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November 01, 2009

Between You and Me, We're Committing Securities Fraud

The big McClatchy story today about Goldman Sachs is great:

"The Securities and Exchange Commission should be very interested in any financial company that secretly decides a financial product is a loser and then goes out and actively markets that product or very similar products to unsuspecting customers without disclosing its true opinion," said Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University economics professor who's proposed a massive overhaul of the nation's banks. "This is fraud and should be prosecuted."

But for straightforward admissions of guilt, the recent long Vanity Fair article by Michael Lewis about AIG is even better:

Cassano agreed to meet with all the big Wall Street firms and discuss the logic of their deals—to investigate how a bunch of shaky loans could be transformed into AAA-rated bonds. Together with Park and a few others, Cassano set out on a series of meetings with Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and the rest—all of whom argued how unlikely it was for housing prices to fall all at once. “They all said the same thing,” says one of the traders present. “They’d go back to historical real-estate prices over 60 years and say they had never fallen all at once.” (The lone exception, he said, was Goldman Sachs. Two months after their meeting with the investment bank, one of the A.I.G. F.P. traders bumped into the Goldman guy who had defended the bonds, who said, Between you and me, you’re right. These things are going to blow up.)

The amazing thing about human beings is that, even when they're organizing death squads or creating multi-billion dollar swindles, they can't stop talking about it.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at November 1, 2009 11:48 PM

Cassano really was an amazing guy. I think he now has the record for most losses inflicted on a company by one guy, and he got paid a million dollars a month by that company AFTER he did that. Somebody should name a business school after him.

The weird thing about this post is that I really love it even though the concluding sentence that people "can't stop talking" about whatever they do, whether death squads or swindles, is entirely wrong. And that conclusion is not just a little wrong either--it's entirely wrong.

Posted by: N E at November 2, 2009 01:09 AM

I agree, in fact the reverse is true: if ONE person does a bad thing he might not stop talking about it, BUT if something is bad enough and affects enough people and enough people are complicit in it, that thing is rarely if ever talked about.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at November 2, 2009 03:03 AM

I don't think that's true, I think they do talk about it. Just, not necessarily to you.

But people have strong urges to talk about whatever they're doing and thinking about all day, and they'll tell it to someone.

Posted by: graeme at November 2, 2009 10:28 AM


People who are involved in crimes, whether by the government or in the "private sector", have to meet a different standard. (Wall Street crooks are a different breed of criminal, because our society is so screwed up that most of their crimes aren't really treated as crimes, though of course they should be. Ergo Cassano.) Most death squad members keep their mouths shut forever about, because there are thousands of times times more such murderous acts than confessions of guilt in the historical record.

Apart from the sheer trauma of grotesque violence there's another factor. Sun Tzu long ago wrote: "There is no place where espionage is not possible. If plans relating to spying operations are prematurely divulged, the spy and all those to whom he spoke of them should be put to death." Whether it's omerta, the code of silence, or a military security clearance system, the idea is the same: Whether to profit from what they know or to reveal crimes on principle, those who break an obligation of secrecy are killed.

That's enough to keep idle chit chat on topic.

Posted by: N E at November 2, 2009 11:12 AM

No time to look it up, but somebody bragged to Woodward about the death squads we used during the Surge in Iraq--they didn't call them death squads, of course. Woodward gave this glowing account of how it was really this amazing ability we had to track down terrorists and kill them that accounted for the glorious triumph. Anyway, someone couldn't keep his or her (probably his) mouth shut to Woodward.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at November 2, 2009 11:30 AM

Bragged was probably the correct verb choice, Donald, but how would bragging about that show that someone "couldn't" keep his or her mouth shut to Woodward? People don't brag about the type of things En Ming Hee was talking about. Whole sections of the National Security State do things that the public doesn't even know about, and you won't be hearing about any of it from the Washington Post, let alone former ONI officer Bob Woodward. You will hear plenty of other macho hot air, and it might even sound scandalous to tender ears, but it's not. They aren't even ashamed of it. It's a tough world, you know, and we have to break some eggs to make some omelettes.

I don't see any risk involved in anyone revealing to that walking con artist Woodward that we ran or run death squads in Iraq. After all, what could people have possibly thought Cheney was talking about when he said we were going to employ "the Salvadoran option" in Iraq? Selling flowers at traffic stops? Anybody who knows anything about El Salvador in the 80s knew exactly what The Dark Lord meant by that. That has been sickeningly out in the open.

Posted by: N E at November 2, 2009 01:13 PM

Yeah, the Salvadoran option was out in the open if you pay attention to such things, but it's one of those things that everyone knows, so long as one is on the anti-imperialist fringes. In polite society the surge worked because we started taking care of the security needs of the Iraqi people, fighting counterinsurgency in the compassionate way that imperialist countries always do once they realize that their more "kinetic" approach was creating enemies. That's the official story, so far as I can tell.

