Wednesday, October 05, 2011

So little, too late.

Three years ago, it all fell apart. A decade of borrowing and greed finally culminated in the collapse of Wall Street, and it has taken three years for any visible protests to bubble to the surface. Occupy Wall Street, as they call themselves, is just now making it onto the news.

How is it that after Americans have watched their retirement savings disappear, after a 31% decline in housing values and an estimated $7 trillion of lost assets on the balance sheets of American homeowners, only a couple of hundred people manage to show up and protest what Wall Street power and arrogance has done to America, and how little has been done to exact retribution on behalf of a bewildered nation.

One casualty of our political wars has been the absolute loss of accountability for the excesses and the collapse. Reasonable regulation of the financial sector has long since given way to the imperative of political fundraising. During the Clinton years, Democrats gleefully won over Wall Street money—traditionally a Republican entitlement—as the Rubin-Summers cabal trampled thoughtful opposition and engineered the 1999 and 2000 laws that loosened regulation of financial services and gave the green light to unchecked derivatives trading. Today, Republicans have won back Wall Street’s affections through their opposition to the Dodd-Frank regulation, while disingenuously trumpeting to the world that they oppose too-big-to-fail.

The simple fact is that through unbridled financial largesse—the financial services sector was unmatched in its level of political contributions over the past decade—concentration of power and market share in the financial industry has continued to grow, even as little has been done to alleviate the risk of future financial crises.

Few across the political landscape would actually let our large banks fail. That is not a political argument or observation, it is simply a fact of the world that we live in. Since 2008, as our major financial institutions became insolvent, our Government has bent over backward to assure that the public’s money was poured onto the balance sheets of the private banks. While TARP has become the piƱata for the right, that program’s $700 billion authorization paled beside the $16 trillion in loans made by the Federal Reserve Bank—to American and foreign banks alike—to sustain the liquidity of the global financial system.

In another era—perhaps on another planet—insolvent banks would be allowed to fail. Their assets would be sold off, depositors in insured accounts would be protected, and bank bondholders and equity holders would lose out. It was called capitalism. The paramount responsibility of investors was to assess risk and make investments. Those who were astute evaluators of risk would do well. Those who were not, would not. It was the way it was supposed to be. And the benefit to society was an efficient allocation of capital and economic growth.

Not so today. Barely 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall—the supposed triumph of the capitalist west—capitalism has been reduced to a shell of its former self. In today’s world, investors are protected from the risks they assume. In today’s world, the largest financial institutions are insulated from the consequences of their own worst behavior, and even in the wake of the global financial collapse engineered by their own excesses, the political parties continue to vie for their dollars—even as they continue to utter pious obeisance to such notions as accountability and responsibility. In today’s world, millions of American households lost trillions of dollars of equity in their homes as values collapsed, while at the same time the Federal Government has engineered the restoration of trillions of dollars of bank capital in the name of restoring confidence in the financial system.

Last week, London-based trader Alessio Rastani stunned the world by pronouncing that he prays for another recession. “As a human being,” Rastani pronounced, “I don’t want a recession, but as a trader it creates good conditions to make money.” Anyone who has been paying attention might have noticed that traders tend to find ways to benefit from the world's ills, yet for some reason, Mr. Rastini’s comments were deemed to be news.

Last month, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was excoriated for publishing oil trading data from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission that detailed the trades of leading Wall Street firms that participated in the speculative trading frenzy that pushed oil prices through the roof in advance of the 2008 election. Sanders was derided by industry figures for actions that would “have a chilling effect on derivatives trading in the U.S.” and the ensuing news stories focused on whether Sanders had broken any laws, while largely ignoring that the data Sanders released confirmed what had previously only been conjecture: It was Wall Street traders rather than Chinese demand and other market forces that led to the spike in energy prices in 2007-08, which drained American checkbooks and dominated the early debate in the run-up to the 2008 presidential primaries.

In our digital world, Occupy Wall Street’s protests have been rendered quaint. The earnest youth chanting slogans are an artifact of decades past as they hunker down in lower Manhattan. They seem to miss the point that Wall Street is no longer a physical place, but has ascended into metaphor. Wall Street is no longer the buildings that line Wall and Broad, or even the gleaming new Goldman Sachs edifice across the way. Rather, it is the mind set of banks and hedge funds, the traders and derivatives architects, that seek competitive advantage and lucre as they move from one target to the next where a windfall might be had, with little or no regard for the havoc and destruction that increasingly lie in their wake.

For months we have followed the morality play of Greece, a nation and a people that must be brought to their knees for their willful profligacy in order to protect the balance sheets of the European banks that have been the major buyers of Greek debt. Now, the story line has evolved, it is about Contagion, a public health metaphor that aptly labels the seriousness of the risk, while at the same time seemingly suggesting an unknown cause. This week, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Italy by three notches, from the pristine Aa2 to the pedestrian A. Unlike the Greece saga, this downgrade did not suggest poor fiscal management on Italy’s part—indeed, Italy is a country that heretofore has balanced its budgets—rather, Moody’s action reflected its fear that “financial market shocks” could undermine Italy’s fiscal position.

So we have come full circle. Once, as in the case of Greece, it was poor fiscal management that led to deteriorating financial position and ultimately drew traders like sharks smelling blood in the water. But now, as Moody's highlighted in its downgrade of Italy, it is the financial assault itself that Moody's suggests would undermine the ability of a major global power to manage its fiscal affairs.

Financial market shocks. Contagion. These are not natural phenomenon, but the cumulative actions of an industry run amok, an industry now preying upon the world that that has nurtured its growth.

Early on in the financial crisis, we debated the question of moral hazard and the consequence that if we did not let banks fail, bad behavior would be rewarded. But we are way past that stage. Now, the greater risk is understood to be the interconnectedness of each bank to the others. This is the lesson we took from Lehman Brothers and AIG: Where once failure was important to the effective functioning of capitalism, now it is deemed to be unacceptable. The global financial system is now an organic whole, daisy chains of hundreds of trillions of dollars of linked derivatives that could come tumbling down and crater the world financial system if even one major bank were to be held accountable for its own financial and risk management decisions.

It has been three years, and what have we learned? Perilously little.

Nothing that Mr. Rastani said should have surprised anyone. As Moody's made clear this week, the continuing, unfettered conduct of Wall Street now directly threatens the stability of major industrial countries. It has undermined the core principles of our economic system and corrupted our democracy. The question facing Occupy Wall Street is whether anyone in America is paying attention anymore.

No comments: