In Sprecher We Trust. Hopefully.

Jeffrey Sprecher built a better mousetrap. But a mousetrap big enough to catch a whale? Apparently so.

Jeffrey Sprecher built a better mousetrap. But a mousetrap big enough to catch a whale? Apparently so. Sprecher is the founder and president of the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) based in Atlanta. For all practical purposes he is the poster-boy of electronic trading and the man responsible for the meteoric rise of commodities trading. He’s also about to become the owner of the New York Stock Exchange. Do I have your attention yet?

In little more than a decade the commodities market has gone from $10 billion– a speck on the trading horizon – to more than half a trillion dollars. Nathaniel Popper’s front-page story in the business section of the New York Times today pulls the veil back on Sprecher the man and describes how he grew a little-known southern exchange into a juggernaut capable of purchasing the vaunted New York Stock Exchange. As Popper himself writes, “It sounds preposterous.”

That’s because it is.

Popper’s piece brings forward a story that few people know. Most have no idea that trading exchanges are even for-profit businesses. And while he does a worthy job demystifying the business of exchanges he overlooks the planet-sized regulatory loopholes that allowed Sprecher to convert a small energy futures trading exchange into a global Franken-exchange that is buying the biggest, most well known exchange on Earth.

Sprecher was even a bridesmaid recently when he nearly scuttled a merger between the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange by coming in with a higher bid for the CBOT. The Chicago trading establishment was so freaked out by Sprecher’s surprise bid that they put their legendary differences aside and came to a deal faster than might otherwise have occurred had he not been breathing down everyone’s neck.

Though he was unsuccessful in his last minute bid, Sprecher moved deftly like a great white shark through the rocky financial seas in search of his next prey. Never sleeping, always moving, forever hungry.

To call Sprecher an opportunist would be technically accurate but cheap and intellectually dishonest. He understood the inevitability of electronic trading and the superior potential it held. If the Bloomberg terminal revolution was in providing information quickly and precisely then the Sprecher ICE revolution was in giving traders (and the houses they worked for) the ability to act upon information in the same fashion. My criticism of Sprecher – and Popper for that matter – is the way in which the story of the ICE has come to be told and accepted.

Missing from the brief history of the ICE are the loopholes that gave it life and the ability to flourish beyond imagination. It was the oft-spoken of – but rarely understood – “Enron Loophole” that gave corporations the legal right to trade energy futures even if the corporation itself was in the business of energy. This is the simplest way to convey its net result. The second loophole (and more meaningful for the ICE) was a maneuver by the Bush administration that granted the ICE foreign status as an exchange despite being based in Atlanta. This initiated a massive shift of trading dollars, and influx of new ones, onto the ICE for one reason: this singular move placed the ICE outside the purview of U.S. regulators at the Commodities Futures and Trading Commission (CFTC). Essentially, corporations could now trade energy futures electronically through the ICE without oversight or disclosure.

Sprecher has often stated that one of the great benefits of electronic trading is its inherent transparency. Theoretically, performing trades between parties on a screen reduces the likelihood of transactions being rigged. In some ways he’s right. We are unlikely to witness an old school “corner” where one party dupes all others into trading with it until it controls the vast majority, or position, of the item being traded. Electronic trading moves too quickly and there are too many players involved. But speed does not imply market transparency and openness.

Moreover, the mere fact that the founding investors of the ICE are some of the world’s largest investment banks and oil companies (Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and BP) speaks to how little transparency there truly is. The fact that some of these banks (Morgan Stanley in particular) own and control oil companies and oil companies operate trading desks outside U.S. jurisdiction demonstrates how little need there is for small-time corners. Why pull off a two-bit corner when you have already cornered the entire marketplace?

Now, as Sprecher prepares to close on this historic transaction, investors, citizens and the government are about to be one step further removed from any realistic shot at transparency and oversight.

This in no way takes away from Sprecher’s genius as a businessman. It simply illustrates how willfully ignorant we are to the business of Wall Street and therefore how frightfully far away we are from properly regulating it. Everything Sprecher has done is legal and ethical; to the extent there is an ethos on Wall Street. Where all of this hits home for the consumer is at places like the gas pump and supermarket. The most important and direct relationship most of us have to Jeff Sprecher’s mousetrap is the high cost of the gas we pump and food we consume. Banks and oil companies have a vested interest in Sprecher’s success and in increasing their own revenues. Both are perfectly, mutually aligned. So far they have been able to grow profits with alacrity, free from federal oversight and bolstered by our collective ignorance of the process.

