Yves here. We’re delighted to be featuring a post by Nomi Prins, a former Goldman managing director turned critic of the way the financial services industry has become a “heads I win, tails you lose” wager with the entire economy at stake. Many readers are likely familiar with her through her books, such as Other People’s Money: The Corporate Mugging of America and It Takes a Pillage: An Epic Tale of Power, Deceit, and Untold Trillions, as well as her regular TV appearances.
By Nomi Prins, a former investment banker, now a journalist, best-selling author, and speaker. Her latest book is All the President’s Bankers, which examines the relationships of presidents to key bankers over the past century and how they impacted domestic and foreign policy. Originally published at her website
The recent spike in global political-financial volatility that was temporarily soothed by European Central Bank (ECB) covered bond buying reveals another crack in the six-year-old throw-money-at-the-banks strategies of politicians and central bankers. The premise of using banks as credit portals to transport public funds from the government to citizens is as inefficient as it is not happening. The power elite may exude belabored moans about slow growth and rising inequality in speeches and press releases, but they continue to find ways to provide liquidity, sustenance and comfort to financial institutions, not to populations.
The very fact – that without excessive artificial stimulation or the promise of it – more hell breaks loose – is one that government heads neither admit, nor appear to discuss. But the truth is that the global financial system has already failed. Big banks have been propped up, and their capital bases rejuvenated, by various means of external intervention, not their own business models.
Last week, the Federal Reserve released its latest 2015 stress test scenarios. They don’t even exceed the parameters of what actually took place during the 2008-2009-crisis period. This makes them, though statistically viable, completely irrelevant in an inevitable full-scale meltdown of greater magnitude. This Sunday, the ECB announced that 25 banks failed their tests, none of which were the biggest banks (that received the most help). These tests are the equivalent of SAT exams for which students provide the questions and answers, and a few get thrown under the bus for cheating to make it all look legit.
Regardless of the outcome of the next set of tests, it’s the very need for them that should be examined. If we had a more controllable, stable, accountable and transparent system (let alone one not in constant litigation and crime-committing mode) neither the pretense of well-thought-out stress tests making a difference in crisis preparation, nor the administering of them, would be necessary as a soothing tool. But we don’t. We have an unreformed (legally and morally) international banking system still laden with risk and losses, whose major players control more assets than ever before, with our help.
The biggest banks, and the US and European markets, are now floating on more than $7 trillion of Fed and ECB intervention with little to show for it on the ground and more to come. To put that into perspective – consider that the top 100 global hedge funds manage about $1.5 trillion in assets. The Fed’s book has ballooned to $4.5 trillion and the ECB’s book stands at $2.7 trillion – a figure ECB President, Mario Draghi considers too low. Thus, to sustain the illusion of international systemic health, the Fed and the ECB are each, as well as collectively, larger than the top 100 global hedge funds combined.
Providing ‘liquidity crack’ to the financial system has required heightened international government and central bank coordination to maintain an illusion of stability, but not true stability. The definition of instability is this epic support network. It is more dangerous than in past financial crises precisely because of its size and level of political backing.
During the Panic of 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary, Cortelyou announced the first US bank bailout in the country’s history. Though not a member of the government, financier J.P. Morgan was chosen by Roosevelt to deploy $25 million from the Treasury. He and a team of associates decided which banks would live or die with this federal money and some private (or customers’) capital thrown in.
The Federal Reserve was established in 1913 to back the private banking system in advance from requiring future such government injections of capital. After World War I, a Laissez Faire policy toward finance and speculation, but not alcohol, marked the 1920s. before the financial system crumbled under the weight of its own recklessness again. So on October 24, 1929, the Big Six bankers convened at the Morgan Bank at noon (for 20 minutes) to form a plan to ‘save’ the ailing markets by injecting their own (well, their customer’s) capital. It didn’t work. What transpired instead was the Great Depression.
