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Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs

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My last posting focused on the widely-publicized research conducted by Stéphane Côté, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who worked with a team of four psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley to conduct seven studies on a rather timely subject.  Their article, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in the February 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  The following excerpt from the abstract of their paper provides the general theme of what their efforts revealed:

.   .   .  investigation revealed upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.

I began my discussion of that paper by looking back at a Washington Post opinion piece entitled, “Angry about inequality?  Don’t blame the rich”.  The essay was written last January by James Q. Wilson (who passed away on March 2).  On March 4, William K. Black took a deeper look at the legacy of James Q. Wilson, which provided a better understanding of why Wilson would champion the “Don’t blame the rich” rationale.  As Bill Black pointed out, Wilson was a political scientist, known best for his theory called “broken windows” – a metaphor based on a vacant building with a few broken windows, which quickly has all of its windows broken because petty criminals feel emboldened to damage a building so neglected by its owners.  Bill Black emphasized that Wilson was exclusively preoccupied with minor, “blue collar” crimes.  Black noted that in a book entitled, Thinking About Crime, Wilson expressed tolerance for “some forms of civic corruption” while presenting an argument that criminology “should focus overwhelmingly on low-status blue collar criminals”.  Bill Black went on to explain how Wilson’s blindness to the relevance of the “broken windows” concept, as it related to “white collar” crime, resulted in a missed opportunity to attenuate the criminogenic milieu which led to the 2008 financial crisis:

Wilson emphasized that it was the willingness of society to tolerate relatively minor blue collar crimes that led to social disintegration and epidemics of severe blue collar crimes, but he engaged in the same willingness to tolerate and excuse less severe white collar crimes.  He predicted in his work on “broken windows” that tolerating widespread smaller crimes would lead to epidemic levels of larger crimes because it undermined community and social restraints.  The epidemics of elite white collar crime that have driven our recurrent, intensifying financial crises have proven this point.  Similarly, corruption that is excused and tolerated by elites is unlikely to remain at the level of “a few deals.”  Corruption is likely to spread in incidence and severity precisely because it undermines community and the rule of law and it is likely to grow more pervasive and harmful the more we “tolera[te]” it.

*   *   *

Taking Wilson’s “broken windows” reasoning seriously in the elite white collar crime context would require us to take a series of prophylactic measures to restore integrity and strengthen peer pressures against misconduct.  Indeed, we have implicitly tested the applicability of “broken windows” reasoning in that context by adopting policies that acted directly contrary to Wilson’s reasoning.  We have adopted executive and professional compensation systems that are exceptionally criminogenic.

*   *   *

Fiduciary duties are critical means of preventing broken windows from occurring and making it likely that any broken windows in corporate governance will soon be remedied, yet we have steadily weakened fiduciary duties.  For example, Delaware now allows the elimination of the fiduciary duty of care as long as the shareholders approve.  Court decisions have increasingly weakened the fiduciary duties of loyalty and care.  The Chamber of Commerce’s most recent priorities have been to weaken Sarbanes-Oxley and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  We have made it exceptionally difficult for shareholders who are victims of securities fraud to bring civil suits against the officers and entities that led or aided and abetted the securities fraud.

*   *   *

In the elite white collar crime context we have been following the opposite strategy of that recommended under “broken windows” theory.  We have been breaking windows. We have excused those who break the windows.  Indeed, we have praised them and their misconduct.  The problem with allowing broken windows is far greater in the elite white collar crime context than the blue collar crime context.

To find a “poster child” example for the type of errant fiduciary behavior which owes its existence to Wilson’s misapplication of the “broken windows” doctrine, one need look no further than Matt Taibbi’s favorite “vampire squid”:  Goldman Sachs.  One would think that after Taibbi’s groundbreaking, 2009 tour de force about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis . . .  and after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, the firm would at least try to keep a lower profile these days.  Naaaaw!

