Saturday, December 13, 2008

Deregulation: Catalyst to a Crash

California is on the verge of bankruptcy. If the U.S. auto bailout doesn’t get people talking about the dangers of deregulation, maybe California will. There’s only so much bailout money to go around. Take a guess why Congress is stalling on GM and Ford. Despite Congressional leaders saying they are not playing a wait-and-see numbers game. That is exactly what they are doing.

Today we are seeing the outcome of a long battle in economic ideology. This story will be in two parts. The first part covers Phil Gramm and his legislation. The second part explains the financial Armageddon resulting from that legislation. Deregulation created a system of incentives that channeled the greed of an industry that has yet to have a crisis of conscience.


Economic ideology often looks fine in print, but the theory based policies of the last two decades have shown disastrous results. Phil Gramm and his group of deregulators removed rules put in place after the Great Depression to prevent abuse of the financial system. See story. After a few short years the lack of oversight has turned the orderly capital markets into the Wild West.

Part of what's really happening is the United States is nationalizing all major systemic threats to the fiat money system. A system that cracked with deregulation as the catalyst. Policy designed to limit Big Government had the opposite effect. Ironic isn't it? Some believe the US can no longer be competitive in a free market. Therefore nationalized U.S. companies will be better able to compete with China and foreign capital which operates highly subsidized industries.


When the government deregulates key industries it's a grave mistake and even more costly than keeping them regulated. They did it with the airlines, they did it with energy trading, and they did it with Wall Street finance. How many bankruptcies is that? The cost of those mistakes is passed on to you and me, the taxpayers and the shareholders. The Elite actually laugh about this fact.


The following excerpts are from two of the best articles written all year on this subject. They are submitted here, chopped up and slightly edited, for reference and comparative analysis:


Story One: Deregulation Legislation


The New York Times
By and
November 16, 2008

Background on Phil Gramm

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Gramm became the most effective proponent of deregulation in a generation, by dint of his expertise (a Ph.D in economics), free-market ideology, perch on the Senate banking committee and force of personality (a writer in Texas once called him “a snapping turtle”). And in one remarkable stretch from 1999 to 2001, he pushed laws and promoted policies that he says unshackled businesses from needless restraints but his critics charge significantly contributed to the that has rattled the nation.


He pushed through a provision that ensured virtually no regulation of the complex financial instruments known as , including credit swaps, contracts that would encourage risky investment practices at Wall Street’s most venerable institutions and spread the risks, like a virus, around the world.


Many of his deregulation efforts were backed by the Clinton administration. Other members of Congress — who collectively received hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions from financial industry donors over the last decade — also played roles.


In late 1999, Mr. Gramm played a central role in what would be the most significant financial services legislation since the Depression. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, as the measure was called, removed barriers between commercial and investment banks that had been instituted to reduce the risk of economic catastrophes. Long sought by the industry, the law would let commercial banks, securities firms and insurers become financial supermarkets offering an array of services.


The measure, which Mr. Gramm helped write and move through the Senate, also split up oversight of conglomerates among government agencies. The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, would oversee the brokerage arm of a company. Bank regulators would supervise its banking operation. State insurance commissioners would examine the insurance business. But no single agency would have authority over the entire company.


Banking Corporatocracy

His economic views — and seat on the Senate banking committee — quickly won him support from the nation’s major financial institutions. From 1989 to 2002, federal records show, he was the top recipient of campaign contributions from commercial banks and in the top five for donations from Wall Street. He and his staff often appeared at industry-sponsored speaking events around the country.


He left Capitol Hill in 2002 joining UBS as a senior investment banker and head of the company’s lobbying operation.


Mr. Gramm, now 66, who declined to discuss his compensation at UBS, picked an opportune moment to move to Wall Street. Major financial institutions, including UBS, were growing, partly as a result of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.


Increasingly, institutions were trading the derivatives instruments that Mr. Gramm had helped escape the scrutiny of regulators. UBS was collecting hundreds of millions of dollars from credit-default swaps. (Mr. Gramm said he was not involved in that activity at the bank.) In 2001, a year after passage of the commodities law, the derivatives market insured about $900 billion worth of credit; by last year, the number had swelled to $62 trillion.


