Glass-Steagall has made somewhat of a comeback with help from the Occupy movement and rising political stars like Elizabeth Warren… The only two political insiders you won’t catch talking about reinstating Glass-Steagall both happen to be running for president.
Part 4 of the Special “Off The Reservation” Election Series in the Long Island Press.
The Banking Act of 1933, commonly known as Glass-Steagall, was established to tame the harmful speculative behavior of an industry run amok in the early part of the 20th century; behavior many observers at the time credited for the market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. For some, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, was the deathblow to financial prudence on Wall Street.
In reality it was simply the formal recognition of careless financial practices that were largely in place already. Since the near-collapse of the banking industry in 2008, Glass-Steagall has made somewhat of a comeback with help from the Occupy movement and rising political stars like Elizabeth Warren, the former federal consumer protection advocate now running for Senate in Massachusetts. The only two political insiders you won’t catch talking about reinstating Glass-Steagall both happen to be running for president.
Wall Street reform is as important as it was in 2008 but both President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney have taken great pains to avoid talking about it too much. For his part, President Obama seems content to rest on the laurels of the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress’s attempt to rein in Wall Street excess, which had enough support to pass but not enough to be properly funded or enforced. According to Romney’s platform, he would “Repeal Dodd-Frank and replace with streamlined, modern regulatory framework.” That’s the extent of his vision for the future of Wall Street according his platform. Ten words.
So while the rest of the country is suddenly talking about a law enacted almost 80 years ago, these guys aren’t going anywhere near it. The truth is, Wall Street reform and, more specifically Glass-Steagall, is more complicated, making it easy for Obama and Romney to be evasive.
So let’s answer two questions. What would actual Wall Street reform look like and what exactly was Glass-Steagall?
The purpose of the original act was to establish a barrier between traditional banks and the risk-taking investment firms, denying investment banks access to consumer deposits and secure, interest-bearing loans. The unwritten effect of Glass-Steagall, however, was to establish a culture of prudency in the consumer and business banking realm, leaving sophisticated professional investments to more savvy financiers who had the ability to calculate the inherent risk of a financial instrument. For decades to follow, the merits of Glass-Steagall would continue to be debated, but it nevertheless drew a marked distinction between the function of a consumer bank and an investment bank.
Today reinstating Glass-Steagall is a common rallying cry among those who decry the bad behavior of Wall Street. Its repeal has become the fulcrum of nearly every debate surrounding deregulation. Actually accomplishing this, of course, is easier said than done.
The best way to reconcile the debate over whether to reinstate Glass-Steagall is to appreciate that the culture of Glass-Steagall was more important than the act itself. Over time the restrictions placed on bankers under the act were chipped away, but the culture that governed the banking industry endured beyond its measures. Eventually, savvy bankers and politicians found ways to loosen its screws and interpret the act to their own benefit.
Don’t Just Blame Republicans
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter oversaw the passage of the International Banking Act, a bill that should probably receive as much, if not more attention than Gramm-Leach-Bliley. Essentially, the act allowed foreign banks or entities that engaged in “banking-like activities” to participate in domestic financial markets. For the first time, foreign investment firms were able to make competitive loans so long as they didn’t compete for consumer deposits; initially individual states could determine whether their regulatory structure could support this new activity. The government would go on to loosen restrictions governing the competition for consumer deposits and allowing bank holding companies to treat money markets like checking accounts.
In his book “End This Depression Now,” economist Paul Krugman argues that perhaps the most influential step with respect to the banking sector came with Carter’s passage of the “Monetary Control Act of 1980, which ended regulations that had prevented banks from paying interest on many kinds of deposits. Unfortunately, banking is not like trucking, and the effect of deregulation was not so much to encourage efficiency as to encourage risk taking.”
By 1987 the bank holding companies, including foreign companies allowed to operate within the U.S. banking system, were granted access to mortgages to create a package of investments called mortgage-backed securities; the threshold for the amount of investing activity in instruments such as these was also increased, paving the way for the growth of investments backed by the strength (or weakness) of the consumer market.
During that same year, members of the Federal Reserve began calling for the repeal of Glass-Steagall as then-chairman Paul Volcker was providing the tie-breaking resistance. But this was a mere formality because by this time, Glass-Steagall was effectively over.
Yet even though most of the threads of regulation had been pulled from the overcoat that protected consumers from risky banking practices, the culture of prudent banking still existed to an extent; maintaining the Glass-Steagall Act on the books was an indication of this sentiment. Throughout the decades when regulations were steadily eroding, powerful national figures such as Paul Volcker under Carter and Reagan, and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady under George H.W. Bush managed to temper the enthusiasm of the movement.
That George Bush Senior heeded their admonitions was an admission that the public’s appetite for deregulation was actually beginning to wane in the post-Reagan hangover. Richard Berke’s New York Times article of Dec. 11, 1988, on the eve of the Bush presidency, encapsulated this feeling. Berke wrote, “Lawmakers and analysts say the pressure is fed by a heightened public uneasiness about deregulatory shortcomings that touch the daily lives of millions of Americans: from delays at airports and strains on the air traffic control system to the presence of hazardous chemicals in the workplace to worries about the safety of money deposited in savings institutions.” Alas, these four years would prove to be a momentary hiccup in the deregulation movement.
During the Clinton years, the nation’s leadership was largely comprised of proponents of deregulation. In fact, by his second term, Clinton was almost entirely surrounded by rabid free market enthusiasts. A former chairman at Goldman Sachs, Robert Rubin, was Secretary of the Treasury, Alan Greenspan was still at the helm of the Federal Reserve and Phil Gramm was the head of the powerful Senate Banking Committee. All of these men had close ties to Wall Street and made no secret of their intention to release bankers from the burdensome shackles of regulation and oversight.
In 2008, economist Joseph Stiglitz warned of the enduring negative consequences of deregulation. At a hearing held in front of the House Committee on Financial Services, Stiglitz invoked Adam Smith saying, “Even he recognized that unregulated markets will try to restrict competition, and without strong competition markets will not be efficient.” One of Stiglitz’s solutions was to restore transparency to investments and the markets themselves by restricting “banks’ dealing with criminals, unregulated and non-transparent hedge funds, and off-shore banks that do not conform to regulatory and accounting standards of our highly regulated financial entities.”
