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My Advice to the Occupy Wall Street Protesters

Matt Taibbi

Rolling Stone

October 27, 2011

I’ve been down to “Occupy Wall Street” twice now, and I love it. The protests building at Liberty Square and spreading over Lower Manhattan are a great thing, the logical answer to the Tea Party and a long-overdue middle finger to the financial elite. The protesters picked the right target and, through their refusal to disband after just one day, the right tactic, showing the public at large that the movement against Wall Street has stamina, resolve and growing popular appeal.

But… there’s a but. And for me this is a deeply personal thing, because this issue of how to combat Wall Street corruption has consumed my life for years now, and it’s hard for me not to see where Occupy Wall Street could be better and more dangerous. I’m guessing, for instance, that the banks were secretly thrilled in the early going of the protests, sure they’d won round one of the messaging war.

Why? Because after a decade of unparalleled thievery and corruption, with tens of millions entering the ranks of the hungry thanks to artificially inflated commodity prices, and millions more displaced from their homes by corruption in the mortgage markets, the headline from the first week of protests against the financial-services sector was an old cop macing a quartet of college girls.

That, to me, speaks volumes about the primary challenge of opposing the 50-headed hydra of Wall Street corruption, which is that it’s extremely difficult to explain the crimes of the modern financial elite in a simple visual. The essence of this particular sort of oligarchic power is its complexity and day-to-day invisibility: Its worst crimes, from bribery and insider trading and market manipulation, to backroom dominance of government and the usurping of the regulatory structure from within, simply can’t be seen by the public or put on TV. There just isn’t going to be an iconic “Running Girl” photo with Goldman Sachs, Citigroup or Bank of America – just 62 million Americans with zero or negative net worth, scratching their heads and wondering where the hell all their money went and why their votes seem to count less and less each and every year.

No matter what, I’ll be supporting Occupy Wall Street. And I think the movement’s basic strategy – to build numbers and stay in the fight, rather than tying itself to any particular set of principles – makes a lot of sense early on. But the time is rapidly approaching when the movement is going to have to offer concrete solutions to the problems posed by Wall Street. To do that, it will need a short but powerful list of demands. There are thousands one could make, but I’d suggest focusing on five:

1. Break up the monopolies. The so-called “Too Big to Fail” financial companies – now sometimes called by the more accurate term “Systemically Dangerous Institutions” – are a direct threat to national security. They are above the law and above market consequence, making them more dangerous and unaccountable than a thousand mafias combined. There are about 20 such firms in America, and they need to be dismantled; a good start would be to repeal the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and mandate the separation of insurance companies, investment banks and commercial banks.

2. Pay for your own bailouts. A tax of 0.1 percent on all trades of stocks and bonds and a 0.01 percent tax on all trades of derivatives would generate enough revenue to pay us back for the bailouts, and still have plenty left over to fight the deficits the banks claim to be so worried about. It would also deter the endless chase for instant profits through computerized insider-trading schemes like High Frequency Trading, and force Wall Street to go back to the job it’s supposed to be doing, i.e., making sober investments in job-creating businesses and watching them grow.

3. No public money for private lobbying. A company that receives a public bailout should not be allowed to use the taxpayer’s own money to lobby against him. You can either suck on the public teat or influence the next presidential race, but you can’t do both. Butt out for once and let the people choose the next president and Congress.

4. Tax hedge-fund gamblers. For starters, we need an immediate repeal of the preposterous and indefensible carried-interest tax break, which allows hedge-fund titans like Stevie Cohen and John Paulson to pay taxes of only 15 percent on their billions in gambling income, while ordinary Americans pay twice that for teaching kids and putting out fires. I defy any politician to stand up and defend that loophole during an election year.

5. Change the way bankers get paid. We need new laws preventing Wall Street executives from getting bonuses upfront for deals that might blow up in all of our faces later. It should be: You make a deal today, you get company stock you can redeem two or three years from now. That forces everyone to be invested in his own company’s long-term health – no more Joe Cassanos pocketing multimillion-dollar bonuses for destroying the AIGs of the world.

To quote the immortal political philosopher Matt Damon from Rounders, “The key to No Limit poker is to put a man to a decision for all his chips.” The only reason the Lloyd Blankfeins and Jamie Dimons of the world survive is that they’re never forced, by the media or anyone else, to put all their cards on the table. If Occupy Wall Street can do that – if it can speak to the millions of people the banks have driven into foreclosure and joblessness – it has a chance to build a massive grassroots movement. All it has to do is light a match in the right place, and the overwhelming public support for real reform – not later, but right now – will be there in an instant.

This story is from the October 27, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

Goldman Sachs Busted

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Wall Street's Bailout Hustle

Goldman Sachs and other big banks aren’t just pocketing the trillions we gave them to rescue the economy – they’re re-creating the conditions for another crash

MATT TAIBBI

Posted Feb 17, 2010 5:57 AM

On January 21st, Lloyd Blankfein left a peculiar voicemail message on the work phones of his employees at Goldman Sachs. Fast becoming America’s pre-eminent Marvel Comics supervillain, the CEO used the call to deploy his secret weapon: a pair of giant, nuclear-powered testicles. In his message, Blankfein addressed his plan to pay out gigantic year-end bonuses amid widespread controversy over Goldman’s role in precipitating the global financial crisis.

The bank had already set aside a tidy $16.2 billion for salaries and bonuses — meaning that Goldman employees were each set to take home an average of $498,246, a number roughly commensurate with what they received during the bubble years. Still, the troops were worried: There were rumors that Dr. Ballsachs, bowing to political pressure, might be forced to scale the number back. After all, the country was broke, 14.8 million Americans were stranded on the unemployment line, and Barack Obama and the Democrats were trying to recover the populist high ground after their bitch-whipping in Massachusetts by calling for a “bailout tax” on banks. Maybe this wasn’t the right time for Goldman to be throwing its annual Roman bonus orgy.

Not to worry, Blankfein reassured employees. “In a year that proved to have no shortage of story lines,” he said, “I believe very strongly that performance is the ultimate narrative.”

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Translation: We made a shitload of money last year because we’re so amazing at our jobs, so fuck all those people who want us to reduce our bonuses. Read more

Dylan Ratigan Breaks Down the TARP Fiasco

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Matt Taiibi : Naked Short-Selling Caught on Video

Matt Taibbi

True Slant

Caught On Tape: A Naked Swindle

Continuing with the theme of naked short-selling, I have a video that was given to me last week that will allow people to see how naked short-selling can take place.

This video is only 31 seconds long and what it shows is a day-trader trying to sell short shares in a major NYSE-traded stock. To disguise the identity of the trader, I’ve had to edit out the name of the company in question — I’ll call it BANK X for short. What I can say is that the stock in question is one of America’s largest financial companies and the recipient of an enormous amount of public bailout money, so the fact that its stock can be manipulated is something that should be a concern to everyone. Read more

Peter Schiff With Lawrence O'Donnell

Peter Schiff With Lawrence O’Donnell

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Goldman Sachs Did An Excellent Job of Bailing Out Goldman Sachs

THE NEW YORK TIMES

August 9, 2009
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Paulson’s Calls to Goldman Tested Ethics
By GRETCHEN MORGENSON and DON VAN NATTA Jr.

Before he became President George W. Bush’s Treasury secretary in 2006, Henry M. Paulson Jr. agreed to hold himself to a higher ethical standard than his predecessors. He not only sold all his holdings in Goldman Sachs, the investment bank he had run, but also specifically said that he would avoid any substantive interaction with Goldman executives for his entire term unless he first obtained an ethics waiver from the government.

But today, seven months after Mr. Paulson left office, questions are still being asked about his part in decisions last fall to prop up the teetering financial system with tens of billions of taxpayer dollars, including aid that directly benefited his former firm. Testifying on Capitol Hill last month, he was grilled about his relationship with Goldman.

