Sunday, May 2, 2010

Shadow Elite: Wall Street Profiteers - Capitalists or Communists?

Shadow Elite: Wall Street Profiteers - Capitalists or Communists?

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"Only by engaging in irregular practices can the manager run a successful enterprise."

Does this quote describe the unspoken operating principle for profiteers of Goldman Sachs, and the rest of the disgraced financial industry? It could. But actually the quote is from economist Joseph Berliner, in his classic study of management methods not here in America, but in the Soviet Union.

For that Soviet-era manager, "success" meant meeting production targets, or, at least, appearing to meet them. Here in our "free market" economy, one might expect that being a successful manager would mean building a thriving company. But instead, success has come to be defined as how much an executive could rake in for himself and other well-placed insiders.

These supposed "capitalists" have actually gamed the system like ultra-savvy communist operators. Under communism, managers on fixed salaries were merely doing what was necessary to keep production going in an unworkable system. But on Wall Street, the goal was apparently plain greed. And over the past two decades, these "capitalists" have not only destroyed the financial lives of millions around the world, but also subverted the very free market principles they claim to support.

Co-author of this post, Janine Wedel, has spent most of her career as a social anthropologist, specializing in Eastern Europe, examining how people living under communism survived, how the most agile among them thrived, and how informal practices honed under communism helped shape the systems that emerged after it fell. They used informal networks, had a willingness to work around the rules, maintained loyalty to their close friends and associates, not to any official organization, hoarded vital information and carefully stage-managed their public face. In her new book, Shadow Elite, she has identified a similar modus operandi for a new kind of power broker that's emerged over the past 20 years in the U.S. and beyond. They push their personal agendas in both government, and, as we'll look at here, on Wall Street and in boardrooms across corporate America.

What was the personal agenda for a manager during the Cold War years? To please authorities. An entire language was developed under communism to describe the practice of creating fictions to do just that. Russians speak of ochkovtiratel'stvo, literally, to kick the dust into someone's eyes, or as we might say, pull the wool over someone's eyes. In the case of a factory operating under central planning, that meant anything from managers subtly readjusting figures to outright falsifying them to appease or fool their overseer. They took it as a given that false reporting - pripiski--or other shady practices was the norm.

Flash forward to the 1990's here in the U.S. Countless executives on Wall Street and across corporate America were engaging in their own version of ochkovtiratel'stvo, with devastating consequences. John Cassidy in the New Yorker traced a shift in executive behavior to the increasing use of stock options as part of pay packages. The idea sounded good on paper: stock options tied an executive's own personal fortune to his shareholders' fortunes through the stock price, making him more likely to act, as he should, in their interest. Right? Instead, as Cassidy says, "options give senior managers a strong incentive to mislead investors about the true condition of their companies."

The mission was to keep the stock surging, make sure quarterly earnings "beat expectations", even when internally, they didn't. Examples of pripiski - American-style - ranged from minor accounting dodges or massaging of those quarterly results to the massive fraud that took down Enron, Worldcom, Tyco and other big companies.

Whose eyes were they kicking dust into? The average shareholder. The new cable business news channels, which thrived on excitement, gave executives a powerful platform to sell their version of corporate reality to average investors. {Disclosure: Co-author Linda Keenan was a writer at CNN financial news during the dot com era.}

Wall Street assisted with their own kind of ochkovtiratel'stvo: deploying TV-ready, stock-touting "analysts" who seemed unbiased, even though conflict of interest was unavoidable: their employers, investment firms, were actually getting business (and other insider perks) from those companies the analysts were often promoting. All this allowed executives to construct their own financial "Potemkin villages", as the practice was called in Russia and the Soviet Union, fooling the public into thinking things are rosy by putting up what was really a flimsy facade.

Though some Main Street investors might have benefited short-term from the hype and from these inflated stock prices, most didn't know when to sell, or have any inkling that they should sell, while many executives did. Cassidy cites this study, "Barons of Bankruptcy", by the Financial Times: from 1999 to the end of 2001, out of the 25 biggest business collapses, executives and directors still took in $3.3 billion in salary, bonuses, and stock/stock option sales.

