Aug 312010
 

Maybe this is the one that will finally cause people to take to the streets.

The crack investigative journalists at Pro Publica and NPR’s Planet Money have uncovered the latest evidence of how the big bankers schemed to keep their bonuses and fees coming by creating a phony market for their mortgage-backed securities, which were tumbling in value as the housing market tanked in 2006.

The Pro Publica/NPR investigation shows how the bankers from Merrill-Lynch, Citigroup and other “too big to fail” financial institutions undermined a system of independent managers who were supposed to be evaluating the value of the securities. The banks simply browbeat the managers into buying their products rather than face losing the banks’ business.

Meanwhile, the bankers continued to make money off every deal, even though the rest of us paid a high price for their continued trafficking in complicated financial trash.

Then when the entire business unraveled in the financial collapsed, these bankers got a federal rescue and a return to profitability.

Pro Publica acknowledges it’s complex material, so they’ve accompanied their investigation with a cartoon and graphs to make it easier to understand.

My WheresOurMoney colleague Harvey Rosenfield wrote recently about the falseness of the claim that either Hurricane Katrina or the financial collapse were primarily natural disasters. The NPR/ProPublica investigation is yet more evidence that the bankers’ irresponsible self-dealing turned a downturn in the housing market into full-blown catastrophes.

Writing on his blog Rortybomb, Mike Konczai hones in on the stark contrast in the fate of the bankers and many of the rest of us:  “Remember that by keeping the demand artificially high for the housing market in the post-2005, these banks created its own supply of crap mortgages. These mortgages inflated and then crashed local housing prices. Meanwhile the biggest banks got tossed a lifeline and homeowners can’t even short sale their home much less have a bankruptcy judge that can set their mortgage to the market price with a large penalty. And everyone lines up to tell those people what ‘losers’ they are, how `irresponsible’ they’ve been for being pulled into becoming the artificial supply for artificially created demand of housing debt. What sad times we are living in.”

Meanwhile the SEC is supposedly investigating the self-dealing. We’re still waiting for the tougher new SEC that the Obama administration promised. In the latest indication that we may have to wait a while longer, a federal judge has rejected the agency’s proposed $75 million settlement with Citibank over charges that the bank misled its own shareholders about the shrinking value of its mortgage-backed securities. The SEC said the bank misled investors in conference calls by saying its subprime exposure was $13 billion, when it was actually more than $50 billion. Among the pointed questions the judge asked: Why should the shareholders have to pay for the misdeeds of the bank executives, and why didn’t the SEC go after more of the executives?

The judge’s questions about accountability mirror the uneasy questions a lot of us have about this administration’s reluctance to take on the bankers whose behavior led to ruin for the country while they profited.

About Martin Berg

Martin Berg, WheresOurMoney.org editor, is a veteran journalist.

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