Matt Taibbi says Goldman Sachs destroying America's economy to enrich itself

Matt Taibbi’s latest — an all-out assault on Goldman Sachs in Rolling Stone titled “The Great American Bubble Machine” — is an absolute must-read. RollingStone.com has only an excerpt, but I found the entire article here.

It’s a long article and starts slowly, so I suggest starting with “Bubble 2: Tech Stocks.”

Reading the last two-thirds of the article, my jaw kept dropping. Scandal after scandal seemingly orchestrated by Goldman Sachs for Goldman Sachs and the government — largely run by Goldmanites — doing nothing. Brief excerpts from the long, Pulitzer-worthy article:

Tech Stock Pump-and-Dump:

Companies that weren’t much more than pot-fueled ideas scrawled on napkins by up-too-late bong-smokers were taken public via IPOs, hyped in the media and sold to the public for megamillions. It was as if banks like Goldman were wrapping ribbons around watermelons, tossing them out 50-story windows and opening the phones for bids. In this game you were a winner only if you took your money out before the melon hit the pavement.

It sounds obvious now, but what the average investor didn’t know at the time was that the banks had changed the rules of the game, making the deals look better than they actually were. They did this by setting up what was, in reality, a two-tiered investment system – one for the insiders who knew the real numbers, and another for the lay investor who was invited to chase soaring prices the banks themselves knew were irrational. While Goldman’s later pattern would be to capitalize on changes in the regulatory environment, its key innovation in the Internet years was to abandon its own industry’s standards of quality control.

“Since the Depression, there were strict underwriting guidelines that Wall Street adhered to when taking a company public,” says one prominent hedge-fund manager. “The company had to be in business for a minimum of five years, and it had to show profitability for three consecutive years. But Wall Street took these guidelines and threw them in the trash.” Goldman completed the snow job by pumping up the sham stocks: “Their analysts were out there saying Bullshit.com is worth $100 a share.”

The problem was, nobody told investors that the rules had changed. Everyone on the inside knew,“ the manager says. "Bob Rubin sure as hell knew what the underwriting standards were. They’d been intact since the 1930s.”

Jay Ritter, a professor of finance at the University of Florida who specializes in IPOs, says banks like Goldman knew full well that many of the public offerings they were touting would never make a dime. “In the early Eighties, the major underwriters insisted on three years of profitability. Then it was one year, then it was a quarter. By the time of the Internet bubble, they were not even requiring profitability in the foreseeable future.”

Taibbi then describes two dirty tactics — “laddering” and “spinning” — Goldman used to further enrich itself while inflating the Bubble.

The Housing Bubble:

[F]or decades mortgage dealers insisted that home buyers be able to produce a down payment of 10 percent or more, show a steady income and good credit rating, and possess a real first and last name. Then, at the dawn of the new millennium, they suddenly threw all that shit out the window and started writing mortgages on the backs of napkins to cocktail waitresses and ex-cons carrying five bucks and a Snickers bar.

None of that would have been possible without investment bankers like Goldman, who created vehicles to package those shitty mortgages and sell them en masse to unsuspecting insurance companies and pension funds. This created a mass market for toxic debt that would never have existed before; in the old days, no bank would have wanted to keep some addict ex-con’s mortgage on its books, knowing how likely it was to fail. You can’t write these mortgages, in other words, unless you can sell them to someone who doesn’t know what they are.

Taibbi then showed HOW Goldman did it and how it protected itself from the garbage it was selling to foolishly trusting buyers:

The bank might be taking all these hideous, completely irresponsible mortgages from beneath-gangster-status firms like Countrywide and selling them off to municipillities and pensioners – old people, for God’s sake – pretending the whole time that it wasn’t grade-D horseshit. But even as it was doing So, it was taking short positions in the same market, in essence betting against same crap it was selling. Even worse, Goldman bragged about it in public. The mortgage sector continues to he challenged,“ David Viniar, the bank’s chief financial officer, boasted in 2007. "As a result, we took significant markdowns on our long inventory positions, … However, our risk bias in that market was to be short, and that net short position was profitable.” In other words, the mortgages it was selling were for chumps. The real money was in betting against those same mortgages.

“That’s how audacious these assholes are,” says one hedge-fund manager. “At least with other banks, you could say that they were just dumb – they believed what they were selling, and it blew them up. Goldman knew what it was doing.”