Goldman Sachs has now found itself in the crosshairs of a man, formerly accused of carrying water for the firm – Andrew Ross Sorkin.  Sorkin’s March 5 DealBook article for The New York Times upbraided Goldman for its flagrant conflict of interest in a deal where the firm served as an adviser to an oil (and natural gas) pipeline company, El Paso, which was being sold to Houston-based Kinder Morgan for $21.1 billion.  Goldman owned a 19.1 percent stake in Kinder Morgan at the time.  Andrew Ross Sorkin quoted from the script which Goldman CEO, Lloyd Blankfein read to El Paso’s CEO, Douglas Foshee, wherein Blankfein confirmed that Foshee was aware of Goldman’s investment in Kinder Morgan.  It was refreshing to see a bit of righteous indignation in Sorkin’s discussion of the dirty details behind this transaction:

When the deal was announced, buried at the end of the news release was a list of Wall Street banks that had advised on the deal, including Goldman Sachs.  Goldman received a $20 million fee for playing matchmaker for El Paso.  The fee, of course, was not disclosed, nor was the Kinder Morgan stake owned by Goldman Sachs’s private equity arm, worth some $4 billion.  Nor did the release disclose that the Goldman banker who advised El Paso to accept Kinder Morgan’s bid owned $340,000 worth of Kinder Morgan stock.

Now, however, a court ruling in a shareholder lawsuit has laid bare the truth:  Goldman was on every conceivable side of the deal.  As a result, El Paso may have unwittingly sold itself far too cheaply.  Mr. Blankfein may have said he was “very sensitive to the appearance of conflict,” but the judge’s order ruling “reluctantly” against a motion to block the merger made it clear that Goldman’s conflicts went far beyond mere appearances.

Here’s just one example:  In an effort to help mitigate its clear conflict, Goldman Sachs recommended that El Paso hire an additional adviser so that El Paso would be able to say that it had received completely impartial advice.  Goldman did not say it would step down, and lose its fee, it simply suggested that El Paso hire one more bank – in this case, Morgan Stanley.

After explaining that Goldman included a provision in the deal that Morgan Stanley would get paid only if El Paso agreed to the sale to Kinder Morgan, Sorkin expressed this reaction:

Goldman’s brazenness in this deal is nothing short of breathtaking.

Goldman’s conflict of interest in the El Paso deal was also the subject of an article by Matthew Philips of Bloomberg BusinessWeek.  Mr. Philips reminded us of whom we have to thank for “helping Greece dupe regulators by disguising billions of dollars’ worth of sovereign debt”:

New details have also emerged about Goldman’s role in helping Greece hide its debt so it could qualify for membership in the European Union.  In a Bloomberg News story out this week, Greek officials talk about how they didn’t truly understand the complex swaps contracts they were buying from Goldman bankers from 2001 to 2005, and that each time Goldman restructured the deal, things got worse for Greece.

The story reads like a cautionary tale of a homeowner who keeps returning to the same contractor to repair the damage done by the previous fix-it job.  At one point, Goldman prohibited Greece’s debt manager, Christoforos Sardelis, from seeking outside price quotes on the complicated derivatives Goldman was selling to Greece.

*   *   *

Yet Goldman’s sullied reputation doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting its business.  In fact, Goldman is outpacing its Wall Street competition recently in key areas of business.  In 2011, Goldman was the top adviser for both global M&A and equity IPOs.  A Bloomberg survey of traders, investors, and analysts last May showed that while 54 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Goldman, 78 percent believed that allegations it duped clients and misled Congress would have no material effect on its business.

In other words:  Goldman Sachs keeps breaking windows and nobody cares.  Thanks for nothing, James Q. Wilson!


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Occupy Wall Street – For Some Reason

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Back in July, the Canadian-based, activist network known as Adbusters, announced plans to organize an occupation of Wall Street on September 17, 2011.  Their July 13 announcement revealed that the ultimate goal of the occupation was deliberately left open:

On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.  Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.

Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum – that Mubarak must go – over and over again until they won.  Following this model, what is our equally uncomplicated demand?

The most exciting candidate that we’ve heard so far is one that gets at the core of why the American political establishment is currently unworthy of being called a democracy:  we demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.  It’s time for DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY, we’re doomed without it.

This demand seems to capture the current national mood because cleaning up corruption in Washington is something all Americans, right and left, yearn for and can stand behind.

A website specifically dedicated to this event was created:  OccupyWallSt.org.  The site has a Mission Statement, proclaiming that on September 17, a tent city will be established in lower Manhattan:

Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices and we will not leave until that demand has been met.

As for that mysterious demand, the website provides a hint as to how it will be determined:

What we demand from our government is for the people to decide through democratic consensus, not this website.  A Facebook poll started by Adbusters suggests the demand might be an end to corporate personhood.

So, will the Facebook poll serve as the vehicle for reaching that “democratic consensus”?

