News and Features
The capital unscrupulously pumped from poor neighborhoods by way of
predatory loans whizzes along a high-speed financial pipeline to Wall
Street to be used for investment. "It's about creating debt that can be
turned into bonds that can be sold to customers on Wall Street,"
explains Irv Ackelsberg, an attorney with Community Legal Services in
Philadelphia who has been defending clients against foreclosure and
working to restructure onerous loans for twenty-five years.
Household-name companies like Lehman Brothers, Prudential and First
Union are involved in managing the process of bundling loans--including
subprime and predatory--into mortgage-backed securities. They often
provide the initial cash to make the loans, find banks to act as
trustees, pull together the layers of financial and insurance
institutions, and create the "special vehicles"--shades of Enron--that
shield investors from risk.
Four securities-rating agencies--Moody's, Standard & Poor's, Duff
& Phelps and Fitch--provide bond ratings for all of Wall Street;
before assigning the acceptable rating that will draw investors, they
assess the risk firewalls constructed by the securitizing company. It
becomes a complex matrix of financial operations designed to generate
capital and minimize risk for Wall Street with the unwitting help of
borrowers. "This whole business is about providing triple-A bonds to
funds that you or I would invest in," says Ackelsberg. "The poor are
being used to produce this debt--what you have is a glorified
Ackelsberg and his colleagues frequently find themselves struggling
through a tangle of companies to find a party legally liable for remedy
when a client is in foreclosure due to a bad loan. Often the company
that originated the loan doesn't actually own it but, rather, is acting
as a servicing agent--assuring the cash flow to a securitization trust.
Frequently shifting ownership also complicates attempts to create
accountability: In one case, United Companies Lending, once hired as a
trust by Lehman Brothers, went bankrupt; EMC Mortgage Corporation, a
wholly owned subsidiary of Bear Stearns, placed the highest bid for the
right to service the outstanding loans and collect the servicing fees.
Sheila Canavan, a Berkeley-based attorney who recently won a settlement
that will pay out some $60 million to the plaintiffs in a fraud lawsuit
against First Alliance Mortgage, says, "The industry and lawyers make it
as complicated and arcane as they can so people don't understand." They
also, she adds, want to distance themselves from the frontline predators
who hawk the loans.
Government-sponsored mortgage lenders Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Ginnie Mae
(GNMA) have long bundled conventional loans--in the 8-percent range--to
create mortgage-backed securities. During the mergers and acquisitions
boom in the mid-1990s, when banks began absorbing subprime lenders, Wall
Street caught on to the potential of bunching subprime mortgages,
including predatory loans. "The banks realized that this was a
moneymaker," says Shirley Peoples, a social research analyst for the
Calvert Group, an investment fund specializing in socially responsible
lending. "They put a legitimacy on it, but it still is what it is."
"Wall Street, since it got into securitization, needs product, needs
mortgage loans to pull together," says Canavan. The securities are then
aggressively marketed, she says. "The Wall Streeters go around the
country, pools of loans are sold to institutional investors, pension
And while it looks as if the lenders themselves set up the difficult
loan terms, Canavan says that Wall Street encourages the gouging
practices. The big financial institutions fronting cash for predatory
loans have information on the loans' interest rates and know very well
what it takes to trap borrowers into those rates. They also build in
incentives for dubious practices: "The loan originators are compensated
with late fees," Canavan says, by way of example. "They're going to make
sure payments don't get there on time, that they get lost or, as the
industry says, 'drawered.'"
It's tough for a mutual fund investor to know whether investment dollars
are going toward supporting a predatory loan scheme. The investor who
knows the names of the biggest offenders may be able to detect them in a
prospectus, but many times the information is not included or the names
of the companies change. Socially responsible funds such as Calvert and
organizations like the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility
have been meeting face to face with banking interests to probe their
policies and positions on bundling the predatory loans. And many in the
industry argue that a rash of bankruptcies and financial failures has
pressured the industry to reform.
But not all consumer advocates buy that.
"These companies come and go," says Ackelsberg, "but the residue of
their abusive activity remains because the mortgage loans are still out
Would it be too early to sense a sudden, uncovenanted shift against the corporate ethic, if ethic is the word? I can barely turn the page of a newspaper or magazine without striking across either some damaging admission, or at least some damage-control statement, from the boardroom classes.
