Never having to say you’re sorry

bull's eye view photo

For Wall Street, that’s what it means apparently. Torn over whether a Biden win brings joy or misery. Really.

Those with the rosier outlook point to Biden’s mostly pro-business inner circle, his significant campaign contributions from the financial industry and his longtime support of credit card companies located in his home state of Delaware. Plus, a Biden victory would likely be driven by U.S. voters seeking change because they believe the country is a mess. Wall Street thinks it has a strong argument to make that reining in lenders would be a fatal mistake when unemployment is sky-high and the economy remains ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

The enthusiasm, however, is tempered by fears over how much sway Biden will give progressives and their firebrand leaders, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. That’s especially true when it comes to picking appointees to run the powerful agencies that police banks and securities firms, jobs that the activists are mobilizing to fill with industry critics. At a minimum, progressives want to ensure that the days are long over when Democrats appointed officials like Robert Rubin, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, who is a key Biden adviser.

The stakes for Wall Street couldn’t be higher. Centrist regulators would be less likely to overturn rule rollbacks approved under Trump that have saved financial firms tens of billions of dollars. Progressive agency heads, on the other hand, could pursue what the C-suite calls the “shame and investigation agenda.” Policies like taxes on trading, curbs on executive pay and even breaking up behemoth banks would be back on the table.

To wonder whether ‘Wall Street’ has some understanding of our current morass, much less the words ‘joy’ or ‘ misery,’ is to weep. Of course they do. Always check the business press if you’re wondering at all about the soul of a consumer society. Mantra for post-2016 world: it’s always worse than you think.

Image: Replica golden calf. Subtlety is NOT their strong point.

D/B/A SIFIs

Tubman_20With some ferocity, I usually resist the impulse to delve into matters financial. But this Dr. K item on GE Capital seems both clear-cut and easy-to-understand:

Most economists, I think, believe that the rise of shadow banking had less to do with real advantages of such nonbank banks than it did with regulatory arbitrage — that is, institutions like GE Capital were all about exploiting the lack of adequate oversight. And the general view is that the 2008 crisis came about largely because regulatory evasion had reached the point where an old-fashioned wave of bank runs, albeit wearing somewhat different clothes, was once again possible.

So Dodd-Frank tries to fix the bad incentives by subjecting systemically important financial institutions — SIFIs — to greater oversight, higher capital and liquidity requirements, etc.. And sure enough, what GE is in effect saying is that if we have to compete on a level playing field, if we can’t play the moral hazard game, it’s not worth being in this business. That’s a clear demonstration that reform is having a real effect.

Bold is mine, because this is key, both to Dodd-Frank and what largely works for business in the U.S. today at the behemoth level. Orwellian language about fairness and tax burdens and putting America to work [again] is just that – all myth. The megacorps want every tactical advantage to operate as alpha predators, forcing all non-megacorp entities to use language like this to accurately describe their actions. It’s win-win, and very savvy of them. Terrible for everyone/thing else. But his little crack of light – an admission that they can’t play if those are the rules is telling, so let’s listen.

Image: will we put American heroine Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill?

Two centrist, nonpartisan organizations walk into a pension

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone brings some light to the sad, frustrating, infuriating story of how public pensions have been invited to a dinner where they are the main course:

There’s an arcane but highly disturbing twist to the practice of not paying required contributions into pension funds: The states that engage in this activity may also be committing securities fraud. Why? Because if a city or state hasn’t been making its required contributions, and this hasn’t been made plain to the ratings agencies, then that same city or state is actually concealing what in effect are massive secret loans and is actually far more broke than it is representing to investors when it goes out into the world and borrows money by issuing bonds.

Read the whole thing. Green has made (some of) us very mean.

Formidable Powers of Intervention

This is some incredibly confusing news to decipher, but given the players and subject that’s not too surprising.

The European commission underlined the negative impact of David Cameron’s summit gambit by pledging that the City’s financial institutions would be subject to new regulations hatched in Brussels.

So… the City, as it were, is England’s version of Wall Street, Charlotte and/or wherever else calls itself the center of the financial industry. Cameron evidently went to bat for it, protecting London’s sprawling financial sector from ‘excessive regulation’ at the European summit last week. He either vetoed the EU treaty or it proceeded without him. Whichever, it moves on now without the UK.

Cameron’s move isolated Britain in Europe as seldom before, producing weekend headlines and comment across Europe that the UK was on the way out of the EU.