“Is it possible that there’s so much conflict of interest here that all you folks don’t even realize that you’re helping people that you’re associated with?” Representative Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida, asked Mr. Paulson at the July 16 hearing.

“I operated very consistently within the ethic guidelines I had as secretary of the Treasury,” Mr. Paulson responded, adding that he asked for an ethics waiver for his interactions with his old firm “when it became clear that we had some very significant issues with Goldman Sachs.”

Mr. Paulson did not say when he received a waiver, but copies of two waivers he received — from the White House counsel’s office and the Treasury Department — show they were issued on the afternoon of Sept. 17, 2008.

That date was in the middle of the most perilous week of the financial crisis and a day after the government agreed to lend $85 billion to the American International Group, which used the money to pay off Goldman and other big banks that were financially threatened by A.I.G.’s potential collapse.

It is common, of course, for regulators to be in contact with market participants to gather valuable industry intelligence, and financial regulators had to scramble very quickly last fall to address an unprecedented crisis. In those circumstances it would have been difficult for anyone to follow routine guidelines.

While Mr. Paulson spoke to many Wall Street executives during that period, he was in very frequent contact with Lloyd C. Blankfein, Goldman’s chief executive, according to a copy of Mr. Paulson’s calendars acquired by The New York Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.

During the week of the A.I.G. bailout alone, Mr. Paulson and Mr. Blankfein spoke two dozen times, the calendars show, far more frequently than Mr. Paulson did with other Wall Street executives.

On Sept. 17, the day Mr. Paulson secured his waivers, he and Mr. Blankfein spoke five times. Two of the calls occurred before Mr. Paulson’s waivers were granted.

Michele Davis, a spokeswoman for Mr. Paulson, said that the former Treasury secretary was busy writing his memoirs and that his publisher had barred him from granting interviews until his manuscript was done. She pointed out that the ethics agreement Mr. Paulson agreed to when he joined the Treasury did not prevent him from talking to Goldman executives like Mr. Blankfein in order to keep abreast of market developments.

Ms. Davis also said that Federal Reserve officials, not Mr. Paulson, played the lead role in shaping and financing the A.I.G. bailout.

But Mr. Paulson was closely involved in decisions to rescue A.I.G., according to two senior government officials who requested anonymity because the negotiations were supposed to be confidential.

And government ethics specialists say that the timing of Mr. Paulson’s waivers, and the circumstances surrounding it, are troubling.

“I think that when you have a person in a high government position who has been with one of the major financial institutions, things like this have to happen more publicly and they have to happen more in the normal course of business rather than privately, quietly and on the fly,” said Peter Bienstock, the former executive director of the New York State Commission on Government Integrity and a partner at the law firm of Cohen Hennessey Bienstock & Rabin.

He went on: “If it can happen on a phone call and can happen without public scrutiny, it destroys the standard because then anything can happen in that fashion and any waiver can happen.”

Inevitable Questions

Concerns about potential conflicts of interest were perhaps inevitable during this financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression. In the weeks before Mr. Paulson obtained the waivers, Treasury lawyers raised questions about whether he had conflicts of interest, a senior government official said.

Indeed, Mr. Paulson helped decide the fates of a variety of financial companies, including two longtime Goldman rivals, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, before his ethics waivers were granted. Ad hoc actions taken by Mr. Paulson and officials at the Federal Reserve, like letting Lehman fail and compensating A.I.G.’s trading partners, continue to confound some market participants and members of Congress.

“I think it’s clear he had a conflict of interest,” Mr. Stearns, the congressman, said in an interview. “He was covering himself with this waiver because he knew he had a conflict of interest with his telephone calls and with his actions. Even though he had no money in Goldman, he had a vested interest in Goldman’s success, in terms of his own reputation and historical perspective.”

Adding to questions about Mr. Paulson’s role, critics say, is the fact that Goldman Sachs was among a group of banks that received substantial government assistance during the turmoil. Goldman not only received $13 billion in taxpayer money as a result of the A.I.G. bailout, but also was given permission at the height of the crisis to convert from an investment firm to a national bank, giving it easier access to federal financing in the event it came under greater financial pressure.

Goldman also won federal debt guarantees and received $10 billion under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. It benefited further when the Securities and Exchange Commission suddenly changed its rules governing stock trading, barring investors from being able to bet against Goldman’s shares by selling them short.

Now that the company’s crisis has passed, Goldman has rebounded more markedly than its rivals. It has paid back the $10 billion in government assistance, with interest, and exited the federal debt guarantee program. It recently reported second-quarter profit of $3.44 billion, putting its employees on track to earn record bonuses this year: about $700,000 each, on average.

Ms. Davis, the spokeswoman for Mr. Paulson, said Goldman never received special treatment from the Treasury. Mr. Paulson’s calendars do not disclose any details about his conversations with Mr. Blankfein, and Ms. Davis said Mr. Paulson always maintained a proper regulatory distance from his old firm.

A spokesman for Goldman, Lucas van Praag, said: “Lloyd Blankfein, like the C.E.O.’s of other major financial institutions, received calls from, and made calls to, Treasury to provide a market perspective on conditions and events as they were unfolding. Given what was happening in the world, it would have been shocking if such conversations hadn’t taken place.”

Although federal officials were concerned that Goldman Sachs might collapse that week, Mr. van Praag said the only topics of discussion between Mr. Blankfein and Mr. Paulson at the time involved Lehman Brothers’ troubled London operations and “disarray in the money markets.” Mr. van Praag said Goldman was fully insulated from financial fallout related to a possible A.I.G. collapse in mid-September of last year.

However, Mr. Paulson believed he needed to request the ethics waivers during that tumultuous week, after regulators had become concerned that the same crisis of confidence that felled Bear Stearns and Lehman might spread to the remaining investment banks, including Goldman Sachs.

At a conference call scheduled for 3 p.m. on Sept. 17, 2008, Fed officials intended to discuss the financial soundness of Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, and they had asked Mr. Paulson to participate, according to Mr. Paulson’s calendars and his spokeswoman.

That was the first time during the crisis that Mr. Paulson’s involvement required a waiver, Ms. Davis said. The waiver was requested that morning and granted orally that afternoon, just before the 3 p.m. conference call.

A few minutes later, in an e-mail message to Mr. Paulson, Bernard J. Knight Jr., assistant general counsel at the Treasury, outlined the agency’s rationale for granting the waiver.

“I have determined that the magnitude of the government’s interest in your participation in matters that might affect or involve Goldman Sachs clearly outweighs the concern that your participation may cause a reasonable person to question the integrity of the government’s programs and operations,” Mr. Knight wrote.

Goldman’s Windfall

For investors in the United States and around the world, the days after the A.I.G. rescue were perilous and uncertain; the Dow Jones industrial average fell 4 percent on Sept. 17 as credit markets froze and investors absorbed the implications of the insurance giant’s collapse. That day, Mr. Paulson and his colleagues at the Federal Reserve were scrambling to contain the damage and shore up investor confidence.

But Mr. Paulson has disavowed any involvement in the decision to use taxpayer funds to make Goldman and A.I.G.’s trading partners whole. In his July testimony to the House, he said: “I want you to know that I had no role whatsoever in any of the Fed’s decision regarding payments to any of A.I.G.’s creditors or counterparties.”

Ms. Davis reiterated this, saying that Mr. Paulson’s involvement in the A.I.G. bailout was meant to forestall a collapse of the entire financial system and not to rescue any individual firms exposed to A.I.G., like Goldman. However, she said, federal officials were worried that both Goldman and Morgan Stanley were in danger themselves of failing later in the week and it was in that context that Mr. Paulson received a waiver.

