Why Play a Rigged Game?

Poker is my religion. There are rules, upon violation of which, you get punished mercilessly. Some call it statistics, some – including myself – poker Gods.

When I sit down at the table I appreciate the plethora of characters from all walks of life. I appreciate the fact that there are winners and losers, luck and grind, spectacular twists of fate, rivalries but also universal fairness: In the long run, if you play correctly, you win. Very American Dream, isn’t it? There are quiet types you have to watch out for, business travelers, retirees, smelly hobos, students and “just passing by” types. There are also administrators of the entire establishment including dealers, floor managers, security that derive their sustenance from players; and an element of game – a deck of cards that is changed every few hours. You get my drift – just like a democracy. Except that we’ve been playing with the same stacked deck for the last few decades. Some people at the table will never get dealt two kings or two aces and it is not chance related. Others, who consistently win at the table make me wonder – have they really become so much smarter, savvier and better at math to beat the odds in such a remarkable manner? Am I to believe that some players are now so much sharper and more productive than they were 30 years ago, thus deserving not 20 times but 300 times the payouts of an average Joe Schmo?

That’s some impressive margin of error! So a hobo-looking character and a few students at the table complain about it and demand a new deck. And predictably, “good players” immediately jump in and attack them for being losers and comment on their personal hygiene. I wonder why – are they in on it? The sad truth is – correct play is no longer a guarantee against a long-term loss at this poker table of ours. And, if you don’t want to award any credibility to dirty hippies for voicing it, then who’s to know that better if not hundreds of thousands of people laid off from financial industry in the wake of the financial crisis. They played correct, solid game – they went to college, worked hard, got a mortgage, paid taxes and still got run over. Just look at the headlines from the last few days:

“Finance Job Losses Near 200,000 as BNP, Citigroup Cut Staff

Commerzbank sinks to first quarterly loss since ’09 and begins lending pull-back

UBS plans to cut 2,000 investment banking jobs

More heads roll in 2011 than in 2009

BNP Paribas to lay off 1,396 as crisis deepens” (Source: Options Group, Fins.com)

The first, and understandable, reaction of those laid off is to blame government regulation that encumbers the normal flow of business. If the government wasn’t pressuring banks to comply with strict rules those people would not have been laid off, the logic goes. While this can be somewhat true in the short term, are those people prepared to endure boom and bust business model in the future? And, more importantly, do they want to continue to play the game where the odds are against them, no matter how good their skills are? Guys, it’s been a juicy game at the table, no doubt, but not for you. Because to have a comfortable, middle-class life in Manhattan (not lavish, just comfortable!) you have to be a Managing Director at a Wall Street firm, but there’s simply not enough facility to accommodate everyone to become one. So what is the rest, the middle of the Bell curve with just college degree, strong work ethic and no delusions of grandeur supposed to do? Why is comfortable, middle-class life increasingly becoming a luxury available only to super achievers?

This juicy table is on the brink of breaking as more and more players are saying – we don’t want to play this game.

Those who think that OWS are anti-capitalists, iphone-using, Starbucks-drinking hypocrites and society leeches demanding handouts could not be further from the truth. “Get a Job” signs, while prompting self-satisfied chuckle in the Fox News crowd for being “clever”, fall flat. Those protesters would love to get a job but they can’t. Why is it that thousands upon thousands who lost jobs on Wall Street following the crisis deserve sympathy and the unemployed protesters don’t?

All they want is a new deck of cards. To clarify what I consider a new deck of cards is (just to start, in no particular order): reinstatement of Glass Steagall Act; effective government regulation (not necessarily more and not necessarily stricter – effective); enactment of Volcker Rule; a bailout fund sponsored by a tax on corporations to save themselves should shit hit the fan again; stricter regulation of credit-default swaps – you can buy protection only on the asset you own; executive compensation regulation. The latter is controversial and I would support a legislation that regulates the payouts of CEOs of deposit-taking institutions. If it’s a hedge fund that trades its’ own money – knock yourself out. But there’s no amount of stress and hard work that I can think of that would justify $68mln payout (Lloyd Blankfein compensation for 2007) for a bank CEO. Tough decisions to make, thousands of people to manage, sleepless nights, erectile dysfunction – fine – but unless you played with your own money and took your own risks and your downside is that you lose it all, move to the projects and dodge collectors – it’s not worth $68 bucks. Commanders in Iraq are under more stress and have to make decisions with lives, not money – for what a typical CEO considers change.

