The price always goes up at Standard and Poor's and Citigroup
An interesting twist on the world of supposedly-conservative bankers and rating agencies in the latest financial meltdown, this time at Citigroup and Standard and Poor's. The quick lesson: if your complicated financial models assume that real estate prices will never go down, you're likely destined for a lot of pain.
Citigroup was involved in, and made money from, almost every link in that chain. And the bank’s executives, including, sad to see, the former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, were clueless about the reckless financial instruments they were creating, or were so ensnared by the cronyism between the bank’s risk managers and risk takers (and so bought off by their bonuses) that they had no interest in stopping it.
These are the people whom taxpayers bailed out on Monday to the tune of what could be more than $300 billion. We probably had no choice. Just letting Citigroup melt down could have been catastrophic. But when the government throws together a bailout that could end up being hundreds of billions of dollars in 48 hours, you can bet there will be unintended consequences — many, many, many.
Also check out Michael Lewis’s superb essay, “The End of Wall Street’s Boom,” on Portfolio.com. Lewis, who first chronicled Wall Street’s excesses in “Liar’s Poker,” profiles some of the decent people on Wall Street who tried to expose the credit binge — including Meredith Whitney, a little known banking analyst who declared, over a year ago, that “Citigroup had so mismanaged its affairs that it would need to slash its dividend or go bust,” wrote Lewis.
“This woman wasn’t saying that Wall Street bankers were corrupt,” he added. “She was saying they were stupid. Her message was clear. If you want to know what these Wall Street firms are really worth, take a hard look at the crappy assets they bought with huge sums of borrowed money, and imagine what they’d fetch in a fire sale... For better than a year now, Whitney has responded to the claims by bankers and brokers that they had put their problems behind them with this write-down or that capital raise with a claim of her own: You’re wrong. You’re still not facing up to how badly you have mismanaged your business.”
Lewis also tracked down Steve Eisman, the hedge fund investor who early on saw through the subprime mortgages and shorted the companies engaged in them, like Long Beach Financial, owned by Washington Mutual.
“Long Beach Financial,” wrote Lewis, “was moving money out the door as fast as it could, few questions asked, in loans built to self-destruct. It specialized in asking homeowners with bad credit and no proof of income to put no money down and defer interest payments for as long as possible. In Bakersfield, Calif., a Mexican strawberry picker with an income of $14,000 and no English was lent every penny he needed to buy a house for $720,000.”
Lewis continued: Eisman knew that subprime lenders could be disreputable. “What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism... ‘We always asked the same question,’ says Eisman. ‘Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.’ He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S.& P. couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. ‘They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,’ Eisman says.”