After the Crash of 1929, markets rallied, and then lost 90% of their value. Liquidity froze. Credit for the masses was as unavailable, as was real money. The combined will of President FDR and the key bankers of the day worked to bolster people’s confidence in the system that had crushed them – by reforming it, by making the biggest banks smaller, by separating bet-taking arms from those in which people could store, and borrow money from, safely. Political and financial leaderships collaboratively ushered in the reform measures of the Glass-Steagall Act. As I note in my most recent book, All the Presidents’ Bankers, this Act was not merely a piece of legislation passed in spirited bi-partisan fashion, but it was also a means to stabilize a system for participants at the top, middle and bottom of it. Stability itself was the political and financial goal.
Through World War II, the Cold War, and Vietnam, and until the dissolution of the gold standard, the financial system remained fairly stable, with banks handling their own risks, which were separate from the funds of citizens. No capital injections or bailouts were required until the mid-1970s Penn Central debacle. But with the bailout floodgates reopened, big banks launched a frenzied drive for Middle East petro-dollar profits to use as capital for a hot new area of speculation, Third World loans.
By the 1980s, the Latin American Debt crisis resulted, and with it, the magnitude of federally backed bank bailouts based on Washington alliances, ballooned. When the 1994 Mexican Peso Crisis hit, bank losses were ‘handled’ by President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary (and former Goldman Sachs co-CEO) Robert Rubin and his Asst. Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers via congressionally approved aid.
Afterwards, the repeal of the Glass Steagall Act, the mega-merging of financial players, the explosion of the derivatives market, and the rise of global ‘competition’ amongst government supported gambling firms, lead to increase speculative complexity and instability, and the recent and ongoing 2008 financial crisis.
By its actions, the US government (under both political parties) has chosen to embrace volatility rather than stability from a policy perspective, and has convinced governments in Europe to follow suit. Too big to fail has been replaced by bigger than ever.
Today, the Big Six US banks are mostly incarnations of the Big Six banks in 1929 with a few add-ons due to political relationships (notably that of Goldman Sachs, whose past partner, Sidney Weinberg struck up lasting relationships with FDR and other presidents.)
We no longer have a private financial system responsible for its own risk, regardless of how it’s computed or supervised. We have a system whose risk is shouldered by the federal government and its central bank entities, and therefore, the people whose deposits seed that risk and whose taxes and futures sustain it.
We have a private financial system that routinely commits financial crimes against humanity with miniscule punishments, as approved by the government. We don’t even have a free market system based on the impossible notion of full transparency and opportunity, we have a publicly funded betting arena, where the largest players are the most politically connected and the most powerful politicians are enablers, contributors and supporters. We talk about wealth inequality but not this substantial power inequality that generates it.
Today, neither the leadership in Washington, nor throughout Europe, has the foresight to consider what kind of real stress would happen when zero and negative interest rate and bond-buying policies truly run their course and wreak further havoc on their respective economies, because the very banks supported by them, will crush people, now in a weaker economic condition, more horrifically than before.
The political system that stumbles to sustain the illusion that economies can be built on rampant financial instability, has also failed us. Past presidents talked of a square deal, a new deal and a fair deal. It’s high time for a stability deal that prioritizes the real financial health of individuals over the false one of financial institutions.
I now understand why: http://www.businessweek.com/news/2014-11-05/fed-s-fisher-tells-congress-don-t-mess-with-central-bank
In a question from a member of the audience at a town hall meeting on one of her book tours I attended several years ago, Nomi Prins told the audience why she left Goldman, among her other observations. I appreciated her response then, and I appreciate this post now. Thank you.
You can’t leave us hanging like this, what did she say? :-)
Whoa – that’s a definite “Now, go get your shine box.” moment Fisher. It strikes me as not the most friendly approach to say, “Congress can’t audit the Fed, because… gads… that would make us like Congress, and they totally suck.” I really wasn’t thinking about this can of worms on election night, but I expect we could really see some fireworks related to this subject, and from Fisher’s comments, it looks like I am not the only one.
Great piece! I especially appreciated this statement: “We have a private financial system that routinely commits financial crimes against humanity … ” It’s past time that we started referring to our insane policies as crimes against humanity; it’s the price for a golbalized economy.
