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Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]The weekend of September 12 through September 14 – before the collapse of Lehman Brothers on Monday, September 15, 2009 and the near collapse of the world financial system that followed – was a frenzied one in the financial world. By this point, everyone knew huge events would occur: perhaps massive government bailouts, or perhaps multiple mergers of titans of finance, or if all else failed, a cascading series of major business failures. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, New York Federal Reserve Chairman Tim Geithner, and Securities and Exchange Commissioner Chris Cox thus convened a meeting of the “heads of the families” – the CEOs and top management of the big Wall Street firms – at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on Liberty Street in downtown Manhattan to try to, through collective action, stave off disaster.

Paulson and Geithner seemed to be trying to recreate the “Drama at the Library” that averted the Panic of 1907, in which J. P. Morgan almost single-handedly averted a financial catastrophe by himself, as he used his own fortune and cajoled other major bankers to inject liquidity into the stock markets and bond markets to keep them active. The high point occurred when Morgan locked the bankers and the trust company officials in his library to force them to reach a consensus on how to save the insolvent trust companies. A few years later, the Federal Reserve was created in a large part to mimic what J. P. Morgan had done in managing that financial crisis.

As options for Lehman began to dwindle on this September weekend, and its moment of insolvency came closer, Paulson and Geithner summoned the heads of the current elite of Wall Street to a room and told them to come up with a plan – if necessary using their own money to aid another company in the purchase of Lehman. These were the men (and some women) who were paid the big bucks to make the big decisions – all put in the same room with the goal to avert the disaster that they could all see would rock their industry. Yet despite all the power and the extraordinary circumstances, these top bankers were reluctant to help a competitor unless they could see their own upside, and were convinced that Washington would step in. As Andrew Ross Sorkin, reporter for the New York Times and author of Too Big to Fail, reported, conversations took place in which these top bankers made it clear that even as they felt a responsibility to the world at large, their first responsibility was to their shareholders. Systematic risk was the responsibility of the federal government, they felt.

Even with all these decision-makers gathered in a room, Sorkin explained that the “CEOs and their underlings” felt that “Despite the grave assignment they’d been given, there was little they could actually accomplish on the spot.” The top executives knew that the people with “real expertise” to figure out what could be done were doing their work elsewhere – the numbers people working for them who could understand high finance and Lehman Brothers’ balance sheet – and would let their bosses know their conclusions.

So, the executives, twiddling their thumbs, did what they could to pass the time. They did “vicious imitations of Paulson, Geithner, and Cox:

“Ahhhh, ummmm, ahhhh, ummmm,” one banker muttered, adopting Paulson’s stammer. “Work harder, get smarter!” another shouted, mocking Geither’s Boy Scoutish exhortations. A third did his best Christopher Cox, whom they all were convinced had little understanding of high finance: “Two plus two? Um – could I have a calculator?”

And of course:

Colm Kelleher, Morgan’s CFO, had begun playing BrickBreaker on his BlackBerry, and soon an unofficial tournament was under way, with everyone competitively comparing scores.

No word yet on what top score won the tournament.

As well all know, several days after the BrickBreaker tournament, Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner, and the Congress gave in and bailed out the executives in the room as they realized though these executives controlled vast amounts of capital, they were not willing or able to save their competitors and preserve the financial system in order to save themselves.

Most of the information from page 326 of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail. Quite an interesting book – well worth a read.

[Image by Cyndie@smilebig! licensed under Creative Commons.]

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Posted in Economics, Financial Crisis | 1 Comment »

Profiling Holy Cross Grad Mark Walsh

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

Devin Leonard for the Times wrote this weekend about Mark Walsh, formerly of Lehman Brothers. The article portrays him as one of Wall Street’s top deal makers whose decisions were one of the major factors that led directly to the fall of the bank. Yet the article is also strangely positive in describing Walsh. 

What stood out for me most were the numerous connections Walsh has to me. As the article describes his brief biography:

Mr. Walsh grew up in Yonkers, the son of a lawyer who once served as chairman of the New York City Housing Authority. He attended Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle; the College of the Holy Cross, where he majored in economics; and, finally, the Fordham University School of Law.

And then a bit later:

He bankrolled Tishman Speyer in its purchase of the Chrysler Building in 1997.

I am a fellow alumnus of Holy Cross – a fact which by itself causes me to be irrationally positive about individuals, from Chris Matthews to Bob Cousy to Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau. He also went to Fordham Law – which is one of the schools I am considering. And I currently work in the Chrysler Building. All tenuous connections, but enough to make me root for the guy.

Of course, it’s hard to get around the damning nature of this reporting:

[I]t wasn’t long before Mr. Walsh found a way to do an even bigger deal with Mr. Speyer’s company. In May 2007, Lehman and Tishman Speyer offered to buy Archstone-Smith Trust, a $22 billion deal struck at the peak of an already dangerously frothy market. Tishman Speyer put up a mere $250 million of its own equity. Lehman, in a 50-50 partnership with Bank of America, put up $17.1 billion of debt and $4.6 billion in bridge equity financing.

