The Global Financial Crisis was preceded and facilitated by the most costly, inequitable and destructive examples of public policy vandalism done in the name of economic reform. It was also attended by the most egregious regulatory and compliance oversight failure and criminal fraud in the financial sector – an unholy trinity of nonfeasance, misfeasance and malfeasance – ever perpetrated on Americans. Yet as Greg Maybury reports, it’s still business as usual on the ‘Street’.
An article by Greg Maybury
Heads We Win, Tails You Lose
Karl Marx once said capitalism contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. We might further riff on his ‘seminal’ allusion by speculating that it’s on Wall Street where those “seeds” are being genetically modified. Like their counterparts in the globalised agribusiness and food industry, the folks engineering the metaphorical modifications in the financial sector appear to have little idea, and even less interest in or concern for, how their reckless jiggery-pokery with the commonsensical order of things might play out down the mountain.
Again to name-check Marx, the Gangbanksters of Grab-it-All Street are akin to ‘sorcerers…. [who are] no longer able to control the powers of the nether world…[they] have called up by [their] spells’, whilst remaining increasingly at pains to preserve the illusion ‘business as usual’ is a good thing for all. Yet although they long ago lost any battle upholding the fantasy they have anyone else’s interests at heart but their own, this has yet to reflect itself in sustained, widespread discontent in the heartland, certainly not enough to effect the change that might come close to proving Marx wrong.
There are any number of reasons why we need to continue holding the blowtorch to the belly of Street mob, not least because of their ongoing fraudulent and reckless practices, their continuing resistance to meaningful reform measures, and with systemic risk being greater than as it ever was. Moreover, with the next presidential race looming and the U.S. economy still teetering, there’ll doubtless be many folks – those who have not quite given up the ghost on the American Dream – hanging out for some serious, long-term solutions to an economic malaise that at least might help restore a measure of faith in said Dream. But as the saying goes, ‘good luck with that’; the quadrennial ‘game of thrones’ that is the presidential election promises much but delivers little. Barack Obama is living, breathing proof of that. The best they can hope for is that the U.S. economy doesn’t experience another near extinction level event.
When it comes to depicting the Gangbanksters’ game, in his recent book The Racket: A Rogue Reporter vs the Masters of the Universe Matt Kennard, investigative journalist and former Financial Times staff writer doesn’t pull his punches. After condemning the American financial and corporate elites for growing fat “from looting abroad”, he says the same “white-collar mobsters” have been [fighting and] winning a war against the people of the U.S., describing it as “a massive, underhand con”. As it is Kennard is just ‘tuning up’, drawing more compelling, yet unsettling parallels with how the monetarist economic ideologies have played out both in the American heartland and indeed across the rest of the world:
“They have slowly but surely managed to sell off much of what the American people used to own under the guise of various fraudulent ideologies such as the “free market”. This is the “American way”, a giant swindle, a grand hustle. In this sense, the victims of the racket are not just in Port-au-Prince and Baghdad; they are also in Chicago and New York. The same people that devise the myths about what we do abroad have also built up a similar ideological system that legitimizes theft at home; theft from the poorest, by the richest.”
For his part James Petras, after noting in a recent piece titled “Pillage and Class Polarization: The Rise of ‘Criminal Capitalism’”, [that] US employees faced the “greatest jump in income inequalities” over the past decade, observed that “profits, as a percentage of national income”, have increased significantly. Further, the lion’s share of this increase in income and profits went “to….the banks and investment houses” of Wall Street; in fact they “increased at a faster rate than any other sector of the US economy.” Along with observing the polar opposite trends, Petras’ key point goes like this:
“…[T]he employee-finance capitalist polarization is the direct result of the grand success of the trillion dollar financial swindles, the tax payer-funded trillion dollar bailouts of the crooked bankers, and the illegal bank manipulation of interest rates. These uncorrected and unpunished crimes have driven up the costs of living and producing for employees and their employers.”
In order to come to grips with the state of play for average working- and middle-class Americans twenty-five odd years after Ronald Reagan rode into the sunset, some hard-core context and perspective is apposite. For many folks who’ve spent time probing the issues arising from the GFC and more broadly those to do with the modern global economy, Reagan’s election in 1980 is the closest garrison point to which we must return if we are looking at battling the anomalies and iniquities that corrode not just the capitalist edifice, but democracy itself. That said, whilst many of capitalism’s less ardent admirers might welcome its demise, the so-called free market – the cornerstone of its edifice – will not go quietly into that good might. The “racket” is too damn good.
