Parallels Between the Financial Crisis and the Gulf Oil Spill

Charles Hugh Smith describes the similarities between the financial crisis and the gulf oil spill. Hubris, Incompetence, Corruption, and Denial combined to create a disaster.

How many more can we endure?

Link: Of Two Minds

1. The extreme levels of inherent risk in each system were downplayed/misunderstood by those responsible for their management.

2. The unprecedented risk intrinsic to each system was masked by facsimiles of regulation and specialized expertise.

3. The initial warning signs were dismissed, downplayed or ignored.

4. Each system was on the outer edge of human engineering (mechanical and financial) but was treated by regulators and managers as entirely standard.

5. Once the system collapsed, nobody knew how to fix it.

6. As the full extent of the damage became apparent, those responsible sought to mask the true extent of the damage.

7. The mainstream media and elected officials unskeptically accepted prevarications, mis-statements, misinformation and manufactured facades as representations of the truth.

8. As the true extent of the damage, distortion/manipulation and failure of responsible authorities became undeniable, public confidence in government, regulatory agencies and the market irrevocably eroded.

Why Is Goldman Sachs So Profitable?

Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone magazine tells us why Goldman Sachs is so profitable – with great research and colorful commentary. Journalism is not dead.

After reading the article, I see a superior predator (Goldman Sachs) feeding on naive prey (investors, consumers, banks, regulators, the Federal Reserve) assisted by Goldman Sachs alumni in high positions in government and industry (like Henry Paulson, former Treasury secretary). Goldman Sachs' motto is long-term greed.

If you find the title intriguing – The Great American Bubble Machine: From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression – and they're about to do it again – I recommend that you read the whole article (link below). The next bubble is Cap and Trade.

Thanks to Bill Voegeli for recommending this eye-opening analysis.

Link: The Great American Bubble Machine : Rolling Stone.

What you need to know is the big picture: If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain — an extremely unfortunate loophole in the system of Western democratic capitalism, which never foresaw that in a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.

The bank's unprecedented reach and power have enabled it to turn all of America into a giant pumpanddump scam, manipulating whole economic sectors for years at a time, moving the dice game as this or that market collapses, and all the time gorging itself on the unseen costs that are breaking families everywhere — high gas prices, rising consumercredit rates, halfeaten pension funds, mass layoffs, future taxes to pay off bailouts. All that money that you're losing, it's going somewhere, and in both a literal and a figurative sense, Goldman Sachs is where it's going: The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth — pure profit for rich individuals.

They achieve this using the same playbook over and over again. The formula is relatively simple: Goldman positions itself in the middle of a speculative bubble, selling investments they know are crap. Then they hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage. Finally, when it all goes bust, leaving millions of ordinary citizens broke and starving, they begin the entire process over again, riding in to rescue us all by lending us back our own money at interest, selling themselves as men above greed, just a bunch of really smart guys keeping the wheels greased. They've been pulling this same stunt over and over since the 1920s — and now they're preparing to do it again, creating what may be the biggest and most audacious bubble yet.

Cap and Trade…

The new carbon credit market is a virtual repeat of the commodities-market casino that's been kind to Goldman, except it has one delicious new wrinkle: If the plan goes forward as expected, the rise in prices will be government-mandated. Goldman won't even have to rig the game. It will be rigged in advance.

Here's how it works: If the bill passes, there will be limits for coal plants, utilities, natural-gas distributors and numerous other industries on the amount of carbon emissions (a.k.a. greenhouse gases) they can produce per year. If the companies go over their allotment, they will be able to buy "allocations" or credits from other companies that have managed to produce fewer emissions. President Obama conservatively estimates that about $646 billion worth of carbon credits will be auctioned in the first seven years; one of his top economic aides speculates that the real number might be twice or even three times that amount.

The feature of this plan that has special appeal to speculators is that the "cap" on carbon will be continually lowered by the government, which means that carbon credits will become more and more scarce with each passing year. Which means that this is a brand new commodities market where the main commodity to be traded is guaranteed to rise in price over time. The volume of this new market will be upwards of a trillion dollars annually; for comparison's sake, the annual combined revenues of all electricity suppliers in the U.S. total $320 billion.

