Thursday, November 20, 2008

Why should we trust former Salomon Brothers banking investor Michael Lewis?

"But what has been the experience of the Russian socialist movement up to now? The most important and most fruitful changes in its tactical policy… have not been the inventions of several leaders and even less so of any central organizational organs. They have always been the spontaneous product of the movement in ferment… In general, the tactical policy of the Social Democracy is not something that may be 'invented'. It is the product of a series of great creative acts of the often spontaneous class struggle seeking its way forward." --Rosa Luxembourg, "Leninism or Marxism," 1904.

New York City, New York
--As you can imagine, this guy exists in a strange place as a former investment banker, now turned business journalist and author.

Lewis wrote Liar's Poker in 1988-89, a book that many are now going to say was very prescient upon its release just 19-years-ago. It isn't.

Time flies when you're having fun.

Just a few hours ago Lewis was hawking his newest book on CNN, those scions of bad taste and oversimplification and over-concision. CNN's talking necks were having their lovefest with Lewis over how credible and wise he is. Is he? I don't think so, and as low as my opinion of the public is, I believe we all knew the crisis was coming. That said, I think the feelings that mainstream journalists and writers harbor within their breasts eclipse my own intense misanthropy and ambivalence towards the average American, let alone humanity. These journalists and pundits believe that they have the answers and the rest of us are too stupid to understand things as well as they do because they were educated to think that way.

Their elitism comprises a truly delusional contention: "We have all of the answers, so shut-up and let us drive." Paradoxically, it's "ordinary" people who tend to save the day throughout human history when the politicians, the businessmen, and the intelligensia have failed everyone (as is their wont, they can't help themselves). We clean-up the mess, and we're doing it right now on Wall Street. Listening to the public on-occasion might help.

Those who could have prevented the current economic crisis were the root of the problem and still are, though their own collective fall is coming soon. Instead of just blaming borrowers who defaulted, we should also be asking, "Who allowed it?" and "How many of the loans were even legal?" We know the sales of the bundled securities were not, it was a matter of fraud and deserves further investigation. Some are occurring right now. Many of us raised the alarms, but we know oversight and the enforcement of key regulations over the financial sector weren't going to be expedited under the Bush II administration and GOP dominance.

The financial and business sectors were told that they could do whatever they wanted up-to-a-point and that nobody was going to be watching. Who told them that? The negligence in not enforcing these administrative laws is corruption, contrary to the comments of the apologists. Is Lewis one of them? Like CNN and the rest of the dying media, he won't discuss the corruption, and I'd like to know why.

So, what did Lewis have to say on CNN? That this economic crisis "wasn't the result of corruption" (what else?) or outright dishonesty, but that it was a result of delusional behavior predicated on--don't laugh--everyone "doing the right thing" on Wall Street. This is an incredible statement in the current context, but at least he sees the writing on the wall--things will never be the same and the old Wall Street is dead. However, as you can imagine, the assertion that "everyone did the right thing" made no sense to these eyes and ears, and I predict that these assumptions of his and the rest of them on Wall Street are headed rapidly towards the dustbin of human history.

No, according to Lewis, it was "conflicting interests" that caused the current financial crisis, which again, points to corruption. The banks and mortgage leders have been ripping each other off, and now they won't lend amongst themselves. Right, greed and dishonesty. Lewis seems to be arguing for transparency--granted--but he still clings-to the same old faux-values of Wall Street. Like a lot of people on television and politics, he said a lot without saying much at all, so I switched over to Anthony Bourdain, a man with an attitude I admire, then switched-back again to feel the numbing-pain of boredom for kicks, it's a real rush.

Lewis went on making some bizarre statements that "corruption wasn't a factor" in the crisis--it was generally that the system that ran the financial markets was predicated on illusions and mass-delusional psychology. No kidding? How did that happen? Who made them think they could keep doing the same wrong things without it coming-back to haunt them later? In many cases, themselves, silly. After all, the (wo)man who hears God is usually listening to their own voice.

Additionally, Lewis has written and spoken elsewhere that these financial institutions and their CEOs simply "didn't know what they were doing." Fancy that. No argument here, I don't think that they ever did know what they were doing or ever will. The past economic order and its faulty assumptions were systemically wrong, inefficient and top-heavy with that favorite word of Libertarians, conservatives, and the GOP: bureaucracy. Forget government, the corporate world has them beat on redundancy. The managerial class itself has amply displayed their greed and dishonesty over the last 30 years, therefore it shouldn't surprise anyone that we ended-up where we are today.

