CON #6 THE WIRE
Here's the thing about our current economy. When Goldman and Morgan Stanley transformed overnight from investment banks into commercial banks, we were told this would mean a new era of "significantly tighter regulations and much closer supervision by bank examiners," as The New York Times put it the very next day. In reality, however, the conversion of Goldman and Morgan Stanley simply completed the dangerous concentration of power and wealth that began in 1999, when Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act — the Depression-era law that had prevented the merger of insurance firms, commercial banks and investment houses. Wall Street and the government became one giant dope house, where a few major players share valuable information between conflicted departments the way junkies share needles.
One of the most common practices is a thing called front-running, which is really no different from the old "Wire" con, another scam popularized in The Sting. But instead of intercepting a telegraph wire in order to bet on racetrack results ahead of the crowd, what Wall Street does is make bets ahead of valuable information they obtain in the course of everyday business.
Say you're working for the commodities desk of a big investment bank, and a major client — a pension fund, perhaps — calls you up and asks you to buy a billion dollars of oil futures for them. Once you place that huge order, the price of those futures is almost guaranteed to go up. If the guy in charge of asset management a few desks down from you somehow finds out about that, he can make a fortune for the bank by betting ahead of that client of yours. The deal would be instantaneous and undetectable, and it would offer huge profits. Your own client would lose money, of course — he'd end up paying a higher price for the oil futures he ordered, because you would have driven up the price. But that doesn't keep banks from screwing their own customers in this very way.
The scam is so blatant that Goldman Sachs actually warns its clients that something along these lines might happen to them. In the disclosure section at the back of a research paper the bank issued on January 15th, Goldman advises clients to buy some dubious high-yield bonds while admitting that the bank itself may bet against those same shitty bonds. "Our salespeople, traders and other professionals may provide oral or written market commentary or trading strategies to our clients and our proprietary trading desks that reflect opinions that are contrary to the opinions expressed in this research," the disclosure reads. "Our asset-management area, our proprietary-trading desks and investing businesses may make investment decisions that are inconsistent with the recommendations or views expressed in this research."
Banks like Goldman admit this stuff openly, despite the fact that there are securities laws that require banks to engage in "fair dealing with customers" and prohibit analysts from issuing opinions that are at odds with what they really think. And yet here they are, saying flat-out that they may be issuing an opinion at odds with what they really think.
To help them screw their own clients, the major investment banks employ high-speed computer programs that can glimpse orders from investors before the deals are processed and then make trades on behalf of the banks at speeds of fractions of a second. None of them will admit it, but everybody knows what this computerized trading — known as "flash trading" — really is. "Flash trading is nothing more than computerized front-running," says the prominent hedge-fund manager. The SEC voted to ban flash trading in September, but five months later it has yet to issue a regulation to put a stop to the practice.
Over the summer, Goldman suffered an embarrassment on that score when one of its employees, a Russian named Sergey Aleynikov, allegedly stole the bank's computerized trading code. In a court proceeding after Aleynikov's arrest, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Facciponti reported that "the bank has raised the possibility that there is a danger that somebody who knew how to use this program could use it to manipulate markets in unfair ways."
Six months after a federal prosecutor admitted in open court that the Goldman trading program could be used to unfairly manipulate markets, the bank released its annual numbers. Among the notable details was the fact that a staggering 76 percent of its revenue came from trading, both for its clients and for its own account. "That is much, much higher than any other bank," says Prins, the former Goldman managing director. "If I were a client and I saw that they were making this much money from trading, I would question how badly I was getting screwed."
Why big institutional investors like pension funds continually come to Wall Street to get raped is the million-dollar question that many experienced observers puzzle over. Goldman's own explanation for this phenomenon is comedy of the highest order. In testimony before a government panel in January, Blankfein was confronted about his firm's practice of betting against the same sorts of investments it sells to clients. His response: "These are the professional investors who want this exposure."
In other words, our clients are big boys, so screw 'em if they're dumb enough to take the sucker bets I'm offering.
CON #7 THE RELOAD
Not many con men are good enough or brazen enough to con the same victim twice in a row, but the few who try have a name for this excellent sport: reloading. The usual way to reload on a repeat victim (called an "addict" in grifter parlance) is to rope him into trying to get back the money he just lost. This is exactly what started to happen late last year.
It's important to remember that the housing bubble itself was a classic confidence game — the Ponzi scheme. The Ponzi scheme is any scam in which old investors must be continually paid off with money from new investors to keep up what appear to be high rates of investment return. Residential housing was never as valuable as it seemed during the bubble; the soaring home values were instead a reflection of a continual upward rush of new investors in mortgage-backed securities, a rush that finally collapsed in 2008.
But by the end of 2009, the unimaginable was happening: The bubble was re-inflating. A bailout policy that was designed to help us get out from under the bursting of the largest asset bubble in history inadvertently produced exactly the opposite result, as all that government-fueled capital suddenly began flowing into the most dangerous and destructive investments all over again. Wall Street was going for the reload.
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