time we pulled up to the pump.
What is even more amazing is that the letter to Goldman, along with most of the other trading exemptions, was handed out more or less in secret. “I was the head of the division of trading and markets, and Brooksley Born was the chair of the CFTC,” says Greenberger, “and neither of us knew this letter was out there.” In fact, the letters only came to light by accident. Last year, a staffer for the House Energy and Commerce Committee just happened to be at a briefing when officials from the CFTC made an offhand reference to the exemptions.
“I had been invited to a briefing the commission was holding on energy,” the staffer recounts. “And suddenly in the middle of it, they start saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve been issuing these letters for years now.’ I raised my hand and said, ‘Really? You issued a letter? Can I see it?’ And they were like, ‘Duh, duh.’ So we went back and forth, and finally they said, ‘We have to clear it with Goldman Sachs.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean, you have to clear it with Goldman Sachs?’”
The CFTC cited a rule that prohibited it from releasing any information about a company’s current position in the market. But the staffer’s request was about a letter that had been issued 17 years earlier. It no longer had anything to do with Goldman’s current position. What’s more, Section 7 of the 1936 commodities law gives Congress the right to any information it wants from the commission. Still, in a classic example of how complete Goldman’s capture of government is, the CFTC waited until it got clearance from the bank before it turned the letter over.
Armed with the semi-secret government exemption, Goldman had become the chief designer of a giant commodities betting parlor. Its Goldman Sachs Commodities Index — which tracks the prices of 24 major commodities but is overwhelmingly weighted toward oil — became the place where pension funds and insurance companies and other institutional investors could make massive longterm bets on commodity prices. Which was all well and good, except for a couple of things. One was that index speculators are mostly “long only” bettors, who seldom if ever take short positions — meaning they only bet on prices to rise. While this kind of behavior is good for a stock market, it’s terrible for commodities, because it continually forces prices upward. “If index speculators took short positions as well as long ones, you’d see them pushing prices both up and down,” says Michael Masters, a hedgefund manager who has helped expose the role of investment banks in the manipulation of oil prices. “But they only push prices in one direction: up.”
Complicating matters even further was the fact that Goldman itself was cheerleading with all its might for an increase in oil prices. In the beginning of 2008, Arjun Murti, a Goldman analyst, hailed as an “oracle of oil” by The New York Times, predicted a “super spike” in oil prices, forecasting a rise to $200 a barrel. At the time Goldman was heavily invested in oil through its commoditiestrading subsidiary, J. Aron; it also owned a stake in a major oil refinery in Kansas, where it warehoused the crude it bought and sold. Even though the supply of oil was keeping pace with demand, Murti continually warned of disruptions to the world oil supply, going so far as to broadcast the fact that he owned two hybrid cars. High prices, the bank insisted, were somehow the fault of the piggish American consumer; in 2005, Goldman analysts insisted that we wouldn’t know when oil prices would fall until we knew “when American consumers will stop buying gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and instead seek fuel-efficient alternatives.”
But it wasn’t the consumption of real oil that was driving up prices — it was the trade in paper oil. By the summer of 2008, in fact, commodities speculators had bought and stockpiled enough oil futures to fill 1.1 billion barrels of crude, which meant that speculators owned more future oil on paper than there was real, physical oil stored in all of the country’s commercial storage tanks and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve combined. It was a repeat of both the Internet craze and the housing bubble, when Wall Street jacked up presentday profits by selling suckers shares of a fictional fantasy future of endlessly rising prices.
In what was by now a painfully familiar pattern, the oil-commodities melon hit the pavement hard in the summer of 2008, causing a massive loss of wealth; crude prices plunged from $147 to $33. Once again the big losers were ordinary people. The pensioners whose funds invested in this crap got massacred: CalPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, had $1.1 billion in commodities when the crash came. And the damage didn’t just come from oil. Soaring food prices driven by the commodities bubble led to catastrophes across the planet, forcing an estimated 100 million people into hunger and sparking food riots throughout the Third World.
Now oil prices are rising again: They shot up 20 percent in the month of May and have nearly doubled so far this year. Once again, the problem is not supply or demand. “The highest supply of oil in the last 20 years is now,” says Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan who serves on the House energy committee. “Demand is at a 10-year low. And yet prices are up.”
Asked why politicians continue to harp on things like drilling or hybrid cars, when supply and demand have nothing to do with the high prices, Stupak shakes his head. “I think they just don’t understand the problem very well,” he says. “You can’t explain it in 30 seconds, so politicians ignore it.”
