GS maybe the most powerful financial institution on Wall Street, or what's left of it, but its leaders cannot be very comfortable in their privileged position. Even the Wall Street Journal, the symbol of capitalism, and a very unlikely protagonist, is pissing on them.
Read its July 16 editorial below.
Clearly the editors of the Journal wanted to be sure the world did not miss the message. Alongside its editorial, it printed a scathing and sarcastic op ed by a veteren Wall Street denizen, a former fedge fund manager, Andy Kessler.
Kessler piece is reprinted here following the WSJ editorial.
You may not agree with all the points in them but to see the "Goldman's" of the world criticized by the Journal is worth the time you spend reading. Enjoy
A Tale of Two Bailouts
Goldman's profits, CIT's trouble, and 'too big to fail.'
Yesterday saw one TARP recipient, Goldman Sachs, report $3.44 billion in profits even as another, CIT, teeters on the edge of either bankruptcy or another taxpayer bailout. Which way CIT will tip remained unclear as we went to press, but its very plight shows how the government's approach to systemic risk has created groups of financial "haves" and "have nots."
What the Goldmans of the world have in addition to profits is the widespread belief that they are too big to fail. Both Goldman and CIT converted into bank holding companies at the height of the financial panic last fall, which made them eligible for TARP injections. Goldman also benefited at a crucial moment from the Federal Reserve takeover of AIG, and it received the additional filip of FDIC-guaranteed debt issuance through the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program. CIT was excluded from the latter program on grounds that it didn't pose a systemic risk, even as larger competitors like General Electric were allowed in.
CIT's asset quality has since fallen further, and it now faces $2.7 billion in maturing debt this year that investors fear it will not be able to roll over. So it is seeking another taxpayer rescue, and officials at Treasury and Fed are sympathetic.
But if CIT -- a company one-tenth the size of Lehman Brothers -- can be bailed out long after the panic has passed, the word "systemic" has lost all meaning. CIT has long been a lender to subprime corporate borrowers, and this decade it took on even greater risks at precisely the wrong time. It has lost money for eight straight quarters. Its lending supports less than 1% of the total U.S. retail and manufacturing, and plenty of competitors could pick up its market share.
There's also a question of why the FDIC -- which is supposed to protect bank depositors -- should be the rescue agent. CIT's bank is only a small part of the company and is so far walled off from trouble. CIT executives want permission to stuff some of the company's assets into the bank so they can finance them with brokered deposits. But that would put the FDIC's deposit fund at greater risk just when it is stretched from other bank failures. The FDIC should also be winding down its debt guarantee program, not extending it to new and riskier companies. Taxpayers shouldn't be put at risk for further losses via the FDIC merely because Treasury and the Fed don't want to admit losses on their TARP investment.
Of course, if the feds do let CIT fail, this will only confirm that the only certain survivors in the current market are banks big enough that the government figures it must bail them out. Just ask the many small banks that have been rolled up by the FDIC at a rate of two a week since the beginning of the year, with eight so far in July alone. That can only strengthen the likes of Goldman, which apparently needs no help printing money anyway.
Goldman's traders profited in the second quarter from taking advantage of spreads left wide by the disappearance of some competitors (Lehman, Bear Stearns) and the risk aversion of others (Morgan Stanley). Meantime, Goldman's own credit spreads over Treasurys have narrowed as the market has priced in the likelihood that the government stands behind the risks it is taking in its proprietary trading books.
Goldman will surely deny that its risk-taking is subsidized by the taxpayer -- but then so did Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, right up to the bitter end. An implicit government guarantee is only free until it's not, and when the bill comes due it tends to be huge. So for the moment, Goldman Sachs -- or should we say Goldie Mac? -- enjoys the best of both worlds: outsize profits for its traders and shareholders and a taxpayer backstop should anything go wrong.
We like profits as much as the next capitalist. But when those profits are supported by government guarantees or insured deposits, taxpayers have a special interest in how the companies conduct their business. Ideally we would shed those implicit guarantees altogether, along with the very notion of too big to fail. But that is all but impossible now and for the foreseeable future. Even if the Obama Administration and Fed were to declare with one voice that banks such as Goldman were on their own, no one would believe it.
If there is a lesson in this week's tale of two banks, it's that it won't be enough to give the Federal Reserve a mandate to "monitor" systemic risk. Last fall's bailouts are reverberating through the financial system in a way that is already distorting the competition for capital and financial market share. Banks that want to be successful will also want to be more like Goldman Sachs, creating an incentive for both larger size and more risk-taking on the taxpayer's dime.
One policy response to the incentives created by last fall's bailout is simply to restrict the proprietary trading done by the subsidiaries of bank holding companies that enjoy both FDIC deposit insurance and an implicit government subsidy on their cost of capital. This is what Paul Volcker proposed, only to be overruled by Tim Geithner and Larry Summers. Another answer would be an FDIC-style bailout tax, perhaps tied to leverage ratios, for those in the too-big-to-fail camp. Developing a template to facilitate the seizure and orderly winding down of failing financial giants is also an essential element of whatever reform Congress cooks up.