“The waiver was in anticipation of a need to rescue Goldman Sachs,” Ms. Davis said, “not to bail out A.I.G.”

Treasury Department lawyers said a waiver for Mr. Paulson regarding A.I.G. was not necessary, Ms. Davis said, because the A.I.G. rescue was conducted by the Federal Reserve. The Treasury had no power to rescue A.I.G., she said. Only the Fed could make such a loan.

But according to two senior government officials involved in the discussions about an A.I.G. bailout and several other people who attended those meetings and requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements, the government’s decision to rescue A.I.G was made collectively by Mr. Paulson, officials from the Federal Reserve and other financial regulators in meetings at the New York Fed over the weekend of Sept. 13-14, 2008.

These people said Mr. Paulson played a major role in the A.I.G. rescue discussions over that weekend and that it was well known among the participants that a loan to A.I.G. would be used to pay Goldman and the insurer’s other trading partners.

Over that weekend, according to a former senior government official involved in the discussions, Mr. Paulson said that he had been warned by lawyers for the Treasury Department not to contact Goldman executives directly. But he said Mr. Paulson told him he had disregarded the advice because the “crisis” required action.

Ms. Davis said: “Hank doesn’t recall saying that. Staff had advised that he interact one on one with Goldman as little as possible, not because it would be a violation but for appearances, recognizing someone would likely attempt to read too much into it.”

On Sept. 16, 2008, the day that the government agreed to inject billions into A.I.G., Mr. Paulson personally called Robert B. Willumstad, A.I.G.’s chief executive, and dismissed him. Mr. Paulson’s involvement in the decision to rescue A.I.G. is also supported by an e-mail message sent by Scott G. Alvarez, general counsel at the Federal Reserve Board, to Robert Hoyt, a Treasury legal counsel, that same day.

The subject of the message, acquired under the Freedom of Information Act, is “AIG Letter,” and it contains a reference to a document called “AIG.Paulson.Letter.draft2.09.16.2008.doc.” The letter itself was not released.

Ms. Davis said this letter was intended to confirm that the Treasury and Mr. Paulson supported the loan to A.I.G. and that its officials recognized that any Fed losses would be absorbed by taxpayers. She said the existence of the letter did not confirm that Mr. Paulson was extensively involved in discussions about an A.I.G. bailout.

Since last September, the government’s commitment to A.I.G. has swelled to $173 billion. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office questioned whether taxpayers would ever be repaid the money loaned to what was once the world’s largest insurance company.

Constant Contact

In the ethics agreement that Mr. Paulson signed in 2006, he wrote: “I believe that these steps will ensure that I avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in the performance of my duties as Secretary of the Treasury.”

While that agreement barred him from dealing on specific matters involving Goldman, he spoke with Mr. Blankfein at other pivotal moments in the crisis before receiving waivers.

Mr. Paulson’s schedules from 2007 and 2008 show that he spoke with Mr. Blankfein, who was his successor as Goldman’s chief, 26 times before receiving a waiver.

On the morning of Sept. 16, 2008, the day the A.I.G. rescue was announced, Mr. Paulson’s calendars show that he took a call from Mr. Blankfein at 9:40 a.m. Mr. Paulson received the ethics waiver regarding contacts with Goldman between 2:30 and 3 the next afternoon. According to his calendar, he called Mr. Blankfein five times that day. The first call was placed at 9:10 a.m.; the second at 12:15 p.m.; and there were two more calls later that day. That evening, after taking a call from President Bush, Mr. Paulson called Mr. Blankfein again.

When the Treasury secretary reached his office the next day, on Sept. 18, his first call, at 6:55 a.m., went to Mr. Blankfein. That was followed by a call from Mr. Blankfein. All told, from Sept. 16 to Sept. 21, 2008, Mr. Paulson and Mr. Blankfein spoke 24 times.

At the height of the financial crisis, Mr. Paulson spoke far more often with Mr. Blankfein than any other executive, according to entries in his calendars.

The calls between Mr. Paulson and Mr. Blankfein, especially those surrounding the A.I.G. bailout, are disturbing to Samuel L. Hayes, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and a consultant in the past for government agencies, including the Treasury Department.

“We don’t know what they talked about,” Mr. Hayes said. “Obviously there was an enormous amount at stake for Goldman in whether or not the A.I.G. contracts would be made whole. So I think the burden is now on Mr. Paulson to demonstrate that there was no exchange of information one way or the other that influenced the ultimate decision of the government to essentially provide a blank check for A.I.G.’s contracts.”

In a letter accompanying the government’s production of Mr. Paulson’s calendar under the Freedom of Information Act request, Kevin M. Downey, a lawyer for Mr. Paulson, raised questions about how comprehensive the schedules were. He noted, for example, that the calendars did not reflect the Treasury secretary’s attendance at several public events. Mr. Downey did not return phone calls or e-mail messages seeking further comment.

Moreover, because the schedules include only phone calls made through Mr. Paulson’s office at Treasury, they provide only a partial picture of his communications. They do not reflect calls he made on his cellphone or from his home telephone.

According to the schedules, Mr. Paulson’s contacts with Mr. Blankfein began even before the height of the crisis last fall. During August 2007, for example, when the market for asset-backed commercial paper was seizing up, Mr. Paulson spoke with Mr. Blankfein 13 times. Mr. Paulson placed 12 of those calls.

By contrast, Mr. Paulson spoke six times that August with Richard S. Fuld Jr. of Lehman, four times with Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and only twice with John Thain of Merrill Lynch.

Senate Turns Aside New Attempt to Scrutinize Fed

bailoutREUTERS

Mon Jul 6, 2009 5:59pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Reserve, facing growing pressure as it tries to heal the ailing economy, dodged a bullet on Monday when the U.S. Senate cast aside a new effort to increase scrutiny of the central bank.

On procedural grounds, the Senate blocked a bid to permit the U.S. comptroller general, who heads the investigative arm of Congress known as the Government Accountability Office, to audit the Federal Reserve system and issue a report.

Republican Senator Jim DeMint, who has been pushing for greater transparency at the Fed, failed to get the provision attached to the must-pass annual spending bill that includes funding for the GAO for the upcoming 2010 fiscal year.

The audit would have included details about the Fed’s discount window operations, funding facilities, open market operations and agreements with foreign central banks and governments, DeMint said on the Senate floor.

“The Federal Reserve will create and disburse trillions of dollars in response to our current financial crisis,” DeMint said. “Americans across the nation, regardless of their opinion on the bailout, want to know where the money has gone.

“Allowing the Fed to operate our nation’s monetary system in almost complete secrecy leads to abuse, inflation and a lower quality of life,” he said.

Democrats who control the Senate blocked the South Carolina Republican’s amendment on the grounds that it violated rules prohibiting legislation attached to spending bills.

Fed officials were not immediately available to comment.

The move comes as some lawmakers have increasingly become wary of the Fed’s actions, particularly for its handling of the real estate market and the meltdown of major financial institutions like investment bank Bear Stearns and insurance giant American International Group.

A non-binding provision in the fiscal 2010 budget blueprint Congress approved in April called on the Fed to provide more information about collateral posted against Bear Stearns and AIG loans.

That measure also sought a study evaluating the appropriate number and costs of the regional Fed banks.

The U.S. central bank has a seven-member board in Washington whose members are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. It also has 12 regional banks whose presidents are appointed by banks and other businesses in their local districts, with the consent of the Washington board.

(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Alister Bull, editing by Dan Grebler)

It's Goldman Sachs' Party And They'll Profit If They Want To

THE GREAT AMERICAN BUBBLE MACHINE

ROLLING STONE

MATT TAIBBI

crashing

From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression – and they’re about to do it again


The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled-dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.

