Category Archives: market gaming

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

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

Fortune Features ‘The Asylum’ As Weekly Read

Since publishing “The Asylum: The Renegades Who Hijacked The World’s Oil Market,”  I have received a great deal of response (most of it in private correspondence and some in public forums, such as the press and in the courts, where I spent the better part of my summer languishing in sunless quarters).

You would think it would be the very traders about whom I wrote who would have caused the most trouble. This has not been so. On the contrary, most of them have been supportive to an unwarranted degree, including a rare few who have had every reason to be furious about what I wrote, but instead were reasonable.

Many of them also expressed a sincere belief that the global oil market has run off the rails and that prices are no longer set by supply and demand.

Enter the “market fundamentalist” academics, think tanks, lobbyists and politicians. These folks have been some of the worst offenders. What I have had difficulty understanding, mainly, is what they are getting on about and why. They certainly do not get paid well enough by Wall Street to justify the damage they cause by promulgating misinformation. Any money tossed their way is literally kibble, compared with what is being made off their backs. How much does a senator or academic cost? Not very much, I’m afraid. Continue reading Fortune Features ‘The Asylum’ As Weekly Read

Warren Buffett Has Some Choice Words For ‘Billionaire-Friendly Congress’

Warren Buffett, the world’s third-richest man, hasn’t raked in his $50 billion-plus by  nursing a bleeding heart for the middle class.

In fact, those closest to him (I am talking about his kids and grandkids here) have personally told me the Seer of Omaha is as hard-nosed as they come. To him, playing the market is a game — and he wants to be the best on the planet. “Dad always says, ‘Bury me with a Ouija board, because when I die, I want to keep on playing,'” one of his sons told me in 2008.

Bottom line: this is not a man looking to be parted with his bucks.

And yet…when confronted with the Hieronymus Bosch painting of political and financial horrors of the past few years, he has felt the need to speak up about the wounds he feels are needlessly being inflicted on ordinary Americans.

In the following New York Times editorial, which should be read by one and all, he offers a brief economic education for those who seek to propagate the untruths ginned up by the deep thinkers in Washington to protect the wealthy from their worst horror of all — tax hikes.

Stop Coddling The Super-Rich

OUR leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice.” But when they did the asking, they spared me.

I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched. Continue reading Warren Buffett Has Some Choice Words For ‘Billionaire-Friendly Congress’

Dear The Fed: You Suck

I was cleansing my inbox today and found this friendly letter to the Fed from 2007 written by our comrades at Long or Short Capital (vaguely connected to our own fake hedge fund, Intergalactic Capital). I was all ready to take a whimsical walk down memory lane, since 2007 was the year before our  financial meltdown. Yet strangely, this missive does not seem dated.

To: The Fed
From:
Long or Short Capital
Re:
You suck

Dear the Fed,

You suck.  You don’t have a backbone and as a result you are slowly and very surely making our country and our currency irrelevant.  Usually the masses rebel and bring down great empires but luckily for us democracy fixed that problem.  Unfortunately, democracy can’t fix how lame and fickle you are and so you will be our ruin.

A few things to tell you:

1) Inflation isn’t 2% like your pathetic CPI ex-Food & Energy says it is.

First of all, as far as I can tell food and  energy are the only two items you should NEVER exclude from an inflation index.  Tell your wife and kids they can have everything in the consumer basket except food and energy and you will quickly see that they are actually the two MOST important and indispensable factors in the CPI.

You can find substitutes for, or go without, everything in the basket EXCEPT those two.

Secondly, stop using “Seasonally Adjusted Intervention Analysis” it’s as sketchy as the  Seldom-Accepted-Accounting-Principles (SAAP) we use to cook the books here at LoS.  I mean writing a computer program to automatically remove any items in the basket which deviate meaningfully from the previous year?  Isn’t the point of the data to SHOW the change versus the previous year, not hide it?  Oh, I found the list of items that you’ve adjusted for and it’s embarrassing. Continue reading Dear The Fed: You Suck

Cash or Credit: A Stuffing Under the Mattress Vs. A Hiding in the Closet

It took longer than usual to take up the pen today. Probably because it was imperative to check out the “Every Single Outfit Catherine Wore on the Royal Tour” feature in the Huffington Post.

Having done that, I now turn to more important matters.

Like this cash-or-credit debate taking place in the papers. Financial vigilantes are urging consumers to cut up their credit cards and throw them away. One article in SmartMoney actually sounded the shibboleth: “I’m going all cash!”

To which readers had a range of emotional responses. Two encapsulating these:

“This is simply an irritating article. I am willing to bet $1000 that the author
is lying and in fact is still using his credit cards and not wandering around
paying for everything with cash. If you’re going to write an article, at least
please be intellectually honest. Do you think we are that stupid?’

And:

“Already living this dream. In fact it is a great reality to know that you owe nothing to anyone. We do not have credit cards either, we have covered that with an emergency fund. We own a house (no mortgage) and we have paid cash for all of our vehicles (no financing). As far as I’m concerned, living within your means and being debt free is the NEW AMERICAN DREAM.”

The most compelling reason for getting rid of your credit cards is obvious: ordinary folk have to pay 14% interest on average for them. Yet banks pay less than 1% whenever they feel like borrowing from the government (yes, that includes JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America — even Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, which received “bank holding company” status during the credit crisis).

Kind of annoying that the Big Banks get to play with money for almost nothing, but not us Little People, isn’t it? Continue reading Cash or Credit: A Stuffing Under the Mattress Vs. A Hiding in the Closet

How Now, Gold Cow?

