I saw Bill Maher offer Matt Taibbi some pushback last night about his Rolling Stone piece on Goldman Sachs. Maher wasn't willing to believe that Goldman has been uniquely positioned to profit from the breakdown of the financial system and the various bubbles created. Maher offered the predictable "why just Goldman" response, and Taibbi decided to talk about the many Goldman officials in high positions in the government. He could have just pointed to this story that leaped from Zero Hedge to the New York Times yesterday.
It is the hot new thing on Wall Street, a way for a handful of traders to master the stock market, peek at investors’ orders and, critics say, even subtly manipulate share prices.
It is called high-frequency trading — and it is suddenly one of the most talked-about and mysterious forces in the markets [...]
Nearly everyone on Wall Street is wondering how hedge funds and large banks like Goldman Sachs are making so much money so soon after the financial system nearly collapsed. High-frequency trading is one answer.
And when a former Goldman Sachs programmer was accused this month of stealing secret computer codes — software that a federal prosecutor said could “manipulate markets in unfair ways” — it only added to the mystery. Goldman acknowledges that it profits from high-frequency trading, but disputes that it has an unfair advantage.
Yet high-frequency specialists clearly have an edge over typical traders, let alone ordinary investors. The Securities and Exchange Commission says it is examining certain aspects of the strategy.
“This is where all the money is getting made,” said William H. Donaldson, former chairman and chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange and today an adviser to a big hedge fund. “If an individual investor doesn’t have the means to keep up, they’re at a huge disadvantage.”
They literally place their super-fast computers physically close to the machines that govern NYSE trades, to get the jump on competitors and make enough pennies off of the brief ups and downs of stocks to rake in mounds of cash. And in some cases, investors can buy access to buy and sell order information on certain exchanges that can be used to make these quick orders. When Chuck Schumer is calling for an investigation of Wall Street, you know something has gone horribly wrong.
No, Goldman Sachs is not the only organization profiting from this scheme, or any of the numerous others. But their name keeps surfacing among those that are, in pretty much every case. I don't know how much evidence it takes to understand their role in all of this. Taibbi may not have gotten every single solitary thing right in his very long piece, but he got enough right to make some very powerful people nervous. And rightly so.
We need to go further in determining what caused this financial crisis and what pitfalls remain. The new iteration of the Pecora Commission, a Depression-era panel that uncovered the origins of that crisis, can lead the way.
We, the undersigned, call on you to fulfill the responsibilities of your position by joining together in non-partisan cooperation to investigate the origins of the financial crisis in ways that lead to a full understanding of the institutions, people and practices that are responsible for our economic collapse.
In particular, we encourage the adoption of three guidelines that history has taught us are essential to an effective inquiry:
Appoint a single investigator. This individual must have a proven record of exposing fraudulent elites and institutions, and must provide a professional, non-political spirit to the investigation.
Afford no special treatment. No one is off-limits or gets special protection in the investigation.
Provide the tools to do the job. The investigator must be given ample budget and time, full subpoena authority, and the ability to hire and fire staff.
These principles were applied in the 1930s when Congress launched a formal inquiry into the causes of the Great Depression. That commission - led by Ferdinand Pecora - was willing to reach into the highest levels of Wall Street and finance to determine the causes of the economic collapse of 1929. The courage with which the commission greeted its task - and the revelations that courage ensured - inspired the sweeping banking and financial reforms that were the bedrock of our financial system for decades.
Building a new financial foundation requires us to begin on solid ground - the truth. It is only by illuminating the mistakes of the past that we will be able to meet the great challenges of the future.
And they can start by photocopying Matt Taibbi's notes.