For emphasis he noted, “We have shown that we can do this when we want, when terrorism is the issue.”
Still, the nagging question remains as to what reform might look like. After all, not all deregulation is irresponsible. Most of the discussion in the media surrounding deregulation revolves around the concept that our banking institutions are “too big to fail.” Thus the rallying cry for reinstating Glass-Steagall and separating banks from investment banks. I’m in tepid agreement with the underlying principle, but the reality of the situation is far more complicated. The fact is banking has gone global and the deregulation genie is out of the bottle.
As I said earlier, Glass-Steagall was as much about instilling a culture of prudency to the banking world as it was about erecting a barrier between commercial banks and investment banks. Advocates like Elizabeth Warren like to say that prior to 1999 and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the economy functioned through periods of both prosperity and recession since 1934 without the banking sector once collapsing. It’s a fair, but oversimplified assertion that overlooks the fact that Glass-Steagall was on a ventilator in 1978 and dead by 1980. A 30-year run of prosperity from 1978 to 2008, with a few brief recessions in between, is nothing to sneeze at.
Restoring balance to the banking sector does not necessarily require separating the banks. Not yet at least. It begins with transparency and reestablishing the culture of prudency that has been conspicuously absent over the past decade. After all, you cannot value what you cannot see; nor can you mitigate risk unless you first manage reward.
What this really boils down to is accountability, which is ultimately a behavioral issue. Allowing investors to actually see how a bank behaves by viewing the size and scope of their transactions would theoretically assuage their appetite for risk. Given these conclusions, it’s easier to make the case that our current president would provide more accountability and inspire behavioral changes on Wall Street, particularly given Romney’s intransigence when it comes to considering financial reform. But tough talk against Wall Street has all but disappeared from Obama’s rhetoric leaving little hope that a second term will elicit any further positive change. So this week, while neither man seems serious about financial reform, the status quo is better than further deregulation and letting bankers rule the roost.
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.
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.
A market where only a handful of powerful people determine the price of commodities, buy and sell them at will, and reap huge rewards while starving millions of people worldwide and decimating the savings of Americans almost overnight is anything but moral.
We assemble around the pumps staring at gas prices like hominids around the monolith, shrieking and beating our chests. But whereas Stanley Kubrick’s primates in 2001 were willing to touch the slab and receive the divine, other-worldly intelligence it offered, we simply tighten the cap and blithely go about our day, all the while filling the wallets of oil companies and banks that conspire to pick every last nickel, dime and piece of lint from our pockets.
The ongoing drama in the Beltway, quibbling over mere billions of a multi-trillion dollar problem, is the ultimate subterfuge blinding us from the true budgetary crisis in our nation and the world. The $39 billion compromise achieved on Capitol Hill last week is a billion shy of ExxonMobil’s profit for 2008, the last time oil prices crippled the nation and filled the corporation’s coffers. This was the largest profit ever posted by an American public company. Once again analysts are predicting record profits when the publicly traded oil companies release their first quarter earnings in the coming weeks.
I’m officially calling bullshit; calling it on the whole stinking lot of them. While oil companies reap historic profits and politicians try to out-Ayn Rand one another, espousing free market ideals they completely misinterpret, Wall Street and Big Oil are about to deliver the coup de grace on the American people and the world at large.
The Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), in partnership with NASDAQ, recently upped the ante to purchase the historic New York Stock Exchange (NYSE Eurodex). Naturally, your next questions should be: “What does this have to do with the price of gasoline at the pumps?” “Why is this important?” “Why should I care?” and “What can I do about it?”
Glad you asked.
What does this have to do with the price of gasoline at the pumps? Everything. Here’s the short version of exactly why gas is so high right now. All you have to do is memorize the following paragraph to be able to shut anyone up at a party who claims that Middle East uprisings are responsible for driving up oil prices.
Nearly 20 years ago Wendy Gramm and her senator husband Phil Gramm created the Enron loophole when Mrs. Gramm chaired the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) under President George H.W. Bush that cleared the way for trading energy futures on the commodities exchanges. On December 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed it into law. In 2001, the two largest investment banks in the nation, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, teamed up with British Petroleum (BP) to start their own exchange called the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) to handle commodities transactions. In January of 2006, George W. Bush made it possible for anyone investing in commodities to hide their identity, turning the ICE into a powerhouse exchange overnight. When the Glass Steagall Act was repealed, deregulating the banking industry, banks and investment banks merged; further, because of the commodities deregulation under Clinton, then Bush, banks are now able to set the price of commodities by having their analysts forecast pricing and purchase large quantities of commodities through the banking end on exchanges they own and control.
There you have it. I mention all of the presidents involved in this fiasco to illustrate that this is not a partisan issue. Both parties have blood on their hands. They have created a trading exchange that, despite being only 10 years old, is so big and powerful it can partner on an $11 billion bid to acquire the New York Stock Exchange.
Why is this important? The obvious, most immediate reason is the pain at the pump that you’re experiencing personally and the pain that threatens the global economic recovery. But there’s a larger problem. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been vociferously warning anyone who will listen that there is a direct correlation between sharply rising crude oil prices and starvation.
There are three reasons for this: 1) The surge in oil prices has increased demand for bio-fuel substitutes, so instead of feeding people we feed our vehicles. 2) Higher oil prices means higher production costs. At the farm level the hard production costs of fertilizer and irrigation rise in lockstep with crude oil prices. 3) Lastly, the cost of transporting goods from farm to table increases directly and dramatically.
So, the answer to the first question is: This is important because high oil prices kill people.
Why should I care? Another wonderful question. Well, apart from the obvious fact that we are all part of the human race and should care about things like forced hunger and starvation, there is a distinctly American reason to care about this issue: Fairness.
Politicians, lobbyists, policy makers, and pundits are all mixing metaphors and messing with the essential American principles of fairness. Tea Partiers, conservative radio hosts, radical free-market freshmen Republicans in Congress and kooky presidential candidates are carrying weathered copies of Atlas Shrugged and the Bible, and screaming from the mountaintops, “Set my market free!” (The Bible-toting Objectivist is my new favorite American oxymoron.)
