Sunday, May 16, 2010

Financial Fraud System

Some years ago when starting to work at a bank, I was wondering what could be the maximum amount possible to steal from a bank. After a certain threshold, a whole army would come after them, wouldn't they? Of course, unless everything gets stolen, then the thiefs are the one with the army anyway?! And that's how it turned out. The whole western capitalistic system has been subverted. And as every banker has become a bankster, it is even impossible to pinpoint any individuals. Coup d'etat. Let's see what will follow. Europe has just capitulated too. Yes, why rob a bank when you can work for one (Mr. Dougan)?! And BTW, as the final name of this crisis is still out, my pick would be "Accounting Crisis". But then, maybe just a matter of time to attach the word Catastrophe onto it.

James K. Galbraith via Jesse's Cafe Americain: The US Intelligentsia and Middle Class Are In the Firm Grip of Fear, Fraud and Denial
Thus the study of financial fraud received little attention. Practically no research institutes exist; collaboration between economists and criminologists is rare; in the leading departments there are few specialists and very few students. Economists have soft-pedaled the role of fraud in every crisis they examined, including the Savings & Loan debacle, the Russian transition, the Asian meltdown and the bubble. They continue to do so now. ...

There are exceptions. A famous 1993 article entitled "Looting: Bankruptcy for Profit," by George Akerlof and Paul Romer, drew exceptionally on the experience of regulators who understood fraud. The criminologist-economist William K. Black of the University of Missouri-Kansas City is our leading systematic analyst of the relationship between financial crime and financial crisis. Black points out that accounting fraud is a sure thing when you can control the institution engaging in it: "the best way to rob a bank is to own one." The experience of the Savings and Loan crisis was of businesses taken over for the explicit purpose of stripping them, of bleeding them dry. This was established in court: there were over one thousand felony convictions in the wake of that debacle. Other useful chronicles of modern financial fraud include James Stewart's Den of Thieves on the Boesky-Milken era and Kurt Eichenwald's Conspiracy of Fools, on the Enron scandal. Yet a large gap between this history and formal analysis remains.


The complexity of the mortgage finance sector before the crisis highlights another characteristic marker of fraud. In the system that developed, the original mortgage documents lay buried – where they remain – in the records of the loan originators, many of them since defunct or taken over. Those records, if examined, would reveal the extent of missing documentation, of abusive practices, and of fraud. So far, we have only very limited evidence on this, notably a 2007 Fitch Ratings study of a very small sample of highly-rated RMBS, which found "fraud, abuse or missing documentation in virtually every file."


Latter-day financial economics is blind to all of this. It necessarily treats stocks, bonds, options, derivatives and so forth as securities whose properties can be accepted largely at face value, and quantified in terms of return and risk. That quantification permits the calculation of price, using standard formulae. But everything in the formulae depends on the instruments being as they are represented to be. For if they are not, then what formula could possibly apply?

An older strand of institutional economics understood that a security is a contract in law. It can only be as good as the legal system that stands behind it. Some fraud is inevitable, but in a functioning system it must be rare. It must be considered – and rightly – a minor problem. If fraud – or even the perception of fraud – comes to dominate the system, then there is no foundation for a market in the securities. They become trash. And more deeply, so do the institutions responsible for creating, rating and selling them. Including, so long as it fails to respond with appropriate force, the legal system itself.

Control frauds always fail in the end. But the failure of the firm does not mean the fraud fails: the perpetrators often walk away rich. At some point, this requires subverting, suborning or defeating the law. This is where crime and politics intersect. At its heart, therefore, the financial crisis was a breakdown in the rule of law in America.

Ask yourselves: is it possible for mortgage originators, ratings agencies, underwriters, insurers and supervising agencies NOT to have known that the system of housing finance had become infested with fraud? Every statistical indicator of fraudulent practice – growth and profitability – suggests otherwise. Every examination of the record so far suggests otherwise. The very language in use: "liars' loans," "ninja loans," "neutron loans," and "toxic waste," tells you that people knew. I have also heard the expression, "IBG,YBG;" the meaning of that bit of code was: "I'll be gone, you'll be gone."


But you have to act. The true alternative is a failure extending over time from the economic to the political system. Just as too few predicted the financial crisis, it may be that too few are today speaking frankly about where a failure to deal with the aftermath may lead.

In this situation, let me suggest, the country faces an existential threat. Either the legal system must do its work. Or the market system cannot be restored. There must be a thorough, transparent, effective, radical cleaning of the financial sector and also of those public officials who failed the public trust. The financiers must be made to feel, in their bones, the power of the law. And the public, which lives by the law, must see very clearly and unambiguously that this is the case.

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