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The Scam Wall Street Learned From the Mafia

Uncategorized June 23, 2012

Amazing article from Matt Taibbi, here: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-scam-wall-street-learned-from-the-mafia-20120620

Here are the highlights:

""Even though some aspects of municipal bond finance are complex, the fraud here was simple," she told the jurors. "It was about lying and cheating cities and towns in a bidding process that was in place to protect them."

The "simple fraud" Waszmer described centered around public borrowing. Say your town wants to build a new elementary school. So it goes to Wall Street, which issues a bond in your town’s name to raise $100 million, attracting cash from investors all over the globe. Once Wall Street raises all that money, it dumps it in a tax-exempt account, which your town then uses to pay builders, plumbers, the chalkboard company and whoever else winds up working on the project.

But here’s the catch: Most towns, when they raise all that money, don’t spend it all at once. Often it takes years to complete a construction project, and the last contractor isn’t paid until long after the original bond is issued. While that unspent money is sitting in the town’s account, local officials go looking for a financial company on Wall Street to invest it for them.

To do that, officials hire a middleman firm known as a broker to set up a public auction and invite banks to compete for the town’s business. For the $100 million you borrowed on your elementary school bond, Bank A might offer you 5 percent interest. Bank B goes further and offers 5.25 percent. But Bank C, the winner of the auction, offers 5.5 percent.

In most cases, towns and cities, called issuers, are legally required to submit their bonds to a competitive auction of at least three banks, called providers. The scam Wall Street cooked up to beat this fair-market system was to devise phony auctions. Instead of submitting competitive bids and letting the highest rate win, providers like Chase, Bank of America and GE secretly divvied up the business of all the different cities and towns that came to Wall Street to borrow money. One company would be allowed to "win" the bid on an elementary school, the second would be handed a hospital, the third a hockey rink, and so on.

How did they rig the auctions? Simple: By bribing the auctioneers, those middlemen brokers hired to ensure the town got the best possible interest rate the market could offer. Instead of holding honest auctions in which none of the parties knew the size of one another’s bids, the broker would tell the pre­arranged "winner" what the other two bids were, allowing the bank to lower its offer and come in with an interest rate just high enough to "beat" its supposed competitors. This simple but effective cheat – telling the winner what its rivals had bid – was called giving them a "last look." The winning bank would then reward the broker by providing it with kickbacks disguised as "fees" for swap deals that the brokers weren’t even involved in.

The end result of this (at least) decade-long conspiracy was that towns and cities systematically lost, while banks and brokers won big. By shaving tiny fractions of a percent off their winning bids, the banks pocketed fantastic sums over the life of these multimillion-dollar bond deals. Lowering a bid by just one-100th of a percent, called a basis point, could cheat a town out of tens of thousands of dollars it would otherwise have earned on its bond deposits.

That doesn’t sound like much. But when added to the other fractions of a percent stolen from basically every other town in America on every other bond issued by Wall Street in the past 10 to 15 years, it starts to turn into an enormous sum of money. In short, this was like the scam in Office Space, multiplied by a factor of about 10 gazillion: Banks stole pennies at a time from towns all over America, only they did it a few hundred bazillion times."

HOW MUCH WAS AT STAKE?

"Given the complexities of bond investments, it’s impossible to know exactly how much the total take was. But consider this: Four banks that took part in the scam (UBS, Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo) paid $673 million in restitution after agreeing to cooperate in the government’s case. (Bank of America even entered the SEC’s leniency program, which is tantamount to admitting that it committed felonies.) Since that settlement involves only four of the firms implicated in the scam (a list that includes Goldman, Transamerica and AIG, as well as banks in Scotland, France, Germany and the Netherlands), and since settlements in Wall Street cases tend to represent only a tiny fraction of the actual damages (Chase paid just $75 million for its role in the bribe-and-payola scandal that saddled Jefferson County, Alabama, with more than $3 billion in sewer debt), it’s safe to assume that Wall Street skimmed untold billions in the bid-rigging scam. The UBS settlement alone, for instance, involved 100 different bond deals, worth a total of $16 billion, over four years."

HOW DID THE GOVERNMENT MAKE ITS CASE?

"How did the government manage to make a case against so many Wall Street scam artists? Hubris. As was the case in Jefferson County, Alabama, where Chase executives blabbed criminal conspiracies on the telephone even though they knew they were being recorded by their own company, the trio of defendants in Carollo wantonly fixed bond auctions despite the fact that their own firm was taping the conversations. Defense counsel even made an issue of this at trial, implying to the jury that nobody would be dumb enough to commit a crime by phone when "there was a big sticker on the phones that said all calls are being recorded," as Grimm’s counsel, Mark Racanelli, put it. In fact, Racanelli argued, the conversations on the tapes hardly suggested a secret conspiracy, because "no one was whispering."

But the reason no one was whispering isn’t that their actions weren’t illegal – it’s because the bid rigging was so incredibly common the defendants simply forgot to be ashamed of it. "The tapes illustrate the cavalier attitude which the financial community brought toward this behavior," says Michael Hausfeld, a renowned class-action attorney whose firm is leading a major civil suit against Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase and others for this same bid-rigging scam. "It became the predominant mode of transacting business.""

IN CONCLUSION:

"As Carollo showed us, in open court, this is what Wall Street learned from the Mafia: how to reach into the penny jars of dying hospitals and schools and transform their desperation and civic panic into fat year-end bonuses and the occasional "big lunch." Unlike the Mafia, though, they were smart enough to do their dirt without anyone noticing for a very long time, which is what defense counsel in this case were talking about when they argued that towns and cities "were not harmed" by the rigged bids. No harm, to them, means no visible harm, i.e., that what taxpayers didn’t know couldn’t hurt them. This is logical thinking, to the sociopath – like saying it’s not infidelity if your wife never finds out. But we did find out, and the scale of betrayal unveiled in Carollo was epic. It was like finding out your husband didn’t just cheat, but had a frequent-flier account with every brothel in North America for the past 10 years. At least now we know how bad it was. The trick is to find a way to make the cheaters pay."