I ask the manager how it could be that selling something to customers that you’re actually betting against – particularly when you know more about the weaknesses of those products than the customer – doesn’t amount to securities fraud.

“It’s exactly securities fraud.” he says. “It’s the heart of securities fraud.”

Artificial oil price bubble:

Oil futures in particular skyrocketed, as the price of a single barrel went from around $60 in the middle of 2007 to a high of $147 in the summer of 2008…

So what caused the huge spike in oil prices? Take a wild guess. Obviously Goldman had help – there were other players in the physical-commodities market – but the root cause had almost everything to do with the behavior of a few powerful actors determined to turn the once-solid market into a speculative casino. Goldman did it by persuading pension funds and other large institutional investors to invest in oil futures – agreeing to buy oil at a certain price on a fixed date. The push transformed oil from a physical commodity, rigidly subject to supply and demand, into something to bet on, like a stock. Between 2003 and 2008, the amount of speculative money in commodities grew from $13 billion to $317 billion, an increase of 2,300 percent. By 2008, a barrel of oil was traded 27 times, on average, before it was actually delivered and consumed.

As is so often the case, there had been a Depression-era law in place designed specifically to prevent this sort of thing.

But Goldman effectively got the law revoked.

Killing off competitors and orchestrating the “gift” of tens (possibly hundreds) of billions in taxpayer cash:

Although he had already engineered a rescue of Bear Stearns a few months before and helped bail out quasi-private lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Paulson elected to let Lehman Brothers – one of Goldman’s last real competitors – collapse without intervention. (“Goldman’s superhero status was left intact,” says market analyst Eric Salzman, “and an investment-banking competitor, Lehman, goes away.”) The very next day, Paulson greenlighted a massive, $85 billion bailout of AIG, which promptly turned around and repaid $13 billion it owed to Goldman. Thanks to the rescue effort, the bank ended up getting paid in full for its bad bets: By contrast, retired auto workers awaiting the Chrysler bailout will be lucky to receive 50 cents for every dollar they are owed.

Immediately after the AIG bailout, Paulson announced his federal bailout for the financial industry, a $700 billion plan called the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and put a heretofore unknown 35-year old Goldman banker named Neel Kashkari in charge of administering the funds. In order to qualify for bailout monies, Goldman announced that it would convert from an investment bank to a bankholding company, a move that allows it access not only to $10 billion in TARP funds, but to a whole galaxy of less conspicuous, publicly backed funding – most notably, lending from the discount window of the Federal Reserve. By the end of March, the Fed will have lent or guaranteed at least $8.7 trillion under a series of new bailout programs – and thanks to an obscure law allowing the Fed to block most congressional audits, both the amounts and the recipients of the monies remain almost entirely secret.

Converting to a bank-holding company has other benefits as well: Goldman’s primary supervisor is now the New York Fed, whose chairman at the time of its announcement was Stephen Friedman, a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs. Friedman was technically in violation of Federal Reserve policy by remaining on the board of Goldman even as he was supposedly regulating the bank; in order to rectify the problem, he applied for, and got, a conflict-of-interest waiver from the government. Friedman was also supposed to divest himself of his Goldman stock after Goldman became a bank-holding company, but thanks to the waiver, he was allowed to go out and buy 52,000 additional shares in his old bank, leaving him $3 million richer. Friedman stepped down in May, but the man now in charge of supervising Goldman – New York Fed president William Dudley – is yet another former Goldmanite.

Paying, basically, no taxes:

Fourteen million dollars. That is what the firm paid in taxes in 2008, an effective tax rate of exactly one, read it, one percent. The bank paid out $10 billion in compensation and benefits that same year and made a profit of more than $2 billion – yet it paid the Treasury less than a third of what it forked over to CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who made $42.9 million last year.

And even a future scandal-in-the-making:

Cap-and-trade, as envisioned by Goldman, is really just a carbon tax structured so that private interests collect the revenues. Instead of simply imposing a fixed government levy on carbon pollution and forcing unclean energy producers to pay for the mess they make, cap-and-trade will allow a small tribe of greedy-as-hell Wall Street swine to turn yet another commodities market into a private tax-collection scheme. This is worse than the bailout: It allows the bank to seize taxpayer money before it’s even collected.

Posted by James on Friday, July 03, 2009