Taibbi on "The Great American Bubble Machine"  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi has a long and very jaundiced look at the history of American market bubbles and the role he believes Goldman Sachs plays in them (with the oil price spike last year and the planned carbon trading market both getting a mention) - THE GREAT AMERICAN BUBBLE MACHINE.

The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled-dry American empire, reads like a Who's Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.

By now, most of us know the major players. As George Bush's last Treasury secretary, former Goldman CEO Henry Paulson was the architect of the bailout, a suspiciously self-serving plan to funnel trillions of Your Dollars to a handful of his old friends on Wall Street. Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton's former Treasury secretary, spent 26 years at Goldman before becoming chairman of Citigroup - which in turn got a $300 billion taxpayer bailout from Paulson. There's John Thain, the rear end in a top hat chief of Merrill Lynch who bought an $87,000 area rug for his office as his company was imploding; a former Goldman banker, Thain enjoyed a multibillion-dollar handout from Paulson, who used billions in taxpayer funds to help Bank of America rescue Thain's sorry company. And Robert Steel, the former Goldmanite head of Wachovia, scored himself and his fellow executives $225 million in golden parachute payments as his bank was self-destructing. There's Joshua Bolten, Bush's chief of staff during the bailout, and Mark Patterson, the current Treasury chief of staff, who was a Goldman lobbyist just a year ago, and Ed Liddy, the former Goldman director whom Paulson put in charge of bailed-out insurance giant AIG, which forked over $13 billion to Goldman after Liddy came on board. The heads of the Canadian and Italian national banks are Goldman alums, as is the head of the World Bank, the head of the New York Stock Exchange, the last two heads of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York - which, incidentally, is now in charge of overseeing Goldman - not to mention ...

But then, any attempt to construct a narrative around all the former Goldmanites in influential positions quickly becomes an absurd and pointless exercise, like trying to make a list of everything. What you need to know is the big picture: If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain - an extremely unfortunate loophole in the system of Western democratic capitalism, which never foresaw that in a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.

The bank's unprecedented reach and power have enabled it to turn all of America into a giant pump-and-dump scam, manipulating whole economic sectors for years at a time, moving the dice game as this or that market collapses, and all the time gorging itself on the unseen costs that are breaking families everywhere - high gas prices, rising consumer-credit rates, half-eaten pension funds, mass layoffs, future taxes to pay off bailouts. All that money that you're losing, it's going somewhere, and in both a literal and a figurative sense, Goldman Sachs is where it's going: The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth - pure profit for rich individuals.

They achieve this using the same playbook over and over again. The formula is relatively simple: Goldman positions itself in the middle of a speculative bubble, selling investments they know are crap. Then they hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage. Finally, when it all goes bust, leaving millions of ordinary citizens broke and starving, they begin the entire process over again, riding in to rescue us all by lending us back our own money at interest, selling themselves as men above greed, just a bunch of really smart guys keeping the wheels greased. They've been pulling this same stunt over and over since the 1920s - and now they're preparing to do it again, creating what may be the biggest and most audacious bubble yet.

If you want to understand how we got into this financial crisis, you have to first understand where all the money went - and in order to understand that, you need to understand what Goldman has already gotten away with. It is a history exactly five bubbles long - including last year's strange and seemingly inexplicable spike in the price of oil. There were a lot of losers in each of those bubbles, and in the bailout that followed. But Goldman wasn't one of them.

IF AMERICA IS NOW CIRCLING THE DRAIN, GOLDMAN SACHS HAS FOUND A WAY TO BE THAT DRAIN. ...

BUBBLE #4 - $4 A GALLON

By the beginning of 2008, the financial world was in turmoil. Wall Street had spent the past two and a half decades producing one scandal after another, which didn't leave much to sell that wasn't tainted. The terms junk bond, IPO, subprime mortgage and other once-hot financial fare were now firmly associated in the public's mind with scams; the terms credit swaps and CDOs were about to join them. The credit markets were in crisis, and the mantra that had sustained the fantasy economy throughout the Bush years - the notion that housing prices never go down - was now a fully exploded myth, leaving the Street clamoring for a new bullshit paradigm to sling.

Where to go? With the public reluctant to put money in anything that felt like a paper investment, the Street quietly moved the casino to the physical-commodities market - stuff you could touch: corn, coffee, cocoa, wheat and, above all, energy commodities, especially oil. In conjunction with a decline in the dollar, the credit crunch and the housing crash caused a "flight to commodities." Oil futures in particular skyrocketed, as the price of a single barrel went from around $60 in the middle of 2007 to a high of $147 in the summer of 2008.

That summer, as the presidential campaign heated up, the accepted explanation for why gasoline had hit $4.11 a gallon was that there was a problem with the world oil supply. In a classic example of how Republicans and Democrats respond to crises by engaging in fierce exchanges of moronic irrelevancies, John McCain insisted that ending the moratorium on offshore drilling would be "very helpful in the short term," while Barack Obama in typical liberal-arts yuppie style argued that federal investment in hybrid cars was the way out.

