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How Wall Street Is Using the Bailout to Stage a Revolution

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A short time later, it came out that AIG was planning to pay some $90 million in deferred compensation to former executives, and to accelerate the payout of $277 million in bonuses to others – a move the company insisted was necessary to "retain key employees." When Congress balked, AIG canceled the $90 million in payments.

Then, in January 2009, the company did it again. After all those years letting Cassano run wild, and after already getting caught paying out insane bonuses while on the public till, AIG decided to pay out another $450 million in bonuses. And to whom? To the 400 or so employees in Cassano's old unit, AIGFP, which is due to go out of business shortly! Yes, that's right, an average of $1.1 million in taxpayer-backed money apiece, to the very people who spent the past decade or so punching a hole in the fabric of the universe! "We, uh, needed to keep these highly expert people in their seats," AIG spokeswoman Christina Pretto says to me in early February.

"But didn't these 'highly expert people' basically destroy your company?" I ask.

Pretto protests, says this isn't fair. The employees at AIGFP have already taken pay cuts, she says. Not retaining them would dilute the value of the company even further, make it harder to wrap up the unit's operations in an orderly fashion.

The bonuses are a nice comic touch highlighting one of the more outrageous tangents of the bailout age, namely the fact that, even with the planet in flames, some members of the Wall Street class can't even get used to the tragedy of having to fly coach. "These people need their trips to Baja, their spa treatments, their hand jobs," says an official involved in the AIG bailout, a serious look on his face, apparently not even half-kidding. "They don't function well without them."

IV. THE POWER GRAB

So that's the first step in Wall Street's power grab: making up things like credit-default swaps and collateralized-debt obligations, financial products so complex and inscrutable that ordinary American dumb people – to say nothing of federal regulators and even the CEOs of major corporations like AIG – are too intimidated to even try to understand them. That, combined with wise political investments, enabled the nation's top bankers to effectively scrap any meaningful oversight of the financial industry. In 1997 and 1998, the years leading up to the passage of Phil Gramm's fateful act that gutted Glass-Steagall, the banking, brokerage and insurance industries spent $350 million on political contributions and lobbying. Gramm alone – then the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee – collected $2.6 million in only five years. The law passed 90-8 in the Senate, with the support of 38 Democrats, including some names that might surprise you: Joe Biden, John Kerry, Tom Daschle, Dick Durbin, even John Edwards.

The act helped create the too-big-to-fail financial behemoths like Citigroup, AIG and Bank of America – and in turn helped those companies slowly crush their smaller competitors, leaving the major Wall Street firms with even more money and power to lobby for further deregulatory measures. "We're moving to an oligopolistic situation," Kenneth Guenther, a top executive with the Independent Community Bankers of America, lamented after the Gramm measure was passed.

The situation worsened in 2004, in an extraordinary move toward deregulation that never even got to a vote. At the time, the European Union was threatening to more strictly regulate the foreign operations of America's big investment banks if the U.S. didn't strengthen its own oversight. So the top five investment banks got together on April 28th of that year and – with the helpful assistance of then-Goldman Sachs chief and future Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson – made a pitch to George Bush's SEC chief at the time, William Donaldson, himself a former investment banker. The banks generously volunteered to submit to new rules restricting them from engaging in excessively risky activity. In exchange, they asked to be released from any lending restrictions. The discussion about the new rules lasted just 55 minutes, and there was not a single representative of a major media outlet there to record the fateful decision.

Donaldson OK'd the proposal, and the new rules were enough to get the EU to drop its threat to regulate the five firms. The only catch was, neither Donaldson nor his successor, Christopher Cox, actually did any regulating of the banks. They named a commission of seven people to oversee the five companies, whose combined assets came to total more than $4 trillion. But in the last year and a half of Cox's tenure, the group had no director and did not complete a single inspection. Great deal for the banks, which originally complained about being regulated by both Europe and the SEC, and ended up being regulated by no one.

Once the capital requirements were gone, those top five banks went hog-wild, jumping ass-first into the then-raging housing bubble. One of those was Bear Stearns, which used its freedom to drown itself in bad mortgage loans. In the short period between the 2004 change and Bear's collapse, the firm's debt-to-equity ratio soared from 12-1 to an insane 33-1. Another culprit was Goldman Sachs, which also had the good fortune, around then, to see its CEO, a bald-headed Frankensteinian goon named Hank Paulson (who received an estimated $200 million tax deferral by joining the government), ascend to Treasury secretary.

