The Vertiginous Tangle
As St. John’s University law professor Michael Perino explains in his superb book on the 1933 congressional investigation into the stock market crash and the following Great Depression; that highly charged and much publicized probe was essential to making sense of the country’s worst financial meltdown.
Without that investigation of earlier day Wall Street greed and corruption – the investigation pinpointed the lack of effective oversight and regulation of the economy – we might never have had an accounting of what went wrong and who was to blame. We also may not have seen the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, federal deposit insurance and banking regulation.
The hero of Perino’s book is a short, stocky, blunt spoken, cigar smoking Italian-American named Ferdinand Pecora. Dubbed The Hellhound of Wall Street – also the title of Perino’s book – for his tenacious pursuit of the truth about the events that precipitated the Great Depression, Pecora is the kind of investigator that has been unfortunately missing in the aftermath of the most recent economic meltdown.
The feisty little lawyer preferred simple, blunt questions and wouldn’t let witnesses retreat into the fog of insider language. He focused on right and wrong and making certain the public understood what the “respected” Wall Street figures had been up to in the pursuit of greed.
With no updated version of the tough, demanding investigation Pecora led during the Depression we may never have a complete accounting of what brought the U.S. economy to its knees in late 2008.
As Perino told NPR’s Robert Siegel last October, Pecora uncovered the scandalous practices of Wall Street bankers like Charles Mitchell, president of National City Bank, a financial institution we now know as Citibank.
Mitchell, in the wild pursuit of money for himself and profits for his bank, pushed ever riskier investments in the late 1920’s. Eventually Mitchell’s financial house of cards came tumbling down. Here’s part of the exchange between Perino and Siegel:
SIEGEL: You write in the book, that the officers of Citibank – this was how Pecora saw it – were paid potentially enormous amounts, only if they were able to sell vast amounts of securities. And since they did not bear the cost of securities that went down in value, they had incentives to sell as many securities as possible.
This sounds awfully familiar.
Prof. PERINO: It does sound awfully familiar. And if you read those hearing transcripts from 75 years ago, there’s an eerie ring to all of them.
Mitchell had built up a huge network for selling to middle-class securities. But with a huge network came a huge overhead. And he was constantly cajoling and berating his salesmen to make more securities. He actually said that the bank manufactured securities. And with Mitchell constantly at their backs, and the prospects for good securities sort of waning as time went by, they went and sold more and more shoddy securities; the bonds of sketchy South American countries and various other enterprises that were almost bound to fail.
SIEGEL: Very reminiscent of what happened in the mortgage market in recent years.
Prof. PERINO: Extremely reminiscent. I mean we have fancier terms for it now. We call them Collateralized Debt Obligations and other things, but basically it boils down to the same thing.
So…where is the Ferdinand Pecora of the 2008 meltdown? Why are most of the Wall Street banking titans who were on the job when the economy was, by many accounts, within hours of total collapse still on the job? Why have none of the speculators who helped create and profit from the “housing bubble” become the kind of notorious household name that Charles Mitchell became in 1933?
New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested a reason in a recent column. “Washington is home to a vertiginous tangle of industry associations, activist groups, think tanks and communications shops,” Brooks wrote. “These forces have overwhelmed the government that was originally conceived by the founders.
“The final message is that members of the leadership class have done nothing to police themselves. The Wall Street-Industry-Regulator-Lobbyist tangle is even more deeply enmeshed.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Gretchen Morgenson and financial analyst Joshua Rosner are even more pointed in their scathing indictment of the people behind the mortgage crisis. The American economy, they write in their book Reckless Endangerment, was “almost wrecked by a crowd of self-interested, politically influential and arrogant people who have not been held accountable for their actions.”
Meanwhile, as the Times recently reported, the banking regulation that was passed in the wake of the meltdown is mired in controversy with many rules required to implement the enormously complicated and, by many accounts, less-than-effective Dodd-Frank legislation still in limbo. The consumer protection agency created by that legislation remains leaderless.
Rather than chastened by the role the biggest of the big banks played in driving the economy into a ditch, celebrity bankers like JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon seem emboldened. Dimon recently got into a very public spat with Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernacke when the Wall Street banker suggested that efforts to regulate big bank practices have gone too far. Dimon said because of the new regulations banks are reluctant to lend money and that may actually be hurting the economic recovery.
That sounds like the guy who killed his parents and seeks mercy from the court because he’s suddenly an orphan. Still, Dimon is, by most accounts, among the best, most ethical of the really big bank operators. And maybe he’s worth every penny of his compensation – nearly $21 million last year – but while the economy continues to struggle, he and the elite .01 percent of the U.S. economy continue to wallow along in the style in which they have become accustom.
At times it seems we haven’t learned anything at all from those wild days in late 2008 when John McCain was suspending his presidential campaign to deal with the financial crisis and then-Treasury Sec. Hank Paulson was getting down on one knee to beg Nancy Pelosi to pass bailout legislation. Paulson was so stressed about the fate of the economy during this period that he had to excuse himself from meetings to dry heave.
All that was less than three years ago, but eons in Beltway time and with distractions like Anthony Weiner and Sarah Palin why worry about really complicated, important stuff like the cause of the worst economic crisis since Charles Mitchell was scamming folks in the 1920’s?
Ferdinand Pecora took names and people went to jail as a result of his investigation in 1933. Most Washington politicians now couldn’t tell us what went wrong in ’08. They’re too balled up in the vertiginous tangle.
But, understandably perhaps, the ultra-rich Wall Street crowd needs a little diversion as the New York Times reported Sunday in a Style section piece on the latest, most exclusive Big Apple private club – The Core.
As Guy Trebay wrote, the club “is open to all — or at least, in an essential way, to all those in the top 1 percent of United States households: families with earnings the Tax Policy Center estimates will be $3,061,546 on average this year for a family of four, as well as those from an even more-elevated category that the nonpartisan, nonprofit group calls the ‘ultra rich.’
“The estimated income this year for households occupying that particular niche — a mere 0.1 percent of all United States households — will be $13,719,746, according to the Tax Policy Center.
“’The fat-cat hedge fund guys love the place,” said Richard David Story, the editor of Departures, the glossy travel magazine distributed to holders of American Express Platinum and Centurion cards. ‘These guys take their heartbeats per minute as seriously as they take their investment portfolios.’ As putative fat cats, the club’s members, of which there are now 1,500, are presumably undaunted by the club’s $50,000 initiation and $15,000 annual fees.”
When Ferdinand Pecora laid bare the abuses of Wall Street in the early 1930’s, the U.S. Senate paid him the princely sum of $255 a month for his efforts. His efforts brought down the men who broought down the U.S. economy and ushered in sensible regulation. What a wise investment that was.
As Perino notes in the conclusion of his book on the investigator and his investigation: “Nearly eighty years ago, in the depths of the worst economic crisis in the country’s history, Ferdinand Pecora showed what a well-run and well-researched Washington investigation could accomplish, and although congressional hearings often descend into bluster and posturing, the Pecora hearings remain a model to which future investigations can aspire. All they need is a Hellhound.”
The similarities between the two financial meltdowns 80 years apart are striking. The contrast in how the political and economic elites have handled the two events is just as striking. It’s almost enough to give you the dry heaves.