By Raymond Freeman 06/06/2013
IA “bond rating agency” was sued recently for $5 billion for its part in the 2008 crash, which ruined millions of American families. Don’t be surprised. Right from the start, there were maximum stupidity and minimum integrity.
Republicans wanted major changes to America’s entire financial system. But there was no rational, responsible, Jeffersonian debate. They snuck hundreds of pages, last-minute, into a deadline-critical funding bill in 2000 (as President Clinton was leaving). Wall Street could then buy up all sorts of loans and engineer them into “derivatives” to be passed off as “triple-A bonds” (safe investments). Straw could be spun into gold, as in a fairy tale.
Question: Who decided these “derivatives” were “AAA?” Answer: one of the “bond rating agencies.” These aren’t boring government departments. They’re profit-driven companies, officially given power over big money. “Rating” means that experts have looked into complex finances and rendered an opinion as to soundness: Good, Bad, Ugly. They act as independent advisers. They’re vital, since modern finance is so complicated.
Now, hold tight. Who pays them? Is it the buyers of the bonds (as with mechanics inspecting cars)? No; by law, ratings are paid for by the sellers of the bonds, namely Wall Street investment bankers like Goldman Sachs. Even so, the system worked fine for 30 years. Investment managers pushing big money around trusted the rating agencies.
But rating these new-fangled derivatives was impossible. Legendary investor Warren Buffett said he’d need to review “750,000 pages of documents” to analyze just one. Rather obviously, the rating agencies didn’t do this. They certainly wanted the fees, though, $750,000 each rating. Surprise, surprise: integrity vanished.
E-mails have shown the frustration of the worker bees stuck with this task. One was told to buzz off and work faster. Some poor fool had the temerity to ask for files to review, since he did things the proper way. Another was told that if he didn’t go along, the Wall Street goons would simply go to another agency.
So, thousands of Ugly derivatives, grade F, were rated excellent, grade AAA, by supposedly independent agencies, for huge fees, then flogged worldwide for billions of dollars, by Wall Street, touting the top rating, of course. But in 2002, Buffett called them “instruments of mass financial destruction.” Nobody cared, certainly not the Bush administration. The biggest suckers were foreign banks. When these time bombs blew up, those banks failed and taxpayers got stuck. Certain insurance policies against this were worthless. The Economist described America’s financial system as “rotten to the core.”
Say you’re a Democrat if you go abroad.
Selling these derivatives was so profitable that Wall Street pressured lenders to keep making loans (to make more derivatives). They obliged, happily. It was money for old rope. In 2003, I chatted with a mortgage broker who let drop that he was getting $100,000 a month. I nearly passed out cold.
America’s economy nearly passed out cold after the Great Crash of 2008, caused by major insolvencies from these derivatives. Republican Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve chairman, echoed Capt. Renault in Casablanca. (“I’m shocked, shocked, to find there’s gambling going on here!”). Greenspan said he was in “a state of shocked disbelief” when the “instruments of mass financial destruction” caused (Would you believe?) mass financial destruction!
My friends, it’s important to avoid mass financial destruction. We all depend on America’s economy for money, food, housing, etc. But Republicans removed the safeguards against economic meltdown. The rating agencies took the moolah and slipped everyone a Mickey Finn. Republicans had turned our economy into a gambling casino. Many got fabulously rich but millions lost their homes when the booze ran out. Nobody’s going to jail, naturally. Republicans covered that just fine. They ignored the clearest warnings that their fairy tale would cause disaster. Everybody warning against the forthcoming meltdown was a Democrat, easily ignored. And mass destruction would come from Iraq, obviously.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., woke up the Department of Justice from its Bush-era slumbers. It has sued Standard & Poor’s, a rating agency (the “S&P 500” guys). The DOJ says S&P lied in order to be approved as a rating agency, and lied to investors about the thoroughness of its investigations. It says that S&P knew the securities it rated were Ugly, but rubber-stamped them as excellent, having sold its soul to the devil. The ratings had legalese saying, “Don’t take this thing seriously.” The DOJ says that investors had no option but to take the stupid things seriously, given the special position the agencies enjoyed by law.
The moral is clear. If you vote for clowns, don’t be surprised if you get a circus. If you don’t demand integrity, you won’t get it. And don’t believe fairy tales. The GOP’s priority is making their rich pals richer, not safeguarding America’s economy and your family’s security.