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Searching For A Port In A Storm Of Bad Behavior

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August 20, 2009

Since I began complaining about manipulation of the stock markets back on December 18, I’ve been comforted by the fact that a number of bloggers have voiced similar concerns.  At such websites as Naked Capitalism, Zero Hedge, The Market Ticker and others too numerous to mention —  a common theme keeps popping up:  some portion of the extraordinary amounts of money disseminated by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve is obviously being used to manipulate the equities markets.  One paper, released by Precision Capital Management, analyzed the correlation between those days when the Federal Reserve bought back Treasury securities from investment banks and “tape painting” during the final minutes of those trading days on the stock markets.

Eliot “Socks” Spitzer recently wrote a piece for Slate, warning the “small investor” about a “rigged” system, as well as the additional hazards encountered due to routine breaches of the fiduciary duties owed by investment firms to their clients:

Recent rebounds notwithstanding, most people now are asking whether the system is fundamentally rigged.  It’s not just that they have an understandable aversion to losing their life savings when the market crashes; it’s that each of the scandals and crises has a common pattern:  The small investor was taken advantage of by the piranhas that hide in the rapidly moving currents. And underlying this pattern is a simple theme: conflicts of interest that violated the duty the market players had to their supposed clients.

The natural reaction of the retail investor to these hazards and scandals often involves seeking refuge in professionally-managed mutual funds.  Nevertheless, as Spitzer pointed out, the mutual fund alternative has dangers of its own:

Mutual funds charge exorbitant fees that investors have to absorb — fees that dramatically reduce any possibility of outperforming the market and that are set by captive boards of captive management companies, not one of which has been replaced for inadequate performance, violating their duty to guard the interests of the fund investors for whom they supposedly work.

Worse yet, is the fact that mutual funds are now increasing their fees and, in effect, punishing their customers for the poor performance of those funds during the past year.  Financial planner Allan Roth, had this to say at CBS MoneyWatch.com:

After one of the most awful years in the history of the mutual fund industry, when the average U.S. stock fund and international fund fell by 39 percent and 46 percent respectively, you might expect fund companies would give investors a break and lower their fees. But just the opposite is true.

An exclusive analysis for MoneyWatch.com by investment research firm Morningstar shows that over the past year, fund fees have risen in nearly every category.  For stock funds, the fees shot up by roughly 5 percent.

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Every penny you pay in fees, of course, lowers your return.  In fact, my research indicates that each additional 0.25 percent in annual fees pushes back your financial independence goal by a year.

What’s more, the only factor that is predictive of a fund’s relative performance against similar funds is fees.  A low-cost domestic stock fund is likely to outperform an equivalent high-cost fund, just as a low-cost bond fund is likely to outperform an equivalent high-cost fund.   . . .  As fund fees increase, performance decreases.  In fact, fees explained nearly 60 percent of the U.S. stock fund family performance ratings given by Morningstar.  Numerous studies done to predict mutual fund performance indicate that neither the Morningstar rating nor the track record of the fund manager were indicative of future performance.

Another questionable practice in the mutual fund industry — the hiring of “rookies” to manage the funds — was recently placed under the spotlight by Ken Kam for the MSN TopStocks blog:

In this market, it’s going to take skill to make back last year’s losses.  After a 40% loss, it takes a 67% gain just to get back to even. You would think that mutual funds would put their most experienced managers and analysts to work right now.  But according to Morningstar, the managers of 28 out of 48 unique healthcare funds, almost 60%, (see data) have less than five years with their fund.  I think you need to see at least a five-year track record before you can even begin to judge a manager’s worth.

I’m willing to pay for good management that will do something to protect me if the market crashes again.  But I want to see some evidence that I am getting a good manager before I trust them with my money.  I want to see at least a five-year track record.  If I paid for good management and I got a rookie manager with no track record instead, I would be more than a little upset.

Beyond that, John Authers of Morningstar recently wrote an article for the Financial Times, explaining that investors will obtain better results investing in a stock index fund, rather than an “actively managed” equity mutual fund, whether or not that manager is a rookie:

For decades, retail savers have invested in stocks via mutual funds that are actively managed to try to beat an index.  The funds hold about 100 stocks, and can raise or lower their cash holdings, but cannot bet on stocks to go down by selling them short.

This model has, it appears, been savaged by a flock of sheep.

Index investing, which cuts costs by replicating an index rather than trying to beat it, has been gaining in popularity.

Active managers argued that they could raise cash, or move to defensive stocks, in a downturn.  Passive funds would track their index over the edge of the cliff.

But active managers, in aggregate, failed to do better than their indices in 2008.

So …  if you have become too frustrated to continue investing in stocks, be mindful of the fact that equity-based mutual funds have problems of their own.

