Heads I win, tails you lose. It’s a simple game we used to trick others when we are younger. Unfortunately, a large portion of Yalies now aspire to make a career of it. Worse, many of those who do so patronize the rest of us, telling us that just because we don’t understand what big banks do doesn’t mean that they don’t provide a valuable service.
Here’s what I do know. Regulators have stated in front of the Senate that they will not let the largest 11 banks fail. When several large banks should have gone bankrupt during the financial crisis, the federal government created a program to purchase hundreds of billions of dollars of toxic assets and bail the banks out. When the banks collapsed during the crisis, they also dragged AIG down with them. AIG is an insurance company that had insured toxic assets for the big banks without fully understanding the risks involved — because, let’s face it, the guys at AIG are not as smart as the guys at Goldman Sachs. AIG’s irresponsible policies forced the government to allocate over a hundred billion dollars to purchase those toxic assets AIG had bought or insured. While American citizens don’t see a penny when banks make money, we can somehow be on the hook when they lose it.
At this point, defenders of big banks will point to TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program), the $700 billion facility created by the government to bail out the big banks, and say that banks have paid back the amount they borrowed — plus interest.
While this is true, it is also misleading. The reason banks could pay back these loans is that they were able to borrow money from the Federal Reserve at near zero interest rates. Then, instead of loaning it out to consumers and businesses, they turned around and lent this money right back to the federal government. Finally, they used the profits from this to pay back their TARP money. Other banks were more direct, simply borrowing money from another special lending facility to pay off the money owed to TARP. In what universe is this not simply using one government handout to pay back another?
So that explains tails you lose; how about heads I win? Well, banks make money when they advise companies on acquiring other companies, raising debt and initial public offerings. That much is true; however, banks also are in the business of buying and selling stocks, bonds and any number of financial derivatives of varying complexity. This accounts for the lion’s share of the revenue at most investment banks; indeed, roughly two thirds of Goldman Sachs’ revenue every year is derived from this shuffling around of money.
Those in finance would have you believe that they are in the business of providing access to functioning capital markets and providing liquidity — all fancy ways of saying that if one guy wants to buy Apple stock and one guy wants to sell Apple stock, the bank will match up these buyers and sellers and collect a small percentage.
I don’t think many people would argue that this matching of buyers and sellers isn’t a valuable service. However, banks also make many speculative bets that have nothing to do with matching buyers and sellers.
For example, if Morgan Stanley made a bet that inflation would go down, this would be a purely speculative bet. See how it does nothing in the way of matching buyers and sellers? These speculative bets have potential for huge gain or loss — almost like flipping a giant coin. For the record, Morgan Stanley lost tens of millions of dollars on this inflation bet this summer. As long as the banks know that the government will never let them fail, why wouldn’t they flip this coin? What’s the worst that could happen?
Look, to those of you going to work at big banks, it’s great that you can make $70,000 a year right out of college. It’s great that you get a $10,000 signing bonus on top of that. It’s even fine that you get another end of the year bonus on top of that. It’s great that you get to “take a lot of responsibility right out of the gate” and “meet with C-level executives.”
It just really sucks that you have trapped us into playing this high stakes game of “heads I win, tails you lose,” and that we can’t do anything about it other than chant in parks and parade in front of info sessions. But at least give the rest of us a little credit. At least concede that we know exactly what’s going on. We get it. You win. We lose.