This essay is about three recent books that explain how we lost our economy, the Constitution and our civil liberties, and how peace lost out to war.
Matt Taibbi is the best–certainly the most entertaining–financial/political reporter in the country. There is no better book than Griftopia (2010) to which to turn to understand how stupidity, greed, and criminality, spread evenly among policymakers and Wall Street, created the financial crisis that has left Americans overburdened with both private and public debt. Taibbi walks the reader through the fraudulent financial instruments that littered the American, British, and European financial communities with toxic waste. He has figured it all out, and what in other hands might be an arcane account for MBAs, is in Taibbi’s hands a highly readable and entertaining story.
For the first 65 pages, Taibbi entertains the reader with the inability of the public and politicians to focus on any reality. The financial story begins on page 65 with Fed chairman Alan Greenspan undermining the Glass-Steagall Act leading to its repeal by three political stooges, Gramm-Leach-Bliley. This set the stage for the banksters to leverage debt upon debt until the house of cards collapsed. When Brooksley Born, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, attempted to do her regulatory job and regulate derivatives, the Federal Reserve, Treasury, and Securities and Exchange Commission got her bounced out of office. To make certain that no other regulator could protect the financial system and its participants from what was coming, Congress deregulated the derivatives markets by passing the Commodity Futures Modernization Act.
As an Ayn Randian mentality of a self-regulating private sector crowded out prudence, the media cheered. Taibbi captures the era in a sentence: “In was in the immediate wake of all these historically disastrous moves–printing 1.7 trillion new dollars in the middle of a massive stock bubble, dismantling the Glass-Steagall Act, deregulating the derivatives market, blowing off his regulatory authority in the middle of an era of rampant fraud–that Greenspan was upheld by the mainstream financial and political press as a hero of almost Caesarian nature. In February 1999, Time magazine put him on the cover.”
Mortgage securitization allows lenders such as banks to issue mortgages that can be sold to third parties. Instead of making money from the interest from mortgages in its portfolio, the bank issues mortgages for a fee and sells the mortgages. The mortgages are then combined with mortgages sold by other lenders and resold to investors. This development resulted in lenders being less interested in the credit-worthiness of borrowers.
In order to assure investors about credit-worthiness and to appeal to risk-tolerant hedge funds, the next development was to take a pool of mortgages of varying credit-worthiness and to organize them into three tranches. The mortgages were separated into AAA, B grade, and high-risk stuff. The triple A tranche could be sold to pension funds and institutional investors. Hedge funds would take the high-risk tranche for the high-interest rate that they offered, intending to get rid of the mortgages before they had time to go bad. The middle tranche was the one hard to sell. The interest rate on the B grade tranche was not high enough to appeal to hedge funds, and pension funds were restricted to investment grade.
So what did the banks do? Well, they lumped together all the B grade tranches and started the process all over. The best of the lot were turned into–you guessed it–AAA, then came the B grade, and then the worst of the lot became the third tranche. And then the process was repeated.
This was bad enough, but even worse was happening. Many of the triple A and B grade mortgages had that rating only because of fraudulent credit scores and rating agencies assigning investment grade ratings to lower grade mortgages. Everyone was focused on short-term profits, from the lenders who churned out mortgages for fees, to hedge funds that had no intention of holding the high-risk tranches beyond the short-run. You can see how toxic waste was spread throughout the financial system.
Then it became possible to “insure” the AAA mortgages (many of which were not AAA). Once this happened, financial institutions that were required to maintain reserves against deposits or to capitalize obligations, such as insurance policies, could now substitute higher-paying mortgage derivatives for U.S. Treasury notes and still meet their reserve requirements for a ready cash reserve. Treasury notes are so liquid that they are considered the equivalent of cash, and insured AAA securitized mortgages acquired similar status.
AIG became the big provider of “insurance” in an operation run by Joe Cassano. Cassano’s “insurance” product is called a credit default swap. It is not insurance, because AIG did not set aside capital to pay any claims. And claims there would be. Not only were the AAA mortgages that were being insured littered with toxic waste, investment banks and hedge funds could purchase swaps against mortgages that they did not even own. As Taibbi puts it, people were gambling in a casino in which gamblers did not have to cover their bets or own the financial instruments that they were insuring.
