Category Archive 'Wall Street'
23 Oct 2009

Wall Street Groaning Under the Czar

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The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday: The U.S. pay czar will cut in half the average compensation for 175 employees at firms receiving large sums of government aid, with the vast majority of salaries coming in under $500,000, according to people familiar with the government’s plans.

As expected, the biggest cut will be to salaries, which will drop by 90% on average. Kenneth Feinberg, the Treasury Department’s special master for compensation, is expected to issue his determinations today.

Professor Bainbridge explains just how outrageous, unconstitutional, and violative of fundamental principles of law the Obama Administration’s business decrees are.

There really ought to be more outrage about this proposal. As a letter to the editor in today’s WSJ (Wednesday, 10/21 — the Journal does not archive Letters to the Editor, so Professor Bainbridge was remiss in failing to credit Peter Kirchman of Bay City, Michigan for this excellent contribution to the debate – DZ) aptly observed:

    To those who would defend the government’s ability, justification and right to negate Ken Lewis’s contract and hijack his pay (“The Fall Guy,” Review & Outlook, Oct. 2), I offer a John Adams quote found in David McCullough’s book “John Adams.” Adams stopped at a tavern for lodging. He happened to overhear several locals discussing British actions regarding taxation. One man says to the rest, “. . . if Parliament can take away Mr. Hancock’s wharf and Mr. Row’s wharf, they can take away your barn and my house.”

    Mr. Lewis might already be considered rich, as was Mr. Hancock, and the amount of severance may seem to be outrageous, but to you supporters of this confiscation I ask: If you grant the federal government’s pay czar the power to confiscate or alter the pay of 175 Americans today, whose barn or house is next?

The point is exceptionally well taken. The Obama administration has shown a shocking disregard for the rule of law when contract rights interfere with the administration’s ability to reorder the American economy as it sees fit.

As Todd Zywicki observed when Obama threw Chrysler lenders under the bus:

    The rule of law, not of men — an ideal tracing back to the ancient Greeks and well-known to our Founding Fathers — is the animating principle of the American experiment. While the rest of the world in 1787 was governed by the whims of kings and dukes, the U.S. Constitution was established to circumscribe arbitrary government power. It would do so by establishing clear rules, equally applied to the powerful and the weak.

    Fleecing lenders to pay off politically powerful interests, or governmental threats to reputation and business from a failure to toe a political line? We might expect this behavior from a Hugo Chávez. But it would never happen here, right?

    Until Chrysler. …

    The Obama administration’s behavior in the Chrysler bankruptcy is a profound challenge to the rule of law. Secured creditors — entitled to first priority payment under the “absolute priority rule” — have been browbeaten by an American president into accepting only 30 cents on the dollar of their claims. Meanwhile, the United Auto Workers union, holding junior creditor claims, will get about 50 cents on the dollar.

And then Obama bullied GM’s bondholders to the extent that even the Obamabots on the Washington Post‘s editorial board were moved to protest that “the Obama administration is coming dangerously close to engaging in financial engineering that ignores basic principles of fairness and economic realities to further political goals.

01 Oct 2009

Wall Street Burned By Obama

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Charles Gasperino, in the New York Post, describes how a large portion of the New York financial industry’s senior management fell for Barack Obama’s tone of moderation and failed to look at the democrat candidate’s actual political record. They’re sorry now, experiencing the Obama Administration’s economic naïveté and unrelenting commitment to leftwing radicalism.

In the depths of the financial crisis last year, people like Morgan Stanley’s John Mack, BlackRock’s Larry Fink, Greg Fleming (then of Merrill Lynch), JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein were telling everyone that candidate Barack Obama was a “moderate,” and moderation was what this country needed.

What a difference a year makes. They won’t admit it in public — but in private conversations, the top guys on Wall Street are feeling burned.

The guy who seemed like such a steady voice — vowing to curb runaway spending and restoring order to the banking system and the economy as a whole — is instead so driven to achieve his big-government policy goals that he and his policy people are ignoring their own economic advisers on the severe economic costs that his agenda will cause.

I’m told that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and chief economic adviser Lawrence Summers have both complained to senior Wall Street execs that they have almost no say in major policy decisions. Obama economic counselor Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman, is barely consulted at all on just about anything — not even issues involving the banking system, of which he is among the world’s leading authorities.

At most, the economic people and their staffs get asked to do cost analyses of Obama’s initiatives for the White House political people — who then ignore their advice.

It’s almost the opposite approach, the Wall Street crowd complains, from the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, whose main first-term achievement — deficit reduction — was crafted by his chief economic adviser, Robert Rubin.