Attempts to organize are squelched by a flying column of
The camera pans across the room
To see what she has made:
An omelette or a spring bouquet
Or just an inside trade.
"How many times can you say 'unbelievable'?" my wife asked the other
morning, as I was rattling the newspaper and again exclaiming over the
latest outrageous news from American capitalism. Maybe it was the story
about the CEO of Tyco International, a very wealthy and much admired
titan, being indicted for evading the New York State sales tax on his
art purchases. Perhaps it was the disclosure that the soaring market in
energy trading, a jewel of the new economy, was largely a fabrication
built on phony round-trip trades. Or the accusation that Perot Systems,
after designing California's deregulated energy-trading system, turned
around and showed the energy companies how to blow holes in it (and
generate those soaring electric bills for Californians).
It is unbelievable--what we've learned in the past six or eight
months about the financial system and corporate management. The
systematic deceit and imaginative greed--the sheer chintziness of
personal finagling for more loot--go well beyond the darkest hunches
harbored by resident skeptics like myself. Indeed, the Wall Street
system is now being flayed in the media almost daily by its own leading
tribunes. Listen to this summary of the scandals: "The failures of Wall
Street's compliance efforts are coming under intense scrutiny--part of a
growing awareness of how deeply flawed the US financial markets really
are. The watchdogs charged with keeping the financial world honest have
all lost credibility themselves: outside auditors who bend the rules to
please corporate clients, analysts who shape stock recommendations to
woo investment-banking customers and government regulators too timid or
overwhelmed to keep track of the frenzy." You might have read those
points in The Nation, but these words appeared on the front page
of the Wall Street Journal. A week later, another page-one
Journal story crisply explained the implications for global
investors: "Boasts about world-class corporate disclosure, bookkeeping
and regulation of American financial markets have become laughable in
the wake of Enron and Arthur Andersen scandals."
When radical critique becomes mainstream observation, change may be in
the air. In my view, this is a rare historical moment--conditions are
ripe for reforming and reordering the system, an opportunity unmatched
since World War II. How things really work is on the table, visible to
all in shocking detail, authoritatively documented by the torrent of
disclosures, with more to come. The libertarian ideology that colonized
economic affairs and politics during the past two decades (markets know
best, government is an obstacle, greed is good) has been pulled up
short. The conservative orthodoxy is vulnerable--actually breaking
down--because it has no good explanations for what we now understand to
be routine malpractice in business and finance. Political tinder is
spread all around the landscape, but who will strike the match?
The potential downside of this moment is also palpable and quite
ominous: Nothing will happen, nothing will change--nobody goes to jail,
no significant reforms are enacted. If so, the main result will be
confirmation of an already endemic public cynicism and the further
poisoning of American values. The revelations, instead of provoking a
sea change in political thinking, may be smothered by the alignments of
corporate-financial power, diverted into false reforms and complexified
to the point that media attention and public anger are exhausted. In
that event, the consequences for the country will be less obvious but
profoundly corrosive. The system would go forward in roughly the same
fashion (perhaps tarted up with public-relations rouge), and everyone
would understand that corruption is the system. In markets and in
the popular culture, the message would be: Forget that crap about
ethics--might as well take the low road, since that's how the big boys
The stakes are enormous, and it's much too early to predict the outcome.
But there's already abundant evidence that the business establishment
expects to ride out this storm and is working the usual political levers
to insure it. The politics resemble the S&L debacle in the late
1980s, when Congressional Republocrats put out lots of noise and smoke
but left the high-priced suits unruffled and stuck the public with the
bill. Our current galaxy of scandals is far more grave because it is
systemic. Anyone with courage among the Democratic presidential hopefuls
could seize this moment and reorder the agenda for 2004, but no one so
far has found the guts to break ranks with corporate power. Smoldering
public anger, however, may yet find a way to express itself, perhaps in
the fall elections, and rouse the reluctant politicians.