On August 23, Adbusters announced that the Internet hacktivist group, Anonymous had joined #OCCUPYWALLSTREET.  Anonymous prepared this one-minute, promotional video for the cause.  Once Anonymous got on board, the Department of Homeland Security became interested in the event (if it had not done so already).  Computerworld magazine reported that on September 2, a bulletin was issued by the DHS National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC):

The DHS alert also warns of three cyber attacks and civil protests it says are planned by Anonymous and affiliated groups.

The first attack, dubbed Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is scheduled for Sept. 17.

The so-called ‘Day of Rage’ protest was first announced by a group called Adbusters in July and is being actively supported by Anonymous.  The organizers of OWS hope to get about 20,000 individuals to gather on Wall Street on that day to protest various U.S. government policies.

It sounds to me as though the Department of Homeland Security is getting revved-up for a mass-rendition to Guantanamo and a busy schedule of “Full Roto-Rooter” cavity searches.  It could get scary.  The camoflauge-attired attendees probably won’t be interested in hearing my explanation that “I’m just here to demand the dismissal of Kathryn Wylde from her post as a Class C Director of the New York Federal Reserve Bank.”

My favorite commentator for MarketWatch, Paul Farrell, predicted that the turnout could be a bit larger than anticipated:

Given today’s intense anger against America’s totally dysfunctional government, no one should be surprised if 90,000 arrive for Occupy Wall Street and its solidarity allies at other financial centers across the world, armed with their rallying cry to stop “the corruption of our governments by Wall Street money.”

After discussing the potential for historic change Occupy Wall Street seems to offer, Farrell posed the simple question:  Will it work?

In the final analysis, this may be a bad case of “too little, too late:”  Back in 1776 our original 57 revolutionaries also “had enough” when they signed the Declaration of Independence. They also risked everything, family, fortunes and lives.  They actually had “one simple demand,” to be free of a tyrannical ruler, George III.

Today, the new ruler is greedy, corrupting democracy.  But it’s locked deep in the American soul.  Maybe they’re asking the wrong question:  Not “Is America Ready for a Tahrir Moment?” Rather ask:  “Is America Past That Moment, Buried Too Deep in a Culture of Greed to Change?”

If so, Wall Street wins, again.  And America loses, again.

The promoters of the Tea Party movement were able to channel the outrage experienced by taxpayers, who watched the Federal Reserve hand trillions over to a small handful of ineptly-managed megabanks.  The Tea Party promoters redirected and exploited that anger as a motivating force, which provoked those citizens to vote against their own interests.  The attempt to tame the beast with regulation (as had been done after the Great Depression) was sabotaged.  Could the Occupy Wall Street effort bring justice back to defeat financial anarchy?  It would be nice if it worked, although I gave up on “hope” in early 2009.


 

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From Disappointing To Creepy

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It was during Barack Obama’s third month in the White House, when I realized he had become the “Disappointer-In-Chief”.  Since that time, the disappointment felt by many of us has progressed into a bad case of the creeps.

Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times has been widely praised for her recent report, exposing the Obama administration’s vilification of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for his refusal to play along with Team Obama’s efforts to insulate the fraud-closure banks from the criminal prosecution they deserve.  The administration is attempting to pressure each Attorney General from every state to consent to a settlement of any and all claims against the banksters arising from their fraudulent foreclosure practices.  Each state is being asked to release the banks from criminal and civil liability in return for a share of the $20 billion settlement package.  The $20 billion is to be used for loan modifications.  Leading the charge on behalf of the administration are Shaun Donovan, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, as well as a number of high-ranking officials from the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless.  Here are some highlights from Ms. Morgenson’s article:

Mr. Schneiderman and top prosecutors in some other states have objected to the proposed settlement with major banks, saying it would restrict their ability to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing in a variety of areas, including the bundling of loans in mortgage securities.

*   *   *

Mr. Schneiderman has also come under criticism for objecting to a settlement proposed by Bank of New York Mellon and Bank of America that would cover 530 mortgage-backed securities containing Countrywide Financial loans that investors say were mischaracterized when they were sold.

The deal would require Bank of America to pay $8.5 billion to investors holding the securities; the unpaid principal amount of the mortgages remaining in the pools totals $174 billion.

*   *   *

This month, Mr. Schneiderman sued to block that deal, which had been negotiated by Bank of New York Mellon as trustee for the holders of the securities.

