Crossposted with TomDispatch.com
For the book I'm writing about unemployed Americans, I had no trouble finding accountants, brokers, cashiers, or die casters. Admittedly, I had to go out of town to interview the die casters. But when I arrived, alphabetically, at unemployed editors, I had only to look in my address book.
Financiers were further from my life experience than either die casters or editors. Yet the "do you know anyone who...?" method still proved an effective way of turning up unemployed hedge-fund analysts and bank loan officers -- and within a week at that. It was only when I refined my search to ferret out unemployed financiers who had actually handled those infamous "toxic assets" that I hit the proverbial brick wall.
Since mortgage-backed securities and the swaps that insure them had been the downfall of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and the giant insurance company AIG, packs of bankers who worked on them must, I assumed, be roaming free on the streets of Manhattan. Yet I couldn't find a single one.
Finally, I phoned a law firm representing Lehman Brothers employees in a suit for the pay they were owed when the company shut down without notice. I asked the lawyer if he could possibly inquire among his unemployed clients for someone, anyone, who used to work with mortgage-backed securities and might be willing to talk about how he or she was getting by today. "I don't have to use real names," I assured him. Many of the unemployed people I'd already interviewed felt so lost and ashamed that I had decided not to use their real names. Unemployed bankers deserve anonymity, too.
But the lawyer made it clear that that wasn't the problem. "Most of them were snapped up immediately by Barclays," he said. He represents other financial plaintiffs as well, and he seemed to think that the kind of person I was looking for hadn't remained unemployed very long.
How could that be? We've heard ad nauseum about mortgage-backed securities. They're bonds "structured" out of thousands, or tens of thousands, of home or commercial mortgages. The bond's owner was to receive interest out of the mortgage payments from all those property owners. He could earn a low 5% interest if he opted to be paid out of the first money that came in. (Institutional investors often chose that safe "tranche," or slice, of the security.) But back when mortgages seemed so safe, a hedge-fund gambler might have been happy to opt for the last mortgage payments to come in -- in exchange for heftier 7% to 8% interest rates. Of course, that was the gamble. Too many missed mortgage payments meant little or no returns for his fund.
When last I heard, more than half of U.S. mortgages were held this way, so it was a reasonable supposition that a lot of people had been employed structuring, trading, and insuring those bonds. But who in his right mind would touch this stuff now? While that lawyer sounded like an honest, helpful fellow, I still wondered whether he wasn't just brushing me off to protect his embarrassingly unemployed clients.
Soon after, however, I met a bank corporate loan officer who confirmed that his colleagues on the "structured side" were indeed still employed. In fact, he thought he noticed a couple of new chairs at their trading desk in the bank's trading room. "Those damn things" had become so complicated, he speculated, that the people who put them together were now needed in similar numbers to "unwind the bank's positions" -- that is, get them out of the deals.
That must be it, I thought, and recalled a moment soon after AIG got the last of its $182 billion bailout from the government. At that time, the company braved a massive public outcry to award big bonuses to its top employees, including those who had created the "swaps" (short for credit default swaps, or CDSs) that swamped the company. Like so many other companies, AIG claimed that bonuses were necessary to retain the "best brains," especially those who understood the credit-default swaps.
These swaps are a type of derivative that was supposed to represent a way of insuring the very bonds we've been talking about. Here's how it worked -- at least theoretically, at least before the ship went down: On a given bond, say number 123456, an insurance company like AIG would essentially say to a large investor, perhaps a mutual fund, "You pay us $7,000 a month and, if you fail to receive the interest on that bond for, say, two months, then we'll buy the whole bond from you for the $200 million you paid for it." In other words, it was a private, custom-written contract to simply "swap" one of those bonds for money under certain agreed circumstances.
These deals were couched in such terms, rather than as straight insurance policies, because insurance is regulated and the regulations require setting aside relatively small amounts of money in reserve in case the disasters insured against occur. But swaps aren't regulated. Nothing need be set aside.
Here's the remarkable thing: both the Bush and Obama administrations decided that the government would make good on these non-regulated, non-insurance policies. The costs could be humongous.
Now, here's an even more distressing complication. You didn't have to own the original bond to buy the swap that was really an insurance policy. An "investor" could approach AIG and say, "You know that Merrill asset-backed bond -- number 123456? I'll pay you $7,000 a month, too, and if the bond defaults, then you owe me 200 million also."
It's as if any number of people could buy (or, really, bet on) your life insurance policy. Or think of a race track where anyone can go to the window and bet on any horse in any race -- and collect if it comes in. (Or in this case, collect if mortgage payments didn't come in.)
If our government were merely going to cover the original mortgage-backed securities, the maximum payouts, though large, would at least be calculable. If 50% of the mortgages in the U.S. were, as they say, securitized, and if they all were to default, that would be a vast but finite loss. But since any number of people could buy into the swaps on those bonds, the swap payouts could be an unknown amount that would be many times the value of the real buildings. How many multiples of reality might that come to? Two times, 10 times, 100 times? Who knows? Remember, these are unregulated transactions.
And keep in mind that the "investment" being bailed out here has nothing to do with anything in the real world. Neither party to these "me too" swaps owned, built, or financed the original housing, or anything else for that matter. They were simply betting on whether a certain group of people would pay their mortgage bills.
Why our government would underwrite these bets, and why such gambling contracts are legal in the first place, is beyond me, but as we know, they were placed on a vast scale. No wonder, I thought, that my swap men were all still employed. After all, even if there's no work for die-casters or editors, there's still all that "unwinding" to do by the people who did the winding in the first place.
Then I read this headline in the Financial Times: "Strange but true -- the credit specs are back." According to the column that followed by John Dizard, "[T]hanks to the Geithner Treasury's policy of reform, rather than dissolution, CDS trading has regained a vampiric strength that the real economy still lacks."
So, now I understood: the man I couldn't find, the man who wasn't unemployed, wasn't just doing that final bit of unwinding or cleaning up old messes. He was busy making new ones!
How could Dizard be certain, though, that the debt trade is really booming again? He cites "one friend of mine in the credit fund trade" who has "made money on both the downside and the upside during the past year."
Of course, who can know for sure? If there was a derivative exchange along the lines of the New York Stock Exchange, we'd have a good idea of the volume of the trade. But derivatives -- I know you've heard this more than once -- are unregulated.
President Obama's recent white paper on financial reform suggests that derivatives should, in fact, be regulated, except for what it refers to as "custom" products. That, unfortunately, sounds like just the right-sized loophole for the financial instruments I've described. And -- I'm sure you won't be surprised by this -- financiers are lobbying furiously to expand that hole.
Why is there such an interest in reviving the debt market and why are financiers so determined to keep it unregulated? Aren't they scared of it, too? Let me quote Dizard one last time:
"After all, if the dictates of style and tax auditors say you have to go easy on conspicuous consumption, and if there's no demand for the products of real capital spending, then you might as well take your cash to the track, or the corner credit default swap dealer."
In other words, people are speculating on derivatives and derivatives of derivatives because there's no action in the real world. You can't invest in new real businesses or lend money to old real businesses for expansion unless people can afford to buy the products they'll produce. That brings me back to where I started: our real world. You know, the one where just about everyone's unemployed except those swap guys.