For now, the best hope seems to be that the bankers and business guys
will react to the fact that financial markets have been severely damaged
by the scandalous revelations, as have the high-flying moguls of
corporate America. Who can trust them? Who wants to pour more good money
after bad? In other words, this scandal stuff is bad for business,
especially bad for the faltering stock market. Henry Paulson Jr., chair
of Goldman Sachs, delivered that message recently in a sober speech
before the National Press Club and endorsed a number of useful reforms.
His remedies are insufficient (even the Journal editorial page
was happy to bless them) but are a fair start. A chorus of high-minded
anguish from elite circles might persuade Washington that this problem
does need fixing.
The scandals of Enron et al., unfortunately, must compete with another
story--the war on terrorism--that's more exciting, and threatening, than
dirty bookkeeping or the looted billions. The two crises are intertwined
in perverse ways. The smug triumphalism of Bush's unilateralist war
policy could be abruptly deflated by economic events--which probably
would be a good thing for world affairs, since Washington couldn't run
roughshod over others, but terrible for US prosperity. The financial
scandals have provided yet another chilling reason to be wary of the US
stock market, and if overseas investors decide to take their money home
in volume, the already declining dollar will fall sharply. Credit would
thus become suddenly scarce, since our debtor-nation economy relies
heavily on capital borrowed from abroad, and such a convergence would
trigger an ugly downdraft in the US economy. In that event, the
fashionable boastfulness about America, the only superpower, would
implode as swiftly as Enron's stock price.
Speech to The Democratic National Committee--Western Caucus
Saturday, May 25, 2002
"Death Star," "Get Shorty," "Fat Boy"--the revelation of Enron's trading
schemes in California have turned the Enron scandals virulent again.
Just when the White House thought the disease was in remission and
relegated to the business pages, the California scams exposed more of a
still-metastasizing cancer of corporate corruption.
Internal Enron memos reveal that it and other companies preyed on
California's energy crisis, helping to manufacture shortages and using
sham trades to drive up prices. The somnambulant Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission (FERC)--headed by Pat Wood III, "Kenny Boy" Lay's
handpicked chairman--decided that its initial finding of no market
manipulation in California was inoperable and opened a broader
investigation. With stocks plummeting and lawsuits piling up, CEOs at
Dynegy and CMS Energy resigned, as did heads of trading at Reliant
Resources and CMS.
The Bush Administration was directly implicated as the White House's
Enron stonewall began to collapse. A reluctant Joseph Lieberman,
chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, finally got
sufficient spine to issue subpoenas, stimulating the White House to
release more documents about its contacts with Enron. These showed that
the White House had lied to House investigators when it reported only
six contacts between Enron officials and the White House energy task
force. The incomplete White House submissions now admit four times that
number, with more surely to come.
Lay and the Enron executives were pressing Vice President Cheney not
only to influence the President's energy policy but also to oppose price
controls on electricity in California, even as they were gaming the
market. Cheney and Bush responded to their leading contributor by
publicly scorning price controls, while White House aides encouraged the
energy industry to organize an ad campaign in California against
controls. Cheney surely felt comfortable with Enron's shady side: As we
recently learned, when he was CEO of Halliburton and its profits were
declining, his accountants--the ubiquitous Arthur Andersen--suddenly
started counting as revenue a portion of payments that were in dispute,
without informing investors of the change.
The Administration has painted Enron as a business, not a political,
scandal. Now it is apparent that the scandal is political and
economic, showing the problems of a system with too little
accountability and too much corporate influence both in the White House
and on Capitol Hill. And with the United States having to import more
than $1 billion a day in capital to cover trade deficits, the scandals
are already a drag on investment, growth and jobs.
Neither the Administration, Congress nor the business lobby has yet
awakened to the perils. Bush retains as Army Secretary former Enron
executive Tom White, who claims no knowledge that his subsidiary was
involved in the sham trading schemes (although his own bonuses were
undoubtedly based in part on the inflated revenues that resulted). Big
Five accounting firms lobbyist Harvey Pitt remains head of the SEC, even
after repeatedly traducing elementary ethics by meeting privately with
representatives of companies under investigation by his agency. Wood
remains the head of FERC, even as legislators call on him to recuse
himself from the California investigation. Bush and House Republicans
continue to resist sensible reforms. The business and accounting lobby,
in a victory of ideology over common sense, has mobilized against
anything with teeth.
