‘Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Matt Damon wants to interview me. Me! He’ll autograph one of his pictures, and (blush) he’ll probably want one of my own. After all, he’s reached the top of his field and I’ve reached the top of mine.’
But wait! Matt Damon is interviewer for a movie called Inside Job. About the root causes of the 2008 financial collapse! [the one replaying in Europe at this writing] Aren’t you worried that he may ask embarrassing questions?
‘Nah! He’s just a dumb actor. What does he know? I’ll razzle-dazzle him. He may be good at pretending to be a successful person, but I’m the real thing! He’ll be thrilled to meet me. Not a problem. I’ll generously grant him a few minutes of my time.’
But it turns out that Mr. Damon is not so dumb after all. Plus, he’s a quick study. Plus, he’s been coached by the best. It’s just my guess, but I think the filmmaker used him as bait, to lure in unsuspecting hotshots. You never see his face, just like in the old days when you never saw a newsperson’s face—before they immodestly decided that they themselves were also news and so had to have their mugs on screen. But with Mr. Damon, it’s back to the old ways; you never see him, you only hear his voice.
And if Glenn Hubbard (Chief Economic Adviser to the Bush administration and Dean of Columbia Business School) fell for the Damon bait, I’ve no doubt he’s lived to regret it. “This is not a deposition, sir,” the cornered Hubbard huffs, getting hot under Damon’s unrelenting questions. “I was polite enough to give you time, foolishly, I now see. But you have three more minutes. Give it your best shot!”
I knew he was toast the moment he said it. If only I could have warned him. Words like that don’t work. I know, because years ago I used those exact same words on Mrs. Harley when she was ragging on about some shortcomings that she imagined I had. It’s amazing what a woman can do in three minutes!
But Mr. Hubbard is not the film’s villain. Not by any stretch. He has a role, but it’s only a tiny one. He’s in a cozy “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” society, that’s all, which nets him a good chunk of change. ($100,000 to testify in defense of a couple hedge fund managers, who were nonetheless convicted of fraud) But that’s very small potatoes compared to the massive misdoings that Inside Job lays bare. All the really big fish were smart enough to lay low—they weren’t taken in by any ‘Oh boy! Let’s talk to Matt Damon!’ ploy. They have enough dough to buy and sell a hundred Matt Damons.
Painstakingly, Inside Job lays out what led up to financial disaster in 2008. “This crisis was not an accident,” the film asserts. “It was caused by an out-of-control industry. Since the 1980s, the rise of the U.S. financial sector has led to a series of increasingly severe financial crises. Each crisis has caused more damage, while the industry has made more and more money.”
Back in the day, the film explains, if you wanted to buy a house, you approached a bank for a loan. And then for the next ‘what seemed a lifetime’ you’d pay off your mortgage. The bank was careful loaning you money because it was their money. They wouldn’t loan it if they thought you might not pay it back. Isn’t that simple? It had been that way forever.
But starting in the 1980’s investment banks went public, raising millions from the stock market, and came up with new ideas to make money. Since Americans had never defaulted on their mortgages—I mean, who wants to lose their home?—even in times of crisis, it was the absolute last expense one would renege on—why not buy those mortgages from whoever wrote them, then sell them to investors in the stock market, reaping a fat commission on the way? Of course, no investor’s going to buy a single mortgage, but if you bundled them up several thousand at a time, then it became something people would invest in! Brilliant! Profitable! A win-win! Did anyone see the flaw?
The mortgage writer held that mortgage for only a short time. He sold it to an investment bank straight away, who also held it only a short time. The bank put it on the stock market for individual investors to purchase. So, in time, it occurred to these two middlemen that they needn’t worry too much about whether the mortgage could be repaid, so long as they could stick it to some investor further down the line, who was removed from the original translation and might just assume that it was a sound investment! Especially if outside authorities—call them rating agencies—like Moody’s, Fitch, and S&P—assured them that those investments were absolute rock-solid. Rating agencies did just that! After all, they drew their fees from those very same investment banks bundling the mortgages, and money blinds people. If they ever came to have misgivings as the mortgage quality deteriorated, they chose to look the other way. Such investments enjoyed the highest ratings right up until they crashed.
And crash they did. Financial types were enticed by fat commissions. Over the span of two decades, it became easier and easier to get a mortgage. People could do it with limited income, sometimes even with no income, since it got so that oftentimes nobody bothered to check if the applicant was creditworthy or not. Home prices began rising so quickly that people would buy one, even if they couldn’t quite afford it, with the notion that they could flip it for a big profit in just a few months.
