Risky Business

by ROBERT WEISSMAN

Blackstone.

That is the ultimate refutation to the unbelievably brazen campaign
being run by Wall Street hucksters and the knee-jerk oppositionists to law and order at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Blackstone is the giant private equity firm that, ironically, has just gone public (at least in part). Private equity firms are making headlines for making zillions of dollars buying publicly traded firms and taking them private (and later selling them again on public stock exchanges).

The Wall Street-Chamber campaign alleges that the U.S. financial services sector is facing a competitiveness crisis, due to regulation, litigation and prosecution.

Yes, really.

Here’s the Chamber’s CEO Tom Donohue, commenting as the House Committee on Financial Services met yesterday to discuss the role of the Securities Exchange Commission in protecting investors and overseeing the capital markets: "A broken securities class action lawsuit system and an unpredictable and inefficient regulatory system have created a drag on the competitiveness of our capital markets," said Donohue.

Go ahead and wipe away the crocodile tears.

You have to work mighty hard to muster sympathy for Wall Street. Leave aside the very trivial role played by Wall Street firms in supporting actual investment and innovation. Concede for a moment the questionable premise that Wall Street firms provide a genuinely important social function in facilitating development of the real economy. Forget about the massive financial frauds perpetrated by Wall Street and corporate CEOs over the last decade.

Just consider the profits and earnings for those who make their living on Wall Street. The guys in the fancy suits are doing alright for themselves.

Wall Street bonuses totaled $23.9 billion in 2006, according to the New York State comptroller, up 17 percent over 2005. It takes top Wall Street traders about two hours to make as much as the median U.S. household earns in a year, notes Sam Pizzigati, editor of the on-line newsletter Too Much.

Profits at Citigroup actually fell in 2006 — and the company was still the third most profitable publicly traded corporation in the United States, according to Fortune. Bank of America saw profits soar by 28 percent to $21.1 billion, to register the fourth highest profitability in the United States. J.P. Morgan came in ninth. Profits at Goldman Sachs were up 90 percent, to $9.5 billion — good for sixteenth on the Fortune list.

And then there’s Blackstone. In selling part of itself on the publicly traded markets, the firm was forced to disclose important financial information. CEO Steve Schwarzman made $400 million in 2006. He grabbed $677 million when the company became publicly traded. And his share in the company is valued at $7.7 billion.

The phantasmagoria peddled by various blue-ribbon commissions anointed by Wall Street and the Chamber disregards these riches and concentrates on one overriding deception: The claim that regulation and litigation is driving companies to float their Initial Public Offerings (IPOs, the moment when they initially sell their stock) on foreign markets.

There has been some diversification of IPOs, but it mostly reflects the fact that stock markets in other countries are rapidly developing, and companies in those countries are choosing to list on their home country exchanges.

Once you take that into account, plus the role of a London-based market in attracting small-firm IPOs, it turns out there in fact has not been a shift of IPOs to other national markets. A devastating January 2007 White Paper from Ernst & Young looking at every IPO in the first half of 2006 found that 90 percent were conducted in the launching company’s home country. Of the remaining 10 percent, only a few were "in play" — most went to regional markets, or were small-caps that went to the London Alternative Investment Market. Of the IPOs in play — a grand total of 17 for the first six months of 2006 — about two-thirds were listed on U.S. exchanges.

And then there’s this: Blackstone, the cutting edge of high-fallutin’ finance, chose to do its own IPO on the New York Stock Exchange. And it did quite nicely for itself.

There actually is a looming crisis on Wall Street, but it is the opposite of what the Street’s elite claim. The last five years has seen the rapid evolution of esoteric financial instruments that are subject to almost no regulation or even disclosure requirements. Private equity deals depend on massive amounts of debt; hedge funds too are placing massive bets using borrowed money; and debt itself is being traded like a commodity as never before. The assurance from Wall Street is: don’t worry; only sophisticated players are involved in these deals, they know what they are doing, and they can afford to absorb losses.

But those same sophisticated players were badly burned by the Enron, WorldCom and related frauds of the nineties’ stock market bubble. These characters can apparently be defrauded without too much difficulty. Far more importantly, they regularly suspend their good judgment in pursuit of fads — which means lots of institutional players make the same mistakes at the same time.

It’s reasonable to ask, so what? If the rich get soaked, that’s their problem.

But the institutional players bought into Wall Street’s financial exotica are investing regular people’s pension and retirement monies, so lots of people stand to get hurt.

Even more importantly, the scope of debt-heavy bets now being placed on Wall Street are so huge that the market movers and shakers are doing more than gambling with their own money — they are placing the health of the entire financial system at risk. That raises the prospect of huge potential taxpayer bailouts, or financial crises with impacts on the real economy that are too large to be averted by government action.

For their own good, but more crucially for the good of the rest of us, what Wall Street and the global financial system need is much more regulation, prosecution and stricter liability rules. Things are moving far too fast, with far too little acknowledgement of risk, and far too little oversight or disclosure.

ROBERT WEISSMAN is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor and director of Essential Action.


 

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