Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Juan Williams firing

It's one thing to be honest about your feelings regarding Muslims in public and then admit that something internally needs to be done to address this self-proclaimed bigotry. That is perfectly human and understandable.

But to be honest about those feelings and then use that in a justifying sort of way (i.e., y'know, I'm a black man who is obviously not a bigot, but I think Muslims are scary and we should be okay with that) is an entirely different thing. That is admitting your bigotry and saying that that is something reasonable and acceptable in our society. That kind of admission in front of millions of Fox viewers is not only unhelpful in the growing tension between Christians and Muslims, but completely destructive.

Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald also document the glaring hypocrisy of Juan Williams in the light of a speech he made in 1986 regarding racism against black men in NYC by jewelry store owners. He said the following:
Neither black nor white store owners are in business to display the virtues of admitting people of all colors, creeds, and fashions to their stores. They are in business to make money. I would want to take precautions to prevent robbery; I would look closely at people entering the store. The race of a potential customer would be one factor among many to be considered as I girded myself against thieves.
But in Washington and almost all other major cities, blacks do patronize jewelry stores. A jeweler in Beverly Hills who closed his door to heavily bejeweled Mr. T would be foolishly closing his cash register. Unless I am a racist, race and age cannot be the sole deciding factorsin calculating whom I will and will not let into my store. And I certainly would not close my door to, say, all young black men - not even to those who are casually dressed and behaving nervously. I would act cautiously in dealing with them, as I would with an antic, strangely dressed white man.
As a cabdriver I would apply the same considerations. Discrimination can be used judiciously. I would certainly exclude one class of people: those who struck me as dangerous. Nervous-looking people with bulges under their jackets would not be picked up; nor would those who looked obviously drunk or stoned. It all comes down to a subjective judgment of what dangerous people look like. This does not necessarily entail a racial judgment. Cabdrivers who don't pick up young black men as a rule are making a poorly informed decision. Racism is a lazy man's substitute for using good judgment.
The elevator question is disingenuous. I suspect you are suggesting that I am a white woman getting into an apartment building elevator with a strange black man. Of course, black women have just as much to fear as white women. Nevertheless, black women living in black neighborhoods ride elevators with black men frequently, and do so without being raped. In this situation and all others, common sense is my constant guard. Common sense becomes racism when skin color becomes a formula for figuring out who is a danger to me.
How could he possibly justify that statement with the one he just made on Fox News about Muslims? How?

P.S. Also, I highly recommend this very eloquent defense of NPR by Jim Fallows against the recent brutal attack (led by Fox) in the wake of the Williams firing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Progressive taxes = Redistribution of wealth?

Here's an interesting quote from James Kwak today:
Most people think that a progressive tax system is redistributive. I’m not sure. The issue is who you think benefits more from government spending–the rich or the poor. The conventional answer is that the poor do, because they get “handouts.” But imagine a world without government. Who would lose more? Assuredly the rich, who would no longer have the armed forces, the police, and the courts (and the FDIC) to protect their property. I guess you could have a private security market, but how could you maintain, say, a financial system where most of your wealth is bits on a computer somewhere without a government to back it up?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The "Trust Us" Presidency...same as it ever was

I am truly at my wit's end with our President. I fully admit that I was "hopeful" in voting for him a year and a half ago. I never considered myself "ga-ga" over the guy, but I was very excited at the prospect of having a presumably intelligent President who would surround himself with the best and brightest minds to tackle the toughest challenges that America has faced in many years.

In this post, I want to concentrate on a broad area on which he has, by any objective measure, completely failed to live up to his promises: civil liberties.

First, a quick thought on the term. It's really unfortunate that the term "civil liberties" has been turned upside down to mean something only a far-left nutjob would ever want to strongly and vocally defend (as the ACLU bashers love to do). But part of me is optimistic with the recent rise of libertarianism, which in full really means civil libertarianism. To see how weird this has become, just consider the word "liberty". Nobody would ever not defend that beautiful and profound word. You'll even see it on the signs of a vast majority of the Tea Partiers. Yet, when you put in front of it the word "civil", it all of a sudden turns Soviet Red to some people. It hasn't always been this way.

The cause of this rift in semantics seems pretty clear to me. There are some who only think Liberty applies to certain upstanding people. Those liberties of those upstanding people should be defended at all costs from all the evildoers of the world whether they be government or private entities. During the African-American civil rights era, these upstanding people were whites. Blacks didn't really deserve liberty, they argued. And it was really easy for people to divide the upstanding people from the non-upstanding people; just look at the color of their skin. We have obviously made leaps-and-bounds on racism issues since then but today we have a new division.

Today, these upstanding people are anyone who is not a terrorist. That sounds pretty reasonable. Terrorists are bad people, right? They don't deserve to have liberty because they are murderers who use fear to accomplish some sort of political goal. But who exactly is a terrorist? (What does terrorism even mean?) How would you recognize one so that you could make the conscious decision of limiting their liberty? I think when the word "terrorist" is mentioned, most of us conjure up images of something similar to the Libyans chasing Marty McFly in their VW bus with a bazooka pointed out the pop-top. But life, unfortunately, is not Hollywood. It turns out that as much as people like to think they know how to "spot a terrorist", it isn't as easy as just looking at someone's skin, is it?

But it doesn't necessarily matter who we think is a terrorist. More importantly, it matters who the military, intelligence, and law enforcement sectors of our government think is a terrorist. If they say someone is a terrorist, then they are a terrorist, right? Well, apparently more than a few people in this country believe that. And the crazy thing is that these apparently trusting people don't trust government any further than they can throw it on nearly every other issue! How strange. So what should a civilized society do?

Well, it turns out that we have a fail-safe for exactly these types of situations built into our form of government: the justice system. Fantastic! The fundamental tenet of the justice system is to sift through the evidence to determine whether or not people are who they are accused to be and to safeguard the civil liberties of all people under the control of the U.S. government (Yes, that means it can apply to non-citizens as well). But what happens when the traditional justice system isn't used in terrorist cases?...Welcome to the post-9/11 world and the era of the "War on Terror".

A favorite argument against using the justice system for suspected terrorists is that we are "at war" with terrorists. It is not appropriate to inject those with whom we are at war into the justice system because there's a non-zero chance that a real terrorist could be let free due to lack of evidence or some procedural error. They say that we are better off just playing it safe and detaining suspected terrorists (i.e., eliminating their liberty and keeping them far away from the justice system) indefinitely for the length of the war.

This type of argument has been made before in past wars. We surely do not want to put our prisoners-of-war into some courtroom (even though it's pretty obvious that they could be found guilty of some wrongdoing) because of the possibility of letting them go and re-engaging our troops on a battlefied. This has led to a very rigorous framework for how to handle prisoners-of-war that is the basis of the UN Geneva Conventions. But how does this situation apply to the "War on Terror", a war with a battlefield that encompasses every habitable place on Earth and with no conceivable way of formally ending the conflict with some sort of peace treaty or resolution? What we have today and what we have been dealing with for the last 9 years is a whole different animal.

The Bush administration essentially told us to Trust Them: "We know who the terrorists are and we will protect you from them." So they tortured and indefinitely detained suspected terrorists to keep us safe. But as it turns out, they picked up a lot of people who turned out to be completely innocent. The biggest reason for this was the enormous bounties being given to Afghan people who could produce "terrorists". Of course, someone would be able to produce a "terrorist" out of thin air if they were promised enough money to feed their starving family for a year. The bottom line is that we were scared after 9/11 and we flexed our muscle way too much. And in the process we extended the dragnet way too wide and picked up perfectly innocent people. But we never acknowledged it and instead tried our damnedest to extract whatever scraps of intelligence these people had (or could fabricate under the stress of torture) all in order to keep ourselves safe. (Quick note: I use "we" here because we should claim responsibility for the actions of those we elect)

So what, specifically, has President Obama done to continue this same set of horrifying policies? Here's a list that I have slowly been adding to over the last several weeks:

  1. Not defending and actually investigating lawyers who admirably chose to counsel suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay. Doesn't anyone recall the time when another admirable person defended a bunch of hugely unpopular defendants accused of barbarism?
  2. Attacking government whistle-blowers in the intelligence community for trying to expose these terrible policies and practices.
  3. Actively fighting against habeas corpus reviews of detainees at Bagram prison even though the Supreme Court ruled against the exact same circumstance for Guantanamo detainees.
  4. Ordering the explicit assassination of a U.S. citizen without any due process.
  5. Developing a "legal" framework to indefinitely detain suspected "dangerous" terrorists. This is incredibly damaging. This would institutionalize and make bipartisan the policy of indefinite detention.
  6. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Obama's strategy is using rhetoric to distance himself from the Bush doctrine of American exceptionalism but turning 180 degrees around when actually implementing policy and action. At least with Bush, we knew what we were getting because rhetoric was largely consistent with action.
  7. Continuing to detain people in Guantanamo in the face of enormous evidence of their innocence.
  8. Actively fighting against allowing Canadian citizen Maher Arar a day in court to address his claims of being tortured in Syria through the extraordinary rendition program.

My point with this list is to illustrate a wide-reaching and consistent stance by the Obama administration of effectively continuing the policies of the Bush era. While there are some glimmers of hope (like eliminating some torture techniques and writing pretty rhetoric in policy statements), this is still the same old stuff.

So what are the consequences of this type of behavior that completely ignores the justice system exactly at the time when it is most needed? I would consider two types: practical and moral (and they're inescapably linked) We have become a nation that is hated by so many people across the world because of the hypocritical combination of our beautiful rhetoric FOR liberty and freedom and our ugly actions AGAINST the same. It's the people who have been marginalized and alienated directly by our political decisions who become the new terrorists who then feel impelled to blow up scores of troops and innocent civilians in far away places. We have become less safe as a consequence of decisions that were made (albeit with good intentions sometimes) in the name of making us more safe. There will always be those with unyielding political views that we simply cannot get to come around no matter how principled and moral we behave; but it's those that are "on the fence" that we truly can negatively impact when we enact such horrifying and backward policies as our indefinite detention (and torture) system.

And on the moral question, I'm going to end with a quote from Kevin Drum specifically about torture but the same could be said about our indefinite detention policy as well:

I don't care about the Geneva Conventions or U.S. law.  I don't care about the difference between torture and "harsh treatment."  I don't care about the difference between uniformed combatants and terrorists.  I don't care whether it "works."  I oppose torture regardless of the current state of the law; I oppose even moderate abuse of helpless detainees; I oppose abuse of criminal suspects and religious heretics as much as I oppose it during wartime; and I oppose it even if it produces useful information.
The whole point of civilization is as much moral advancement as it is physical and technological advancement.  But that moral progress comes slowly and very, very tenuously.  In the United States alone, it took centuries to decide that slavery was evil, that children shouldn't be allowed to work 12-hour days on power looms, and that police shouldn't be allowed to beat confessions out of suspects.
On other things there's no consensus yet.  Like it or not, we still make war, and so does the rest of the world.  But at least until recently, there was a consensus that torture is wrong.  Full stop.  It was the practice of tyrants and barbarians.  But like all moral progress, the consensus on torture is tenuous, and the only way to hold on to it — the only way to expand it — is by insisting absolutely and without exception that we not allow ourselves to backslide.  Human nature being what it is — savage, vengeful, and tribal — the temptations are just too great.  Small exceptions will inevitably grow into big ones, big ones into routine ones, and the progress of centuries is undone in an eyeblink.
Somebody else could explain this better than me.  But the consensus against torture is one of our civilization's few unqualified moral advances, and it's a consensus won only after centuries of horror and brutality.  We just can't lose it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Humbling Experience of Being Wrong

From Felix Salmon today:
The forced retirement of Helen Thomas is further proof, if any were needed, that it’s still unacceptable, in public discourse, to be wrong in one’s opinions. I find that sad.
Thomas gave voice to an opinion which she then, almost immediately, retracted; no one, in thesubsequent debate, defended the substance of her remarks. She was wrong; everybody, including Thomas, agrees on that point, and no real harm was done to anyone but Thomas when the video of her remarks surfaced.
But if you turn out to be wrong, even temporarily, even only once, on a hot-button issue, that’s enough for effective excommunication from polite society. That, to me, is chilling: I’d much rather live in a world where people should be able to change their minds and should be allowed to be wrong on occasion. For surely we are all wrong, much more often than we like to think.
This morning, I had an interesting conversation with Christopher Hitchens, who’s in town plugging his memoir. He professed to be a man of few beliefs, political or otherwise: “my only commitment is to a group of skeptics who are not sure of anything,” he said. But when I asked him what he wasn’t sure about, he started talking about galaxy formation, of all things. He said that “my greatest delight is being proved right in my own lifetime”, and said that he couldn’t think of the last time that he was wrong about anything. In other words, he’s highly skeptical of others, but utterly incapable of interrogating his own opinions with the same kind of approach.
Hitchens, in other words, would make an atrociously bad trader. He has the cocky-and-arrogant bit down, to be sure — in order to beat the market you have to think that you’re smarter than the market. But you also have to be incredibly insecure, willing to change your mind and your opinions very quickly.
At the beginning of the conversation, Hitchens expressed a certain amount of intellectual pleasure in noting that the statement “Christopher Hitchens is dead” is false now, but will be true in the future. But that’s trivial. When it comes to the opinions he expresses in his columns and books, he’s much less willing to admit that any of them are anything but certainly and timelessly true.
I try hard to believe the opposite: that many if not most of my opinions are wrong (although of course I have no idea which they are), and that many of the most interesting and useful things I write come out of my being wrong rather than being right. This is not, as Wilkinson noted to Cowen, an easy intellectual stance to hold: he calls it “a weird violation of the actual computational constraints of the human mind”.
But I think it’s undoubtedly worth working on, and, as I say, I think it’s one which is more common in women than in men. And I think it’s a serious weakness of Hitchens’ that he places so much importance on his being right. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Goldman Sachs hearings missed the point - PART 5

Okay...sorry for another extended delay. It's been difficult knowing when to jump into the mix here when the financial reform package was still being hashed out. It has now passed the Senate and will be molded together with the House bill in the next few weeks. But before I talk about that at all...let's discuss this issue of 'Too Big To Fail'.

As I mentioned in the last post, I see two major categories for reform: 1) Increasing the transparency of financial transactions from the credit-card consumer-level to the hedge fund-level, and 2) breaking up the "Too-Big-To-Fail" banks. In my mind, both are absolutely critical and one is nearly useless without the other.

I know the phrase 'Too Big To Fail' has been thrown around A LOT lately (almost to the point of becoming cliché) but what exactly does it mean? Again, let's go to my current favorite book (13 Bankers):
Certain financial institutions are so big, or so interconnected, or otherwise so important to the financial system that they cannot be allowed to go into an uncontrolled bankruptcy; defaulting on their obligations will create significant market losses for other financial institutions, at a minimum sowing chaos in the markets and potentially triggering a domino effect that causes the entire system to come crashing down.
No one in their right mind would ever argue for the existence of financial institutions that are Too Big To Fail. Fixing this problem was the rallying cry from nearly everyone in the financial world (both financiers and regulators) at the time of the near-collapse in late 2008. The reason that everyone appeared on the same side was because the problem caused by Too Big To Fail institutions was such a blatant affront to the very foundation of the free market that no one in their right mind would argue for their existence. And the consequences of bailing out Too Big To Fail banks was clear as day to everyone in late 2008: the mega-banks get the benefits of all of the risks that they took over the preceding years and the taxpayer bears the enormous cost of these risks once they exploded. It is privatized gains and socialized losses. Essentially...if you think Obama's health reform plan was socialistic, then this is even at another level beyond that (at least in a socialistic system, the taxpayer gets the gains as well as the losses).

And once an institution realizes that they are Too Big To Fail, they now have the perverse incentive to take more risks because they are implicitly backed by the federal government. This gives them an enormous competitive advantage over smaller banks who do not have this implicit government backstop. It is completely unfair and antithetical to everything that capitalism stands for.

One of the big rallying cries of the right during the financial reform debate has been to get rid of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government-supported entities that create liquidity in the housing market). And I completely agree with that argument for the reasons I discussed above. Fannie and Freddie are Too Big To Fail. But in order to stay intellectually consistent, those same people who argue for the dissolution of Fannie and Freddie should also be for breaking up the mega-banks for the exact same reason. Essentially, Fannie and Freddie are explicitly backed by the federal government and the mega-banks are implicitly backed by the federal government. There is zero difference when it comes to their power to corrupt our economic system.

This is why this is so frustrating. This should not be a left vs right issue. This is clearly not an example of the free market working as planned. But those against reform are buying the completely bogus piece of propaganda from those interested in keeping the status quo: "This is a government takeover of the financial sector!" Good sweet Lord...it's just amazing to see and hear the financial sector make this argument. The mega-banks have been holding the American government and taxpayers hostage for years and they are the ones crying about being taken over? Give me a friggin' break.