The passage from Gretchen Morgenson’s report which drew the most attention concerned a statement made to Schneiderman by Kathryn Wylde.  Ms. Wylde is a “Class C” Director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  The role of a Class C Director is to represent the interests of the public on the New York Fed board.  Barry Ritholtz provided this reaction to Ms. Wylde’s encounter with Mr. Schneiderman:

If the Times report is accurate, and the quote below represents Ms. Wylde’s comments, than that position is a laughable mockery, and Ms. Wylde should resign effective immediately.

The quote in question, which was reported to have occurred at Governor Hugh Carey’s funeral (!?!)  was as follows:

“It is of concern to the industry that instead of trying to facilitate resolving these issues, you seem to be throwing a wrench into it.  Wall Street is our Main Street — love ’em or hate ’em.  They are important and we have to make sure we are doing everything we can to support them unless they are doing something indefensible.”

I do not know if Ms. Wylde understands what her proper role should be, but clearly she is somewhat confused.  She appears to be far more interested in representing the banks than the public.

Robert Scheer of Truthdig provided us with some background on Obama’s HUD Secretary, Shaun Donovan, one of the administration’s arm-twisters in the settlement effort :

Donovan has good reason not to want an exploration of the origins of the housing meltdown:  He has been a big-time player in the housing racket for decades.  Back in the Clinton administration, when government-supported housing became a fig leaf for bundling suspect mortgages into what turned out to be toxic securities, Donovan was a deputy assistant secretary at HUD and acting Federal Housing Administration commissioner.  He was up to his eyeballs in this business when the Clinton administration pushed through legislation banning any regulation of the market in derivatives based on home mortgages.

Armed with his insider connections, Donovan then went to work for the Prudential conglomerate (no surprise there), working deals with the same government housing agencies that he had helped run.  As The New York Times reported in 2008 after President Barack Obama picked him to be secretary of HUD, “Mr. Donovan was a managing director at Prudential Mortgage Capital Co., in charge of its portfolio of investments in affordable housing loans, including Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Administration debt.”

Obama has been frequently criticized for stacking his administration with people who regularly shuttle between corporations and the captured agencies responsible for regulating those same businesses.  Risk management guru, Christopher Whalen lamented the consequences of Obama’s cozy relationship with the Wall Street banks – most tragically, those resulting from Obama’s unwillingness to adopt the “Swedish solution” of putting the insolvent zombie banks through temporary receivership:

The path of least resistance politically has been to temporize and talk.  But by following the advice of Rubin and Summers, and avoiding tough decisions about banks and solvency, President Obama has only made the crisis more serious and steadily eroded public confidence.  In political terms, Obama is morphing into Herbert Hoover, as I wrote in one of my first posts for Reuters.com, “In a new period of instability, Obama becomes Hoover.”

Whereas two or three years ago, a public-private approach to restructuring insolvent banks could have turned around the economic picture in relatively short order, today the cost to clean up the mess facing Merkel, Obama and other leaders of western European nations is far higher and the degree of unease among the public is growing.  You may thank Larry Summers, Robert Rubin and the other members of the “do nothing” chorus around President Obama for this unfortunate outcome.

We are now past the point of blaming Obama’s advisors for the President’s recurrent betrayal of the public interest while advancing the goals of his corporate financiers.  Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism has voiced increasingly harsh appraisals of Obama’s performance.  By August 22, it became clear to Ms. Smith that the administration’s efforts to shield the fraud-closure banks from liability exposed a scandalous degree of venality:

It is high time to describe the Obama Administration by its proper name:  corrupt.

Admittedly, corruption among our elites generally and in Washington in particular has become so widespread and blatant as to fall into the “dog bites man” category.  But the nauseating gap between the Administration’s propaganda and the many and varied ways it sells out average Americans on behalf of its favored backers, in this case the too big to fail banks, has become so noisome that it has become impossible to ignore the fetid smell.

*   *   *

Team Obama bears all the hallmarks of being so close to banks and big corporations that it has lost all contact with and understanding of mainstream America.

The latest example is its heavy-handed campaign to convert New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman to a card carrying member of the “be nice to our lords and masters the banksters” club.  Schneiderman was the first to take issue with the sham of the so-called 50 state attorney general mortgage settlement.  As far as the Administration is concerned, its goal is to give banks a talking point and prove to them that Team Obama is protecting their backs in a way that the chump public hopefully won’t notice.

*   *   *

Yet rather than address real, serious problems, senior administration officials are instead devoting time and effort to orchestrating a faux grass roots campaign to con a state AG into thinking his supporters are deserting him because he has dared challenge the supremacy of the banks.

