On Tuesday, March 11th, 2008, somebody — nobody knows who — made one of the craziest bets Wall Street has ever seen. The mystery figure spent $1.7 million on a series of options, gambling that shares in the venerable investment bank Bear Stearns would lose more than half their value in nine days or less. It was madness — "like buying 1.7 million lottery tickets," according to one financial analyst.
But what's even crazier is that the bet paid.
At the close of business that afternoon, Bear Stearns was trading at $62.97. At that point, whoever made the gamble owned the right to sell huge bundles of Bear stock, at $30 and $25, on or before March 20th. In order for the bet to pay, Bear would have to fall harder and faster than any Wall Street brokerage in history.
The very next day, March 12th, Bear went into free fall. By the end of the week, the firm had lost virtually all of its cash and was clinging to promises of state aid; by the weekend, it was being knocked to its knees by the Fed and the Treasury, and forced at the barrel of a shotgun to sell itself to JPMorgan Chase (which had been given $29 billion in public money to marry its hunchbacked new bride) at the humiliating price of … $2 a share. Whoever bought those options on March 11th woke up on the morning of March 17th having made 159 times his money, or roughly $270 million. This trader was either the luckiest guy in the world, the smartest son of a bitch ever or…
Or what? That this was a brazen case of insider manipulation was so obvious that even Sen. Chris Dodd, chairman of the pillow-soft-touch Senate Banking Committee, couldn't help but remark on it a few weeks later, when questioning Christopher Cox, the then-chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission. "I would hope that you're looking at this," Dodd said. "This kind of spike must have triggered some sort of bells and whistles at the SEC. This goes beyond rumors."
Cox nodded sternly and promised, yes, he would look into it. What actually happened is another matter. Although the SEC issued more than 50 subpoenas to Wall Street firms, it has yet to identify the mysterious trader who somehow seemed to know in advance that one of the five largest investment banks in America was going to completely tank in a matter of days. "I've seen the SEC send agents overseas in a simple insider-trading case to investigate profits of maybe $2,000," says Brent Baker, a former senior counsel for the commission. "But they did nothing to stop this."
The SEC's halfhearted oversight didn't go unnoticed by the market. Six months after Bear was eaten by predators, virtually the same scenario repeated itself in the case of Lehman Brothers — another top-five investment bank that in September 2008 was vaporized in an obvious case of market manipulation. From there, the financial crisis was on, and the global economy went into full-blown crater mode.
Like all the great merchants of the bubble economy, Bear and Lehman were leveraged to the hilt and vulnerable to collapse. Many of the methods that outsiders used to knock them over were mostly legal: Credit markers were pulled, rumors were spread through the media, and legitimate short-sellers pressured the stock price down. But when Bear and Lehman made their final leap off the cliff of history, both undeniably got a push — especially in the form of a flat-out counterfeiting scheme called naked short-selling.
Most people are familiar with the practice of short selling, and of course, Taibbi explains it better than I can:
The basic premise of a normal short sale is easy to follow. Say you're a hedge-fund manager, and you want to bet against the stock of a company — let's call it Wounded Gazelle International (WGI). What you do is go out on the market and find someone — often a brokerage house like Goldman Sachs — who has shares in that stock and is willing to lend you some. So you go to Goldman on a Monday morning, and you borrow 1,000 shares in Wounded Gazelle, which that day happens to be trading at $10.
Now you take those 1,000 borrowed shares, and you sell them on the open market at $10, which leaves you with $10,000 in cash. You then take that $10,000, and you wait. A week later, surveillance tapes of Wounded's CEO having sex with a woodchuck in a Burger King bathroom appear on CNBC. Awash in scandal, the firm's share price tumbles to 3½. So you go out on the market and buy back those 1,000 shares of WGI — only now it costs you only $3,500 to do so. You then return the shares to Goldman Sachs, at which point your interest in WGI ends. By betting against or "shorting" the company, you've made a profit of $6,500.
Such a practice has a legitimate role in a free market, bringing bloated, over-valued companies to heel. What Taibbi goes after in this article is the practice of shorting shares you don't actually have, with the result that there are multiple claims to the same shares, and this enables all sorts of market manipulation that a fully-capitalized player would be unable to pull off. It's actually just like our current fractional reserve banking system, where the banks juggle an upside down pyramid of claims to the same bank assets, be they land holdings, mortgages or depositor dollars. Of course, as Taibbi acknowledges, it couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch: Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were rotten to the core with absurdly leveraged financial instruments. But what happened here was not the workings of a fully capitalized and transparent market.
By the middle of the Bush years, the great investment banks like Bear and Lehman no longer made their money financing real businesses and creating jobs. Instead, Wall Street now serves, in the words of one former investment executive, as "Lucy to America's Charlie Brown," endlessly creating new products to lure the great herd of unwitting investors into whatever tawdry greed-bubble is being spun at the moment: Come kick the football again, only this time we'll call it the Internet, real estate, oil futures. Wall Street has turned the economy into a giant asset-stripping scheme, one whose purpose is to suck the last bits of meat from the carcass of the middle class.
What really happened to Bear and Lehman is that an economic drought temporarily left the hyenas without any more middle-class victims — and so they started eating each other, using the exact same schemes they had been using for years to fleece the rest of the country. And in the forensic footprint left by those kills, we can see for the first time exactly how the scam worked — and how completely even the government regulators who are supposed to protect us have given up trying to stop it.
This was a brokered bloodletting, one in which the power of the state was used to help effect a monstrous consolidation of financial and political power. Heading into 2008, there were five major investment banks in the United States: Bear, Lehman, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Today only Morgan Stanley and Goldman survive as independent firms, perched atop a restructured Wall Street hierarchy. And while the rest of the civilized world responded to last year's catastrophes with sweeping measures to rein in the corruption in their financial sectors, the United States invited the wolves into the government, with the popular new president, Barack Obama — elected amid promises to clean up the mess — filling his administration with Bear's and Lehman's conquerors, bestowing his papal blessing on a new era of robbery.
And the practice is not limited to stocks, as hedge funds and banks routinely do the same thing with mortgage-backed securities, Treasury bonds, commodities futures, and on and on. The bottom line is that the US economy is mostly just about moving piles of money around--a bizarre, cargo-cult type of economy where we're all supposed to get rich brokering deals instead of actually making things and selling them.
All of this is only possible of course because, so far, the rest of the world is obligingly sending us our dollars back for investment, and we have a lender of last resort in the Treasury and Fed linebacking the whole rotten structure.