To the extent that free-market capitalism co-existed or was perceived to be synonymous with liberty, democracy, freedom, egalitarianism and opportunity of access to the American Dream prior to the 1980s, since Reagan rebooted the U.S. economy with his Milton Friedman-inspired neo-liberal economic policies, such deeply and widely held tenets became wholly owned and controlled subsidiaries of capitalism, with the aspirations inherent in them held hostage to the increasingly unregulated free market, no longer as achievable or accessible because the playing field was no longer level. Reagan’s belief that the private sector, private enterprise, low taxes for the wealthy, and the profit motive is the answer to America’s problems was to have an extraordinary impact not only on how domestic and foreign policy was developed; it became the primary foundation of economic policy in general, and particularly that which affected how America’s financial sector operated.
One of several mantras that defined “Reaganomics” – that of the so-called trickle down effect aka the ‘rising tide that would lift all boats’ – was decidedly more a torrent than a trickle, and said “torrent” was going up not down. Now whilst this was not clearly spelled out in Reagan’s glossy economic brochure, some folks still argue he truly believed that letting the bulls run free would actually benefit everyone. Others less kind might say it was because he got his prepositions confused. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion the Old Hoofer in the best PT Barnum tradition played carny-barker to the masses, with the “masses” buying the ‘every child player wins a prize’ shill en masse.
In any event it culminated in a free-for-all, dog eat dog, everyman for himself form of anarcho-capitalism – an updated, much improved version of the no-holds-barred mercenary mercantilism much reminiscent of the Gilded Age, only one that doesn’t just eat its young, it eventually eats itself! Via the main pillars of neoliberalism, the Wall Street money mongrels assumed even greater control over the workings of the financial system than they had since the onset of the Great Depression, itself a direct outcome of uninhibited laissez-faire policies that facilitated rampant systemic fraud, economic opportunism and market manipulation. From that time onwards they and their successors, heirs and descendants have effectively written the rules of the game everyone has to play.
That this reality is even more evident now is axiomatic for all but the most ignorant, partisan, arrogant or deluded. These institutions – Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, CitiBank, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and others – are all run by avaricious, amoral uber-executives, who make the infamous Robber Barons of the Gilded Age look like blood descendants of the Good Samaritan. They – in an unholy alliance with the corporate plutocracy – blithely buy and sell everyone from political candidates to party power brokers, think-tank heads, senior academics, regulators, lobbyists, lawyers, [to] members of Congress and yes, presidents even, as if they were acquiring a brand new, perfectly tailored suit. They are the ultimate welfare recipients of the socio-economic zeitgeist; they add nothing and take everything.
And folks are all but lining up to let them repeat history. Why? Because secretly deep down they like being penetrated up the ‘patootie’ and having the lifeblood sucked out of their respective and collective jugulars? One hopes for the majority of Americans that scenario is not their first preference – or worse still – their only option. But at present and for the foreseeable future it might just as well be the case. As indicated, today – seven years after the biggest economic implosion since the Great Depression – the Gangbanksters are more powerful and influential than ever, the carnage ushered in by their malignant greed and Mephistophelean mendacity all but a fading memory. They are also unrepentant, evidenced as much by their recidivism as by their pathological resistance to greater transparency, accountability and control, highlighted once again by one of redoubtable Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi’s more recent exposes.
A Trillion Dollars Here, a Trillion Dollars There
Taibbi of course is a man known for his pitiless excoriations of the ‘Gangbanksters’; he once memorably described Goldman Sachs as a “a giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Yet whilst Goldman might be the Monsanto of Wall Street, it has not cornered the market on avarice, deception, market manipulation and criminal fraud. For example, he also had a lot to say about the foreign currencies and interest rates rigging scandal which involved CitiGroup and JPMC in the U.S., and Barclays (who incidentally took over the remnants of the mortally wounded Lehman Bros. in the wake of the meltdown) and the Royal Bank of Scotland in the U.K., all of whom pleaded guilty to conspiring to manipulate the price of U.S. dollars and euros in the $5 trillion (yes, trillion) Forex spot market. The Swiss giant UBS pleaded guilty for its role in manipulating the standard rate that some of the world’s banking behemoths charge each other for short-term inter-bank loans, the so-called LIBOR benchmark interest rate.
No individual senior bank executives of these banks were charged – much less jailed – with criminal offences as part of the out-of-court settlements.
And whilst on the subject of trillions, in order to prepare ourselves for what follows, we should pause here to get our heads around exactly what one trillion dollars might look and feel like. For a deeper conceptual and graphical appreciation thereof, readers are encouraged to go to this link; this one short video animation is worth a trillion words. Even in denominations of single ‘Benjamins’, as the animation vividly demos it amounts to Wal-Mart warehouse-sized amounts of ‘moolah’. It is here that indelible sound bite from former US senator Everett Dirksen comes to mind, to wit: ‘a trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there, and pretty soon we’re talking serious money’!
Now let’s keep this animation in mind so we all might begin to get a true ‘optic’ on how much taxpayers’ money it took to keep the Good Ship America afloat. According to Pam and Russ Martens of Wall Street on Parade, over thirteen trillion dollars has been pumped into the financial system since 2008! This represents almost twenty times more than the original Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) had allocated for the rescue. To put that rescue figure into perspective, the notional value of the US economy (its annual output/GDP) is approximately seventeen ‘trill’ – give or take a trill – so the bailout represented about seventy five per cent of this amount! And when we are talking about ‘giving or taking a trillion’, we know we are definitely not in Kansas anymore! An even more alarming consideration is America’s current national debt – now over $18.25 ‘trill’ and counting!
And here’s an angle worth pondering. At the time of the introduction of the Obamacare bill into Congress in 2009, just over one trillion dollars was estimated to be the cost of launching and maintaining a universal health care system that would have provided coverage for up to fifty million Americans for ten years. And yet from the Congress to the Heartland, and from Wall Street to K Street, immeasurably more collective angst was evident over how much the Affordable Health Care Act was supposedly going to cost America than there was over how much it was actually costing Americans to bail out the too big to nail bankers. This is one helluva “go figure” mo’ to be sure!
Moreover, although fewer in number, the big Wall Street banks still standing are now almost twenty-five per cent larger than they were pre-crisis. The top six hold more than $US10 trillion dollars in assets, about sixty-three per cent of total output of the US economy, up from 43 per cent 7 years ago. If that doesn’t provide a taste for anyone interested of the astronomical influence, access and power that comes with either having such income, wealth and assets or being ‘in the same room’ with those that do, the following should do it. One firm alone (JPMC) is said to hold upwards of $US19 ‘trill’ in custodial assets for its clients. Along with highlighting the real costs of rescuing Wall Street, the Martens in the same piece also point to the fact that the Street folks are still seeking, with commendable chutzpah one might add, further assistance from Uncle Sam and his hapless heartland minions!
Yet even here the above numbers pale when we look at the shadow banking system (SBS; aka the ‘dark markets’), in particular the so-called ‘over-the-counter’ derivatives market. These hair-trigger dirty bombs of the system are less an accident and more a catastrophe waiting to happen, and the GFC merely gave us a taster of what’s to come if they aren’t properly regulated. They include the notorious Credit Default Swaps (CDS) and Collateralised Debt Obligations (CDO’s) that were at the heart of the GFC. It is at this point we have to conceptualise amounts of money that almost call for the use of scientific notation to represent numerically. Whilst estimates vary as to how much ‘money’ floats around the dark markets, the quantity by some accounts is truly, truly staggering: Anywhere between US700 trillion to 1.5 quadrillion dollars, the upper amount roughly 100 times the size or value of the US economy (GDP), or again roughly 50 times the value of the global economy! Yet no-one really knows, presumably because no-one can count that high!
Another Crisis (In the Heartland)
In his post-mortem of the GFC, “Crisis in the Heartland – Consequences of the New Wall Street System”, Peter Gowan gets to the heart of the matter in a way that it seems few do or have done since the meltdown. Gowan proposes nothing less than a program for an alternative public-utility credit system, and an international financial and monetary system under national-multilateral co-operative control, both propositions that would have the long-since departed Jekyll Island conspiratorial cabal that concocted the Federal Reserve System in 1913 spinning furiously in their mausoleums.
Moreover, after noting that the structure and dynamics of Wall Street began changing dramatically from the mid-1980s onwards, Gowan then identified the main features of what he calls the “New Wall Street System”, which themselves proved to be, individually and collectively, major catalysts for the onset of the Crash. These included (the):
- rise of the lender-trader model;
- speculative arbitrage and asset-price bubble-blowing;
- drive for maximizing leverage and balance-sheet expansion;
- rise of the shadow banking system and associated ‘financial innovations’;
- salience of the money markets & their transformation into funders of speculative (bubble) trading; and
- new centrality of credit derivatives.
Gowan says these changes mutually re-enforced each other, forming an “integrated and complex whole, which then disintegrated in the course of 2008.” He explains each of these features in turn, and in doing so we get some idea of how out of control and unstable the new “System” had become. As a case in point, contrary to popular belief the so-called housing bubble was not the sole or main cause of the resulting credit crunch after it burst. The property bubble was more of a symptom of the underlying fault lines in the new system; in any event, as Gowan states clearly, after noting the ample evidence the Wall Street banks “quite deliberately” planned the house-price bubble, they then,
“…spent billions of dollars on advertising campaigns to persuade Americans to increase their mortgage related debt. Citigroup ran a billion-dollar campaign with the theme ‘Live Richly’ in the 1990s, designed to get home owners to take out second mortgages to spend on whatever they liked. Other banks acted in a similar fashion, with a great deal of success: second mortgage debt climbed to over $1 trillion in a decade.”
One also wonders to what extent the conditions that gave rise to the housing bubble were knowingly manufactured and sustained for so long by the banks, policy makers, legislators and regulators. As noted, for those that still had a job and a reasonable income – a not insignificant qualifier here – it is an undisputed reality that real, if not actual, take home earnings (and therefore purchasing power) for most American Dreamers had at best remained stagnant throughout the period Gowan has identified, whilst corporate earnings and executive salaries had enjoyed unprecedented growth, much of it at the expense of jobs themselves and/or reduced incomes and wages. For those that didn’t have a full-time secure job or were on low incomes, the only way to access the Dream was via the sub-prime route. And once folks bought into the sub-prime American Dream and watched the value of their houses rising as the bubble got bigger, in response to seeing their real and actual take home earnings falling over the same period and after being lulled into a false sense of financial security, they then hocked themselves via further debt to maintain the fantasy of never ending prosperity. Keeping up with the Joneses’ had never been a more expensive or precarious endeavour, with Middle America increasingly assuming all the mythical, mystical aura of Middle Earth!
If You’re not Cheating, You’re not Trying
In that 20+ year lead up to the GFC then, it seems safe to conclude the following then. Never before have so many of the already wealthy few elites accumulated so much additional wealth they didn’t need, had not earned and therefore didn’t deserve, at the expense of so many others who could least afford it. Never before have so many ordinary folk been conned, then shafted so slowly, so inexorably and so unwittingly, by so few for so much for so long and with such dire consequences and lasting impact. And never before have these “few” been aided and abetted by the negligence, incompetence and/or complicity of so many others who should have known better; [who] turned a blind eye and deaf ear; [who] were in on the game and/or getting a cut of the action in some way, shape or form; [who] should have done a hell of a lot more to prevent it; whose very job and civic duty required them to take effective remedial action; and who have never been held to account for their own actions and inactions, or for their crimes of omission or commission.
This was also a period punctuated and characterized by some of the most shameless, unrepentantly flagrant and fraudulent scams in America’s and anyone else’s history, none of which show any signs of abating anytime soon. As the Martens chronicle in a recent piece on the LIBOR case mentioned earlier, UBS actually drafted a manual for traders, teaching them how to manipulate Libor to benefit trading positions of the firm. The Martens also reported on the prevailing motto in financial services: “If you aint cheating, you aint trying,” a trader’s chat room mantra revealed in the recent FOREX charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department.
And whilst it also ushered in a period of unprecedented economic instability, uncertainty, chaos and fraud, for those who were willing to see it for what it represented, it also brought into sharp relief the existing inequality and socio-economic divide in the Land of Opportunity — indeed, across the Western world — and created a scenario where that socio-economic disadvantage and insecurity will become even more pronounced over time. And the more pronounced it has become, so too does it become more entrenched and accepted as the norm.
Of course when the reality of the GFC became apparent, a very large cohort of life-members of the free marketeers club had to face their putative worst nightmare – unholy government intervention in the holy markets. Which is to say, all this from a bunch of folks whose once inviolable mantra was that the markets could, would, or should always sort themselves out when things go pear-shaped, and that government should just get out of the way and stay out. It would take a cold, cold heart indeed to not feel any empathy for the ‘poor’ sods when said “reality” did hit home, and that such “intervention” on a massive, unprecedented scale was their only option in order to stave off financial Armageddon, one that bears repeating, was of their own making.