Freed from all capital restraints, sitting pretty with its man running the Treasury, Goldman jumped into the housing craze just like everyone else on Wall Street. Although it famously scored an $11 billion coup in 2007 when one of its trading units smartly shorted the housing market, the move didn't tell the whole story. In truth, Goldman still had a huge exposure come that fateful summer of 2008 – to none other than Joe Cassano.

Goldman Sachs, it turns out, was Cassano's biggest customer, with $20 billion of exposure in Cassano's CDS book. Which might explain why Goldman chief Lloyd Blankfein was in the room with ex-Goldmanite Hank Paulson that weekend of September 13th, when the federal government was supposedly bailing out AIG.

When asked why Blankfein was there, one of the government officials who was in the meeting shrugs. "One might say that it's because Goldman had so much exposure to AIGFP's portfolio," he says. "You'll never prove that, but one might suppose."

Market analyst Eric Salzman is more blunt. "If AIG went down," he says, "there was a good chance Goldman would not be able to collect." The AIG bailout, in effect, was Goldman bailing out Goldman.

Eventually, Paulson went a step further, elevating another ex-Goldmanite named Edward Liddy to run AIG – a company whose bailout money would be coming, in part, from the newly created TARP program, administered by another Goldman banker named Neel Kashkari.

V. REPO MEN

There are plenty of people who havenoticed, in recent years, that when they lost their homes to foreclosure or were forced into bankruptcy because of crippling credit-card debt, no one in the government was there to rescue them. But when Goldman Sachs – a company whose average employee still made more than $350,000 last year, even in the midst of a depression – was suddenly faced with the possibility of losing money on the unregulated insurance deals it bought for its insane housing bets, the government was there in an instant to patch the hole. That's the essence of the bailout: rich bankers bailing out rich bankers, using the taxpayers' credit card.

The people who have spent their lives cloistered in this Wall Street community aren't much for sharing information with the great unwashed. Because all of this shit is complicated, because most of us mortals don't know what the hell LIBOR is or how a REIT works or how to use the word "zero coupon bond" in a sentence without sounding stupid – well, then, the people who do speak this idiotic language cannot under any circumstances be bothered to explain it to us and instead spend a lot of time rolling their eyes and asking us to trust them.

That roll of the eyes is a key part of the psychology of Paulsonism. The state is now being asked not just to call off its regulators or give tax breaks or funnel a few contracts to connected companies; it is intervening directly in the economy, for the sole purpose of preserving the influence of the megafirms. In essence, Paulson used the bailout to transform the government into a giant bureaucracy of entitled assholedom, one that would socialize "toxic" risks but keep both the profits and the management of the bailed-out firms in private hands. Moreover, this whole process would be done in secret, away from the prying eyes of NASCAR dads, broke-ass liberals who read translations of French novels, subprime mortgage holders and other such financial losers.

Some aspects of the bailout were secretive to the point of absurdity. In fact, if you look closely at just a few lines in the Federal Reserve's weekly public disclosures, you can literally see the moment where a big chunk of your money disappeared for good. The H4 report (called "Factors Affecting Reserve Balances") summarizes the activities of the Fed each week. You can find it online, and it's pretty much the only thing the Fed ever tells the world about what it does. For the week ending February 18th, the number under the heading "Repurchase Agreements" on the table is zero. It's a significant number.

Why? In the pre-crisis days, the Fed used to manage the money supply by periodically buying and selling securities on the open market through so-called Repurchase Agreements, or Repos. The Fed would typically dump $25 billion or so in cash onto the market every week, buying up Treasury bills, U.S. securities and even mortgage-backed securities from institutions like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, who would then "repurchase" them in a short period of time, usually one to seven days. This was the Fed's primary mechanism for controlling interest rates: Buying up securities gives banks more money to lend, which makes interest rates go down. Selling the securities back to the banks reduces the money available for lending, which makes interest rates go up.

If you look at the weekly H4 reports going back to the summer of 2007, you start to notice something alarming. At the start of the credit crunch, around August of that year, you see the Fed buying a few more Repos than usual – $33 billion or so. By November, as private-bank reserves were dwindling to alarmingly low levels, the Fed started injecting even more cash than usual into the economy: $48 billion. By late December, the number was up to $58 billion; by the following March, around the time of the Bear Stearns rescue, the Repo number had jumped to $77 billion. In the week of May 1st, 2008, the number was $115 billion – "out of control now," according to one congressional aide. For the rest of 2008, the numbers remained similarly in the stratosphere, the Fed pumping as much as $125 billion of these short-term loans into the economy – until suddenly, at the start of this year, the number drops to nothing. Zero.

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