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Looting Main Street

Page 6 of 6

For Jefferson County, the deal blew up in early 2008, when a dizzying array of penalties and other fine-print poison worked into the swap contracts started to kick in. The trouble began with the housing crash, which took down the insurance companies that had underwritten the county's bonds. That rendered the county's insurance worthless, triggering clauses in its swap contracts that required it to pay off more than $800 million of its debt in only four years, rather than 40. That, in turn, scared off private lenders, who were no longer ­interested in bidding on the county's bonds. The banks were forced to make up the difference — a service for which they charged enormous penalties. It was as if the county had missed a payment on its credit card and woke up the next morning to find its annual percentage rate jacked up to a million percent. Between 2008 and 2009, the annual payment on Jefferson County's debt jumped from $53 million to a whopping $636 million.

It gets worse. Remember the swap deal that Jefferson County did with JP Morgan, how the variable rates it got from the bank were supposed to match those it owed its bondholders? Well, they didn't. Most of the payments the county was receiving from JP Morgan were based on one set of interest rates (the London Interbank Exchange Rate), while the payments it owed to its bondholders followed a different set of rates (a municipal-bond index). Jefferson County was suddenly getting far less from JP Morgan, and owing tons more to bondholders. In other words, the bank and Bill Blount made tens of millions of dollars selling deals to local politicians that were not only completely defective, but blew the entire county to smithereens.

And here's the kicker. Last year, when Jefferson County, staggered by the weight of its penalties, was unable to make its swap payments to JP Morgan, the bank canceled the deal. That triggered one-time "termination fees" of — yes, you read this right — $647 million. That was money the county would owe no matter what happened with the rest of its debt, even if bondholders decided to forgive and forget every dime the county had borrowed. It was like the herpes simplex of loans — debt that does not go away, ever, for as long as you live. On a sewer project that was originally supposed to cost $250 million, the county now owed a total of $1.28 billion just in interest and fees on the debt. Imagine paying $250,000 a year on a car you purchased for $50,000, and that's roughly where Jefferson County stood at the end of last year.

Last November, the SEC charged JP Morgan with fraud and canceled the $647 million in termination fees. The bank agreed to pay a $25 million fine and fork over $50 million to assist displaced workers in Jefferson County. So far, the county has managed to avoid bankruptcy, but the sewer fiasco had downgraded its credit rating, triggering payments on other outstanding loans and pushing Birmingham toward the status of an African debtor state. For the next generation, the county will be in a constant fight to collect enough taxes just to pay off its debt, which now totals $4,800 per resident.

The city of Birmingham was founded in 1871, at the dawn of the Southern industrial boom, for the express purpose of attracting Northern capital — it was even named after a famous British steel town to burnish its entrepreneurial cred. There's a gruesome irony in it now lying sacked and looted by financial vandals from the North. The destruction of Jefferson County reveals the basic battle plan of these modern barbarians, the way that banks like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs have systematically set out to pillage towns and cities from Pittsburgh to Athens. These guys aren't number-crunching whizzes making smart investments; what they do is find suckers in some municipal-finance department, corner them in complex lose-lose deals and flay them alive. In a complete subversion of free-market principles, they take no risk, score deals based on political influence rather than competition, keep consumers in the dark — and walk away with big money. "It's not high finance," says Taylor, the former bond regulator. "It's low finance." And even if the regulators manage to catch up with them billions of dollars later, the banks just pay a small fine and move on to the next scam. This isn't capitalism. It's nomadic thievery.

This article originally appeared in RS 1102 from April 15, 2010. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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