There’s a partial resemblance between the Fed/ECB policies of throwing money at the banks and the early Hoover/Mellon-inspired policies of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (1932). Later the RFC would be active in financing public works projects, but initially the plan was for it to prop up banks and insurance companies. They in turn would of course bail out the rest of the economy. Needless to say that didn’t happen. There were scandals regarding alleged RFC loans to politically-connected banks, the Great Depression deepened and by early 1933 the banking system was in the midst of a seemingly-terminal meltdown.
Is there such a thing as a George Santayana Award for Historical Awareness?
I’m wondering what the real difference will be between Obama’s plan to do projects with meritorious corporations under a PPP blitz and the RFC. Maybe just bypassing the banksters and infusing money directly into the meritorious 1%?
Great article, nice to see an insider describe this so lucidly.
“”The RFC was a powerful tool, but it’s proper use clearly depended on the honesty and good judgment of the man in charge. Economist Hyman Minsky said of Jones, ‘He spent the public’s money as though it were his own’. It showed what could be done with a public lending institution. It loaned $500 billion dollars largely in self-liquidating loans to businesses, individuals, cities and states.”” Ellen Brown, Public Banking
Probably even more useful in stimulating the economy through innovation was the creation of DARPA in 1958 as a response to the launching of the Sputnik in 1957. This series of small offices staffed by scientists and engineers attracted top talent and contributed to the development of the personal computer, semiconductors, creation of university departments in computer science and help with commercializations of these products. Silicon Valley surfed on rather than created this wave. (Mazzucato, The Entrepreneual State).
We no longer have a private financial system responsible for its own risk, Nomi Prins
When did we ever? At least since 1913? A fiat lender of last resort renders talk of a “private financial system” ludicrous as does government deposit insurance as does borrowing by the US Treasury as does the lack of a risk-free storage and transaction service for fiat for ALL citizens, not just banks.
Let’s understand what a truly “private financial system” would be or else we’ll simply replace instability with greater injustice and think it’s an improvement!
When the separation of investment banking from savings banking was enforced by the Glass Steagall Act, we had such a system, at least in part. It was certainly more responsible than what we have now, despite the presence of the paradoxes of fractional reserve banking.
“Responsible” once included redlining. That led to urban riots in the 1960’s. How “responsible” was that?
Public backing for private credit creation is INHERENTLY unjust since the public’s credit should be used for the general welfare only or at least it should not be used for those who need it least, the so-called “creditworthy”, which always includes the rich.
Perhaps you missed this phrase from what I said:
I am perfectly aware that there were many problems with banking prior to the repeal of Glass Steagall in 1999.
The formal repeal of Glass Steagall had NO, and I stress NO, role in causing the crisis. The NYSE rule change allowing corporations to be members, allowing money market funds to be largely unregulated, the Fed’s refusal to regulate derivatives, and the Fed ceasing to supervise primary dealers, all were more significant factors. I could list ten more that were more important in weakening bank/investment bank supervision without thinking hard. You imply otherwise.
Well, I guess we disagree, at least somewhat. I know that the Fed rendered Glass Steagall largely meaningless prior to 1999, and that the effectively illegal Citigroup was created before 1999, but to say that the repeal of Glass Steagall had “NO” role in causing the crisis is an exaggeration. At the very least, the repeal in 1999 was a crucial symbol that told the regulators, bankers, brokers, and hedgies that anything goes. Barry Ritholz pointed out that the repeal may not have caused the crisis, but it worsened it:
And who knows, without the repeal, The Crisis might have just been another routine crisis.
I would just make the obvious warning that ‘stability’ is a term that can be misused. The Fed might say that they are supporting ‘stability’ by propping up the Banks.
Also, “Stability Deal” seems cumbersome. There’s gotta be a better label that would help spark public interest (like “new deal” and “fair deal” did).
H O P
I was going to suggest “Real Deal”
How about “an honest deal”? Or are we saving that one for last, after trying everything else first?
+100 on that.
Real Deal indeed.
That could really connect with people.
What we’re really likely to get is a Raw Deal, but of course they won’t call it that!
iDeal, and have Apple market it.
Great post. Thanks.
If only I had training as an economist, a cartoonist, and an architect, I’d illustrate this great post with a “building” designed along the lines of our current banking/financial system. Just the sight of it would be enough to discourage any citizen from going inside it, let alone walking on the same street, etc. Or maybe it should be a “bridge” designed using the insane principles our financial crooks take for granted today. Best perhaps would be the US Capitol – redesigned for our Congress to meet in. Maybe that would bring home to our “representatives” the fruits of their “labors”?