So, I wrote a book…but I have not been goodly enough to do much blogging about it. This was not intentional. This was mainly because of the furious pace of travel, lawsuits, the odd threat — and the fact that I was serving full time as a journalism fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder, trying to do my best to live a quiet life. I have since made amends, and will be writing regularly about my continuing fascination with sins of affinity and cultures of corruption. Healthy stuff like that.

Let’s start today with Goldman Sachs letting us all know that oil supply is headed for levels that are “critically tight,” sending prices in the U.S. up to nearly $100 again and in Europe still higher. This contrasts somewhat with the bank’s remarks in April that “supply-demand fundamentals are significantly less tight,” made by the bank’s chief energy analyst David Greely. At the time, this prodded oil prices into a temporary swan dive that proved a good buying opportunity for — some would say — Goldman. Mind you, oil supplies in the U.S. have been near their upper limits for most of the year, so not sure what the rumpus is about.

By May, however, Goldman pulled an about-face with its global head of commodities strategy, Jeffrey Currie, predicting that the loss of oil production due to the conflict in Libya would cause oil prices to surge. On cue, they did. Never mind that the Libyan conflict began in February, raging throughout Goldman’s projection of a price crash. Or that Libyan oil production has been a tiny drop in the global bucket (1.6 million barrels a day to the 20 million-plus a day consumed by the U.S. alone).

All told, Goldman’s prediction came just a few weeks after the bank told its clients to dump their oil investments. It makes one wonder which bank doubling as the world’s largest commodities trader was buying oil during that time? Continue reading How Now, Gold Cow?

Interview on ‘Keiser Report’ – Russia Today

Many of you have written to ask for a good bit more on the shenanigans prevalent in today’s oil market. Check out this show, aired today, from minute 14 on…(Thankfully, you can scroll through to the juicy stuff.) More to come on DOJ, FTC, CFTC and FERC investigations into the price of oil and gas — and where the biggest challenges lie for those who seek to break the back of the corruption.

 

‘The Asylum,’ Or How Capitalism and the American Dream Met Their Deaths

June 2011  by Rogue Philosopher

The Asylum: The Renegades Who Hijacked the World’s Oil Market by Leah McGrath Goodman details how a handful of commodity traders on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) manipulated the energy futures markets and thereby did more than their share to destroy to our economy.

A singular tragedy in this sordid tale is how the commodity markets finally succumbed to the unbridled greed and power lust that characterized the rest of Wall Street. The commodity futures markets were always the bad boys of the financial community. They didn’t play by the stuff-shirt, pinstriped rules of the banks and investment community. The players on the NYSE and AMEX were mostly dullards. By contrast, the boys and gals at the Commodity Exchange Center in the World Trade Center were a colorful, indeed, even charismatic lot.  The traders were outcasts, renegades, cowboys. They stood apart from the financial herd. They drank hard, partied hard, and womanized shamelessly.

In short, they were a lot of fun.

The commodity futures markets were also the one last place in the financial community where someone starting out from humble beginnings and without the advantages of social or political connections could, with some assistance from Lady Fortuna, make it big. Or at least make a real good living for himself and his family. Traders like these represented one of the few remaining symbols of the American Dream.

No more…

Continue reading ‘The Asylum,’ Or How Capitalism and the American Dream Met Their Deaths

How Fear, Greed Factor Into the Price of Gasoline

The price of oil is set not in Vienna at the headquarters of OPEC, but at the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Llewellyn King, PBS

Sunday, May 1, 2011

WASHINGTON — The fate of the Obama presidency hangs not on a birth certificate or the red ink on the federal budget but by the hose nozzle of your local gas station.

Electoral discontent is measured by the price of a gallon of gasoline. Heading past $4 toward $5, that is a lethal trajectory for President Obama.

Enter the demagogues, especially the clown-in-a-business-suit, Donald Trump. Unfettered by the gravity that goes with facts, Trump says that he would fix the oil price — now around $110 a barrel — by facing down the producers, particularly the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). He told an interviewer on television that he would call OPEC and tell them to pump more or face the consequences. The latter, he did not specify. War? Against whom?

In a compelling book by Leah McGrath Goodman, The Asylum: The Renegades Who Hijacked the World’s Oil Market, the author lays out the ugly fact that often — in fact, more often as not — the price of oil is set not in Vienna at the headquarters of OPEC, but in downtown Manhattan at the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX).

Tens of thousands of future contracts are traded in nanoseconds at the NYMEX, and the price of oil is set. This price affects not only the price that will be paid when these contracts expire and delivery takes place, but also, according to Goodman, the all-important over-the-counter market, where sellers trade more directly with buyers without government oversight.

Goodman contends that there is little oversight of the NYMEX because the agency charged with the role is the weak and ineffectual Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), where many staff and commissioners are busy burnishing their resumes so they can cash in later as market executives.

The over-the-counter market is not regulated at all because of a pernicious interference from Congress known as the “Enron Loophole.” How did it get into law? It is one of those pieces of special-interest protection that owes its existence to legislative immaculate conception. It was not in the committee version of the bill; it slipped in along the way without parenthood, but is largely believed to be the work of former Sen. Phil Graham, R-Texas, whose wife, Wendy, was chair of the CFTC.

In classic theory, a market is where a willing buyer and a willing seller strike a price. In the world of traders, it is something else: It is where volatility is rewarded and myths hold sway.

Today there is no actual shortage of crude oil. Supply and demand, according to those who monitor these things, is in balance. But fear stalks the trading floors because fear is good for traders; and fear is a critical part of the oil price. Continue reading How Fear, Greed Factor Into the Price of Gasoline