Goldman wants this bill. The plan is (1) to get in on the ground floor of paradigmshifting legislation, (2) make sure that they're the profitmaking slice of that paradigm and (3) make sure the slice is a big slice. Goldman started pushing hard for cap and trade long ago, but things really ramped up last year when the firm spent $3.5 million to lobby climate issues.

The Housing Boom Boomerang

Thomas L. Friedman at the NY Times describes the current state of the financial crisis and what it reveals about the US. Excerpts below.

Link: Op-Ed Columnist – The Great Unraveling – NYTimes.com.

I have no sympathy for Madoff. But the fact is, his alleged Ponzi scheme was only slightly more outrageous than the “legal” scheme that Wall Street was running, fueled by cheap credit, low standards and high greed. What do you call giving a worker who makes only $14,000 a year a nothing-down and nothing-to-pay-for-two-years mortgage to buy a $750,000 home, and then bundling that mortgage with 100 others into bonds — which Moody’s or Standard & Poors rate AAA — and then selling them to banks and pension funds the world over? That is what our financial industry was doing. If that isn’t a pyramid scheme, what is?

Far from being built on best practices, this legal Ponzi scheme was built on the mortgage brokers, bond bundlers, rating agencies, bond sellers and homeowners all working on the I.B.G. principle: “I’ll be gone” when the payments come due or the mortgage has to be renegotiated.

The Madoff affair is the cherry on top of a national breakdown in financial propriety, regulations and common sense. Which is why we don’t just need a financial bailout; we need an ethical bailout. We need to re-establish the core balance between our markets, ethics and regulations. I don’t want to kill the animal spirits that necessarily drive capitalism — but I don’t want to be eaten by them either.

Causes of the Financial Crisis

Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist and professor at Columbia University, describes the critical decisions that created the financial crisis. Excerpts below.

Stiglitz says that the underlying critical flaw was a belief that markets are self-adjusting and that the role of government should be minimal. Looking back at that belief during hearings this fall on Capitol Hill, Alan Greenspan said out loud, “I have found a flaw.”

I flashed back to Gordon Gekko's famous line "Greed is good".

Link: Joseph E. Stiglitz on capitalist fools: About Us: vanityfair.com.

What were the critical decisions that led to the crisis? Mistakes were made at every fork in the road—we had what engineers call a “system failure,” when not a single decision but a cascade of decisions produce a tragic result. Let’s look at five key moments.

No. 1: Firing the Chairman

In 1987 the Reagan administration decided to remove Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and appoint Alan Greenspan in his place. Volcker had done what central bankers are supposed to do. On his watch, inflation had been brought down from more than 11 percent to under 4 percent. In the world of central banking, that should have earned him a grade of A+++ and assured his re-appointment. But Volcker also understood that financial markets need to be regulated. Reagan wanted someone who did not believe any such thing, and he found him in a devotee of the objectivist philosopher and free-market zealot Ayn Rand.  

No. 2: Tearing Down the Walls

The deregulation philosophy would pay unwelcome dividends for years to come. In November 1999, Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act—the culmination of a $300 million lobbying effort by the banking and financial-services industries, and spearheaded in Congress by Senator Phil Gramm. Glass-Steagall had long separated commercial banks (which lend money) and investment banks (which organize the sale of bonds and equities); it had been enacted in the aftermath of the Great Depression and was meant to curb the excesses of that era, including grave conflicts of interest.

The most important consequence of the repeal of Glass-Steagall was indirect—it lay in the way repeal changed an entire culture. Commercial banks are not supposed to be high-risk ventures; they are supposed to manage other people’s money very conservatively. It is with this understanding that the government agrees to pick up the tab should they fail. Investment banks, on the other hand, have traditionally managed rich people’s money—people who can take bigger risks in order to get bigger returns. When repeal of Glass-Steagall brought investment and commercial banks together, the investment-bank culture came out on top.