Gramm's Wife and Swaps

Created to help companies and investors limit risk, swaps are contracts that typically work like a form of insurance. A bank concerned about rises in interest rates, for instance, can buy a derivatives instrument that would protect it from rate swings. , one type of derivative, could protect the holder of a mortgage security against a possible default.

Earlier laws had left the regulation issue sufficiently ambiguous, worrying Wall Street, the Clinton administration and lawmakers of both parties, who argued that too many restrictions would hurt financial activity and spur traders to take their business overseas. And while the — under the leadership of Mr. Gramm’s wife, Wendy — had approved rules in 1989 and 1993 exempting some swaps and derivatives from regulation, there was still concern that step was not enough.


They Knew the Risks

From 1999 to 2001, Congress first considered steps to curb predatory loans — those that typically had high fees, significant prepayment penalties and ballooning monthly payments and were often issued to low-income borrowers. Foreclosures on such loans were on the rise, setting off a wave of .


But Mr. Gramm did everything he could to block the measures. In 2000, he refused to have his banking committee consider the proposals, an intervention hailed by the National Association of Mortgage Brokers as a “huge, huge step for us.”


It was Mr. Gramm who most effectively took up the fight against more government intervention in the markets.


In the final days of the Clinton administration Mr. Gramm celebrated another triumph. Determined to close the door on any future regulation of the emerging market of derivatives and swaps, he helped pushed through legislation that accomplished that goal.


In December 2000, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act was passed as part of a larger bill by unanimous consent after Mr. Gramm dominated the Senate debate.


“This legislation is important to every American investor,” he said at the time. “It will keep our markets modern, efficient and innovative, and it guarantees that the United States will maintain its global dominance of financial markets.”


But many experts disagree, including some of Mr. Gramm’s former allies in Congress. They say the lack of oversight left the system vulnerable. Some critics worried that the lack of oversight would allow abuses that could threaten the economy.


Frank Partnoy, a law professor at the University of San Diego and an expert on derivatives, said, “No one, including regulators, could get an accurate picture of this market. The consequences of that is that it left us in the dark for the last eight years.” And, he added, “Bad things happen when it’s dark.”


UBS was among them. The bank has declared nearly $50 billion in credit losses and write-downs since the start of last year, prompting a bailout of up to $60 billion by the Swiss government.

“The virtually unregulated over-the-counter market in credit-default swaps has played a significant role in the credit crisis, including the now $167 billion taxpayer rescue of A.I.G.,” , the chairman of the S.E.C. and a former congressman, said Friday.


Gramm Hindsight Philosophy

“Phil Gramm was the great spokesman and leader of the view that market forces should drive the economy without regulation,” said James D. Cox, a corporate law scholar at . “The movement he helped to lead contributed mightily to our problems.”


But looser regulation played virtually no role, Gramm argued, saying that is simply an emerging myth.


“There is this idea afloat that if you had more regulation you would have fewer mistakes,” he said. “I don’t see any evidence in our history or anybody else’s to substantiate it.” He added, “The markets have worked better than you might have thought.”


“He is a true dyed-in-the-wool free-market guy. He is very much a purist, an idealist, as he has a set of principles and he has never abandoned them,” said , a Republican and former senator from Illinois. “This notion of blaming the economic collapse on Phil Gramm is absurd to me.”


But Michael D. Donovan, a former S.E.C. lawyer, faulted Mr. Gramm for his insistence on deregulating the derivatives market.


“He was the architect, advocate and the most knowledgeable person in Congress on these topics,” Mr. Donovan said. “To me, Phil Gramm is the single most important reason for the current financial crisis.”


Mr. Gramm, ever the economics professor, disputes his critics’ analysis of the causes of the upheaval. He asserts that swaps, by enabling companies to insure themselves against defaults, have diminished, not increased, the effects of the declining housing markets.


“This is part of this myth of deregulation,” he said in the interview. “By and large, credit-default swaps have distributed the risks. They didn’t create it. The only reason people have focused on them is that some politicians don’t know a credit-default swap from a turnip.”


“They are saying there was 15 years of massive deregulation and that’s what caused the problem,” Mr. Gramm said of his critics. “I just don’t see any evidence of it.”


Well Senator, here comes your evidence. Michael Lewis's work deserves a Pulitzer Prize and should be read in full from the original source. It's a little vulgar, but that's what makes it real. That's what brings you into Wall Street.