Talking about “free-markets” is fun, but there are seriously flawed fundamentals at work here. As we have learned from every bubble burst in the era of deregulation, the markets do not self-police nor are they inherently moral. Markets, like people, must be guided by regulations and boundaries; investors must have the freedom to maneuver within these parameters, and suffer punishments for exceeding them. Free market radicals should understand better than anyone that a market without regulations is like the Bible without Commandments.
A market where only a handful of powerful people determine the price of commodities, buy and sell them at will, and reap huge rewards while starving millions of people worldwide and decimating the savings of Americans almost overnight is anything but moral. It’s exactly immoral and completely un-American.
What can I do about it? Plenty.But we have to work together. It starts with understanding the fundamentals behind oil pricing and then figuring out who’s lying. First and foremost, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are both lying unabashedly through their teeth by blaming political unrest and upheaval for potentially hindering supply and causing speculative panic in the market. They’re ignoring that the United States and OPEC oil reserves are at an all-time high, that actual demand is still sluggish, and that we continue to build more energy-efficient vehicles and access natural gas and renewable resources.
Now they’re playing a game of chicken and managing our expectations, sending mixed signals about “demand destruction” and how high energy prices might have a deleterious effect on the global economic recovery even though their own analysts set the price of oil futures contracts and their own bankers buy them up. What they’re doing is establishing a new low, an artificial floor. It’s genius. Get us used to the idea of $5 per gallon pricing so that $4 doesn’t seem so bad. This is a test and we’re eating up their lies.
There are four primary solutions to the global oil problem. They’re a heavy lift and you should know what they are, but don’t be overly concerned with these details; your part comes later. Briefly, the solutions are as follows: (1) Reinstate Glass-Steagall, (2) Incentivize oil companies to invest in renewable energy by levying enormous fees on non-compliant companies, (3) Strip the ICE of its foreign-based exchange status to restore transparency to the commodities and derivative market and (4) Kill all speculative conflicts of interest by crafting legislation that prohibits investment banks from owning a controlling interest in any oil-related corporation.
Sounds like a crazy, impossible pipe dream. Not to worry. Thankfully there is one man with the power to get all of this done. Who is that powerful you ask? New York’s own Sen. Charles Schumer.
Schumer sits on the Rules, Economic, Judiciary, Finance and Banking committees. When it comes to anything related to finance, Charles Schumer is the single most important man in America. Now for your part: Because his office doesn’t accept emails, please call his office at 202-224-6542 and tell whoever answers the phone that you would like Sen. Schumer to please lower the price of gas at the pump. Don’t take no for an answer.
Then we go viral. It’s on. Tweet and post a link to this article with the message: “Only Chuck Schumer can lower the price of gas. If he doesn’t, I guess he’s responsible.”
Good luck and Godspeed. Remember, there are tens of millions of starving people counting on you to tweet our demands.
Charles knows enough to cancel the subsidies (starting around 1:30).
Click on the following links to read other oil-related entries
Every hazardous product manufactured by Koch Industries and every conservative and libertarian think tank established by the family members—Mercatus is eclipsed in absurdity by their other venture, the Cato Institute—pales in comparison to their most important creation to date: the Tea Party. This movement is the culmination of 40-plus years of radical free-market fanaticism beginning with the John Birch Society, of which father Fred was a founding member.
Last week The New Yorker published a missive by Jane Mayer on one of the most dangerous families in America: billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, heirs to the Koch family fortune forged by their father, Fred, himself one of the most influential conservative figures of the 20th century. Their fortune came, predictably, from oil, though their business holdings have been widely diversified since its inception.
What made this article so important was the painstaking manner in which Mayer unraveled the Koch Industries juggernaut to reveal a multi-decade effort by the Koch family to present itself as cultural and political icons whose generosity is beyond reproach. Their donations to museums and think tanks give the impression they are part of the cultural elite, a seminal segment of the charitable establishment that funds areas of our society that government has left behind. This carefully managed image as benevolent billionaires belies the insidious nature of their true life’s work as polluters, climate-change deniers and political dissidents who will stop at nothing to dismantle the system of regulation and taxation in America. In the past decade alone Koch Industries, a $35 billion privately held petrochemical company, has been forced to commit more than a half a billion dollars to environmental remediation, lawsuits, fines and settlements for their scandalous business practices.
The article sparked my memory of having run across the Koch name on two previous occasions. The first was when reporting on economic issues related to Indian tribes. In 1999 Koch Industries was found guilty of poaching oil from Indian reservations. The second was in researching Wendy and Phil Gramm’s involvement in the oil speculation scandal during the summer of 2008—the former serving as a Distinguished Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center, the Koch-funded think tanks at George Mason University synonymous with government deregulation. Wendy Gramm’s staunch advocacy for deregulation and Phil Gramm’s rampant legislative penchant for it eventually led to delightful little treasures like the collapse of Enron, oil speculation, black-market exchanges and the 2008 banking catastrophe. (Postcard from the recession: Dear Wendy and Phil. Thanks for this! Wish you were here. Signed, America.)
Every hazardous product manufactured by Koch Industries and every conservative and libertarian think tank established by the family members—Mercatus is eclipsed in absurdity by their other venture, the Cato Institute—pales in comparison to their most important creation to date: the Tea Party. This movement is the culmination of 40-plus years of radical free-market fanaticism beginning with the John Birch Society, of which father Fred was a founding member.
There is, of course, no central nervous system within the Tea Party. Nor is there a comprehensive platform or call to action other than to call for a return to traditional faith-based Christian values and less government intervention in our lives. For many Americans these are extremely palatable and positive concepts. But the true architects of the movement, such as the Koch brothers, who stoke the flame of discontent in America, are shielded from the public eye; it is as though the machines have come alive through artificial intelligence and are hell-bent on destroying humanity. This week, the anointed spokespeople and demagogues fronting the movement, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, hosted a bizarre yet extremely well-attended rally on the anniversary of Dr. King’s famous civil rights march on Washington where he delivered perhaps his most famous “I Have a Dream” address.