“We want a strong and constructive Britain in Europe, and we want Britain to be at the centre of Europe, and not on the sidelines,” said Rehn. “If [Cameron’s] move was intended to prevent bankers and financial corporations in the [City of London] from being regulated, that is not going to happen. We must all draw lessons from the financial crisis, and that goes for the financial sector as well.”

It’s almost like a glimpse into the future, where industries sponsors national governments to protect their interests, couched in proprietary language that conflates the country with the industry, and makes their interests one and the same. The future, or the recent past – I can’t figure which.

Helicopter Drop

We are all the financial crisis now.

But when you have bought so much debt and created so much money that rates are near zero, the public is saturated with liquidity; from that point on, they’re holding money simply as a store of value, which makes it no different from bonds — and hence a perfect substitute for bonds. And at that point further open-market operations do nothing — they just swap one zero-interest asset for another, with no effect on anything.

So why not forget about open-market operations, and just drop the stuff from helicopters? Well, remember that at this point cash and short-term bonds are equivalent. So a helicopter drop is just like a temporary lump-sum tax cut. And we would expect people to save much or most of such a tax cut — all of it, if you believe in full Ricardian equivalence.

Ricardian equivalence refers to the suggestion that it does not matter whether a government finances its spending with debt or a tax increase, the effect on total level of demand in an economy being the same. And it doesn’t seem that we believe this at all.

Definitely difficult for the casual observer to stay out front of the forward thinking on what to do about the meltdown, especially where unemployment is the lead canary staggering out of the mine – ostensibly the easiest thing to do something about – infrastructure!

Burying billions and hiring people to dig it up would be productive, to the extent that it put money in people’s pockets, money they would then spend. But what if instead we hired people to re-build bridges, and/or faltering water and sewer systems… much less super trains.

Other People’s Green

Unlike the usual, this article being neither art nor literature and hence relieved of that kind of importance can merely be instructive. Which it is in spades.

Indefensible Men by Ives Smith:

Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society

A year on from its brush with Armageddon, the financial services industry has resumed its reckless, self-serving ways It isn’t hard to see why this has aroused simmering rage in normally complacent, pro-capitalist Main Street America. The budget commitments to salvaging the financial sector come to nearly $3 trillion, equivalent to more than $20,000 per federal income tax payer. To add insult to injury, the miscreants have also availed themselves of more welfare programs in the form of lending facilities and guarantees, totaling nearly $12 trillion, not all of which will prove to be money well spent.

Wall Street just looted the public on a massive scale. Having found this to be a wondrously lucrative exercise, it looks set to do it all over again.

These people above all were supposed to understand money, the value of it, the risks attendant with it. The industry broadly defined, even including once lowly commercial bank employees, profited handsomely as the debt bubble grew. Compensation per worker in the early 1980s was similar to that of all non-government employees. It started accelerating in 1983, and hit 181 percent of the level of private sector pay by 2007. The rewards at the top were rich indeed. The average employee at Goldman Sachs made $630,000 in 2007. That includes everyone, the receptionists, the guys in the mail room, the back office staff. Eight-figure bonuses for big producers became standard in the last cycle. And if the fourth quarter of 2009 proves as lucrative as the first three, Goldman’s bonuses for the year will exceed bubble-peak levels.

The rationale for the eye-popping rewards was simple. We lived in a Brave New World of finance, where the ability to slice, dice, repackage and sell risk led to better outcomes for all, via cheaper credit and better diversification. We have since learned that this flattering picture was a convenient cover for massive risk-taking and fraud. The industry regularly bundled complicated exposures into products and dumped them onto investors who didn’t understand them. Indeed, it has since become evident that the industry itself didn’t understand them. The supposedly sophisticated risk management techniques didn’t work so well for even the advanced practitioners, as both top investment banks and quant hedge funds hemorrhaged losses. And outside the finance arena, the wreckage is obvious: housing market plunges in the U.S., UK, Ireland, Spain, the Baltics and Australia; a steep decline in trade; a global recession with unemployment in the U.S. and elsewhere hitting highs not seen in more than 25 years, with the most accurate forecasters of the calamity intoning that the downturn will be protracted and the recovery anemic.

With economic casualties all about, thanks to baleful financial “innovations” and reckless trading bets, the tone-deafness of the former Masters of the Universe is striking. Their firms would have been reduced to sheer rubble were it not for the munificence of the taxpayer—or perhaps, more accurately, the haplessness of the official rescuers, who threw money at these players directly and indirectly, through a myriad a programs plus the brute force measure of super low interest rates, with perilous few strings attached.