By now, most of us know the major players. As George Bush’s last Treasury secretary, former Goldman CEO Henry Paulson was the architect of the bailout, a suspiciously self-serving plan to funnel trillions of Your Dollars to a handful of his old friends on Wall Street. Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s former Treasury secretary, spent 26 years at Goldman before becoming chairman of Citigroup – which in turn got a $300 billion taxpayer bailout from Paulson. There’s John Thain, the rear end in a top hat chief of Merrill Lynch who bought an $87,000 area rug for his office as his company was imploding; a former Goldman banker, Thain enjoyed a multibillion-dollar handout from Paulson, who used billions in taxpayer funds to help Bank of America rescue Thain’s sorry company. And Robert Steel, the former Goldmanite head of Wachovia, scored himself and his fellow executives $225 million in golden parachute payments as his bank was self-destructing. There’s Joshua Bolten, Bush’s chief of staff during the bailout, and Mark Patterson, the current Treasury chief of staff, who was a Goldman lobbyist just a year ago, and Ed Liddy, the former Goldman director whom Paulson put in charge of bailed-out insurance giant AIG, which forked over $13 billion to Goldman after Liddy came on board. The heads of the Canadian and Italian national banks are Goldman alums, as is the head of the World Bank, the head of the New York Stock Exchange, the last two heads of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York – which, incidentally, is now in charge of overseeing Goldman – not to mention …

But then, any attempt to construct a narrative around all the former Goldmanites in influential positions quickly becomes an absurd and pointless exercise, like trying to make a list of everything. What you need to know is the big picture: If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain – an extremely unfortunate loophole in the system of Western democratic capitalism, which never foresaw that in a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.

The bank’s unprecedented reach and power have enabled it to turn all of America into a giant pump-and-dump scam, manipulating whole economic sectors for years at a time, moving the dice game as this or that market collapses, and all the time gorging itself on the unseen costs that are breaking families everywhere – high gas prices, rising consumer-credit rates, half-eaten pension funds, mass layoffs, future taxes to pay off bailouts. All that money that you’re losing, it’s going somewhere, and in both a literal and a figurative sense, Goldman Sachs is where it’s going: The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth – pure profit for rich individuals.

They achieve this using the same playbook over and over again. The formula is relatively simple: Goldman positions itself in the middle of a speculative bubble, selling investments they know are crap. Then they hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage. Finally, when it all goes bust, leaving millions of ordinary citizens broke and starving, they begin the entire process over again, riding in to rescue us all by lending us back our own money at interest, selling themselves as men above greed, just a bunch of really smart guys keeping the wheels greased. They’ve been pulling this same stunt over and over since the 1920s – and now they’re preparing to do it again, creating what may be the biggest and most audacious bubble yet.

If you want to understand how we got into this financial crisis, you have to first understand where all the money went – and in order to understand that, you need to understand what Goldman has already gotten away with. It is a history exactly five bubbles long – including last year’s strange and seemingly inexplicable spike in the price of oil. There were a lot of losers in each of those bubbles, and in the bailout that followed. But Goldman wasn’t one of them.

IF AMERICA IS NOW CIRCLING THE DRAIN, GOLDMAN SACHS HAS FOUND A WAY TO BE THAT DRAIN.

BUBBLE #1 – THE GREAT DEPRESSION

Goldman wasn’t always a too-big-to-fail Wall Street behemoth, the ruthless face of kill-or-be-killed capitalism on steroids – just almost always. The bank was actually founded in 1869 by a German immigrant named Marcus Goldman, who built it up with his son-in-law Samuel Sachs. They were pioneers in the use of commercial paper, which is just a fancy way of saying they made money lending out short-term IOUs to small-time vendors in downtown Manhattan.

You can probably guess the basic plotline of Goldman’s first 100 years in business: plucky, immigrant-led investment bank beats the odds, pulls itself up by its bootstraps, makes shitloads of money. In that ancient history there’s really only one episode that bears scrutiny now, in light of more recent events: Goldman’s disastrous foray into the speculative mania of pre-crash Wall Street in the late 1920s.

This great Hindenburg of financial history has a few features that might sound familiar. Back then, the main financial tool used to bilk investors was called an “investment trust.” Similar to modern mutual funds, the trusts took the cash of investors large and small and (theoretically, at least) invested it in a smorgasbord of Wall Street securities, though the securities and amounts were often kept hidden from the public. So a regular guy could invest $10 or $100 in a trust and feel like he was a big player. Much as in the 1990s, when new vehicles like day trading and e-trading attracted reams of new suckers from the sticks who wanted to feel like big shots, investment trusts roped a new generation of regular-guy investors into the speculation game.

Beginning a pattern that would repeat itself over and over again, Goldman got into the investment-trust game late, then jumped in with both feet and went hog-wild. The first effort was the Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation; the bank issued a million shares at $100 apiece, bought all those shares with its own money and then sold 90 percent of them to the hungry public at $104. The trading corporation then relentlessly bought shares in itself, bidding the price up further and further. Eventually it dumped part of its holdings and sponsored a new trust, the Shenandoah Corporation, issuing millions more in shares in that fund – which in turn sponsored yet another trust called the Blue Ridge Corporation. In this way, each investment trust served as a front for an endless investment pyramid: Goldman hiding behind Goldman hiding behind Goldman. Of the 7,250,000 initial shares of Blue Ridge, 6,250,000 were actually owned by Shenandoah – which, of course, was in large part owned by Goldman Trading.

The end result (ask yourself if this sounds familiar) was a daisy chain of borrowed money, one exquisitely vulnerable to a decline in performance anywhere along the line; The basic idea isn’t hard to follow. You take a dollar and borrow nine against it; then you take that $10 fund and borrow $90; then you take your $100 fund and, so long as the public is still lending, borrow and invest $900. If the last fund in the line starts to lose value, you no longer have the money to pay back your investors, and everyone gets massacred.

In a chapter from The Great Crash, 1929 titled “In Goldman Sachs We Trust,” the famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith held up the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah trusts as classic examples of the insanity of leverage-based investment. The trusts, he wrote, were a major cause of the market’s historic crash; in today’s dollars, the losses the bank suffered totaled $475 billion. “It is difficult not to marvel at the imagination which was implicit in this gargantuan insanity,” Galbraith observed, sounding like Keith Olbermann in an ascot. “If there must be madness, something may be said for having it on a heroic scale.”

BUBBLE #2 – TECH STOCKS

Fast-Forward about 65 years. Goldman not only survived the crash that wiped out so many of the investors it duped, it went on to become the chief underwriter to the country’s wealthiest and most powerful corporations. Thanks to Sidney Weinberg, who rose from the rank of janitor’s assistant to head the firm, Goldman became the pioneer of the initial public offering, one of the principal and most lucrative means by which companies raise money. During the 1970s and 1980s, Goldman may not have been the planet-eating Death Star of political influence it is today, but it was a top-drawer firm that had a reputation for attracting the very smartest talent on the Street.

It also, oddly enough, had a reputation for relatively solid ethics and a patient approach to investment that shunned the fast buck; its executives were trained to adopt the firm’s mantra, “long-term greedy.” One former Goldman banker who left the firm in the early Nineties recalls seeing his superiors give up a very profitable deal on the grounds that it was a long-term loser. “We gave back money to ‘grownup’ corporate clients who had made bad deals with us,” he says. “Everything we did was legal and fair – but ‘long-term greedy’ said we didn’t want to make such a profit at the clients’ collective expense that we spoiled the marketplace.”