Beck’s hokey, milquetoast evangelism and Palin’s gosh-golly, you-betcha wink-fest played perfectly to the assembled masses who celebrated, or rather, declared that….um…called for us to follow God—well, Christ really—and that we’re going in the wrong direction because the right direction is… uh…backwards! Yes, we need to go backwards! (I watched the speeches and quite honestly I have no idea what the point of the rally was except to further the strength of the Koch zeitgeist through Rupert Murdoch’s bully pulpit and impute the Obama administration for all that is wrong with America.)
This much I do know: The Koch brothers are powerful and evil. Mayer’s deconstruction of the Koch plan for America—or, if you prefer, plan to increase their personal wealth at the expense of the planet and all those who inhabit it—has also exposed the likes of Palin and Beck as the patsies they really are. They aren’t quite stupid, per se, but intellectually inadequate to understand how they are being lulled into the menacing plutocracy that the Koch brothers have woven.
And then, there’s the rest of us. Most Americans don’t have the time or inclination to peel the onion of American politics to reach the rotten core. We are busy raising families, helping neighbors, putting food on the table. In between, however, we are pummeled by talking heads who decry the evils of the left and of the right and tell us how government is either at the root of your woes or the answer to your prayers. Right now, the Koch brothers are riding high by deriding the government and playing the recession for all it is worth. But Jane Mayer peeled back this particular onion to reveal its true inner core and, as expected, not only does it stink, it might even make you cry.
The scandal that started it all. How Wall Street and Big Oil have conspired over a twenty year period to legalize price-fixing and collusion in the commodities market. This is the reason oil prices are so high. These are the people responsible.
Inside the comfortable landscape of Rock Creek Golf Club in Fairhope, Alabama, life is undoubtedly serene, a far cry from the bustling city of Houston across the Gulf where Doug Terreson, a former Morgan Stanley executive, used to reside. Less than a mile and a half from Terreson’s relocated home on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, the price of regular gasoline at the local BP hovers around $4 per gallon––a constant reminder of the burden that Wall Street and Congress created to bolster their earnings and pad their coffers.
For Terreson––at first an unwitting, then ultimately unwilling accomplice––it is an experience he seems anxious to forget. Perhaps that’s why the high-level investment company executive has packed it all in, far away from the corner offices that contributed to the current implosion on Wall Street.
But while it is clear that the American economy is in deep trouble, there’s one part of the puzzle that still lies in a place as murky as the water surrounding the refineries in the Gulf of Mexico: the Wall Street-oil connection.
We’re all paying the price. It now costs just as much in America for a gallon of milk as it does for a gallon of gas. There are now 9.4 million Americans out of work. High fuel prices have all but sacked the airline and auto industries. Pressures on food production created by fuel subsidies and climbing oil prices may mean that the number of malnourished people worldwide could climb to 1.2 billion by 2025. You don’t have to be lectured on how tough times are.
In case you’re feeling sorry for yourself, or the world, consider the plight of Doug Terreson’s former boss, John Mack. His company had to artificially jack-up oil prices to record levels just to balance out its financial woes. To Mack, it must seem like just yesterday that he received a $40 million bonus as chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley-the largest ever given on Wall Street at the time.
But that was at the end of 2006, a veritable lifetime ago in the financial world, and things are much, much different now. Continued fallout from the credit crisis in the U.S. has forced Morgan into a corner and Chairman Mack against a wall. It could be worse. He could have run Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns.
Luckily, John Mack is an oil man. In every sense of the word. How so, you say? Under John Mack, Morgan Stanley has amassed a formidable group of companies involved in every aspect of oil, from refineries to home heating oil. Mack has thus far been able to navigate through a storm that has brought three of the biggest American investment banks to their knees. And the whole world picked up the tab. By exploiting regulatory loopholes and throwing caution and conscience to the wind, Morgan Stanley, along with Goldman Sachs, has artificially thrust oil prices to record levels.
They don’t call him “Mack the Knife” for nothing.
There Will Be Blood
As one of the greatest economic disasters in modern history is unfolding before our eyes, hidden deep within is a shocking scenario that spans 16 years and three presidents and has left millions of starving and poverty-stricken people in its wake. The architects of the scheme are some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. Their names read like a Who’s Who of the financial sector and the American government: Clinton. Mack. Gramm. Paulson. Bush. All are deeply involved in this scandal, which history surely will view as one of the most impactful on the nation and the world economy.
Economists and theorists have already named the economic period that is ending as of this writing. It is being referred to as the era of cheap oil, a time when multinational companies thrived on the global market as never before. Things are changing now: Oil prices remain high and the cost of doing business––in every industry-continues to rise. While it may be true that oil will never be cheap again, inconsistencies abound as to why.
Prior to the turn of the millennium, there were a few givens that had an effect on the cost of oil and energy in the world-mainly war, weather, supply and demand. The latest Russian aggression in Georgia, hurricanes in the Gulf, and the spectacular display at the Beijing Olympics that placed China on the world stage would normally have put prices through the roof.
If nothing else, China’s grand coming-out party exhibited the largesse of the Chinese economy and population. This alone should have caused a spike in oil prices. Instead, they have fallen from their stunning highs during the summer. This counterintuitive behavior in the market indicates that a significant portion of oil prices is determined by financial speculation and not just traditional forces of supply and demand.
Still, oil prices are outrageously high compared to just a few years ago, and are a topic of conversation in every American household. No one is escaping the impact of high prices at the pump or the supermarket. But we have been spoon-fed lies about demand from China and India and are expected to simply go along with the madness.
But not everyone is fooled. As the world seeks to shield itself against the crushing economic blow delivered by the skyrocketing cost of energy, many are beginning to take note of the roots of the crisis and point fingers at those responsible for the economic mess that we’re in.
In stark opposition to the oil crisis of the 1970s that left Washington in a state of panic and Americans lined up at the gas pumps, the seeds of the current condition may well have been planted not in the Middle East by the OPEC nations, but right here at home, by the very lawmakers now scrambling to undo what they set in motion.
One of the central villains in the story has become an all-too-familiar symbol of corporate malfeasance. The ghost of Enron, the defunct Texas-based energy company and its now-deceased former president, Kenneth Lay, still haunts the market today. Most are familiar with how Enron preyed on financial loopholes in the marketplace to fabricate a phantom energy market and create false gains on its balance sheet throughout the 1990s.
Enron’s grip on the energy market created spastic and turbulent movement in the marketplace resulting in events like the rolling blackouts in 2000 in California. By December 2001, when everything was unraveled, Enron was out of business, its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, was no more and Washington lawmakers issued a slew of promises to change the regulatory environment.
Devils In The Details
During the final months of Bush 41’s White House in 1992, Wendy Lee Gramm, wife of Phil Gramm, who was then the Republican senator from Texas, was the head of the U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Wendy Gramm is an unabashed free-market advocate once described in 1999 by The Wall Street Journal as the “Margaret Thatcher of financial regulation.” She now sits as a distinguished senior scholar of the conservative think tank Mercatus Center at George Mason University, in Virginia. Mercatus is a policy center on Capitol Hill that boasts board members such as Ed Meese-a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal as attorney general under President Ronald Reagan-and Charles Koch, of Koch Industries, who has been investigated for stealing oil from federal property and tribal Indian lands, indicted for environmental crimes and fined $30 million by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for numerous spills throughout the United States.
The CFTC oversees the commodities market and applies the regulations set forth under the 1936 Commodities Exchange Act (CEA), a measure enacted by Congress to prevent another collapse on the scale of the 1929 crash. One of Wendy Gramm’s final acts as chairwoman in January 1993 was to create an exemption that allowed Enron to trade energy futures contracts and essentially hide these trades from the CFTC itself; an energy futures contract is an agreement to deliver energy commodities such as oil or natural gas at a set price in the future.
Gramm left the CFTC, and five weeks after creating this exemption, she became a board member of-you guessed it-Enron. In return for her work deregulating the market for Enron to exploit, she racked up millions as an Enron board member prior to the company’s collapse.
Wendy and Phil Gramm were just getting warmed up.
Under the cloak of darkness at the end of President Bill Clinton’s second term and the waning days of the 106th Congress, it was then-Sen. Phil Gramm’s turn to dust off a bill, now commonly referred to as the “Enron loophole,” and attach it to an 11,000-page appropriations bill on December 15, 2000. The bill had previously died on the House floor, but Gramm resurrected it, found a new sponsor, became a co-sponsor, changed the bill number and turned it into an amendment. That’s a lot of work for one little loophole.
As a rider to a much larger bill, the Commodities Futures Modernization Act was no longer subject to the normal vetting process in Congress that a stand-alone bill would receive. Lawmakers, undoubtedly feeling the pressure of the holidays and lacking the time to thoroughly review the voluminous document, quickly approved the bill for the president’s signature.
On December 21, 2000, on a cold and blustery Washington evening, the bill with the Enron loophole rider was signed by President Clinton. Gramm’s amendment came to life and deregulated all energy futures trading. For Lay and Enron, the rest is history. But it would take another six years, another President Bush and a new Congress to open the floodgates of rampant speculation and really give it legs.
Phil Gramm? Does he sound familiar? Well, you might recall that he has been Sen. John McCain’s top economic adviser. You know, the one who called America “a nation of whiners.”
The easiest way to think about commodities is that they are things-physical things that can be measured in size, quantity or volume. Fruit. Oil. Grains. Metals. Currency. All these have unique characteristics and trade against one another on commodities exchanges throughout the world. For example, one barrel of oil might equal three bushels of corn, which may equal six bushels of wheat, and so on.
It is a complicated system that’s not for the faint of heart. Only a select few traders on Wall Street have the acumen and desire to deal in this sector, an exchange that had been efficiently regulated by the CEA since 1936. In an interview with the Press, Michael Greenberger, an outspoken critic and former employee of the CFTC, described these as “backwater markets,” but ones that recently have become “as important to understand and regulate as the securities and debt markets are.”
Commodities traders were highly specialized in their fields and their discipline was so narrow that it was largely misunderstood. Because it represented such a small portion of the vast economic market of debt and equities, it existed in the shadows of the global marketplace.
An important aspect to the commodities market is that there has always been a ceiling to the transactions and every investment made in the United States, for example, must be overseen by the CFTC. This market cap and theory of transparency kept the commodities market in relative obscurity against its much bigger counterparts, the stock market and the bond market.
But in January 2006, the CFTC, under President George W. Bush’s administration, would upend the regulatory practices held in place since the ’30s and create a virtual frenzy by recognizing a new commodities exchange-ICE Futures-that had been formed in 2001, primarily by investment banks and oil companies.
On May 20 of this year, Michael Masters, the managing member of Masters Capital Management LLC, a hedge fund that invests in private equity, testified before the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. His testimony is now widely quoted by the antispeculation critics who decry the lack of oversight created by the Enron loophole.
“Commodities futures markets are much smaller than the capital markets, so multibillion-dollar allocations to commodities markets will have a far greater impact on prices,” Masters stated.
Essentially, introducing investment banks and hedge funds that have deep pockets and no one looking over their shoulders has the singular ability to move the entire market. It’s like allowing professional athletes to compete in the Olympics. It’s what Masters referred to as “demand shock.”
Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs: the mechanics behind high oil prices
Two primary tools have restrained zealous speculators in the commodities markets since the CEA’s adoption-transparency and position limits. The transparency came from federally regulated markets like the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX), which tracks and oversees the transactions of commodities. Position limits were enacted under the CEA to keep any one investor, or group of investors, from overwhelming the exchange and flooding it with money.
The Enron loophole essentially permitted the trading of energy futures on over-the-counter markets, thereby allowing a new set of investors-hedge funds and investment banks-to trade energy futures. But the U.S. exchanges still saw relatively little activity as compared to their European counterparts, where the oversight was far more lax.
Because commodities trade in real time and U.S.-based companies have the most money to invest, the investment banks and hedge funds were still slow to drive great sums of capital into the market. What they needed to really make this thing soar was the ability to invest serious capital within the United States, like their counterparts could on the London Exchange, for example.