Story Two: How Armageddon Works


Condé Nast Portfolio.com

By

December 2008


What Lewis Thinks

I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.


The rebellion by American youth against the money culture never happened. Why bother to overturn your parents’ world when you can buy it, slice it up into tranches, and sell off the pieces?


What Eisman Thinks

There’s a long list of people who now say they saw it coming all along but a far shorter one of people who actually did. Of those, even fewer had the nerve to bet on their vision. It’s not easy to stand apart from mass hysteria—to believe that most of what’s in the financial news is wrong or distorted, to believe that most important financial people are either lying or deluded—without actually being insane. A handful of people had been inside the black box, understood how it worked, and bet on it blowing up. Whitney rattled off a list with a half-dozen names on it. At the top was Steve Eisman.


Eisman entered finance about the time I exited it. He’d grown up in New York City and gone to a Jewish day school, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard Law School. In 1991, he was a 30-year-old corporate lawyer. “I hated it,” he says. “I hated being a lawyer. My parents worked as brokers at Oppenheimer. They managed to finagle me a job. It’s not pretty, but that’s what happened.”


He was hired as a junior equity analyst, a helpmate who didn’t actually offer his opinions. That changed in December 1991, less than a year into his new job, when a subprime mortgage lender called Ames Financial went public and no one at Oppenheimer particularly cared to express an opinion about it. One of Oppenheimer’s investment bankers stomped around the research department looking for anyone who knew anything about the mortgage business. Recalls Eisman: “I’m a junior analyst and just trying to figure out which end is up, but I told him that as a lawyer I’d worked on a deal for the Money Store.” He was promptly appointed the lead analyst for Ames Financial. “What I didn’t tell him was that my job had been to proofread the ­documents and that I hadn’t understood a word of the fucking things.”


The second company for which Eisman was given sole responsibility was Lomas Financial, which had just emerged from bankruptcy. “I put a sell rating on the thing because it was a piece of shit,” Eisman says. “I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to put a sell rating on companies. I thought there were three boxes—buy, hold, sell—and you could pick the one you thought you should.” He was pressured generally to be a bit more upbeat, but upbeat wasn’t Steve Eisman’s style.


Eisman stuck to his sell rating on Lomas Financial, even after the company announced that investors needn’t worry about its financial condition, as it had hedged its market risk. “The single greatest line I ever wrote as an analyst,” says Eisman, “was after Lomas said they were hedged.” He recited the line from memory: “ ‘The Lomas Financial Corp. is a perfectly hedged financial institution: It loses money in every conceivable interest-rate environment.’ I enjoyed writing that sentence more than any sentence I ever wrote.” A few months after he’d delivered that line in his report, Lomas Financial returned to bankruptcy.


Eisman wasn’t, in short, an analyst with a sunny disposition who expected the best of his fellow financial man and the companies he created. “You have to understand,” Eisman says in his defense, “I did subprime first. I lived with the worst first. These guys lied to infinity. What I learned from that experience was that Wall Street didn’t give a shit what it sold.”


FrontPoint Partners

Eisman quit Oppenheimer in 2001 to work as an analyst at a hedge fund, but what he really wanted to do was run money. FrontPoint Partners, another hedge fund, hired him in 2004 to invest in financial stocks.


He attracted people whose worldviews were as shaded as his own—Vincent Daniel, for instance, who became a partner and an analyst in charge of the mortgage sector. Danny Moses, who became Eisman’s head trader, was another who shared his perspective.


Both Daniel and Moses enjoyed, immensely, working with Steve Eisman. He put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. “Steve’s fun to take to any Wall Street meeting,” Daniel says. “Because he’ll say ‘Explain that to me’ 30 different times. Or ‘Could you explain that more, in English?’ Because once you do that, there’s a few things you learn. For a start, you figure out if they even know what they’re talking about. And a lot of times, they don’t!”


What Makes a Bad Bond

By the spring of 2005, FrontPoint was fairly convinced that something was very screwed up not merely in a handful of companies but in the financial underpinnings of the entire U.S. mortgage market. In 2000, there had been $130 billion in subprime mortgage lending, with $55 billion of that repackaged as mortgage bonds. But in 2005, there was $625 billion in subprime mortgage loans, $507 billion of which found its way into mortgage bonds. Eisman couldn’t understand who was making all these loans or why.


