October 3, 2009

From CNN's Your Money, it looks like the S.E.C. is as feckless as ever with reigning in these crooks. Matt Taibbi has much more over at his blog True/Slant.

ROMANS: All right. This is the ticker where each week we take you beyond the headlines. Shawn Tully is editor at large at Fortune and Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor with Rolling Stone. Let's be blunt, Matt is not a beloved figure on Wall Street these days which stems from articles like the one out in this week's Rolling Stone entitled "Wall Street's Naked Swindle." You can pick it up for all the details.

But let's examine a few of the overall themes. You say Wall Street is designed to rip off the middle class and you make the case that our economy is currently so screwed up, actually that's not the word you use, imagine a word by mistake on "SNL" and that is the word you meant. Screwed up that the rich are running out of things to steal. What's worse is that Matt argues that no one, not the S.E.C., the Federal Reserve, or the Treasury Department is making any real effort to punish the culprits.

For starters, who specifically are the culprits and why aren't they being punished?

MATT TAIBBI, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, ROLLING STONE: Well in the story that I looked specifically at two cases, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and what happened in those companies and what I found is that there was a kind of bear raid that had been happening to smaller firms in years previous to the Bear and Lehman episodes where there was sort of a pattern of credit default swaps.

People who were buying, naked short selling of these stocks, rumors being spread in the media. This was always happening in the smaller companies and hedge funds and predatory, you know, sellers were doing this to small companies.

In this instance, they did it to Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. There was a massive amount of undelivered shares and obvious evidence of naked short selling and manipulation in these instances. It was clear that they had run out of smaller companies to do this to.

ROMANS: So who did it?

TAIBBI: Well that's the problem. We don't know. This data is available to the S.E.C., it is a relatively simple matter to find out who was doing all this naked short selling but they haven't released the data and a year and a half later, they haven't made any progress in an investigation at all.

ROMANS: Well, the criticism that I hear most often is that after the decline of Bear, why didn't they figure out some way to resolve this if this happened to Lehman? Why was it that they were left when Lehman was in trouble, the Federal government that is, you know, our regulators, to try and figure out what to do about Lehman?

SHAWN TULLY, EDITOR AT LARGE, FORTUNE: Well, Lehman was in a different position from Bear. Lehman was really insolvent. Lehman's liabilities were much bigger than their assets so they had a big negative net worth which we're seeing playing out now in the bankruptcy filings where they clearly were leveraged by 40 to one. They were funding with very short-term ...

ROMANS: 40-1. Isn't that crazy?

TULLY: 40 to 1. They were leveraging with very short-term debt, liquid assets, they had loans out on a lot of commercial buildings which they made at the absolute height of the bubble. So they couldn't get out of their investments and fund themselves and pay back the short-term debt when there was essentially a run on the short-term debt, given that they really were insolvent. Their fall was inevitable.

It was hastened by the short selling problem but I think in the Bear case, Bear was a viable company. It did have a positive net worth and perhaps, and Jamey Diamond has said this from JP Morgan that he thinks the demise of Bear may have been caused by short sellers. Of course he bought it and he got a good deal but you look at the building alone is probably worth a billion dollars. I think that Bear was a viable concern but perhaps was toppled strictly by the psychology of the short sellers.

TAIBBI: It is important to remember there is a distinction also between normal short selling and naked short selling. Both happened in both of these cases, but naked short selling in most cases is illegal and criminal and there was enormous evidence of this in both the Bear and Lehman episodes.

ROMANS: Tell our viewers what is the difference between naked short selling and plain old every day short selling.

TAIBBI: Naked short selling is selling shares that you don't have and share that you aren't going to deliver. In the normal short selling you borrow shares, you sell them out in the market, you wait for the price to drop and then you go out in the market and you buy the shares again and you return them to the person you borrowed from. In naked short selling you just don't even borrow the shares. You just sell without ever having them. And this produces extra shares in the market and devalues the value of the stock.

ROMANS: Someone at Bear once told me short selling is just a good bet or a hunch but naked short telling is just cruel.

TAIBBI: It's counterfeit is what it is.

TULLY: Profiting at someone else's misery. Matt has amazing examples of the story. He compares it to going to a desert island and having a printing press and being able to buy anything you want with printed money and you have to pay it back when you leave and it's worthless.

ROMANS: Matt did a story about Goldman Sachs recently. What was the -- blood sucking -- what was the line that everyone talks about?

TAIBBI: Great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.

ROMANS: Yeah. That was a piece of journalism that got a lot of people's attention and had some I would say savage humor in it about what has happened here. A lot of people can't really laugh because it has been such a treacherous last year. We're still sorting through the wreckage of it all.

I want to switch gears and talk about another story, something people can't understand, and that is the story about bank fees. This is when you know right away when you're getting hit with these things and it's something you can definitely see and understand as its happening. I want to follow up on a story a couple weeks ago that garnered a huge response to review.

Ann Minch was the Michigan woman who claimed Bank of America had raised her credit card interest rates to 30 percent and then she took to YouTube to let everybody know she wasn't paying until the company came to the bargaining table.


ANN MINCH, BANK PROTESTER: I'm telling you, B of A. I officially notify you. Ken Lay that I'm staging a debtor's revolt right here right now and thereby refuse to pay you one more red cent on your 30 percent credit card account. This is called civil disobedience.


ROMANS: OK. To make clear when Minch says Ken Lay she actually is targeting Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis and not Ken Lay the deceased former head of Enron. Enron a whole other story that made people mad. While Minch never heard from Lewis she does claim that a Bank of America rep got in touch with her and her rate was dropped from 30 percent to just under 13 percent.

We asked Bank of America and they told us they don't discuss specific details but they did reach a mutually agreeable resolution. She says a tax revolt is now in the works. Shawn Tully looks like this a revolution? People are so mad they're not going to take anymore.

TULLY: I'm really applauding her, 30 percent is an outrageous number. When we have the treasuries at 3 percent it's ridiculous. The bank should have been embarrassed. Fortunately they did get an executive to call her. They eventually settled on letting her go back to her original rate but even if she had a couple late payments which apparently she did have but they were only a couple days late, jacking your rate up from 13 to 30 percent is absolutely ridiculous.

It's a penalty that someone who has essentially a good payment history, who lost her job but still has the resources to pay, should never have to go through. And the only way to get these banks really to do the right thing is to embarrass them.

ROMANS: Right.

TULLY: Bank of America clearly was embarrassed. The line about Ken Lay instead of Ken Lewis the late head of Enron, you couldn't make it up it's so funny.

ROMANS: She had some savvy points. She said look, the Fed is loaning money for essentially nothing and then they're turning around and giving me that money back and now I'm paying 30 percent for it even when I'm paying ...

TAIBBI: She is absolutely right. I think the people should organize debtor strikes because beyond even embarrassing these companies they have to hurt them at the bottom line. Then they'll pay attention. I think even 5 or 10 percent of the people who owe these debts if they organize they would do a lot of damage.

ROMANS: Some of these debts people have to take responsibility for. You've spent money that you don't have and now you lost your job and the world is trying to reel in the credit because times have changed. Thirty percent seems really excessive but we also want to make sure we send a message, people have to cut down -- people have to handle their debt. They have to handle and get their debt under control.

TULLY: Yeah. These credit card defaults are now in the 12 percent range at Bank of America.

ROMANS: So that is why Bank of America is raising its rates on everybody because they're losing money.

TULLY: But 30 percent is going to drive the default rate up. In other words they have to work with these people to give them payments they can afford. I don't think 30 percent is moving in that direction.

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