But then, something happened. It’s hard to say what it was exactly; it might have been the fact that Goldman’s co-chairman in the early Nineties, Robert Rubin, followed Bill Clinton to the White House, where he directed the National Economic Council and eventually became Treasury secretary. While the American media fell in love with the story line of a pair of baby-boomer, Sixties-child, Fleetwood Mac yuppies nesting in the White House, it also nursed an undisguised crush on Rubin, who was hyped as without a doubt the smartest person ever to walk the face of the Earth, with Newton, Einstein, Mozart and Kant running far behind.

Rubin was the prototypical Goldman banker. He was probably born in a $4,000 suit, he had a face that seemed permanently frozen just short of an apology for being so much smarter than you, and he exuded a Spock-like, emotion-neutral exterior; the only human feeling you could imagine him experiencing was a nightmare about being forced to fly coach. It became almost a national cliche that whatever Rubin thought was best for the economy – a phenomenon that reached its apex in 1999, when Rubin appeared on the cover of Time with his Treasury deputy, Larry Summers, and Fed chief Alan Greenspan under the headline THE COMMITTEE TO SAVE THE WORLD. And “what Rubin thought,” mostly, was that the American economy, and in particular the financial markets, were over-regulated and needed to be set free. During his tenure at Treasury, the Clinton White House made a series of moves that would have drastic consequences for the global economy – beginning with Rubin’s complete and total failure to regulate his old firm during its first mad dash for obscene short-term profits.

The basic scam in the Internet Age is pretty easy even for the financially illiterate to grasp. Companies that weren’t much more than pot-fueled ideas scrawled on napkins by up-too-late bong-smokers were taken public via IPOs, hyped in the media and sold to the public for megamillions. It was as if banks like Goldman were wrapping ribbons around watermelons, tossing them out 50-story windows and opening the phones for bids. In this game you were a winner only if you took your money out before the melon hit the pavement.

It sounds obvious now, but what the average investor didn’t know at the time was that the banks had changed the rules of the game, making the deals look better than they actually were. They did this by setting up what was, in reality, a two-tiered investment system – one for the insiders who knew the real numbers, and another for the lay investor who was invited to chase soaring prices the banks themselves knew were irrational. While Goldman’s later pattern would be to capitalize on changes in the regulatory environment, its key innovation in the Internet years was to abandon its own industry’s standards of quality control.

“Since the Depression, there were strict underwriting guidelines that Wall Street adhered to when taking a company public,” says one prominent hedge-fund manager. “The company had to be in business for a minimum of five years, and it had to show profitability for three consecutive years. But Wall Street took these guidelines and threw them in the trash.” Goldman completed the snow job by pumping up the sham stocks: “Their analysts were out there saying Bullshit.com is worth $100 a share.”

The problem was, nobody told investors that the rules had changed. “Everyone on the inside knew,” the manager says. “Bob Rubin sure as hell knew what the underwriting standards were. They’d been intact since the 1930s.”

Jay Ritter, a professor of finance at the University of Florida who specializes in IPOs, says banks like Goldman knew full well that many of the public offerings they were touting would never make a dime. “In the early Eighties, the major underwriters insisted on three years of profitability. Then it was one year, then it was a quarter. By the time of the Internet bubble, they were not even requiring profitability in the foreseeable future.”

Goldman has denied that it changed its underwriting standards during the Internet years, but its own statistics belie the claim. Just as it did with the investment trust in the 1920s, Goldman started slow and finished crazy in the Internet years. After it took a little-known company with weak financials called Yahoo! public in 1996, once the tech boom had already begun, Goldman quickly became the IPO king of the Internet era. Of the 24 companies it took public in 1997, a third were losing money at the time of the IPO. In 1999, at the height of the boom, it took 47 companies public, including stillborns like Webvan and eToys, investment offerings that were in many ways the modern equivalents of Blue Ridge and Shenandoah. The following year, it underwrote 18 companies in the first four months, 14 of which were money losers at the time. As a leading underwriter of Internet stocks during the boom, Goldman provided profits far more volatile than those of its competitors: In 1999, the average Goldman IPO leapt 281 percent above its offering price, compared to the Wall Street average of 181 percent.

How did Goldman achieve such extraordinary results? One answer is that they used a practice called “laddering,” which is just a fancy way of saying they manipulated the share price of new offerings. Here’s how it works: Say you’re Goldman Sachs, and Bullshit.com comes to you and asks you to take their company public. You agree on the usual terms: You’ll price the stock, determine how many shares should be released and take the Bullshit.com CEO on a “road show” to schmooze investors, all in exchange for a substantial fee (typically six to seven percent of

the amount raised). You then promise your best clients the right to buy big chunks of the IPO at the low offering price – let’s say Bullshit.com’s starting share price is $15 – in exchange for a promise that they will buy more shares later on the open market. That seemingly simple demand gives you inside knowledge of the IPO’s future, knowledge that wasn’t disclosed to the day-trader schmucks who only had the prospectus to go by: You know that certain of your clients who bought X amount of shares at $15 are also going to buy Y more shares at $20 or $25, virtually guaranteeing that the price is going to go to $25 and beyond. In this way, Goldman could artificially jack up the new company’s price, which of course was to the bank’s benefit – a six percent fee of a $500 million IPO is serious money.

Goldman was repeatedly sued by shareholders for engaging in laddering in a variety of Internet IPOs, including Webvan and NetZero. The deceptive practices also caught the attention of Nichol as Maier, the syndicate manager of Cramer & Co., the hedge fund run at the time by the now-famous chattering television rear end in a top hat Jim Cramer, himself a Goldman alum. Maier told the SEC that while working for Cramer between 1996 and 1998, he was repeatedly forced to engage in laddering practices during IPO deals with Goldman.

“Goldman, from what I witnessed, they were the worst perpetrator,” Maier said. “They totally fueled the bubble. And it’s specifically that kind of behavior that has caused the market crash. They built these stocks upon an illegal foundation – manipulated up – and ultimately, it really was the small person who ended up buying in.” In 2005, Goldman agreed to pay $40 million for its laddering violations – a puny penalty relative to the enormous profits it made. (Goldman, which has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases it has settled, refused to respond to questions for this story.)

Another practice Goldman engaged in during the Internet boom was “spinning,” better known as bribery. Here the investment bank would offer the executives of the newly public company shares at extra-low prices, in exchange for future underwriting business. Banks that engaged in spinning would then undervalue the initial offering price – ensuring that those “hot” opening price shares it had handed out to insiders would be more likely to rise quickly, supplying bigger first-day rewards for the chosen few. So instead of Bullshit.com opening at $20, the bank would approach the Bullshit.com CEO and offer him a million shares of his own company at $18 in exchange for future business – effectively robbing all of Bullshit’s new shareholders by diverting cash that should have gone to the company’s bottom line into the private bank account of the company’s CEO.

In one case, Goldman allegedly gave a multimillion-dollar special offering to eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who later joined Goldman’s board, in exchange for future i-banking business. According to a report by the House Financial Services Committee in 2002, Goldman gave special stock offerings to executives in 21 companies that it took public, including Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and two of the great slithering villains of the financial-scandal age – Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski and Enron’s Ken Lay. Goldman angrily denounced the report as “an egregious distortion of the facts” – shortly before paying $110 million to settle an investigation into spinning and other manipulations launched by New York state regulators. “The spinning of hot IPO shares was not a harmless corporate perk,” then-attorney general Eliot Spitzer said at the time. “Instead, it was an integral part of a fraudulent scheme to win new investment-banking business.”

Such practices conspired to turn the Internet bubble into one of the greatest financial disasters in world history: Some $5 trillion of wealth was wiped out on the NASDAQ alone. But the real problem wasn’t the money that was lost by shareholders, it was the money gained by investment bankers, who received hefty bonuses for tampering with the market. Instead of teaching Wall Street a lesson that bubbles always deflate, the Internet years demonstrated to bankers that in the age of freely flowing capital and publicly owned financial companies, bubbles are incredibly easy to inflate, and individual bonuses are actually bigger when the mania and the irrationality are greater.