We’ve all been caught in Jeffrey Sprecher’s mousetrap. Now the question is will he “catch and release” or dispose of us in search of his next conquest. I hope he’s as nice and down-to-earth as Popper suggests.

 

Image: From 2008 Long Island Press cover story explaining the rise of the ICE and how Morgan Stanley became one of the largest oil companies in the world. For more on this story view the video below:

 

Time to Chuck Schumer

Chuck Schumer is the honey badger of legislators. He devours campaign cash, microphones and anything else to advance his vainglorious cause. Or, as the narrator in the now-infamous badger video says, “Honey badger don’t give a shit, it just takes what it wants.”

As Long Island Press readers may have gathered by now, brevity is not my strength. And, admittedly, my more interminable diatribes have been known to prompt eye rolling, even from those who love me. Therefore I shall be as efficient as possible in conveying this important political message:

It’s time for Sen. Chuck Schumer to move on.

Chuck Schumer is the honey badger of legislators. He devours campaign cash, microphones and anything else to advance his vainglorious cause. Or, as the narrator in the now-infamous badger video says, “Honey badger don’t give a shit, it just takes what it wants.”

Schumer’s patented move of holding a Sunday press conference in order to glom Monday morning headlines has become a long-running joke in Washington, and yet the media continue to cover every one of his self-serving events. Frankly, starting the week by opening up the daily newspaper only to see Chuck’s mug has become tiresome and insulting. Rarely, if ever, do these photo opportunities translate into anything tangible. Don’t get me wrong, there is frequently a bill or resolution spawned from Chuck’s press conference of the week, but most are dead on arrival with a pitiful few ever being referred to committee.

Those that do get there are largely perfunctory resolutions naming things like post offices or commemorating individuals. More importantly, not one of the bills proposed by Chuck since the financial collapse in 2008 had any effect on the financial services industry to which he answers. In fact, since the implosion of the financial sector he has successfully guided only seven pieces of legislation through Congress. Three of them were to re-name buildings and one had to do with the handling and archiving of FDR’s memorabilia. Not one of the three remaining resolutions was tied to the financial industry in any way, shape or form.

Yet Schumer has reaped historic donations from Wall Street firms in large part by providing the most important service to them that he possibly can: nothing. Chuck Schumer has done nothing to stand in the way of the reckless deregulation that brought the economy to its knees; nor has he authored any reasonable solution to fix things. But behind the scenes he is the go-to guy for Wall Street and his campaign coffers are undeniable proof of his effectiveness at stymieing anything that would negatively impact the ill-gotten gains of the financial mafia.

His transition from representative to senator seems to mark the precise moment of Schumer’s Faustian bargain that now has him serving at the pleasure of many Wall Street wizards, all of whom offer their allegiance to the almighty dollar. Through this compact with the devil Schumer has emerged as the ultimate Washington insider and the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2005 to ’09, a powerful fundraising arm of the Democratic Party, where he thrived. His tenure oversaw a record number of donations funneled to the committee, most notably from – you guessed it – the financial industry.

The past few months Chuckles has been uncharacteristically quiet given the raucous events taking place down on Wall Street. In fact, the man who has made his career occupying Wall Street himself and benefitting from its largesse has precious little to say to, or about, those in Occupy Wall Street. One has to search diligently for the senator’s reaction to a phenomenon so big Time Magazine just named “the protestor” as its Person of the Year only to discover that while he defends the rights of protestors, they should “make sure they don’t get in the way of every day New Yorkers getting to and from work and going about their daily business.”

Actually, Sen. Honey Badger, that’s the point. If we continue to do nothing—the art of which you have perfected—there won’t be any daily business. This is a crisis, Chuck. One you had a pretty big hand in creating, for the record. How so? By being the world’s greatest accomplice as a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

Chuck was there when Congress repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, thus allowing investment banks and commercial banks to merge. He was there for the creation of the Enron Loophole in the Commodities Futures Modernization Act. And he was there when President George W. Bush allowed the Intercontinental Exchange to trade oil futures, and later swaps and derivatives, as a foreign exchange outside of the purview of U.S. regulators. Lastly, Schumer is widely credited as the guiding force behind the controversial bank bailouts. In each case, what Schumer said publicly was very different from how he acted and voted. Every scenario saw “public Chuck” peering over his spectacles and haranguing officials over minute details when in reality he was helping to turn the screw behind the scenes.