Here’s Alan Sloan, senior editor of Fortune Magazine, interviewed by Inside Job: “A friend of mine, who, who’s involved in a company that has a big financial presence, said: Well, it’s about time you learned about subprime mortgages. So he set up a session with his trading desk and me; and, and a techie, who, who did all this – gets very excited; runs to his computer; pulls up, in about three seconds, this Goldman Sachs issue of securities. It was a complete disaster. Borrowers had borrowed, on average, 99.3 percent of the price of the house. Which means they have no money in the house. If anything goes wrong, they’re gonna walk away from the mortgage. This is not a loan you’d really make, right? You’ve gotta be crazy. But somehow, you took 8,000 of these loans; and by the time the guys were done at Goldman Sachs and the rating agencies, two-thirds of the loans were rated AAA, which meant they were rated as safe as government securities. It’s, it’s utterly mad.”
They were called CDOs, “collateralized debt obligations.” There’s more. By 2006, the big investment banks realized the CDOs they sold were risky and might fail, so they began buying insurance, called credit default swaps (CDS) from AIG Insurance, so that they would reap a profit if the CDOs really did go bust. Obviously, they stopped selling those toxic CDOs, right? Nope. All the while they continued to market CDOs as a high-quality investment! Meanwhile, they continued to buy CDSs till it dawned on them that AIG itself might go bust (which did happen). So they insured against even that!
But wait! Could all this possibly happen under the watchful eye of regulators? Again and again, Inside Job reveals how regulators saw all this developing—and did nothing. One such regulator, a former Fed banker, is convulsed with the worse case of the stammers I’ve ever seen trying to explain his role to Matt Damon: “So, uh, again, I, I don’t know the details, in terms of, of, uh, of, um – uh, in fact, I, I just don’t – I, I – eh, eh, whatever information he provide, I’m not sure exactly, I, eh, uh – it’s, it’s actually, to be honest with you, I can’t remember the, the, this kind of discussion. But certainly, uh, there, there were issues that were, uh, uh, coming up.”
The top investment bank executives all steered clear of Matt Damon, correctly smelling a rat, but they couldn’t really avoid Congress. The film provides footage of these big-time bankers being grilled by various legislators. Watch them squirm! It’s loads of fun. But don’t kid yourself. They only squirm to a point. And a little squirming can be endured if you’re nonetheless walking off with a personal profit of millions, even billions of dollars.
Another aspect of the film which has a curious effect: Whenever you see a picture of some people, and one of them is the United States President, and the camera begins to zoom in, you know it’s going to zoom in on the President, until presently the other nobodies fall of the frame. Inside Job zooms in on the other guys, all high-powered banking types who, the inference is clear, are really running the show. Here is footage of Ronald Reagan and his Treasury Secretary, former Morgan Stanley CEO Donald Regan, and it is Regan who is the focus. There is Bill Clinton side by side with his Secretary Treasurer, then Goldman Sachs CEO Robert Rubin, and it is Rubin who takes the spotlight. Ditto for George W. Bush and later Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson; the same for Barack Obama and Tim Geithner, former President of the New York Federal Reserve branch. Who is not reminded of Amschel Rothschild’s words of almost two centuries ago: “Let me issue and control a nation’s money and I care not who makes its laws.” Democrats in power? Republicans? Doesn’t matter. “It’s a Wall Street government,” says Robert Gnaizda, former director of the Greenlining Institute, with no reform in sight.
Trashing bankers was manifestly the way to go in late 2008, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are nothing but opportunists when it comes to finding topics of discussion. I had no overwhelming love for bankers in the first place, so I improvised the following:
“Hi. We’re speaking today about a group of people no one likes,” I began my house-to-house presentation. “Bankers.”
The householder replied: “I’m a banker.”
“No, no, no, I’m not talking about you...” I backpedaled. “I mean big-time bankers!”
“I’m a big-time banker,” she pursued. “So are all my family.” For crying out loud! What are the chances? Believe me, there was nothing about the street to suggest big-time bankers lived there. I still think she was pulling my leg, but you won’t have to stretch your mind too far to picture that the call sort of fizzled.