As for other alternatives:  Ian Wyatt recently wrote a favorable piece about the advantages of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) for  SmallCapInvestor.com.  Nevertheless, if the stocks comprising those ETFs (and the ETFs themselves) are being traded in a “rigged” market, you’re back to square one.  Happy investing!

DISCLAIMER: NOTHING CONTAINED ANYWHERE ON THIS SITE CONSTITUTES ANY INVESTING ADVICE OR RECOMMENDATION.  ANY PURCHASES OR SALES OF SECURITIES OR OTHER INVESTMENTS ARE SOLELY AT THE DISCRETION OF THE READER.

More Bad Press For Goldman Sachs

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July 16, 2009

They can’t seem to get away from it, no matter how hard they try.  Goldman Sachs is finding itself confronted with bad publicity on a daily basis.

It all started with Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone.  As I pointed out on June 25, I liked the article as well as Matt’s other work.  His blog can be found here.  His article on Goldman Sachs employed a good deal of hyperbolic rhetoric which I enjoyed  —  especially the metaphor of Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.  Nevertheless, many commentators took issue with the article, especially focusing on the subtitle’s claim that “Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression”.  I took that remark as hyperbole, since it would obviously require over 120 megabytes of space to document “every major market manipulation since the Great Depression” — so I wasn’t disappointed about being unable to read all that.  Some of Taibbi’s critics include Megan McArdle from The Atlantic and Joe Weisenthal at Clusterstock.

On the other hand, Taibbi did get a show of support from Eliot “Socks” Spitzer during a July 14 interview on Bloomberg TV.  Mr. Spitzer made some important points about Goldman’s conduct that we are now hearing from a number of other sources.  Spitzer began by emphasizing that because of the bank bailouts “Goldman’s capital was driven to virtually nothing — because we as taxpayers gave them access to capital — they made a bloody fortune” (another vampire squid reference).  Spitzer voiced the concern that Goldman is simply going back to proprietary trading and taking advantage of spreads, following its old business model.  He argued that, a result of the bailouts:

. . . their job should be, from a macroeconomic perspective, to raise capital and put it into sectors that create jobs.  If they’re not getting that done, then why are we supporting them the way we have been?

This sentiment seems to be coming from all directions, in light of the fact that on July 14, Goldman reported second-quarter profits of 3.44 billion dollars — while on the following day, another TARP recipient, CIT Group disclosed that it would likely file for bankruptcy on July 17.  On July 16, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial entitled:  “A Tale of Two Bailouts” comparing Goldman’s fate with that of CIT.  The article pointed out that since Goldman’s risk is subsidized by the taxpayers, the company might be more appropriately re-branded as “Goldie Mac”:

We like profits as much as the next capitalist.  But when those profits are supported by government guarantees or insured deposits, taxpayers have a special interest in how the companies conduct their business.  Ideally we would shed those implicit guarantees altogether, along with the very notion of too big to fail.  But that is all but impossible now and for the foreseeable future.  Even if the Obama Administration and Fed were to declare with one voice that banks such as Goldman were on their own, no one would believe it.

If there is a lesson in this week’s tale of two banks, it’s that it won’t be enough to give the Federal Reserve a mandate to “monitor” systemic risk.  Last fall’s bailouts are reverberating through the financial system in a way that is already distorting the competition for capital and financial market share.  Banks that want to be successful will also want to be more like Goldman Sachs, creating an incentive for both larger size and more risk-taking on the taxpayer’s dime.

Robert Reich voiced similar concern over the fact that “Goldman’s high-risk business model hasn’t changed one bit from what it was before the implosion of Wall Street.”  He went on to explain:

Value-at-risk — a statistical measure of how much the firm’s trading operations could lose in a day — rose to an average of  $245 million in the second quarter from $240 million in the first quarter. In the second quarter of 2008, VaR averaged $184 million.

Meanwhile, Goldman is still depending on $28 billion in outstanding debt issued cheaply with the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  Which means you and I are still indirectly funding Goldman’s high-risk operations.

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So the fact that Goldman has reverted to its old ways in the market suggests it has every reason to believe it can revert to its old ways in politics, should its market strategies backfire once again — leaving the rest of us once again to pick up the pieces.

At The Huffington Post, Mike Lux reminded Goldman that despite its repayment of $10 billion in TARP funds, we haven’t overlooked the fact that Goldman has not repaid the $13 billion it received for being a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper or the “unrevealed billions” it received from the Federal Reserve.  This raises a serious question as to whether Goldman should be allowed to pay record bonuses to its employees, as planned.  Didn’t we go through this once beforePaul Abrams is mindful of this, having issued a wake-up call to “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Congress.

As long as we keep reading the news, each passing day provides us with yet another reminder to feel outrage over the hubris of the people at Goldman Sachs.