While Cassano was collecting fees for bets that he could not cover, Win Neuger on the other side of AIG was lending the insurance giant’s long-term portfolio of sound investments to short-sellers for a fee.
Short-selling works like this: A short-seller thinks a company’s stock price is going to fall in value. He borrows the stock from AIG by putting up collateral equal to its market price the day the stock is borrowed plus a small fee, sells the stock, pockets the money and waits for the stock to fall. If his hunch or inside information is correct, and the stock falls in value, he buys the stock and returns it to AIG, pocketing the difference in the two prices.
Normally, people who lend stock to short-sellers are content with the fee and with the interest on the collateral (cash) invested in safe instruments like Treasury bills. The lender of the stock cannot take any risk with the cash collateral, because the cash must be returned to the short-seller when he returns the borrowed stock.
Once, however, toxic waste got AAA ratings plus insurance from Cassano, higher-paying insured investment grade toxic waste could displace of US Treasuries as a place for Neuger to hold the short-sellers’ collateral. You can see the untenable position into which Cassano and Neuger put AIG.
Enter Goldman Sachs as a buyer of swaps from Cassano and a borrower of stocks from Neuger. Once the real estate bubble that the crazed Federal Reserve had caused popped, all the fraud that had been disguised by rising real estate prices appeared in its naked glory. AIG couldn’t cover Cassano’s swaps, and it could not return the collateral to short-sellers that Neuger had invested, unknowingly, in toxic waste.
This was the origin of the TARP bailout, which was perceived by Goldman Sachs (whose former executives, as Taibbi relates, controlled the U.S. Treasury, financial regulatory agencies, and the Federal Reserve) as an opportunity not merely to have U.S. taxpayers make good on its exploitation of AIG, but also to fund with free capital supplied by hapless taxpayers more money-making opportunities for “banks too big to fail.”
As Taibbi shows, Goldman Sachs had yet more ruin to bring to Americans. Goldman Sachs managed to get the position limits that regulation imposed on speculators in order to prevent speculation from taking over commodity markets (for example, grains, metals, and oil) secretly repealed. This allowed Goldman Sachs to create a new product, index speculation, which brought hundreds of billions into commodities markets and drove up the price of gasoline in 2008 to $4.50 per gallon, despite the fact that there was no change in supply or consumer demand. It was entirely a profit rip-off from speculation in oil futures contracts.
From here on Taibbi’s book really rolls. If the U.S. had a media worthy of the name, instead of mere shills for private oligarchs and propagandists for government, Matt Taibbi would be the editor of an independent Wall Street Journal with a regiment of investigative reporters. Then Americans would have a prospect of reclaiming their country and their economy.
Charlie Savage is a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard with a Master’s degree in law from Yale. As a Boston Globe reporter, he documented the Bush-Cheney-Yoo-Bybee, et al, destruction of U.S. civil liberties and the constitutional separation of powers as they occurred during the reign of the 43rd president of the United States. Savage draws on this disillusioning experience to give us another important book, Takeover (2007). Savage documents completely how American civil liberty was destroyed by Dick Cheney and the traitors he was able to place in key positions in the Bush regime.
President George Bush, an inconsequential person, gloried in the increase in his power that the Cheney forces and the Federalist Society achieved by a fabricated doctrine of
“inherent power” that allegedly resides in the presidency. This power, its tyrannical advocates assert, places the President above Congress, the Judiciary, and the law itself during times of war. The advocates of this doctrine used war to advance their claims, but actually believe that the President, as long as he is a Republican, is, in fact, a Caesar who is unaccountable.
Savage is a clear, masterful writer. He shows that the Bush/Cheney traitors have left Americans with an executive branch that is unaccountable to statutory law, treaties, international law such as the Geneva Conventions, and Congress. What one reads in Takeover is not opinion but documented fact. There is no better way for gullible flag-waving Americans to sober up than to read Takeover.