Thursday, August 18, 2011

Financial alchemy

The United States Department of Justice is investigating the securities-rating practices of Standard & Poor's, the agency that recently downgraded its evaluation of this country's credit worthiness. There's some speculation that this is retribution by the D.O.J., or even that S&P knew of the pending investigation and issued the credit downgrade as a preemptive shot-across-the-bow. What we know is that Standard & Poor's was a big player in the mortgage-backed securities fraud that was perpetrated by a cartel of nihilistic financial institutions.

Investors the world over were scammed by a collusion between the creators and marketers of these magical bundles of shit and the ratings agencies who were happy to rubber-stamp a golden Triple-A rating on their bogus offerings. A happy collusion because ratings agencies were being paid richly by the very criminals whose worthless products they were supposed to be evaluating for integrity and risk. "Don't kill the golden goose," perhaps was the mantra of profiteering executives at the ratings agencies.

Here's how the mortgage-backed securities grift goes down, per my understanding: It starts on the ground level* with a glut of housing development. For a time the economy is billows; builders are in work and borrowed money flows freely and cheaply. Now someone has to purchase all these oversized, low-quality, high-cost houses. Banks begin issuing mortages to buyers of lower and lower credit worthiness. This develops into a frenzy of pushing huge loans on unqualified applicants. Incentives are paid based on how many dollars are lent, not on the performance of the loans. All the easy cash going around creates a spike in housing prices, a bubble. It can't last, but there's a reason why creditors such as Countrywide were not worried about the inherent unsustainability of this model...

Residential mortgages, and their potential for profitability or failure, were quickly sold up the food chain. Huge banks like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs created the demand by pushing their slick new financial "products" onto the global securities market that were built from bundles of rotten home loans. Top-notch AAA ratings, of course, made moving these securites a cinch. Profits from the scam were in the perpetrators' bank accounts by the time masses of idiotic people in the United States who had purchased huge houses they couldn't afford started defaulting. Then the securities turned from gold back into the worthless slag they were all along. Global economic crisis ensues.

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Alchemy is the ancient pursuit of turning base metals into silver or gold. Seems like an easy trick to pull off, so long as the alchemist accepts the knife in his hand as the base metal, and the lucre stolen from his brother as the golden end. I prefer the pursuit of turning dirt into enough food to share, but I suppose the appeal of thievery and shiny objects should not be overlooked.
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*Actually, it starts at the very top. The offices of Treasury Secretary and Federal Reserve Chairman have historically been occupied by people inextricably entangled with, if not beholden to, the interests of big financial institutions. All that loose cash for building and buying houses had to come from somewhere. Policies for regulating the exchange and taxation of securities transactions are also made in Washington. When the Fed creates new dollars it is distributed into the economy from the top down. Big banks get first crack at all that magical money, long before the ruinous effects of their deregulated gambling are manifest.

Step two in the grift, outrageously, is demanding a new bankroll while foreclosing on the collateral of belly-up loans. A gazillion "dollars" are pumped back in the form of stimulus to the very people responsible for destroying the economy in the first place. But have no fear, Department of Justice investigations are underway.

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