The most enlightening aspect of the article were the way in which it spotlighted the oddness of what was going on. Leonard describes one of Walsh’s biggest clients pulling out his money saying that:

 [T]he real estate market — and, indeed, the entire financial system behind it — was becoming increasingly bizarre.

In an example of this from 1997 – well before this observation – Leonard describes one of Walsh’s coups – how he managed to steer Lehman clear of the financial crisis resulting from the failure of Long Term Capital Management that Nassim Nicholas Taleb had predicted at the time:

On the eve of the financial crisis brought by the near collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 1998, Lehman flushed $3.6 billion in commercial real estate loans through its securitization machine, avoiding some of the losses that crippled other firms, including Nomura and Credit Suisse.

I hate to say it – but I have no idea what that means. And that’s not unintional – at least according to a lecture given by Financial Times reporter Gillian Tett at the London School of Economics. (A lecture very much worth listening to – and which I will blog about later.)

But to demonstrate the oddly positive take on Walsh, here’s how Leonard concludes his piece:

His friends say they believe that Mr. Walsh will eventually emerge from the rubble of Lehman’s collapse and return to deal-making.

“Guys like this are very rare,” says Mr. Rosen, the developer. “He’ll be back. He picked up the phone and people listen. Nobody can take that away from him.”

Back in the game perhaps – but hopefully a bit wiser.

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Posted in Criticism, Financial Crisis, Holy Cross | 2 Comments »

Jim Cramer Jumps the Shark

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Isn’t that what Jim Cramer does on every show, you might ask? That’s a fair point.

But what if Jim Cramer has now decided that he will dedicate himself to defeating Barack Obama’s agenda, declared himself to be on the “White House enemies list;” and that what he is doing now is what he has done all along – to “fight to help viewers and readers make and preserve capital.” That’s what I call jumping the shark. Bad investment advice is what Cramer does entertainingly. But this sense of self-grandiousity – and his seeming demand to be taken seriously instead of as a ridiculous figure. That’s too much.

The self-puffery is evident as Cramer insists he is on a “White House enemies list” (his source is the noted Democratic party insider Rush Limbaugh). Cramer thinks he is on this “list” because made an outrageous comment about White House policy being designed to destroy wealth and kill kittens, and when questioned about it, the White House press secretary pointed out that Mr. Cramer’s advice on how to create wealth wasn’t what the White House was looking for.

Cramer claims he has spent his career helping viewers and readers “preserve” their capital  – and that his advice now to oppose Obama is just a continuance of that. So for a moment, let’s look at the fate of those who would have followed Cramer’s advice in the past. The Consumerist points out that if one had followed Jim Cramer’s stock-picking advice since 2000, you would have been better served by flipping a coin – as Jim Cramer’s advice is slightly worse than a coin toss.

This is also the guy who publicly advised his viewers on October 31, 2008 2007, just before the beginning of this stock market slide:

You should be buying things and accept that they are overvalued, but accept that they’re going to keep going higher. I know that sounds irresponsible, but that’s how you make the money. Right now, up is down, left is right, peace is war. [my emphasis]

Eric Tyson supplements this by describing some of Cramer’s more recent investment advice:

  • Bear Stearns. Cramer recommended buying this stock on 8/17/07 at $118.20 per share. He lost 95 percent on this one – selling at just under $6 per share on 3/20/08.
  • Morgan Stanley. Cramer recommended buying this stock on 9/15/06 at $70.95 per share. Its recently been trading in the mid-teens.
  • Lehman Brothers. Cramer recommended this stock on 10/17/05 at $55.18 per share. On 9/5/08 with the stock trading at $16 per share, on CNBC, Cramer selected Lehman as a “screaming buy” and said things couldn’t get any worse for the company. The stock now trades at less than $1 per share for more than a 99 percent loss for Cramer.
  • Merrill Lynch. Cramer recommended buying this stock on 9/19/05 at $60.17 per share and sold it on 9/12/08 for $17.05 per share for a 72 percent loss…

(And, by the way, Cramer recommended buying financial services giant AIG on 11/7/05 at $66.34 per share and the stock currently trades around $2 per share for a 97 percent loss.)

Given his history, it’s a bit rich of Jim Cramer to claim his career has been about “preserving” anything other than his own entertaining presence. If he meant to dedicate his life to “preserving the wealth of his viewers and readers,” clearly he’s been quite a miserable failure. In terms of sheer lunacy, on the other hand, he’s still got it.

But I, for one, am grateful the White House isn’t following the Jim Cramer guide to wealth creation. And for those of you that are – I might advise you invest in a solid coin to flip, as it would apparently serve you better.

