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[Mar 13, 2013] What Good Is Wall Street? by John Cassidy

November 29, 2010 | The New Yorker

November 29, 2010 .

For years, the most profitable industry in America has been one that doesn

For years, the most profitable industry in America has been one that doesn't design, build, or sell a single tangible thing.

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Related LinksAsk the Author: Join a live chat with John Cassidy about Wall Street on Wednesday, November 24th, at 11 A.M. E.T.Primary Sources: Paul Woolley's chapter from "The Future of Finance: The LSE Report." KeywordsWall Street; Vikram Pandit; Citigroup; Citibank; Award Ceremonies; Economy; Investment Banks

A few months ago, I came across an announcement that Citigroup, the parent company of Citibank, was to be honored, along with its chief executive, Vikram Pandit, for "Advancing the Field of Asset Building in America." This seemed akin to, say, saluting BP for services to the environment or praising Facebook for its commitment to privacy. During the past decade, Citi has become synonymous with financial misjudgment, reckless lending, and gargantuan losses: what might be termed asset denuding rather than asset building. In late 2008, the sprawling firm might well have collapsed but for a government bailout. Even today the U.S. taxpayer is Citigroup's largest shareholder.

The award ceremony took place on September 23rd in Washington, D.C., where the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to expanding economic opportunities for low-income families and communities, was holding its biennial conference. A ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park was full of government officials, lawyers, tax experts, and community workers, two of whom were busy at my table lamenting the impact of budget cuts on financial-education programs in Vermont.

Pandit, a slight, bespectacled fifty-three-year-old native of Nagpur, in western India, was seated near the front of the room. Fred Goldberg, a former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service who is now a partner at Skadden, Arps, introduced him to the crowd, pointing out that, over the years, Citi has taken many initiatives designed to encourage entrepreneurship and thrift in impoverished areas, setting up lending programs for mom-and-pop stores, for instance, and establishing savings accounts for the children of low-income families. "When the history is written, Citi will be singled out as one of the pioneers of the asset movement," Goldberg said. "They have demonstrated the capacity, the vision, and the will."

Pandit, who moved to the United States at sixteen, is rarely described as a communitarian. A former investment banker and hedge-fund manager, he sold his investment firm to Citigroup in 2007 for eight hundred million dollars, earning about a hundred and sixty-five million dollars for himself. Eight months later, after Citi announced billions of dollars in writeoffs, Pandit became the company's new C.E.O. He oversaw the company's near collapse in 2008 and its moderate recovery since.

Clearly, this wasn't the occasion for Pandit to dwell on his career, or on the role that Citi's irresponsible actions played in bringing on the subprime-mortgage crisis. (In early 2007, his predecessor, Charles Prince, was widely condemned for commenting, "As long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance.") Instead, Pandit talked about how well-functioning banks are essential to any modern society, adding, "As President Obama has said, ultimately there is no dividing line between Wall Street and Main Street. We will rise or we will fall together as one nation." In the past couple of years, he went on, Citi had rededicated itself to "responsible finance." Before he and his colleagues approved any transaction, they now asked themselves three questions: Is it in the best interests of the customer? Is it systemically responsible? And does it create economic value? Pandit indicated that other financial firms were doing the same thing. "Banks have learned how to be banks again," he said.

from the issue cartoon bank e-mail this . About an hour later, I spoke with Pandit in a sparsely furnished hotel room. Citi's leaders-from Walter Wriston, in the nineteen-seventies, to John Reed, in the nineteen-eighties, and Sanford Weill, in the late nineteen-nineties-have tended to be formidable and forbidding. Pandit affects a down-to-earth demeanor. He offered me a cup of coffee and insisted that I sit on a comfortable upholstered chair while he perched on a cheap plastic one. I asked him if he saw any irony in Citi being commended for asset building. His eyes widened slightly. "Well," he said, "the award we are receiving is for fifteen years of work. It was work that was pioneered by Citi to get more financial inclusion. And it's part of a broader reform effort we are involved in under the heading of responsible banking."

Since Pandit took over, this effort has involved selling or closing down some of Citi's riskier trading businesses, including the hedge fund that he used to run; splitting off the company's most foul-smelling assets into a separate entity, Citi Holdings; and cutting the pay of some senior executives. For 2009 and 2010, Pandit took an annual salary of one dollar and no bonus. (He didn't, however, give back any of the money from the sale of his hedge fund.) "This is an apprenticeship industry," he said to me. "People learn from the people above them, and they copy the actions of the people above them. If you start from the top by acting responsibly, people will see and learn."

Barely two years after Wall Street's recklessness brought the global economy to the brink of collapse, the sight of a senior Wall Street figure talking about responsible finance may well strike you as suspicious. But on one point Pandit cannot be challenged. Since the promulgation of Hammurabi's Code, in ancient Babylon, no advanced society has survived without banks and bankers. Banks enable people to borrow money, and, today, by operating electronic-transfer systems, they allow commerce to take place without notes and coins changing hands. They also play a critical role in channelling savings into productive investments. When a depositor places money in a savings account or a C.D., the bank lends it out to corporations, small businesses, and families. These days, Bank of America, Citi, JPMorgan Chase, and others also help corporations and municipalities raise money by issuing stocks, bonds, and other securities on their behalf. The business of issuing securities used to be the exclusive preserve of Wall Street firms, such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, but during the past twenty years many of the dividing lines between ordinary banks and investment banks have vanished.

When the banking system behaves the way it is supposed to-as Pandit says Citi is now behaving-it is akin to a power utility, distributing money (power) to where it is needed and keeping an account of how it is used. Just like power utilities, the big banks have a commanding position in the market, which they can use for the benefit of their customers and the economy at large. But when banks seek to exploit their position and make a quick killing, they can cause enormous damage. It's not clear now whether the bankers have really given up their reckless practices, as Pandit claims they have, or whether they are merely lying low. In the past few years, all the surviving big banks have raised more capital and become profitable again. However, the U.S. government was indirectly responsible for much of this turnaround. And in the country at large, where many businesses rely on the banks to fund their day-to-day operations, the power still isn't flowing properly. Over-all bank lending to firms and households remains below the level it reached in 2008.

The other important role of the banking industry, historically, has been to finance the growth of vital industries, including railroads, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, and entertainment. "Go back and pick any period in time," John Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley, said to me recently. "Let's go back to the tech boom. I guess it got on its feet in the late eighties, with Apple Computer and Microsoft, and really started to blossom in the nineteen-nineties, with Cisco, Netscape, Amazon.com, and others. These are companies that created a lot of jobs, a lot of intellectual capital, and Wall Street helped finance that. The first investors were angel investors, then venture capitalists, and to really grow and build they needed Wall Street."

Mack, who is sixty-six years old, is a plainspoken native of North Carolina. He attended Duke on a football scholarship, and he retains the lean build of an athlete. We were sitting at a conference table in his large, airy office above Times Square, which features floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Hudson. "Today, it's not just technology-it's clean tech," he went on. "All of these industries need capital-whether it is ethanol, solar, or other alternative-fuel sources. We can give you a list of companies we've done, but it's not just Morgan Stanley. Wall Street has been the source of capital formation."

There is something in what Mack says. Morgan Stanley has raised money for Tesla Motors, a producer of electric cars, and it has invested in Bloom Energy, an innovator in fuel-cell technology. Morgan Stanley's principal rivals, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan, are also canvassing investors for ethanol producers, wind farms, and other alternative-energy firms. Banks, of course, raise money for less environmentally friendly corporations, too, such as Ford, General Electric, and ExxonMobil, which need cash to fund their operations. It was evidently this business of raising capital (and creating employment) that Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman's chief executive, was referring to last year, when he told an interviewer from a British newspaper that he and his colleagues were "doing God's work."

Yet Wall Street's role in financing new businesses is a small portion of what it does. The market for initial public offerings (I.P.O.s) of stock by U.S. companies never fully recovered from the tech bust. During the third quarter of 2010, just thirty-three U.S. companies went public, and they raised a paltry five billion dollars. Most people on Wall Street aren't finding the next Apple or promoting a green rival to Exxon. They are buying and selling securities that are tied to existing firms and capital projects, or to something less concrete, such as the price of a stock or the level of an exchange rate. During the past two decades, trading volumes have risen exponentially across many markets: stocks, bonds, currencies, commodities, and all manner of derivative securities. In the first nine months of this year, sales and trading accounted for thirty-six per cent of Morgan Stanley's revenues and a much higher proportion of profits. Traditional investment banking-the business of raising money for companies and advising them on deals-contributed less than fifteen per cent of the firm's revenue. Goldman Sachs is even more reliant on trading. Between July and September of this year, trading accounted for sixty-three per cent of its revenue, and corporate finance just thirteen per cent.

In effect, many of the big banks have turned themselves from businesses whose profits rose and fell with the capital-raising needs of their clients into immense trading houses whose fortunes depend on their ability to exploit day-to-day movements in the markets. Because trading has become so central to their business, the big banks are forever trying to invent new financial products that they can sell but that their competitors, at least for the moment, cannot. Some recent innovations, such as tradable pollution rights and catastrophe bonds, have provided a public benefit. But it's easy to point to other innovations that serve little purpose or that blew up and caused a lot of collateral damage, such as auction-rate securities and collateralized debt obligations. Testifying earlier this year before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that financial innovation "isn't always a good thing," adding that some innovations amplify risk and others are used primarily "to take unfair advantage rather than create a more efficient market."

Other regulators have gone further. Lord Adair Turner, the chairman of Britain's top financial watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, has described much of what happens on Wall Street and in other financial centers as "socially useless activity"-a comment that suggests it could be eliminated without doing any damage to the economy. In a recent article titled "What Do Banks Do?," which appeared in a collection of essays devoted to the future of finance, Turner pointed out that although certain financial activities were genuinely valuable, others generated revenues and profits without delivering anything of real worth-payments that economists refer to as rents. "It is possible for financial activity to extract rents from the real economy rather than to deliver economic value," Turner wrote. "Financial innovation . . . may in some ways and under some circumstances foster economic value creation, but that needs to be illustrated at the level of specific effects: it cannot be asserted a priori."

Turner's viewpoint caused consternation in the City of London, the world's largest financial market. A clear implication of his argument is that many people in the City and on Wall Street are the financial equivalent of slumlords or toll collectors in pin-striped suits. If they retired to their beach houses en masse, the rest of the economy would be fine, or perhaps even healthier.

Since 1980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people employed in finance, broadly defined, has shot up from roughly five million to more than seven and a half million. During the same period, the profitability of the financial sector has increased greatly relative to other industries. Think of all the profits produced by businesses operating in the U.S. as a cake. Twenty-five years ago, the slice taken by financial firms was about a seventh of the whole. Last year, it was more than a quarter. (In 2006, at the peak of the boom, it was about a third.) In other words, during a period in which American companies have created iPhones, Home Depot, and Lipitor, the best place to work has been in an industry that doesn't design, build, or sell a single tangible thing.