It took others to create this mess, there was a lot of enabling from every sector, such as investors who were clamoring for greater and greater dividends, irresponsible borrowers of every class, and so on. But the runaway borrowing was allowed. Like my former employers--a small retail outfit that's sure to close soon--the speculators and financial institutions only knew how to ride an economic boom that's part of the traditional boom-and-bust cycle of our flawed economy, much like a Gold Rush. Eventually, inevitably, the veins run out and the towns die. But a lot of the public was either apathetic from years of being beaten-down, or they bought into it (and boy, didn't they?). Not everyone got on-board, just enough to wreck things.

Let's be honest: this was also fostered by that "invisible hand" of pro-business legislation passed by politicians who know better, not just the misbehavior of Wall Street. This is also known as "deregulation," but far-be-it for anyone to criticize the sacred, the inviolable St. Ronald Reagan and his Maoist cult that hijacked traditional conservatism in the 1980s. That's over now, but this greed-based stupidity allowed the markets to run amok for over two decades because the folks in Washington know who's really boss, and it's not them, it's the business and financial community and ownership.

Like my former employers, these clowns got a taste of power and lost their minds thinking that they were untouchable, that they were God. Their bulging-guts and the fact that they defecate daily (phew! you don't wanna know) should have been all the reminder they needed that they weren't. Now they're all finding-out the hard way, which is where my well-earned schadenfreude comes in...

Beyond my own feelings of glee over the suffering of scoundrels, Lewis isn't saying anything new here at all (which he accuses others of doing in the Conde article). Writer Charles Mackay dedicated three of his sixteen chapters of "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" to financial-bubbles titled "The Mississippi Scheme," "The South-Sea Bubble," and "Tulipomania." Mackay's book was originally published in 1841, at a time when Karl Marx was an unknown doctoral student. What did Marx do when he couldn't find a job in academia because of his radicalism? He became a journalist. Life is like that sometimes, and he would be a part of the failed Revolution of 1848 that gripped Europe.

Sure, Lewis is making-the-rounds this week promoting his newest book, and one can assume the crisis will be a windfall for him as some kind of "prophet," but he's not one. Anyone paying attention could have seen this crisis coming, but like all bad relationships, we ignore the problems because we want something out of the deal. I'm no exception. Lewis might be totally sincere about all of this, but he still appears to have held the same assumptions until very recently that the now-fallen Wall Street order would keep going on, almost endlessly. Did he actually believe before October of last year that this could continue indefinitely?
At some point, I gave up waiting for the end. There was no scandal or reversal, I assumed, that could sink the system. Then came Meredith Whitney with news. Whitney was an obscure analyst of financial firms for Oppenheimer Securities who, on October 31, 2007, ceased to be obscure. On that day, she predicted that Citigroup had so mismanaged its affairs that it would need to slash its dividend or go bust. It’s never entirely clear on any given day what causes what in the stock market, but it was pretty obvious that on October 31, Meredith Whitney caused the market in financial stocks to crash. ...This woman wasn’t saying that Wall Street bankers were corrupt. She was saying they were stupid. ("The End," Conde Nast Portfolio, December 2008 issue)
The problem is that there is such a thing as insider trading and white collar crime. This sounds a lot like the reactions from mortgage institutions who blamed whistle-blowers and auditors for uncovering the losses they were hiding from the rest of the world. No, Lewis isn't "blaming" Whitney in some malicious way, I just think he still has the same viewpoints that he held (and are still held on Wall Street, even now) when he was an working for an investment bank from 1985-to-1988.

I don't doubt that the main-thrust here is generally correct, but Lewis makes his argument too narrow, and I suspect him of trying to divert attention away from the fact that corruption and the proverbial "cooking of the books" has also played a role in all of this. But there are worse sins that he barely touches-on: the role of authoritarianism within corporate American, never mind just the financial sector.