I would include Eric Schneiderman in a group with Elizabeth Warren and Maria Cantwell as worthy challengers to Barack Obama in the 2012 Presidential Election.  I wish one of them would step forward.


 

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Our Sham Two-Party System

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It’s becoming more obvious to people that our so-called, “two-party system” is really a just a one-party system.  Last summer, I discussed how the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party is determined to steal the money American workers have paid into the Social Security program.  While we’re on the subject, let’s take a look at an inconvenient law which the Beltway Vultures choose to ignore:

EXCLUSION OF SOCIAL SECURITY FROM ALL BUDGETS Pub. L. 101-508, title XIII, Sec. 13301(a), Nov. 5, 1990, 104 Stat. 1388-623, provided that:  Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the receipts and disbursements of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund and the Federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund shall not be counted as new budget authority, outlays, receipts, or deficit or surplus for purposes of – (1) the budget of the United States Government as submitted by the President, (2) the congressional budget, or (3) the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.

In a recent interview conducted by Anastasia Churkina of Russia Today, investigative reporter and author, Matt Taibbi described the American political system as a “reality show sponsored by Wall Street”.  Taibbi pointed out that “… the problem is Wall Street heavily sponsors both the Republican and the Democratic Parties” so that whoever gets elected President “is going to be a creature of Wall Street”.  After noting that Goldman Sachs was Obama’s number one source of private campaign contributions during the 2008 election cycle, Taibbi faced a question about the possibility that a third party could become a significant factor in American politics.  His response was:  “Seriously, I don’t see it.”  Taibbi went on to express his belief that the “average American” is:

… seduced and mesmerized by this phony, media-created, division between blue and red – and left and right, Democrats and Republicans, and people are conditioned to believe that there are enormous, profound differences between these two parties.  Whereas, the reality is:  their differences are mostly superficial and on the important questions of how the economy is run and how to regulate the economy – they’re exactly the same – but I don’t think ordinary people know that.

At this point, the question is whether there can be any hope that “ordinary people” will ever realize that our “two-party system” is actually a farce.

The type of disappointment expressed by Matt Taibbi in his discussion of Barack Obama during the Russia Today interview, has become a familiar subject.  I was motivated to characterize the new President as “Disappointer-In-Chief” during his third month in office.  An increasing number of commentators have begun to admit that Hillary Clinton’s campaign-theme question, “Who is Barack Obama?” was never really answered until after the man took office.  One person who got an answer “the hard way” was Professor Cornel West of Princeton University.

In a recent article for Truthdig, Chris Hedges discussed how Professor West made 65 appearances for Candidate Obama on the campaign trail.  Nevertheless, Professor West never received an invitation to Obama’s Inaugural.  Although he traveled to Washington for that historic occasion, Professor West ended up watching the event on a hotel room television with his family.  As an adversary of Obama’s financial mentor, Larry Summers, Professor West quickly found himself thrown under the bus.

The following passage from Chris Hedges’ article presents an interesting narrative by Professor West about what I have previously described as Obama’s own “Tora Bora moment” (when the President “punted” on the economic stimulus bill).  Professor West also lamented the failure of the Democrats to provide any alternative to the bipartisan tradition of crony corporatism:

“Can you imagine if Barack Obama had taken office and deliberately educated and taught the American people about the nature of the financial catastrophe and what greed was really taking place?” West asks.  “If he had told us what kind of mechanisms of accountability needed to be in place, if he had focused on homeowners rather than investment banks for bailouts and engaged in massive job creation he could have nipped in the bud the right-wing populism of the tea party folk. The tea party folk are right when they say the government is corrupt.  It is corrupt.  Big business and banks have taken over government and corrupted it in deep ways.

“We have got to attempt to tell the truth, and that truth is painful,” he says.  “It is a truth that is against the thick lies of the mainstream.  In telling that truth we become so maladjusted to the prevailing injustice that the Democratic Party, more and more, is not just milquetoast and spineless, as it was before, but thoroughly complicitous with some of the worst things in the American empire.  I don’t think in good conscience I could tell anybody to vote for Obama.  If it turns out in the end that we have a crypto-fascist movement and the only thing standing between us and fascism is Barack Obama, then we have to put our foot on the brake.  But we’ve got to think seriously of third-party candidates, third formations, third parties.

When one considers the vast number of disillusioned Obama supporters along with the number of people expressing their disappointment with the Republican field of Presidential hopefuls, the idea that 2012 could be the year when a third-party candidate makes it to the White House doesn’t seem so far-fetched.


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