In 2000, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and British Petroleum became the primary founders of a little-known exchange based in Atlanta, Ga., known as the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE). A year later, it purchased the London-based International Petroleum Exchange (IPE), and was renamed ICE Futures. It was an acquisition that was fairly straightforward until 2006, when the CFTC-seemingly out of nowhere-officially recognized the ICE as a foreign-based exchange because it had purchased the IPE.
Even though the ICE is based in Atlanta, backed by U.S. banks and now traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange, the CFTC somehow decided to treat it as if it were based in London and thereby no longer subject to federal trading regulations. Now the investment banks could trade every type of commodity, especially crude oil, without any spending limits or federal oversight. Greenberger calls it one of Wall Street’s “most successful ventures,” because the ICE was now “competitive to NYMEX.”
It was here that the wheels began to fall off the commodities market.
John Mack, the chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley, has had an illustrious career, holding some of the most lucrative and prestigious positions on Wall Street.
Nicknamed “Mack the Knife” because of his hard-edged, no-nonsense approach and hardcore cost-cutting measures, Mack ran Morgan Stanley through the ’90s before accepting the job as co-CEO of Credit Suisse First Boston, a leading investment bank, in 2001. Mack left CSFB in 2004 to pursue options outside the large investment banking world but was wooed back to run Morgan Stanley in 2005. Upon his return, Mack’s Morgan Stanley went on an aggressive oil-buying spree-but not necessarily the kind you might expect.
On May 24, 2006, Morgan oil analyst Douglas Terreson announced that integrated oil equities were “15 percent undervalued” and in a research report, he wrote that “Independent refining and marketing remains the largest sector bet in the global model energy portfolio.” Soon after, on June 18, 2006, Morgan Stanley acquired TransMontaigne, Inc. and its subsidiaries-a half-billion dollar group of companies operating in the refined petroleum business.
How convenient… after their oil analyst decides that this portion of the industry is looking up, Morgan Stanley gets into the oil business and buys a refining company. However, it did not take only 25 days to conceive and work out the TransMontaigne transaction. This had to be a long-planned, well-thought-out takeover. One that worked for the great benefit of Morgan Stanley’s future oil plans.
This type of freewheeling environment, with little separation between the proprietary desks at the banks and their investment analysts, has been the subject of much scrutiny and concern of late.
“[There must be] a verifiable and hardened wall between analysts and the investment entities,” Greenberger says-it’s the only way to maintain integrity. And this is essentially what the CFTC was dismantling, right under everyone’s noses.
Morgan’s investments in the oil business continued aggressively over the next year into the far corners of the industry. In short order it closed the circle of the supply chain by acquiring Heidmar, a shipping company, and various stakes in foreign-based energy supply companies. It even snagged a contract from the U.S. Department of Energy to store 750,000 barrels of home heating oil at its corporately owned terminal in New Haven, Conn. Morgan Stanley, which was at the time the largest trader in oil futures, was now a serious international oil company.
Speculation Takes Centre Stage
It was the Masters testimony that brought speculation into the light and sent shockwaves through the halls of Congress. Masters was able to simplify the exchange and put the issues in a context that lawmakers could grasp. One of the telling examples he gives is that “Index speculators [companies such as Morgan Stanley] have now stockpiled, via the futures market, the equivalent of 1.1 billion barrels of petroleum, effectively adding eight times as much oil to their own stockpile as the United States has added to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the last five years.”
This essentially squashed the claims of the investment banks that demand from parts of the world such as China and India was solely responsible for the increase in oil futures prices. However, there are some theorists who still vehemently deny that this is the case.
James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and creator of the popular blog Clusterfuck Nation, believes that the effect from the speculative market is “basically witch-hunt stuff.” A peak oil theorist, Kunstler, on the phone from his home in Saratoga Springs in upstate NY, says he believes that the root of the problem lies more in our global dependence upon a commodity that is quite simply disappearing.
American scientist M. King Hubbert predicted in the 1950s that American oil production would peak by the early 1970s. He was right. His predictive model was the basis for peak oil theory, which, when applied to the global market, indicates that the world may hit peak oil production within the next 20 years or sooner. Kunstler says that “the biggest thing that’s going on right now is the oil export problem or crisis.
“What that means,” he adds, “is the countries that we depend on for imported oil are less and less able to send it out and they’re using more of their own oil even as they’re in depletion. Two of the biggest cases of this are Mexico and Venezuela.”
While America imports the vast majority of its oil from Mexico, Venezuela and Canada––not the Middle East-and there is evidence to support the peak-oil predictions in some of these areas, it seems to speak more to the long-term crisis that mature and developing countries face. But it doesn’t fully explain away why oil prices would increase exponentially during the summer months and then decline shortly thereafter.
“Instead of oil going up,” Greenberger says, “oil is going down. Has India and China dramatically cut back? Nothing has changed and, in fact, the supply-demand factor has probably gotten worse because of Russia’s aggression [and] the severe weather, but oil is sinking, sinking, sinking. How can that possibly be?”
So if oil prices could be so easily manipulated, why didn’t it happen more severely and immediately when restrictions were lifted in 2006? While oil prices did indeed climb between the time the ICE was created in Atlanta and the regulations were lifted in January of 2006, they didn’t skyrocket until late in 2007.
Enter Douglas Terreson.
The Terreson timeline
Douglas Terreson, the Morgan Stanley analyst who said that independent refining and marketing companies were undervalued, was the bank’s chief oil analyst. The award-winning, nationally recognized Terreson had fielded questions in relation to oil prices and futures since the mid-1990s. On March 14 of this year, he said that oil would settle in at around $95 per barrel for the remainder of 2008. Moreover, Terreson also concluded that oil would retreat to around $83 per barrel for 2009.
This would be Terreson’s last forecast for Morgan Stanley.
Two short months later, Dow Jones Newswires reported that Terreson had been ousted in a round of layoffs. Two weeks after that, Richard Berner, Morgan Stanley co-head of global economics and chief U.S. economist, issued a statement saying that crude oil could easily reach $150 a barrel.
This speculation set off a round of speculative fervor never before seen in the market. Goldman Sachs immediately followed suit by forecasting oil to roar beyond $150, saying it could hit $200 a barrel in the near future. Oil prices were off to the races, with the investment banks in full lobbying mode while pointing the finger at China and India.
