"It is easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked out in your favor."
- Tyrion Lannister

"Lannister. Baratheon. Stark. Tyrell. They're all just spokes on a wheel. This one's on top, then that's ones on top and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. I'm not going to stop the wheel. I'm going to break the wheel."

- Daenerys Targaryen

"The Lord of Light wants his enemies burned. The Drowned God wants them drowned. Why are all the gods such vicious cunts? Where's the God of Tits and Wine?"

- Tyrion Lannister

"The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are."

- Jorah Mormont

"These bad people are what I'm good at. Out talking them. Out thinking them."

- Tyrion Lannister

"What happened? I think fundamentals were trumped by mechanics and, to a lesser extent, by demographics."

- Michael Barone

"If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to."
- Dorothy Parker

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Great American Bubble Machine by Matt Taibbi

Taibbi mentions Time magazine's Dewey Defeats Truman cover:
It became almost a national cliche that whatever Rubin thought was best for the economy - a phenomenon that reached its apex in 1999, when Rubin appeared on the cover of Time with his Treasury deputy, Larry Summers, and Fed chief Alan Greenspan under the headline THE COMMITTEE TO SAVE THE WORLD.
Interesting that Time takes the time to critcize the piece:
"The [Rolling Stone] article makes a very compelling case against Goldman Sachs, but I think the problems it identifies are pervasive in financial firms and corporate America in general," says Nell Minow, who is the co-founder of the Corporate Library, a research firm that tracks corporate-governance issues. "We need to launch substantive financial reform rather than weighing the faults of one firm versus another." Minow's point is this: spend too much time on Goldman and you miss the fact of how broadly the financial system and the regulations that are supposed to keep profiteers in check failed us. And she's right.
Taibbi responds:
I had to read that passage several times to even begin to grasp its ostensible meaning. Apparently this is the best argument that Time could come up with to discredit this article, that the rhetorical technique of using a specific example of a specific bank like Goldman to tell a broader story about Wall Street in general distracts readers from the "more important" issue of how government regulators... failed to stop banks like Goldman! I mean, really, how’s that for circular thinking? This is silly stuff even by Time magazine’s standards.

I’ve been shocked by how many grown adult people seem to have swallowed this argument, that the argument against Goldman's behavior during the bubbles of recent decades is invalid because "everyone was doing it" - and other banks, like for instance Morgan Stanley, were "just as bad" as Goldman was.

Two things about that. One, it isn't true, not really. By any reasonable measure Goldman is and has been the baddest guy on the block for a long time. When it comes to government influence, no other Wall Street company even comes close. And while maybe one might have made an argument that other players were more damaging to society before the crisis of last year, there's simply no question now, after the bailouts and especially after the AIG fiasco, that Goldman now reigns supreme in the area of insider advantage. To pick any other bank to tell the story of the rapidly growing influence of Wall Street on politics and the blurring of public and private roles would be a glaring journalistic oversight, and surely even Goldman’s biggest supporters would admit this.

Two, even if it is true that "everyone else was doing it": so what? Who cares? To me this response is highly telling. We published a piece accusing Goldman Sachs of systematically ripping off pensioners and other retail investors by sticking them with rafts of toxic mortgages it knew were losers, of looting taxpayer reserves to cover its bad bets made with AIG, of manipulating gas prices to massive detrimental effect, of helping to explode an internet bubble that caused over $5 trillion in wealth to disappear, and numerous other crimes - and the response isn't "You're wrong," or "We didn't do that shit, not us," but "Well, Morgan did the same stuff," and "Why aren't you writing about Morgan?"

Why didn't we write about Morgan? Because we didn't. Because it's your turn, you assholes. Maybe later someone will tell the story of the other banks, but for now, while most ordinary people are only just learning about the workings of the financial innovation era that blew up in their faces last year, the top dog in that universe is going to be first in line to get the special treatment. That might be inconvenient for Goldman, but it doesn’t make the things I or anyone else say about them untrue.

Normally I don't care so much when people criticize my work. It goes with the territory. But in this case, the response of a bank like Goldman and Goldman's supporters is characteristic of the subject matter in a way that is important to point out, even after the fact of publication. These are powerful people who know how to play the public relations game, have all the appropriate contacts, and have a playbook that they follow to discredit their critics. Whether it's me now or the next guy who takes them on, they're going to come back with some kind of charge, be it "Everyone was doing it," or "We're just smarter than the other guys, you can't blame us for that," or "The real culprits are the ineffective regulators," something.
As much as I agree with Taibbi, I don't blame Obama for bringing on Geithner and Larry Summers in the midst of a crisis. They know the ropes and have been doing and saying the right things since the crisis hit. And ultimately Obama is in charge. That's politics: Goldman and Wall Street will try to mitigate the backlash - and they have plenty of cash and influence in their arsenal - but at the end of the day, they're "too big to fail" and essential to the economy. It's a dance with the devil.

And it should be noted Goldman Sachs tends to lean towards the Democrats and Taibbi is libertarian in a vaguely conservative manner. He fails to mention the Republican's raison d'etre: less government, less regulation, and a jihad against campaign finance reform. It was the conservative policy agenda that enabled the collapse. At least Taibbi didn't blame Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And he is quite correct to highlight the Clintonoid's culpability:
A report that year by the Government Accountability Office recommended that such financial instruments be tightly regulated - and in 1998, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a woman named Brooksley Born, agreed. That May, she circulated a letter to business leaders and the Clinton administration suggesting that banks be required to provide greater disclosure in derivatives trades, and maintain reserves to cushion against losses.

More regulation wasn't exactly what Goldman had in mind. "The banks go crazy - they want it stopped," says Michael Greenberger, who worked for Born as director of trading and markets at the CFTC and is now a law professor at the University of Maryland. "Greenspan, Summers, Rubin and [SEC chief Arthur] Levitt want it stopped."

Clinton's reigning economic foursome - "especially Rubin," according to Greenberger - called Born in for a meeting and pleaded their case. She refused to back down, however, and continued to push for more regulation of the derivatives. Then, in June 1998, Rubin went public to denounce her move, eventually recommending that Congress strip the CFTC of its regulatory authority. In 2000, on its last day in session, Congress passed the now-notorious Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which had been inserted into an 1l,000-page spending bill at the last minute, with almost no debate on the floor of the Senate. Banks were now free to trade default swaps with impunity.

Monday, July 06, 2009