No. 3: Applying the Leeches

Then along came the Bush tax cuts, enacted first on June 7, 2001, with a follow-on installment two years later. The president and his advisers seemed to believe that tax cuts, especially for upper-income Americans and corporations, were a cure-all for any economic disease—the modern-day equivalent of leeches. The tax cuts played a pivotal role in shaping the background conditions of the current crisis. Because they did very little to stimulate the economy, real stimulation was left to the Fed, which took up the task with unprecedented low-interest rates and liquidity. The war in Iraq made matters worse, because it led to soaring oil prices. With America so dependent on oil imports, we had to spend several hundred billion more to purchase oil—money that otherwise would have been spent on American goods. Normally this would have led to an economic slowdown, as it had in the 1970s. But the Fed met the challenge in the most myopic way imaginable. The flood of liquidity made money readily available in mortgage markets, even to those who would normally not be able to borrow. And, yes, this succeeded in forestalling an economic downturn; America’s household saving rate plummeted to zero. But it should have been clear that we were living on borrowed money and borrowed time.

The cut in the tax rate on capital gains contributed to the crisis in another way. It was a decision that turned on values: those who speculated (read: gambled) and won were taxed more lightly than wage earners who simply worked hard. But more than that, the decision encouraged leveraging, because interest was tax-deductible. If, for instance, you borrowed a million to buy a home or took a $100,000 home-equity loan to buy stock, the interest would be fully deductible every year. Any capital gains you made were taxed lightly—and at some possibly remote day in the future. The Bush administration was providing an open invitation to excessive borrowing and lending—not that American consumers needed any more encouragement.

No. 4: Faking the Numbers

Meanwhile, on July 30, 2002, in the wake of a series of major scandals—notably the collapse of WorldCom and Enron—Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The scandals had involved every major American accounting firm, most of our banks, and some of our premier companies, and made it clear that we had serious problems with our accounting system. Accounting is a sleep-inducing topic for most people, but if you can’t have faith in a company’s numbers, then you can’t have faith in anything about a company at all. Unfortunately, in the negotiations over what became Sarbanes-Oxley a decision was made not to deal with what many, including the respected former head of the S.E.C. Arthur Levitt, believed to be a fundamental underlying problem: stock options. Stock options have been defended as providing healthy incentives toward good management, but in fact they are “incentive pay” in name only. If a company does well, the C.E.O. gets great rewards in the form of stock options; if a company does poorly, the compensation is almost as substantial but is bestowed in other ways. This is bad enough. But a collateral problem with stock options is that they provide incentives for bad accounting: top management has every incentive to provide distorted information in order to pump up share prices.

The incentive structure of the rating agencies also proved perverse. Agencies such as Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s are paid by the very people they are supposed to grade. As a result, they’ve had every reason to give companies high ratings, in a financial version of what college professors know as grade inflation. The rating agencies, like the investment banks that were paying them, believed in financial alchemy—that F-rated toxic mortgages could be converted into products that were safe enough to be held by commercial banks and pension funds. We had seen this same failure of the rating agencies during the East Asia crisis of the 1990s: high ratings facilitated a rush of money into the region, and then a sudden reversal in the ratings brought devastation. But the financial overseers paid no attention.

No. 5: Letting It Bleed

The final turning point came with the passage of a bailout package on October 3, 2008—that is, with the administration’s response to the crisis itself. We will be feeling the consequences for years to come. Both the administration and the Fed had long been driven by wishful thinking, hoping that the bad news was just a blip, and that a return to growth was just around the corner. As America’s banks faced collapse, the administration veered from one course of action to another. Some institutions (Bear Stearns, A.I.G., Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac) were bailed out. Lehman Brothers was not. Some shareholders got something back. Others did not.