Americans love a good underdog story and often see Rocky or Billy Beane in themselves. That’s commendable, but under the current rules Rockys will be perpetually dragging that log and Billy Beanes will be perpetually tweaking those metrics with only a promise of a win in sight. I too love the element of competition and game in life, but to stay and play at that table would not make me a hero – it would make me a fool.

Keep the Customer Happy

“There has been class warfare going on. It’s just that my class is winning. And my class isn’t just winning, I mean we’re killing them.” Warren Buffett

Have you seen this We are the 53 percent website yet? The hard-working 53% sticking it to the 47% “whiners”? Somehow, in this country, it’s considered a badge of honor to suffer, to work oneself to the bone, to work two jobs and call those who are not “ok” with such a state of affairs “whiners”. These 53% are completely missing the point. The point is: it’s ok to work hard and make sacrifices in order to succeed not in order to get by. From those pictures I can tell that they are just scraping by, barely holding their head above water, and proud of it. Look, they are good folks, no doubt, but just because they are ok with being abused doesn’t mean all others should do the same. What about the disabled, elderly, single mothers? How are they supposed to work two jobs without health insurance? The 53% percent are looking for the culprit in all the wrong places. Somehow they think that the 47% are lazy bums on welfare who refuse to work. The 53% are either blissfully or willfully unaware that what keeps them from joining the 47% is one injury, one pink slip, one accident. Adversity is no doubt good for building a character but not everybody is Napoleon. And what do they have to show for such hard work that they’re doing? Guys, you’re on a treadmill that keeps going faster and faster and one day you won’t be able to keep up. I appreciate your fighting spirit, but you’re fighting the wrong war! The source of your suffering is not the unemployed, they are merely a symptom, it’s the rigged game that you play against the house. The 47% or the 99% of the OWS are simply saying: we refuse to play that game.

A few words about the house. I think the most honest business nowadays is a casino. Let me elaborate. First of all, they do not hide under the false façade: you know how their business model works. They do not pretend that your well-being is important to them, they are there to assist you in having a good time. When you’re a client of the casino they hold their promise: you get free drinks, you get comped, sometimes you get a free room. If you’re elderly or disabled you get an oxygen mask and an electric cart. And they take your money. Yes, it’s a fleecing business, but 1. You’re fully aware of this 2. You’re  having a good time. Wall Street and corporations have thus violated the most important principle of the system they themselves built: keep the customer happy. And by customer I mean taxpayer. If they insist on running the country, if they insist on controlling government (read: taxpayers) resources then the first rule they should have upheld is keep the customer happy. Imagine if the casino gambled with your money, lost it and then had the chutzpah to call you a welfare bum. That would piss you off. But would you be pissed off at your fellow customers or at the casino? Wall Street fucked it up spectacularly! They would have never drawn so much attention to themselves and would continue to run this shop if only they adhere to some simple rules and knew when to stop. Everything was going in their favor. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision granting corporations a personhood, politicians in their pocket, oblivious populace immersed in Jersey Shore and the belief that hard work pays off. It is those customers, the golden goose, the sacred cow that should have been cared for, not slaughtered; it’s them that Wall Street needs, not the other way around. Nowhere in the world can you find such premium clients as American taxpayer. What more did they want? The conditions were ripe to once and for all to cement the corporate world domination (cue in Dr. Evil’s laugh here), but then they handed the reins to a few self-assured frat boys. Very imprudent! So, Wall Street really have no one to blame but themselves for the current predicament. Not the customers. Customers played by the rules.

Wall Street Protests

Remember how in the first Wall Street movie Michael Douglas, while riding in a limo with Charlie Sheen, describes to him what it means to be rich. “I’m not talking about $400K working Wall Street stiff flying first class and being comfortable. I’m talking about being rich enough not to waste time” and then points a finger at a bum and a man in a suit on the sidewalk and says something like: there’s no difference between the two. I agree. There’s no difference between the current day protesters and most of the suits who’s commute the protesters are obstructing. Sure, one has a job, a house in New Jersey, health insurance, wife and 3 kids, the other – a sublet with roommates in Williamsburg, no job, no prospects and crushing student loans. What they don’t realize is that socially they are on the same side of the barricades, although the former associates oneself with his bosses rather than with those proletariats on the street. Our Wall Street Working Stiff (WSWS) is right to be upset and unhappy: he wakes up at 5, takes a long commute to work, takes shit from his boss, fends off vultures, pleases clients, worries about bonus and how not to get fired, goes home, takes shit from his wife, worries about mortgage and kids’ college fund and if he’s lucky he falls asleep without medicine. Day in and day out, year after year. And then to pile up on his already miserable existence he gets painted by all kinds of bums as being the culprit. That’ll make you angry.

