My sister-in-law, Faye, called from London, Ontario, yesterday evening to remind me to watch Sixty Minutes on CBC. An author named Michael Lewis was being interviewed, and he was saying a lot of the things I’ve been yelling about over the past few months. He has written a book about the Wall Street robber barons who brought down the international financial system and paid themselves hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses as a reward.
His complaints included the fact that the big banks can get loans at zero percent from the Federal Reserve and invest the money in Treasury bonds or government agency securities to make a profit. He called it “a very elegant form of theft.” Well, it certainly is theft but I don’t know about the “elegant” part.
The financial meltdown is what the papers used to call “a daring daylight bank robbery.” Except that the victims ended up being the American taxpayers and the robbers ended up being the bankers.
Lewis is not the only commentator publicly denouncing the bankers’ tactics. There’s a chorus of complaint on television, radio and the Internet.
On his MSNBC show “Morning Meeting,” recently, Dylan Ratigan gave a primer on an “accounting gimmick” employed by Lehman Brothers. It’s the kind of sleight-of-hand used by “sam-fi” artists back in Jamaica, but in the world of American finance it’s considered par for the course. Basically, Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld (photo at left) pledged assets to borrow money but classified the transactions as sales (instead of loans) so they wouldn’t affect the company’s credit rating. He used this technique, called “Repo 105,” to move $50 billion off of Lehman’s balance sheet in the second quarter of 2008 alone.
Anton Valukas, the examiner in charge of investigating Lehman’s collapse, also reported that senior officials failed to disclose key practices, and that the firm’s auditor, Ernst & Young, failed to meet “professional standards.”
There’s a lot more to be revealed about the financial melt-down. When the whole story is told, I suspect it will be about organized crime as well as crooked bankers.
One of the most glaring heists, in my opinion, was the taxpayer payoff to investors who bought AIG insurance on the rotten securities created by bundling myriad scraps of mortgages. I suspect at least some of these people knew in advance that the securities were going to tank and were tipped off to buy the policies as a sure bet. AIG has refused to name these investors, even though it used bailout money to pay off the policies.
You would think that with such widespread condemnation of the financial system, politicians would hesitate to stand in the way of reform. Polls show more than 80 percent of Americans favor legislation to fix the financial system.
So you might be surprised to hear that Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd has hit a roadblock trying to negotiate a financial reform compromise with Republican senator Robert Corker.
But politicians don’t know the meaning of the word, “shame.”
As Time Magazine reports:
Republicans have vowed to block any independent consumer protection agency with enforcement authority, while President Obama and many Democrats have insisted on one… Democrats are ideologically inclined to support strict regulations; Republicans, not so much – one reason none of them voted for the reform bill that passed the House last year.
And, with the kind of money the bankers can spend lobbying Congress, Time predicts:
A tough bill would face long odds. The money and power of the financial industry would be arrayed against it. There would be so many arcane moving parts – How much authority for the Fed? Should end users be exempt from derivatives regulation? Should something be done about naked credit default swaps? – that reaching consensus by August would be challenging even if everyone wanted it. And it’s not clear that anyone is desperate to have it; there probably won’t be another meltdown this year, and Democratic leaders may be content to let Republicans block reform so they can blast them as Wall Street shills in November.
I think it’s time for American voters to say, “Enough!” Don’t you?