From the end of the Second World War until 1980 or thereabouts, people working in finance earned about the same, on average and taking account of their qualifications, as people in other industries. By 2006, wages in the financial sector were about sixty per cent higher than wages elsewhere. And in the richest segment of the financial industry-on Wall Street, that is-compensation has gone up even more dramatically. Last year, while many people were facing pay freezes or worse, the average pay of employees at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase's investment bank jumped twenty-seven per cent, to more than three hundred and forty thousand dollars. This figure includes modestly paid workers at reception desks and in mail rooms, and it thus understates what senior bankers earn. At Goldman, it has been reported, nearly a thousand employees received bonuses of at least a million dollars in 2009.

Not surprisingly, Wall Street has become the preferred destination for the bright young people who used to want to start up their own companies, work for NASA, or join the Peace Corps. At Harvard this spring, about a third of the seniors with secure jobs were heading to work in finance. Ben Friedman, a professor of economics at Harvard, recently wrote an article lamenting "the direction of such a large fraction of our most-skilled, best-educated, and most highly motivated young citizens to the financial sector."

Most people on Wall Street, not surprisingly, believe that they earn their keep, but at least one influential financier vehemently disagrees: Paul Woolley, a seventy-one-year-old Englishman who has set up an institute at the London School of Economics called the Woolley Centre for the Study of Capital Market Dysfunctionality. "Why on earth should finance be the biggest and most highly paid industry when it's just a utility, like sewage or gas?" Woolley said to me when I met with him in London. "It is like a cancer that is growing to infinite size, until it takes over the entire body."

From 1987 to 2006, Woolley, who has a doctorate in economics, ran the London affiliate of GMO, a Boston-based investment firm. Before that, he was an executive director at Barings, the venerable British investment bank that collapsed in 1995 after a rogue-trader scandal, and at the International Monetary Fund. Tall, soft-spoken, and courtly, Woolley moves easily between the City of London, academia, and policymaking circles. With a taste for Savile Row suits and a keen interest in antiquarian books, he doesn't come across as an insurrectionary. But, sitting in an office at L.S.E., he cheerfully told me that he regarded himself as one. "What we are doing is revolutionary," he said with a smile. "Nobody has done anything like it before."

At GMO, Woolley ran several funds that invested in stocks and bonds from many countries. He also helped to set up one of the first "quant" funds, which rely on mathematical algorithms to find profitable investments. From his perch in Angel Court, in the heart of the City, he watched the rapid expansion all around him. Established international players, such as Citi, Goldman, and UBS, were getting bigger; new entrants, especially hedge funds and buyout (private equity) firms, were proliferating. Woolley's firm did well, too, but a basic economic question niggled at him: Was the financial industry doing what it was supposed to be doing? Was it allocating capital to its most productive uses?

At first, like most economists, he believed that trading drove market prices to levels justified by economic fundamentals. If an energy company struck oil, or an entertainment firm created a new movie franchise, investors would pour money into its stock, but the price would remain tethered to reality. The dotcom bubble of the late nineteen-nineties changed his opinion. GMO is a "value investor" that seeks out stocks on the basis of earnings and cash flows. When the Nasdaq took off, Woolley and his colleagues couldn't justify buying high-priced Internet stocks, and their funds lagged behind rivals that shifted more of their money into tech. Between June, 1998, and March, 2000, Woolley recalled, the clients of GMO-pension funds and charitable endowments, mostly-withdrew forty per cent of their money. During the ensuing five years, the bubble burst, value stocks fared a lot better than tech stocks, and the clients who had left missed more than a sixty-per-cent gain relative to the market as a whole. After going through that experience, Woolley had an epiphany: financial institutions that react to market incentives in a competitive setting often end up making a mess of things. "I realized we were acting rationally and optimally," he said. "The clients were acting rationally and optimally. And the outcome was a complete Horlicks." Financial markets, far from being efficient, as most economists and policymakers at the time believed, were grossly inefficient. "And once you recognize that markets are inefficient a lot of things change."

One is the role of financial intermediaries, such as banks. Rather than seeking the most productive outlet for the money that depositors and investors entrust to them, they may follow trends and surf bubbles. These activities shift capital into projects that have little or no long-term value, such as speculative real-estate developments in the swamps of Florida. Rather than acting in their customers' best interests, financial institutions may peddle opaque investment products, like collateralized debt obligations. Privy to superior information, banks can charge hefty fees and drive up their own profits at the expense of clients who are induced to take on risks they don't fully understand-a form of rent seeking. "Mispricing gives incorrect signals for resource allocation, and, at worst, causes stock market booms and busts," Woolley wrote in a recent paper. "Rent capture causes the misallocation of labor and capital, transfers substantial wealth to bankers and financiers, and, at worst, induces systemic failure. Both impose social costs on their own, but in combination they create a perfect storm of wealth destruction."

Woolley originally endowed his institute on dysfunctionality with four million pounds. (By British standards, that is a significant sum.) The institute opened in 2007-Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, turned up at its launch party-and has published more than a dozen research papers challenging the benefits that financial markets and financial institutions bring to the economy. Dmitri Vayanos, a professor of finance at L.S.E. who runs the Woolley Centre, has presented some of its research at Stanford, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and other leading universities. Woolley has published a ten-point "manifesto" aimed at the mutual funds, pension funds, and charitable endowments that, through payments of fees and commissions, ultimately help finance the salaries of many people on Wall Street and in the City of London. Among Woolley's suggestions: investment funds should limit the turnover in their portfolios, refuse to pay performance fees, and avoid putting money into hedge funds and private-equity firms.

Before leaving for lunch at his club, the Reform, Woolley pointed me to a recent study by the research firm Ibbotson Associates, which shows that during the past decade investors in hedge funds, over all, would have done just as well putting their money straight into the S&P 500. "The amount of rent capture has been huge," Woolley said. "Investment banking, prime broking, mergers and acquisitions, hedge funds, private equity, commodity investment-the whole scale of activity is far too large." I asked Woolley how big he thought the financial sector should be. "About a half or a third of its current size," he replied.

When I got back from London, I spoke with Ralph Schlosstein, the C.E.O. of Evercore, a smallish investment bank of about six hundred employees that advises corporations on mergers and acquisitions but doesn't do much in the way of issuing and trading securities. In the nineteen-seventies, Schlosstein worked on Capitol Hill as an economist before joining the Carter Administration, in which he served at the Treasury and the White House. In the eighties, he moved to Wall Street and worked for Lehman with Roger Altman, the chairman and founder of Evercore. Eventually, Schlosstein left to co-found the investment firm Blackrock, where he made a fortune. After retiring from Blackrock, in 2007, he could have moved to his house on Martha's Vineyard, but he likes Wall Street and believes in it. "There will always be a need for funding from businesses and households," he said. "We saw at the end of 2008 and in early 2009 what happens to an economy when that capital-raising and capital-allocation mechanism breaks down. Part of what has distinguished the U.S. economy from the rest of the world is that we've always had large, transparent pools of capital. Ultimately, that drives down the cost of capital in the U.S. relative to our competitors."

Still Schlosstein agrees with Woolley that Wall Street has problems, many of which derive from its size. In the early nineteen-eighties, Goldman and Morgan Stanley were roughly the size of Evercore today. Now they are many, many times as large. Big doesn't necessarily mean bad, but when the Wall Street firms grew beyond a certain point they faced a set of new challenges. In a private partnership, the people who run the firm, rather than outside shareholders, bear the brunt of losses-a structure that discourages reckless risk-taking. In addition, small banks don't employ very much capital, which allows them to make a decent return by acting in the interests of their clients and relying on commissions. Big firms, however, have to take on more risk in order to generate the sorts of profits that their stockholders have come to expect. This inevitably involves building up their trading operations. "The leadership of these firms tends to go towards people who can deploy their vast amounts of capital and earn a decent return on it," Schlosstein said. "That tends to be people from the trading and capital-markets side."

Some kinds of trading serve a useful economic function. One is market-making, in which banks accumulate large inventories of securities in order to facilitate buying and selling on the part of their clients. Banks also engage in active trading to meet their clients' wishes either to lay off risk or to take it on. American Airlines might pay Morgan Stanley a fee to guarantee that the price of its jet fuel won't rise above a certain level for three years. The bank would then make a series of trades in the oil-futures markets designed to cover what it would have to pay American if the price of fuel rose. However, the mere fact that a certain trade is client-driven doesn't mean it is socially useful. Banks often design complicated trading strategies that help a customer, such as a pension fund or a wealthy individual, circumvent regulatory requirements or reduce tax liabilities. From the client's viewpoint, these types of financial products can create value, but from society's perspective they merely shift money around. "The usual economists' argument for financial innovation is that it adds to the size of the pie," Gerald Epstein, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, said. "But these types of things don't add to the pie. They redistribute it-often from taxpayers to banks and other financial institutions."

Meanwhile, big banks also utilize many kinds of trading that aren't in the service of their traditional clients. One is proprietary trading, in which they bet their own capital on movements in the markets. There's no social defense for this practice, except the argument that the banks exist to make profits for the shareholders. The so-called Volcker Rule, an element of this year's Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill intended to prevent banks from taking too many risks with their depositors' money, was supposed to have proscribed banks from proprietary trading. However, it is not yet clear how the rule will be applied or how it will prevent some types of proprietary trading that are difficult to distinguish from market-making. If a firm wants to place a bet on falling interest rates, for example, it can simply have its market-making unit build up its inventory of bonds.

The Dodd-Frank bill also didn't eliminate what Schlosstein describes as "a whole bunch of activities that fell into the category of speculation rather than effectively functioning capital markets." Leading up to the collapse, the banks became heavily involved in facilitating speculation by other traders, particularly hedge funds, which buy and sell at a frenetic pace, generating big fees and commissions for Wall Street firms. Schlosstein picked out the growth of credit-default swaps, a type of derivative often used purely for speculative purposes. When an investor or financial institution buys this kind of swap, it doesn't purchase a bond itself; it just places a bet on whether the bond will default. At the height of the boom, for every dollar banks issued in bonds, they might issue twenty dollars in swaps. "If they did a hundred-million-dollar bond issue, two billion dollars of swaps would be created and traded," Schlosstein said. "That's insane." From the banks' perspective, creating this huge market in side bets was very profitable insanity. By late 2007, the notional value of outstanding credit-default swaps was about sixty trillion dollars-more than four times the size of the U.S. gross domestic product. Each time a financial institution issued a swap, it charged the customer a commission. But wagers on credit-default swaps are zero-sum games. For every winner, there is a loser. In the aggregate, little or no economic value is created.

Since the market collapsed, far fewer credit-default swaps have been issued. But the insidious culture that allowed Wall Street firms to peddle securities of dubious value to pension funds and charitable endowments remains largely in place. "Traditionally, the relationship between Wall Street and its big clients has been based on the 'big boy' concept," Schlosstein explained. "You are dealing with sophisticated investors who can do their own due diligence. For example, if CALPERS"-the California Public Employees Retirement System-"wants to buy something that a major bank is selling short, it's not the bank's responsibility to tell them. On Wall Street, this was the accepted way of doing business." Earlier this year, the Securities and Exchange Commission appeared to challenge the big-boy concept, suing Goldman Sachs for failing to disclose material information about some subprime-mortgage securities that it sold, but the case was resolved without Goldman's admitting any wrongdoing. "This issue started to get discussed, then fell to the wayside when Goldman settled their case," Schlosstein said.