GOLDMAN SCAMMED HOUSING INVESTORS BY BETTING AGAINST ITS OWN CRAPPY MORTGAGES.

Nowhere was this truer than at Goldman. Between 1999 and 2002, the firm paid out $28.5 billion in compensation and benefits – an average of roughly $350,000 a year per employee. Those numbers are important because the key legacy of the Internet boom is that the economy is now driven in large part by the pursuit of the enormous salaries and bonuses that such bubbles make possible. Goldman’s mantra of “long-term greedy” vanished into thin air as the game became about getting your check before the melon hit the pavement.

The market was no longer a rationally managed place to grow real, profitable businesses: It was a huge ocean of Someone Else’s Money where bankers hauled in vast sums through whatever means necessary and tried to convert that money into bonuses and payouts as quickly as possible. If you laddered and spun 50 Internet IPOs that went bust within a year, so what? By the time the Securities and Exchange Commission got around to fining your firm $110 million, the yacht you bought with your IPO bonuses was already six years old. Besides, you were probably out of Goldman by then, running the U.S. Treasury or maybe the state of New Jersey. (One of the truly comic moments in the history of America’s recent financial collapse came when Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who ran Goldman from 1994 to 1999 and left with $320 million in IPO-fattened stock, insisted in 2002 that “I’ve never even heard the term ‘laddering’ before.”)

For a bank that paid out $7 billion a year in salaries, $110 million fines issued half a decade late were something far less than a deterrent – they were a joke. Once the Internet bubble burst, Goldman had no incentive to reassess its new, profit-driven strategy; it just searched around for another bubble to inflate. As it turns out, it had one ready, thanks in large part to Rubin.

BUBBLE #3 – THE HOUSING CRAZE

Goldman’s role in the sweeping disaster that was the housing bubble is not hard to trace. Here again, the basic trick was a decline in underwriting standards, although in this case the standards weren’t in IPOs but in mortgages. By now almost everyone knows that for decades mortgage dealers insisted that home buyers be able to produce a down payment of 10 percent or more, show a steady income and good credit rating, and possess a real first and last name. Then, at the dawn of the new millennium, they suddenly threw all that poo poo out the window and started writing mortgages on the backs of napkins to cocktail waitresses and ex-cons carrying five bucks and a Snickers bar.

None of that would have been possible without investment bankers like Goldman, who created vehicles to package those lovely mortgages and sell them en masse to unsuspecting insurance companies and pension funds. This created a mass market for toxic debt that would never have existed before; in the old days, no bank would have wanted to keep some addict ex-con’s mortgage on its books, knowing how likely it was to fail. You can’t write these mortgages, in other words, unless you can sell them to someone who doesn’t know what they are.

Goldman used two methods to hide the mess they were selling. First, they bundled hundreds of different mortgages into instruments called Collateralized Debt Obligations. Then they sold investors on the idea that, because a bunch of those mortgages would turn out to be OK, there was no reason to worry so much about the lovely ones: The CDO, as a whole, was sound. Thus, junk-rated mortgages were turned into AAA-rated investments. Second, to hedge its own bets, Goldman got companies like AIG to provide insurance – known as credit-default swaps – on the CDOs. The swaps were essentially a racetrack bet between AIG and Goldman: Goldman is betting the ex-cons will default, AIG is betting they won’t.

There was only one problem with the deals: All of the wheeling and dealing represented exactly the kind of dangerous speculation that federal regulators are supposed to rein in. Derivatives like CDOs and credit swaps had already caused a series of serious financial calamities: Procter & Gamble and Gibson Greetings both lost fortunes, and Orange County, California, was forced to default in 1994. A report that year by the Government Accountability Office recommended that such financial instruments be tightly regulated – and in 1998, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a woman named Brooksley Born, agreed. That May, she circulated a letter to business leaders and the Clinton administration suggesting that banks be required to provide greater disclosure in derivatives trades, and maintain reserves to cushion against losses.

More regulation wasn’t exactly what Goldman had in mind. “The banks go crazy – they want it stopped,” says Michael Greenberger, who worked for Born as director of trading and markets at the CFTC and is now a law professor at the University of Maryland. “Greenspan, Summers, Rubin and [SEC chief Arthur] Levitt want it stopped.”

Clinton’s reigning economic foursome – “especially Rubin,” according to Greenberger – called Born in for a meeting and pleaded their case. She refused to back down, however, and continued to push for more regulation of the derivatives. Then, in June 1998, Rubin went public to denounce her move, eventually recommending that Congress strip the CFTC of its regulatory authority. In 2000, on its last day in session, Congress passed the now-notorious Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which had been inserted into an 1l,000-page spending bill at the last minute, with almost no debate on the floor of the Senate. Banks were now free to trade default swaps with impunity.

But the story didn’t end there. AIG, a major purveyor of default swaps, approached the New York State Insurance Department in 2000 and asked whether default swaps would be regulated as insurance. At the time, the office was run by one Neil Levin, a former Goldman vice president, who decided against regulating the swaps. Now freed to underwrite as many housing-based securities and buy as much credit-default protection as it wanted, Goldman went berserk with lending lust. By the peak of the housing boom in 2006, Goldman was underwriting $76.5 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities – a third of which were subprime – much of it to institutional investors like pensions and insurance companies. And in these massive issues of real estate were vast swamps of crap.

Take one $494 million issue that year, GSAMP Trust 2006-S3. Many of the mortgages belonged to second-mortgage borrowers, and the average equity they had in their homes was 0.71 percent. Moreover, 58 percent of the loans included little or no documentation – no names of the borrowers, no addresses of the homes, just zip codes. Yet both of the major ratings agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, rated 93 percent of the issue as investment grade. Moody’s projected that less than 10 percent of the loans would default. In reality, 18 percent of the mortgages were in default within 18 months.

Not that Goldman was personally at any risk. The bank might be taking all these hideous, completely irresponsible mortgages from beneath-gangster-status firms like Countrywide and selling them off to municipalities and pensioners – old people, for God’s sake – pretending the whole time that it wasn’t grade-D horseshit. But even as it was doing so, it was taking short positions in the same market, in essence betting against the same crap it was selling. Even worse, Goldman bragged about it in public. “The mortgage sector continues to be challenged,” David Viniar, the bank’s chief financial officer, boasted in 2007. “As a result, we took significant markdowns on our long inventory positions …. However, our risk bias in that market was to be short, and that net short position was profitable.” In other words, the mortgages it was selling were for chumps. The real money was in betting against those same mortgages.

“That’s how audacious these assholes are,” says one hedge-fund manager. “At least with other banks, you could say that they were just dumb – they believed what they were selling, and it blew them up. Goldman knew what it was doing.” I ask the manager how it could be that selling something to customers that you’re actually betting against – particularly when you know more about the weaknesses of those products than the customer – doesn’t amount to securities fraud.

“It’s exactly securities fraud,” he says. “It’s the heart of securities fraud.”

Eventually, lots of aggrieved investors agreed. In a virtual repeat of the Internet IPO craze, Goldman was hit with a wave of lawsuits after the collapse of the housing bubble, many of which accused the bank of withholding pertinent information about the quality of the mortgages it issued. New York state regulators are suing Goldman and 25 other underwriters for selling bundles of crappy Countrywide mortgages to city and state pension funds, which lost as much as $100 million in the investments. Massachusetts also investigated Goldman for similar misdeeds, acting on behalf of 714 mortgage holders who got stuck ho1ding predatory loans. But once again, Goldman got off virtually scot-free, staving off prosecution by agreeing to pay a paltry $60 million – about what the bank’s CDO division made in a day and a half during the real estate boom.