Yet what is remarkable is that the widespread denunciations of excessive banking industry pay are met with incredulity and outright hostility. It’s one thing to be angry over a reversal in fortune; it’s one of the five stages of grief. But the petulance, the narcissism, the lack of any sense of proportion reveals a deep-seated pathology at work.

Exhibit A is the resignation letter of one Jake DeSantis, an executive vice president in AIG’s Financial Products unit, tendered in March 2009 as outcry over bonuses paid to executives of his firm reached a fever pitch. The New York Times ran it as an op-ed. “I am proud of everything I have done,” DeSantis wrote.

I was in no way involved in—or responsible for—the credit default swap transactions that have hamstrung A.I.G. Nor were more than a handful of the 400 current employees of A.I.G.-F.P. Most of those responsible have left the company and have conspicuously escaped the public outrage….

[W]e in the financial products unit have been betrayed by A.I.G. and are being unfairly persecuted by elected officials.…

I take this action after 11 years of dedicated, honorable service to A.I.G. … The profitability of the businesses with which I was associated clearly supported my compensation. I never received any pay resulting from the credit default swaps that are now losing so much money. I did, however, like many others here, lose a significant portion of my life savings in the form of deferred compensation invested in the capital of A.I.G.-F.P. because of those losses.

Anyone with an operating brain cell could shred the logic on display here. AIG had imploded, but unlike a normal failed business, it left a Chernobyl-scale steaming hulk that needed to be hermetically sealed at considerable cost to taxpayers. Employees of bankrupt enterprises seldom go about chest-beating that they did a good job, it was the guys down the hall who screwed up, so they therefore still deserve a fat bonus check. That line of reasoning is delusional, yet DeSantis had no perspective on it. And there is the self-righteous “honorable service,” which casts a well-paid job in the same terms as doing a tour of duty in the armed forces, and the hyperventilating: “proud,” “betrayed,” “unfairly persecuted,” “clearly supported.”

And to confirm the yawning perception gap, the letter was uniformly vilified in the Times’ comment section, but DeSantis’s colleagues gave him a standing ovation when he came to the office.

The New York press has served as an occasional outlet for this type of self-righteous venting. Some sightings from New York Magazine:

[I]f someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco…?

I’m attached to my BlackBerry. … I get calls at two in the morning. … That costs money. If they keep compensation capped, I don’t know how the deals get done.

It never seems to occur to them, as Clemenceau once said, that the graveyards are full of indispensable men. So if the cohort with glittering resumes no longer deems the pay on offer sufficiently motivating for them to get out of bed, guess what? People with less illustrious pedigrees will gladly take their places.

And the New York Times has itemized how the math of a successful banker lifestyle (kids in private school, Upper East Side co-op, summer house in Hamptons) simply doesn’t work on $500,000 a year. Of course, it omitted to point out that outsized securities industry pay was precisely what escalated the costs of what was once a mere upper-middle-class New York City lifestyle to a level most people would deem stratospheric.

Although the word “entitlement” fits, it’s been used so frequently as to have become inadequate to capture the preening self-regard, the obliviousness to the damage that high-flying finance has inflicted on the real economy, the learned blindness to vital considerations in the pay equation. Getting an education, or even hard work, does not guarantee outcomes. One of the basic precepts of finance is that of a risk-return tradeoff: high potential payoff investments come with greater downside.

But how did that evolve into the current belief system among the incumbents, that Wall Street was a sure ride, a guaranteed “heads I win, tails you lose” bet? The industry has seen substantial setbacks—the end of fixed commissions in 1975, which led to business failures and industry consolidation, followed by years of stagflation, punitive to financial assets and securities industry earnings; the aftermath of savings and loan crisis, which saw employment in mergers and acquisitions contract by 75 percent; the dot-com bust, which saw headhunters inundated with resumes of former high fliers. Those who still had jobs were grateful be employed, even if simultaneously unhappy find themselves diligently tilling soil in a drought year, certain to reap a meager harvest.

But you never heard any caviling about how awful it was to have gone, say, from making $2 or $3 million to a mere $400,000 (notice how much lower the prevailing peak numbers were in recent cycles). And if you were having trouble paying your expenses, that was clearly bad planning. Everyone knew the business was volatile. Indeed, the skimpy salaries once served as a reminder that nothing was guaranteed.

It’s long but go read the rest.