The real bottom-line that he does hint at in his article is that brings of bad news weren't going to be rewarded on Wall Street, he gets this right. This is authoritarianism-in-action. These private tyrannies are akin to fascism in their internal cultures, playing-off underlings against one another in what's euphemistically referred to as "competition," but what it really constitutes is the Roman practice of "divide-and-conquer." They hold our families hostage for their own ends. Their endless problem? Reality and the spontanaeity of average people, and the eternal desire for liberty and innovation.

While some have done the bidding of their bosses--even to the point of breaking-the-law--we've also had whistle-blowers of every stripe during the Bush II era, an unprecedented wave of them. That doesn't mean fighting these "masters" has or will be easy, nobody ever said it would be. Doing what's right doesn't have immediate gratification if it has any at all.

Who would broach the "conventional wisdom" of a financial boom by pointing-out the inconvenient fact that a company's assets were becoming rapidly-devalued when they're going to be punished for it? Again, while Lewis doesn't necessarily "blame" Ms. Whitney for simply telling the truth about Citibank, he does assign her with the strange credit of causing "the market in financial stocks to crash." That's blaming the messenger, the same argument proffered by the culpable on Wall Street. It's a bizarre viewpoint that probably underscores the general tendency among the "players" to stay as far away from the core realities as possible while pretending that they actually are brave enough to stare into the abyss. Is it conscious? Sometimes, but it's really about the limitations of their own worldview and the fact that they're unable to "step outside of the box."

Lewis was just a low-level drone at Salomon Brothers just 20-years-ago. The next year he was getting a lot of back-slapping over Liar's Poker. At the age of 28, Michael Lewis was a millionaire from his time at Salomon Brothers and a book that sold very well for a first-time author. He was riding a wave of his own, reaping from a post-crash boom. Strangely, he was viewed as a whistle-blower when he wasn't, which he admits in the new article.

His take on the crisis, and the market crash of 1987 is simultaneously right and wrong:
The public lynchings of Gutfreund and junk-bond king Michael Milken were excuses not to deal with the disturbing forces underpinning their rise. Ditto the cleaning up of Wall Street’s trading culture. The surface rippled, but down below, in the depths, the bonus pool remained undisturbed. Wall Street firms would soon be frowning upon profanity, firing traders for so much as glancing at a stripper, and forcing male employees to treat women almost as equals. Lehman Brothers circa 2008 more closely resembled a normal corporation with solid American values than did any Wall Street firm circa 1985. The changes were camouflage. They helped distract outsiders from the truly profane event: the growing misalignment of interests between the people who trafficked in financial risk and the wider culture. (ibid)
To be fair, Lewis doesn't think he was all that prescient back in 1989 and that all he was doing was reporting his firsthand account of his time on Wall Street and its culture. Fair enough. But he's also significantly more well-off than the average American and doesn't hold a lot of the same values as the rest of us because of this. He attended Princeton University before his brief tenure on Wall Street, so he wasn't ever hurting as most working-class Americans have. No, he came from privilege, he got rich in decadent 1980s, and still holds the view that "greed is good." How exactly is this any different from the core cultural problem not only on Wall Street, but one that has crawled its way to Main Street? He holds the same values as the crooks, he's hardly any different from them in his values and attitudes.

Sometimes, you can be so close to the fire, you can't see anything else beyond the leaping flames.

Holding the contention that there was no systemic corruption on Wall Street in the creation of this crisis isn't going to fix anything, and Lewis appears to be just as guilty as the individuals that stopped real reform after the market's crash in 1987, the very period that he came up in.

Is Lewis bullshitting us as he did all those investors he claims to have during his time at Salomon Brothers? No. He's been kidding himself and the rest of us as a result of his own delusions--delusions he still shares with the players on Wall Street. It took a Princeton education to accomplish that and a lot of rationalizing, something he still appears to excel at. Shudder that the new president-elect came to us from Harvard and taught Constitutional law there for a time. These people are simply wrong and don't really know what they're doing to the rest of us, and they don't tend to care either. What they care about is power.

I'm not a Marxist, but he was right that, inevitably, capitalism will fall. The fall might be here, but no man can say with any certainty what hour or what day it will come.
The killer awoke before dawn, he put his suit on.

Charles Mackay's Extraordinary and Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852 Ed.):

Karl Marx's 1841 Doctoral Dissertation, "The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature":

"This is the End, beautiful friend. This is the End, my only friend, the End":