Somewhat related, but Taibbi has an article up at RS today. It’s about a JPMorgan Chase whistle-blower. The article does speak a bit about Holder. None of it is a surprise to most of us, but it’s still a worthy read and one that calls for action.
From Nomi Prins article:
What I should have said is that Taibbi’s article *is* related to this (not just somewhat related), because it explores exactly what Prins stated here so well.
So now we know what Matt has been up to all these long months that we haven’t heard from him. This is great. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to the discussions of this tomorrow!
Great article! But I think the even bigger question now is, especially given all that’s gone on since 2008, is it even possible to unwind all this without blowing up what remains of the global economy, should we ever grow the collective stones to actually try? Not that that’s likely to happen of course.
There is nothing to unwind–in essence it is a sort of fiction anyway. Stability will be here by decree–if the oligarchs want it they will have it.
If that were true the Soviet Five Year Plans would have all worked out great because the Party said they worked out great. Reality doesn’t work that way, not in the long run. If the climate goes to hell and fossil fuels are $40 a gallon the oligarchs can decree anything they like–they’ll look like Kevin Bacon in Animal House shouting “All is well!!!” while the peons loot the Food King. I agree with you that they have a lot of clout and can make believe (extend and pretend) for some time. But their time will run out.
The Soviet leadership tended to live in fantasyland. The current leadership is hard-nosed and realistic about their ability to control things–they’ve had decades to create the system and it has become like a complex ecosystem with lots of moving parts that keep the system robust–lots of backups, lots of networks, again, built up over decades.
Minsky’s instability hypothesis teaches us financial crises are inevitable; rather than try to find ways of stopping them we should focus on buffering the real economy from the shocks. That we can do.
Minsky’s instability hypothesis teaches us financial crises are inevitable; Ben Johannson
Government backing for private credit creation is NOT inevitable and is a major accelerant to the boom-bust cycle. Let’s remove that accelerant, huh? And leave gambling to 100% voluntary gamblers taking 100% of the risk?
Huh? We had “government backing for private credit” from 1933 to the first major bank failure, Franklin National, in 1974. And we had the Great Crash and Depression with NO government support. Remember all those bank failures? Sorry, your explanation doesn’t wash.
And we had the Great Crash and Depression with NO government support. Yves Smith
The preceding Boom in the 1920’s was fueled with government support, eg. Ben Strong’s (NY Fed Governor) “un petit coup de whisky for the stock exchange” for debt creation. That debt appeared to be sustainable as long as stock prices were rising (see George Soros’ “Theory of Reflexivity”) but, if Steve Keen is right, the continuance of that would have required accelerating debt just to prevent a crash and nothing can accelerate forever. IF the boom of the 1920’s had been financed with shares in equity (common stock), it might have continued indefinitely. But as you once said, Yves, debt financing is cheaper than issuing new equity and no wonder since the former is subsidized by government.
Remember all those bank failures? Yves Smith
Yes, that was cruelly inconsistent of the Federal Government to fuel (indirectly via the Fed) the Boom and not take responsibility for the Bust. But there would have been no need for Federal help in the first place if Federal subsidies had not allowed the banks to become TBTF without seriously harming the economy.
100% gamblers with 100% of everyone’s pension, insurance fund payment accounts, and assorted OPM is 100% systemic disaster waiting to happen. See 100% of underfunded pensions or the ones looted in corporate bankruptcy, like Carl Icahn’s looting of the Taj Majal casino in AC.
The monetary sovereign should provide a generous backup to pensions since it is immune to the boom-bust cycle. Likewise for insurance to protect the non-rich from catastrophic loss.
But let’s eliminate any conflation of a generous safety-net with welfare for banks and the rich. If the banks are hiding behind widows and orphans then let’s rescue those hostages from their hands.