For that matter, the Salvadoran option in El Salvador was out in the open to anyone who cared to look, but at the time it was heatedly denied. It was more or less admitted even in boring centrist or center right mainstream journals like the Atlantic Monthly a decade or so later. (I was surprised to see someone around 2000 or a little before--I forgot his name--explicitly acknowledge that we fought the war in El Salvador by letting the death squads clean out the leftists. People usually aren't quite that honest in the MSM.)

Posted by: Donald Johnson at November 2, 2009 03:02 PM

Donald Johnson:

Interesting. The person you're remembering could have been talking about anywhere in Latin America. Operation Condor throughout South America in the mid 70s but especially down on the cone was basically the Salvadorean Option, prior version, in Latin America. So were the various Guatemalan counterinsurgency campaigns, mostly against the Indians but also against labor and leftist leaders, before that. And so on and so on. And yes, later everybody admits it happened and shrugs that it was necessary, because history and murder feel like different things to people.

I think that the principle of later admission applies to almost everything except Presidential assassinations and government murder. Those types of acts can NEVER be admitted, because once you admit that Secretary of War Stanton was responsible for the assassination of Lincoln, or even that Southern pro-slavery zealots poisoned Zachary Taylor, you've sanctioned inquiry into a taboo area that will eventually threaten Power NOW. Lord knows that the powerful aren't letting that Pandora's Box get opened if they have anything to say about it. For God's sake, if you count the suspicious deaths of Presidents from natural causes without autopsy, we have had a Presidential assassination attempt about every 15 or 20 years over two centuries, and many of those attempts have been successful. Even those attempts that haven't resulted in a President's immediate death have often been successful, whether by having a disabling effect, most notably in the case of Woodrow Wilson but to a lesser extent in Reagan's case, or perhaps just because the attempt(s) sent a message that was received, as seems to have happened to Gerald Ford.

I am sure there will be a chorus of murmuring CRAZY without debate for the forseeable future about real hot topics like JFK's death, and 911 conspiracies will continue to be dismissed out of hand as the work of unpatriotic lunatics even though the leading author on the subject is a respected retired theologian and a distinguished retired air force officer and former interceptor pilot has been among the most public accusers. Such accusations are made, and will forever only be made in the general public's mind, by foolish adolescents and crazy traitors of the worst sort, a perception reinforced by the occasional characters that Langley assigns to shout rudely from TV audiences from time to time. For Langley and Fort Bragg, this game is easy as pie.

Meanwhile, you are right that people will cavalierly acknowledge that we slaughtered half a million Indonesians for the greater good thirty years ago, or murdered human rights workers in San Salvador and threw their bodies over the wall of the sunny courtyard outside their offices where they could be found in the morning by their highly courageous friends, who were the best and the bravest of people. That's just the past, the whole of which is all much like that.

As for the present, I agree that we won't be hearing such candor much.

Posted by: N E at November 2, 2009 04:10 PM

Found the Atlantic article--it was Benjamin Schwarz in 1998. The only concession to the mainstream decencies is that he says the clear-eyed analysts were "aghast" at the methods used--


Posted by: Donald Johnson at November 2, 2009 04:54 PM

I didn't mean that people will tell reporters, or commissions of inquiry, or anyone who matters. I just think in most cases people will end up talking to someone about at least some part of what they're doing. Obviously there's no way of proving that though.

Posted by: graeme at November 2, 2009 05:42 PM

Donald: The article you link is good. Benjamin Schwartz doesn't appear to be your ordinary journalist. He has written negatively about our Balkan and Middle Eastern adventures too, and it seems that he once even researched counterinsurgency at RAND!

LeoGrande is good. He testified as an expert witness in a political asylum case on behalf of a woman from Morazon province from El Salvador back in 1987 and did a good job. More than his testimony or the high caliber of her lawyers, the woman mostly won her case because she began spontaneously talking about something even her lawyers didn't know--how her baby had died when she fell down a mountainside being pursued by soldiers who were going to kill them. That was probably the Atlcatl Battalion, trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning. I recall that when she had passed by a neighbor's house, a uterus was stuck on a stick in the front to announce that they had paid a visit.

So yes, clear-eyed analysts should have been aghast at the methods used, but they weren't aghast enough to not want to do the same damn thing again.

Posted by: N E at November 2, 2009 07:15 PM

Nobody should need Michael "Liar's Poker" Lewis to tell them how Wall Street actually works and what people actually knew about derivative vehicles. There was no mystery to the vehicles' high-risk, almost-certain-failure traits. The plan, all along, was to play the double-dip and wait for the right time to seek "bailout" or "aid" money from Uncle Sam.

