Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Crematory Of Capitalism

Independent traders know as a fact that Humungous Bank & Broker (HB&B) research analysts are biased and unaccountable. We also know they give short-term tips to their firm’s proprietary traders and sales people that are at odds with their longer-term published opinions. These unfair practices are permitted because the fundamental conflict of interest structure of the securities industry is permitted.

Today the Wall St Journal has reported that FINRA (the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) has launched a broad inquiry into how up to a dozen Wall Street firms disseminate stock ratings and research. Important questions are being asked.

On August 24 this year, WSJ informed the public of how Goldman Sachs analysts were tipping their traders with info that differed from published reports. These regular meetings were called “trading huddles”. At the time, I called it insider trading, which is criminal.”

My Comment:

A reader commented earlier that “insider trading” is a big yawn as a story (for the latest insider trading arrest, see this case, of an ex-banker from Lazard, a relatively small case, admittedly)

Someone might come to that conclusion only if their knowledge of the practice were abstract and based on theoretical debate on the subject. But anyone who knows the history of the capital markets over the last 30 years or so knows that a big part of the story is that investment (merchant) banks turned into traders by the end of the century and that their proprietary trading became more important to them than their retail clients or customers. I’ve written about this in relation to Goldman Sachs, which was the most egregious (because it was the most powerful) of the lot.

Insider trading is essentially a failure of banking as a profession, with professional ethics. There is a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders (in the case of a company) and of clients (in the case of banks). Conflict-of-interest is a problem in every other work place. Why not here?

Besides conflict-of-interest, insider trading involves an explicit fraud on the client.

That’s in addition to the crime of fractional brokering, as someone cleverly puts it. (This is quite different from fractional banking. Due to the confusion of language that lets banks perform both safe holding and investing functions at once, fractional banking is legal). On the other hand, “fractional brokering,” which is what naked shorting and “fails-to-delivered” amount to, is illegal.

Unfortunately, the professional financial reporters seem too myopic to understand the gravity of the problem, our self-involved “gonzo” journalists (yes you, Matt Taibbi) are too politically-driven to explain it correctly, and right now I’m too disgusted by the intellectual dishonesty of the media to take the trouble to make the argument on the web and see it lifted by all and sundry with nary a link or footnote, let alone verbal acknowledgment.

As Cara points out correctly (and safely, since he’s in Canada), Wall Street and the American capital markets have become a joke, and a substantial part of the financial media still doesn’t seem to realize it’s the punchline.

That gives me no pleasure to say. For years, I defended American business to my foreign friends, claiming that Americans at least held to standards, regulations, and transparency requirements higher than theirs (meaning, Indian and non-Western).

Behind all the glitz “America” still operated somewhere, I argued.

The Marxists and communists who called the whole thing a charade and a lie didn’t quite get it, I was sure. The values of the American republic would prevail. Once most money-managers and businessmen were alerted to what was going on in the markets, I fully expected that their outrage would be enough to stem the rot. I saw CEOs stepping up to the plate and doing their duty, when the future of their own (rather than someone else’s) children was at stake.
That was four and a half years ago, when I first began researching the markets.

In retrospect, I see I was incredibly naive.The rot goes deep.

Those are somber thoughts to have around Christmas time. But perhaps not inappropriate. If you recall, in the Christmas story, gold (or should I say, gld?)and frankincense were only two-thirds of the offering. The other third was myrrh. Myrrh is a resin whose oil, I read here, is used for embalming and whose incense is used by penitents at funerals and cremations.

That must be the bitter scent I smell rising from the capital markets.

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