Like Obama, Clinton and Rubin promised to raise taxes on the “rich,” and they did. But Clinton didn’t raise taxes to embark on a wild-eyed redistribution of wealth and massive programs. In the early Clinton years, Rubin convinced the president that he needed to avoid the grim consequences of runaway spending — and after the Republicans took Congress in ’94, it was no longer an option.

Of course, the Clinton tax hikes came at a cost — before the tech boom ignited the economy in 1995, growth was mediocre at best. But government spending remained under control, and lower interest rates followed, as did an economic recovery.

Obama, according to Wall Street people who regularly deal with his economic and budget officials, is acting as if he has a blank check to do what he wants, while ignoring the longterm costs of his policies.

As one CEO of a major financial firm told me: “The economic guys say that when they explain the costs of programs, the policy guys simply thank them for their time and then ignore what they say.”

In other words, the economic people feel that they have almost no say in this administration’s policy decisions.

22 Nov 2008

Perspective on What Went Wrong

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Michael Lewis, author of the Wall Street memoir Liar’s Poker, tells the story of some hedge fund guys who saw the handwriting on the subprime mortgage bond wall in time to bet on the side of reality, and how the investment banks even helped them place those bets.

There’s a simple measure of sanity in housing prices: the ratio of median home price to income. Historically, it runs around 3 to 1; by late 2004, it had risen nationally to 4 to 1. “All these people were saying it was nearly as high in some other countries,” Zelman (housing-market analyst at Credit Suisse), says. “But the problem wasn’t just that it was 4 to 1. In Los Angeles, it was 10 to 1, and in Miami, 8.5 to 1. And then you coupled that with the buyers. They weren’t real buyers. They were speculators.”…

By the spring of 2005, FrontPoint was fairly convinced that something was very screwed up not merely in a handful of companies but in the financial underpinnings of the entire U.S. mortgage market. In 2000, there had been $130 billion in subprime mortgage lending, with $55 billion of that repackaged as mortgage bonds. But in 2005, there was $625 billion in subprime mortgage loans, $507 billion of which found its way into mortgage bonds. Eisman couldn’t understand who was making all these loans or why. He had a from-the-ground-up understanding of both the U.S. housing market and Wall Street. But he’d spent his life in the stock market, and it was clear that the stock market was, in this story, largely irrelevant. “What most people don’t realize is that the fixed-income world dwarfs the equity world,” he says. “The equity world is like a fucking zit compared with the bond market.” He shorted companies that originated subprime loans, like New Century and Indy Mac, and companies that built the houses bought with the loans, such as Toll Brothers. Smart as these trades proved to be, they weren’t entirely satisfying. These companies paid high dividends, and their shares were often expensive to borrow; selling them short was a costly proposition.

Enter Greg Lippman, a mortgage-bond trader at Deutsche Bank. He arrived at FrontPoint bearing a 66-page presentation that described a better way for the fund to put its view of both Wall Street and the U.S. housing market into action. The smart trade, Lippman argued, was to sell short not New Century’s stock but its bonds that were backed by the subprime loans it had made. Eisman hadn’t known this was even possible—because until recently, it hadn’t been. But Lippman, along with traders at other Wall Street investment banks, had created a way to short the subprime bond market with precision. …

The big Wall Street firms had just made it possible to short even the tiniest and most obscure subprime-mortgage-backed bond by creating, in effect, a market of side bets. Instead of shorting the actual BBB bond, you could now enter into an agreement for a credit-default swap with Deutsche Bank or Goldman Sachs. It cost money to make this side bet, but nothing like what it cost to short the stocks, and the upside was far greater.

The arrangement bore the same relation to actual finance as fantasy football bears to the N.F.L. Eisman was perplexed in particular about why Wall Street firms would be coming to him and asking him to sell short. “What Lippman did, to his credit, was he came around several times to me and said, ‘Short this market,’ ” Eisman says. “In my entire life, I never saw a sell-side guy come in and say, ‘Short my market.’” …

Here he’d been making these side bets with Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank on the fate of the BBB tranche without fully understanding why those firms were so eager to make the bets. Now he saw. There weren’t enough Americans with shitty credit taking out loans to satisfy investors’ appetite for the end product. The firms used Eisman’s bet to synthesize more of them. Here, then, was the difference between fantasy finance and fantasy football: When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats. But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower. The only assets backing the bonds were the side bets Eisman and others made with firms like Goldman Sachs. Eisman, in effect, was paying to Goldman the interest on a subprime mortgage. In fact, there was no mortgage at all. “They weren’t satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn’t afford,” Eisman says. “They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over! That’s why the losses are so much greater than the loans. But that’s when I realized they needed us to keep the machine running. I was like, This is allowed?”

Essentially, it was in nobody’s interest, except for FrontPoint Partners, of course, to look at the subprime lending business realistically. So no one did.

Read the whole thing.

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Hat tip to Karen l. Myers.

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