Ben Stein, a man whose character and politics I find to be despicable, has a column today that I noticed on Yahoo Finance. A good buddy of mine, who stays closely abreast of these kinds of financial shenanigans, told me the other day that Ben Stein, in spite of his character flaws, had some really astute observations on this whole mess. So out of curiosity today, I clicked on the link.
And I have to admit, I am astounded by what he said. And even more by what he didn't say. The Big Question he leaves unanswered. It's seriously mind-blowing.
Here is the article:
And here is the meat of his article, which leads to the huge gaping hole which he leaves unfilled:
The crisis occurred (to greatly oversimplify) because the financial system allowed entities to place bets on whether or not those mortgages would ever be paid. You didn't have to own a mortgage to make the bets. These bets, called Credit Default Swaps, are complex. But in a nutshell, they allow someone to profit immensely - staggeringly - if large numbers of subprime mortgages are not paid off and go into default.
The profit can be wildly out of proportion to the real amount of defaults, because speculators can push down the price of instruments tied to the subprime mortgages far beyond what the real rates of loss have been. As I said, the profits here can be beyond imagining. (In fact, they can be so large that one might well wonder if the whole subprime fiasco was not set up just to allow speculators to profit wildly on its collapse...)
These Credit Default Swaps have been written (as insurance is written) as private contracts. There is nil government regulation of them. Who writes these policies? Banks. Investment banks. Insurance companies. They now owe the buyers of these Credit Default Swaps on junk mortgage debt trillions of dollars. It is this liability that is the bottomless pit of liability for the financial institutions of America.
Did you see that bolded section?
In fact, they can be so large that one might well wonder if the whole subprime fiasco was not set up just to allow speculators to profit wildly on its collapse...
Many of us have already said that, including a LOT of prominent economists like Michael Hudson. These people knew the loans they were making were bad loans. They knew the money wouldn't be paid back. Which has always bothered me -- why did they make bad loans on purpose? For short term gain? Well, yes, at least as far as some of the people involved go, like mortage agents in banks who worked on commission. But the people in charge were letting them make these loans. Why?
Now that is what leads to the real meat of what he's saying, the "Elephant in the Room", That Which Shall Remain Unspoken:
They now owe the buyers of these Credit Default Swaps on junk mortgage debt trillions of dollars. It is this liability that is the bottomless pit of liability for the financial institutions of America.
Somebody, somewhere, is blackmailing the economy. Because somebody, somewhere, is owed these TRILLIONS of dollars. And it is THEY who are holding a gun to the economy and demanding payment, and all of Wall Street, and even the Fed, cannot pay this debt.
So WHO is this Tony Soprano-like world figure? Who are these people? Why are we not identifying them, and talking to them, and negotiating with THEM, whoever they are, to keep from bankrupting the American economy in their favor?
Somebody, somewhere, is blackmailing the entire United States economy. Somebody, somewhere, has a gun to our head. And to the head of the American government.
I want to know who they are. I want them identified.
Who are they? And why are we willing to bankrupt the entire country in order to pay them off?
Somebody, somewhere, has way more power than they should have. Who?