BUBBLE #5 Rigging the Bailout
After the oil bubble collapsed last fall, there was no new bubble to keep things humming — this time, the money seems to be really gone, like worldwide-depression gone. So the financial safari has moved elsewhere, and the big game in the hunt has become the only remaining pool of dumb, unguarded capital left to feed upon: taxpayer money. Here, in the biggest bailout in history, is where Goldman Sachs really started to flex its muscle.
It began in September of last year, when then-Treasury secretary Paulson made a momentous series of decisions. Although he had already engineered a rescue of Bear Stearns a few months before and helped bail out quasi-private lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Paulson elected to let Lehman Brothers — one of Goldman’s last real competitors — collapse without intervention. (“Goldman’s superhero status was left intact,” says market analyst Eric Salzman, “and an investmentbanking competitor, Lehman, goes away.”) The very next day, Paulson greenlighted a massive, $85 billion bailout of AIG, which promptly turned around and repaid $13 billion it owed to Goldman. Thanks to the rescue effort, the bank ended up getting paid in full for its bad bets: By contrast, retired auto workers awaiting the Chrysler bailout will be lucky to receive 50 cents for every dollar they are owed.
Immediately after the AIG bailout, Paulson announced his federal bailout for the financial industry, a $700 billion plan called the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and put a heretofore unknown 35yearold Goldman banker named Neel Kashkari in charge of administering the funds. In order to qualify for bailout monies, Goldman announced that it would convert from an investment bank to a bankholding company, a move that allows it access not only to $10 billion in TARP funds, but to a whole galaxy of less conspicuous, publicly backed funding — most notably, lending from the discount window of the Federal Reserve. By the end of March, the Fed will have lent or guaranteed at least $8.7 trillion under a series of new bailout programs — and thanks to an obscure law allowing the Fed to block most congressional audits, both the amounts and the recipients of the monies remain almost entirely secret.
Converting to a bank-holding company has other benefits as well: Goldman’s primary supervisor is now the New York Fed, whose chairman at the time of its announcement was Stephen Friedman, a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs. Friedman was technically in violation of Federal Reserve policy by remaining on the board of Goldman even as he was supposedly regulating the bank; in order to rectify the problem, he applied for, and got, a conflictofinterest waiver from the government. Friedman was also supposed to divest himself of his Goldman stock after Goldman became a bankholding company, but thanks to the waiver, he was allowed to go out and buy 52,000 additional shares in his old bank, leaving him $3 million richer. Friedman stepped down in May, but the man now in charge of supervising Goldman — New York Fed president William Dudley — is yet another former Goldmanite.
The collective message of all this — the AIG bailout, the swift approval for its bankholding conversion, the TARP funds — is that when it comes to Goldman Sachs, there isn’t a free market at all. The government might let other players on the market die, but it simply will not allow Goldman to fail under any circumstances. Its edge in the market has suddenly become an open declaration of supreme privilege. “In the past it was an implicit advantage,” says Simon Johnson, an economics professor at MIT and former official at the International Monetary Fund, who compares the bailout to the crony capitalism he has seen in Third World countries. “Now it’s more of an explicit advantage.”
Once the bailouts were in place, Goldman went right back to business as usual, dreaming up impossibly convoluted schemes to pick the American carcass clean of its loose capital. One of its first moves in the postbailout era was to quietly push forward the calendar it uses to report its earnings, essentially wiping December 2008 — with its $1.3 billion in pretax losses — off the books. At the same time, the bank announced a highly suspicious $1.8 billion profit for the first quarter of 2009 — which apparently included a large chunk of money funneled to it by taxpayers via the AIG bailout. “They cooked those firstquarter results six ways from Sunday,” says one hedgefund manager. “They hid the losses in the orphan month and called the bailout money profit.”
Two more numbers stand out from that stunning first-quarter turnaround. The bank paid out an astonishing $4.7 billion in bonuses and compensation in the first three months of this year, an 18 percent increase over the first quarter of 2008. It also raised $5 billion by issuing new shares almost immediately after releasing its firstquarter results. Taken together, the numbers show that Goldman essentially borrowed a $5 billion salary payout for its executives in the middle of the global economic crisis it helped cause, using halfbaked accounting to reel in investors, just months after receiving billions in a taxpayer bailout.
