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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Banking Lobby Amid Goldman Sachs' Culpability: A Danger to the Republic?

To simplify how Goldman Sachs got into trouble with the SEC: According to Annie Lowrey, the hedge fund Paulson & Co. handpicked mortgage-backed securities that were doomed to stop performing, being backed with subprime mortgages, and Goldman packaged them into a kind of bond. Paulson & Co. bet against the bond by buying short-sales, with Goldman acting as the broker. At the same time, Goldman sold the bond to other clients without disclosing that Paulson had engineered the bond to fail. The SEC filing notes that those other clients lost $1 billion. Goldman had no direct stake in the success or failure of the CDO. It made money either way. “This litigation exposes the cynical, savage culture of Wall Street that allows a dealer to commit fraud on one customer to benefit another,” Chris Whalen, a bank analyst at Institutional Risk Analytics, said in a note to clients on April 16, 2010. Someone at Goldman said on the same day that “the SEC’s charges are completely unfounded in law and fact.” If the SEC charges hold up (and it is doubtful that the agency would bring such charges without supporting documentation; it is more apt to miss something than go overboard), I am astonished that the people at Goldman simply dismissed the matter out of hand. It might make sense as their legal defense, but if the bankers are convicted, those lying ought to be fired even if they were not a party to the scheme. It also appears that the bankers lied about whether they made money in betting against the housing market. “The 2009 Goldman Sachs annual report stated that the firm ‘did not generate enormous net revenues by betting against residential related products,’ ” Senator Levin, chairman of the US Senate’s committee on investigations, said in a statement in April, 2010. “These e-mails show that, in fact, Goldman made a lot of money by betting against the mortgage market.” When a spokesperson for the bank says something in the future, a rational person will be wont not to trust him or her. Lying has (or ought to have) consequences rather than being dismissed as harmless PR or a legal defense. The bank’s credibility is at issue here. The SEC has accused Goldman of outright lying to customers in order to make money both ways on a deal. Even though this ought to reflect negatively on Goldman’s future business, bigger issues involved that ought to consume more of our attention than how Goldman fares.

Given the strength of the financial sector’s lobby in Washington, this case involving Goldman suggests that we, the American electorate, were unwittingly putting our financial system and our republics in danger by enabling the lobby to have such effect in watering down the regulatory reform in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008.

In the election cycle in which the US Senate’s agricultural committee took up legislation that would regulate all derivatives (2010), people and organizations affiliated with financial, insurance and real estate companies gave members of the committee $22.8 million. Wall Street firms raised $60,000 at two fund-raisers for the committee’s chair’s re-election campaign in the cycle before the committee took up the legislation. Many of the chairs constituents want a crackdown on the speculation. This put Blanche Lincoln in a difficult situation, ethically speaking. At the very least, accepting money from the firms that would be subject to the legislation involves the appearance of a conflict of interest. I contend that given human nature, even such an appearance ought to be avoided or even outlawed. At the very least, it is unseemly in a republic, and I would argue dangerous to its viability.

Furthermore, as if the banks’ culpibility in the crisis was not sufficient to cancel their reservations at the regulatory table, the Goldman case strongly suggests that the banks ought not to be trusted as contributors to regulatory reform. And yet they push ahead to reduce the regulatation, in spite of it all. A child who drops his milkshake doesn’t turn around and tell his mother that she better not clean it up and that she had better not get involved if it happens again. Rather, such a child stands back. As if there is not enough of a natural feeling of shame at having made a mess, there is, or ought naturally to be, an even greater sense of shame in presuming to be in a position to direct the clean-up according to one’s self-interest over objections that the person who caused the problem is not the one best suited to fix it. Even if corporations can enjoy the legal fiction of personhood, there are actual human beings running them, and it is telling when those people dismiss their innate shame in their presumption–even pretending that it is not presumption! We are to blame in not calling them on it, and relegating them. We must relegate them if they won’t do it for themselves, as would be natural for them to do. In other words, we ought to call the artiface for what it is and relegate it as a parent would naturally tell a spoiled and misbehaving yet dogmatic child to go to his room. We, the American people, are enablers; bad parents. We ought to look toward solving the bigger problem, which the case of the Goldman children intimates.

The theory of regulatory capture points to the government’s need for information that the industry being regulated can provide. This theory ignores the broader power-base that an industry is apt to have in lobbying the government (and supporting candidates). In other words, information is just small change from the standpoint of an industry’s ability to influence a government. A better theory would have its primary focus on the macro level, asking the question, in effect, whether (and how) a republic is compromised by its moneyed corporations and banks. Besides looking at campaign finance law and uncovering actual lobbying practices, we ought to look at how much the society in question values money, commerical gain, wealth and economic freedom. We ought not be limited to the managerial or technocrat perspective in ascertaining whether our financial system and indeed our very republics are in danger from being used by unscrupulous firms or industies according to that which fits their peoples’ desires. Once we have uncovered the real problem, we really won’t have any excuse for not fixing it, and we would be bad parents indeed if we let the children fix it.

http://washingtonindependent.com/82571/sec-charges-goldman-sachs-over-subprime-tied-product  http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/16/goldmans-stacked-bet/?ref=opinion
http://money.cnn.com/2010/04/16/news/companies/sec.goldman.fortune/index.htm?postversion=2010041616 ; http://money.cnn.com/2010/04/16/news/companies/goldman_sachs_questions.fortune/index.htm?postversion=2010041615 ; http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/20/business/20derivatives.html?hp