The original proposal by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a three-page document that would have provided $700 billion for the secretary to spend at his sole discretion, without oversight or judicial review, was an act of extraordinary arrogance. He sold the program as necessary to restore confidence. But it didn’t address the underlying reasons for the loss of confidence. The banks had made too many bad loans. There were big holes in their balance sheets. No one knew what was truth and what was fiction. The bailout package was like a massive transfusion to a patient suffering from internal bleeding—and nothing was being done about the source of the problem, namely all those foreclosures. Valuable time was wasted as Paulson pushed his own plan, “cash for trash,” buying up the bad assets and putting the risk onto American taxpayers. When he finally abandoned it, providing banks with money they needed, he did it in a way that not only cheated America’s taxpayers but failed to ensure that the banks would use the money to re-start lending. He even allowed the banks to pour out money to their shareholders as taxpayers were pouring money into the banks.

The other problem not addressed involved the looming weaknesses in the economy. The economy had been sustained by excessive borrowing. That game was up. As consumption contracted, exports kept the economy going, but with the dollar strengthening and Europe and the rest of the world declining, it was hard to see how that could continue. Meanwhile, states faced massive drop-offs in revenues—they would have to cut back on expenditures. Without quick action by government, the economy faced a downturn. And even if banks had lent wisely—which they hadn’t—the downturn was sure to mean an increase in bad debts, further weakening the struggling financial sector.

The administration talked about confidence building, but what it delivered was actually a confidence trick. If the administration had really wanted to restore confidence in the financial system, it would have begun by addressing the underlying problems—the flawed incentive structures and the inadequate regulatory system.

What Caused the Financial Crisis?

Politicians are very adept at using problems and crises to bash their opponents. Objective, non-partisan analysis is rare, especially in an election year with a major crisis spreading fear and anger among voters. Below is a good summary of the key factors in the current financial debacle.

Joe Miller and Brooks Jackson at FactCheck.org conclude:

The U.S. economy is enormously complicated. Screwing it up takes a great deal of cooperation. Claiming that a single piece of legislation was responsible for (or could have averted) the crisis is just political grandstanding.

Link: FactCheck.org: Who Caused the Economic Crisis?.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, and it doesn’t fasten only on one party or even mainly on what Washington did or didn’t do. As The Economist magazine noted recently, the problem is one of "layered irresponsibility … with hard-working homeowners and billionaire villains each playing a role." Here’s a partial list of those alleged to be at fault:

  • The Federal Reserve, which slashed interest rates after the dot-com bubble burst, making credit cheap.
  • Home buyers, who took advantage of easy credit to bid up the prices of homes excessively.
  • Congress, which continues to support a mortgage tax deduction that gives consumers a tax incentive to buy more expensive houses.
  • Real estate agents, most of whom work for the sellers rather than the buyers and who earned higher commissions from selling more expensive homes.
  • The Clinton administration, which pushed for less stringent credit and downpayment requirements for working- and middle-class families.
  • Mortgage brokers, who offered less-credit-worthy home buyers subprime, adjustable rate loans with low initial payments, but exploding interest rates.
  • Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who in 2004, near the peak of the housing bubble, encouraged Americans to take out adjustable rate mortgages.
  • Wall Street firms, who paid too little attention to the quality of the risky loans that they bundled into Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS), and issued bonds using those securities as collateral.
  • The Bush administration, which failed to provide needed government oversight of the increasingly dicey mortgage-backed securities market.
  • An obscure accounting rule called mark-to-market, which can have the paradoxical result of making assets be worth less on paper than they are in reality during times of panic.
  • Collective delusion, or a belief on the part of all parties that home prices would keep rising forever, no matter how high or how fast they had already gone up. 

Who Do We Believe / Trust? Causes of the Financial Crisis

In these times of financial crisis, it is easy to be cynical about the leaders of failed organizations and their misleading statements. Perhaps some time in jail to reflect on their behavior would be healing (for the investors and tax payers who are bailing them out). Excerpts from a NYTimes.com story below.

Link: The Reckoning – Agency’s ’04 Rule Let Banks Pile Up New Debt, and Risk – Series – NYTimes.com.

“We have a good deal of comfort about the capital cushions at these firms at the moment.” — Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, March 11, 2008.

As rumors swirled that Bear Stearns faced imminent collapse in early March, Christopher Cox was told by his staff that Bear Stearns had $17 billion in cash and other assets — more than enough to weather the storm.