On September 19, 2007, Morgan Stanley’s stock price was $67 and oil was at $78. This was the day that Morgan Stanley began to trickle out the bad news. The worse the news was coming out of the investment banks, the higher oil prices would climb. By the time Morgan announced that Terreson was gone, Morgan’s stock was at $41 and oil was at $134.
In retrospect, the turning point appears to be Morgan’s $150 forecast by Berner. It fuelled the apprehension of the media and Wall Street alike. Americans were quick to do the math and knew that the spike would mean $5 per gallon at the pump. Maybe more. Suddenly everyone recalled the 1970s, and new terms such as “stay-cation” were on everyone’s lips.
So, where did this $150 number come from? Who better to answer that question than Richard Berner, the man behind the proclamation?
Unfortunately, a spokesperson for Morgan Stanley tells the Press that Richard Berner “doesn’t do interviews on oil stuff.” In fact, “he doesn’t deal in oil” at all, says his assistant matter-of-factly. That’s because for more than a decade this had been the exclusive domain of Terreson. Yet a month after the report that Terreson had been laid off, Morgan Stanley issued a statement claiming that Terreson voluntarily left his position at Morgan for the promise of higher pay from a hedge fund.
Not so, according to a Morgan Stanley employee familiar with the circumstances surrounding Terreson’s departure, who asked not to be identified in this story. Taken aback by the confusion surrounding Terreson’s reason for leaving, he says, “I knew they had a rightsizing, but he said he was retiring. He was getting ready to head off into the sunset.” And, just like that, Terreson was gone.
Morgan Stanley no longer has a spokesperson for oil. Nor are they willing to comment on the decision to forecast crude oil futures at $150 per barrel by someone who “doesn’t deal in oil.”
Terreson, once an integral part of the Houston community and a rising star in the financial sector, seemingly disappeared from the city altogether. His home phone has been disconnected. His former co-workers were unsure of his whereabouts. And almost no one from the firm at which he spent years as a superstar in his field wants to discuss why.
When the press finally reached Terreson at his present residence in Alabama, he simply offered, “I’m retired. I’m not with Morgan anymore and can’t talk about any of this.” When asked for a brief comment on current oil prices, Terreson responded, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about it,” and hung up the phone.
The smell coming our way
Still, the question persists: If the market conditions surrounding the price of crude oil futures remained unchanged, why were the analysts at the world’s largest banks determined to drive up the price of oil at a historic pace?
Was it merely dumb luck that this rampant speculation occurred at a time when the major investment banks were reporting record losses and write downs due to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown? It is Greenberger’s assertion that “a lot of people were very upset that they were in a sense humping their own product-not only their physical holdings but their future holdings.” What he’s referring to is the fact that Morgan Stanley doesn’t just trade oil futures; it’s also very much in the business of oil. This is a fact that is “unseemly,” according to Greenberger and many onlookers of the financial markets. One such observer is Gary Aguirre, a former staff lawyer and investigator for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), who has testified several times in front of Congress and is widely considered a leading authority on financial markets.
“The way it ran up had all the earmarks of manipulation,” says Aguirre from his office in San Diego. “It looked like somebody was playing a game. I don’t know what the game was or how they did it but that was…the smell drifting my way.” As far as Morgan Stanley and Mack are concerned, Aguirre knows firsthand just how powerful the Wall Street tycoon is.
In 2005, Aguirre headed up an investigation into an insider trading claim involving Mack and a hedge fund named Pequot Capital Management. Mack’s involvement came during the period between his tenure at Credit Suisse First Boston and his return as chairman of Morgan Stanley. There were allegations of insider trading on the part of Mack by the SEC, but just when the investigation seemed to be gaining momentum, Aguirre was told to back off by his bosses at the SEC. After a glowing review from his superior, Aguirre went on vacation. When he returned, he got a pink slip, not a raise.
Aguirre insists that his own experience is merely part of a larger and much scarier problem running rampant on Wall Street.
“What we have are the markets highly leveraged, highly speculative and without any regulation, effectively, of the abuses,” he explains. “In short, it’s not much different than it was just before the crash in 1929.” This sentiment is echoed throughout Wall Street and the Beltway as the news from Wall Street grows more desperate with each piece of bad press about the economy.
The cozy relationship between oil companies and the U.S. government is nothing new to people like Aguirre who are familiar with the system. Aguirre explains the “you scratch my back” culture in monetary terms by saying, “These people are sponsored by the industry. Paulson’s straight out of Goldman. We have the fox guarding the henhouse.” (He’s referring to U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who was chairman of Goldman Sachs until June 2006.)
This was certainly true for Wendy Gramm, leaving the CFTC for the Enron board, and for her husband, who received nearly $100,000 in financial contributions from Enron while in office.
“These Enron traders were highly sought after,” says Greenberger. “Enron showed in its dying days how you could make a lot of money trading unregulated energy futures products.”
The real price of oil
A report titled “Double Jeopardy: Responding to High Food and Fuel Prices,” issued by the World Bank on July 2 of this year, estimates that “up to 105 million people could become poor due to rising food prices alone,” with “30 million additional persons falling into poverty in Africa alone.”
The report links the effect of high food prices directly to rising energy and oil costs-but stops short of blaming speculators, claiming that commodity investors and hedge fund activity appear to have played only a “minor role” in the increase of food and fuel prices. The report’s source: The CFTC.
The eye-opening May testimony from Masters was a scathing indictment of the CFTC’s thinking. In it, he claimed, “The current wheat futures stockpile of Index Speculators is enough to supply every American citizen with all the bread, pasta and baked goods they can eat for the next two years.”
As far as the much maligned “corn for ethanol” program that has environmentalists and lobbyists alike backing away, Masters contends that “Index Speculators have stockpiled enough corn futures to potentially fuel the entire United States ethanol industry at full capacity for a year.”
At least high oil prices have us thinking about alternative energy, right? According to Kunstler, it’s a case of too little, too late: “No amount of alternative fuels is going to allow us to run the stuff we’re running the way we’re running it, and we have to get hip to that. We’re not going to run the interstate highway system and Wal-Mart and Walt Disney World on any combination of ethanol, solar, wind, nuclear or chicken fat. We’re going to have to make other arrangements for daily life, and it’s the one thing we’re not talking about.”