Even when the stock did fall, companies could reprice the options lower, giving execs another yet another chance to strike gold. Executive pay expert Graef Chrystal told Cassidy: "then you have created ... an anti-gravity device, which guarantees that ... executives will get super rich."

Questionable (perhaps fraudulent) practices continued in the years that followed, after the bubble reinflated, this time a housing bubble, with profit-mad banks engaging in predatory lending, and pushing so-called "liar loans" that gave mortgages to people who had no documentation to prove they could pay.

Then the banks took that junk and turned it radioactive. They created exotic financial instruments that took on far too much risk without enough capital to back it up, products that looked "innovative" when housing markets were surging, and catastrophic when they plunged. Did Goldman Sachs aggressively market mortgage investments to clients at a time when they knew the housing sector was imploding? Executives hauled before Congress this week said no, but there's little doubt that in the financial sector as a whole, the true risk of mortgage-backed securities was very much hidden from investors and regulators. And the elite few just got richer and richer.

Arianna Huffington this week quoted Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf: "the financial sector seems to be a machine to transfer income and wealth from outsiders to insiders, while increasing the fragility of the economy as a whole." Then she added this: "When the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times is sounding like the second coming of Karl Marx, you know things have gotten way out of hand."

Indeed, the shadow players of the communist-era command economy--that is, those who called the shots--would not have been surprised by any of these shenanigans. They also had help when it came to negotiating with the state apparatus to get their best possible outcome: "pushers" - tolkachi- whose job it was to smooth relations with suppliers and state officials.

The tolkachi here in the U.S. include traditional lobbyists. Back in the dot com era, for instance, lobbyists fought off an accounting rule that would have forced companies to accurately reflect the value of the stock options they granted in their earnings statements. This rule could have been a barrier to some of the dangerous obfuscations and abuses that followed. More recently, hedge funds boosted their spending on lobbying seven-fold in just three years, hoping to keep their business largely secret and unregulated. And Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin said in March that the financial sector is spending $1.4 million a day on lobbying against financial reform.

But the tolkachi in America have evolved beyond mere lobbyist to include a new breed of power broker Janine identifies in her book as "flexians", players who move back and forth between state and private roles, pushing their own agenda even while ostensibly serving the public interest. These new power brokers specialize in bending both the rules of government (accountability) and those of the free market (competition), all the while branding their message for the media to suit their own agendas.

That description might include Robert Rubin, who moved back and forth from top government and corporate roles, opposing a key push to regulate derivatives when he was a public official, and then enjoying the fruits of that unregulated environment when he resumed his career as an executive. The former Treasury Secretary also tried to prevent a potential hit to his company's fortunes (Citigroup) by making a questionable phone call to a Treasury department acquaintance, seeking help for Enron.

He does his own version of ochkovtiratel'stvo for the media. In a Newsweek article late last year, for instance, Rubin counsels the public on economic recovery, and what went wrong. Though he had top jobs at Citigroup and Goldman, he describes his career in a most vague way: "many years involved in financial matters." Newsweek lists him as a former Treasury secretary, co-chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a fellow of the Harvard Corporation, but no corporate title to be found.

Some of Rubin's former Goldman colleagues were deeply involved in the 2008 bailout - when once again tolkachi could be seen. Government officials, ex-bankers themselves, even mysterious "contractors" helped make deals for some companies but not others, leaving many to question how those decisions were made, and whose interests were being represented.

Much has been made of the failure of the free market in the financial calamity of the past few years, but what is free about a market that has been rigged by executives, insiders, government allies, lobbyists and all manner of influence-peddlers? It was rigged not just to vastly enrich the elite, but also to protect them from consequences of failure which true capitalism demands. Their conduct might make even the most wily opportunists under communism blush. As President Obama put it last week, "a free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it." American profiteers have done grievous damage to their own free-market ideology, and, most importantly, the economic well-being of the entire world.

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