The big banks insist that they have to be big in order to provide the services that their corporate clients demand. "We are in one hundred and fifty-nine countries," Vikram Pandit told me. "Companies need us because they are going global, too. They have cash-management needs all around the world. They have capital-market needs all around the world. We can meet those needs." More than two-thirds of Citi's two hundred and sixty thousand employees work outside the United States. In the first nine months of this year, nearly three-quarters of the firm's profits emanated from Europe, Asia, and Latin America. In Brazil, Citi helped Petrobras, the state-run oil company, to issue stock to the public; in the United Kingdom, it helped raise money for a leveraged buyout of Tomkins, an engineering company.

"It's all about clients," Pandit went on. The biggest mistake Citi and other banks made during the boom, he said, was coming to believe that investing and trading on their own account, rather than on behalf of their clients, was a basic aspect of banking. Even before the Dodd-Frank bill was passed, Pandit was closing down some of Citi's proprietary businesses and trying to sell others. "Proprietary trading is not the core of what banking is about," he said. In place of a business model that was largely dependent on making quick gains, he is trying to revive a banking culture based on cultivating long-term relationships with Citi's customers. "Once you make your business all about relationships, conflicts of interest are not an issue," he said.

Despite Pandit's efforts to remake Citi's culture, the firm remains heavily involved in trading of various kinds. Its investment-banking arm, which has grown rapidly over the past decade, still accounts for about three-tenths of its revenues (close to twenty billion dollars in the first nine months of this year) and more than two-thirds of its net profits (upward of six billion dollars in the same period). And within the investment bank about eighty cents of every dollar in revenues came from buying and selling securities, while just fourteen cents of every dollar came from raising capital for companies and advising them on deals. Between January and September, Citigroup's bond traders alone generated more than twelve and a half billion dollars in revenues-more than the bank's entire branch network in North America.

Many banks believe that trading is too lucrative a business to stop, and they are trying to persuade government officials to enforce the Dodd-Frank bill in the loosest possible way. Morgan Stanley and other big firms are also starting to rebuild their securitization business, which pools together auto loans, credit-card receivables, and other forms of credit, and then issues bonds backed by them. There have even been some securitizations of prime-mortgage loans. I asked John Mack if he could see subprime-mortgage bonds making a comeback. "I think in time they will," he replied. "I hope they do. I say that because it gives tremendous liquidity to the markets."

"Liquidity" refers to how easy or difficult it is to buy and sell. A share of stock in a company on the Nasdaq is a very liquid asset: using a discount brokerage such as Fidelity, you can sell it in seconds for less than ten dollars. A chocolate factory is an illiquid asset: disposing of it is time-consuming and costly. The classic justification for market-making and other types of trading is that they endow the market with liquidity, and throughout the financial industry I heard the same argument over and over. "You can't not have banks, and you can't not have trading," an executive at a big private-equity firm said to me. "Part of the value in a stock is the knowledge that you can sell it this afternoon. Banks provide liquidity."

But liquidity, or at least the perception of it, has a downside. The liquidity of Internet stocks persuaded investors to buy them in the belief they would be able to sell out in time. The liquidity of subprime-mortgage securities was at the heart of the credit crisis. Home lenders, thinking they would always be able to sell the loans they made to Wall Street firms for bundling together into mortgage bonds, extended credit to just about anybody. But liquidity is quick to disappear when you need it most. Everybody tries to sell at the same time, and the market seizes up. The problem with modern finance "isn't just about excessive rents and a misallocation of capital," Paul Woolley said. "It is also crashes and bad macroeconomic outcomes. The recent crisis cost about ten per cent of G.D.P. It made tackling climate change look cheap."

In the upper reaches of Wall Street, talk of another financial crisis is dismissed as alarmism. Last fall, John Mack, to his credit, was one of the first Wall Street C.E.O.s to say publicly that his industry needed stricter regulation. Now that Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, the last two remaining big independent Wall Street firms, have converted to bank holding companies, a legal switch that placed them under the regulatory authority of the Federal Reserve, Mack insists that proper supervision is in place. Fed regulators "have more expertise, and they challenge us," Mack told me. Since the middle of 2007, Morgan Stanley has raised about twenty billion dollars in new capital and cut in half its leverage ratio-the total value of its assets divided by its capital. In addition, it now holds much more of its assets in forms that can be readily converted to cash. Other firms, including Goldman Sachs, have taken similar measures. "It's a much safer system now," Mack insisted. "There's no question."

That's true. But the history of Wall Street is a series of booms and busts. After each blowup, the firms that survive temporarily shy away from risky ventures and cut back on leverage. Over time, the markets recover their losses, memories fade, spirits revive, and the action starts up again, until, eventually, it goes too far. The mere fact that Wall Street poses less of an immediate threat to the rest of us doesn't mean it has permanently mended its ways.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about recent events was not how rapidly the big Wall Street firms got into trouble but how quickly they returned to profitability and lavished big rewards on themselves. Last year, Goldman Sachs paid more than sixteen billion dollars in compensation, and Morgan Stanley paid out more than fourteen billion dollars. Neither came up with any spectacular new investments or produced anything of tangible value, which leads to the question: When it comes to pay, is there something unique about the financial industry?

Thomas Philippon, an economist at N.Y.U.'s Stern School of Business, thinks there is. After studying the large pay differential between financial-sector employees and people in other industries with similar levels of education and experience, he and a colleague, Ariell Reshef of the University of Virginia, concluded that some of it could be explained by growing demand for financial services from technology companies and baby boomers. But Philippon and Reshef determined that up to half of the pay premium was due to something much simpler: people in the financial sector are overpaid. "In most industries, when people are paid too much their firms go bankrupt, and they are no longer paid too much," he told me. "The exception is when people are paid too much and their firms don't go broke. That is the finance industry."

On Wall Street dealing desks, profits and losses are evaluated every afternoon when trading ends, and the firms' positions are "marked to market"-valued on the basis of the closing prices. A trader can borrow money and place a leveraged bet on a certain market. As long as the market goes up, he will appear to be making a steady profit. But if the market eventually turns against him his capital may be wiped out. "You can create a trading strategy that overnight makes lots of money, and it can take months or years to find out whether it is real money or luck or excessive risk-taking," Philippon explained. "Sometimes, even then it is hard." Since traders (and their managers) get evaluated on a quarterly basis, they can be paid handsomely for placing bets that ultimately bankrupt their companies. "In most industries, a good idea is rewarded because the company generates profits and real cash flows," Philippon said. "In finance, it is often just a trading gain. The closer you get to financial markets the easier it is to book funny profits."

During the credit boom of 2005 to 2007, profits and pay reached unprecedented highs. It is now evident that the bankers were being rewarded largely for taking on unacknowledged risks: after the subprime market collapsed, bank shareholders and taxpayers were left to pick up the losses. From an economy-wide perspective, this experience suggests that at least some of the profits that Wall Street bankers claim to generate, and that they use to justify their big pay packages, are illusory. Such a subversive notion has recently received the endorsement of senior figures at the Bank of England. Andrew Haldane, the executive director of financial stability at the Bank, gave a speech in July titled "The Contribution of the Financial Sector: Miracle or Mirage?" It concluded, "Because banks are in the risk business, it should be no surprise that the run-up to the crisis was hallmarked by imaginative ways of manufacturing this commodity, with a view to boosting returns to labour and capital. . . . It is in bank managers' interest to make mirages look like miracles."

Under pressure from the regulators, the big Wall Street banks have responded to criticisms over executive compensation with something called "clawback." Rather than paying hefty bonuses in cash every January or February, a bank gives its most highly paid employees some sort of deferred compensation designed to decline in value if "profits" turn into losses. The simplest way of doing this is to issue bonuses in the form of restricted stock that can't be sold for a long period of time. If the firm gets into trouble as a result of decisions taken years earlier, and its stock price declines, those responsible will suffer. Morgan Stanley pays bonuses in cash, but places the cash in a restricted account where it can't be used for a certain number of years. If during this period the investment that generated the bonus turns into a loss, the firm has the right to take back some or all of the cash.

The spread of clawback provisions shows that there has been some change on Wall Street. But it's unclear if the schemes will hold up when inevitably challenged in court-or if they'll deter traders from taking unwarranted risks. On Wall Street and elsewhere in corporate America, insiders generally learn quickly how to game new systems and turn them to their advantage. A key question about clawbacks is how long they remain in effect. At Morgan Stanley the answer is three years, which may not be long enough for hidden risks to materialize. "It's just very easy to create trading strategies that make money for six years and lose money in the seventh," Philippon said. "That's exactly what Lehman did for six years before its collapse."

Given the code of silence that Wall Street firms impose on their employees, it is difficult to get mid-level bankers to speak openly about what they do. There is, however, a blog, The Epicurean Dealmaker, written by an anonymous investment banker who has for several years been providing caustic commentary on his profession. The biography on his site notes, "I facilitate, justify, and advise parties to M&A transactions, when I am not advising against them." In March, 2008, when some analysts were suggesting that the demise of Bear Stearns would lead to a change of attitudes on Wall Street, TED-the shorthand appellation the author uses-wrote, "I, for one, think these bankers will be even more motivated to rape and pillage the financial system in order to rebuild their ill-gotten gains." Seven months later, on the eve of the bank bailout, TED opined, "Let hundreds of banks fail. Let tens of thousands of financial workers lose their jobs and their personal wealth. . . . The financial sector has had a really, really good run for a lot of years. It is time to pay the piper, and I, for one, have little interest in using my taxpayer dollars to cushion the blow. After all, I am just another heartless Wall Street bastard myself."

In September, TED and I met at a diner near my office. He looked like an investment banker: middle-aged, clean-cut, wearing an expensive-looking gray suit. Our conversation started out with some banter about the rivalry between bankers and traders at many Wall Street firms. As the traders came out on top in recent years, TED recalled, "they would say, 'You guys are the real parasites, going to expensive lunches and doing deals on the back of our trading operations.' " He professed to be unaffected by this ribbing, but he said, "In my experience, the proprietary traders are always the clowns who make twenty million dollars a year until they lose a hundred million."

In September, 2009, addressing the popular anger about bankers' pay, TED wrote that he wouldn't "attempt to rationalize stratospheric pay in the industry on the basis of some sort of self-aggrandizing claim to the particular socioeconomic utility or virtue of what I and my peers do," and he cautioned his colleagues against making any such claim: "You mean to tell me your work as a [fill in the blank here] is worth more to society than a firefighter? An elementary school teacher? A combat infantryman in Afghanistan? A priest? Good luck with that." The fact was, TED went on, "my pay is set according to one thing and one thing only: the demand in the marketplace for my services. . . . Investment bankers get paid a lot of money because that is what the market will bear."