Another way to address the Too Big To Fail issue is through a re-implementation of the Glass-Steagal Act which was enacted during the Great Depression in 1933 to formally separate the plain-vanilla commercial banks (like the one where you have your checking or savings account) from the speculative and inherently riskier investment banks. The idea is to have the safer commercial banks backed up by the federal government [through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)] to protect against a bank run and conversely have the riskier investment banks not backed up by the government. However, this perfectly reasonable separation provision was quietly repealed back in 1999 as the market for complex financial products was just starting to go into full swing.

Along the same lines, another proposal is to eliminate proprietary trading, which is when banks use their own money for trading financial products to gain profit as opposed to using their customers money. This is better known as the Volcker Rule. More details can be found here.

So why do we need hard and clear rules on the size and type of banks instead of just relying on regulations?

Banks will inevitably find loopholes and ways to have their activities exempted because of their enormous and unrelenting power over the political world. If you don't believe me, just look up the source of campaign contributions for nearly every politician with any significant say in financial legislation. That's one of the benefits to running a Too Big To Fail firm; you have lots and lots of money just lying around to pay lobbyists to push legislators to do just about anything in order to fund increasingly expensive re-election campaigns. This political power is also quite potent with the regulators (known as regulatory capture). All in all, it has really turned our political-economic system into something more resembling an oligarchy.

So the only way to play ball with the mega-banks is to implement clear and decisive rules that would essentially break them up into smaller less politically powerful institutions.

But what about the argument that we need big banks to compete in an international market full of other enormous banks? Well, it turns out that, yes, we are not the only country with enormous financial institutions. Some countries have banks that are better dubbed Too Big To Bailout (this is part of the reason that Europe is in their current economic crisis). But even with that admission, there is still no credible evidence to suggest that we (as a country and as players in the market) need Too Big To Fail financial institutions. The megabanks are currently at such a bloated size that the usual economies of scale no longer apply. They really only got uber-huge (relative to GDP) in the last 15 years and back then they could still compete quite well. Also take this argument from Simon Johnson:
Even the biggest nonfinancial companies do not, under any circumstances, want to buy all their financial services from one megabank.  They like to spread the business around, to use different banks that are good at different things in different places – in part to prevent any one bank from having a hold over them.  Playing your suppliers off against each other to some degree is always a good idea.
There is just no evidence for having these megabanks around. They are enormous liabilities!

Okay, so what about the financial reform package? Well, I think I'll save more of a discussion on it after it passes both houses but things do not look all that great. It is still largely a technocratic fix...i.e., they really are only addressing the regulation side of things and nothing really structural (e.g., the size of banks...Too Big To Fail). I'm afraid that we really missed a huge political opportunity in early 2009. Some of the new rules will surely help but we are still poised for another situation where a future President decides between two awful choices: A) another massive bail-out of Too Big To Fail banks or B) collapse of the financial system leading to another Great Depression.
UPDATE: Just so everyone is clear on what exactly a megabank is, Johnson and Kwak would like to start with a limit of 4% of GDP for all banks and 2% of GDP for investment banks. That would make the following banks "mega-banks" and definitely Too Big To Fail:

  • Bank of America (16% of GDP)
  • JPMorgan Chase (14%)
  • Citigroup (13%)
  • Wells Fargo (9%)
  • Goldman Sachs (6%)
  • Morgan Stanley (5%)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Goldman Sachs hearings missed the point - PART 4

Sorry for the delay. I have waited to finish these last few posts on the financial crisis (for a while at least) until I finished the book 13 Bankers. And by the way, I just cannot possibly recommend it more to those interested and willing to take the plunge head-first down the rabbit-hole that is our broken financial system. It is a fascinating and well-written book by some really brilliant guys.

Okay...so here's a short, convenient summation of what I went through in the last 3 parts (quoted from 13 Bankers):
The end result was a gigantic housing bubble propped up by a mountain of debt - debt that could not be repaid if housing prices started to fall, since many borrowers could not make their payments out of their ordinary income. Before the crisis hit, however, the mortgage lenders and Wall Street banks fed off a giant moneymaking machine in which mortgages were originated by mortgage brokers and passed along an assembly line through lenders, investment banks, and CDOs to investors, with each intermediate entity taking out fees along the way and no one thinking he bore any of the risk. 
So, as we all know, the bubble did end up bursting and today we are continuously faced with the consequences in the form of high unemployment, cuts in government services, etc. But you might ask yourself...didn't we learn our lesson? Well, I wish that I could say 'yes' but I'm afraid we, as a country, are not even close to learning the larger lessons of this crisis.