You see “Wall Street” as a composite is about 99% guys like WSWS. They are the accountants, the compliance officers, the programmers, the analysts, the back office, the middle office and most of them wear suits to work. But the majority of them never had the imagination and the aptitude to come up with the stuff that brought this economy down. Those who did are long gone with nice packages. There are some still left but they don’t walk past the crowds downtown. They have limos waiting in the garage. But for the protesters every guy in a suit is a villain. They can’t tell a difference. I can. Only wannabes wear pinstripe suits and carry a briefcase. Whenever I see a guy like this I smell stiffness, platitudes and fear. The real rainmakers wear shirts with rolled-up sleeves and cheap shoes. And the “Wall Street” has long moved to midtown. Only the Fed and the Goldman is downtown now.

Now that I have defended, to the best of my abilities, Wall Street Working Stiffs I should say I support the protesters for finally channeling the anger of many to the right place. The “Wall Street” as an idea is still there and any attempts by politicians to rein it in so far have failed. Dodd-Frank, already toothless enough at the inception in order to be passed, has been made into a joke with amendments that favor the wrong guys. The bad guys will never go to jail as it’s almost impossible to indict them. Who? On what grounds? Creating mortgage-backed securities, while abominable, wasn’t illegal, selling them to “qualified” customers wasn’t either. Knowingly misleading the clients is such a weak case and everybody knows Goldman was doing it and yet Lloyd Blankfein still has his job.

The only thing clear now is that we’re all in this together. WSWS and hippie protesters are the 99%. Each group’s existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to the other, is a natural result of flawed policies. Both played by the rules and both feel, rightly, shortchanged. But instead of blaming each other they should turn their gaze and anger upwards. The kids occupying Wall Street seem to understand it. The WSWS – not yet.

Obama has to use the 14th Amendment.

Obama should invoke the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that states the following: The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.

 First of all it will force the party of “personal responsibility” to pay their debts. Let me remind you that the debt ceiling needs to be raised not to expand government spending in the future as our far right folks think, but to pay for bills that already have been incurred in the past, mostly by the same personally responsible, fiscally conservative party, like paying for wars, Bush’s tax cuts, and interest on the existing debt. (Obamacare has not kicked in yet, just so you know).

 Second, if someone will still question the legality of the move, he or she can take it to court. I can’t wait to see what sort of personal injury or loss of property they will claim to suffer from the event of NON-default. Well, I can imagine PIMCO folks or others who shorted Treasuries counting on default to have a monetary loss, but just picture them in front of US Supreme Court with this!

 Third, I don’t think the Tea Partiers in Congress understand the whole seriousness of the situation. They are looking at the default as if it’s a tool to use against Obama and not something that will hurt them or their constituents in the end. Politicians who engage in political posturing to placate their caucus is one thing, everyone does it, but Tea Party block are true believers – they really do want US to default, all be damned. “That’ll show’em!” – they think. They need to get some education from some wily lawyers who used to run the show in Congress, but who also know what a compromise is. When grandma or some average Joe investor or some contractor doesn’t get paid – who cares! But when Wall Street gets nervous and when Tea Party financial spigots are scratching their heads at a bunch of hillbillies they sent to Congress – that’s a wake-up call. When Wall Street feels like it won’t get paid – they will make sure their message gets through. And that’s where, with all my antipathy towards lawmakers, I would prefer crafty lawyers to uneducated hacks. The hacks that love the Constitution so much they want to amend it. The same hacks that love America so much they want her to default.

 And lastly, Bill Clinton says he would use this amendment “without hesitation” and “let them challenge me in court”. This alone would be enough for me!