The big Wall Street firms had just made it possible to short even the tiniest and most obscure subprime-mortgage-backed bond by creating, in effect, a market of side bets. Instead of shorting the actual BBB bond, you could now enter into an agreement for a credit-default swap with Deutsche Bank or Goldman Sachs. It cost money to make this side bet, but nothing like what it cost to short the stocks, and the upside was far greater.


The arrangement bore the same relation to actual finance as fantasy football bears to the N.F.L. Eisman was perplexed in particular about why Wall Street firms would be coming to him and asking him to sell short. “What Lippman did, to his credit, was he came around several times to me and said, ‘Short this market,’ ” Eisman says. “In my entire life, I never saw a sell-side guy come in and say, ‘Short my market.’”


The juiciest shorts—the bonds ultimately backed by the mortgages most likely to default—had several characteristics. They’d be in what Wall Street people were now calling the sand states: Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada. The loans would have been made by one of the more dubious mortgage lenders; Long Beach Financial, wholly owned by Washington Mutual, was a great example. Long Beach Financial was moving money out the door as fast as it could, few questions asked, in loans built to self-destruct. It specialized in asking home­owners with bad credit and no proof of income to put no money down and defer interest payments for as long as possible. In Bakersfield, California, a Mexican strawberry picker with an income of $14,000 and no English was lent every penny he needed to buy a house for $720,000.


The funny thing, looking back on it, is how long it took for even someone who predicted the disaster to grasp its root causes. They were learning about this on the fly, shorting the bonds and then trying to figure out what they had done.


Eisman knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA.


Gaming the Rating Agencies

“I didn’t understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold,” he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. “We always asked the same question,” says Eisman. “Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.” He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. “They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,” Eisman says.


As an investor, Eisman was allowed on the quarterly conference calls held by Moody’s but not allowed to ask questions. The people at Moody’s were polite about their brush-off, however. The C.E.O. even invited Eisman and his team to his office for a visit in June 2007. By then, Eisman was so certain that the world had been turned upside down that he just assumed this guy must know it too. “But we’re sitting there,” Daniel recalls, “and he says to us, like he actually means it, ‘I truly believe that our rating will prove accurate.’ And Steve shoots up in his chair and asks, ‘What did you just say?’ as if the guy had just uttered the most preposterous statement in the history of finance. He repeated it. And Eisman just laughed at him.”


“With all due respect, sir,” Daniel told the C.E.O. deferentially as they left the meeting, “you’re delusional.”


This wasn’t Fitch or even S&P. This was Moody’s, the aristocrats of the rating business, 20 percent owned by Warren Buffett. And the company’s C.E.O. was being told he was either a fool or a crook by one Vincent Daniel, from Queens.


You have to understand this,” Eisman says. “This was the engine of doom.”


Then he draws a picture of several towers of debt. The first tower is made of the original subprime loans that had been piled together. At the top of this tower is the AAA tranche, just below it the AA tranche, and so on down to the riskiest, the BBB tranche—the bonds Eisman had shorted. But Wall Street had used these BBB tranches—the worst of the worst—to build yet another tower of bonds: a “particularly egregious” C.D.O.


The reason they did this was that the rating agencies, presented with the pile of bonds backed by dubious loans, would pronounce most of them AAA. These bonds could then be sold to investors—pension funds, insurance companies—who were allowed to invest only in highly rated securities. “I cannot fucking believe this is allowed—I must have said that a thousand times in the past two years,” Eisman says.


Feeding the Machine

Eisman, Daniel, and Moses then flew out to Las Vegas for an even bigger subprime conference. By now, Eisman knew everything he needed to know about the quality of the loans being made. He still didn’t fully understand how the apparatus worked, but he knew that Wall Street had built a doomsday machine. He was at once opportunistic and outraged.


His dinner companion in Las Vegas ran a fund of about $15 billion and managed C.D.O.’s backed by the BBB tranche of a mortgage bond, or as Eisman puts it, “the equivalent of three levels of dog shit lower than the original bonds.”