While not inaccurate, this explanation raises questions about how competition works in the financial industry. If Hertz sees much of its rental fleet lying idle, it will cut its prices to better compete with Avis and Enterprise. Chances are that Avis and Enterprise will respond in kind, and the result will be lower profits all around. On Wall Street, the price of various services has been fixed for decades. If Morgan Stanley issues stock in a new company, it charges the company a commission of around seven per cent. If Evercore or JPMorgan advises a corporation on making an acquisition, the standard fee is about two per cent of the purchase price. I asked TED why there is so little price competition. He concluded it was something of a mystery. "It's a commodity business," he said. "I can do what Goldman Sachs does. You can do what I can do. Nobody has a proprietary edge. And if you do have a proprietary edge you'll only have it for a few weeks before somebody reverse engineers it."

After thinking it over, the best explanation TED could come up with was based on a theory of relativity: investment-banking fees are small compared with the size of the over-all transaction. "You are a client, and you are going to do a five-billion-dollar deal," he said. "It's the biggest deal you've ever done. It's going to determine your future, and the future of your firm. Are you really going to fight about whether a certain fee is 2.5 per cent or 3.3 per cent? No. The old cliché we rely on is this: When you need surgery, do you go to the discount surgeon or to the one you trust and know, who charges more?"

I asked him how he and his co-workers felt about making loads of money when much of the country was struggling. "A lot of people don't care about it or think about it," he replied. "They say, it's a market, it's still open, and I'll sell my labor for as much as I can until nobody wants to buy it." But you, I asked, what do you think? "I tend to think we do create value," he said. "It's not a productive value in a very visible sense, like finding a cure for cancer. We're middlemen. We bring together two sides of a deal. That's not a very elevated thing, but I can't think of any elevated economy that doesn't need middlemen."

The Epicurean Dealmaker is right: Wall Street bankers create some economic value. But do they create enough of it to justify the rewards they reap? In the first nine months of 2010, the big six banks cleared more than thirty-five billion dollars in profits. "The cataclysmic events took place in the fall of 2008 and the early months of 2009," Roger Altman, the chairman of Evercore, said to me. "In this industry, that's a long time ago."

Despite all the criticism that President Obama has received lately from Wall Street, the Administration has largely left the great money-making machine intact. A couple of years ago, firms such as Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs faced the danger that the government would break them up, drive them out of some of their most lucrative business lines-such as dealing in derivatives-or force them to maintain so much capital that their profits would be greatly diminished. "None of these things materialized," Altman noted. "Reforms and changes came in, but they did not have a transformative effect."

In 1940, a former Wall Street trader named Fred Schwed, Jr., wrote a charming little book titled "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?," in which he noted that many members of the public believed that Wall Street was inhabited primarily by "crooks and scoundrels, and very clever ones at that; that they sell for millions what they know is worthless; in short, that they are villains." It was an extreme view, but public antagonism toward bankers and other financiers kept them in check for forty years. Economic historians refer to a period of "financial repression," during which regulators and policymakers, reflecting public suspicion of Wall Street, restrained the growth of the banking sector. They placed limits on interest rates, prohibited deposit-taking institutions from issuing securities, and, by preventing financial institutions from merging with one another, kept most of them relatively small. During this period, major financial crises were conspicuously absent, while capital investment, productivity, and wages grew at rates that lifted tens of millions of working Americans into the middle class.

Since the early nineteen-eighties, by contrast, financial blowups have proliferated and living standards have stagnated. Is this coincidence? For a long time, economists and policymakers have accepted the financial industry's appraisal of its own worth, ignoring the market failures and other pathologies that plague it. Even after all that has happened, there is a tendency in Congress and the White House to defer to Wall Street because what happens there, befuddling as it may be to outsiders, is essential to the country's prosperity. Finally, dissidents like Paul Woolley are questioning this narrative. "There was a presumption that financial innovation is socially valuable," Woolley said to me. "The first thing I discovered was that it wasn't backed by any empirical evidence. There's almost none." ♦

ILLUSTRATION: JOOST SWARTE

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Short Sales: The Real Issue by Karl Denninger

Matt Taibbi once again writes in Rolling Stone, this time on naked short sales, and while he gets a good part of the issue right, he (and many others who have opined on this situation over the years) miss the forest for the trees.

Matt writes:

But the most damning thing the attack on Bear had in common with these earlier manipulations was the employment of a type of counterfeiting scheme called naked short-selling. From the moment the confidential meeting at the Fed ended on March 11th, Bear became the target of this ostensibly illegal practice - and the companies widely rumored to be behind the assault were in that room. Given that the SEC has failed to identify who was behind the raid, Wall Street insiders were left with nothing to trade but gossip. According to the former head of Bear's mortgage business, Tom Marano, the rumors within Bear itself that week centered around Citadel and Goldman. Both firms were later subpoenaed by the SEC as part of its investigation into market manipulation - and the CEOs of both Bear and Lehman were so suspicious that they reportedly contacted Blankfein to ask whether his firm was involved in the scam. (A Goldman spokesman denied any wrongdoing, telling reporters it was "rigorous about conducting business as usual.")

Matt gets so close, but fails in the closing.

See, there are two area of naked shorting that nobody wants to really deal with, yet both have to be if we are ever to make a difference. Let's deal with them in turn.

The first, the writing of "naked" swaps, is one that I've written about before. The essence of a "credit default swap" is a contract whereby the buyer of protection insures against the default of a credit instrument (usually a bond of some sort.) If the bond issuer doesn't pay principal and/or interest, the buyer collects the face value of the bond from the seller of protection - but in turn must tender the defaulted bond to the seller.

This "tender requirement" is due to the fact the most of the time a default bond is not worth zero - even in a bankruptcy most companies have some value, and the bondholders are entitled to that recovery.

This is pretty much like homeowners insurance if you think about it. Your house might have a fire, but odds are it won't be worthless if there is. Same with auto insurance - you buy insurance against a wreck, but if you have one, the insurance company can pay you the market value of the car prior to the crash and in turn they get to keep the (wrecked) car.

Now envision that we allow any number of people to buy fire insurance against your house. There's only one house, but ten fire insurance policies. Only one of those people (you) owns the house and only one of them (you) lives there, but ten people stand to collect whatever the damage amount is if there's a fire.

How likely would it be that someone would be sneaking around with a gas can at 3:00 AM were this to be allowed?

Now let's add another wrinkle to the mix - to collect on any of the insurance policies you must have possession of the house!

Tonight, you have a real fire and the house burns to the ground. The recovery value is zero; indeed, it might be negative (since you have to hire a bulldozer and cleanup crew to clear away the mess before you can rebuild.)

But if there are ten insurance policies, suddenly that burned out smoking hulk has value that doesn't really exist, and a bidding frenzy is likely to develop for the (one) house. See, without the (burned out) house to tender those insurance policies are worthless.

We don't allow this sort of thing in the insurance business because it both distorts the market and creates a reason for people to intentionally start fires.

Why do we allow it in the "credit default swap" business?

Did a few people intentionally start some (financial) fires?

The same thing applies, ironically, when it comes to options. See, if I buy a PUT option the market maker who sells it to me immediately hedges his exposure. If the market maker does not hedge and the price collapses, I will put the shares upon him at vastly more than their value and he will suffer a huge loss. He has no reason to take that risk; his money is made on the bid/ask spread, and he has no reason to take a directional bet on the stock's price (he may, for that matter, agree with me on which way he believes the prices will move!)

Market makers are exempt from the prohibition on naked short sales. They should not be. To allow them to be is to remove one of the actual risks in an option transaction - execution risk. That is, it is entirely possible to have more PUTs (or CALLs) outstanding than there is public float of the underlying issue! It is also possible for those to go out in the money and be exercised, and if that happens then you have created exactly the same sort of counterfeiting fraud that exists with a raw naked short.

The same problem exists on the long side. When a naked short has to be bought back, there are insufficient shares available to do so. This creates a dislocation in price to the upside. While everyone talks about "bear raids" nobody talks about synthetic and fraudulently-generated short squeezes - yet they are just as pervasive in impact as naked shorting, but in the opposite direction.

How many of the so-called "vertical" moves we have so often seen in stocks since last fall, in both directions, can be attributed to this?

The answer? Most of them.

The only check and balance on this is to not exempt market makers from the constraints that everyone else must follow - that is, you can't short shares you cannot actually borrow, and you can't buy something that nobody is willing to sell at the desired price. Put more simply, the quantity of a given stock in "float" is in fact fixed, determination of the float is made by the corporation when they decide how many shares to issue, and nobody can be allowed to count a given share twice, no matter how that double-counting would otherwise occur.

Removing this pervasive fraud from the markets would cause option premium to rise a lot when the open interest began to approach a meaningful fraction of the float, and it would bar the writing of credit default swaps in amounts that exceed, in total value, the underlying reference. That's how it should be, and it would have made the sort of bets placed last year uneconomic, as execution risk, which in fact exists, would have to be computed into the option's (or CDS') value. Today, it is not.

Matt gets so close, but then fails in the end.

The reality is that this sort of "counterfeiting" is in fact part and parcel of both the option and credit-default-swap markets, and in each and every case, including old-fashioned naked short sales, it is in fact an act of fraud.

We don't need new laws - we simply need the existing laws that deal with forgery and counterfeiting enforced across all investment products, and the "special exceptions" that legalize certain sorts of fraud must be removed.

Watch Matt Taibbi break down short-selling vs. naked short-selling on his blog, Taibblog.

On Tuesday, March 11th, 2008, somebody - nobody knows who - made one of the craziest bets Wall Street has ever seen. The mystery figure spent $1.7 million on a series of options, gambling that shares in the venerable investment bank Bear Stearns would lose more than half their value in nine days or less. It was madness - "like buying 1.7 million lottery tickets," according to one financial analyst.

But what's even crazier is that the bet paid.

At the close of business that afternoon, Bear Stearns was trading at $62.97. At that point, whoever made the gamble owned the right to sell huge bundles of Bear stock, at $30 and $25, on or before March 20th. In order for the bet to pay, Bear would have to fall harder and faster than any Wall Street brokerage in history.

The very next day, March 12th, Bear went into free fall. By the end of the week, the firm had lost virtually all of its cash and was clinging to promises of state aid; by the weekend, it was being knocked to its knees by the Fed and the Treasury, and forced at the barrel of a shotgun to sell itself to JPMorgan Chase (which had been given $29 billion in public money to marry its hunchbacked new bride) at the humiliating price of … $2 a share. Whoever bought those options on March 11th woke up on the morning of March 17th having made 159 times his money, or roughly $270 million. This trader was either the luckiest guy in the world, the smartest son of a bitch ever or…

Or what? That this was a brazen case of insider manipulation was so obvious that even Sen. Chris Dodd, chairman of the pillow-soft-touch Senate Banking Committee, couldn't help but remark on it a few weeks later, when questioning Christopher Cox, the then-chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission. "I would hope that you're looking at this," Dodd said. "This kind of spike must have triggered some sort of bells and whistles at the SEC. This goes beyond rumors."

