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Showing posts from April, 2010

Levin vs. Blankfein Faceoff

Some quick observations on the performance of Goldman Sachs' CEO at the roasting before Congress today:

1. Blankfein technically outpointed Senator Levin during the opening exchange, I think -- Levin doesn't have a particularly deep understanding of high finance -- but Goldman's chief lost the big point: how Goldman's actions appear to Main Street. Basically Blankfein condoned the practice of "betting against a product you're selling." That's the damning headline. Here's what it sounds like to Joe Blow: I sell you my car, and meanwhile, I bet with someone on the side that the car will break down within six months. No graceful way to put lipstick on that pig.

2. Notice how often Blankfein used the phrase "market maker" when facing off with Levin? Nice defense except -- Levin wasn't really interestedin being tutored on what a market maker does. Levin was too busy cudgeling the head of the investment bank with the "conflict of intere…

Financial Reform: Unsung Proposals that I Wish Were on the Table

We will be getting reform, and soon, it appears. Mike over at Rortybomb nicely table-izes six big areas/rules/issues to watch as legislation takes shape.

Maybe I'm just getting jaded, but what's on the table doesn't excite me much.

Transparency in derivatives through exchange trading? Yes, deeply important, but lobbyists will probably carve out small exemptions that Wall Street banks will then funnel as many of their trades through as possible. Too big to fail? Yeah, sure, cut 'em down to size, but Krugman is right on this one. Smaller banks, sufficiently interconnected and freighted with risk, can haul down the system too.

Hard leverage cap? I wholeheartedly support limiting leverage, but remember: leverage is a number. As Repo 105 and the continual perversion of accounting for capital under the Basel Accords show us, annoying numbers can be massaged. So under a hard leverage cap, I predict an explosion in "leverage-friendly financial innovation." Just wait.

So …

A Gathering of Donkeys at the “Genteel Surroundings of the Great Hall of Kings College”

Last week, the inaugural meeting of the Institute for New Economic Thinking was held in Cambridge University.

Gillian Tett attended the meeting and covered it for the readers of the Financial Times:In the genteel surroundings of the Great Hall of Kings College, Cambridge, dozens of the world’s leading economists conducted an earnest conference on the future for economics, partly funded by Soros’ $50m largesse. One of the central conclusions of the day was that economists and market traders alike needed to devote far more time to human psychology, rather than just the raw economic numbers beloved by so many policy wonks.So, the aim of the seminar, with George Soros as its sugar daddy, was to promote the “behavioral economics” that has been making the rounds in the past decade – the word “new” in the title of the gathering notwithstanding.

The meeting produced some original and high quality thoughts.

Jeremy Siegel of Wharton compared the years prior to 2007 with the years prior to 1929 an…

The Goldman vs. SEC Story That No One Has Written ...

When I saw that the SEC had finally decided to go after Goldman Sachs, I immediately rejoiced: Yes. At last. What the hell took you so long?

Then, when I started sifting through the strange case of Abacus 2007-AC1 (fairly trips right off the tongue eh?), I had a "pullback" moment, especially after seeing Goldman's defense (see the bottom of the page).

First, I have no love for Goldman. Far from it. I think it's rather creepy the way they release their ideological spores throughout our political system by practicing "civic responsibility" and occasionally shipping a handful of executives off to the Treasury Department, to keep the U.S. approach to the financial system appropriately capitalist at all times. But this Abacus case -- ah well, it doesn't make sense, unfortunately. I think the SEC will lose unless Goldman wants to pay up to make the bad publicity go away.

Here's why.

Read the SEC complaint. Read Goldman's denial. Observe the Venn diagram p…

Must-Read Story of the Morning

I've grown a little numb to the shocking revelations of this financial crisis, but every so often, a story will drop my jaw and make me go "wow."

Today's candidate: Pro Publica's The Magnetar Trade.

One of the authors, Jesse Eisinger, you may remember from the Wall Street Journal. I admired his stuff during his tenure there. He impressed me as a smart guy who liked to dig -- and then dig some more.

The "Magnetar trade" Yves Smith apparently has written about at some length in her new book Econned. She has mentioned Magnetar a few times on her blog, without going into too much detail (I'm sure her book does, and I'm dying to read it. Where's my review copy, dammit? :))

Right now, Magnetar looks like the scariest enabler of this subprime bubble I've seen so far. Of course Michael Lewis looked at the enabling role the shorts played in his The Big Short. But the players he interviews were small. And they were only indirectly feeding the subprime…

A Sad Justice

“What really for me marks a conservative judge is one who doesn’t decide more than he has to in order to do his own job. Our job is to decide cases and resolve controversies. It’s not to write broad rules that may answer society’s questions at large.”Thus spake Justice John Paul Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court on the eve of his retirement from the bench.

What a fool. What a waste. What an ass.

A few pages later, under the heading “School Law Clinics Face a Backlash”, the same New York Times reported how, after these clinics “go after powerful interests, lawmakers get involved”:
Law school students nationwide are facing growing attacks in the courts and legislature as legal clinics at the school increasingly take on powerful interests that few other nonprofit groups have the resources to challenge.

On Friday, lawmakers [in Maryland] debated a measure to cut money for the University of Maryland's law clinic if it does not provide details to the legislature about its clients, finances …

When the Fed People Act Responsibly

Dialectics is the investigation of the relation between the whole and the part. In the past couple of times that I wrote about the illegality of the Fed’s actions, I put them in the context of a larger development of social decay.

But there are also the parts. Like the individual lines in a painting or sentences in a story, they shape our comprehension of the big picture.

On Thursday, under pressure from Congress, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released more information about its holdings. I am quoting a few passages from a related Wall Street Journal article, followed by my comments in blue.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York lifted a veil of secrecy on the troubled mortgage assets it purchased as part of the 2008 rescue of Bear Stearns Cos. and American International Group Inc.That’s very good. We’re all for transparency. What did the newly released data show?

The data show the government is now in the same situation as many U.S. banks: dealing with a portfolio of loans and prop…

"So, My Friends, What is This ... 'Financial Innovation' You Speak Of?"

I've sometimes wondered what would happen if aliens teleported in to Washington and -- since they're aliens, of course, and naturally inquisitive -- began asking questions about anything and everything ("You peel it before you eat it? Ah yes, fascinating. So this Seinfeld, he is like a king to you?"). Eventually they'd get around to the financial crisis and how we plan to prevent such a disaster in the future. And our "wise men" (Geithner, Summers, with some bespectacled lackeys in tow) would patiently explain how we have to restrain bad behavior in the system, while not discouraging financial innovation.

At which point I imagine the lead alien, Zrigfryx, would scratch his ample, hairless dome and say:

"So, my friends, what is this ... 'financial innovation' you speak of?"

And if I were sitting in the back row of the small assembly -- lucky enough to have snagged one of the lottery tickets for the the limited seats available to the public…