In the fallout from the Trainwreck of ’08 then, there was and continues to be much righteous indignation, hand-wringing, finger-pointing, existential angst and ardent analysis and reflection by all and sundry about everything from why it wasn’t foreseen, how it could get so bad so quickly, who might be held accountable, how it might have been prevented, and what should be done to avoid it in the future. Doubtless such considerations will continue to be part of the narrative of the next election campaign.
When Obama was elected, there were plenty of folks who rightly anticipated that he’d address some if not all of these questions, his election win attributable in no small part to this expectation. Yet as indicated, in the mold of Bush 2, Clinton and Bush 1 before him, Obama has turned out to be nothing more than just another White House ‘bank bitch’, to employ the popular vernacular. The evidence for this is irrefutable, some of it cited earlier with the abject failure and/or unwillingness of the US Justice Department under the incumbent to prosecute and jail some of these individuals, both for crimes committed before and since the GFC.
In his 2011 book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, Ron Suskind relates a story that amply illustrates Obama’s response to addressing the issues arising from the crisis. The freshly minted president called a meeting of the top Wall Street players at the White House, to which they came fully expecting the president to ‘chop them up’ big-time. Yet the president had already positioned himself as their guardian and virtual champion. Instead of standing up for the folks who’d been adversely affected most by the crisis – without whom he would never have made it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. – Obama sided with those who’d precipitated the collapse.
Here’s how Suskind retells Obama’s pitch to the money moguls at this pivotal meeting:
“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”
Astonishingly, according to Suskind, one of the bankers told the author [that],
“The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”
Paul Street, in a recent piece in Counterpunch, underscores Obama’s true allegiances by reference to his zeal in pushing – in a rare and unholy alliance between the White House and Congressional Republicans – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. Such deals have proven themselves time and again not to be in the best interests of ordinary Americans. After noting that labor unions, environmental groups, food safety activists, civil libertarians, civil rights groups, and a good number of Congressional Democrats know that [it is] “all manipulative business propaganda….[that] the [TPP] isn’t really about trade or improved standards”, he says:
“The real thrust and significance of the TPP is about strengthening corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights…..and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards, something certain to discourage the enactment and enforce of such standards.”
In the Land of Bilk ‘n Money
The American Dream has long over promised and under delivered; this is not a new revelation for those of us inclined to look beyond what the MSM and the powers that be tell us to look at and what we should be grateful for. The GFC brought this reality home big-time. It was the end result of a Ponzi scheme to top all such schemes, facilitated amongst other factors by a mad scramble by every president from Reagan onwards to dismantle the legislative and regulatory foundations of the financial system, [to] privatize, outsource and/or downsize everything that quacked like it was owned, funded and/or administered by government, and find new and innovative ways to tip the scales in favour of the banks, the corporations and the wealthy one percent at the expense of those populating the Great American Heartland.
As for the GFC and its aftermath, the bad news at this point may be that there’s no end in sight. If there’s any ‘good’ news, it may only be because we can’t see that far. And the fatal flaw of the deranged, deluded, dangerous deregulators may have been that they had convinced themselves they were smarter than the rest of us, [they] could see ‘that far’ and because of [that] we didn’t need to even try. And their fatal flaw it seems may have become for us more so than them, a highly regrettable and, up until at least a few years before the Crash, utterly avoidable fate.
As for the Gangbanksters, in the final analysis they weren’t too big to fail after all; as we all know they did so in spectacular style. But it seems in the final wash-up, unlike the hapless Bernie Madoff – whose scam only affected a relatively small number of players and involved a minuscule amount of money – a lot of Bernie’s former partners-in-crime on the Street were just too big to jail. The GFC adversely affected just about everyone in the heartland, with the exception of the ‘perps’ themselves, their direct beneficiaries and their accomplices, and all the other ‘chancers’ who correctly identified a once in a lifetime, ‘step right up’ opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of their fellow Americans, their economy, their country, their own precious national security, to say nothing of the rest of the planet.
Come to think of it, when it comes to global, existential and/or national security threats, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Harum et. al. ain’t got nothin’ on these guys!