Cox nodded sternly and promised, yes, he would look into it. What actually happened is another matter. Although the SEC issued more than 50 subpoenas to Wall Street firms, it has yet to identify the mysterious trader who somehow seemed to know in advance that one of the five largest investment banks in America was going to completely tank in a matter of days. "I've seen the SEC send agents overseas in a simple insider-trading case to investigate profits of maybe $2,000," says Brent Baker, a former senior counsel for the commission. "But they did nothing to stop this."

The SEC's halfhearted oversight didn't go unnoticed by the market. Six months after Bear was eaten by predators, virtually the same scenario repeated itself in the case of Lehman Brothers - another top-five investment bank that in September 2008 was vaporized in an obvious case of market manipulation. From there, the financial crisis was on, and the global economy went into full-blown crater mode.

Like all the great merchants of the bubble economy, Bear and Lehman were leveraged to the hilt and vulnerable to collapse. Many of the methods that outsiders used to knock them over were mostly legal: Credit markers were pulled, rumors were spread through the media, and legitimate short-sellers pressured the stock price down. But when Bear and Lehman made their final leap off the cliff of history, both undeniably got a push - especially in the form of a flat-out counterfeiting scheme called naked short-selling.

That this particular scam played such a prominent role in the demise of the two firms was supremely ironic. After all, the boom that had ballooned both companies to fantastic heights was basically a counterfeit economy, a mountain of paste that Wall Street had built to replace the legitimate business it no longer had. By the middle of the Bush years, the great investment banks like Bear and Lehman no longer made their money financing real businesses and creating jobs. Instead, Wall Street now serves, in the words of one former investment executive, as "Lucy to America's Charlie Brown," endlessly creating new products to lure the great herd of unwitting investors into whatever tawdry greed-bubble is being spun at the moment: Come kick the football again, only this time we'll call it the Internet, real estate, oil futures. Wall Street has turned the economy into a giant asset-stripping scheme, one whose purpose is to suck the last bits of meat from the carcass of the middle class.

What really happened to Bear and Lehman is that an economic drought temporarily left the hyenas without any more middle-class victims - and so they started eating each other, using the exact same schemes they had been using for years to fleece the rest of the country. And in the forensic footprint left by those kills, we can see for the first time exactly how the scam worked - and how completely even the government regulators who are supposed to protect us have given up trying to stop it.

This was a brokered bloodletting, one in which the power of the state was used to help effect a monstrous consolidation of financial and political power. Heading into 2008, there were five major investment banks in the United States: Bear, Lehman, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Today only Morgan Stanley and Goldman survive as independent firms, perched atop a restructured Wall Street hierarchy. And while the rest of the civilized world responded to last year's catastrophes with sweeping measures to rein in the corruption in their financial sectors, the United States invited the wolves into the government, with the popular new president, Barack Obama - elected amid promises to clean up the mess - filling his administration with Bear's and Lehman's conquerors, bestowing his papal blessing on a new era of robbery.

To the rest of the world, the brazenness of the theft - coupled with the conspicuousness of the government's inaction - clearly demonstrates that the American capital markets are a crime in progress. To those of us who actually live here, however, the news is even worse. We're in a place we haven't been since the Depression: Our economy is so completely fucked, the rich are running out of things to steal.

If you squint hard enough, you can see that the derivative-driven economy of the past decade has always, in a way, been about counterfeiting. At their most basic level, innovations like the ones that triggered the global collapse - credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations - were employed for the primary purpose of synthesizing out of thin air those revenue flows that our dying industrial economy was no longer pumping into the financial bloodstream. The basic concept in almost every case was the same: replacing hard assets with complex formulas that, once unwound, would prove to be backed by promises and IOUs instead of real stuff. Credit-default swaps enabled banks to lend more money without having the cash to cover potential defaults; one type of CDO let Wall Street issue mortgage-backed bonds that were backed not by actual monthly mortgage payments made by real human beings, but by the wild promises of other irresponsible lenders. They even called the thing a synthetic CDO - a derivative contract filled with derivative contracts - and nobody laughed. The whole economy was a fake.

For most of this decade, nobody rocked that fake economy - especially the faux housing market - better than Bear Stearns. In 2004, Bear had been one of five investment banks to ask the SEC for a relaxation of lending restrictions that required it to possess $1 for every $12 it lent out; as a result, Bear's debt-to-equity ratio soared to a staggering 33-1. The bank used much of that leverage to issue mountains of mortgage-backed securities, essentially borrowing its way to a booming mortgage business that helped drive its share price to a high of $172 in early 2007.

But that summer, Bear started to crater. Two of its hedge funds that were heavily invested in mortgage-backed deals imploded in June and July, forcing the credit-raters at Standard & Poor's to cut its outlook on Bear from stable to negative. The company survived through the winter - in part by jettisoning its dipshit CEO, Jimmy Cayne, a dithering, weed-smoking septuagenarian who was spotted at a bridge tournament during the crisis - but by March 2008, it was almost wholly dependent on a network of creditors who supplied it with billions in rolling daily loans to keep its doors open. If ever there was a major company ripe to be assassinated by market manipulators, it was Bear Stearns in 2008.

Then, on March 11th - around the same time that mystery Nostradamus was betting $1.7 million that Bear was about to collapse - a curious thing happened that attracted virtually no notice on Wall Street. On that day, a meeting was held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that was brokered by Fed chief Ben Bernanke and then-New York Fed president Timothy Geithner. The luncheon included virtually everyone who was anyone on Wall Street - except for Bear Stearns.

Bear, in fact, was the only major investment bank not represented at the meeting, whose list of participants reads like a Barzini-Tattaglia meeting of the Five Families. In attendance were Jamie Dimon from JPMorgan Chase, Lloyd Blankfein from Goldman Sachs, James Gorman from Morgan Stanley, Richard Fuld from Lehman Brothers and John Thain, the big-spending office redecorator still heading the not-yet-fully-destroyed Merrill Lynch. Also present were old Clinton hand Robert Rubin, who represented Citigroup; Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group; and several hedge-fund chiefs, including Kenneth Griffin of Citadel Investment Group.

The meeting was never announced publicly. In fact, it was discovered only by accident, when a reporter from Bloomberg filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act and came across a mention of it in Bernanke's schedule. Rolling Stone has since contacted every major attendee, and all declined to comment on what was discussed at the meeting. "The ground rules of the lunch were of confidentiality," says a spokesman for Morgan Stanley. "Blackstone has no comment," says a spokesman for Schwarzman. Rubin declined a request for an interview, Fuld's people didn't return calls, and Goldman refused to talk about the closed-door session. The New York Fed said the meeting, which had been scheduled weeks earlier, was simply business as usual: "Such informal, small group sessions can provide a valuable means to learn about market functioning from people with firsthand knowledge."

So what did happen at that meeting? There's no evidence that Bernanke and Geithner called the confidential session to discuss Bear's troubles, let alone how to carve up the bank's spoils. It's possible that one of them made an impolitic comment about Bear during a meeting held for other reasons, inadvertently fueling a run on the bank. What's impossible to believe is the bullshit version that Geithner and Bernanke later told Congress. The month after Bear's collapse, both men testified before the Senate that they only learned how dire the firm's liquidity problems were on Thursday, March 13th - despite the fact that rumors of Bear's troubles had begun as early as that Monday and both men had met in person with every key player on Wall Street that Tuesday. This is a little like saying you spent the afternoon of September 12th, 2001, in the Oval Office, but didn't hear about the Twin Towers falling until September 14th.

Given the Fed's cloak of confidentiality, we simply don't know what happened at the meeting. But what we do know is that from the moment it ended, the run on Bear was on, and every major player on Wall Street with ties to Bear started pulling IV tubes out of the patient's arm. Banks, brokers and hedge funds that held cash in Bear's accounts yanked it out in mass quantities (making it harder for the firm to meet its credit payments) and took out credit- default swaps against Bear (making public bets that the firm was going to tank). At the same time, Bear was blindsided by an avalanche of "novation requests" - efforts by worried creditors to sell off the debts that Bear owed them to other Wall Street firms, who would then be responsible for collecting the money. By the afternoon of March 11th, two rival investment firms - Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs - were so swamped by novation requests for Bear's debt that they temporarily stopped accepting them, signaling the market that they had grave doubts about Bear.

All of these tactics were elements that had often been seen in a kind of scam known as a "bear raid" that small-scale stock manipulators had been using against smaller companies for years. But the most damning thing the attack on Bear had in common with these earlier manipulations was the employment of a type of counterfeiting scheme called naked short-selling. From the moment the confidential meeting at the Fed ended on March 11th, Bear became the target of this ostensibly illegal practice - and the companies widely rumored to be behind the assault were in that room. Given that the SEC has failed to identify who was behind the raid, Wall Street insiders were left with nothing to trade but gossip. According to the former head of Bear's mortgage business, Tom Marano, the rumors within Bear itself that week centered around Citadel and Goldman. Both firms were later subpoenaed by the SEC as part of its investigation into market manipulation - and the CEOs of both Bear and Lehman were so suspicious that they reportedly contacted Blankfein to ask whether his firm was involved in the scam. (A Goldman spokesman denied any wrongdoing, telling reporters it was "rigorous about conducting business as usual.")

The roots of short-selling date back to 1973, when Wall Street went to a virtually paperless system for trading stocks. Before then, if you wanted to sell shares you owned in Awesome Company X, you and the buyer would verbally agree to the deal through a broker. The buyer would take legal ownership of the shares, but only later would the broker deliver the actual, physical shares to the buyer, using an absurd, Brazil-style network of runners who carried paper shares from one place to another - a preposterous system that threatened to cripple trading altogether.

To deal with the problem, Wall Street established a kind of giant financial septic tank called the Depository Trust Company. Privately owned by a consortium of brokers and banks, the DTC centralizes and maintains all records of stock transactions. Now, instead of being schlepped back and forth across Manhattan by messengers on bikes, almost all physical shares of stock remain permanently at the DTC. When one broker sells shares to another, the trust company "delivers" the shares simply by making a change in its records.

Watch Matt Taibbi break down short-selling vs. naked short-selling on his blog, Taibblog.

This new electronic system spurred an explosion of financial innovation. One practice that had been little used before but now began to be employed with great popularity was short- selling, a perfectly legal type of transaction that allows investors to bet against a stock. The basic premise of a normal short sale is easy to follow. Say you're a hedge-fund manager, and you want to bet against the stock of a company - let's call it Wounded Gazelle International (WGI). What you do is go out on the market and find someone - often a brokerage house like Goldman Sachs - who has shares in that stock and is willing to lend you some. So you go to Goldman on a Monday morning, and you borrow 1,000 shares in Wounded Gazelle, which that day happens to be trading at $10.

Now you take those 1,000 borrowed shares, and you sell them on the open market at $10, which leaves you with $10,000 in cash. You then take that $10,000, and you wait. A week later, surveillance tapes of Wounded's CEO having sex with a woodchuck in a Burger King bathroom appear on CNBC. Awash in scandal, the firm's share price tumbles to 3½. So you go out on the market and buy back those 1,000 shares of WGI - only now it costs you only $3,500 to do so. You then return the shares to Goldman Sachs, at which point your interest in WGI ends. By betting against or "shorting" the company, you've made a profit of $6,500.