I admire Prins and believe she has a good handle on our situation and the historical background that caused it. But she like Yves and many others who have commented here about the financial crisis, perhaps because they were so deeply involved with the world of finance they don’t see the forest for the trees. As I often say, finance and economics are not these “independent” institutions that are ruled by market forces. This is no even close to being true. We live in a political system that is very complex but discernible–we may not perfectly understand its structure because it is emergent but it acts, as if, it had a tight structure. My sense of it is that it involves a series of committees that are tightly networked wherein expert systems play a key role–at any rate, the power-actors in it are government regulators, TBF banks who are now interwoven with the rest of government, central and regional banks, international organization like the IMF and WB, and the shifting culture of hotel-conference bureaucrats who iron out various details of the system. The thing is that it works. There has been no repeat of the crisis–which was caused by an explosion of criminality where the larger movement was that the finance industry, in my view, felt it needed more influence and the main actors knew very well that a crisis was coming and that it offered them an opportunity to garner more political power and once that power was solidified agreed to tone down the fraud and criminality in exchange for a more “controlled” market. I realized this early on and have been saying that for some time and there’s been no crisis and will not be any crisis–the game is rigged and things, on that level, are whatever the system decrees barring natural disaster. I’ve been ridiculed about this for years but most writers here have insisted that disaster is around the corner–we’re still in recovery–not recovery for the people–that will not happen but recovery for the system. This is why the media is so confident–they’re part of the ruling oligarch system.
I think your contention will founder on the “barring natural disaster” caveat, because the system is causing and accelerating that disaster, as you know.
I like Nomi’s way of phrasing all things bankster. Her statement that the system has collapsed and all we are doing is voo-doo to revive a long-dead corpse is refreshing to hear because we are otherwise force-fed such nonsense. If our “government” actually ever admitted the truth it would prolly be accepted like “so what?” And what should we do now? People are pragmatic, regardless of how they have been abused. So the worst thing governments do in their cowardice is lie. Where do we go from here? I’m leery of Greenspin’s latest confession at the CFR when he actually advised buying gold. Talk about a pivot. It was barely concealed code to the ultra rich to dump debt and buy something real, imo. Why? Is something in the works, like true confessions, debt forgiveness (?) and/or bail-ins?
Talk about a pivot. It was barely concealed code to the ultra rich to dump debt and buy something real, imo.
Et tu, Sue, sue? Gold is just another metal UNLESS it is privileged via government FIAT.
Let ole Al learn to quit worshipping a shiny metal, the hard way!
Grains of Sand, Saying No
Life is a matter of perspective, which is a function of discernment, which depends upon location, in time, economic mobility. Empire banking employs upper middle class gatekeepers to control the lower middle class, in an attempt to funnel the individual with talent and skill into its gravitational field, cornering itself into artificial scarcity as the first step, with all the rest following, so what?
You can always choose your own course, but you cannot choose for others. The mistake most kids make is thinking that their parents are punishing them when the kids choose empire peer pressure and their parents let them go. Government has never worked, except to draw redundant DNA back into the churn pool, and distill talent out.
If Governor Brown wants to sell himself and his followers to Harry Reid and China, paying its mortgage to Bank of England for the privilege, and republicans want Hillary Clinton as their scapegoat, expecting Saudi Arabia and Boeing to pay the freight with inflation/lost purchasing power, with global media to control the perception of natural resource consumption as productivity, that’s their business.
Obviously, Putin isn’t that stupid, but he’s playing the same game, with more natural resources at his disposal than all the others. Joining ISIS as a derivative pawn of pawns, to inflate the price of oil and drones, of which the Dreamliner and Tesla Motors are only the latest iterations of stupidity, isn’t the answer. Labor is not going to work for the republicans just because the democrats are morons, or vice versa.
So, the State took my children, like it has been doing for 5000 years, with the assistance of my fist wife, who chose the path of post-partum depression, rather than preparing to be successful, despite having every advantage enjoyed by the hedge fund class. That happens. My children know me; I’ve been teaching on the Internet since before it was called the Arpanet, and I’m always the guy the morons turn to when their corner implodes.
Because a beach is made up of grains of sand does not make the individual grains less important. As an individual, you are the economy, and if you let the morons in public education tell you otherwise, who is at fault?
