I first posted the below article on my blog in January 2010. Today, when I was searching for this article to send the link to a friend, I noticed that this article had mysteriously disappeared from my blog's database. I don't know who removed it but luckily, I kept a copy of it so I am re-posting it again. So here it is again, the original article that I posted in January of 2010.
The Death of Capitalism, Redux
Bankers are destroying Capitalism. Unfortunately, most Westerners won't realize this until five years from now, when the middle class has been forcibly relegated to the ranks of the poor. And this isn't just a situation that will afflict America but it will likely afflict Japan and many countries in the EU such as the UK, Spain, and Greece just to name a few. But for the purposes of this essay, let's examine how bankers have destroyed capitalism in the USA.
In 2009, when almost every major US bank manufactured profits out of thin air and declared themselves financially healthy by (1) changing their regular reporting periods to exclude months in which huge losses occurred; (2) changing their definitions of bad debt, and (3) by revaluing their assets courtesy of FASB, particularly their commercial real estate portfolios, at fantasy land valuations that they will never receive in the open market, these events all marked the continuation of the Enronization of America that is ushering in the death of capitalism. The systemic injection of fraud and deceit into nearly every aspect of American life, has been unfolding for decades, even prior to the Enron scandal itself. In 2009, Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis testified that former US Treasury Secretary and ex-Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson instructed him to disobey securities law and conceal material losses in the Merrill Lynch merger from investors. Lewis additionally testified that Paulson threatened to fire him and his entire board if he tried to back out of the Merrill deal. These kinds of activities, devoid of all morals and ethics, have been occurring regularly within the financial industry for decades. It only seems as if such transgressions are more numerous today because of the recent attention given them in the media, but in reality, they have neither proliferated in frequency nor in expanded in their level of egregiousness.
Anyone that has ever worked for a Wall Street firm is well aware of the danger an analyst brings upon himself if he refuses to tow the official corporate party line regarding stock ratings for a company that is simultaneously closing a financially significant deal with another division of his firm. Even though this atmosphere of "unspoken coercion" of inflated stock ratings existed for decades, when the bull was strong on Wall Street, very few journalists found this story newsworthy. Even though regulatory laws were passed many years ago to separate investment banking interests from securities interests within the same firm, the percent of US stocks covered by Wall Street firms rated as a "buy or hold" actually increased from 89% (2003) to 93% (2007) after the passage of new laws that were supposed to discourage firms from granting inflated stock ratings. Who in their right mind would ever believe that 93% of all stocks covered by Wall Street should be rated a "buy or hold" and that only 7% should be rated a "sell"? Of course, in Wall Street parlance, insiders know that "hold" really means "sell" but still, this is a level of deceit nonetheless.
When regulations are enforced through self-monitoring and self-policing as is too often the situation, and when all financial regulatory agencies are themselves lacking in integrity and transparency, new regulations can be enacted every day without effect. Self-regulations and regulations imposed by morally bankrupt people within a broken and corrupt system have never been effective. That's why I have zero expectations about the efficacy of any new regulations being proposed today beyond their efficacy as a highly efficient smokescreen for politicians to hide behind. How quickly we forget that in 2002, UBS Paine Webber financial consultant Chang Wu was fired by branch manager Patrick Mendenhall no more than several hours after Enron executive Aaron Brown complained to Mr. Mendenhall about an email Mr. Wu had sent to his clients. In the email that Mr. Brown found "extremely disturbing", Mr. Wu had advised all of his clients to sell Enron stock due to massive liquidity problems he had uncovered, even though UBS Paine Webber had rated it a strong buy. (Source: CNN, "Financial Adviser Fired Over Enron Advice", 26 March 2002). After Mendenhall fired Wu, UBS sent an email to their clients retracting Mr. Wu's statement, informing them that Enron stock was "likely heading higher than lower from here on out." (Source: New York Post, 4 October 2006). Of course, we all know that just several months later, Enron went bankrupt.
We should be cognizant that in light of the Enron scandal, this level of fraud has not been a recent development. In 2001-2002, a partial list of companies that had to re-declare earnings due to erroneous information contained in previous publicly released earnings announcements included the following companies: Adelphia, AOL Time Warner, Arthur Anderson, Bristol-Meyers, Squibb, Freddie Mac, ImClone, Citigroup, General Electric, JP Morgan, Tyco, Worldcom, Dynergy, Enron, General Motors, AIG and Hyundai. Many of the company names on this list are the same companies that have been exposed as withholding material information from their investors about their financial health either in this year or in recent years. And let us not forget that in the early 2000's, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse First Boston, Lehman Brothers, UBS Warburg, and US Bankcorp Piper Jaffray all paid fines between $32,5000,000 and $400,000,000 for engaging in deceptive and unethical behavior (Source: PBS Frontline, "The Global Settlement, an Overview", 28 April 2003).