It's important to point out that not only is normal short-selling completely legal, it can also be socially beneficial. By incentivizing Wall Street players to sniff out inefficient or corrupt companies and bet against them, short-selling acts as a sort of policing system; legal short- sellers have been instrumental in helping expose firms like Enron and WorldCom. The problem is, the new paperless system instituted by the DTC opened up a giant loophole for those eager to game the market. Under the old system, would-be short-sellers had to physically borrow actual paper shares before they could execute a short sale. In other words, you had to actually have stock before you could sell it. But under the new system, a short-seller only had to make a good-faith effort to "locate" the stock he wanted to borrow, which usually amounts to little more than a conversation with a broker:

Evil Hedge Fund: I want to short IBM. Do you have a million shares I can borrow?

Corrupt Broker [not checking, playing Tetris]: Uh, yeah, whatever. Go ahead and sell.

There was nothing to prevent that broker - let's say he has only a million shares of IBM total - from making the same promise to five different hedge funds. And not only could brokers lend stocks they never had, another loophole in the system allowed hedge funds to sell those stocks and deliver a kind of IOU instead of the actual share to the buyer. When a share of stock is sold but never delivered, it's called a "fail" or a "fail to deliver" - and there was no law or regulation in place that prevented it. It's exactly what it sounds like: a loophole legalizing the counterfeiting of stock. In place of real stock, the system could become infected with "fails" - phantom IOU shares - instead of real assets.

If you own stock that pays a dividend, you can even look at your dividend check to see if your shares are real. If you see a line that says "PIL" - meaning "Payment in Lieu" of dividends - your shares were never actually delivered to you when you bought the stock. The mere fact that you're even getting this money is evidence of the crime: This counterfeiting scheme is so profitable for the hedge funds, banks and brokers involved that they are willing to pay "dividends" for shares that do not exist. "They're making the payments without complaint," says Susanne Trimbath, an economist who worked at the Depository Trust Company. "So they're making the money somewhere else."

Trimbath was one of the first people to notice the problem. In 1993, she was approached by a group of corporate transfer agents who had a complaint. Transfer agents are the people who keep track of who owns shares in corporations, for the purposes of voting in corporate elections. "What the transfer agents saw, when corporate votes came up, was that they were getting more votes than there were shares," says Trimbath. In other words, transfer agents representing a corporation that had, say, 1 million shares outstanding would report a vote on new board members in which 1.3 million votes were cast - a seeming impossibility.

Analyzing the problem, Trimbath came to an ugly conclusion: The fact that short-sellers do not have to deliver their shares made it possible for two people at once to think they own a stock. Evil Hedge Fund X borrows 100 shares from Unwitting Schmuck A, and sells them to Unwitting Schmuck B, who never actually receives that stock: In this scenario, both Schmucks will appear to have full voting rights. "There's no accounting for share ownership around short sales," Trimbath says. "And because of that, there are multiple owners assigned to one share."

Trimbath's observation would prove prophetic. In 2005, a trade group called the Securities Transfer Association analyzed 341 shareholder votes taken that year - and found evidence of over-voting in every single one. Experts in the field complain that the system makes corporate-election fraud a comically simple thing to achieve: In a process known as "empty voting," anyone can influence any corporate election simply by borrowing great masses of shares shortly before an important merger or board election, exercising their voting rights, then returning the shares right after the vote is over. Hilariously, because you're only borrowing the shares and not buying them, you can effectively "buy" a corporate election for free.

Back in 1993, over-voting might have seemed a mere curiosity, the result not of fraud but of innocent bookkeeping errors. But Trimbath realized the broader implication: Just as the lack of hard rules forcing short-sellers to deliver shares makes it possible for unscrupulous traders to manipulate a corporate vote, it could also enable them to manipulate the price of a stock by selling large quantities of shares they didn't possess. She warned her bosses that this crack in the system made the specter of organized counterfeiting a real possibility.

"I personally went to senior management at DTC in 1993 and presented them with this issue," she recalls. "And their attitude was, 'We spill more than that.'" In other words, the problem represented such a small percentage of the assets handled annually by the DTC - as much as $1.8 quadrillion in any given year, roughly 30 times the GDP of the entire planet - that it wasn't worth worrying about.

It wasn't until 10 years later, when Trimbath had a chance meeting with a lawyer representing a company that had been battered by short-sellers, that she realized someone outside the DTC had seized control of a financial weapon of mass destruction. "It was like someone figured out how to aim and fire the Death Star in Star Wars," she says. What they "figured out," Trimbath realized, was an early version of the naked-shorting scam that would help take down Bear and Lehman.

Here's how naked short-selling works: Imagine you travel to a small foreign island on vacation. Instead of going to an exchange office in your hotel to turn your dollars into Island Rubles, the country instead gives you a small printing press and makes you a deal: Print as many Island Rubles as you like, then on the way out of the country you can settle your account. So you take your printing press, print out gigantic quantities of Rubles and start buying goods and services. Before long, the cash you've churned out floods the market, and the currency's value plummets. Do this long enough and you'll crack the currency entirely; the loaf of bread that cost the equivalent of one American dollar the day you arrived now costs less than a cent.

With prices completely depressed, you keep printing money and buy everything of value - homes, cars, priceless works of art. You then load it all into a cargo ship and head home. On the way out of the country, you have to settle your account with the currency office. But the Island Rubles you printed are now worthless, so it takes just a handful of U.S. dollars to settle your debt. Arriving home with your cargo ship, you sell all the island riches you bought at a discount and make a fortune.

This is the basic outline for how to seize the assets of a publicly traded company using counterfeit stock. What naked short-sellers do is sell large quantities of stock they don't actually have, flooding the market with "phantom" shares that, just like those Island Rubles, depress a company's share price by making the shares less scarce and therefore less valuable.

The first documented cases of this scam involved small-time boiler-room grifters. In the late 1990s, not long after Trimbath warned her bosses about the problem, a trader named John Fiero executed a series of "bear raids" on small companies. First he sold shares he didn't possess in huge quantities and fomented negative rumors about a company; then, in a classic shakedown, he approached the firm with offers to desist - if they'd sell him stock at a discount. "He would press a button and enter a trade for half a million shares," says Brent Baker, the SEC official who busted Fiero. "He didn't have the stock to cover that - but the price of the stock would drop to a penny."

In 2005, complaints from investors about naked short-selling finally prompted the SEC to try to curb the scam. A new rule called Regulation SHO, known as "Reg SHO" for short, established a series of guidelines designed, in theory, to prevent traders from selling stock and then failing to deliver it to the buyer. "Intentionally failing to deliver stock," then-SEC chief Christopher Cox noted, "is market manipulation that is clearly violative of the federal securities laws." But thanks to lobbying by hedge funds and brokers, the new rule included no financial penalties for violators and no real enforcement mechanism. Instead, it merely created a thing called the "threshold list," requiring short-sellers to close out their positions in any company where the amount of "fails to deliver" exceeded 10,000 shares for more than 13 days. In other words, if counterfeiters got caught selling a chunk of phantom shares in a firm for two straight weeks, they were no longer allowed to counterfeit the stock.

A nice, if timid idea - except that it's completely meaningless. Not only has there been virtually no enforcement of the rule, but the SEC doesn't even bother to track who is targeting companies with failed trades. As a result, many stocks attacked by naked short-sellers spent years on the threshold list, including Krispy Kreme, Martha Stewart and Overstock.com.

"We were actually on it for 668 consecutive days," says Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock, who became a much-ridiculed pariah on Wall Street for his lobbying against naked short-selling. At one point, investors claimed ownership of nearly 42 million shares in Overstock - even though fewer than 24 million shares in the company had actually been issued.

Byrne is not an easy person for anyone with any kind of achievement neuroses to like. He is young, good-looking, has shitloads of money, speaks fluent Chinese, holds a doctorate in philosophy and spent his youth playing hooky from high school and getting business tips from the likes of Warren Buffett. But because of his fight against naked short-selling, he has been turbofragged by the mainstream media as a tinfoil-hat lunatic; one story in the New York Post featured a picture of Byrne with a flying saucer coming out of his head.

Nonetheless, Byrne's howlings about naked short-selling look extremely prescient in light of what happened to Bear and Lehman. Over the past four years, Byrne has outlined the parameters of a naked-shorting scam that always includes some combination of the following elements: negative rumors planted in the financial press, the flooding of the market with enormous quantities of undelivered shares, absurdly high trading volumes and the prolonged appearance of the targeted company on the Reg SHO list.

In January 2005 - at the exact moment Reg SHO was launched - Byrne's own company was trading above $65 a share, and the number of failed trades in circulation was virtually nil. By March 2006, however, Overstock was down to $28 a share, and Reg SHO data indicated an explosion of failed trades - nearly 4 million undelivered shares on some days. At those moments, in other words, nearly a fifth of all Overstock shares were fake.

"This really isn't about my company," Byrne says. "I mean, I've made my money. My initial concern, of course, was with Overstock. But the more I learned about this, the more my real worry became 'Jesus, what are the implications for the system?' And given what happened to Bear and Lehman last year, I think we ended up seeing what some of those implications are."

Watch Matt Taibbi break down short-selling vs. naked short-selling on his blog, Taibblog.

Bear Stearns wasn't the kind of company that had a problem with naked short-selling. Before March 11th, 2008, there had never been a period in which significant quantities of Bear stock had been sold and then not delivered, and the company had never shown up on the Reg SHO list. But beginning on March 12th - the day after the Fed meeting that failed to include Bear, and the mysterious purchase of the options betting on the firm's imminent collapse - the number of counterfeit shares in Bear skyrocketed.

The best way to grasp what happened is to look at the data: On Tuesday, March 11th, there were 201,768 shares of Bear that had failed to deliver. The very next day, the number of phantom shares leaped to 1.2 million. By the close of trading that Friday, the number passed 2 million - and when the market reopened the following Monday, it soared to 13.7 million. In less than a week, the number of counterfeit shares in Bear had jumped nearly seventyfold.

The giant numbers of undelivered shares over the course of that week amounted to one of the most blatant cases of stock manipulation in Wall Street history. "There is not a doubt in my mind, not a single doubt" that naked short-selling helped destroy Bear, says Sen. Ted Kaufman, a Democrat from Delaware who has introduced legislation to curb such financial fraud. Asked to rate how obvious a case of naked short-selling Bear is, on a scale of one to 10, former SEC counsel Brent Baker doesn't hesitate. "Easily a 10," he says.

At the same time that naked short- sellers were counterfeiting Bear's stock, the firm was being hit by another classic tactic of bear raids: negative rumors in the media. Tipped off by a source, CNBC reporter David Faber reported on March 12th that Goldman Sachs had held up a trade with Bear because it was worried about the firm's creditworthiness. Faber noted that the hold was temporary - the deal had gone through that morning. But the damage was done; inside Bear, Faber's report was blamed for much of the subsequent panic.

