By Pam Martens: February 8, 2010
I think it’s time to take Wall Street literally. The titans of finance have made it abundantly clear they have an insatiable appetite for killing things: the housing market, the financial system, the economy, reform legislation, the next generation’s future.
Wall Street is so steeped in destruction that the symbols of death are everywhere. Wall Street calls the big newspaper ads they take out to herald the launch of their market offerings a “tombstone.” (To understand how appropriate that is, consider the billions in bond and stock offerings raised for Big Tobacco.)
Wall Street calls the completion of a buy or sell order an “execution.” (Think of how many derivative trades they “executed” for the now crippled, life support patients Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG; or the off balance sheet vehicles they created for Enron, WorldCom, and dozens of now bankrupt companies.)
Wall Street calls an order to complete a trade without any reduction in quantity a “fill or kill.” This could just as reasonably be called a “fill or cancel” order but it’s so much more fun for the thundering herd to race around a trading floor screaming “kill it, kill it!”
What is the benefit to Wall Street in killing things or bringing the share price of companies to near worthless? Tails they win; heads you lose. Wall Street can and does make enormous profits on bets that share prices will decline (shorting), that companies will disappear (credit default swaps), that the economy will crater (interest rate swaps). And there’s a slogan on Wall Street: the trend is your friend. When it’s clear the bull is lying in the center of the ring (think Lehman’s death and the Merrill Lynch shotgun wedding on September 15, 2008) Wall Street moves its bets to the downside.
No one has their jive aligned with their agenda any better than Citigroup’s traders. When they set out to inflict pain on the European bond market in 2004, they labeled the trade “Dr. Evil.” Citi also created a structured finance vehicle that greased the skids for the collapse of Italian dairy giant Parmalat, dubbed Buconero, Italian for “Black Hole.”
Until a President comes along with a genuine will to deal with the truly rapacious nature of Wall Street, these destructive forces will continue.
President Obama’s latest Wall Street reform plan to bar commercial banks from owning private equity funds or hedge funds and banning proprietary trading for the benefit of their own firm constitutes needed reform toward unrigging the markets. But the proposal neglects Wall Street’s most serious threat to the economy. It’s the commercial banks’ ownership of investment banks and brokerage firms that’s killing innovation and job growth in America. The longer we wait to deal with this issue, the more the national debt will balloon as the government is forced to indefinitely add job stimulus money and sustenance funds for the growing number of unemployed.
As currently structured, Wall Street investment banks have no incentive to bring viable companies to market. Wall Street makes the same huge fees for putting lipstick on a pig and dumping it on the public as they do for launching solid companies with real job growth potential. Over the past decade, trillions of dollars of investors’ life savings have been misallocated to bogus business models. Those companies are now worthless or are trading for pennies on the Pink Sheets, the graveyard for investment banks’ misfired ideas.
The Pink Sheets provide quotes on these stocks to broker dealers. It’s not responsible for the legitimacy of the companies and, in fact, warns investors on its web site that these “are small companies with limited operating histories or are economically distressed…Investors should avoid the OTC [over the counter] market unless they can afford a complete loss of their investment.” In many cases, this is far more disclosure than licensed brokers at the “venerable” firms told their clients when the companies first went public at fat share prices.
A study done by Tyler Shumway and Vincent A. Warther for the University of Michigan Business School and University of Chicago Graduate School of Business found that between 1972 through 1995, 4,188 companies were delisted by Nasdaq, the stock exchange that facilitated the boom and bust in dotcoms and tech start ups in the late 90s. After delisting, many ended up on the Pink Sheets. In March 2000, the Nasdaq index stood at 5,048. Today, a decade later, it’s still down 58 percent from its peak.
It’s time for Congress to awaken from its long slumber regarding Wall Street’s role in killing and retarding job growth. This long-term decline in Nasdaq is telling us Wall Street is not bringing enough good companies to market. And the mergers Wall Street has put together, typically traded on the New York Stock Exchange, have created Frankenbanks and debt-laden conglomerates too bloated to figure out their own balance sheet let alone create new jobs. Two poster children come to mind: AOL-TimeWarner and Citibank-Travelers-Smith Barney-Salomon, a/k/a Citigroup.
Investment banks that arrange these initial public offerings of new companies or merge together existing ones are now located within the “too big to fail,” publicly traded commercial banks. But they used to be private partnerships and put their own money at risk when bringing a new company to market. When their own money was at risk, there was a far greater due diligence done to ensure the company would be viable. That’s gone now. There’s no incentive to be vigilant. It’s OPM: other people’s money to throw down on the casino table.
