Putting Lipstick on an AIG

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Hockey moms aren’t the only ones wearing Maybelline. Pigs — as Barack Obama says — come in cherry gloss too.

Like the porkers at Wall Street lining up with their lips in a pucker behind Washington’s plush behind. Having pigged out at the public trough for years, they now want their sticky little trotters washed down in the righteous waters of the Potomac.

Tarting up comes natural to our Wall Street-walkers. Turns out these great big masters of the universe were really, well, girly men who couldn’t balance their check-books and put out more than they took in… like any working girl.

Lipstick is especially right for Goldman Sachs, which likes to cross-dress as a devout public servant in after-hours and has at least one set of heels working the floor of the Treasury department during any crisis. Yep, I’m pretty sure Hank Paulson would look good in high-gloss plum. You see, lip shtick is just what Hank’s good at. He was out on Monday flapping his lips with the kind of plummy platitudes you’d expect from semantically challenged mental health workers, not from a Treasury Secretary. A Treas. Sec., mind you, who was once a Goldman CEO not above inserting carefully chosen knives into the ribs of colleagues.

"We need to put this behind us," quoth Hank. "We must move forward."

"We need to work through this."

"We need to heal."

We, of course, need to do nothing. There is no we here. This is a Wall Street crisis. And the usual suspects on Wall Street need to line up, bend over and get caned for their misdeeds. Barring that, they need to take the market’s medicine like men.

Instead, they were out in full therapeutic mode, pouting and whining for a change of their soggy diapers by dear Nanny Washington.

And Nanny obliged.

First there was Fannie and Freddie, the terrible twins, who were taken lovingly into the conservatorship of the state. Translation: they went belly up and the funeral expenses were billed to the tax-payer, though the estate had been sold at private auction a long time before.

Oh, those twins.

Inhaling the swampy fumes of government but croaking from the terra firma of the market. Owned by individuals, backed by the state. The formula of the managed economy — privatized profits and socialized losses.

Created by Congress to expand home ownership by making finance available to a bigger part of the population, the two companies own (or guarantee) around 40 percent of the $8.5 trillion U.S. residential mortgage market. They are the biggest single borrowers in the US, after the federal government. In 2006 they were hit with a $350 million dollar fine, one of the biggest ever assessed by the SEC, as a penalty for accounting malpractice. Then Fannie even got caught trying to pull Nanny’s strings to discredit the regulator. Which strings were those? We can only guess.

Quote: "Goldman Sachs was one of several institutions actively involved in the accounting fraud, its contribution being earnings manipulation through the creation of MBS’s — mortgage-backed securities — in Fannie’s portfolio, a strategy remarkably similar to Goldman’s actions on behalf of Enron. Of note also is the fact that in 2005, while the investigation was ongoing, Congress placed Fannie directly under the Federal Reserve, raising the specter of a surreptitious government bail-out outside the public eye, at some point."

[That’s from an investment report I did on Goldman Sachs in August 2006. The only thing wrong in it was that the government bail-out took place in full view of the public.]

That is to say, while Hank blubbers on about how we need more regulation, that’s only now, during bust-time. Way back in bubble-time, Hank’s old firm was busy dabbing rouge on the pork in Fannie’s books and playing hopscotch with regulations.

O tempora, O mores.

Why, back in bubble time, even the former Fed chairman, the all-but-sainted Alan Greenspan was more prescient. He noted that failure to smack down the bratty twins could lead to "systemic risk" in the capital markets.

Of course, he said that after first telling Jane Citizen to go forth and borrow. But that’s because, like the monetary philanthropist he was, Greenspan believed in the widespread giving of ARMs.

As public servant Hank today, so public servant Greenspan back then.

Greenspan too liked dabbing rouge on pork. He relished painting market bottoms with the varnish of cheap money. It made them look plumper and rosier than they really were. Eventually the bottoms looked up and turned into booms, he reminded us.

The rouge worked. Books got beautified. Risky turned risqué.

"The image of Fannie Mae as one of the lowest-risk and ‘best in class’ institutions was a faade,” said James B. Lockhart, the acting director of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO) when it released its report in May 2006.

In other words Fannie was a pig, even with the lipstick.

Of course, Goldman’s not the only one on Wall Street with a wicked hand for make-up artistry. The ratings agencies haven’t been too bad themselves, with all that triple-A gloss they plastered on gangrenous sub-prime debt. What was that about? A little make-over for the corpse before the public viewing?

Truth be told. Goldman got good at putting lipstick on porkers long before they dabbed it on Fannie and Freddie. They were doing it in 1999 in ole Hank’s CEO days. Goldman helped Enron’s “smart guys” conduct massive energy futures trading and its leverage, like Enron’s, ballooned. [They had their leverage thang going in those days too.]

Then, in 1993 Goldman invented a special accounting scheme to perk up Enron’s books — “Monthly income preferred shares” (or MIPS) they called it. MIPS let Enron sell fifty-year securities through specially created off-shore companies. To the IRS, Enron described the preferred stock as “debt” and claimed tax deductions on the interest payments. To shareholders, Enron called the same stock “equity” and counted it in the company’s capital value. Goldman took home massive underwriting fees from the scheme

In one year, Goldman had helped 17 companies besides Enron sell 2.7 billion MIPS. There was an offering every week, each dodging IRS rules with more and more finesse. Average commission and interest rates on MIPS ran much higher than on normal debt — between 1 and 1.2%. Goldman made tens of millions.