Beltway conventional wisdom dismisses the political fallout of the Enron
scandals. But Americans are furious at executives who betray their
workers and mislead small investors while plundering their companies.
Thus far their anger hasn't fixed on Washington, but it may if no one is
held accountable. It's long past time for Senate Democrats to rouse
themselves, demand the heads of White and Pitt and launch a scorching
public investigation of the Administration's complicity with Enron in
California and elsewhere. Any real reform will require displacing Enron
conservatives, with their mantra of "self-regulation" and their corrupt
politics of money. With the revelations continuing and elections coming
up, progressives should be mobilizing independently to name names,
exposing those who shield the powerful. If voters learn who the culprits
are, Enron may end up reflecting the "genius" not of capitalism but of
democracy--the people's ability to clean out the stables when the stench
gets too foul.
Now that the Enron culprits have been caught red-handed, might not the media inquire of the President whether he takes any responsibility for nearly bankrupting California by refusing to come to
Army Secretary Thomas White appears to be inching closer to becoming the
first Bush Administration casualty of the Enron scandal. Senators Dianne
Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California have asked Attorney General
John Ashcroft to launch a criminal probe into Enron's role in
manipulating California's electricity market, after Enron memos released
by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission showed how Enron boosted
electricity prices in California and created shortages.
People close to Feinstein and California Congressman Henry Waxman said
the lawmakers will ask Ashcroft to direct that the criminal
investigation include White and whether the unit he helped lead, Enron
Energy Services, played a part in California's two-year energy crisis.
"We believe we have evidence, based on our conversations with former
Enron employees, that Mr. White and other executives from Enron Energy
Services may have worked side by side with Enron's traders and supplied
inside information about the amount of electricity California needed,"
an aide to Feinstein said. "We believe, based on this information, that
the traders were then able to create shortages and manipulate the price
of power in the state."
Neither a spokesman for White nor for Enron returned calls for comment.
Enron is already under investigation by California Attorney General Bill
Lockyer for allegedly manipulating the price of electricity and natural
gas. White is being investigated by the FBI on the timing of his sale of
Enron stock last year and by the Inspector General's office on his use
in March of a government airplane to fly to Aspen to sign papers on the
sale of a $6.5 million house he owned, prompted by Enron-related
financial problems. Separately, he engaged in a dispute with Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the Crusader weapons system; Rumsfeld
continued to express support for him.
Former employees of EES have come forward saying that the retail unit,
under White's leadership, played a role in California's power crisis and
that White told his staff that EES would earn millions in profits
because of the crisis. In addition, former employees are coming forward
with information about White that indicates that his involvement with
Enron's suspect accounting was far deeper that he has let on. White has
said that EES was a legitimate operation and not a house of illusory
John Olson, an analyst now with Sanders Morris Harris, recalls asking
White in 1999 how EES, a relatively small operation, could show millions
of dollars in profit with barely a shred of business. "I did not believe
Mr. White, nor any of the other Enron executives I spoke with, were
being honest or forthcoming about EES's profits," Olson said. "When I
pressed Mr. White for an answer he said, 'One word: California.'"
White told EES's sales team in 1998 that they could earn hefty bonuses
by signing energy contracts with large businesses in California to
manage their electricity needs for a substantially cheaper price than
these companies had been paying through their local utilities. But
promising customers a discount at the beginning of the contracts meant
EES wasn't earning enough money to cover what the local utilities were
charging for gas and electricity. Moreover, EES was spending much more
than anticipated setting up the infrastructure for the contracts, said
Lee Jestings, a former EES executive who worked directly with White.
Jestings said he told White that EES would actually lose money this way,
but White said Enron would make up the difference by selling electricity
on the spot market in California, which Enron had bet would skyrocket in
2000. Jestings said he continued to complain to White that the profits
declared by the retail unit were not real. "Tom told me those are the
orders," Jestings said. "He said he never questions a direct order. This
man spent thirty years in the Army and was a four-star general. His life
was based on taking orders." Jestings said he resigned from EES in 2000
because he did not agree with the way EES reported profits. He is now
working as an energy consultant.