Kunstler has very little faith that we can afford the new technology, let alone old fossil fuel technology. “The ‘whoosh’ that you hear in the background is the sound of capital leaving the system,” he muses. On this, most everyone agrees: Kunstler, Greenberger, Aguirre and Masters all come from diverse backgrounds, but all point out that our financial system seems to be hanging by a thread and that the corrupt regulatory system is mostly to blame.
Given the recent government bailout of Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and AIG, the collapse of companies such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, and political unrest in the far reaches of the globe, there is always the possibility that the banks prolonged the collapse of our financial system. Skyrocketing oil prices have also highlighted our complete dependence and addiction to oil and brought the debate to the surface in the upcoming presidential election. For better or for worse, people are talking about oil, and not in favorable terms.
When Terreson’s oil price forecast was less than what Richard “Doesn’t-Deal-In-Oil” Berner believed it to be, his career at Morgan Stanley ended abruptly. When Berner predicted $150 oil, the entire world market responded to this claim. Was Terreson tired of shilling for Morgan and thus decided to retire at the tender age of 46? Or was he unceremoniously axed after refusing to alter his forecast on oil prices? Then again, was he part of the game all along and paid handsomely to “ride off in the sunset,” as one co-worker described?
Regardless of the reasons behind Terreson’s departure, there is still the question of motive.
Why drive oil prices beyond practical limits?
Let’s say for a moment that you run Morgan Stanley. Over the past few years you made a couple of bad deals. OK, so it was more than a couple, but not as many as your friends at Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. Thankfully, you have remarkable control over the price of oil-just by forecasting it. Heck, you don’t even have to “deal in oil” or do interviews “on oil stuff,” you just have to pick a number and watch the market actually try and hit it.
Not to mention you also own companies that operate refineries. You control shipping routes. The government has handed you a contract to store 750,000 barrels of home heating oil for the Northeast United States. You founded and are still an owner in a public exchange that handles energy trades that no one can really see. Win. Win. Win. Win.
It’s not difficult to see how America got here. The worst part is, it was all legal. The federal government, beginning with Wendy and Phil Gramm, cleared the way for tremendous systematic abuse in the financial markets to fatten the Gramm family bank account with blood money-Wendy Gramm’s multimillion-dollar take as an Enron board member and Phil Gramm raking in more than $335,000 in campaign contributions from the securities and investment industries.
Instead of being punished for these now well-documented actions, Wendy Gramm is still influencing Capitol Hill at the Mercatus Center and Phil Gramm has been advising McCain, the man who might be our next president.
People are beginning to contemplate peak oil and imagine that while the world may have flattened out for a while, it’s getting a whole lot rounder again. Kunstler proclaims, “Globalism was a product of a certain time and place and special circumstances, namely, a period of very cheap oil and relative peace between the great powers.” It’s what he calls the “end of the happy motoring era.”
Still, one can’t help but think about how quickly the end of this era may be arriving and for what reason. The “demand shock” that Masters speaks of also created a hunger shock that reverberated around the globe. Perhaps the analysts and speculators were acting to save their own banks in the short run––lest they wind up like Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers.
But it seems awfully easy to manipulate the markets when you control so many pieces of the puzzle. Does saving a bank and focusing our daily discussions on renewable technology really equal thrusting millions of people into poverty and pushing price increases on the global food markets?
Congress has the ability to seize control of these markets even before the upcoming presidential election. The new president will decide whether we drill or not, but this decision has nothing to do with restoring the oversight and stability that existed in the commodities arena from 1936 until 2006. If it weren’t for federal oversight and regulation, Morgan Stanley-which was created in 1935 from the ashes of the 1929 crash-wouldn’t even exist. But history is often forgotten, or ignored, by greedy corporate raiders who are therefore destined to repeat it.
How They Roll
Energias de Portugal (EDP) is the national energy producer for Portugal. For insight into how Morgan Stanley conducts its investments on the open market, the following are excerpts from a release by EDP announcing the sale of stock to Morgan Stanley subsidiaries. We have highlighted the different corporations, in case you lose track. See if you can follow along:
• “On April 21, 2008, Morgan Stanley notified EDP that as a result of a share transaction concluded on the 16th of April 2008 and in accordance with article 20 of the Portuguese Securities Market Code, it became [sic] to hold 79,157,462 ordinary shares of EDP, which represent 2.16% of EDP share capital and 2.16% of the voting rights and 16,745,810 convertible bonds into EDP shares, which represent .46% of the EDP share capital and an imputation of .46% of the voting rights.”
OK. Fairly straightforward. How did they do it? Take a deep breath and read the following sentence out loud.
• Morgan Stanley & Co. International – which is owned by Morgan Stanley UK Group, which is owned by Morgan Stanley Group (Europe), and this is owned by Morgan Stanley International Limited, that is owned by Morgan Stanley International Holding Inc that is owned by Morgan Stanley – holds 68,334,088 ordinary shares of EDP, which represent 1.86% of EDP share and capital and 1.86% of the voting rights and 16,745,810 convertible bonds into EDP shares, which represent .46% of EDP share capital and an imputation of .46% of the voting rights;
But wait, there’s more…
• Morgan Stanley & Co. Incorporated – which is owned by Morgan Stanley – holds 9,485,622 shares representing .25% of the share capital and .25% of the voting rights;
• MSDW Equity Finance Services I (Cayman) Ltd – which is owned by MSDW Offshore Equity Services, which is owned by Morgan Stanley – holds 1,000,000 shares corresponding to .02% of the share capital and .02% of the voting rights;
• Morgan Stanley Capital (Luxemborg) S.A. – Which is owned by Morgan Stanley International Holdings Inc, which is owned by Morgan Stanley – holds 316,552 shares representing .00% of the share capital and 0.00% of the voting rights;
• Bank Morgan Stanley AG (Zurich) – which is owned by MSDW Equity Finance Services I, which is owned by MSDW Offshore Equity Services, which is owned by Morgan Stanley – holds 21,200 shares corresponding to 0.00% of the share capital and 0.00% of the voting rights.