The effects of the housing bubble are well known – it led more or less directly to the collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG, whose toxic portfolio of credit swaps was in significant part composed of the insurance that banks like Goldman bought against their own housing portfolios. In fact, at least $13 billion of the taxpayer money given to AIG in the bailout ultimately went to Goldman, meaning that the bank made out on the housing bubble twice: It hosed the investors who bought their horseshit CDOs by betting against its own crappy product, then it turned around and hosed the taxpayer by making him payoff those same bets.

And once again, while the world was crashing down all around the bank, Goldman made sure it was doing just fine in the compensation department. In 2006, the firm’s payroll jumped to $16.5 billion – an average of $622,000 per employee. As a Goldman spokesman explained, “We work very hard here.”

But the best was yet to come. While the collapse of the housing bubble sent most of the financial world fleeing for the exits, or to jail, Goldman boldly doubled down – and almost single-handedly created yet another bubble, one the world still barely knows the firm had anything to do with.

BUBBLE #4 – $4 A GALLON

By the beginning of 2008, the financial world was in turmoil. Wall Street had spent the past two and a half decades producing one scandal after another, which didn’t leave much to sell that wasn’t tainted. The terms junk bond, IPO, subprime mortgage and other once-hot financial fare were now firmly associated in the public’s mind with scams; the terms credit swaps and CDOs were about to join them. The credit markets were in crisis, and the mantra that had sustained the fantasy economy throughout the Bush years – the notion that housing prices never go down – was now a fully exploded myth, leaving the Street clamoring for a new bullshit paradigm to sling.

Where to go? With the public reluctant to put money in anything that felt like a paper investment, the Street quietly moved the casino to the physical-commodities market – stuff you could touch: corn, coffee, cocoa, wheat and, above all, energy commodities, especially oil. In conjunction with a decline in the dollar, the credit crunch and the housing crash caused a “flight to commodities.” Oil futures in particular skyrocketed, as the price of a single barrel went from around $60 in the middle of 2007 to a high of $147 in the summer of 2008.

That summer, as the presidential campaign heated up, the accepted explanation for why gasoline had hit $4.11 a gallon was that there was a problem with the world oil supply. In a classic example of how Republicans and Democrats respond to crises by engaging in fierce exchanges of moronic irrelevancies, John McCain insisted that ending the moratorium on offshore drilling would be “very helpful in the short term,” while Barack Obama in typical liberal-arts yuppie style argued that federal investment in hybrid cars was the way out.

GOLDMAN TURNED A SLEEPY OIL MARKET INTO A GIANT BETTING PARLOR – SPIKING PRICES AT THE PUMP.

But it was all a lie. While the global supply of oil will eventually dry up, the short-term flow has actually been increasing. In the six months before prices spiked, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the world oil supply rose from 85.24 million barrels a day to 85.72 million. Over the same period, world oil demand dropped from 86.82 million barrels a day to 86.07 million. Not only was the short-term supply of oil rising, the demand for it was falling – which, in classic economic terms, should have brought prices at the pump down.

So what caused the huge spike in oil prices? Take a wild guess. Obviously Goldman had help – there were other players in the physical-commodities market – but the root cause had almost everything to do with the behavior of a few powerful actors determined to turn the once-solid market into a speculative casino. Goldman did it by persuading pension funds and other large institutional investors to invest in oil futures – agreeing to buy oil at a certain price on a fixed date. The push transformed oil from a physical commodity, rigidly subject to supply and demand, into something to bet on, like a stock. Between 2003 and 2008, the amount of speculative money in commodities grew from $13 billion to $317 billion, an increase of 2,300 percent. By 2008, a barrel of oil was traded 27 times, on average, before it was actually delivered and consumed.

As is so often the case, there had been a Depression-era law in place designed specifically to prevent this sort of thing. The commodities market was designed in large part to help farmers: A grower concerned about future price drops could enter into a contract to sell his corn at a certain price for delivery later on, which made him worry less about building up stores of his crop. When no one was buying corn, the farmer could sell to a middleman known as a “traditional speculator,” who would store the grain and sell it later, when demand returned. That way, someone was always there to buy from the farmer, even when the market temporarily had no need for his crops.

In 1936, however, Congress recognized that there should never be more speculators in the market than real producers and consumers. If that happened, prices would be affected by something other than supply and demand, and price manipulations would ensue. A new law empowered the Commodity Futures Trading Commission – the very same body that would later try and fail to regulate credit swaps – to place limits on speculative trades in commodities. As a result of the CFTC’s oversight, peace and harmony reigned in the commodities markets for more than 50 years.

All that changed in 1991 when, unbeknownst to almost everyone in the world, a Goldman-owned commodities-trading subsidiary called J. Aron wrote to the CFTC and made an unusual argument. Farmers with big stores of corn, Goldman argued, weren’t the only ones who needed to hedge their risk against future price drops – Wall Street dealers who made big bets on oil prices also needed to hedge their risk, because, well, they stood to lose a lot too.

This was complete and utter crap – the 1936 law, remember, was specifically designed to maintain distinctions between people who were buying and selling real tangible stuff and people who were trading in paper alone. But the CFTC, amazingly, bought Goldman’s argument. It issued the bank a free pass, called the “Bona Fide Hedging” exemption, allowing Goldman’s subsidiary to call itself a physical hedger and escape virtually all limits placed on speculators. In the years that followed, the commission would quietly issue 14 similar exemptions to other companies.

Now Goldman and other banks were free to drive more investors into the commodities markets, enabling speculators to place increasingly big bets. That 1991 letter from Goldman more or less directly led to the oil bubble in 2008, when the number of speculators in the market – driven there by fear of the falling dollar and the housing crash – finally overwhelmed the real physical suppliers and consumers. By 2008, at least three quarters of the activity on the commodity exchanges was speculative, according to a congressional staffer who studied the numbers – and that’s likely a conservative estimate. By the middle of last summer, despite rising supply and a drop in demand, we were paying $4 a gallon every time we pulled up to the pump.

What is even more amazing is that the letter to Goldman, along with most of the other trading exemptions, was handed out more or less in secret. “I was the head of the division of trading and markets, and Brooksley Born was the chair of the CFTC,” says Greenberger, “and neither of us knew this letter was out there.” In fact, the letters only came to light by accident. Last year, a staffer for the House Energy and Commerce Committee just happened to be at a briefing when officials from the CFTC made an offhand reference to the exemptions.

“1 had been invited to a briefing the commission was holding on energy,” the staffer recounts. “And suddenly in the middle of it, they start saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve been issuing these letters for years now.’ I raised my hand and said, ‘Really? You issued a letter? Can I see it?’ And they were like, ‘Duh, duh.’ So we went back and forth, and finally they said, ‘We have to clear it with Goldman Sachs.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean, you

have to clear it with Goldman Sachs?'”

The CFTC cited a rule that prohibited it from releasing any information about a company’s current position in the market. But the staffer’s request was about a letter that had been issued 17 years earlier. It no longer had anything to do with Goldman’s current position. What’s more, Section 7 of the 1936 commodities law gives Congress the right to any information it wants from the commission. Still, in a classic example of how complete Goldman’s capture of government is, the CFTC waited until it got clearance from the bank before it turned the letter over.

Armed with the semi-secret government exemption, Goldman had become the chief designer of a giant commodities betting parlor. Its Goldman Sachs Commodities Index – which tracks the prices of 24 major commodities but is overwhelmingly weighted toward oil – became the place where pension funds and insurance companies and other institutional investors could make massive long-term bets on commodity prices. Which was all well and good, except for a couple of things. One was that index speculators are mostly “long only” bettors, who seldom if ever take short positions – meaning they only bet on prices to rise. While this kind of behavior is good for a stock market, it’s terrible for commodities, because it continually forces prices upward. “If index speculators took short positions as well as long ones, you’d see them pushing prices both up and down,” says Michael Masters, a hedge-fund manager who has helped expose the role of investment banks in the manipulation of oil prices. “But they only push prices in one direction: up.”

