Category Archives: debt and its many disguises

The Boy Wonder At The Heart Of A Disaster

Something to inspire your Friday: The story of a 30-year-old from Sunrise, Florida, who’s defying Wall Street — and not getting hit with a nightstick for it.

Who is James Koutoulas and how did this 30-year-old end up leading the charge to recover more than $1 billion for customers from one of Wall Street’s biggest bankruptcies?

By Leah McGrath Goodman, contributor

FORTUNE — James Koutoulas walked into one of the worst bankruptcies in U.S. history with almost zero legal experience.

“When I got up the first day in bankruptcy court and saw the look on the judge’s face, I couldn’t blame him,” he says. “Bankruptcy court is a rich man’s club where everyone is old, so I stood out. Honestly, when I’m shaved, I look like I’m about 12.”

Yet Koutoulas, 30, may be one of the only former customers of MF Global, the now-defunct futures brokerage house, with the gumption to publicly object to the way they are being treated. Since filing for bankruptcy Oct. 31, MF Global’s woes have rapidly piled up – chief among them losing an estimated $1 billion-plus of customer funds. The loss directly crimped the wallets of some of the futures market’s most active participants, from small-time farmers to ranchers to hedge funds.

Koutoulas, chief executive of three-year-old commodities fund Typhon Capital Management, stumbled into the courtroom drama accidentally. His Chicago firm, which conducts the bulk of its business in the futures market, discovered shortly after MF Global’s bankruptcy that $55 million of its $70 million under management had been dragged into the proceedings. This was a surprise, because, by law, customer funds are supposed to be kept completely segregated from a brokerage firm’s own assets. That wasn’t the case with MF Global. For Koutoulas and tens of thousands of other MF customers, it was a rude awakening.

“My goal is real simple: getting everybody’s money back,” he says. Continue reading The Boy Wonder At The Heart Of A Disaster

PAST PERFORMANCE IS NECESSARILY INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS

S also stands for 'sinister,' 'scurrilous' and 'slippery'

It met rarely and whined often. It gave up before the actual deadline (Nov. 23). It sought to shear over a trillion off the national budget, but came up with peanuts. It inspired satire in the form of, among other things, superhero cartoons. It was the “supercommittee.” For these reasons and so many more, America’s elite political body truly lived up to its name in that was super-lame.

This again proves that when Congress gets together and can’t make a deal, guess what? Moving the date back and getting together again — on the taxpayers’ dime, replete with catered lunches — still doesn’t lead to a deal. Funny how that works.

Whenever confronted with the need to make an actual decision, Congress prefers instead to commence lengthy studies, probing inquiries and cerebral surveys — all of which require much munching and lunching and the drinking of fresh coffee and spring water — that rack up bills yet infrequently give rise to any answers… Continue reading PAST PERFORMANCE IS NECESSARILY INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS

How To Make Someone Else Swallow Your Losses, The Mastercourse

It’s official: when a Wall Street powerhouse suddenly collapses and (possibly) more than a billion dollars goes missing, it’s no longer just the ordinary taxpayer’s problem. Now, it has moved up the chain. Below, the piece I wrote today for Fortune on what traders do when you misappropriate their money.

While Occupy Wall Street was holding its two-month anniversary rally in Manhattan last week, traders were quietly mounting a rather more sophisticated version of OWS on their own. Call it Occupy Wall Street Bankruptcy Court.

FORTUNE — Big institutional investors are getting a taste of what many frustrated taxpayers experienced during the financial crisis: Being on the hook for losses of a major financial firm against their wishes.

This time, of course, it’s MF Global at the center of the dispute. A once-trusted brokerage with roots dating back to the 1700s, MF Global is now a bankrupt firm suspected of misappropriating customer funds to the tune of at least $600 million.

More than two weeks after MF Global’s Halloween bankruptcy filing, there are more questions than answers and a surfeit of conflicts in an investigation that should be aiming to restore the public’s confidence, but is doing the opposite. On Monday, the bankruptcy trustee for the case announced that there may be much more than $600 million missing from MF Global accounts — perhaps as much as $1.2 billion.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of trading capital and collateral were frozen without notice, dramatically disrupting the derivatives marketplace and ushering in a phalanx of federal prosecutors, regulatory agencies and forensic accountants working around the clock to determine where the missing money is. This, after a lawyer for MF Global assured a New York judge earlier this month “there is no shortfall.”

What’s different about this case?  One hedge fund executive summed it up best: “What is scary about MF Global is that there is no political will in this country to look out for people. Let this be a lesson that, if someone tries to steal from you, there is no one who is going to save you. I mean it is literally the most frightening thing that can happen in finance.”

