How the COVID-19 Bailout Gave Wall Street a No-Lose Casino

This story appears in the June 2020 print edition of Rolling Stone.

In late April Marko Kolanovic, a financial analyst for JPMorgan Chase, wrote to clients with good news. Pandemic aside, investors should expect stock prices in S&P 500 companies to return to record numbers some time early next year!

“The S&P 500 should attain previous all-time highs,” Kolanovic wrote, “if the monetary measures are sustained.”

The key part of this phrase was the last bit, “if the monetary measures are sustained.” In countries that did not have a Federal Reserve Bank shooting a bazooka of cash daily at Wall Street, Kolanovic suggested the coronavirus would result in a 30 percent decline in the present value of earnings.

In other words, without intervention by the Federal Reserve, the United States in the coronavirus era would be looking at a Depression-level contraction.

Assuming the Fed bazooka keeps firing, however, a large portion of the investor class is already on a road leading back to champagne and confetti. And that, as Robert Frost would say, has made all the difference.

On the road more traveled, on the real side of the coronavirus economy, the pain has been historic. As of this writing, 30 million people have filed jobless claims during the COVID-19 crisis, and millions have lost their employer-based insurance.

At least one in three can’t make their rent, millions more can’t afford groceries, and workers in supermarkets, medical clinics, warehouses, and other professions are now in a macabre race to see if they’ll turn blue and die before corporate employers decide to slash their salaries or retirement benefits — which has already happened to front-line caregivers in some cities.

There are no projections of record earnings in the futures of such people. The best case is survival, and the grim reality of diminished economic horizons. Yet for the tiny sliver of people whose fortunes depend not on salaries, tips, and commissions, but upon the prices of financial products like stocks and bonds, the coronavirus response heralds a brave new world.

The $2.3 trillion CARES Act, the Donald Trump-led rescue package signed into law on March 27th, is a radical rethink of American capitalism. It retains all the cruelties of the free market for those who live and work in the real world, but turns the paper economy into a state protectorate, surrounded by a kind of Trumpian Money Wall that is designed to keep the investor class safe from fear of loss.

This financial economy is a fantasy casino, where the winnings are real but free chips cover the losses. For a rarefied segment of society, failure is being written out of the capitalist bargain.

This is a fresh take on a long-developing dynamic. Dating to the late Eighties, when then-Fed-chief Alan Greenspan slashed interest rates after the 1987 stock-market crash, there’s been an understanding that the government would be there to help Wall Street back on its feet in hard times.

That belief was so strong it had a name: the “Greenspan put.” Bloomberg’s Tim Duy defines the term as “the implied promise that central bankers led by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan would bail out market participants who indulged in risky behavior.”

The Fed stepped in to flood Wall Street with cash (these are called “liquidity injections”) after a series of messes in the Clinton and Bush years, from the Asian-currency debacle to the collapse of the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund in the late Nineties to a deflation panic in 2002.

A prolonged period of liquidity injection in the early 2000s prompted a now-familiar pattern of pushing investors out of traditional safe-haven investments (the low interest rates punished savers) and into ever-riskier gambles in commodities, stocks, and the housing markets.

All three arenas saw bubbles, but the one in the U.S. housing market burst after an orgy of Ponzi-style scheming sent mortgage prices shooting through the roof. In the space of a few months in 2008, the pension funds and municipalities that had been urged by greed-sick bankers to invest in a “real estate boom” (actually a fraud-driven speculative bubble) lost fortunes.

President Donald Trump looks on as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a news conference at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March, 25, 2020, along with members of the coronavirus task force. ERIN SCHAFF/"The New York Times"/R

Taxpayers and homeowners bore nearly 100 percent of the pain. Nearly 3 million people filed for foreclosure in 2010 alone. Back then, the notion of using state funds to rescue these folks was rejected as laughable, a dangerous “moral hazard.” As billionaire Charlie Munger put it in 2010, homeowners needed to “suck it in and cope,” and not wait for a handout.

Wall Street, though, got the mother of all rescues. The response wasn’t limited to a traditional liquidity injection. Banks were given trillions in bailouts and emergency loans, allowed to dump years of bad investment decisions into special garbage facilities set up by the Federal Reserve, and urged to “drink themselves sober” through years of free money from a zero-interest-rate policy.

The Fed, beginning in late 2008, added a new crisis-response tool called quantitative easing (QE), a fancy academic name for printing trillions of dollars and using it to buy everything from mortgages to government debt. This was with the ostensible aim of increasing “the availability of credit” for things like home purchases, but also to “foster improved conditions in financial markets more generally.”

The dubious underlying logic was that rescuing the economy and rescuing the financial markets were the same thing. To save people, we had to save the economy in which they operate, which meant saving the high-risk investments of Wall Streeters, as much as they might suck.

What’s happening in the COVID-19 crisis is the next step: a financial bubble where the Fed isn’t the cleanup mechanism, but the source of the mania itself. While the real economy is seeing record disruptions, Wall Street has seen prolonged rallies of “rational exuberance” over the Fed’s decision to usher in “QE infinity” and essentially ban losing in finance capitalism.

Though this is a Trump bill — El Pompadour is so determined that the CARES Act be remembered as his work, he fought to get his signature on relief checks — it passed unanimously, by voice vote in the House, and 96-0 in the Senate.

Talk to Democrats on the Hill and they will tell you this is a bailout to be cheered and supported, nothing like the 2008 rescue. This time is different, the argument goes: Three-quarters of the money goes to real people.