Somebody Really Loves Goldman Sachs

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May 17, 2009

The recent article about Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, appearing in the April 26 edition of The New York Times, seems to have helped fan the flames of the current outrage concerning the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  Turbo Tim was president of the New York Fed during the five years prior to his appointment as Treasury Secretary.  Becker and Morgenson pointed out many of the ways in which “conflict of interest” seems to be one of the cornerstones of that institution:

The New York Fed is, by custom and design, clubby and opaque.  It is charged with curbing banks’ risky impulses, yet its president is selected by and reports to a board dominated by the chief executives of some of those same banks. Traditionally, the New York Fed president’s intelligence-gathering role has involved routine consultation with financiers, though Mr. Geithner’s recent predecessors generally did not meet with them unless senior aides were also present, according to the bank’s former general counsel.

By those standards, Mr. Geithner’s reliance on bankers, hedge fund managers and others to assess the market’s health — and provide guidance once it faltered — stood out.

The New York Fed is probably the most important of the nation’s twelve Federal Reserve Banks, since its jurisdiction includes the heart of America’s financial industry.  As the Times piece pointed out, this resulted in the same type of “revolving door” opportunities as those enjoyed by members of Congress who became lobbyists and vice versa:

A revolving door has long connected Wall Street and the New York Fed.  Mr. Geithner’s predecessors, E. Gerald Corrigan and William J. McDonough, wound up as investment-bank executives.  The current president,William C. Dudley, came from Goldman Sachs.

The New York Fed’s current chairman, Stephen Friedman, has become a subject of controversy these days, because of his position as director and shareholder of Goldman Sachs.   Goldman sought and received expedited approval to become a “bank holding company” last September, thus coming under the jurisdiction of the Federal Reserve and becoming eligible for the ten billion dollars in TARP bailout money it eventually received.  After Goldman became subject to the New York Fed’s oversight (with Friedman as the New York Fed chairman) the Fed made decisions that impacted Goldman’s financial state.  Although this controversy was discussed here and here by The Wall Street Journal, that publication’s new owner, Rupert Murdoch, now requires a $104 annual on-line subscription fee to read his publication over the Internet. Sorry Rupert:  Homey don’t play that.  Although Slate provided us with an interesting essay on the Friedman controversy by Eliot “Socks” Spitzer, the best read was the commentary by Robert Scheer, editor of Truthdig.  Here are some important points from Scheer’s article, “Cashing In on ‘Government Sachs’ “:

When N.Y. Fed Chairman Stephen Friedman bought stock in the company that he once headed, and where he still serves as a director, he was already in violation of Federal Reserve policy and was hoping for a waiver to permit him to hold his existing multi-million-dollar stock stash and to remain on the Goldman board.  The waiver was requested last October by Timothy Geithner, then the president of the N.Y. Fed and now Treasury secretary.  Yet,without having received that waiver, Friedman went ahead in December and purchased 37,300 additional shares.  With shares he added in January, after the waiver was granted, he ended up with 98,600 shares in Goldman Sachs, worth a total of $13,330,720 at the close of trading on Tuesday.

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As Jerry Jordan, former president of the Fed Bank in Cleveland, told the Journal in reference to Friedman’s obvious conflict of interest, “He should have resigned.”

Unfortunately, this was not the view during the reign of Geithner, who argued that Friedman needed to remain chairman of the N.Y. Fed board to find a suitable replacement for Geithner as he moved on to be secretary of the Treasury.  Friedman chose a fellow former Goldman Sachs exec for the job.

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Geithner is a protege of former Goldman Sachs chairman Rubin.  And it was therefore not surprising when he picked Mark Patterson, a registered lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, to be his chief of staff at the Treasury Department.  That appointment was made on the same day that Geithner announced new rules for limiting the influence of registered lobbyists.  Need more be said?

Yes, there are a couple more things:  Goldman Sachs was the second largest contributor to Barack Obama’s Presidential election campaign, with a total of $980,945 according to OpenSecrets.org.  President Obama nominated Gary Gensler of Goldman Sachs to become Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  As Ken Silverstein reported for Harpers, this nomination has stalled, since a “hold” was placed on the nomination by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  Mr. Silverstein quoted from the statement released by the office of Senator Sanders concerning the rationale for the hold:

Mr. Gensler worked with Sen. Phil Gramm and Alan Greenspan to exempt credit default swaps from regulation, which led to the collapse of A.I.G. and has resulted in the largest taxpayer bailout in U.S.history.   He supported Gramm-Leach-Bliley, which allowed banks like Citigroup to become “too big to fail.”  He worked to deregulate electronic energy trading, which led to the downfall of Enron and the spike in energy prices.  At this moment in our history, we need an independent leader who will help create a new culture in the financial marketplace and move us away from the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior which has caused so much harm to our economy.

“Change you can believe in”, huh?