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The Real Housewives of Wall Street

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This whole setup — in which millionaires and billionaires gambled on mountains of dangerous securities, with taxpayers providing the stake and assuming almost all of the risk — is the reason that it's insanely premature for Wall Street to claim that the bailouts have actually made money for the government. We simply can't make that determination until the final bill comes in on all the dicey securities we financed during the bailout feeding frenzy.

In the case of Waterfall TALF Opportunity, here's what we know: The company was founded in June 2009 with $14.87 million of investment capital, money that likely came from Christy Mack and Susan Karches. The two Wall Street wives then used the $220 million they got from the Fed to buy up a bunch of securities, including a large pool of commercial mortgages managed by Credit Suisse, a company John Mack once headed. Those securities were valued at $253.6 million, though the Fed refuses to explain how it arrived at that estimate. And here's the kicker: Of the $220 million the two wives got from the Fed, roughly $150 million had not been paid back as of last fall — meaning that you and I are still on the hook for most of whatever the Wall Street spouses bought on their government-funded shopping spree.

The public has no way of knowing how much Christy Mack and Susan Karches earned on these transactions, because the Fed has repeatedly declined to provide any information about how it priced the individual securities bought as part of programs like TALF. In the Waterfall deal, for instance, we know the Fed pledged some $14 million against a block of securities called "Credit Suisse Commercial Mortgage Trust Series 2007-C2" — but that data is meaningless without knowing how many units were bought. It's like saying the Fed gave Waterfall $14 million to buy cars. Did Waterfall pay $5,000 per car, or $500,000? We have no idea. "There's no way of validating or invalidating the Fed's process in TALF without this pricing information," says Gary Aguirre, a former SEC official who was fired years ago after he tried to interview John Mack in an insider-trading case.

In early April, in an attempt to learn exactly how much Mack and Karches made on the TALF deals, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa wrote a letter to Waterfall asking 21 detailed questions about the transactions. In addition, Sen. Sanders has personally asked Fed chief Bernanke to provide more complete information on the TALF loans given not only to Christy Mack but to gazillionaires like former Miami Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga and hedge-fund shark John Paulson. But Bernanke bluntly refused to provide the information — and the Fed has similarly stonewalled other oversight agencies, including the General Accounting Office and TARP's special inspector general.

Christy Mack and Susan Karches did not respond to requests for comments for this story. But even without more information about the loans they got from the Fed, we know that TALF wasn't the only risk-free money being handed over to Wall Street. During the financial crisis, the Fed routinely made billions of dollars in "emergency" loans to big banks at near-zero interest. Many of the banks then turned around and used the money to buy Treasury bonds at higher interest rates — essentially loaning the money back to the government at an inflated rate. "People talk about how these were loans that were paid back," says a congressional aide who has studied the transactions. "But when the state is lending money at zero percent and the banks are turning around and lending that money back to the state at three percent, how is that different from just handing rich people money?"

Those kinds of deals were the essence of the bailout — and the vast mountains of near-zero government cash turned companies facing bankruptcy into monstrous profit machines. In 2008 and 2009, while Christy Mack was busy getting her little TALF loans for $220 million, her husband's bank hauled in $2 trillion in emergency Fed loans. During the same period, Goldman borrowed nearly $800 billion. Shortly afterward, the two banks reported a combined annual profit of $14.5 billion.

As crazy as it is to lend to banks at near zero percent and borrow back from them at three percent, one could at least argue that the policy may have aided American companies by providing banks more cash to lend. But how do you explain the host of other bailout transactions now being examined by Congress? Like the Fed's massive purchases of securities in foreign automakers, including BMW, Volkswagen, Honda, Mitsubishi and Nissan? Or the nearly $5 billion in cheap credit the Fed extended to Toyota and Mitsubishi? Sure, those companies have factories and dealerships in the U.S. — but does it really make sense to give them free cash at the same time taxpayers were being asked to bail out Chrysler and GM? Seems a little crazy to fund the competition of the very automakers you're trying to rescue.

And then there are the bailout deals that make no sense at all. Republicans go mad over spending on health care and school for Mexican illegals. So why aren't they flipping out over the $9.6 billion in loans the Fed made to the Central Bank of Mexico? How do we explain the $2.2 billion in loans that went to the Korea Development Bank, the biggest state bank of South Korea, whose sole purpose is to promote development in South Korea? And at a time when America is borrowing from the Middle East at interest rates of three percent, why did the Fed extend $35 billion in loans to the Arab Banking Corporation of Bahrain at interest rates as low as one quarter of one point?

Even more disturbing, the major stakeholder in the Bahrain bank is none other than the Central Bank of Libya, which owns 59 percent of the operation. In fact, the Bahrain bank just received a special exemption from the U.S. Treasury to prevent its assets from being frozen in accord with economic sanctions. That's right: Muammar Qaddafi received more than 70 loans from the Federal Reserve, along with the Real Housewives of Wall Street.

Perhaps the most irritating facet of all of these transactions is the fact that hundreds of millions of Fed dollars were given out to hedge funds and other investors with addresses in the Cayman Islands. Many of those addresses belong to companies with American affiliations — including prominent Wall Street names like Pimco, Blackstone and . . . Christy Mack. Yes, even Waterfall TALF Opportunity is an offshore company. It's one thing for the federal government to look the other way when Wall Street hotshots evade U.S. taxes by registering their investment companies in the Cayman Islands. But subsidizing tax evasion? Giving it a federal bailout? What the fuck?

As America girds itself for another round of lunatic political infighting over which barely-respirating social program or urgently necessary federal agency must have their budgets permanently sacrificed to the cause of billionaires being able to keep their third boats in the water, it's important to point out just how scarce money isn't in certain corners of the public-spending universe. In the coming months, when you watch Republican congressional stooges play out the desperate comedy of solving America's deficit problems by making fewer photocopies of proposed bills, or by taking an ax to budgetary shrubberies like NPR or the SEC, remember Christy Mack and her fancy new carriage house. There is no belt-tightening on the other side of the tracks. Just a free lunch that never ends.

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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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