An interview with James Kwak from the Straddler via Yves Smith:
It’s interesting to consider in the context of the housing crisis. On the one hand, you had condemnation of the poor for buying houses that were too big, which has at least two roots in American thinking. One is this Puritan work ethic—you’re supposed to work for a living, not gamble on housing going up. Secondly, it has a class component, which is basically that the working class shouldn’t aspire beyond its station. “Who is this poor person with the gall to buy a nice house in a subdivision when he can’t afford it?” Both of those dictate that you should be critical of the poor person who buys a big house. But we have this other strain of thinking which says, (a) it’s a free market and you should maximize your profits, and (b) individual initiative is good, and you should go and do what is good for you. We don’t, however, apply those to the poor person who buys a big house; we apply those to traders on Wall Street. So, for some reason, we apply different elements of our national ideology to different sets of people.
As I say, you could see it in the housing crisis, where a lot of the right-wing think tanks blamed the individual and the government for the collapse. Now, even though there were people who were taking out mortgages that they couldn’t afford, or taking out lots of home equity in order to buy big, flat-screen TVs—everyone always says flat-screen TVs—I think that, this is just a guess, but for every person who was drawing down his home equity to buy a flat-screen TV, or an SUV, there were two people who were drawing it down to pay medical bills or college bills, basically trying to make ends meet. Middle class wages have been declining for ten years and stagnant for thirty years, and if you have a financial system that allows people making $15,000 a year to take out $400,000 mortgages, I don’t think that’s the fault of the guy making $15,000. I think it’s the fault of the financial system.
But, let’s say I’m a guy who makes $15,000 a year. I realize, wow, I can get a $400,000 mortgage and I can live in this house for a few years, and if housing prices go up, I can flip it and I can actually make a couple hundred thousand dollars. And let’s say I’m really clever, and I say, if housing prices go down, I’ll just walk away and I will have gotten to live in a really nice house for three years at no cost to myself. I mean, that’s the worst, most cynical spin you can put on it, right? But this is exactly what people on Wall Street do. The person who is criticizing the janitor for doing this is the same person who thinks that businesses should exploit every legal opportunity to make profits. So even if you attribute the worst possible state of mind to the guy making $15,000, he’s still just doing what any businessman should do under the circumstances. But our national ideology somehow doesn’t allow us to think about it in those terms.
In one transaction that ProPublica talks about, JPMorgan did this deal, they got $20 million in fees, they created a CDO whose total value was about a billion dollars, and for whatever reason, instead of selling it to other investors, they held onto it. The next year, when the crisis hit, they booked a loss of about $880 million and Magnetar made about $1 billion.
So there are two possibilities here. One is that the people at JPMorgan really thought that the CDO wouldn’t collapse, even though these are people who should have known more about this market than anybody else. The other possibility is that they knew there was a fair chance it would collapse, but the $20 million in fees—half of that went into the bonus pool, most of it went into their bonuses, and they knew that if the collapsed, as long as it didn’t collapse this year, the losses would be borne by other people, which is exactly what happened. So it’s hard to say, were they clever and exploiting their own bank, or were they so caught up in how much money they were making that they were blind to the fact that it was going to collapse?
You know, there is a famous saying of Balzac that behind every great fortune there is a great crime—we certainly do not believe that in this country. The people on Wall Street are a kind of aristocracy, and I think a lot of Americans have deeply mixed feelings about whether they really want to overthrow their aristocracy.