If I had to sum up the general theme of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it would go something like this: "We have to stop pretending that it's okay to screw people over in the name of making money."
Now before some people start jumping up and down and yelling, "Straw man, straw man! Nobody believes it's okay to do that," let me present you with this delightful post written by ex-Goldman employee Matt Levine. Here is the actual title of the piece:
So Maybe Citi Created A Mortgage-Backed Security Filled With Loans They Knew Were Going To Fail So That They Could Sell It To A Client Who Wasn’t Aware That They Sabotaged It By Intentionally Picking The Misleadingly Rated Loans Most Likely To Be Defaulted Upon, So What?
Yeah, so what? It was just fraud! What kind of loser is opposed to fraud?
Levine's post is largely an attempt to counter arguments that it's wrong to screw people over in the name of making money. Most of his points rely on the tried and true "sophisticated investor" defense, which is basically akin to that scene in "Animal House" where the guys from Delta House have just destroyed Flounder's car and Otter tries to console him by saying, "Hey, you f***ed up! You trusted us!" In other words, it's your fault that you got the shaft since you should have known we were going to shaft you. Take a look:
There are five points to which your free-floating rage could maybe attach:
1. You were shorting a thing that you were selling to your customers! This is what drove Congress bonkers. But that’s what selling is. If you have 20 apples and sell me 15, you now have fewer apples, and I have more. If apple prices decline, I am worse off, and you are relatively protected. Banks, which are always long some risks and short some others, don’t see zero as a particularly interesting point on this continuum – if you have 20 apples and sell me 30, and apple prices decline, you make money, but that’s different only in degree, not in kind, from selling me 15 and reducing your risk to 5.
The apple analogy is sorta funky since most normal human beings buy apples to, uh, eat them instead of using them as long-term investment strategies. But let's roll with it! Let's say Matt sells me a crate of apples that he thinks is overvalued and that I think I can sell at a profit. I understand that there are certain risks in such transactions: The apples might have worms in them. There might be a surplus crop of apples that will diminish my selling power. Or people might just decide apples suck and not want to buy them. These are all risks I'm willing to assume when I buy apples from Matt.
But what I'm not willing to assume when I buy apples from Matt is that he might have personally embedded hand grenades in 80% of them that will blow up my truck when I try to drive them off the lot. Because that's pretty much what Citi's bad apples did to the people on the other side of the trade:
After the deal closed on Feb. 28, 2007, more than 80 percent of the portfolio was downgraded by credit ratings agencies in less than nine months. The security declared “an event of default” on Nov. 19, 2007, and investors soon lost hundreds of millions of dollars, the S.E.C. said, while Citigroup gained.
Among the losers was Ambac of New York, which insured financial instruments and was the largest investor in the deal, according to the S.E.C. Ambac’s role in the transaction was to assume the credit risk associated with a $500 million portion of the portfolio. When the value of the portfolio fell, Ambac had to make payments to those who had bet against the bonds, as Citigroup had.
In part because of losses tied to the financial crisis, Ambac filed for bankruptcy last year.
Neener, neener, neener, Ambac! How do you like them $500 million apples, losers?
OK, let's get back to Levine here:
2. You didn’t tell buyers you were short. Well, see above – someone had to be short, that’s what a synthetic CDO is. So buyers knew. But also, you did. [...] In other words, the SEC has a sad because Citi didn’t specifically tell clients that the other side of the market was Citi prop, rather than customer facilitation, although it did say “it might be.” Fortunately, that will no longer be a problem. Similarly (oppositely?), with Abacus the SEC was pissed that Goldman didn’t tell clients that the other side of the market was John Paulson, who had a stellar reputation for market clairvoyance for about 45 minutes (though those 45 minutes, to be fair, occurred after Abacus was already dead). But of course you’re not supposed to tell people who the other side of the market is. Banks have rules against telling buyers who the sellers were, and vice versa. That’s why you trade through a market maker: to preserve anonymity and avoid being front-run by competitors. Citi disclosed that it might have a conflict by being short; it just didn’t want to give away its whole book by explaining exactly how short it was and whether the risk was laid off elsewhere.
What makes this whole passage so spectacularly wrong is that Levine seems to view all of these transactions as mere bets between two well-coiffed gentlemen of superior stock. "Cheerio, old bean, I say! Shall we place our wagers on some synthetic CDOs to-day? I'll bet twenty pounds that the commoners default on their mortgages and you can bet twenty pounds that they'll pay them off!"
But the problem is that these cute little bets on the housing market had consequences far more dire than some rich a**wipe losing his money. See, Goldman's credit default swap deals with AIG were the main factor that sent the firm hurtling toward insolvency. You may remember what happened to them -- they got bailed out by we taxpayers to the tune of $85 billion. What's more, instruments such as synthetic CDOs are designed to let investors take out insurance on assets that they don't even own, which means they can theoretically add limitless leverage to the financial system so long as there are
suckers sophisticated investors willing to take on the risks.
Now while said
suckers sophisticated investors may indeed deserve to lose their shirts, it also kinda sucks for us if those same suckers sophisticated investors are the same douches that, say, insure peoples' cars. If I get into a car accident and some a**bag greedhead investment bank has bankrupted the insurer of the car that hit me, I'm totally screwed, along with anyone else who needs AIG to pay out claims that are legitimate parts of the real economy and not part of the Grand Derivatives Casino.
And that's the thing that drives me nuts about the greedhead mentality: The denial that their actions could have a widespread negative impact on other peoples' lives. If Occupy Wall Street does just one thing, it should be to shame this sort of thinking out of existence.