The bottom line is that banks like Goldman have learned absolutely nothing from the global economic meltdown. In fact, they're back conniving and playing speculative long shots in force — only this time with the full financial support of the U.S. government. In the process, they're rapidly re-creating the conditions for another crash, with the same actors once again playing the same crazy games of financial chicken with the same toxic assets as before.
That's why this bonus business isn't merely a matter of getting upset about whether or not Lloyd Blankfein buys himself one tropical island or two on his next birthday. The reality is that the post-bailout era in which Goldman thrived has turned out to be a chaotic frenzy of high-stakes con-artistry, with taxpayers and clients bilked out of billions using a dizzying array of old-school hustles that, but for their ponderous complexity, would have fit well in slick grifter movies like The Sting and Matchstick Men. There's even a term in con-man lingo for what some of the banks are doing right now, with all their cosmetic gestures of scaling back bonuses and giving to charities. In the grifter world, calming down a mark so he doesn't call the cops is known as the "Cool Off."
To appreciate how all of these (sometimes brilliant) schemes work is to understand the difference between earning money and taking scores, and to realize that the profits these banks are posting don't so much represent national growth and recovery, but something closer to the losses one would report after a theft or a car crash. Many Americans instinctively understand this to be true — but, much like when your wife does it with your 300-pound plumber in the kids' playroom, knowing it and actually watching the whole scene from start to finish are two very different things. In that spirit, a brief history of the best 18 months of grifting this country has ever seen:
CON #1 THE SWOOP AND SQUAT
By now, most people who have followed the financial crisis know that the bailout of AIG was actually a bailout of AIG's "counterparties" — the big banks like Goldman to whom the insurance giant owed billions when it went belly up.
What is less understood is that the bailout of AIG counter-parties like Goldman and Société Générale, a French bank, actually began before the collapse of AIG, before the Federal Reserve paid them so much as a dollar. Nor is it understood that these counterparties actually accelerated the wreck of AIG in what was, ironically, something very like the old insurance scam known as "Swoop and Squat," in which a target car is trapped between two perpetrator vehicles and wrecked, with the mark in the game being the target's insurance company — in this case, the government.
This may sound far-fetched, but the financial crisis of 2008 was very much caused by a perverse series of legal incentives that often made failed investments worth more than thriving ones. Our economy was like a town where everyone has juicy insurance policies on their neighbors' cars and houses. In such a town, the driving will be suspiciously bad, and there will be a lot of fires.
AIG was the ultimate example of this dynamic. At the height of the housing boom, Goldman was selling billions in bundled mortgage-backed securities — often toxic crap of the no-money-down, no-identification-needed variety of home loan — to various institutional suckers like pensions and insurance companies, who frequently thought they were buying investment-grade instruments. At the same time, in a glaring example of the perverse incentives that existed and still exist, Goldman was also betting against those same sorts of securities — a practice that one government investigator compared to "selling a car with faulty brakes and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer of those cars."
Goldman often "insured" some of this garbage with AIG, using a virtually unregulated form of pseudo-insurance called credit-default swaps. Thanks in large part to deregulation pushed by Bob Rubin, former chairman of Goldman, and Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, AIG wasn't required to actually have the capital to pay off the deals. As a result, banks like Goldman bought more than $440 billion worth of this bogus insurance from AIG, a huge blind bet that the taxpayer ended up having to eat.
Thus, when the housing bubble went crazy, Goldman made money coming and going. They made money selling the crap mortgages, and they made money by collecting on the bogus insurance from AIG when the crap mortgages flopped.
Still, the trick for Goldman was: how to collect the insurance money. As AIG headed into a tailspin that fateful summer of 2008, it looked like the beleaguered firm wasn't going to have the money to pay off the bogus insurance. So Goldman and other banks began demanding that AIG provide them with cash collateral. In the 15 months leading up to the collapse of AIG, Goldman received $5.9 billion in collateral. Société Générale, a bank holding lots of mortgage-backed crap originally underwritten by Goldman, received $5.5 billion. These collateral demands squeezing AIG from two sides were the "Swoop and Squat" that ultimately crashed the firm. "It put the company into a liquidity crisis," says Eric Dinallo, who was intimately involved in the AIG bailout as head of the New York State Insurance Department.
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