Jedi Master has spoken

Many of you know my stance on taxes – I don’t think that progressive taxation is the end of the world. But when one of the richest men on the planet says that he and the ones like him are not taxed enough there must be something to it. Buffett Tells ABC Rich People Should Pay Higher Taxes Or as Fox News would conclude – a hidden socialist agenda.
I read a book about Buffett recently. His genius is simplicity. The way he succeeds is he gets the same information as everyone else – from annual reports – but he knows what information is important. He just knows how to ask the right questions. All of those Efficient Markets Theory apologists that question his record are a bunch of Ph.Ds that claim to know the future by looking at the charts of past events. There are still a bunch of those being employed by big banks to this day as market technicians. But in essence, they are no better than astrologists.
Despite having grown up in a very conservative family (his father was a member of the John Birch Society) he nonetheless learned to think for himself and has become known for his support of progressive causes throughout his career. But he does not let any sort of ideology guide him. All that matters is economic sense and right now that means to lower taxes on middle class and raise them on the top 1%. That also means that without Uncle Sam coming to rescue in 2008-2009 there would be no Ford, GM and Citi anymore and millions more would be unemployed. Pretty Good for Government Work

Of course, our fiscal conservatives love to point out, in horror, to France and Germany with their constant strikes that paralyze railroads and airports, etc. implying that this is what we’re going to turn to if we raise taxes on the rich, but, frankly, it’s like comparing apples and oranges: the unions in this country are so neutered that the only thing they can do these days is give concessions to the employers. Unions Yield on Wage Scales to Preserve Jobs Trust me the strike in this country would be suicidal for workers and unions. Employers would just move operations elsewhere. The diminished union influence is, in my opinion, one of the primary reasons why middle class is disappearing here. The top 1% controls about 23% of the wealth in this country. And the rest are living paycheck to paycheck while voting Republican and fearing Socialism.

Obama keeps tax cuts for the rich

First of all let me congratulate those destitute 1% of the population who were scraping by paycheck to paycheck and who can now breathe a sigh of relief. I heard so many frightening stories about how the 3% increase of their tax rate will slow the economic recovery. Now these 3% will sure trickle down to the rest of the population. But enough sarcasm – I’m really happy for them. Maybe now they will finally stop complaining that Obama administration treats them unfairly. From my previous posts you probably know that the abundance of complaints and general thinness of skin (real or assumed) on Wall Street (who else is in the top tax bracket?) is my favorite topic. The amount of wimps in the top bracket is breathtaking. Makes you wonder how is it that they made it to the top?

I think it all comes down to the fact that being viewed as a victim has become fashionable in this country. It’s a foolproof PR strategy. Moreover, it’s convenient – you get to blame a third party (Obama, government, stiff regulations, communists, etc.) for all of your misfortunes.
Obama, unfortunately, got himself in the position where he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. One part of the country thinks that he’s in bed with Wall Street, the other part of the country is convinced that he’s out to destroy capitalism, and media doesn’t bother to notice the controversy. For their own convenience certain news sources can criticize Obama for having too many Goldman guys in his administration (alluding, of course, that he’s conniving against the working man) and in the same breath accuse him of socialistic tendencies. I fault Obama for not fighting back hard enough against this nonsense. He’s in dire need of some pit bulls and a Fox-like echo chamber with talking heads. If there’s one thing I admire about the Republicans is that they are masters at propaganda. Their mantra that repetition makes it true really works: death panels, Obama’s Kenyan birth, middle class tax increases – all of it stuck.

Now that Obama kept Bush’s tax cuts do you think that he’s going to be thanked by the business community? Fat chance! Investors Show Obama No Respect in Global Poll as Profits Surge As I described above it’s convenient to always be pissed off about something. Investors made money this year, profits surged – but they’re still not happy. If they are not pissed off at Obama they really have no one else. They need him as a human receptacle of all kinds of misdirected anger. Especially now that the Congress is Republican.

To Obama I say – may the force be with you!

The Foreclosure Situation

Given the recent development on the foreclosure front here’s my 2 cents and a possible solution.
How can a trust with tens of thousands of individual loans in it dispute each one of those defaulted loans one by one in court? This isn’t going to happen. And it’s not because it’s too long and too costly – there are ways around that, but because trusts can’t prove that they own those mortgages, they don’t have the paperwork needed. To go forward with foreclosure en masse would mean some abrogation of the sacred contract. Also, if the house has several liens on it, as happens in most cases, the potential buyer, who’s hunting for a cheap foreclosed home can’t be 100% sure what exactly he’s buying. It can turn out that he’s going to be second in line, after the primary mortgage holder claims to own the property as these two unfortunate guys found out. I mean what reliable source or a database do you check to know what it is that you’re buying with a foreclosed home? I think foreclosure has a risk of becoming a four-letter word.