But it’s his utter silence since the banking crisis began and to a greater extent since the Occupy movement took off like a rocket that Schumer’s true colors have shown. Protestors flooded the streets of New York beginning in September, chanting phrases that have spread across the nation. Phrases such as “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out” and “Whose street? Our street!” But who sold us out exactly and who really “owns” the street? Chuck.
In between authoring legislation that never goes anywhere accompanied by a carnival sideshow of Sunday press conferences, Chuck is busy doing what he does best. In the past five years alone he has raised more than $19 million in personal campaign donations, the majority of which came from the following industries: 1) Securities & Investment, 2) Lawyers/Law Firms, 3) Real Estate, 4) Lobbyists, and 5) Miscellaneous Finance. There you have it. Chuck Schumer—man of the people.

There are only 100 of these clowns in the Senate. How did we get Bozo? This is the Empire State. Can’t we do better? Is it too late to try and convince Elizabeth Warren to move here instead?

#OWS WK4: Kaptur and Gramm and Schumer, Oh My.

Tying the tubes of banks that have been, ahem, fornicating with the global economy and impregnating speculative bubbles only to watch them burst, will only hasten the inevitable seismic crash that looms around the corner. Breaking up the banks will happen one way or another…either by the law of the land or the law of nature.

The only phrase in connection with Occupy Wall Street repeated more often than “We are the 99%” is “What do they want?” The former is, of course, the rallying cry inviting citizens to join the movement against plutocracy in America—a show of strength against corporate greed and government corruption. The latter is the response to the growing number of dissenters in the “American Autumn”—criticism for their lacking a coherent list of specific demands. Personally, the only thing I find lacking is the imagination embodied by this mindless question.

The communal process of exploration and debate taking place in Zuccotti Park is like nothing I’ve ever seen. There are plenty of cogent, specific demands to be heard, but only by those who are willing to listen. A good deal of patience and a pinch of intellect are helpful because this isn’t a bumper-sticker movement and the occupiers don’t suffer fools (Geraldo) gladly.

There is no substitute for visiting the park and absorbing democracy, grassroots style. This past weekend my wife and I brought our two children with us to witness history unfolding in Manhattan, as it will someday grace the pages of a textbook, or a tablet, during their college years. With that said, allow me to indulge the frothing masses with a chunk of raw meat by examining one of the cornerstone issues behind OWS: Glass-Steagall.

Breaking the Bank: A Brief History of Glass-Steagall

In short, this was the name of the Act that prohibited commercial banks from engaging in investment-banking activities, among other things. It was established in 1933 to tame the harmful speculative behavior of an industry run amok in the early part of the 20th century; behavior largely credited for the market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. Fast forward to the waning days of the Clinton administration when the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealed the meat of Glass-Steagall and cleared the way for the greatest, most rapid consolidation of banking interests and wealth in recorded history.

Reinstating Glass-Steagall is, of course, easier said than done. Technically, the mechanics of doing it are fairly simple from a structural perspective, though it would cause massive upheaval in the banking world for several years to come. What is almost beyond comprehension are the circumstances that allow banks to continue gambling promiscuously in the world markets, which is a direct result of complementary deregulatory measures, globalization and an extraordinarily loose monetary policy.

These three factors have allowed banks to engage in worldwide investment schemes using cheap, borrowed money in a manner that is both irresponsible and opaque. In other words, be careful what you wish for. Tying the tubes of banks that have been, ahem, fornicating with the global economy and impregnating speculative bubbles only to watch them burst, will only hasten the inevitable seismic crash that looms around the corner. Breaking up the banks will happen one way or another…either by the law of the land or the law of nature.

Protestors from Zuccotti Park to San Francisco are keenly aware of this reality. They have an extremely sophisticated view of the world that goes beyond what we have seen in other movements both here and abroad. It’s their appreciation for complexity and nuance that makes it impossible to translate demands into bite-sized morsels for the media to gobble up and regurgitate into the mouths of shrieking birds in the nest that many television viewers have become.