I wrote a very quick essay about this back in July.

Anyone who thinks that financial houses, insurers, etc were destroyed by these derivative vectors is very, very naive. Nobody trading in these vectors was unaware of their risk, nobody making corporate policy decisions on their use was unaware of the risk.

Posted by: the anti-federalist at November 3, 2009 10:59 AM


The guys at Lehman Brothers obviously didn't know or understand something. John Paulson saw the "almost certain failure traits" in advance, which is why he managed to leverage him fund into several billion dollars for himself, and I think Soros and some others caught on when there was big money still to be made betting on a collapse too, but the majority of those big Wall Street brains didn't foresee their house of cards tumbling down.

That doesn't mean we should let bail them out, of course. They all were greedy, and they weren't about to share any of the money they tried to make, and collectively they worked hard over the years to destroy all the regulatory structures that might have helped save them from themselves. I'm no expert on the details, but I share your basic attitude that they want all the winnings for themselves and all the losses for us, and they should go frisk themselves.

Posted by: N E at November 3, 2009 01:22 PM

N E, you speak with such authority, but there's nothing behind your mouthed authoritative pronouncements.

You don't know what you're talking about, that's what I'm saying. You remind me of some of my grad school classmates, who argued that being able to bullshit with confidence is more important to good grades and social acceptance than being correct.

I don't know why you'd go looking for support for your idea that these derivatives were sneaky-dangerous and not fully appreciated. Anyone examining them would know they're explosive. Anyone.

Except, perhaps, you. Which makes me wonder, why you think yourself so smart and informed. All you're doing is issuing casual apologies for the criminals who claimed they were undone by vehicles whose risks they clearly understood.

none of what you posted 11/3/09 at 1:22 pm bears in any way on what I'm arguing here. it's just more "N E" which makes me wonder what happened to the "ONSENS" that usually sits between the N and the E.

Posted by: the anti-federalist at November 4, 2009 12:15 PM


Glad to hear you went to grad school.

If you want to persuade me (or probably anybody else) of your claim, take a crack at explaining why many traders lost huge amounts of money if it was so obvious to anyone that all the derivatives built around mortgage backed securities were going to implode. Or are you saying that no one, such as the Lehman Brothers shareholders, really lost money?

Because so far all you hae done is call me names, and as Cyrano de Bergerac might point out, without much wit.

Posted by: N E at November 4, 2009 12:35 PM


I have now read your harangue against Jeffrey St. Clair, and I enjoyed your theory that Hank Greenberg deliberately tanked AIG somehow from behind the scenes, like a Mafia boss with hidden control, by creating a hidden set of books with phony losses so that AIG could be bought by the US government, who wouldn't have wanted to let it fall into the hands of foreign buyers because, you say, commercial underwriting files on CIA front companies contain so much top secret information that this would give foreign countries "a phenomenal amount of dirt" on "the most powerful individual and corporate citizens" of the US.

Now I have to admit that's creative. You say that you used to work for AIG, and maybe you have actually even seen a commercial underwriting file as part of your work at AIG, but frankly, as someone who knows what such files do and do not contain, including at AIG, I find that hard to believe. Neither you nor I nor anyone else could find a truly important secret in a commercial underwriting file if all our lives depended on it. They just aren't in there, not that you won't find a lot of fascinating aggregate data on operations, losses, pending litigation, and the sort of information a Certified Property and Casualty Underwriter ("CPCU") would use to price a liabilty policy, unless of course he fell prey to the custom and practice of using the seat of his pants to agree to underwrite anything for a little more in premium.

I don't recall ever having seen an underwriting file for a CIA front company, at least to my knowledge, but I rather doubt a CPCU would know what to do with information about covert activities, and I know they wouldn't ask about it, so I have a little trouble imagining what dark secrets the underwriters would have requested in such cases, and I can't imagine anyone would provide them even if they did. For God's sake, AIG may or may not be retarded, but the CIA isn't. At least not in that way.

That being said, the assertion in your post that AIG does have CIA connections going way back from its operations in Asia is actually true, but also no secret. Frank Wisner II himself was the Vice Chairman of AIG until earlier this year, even after the bailout, and his dad of Mighty Wurlitzer fame was one of the first, highest ranking, and most notorious officers in the CIA. AIG was the main US insurer in Asia, so of course AIG was highly connected with the CIA. That was probably more useful to AIG than the CIA, because confidential information is indeed valuable. But only REAL confidential information, not the dreck in commercial underwriting files. That stuff has very limited value except in pricing policies, and no value otherwise. Believe me, it would have no interest to anyone either. I suspect dentistry would be far more interesting.

Posted by: N E at November 4, 2009 02:06 PM