The Seven Sins of Wall Street: Big Banks, Their Washington Lackeys, and the Next Financial Crisis by Bob Ivry is both incredibly scary and ironically extremely funny – in a very dark way. This makes it essential reading for anyone with a finely tuned bullshit meter that doesn’t buy the notion that we’re all economically safer now than before the financial crisis of 2008 – which should be everyone. Ivry’s voice is appropriately sardonic and exasperated, his journalism and on-the-foreclosed-ground research, impeccable. His ability to empathize with readers that don’t hold a PhD in financial jargon (derivatives = “four syllables that launched a thousand naps”) allows him to render otherwise arcane topics simple enough to make you want to throw things at Jamie Dimon.
Most people living in the real world have a sense that the Wall-Street-Washington driven crisis hasn’t exactly evaporated into a haze of CEO repentance, or former politicians choosing to become gardeners rather than bagging plush jobs at elite financial firms. But Ivry’s book shows the ongoing crimes are much, MUCH worse than even the most alert or pessimistic of us think. Not only has there been no meaningful reform or jail terms for committing fraud in broad daylight, but the same Big Six banks at the core of the crisis, are back to their old, and some new tricks, with a pat on the back from Uncle Sam. They are bigger and badder than ever, despite public rhetoric to the contrary.
Ivry divides his book into chapters paralleling the seven sins – gluttony, wrath, envy, pride, lust, sloth, and greed. He doesn’t just excoriate the big bankers who played, and continue to play, freely and loosely with what he refers to as “Grandma’s money”, but embarks on an investigative search for the people living personal nightmares at the hands of these banks years after the “supposed” economic recovery and great reform myth of Dodd-Frank. Though the banks have supposedly repaid their bailout money with $20 billion interest to the American people (sure, no one got a check, but whatever), Ivry shines a harsh light on this irrelevant political babble. The big banks are not only bigger, but they are also “fail –i- er” he says. Take note, Stephen Colbert.
Ivry’s aim is “not to re-litigate the bailouts, but to illustrate their legacy.” As he writes,
In the months and years after the financial crisis, the top people in Wall Street and Washington had engineered a closed loop that insured their feet never touched the dirty ground. Wall Street would originate the mortgages, and Washington would buy them. The Treasury would sell debt, and Wall Street would buy it, then sell it back to the Federal Reserve. (This was called “quantitative easing.”) The Federal Reserve would print money, and mostly would use it to push up prices on stocks and all sorts of commodities. Bankers traded derivatives…without anyone in the outside world catching a glimpse of the details. Ordinary people only got in the way.
Ivry tells the tale of whistleblower Sherry Hunt at Citi Mortgage who supplied Dick Bowen, her boss, with much of the data he used to first blow the whistle on Citi Mortgage’s quality-control department failures post-crisis of 2008. Though she feared losing her job, as he actually did, and was demoted during the process of alerting the federal regulators to Citi’s ongoing frauds and cover-ups, she feared saying nothing more.
Ivry describes a January 2010 staff meeting, in which 1000 Citi Mortgage employees “gathered to listen to pep talks and sales reports. Then it came time to announce the workers of the month award. It went to the quality rebuttal crew.” Quality rebuttal was Citi’s way of stifling employees like Hunt who raised red flags about fraudulent practices.
Ivry’s more emotional passages relate to the efforts that Mark Pitman, fellow reporter-tour-du-force at Bloomberg, made to force the Federal Reserve to disclose details of the loans provided in particular to the Big Six US banks during the crisis that most of the media ignored. Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley got far less from TARP openly than they got from the Fed behind the scenes. The secrecy surrounding those extra trillions of dollars of loans was what Pittman sought to uncover. Pitman died too young, a moment Ivry captures poignantly, but Ivry continues to forge ahead unveiling ongoing secrets and deception – no longer at the heart of the 2008 financial crisis, but at the heart of its aftermath. Of Pittman, Ivry writes “He knew what was at stake. Not just money. Not just economic policy. Not just the functioning of the world financial system. But the future of capitalism. The credibility of democracy.”
Ivry reveals the myriad Big Six bank schemes that continue unabated; the shadiness still rampant in the mortgage market, how the Fed is permitting banks with FDIC deposit support to make leveraged bets with Grandma’s money on everything from arcane derivatives to aluminum to copper, the Obama assistance programs that assisted the banks and not borrowers, the disgusting remorseless of Wall Street.
Ivry introduces us to people like Rebecca Black, one of the borrowers forced to leave her home at 698 Hazelwood Road. Her lender, a division of JPMorgan Chase called EMC Mortgage was part of Bear Stearns before it was taken over – with government aid – by JPMorgan Chase in late 2008. As Ivry says, “overnight borrowing by J.P. Morgan Chase, peaked on October 1, 2008 at $68.6 billion. Jamie Dimon, the lender’s Chief Executive Officer, got $23 million in compensation for 2011.” All Rebecca Black got was the landscaping bill (for a house she could no longer afford, in the face of payments that blew up in her face, a by-product of some very shady practices.)
When Ivry visited Hazelwood Road in 2012, it was “four years after bad mortgages triggered a meltdown in the world’s most resilient economy.” At the time, “the biggest banks were reporting record profits and government agencies were trumpeting statistics showing a robust recovery.” On Hazelwood Road, there was just unnecessarily shattered lives, boarded homes and crime. After the 2008 financial crisis, “an economic and political apartheid had emerged,” Ivry writes,
Washington, in the form of the federal government and Federal Reserve, the country’s bank for banks, sacrificed the common good for the profit of the few.
And so the cycle of crime-and-no-punishment continues.
Ivry concludes with his stance “on the whole too big to fail thing: get rid of it. It’s anti-competitive and antidemocratic.” Ivry calls out the Dodd-Frank Act for the sham it is: an Act that did nothing to level the playing field in which the biggest banks enjoy the most government-perks, and the lion’s share of the ability to abuse, and extort from, ordinary citizens. His book is an eye-opener, a wake-up call for those in Washington to get their heads out of Wall Street’s asses, a state unthinkable for most politicians. But, it’s also a wake-up call to us, to be ever more vigilant with every one of our financial dealings, because the worst is yet to come.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]