What it can mean is foreclosure market will be dead for a long time, because bargain hunters will be spooked by the legal uncertainty. In reality it would look like the whole country will be plagued by haunted houses that no one can sell, buy, move into, bulldoze to the ground and not even touch with a ten foot pole. Wouldn’t that signal that the new construction will be hot again? People have to live somewhere. Just a speculation on my part.

That’s just one of many problems. The other one is sloppy record keeping.

Even before the mortgage meltdown, the servicing industry “was plagued with problems,” such as servicers charging unauthorized or excessive fees and making false or unsubstantiated statements about how much borrowers owed, says David Vladeck, head of the bureau of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission, which has brought several recent cases against servicers.

WSJ Article

I read a few articles in the past few days and to my horror I found out that no one is really insured from being foreclosed upon in this unceremonious manner, even if you’re current on your mortgage! That is because most of those small lenders that originated your loans are non-existent right now, those loans are long gone from their balance sheets into the trust without proper documentation being transferred into the hands of a new owner or lost altogether. In this case how do you prove that you paid all your mortgage bills on time? You have your records, sure, but they have theirs! Prove that your records are correct! These robo-signers are a sort of indiscriminate roulette that can pull your own mortgage out of some system purely by mistake and make you in default. “Because it says so on the computer screen” – you will be hearing when, puzzled, you call your mortgage servicer trying to clear the little misunderstanding. You will be speaking with some clueless person who will be immune to your logic and calls to reason, because I suspect they all are being trained to not understand questions for which there are no standard answers from the manual. What recourse do you really have in situation like this other than going to court?

The solution. With such clusterfuck in the foreclosure process and a high unemployment rate the solution begs for itself. Just like in early 2000s a bunch of no name lending companies popped up here and there I can see a huge market for foreclosure specialists. The business model would look like this: A small company gets a list of the prospective foreclosures from the trust or from the sponsoring bank and hires high-school drop outs for $10 an hour to phone the properties on the list. If somebody still lives there and pays mortgage or at least is working out a payment plan – those get dropped from the FC process. If no one answers the phone, the bank is given the green light to proceed with the FC. I mean this is a rough idea, perhaps those employees have to do visits to the property and follow some guidelines, etc. but you get the idea. Then they send the updated list back to the bank, which, in turn, proceeds with the wholesale robo-signed foreclosures. It’s a sort of quid pro quo: if banks want to speed up the process and bypass the paperwork requirement they have to pay to make sure that no current homeowners end up on the list. Isn’t that a reasonable requirement? This way we kill many birds with one stone: the FC proceeds at a reasonable speed (not as fast as it is right now, but not as slow as it would under the judicial review); a bunch of unemployed people get jobs (and maybe, as a positive side effect, even pay their own mortgages); politicians can move on something else, like fighting socialism – everybody’s happy. I think even Republicans can support something like this – after all it’s good for business.

Corporations are more equal than people

Imagine a radical idea of a Supreme Court acting as a check on markets to protect individual liberty as opposed to a check on government to protect markets. That is what Noah Feldman explores in this thought provoking article
Imagining a Liberal Court

Conservatives are usually upset when liberals discover rights where they see none. Nonetheless, conservatives have accomplished a judicial feat over the last half of the century to discover rights of corporations on par with the rights of individuals and make it into a commonly accepted axiom.

Long post under the cut:

Continue reading

Corporations are people too

These guys are brilliant.Campaign stunt launches a corporate \'candidate\' for Congress

Until now, corporate interests had to rely on campaign contributions and influence-peddling to achieve their goals in Washington,” the candidate, who was unavailable for an interview, said in a statement. “But thanks to an enlightened Supreme Court, now we can eliminate the middle-man and run for office ourselves.

If corporations are people, as was ruled by the Supreme Court recently, why can’t have the same rights? Like run for office for instance? How about a law firm for an Attorney General? Or Goldman Sachs for Treasury Secretary? Church of Latter Day Saints for Governor of Massachusetts? Oh, wait, the latter one is not too improbable.
And John Roberts is surprised that he’s being criticized by Obama.
Conservatives, who, frothing at the mouth, proclaim the love of Constitution and the Bill of Rights here and there should be very alarmed about this development, but they are not for some reason. I wonder how they would like to have ACLU as Attorney General.