GOLDMAN TURNED A SLEEPY OIL MARKET INTO A GIANT BETTING PARLOR - SPIKING PRICES AT THE PUMP.

But it was all a lie. While the global supply of oil will eventually dry up, the short-term flow has actually been increasing. In the six months before prices spiked, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the world oil supply rose from 85.24 million barrels a day to 85.72 million. Over the same period, world oil demand dropped from 86.82 million barrels a day to 86.07 million. Not only was the short-term supply of oil rising, the demand for it was falling - which, in classic economic terms, should have brought prices at the pump down.

So what caused the huge spike in oil prices? Take a wild guess. Obviously Goldman had help - there were other players in the physical-commodities market - but the root cause had almost everything to do with the behavior of a few powerful actors determined to turn the once-solid market into a speculative casino. Goldman did it by persuading pension funds and other large institutional investors to invest in oil futures - agreeing to buy oil at a certain price on a fixed date. The push transformed oil from a physical commodity, rigidly subject to supply and demand, into something to bet on, like a stock. Between 2003 and 2008, the amount of speculative money in commodities grew from $13 billion to $317 billion, an increase of 2,300 percent. By 2008, a barrel of oil was traded 27 times, on average, before it was actually delivered and consumed.

As is so often the case, there had been a Depression-era law in place designed specifically to prevent this sort of thing. The commodities market was designed in large part to help farmers: A grower concerned about future price drops could enter into a contract to sell his corn at a certain price for delivery later on, which made him worry less about building up stores of his crop. When no one was buying corn, the farmer could sell to a middleman known as a "traditional speculator," who would store the grain and sell it later, when demand returned. That way, someone was always there to buy from the farmer, even when the market temporarily had no need for his crops.

In 1936, however, Congress recognized that there should never be more speculators in the market than real producers and consumers. If that happened, prices would be affected by something other than supply and demand, and price manipulations would ensue. A new law empowered the Commodity Futures Trading Commission - the very same body that would later try and fail to regulate credit swaps - to place limits on speculative trades in commodities. As a result of the CFTC's oversight, peace and harmony reigned in the commodities markets for more than 50 years.

All that changed in 1991 when, unbeknownst to almost everyone in the world, a Goldman-owned commodities-trading subsidiary called J. Aron wrote to the CFTC and made an unusual argument. Farmers with big stores of corn, Goldman argued, weren't the only ones who needed to hedge their risk against future price drops - Wall Street dealers who made big bets on oil prices also needed to hedge their risk, because, well, they stood to lose a lot too.

This was complete and utter crap - the 1936 law, remember, was specifically designed to maintain distinctions between people who were buying and selling real tangible stuff and people who were trading in paper alone. But the CFTC, amazingly, bought Goldman's argument. It issued the bank a free pass, called the "Bona Fide Hedging" exemption, allowing Goldman's subsidiary to call itself a physical hedger and escape virtually all limits placed on speculators. In the years that followed, the commission would quietly issue 14 similar exemptions to other companies.

Now Goldman and other banks were free to drive more investors into the commodities markets, enabling speculators to place increasingly big bets. That 1991 letter from Goldman more or less directly led to the oil bubble in 2008, when the number of speculators in the market - driven there by fear of the falling dollar and the housing crash - finally overwhelmed the real physical suppliers and consumers. By 2008, at least three quarters of the activity on the commodity exchanges was speculative, according to a congressional staffer who studied the numbers - and that's likely a conservative estimate. By the middle of last summer, despite rising supply and a drop in demand, we were paying $4 a gallon every time we pulled up to the pump.

What is even more amazing is that the letter to Goldman, along with most of the other trading exemptions, was handed out more or less in secret. "I was the head of the division of trading and markets, and Brooksley Born was the chair of the CFTC," says Greenberger, "and neither of us knew this letter was out there." In fact, the letters only came to light by accident. Last year, a staffer for the House Energy and Commerce Committee just happened to be at a briefing when officials from the CFTC made an offhand reference to the exemptions.

"1 had been invited to a briefing the commission was holding on energy," the staffer recounts. "And suddenly in the middle of it, they start saying, 'Yeah, we've been issuing these letters for years now.' I raised my hand and said, 'Really? You issued a letter? Can I see it?' And they were like, 'Duh, duh.' So we went back and forth, and finally they said, 'We have to clear it with Goldman Sachs.' I'm like, 'What do you mean, you have to clear it with Goldman Sachs?'"

The CFTC cited a rule that prohibited it from releasing any information about a company's current position in the market. But the staffer's request was about a letter that had been issued 17 years earlier. It no longer had anything to do with Goldman's current position. What's more, Section 7 of the 1936 commodities law gives Congress the right to any information it wants from the commission. Still, in a classic example of how complete Goldman's capture of government is, the CFTC waited until it got clearance from the bank before it turned the letter over.