The way the current financial system is structured, a future president (regardless of ideology or party) will inevitably look over the edge into a dark abyss of economic chaos and face the same decision that the Bush administration faced in the fall of 2008 after an asset bubble burst (this last time it was housing, the time before it was dot-com's, the next time...who knows?):
  • let the mega-banks fail and cause a banking crisis that would lead to another Great Depression (many, many times worse than the current economic recession) OR 
  • pledge an enormous amount of taxpayer money to bail out the mega-banks.
Both of these ideas are horribly unsustainable. Another Great Depression would dramatically change the world's economic status. It would be absolutely devastating. Another Huge Bailout for banks would funnel more money away from taxpayers to the financial elite plus it would dramatically increase the government's debt burden (with the worst consequences experienced by future generations). So that's why we cannot let this moment just pass and say 'Boy...that was close...we sure did learn our lesson...that shouldn't ever happen again.'

We have not truly come to grips with this crisis as a country. Those that are unemployed or otherwise severely affected by this recession are undoubtedly hurting and very interested in solutions but, as a whole, we are poised to repeat this mistake again. (See this new data on the decrease in the savings rate for a taste of this idea). More people need to be told about how close we came to plunging into a Great Depression...how the commercial paper market (the short-term loans that companies depend on to cover payroll) momentarily froze in September 2008 (the This American Life episode on this is great...the very first story beautifully explains the commercial paper market). This is all poised to happen again.

Alright...splendid. What to do? Now...on to the actual financial reform ideas.

I think it's easiest to just break it up into two basic strategies: 1) Increasing the transparency of financial transactions from the credit-card consumer-level to the hedge fund-level, and 2) breaking up the "Too-Big-To-Fail" banks.

#1: Increasing transparency of financial transactions

A fundamental assumption of a fully-functional capitalist market system is that everyone has the correct information available to them and then they use that information appropriately and efficiently to make a "correct" economic decision. But the critical lesson of the crisis is that this assumption is totally bunk. People are irrational and information is conveniently and strategically hidden from those who are being duped.

This has been happening at all levels of the financial system but most people are much more familiar with the credit-card side of things. I think most of us would agree that credit card companies have become exceptionally good at deceiving people into high interest loans and charging for hidden fees. This has got to stop. But it's not at the heart of the crisis.

The other side of the system is where the huge problem is...in that maze of crazy acronyms that is the complex financial products for the "sophisticated" investors; a market that became a house of cards, which then imploded to trigger the meltdown. While greed was definitely a primary driver on both sides of each transaction, lack of information was surely another. As was argued recently, it is clear that some people knew much more about the complexities (and associated risks) of these financial instruments than others. Firms like Goldman Sachs manufactured these products, had contact with the individual lenders that fed into the products, and were able to "negotiate" (i.e., pay for) good ratings from the agencies responsible for assessing these products. Therefore, they are at a distinct advantage when compared with the average (even sophisticated) investor.

Some people will just say "buyer beware" and trying to fix a problem like this with government regulation would be equivalent to a nanny state but I think this is a case where overly deceptive (and sometimes illegal as we are seeing with Goldman and JPMorgan) practices are hurting the overall machinery of the economy more than helping.

That gets me to my main point here, as wonderfully summarized (again) by 13 Bankers:
The core function of finance is financial intermediation - moving money from a place where it is not currently needed to a place where it is needed. The key questions for any financial innovation are whether it increases financial intermediation and whether that is a good thing. 
I think it can be argued that these deceptive practices and overly complex products do not do anything to move money from a place where it is not currently needed to a place where it is needed (think greasing the gears of the economy). We are no better off as an economy because of these practices/products. It is squarely the opposite...our economy is much, much more susceptible to disaster as a consequence of them.

So I would recommend increasing regulations on the complex financial products (derivatives) market to increase transparency. The assumption of abundant information is so incredibly important in this market because of the enormous risks that get compounded and correlated together with each new bet on the same set of assets.