To make matters worse, our elected federal representatives have no idea how to respond appropriately to a leaderless, populist movement. Apart from some platitudinous, mealy-mouthed responses from ranking Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or truculent, dismissive statements from the likes of Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), the upper echelon of American politics is collectively clicking its heels and hoping to wake up on the farm after the storm.

But there is hope for us yet–from someplace you might not expect.

A Buckeye Bulls Eye

Ohio’s 9th Congressional District cradles the southernmost tier of Lake Erie and has been steadfastly represented by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) for the three decades. Despite the presence of rollicking Toledo in the westernmost part of her district, things have been pretty quiet in the ninth. Until now.

Ohio’s much ballyhooed loss of two Congressional seats due to redistricting has resulted in a mash up of Kaptur’s 9th district and the neighboring 10th represented by fellow Democratic Congressman, Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich, who has long-represented the most progressive wing of the Democratic caucus, ran back-to-back failed campaigns for the presidential nomination, but he gained more notoriety when he famously called for the impeachment of co-Presidents George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for manufacturing evidence that pushed us into war with Iraq at a cost of nearly $2 trillion, thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of  civilians. Somehow, this effort lacked the same traction and enthusiasm as the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton for, well, you know.

The combination of the 9th and 10th districts has given new life to Kucinich, who might otherwise have been homeless after Ohio’s redistricting plan, as he is planning to primary Kaptur for the seat. Not to be outdone, the GOP has recruited newcomer Samuel Wurzelbacher to run on the Republican ticket. This development would be of little moment, however, if Wurzelbacher wasn’t none other than “Joe The Plumber,” who made headlines during the McCain-Obama race. Although it was later revealed that he was neither “Joe” nor a licensed plumber, Wurzelbacher became an oft-abused example of the disenfranchised workingman in America. Not content to be a footnote in American political history, Wurzelbacher now seeks to extend his 15 minutes of fame by attempting to join the ranks of hundreds of other talentless slobs who also have no business running the country.

This entire hubbub overshadows one of the most interesting things to come out of this part of Ohio. Earlier this year Kaptur revived a failed effort during the previous Congress to reinstate regulations repealed under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999. Kaptur’s bill, H.R. 1489, is appropriately titled “Return to Prudent Banking Act of 2011,” and it has the support of 45 sponsors, one of whom is Dennis Kucinich.

The men behind the original bill in question—Gramm, Leach and Bliley—are an interesting lot; notable because not one of them remains in government today though their impact is felt every day. Phil Gramm, one of the most loathsome scoundrels ever to hold office, is the reprobate who brought us the Enron Loophole, disastrous tax cuts that destabilized the first part of the Reagan era, and this horrendous bill that bears his name. His darling wife, Wendy, was at the helm of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission when her husband was shepherding through the bill that would castrate the agency and lead to the collapse of Enron and the birth of energy speculation. She went on to head the conservative think-tank, Mercatus Center, which is funded by the Koch brothers.

Thomas J. Bliley, former representative from Virginia, was himself a serial deregulator. Before handing America this pile of legislative crap, he authored the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which paved the way for massive consolidation in the media industry and gave us Orwellian juggernauts like News Corp. that control the airwaves today.  Jim Leach, also no longer in office, is more of a curiosity. Brilliant, progressive and, at times, defiant, Leach of Iowa often stood in opposition to the increasingly conservative members of his party and was eventually ousted by a Democrat write-in candidate. Although Leach was a noted fiscal conservative, his true expertise was in foreign affairs. By attaching his name to one of the most destructive economic bills ever written, an otherwise brilliant career has been sullied in a way only Bill Buckner could understand.

Going Forward

So, Marcy Kaptur “gets it.” The protestors on Wall Street also “get it.” And believe it or not, many of us in the media also “get it.” If the banking system is going to collapse under its own weight and hubris because of the sheer volume of horrible investments still filtering through the economy with zero oversight, what’s the next logical play?

Apart from the obvious, which is to enact H.R. 1489, I think it’s time to grant subpoena authority to the protestors on Wall Street so they can hold those responsible for the economic crisis accountable at a people’s tribunal. Since our judicial system has failed to do that, perhaps it should be left to the people in Zuccotti Park. And just to bring things full circle to New York politics, the first star witness to be called should be Sen. Charles Schumer, poster boy for Wall Street and the senior Democratic elected representative of our state.

Time’s up, Chuck. Your silence on the Occupy Wall Street movement is deafening and incriminating.