Viewpoint: How Wall Street Rigs the Game

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If you watched the recent presidential debates or the Republican and Democratic conventions, you might have gotten the impression that the practices of Wall Street that led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression have been fixed. None of the candidates are talking about it. Aside from Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, politicians are noticeably silent on an issue that still poses a real risk to people’s economic futures: a financial system that is rigged against the ordinary citizen in favor of the banks — and allows the gains to be privatized to an elite few, even as the losses are socialized to everyone in America.

The truth is that the problem has not been fixed. Did you know that four years after the crisis, and more than two years after the passage of “landmark financial reform,” fewer than one-third of the new laws have been implemented and more than three-quarters of the required deadlines have been missed by the regulators? Did you know that the Wall Street lobby has spent more than $300 million trying to kill — or insert loopholes into — key rules that would ensure greater transparency in derivatives and forbid banks from betting against their own customers? Did you know that the nation’s five largest banks are even bigger than they were before the financial meltdown? Unfortunately, the politicians and regulators are buckling. There is a leaking dam, and what lawmakers and regulators have done so far is put a Band-Aid over it.

Who gets hurt when the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street starts turning and both the former chairman of the SEC, Arthur Levitt, and Jake Siewert, former aide to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, go work for Goldman Sachs? Or when Governor Tim Pawlenty leaves politics to head up the most powerful Wall Street lobby in the country? Or when big banks like JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs are overwhelmingly funding the campaigns of the very people who are supposed to be making laws to regulate them? The answer is that you get hurt, because your lawmakers get influenced, their objectivity gets compromised, and they lose their ability to ask the hard questions and fix the problem. Witness the recent case of JPMorgan’s losing $6 billion on reckless trades, claiming it was a “hedge” and allowing the executives who ran the group to leave with millions of dollars’ worth of golden parachutes.

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When Wall Street CEOs are hauled in front of Congress, as Lloyd Blankfein was amid the SEC fraud charges against Goldman that ultimately resulted in a half-billion-dollar settlement with the government in 2010, they tend to make the “we’re all big boys” argument: essentially that because they are dealing with sophisticated investors, they don’t have an obligation to tell their clients when they are getting themselves into trouble.

But whose money are we talking about here? There is a misconception that Wall Street is composed of rich people gambling with other rich people’s money, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The secret that Wall Street doesn’t want anyone to know is that hedge funds comprise less than 5% of assets in the stock market. The real big players in the market are individual households and the pension funds, mutual funds, university endowments, charities and foundations that are entrusted with your savings, donations, retirement funds and 401(k)s. They are the owners of trillions and trillions of dollars invested with Wall Street banks. So, in effect, you are the big player in the market. And when a Wall Street bank overcharges a teacher’s retirement fund or a charity on a complex product, or misprices the Facebook IPO, causing billions of dollars of wealth destruction, or helps the governments of Greece and Italy cover up their debt, or rigs interest rates affecting trillions of dollars of loans, it ultimately affects you directly and comes out of your pocket.

But how does Wall Street make so much money anyway? Surely there are times when it must lose? Actually, not as often as you might think. Consider this: There are certain quarters when a Wall Street bank makes money every single day of that quarter in its trading business. Yes: 90 days in a row. One hundred percent of the time, it generates a profit. Bank of America has pulled off this amazing feat. That is like batting 1.000. A perfect record. How is this even possible?

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Two words: asymmetric information. The playing field is not even. The bank can see what every investor in the marketplace is doing and therefore knows more than everyone else. If the casino could always see your cards and sometimes even decide what cards to give you, would you expect it ever to lose?

Here’s how it happens: Because Wall Street is facilitating business for the smartest hedge funds, mutual funds, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and corporations in the world, it knows who is on every side of countless trades. It can effectively see everyone’s cards. Therefore, it can bet smarter with its own money. Worse, if Wall Street can persuade you to trade a custom-made and impossible-to-understand structured product that serves the firm’s needs, it is as if your cards have been predetermined. There is little risk that the casino will lose in this scenario.

Also consider where the gambling takes place. In a real casino, it is on a casino floor with cameras all over the place. Even if you don’t like Las Vegas gambling, it is regulated. On Wall Street, by contrast, the gambling can be moved to a darkened room where nothing is recorded, observed or tracked. With opaque unregulated derivatives, there are no cameras. In this smoke-filled room, there is maximum temptation to try to exploit unsophisticated investors and conflicts of interest. And this temptation and lack of transparency are what led to the global financial crisis in 2008.

Finally, think about the dealer. Your banker might seem objective — like a friendly casino dealer who jokes around and is on your side — but there are times when he or she might be trying to steer you toward the thing that makes the casino the most money. If you were playing blackjack and you had 19, would the dealer ever tell you to hit? Sometimes, on Wall Street, he urges you to take another card.

With all these advantages, how can Wall Street ever lose? Even real casinos don’t make money every single day of the quarter.

The reforms Wall Street is pushing back the hardest against are in the areas it knows are the most profitable: derivatives and proprietary trading. But these also happen to be the areas that are most dangerous to the stability of the financial system. Wall Street hates transparency and will fight as hard as possible to prevent it from coming.

I want to be clear about something: I am a capitalist, and I believe in businesses’ growing by making as much money as they can. But in order for capitalism to work, it must be done fairly and transparently and on an even playing field. I simply don’t believe that free-market capitalism can operate effectively without ethical as well as legal boundaries. And I certainly don’t believe that deceiving your customers is necessary to generate maximum returns. In my view, today’s take-the-money-and-run model is neither responsible nor sustainable.

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How can it be that four years after the crisis, not enough has been done to fix any of this? Don’t we live in the greatest democracy in the world? People should be outraged that there is no political will to fix a problem that hurts everyone, enriches a superminority that has learned to rig the game and could threaten the world with another calamity in a few years’ time.

After the stock-market crash in 1929, the U.S. Senate conducted the Pecora hearings to investigate the sources of the crash. This inquiry led to real reforms that held banks accountable and eliminated the abusive practices that had caused the crash. This was followed by decades of calm in the financial system. Before you go to the ballot box on Nov. 6, shouldn’t you be asking your Senate, House or presidential candidate this question: Why don’t you have the guts to do the same thing?

Until he resigned in March 2012, Greg Smith was a Goldman Sachs executive director and ran its U.S. equity-derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He is the author of the new book, Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story. You can follow him on Twitter @GregSmith_NY