Even more amazing, Goldman did it all right before the government announced the results of its new “stress test” for banks seeking to repay TARP money — suggesting that Goldman knew exactly what was coming. The government was trying to carefully orchestrate the repayments in an effort to prevent further trouble at banks that couldn’t pay back the money right away. But Goldman blew off those concerns, brazenly flaunting its insider status. “They seemed to know everything that they needed to do before the stress test came out, unlike everyone else, who had to wait until after,” says Michael Hecht, a managing director of JMP Securities. “The government came out and said, ‘To pay back TARP, you have to issue debt of at least five years that is not insured by FDIC — which Goldman Sachs had already done, a week or two before.”
And here’s the real punch line. After playing an intimate role in four historic bubble catastrophes, after helping $5 trillion in wealth disappear from the NASDAQ, after pawning off thousands of toxic mortgages on pensioners and cities, after helping to drive the price of gas up to $4 a gallon and to push 100 million people around the world into hunger, after securing tens of billions of taxpayer dollars through a series of bailouts overseen by its former CEO, what did Goldman Sachs give back to the people of the United States in 2008?
Fourteen million dollars.
That is what the firm paid in taxes in 2008, an effective tax rate of exactly one, read it, one percent. The bank paid out $10 billion in compensation and benefits that same year and made a profit of more than $2 billion — yet it paid the Treasury less than a third of what it forked over to CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who made $42.9 million last year.
How is this possible? According to Goldman’s annual report, the low taxes are due in large part to changes in the bank’s “geographic earnings mix.” In other words, the bank moved its money around so that most of its earnings took place in foreign countries with low tax rates. Thanks to our completely fucked corporate tax system, companies like Goldman can ship their revenues offshore and defer taxes on those revenues indefinitely, even while they claim deductions upfront on that same untaxed income. This is why any corporation with an at least occasionally sober accountant can usually find a way to zero out its taxes. A GAO report, in fact, found that between 1998 and 2005, roughly twothirds of all corporations operating in the U.S. paid no taxes at all.
This should be a pitchforklevel outrage — but somehow, when Goldman released its post-bailout tax profile, hardly anyone said a word. One of the few to remark on the obscenity was Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat from Texas who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee. “With the right hand out begging for bailout money,” he said, “the left is hiding it offshore.”
BUBBLE #6 Global Warming
Fast-forward to today. It’s early June in Washington, D.C. Barack Obama, a popular young politician whose leading private campaign donor was an investment bank called Goldman Sachs — its employees paid some $981,000 to his campaign — sits in the White House. Having seamlessly navigated the political minefield of the bailout era, Goldman is once again back to its old business, scouting out loopholes in a new government-created market with the aid of a new set of alumni occupying key government jobs.
Gone are Hank Paulson and Neel Kashkari; in their place are Treasury chief of staff Mark Patterson and CFTC chief Gary Gensler, both former Goldmanites. (Gensler was the firm’s cohead of finance.) And instead of credit derivatives or oil futures or mortgage-backed CDOs, the new game in town, the next bubble, is in carbon credits — a booming trillion dollar market that barely even exists yet, but will if the Democratic Party that it gave $4,452,585 to in the last election manages to push into existence a groundbreaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an “environmental plan,” called cap-and-trade.
The new carboncredit market is a virtual repeat of the commodities-market casino that’s been kind to Goldman, except it has one delicious new wrinkle: If the plan goes forward as expected, the rise in prices will be government-mandated. Goldman won’t even have to rig the game. It will be rigged in advance.
Here’s how it works: If the bill passes, there will be limits for coal plants, utilities, natural-gas distributors and numerous other industries on the amount of carbon emissions (a.k.a. greenhouse gases) they can produce per year. If the companies go over their allotment, they will be able to buy “allocations” or credits from other companies that have managed to produce fewer emissions. President Obama conservatively estimates that about $646 billion worth of carbon credits will be auctioned in the first seven years; one of his top economic aides speculates that the real number might be twice or even three times that amount.
The feature of this plan that has special appeal to speculators is that the “cap” on carbon will be continually lowered by the government, which means that carbon credits will become more and more scarce with each passing year. Which means that this is a brand new commodities market where the main commodity to be traded is guaranteed to rise in price over time. The volume of this new market will be upwards of a trillion dollars annually; for comparison’s sake, the annual combined revenues of all electricity suppliers in the U.S. total $320 billion.