* * *
No one welcomes the pain and dislocation if CIT files for bankruptcy. But U.S. policy toward financial companies cannot avoid all hardship, or the result will be a de facto cartelization of finance, with a resulting loss of competition and dynamism that have long been an American strength. The divergent fortunes of CIT and Goldman Sachs show how much we changed when we stepped in to save certain banks in the name of saving the system.
* JULY 16, 2009
The Bernanke Market
We won't get real growth until Congress and Treasury get policy right.
By ANDY KESSLER
I remember once buying the stock of a small company and I couldn't believe my luck. Every time my fund bought more shares the stock would go up. So we bought even more and the stock kept climbing. When we finally built our full position and stopped buying the stock started dropping, ending up at a price below where we started buying it. We were the market.
Just about every policy move to right the U.S. economy after the subprime sinking of the banking system has been a bust. We saved Bear Stearns. We let Lehman Brothers go. We forced Merrill Lynch, Wachovia and Washington Mutual into the hands of others. We took control of Fannie and Freddie and AIG and even own a few car companies, pumping them with high-test transfusions. None of this really helped.
We have a zero interest-rate policy. We guaranteed bank debt. We set up the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to buy toxic mortgage assets off bank balance sheets. But when banks refused to sell at fire sale prices, we just gave them the money instead. Dumb move. So we set up the Public-Private Investment Program to get private investors to buy these same toxic assets with government leverage, and still there are few sellers. Meanwhile, the $1 trillion federal deficit is crowding out private investment and the porky $787 billion stimulus hasn't translated into growth.
At the end of the day, only one thing has worked -- flooding the market with dollars. By buying U.S. Treasuries and mortgages to increase the monetary base by $1 trillion, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke didn't put money directly into the stock market but he didn't have to. With nowhere else to go, except maybe commodities, inflows into the stock market have been on a tear. Stock and bond funds saw net inflows of close to $150 billion since January. The dollars he cranked out didn't go into the hard economy, but instead into tradable assets. In other words, Ben Bernanke has been the market.
The good news is that Mr. Bernanke got the major banks, except for Citigroup, recapitalized and with public money. June retail sales rose 0.6%. Housing starts jumped 17% month to month in May and will likely be flat for June. Second quarter GDP may be slightly up. And he was successful in spreading a "green shoots" psychology throughout the media. But the real question is, now what? Government interventions are only meant to light a fire under the real economy and unleash what John Maynard Keynes called our "animal spirits." But government dollars can't sustain growth.
Like it or not, the stock market is bigger than the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury. The stock market anticipates only future profits and prosperity, not government-funded starter fluid. You can only fool it for so long. Unless there are real corporate profits from sustainable economic growth, the stock market is not going to play along. It's the ultimate Enforcer.
In mid-May, Mr. Bernanke's outlook seemed to change. Maybe he didn't approve of the sharp housing rebound -- like we need more houses! Maybe he saw inflation in commodity prices -- oil popping to $72 from $35. Or, more likely, he finally realized that he was the market and took his foot off the money accelerator, as evidenced in the contracting monetary base (see nearby chart). Sure enough, things rolled over -- the market dropped 7.5% from its peak, oil prices dropped almost 17%, and even gold has lost some of its luster. But in July, the Fed started buying again and the market rallied.
Can the U.S. economy stand on its own two feet without Mr. Bernanke's magic dollar dust? Eventually, but apparently not yet. Unemployment stubbornly hit 9.5% in June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Housing prices are still dropping, albeit at a slower pace, and foreclosures are still rampant.
But I think what really bothers the market is that the structural problems that got us into trouble in the first place still exist. We took the easy way out and, with the help of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's loose "stress tests," swept banking problems under the carpet. We waved off mark-to-market accounting and juiced bank stock prices to help them recapitalize, but all those toxic mortgage assets on bank balance sheets are still there as anchors on lending. All the pump priming and stock market flows didn't get rid of them.
Hats off to Mr. Bernanke for getting the worst behind us. He'll be pressured politically to keep pumping out dollars, but he should resist the urge. The stock market will ignore his dollars if it doesn't believe they'll turn into real profits. Green jobs and government health-care clerks do not make a productive, sustainable economy. That can only come from innovative companies with access to growth capital. The stock market won't turn bullish until it sees that type of economy.
Again, when it's clear that you are the market you have to stop buying and begin tackling the hard stuff. By not restructuring banks, by not getting bad loans off bank balance sheets, by not standing up to the massive increases in government debt crowding out private capital, the Fed and Treasury are holding back real economic growth.
Mr. Kessler, a former hedge-fund manager, is the author of "How We Got Here" (Collins, 2005).
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