"I like Faber, he's a good guy," a Bear executive later said. "But I wonder if he ever asked himself, 'Why is someone telling me this?' There was a reason this was leaked, and the reason is simple: Someone wanted us to go down, and go down hard."

At first, the full-blown speculative attack on Bear seemed to be working. Thanks to the media-fueled rumors and the mounting anxiety over the company's ability to make its payments, Bear's share price plummeted seven percent on March 13th, to $57. It still had a ways to go for the mysterious short-seller to make a profit on his bet against the firm, but it was headed in the right direction. But then, early on the morning of Friday, March 14th, Bear's CEO, Alan Schwartz, struck a deal with the Fed and JPMorgan to provide an emergency loan to keep the company's doors open. When the news hit the street that morning, Bear's stock rallied, gaining more than nine percent and climbing back to $62.

The sudden and unexpected rally prompted celebrations inside Bear's offices. "We're alive!" someone on the company's trading floor reportedly shouted, and employees greeted the news by high-fiving each other. Many gleefully believed that the short-sellers targeting the firm would get "squeezed" - in other words, if the share price kept going up, the bets against Bear would blow up in the attackers' faces.

The rally proved short-lived - Bear ended the day at $30 - but it suggested that all was not lost. Then a strange thing happened. As Bear understood it, the emergency credit line that the Fed had arranged was originally supposed to last for 28 days. But that Friday, despite the rally, Geithner and then-Treasury secretary Hank Paulson - the former head of Goldman Sachs, one of the firms rumored to be shorting Bear - had a sudden change of heart. When the market closed for the weekend, Paulson called Schwartz and told him that the rescue timeline had to be accelerated. Paulson wouldn't stay up another night worrying about Bear Stearns, he reportedly told Schwartz. Bear had until Sunday night to find a buyer or it could go fuck itself.

Bear was out of options. Over the course of that weekend, the firm opened its books to JPMorgan, the only realistic potential buyer. But upon seeing all the "shit" on Bear's books, as one source privy to the negotiations put it - including great gobs of toxic investments in the subprime markets - JPMorgan hedged. It wouldn't do the deal, it announced, unless it got two things: a huge bargain on the sale price, and a lot of public money to wipe out the "shit."

So the Fed - on whose New York board sits JPMorgan chief Jamie Dimon - immediately agreed to accommodate the new buyers, forking over $29 billion in public funds to buy up the yucky parts of Bear. Paulson, meanwhile, took care of the bargain issue, putting the government's gun to Schwartz's head and telling him he had to sell low. Really low.

On Saturday night, March 15th, Schwartz and Dimon had discussed a deal for JPMorgan to buy Bear at $8 to $12 a share. By Sunday afternoon, however, Geithner reported that the price had plunged even further. "Shareholders are going to get between $3 and $5 a share," he told Paulson.

But Paulson pissed on even that price from a great height. "I can't see why they're getting anything," he told Dimon that afternoon from Washington, via speakerphone. "I could see something nominal, like $1 or $2 per share."

Just like that, with a slight nod of Paulson's big shiny head, Bear was vaporized. This, remember, all took place while Bear's stock was still selling at $30. By knocking the share price down 28 bucks, Paulson ensured that the manipulators who were illegally counterfeiting Bear's shares would make an awesome fortune.

Although we don't know who was behind the naked short-selling that targeted Bear - short-traders aren't required to reveal their stake in a company - the scam wasn't just a fetish crime for small-time financial swindlers. On the contrary, the widespread selling of shares without delivering them translated into an enormously profitable business for the biggest companies on Wall Street, fueling the growth of a booming sector in the financial-services industry called Prime Brokerage.

As with other Wall Street abuses, the lucrative business in counterfeiting stock got its start with a semisecret surrender of regulatory authority by the government. In 1989, a group of prominent Wall Street broker-dealers - led, ironically, by Bear Stearns - asked the SEC for permission to manage the accounts of hedge funds engaged in short-selling, assuming responsibility for locating, lending and transferring shares of stock. In 1994, federal regulators agreed, allowing the nation's biggest investment banks to serve as Prime Brokers. Think of them as the house in a casino: They provide a gambler with markers to play and to manage his winnings.

Under the original concept, a hedge fund that wanted to short a stock like Bear Stearns would first "locate" the stock with his Prime Broker, then would do the trade with a so-called Executing Broker. But as time passed, Prime Brokers increasingly allowed their hedge-fund customers to use automated systems and "locate" the stock themselves. Now the conversation went something like this:

Evil Hedge Fund: I just sold a million shares of Bear Stearns. Here, hold this shitload of money for me.

Prime Broker: Awesome! Where did you borrow the shares from?

Evil Hedge Fund: Oh, from Corrupt Broker. You know, Vinnie.

Prime Broker: Oh, OK. Is he sure he can find those shares? Because, you know, there are rules.

Evil Hedge Fund: Oh, yeah. You know Vinnie. He's good for it.

Prime Broker: Sweet!

Following the SEC's approval of this cozy relationship, Prime Brokers boomed. Indeed, with the rise of discount brokers online and the collapse of IPOs and corporate mergers, Prime Brokerage - in essence, the service end of the short- selling business - is now one of the most profitable sectors that big Wall Street firms have left. Last year, Goldman Sachs netted $3.4 billion providing "securities services" - the lion's share of it from Prime Brokerage.

When one considers how easy it is for short-sellers to sell stock without delivering, it's not hard to see how this can be such a profitable business for Prime Brokers. It's really a license to print money, almost in the literal sense. As such, Prime Brokers have tended to be lax about making sure that their customers actually possess, or can even realistically find, the stock they've sold. That point is made abundantly clear by tapes obtained by Rolling Stone of recent meetings held by the compliance officers for big Prime Brokers like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank. Compliance officers are supposed to make sure that traders at their firms follow the rules - but in the tapes, they talk about how they routinely greenlight transactions they know are dicey.

In a conference held at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort in Phoenix in May 2008 - just over a month after Bear collapsed - a compliance officer for Goldman Sachs named Jonathan Breckenridge talks with his colleagues about how the firm's customers use an automated program to report where they borrowed their stock from. The problem, he says, is the system allows short-sellers to enter anything they want in the text field, no matter how nonsensical - or even leave the field blank. "You can enter ABC, you can enter Go, you can enter Locate Goldman, you can enter whatever you want," he says. "Three dots - I've actually seen that."

The room erupts with laughter.

After making this admission, Breckenridge asks officials from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the trade group representing Wall Street broker-dealers, for guidance in how to make this appear less blatantly improper. "How do you have in place a process," he wonders, "and make sure that it looks legit?"

The funny thing is that Prime Brokers didn't even need to fudge the rules. They could counterfeit stocks legally, thanks to yet another loophole - this one involving key players known as "market makers." When a customer wants to buy options and no one is lining up to sell them, the market maker steps in and sells those options out of his own portfolio. In market terms, he "provides liquidity," making sure you can always buy or sell the options you want.

Under what became known as the "options market maker exception," the SEC permitted a market maker to sell shares whether or not he had them or could find them right away. In theory, this made sense, since delaying the market maker from selling to offset a big buy order could dry up liquidity and slow down trading. But it also created a loophole for naked short-sellers to kill stocks easily - and legally. Take Bear Stearns, for example. Say the stock is trading at $62, as it was on March 11th, and someone buys put options from the market maker to sell $1.7 million in Bear stock nine days later at $30. To offset that big trade, the market maker might try to keep his own portfolio balanced by selling off shares in the company, whether or not he can locate them.

But here's the catch: The market maker often sells those phantom shares to the same person who bought the put options. That buyer, after all, would love to snap up a bunch of counterfeit Bear stock, since he can drive the company's price down by reselling those fake shares. In fact, the shares you buy from a market maker via the SEC-sanctioned loophole are sometimes called "bullets," because when you pump these counterfeit IOUs into the market, it's like firing bullets into the company - it kills the price, just like printing more Island Rubles kills a currency.

Which, it appears, is exactly what happened to Bear Stearns. Someone bought a shitload of puts in Bear, and then someone sold a shitload of Bear shares that never got delivered. Bear then staggered forward, bleeding from every internal organ, and fell on its face. "It looks to me like Bear Stearns got riddled with bullets," John Welborn, an economist with an investment firm called the Haverford Group, later observed.

So who conducted the naked short- selling against Bear? We don't know - but we do know that, thanks to the free pass the SEC gave them, Prime Brokers stood to profit from the transactions. And the confidential meeting at the Fed on March 11th included all the major Prime Brokers on Wall Street - as well as many of the biggest hedge funds, who also happen to be some of the biggest short-sellers on Wall Street.

The economy's financial woes might have ended there - leaving behind an unsolved murder in which many of the prime suspects profited handsomely. But three months later, the killers struck again. On June 27th, 2008, an avalanche of undelivered shares in Lehman Brothers started piling up in the market. June 27th: 705,103 fails. June 30th: 814,870 fails. July 1st: 1,556,301 fails.

Then the rumors started. A story circulated on June 30th about Barclays buying Lehman for 25 percent less than the share price. The tale was quickly debunked, but the attacks continued, with hundreds of thousands of failed trades every day for more than a week - during which time Lehman lost 44 percent of its share price. The major players on Wall Street, who for years had confined this unseemly sort of insider rape to smaller companies, had begun to eat each other alive.

It made great capitalist sense to attack these giant firms - they were easy targets, after all, hideously mismanaged and engorged with debt - but an all-out shooting war of this magnitude posed a risk to everyone. And so a cease-fire was declared. In a remarkable order issued on July 15th, Cox dictated that short-sellers must actually pre-borrow shares before they sell them. But in a hilarious catch, the order only covered shares of the 19 biggest firms on Wall Street, including Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, and would last only a month.

This was one of the most amazing regulatory actions ever: It essentially told Wall Street that it was enjoined from counterfeiting stock - but only temporarily, and only the stock of the 19 of the richest companies on Wall Street. Not surprisingly, the share price for Lehman and some of the other lucky robber barons surged on the news.

But the relief was short-lived. On August 12th, 2008, the Cox order expired - and fails in Lehman stock quickly started mounting. The attack spiked on September 9th, when there were over 1 million undelivered shares in Lehman. On September 10th, there were 5,877,649 failed trades. The day after, there were an astonishing 22,625,385 fails. The next day: 32,877,794. Then, on September 15th, the price of Lehman Brothers stock fell to 21 cents, and the company declared bankruptcy.

That naked shorting was the tool used to kill the company - which was, like Bear, a giant bursting sausage of deadly subprime deals that didn't need much of a push off the cliff - was obvious to everyone. Lehman CEO Richard Fuld, admittedly one of the biggest assholes of the 21st century, said as much a month later. "The naked shorts and rumormongers succeeded in bringing down Bear Stearns," Fuld told Congress. "And I believe that unsubstantiated rumors in the marketplace caused significant harm to Lehman Brothers."

The methods used to destroy these companies pointed to widespread and extravagant market manipulation, and the death of Lehman should have instigated a full-bore investigation. "This isn't a trail of bread crumbs," former SEC enforcement director Irving Pollack has pointed out. "This audit trail is lit up like an airport runway. You can see it a mile off. Subpoena e-mails. Find out who spread false rumors and also shorted the stock, and you've got your manipulators."