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Posted in Barack Obama, Humor, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 110 Comments »

The Public Purpose of Bailouts

Monday, December 1st, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]As in the financial crisis generally, the executive branch, the media, and the Congress have all focused on the corporations whose brands are at stake rather than the people affected. This is understandable. Stalin’s famous aphorism that a million deaths are merely a statistic, while a single death is a tragedy, can be adapted to economic hardship as well. A million bankruptcies by individuals are a mere statistics, while the bankruptcy of a famous brand such as Chrysler or Citibank is a tragedy, affecting each of our lives – as signs come down, commercials stop airing, and the products and services we receive now have a different branding.

But saving a brand name should never be the business of our government. In a government intervention into the market, a brand name might be saved – but this should never be a policy goal. Yet, this is precisely the manner in which this question is presented to the public: Should the government bail out Citibank? Or Chrysler? Or Starbucks? Framed in this manner, the answer should always be, “No.”

The real issue concerns the proper role of government in a market economy.

In this crisis, the issue of how involved the government should be in the economy has largely been resolved. “Do nothing,” doesn’t seem to be a realistic option in the midst of a crisis. In times of panic, we are all Keynesians. The unwinding after the crisis promises to re-ignite a fight about the proper role of government in the economy.

The real issue at the moment then, is the follow-up question: how to balance market forces and stability in a market economy – and specifically, in the midst of this crisis. Mitt Romney, in a New York Times editorial that proved especially influential, made the case for why our current system can effectively deal with the bankruptcies of the Big Three Automakers. Paul Krugman took what has become the consensus liberal view: if only we weren’t already in a credit crisis, bankruptcy would be a good option.

For the past year, this has been the argument – with the same people sometimes switching sides depending on the particular company. Capitalism inevitably involves creative destruction – but in the midst of a crisis of confidence, any destruction becomes seen as potentially catastrophic, as the collapse of Lehman Brothers demonstrated.

But government intervention should avoid saving corporations. The government should, when it intervenes in the market, strive to change the forces at work rather than to inject money into corporations themselves.

Corporations, whose primary purpose is to amass wealth by any means available for their owners, and who always manage to simultaneously amass wealth for the managers, cannot be trusted with public money. There is no public purpose to such profit-making. The public value of a corporation comes from it’s incidental activities – the means by which it is able to amass it’s profits. By bailing out General Motors, the government would be giving it’s money away for no public purpose. But the government does serve a public purpose by keeping General Motors’ factories churning out cars.

Within that distinction lies the difference between outrageous abuse of taxpayer funds and a valid public purpose. The more difficult question is how to avoid the abuse while serving the purpose.

The Bush administration has failed to do this – which is why there is fresh outrage at every million dollar junket by AIG executives or private jet ride by auto executives.


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Posted in Economics, Financial Crisis | 11 Comments »

The Blame Game

Monday, October 27th, 2008

No one will, 10 years from now, write the story that this crisis was about Lehman Brothers going down.

Why do I have the feeling that Hank Paulson doth protest too much on this count?

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Posted in Economics, Politics | No Comments »

A Chart of the Lehman Mess

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain my understanding of the liquidity crisis that was the latest and most panic-stricken phase of the ongoing financial crisis.

I’ve created a series of charts – trying to put all the different factors in perspective.

They are all basically drafts at this point – but let me know what you think, if you have any suggestions.

(For those who are going to say the government – and especially Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – played a role in causing this mess aside from the lack of regulation, and failing to act to prevent Lehman Brothers from collapsing – the government is given a greater role in the section that is expanded on in the “Housing Prices decline” chart that I haven’t posted yet. If you see a greater government role in the events and factors here – as some who read this previous piece of mine did – than let me know where – because I haven’t really seen any specific explanations that seemed convincing.)

Posted in Economics | No Comments »

Anti-climax of the Lehman Brothers Credit Default Swap Scare

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]Just a few weeks ago, today was seen as a pivotal day in managing the economic crisis. The deadline for all credit default swaps to be settled on debt in the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy is today. Much of the fear that swirled about disrupting markets several weeks ago centered on who would be able to survive this “settling.”

This morning, Reuters is reporting that these fears are overstated. One key reason is that a number of the major players who were involved both bought and sold credit default swaps – thus accomplishing to some extent what they were supposed to do – hedging their bets in the event of a catastrophic outcome. Despite the fact that an estimated $400 billion in credit default swaps on Lehman exist, some industry observers estimate less than $6 billion will actually change hands as many institutions have effectively hedged their losses.

Of course, this is a delicately balanced system – and if one party has not effectively hedged their losses, it could trigger another bout of panic as any banks who were expecting to be paid by the party that did not hedge don’t get paid – thus increasing their losses.

But with the stock market surging and the voices of calm and reason seeming to prevail for the time being, with liquidity apparently restored to the financial system and the federal government willing to step in to prevent another major player from collapsing – today’s deadline doesn’t seem as apocalyptic as it did just last week.

Posted in Economics | 1 Comment »

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