Encourage your children to think for themselves, in a sea of gravity, to maintain the necessary self-esteem. You cannot choose for your parents, your children, or anyone else. It is you and your spouse that balance the empire, whether you care to think so or not. And everyone is not as stupid as their role in the empire makes them appear. Expect to be told no a thousand times, until you learn who to ask. Parents say no, a lot.
The homeless come through here like salmon, with an income/rent potential far above 4, thinking that they are screwing the man, trimming pot for $10/hr and paying McDonalds more for garbage than they would pay Safeway for steak, feeding and complaining about non-profit mercenaries, expecting a hand up.
Sorry folks, labor doesn’t work the way you were taught in school. FDR lied, and the insurance entitlements are worthless. You’ll have that, in an empire ponzi of critters who want to be lied to, which is what the politics of the majority, ruling only itself, is all about.
Flying a sign on the corner isn’t going to get the attention of labor, which is looking for talent building skill, any more than threatening MAD nuclear annihilation and preaching Rapture, or bitching and moaning that life isn’t fair. Driving a googlecar doesn’t make you cool; it makes you stupid.
Life is not supposed to be fair, and my wife is in charge of mercy. I get paid in toilet paper, to fire people making toilet paper, or to keep your elevators working, and as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t hurt the PhDs to walk upstairs on occasion. Call your expert community social worker, in the Whitehouse.
CA has been holding my licenses as a reward/punishment for 20 years, and all Soros has is toilet paper, and followers with toilet paper, hoarding PM bought on credit.. Who gives a flying F what State Treasurers working for Jewish moneychangers think?
If you want economic mobility, look in the mirror, from inside the double-sided mirror.
that high self-esteem is only a facade, covering insecurity, which only grows with public education, which teaches first and foremost to hide your deficiencies, in a peer pressure group developed for the purpose, which is why the outcomes are deplorable.
../not that I do not empathize with teachers caught in the middle, of parents dropping their children off at the doorstep of empire…
funny, the elevator brake reversed social stratification in the big city.
Maybe we’ll be better off with a focus on local economies, local food production and local energy sources.
Yes, this is what bankers are about and what they do.
This is why banking should be illegal.
If not illegal, then 100% private with 100% voluntary depositors.
I would like to suggest an upgrade to your last statement as follows:
This is why PRIVATE banking should be illegal.
Through World War II, the Cold War, and Vietnam, and until the dissolution of the gold standard, the financial system remained fairly stable, Nomi Prins
Why mention the fascist gold standard? Is Ms Prins suggesting a return to it? In the interest of maintaining the status quo, um, “stability?”
with banks handling their own risks, Nomi Prins
Uh, no. Just what part of “handling their own risks” includes government deposit insurance? Hmmm?
A rock in a ditch is stable but goes nowhere. An airplane, otoh, is dynamically stable and can maneuver as necessary to get somewhere. An airplane can defy gravity because it is HONEST; I suggest our finance system MUST also be.
[“We don’t even have a free market system based on the impossible notion of full transparency and opportunity, we have a publicly funded betting arena, where the largest players are the most politically connected and the most powerful politicians are enablers, contributors and supporters. We talk about wealth inequality but not this substantial power inequality that generates it.”]
Well…you were right Yves;
I do like her….
Kind of makes a mockery of the entire concept of “free market,” don’t it?
In any case, what once was a very productive, if exploitative, manufacturing economy with a financial sector propped on top has become in a few decades a cancerous carbuncle sucking the life blood from an increasingly moribund nation-state. There’s nothing left but looting and bombing.
This can’t end well.
Gramm-Leach-Bliley didn’t just ‘overturn’ Glass-Steagall. I believe Yves is correct: the effect of tearing down the wall between investment and retail banking was the least of it… the CFMA of 2000 showed the real crime: the creation of these ‘exotic instruments’, internalizing their rating and insurance, and finally trading them on unregulated secondary markets. Enron was a dress-rehearsal. The prime movants behind the 1999 Act were John Reed (CitiGroup) and Sanford Weill (Traveler’s Insurance). Keyword: “Hypothecation.”
Decouple speculation from risk/consequences; Oh, and decouple Labor and Capital. There’s no coming back from this.
Le Deluge is upon us.