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(Tranche Town Rock) You reap what you sow


Via Susie. Just go read; it's all about how infestment banking really worked, by the author of Liars Poker. It's long, but it's real reporting that will help you frame what you read in Bloomberg every day. These paragraphs caught my eye:

The funny thing, looking back on it, is how long it took for even someone who predicted the disaster to grasp its root causes. They were learning about this on the fly, shorting the bonds and then trying to figure out what they had done. Eisman knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA.

But he couldn’t figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. “I didn’t understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold,” he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. “We always asked the same question,” says Eisman. “Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.” He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. “They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,” Eisman says.
... This was Moody’s, the aristocrats of the rating business, 20 percent owned by Warren Buffett.

And this:

John Gutfreund did violence to the Wall Street social order—and got himself dubbed the King of Wall Street—when he turned Salomon Brothers from a private partnership into Wall Street’s first public corporation. ... He and the other partners not only made a quick killing; they transferred the ultimate financial risk from themselves to their shareholders. It didn’t, in the end, make a great deal of sense for the shareholders. (A share of Salomon Brothers purchased when I arrived on the trading floor, in 1986, at a then market price of $42, would be worth 2.26 shares of Citigroup today—market value: $27.) But it made fantastic sense for the investment bankers.

From that moment, though, the Wall Street firm became a black box. The shareholders who financed the risks had no real understanding of what the risk takers were doing, and as the risk-taking grew ever more complex, their understanding diminished. The moment Salomon Brothers demonstrated the potential gains to be had by the investment bank as public corporation, the psychological foundations of Wall Street shifted from trust to blind faith.

No investment bank owned by its employees would have levered itself 35 to 1 or bought and held $50 billion in mezzanine C.D.O.’s. I doubt any partnership would have sought to game the rating agencies or leap into bed with loan sharks or even allow mezzanine C.D.O.’s to be sold to its customers. The hoped-for short-term gain would not have justified the long-term hit.

Now I asked Gutfreund about his biggest decision. “Yes,” he said. “They—the heads of the other Wall Street firms—all said what an awful thing it was to go public and how could you do such a thing. But when the temptation arose, they all gave in to it.” He agreed that the main effect of turning a partnership into a corporation was to transfer the financial risk to the shareholders. “When things go wrong, it’s their problem,” he said—and obviously not theirs alone. When a Wall Street investment bank screwed up badly enough, its risks became the problem of the U.S. government. “It’s laissez-faire until you get in deep shit,” he said, with a half chuckle. He was out of the game.

It was now all someone else’s fault.

So, it's Versailles that shat the bed. And they're forcing us to lie in it while they keep eating candy. Or, more exactly, while Hank Paulson gives them more of our money so they can keep on eating candy.

Plus ça change..

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herb the verb's picture
Submitted by herb the verb on

Despite the dearth of comments on your economic blogs, this is more important even than health care. If you can't eat, it doesn't matter what your health is: you die.

The problem is it is so damnably confusing (by design!) and boring (by design!) that few are attracted to its shiny lights.

For your consideration, a concept I'm coming to grips with:
We've had the "death" of each of the following: communism, socialism, racism, sexism (double hah!), unionism, classism. Are we now witnessing the death of free-market capitalism (or even capitalism itself?)?

After all, capitalism is still just a theory, which according even to it's most radical adherents has hardly been given a chance. But it has been given more of a chance than any other "ism". Is there an new "ism" that will take the place of all of the above failures? An old ism? Maybe even one so old we will need to reinvent it?

I wish I knew the answer to these questions!

BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

This entire piece by Michael Lewis is worth reading. And it's quite entertaining in a "watch a train wreck" kind of way.