In regard to such systemic fraud, unfortunately, little has changed today. With the blessings of FASB and our current administration, almost every major bank in the US is cooking their books today (i.e. consider that, of $4.2 billion of Bank of America's declared earnings during one quarter last year, $1.9 billion was attributable to a non-recurring event, the sale of China Construction Bank shares, and $2.2 billion was attributable to a fantasy-land valuation of Merrill Lynch structured notes). As I previously stated, though the Enronization of America did not start with the Enron scandal, the consequences of systemic duplicity have finally caught up to its perpetrators and have now reached its tipping point today. If we take a moment to dwell on what aspects of our financial system have been infiltrated by fraud, it would include our financial ratings system led by Standard & Poors and Moodys, our mortgage system, our banking system, our equities analysts and financial analysts, our accounting system, our regulatory agencies including FASB, the SEC and the CFTC, our media, our politicians, our corporate executives, and lastly and most significantly, our monetary system. In fact, though the current media focus seems to be on morally bankrupt financial executives and institutions, the fact is that this scenario could not have proliferated over the past several decades if the problem did not run much deeper than just our financial infrastructure. If other integral aspects of our society were uncompromised, they would have flushed out the dishonesty so prevalent in our financial industry many years ago. So the real question that needs to be examined is the following – How exactly did fraud in America become so systemic?
The Fraud of our Legal System
The first phase of the Enronization of America occurred through our legal system. Most of us make the grave mistake of equating our legal system with morality, but law and morality are creatures that often reside at opposite ends of the spectrum under our current legal system. Since those that make our laws are also the same immoral people that control our financial system, often our laws have very little concern with governing morality and much more focus on ensuring that the very elements that hold power maintain or expand their power. Most Americans automatically equate a behavior as right or wrong depending on whether a law defines such behavior as legal or illegal without any critical thought, and this is a mistake. The fact is that today, many laws have nothing to do with morality. In fact, our legal system is laden with such hypocrisy at times that it allows for the very same behavior to be defined as legal if a financial elite is engaging in the behavior but illegal if a "regular Joe" is engaging in it.
Consider that Richard Strong, CEO of the former Strong Mutual Funds, admitted to skimming $1.8 million from his clients' accounts that essentially was the equivalent of stealing, yet under the auspices of our current legal system, Mr. Strong was not sentenced to spend a single day in jail (Source: Washington Post, 23 June 2004). Yet there is little question that if a hungry, unemployed man steals food equivalent to a fraction of the money Richard Strong stole, he will go to jail if caught. How is this possible? It is possible because very little honor is left in our legal system. Stealing $1.8 million may be legal under our current legal system, but it certainly is not moral. In 2005 and 2006, CEOs from the 11 largest firms in America paid themselves $865,000,000 in salary even though their "leadership" caused a loss of $64,000,000,000 of market capitalization in their firms during the same equivalent time period (Source: BBC News, 22 June 2006). Yet, if an employee of this firm performed as miserably as did their CEOs, their reward would almost certainly be a pink slip, not millions upon millions in bonuses, salaries and perks. Paying oneself hundreds of millions in salaries and hundreds of millions more in bonuses despite contributing to unemployment and the substantial loss of shareholder wealth is certainly unethical, yet it will always remain 100% legal. All you have to do is review the financial payouts from last year to know that not a single iota of decency has been injected into our financial system. When firms like Merrill Lynch went bankrupt and then took money from US taxpayers to pay their executives more than $4 billion of bonuses, this only added insult to the injury their bankruptcy inflicted upon many American families.
Were our legal system truly to regulate morality, the executive suites of America's largest financial corporations would transform into ghost towns as a great percentage of these executives would be jailed. There are numerous actions that are considered "legal" today that would be illegal if moral and righteous men were making our laws, and even a handful of "illegal" behaviors that would be re-categorized as legal. Suffice it to say, if our legal system has been Enronized, our regulatory agencies by default, have also been Enronized. The Enronization of our Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was never more apparent in their failure to shut down Bernard Madoff and protect American families even though hedge fund manager Harry Markopoulos informed the SEC both in writing and by phone of the fraudulent nature of Madoff's fund for nine years. During Congressional testimony regarding this matter, Mr. Markopoulos testified that when the SEC repeatedly ignored his warnings about the fraudulent nature of Madoff's practices, that he feared for his, as well as his family's safety, a damning indictment of not only the SEC's abject failure to regulate, but also of their propensity to protect powerful men in the financial industry whether they are breaking the law or not. The continuing failure of other regulatory agencies such as the CFTC to act in the interests of American people is also apparent in their recent approval of financial products such as the E-mini Gold and Silver futures contracts introduced on April 19th, 2009 that settle strictly in cash. Futures contracts that specifically prohibit the delivery of the underlying commodity explicitly allow its participants to naked short a commodity with zero intention of every purchasing or holding the underlying physical asset in their possession and thus establishing a fraudulent market for a commodity that can never resemble the free market dynamics of its physical market. The lesson here is this – if you are a small player, the regulatory agencies will still prosecute criminal activity, but if your rank is among the financial elites, they will do nothing.
The Fraud of our Media
The second phase of America's Enronization has occurred through the mass media. Ben Bagdikian, the author of the seminal work on media mergers and consolidation titled The Media Monopoly, has noted that almost all major media in the US is now under the control of five major conglomerates – Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch's News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom. To be fair and objective in this matter, there are a handful of major news organizations not controlled by the "big five", including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.