The ex-employees, more than a dozen interviewed, said White often
clashed with Lou Pai, chairman of EES, over the company's use of
"aggressive" accounting methods to make the unit appear profitable when
it wasn't but that ultimately White agreed that EES would have to use
such methods because the unit was hemorrhaging cash right from the
start. Steve Barth, a former EES vice president of special projects who
attended meetings with White and Pai, said White's job was that of
cheerleader--he was supposed to motivate the EES sales force to show, by
any means necessary, that the retail unit made a profit. "That meant
lying to Wall Street," Barth said. "White did it, and so did I." Barth,
who transferred from EES to Enron's broadband unit in 1999 and left last
July to start a broadband firm, said his experience at the company had
Enron reported that EES, founded in 1997, became profitable during the
fourth quarter of 1999 and had steadily rising profits every quarter
thereafter. Those reports helped send Enron's stock price to $83 by the
end of 2000, from $43 at the beginning of the year. As part of his
employment contract with Enron, White was given a small financial stake
in EES, later converted into Enron stock, which he sold for more than
Eventually, with Enron becoming a target of California lawmakers, White
may have decided it was time to get out. In early 2001, according to
Barth, when then-Enron chairman Kenneth Lay was under consideration to
be Energy Secretary, Lay met with George W. Bush and urged him to
appoint White as Secretary of the Army. Barth said White told him that
the California energy crisis was hurting EES and that the unit's profits
would never materialize. White "just wasn't happy with his role at the
company anymore," Barth said.
Since the fall of the House of Enron, Republicans have been polishing
their populist patter. George W. Bush cast aside his patron, Enron CEO
Ken "Kenny Boy" Lay, and proclaimed himself the champion of executive
rectitude. When the Corporate and Auditing Accountability Act passed in
the House, Republican Richard Baker crowed, "We have taken action. We
have stood up to Wall Street."
This crowd has no shame. The bill--which lobbyists for big-five
accounting firm Deloitte and Touche praised for not going
"overboard"--fails to ban accountants from peddling consulting work to
the companies they audit, fails to shut the revolving door between
accountants and the companies they audit and fails to create an
accounting oversight board with subpoena power and independence. As
Representative John LaFalce noted, "The opportunity to enact meaningful
reform had been passed, eluded and avoided."
The House pension bill was even more disgraceful. As Representative
George Miller noted, it "doesn't deal with the lessons of Enron." It
doesn't put employees on the boards of their pension funds, doesn't
guard workers against biased investment advice and doesn't require
immediate notification of large stock sales by high-level
executives. Worse, it carves a huge new loophole in pension protections,
and as Daniel Halperin, a pension law expert at Harvard Law School,
notes, it will "basically gut" current rules that protect average and
low-wage workers. After Enron, where twenty-eight executives walked off
with more than $1 billion while workers watched their retirement savings
vanish, the Republican version of reform will make it easier for the big
guys to pocket lavish benefits while the workers get stiffed. The
provision, no surprise, was championed by the business lobby and
supported by Bill Thomas, the corporate bag man who chairs the House
Ways and Means Committee.
Republicans are certain that token reforms and stentorian rhetoric will
give them cover while they continue to bank the contributions of a
grateful financial and business community. Many Democrats
opportunistically voted for the Republican bills after their tougher
reforms were voted down on virtual party line votes.
Now the Republican "reforms" head to the Senate, where Democrats are in
control, but Enron conservatives in both parties are legion. Ted Kennedy
offers a real alternative on pension reform, but Democratic finance
committee chairman Max Baucus is already talking about a compromise bill
that would accept much of the corporate agenda.
Meanwhile, House and Senate conferees are putting the finishing touches
on a bankruptcy bill pushed by the credit card industry; it will make it
much harder for working people to get a fresh start at a time when
millions are losing their jobs. Democratic Senate leaders could (but
probably won't) demonstrate their solidarity with working people by
burying the bankruptcy bill instead of passing it. The power of money,
alas, speaks to both parties.
Millions of Americans are appalled by the bilking of Enron's workers.
And millions are concerned about their own pension savings. Progressives
and labor should raise hell about sham reforms that actually help the
big guys screw their workers. If Enron conservatives in both parties are
exposed, voters might show them this fall that they are paying more
attention than anyone thought.
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