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Wall Street's Naked Swindle

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We may never know who killed Bear and Lehman. But it sure isn't hard to figure out who's left.

While naked short-selling was the weapon used to bring down both Bear and Lehman, it would be preposterous to argue that the practice caused the financial crisis. The most serious problems in this economy were the result of other, broader classes of financial misdeed: corruption of the ratings agencies, the use of smoke-and-mirrors like derivatives, an epidemic tulipomania called the housing boom and the overall decline of American industry, which pushed Wall Street to synthesize growth where none existed.

But the "phantom" shares produced by naked short-sellers are symptomatic of a problem that goes far beyond the stock market. "The only reason people talk about naked shorting so much is that stock is sexy and so much attention is paid to the stock market," says a former investment executive. "This goes on in all the markets."

Take the commodities markets, where most of those betting on the prices of things like oil, wheat and soybeans have no product to actually deliver. "All speculative selling of commodity futures is 'naked' short selling," says Adam White, director of research at White Knight Research and Trading. While buying things that don't actually exist isn't always harmful, it can help fuel speculative manias, like the oil bubble of last summer. "The world consumes 85 million barrels of oil per day, but it's not uncommon to trade 1 billion barrels per day on the various commodities exchanges," says White. "So you've got 12 paper barrels trading for every physical barrel."

The same is true for mortgages. When lenders couldn't find enough dope addicts to lend mansions to, some simply went ahead and started selling the same mortgages over and over to different investors. There are now a growing number of cases of such double-selling of mortgages: "It makes Bernie Madoff seem like chump change," says April Charney, a legal-aid attorney based in Florida. Just like in the stock market, where short-sellers delivered IOUs instead of real shares, traders of mortgage-backed securities sometimes conclude deals by transferring "lost-note affidavits" — basically a "my dog ate the mortgage" note — instead of the actual mortgage. A paper presented at the American Bankruptcy Institute earlier this year reports that up to a third of all notes for mortgage-backed securities may have been "misplaced or lost" — meaning they're backed by IOUs instead of actual mortgages.

How about bonds? "Naked short-selling of stocks is nothing compared to what goes on in the bond market," says Trimbath, the former DTC staffer. Indeed, the practice of selling bonds without delivering them is so rampant it has even infected the market for U.S. Treasury notes. That's right — Wall Street has actually been brazen enough to counterfeit the debt of the United States government right under the eyes of regulators, in the middle of a historic series of government bailouts! In fact, the amount of failed trades in Treasury bonds — the equivalent of "phantom" stocks — has doubled since 2007. In a single week last July, some $250 billion worth of U.S. Treasury bonds were sold and not delivered.

The counterfeit nature of our economy is troubling enough, given that financial power is concentrated in the hands of a few key players — "300 white guys in Manhattan," as a former high-placed executive puts it. But over the course of the past year, that group of insiders has also proved itself brilliantly capable of enlisting the power of the state to help along the process of concentrating economic might — making it less and less likely that the financial markets will ever be policed, since the state is increasingly the captive of these interests.

The new president for whom we all had such high hopes went and hired Michael Froman, a Citigroup executive who accepted a $2.2 million bonus after he joined the White House, to serve on his economic transition team — at the same time the government was giving Citigroup a massive bailout. Then, after promising to curb the influence of lobbyists, Obama hired a former Goldman Sachs lobbyist, Mark Patterson, as chief of staff at the Treasury. He hired another Goldmanite, Gary Gensler, to police the commodities markets. He handed control of the Treasury and Federal Reserve over to Geithner and Bernanke, a pair of stooges who spent their whole careers being bellhops for New York bankers. And on the first anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when he finally came to Wall Street to promote "serious financial reform," his plan proved to be so completely absent of balls that the share prices of the major banks soared at the news.

The nation's largest financial players are able to write the rules for own their businesses and brazenly steal billions under the noses of regulators, and nothing is done about it. A thing so fundamental to civilized society as the integrity of a stock, or a mortgage note, or even a U.S. Treasury bond, can no longer be protected, not even in a crisis, and a crime as vulgar and conspicuous as counterfeiting can take place on a systematic level for years without being stopped, even after it begins to affect the modern-day equivalents of the Rockefellers and the Carnegies. What 10 years ago was a cheap stock-fraud scheme for second-rate grifters in Brooklyn has become a major profit center for Wall Street. Our burglar class now rules the national economy. And no one is trying to stop them.

This article originally appeared in RS 1089 from October 15, 2009. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

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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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