Complicating matters even further was the fact that Goldman itself was cheerleading with all its might for an increase in oil prices. In the beginning of 2008, Arjun Murti, a Goldman analyst, hailed as an “oracle of oil” by The New York Times, predicted a “super spike” in oil prices, forecasting a rise to $200 a barrel. At the time Goldman was heavily invested in oil through its commodities-trading subsidiary, J. Aron; it also owned a stake in a major oil refinery in Kansas, where it warehoused the crude it bought and sold. Even though the supply of oil was keeping pace with demand, Murti continually warned of disruptions to the world oil supply, going so far as to broadcast the fact that he owned two hybrid cars. High prices, the bank insisted, were somehow the fault of the piggish American consumer; in 2005, Goldman analysts insisted that we wouldn’t know when oil prices would fall until we knew “when American consumers will stop buying gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and instead seek fuel-efficient alternatives.”

But it wasn’t the consumption of real oil that was driving up prices – it was the trade in paper oil. By the summer of2008, in fact, commodities speculators had bought and stockpiled enough oil futures to fill 1.1 billion barrels of crude, which meant that speculators owned more future oil on paper than there was real, physical oil stored in all of the country’s commercial storage tanks and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve combined. It was a repeat of both the Internet craze and the housing bubble, when Wall Street jacked up present-day profits by selling suckers shares of a fictional fantasy future of endlessly rising prices.

In what was by now a painfully familiar pattern, the oil-commodities melon hit the pavement hard in the summer of 2008, causing a massive loss of wealth; crude prices plunged from $147 to $33. Once again the big losers were ordinary people. The pensioners whose funds invested in this crap got massacred: CalPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, had $1.1 billion in commodities when the crash came. And the damage didn’t just come from oil. Soaring food prices driven by the commodities bubble led to catastrophes across the planet, forcing an estimated 100 million people into hunger and sparking food riots throughout the Third World.

Now oil prices are rising again: They shot up 20 percent in the month of May and have nearly doubled so far this year. Once again, the problem is not supply or demand. “The highest supply of oil in the last 20 years is now,” says Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan who serves on the House energy committee. “Demand is at a 10-year low. And yet prices are up.”

Asked why politicians continue to harp on things like drilling or hybrid cars, when supply and demand have nothing to do with the high prices, Stupak shakes his head. “I think they just don’t understand the problem very well,” he says. “You can’t explain it in 30 seconds, so politicians ignore it.”

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Big Banks Get Big Time Changes

Jun 17, 7:13 PM (ET)

hp3By JIM KUHNHENN and MARTIN CRUTSINGER

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON (AP) – From simple home loans to Wall Street’s most exotic schemes, the government would impose and enforce sweeping new “rules of the road” for the nation’s battered financial system under an overhaul proposed Wednesday by President Barack Obama.

Aimed at preventing a repeat of the worst economic crisis in seven decades, the changes would begin to reverse a determined campaign pressed in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan to cut back on federal regulations.

Obama’s plan would do little to streamline the alphabet soup of agencies that oversee the financial sector. But it calls for fundamental shifts in authority that would eliminate one regulatory agency, create another and both enhance and undercut the authority of the powerful Federal Reserve.

The new agency, a consumer protection office, would specifically take over oversight of mortgages, requiring that lenders give customers the option of “plain vanilla” plans with straightforward and affordable terms. Lenders who repackage loans and sell them to investors as securities would be required to retain 5 percent of the credit risk – a figure some analysts believe is too low.

In all, the Obama’s broad proposal cheered consumer advocates and dismayed the banking industry with its proposed creation of a regulator to protect consumers in all their banking transactions, from mortgages to credit cards. Large insurers protested the administration’s decision not to impose a standard, federal regulation on the insurance industry, leaving it to the separate states as at present. Mutual funds succeeded in staying under the jurisdiction of the Securities and Exchange Commission instead of the new consumer protection agency.

Obama cast his proposals as an attempt to find a middle ground between the benefits and excesses of capitalism.

“We are called upon to put in place those reforms that allow our best qualities to flourish – while keeping those worst traits in check,” Obama said.

The president’s plan lands in the lap of a Congress already preoccupied by historic health care legislation, consideration of a new Supreme Court justice and other major issues. Still, Obama has set an ambitious schedule, pushing lawmakers to adopt a new regulatory regime by year’s end.

“We’ll have it done this year,” pledged Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

“Absolutely,” agreed Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

But fissures quickly developed.

Dodd, who had been at Obama’s side in the East Room of the White House for the announcement, raised questions about one of the plan’s key features – giving the Federal Reserve authority to oversee the largest and most interconnected players in the financial world.

“There’s not a lot of confidence in the Fed at this point,” Dodd said.

Obama’s proposal would require the Federal Reserve, which now can independently use emergency powers to bail out failing banks, to first obtain Treasury Department approval before extending credit to institutions in “unusual and exigent circumstances,” a change designed to mollify critics who say the Fed should be more accountable in exercising its powers as a lender of last resort.

But the proposal also would do away with a restriction imposed on the Fed in 1999 when Congress lifted Depression-era restrictions that allowed banks to get into securities and insurance businesses. The Fed, as the regulator for the larger financial holding companies, had been prohibited from examining or imposing restrictions on those firms’ subsidiaries. Obama’s proposal specifically lifts that restriction, giving the Fed the ability to duplicate and even overrule other regulators. At the same time, the new consumer agency would take away some of the Fed’s authority.

Fed defenders argue that none of the major institutional collapses – AIG, Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros., Merrill Lynch or Countrywide – were supervised by the Federal Reserve. Critics argue the Fed failed to crack down on dubious mortgage practices that were at the heart of the crisis.

Administration officials concede their plan responds to the current crisis- in national security terms, it prepares them to fight the last war. But they also insist that a central tenet of their plan is a requirement that from now on financial institutions will have to keep more money in reserve – the best hedge against another meltdown.

That may appear to be a no-brainer: If banks and other large institutions have more money, they won’t be vulnerable if their risky bets go bad.

However, banking regulators have been arguing for years over implementation of an international standard for bank capital. Geithner said Wednesday hoped to move on enhanced capital standards “in parallel with the rest of the world.”

Obama’s overall plan, laid out in an 88-page white paper, was the result of extensive consultations with members of Congress, regulators and industry groups and represented a compromise from bolder ideas the administration ended up abandoning because of heavy opposition.

The plan had its share of winners and losers, both inside and outside government.

Sheila Bair, the chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., lost her campaign to have a regulatory council, not the Fed, regulate large firms whose failure could undermine the entire system. SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro also had expressed support for Bair’s push for a more powerful risk council.

The regulatory overhaul ended up eliminating only one agency, the Office of Thrift Supervision, generally considered a weak link among current banking regulators. The OTS oversaw the American International Group, whose business insuring exotic securities blew up last fall, prompting a $182 billion federal bailout.

The failure to merge all four current banking agencies into one super regulator could open the door for big banks to continue to exploit weak links in the current system. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a leading Democratic voice on Wall Street issues, praised the administration’s plan but said he would consider further consolidation.

“We’re removing one major agency-shopping opportunity, but there’s a real potential for others,” said Patricia McCoy, a law professor at the University of Connecticut who has studied bank failures.

Associated Press writers Marcy Gordon, Anne Flaherty, Jeannine Aversa and Stevenson Jacobs contributed to this report.

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