A lot of this was the government's own fault, of course. By slashing interest rates to zero and flooding the market with money, the Fed was replicating the historic mistake that Alan Greenspan had made not once, but twice, before the tech bubble in the early 1990s and before the housing bubble in the early 2000s. By making sure that traditionally safe investments like CDs and savings accounts earned basically nothing, thanks to rock-bottom interest rates, investors were forced to go elsewhere to search for moneymaking opportunities.
Now we're in the same situation all over again, only far worse. Wall Street is flooded with government money, and interest rates that are not just low but flat are pushing investors to seek out more "creative" opportunities. (It's "Greenspan times 10," jokes one hedge-fund trader.) Some of that money could be put to use on Main Street, of course, backing the efforts of investment-worthy entrepreneurs. But that's not what our modern Wall Street is built to do. "They don't seem to want to lend to small and medium-sized business," says Rep. Brad Sherman, who serves on the House Financial Services Committee. "What they want to invest in is marketable securities. And the definition of small and medium-sized businesses, for the most part, is that they don't have marketable securities. They have bank loans."
In other words, unless you're dealing with the stock of a major, publicly traded company, or a giant pile of home mortgages, or the bonds of a large corporation, or a foreign currency, or oil futures, or some country's debt, or anything else that can be rapidly traded back and forth in huge numbers, factory-style, by big banks, you're not really on Wall Street's radar.
So with small business out of the picture, and the safe stuff not worth looking at thanks to the Fed's low interest rates, where did Wall Street go? Right back into the shit that got us here.
One trader, who asked not to be identified, recounts a story of what happened with his hedge fund this past fall. His firm wanted to short — that is, bet against — all the crap toxic bonds that were suddenly in vogue again. The fund's analysts had examined the fundamentals of these instruments and concluded that they were absolutely not good investments.
So they took a short position. One month passed, and they lost money. Another month passed — same thing. Finally, the trader just shrugged and decided to change course and buy.
"I said, 'Fuck it, let's make some money,'" he recalls. "I absolutely did not believe in the fundamentals of any of this stuff. However, I can get on the bandwagon, just so long as I know when to jump out of the car before it goes off the damn cliff!"
This is the very definition of bubble economics — betting on crowd behavior instead of on fundamentals. It's old investors betting on the arrival of new ones, with the value of the underlying thing itself being irrelevant. And this behavior is being driven, no surprise, by the biggest firms on Wall Street.
The research report published by Goldman Sachs on January 15th underlines this sort of thinking. Goldman issued a strong recommendation to buy exactly the sort of high-yield toxic crap our hedge-fund guy was, by then, driving rapidly toward the cliff. "Summarizing our views," the bank wrote, "we expect robust flows . . . to dominate fundamentals." In other words: This stuff is crap, but everyone's buying it in an awfully robust way, so you should too. Just like tech stocks in 1999, and mortgage-backed securities in 2006.
To sum up, this is what Lloyd Blankfein meant by "performance": Take massive sums of money from the government, sit on it until the government starts printing trillions of dollars in a desperate attempt to restart the economy, buy even more toxic assets to sell back to the government at inflated prices — and then, when all else fails, start driving us all toward the cliff again with a frank and open endorsement of bubble economics. I mean, shit — who wouldn't deserve billions in bonuses for doing all that?
Con artists have a word for the inability of their victims to accept that they've been scammed. They call it the "True Believer Syndrome." That's sort of where we are, in a state of nagging disbelief about the real problem on Wall Street. It isn't so much that we have inadequate rules or incompetent regulators, although both of these things are certainly true. The real problem is that it doesn't matter what regulations are in place if the people running the economy are rip-off artists. The system assumes a certain minimum level of ethical behavior and civic instinct over and above what is spelled out by the regulations. If those ethics are absent — well, this thing isn't going to work, no matter what we do. Sure, mugging old ladies is against the law, but it's also easy. To prevent it, we depend, for the most part, not on cops but on people making the conscious decision not to do it.
That's why the biggest gift the bankers got in the bailout was not fiscal but psychological. "The most valuable part of the bailout," says Rep. Sherman, "was the implicit guarantee that they're Too Big to Fail." Instead of liquidating and prosecuting the insolvent institutions that took us all down with them in a giant Ponzi scheme, we have showered them with money and guarantees and all sorts of other enabling gestures. And what should really freak everyone out is the fact that Wall Street immediately started skimming off its own rescue money. If the bailouts validated anew the crooked psychology of the bubble, the recent profit and bonus numbers show that the same psychology is back, thriving, and looking for new disasters to create. "It's evidence," says Rep. Kanjorski, "that they still don't get it."
More to the point, the fact that we haven't done much of anything to change the rules and behavior of Wall Street shows that we still don't get it. Instituting a bailout policy that stressed recapitalizing bad banks was like the addict coming back to the con man to get his lost money back. Ask yourself how well that ever works out. And then get ready for the reload.
[From Issue 1099 — March 4, 2010]
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