This is true, if one squints and uses a narrow definition of “money.” The $2.3 trillion imagines $560 billion for “individuals” (including $300 billion in cash payments, much by way of the famed $1,200 “Trump” checks), plus $377 billion for small businesses, as well as $339 billion for state and local governments, and $100 billion for hospitals and other health care providers, plus some aid for students and children.

Technically, “only” about $500 billion of the congressionally passed rescue package goes to “big business.” Moreover, the big-business aid ostensibly comes with a range of draconian-sounding conditions barring greedy hijinks, meaning no layoffs, no stock buybacks, no big bonuses, etc., if companies want the handout.

The loophole comes via $454 billion created as part of that big-business package. This “emergency fund” will be dumped into a “special-purpose vehicle” used to backstop further lending by the Federal Reserve.

That $454 billion is designed to grow by a factor of 10 or more. “We can lever up to $4 trillion,” said Steve Mnuchin, playing the “free-spending Goldman Sachs-trained Treasury secretary” role that apparently is a prerequisite for financial-disaster narratives in modern America.

Democrats early on expressed concern about old-school Tammany Hall-style graft, i.e., that the fund would be used to invest in businesses with connections. “We’re not here to create a slush fund for Donald Trump and his family,” is how Elizabeth Warren put it.

However, once Democrats won superficial oversight concessions (including the creation of a Congressional Oversight Commission), Warren and everyone else in the caucus approved the “slush fund” concept, despite the far more radical issues it poses than individual graft.

The CARES Act “slush fund” imagines a future in which markets for all financial products are stressed, perhaps permanently, by lockdowns. In place of a heartless free market of panicked investors who might want to cut their losses and sell, the plan is to simulate real buying and selling of financial products like mortgages and bonds with directed deployments of the Fed’s endless trillions.

And they will be endless. As Fed chief Jerome Powell put it, the Fed is “not going to run out of ammunition” in the war against the economic crisis. Marcus Stanley of Americans for Financial Reform said, “The Fed’s perspective on this is, they want to create normalcy.” But what does “normal” mean in an economy that may be changed forever?

Investors were fleeing stocks, bonds, money-market funds, etc., in the first weeks of March for the perfectly logical reason that most businesses suddenly looked like dicey investments. But the instant the Fed announced its new purchasing programs, most of these markets bounced back nearly all the way up.

Major bond funds that were on the brink of failure on March 23rd — like BlackRock’s $30 billion LQD fund — rebounded and recovered nearly all of their value in the next days. The S&P 500 sank 34 percent in 23 trading sessions at the beginning of the crisis, then after the Fed’s announcement on March 23rd, rose 27 percent in its next 16 sessions. The NYSE Composite hit a low of 8,777 on March 23rd, then started a long march back up over 10,000 and then 11,000 from that day forward.

Investors have begun following the Fed. Analysts are encouraging clients to “buy what the Fed is buying,” because “the stimulus seems to be endless.” The boom isn’t in any particular kind of company or product, but in the Fed itself.

“The Fed is the market, and all the big players know it, while the real economy will stagger far behind,” is how Nomi Prins, author of Collusion and an expert on central-banking policy, puts it.

This plan is getting support from both the right and the left. Wall Street analysts are cheering Fed chief Powell’s decision to act “forcefully, proactively, and aggressively” to forestall financial collapse, while liberal economists seem to cheer the spectacle of the government abandoning harrumphing conservative rhetoric about fiscal restraint to invest massively in the economy.

“I’m more sympathetic than I might otherwise have been,” says noted progressive economist Dean Baker, adding that the extraordinary crisis has created real trouble for a lot of good companies that the Fed’s actions will address.

Decades ago, America started down the road of creating two economic worlds. Our once-mighty brick-and-mortar economy went into decline and began to be exported overseas, to cheap labor zones and countries with less-stringent environmental laws — places that, as economist Larry Summers infamously put it, were “vastly underpolluted.” That American factory workers would be left behind by this process was just their bad luck, another thing requiring a “suck it in and cope” attitude.

Not so for their bosses, though, who were rescued from the decline by transitioning to even-more-profitable work in a new, “financialized” economy. This world emphasized making money by moving it around in the capital markets — prioritizing fees, interest, capital gains, etc. A generation of minds that were trained in the logic of “financialization,” and its underlying principles — which include the idea that workers are fungible, parasitic drains on the more crucial “wealth creators” above — accelerated the aggressive tilt to the political right by America’s wealthy in recent decades.

Even the experts at the Federal Reserve, whose official mandate includes attaining “maximum sustainable employment,” became more and more removed from their real-world purpose over the years, devoted instead to tending to the needs of this second, sandcastle economy over the problems of disenfranchised working people, whose fates mostly couldn’t be helped. And why not? What Fed official ever interacts with anyone not employed in the financial sector? How could the real world ever seep in?

The coronavirus bailout could end up being the last chapter in this hideous story. Although we’re seeing a graphic demonstration of how “unskilled” workers like home health aides and delivery people and grocery clerks are actually the vitally important people in our society, they’re not getting the radical rescue. There’s no sudden universal health care, no guaranteed sick leave, no massive jobs plan, just Band-Aids. They will die in massive numbers and emerge from this crisis, if and when it ends, poorer and more vulnerable than before.

But the financial markets are getting the World War II-style “whatever it takes” financial commitment, based upon the continuing fallacy that “wealth creators” must be the first in line for rescue in any crisis. This was a wrong assumption on the decks of the Titanic, a wrong assumption after 2008, and a criminally wrong assumption now.

Continuing belief in the trickle-down myth that has been destroying and dividing this country for decades will kill us faster than any pandemic. If we’re going to spend in “unlimited” amounts, let’s for once do it in the real world and for the people who need it most.