After taking a fee, he passed them on to other investors. His job was to be the C.D.O. “expert,” but he actually didn’t spend any time at all thinking about what was in the C.D.O.’s. “He managed the C.D.O.’s,” says Eisman, “but managed what? I was just appalled. People would pay up to have someone manage their C.D.O.’s—as if this moron was helping you. I thought, You prick, you don’t give a fuck about the investors in this thing.”


“Then he said something that blew my mind,” Eisman tells me. “He says, ‘I love guys like you who short my market. Without you, I don’t have anything to buy.’ ”


That’s when Eisman finally got it. Here he’d been making these side bets with Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank on the fate of the BBB tranche without fully understanding why those firms were so eager to make the bets. Now he saw.


There weren’t enough Americans with shitty credit taking out loans to satisfy investors’ appetite for the end product. The firms used Eisman’s bet to synthesize more of them.


Here, then, was the difference between fantasy finance and fantasy football: When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats. But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower. The only assets backing the bonds were the side bets Eisman and others made with firms like Goldman Sachs. Eisman, in effect, was paying to Goldman the interest on a subprime mortgage. In fact, there was no mortgage at all.


“They weren’t satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn’t afford,” Eisman says. “They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over! That’s why the losses are so much greater than the loans. But that’s when I realized they needed us to keep the machine running. I was like, This is allowed?”


Bankrupt Without a Conscience

“The investment-banking industry is fucked,” Eisman had told me a few weeks earlier. “These guys are only beginning to understand how fucked they are. It’s like being a Scholastic, prior to Newton. Newton comes along, and one morning you wake up: ‘Holy shit, I’m wrong!’ ” Now Lehman Brothers had vanished, Merrill had surrendered, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were just a week away from ceasing to be investment banks. The investment banks were not just fucked; they were extinct.


He had tried a thousand times in a thousand ways to explain how screwed up the business was, and no one wanted to hear it. “That Wall Street has gone down because of this is justice,” he says. “They fucked people. They built a castle to rip people off. Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience.”


A friend of mine created the first mortgage derivative in 1986, a year after we left the Salomon Brothers trading program. (“The problem isn’t the tools,” he likes to say. “It’s who is using the tools. Derivatives are like guns.”)


Salomon CEO Speaks

John Gutfreund [CEO of Salomon Brothers] had been forced to resign from Salomon Brothers and fallen on harder times. I heard later that a few years ago he’d sat on a panel about Wall Street at Columbia Business School. When his turn came to speak, he advised students to find something more meaningful to do with their lives. As he began to describe his career, he broke down and wept.

He thought the cause of the financial crisis was “simple. Greed on both sides—greed of investors and the greed of the bankers.” I thought it was more complicated. Greed on Wall Street was a given—almost an obligation. The problem was the system of incentives that channeled the greed.


John Gutfreund did violence to the Wall Street social order—and got himself dubbed the King of Wall Street—when he turned Salomon Brothers from a private partnership into Wall Street’s first public corporation.


He and the other partners not only made a quick killing; they transferred the ultimate financial risk from themselves to their shareholders. It didn’t, in the end, make a great deal of sense for the shareholders. (A share of Salomon Brothers purchased when I arrived on the trading floor, in 1986, at a then market price of $42, would be worth 2.26 shares of Citigroup today—market value: $27.) But it made fantastic sense for the investment bankers.


The shareholders who financed the risks had no real understanding of what the risk takers were doing, and as the risk-taking grew ever more complex, their understanding diminished. The moment Salomon Brothers demonstrated the potential gains to be had by the investment bank as public corporation, the psychological foundations of Wall Street shifted from trust to blind faith.


No investment bank owned by its employees would have levered itself 35 to 1 or bought and held $50 billion in mezzanine C.D.O.’s. I doubt any partnership would have sought to game the rating agencies or leap into bed with loan sharks or even allow mezzanine C.D.O.’s to be sold to its customers. The hoped-for short-term gain would not have justified the long-term hit.


Gutfreund agreed that the main effect of turning a partnership into a corporation was to transfer the financial risk to the shareholders. “When things go wrong, it’s their problem,” he said—and obviously not theirs alone. When a Wall Street investment bank screwed up badly enough, its risks became the problem of the U.S. government. “It’s laissez-faire until you get in deep shit,” he said, with a half chuckle.


[If you enjoyed this please read the entire articles at their original source. They have much more detail than the pieces cut out here.]

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