Drained of most of its cash three days later, Bear Stearns was forced into a hastily arranged marriage with JPMorgan Chase — backed by a $29 billion taxpayer dowry.

Within six months, other lions of Wall Street would also either disappear or transform themselves to survive the financial maelstrom — Merrill Lynch sold itself to Bank of America, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley converted to commercial banks.

How could Mr. Cox have been so wrong?

Many events in Washington, on Wall Street and elsewhere around the country have led to what has been called the most serious financial crisis since the 1930s. But decisions made at a brief meeting on April 28, 2004, explain why the problems could spin out of control. The agency’s failure to follow through on those decisions also explains why Washington regulators did not see what was coming.

On that bright spring afternoon, the five members of the Securities and Exchange Commission met in a basement hearing room to consider an urgent plea by the big investment banks.

They wanted an exemption for their brokerage units from an old regulation that limited the amount of debt they could take on. The exemption would unshackle billions of dollars held in reserve as a cushion against losses on their investments. Those funds could then flow up to the parent company, enabling it to invest in the fast-growing but opaque world of mortgage-backed securities; credit derivatives, a form of insurance for bond holders; and other exotic instruments.

The five investment banks led the charge, including Goldman Sachs, which was headed by Henry M. Paulson Jr. Two years later, he left to become Treasury secretary.

A lone dissenter — a software consultant and expert on risk management — weighed in from Indiana with a two-page letter to warn the commission that the move was a grave mistake. He never heard back from Washington.

One commissioner, Harvey J. Goldschmid, questioned the staff about the consequences of the proposed exemption. It would only be available for the largest firms, he was reassuringly told — those with assets greater than $5 billion.

After 55 minutes of discussion, which can now be heard on the Web sites of the agency and The Times, the chairman, William H. Donaldson, a veteran Wall Street executive, called for a vote. It was unanimous. The decision, changing what was known as the net capital rule, was completed and published in The Federal Register a few months later.

With that, the five big independent investment firms were unleashed.

In loosening the capital rules, which are supposed to provide a buffer in turbulent times, the agency also decided to rely on the firms’ own computer models for determining the riskiness of investments, essentially outsourcing the job of monitoring risk to the banks themselves.

Over the following months and years, each of the firms would take advantage of the looser rules. At Bear Stearns, the leverage ratio — a measurement of how much the firm was borrowing compared to its total assets — rose sharply, to 33 to 1. In other words, for every dollar in equity, it had $33 of debt. The ratios at the other firms also rose significantly.

A once-proud agency with a rich history at the intersection of Washington and Wall Street, the Securities and Exchange Commission was created during the Great Depression as part of the broader effort to restore confidence to battered investors. It was led in its formative years by heavyweight New Dealers, including James Landis and William O. Douglas. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked in 1934 why he appointed Joseph P. Kennedy, a spectacularly successful stock speculator, as the agency’s first chairman, Roosevelt replied: “Set a thief to catch a thief.”

The commission’s most public role in policing Wall Street is its enforcement efforts. But critics say that in recent years it has failed to deter market problems. “It seems to me the enforcement effort in recent years has fallen short of what one Supreme Court justice once called the fear of the shotgun behind the door,” said Arthur Levitt Jr., who was S.E.C. chairman in the Clinton administration. “With this commission, the shotgun too rarely came out from behind the door.”

Under Mr. Cox, the commission responded to complaints by some businesses by making it more difficult for the enforcement staff to investigate and bring cases against companies. The commission has repeatedly reversed or reduced proposed settlements that companies had tentatively agreed upon. While the number of enforcement cases has risen, the number of cases involving significant players or large amounts of money has declined.

Mr. Cox dismantled a risk management office created by Mr. Donaldson that was assigned to watch for future problems. While other financial regulatory agencies criticized a blueprint by Mr. Paulson, the Treasury secretary, that proposed to reduce their stature — and that of the S.E.C. — Mr. Cox did not challenge the plan, leaving it to three former Democratic and Republican commission chairmen to complain that the blueprint would neuter the agency.

In the process, Mr. Cox has surrounded himself with conservative lawyers, economists and accountants who, before the market turmoil of recent months, had embraced a far more limited vision for the commission than many of his predecessors.

