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Wall Street's Naked Swindle

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This was a brokered bloodletting, one in which the power of the state was used to help effect a monstrous consolidation of financial and political power. Heading into 2008, there were five major investment banks in the United States: Bear, Lehman, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Today only Morgan Stanley and Goldman survive as independent firms, perched atop a restructured Wall Street hierarchy. And while the rest of the civilized world responded to last year's catastrophes with sweeping measures to rein in the corruption in their financial sectors, the United States invited the wolves into the government, with the popular new president, Barack Obama — elected amid promises to clean up the mess — filling his administration with Bear's and Lehman's conquerors, bestowing his papal blessing on a new era of robbery.

To the rest of the world, the brazenness of the theft — coupled with the conspicuousness of the government's inaction — clearly demonstrates that the American capital markets are a crime in progress. To those of us who actually live here, however, the news is even worse. We’re in a place we haven't been since the Depression: Our economy is so completely fucked, the rich are running out of things to steal.

If you squint hard enough, you can see that the derivative-driven economy of the past decade has always, in a way, been about counterfeiting. At their most basic level, innovations like the ones that triggered the global collapse — credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations — were employed for the primary purpose of synthesizing out of thin air those revenue flows that our dying industrial economy was no longer pumping into the financial bloodstream. The basic concept in almost every case was the same: replacing hard assets with complex formulas that, once unwound, would prove to be backed by promises and IOUs instead of real stuff. Credit-default swaps enabled banks to lend more money without having the cash to cover potential defaults; one type of CDO let Wall Street issue mortgage-backed bonds that were backed not by actual monthly mortgage payments made by real human beings, but by the wild promises of other irresponsible lenders. They even called the thing a synthetic CDO — a derivative contract filled with derivative contracts — and nobody laughed. The whole economy was a fake.

For most of this decade, nobody rocked that fake economy — especially the faux housing market — better than Bear Stearns. In 2004, Bear had been one of the five investment banks to ask the SEC for a relaxation of lending restrictions that required it to possess $1 for every $12 it lent out; as a result, Bear’s debt-to-equity ratio soared to a staggering 33-1. The bank used much of that leverage to issue mountains of mortgage-backed securities, essentially borrowing its way to a booming mortgage business that helped drive its share price to a high of $172 in early 2007.

But that summer, Bear started to crater. Two of its hedge funds that were heavily invested in mortgage-backed deals imploded in June and July, forcing the credit-raters at Standard & Poor’s to cut its outlook on Bear from stable to negative. The company survived through the winter — in part by jettisoning its dipshit CEO, Jimmy Cayne, a dithering, weed-smoking septuagenarian who was spotted at a bridge tournament during the crisis — but by March 2008, it was almost wholly dependent on a network of creditors who supplied it with billions in rolling daily loans to keep its doors open. If ever there was a major company ripe to be assassinated by market manipulators, it was Bear Stearns in 2008.

Then, on March 11th — around the same time that mystery Nostradamus was betting $1.7 million that Bear was about to collapse — a curious thing happened that attracted virtually no notice on Wall Street. On that day, a meeting was held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that was brokered by Fed chief Ben Bernanke and then-New York Fed president Timothy Geithner. The luncheon included virtually everyone who was anyone on Wall Street — except for Bear Stearns.

Bear, in fact, was the only major investment bank not represented at the meeting, whose list of participants reads like a Barzini-Tattaglia meeting of the Five Families. In attendance were Jamie Dimon from JPMorgan Chase, Lloyd Blankfein from Goldman Sachs, James Gorman from Morgan Stanley, Richard Fuld from Lehman Brothers and John Thain, the big-spending office redecorator still heading the not-yet-fully-destroyed Merrill Lynch. Also present were old Clinton hand Robert Rubin, who represented Citigroup; Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group; and several hedge-fund chiefs, including Kenneth Griffin of Citadel Investment Group.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

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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