To fully understand the new structure of Wall Street, it helps to reflect back to August 1995 when the FDA told us that a cigarette was really a nicotine delivery system in drag and Big Tobacco was manipulating “nicotine delivery at each stage of production.” People were being hooked on something very harmful to their well being while a colluding industry lied and lobbied.
Insiders on Wall Street call their retail brokerage firms, now also dangerously merged with commercial banks, a “distribution” system. The investment banks create the toxic product, the brokers distribute it to the public under an enshrined carrot and stick system that is virtually identical at every major firm. That is, the internal research department puts out a buy recommendation. The brokers’ local manager holds a sales meeting and pushes the firm’s latest offerings. The brokers’ commission system dramatically favors risky products that the firm is pumping out over safer investments.
There is absolutely no system that rewards a broker for how well his clients’ portfolio performs. The broker’s ability to have secretarial help, the size of his or her office, gaining the title of Vice President on the business card, the annual bonus, even being taken out to lunch by the Branch Manager, is dependent solely on how much money the broker makes for the firm.
If you want to challenge the system as corrupt, the courthouse doors are closed to you. Wall Street enforces its own private justice system called mandatory arbitration. The public is not allowed to have a peek, after all it’s private justice, so there is no disinfecting sunshine on this cabal.
The only way a system this riddled with conflicts of interest and contempt toward its own customers’ interests could have survived this long was by grabbing that huge depositor base of money from the commercial banks and then trading it into oblivion. The newest patsy in this grand bank heist is the taxpayer who is replenishing the empty vaults.
With each new $100 billion job creation program from the government, we acknowledge that Wall Street isn’t creating companies that create jobs. According to the Labor Department, 9.3 million Americans could not find work as of January and millions more are involuntarily working part-time or too discouraged to look for work.
So if Wall Street is not properly allocating capital to viable companies, it’s not rewarding its shareholders or customers, remind me again why taxpayers are spending trillions to save it?
The February 15, 1999 cover of Time magazine lauded Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers as The Committee to Save the World. We now know this was really The Committee to Slave the World. The economic challenges the world now confronts were of their making; together, of course, with some well placed Washington and Wall Street cronies.
Greenspan has a B.S., M.A. and Ph.D. in Economics from New York University; Rubin has a B.A. in Economics from Harvard and a law degree from Yale. Summers has a B.S. from M.I.T. and a Ph.D. from Harvard. Despite these 7 degrees from some of the finest institutions of learning in the country, we are asked to believe that there was not one ounce of common sense that suggested to these men that repealing the depression era investor protection legislation known as the Glass-Steagall Act that prevented the combination of commercial banks with investment banks and brokerage firms would end up killing jobs, the financial system and the economy. (Were we not looking at men who profited greatly from that bad decision, we might be less skeptical.)
There has been this intellectual dishonesty and revisionist history suggesting no one could have seen this coming. Not only did lots of people see it coming but on June 25 and June 26, 1998 a steady stream of public-minded citizens walked through the stately doors of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and testified that repealing the Glass-Steagall Act and allowing commercial banks to merge with Wall Street firms was a preposterously bad idea and would lead to economic ruin. Why is our President turning to Summers and Rubin for advice instead of the people who got it right?
President Obama has now anointed Neal Wolin to join the New Committee to Save the World along with himself and former Fed Chair Paul Volcker. Who is Neal Wolin? He was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury on May 19, 2009.
In the Clinton administration, Wolin was general counsel to Lawrence Summers, a key proponent of repealing the Glass-Steagall Act. According to the New York Times, Mr. Summers earned $5.2 million in 2008 working one day a week for the hedge fund, D.E. Shaw & Company, while simultaneously advising Obama.
After leaving government, Wolin worked for Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. for eight years. According to BusinessWeek, if you add up Wolin’s cash compensation, restricted stock awards, options, and other compensation, he made $3.4 million his last year at Hartford in 2008.
Robert Scheer wrote the following about Wolin at the San Francisco Chronicle on November 19, 2009:
“Wolin, Geithner and Summers were all proteges of Robert Rubin, who, as Clinton’s treasury secretary, was the grand author of the strategy of freeing Wall Street firms from their Depression-era constraints. It was Wolin who, at Rubin’s behest, became a key force in drafting the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which ended the barrier between investment and commercial banks and insurance companies, thus permitting the new financial behemoths to become too big to fail. Two stunning examples of such giants that had to be rescued with public funds are Citigroup bank, where Rubin went to ‘earn’ $120 million after leaving the Clinton White House, and the Hartford Insurance Co., where Wolin landed after he left Treasury.”
Mr. President, it’s time to clear out the fat cats and deliver on that message of hope and change.
This article originally appeared at www.CounterPunch.org.