Banks are no longer just financing heavy industry. They are actually buying it up and inventing bigger, bolder and scarier scams than ever.
Matt Taibbi. February 12, 2014. Rolling Stone.
Below is the beginning of the article which I’ve both shortened and highlighted. Do read the entire piece if you have time, because the details and history of how this may unfold are fascinating, especially if you want to understand how this new kind of corruption is likely to be a factor in the next financial crash.
Call it the loophole that destroyed the world. In 1999 Congress crafted a law that would make possible a broader concentration of financial and industrial power than we’ve seen in more than a century. But the crazy thing is, nobody at the time quite knew it. Most thought the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 – also known as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act – was just the latest and boldest in a long line of deregulatory handouts to Wall Street that had begun in the Reagan years.
Wall Street had spent much of that era arguing that America’s banks needed to become bigger to compete globally with the German and Japanese-style financial giants, which were about to swallow up all the world’s banking business.
Bank lobbyists pushed a new law designed to wipe out 60-plus years of bedrock financial regulation. The key was repealing the famed Glass-Steagall Act separating bankers and brokers, which had been passed in 1933 to prevent conflicts of interest within the finance sector that had led to the Great Depression. Now, commercial banks would be allowed to merge with investment banks and insurance companies, creating financial megafirms potentially far more powerful than had ever existed in America.
But it took until now to understand the most explosive part of the bill, which additionally legalized new forms of monopoly, allowing banks to merge with heavy industry. A tiny provision in the bill also permitted commercial banks to delve into any activity that is “complementary to a financial activity and does not pose a substantial risk to the safety or soundness of depository institutions or the financial system generally.” Complementary to a financial activity. What the hell did that mean? It turns out that pretty much everything is considered complementary to a financial activity.
Fifteen years later, in fact, it now looks like Wall Street and its lawyers took the term to be a synonym for ruthless campaigns of world domination.
Today, banks like Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs own oil tankers, run airports and control huge quantities of coal, natural gas, heating oil, electric power and precious metals. They exert direct control over the supply of a whole galaxy of raw materials crucial to world industry and to society in general, including everything from food products to metals like zinc, copper, tin, nickel, aluminum, and uranium.
But banks aren’t just buying stuff, they’re buying whole industrial processes. They’re buying oil that’s still in the ground, the tankers that move it across the sea, the refineries that turn it into fuel, and the pipelines that bring it to your home. They’re also betting on the timing and efficiency of these same industrial processes in the financial markets – buying and selling oil stocks on the stock exchange, oil futures on the futures market, swaps on the swaps market, etc.
Allowing one company to control the supply of crucial physical commodities, and also trade in the financial products that might be related to those markets, is an open invitation to commit mass manipulation. It’s something akin to letting casino owners who take book on NFL games during the week also coach all the teams on Sundays.
The situation has opened a Pandora’s box of horrifying new corruption possibilities, but it’s been hard for the public to notice, since regulators have struggled to put even the slightest dent in Wall Street’s older, more familiar scams. In just the past few years we’ve seen an explosion of scandals – from the multitrillion-dollar Libor saga (major international banks gaming world interest rates), to the more recent foreign-currency-exchange fiasco (many of the same banks suspected of rigging prices in the $5.3-trillion-a-day currency markets), to lesser scandals involving manipulation of interest-rate swaps, and gold and silver prices.
But those are purely financial schemes. In these new, even scarier kinds of manipulations, banks that own whole chains of physical business interests have been caught rigging prices in those industries. For instance, in just the past two years, fines in excess of $400 million have been levied against both JPMorgan Chase and Barclays for allegedly manipulating the delivery of electricity in several states, including California. In the case of Barclays, which is contesting the fine, regulators claim prices were manipulated to help the bank win financial bets it had made on those same energy markets.
And last summer, The New York Times described how Goldman Sachs was caught systematically delaying the delivery of metals out of a network of warehouses it owned in order to jack up rents and artificially boost prices.
By exploiting loopholes in a dense, 15-year-old piece of financial legislation, Wall Street has effected a revolutionary change that American citizens never discussed, debated or prepared for, and certainly never explicitly permitted in any meaningful way: the wholesale merger of high finance with heavy industry. This blitzkrieg reorganization of our economy has left millions of Americans facing a smorgasbord of frightfully unexpected new problems. Do we even have a regulatory structure in place to look out for these new forms of manipulation? (Answer: We don’t.) And given that the banking sector that came so close to ruining the world economy five years ago has now vastly expanded its footprint, who’s in charge of preventing the next crash?
But the potential for wide-scale manipulation and/or new financial disasters is only part of the nightmare that this new merger of banking and industry has created. The other, perhaps even darker problem involves the new existential dangers both to the environment and to the stability of the financial system. Long before Goldman and Chase started buying up metals warehouses, for instance, Morgan Stanley had already bought up a substantial empire of physical businesses – electricity plants in a number of states, a firm that trades in heating oil, jet fuels, fertilizers, asphalt, chemicals, pipelines and a global operator of oil tankers.
How long before one of these fully loaded monster ships capsizes, and Morgan Stanley becomes the next BP, not only killing a gazillion birds and sea mammals off some unlucky country’s shores but also taking the financial system down with them, as lawsuits plunge the company into bankruptcy with Lehman-style repercussions?
The regulators are almost worse. Remember the 2008 collapse happened when government bodies like the Fed, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision – whose entire expertise supposedly revolves around monitoring the safety and soundness of financial companies – somehow missed that half of Wall Street was functionally bankrupt.
Now that many of those financial companies have been bailed out, those same regulators who couldn’t or wouldn’t smell smoke in a raging fire last time around are suddenly in charge of deciding if companies like Morgan Stanley are taking out enough insurance on their oil tankers, or if banks like Goldman Sachs are properly handling their uranium deposits.
“The Fed isn’t the most enthusiastic regulator in the best of times,” says Brown. “And now we’re asking them to take this on?”
Banks in America were never meant to own industries. This principle has been part of our culture practically from the beginning of our history. The original restrictions on banks getting involved with commerce were rooted in the classically American fear of overweening government power – citizens in the early 1800s were concerned about the potential for monopolistic abuses posed by state-sponsored banks.
Later, however, Americans also found themselves forced to beat back a movement of private monopolies, in particular the great railroad and energy cartels built by robber barons of the Rockefeller type who, by the late 1800s, were on the precipice of swallowing markets whole and dictating to the public the prices of everything from products to labor. It took a long period of upheaval and prolonged fights over new laws like the Sherman and Clayton anti-trust acts before those monopolies were reined in.
Banks, however, were never really regulated under those laws. Only the Great Depression and years of brutal legislative trench warfare finally brought them to heel under the same kinds of anti-trust concepts that stopped the robber barons, through acts like Glass-Steagall and the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956. Then, with a few throwaway lines in a 1999 law that nobody ever heard of until now, that whole struggle went up in smoke, and here we are, in Hobbes’ jungle, waiting for the next catastrophe to unfold.