Currently, the proposal that claims to deal with exactly these types of regulations would be in the form of the recently proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency. While I realize that another huge bureaucratic regulatory agency is rarely a good solution to anything, what else would you propose we do in the light of what I just discussed?

Okay, I have rambled on for too long again...I will save the Too-Big-To-Fail issue for next time.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Goldman Sachs hearings missed the point - PART 3

Okay...now that we have that little bit of background behind us, what about those hearings last week?

So Goldman Sachs was charged with committing fraud in the course of selling a synthetic, synthetic CDO to a group of investors that consisted of the German bank, IKB and which also led to a lot of money lost by the Royal Bank of Scotland (through, yet another big insurance deal/bet). The complex product was called ABACUS and it was put together by the "Fabulous Fab" at Goldman Sachs along with the close advice of a big-time hedge fund manager, John Paulson, who also, it turns out, was "shorting" (betting against) the synthetic, synthetic CDO. The SEC alleges that the company that originally packaged up the synthetic, synthetic CDO (their name is ACA) thought that John Paulson was on the long side of the bet...not the short side. Hence, Goldman Sachs was at fault for knowingly avoiding to clear up this misunderstanding with ACA and committing fraud in the process. Clear as mud, eh? (Try this timeline for a full rundown of this case)

But as I said in the opening post...the Senate committee really missed the point here. They didn't argue about the specifics of the fraud charge. Instead, they focused on the fact that Goldman Sachs was also on the short side of many of these mortgage-backed securities and other financial products that were implicitly backed by the mortgages of ordinary Americans. The senators emphasized that Goldman Sachs was essentially "betting against the American dream" and that's why they are such cruel people. In addition, they lambasted them for betting against the very products that they were selling to their investor clients. But as this great post from the Economist's Democracy in America blog points out, that's a pretty ridiculous thing to scold them over:

It's important to distinguish between the SEC allegations and the allegations being aired in Congress, which I believe some senators are intentionally trying to confuse. The SEC is alleging that Goldman broke the law in a very specific way. Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times explains, "Rather than asserting that Goldman misrepresented a product it was selling, the most commonly used grounds for securities fraud, the Securities and Exchange Commission said in a civil suit filed Friday that the investment bank misled customers about how that product was created. It is the rough equivalent of asserting that an antiques dealer lied about the provenance, but not the quality, of an old table." That type of misrepresentation or misleading is illegal, no doubt about it. On the other hand, the accusations emanating from Congress—that Goldman took the opposite side of its clients' bets on the housing market—are certainly not. As we say in our leader on the subject, "the idea of willing counterparties, with full and accurate disclosure, each seeking to profit from the other's inferior grasp, is central to financial markets."
This may not seem like an important clarification—in the eyes of many, the story of Goldman during the crisis is already written and the firm acted unethically whether it broke the law or not. That was certainly the mood on Capitol Hill yesterday. But at least consider the following. In his opening statement Mr Levin asked whether Goldman's actions in 2007 were "appropriate", not whether they were lawful. If we agree with him that Goldman's actions were indeed inappropriate, but also lawful, what does that say about the politicians who were tasked with making the laws?

So yes, the Senate committee did reveal the Goldman Sachs executives as exceedingly greedy people but what they did was largely within the confines of a very loose regulatory structure within the financial system...a structure that was created and supported by the very same body of government that was apparently scolding them for making incredible amounts of money only because of how that system was structured.

It's true that some of what Goldman Sachs allegedly did in the ABACUS deal (the center of the fraud charge) was truly illegal (willfully misleading their client into thinking that another big-time investor was actually betting on the same side as them when in fact that big-time investor, John Paulson, was on the opposite side of the bet and hand-picking the risky pools of mortgage-backed securities). For that they should definitely be brought in front of a court.

The whole point that I am trying to get at is that it is much easier for a government official to remedy a situation where a party committed an illegal act...you put them on trial and hope to find them guilty. But it's far more difficult for a government official to remedy a situation where a party committed an "inappropriate" act. The only way to remedy that situation in the financial industry is to change the regulations so that you make an "inappropriate" act against the rules (i.e., you get a big fine if you break them).

So that's where we are now...back to the question of government regulation...the dicey area where we are headed in Part 4. We will actually look at some of the elements of financial reform that include more regulations. What do you think should be the role of government in this situation?