Goldman wants this bill. The plan is (1) to get in on the ground floor of paradigmshifting legislation, (2) make sure that they’re the profitmaking slice of that paradigm and (3) make sure the slice is a big slice. Goldman started pushing hard for capandtrade long ago, but things really ramped up last year when the firm spent $3.5 million to lobby climate issues. (One of their lobbyists at the time was none other than Patterson, now Treasury chief of staff.) Back in 2005, when Hank Paulson was chief of Goldman, he personally helped author the bank’s environmental policy, a document that contains some surprising elements for a firm that in all other areas has been consistently opposed to any sort of government regulation. Paulson’s report argued that “voluntary action alone cannot solve the climatechange problem.” A few years later, the bank’s carbon chief, Ken Newcombe, insisted that capandtrade alone won’t be enough to fix the climate problem and called for further public investments in research and development. Which is convenient, considering that Goldman made early investments in wind power (it bought a subsidiary called Horizon Wind Energy), renewable diesel (it is an investor in a firm called Changing World Technologies) and solar power (it partnered with BP Solar), exactly the kind of deals that will prosper if the government forces energy producers to use cleaner energy. As Paulson said at the time, “We’re not making those investments to lose money.”
The bank owns a 10 percent stake in the Chicago Climate Exchange, where the carbon credits will be traded. Moreover, Goldman owns a minority stake in Blue Source LLC, a Utahbased firm that sells carbon credits of the type that will be in great demand if the bill passes. Nobel Prize winner Al Gore, who is intimately involved with the planning of cap-and-trade, started up a company called Generation Investment Management with three former bigwigs from Goldman Sachs Asset Management, David Blood, Mark Ferguson and Peter Harris. Their business? Investing in carbon offsets. There’s also a $500 million Green Growth Fund set up by a Goldmanite to invest in greentech … the list goes on and on. Goldman is ahead of the headlines again, just waiting for someone to make it rain in the right spot. Will this market be bigger than the energyfutures market?
“Oh, it’ll dwarf it,” says a former staffer on the House energy committee.
Well, you might say, who cares? If cap-and-trade succeeds, won’t we all be saved from the catastrophe of global warming? Maybe — but capandtrade, as envisioned by Goldman, is really just a carbon tax structured so that private interests collect the revenues. Instead of simply imposing a fixed government levy on carbon pollution and forcing unclean energy producers to pay for the mess they make, cap-and-trade will allow a small tribe of greedy-as-hell Wall Street swine to turn yet another commodities market into a private taxcollection scheme. This is worse than the bailout: It allows the bank to seize taxpayer money before it’s even collected.
“If it’s going to be a tax, I would prefer that Washington set the tax and collect it,” says Michael Masters, the hedgefund director who spoke out against oilfutures speculation. “But we’re saying that Wall Street can set the tax, and Wall Street can collect the tax. That’s the last thing in the world I want. It’s just asinine.”
Cap-and-trade is going to happen. Or, if it doesn’t, something like it will. The moral is the same as for all the other bubbles that Goldman helped create, from 1929 to 2009. In almost every case, the very same bank that behaved recklessly for years, weighing down the system with toxic loans and predatory debt, and accomplishing nothing but massive bonuses for a few bosses, has been rewarded with mountains of virtually free money and government guarantees — while the actual victims in this mess, ordinary taxpayers, are the ones paying for it.
It’s not always easy to accept the reality of what we now routinely allow these people to get away with; there’s a kind of collective denial that kicks in when a country goes through what America has gone through lately, when a people lose as much prestige and status as we have in the past few years. You can’t really register the fact that you’re no longer a citizen of a thriving first-world democracy, that you’re no longer above getting robbed in broad daylight, because like an amputee, you can still sort of feel things that are no longer there.
But this is it. This is the world we live in now. And in this world, some of us have to play by the rules, while others get a note from the principal excusing them from homework till the end of time, plus 10 billion free dollars in a paper bag to buy lunch. It’s a gangster state, running on gangster economics, and even prices can’t be trusted anymore; there are hidden taxes in every buck you pay. And maybe we can’t stop it, but we should at least know where it’s all going.
Watch Matt Taibbi break down the Great American Bubble Machine in our exclusive video, and for more on how Wall Street is taking over Washington, read an excerpt from his “The Big Takeover.”
Originally appeared on Rollingstone.com
Madoff Is a Convenient Distraction for a Bunch of Crooks Who Aren’t in Jail.