‘Stakes in the Ground’

Last Friday, the commission formally ended the 2004 program, acknowledging that it had failed to anticipate the problems at Bear Stearns and the four other major investment banks.

“The last six months have made it abundantly clear that voluntary regulation does not work,” Mr. Cox said.

The decision to shutter the program came after Mr. Cox was blamed by Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, for the crisis. Mr. McCain has demanded Mr. Cox’s resignation.

Mr. Cox has said that the 2004 program was flawed from its inception. But former officials as well as the inspector general’s report have suggested that a major reason for its failure was Mr. Cox’s use of it.

Who Caused the Financial Crisis?

In a Washington Post article, Eric D. Hovde describes how the greed of Wall Street and their political action committee contributions to elected officials in Washington created the financial crisis.

Link: Calling Out the Culprits Who Caused the Crisis – washingtonpost.com.

…because of the actions of the investment banks, the mortgage industry and the rating agencies, the investment community has now incurred an estimated $1 trillion and more in losses. Even more troubling, housing prices have dropped 20 percent from their July 2006 highs, with the very real likelihood that housing could contract another 15 to 20 percent — essentially wiping out more than $4 trillion in housing values. This would be the biggest hit since the Depression to Americans’ most important asset.

What is even more remarkable is that at the same time, firms such as Goldman Sachs and Lehman not only made billions of dollars packaging and selling these toxic loans, they also wagered with their own capital that the values of these investments would decline, further raising their profits. If any other industries engaged in such knowingly unscrupulous activities, there would be an immediate federal investigation.

Why is Washington so complicit in this intricate and lucrative affair? First, the Fed laid the groundwork for both these asset bubbles by lowering interest rates to historic lows. In an attempt to protect his legacy after the Internet-bubble collapse, Greenspan provided unprecedented stimulus to re-inflate the economy and maintain his popularity with Wall Street. (Remember the "Greenspan put"?) But in doing so, he spawned the largest debt and asset bubble in U.S. history.

At the same time, federal regulatory agencies such as the SEC stood idly by as Wall Street took advantage of the investment public during both the Internet and the housing bubbles. The SEC took almost no action against Wall Street after the dot-com implosion. And in the midst of the housing bubble, in 2006, only the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency pushed for any level of regulation to address subprime lending.

One has to wonder why Treasury secretaries under Presidents Clinton and Bush — Robert Rubin and Hank Paulson, respectively — took no action to curb these abuses. It certainly was not because they did not understand Wall Street’s practices — both are former chief executives of Goldman Sachs. And why has Congress been so silent? The Wall Street investment banking firms, their executives, their families and their political action committees contribute more to U.S. Senate and House campaigns than any other industry in America. By sprinkling some of its massive gains into the pockets of our elected officials, Wall Street bought itself protection from any tough government enforcement.

This is no doubt the same reason why so many members of Congress were consistently blocking attempts to reform and downsize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are essentially giant, undercapitalized hedge funds. These two entities have been huge money machines for Democrats in both the House and the Senate, many of whom recently had the gall to ask why these companies hadn’t been reformed in the past. Nor should several Republican congressmen and Senators who likewise contributed to watering down legislation aimed at reforming these institutions be let off the hook.

Wall Street’s actions are now profoundly hurting American families, communities and the entire U.S. financial system. People are being thrown out of their homes. Once seemingly indestructible financial entities are succumbing to the crisis they have created and have jeopardized the stability of the global financial system. Isn’t it ironic that the same firms that preached free-market capitalism are now the ones begging for a taxpayer bailout? Many investment professionals operating in my world believe, as do I, that we are facing the greatest financial crisis since 1929.

Fortunately, today we have safety nets, such as federal deposit insurance, that were non-existent during the Great Depression. Yet there has not been a time since the 1920s when Wall Street has enjoyed as much influence over Washington as it has for the last 12 years. Let’s hope that this influence fades rapidly — and that this financial crisis doesn’t end the same way as the one of nearly 80 years ago.

via Chris Kliemt