Financial reform: it's the derivatives, stupid

Neither the House of Representatives’ version of financial reform nor Dodd’s proposal adequately deals with derivatives. In fact, the language for derivative regulation isn’t even complete in Dodd’s bill. That is to say, it’s unfinished two years after Bear Stearns toppled onto Wall Street, triggering domino disasters at Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG, and warnings from regulators and politicians of a financial doomsday if taxpayers didn’t hand over their hard-earned cash to save financial institutions accustomed to bonus payments in the billions.

In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Wall Street, derivatives were designed to make investing safer. Instead, in the hands of speculators, they became a form of betting that nearly destroyed the financial world.

Conservatives have repeatedly tried to blame the financial collapse on homeowners defaulting on mortgages. That’s ridiculous. That’s blaming the victim of a crime. Wall Street committed the crime. It went like this: Financial wizards on Wall Street created “securities” out of mortgages. They bought a bunch of mortgages, then sold what were supposed to be high yield bonds based on the future income from the mortgage payments. These were called Mortgage Backed Securities. That worked fine as long as the mortgages were solid – in the sense that the homeowner had income and assets sufficient to make the monthly mortgage payments. In the good old days, when banks didn’t sell off mortgages to Wall Street, they had a vested interest in accurately determining whether the applicant really could pay. So they required proof of income and assets.

But as these Mortgage Backed Securities became overwhelmingly popular investments, and pressure increased to produce more and more mortgages to create these securities, the standards for investigating mortgage applicants slipped. That’s how no-income, no-asset verification loans – known as a liar’s loans – came to be. It wasn’t necessarily the applicant who was lying. Frequently it was the mortgage broker, who exaggerated income numbers to give loans to unqualified applicants so that the broker could reap a big commission for producing a new mortgage. Brokers and banks didn’t care if the loans were so dicey that applicants weren’t able to make even the first month’s payment because the brokers and banks didn’t keep them. They quickly sold them to those Wall Street wizards who were making “securities” out of them.

Investors could buy what Wall Street calls derivatives -- credit default swaps -- to “insure” the “securities.” So, for example, if an investor began to feel a little queasy about his “security” paying off because it might be filled with liar loans, then the investor could “insure” it. For an annual premium of a small percent of the face value of the security, the investor got a credit default swap -- assurance of payment in full in case of default.

Unlike insurance, however, derivatives like credit default swaps aren’t regulated. So the “insurance company,” like AIG or a bank or a hedge fund needn’t bother keeping collateral on hand to pay its contractual obligations should a tornado of defaults or a hurricane named Bear Stearns occur. Credit default swap issuers are like lotteries collecting bets but not reserving money to pay winners.

The derivative market differs from the legitimate insurance market in another important way. The derivative market allows speculators to purchase insurance on securities they don’t own. These are called naked credit default swaps. NPR’s Planet Money reporters explained it like this: it’s like buying insurance on your neighbor’s house. The buyer of that policy has a vested interest in your home burning down. And the more “derivative insurance” speculators buy, the greater the interest in your home’s demise.

Many financial analysts believe derivative buyers have used naked credit default swaps in deliberate campaigns of destruction -- like, for example, to take down Lehman Brothers or the country of Greece.

If you tried to buy real insurance on your neighbor’s car or house, the broker would turn you away when you couldn’t prove ownership. That’s because states regulate real insurance. And those insurance watchdogs see the inherent problem with speculators placing bets that will pay off if catastrophe befalls the real asset owner. That would, of course, encourage arson.

If derivatives like credit default swaps were traded on public exchanges, investors could at least see orchestrated efforts to take down a firm. But derivatives are traded behind closed doors, in secret deals between speculators and unregulated “insurers” that Wall Street calls “over the counter” but which should really be called “under the table.” AIG provided $440 billion worth of this “insurance” without any regulator knowing, without sufficient collateral to back up those deals, and without anyone questioning why the buyer needed insurance on something he didn’t own.

The secrecy also enabled Goldman Sachs to sell subprime mortgage backed securities to investors with a straight face, and then turn around and buy credit default swaps that bet those securities would fail – and thus pay Goldman big bucks. Greg Gordon of McClatchy Newspapers detailed this duplicitous scheme by Goldman in a story last fall entitled, “How Goldman Sachs secretly bet on the housing crash.”

Goldman made out, as its name says, like gold, in this dealing. Goldman announced record earnings during 2009 and distributed  $16 billion in year end bonuses, enough to pay each of its 32,500 workers $498,000. That accomplishment, of course, was aided and abetted by $23 billion in direct and indirect federal aid given to Goldman. It also helped that AIG paid off Goldman bets dollar for dollar – for a total of $12.9 billion from the $180 billion taxpayers gave to rescue AIG.

In the mean time, the individuals and agencies that Goldman sold those crappy mortgage backed securities to, well, they’re not so golden. For example, California’s public employees’ retirement system, called CALPERS, bought $64.4 million in mortgage-backed securities from Goldman on March 1, 2007, Gordon noted in his story for McClatchy. A little more than two years later, Gordon wrote, they were worth $16.6 million – only 25 percent of their original value. Goldman, by contrast, banked on such losses and won big. It earned $13.4 billion last year.

Goldman distributed those big bonuses while Main Street continued to reel from the effects of the Wall Street melt down. The financial collapse reverberated through the economy, causing high unemployment – which meant, of course, that many mortgage holders who had legitimately qualified under old stringent bank rules could no longer make their payments. Now they’re unemployed and homeless – while those wizards at Goldman are sipping champagne on those bonuses. Meanwhile, Gordon showed in his story, Goldman is aggressively seizing the homes of delinquent mortgage holders.

Yet, Congress has failed to act. This is at the same time that European Union officials are considering restricting the trade of derivatives linked to government debt – like those believed to have worsened the economic crisis in Greece.

Wall Streeters who get millions in bonuses to know better are still trading in derivatives. Nothing is preventing another financial collapse, another day when Wall Street comes crying to Washington for a new $700 billion troubled asset bailout.

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