Had Madoff just followed the example of his fellow tycoons, he could have legally multiplied his wealth many times over, legally.
Friday, May 1st, 2009
“Bernie Madoff, Scapegoat” by Michael Moore (for Time magazine)
The following piece written by Michael Moore appears in this week’s Time magazine (and in full at Time.com) as part of their annual “Time 100″ issue highlighting their choices for “The World’s Most Influential People.”
Elie Wiesel called him a “God.” His investors called him a “genius.” But, proving correct that old adage from the country and western song, you never really know what goes on behind closed doors.
Bernie Madoff, for at least 20 years, ran a Ponzi scheme on thousands of clients, among them the people you and I would consider the best and brightest. Business leaders, celebrities, charities, even some of his own relatives and his defense attorney were taken for a ride (this has to be the first time a lawyer was hosed by the client).
We’re clearly in one of those historic, game changing years: up is down, red is blue and black is President. Aside from Obama himself, no person will provide a more iconic face of this end-of-capitalism-as-we-know-it year than Bernard Lawrence Madoff.
Which is too bad. Yes, he stole $65 billion from some already quite wealthy people. I know that’s upsetting to them because rich guys like Bernie are not supposed to be stealing from their own kind. Crime, thievery, looting — that’s what happens on the other side of town. The rules of the money game on Park Avenue and Wall Street are comprised of things like charging the public 29% credit card interest, tricking people into taking out a second mortgage they can’t afford, and concocting a student loan system that has graduates in hock for the next 20 years. Now that’s smart business! And it’s legal. That’s where Bernie went wrong — his scheming, his trickery was an outrage both because it was illegal and because he preyed on his side of the tracks.
Had Mr. Madoff just followed the example of his fellow top one-percenters, there were many ways he could have legally multiplied his wealth many times over. Here’s how it’s done. First, threaten your workers that you’ll move their jobs offshore if they don’t agree to reduce their pay and benefits. Then move those jobs offshore. Then place that income on the shores of the Cayman Islands and pay no taxes. Don’t put the money back into your company. Put it into your pocket and the pockets of your shareholders. There! Done! Legal!
But Bernie wanted to play X-games Capitalism, run by the mantra that’s at the core of all capitalistic endeavors: Enough Is Never Enough. You have the right to make as much as you can, and if people are too stupid to read the fine print of their health insurance policy or their GM “100,000-mile warranty,” well, tough luck, losers. Buyers beware!
It would be too easy — and the wrong lesson learned — to put Bernie on TIME’s list all by himself. If Ponzi schemes are such a bad thing, then why have we allowed all of our top banks to deal in credit default swaps and other make-believe rackets? Why did we allow those same banks to create the scam of a sub-prime mortgage? And instead of putting the people responsible in the cell block in Lower Manhattan, where Bernie now resides, why did we give them huge sums of our hard-earned tax dollars to bail them out of their self-inflicted troubles? Bernard Madoff is nothing more than the scab on the wound. He’s also a most-needed and convenient distraction. Where’s the photo on this list of the ex-chairmen of AIG, Merrill Lynch and Citigroup? Where’s the mug shot of Phil Gramm, the senator who wrote the bill to strip the system of its regulations, or of the President who signed that bill? And how ’bout those who ran the fake numbers at the ratings agencies, the lobbyists who succeeded in making sleazy accounting a lawful practice, or the stock market itself — an institution that’s treated like the Holy Sepulchre instead of the casino that it is (and, like all other casinos, the house eventually wins).
And what of Madoff’s clients themselves? What did they think was going on to guarantee them incredible returns on their investments every single year — when no one else on planet Earth was getting anything like that? Some have admitted they did have an inkling “something was up,” but no one really wanted to ask what it was that was making their money grow on trees. They were afraid they might find out it had nothing to do with gardening. Many of Madoff’s victims have told investigators that, over the years, they have made much more than the original investment they gave Bernie. If I buy a stolen car from the guy down the street, the police will take that car from me regardless of whether I knew it was stolen. If I knew it was stolen, then I go to jail for receiving stolen property. Will these “victims” give back their gains that were fraudulently obtained? Will the head of Goldman Sachs reveal what he was doing at the meetings with the Fed chairman and the Treasury secretary before the bailout? Will Bank of America please tell us what they’ve spent $45 billion of our TARP money on?
That’s probably going too far. Better that we just put Bernie on this list.
Moore’s new documentary on the wonders of capitalism will be in movie theaters this fall.