The Wall Street Scandal of all Scandals
Just when you thought Wall Street couldn’t sink any lower – when its myriad abuses of public trust have already spread a miasma of cynicism over the entire economic system, giving birth to Tea Partiers and Occupiers and all manner of conspiracy theories; when its excesses have already wrought havoc with the lives of millions of Americans, causing taxpayers to shell out billions (of which only a portion has been repaid) even as its top executives are back to making more money than ever; when its vast political power (via campaign contributions) has already eviscerated much of the Dodd-Frank law that was supposed to rein it in, including the so-called “Volker” Rule that was sold as a milder version of the old Glass-Steagall Act that used to separate investment from commercial banking – yes, just when you thought the Street had hit bottom, an even deeper level of public-be-damned greed and corruption is revealed.
Sit down and hold on to your chair.
What’s the most basic service banks provide? Borrow money and lend it out. You put your savings in a bank to hold in trust, and the bank agrees to pay you interest on it. Or you borrow money from the bank and you agree to pay the bank interest.
How is this interest rate determined? We trust that the banking system is setting today’s rate based on its best guess about the future worth of the money. And we assume that guess is based, in turn, on the cumulative market predictions of countless lenders and borrowers all over the world about the future supply and demand for the dough.
But suppose our assumption is wrong. Suppose the bankers are manipulating the interest rate so they can place bets with the money you lend or repay them – bets that will pay off big for them because they have inside information on what the market is really predicting, which they’re not sharing with you.
That would be a mammoth violation of public trust. And it would amount to a rip-off of almost cosmic proportion – trillions of dollars that you and I and other average people would otherwise have received or saved on our lending and borrowing that have been going instead to the bankers. It would make the other abuses of trust we’ve witnessed look like child’s play by comparison.
Sad to say, there’s reason to believe this has been going on, or something very much like it. This is what the emerging scandal over “Libor” (short for “London interbank offered rate”) is all about.
Libor is the benchmark for trillions of dollars of loans worldwide – mortgage loans, small-business loans, personal loans. It’s compiled by averaging the rates at which the major banks say they borrow.
So far, the scandal has been limited to Barclay’s, a big London-based bank that just paid $453 million to U.S. and British bank regulators, whose top executives have been forced to resign, and whose traders’ emails give a chilling picture of how easily they got their colleagues to rig interest rates in order to make big bucks. (Robert Diamond, Jr., the former Barclay CEO who was forced to resign, said the emails made him “physically ill” – perhaps because they so patently reveal the corruption.)
But Wall Street has almost surely been involved in the same practice, including the usual suspects — JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Bank of America – because every major bank participates in setting the Libor rate, and Barclay’s couldn’t have rigged it without their witting involvement.
In fact, Barclay’s defense has been that every major bank was fixing Libor in the same way, and for the same reason. And Barclays is “cooperating” (i.e., giving damning evidence about other big banks) with the Justice Department and other regulators in order to avoid steeper penalties or criminal prosecutions, so the fireworks have just begun.
There are really two different Libor scandals. One has to do with a period just before the financial crisis, around 2007, when Barclays and other banks submitted fake Libor rates lower than the banks’ actual borrowing costs in order to disguise how much trouble they were in. This was bad enough. Had the world known then, action might have been taken earlier to diminish the impact of the near financial meltdown of 2008.
But the other scandal is even worse. It involves a more general practice, starting around 2005 and continuing until – who knows? it might still be going on — to rig the Libor in whatever way necessary to assure the banks’ bets on derivatives would be profitable.
This is insider trading on a gigantic scale. It makes the bankers winners and the rest of us – whose money they’ve used for to make their bets – losers and chumps.
What to do about it, other than hope the Justice Department and other regulators impose stiff fines and even criminal penalties, and hold executives responsible?
When it comes to Wall Street and the financial sector in general, most of us suffer outrage fatigue combined with an overwhelming cynicism that nothing will ever be done to stop these abuses because the Street is too powerful. But that fatigue and cynicism are self-fulfilling; nothing will be done if we succumb to them.
The alternative is to be unflagging and unflinching in our demand that Glass-Steagall be reinstituted and the biggest banks be broken up. The question is whether the unfolding Libor scandal will provide enough ammunition and energy to finally get the job done.
How Wall Street Aims to Keep its Global Betting Parlor
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the main regular of derivatives (bets on bets), wants to extend Dodd-Frank regulations to the foreign branches and subsidiaries of Wall Street banks.
Horror of horrors, say the banks.
“If JPMorgan overseas operates under different rules than our foreign competitors,” warned Jamie Dimon, chair and CEO of JP Morgan, Wall Street would lose financial business to the banks of nations with fewer regulations, allowing “Deutsche Bank to make the better deal.”
This is the same Jamie Dimon who chose London as the place to make highly-risky swaps trades that have lost the firm upwards of $2 billion so far – and could leave American taxpayers holding the bag if JPMorgan’s exposure to tottering European banks gets much worse.
Dimon’s foreign affair is itself proof that unless the overseas operations of Wall Street banks are covered by U.S. regulations, giant banks like JPMorgan will just move more of their betting abroad – hiding their wildly-risky bets overseas so U.S. regulators can’t control them. Even now no one knows how badly JPMorgan or any other Wall Street bank will be shaken if major banks in Spain or elsewhere in Europe go down.
Call it the Dimon loophole.
This is the same Jamie Dimon, by the way, who at a financial conference a year ago told Fed chief Ben Bernanke there was no longer any reason to crack down on Wall Street. “Most of the bad actors are gone,” he said. “[O]ff-balance-sheet businesses are virtually obliterated, … money market funds are far more transparent” and “most very exotic derivatives are gone.”
One advantage of being a huge Wall Street bank is you get bailed out by the federal government when you make dumb bets. Another is you can choose where around the world to make the dumb bets, thereby dodging U.S. regulations. It’s a win-win.
Wall Street would like to keep it that way.
For two years now, squadrons of Wall Street lawyers and lobbyists have been pressing the Treasury, Comptroller of the Currency, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, SEC, and the Fed to go easier on the Street for fear that if regulations are too tight, the big banks will be less competitive internationally.
Translated: They’ll move more of their business to London and Frankfurt, where regulations are looser.
Meanwhile, the Street has been warning Europeans that if their financial regulations are too tight, the big banks will move more of their business to the US, where regulations will (they hope) be looser.
After the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (a global financial regulatory oversight body) came up with a new set of rules to toughen bank capital and liquidity requirements, European officials threatened to get even tougher. They approved a new system of European regulatory bodies with added powers to ban certain financial products or activities in times of market stress.
This prompted Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, to issue — in the words of the Financial Times — “a clear warning that the bank could shift its operations around the world if the regulatory crackdown becomes too tough.”
Blankfein told a European financial conference that while Europe remains of vital importance to Goldman, with less than half of the bank’s business now generated in the U.S., the introduction of “mismatched regulation” across different regions (that is, tougher regulations in Europe than in the U.S.) would tempt banks to search out the cheapest and least intrusive jurisdiction in which to operate.
“Operations can be moved globally and capital can be accessed globally,” he warned.
Someone should remind Dimon and Blankfein that a few years ago they and their colleagues on the Street almost eviscerated the American economy, and that of much of the rest of the world. The Street’s antics required a giant taxpayer-funded bailout. Most Americans are still living with the results, as are millions of Europeans.
Wall Street can’t have it both ways – too big to fail, and also able to make wild bets anywhere around the world.
If Wall Street banks demand a free rein overseas, the least we should demand is they be broken up here.