Regulation and Prosecution on Wall Street

In my opinion, the growing anger at Wall Street is giving Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon another chance at misdirection. They are using the current popular angst to steer the debate into whether derivatives and synthetic CDOs should be banned. In the end they will win that debate, and they should win it. What they should lose is their freedom in a judicial forum where they are prosecuted like Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers, and where it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed criminal fraud and securities fraud.

The fact that we had a bad experience with derivatives is not a reason to ban them. The fact that they were abused and that people were cheated and that the entire financial system was undermined is another story.

There is nothing wrong with any transaction if the playing field is relatively level and if the imbalances are addressed by law and regulation. That is what the Truth in lending Act is all about and the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act is meant to address.

When the big guys use their superior knowledge to trick consumers into deadly transactions, the big guys should pay the price. We have the SEC to take care of that on the other end protecting investors. Licensing laws and administrative sanctions against those licensed by state or federal agencies are well-equipped to step in and deal with these abuses. But they didn’t.

Complaints sent to the Federal Trade Commission, Office of Thrift Supervision and Office of the Controller of the Currency have gone unheeded even to this day. The only answer you get is similar to the answer we get from sending short or long Qualified Written requests or Debt Validation Letters — short shrift of legitimate complaints that by law are required to be investigated, verified (not just restated) and corrected.

The inconvenient truth is that our regulators were not employing the tools given to them. Everyone knew it. In part it was because of undue influence and in part it was because they were deferring to larger “smarter” institutions like the Federal Reserve. But the biggest reason the Federal and state agencies didn’t do their job is that we, as a society, bought into the non-regulation philosophy which has failed so spectacularly. We didn’t support appropriate funding, training and resources for these agencies. If we had done what we should have done — elect people who were committed to government protecting and serving the people — this mess would never have mushroomed to the point where Wall Street issued proprietary currency equal to 12 times times the amount of government currency — all in a span only 25 years.

The simple truth is that there was nothing inherently wrong about securitizing residential mortgages. In theory, spreading the risk out created much greater liquidity for small and large consumers of credit. What was wrong and remains wrong is that the use of these instruments was for an illegal purpose — to defraud investors and borrowers alike. And they did it in an illegal manner — by denying and withholding information essential to the decision-making on both sides of these transactions.

On one side you had a creditor who was willing to loan money for residential mortgages under terms and conditions that were “explained” in mind-numbing prospectuses and guaranteed by “insurance” that wasn’t really insurance and which was appraised by government licensed rating agencies who issued investment grade appraisals that were so wrong that it strains credibility to assume they didn’t know they were part of a larger criminal enterprise. This creditor lent money and received a bond, whose terms referenced other documents in the securitization chain that imposed conditions, co-obligors, and protections to the intermediaries that completely changed the loans that were signed by borrowers far, far away.

On the other side, you had borrowers, homeowners, who put their largest or only investment in the world at risk in a transaction that they could not understand because the information required to understand it was withheld. But even Alan Greenspan admitted he didn’t understand the transactions with the help of 100 PhD’s. These borrowers relied upon the sanctity of an underwriting process that no longer existed. Verification of property value, quality, affordability etc. were no longer in the mix.

These borrowers undertook an obligation to repay and signed a note that was evidence of the obligation but was payable to someone other than the party(ies) who loaned the money. That note was only a tiny part of the obligation to the creditor as evidenced by the mortgage backed bond they received.

The creditor was bilked out of a dollar and contrary to the expectations of the creditor, less than 2/3 of each dollar was actually used to fund mortgages. The creditor never actually received or even saw the note but ownership of the note was conveyed to the investor along with many other terms — terms that were entirely different from the note the borrower signed as to interest payments, principal, fees etc.

In between were the dozens of intermediaries who treated the documentation like a hot potato because nobody wanted to be stuck with it — knowing that misrepresentation and bad appraisals were the root of the instruments signed by creditors and debtors. These intermediaries kept possession of the note, kept the security instrument and kept the money and most of the insurance proceeds, received the federal bailout and now are proceeding to repackage the junk they already sold and through “resecuritization” are selling them again.

In my opinion there is nothing theoretically wrong with anything described above except for one thing — they lied. Fraud is fraud. If they had educated the creditors and debtors, if they had complied with local property and contract law, if they had been transparent disclosing everything much the same way as the prospectus in an IPO, then two things are true: (a) transactions that were completed would have been done because both sides knew the risks and were willing to take the loss and (b) transactions that were NOT completed (which would have been nearly all of them) would been rejected because the costs were too high, the risks were too high, and the consequences too dire.

But none of that happened because we allowed our regulators to be co-opted by the industries they were supposed to regulate. So tell your legislators and government agencies that you’ll allow them the resources to properly regulate and that you expect to hold them and the elected officials who put them there fully accountable.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It isn’t derivatives that are wrong it is the people who used them and the way they were used that is wrong. Killing derivatives would lead to stagnation of what once was our greatest asset — the engine of liquidity for access to capital that has kept our economy growing.


2 Responses

  1. Goldman earns $3.3B in 1Q as fraud case looms.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100420/ap_on_bi_ge/us_earns_goldman_sachs

  2. Excellent opinion in the WSJ… Crony Capitalism.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704508904575192430373566758.html

    With that I am interested in is who actually pointed Paulson & Company towards the toxic mortgages, where they were free to get to pick and choose and the average homeowner has a hard time finding their loan in a pool…?

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