When the IRS, Treasury and the SEC decided to plug the loophole that was costing them hundreds of millions of dollars a year, Goldman and Merrill Lynch, along with the industry trade group, the Bond Market Association, began big-time lobbying. Then Goldman CEO Jon Corzine (later a US senator and NY Jersey governor) made sure the legislation got nipped in the bud and Goldman’s little accounting number actually ended up a chart-busting hit on the financial circuit.

So when Hank Paulson rushes to put together a bail-out for Merrill Lynch but brushes Lehman aside, he’s just remembering who he used to jam with in the old days. (Of course, buying up Merrill shares trading at $17 for $29 might not be most people’s idea of a bail-out. But that’s another story.)

It could be also that when he’s not actually slitting throats, Hank just likes to lend a helping hand to old Goldmanites, like Merrill’s John Thain (a Goldman COO, CFO and President). You see, our Hank is a helping kind of guy. Like the time he helped Thain help himself to Dick Grasso’s seat at the head of the New York Stock Exchange. Oh, those public servants. Never a moment of rest from the helping.

That’s probably why Hank is helping out A.I.G.

Turns out Maurice ("Hank") Greenberg, the former chair of A.I.G., is an old friend of John Whitehead, another former Goldman head.

The pranks of these Hanks get to be almost as complex as those derivative deals that melt hedge-funds like marshmallows on a grill. But the short of it seems to be that Greenberg jumped ship at AIG after Eliot Spitzer, crusading heavy of the SEC, came sniffing around in 2005. Improprieties,…bid rigging… hissed Spitzer, turning on the heat. Hank (G.) denied it stoutly, but AIG had to restate some of its numbers. It got so warm that even Hank (P.) who left his roost at Goldman Sachs in 2006 to perch at Treasury could smell the flames.

The operative word here is Treasury. That is to say, in the normal run of things, hookers and pols having always gone together like dill and pickles, a married man’s boody calls would provoke no more than a yawn. They certainly wouldn’t have come to the attention of the revenue department. But Spitzer’s zeal had aroused the ire of the banking mafia. And thus it was that no sooner did things get really toasty on Wall Street, then along comes an IRS probe that turns up Spitzer’s sins of the flesh. And thus the public was regaled with the seedy drama of the Emperor’s Club and Eliot. And thus also Wall Street dethroned the hated securities czar and sent him scurrying back to his former life as a mere real estate billionaire.

But now, with Hank (G., not P.) defending AIG as a national treasure fully deserving of taxpayer TLC, you begin to wonder about it all. If AIG was such a treasure, why did Greenberg ever leave? Why did he rail against his successor? And why defend AIG now? Was he thinking about the shares he still has at AIG?

[Maybe he was taking a leaf out of the book of yet another Goldman CEO, Robert Rubin, Obama’s unofficial economic guru, a man who’s made an art out of jumping ship at the right time (read, Citigroup) leaving his successors to hold the sub-prime bag. It’s a trick Rubin worked at as Secretary of the Treasury in the 1990s, when he (along with St. Alan) was responsible as much as anyone else for blocking regulation of the over-the-counter derivative trade and for consolidating the banks — misdeeds for which the rest of the financial industry is now paying.]

Buy this book.

And what about the Starr Foundation, the charity that Greenberg headed, and which Spitzer claimed he also misused? Turns out Spitzer wasn’t so wrong. Greenberg seems to have been using public funds to pursue his own agenda. Maybe Starr is another national treasure in the making… Or is national just what comes in after treasure goes out? You wonder some more.

Just this March, before AIG took ill, Hank (P, not G) came up with a proposal for insurance reform that amounted to an end-run by the big insurance players around the state insurance system. Now your wondering becomes positively thunderous.

There is no bigger player than AIG. Yet no private bids were considered. Had they been, AIG would surely have found private buyers. Lehman did.

Buy this book.

Instead the Fed bailed it out. Actually, it was the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the most important of the 12 Federal Reserve banks and the one responsible for carrying out the Fed’s exchange rate policy, i.e. for buying and selling dollars. It was the NY Fed which cobbled together the rescue of Bear Stearns. On NY Fed chairman Geithner’s board of directors sits another Goldman chief, Stephen Friedman. Geithner also takes unofficial advice from Goldman alums Gerald Corrigan and the aforementioned John Thain. Then, of course, there’s the man whose bidding Geithner is bound officially to do, the Treas. Sec. himself, His Holiness Hank, servant of the people.

However you cut it, that’s a lot of Goldman.

Which means that however you cut it, the bail-out of the giants of finance is not so much a bail-out of the economy…or of the banking system….

It’s not even a bail-out.

It’s an evisceration of some banks by others…a cannibalistic binge billed to the tax-payer.

No matter how much rosy gloss gets slathered on it, it’s a pig-out at the public trough.

Lila Rajiva [send her mail] is the author of the ground-breaking study, The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media (MR Press, 2005), and the co-author with Bill Bonner of Mobs, Messiahs and Markets (Wiley, 2007). Visit her blog.

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