My companion was mortified. He still brings it up to suggest how embarrassed I must have been. But I wasn’t. Light and semi-flippant is the way I like to go; that way you can readily retract if you see you’ve missed your mark. It is exactly the right tone to cut through apathy, cynicism, or dullness, and we have a lot of that here in the United States. Plus, if you find you’ve come across a different type of person, you can immediately modify your tone. This will not work everywhere. It might not even work in most places. In some places it will come across as downright rude, but in the U.S.A, at least where I live, it’s just right, at least for me. It doesn’t work for Mrs. Harley, but then, her approach doesn’t work for me. We all have to make the most of the personalities we have.
I was aiming that day to speak of security, specifically financial security, since it didn’t seem to exist just then. Remember, the whole world was on the edge at the time. “World on the Edge,” were the cover words for The Economist Magazine, presented with such gravity that I almost thought I had picked up my latest Watchtower by mistake.
The 65th chapter of Isaiah points to happier, more secure times, and I wove this into my presentation: “And they will certainly build houses and have occupancy; and they will certainly plant vineyards and eat [their] fruitage. They will not build and someone else have occupancy; they will not plant and someone else do the eating. For like the days of a tree will the days of my people be; and the work of their own hands my chosen ones will use to the full. They will not toil for nothing, nor will they bring to birth for disturbance...”
Many people sense today that they are building and planting so that someone else can live the good life. Protesters were then camping out on Wall Street and major U.S. cities, angry about the top 1% of the population controlling 99% of the wealth. President Obama was preaching for all he was worth about creating jobs, jobs, and more jobs. Was it an ill omen for him that even Steve Jobs died while he was doing so? So it seemed that folks might be receptive to this Bible promise recorded in Isaiah, that under God’s Kingdom rule, they will see good for their hard work, rather than finding that they just dig themselves deeper into a hole while someone else sees good for it.
Recall that the banks had just been “bailed out.” They’d been given massive cash transfers, funded by the taxpayers, and taxpayers weren’t happy about it. Would anyone bail them out of their money troubles? Or would those banks, now that they had been saved, go easy on the small fry indebted to them? Not a bit of it! Instead, they began tossing people from their homes, as the housing market collapsed, jobs withered, and folks fell far behind in their mortgages. Yes, they booted them out right and left until someone uncovered a law that said you actually had to read documents you were signing when someone’s home was at stake. Banks weren’t doing that. They were robo-signing. The courts said they could no longer carry on like that. So they had to hire people to actually read the stuff, which slowed them down a bit. But only temporarily.
Doesn’t this just make one’s blood boil? Doesn’t it call to mind Matthew 18:23-34?
“…the kingdom of the heavens has become like a man, a king, that wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. When he started to settle them, there was brought in a man who owed him ten thousand talents [60,000,000 denarii]. But because he did not have the means to pay [it] back, his master ordered him and his wife and his children and all the things he had to be sold and payment to be made. Therefore the slave fell down and began to do obeisance to him, saying, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay back everything to you.’ Moved to pity at this, the master of that slave let him off and canceled his debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves that was owing him a hundred denarii; and, grabbing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back whatever you owe.’ Therefore his fellow slave fell down and began to entreat him, saying, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay you back.’ However, he was not willing, but went off and had him thrown into prison until he should pay back what was owing. When, therefore, his fellow slaves saw the things that had happened, they became very much grieved, and they went and made clear to their master all the things that had happened. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘Wicked slave, I canceled all that debt for you, when you entreated me. Ought you not, in turn, to have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I also had mercy on you?’”
As one senator (Ron Paul) pointed out, since the total bank bailouts eventually came to $17,000 per person, with no discernable economic benefit, you might have just given the money directly to the individual Americans. The results could hardly have turned out worse, and might well have turned out better. Debts would have been paid down, new purchases made, small businesses started. So that’s why I led off with my “bankers” presentation. It’s not something I would ordinary do.
Inside Job went on to win that year’s academy award for best documentary. Director Charles Ferguson, accepting his prize, delivered the only serious line during that entire star-studded silly night: “Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that’s wrong!” The pinnacles of human achievement rise ever mightier, but so do the wrecking balls to level them all in an instant. Perhaps the following excerpt from his movie is the most telling:
Charles Ferguson: “Why do you think there isn’t a more systematic investigation being undertaken?”
Nouriel Roubini (professor, NYU Business School): Because then you will find the culprits. (November 2011)
From the book TrueTom vs the Apostates!