Armed with the semi-secret government exemption, Goldman had become the chief designer of a giant commodities betting parlor. Its Goldman Sachs Commodities Index - which tracks the prices of 24 major commodities but is overwhelmingly weighted toward oil - became the place where pension funds and insurance companies and other institutional investors could make massive long-term bets on commodity prices. Which was all well and good, except for a couple of things. One was that index speculators are mostly "long only" bettors, who seldom if ever take short positions - meaning they only bet on prices to rise. While this kind of behavior is good for a stock market, it's terrible for commodities, because it continually forces prices upward. "If index speculators took short positions as well as long ones, you'd see them pushing prices both up and down," says Michael Masters, a hedge-fund manager who has helped expose the role of investment banks in the manipulation of oil prices. "But they only push prices in one direction: up."

Complicating matters even further was the fact that Goldman itself was cheerleading with all its might for an increase in oil prices. In the beginning of 2008, Arjun Murti, a Goldman analyst, hailed as an "oracle of oil" by The New York Times, predicted a "super spike" in oil prices, forecasting a rise to $200 a barrel. At the time Goldman was heavily invested in oil through its commodities-trading subsidiary, J. Aron; it also owned a stake in a major oil refinery in Kansas, where it warehoused the crude it bought and sold. Even though the supply of oil was keeping pace with demand, Murti continually warned of disruptions to the world oil supply, going so far as to broadcast the fact that he owned two hybrid cars. High prices, the bank insisted, were somehow the fault of the piggish American consumer; in 2005, Goldman analysts insisted that we wouldn't know when oil prices would fall until we knew "when American consumers will stop buying gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and instead seek fuel-efficient alternatives."

But it wasn't the consumption of real oil that was driving up prices - it was the trade in paper oil. By the summer of2008, in fact, commodities speculators had bought and stockpiled enough oil futures to fill 1.1 billion barrels of crude, which meant that speculators owned more future oil on paper than there was real, physical oil stored in all of the country's commercial storage tanks and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve combined. It was a repeat of both the Internet craze and the housing bubble, when Wall Street jacked up present-day profits by selling suckers shares of a fictional fantasy future of endlessly rising prices.

In what was by now a painfully familiar pattern, the oil-commodities melon hit the pavement hard in the summer of 2008, causing a massive loss of wealth; crude prices plunged from $147 to $33. Once again the big losers were ordinary people. The pensioners whose funds invested in this crap got massacred: CalPERS, the California Public Employees' Retirement System, had $1.1 billion in commodities when the crash came. And the damage didn't just come from oil. Soaring food prices driven by the commodities bubble led to catastrophes across the planet, forcing an estimated 100 million people into hunger and sparking food riots throughout the Third World.

Now oil prices are rising again: They shot up 20 percent in the month of May and have nearly doubled so far this year. Once again, the problem is not supply or demand. "The highest supply of oil in the last 20 years is now," says Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan who serves on the House energy committee. "Demand is at a 10-year low. And yet prices are up."

Asked why politicians continue to harp on things like drilling or hybrid cars, when supply and demand have nothing to do with the high prices, Stupak shakes his head. "I think they just don't understand the problem very well," he says. "You can't explain it in 30 seconds, so politicians ignore it."

Taibbi also has a blog post looking at changes to NYSE program trading disclosure rules that also seem to benefit Goldmans - NYSE Halts Transparency, Feels Goldman Program Trading Disclosure Is Unnecessary.
"In a move set to infuriate and send many Zero Hedge readers over the top, the NYSE has taken action to make sure that nobody will henceforth be able to keep track of the complete dominance that Goldman Sachs exerts over the New York Stock Exchange. This basically ends our weekly Program Trading updates disclosed every Thursday indicating that Goldman has singlehandedly captured all of NYSE's program trading."
-- Zero Hedge


I'm sorry I didn't post this earlier, but I urge readers to go over to Zero Hedge and check out this post about the NYSE's recent decision to change its procedures... to protect Goldman Sachs from bloggers like Zero Hedge!

This is complicated stuff (for people with no financial background, like me, it's nightmarish) and I have a longer thing about this coming out later. But the essence of this story is that Tyler Durden over at Zero Hedge has, for months, been complaining that Goldman has been manipulating the NYSE, in particular manipulating program trading in somewhat the same way (although perhaps not to the same extent) that they manipulated the commodities markets. In order to make his case -- and his theory has gained a lot of acceptance, to the point where Goldman had to respond to the allegations publicly -- he has been analyzing data the NYSE releases on program trading every week.

So what happened this week? The NYSE announced that it will no longer be releasing its weekly program trading data. This is quiet obviously a move designed to make it even more impossible to track what's going on in the NYSE and shield, in particular, Goldman Sachs. Let's hope there's a public uproar about this; Zero Hedge posted contact info for NYSE officials, and has urged readers to petition the exchange to restore the old rules in the name of transparency.

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