Led by a sense of outrage — as well as the conviction that if they don’t look out for themselves, no one else will — investors have been pooling information and banding together to defend themselves for weeks. Continue reading How To Make Someone Else Swallow Your Losses, The Mastercourse

Final Words From U.S. Bank Watchdog Sheila Bair

Castle on the Fuschlsee

Not all banks are the same. A handful of banks — such as the one that invited me to speak in Austria this autumn– were not happy to see the multibillion-dollar bailouts, the hue and cry of the public and the resumption of the indefensible bonuses on Wall Street that have, again, given banks a bad name.

I had never been to Salzburg before, so I was heartened to see another American there who had not been either: Sheila Bair, the outgoing head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the federal agency that insures bank deposits and unwinds the banks that fail. Bair has been very busy these past few years.

Bair was the only other female speaker in a sea of bank governors, finance ministers and consultants from a wide range of European nations. What united the group, however, was a sense of urgency in examining the origins of the global debt crisis and its possible solutions. A prominent boutique bank in central and eastern Europe, Erste Group, held a series of panel discussions at a private castle in the Alps on Lake Fuschlsee with provocative titles such as “Who needs banks?” (The answer, according to the moderator, was that we would like more “normal banks, banks that take our deposits and don’t try to gamble with them.”)

Ms. Bair offered her own pearls of wisdom in a keynote speech sizing up the banking system and the current state of the world’s financial affairs from the perspective of a Washington insider:

– On the highly popular banking credo of profits will be privatized; losses will be socialized: “There is still an issue with Wall Street’s perception of too big to fail,” Bair says. “The problem is, too big to fail is not over until Wall Street thinks it’s over. I have argued that the ratings agencies should not be rating banks more highly than they deserve, based on the expectation they will be bailed out. It is unfair for the taxpayers to have to put their money at risk again.”

– On bank bonuses: “We have got to do something about these huge bonuses…We are still seeing huge political movements based on the anger generated from this. We do need some tough love to address this.”

– On the fight over the U.S. debt ceiling (our nation, by the way, now owes over $54.5 trillion): “I am not going to defend our politicians…it was appalling, unnecessary and self-imposed,” Bair says, adding: “I am not going to defend it and I feel somewhat helpless about it. It’s a very sad situation.”

– On U.S. politicians primarily being driven by “short-term interests” and “the idea of driving decisions based on keeping your job” (her words): “It’s not like you get into public service for the money, so if you’re not doing the public good, it’s like, why are you doing this?'” Bair, who has worked for George Bush senior and Bob Dole — both military men — offered her suggestion for a better type of leader: those who have gone to war. “If you are willing to go to war for your country, then you’re not just willing to lose your job, you’re willing to sacrifice everything.”

– The prognosis for global growth and stability… Continue reading Final Words From U.S. Bank Watchdog Sheila Bair

The Ascent Of Decline

The decline of ascent.

The shot across the bow in the Great American Decline came at the usual time: just before the weekend after the market closed on a Friday.

This time-honored tradition of announcing horrid things just as one tucks into Friday night was invented by flaks who believed — rightly — that nobody notices anything going on between 4:30 pm on a Friday and 9 a.m. on a Monday.

This hat trick does not always work. When Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating from ‘AAA,’ the highest rating possible, to ‘AA+’ this past Friday I was traveling through New York and working in offices on Park Avenue. In the streets, it was absolute bedlam.

Later, having dinner on Wall Street with friends it was the same.

This effectively strips the U.S. of its golden credit for the first time in history.

We have lost our standing in the world.

Debt Deal ‘Achieved’…By Leaving Tough Decisions To A Yet-To-Be-Convened Special Committee

Turns out it is not at all hard to find a picture of a sweaty wad of cash on the Internet.

The good news: in a deal yet-to-be-passed by either house, Obama and Boehner’s Raucous Caucus have finally agreed to raise the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion in two stages, in exchange for an equal amount of spending cuts — with $917 billion of the cuts to span the next 10 years.

How will the rest of the cuts be administered? By special committee. (That’s the bad news.) Why rush these cuts when we were all starting to have so much fun?

Part of keeping the fun going is that Americans will continue to live in the shadow of the sword. Due to a small proviso cleverly tucked into this legislation, if the special committee doesn’t come up with at least $1.2 trillion in additional cuts (the goal here, is actually more like $1.5 trillion in cuts) or Congress doesn’t agree to green-light them, something akin to martial law will kick in.

What will this look like? Think of a nail-bomb set in advance, designed to spray cuts to the military and Medicare if anyone makes one ill-advised move.

Basically, this part of the deal ensures that even you, the taxpayer, will be begging members of Congress to ratify every last spending cut, lest you dial 911 one day and find that nobody answers.

Hey, what’s a bill without a little blackmail?

Still, it is a sad state of affairs that the only way to get things done these days is to hold ourselves at gunpoint.

The bill is expected to be voted on today. Obama, for all his speeches, has been brutally cowed, again. Spending cuts reign supreme, while Bush-era tax cuts remain unchallenged. It is official: our president buckles like a belt.

