Friday, October 03, 2008

High five

The quintessential American, and now worldwide, symbol of successful teamsmanship, the "high 5". Worldwide, that is, except on Wall Street, where once there were the high 5: Goldie, Merrills, Lehman, Morgans, Bear Stearns. The Masters of the Universe.

Ah but that was long ago, and it has been a long, long while from May to September.


Why? Well, it's complicated.

But one chapter in their obituary was written in a basement hearing room, out of ear-shot, in the SEC's quarters, in Washington, on April 28, 2004.
The NYT tells the sad tale. Well, sad for them. Disastrous for the rest of us.
On that bright spring afternoon, the five members of the Securities and Exchange Commission met in a basement hearing room to consider an urgent plea by the big investment banks.

They wanted an exemption for their brokerage units from an old regulation that limited the amount of debt they could take on. The exemption would unshackle billions of dollars held in reserve as a cushion against losses on their investments. Those funds could then flow up to the parent company, enabling it to invest in the fast-growing but opaque world of mortgage-backed securities; credit derivatives, a form of insurance for bond holders; and other exotic instruments.

The five investment banks led the charge, including Goldman Sachs, which was headed by Henry M. Paulson Jr. Two years later, he left to become Treasury secretary.

A lone dissenter — a software consultant and expert on risk management — weighed in from Indiana with a two-page letter to warn the commission that the move was a grave mistake. He never heard back from Washington.

“With the stroke of a pen, capital requirements are removed!” the consultant, Leonard D. Bole, wrote to the commission on Jan. 22, 2004. “Has the trading environment changed sufficiently since 1997, when the current requirements were enacted, that the commission is confident that current requirements in examples such as these can be disregarded?”

He said that similar computer standards had failed to protect Long-Term Capital Management, the hedge fund that collapsed in 1998, and could not protect companies from the market plunge of October 1987.

One commissioner, Harvey J. Goldschmid, questioned the staff about the consequences of the proposed exemption. It would only be available for the largest firms, he was reassuringly told — those with assets greater than $5 billion.

“We’ve said these are the big guys,” Mr. Goldschmid said, provoking nervous laughter, “but that means if anything goes wrong, it’s going to be an awfully big mess.”

Mr. Goldschmid, an authority on securities law from Columbia, was a behind-the-scenes adviser in 2002 to Senator Paul S. Sarbanes when he rewrote the nation’s corporate laws after a wave of accounting scandals. “Do we feel secure if there are these drops in capital we really will have investor protection?” Mr. Goldschmid asked. A senior staff member said the commission would hire the best minds, including people with strong quantitative skills to parse the banks’ balance sheets.

Annette L. Nazareth, the head of market regulation, reassured the commission that under the new rules, the companies for the first time could be restricted by the commission from excessively risky activity. She was later appointed a commissioner and served until January 2008.

It was unanimous. The decision, changing what was known as the net capital rule, was completed and published in The Federal Register a few months later.

With that, the five big independent investment firms were unleashed.

In loosening the capital rules, which are supposed to provide a buffer in turbulent times, the agency also decided to rely on the firms’ own computer models [mark to model, not mark to market] for determining the riskiness of investments, essentially outsourcing the job of monitoring risk to the banks themselves.

Over the following months and years, each of the firms would take advantage of the looser rules. At Bear Stearns, the leverage ratio — a measurement of how much the firm was borrowing compared to its total assets — rose sharply, to 33 to 1.

The commission assigned seven people to examine the parent companies — which last year controlled financial empires with combined assets of more than $4 trillion. Since March 2007, the office has not had a director. And as of last month, the office had not completed a single inspection since it was reshuffled by Mr. Cox more than a year and a half ago.

The commission’s decision effectively to outsource its oversight to the firms themselves fit squarely in the broader Washington culture of the last eight years under President Bush.

A similar closeness to industry and laissez-faire philosophy has driven a push for deregulation throughout the government, from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency to worker safety and transportation agencies.

“It’s a fair criticism of the Bush administration that regulators have relied on many voluntary regulatory programs,” said Roderick M. Hills, a Republican who was chairman of the S.E.C. under President Gerald R. Ford. “The problem with such voluntary programs is that, as we’ve seen throughout history, they often don’t work.”

As was the case with other agencies, the commission’s decision was motivated by industry complaints of excessive regulation at a time of growing competition from overseas.

The 2004 decision also reflected a faith that Wall Street’s financial interests coincided with Washington’s regulatory interests.

“We foolishly believed that the firms had a strong culture of self-preservation and responsibility and would have the discipline not to be excessively borrowing,” said Professor James D. Cox, an expert on securities law and accounting at Duke School of Law (and no relationship to Christopher Cox).

“Letting the firms police themselves made sense to me because I didn’t think the S.E.C. had the staff and wherewithal to impose its own standards and I foolishly thought the market would impose its own self-discipline. We’ve all learned a terrible lesson,” he added.

Christopher Cox had been a close ally of business groups in his 17 years as a House member from one of the most conservative districts in Southern California. Mr. Cox had led the effort to rewrite securities laws to make investor lawsuits harder to file. He also fought against accounting rules that would give less favorable treatment to executive stock options.

Under Mr. Cox, the commission responded to complaints by some businesses by making it more difficult for the enforcement staff to investigate and bring cases against companies. The commission has repeatedly reversed or reduced proposed settlements that companies had tentatively agreed upon.

Mr. Cox has surrounded himself with conservative lawyers, economists and accountants who, before the market turmoil of recent months, had embraced a far more limited vision for the commission than many of his predecessors.

Last Friday, the commission formally ended the 2004 program, acknowledging that it had failed to anticipate the problems at Bear Stearns and the four other major investment banks.

“The last six months have made it abundantly clear that voluntary regulation does not work,” Mr. Cox said.


Clearly, this SECs. It was abundantly clear years ago. The failure to abide by the laws put in place by our forebears who had already tried those failed policies should be nothing less than political malpractice, punishable as any other reckless act resulting in foreseeable loss of great magnitude.

Bush, and more pointedly Cheney, unleashed weapons of mass financial destruction on us, and should be tried for crimes against calamity.

Sorry. Guambat just got a bit carried away there. And fears he may get carried away here.

I'll just be going now.

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