5.0 out of 5 stars We need more watchdogs like Gretchen and Josh!, May 24, 2011
I have long admired Gretchen Morgenson and cheered when she was awarded a Pulitzer. Perhaps this book in conjunction with her hard-hitting NY Times reporting will garner her another one. She deserves it. The authors echo my sentiments precisely in their introduction “…felt compelled to write this book because we are angry that the American economy was almost wrecked by a crowd of self-interested, politically influential and arrogant people who have not been held accountable for their actions.” And the people who did it “…continue, even now, to hold sway in the corridors of Wall Street and Washington.”
I have nothing against the vastly wealthy and sometimes – OK, frequently – dream wistfully of joining their ranks, but I do care about how this wealth is accumulated. Entrepreneurs who build companies, executives who take these companies to the next level and the one after that, highly talented and gifted persons – in arts and sports – who command premium remuneration all enrich society. Many financial titans, on the other hand, do not create wealth. They are unusually adept in extracting it for personal gain while simultaneously impoverishing society and holding it hostage. They operate on the principle that “My gain is mine and only mine. My loss is actually yours.” And they know how to spread enough largesse that enablers like accountants, rating agencies and regulators fall into line and they buy off politicians with consummate skill. They try – increasingly ineffectively – to justify their existence by claiming that they perform crucial service by “allocating capital” and “increasing efficiency.” They further claim that they should not be regulated because they can do a better job of regulating themselves. The fish is starting to stink pretty bad.
What makes this book a valuable read is that the authors explain exactly how this process works and they are not shy about naming names. For example, you learn how James Johnson, the erstwhile CEO of Fannie Mae built it into a colossus that gradually jettisoned all prudence in lending and vastly enriched himself and a bunch of cronies. He also suborned powerful legislators like Barney Frank, the powerful Massachusetts Democrat. And, lastly, he looked on and encouraged Wall Street firms to do the same and used that as justification to increase the scale of his own operations. And, Oh! I almost forgot, he also admonished fresh graduates to pursue their careers with “honesty and integrity”. When Johnson left Fannie Mae, a senior executive recalled “…we always won, we took no prisoners and we faced little organized political opposition.” He continued to be politically influential and was an adviser to the current president until forced to resign because it surfaced that he had received sweetheart loans from a leading purveyor of toxic financial junk.
Did you ever feel that “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is the norm on Wall Street? Consider this: Stephen Friedman, former CEO of Goldman Sachs was a director of Fannie Mae when the directors improperly allowed company executives to set earnings targets that they could meet. Federal investigators concluded that “As a direct result, senior management reaped ongoing and extensive financial rewards through accounting manipulation.” Johnson was then inducted to the board of Goldman Sachs – when Hank Paulson became CEO – and promptly made chair of the compensation committee. He dispensed some of the richest paychecks on Wall Street and these became the norm as other firms played catch-up. In fact, Johnson chaired the compensation committees of every board he sat on.
Angelo Mozilo, founder and CEO of Countrywide, was a good friend of Johnson’s and used his methods to grow the cancer that was Countrywide. The company made it a policy to give sweetheart loans to persons in power – these VIP loans were informally known as Friends of Angelo loans. Richard Holbrooke got such a loan. So did Senators Chris Dodd, Kent Conrad and Barbara Boxer. So did Donna Shalala, former head of Health and Human Services and Alfonso Jackson, secretary of HUD. And Countrywide hired sons and daughters and relatives of the influential and made sure that they were not fired during mass layoffs. Do you think it is possible, just barely possible, that these policies are what enabled that tumor to grow so large without surgery even being considered?
There were people who tried to stem the disastrous tide such as Mark Kohodes the money manager who shared damaging information about NovaStar – a Countrywide clone – with the SEC to no avail. And Armando Falcon, the regulator who tried to rein in Fannie Mae and was bludgeoned for his pains. And William Brennan of the Atlanta Legal Aid who drafted tough anti-predatory-lending legislation and then had it go nowhere.
This book will make you well informed. It will also make you sad because not much has changed in the system and the same players are still active. Can someone please tell me why we “respect” these CEOs instead of crossing the street when we see them coming our way?