Americans Quaver As U.S. Prepares To Go Titanic

Lifeboats for senators and bankers only.

Fidelity, which never sends emails, except to market its herd-investing strategies, has suddenly sputtered to life.

This weekend’s missive: “Debt ceiling: what you should know.”

Really. It’s a little late to be sending this now. But what have you got?

It turns out Fidelity is able to direct me to its Web site to get the most clicking, ahem, “best thinking” of its market specialists, who have penned such helpful tidbits as “Inside the U.S. debt drama” and “Fear is not a strategy.”

Fidelity, we know you don’t want us pulling all our money out of our shrinking retirement accounts and stuffing it under our mattresses because that is not good for you. But “Fear is not a strategy”? Come on. That’s pitiful.

We are going down this road no matter what we do now. We’ve heard for a long time something’s gotta’ give. It is just too bad so many people are going to get a lot worse than they deserve.

Just a few letters from the Interblogging universe, written by concerned Americans who now believe their worries will be given more consideration online than by their own congressmen and women… Continue reading Americans Quaver As U.S. Prepares To Go Titanic

The Chickens Must Eventually Roost

Too many Foghorn Leghorns?

The thing about playing chicken is that fatally high stakes are a prerequisite of the game.

And someone — not excluding, say, an entire country — is going lose.

If you believe market pundits like Jim Rogers (an American trader of some fame who chooses to teach his daughter Mandarin and now lives in Singapore) the U.S. has already lost its triple-A credit rating in all but fact.

“Everyone already knows that the U.S. has lost its ‘AAA’ status,” Rogers said (while alternately lambasting the press for taking seriously what he called the ongoing Washington “charade”).

“Anyone who knows what is going on, already knows that the U.S. is now the
biggest debtor nation in the history of the world. It’s only S&P and Moody’s [the ratings agencies] that haven’t figured out what is going on. The investment world knows that the U.S. is not ‘AAA.’”

The truth is, the ratings agencies have figured out the U.S. is not triple-A. But those entrusted with grading the U.S. debt at the ratings agencies have been on the phone frequently with Washington, which means their allegiances are subject to crushing political pressure. Continue reading The Chickens Must Eventually Roost

The Carnival Is Still In Town

“Concentrated power has always been the enemy of liberty.”  

— Ronald Reagan

Wall Street blames Washington for all the financial crises. And Washington blames Wall Street back. It would be amusing, if it wasn’t so pathetic.

Now we know the truth — that both are taking turns bringing us to the brink, with only their own self-preservation in mind.

As we emerged, rather confused, from the 2008 financial crisis, a posting appeared in the comments section of The Wall Street Journal. It was as prescient as it was disturbing. It appears in my book, but I am re-posting it below.

Whether you are a Democrat, Republican or Independent, it is worth a read. It is also worth considering that while Wall Street bewails any hint of a redistribution of wealth to the unwashed masses, the largest-ever redistribution of wealth occurred right under taxpayers’ noses to the banks by the billion-load   — Wall Street’s greatest coup ever, rubber-stamped by our own elected officials.

“All this goes to show we are now entering the second phase of the world financial crisis. Despite the fact that the anti-social nature of banks has been found out, the corruption of the Fed and the finance committees in the Senate and House are now public, and the solutions to the problems are well known, we still do not possess the political will to carry them out.

“It is clear that a larger problem now looms — the crooks are firmly in power and intend to stay there . . . Americans are again ruled by a plutocracy that has no interest in them other than the money that can be made off them, the same as in 1776 . . . If we cannot kick these people out of power, we are no longer America. And most people sense that. We have become the pleading chickens our founding fathers would have despised.”

U.S. Debt Kerfuffle: It’s Not That We Can’t Pay…We Just Don’t Feel Like It

One of their better moments...

Somewhere in the United States, right now, a billionaire is paying his taxes. This makes some people — not naming any names — very unhappy. In our nation, it is imperative that hedge fund managers, for example, pay roughly 15% on earnings via a handy loophole, whereas someone like, say a writer-girl, coughs up over 30%. That strikes some folks as just about right. Call it pursuit of happiness.

Other people’s happiness.

So we have some disagreement there. Elsewhere, others feel that taxing the daylights out of Americans who can’t afford to pay for gas to get to work sounds about right. And that, at one of the worst moments in financial history, forcing Americans to buy health insurance they don’t necessarily want or need so that the healthy insured can subsidize the less-healthy insured is a great idea.

Not saying that insuring everybody as a solid, pie-in-the-sky ideal is not commendable but, Obama, did you ever hear of bad timing? This is why everyone in the opposition thinks you’re batshit-crazy. Why don’t we entertain nirvana after mastering the merely tolerable? Continue reading U.S. Debt Kerfuffle: It’s Not That We Can’t Pay…We Just Don’t Feel Like It