It would be an easy matter for the SEC to determine who killed Bear and Lehman, if it wanted to - all it has to do is look at the trading data maintained by the stock exchanges. But 18 months after the widespread market manipulation, the federal government's cop on the financial beat has barely lifted a finger to solve the two biggest murders in Wall Street history. The SEC refuses to comment on what, if anything, it is doing to identify the wrongdoers, saying only that "investigations related to the financial crisis are a priority."

Watch Matt Taibbi break down short-selling vs. naked short-selling on his blog, Taibblog.

The commission did repeal the preposterous "market maker" loophole on September 18th, 2008, forbidding market makers from selling phantom shares. But that same day, the SEC also introduced a comical agreement called "Rule 10b-21," which makes it illegal for an Evil Hedge Fund to lie to a Prime Broker about where he borrowed his stock. Basically, this new rule formally exempted Wall Street's biggest players from any blame for naked short-selling, putting it all on the backs of their short-seller clients. Which was good news for firms like Goldman Sachs, which only a year earlier had been fined $2 million for repeatedly turning a blind eye to clients engaged in illegal short-selling. Instead of tracking down the murderers of Bear and Lehman, the SEC simply eliminated the law against aiding and abetting murder. "The new rule just exempted the Prime Brokers from legal responsibility," says a financial player who attended closed-door discussions about the regulation. "It's a joke."

But the SEC didn't stop there - it also went out of its way to protect the survivors from the normal functioning of the marketplace. On September 15th, the same day that Lehman declared bankruptcy, the share price of Goldman and Morgan Stanley began to plummet sharply. There was little evidence of phantom shares being sold - in Goldman's case, fewer than .02 percent of all trades failed. Whoever was attacking Goldman and Morgan Stanley - if anyone was - was for the most part doing it legally, through legitimate short-selling. As a result, when the SEC imposed yet another order on September 17th curbing naked short-selling, it did nothing to help either firm, whose share prices failed to recover.

Then something extraordinary happened. Morgan Stanley lobbied the SEC for a ban on legitimate short-selling of financial stocks - a thing not even the most ardent crusaders against naked short- selling, not even tinfoil-hat-wearing Patrick Byrne, had ever favored. "I spent years just trying to get the SEC to listen to a request that they stop people from rampant illegal counterfeiting of my company's stock," says Byrne. "But when Morgan Stanley asks for a ban on legal short-selling, they get it literally overnight."

Indeed, on September 19th, Cox imposed a temporary ban on legitimate short- selling of all financial stocks. The stock price of both Goldman and Morgan Stanley quickly rebounded. The companies were also bailed out by an instant designation as bank holding companies, which made them eligible for a boatload of emergency federal aid. The law required a five-day wait for such a conversion, but Geithner and the Fed granted Goldman and Morgan Stanley their new status overnight.

So who killed Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers? Without a bust by the SEC, all that's left is means and motive. Everyone in Washington and on Wall Street understood what it meant when Lehman, for years the hated rival of Goldman Sachs, was chosen by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson - the former Goldman CEO - to be the one firm that didn't get a federal bailout. "When Paulson, a former Goldman guy, chose to sacrifice Lehman, that's when you knew the whole fucking thing was dirty," says one Democratic Party operative. "That's like the Yankees not bailing out the Mets. It was just obvious."

The day of Lehman's collapse, Paulson also bullied Bank of America into buying Merrill Lynch - which left Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley as the only broker-teens left unaxed in the Camp Crystal Lake known as the American economy. Before they were hacked to bits, Merrill, Bear and Lehman all nurtured booming businesses as Prime Brokers. All that lucrative work had to go somewhere. So guess which firms made the most money in Prime Brokerage this year? According to a leading industry source, the top three were Goldman, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley.

We may never know who killed Bear and Lehman. But it sure isn't hard to figure out who's left.

While naked short-selling was the weapon used to bring down both Bear and Lehman, it would be preposterous to argue that the practice caused the financial crisis. The most serious problems in this economy were the result of other, broader classes of financial misdeed: corruption of the ratings agencies, the use of smoke-and-mirrors like derivatives, an epidemic tulipomania called the housing boom and the overall decline of American industry, which pushed Wall Street to synthesize growth where none existed.

But the "phantom" shares produced by naked short-sellers are symptomatic of a problem that goes far beyond the stock market. "The only reason people talk about naked shorting so much is that stock is sexy and so much attention is paid to the stock market," says a former investment executive. "This goes on in all the markets."

Take the commodities markets, where most of those betting on the prices of things like oil, wheat and soybeans have no product to actually deliver. "All speculative selling of commodity futures is 'naked' short selling," says Adam White, director of research at White Knight Research and Trading. While buying things that don't actually exist isn't always harmful, it can help fuel speculative manias, like the oil bubble of last summer. "The world consumes 85 million barrels of oil per day, but it's not uncommon to trade 1 billion barrels per day on the various commodities exchanges," says White. "So you've got 12 paper barrels trading for every physical barrel."

The same is true for mortgages. When lenders couldn't find enough dope addicts to lend mansions to, some simply went ahead and started selling the same mortgages over and over to different investors. There are now a growing number of cases of such double-selling of mortgages: "It makes Bernie Madoff seem like chump change," says April Charney, a legal-aid attorney based in Florida. Just like in the stock market, where short-sellers delivered IOUs instead of real shares, traders of mortgage-backed securities sometimes conclude deals by transferring "lost-note affidavits" - basically a "my dog ate the mortgage" note - instead of the actual mortgage. A paper presented at the American Bankruptcy Institute earlier this year reports that up to a third of all notes for mortgage-backed securities may have been "misplaced or lost" - meaning they're backed by IOUs instead of actual mortgages.

How about bonds? "Naked short-selling of stocks is nothing compared to what goes on in the bond market," says Trimbath, the former DTC staffer. Indeed, the practice of selling bonds without delivering them is so rampant it has even infected the market for U.S. Treasury notes. That's right - Wall Street has actually been brazen enough to counterfeit the debt of the United States government right under the eyes of regulators, in the middle of a historic series of government bailouts! In fact, the amount of failed trades in Treasury bonds - the equivalent of "phantom" stocks - has doubled since 2007. In a single week last July, some $250 billion worth of U.S. Treasury bonds were sold and not delivered.

The counterfeit nature of our economy is troubling enough, given that financial power is concentrated in the hands of a few key players - "300 white guys in Manhattan," as a former high-placed executive puts it. But over the course of the past year, that group of insiders has also proved itself brilliantly capable of enlisting the power of the state to help along the process of concentrating economic might - making it less and less likely that the financial markets will ever be policed, since the state is increasingly the captive of these interests.

The new president for whom we all had such high hopes went and hired Michael Froman, a Citigroup executive who accepted a $2.2 million bonus after he joined the White House, to serve on his economic transition team - at the same time the government was giving Citigroup a massive bailout. Then, after promising to curb the influence of lobbyists, Obama hired a former Goldman Sachs lobbyist, Mark Patterson, as chief of staff at the Treasury. He hired another Goldmanite, Gary Gensler, to police the commodities markets. He handed control of the Treasury and Federal Reserve over to Geithner and Bernanke, a pair of stooges who spent their whole careers being bellhops for New York bankers. And on the first anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when he finally came to Wall Street to promote "serious financial reform," his plan proved to be so completely absent of balls that the share prices of the major banks soared at the news.

The nation's largest financial players are able to write the rules for own their businesses and brazenly steal billions under the noses of regulators, and nothing is done about it. A thing so fundamental to civilized society as the integrity of a stock, or a mortgage note, or even a U.S. Treasury bond, can no longer be protected, not even in a crisis, and a crime as vulgar and conspicuous as counterfeiting can take place on a systematic level for years without being stopped, even after it begins to affect the modern-day equivalents of the Rockefellers and the Carnegies. What 10 years ago was a cheap stock-fraud scheme for second-rate grifters in Brooklyn has become a major profit center for Wall Street. Our burglar class now rules the national economy. And no one is trying to stop them.

[From Issue 1089 - October 15, 2009]

Check out Matt Taibbi's blog for more on this and his other investigations.

Naked short selling

Leland said:

But there is another massive fraud, based upon the same pattern. Namely, short selling in the stock market. Lately I've been considering carefully just exactly what it is about short selling that I find objectionable. I've realized that there are two primary reasons:

1. My first objection is due to the same reason I find the fractional reserve banking system objectionable. Specifically, no matter how you explain it, you end up with two (or more) people having an unencumbered claim to the same property. When someone sells short, their broker is allowed to legally "borrow" the necessary shares from someone else, with no contractual obligation to the actual owner, to make them whole, and to "loan" those (counterfeit) shares to the short seller so that they can sell them. At the point when they are sold, the original owner and the new owner each have an unencumbered claim to the same shares (and the effective number of shares outstanding increases by that amount). When someone else sells those same shares short again, you end up with 3 people having an unencumbered claim to the same shares, which can be repeated indefinitely without even the 10% reserve limit of the fractional reserve banking system, so far as I can see. Try doing that with some other, more tangible, asset (automobiles in a parking garage, for example) and it is easy to see it is a fraudulent/counterfeiting activity, even if it is a legalized counterfeit.

2. My second objection to short selling is that it allows people who have no ownership interest in a security to exercise profound influence over the market for that security. It allows people who do not want to buy a security to "borrow" the shares of someone who owns it, with no contractual obligation to make them whole, and to then sell that security, thus influencing the market against it. Presumably, those owning the security believe it has the value the market has place on it (otherwise they would be selling it). Those believing the price should be lower have every right to offer that lower price, and let the owners decide, but instead they are allowed to "borrow" the shares from those who own them (and, as explained in objection #1 above, even to "borrow" multiple counterfeit shares, without limit, of the same security and keep selling them until they drive the price down to where they think it should be). In many cases, in my opinion, it is the inflation of shares, caused by the unlimited creation of multiple counterfeit shares of the underlying security, that drives the price down, as the total number of buyers chases an ever increasing number of goods. Eventually, there is a "run" on the underlying security, as everyone tries to get their money out, and the whole thing collapses. And the truly wretched thing about it is that the short sellers, who made their money up front by selling the (counterfeit) shares loaned to them by the owner's broker, come through it whole but the actual owners, who are left at the end trying to sell shares that are mostly worthless counterfeits, are wiped out.

Short selling in general just seems to me a fraudulent counterfeiting activity that is a violation of a brokers contractual obligations to the owners of the shares they hold. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest encumbrances ever invented to a genuinely free, honest and rational market, just as the fractional reserve banking system is one of the greatest encumbrances ever invented to a genuinely free, honest and sound currency. People can make a lot of money short selling but it is for the same fraudulent reason that bankers make a lot of money in a fractional reserve banking system: legalized counterfeiting. It is as morally wrong as if a parking garage owner were to "temporarily" loan out the cars entrusted to their care for others to sell in the hopes they could buy it back at a profit.



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