By L. Randall Wray
While investment banking today is often compared to a casino, that is not really fair. A casino is heavily regulated and while probabilities favor the house, gamblers can win abut 48% of the time. Casinos are regulated—by the state and presumably by the mob. Top executives who steal funds end up wearing very heavy shoes at the bottom of the ocean.
By contrast, the investment bank always wins, and its customers always lose. Investment banks are “self-regulated” (meaning, of course, they do whatever they want—sort of like leaving your 15 year old at home alone all summer with the admonition to “behave yourself” and keys to the liquor cabinet and the Porsche). Top management rakes off all the funds it wants with impunity. And then the CEOs go run the Treasury to bailout the investment banks should anything go wrong.
This summer I was lunching with a trader who works for one of these investment banks (hint: there are not many left, and he was not with Goldman). Speaking of Goldman he said “those guys are good”. Indeed they are so good, he said, “I don’t know why anyone would do business with them.”
He explained: When a firm approaches an investment bank to arrange for finance, the modern investment bank immediately puts together two teams. The first team arranges finance on the most favorable terms for the bank that they can manage to push onto their client—maximizing fees and penalties. The second team puts together bets that the client will not be able to service its debt. Since the debt cannot be serviced, it will not be serviced. Heads and tails, the investment bank wins.
Note that this is also true of hedge funds and the half dozen biggest banks that are bank holding companies providing a full range of financial “services”.
In the latest revelations, JPMorgan Chase suckered the Denver public school system into an exotic $750 million transaction that has gone horribly bad. In the spring of 2008, struggling with an underfunded pension system and the need to refinance some loans, it issued floating rate debt with a complicated derivative. Effectively, when rates rose, that derivative locked the school system into a high fixed rate. Morgan had put a huge “greenmail” clause into the deal—the school district is locked into a 30 year contract with a termination fee of $81 million. That, of course, is on top of the high fees Morgan had charged up-front because of the complexity of the deal.
To add insult to injury, the whole fiasco began because the pension fund was short $400 million, and subsequent losses due to bad performance of its portfolio since 2008 wiped out almost $800 million—so even with the financing arranged by Morgan the pension fund is back in the hole where it began but the school district is levered with costly debt that it cannot afford but probably cannot afford to refinance on better terms because of the termination penalties. This experience is repeated all across America—the Service Employees International Union estimates that over the past two years state and local governments have paid $28 billion in termination fees to get out of bad deals sold to them by Wall Street. (See Morgenson www.nytimes.com/2010/08/06/business/06denver.html)
Repeat that story thousands of times. Only the names of the cities and counties need to be changed. Analysts say that deals like that pushed onto Denver would never be accepted by for-profit firms. Investment banks preserve such shenanigans to screw the public. Michael Bennet, who was the head of the school district pushing for the deal had worked for the Anschutz Investment Company—so he knew what he was doing. He was rewarded for his efforts—he is now a US senator from Colorado.
Magnetar, a hedge fund, actually sought the very worst tranches of mortgage-backed securities, almost single-handedly propping up the market for toxic waste that it could put into CDOs sold on to “investors” (I use that term loosely because these were suckers to the “nth” degree). It then bought credit default insurance (from, of course, AIG) to bet on failure. By 1998, 96% of the CDO deals arranged by Magnetar were in default—as close to a sure bet as financial markets will ever find. In other words, the financial institution bets against households, firms, and governments—and loads the dice against them—with the bank winning when its customers fail.
In a case recently prosecuted by the SEC, Goldman created synthetic CDOs that placed bets on toxic waste MBSs. Goldman agreed to pay a fine of $550 million, without admitting guilt, although it did admit to a “mistake”. The deal was proposed by John Paulson, who approached Goldman to create toxic synthetic CDOs that he could bet against. Of course, that would require that Goldman could find clients willing to buy junk CDOs. According to the SEC, Goldman let Paulson suggest particularly risky securities to include in the CDOs. Goldman arranged 25 such deals, named Abacus, totaling about $11 billion. Out of 500 CDOs analyzed by UBS, only two did worse than Goldman’s Abacus. Just how toxic were these CDOs? Only 5 months after creating one of these Abacus CDOs, the ratings of 84% of the underlying mortgages had been downgraded. By betting against them, Goldman and Paulson won—Paulson pocketed $1 billion on the Abacus deals; he made a total of $5.7 billion shorting mortgage-based instruments in a span of two years. This is not genius work—an extraordinarily high percent of CDOs that are designed to fail will fail.
Previously, Goldman helped Greece to hide its government debt, then bet against the debt—another fairly certain bet since debt ratings would likely fall if the hidden debt was discovered. Goldman took on US states as clients (including California and New Jersey and 9 other states), earning fees for placing their debts, and then encouraged other clients to bet against state debt—using its knowledge of the precariousness of state finances to market the instruments that facilitated the shorts.
To be fair, Goldman is not alone — all of this appears to be common business procedure.
There is a theory that an invisible hand will guide unfettered markets to perform the public interest. In truth, unregulated Wall Street bets against the public and operates to ensure the public loses. Investment banks are now all corporations (and all have bank charters). Corporations and banks are chartered to further the public purpose. Why do we allow them the screw the public?