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Simon Johnson: Fraud at the heart of Wall Street

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Our Pecora Moment

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By Simon Johnson

We have waited long and patiently for our Ferdinand Pecora moment – a modern equivalent of the episode when a tough prosecutor from New York seized the imagination of the country in the early 1930s and, over a series of congressional hearings: laid bare the wrong-doings of Wall Street in simple and vivid terms that everyone could understand, and created the groundswell of public support necessary for comprehensive reregulation.  On Friday, that moment finally arrived.

There is fraud at the heart of Wall Street, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Pecora took on National City Bank and J.P. Morgan (the younger); these were the supposedly untouchable titans of their day.  The SEC is taking on Goldman Sachs; no firm is more powerful.

Pecora exposed the ways in which leading banks mistreated their customers – typically, retail investors.  The SEC alleges, with credible detail, that Goldman essentially set up some trusting clients and deliberately misled them – to the tune of effectively transferring $1 billion from them to a particular unscrupulous investor.

Pecora had the drama of the congressional hearing room and used his skills as an interrogator to batter the bastions of Wall Street, day-after-day, with gruesome and convincing detail.  We don’t know where and when, but the SEC action points in one direction only: Lloyd Blankfein (CEO of Goldman) in the witness box, while John Paulson (unindicted co-conspirator) waits in the on-deck circle.

Either Blankfein knew what was going on – and is therefore liable before the law – or he was clueless and therefore incompetent.  Either way, the much vaunted risk management and control systems of Goldman, i.e., what is supposed to prevent this kind of thing from happening, are exposed to be what we have long here claimed: bunk (as I argued with Gerry Corrigan, former head of the NY Fed and long-time Goldman executive, before the Senate Banking Committee when we both testified on the Volcker Rules in February).

“Too big and complex to manage” is actually the best defense for Goldman’s executives and they should offer to break up the firm into smaller and more transparent pieces as a way to settle the firm’s liability with the SEC.  The current management of Goldman – along with the team that ran the firm under Hank Paulson – have destroyed the value of an illustrious franchise.  Goldman used to stand for something that customers felt they could trust; now it is just a sophisticated way of ripping them off.

John Paulson obviously knew what he was doing in helping to create the “designed to fail” securities – and the consequences this would have.  If he cannot be convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud, then the law in this regard needs to be tightened significantly.  The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, chaired by Phil Angelides, is probably already planning to grill John Paulson about his taxes – the point Pecora made in this regard with J.P. Morgan junior was most telling and gripped the nation; it turned out that Morgan hardly paid any tax.  I would respectfully suggest that the Angelides Commission also pull in Hank Paulson and pursue a similar line of questioning with him – when it focuses on how much money Hank Paulson made, and how little tax he paid, while building and overseeing an extortion scheme of grand proportions, America will scream.

We have something today that Pecora did not have – the pattern of behavior is already established, if not yet widely comprehended.  Senator Levin’s recent grilling of WaMu revealed another layer of deliberate mistreatment of consumers within the mortgage industry.  The Valukas report on the failure of Lehman exposed exactly how investors are misled by balance sheet manipulation in its most modern and insidious form.  And we have learned more than enough about Goldman misleading investors over Greek debt levels.

Brooksley Born was right, a very long time ago, to fear the “dark markets” of over-the-counter derivatives and what those would bring.

Senator Ted Kaufman was right.  Just a few weeks ago, he argued strongly from the Senate floor that there is fraud at the heart of Wall Street.  Even some people who are generally sympathetic to his critique of modern financial practices thought perhaps that this specific notion was pushing the frontier.  But now they get it – and today Ted Kaufman is more than mainstream; he is the public figure who made everything crystal clear.

When you deliberately withhold adverse material information from customers, that is fraud.  When you do this on a grand scale, the full weight of the law will come down on you and the people who supposedly supervised you.  And if the weight of that law is no longer sufficient to deal with – and to prevent going forward – the latest forms of very old and reprehensible crimes, then it is again time to change the law.

Simon Johnson is the former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund, and co-founder of the Baseline Scenario, a blog about the financial crisis and financial reform. He is a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Johnson’s latest book, 13 Bankers (co-authored with Baseline Scenario co-founder James Kwak) is a detailed examination of Wall Street’s political and ideological power and the devastating economic results.

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