Archive for June, 2014

Eric Holder: Too Big to Jail

Friday, June 20th, 2014

The Divide; American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, Matt Taibbi, 2014

A painful book full of well researched stories from both ends of the injustice spectrum; from wall street to welfare to stop and frisk to immigrant extortion and deportations.

justice equality blind_justice justice money

At the center of the failure to try or jail a single financial bankster is Attorney General Eric Holder, author during the Clinton administration of the infamous Collateral Consequences doctrine at the heart of the current “too big to jail” policy. This then is the bookend to the story of Timothy Geithner’s refusal to break up Citibank or any other too big to fail institution. See She Bear at the FDIC. As with Geithner, Taibbi makes a strong case for cowardliness at the heart of each failure. This is in sharp contrast to the effective government action to deal with the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s where many executives were sent to jail and were banned for life from banking. See William Black’s account.

holder jail

Collateral Consequences doctrine dictates that no prosecution should be undertaken where innocent bystanders like stockholders and corporate employees or global financial stability may be adversely effected. In effect, this vague, undefinable “doctrine” has prevented any and all government prosecutions from proceeding. Instead, the government has negotiated an endless stream of financial “settlements” where the corporations agreeing to the settlement admit to no wrong doing, no one gets fired, and no one has to face future litigation. At its highest in the case of JP Morgan the total settlements amounted to 12% of one year’s profits. The target institutions have come to look at these “settlements” as a normal cost of doing business as usual. The underlying criminal behavior continues.

The most notorious and disgusting cases were the The HongKong and Shanghai Bank HSBC settlement for mafia and drug cartel money laundering and the LIBOR interest fixing settlement involving many banks. If these cases do not involve criminal activity then what does. Oh, I see, it is criminal to stand on the sidewalk outside your own apartment. This is the type of contrast Taibbi is exposing.

Less emphasized in this book but equally true, most of these bankster “settlements” have gone directly into government coffers. Those victimized by the fraud receive nothing or laughable amounts. The bank illegally repossessed and sold your house? Here’s $200, now go away.

How about the whistle blowers like the woman at JP Morgan Chase fired because she blew the whistle on robo-signing for credit card collections. All the government can seem to do after several years is to continue to “lose” her whistle blower’s case file. She doesn’t even know if she is on file.

For lighter entertainment, Taibbi includes the case of several big time short sellers (see also the Big Short) who wrongly guess that a well run Canadian insurance company is about to go out of business and then hire some clowns to try to force them out of business with dirty tricks. When this fails, the insurance company sues the short sellers for damages but of course the Canadians lose the case.

Then there is the interesting case of the Barclay Bank buying the husk of Lehman Brothers after the government (read Hank Paulson) refuse to bail them out forcing Lehmans into bankruptcy. Barclay masterminds a clever scheme to secretly reduce the $50 Billion asset purchase by $5 billion by tricking the judge with an amendment. When the Lehmans creditors discover the scheme and sue, the same judge that was fooled during bankruptcy hearings buys a weird McNamara like “Fog of War” defense, this time called the “Fog of Bankruptcy” that during hurried bankruptcy filings “shit happens”. Too bad, no relief for the creditors.

Want to invest in a growth industry? Try private jailers. Note that the sharp increased slope starts with Reagan but does not slow for Clinton.

jailed chart

High Frequency Extortion

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

Flash Boys, A Wall Street Revolt, Michael Lewis, 2014

This book is about the fast changing character of market exchanges, the big banks, and their collusion with high frequency traders that have made trading into a totally opaque dive into the shark tank. The book was rushed to market with incorrect words, syntax, and spelling problems, but it is still worth reading.

Wall street has undergone a technological revolution into electronic trading led first by NASDAQ . A few years ago there were three stock exchanges plus the Chicago futures market where an individual stock could be listed on only one exchange. Now there are countless exchanges and stocks can be traded on any of them. After September 11, 2001 there was an exodus of the markets from Manhattan to the suburbs of New Jersey. In 2007 the SEC implemented Reg NMS which required brokers to find the best market price for investors. This new regulation was in response to a growing epidemic of front running in the markets, but its implementation actually increased the opportunity for front running because brokers were required to pass their orders to more exchanges leading to more opportunities to front run. Wikipedia defines and explains front running as follows:

Front running is the illegal practice of a stockbroker executing orders on a security for its own account while taking advantage of advance knowledge of pending orders from its customers. When orders previously submitted by its customers will predictably affect the price of the security, purchasing first for its own account gives the broker an unfair advantage, since it can expect to close out its position at a profit based on the new price level. The front running broker either buys for his own account (before filling customer buy orders that drive up the price), or sells (where the broker sells for its own account, before filling customer sell orders that drive down the price).

As if things were not complicated enough many financial institutions have created something called dark (or black) pool as a total alternative to the mess with the public exchanges. Again Wikipedia defines a dark pool as:

dark poolA great white shark … look out for one near Britain soon.

In finance, a dark pool (also black pool) is a private forum for trading securities that is not openly available to the public. Liquidity on these markets is called dark pool liquidity.The bulk of dark pool trades represent large trades by financial institutions that are offered away from public exchanges like the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ, so that such trades remain confidential and outside the purview of the general investing public. The fragmentation of financial trading venues and electronic trading has allowed dark pools to be created, and they are normally accessed through crossing networks or directly among market participants via private contractual arrangements.

One of the main advantages for institutional investors in using dark pools is for buying or selling large blocks of securities without showing their hand to others and thus avoiding market impact as neither the size of the trade nor the identity are revealed until the trade is filled. However, it also means that some market participants are disadvantaged as they cannot see the trades before they are executed; prices are agreed upon by participants in the dark pools, so the market becomes no longer transparent.

The main focus of this book is high frequency trading defined again in Wikipedia:

hft chart

High-frequency trading (HFT) is a type of algorithmic trading, specifically the use of sophisticated technological tools and computer algorithms to rapidly trade securities. HFT uses proprietary trading strategies carried out by computers to move in and out of positions in seconds or fractions of a second.

As of 2009, studies suggested HFT firms accounted for 60-73% of all US equity trading volume, with that number falling to approximately 50% in 2012.

High-frequency traders move in and out of short-term positions aiming to capture sometimes just a fraction of a cent in profit on every trade. HFT firms do not employ significant leverage, accumulate positions or hold their portfolios overnight. HFT firms make up the low margins with incredible high volumes of tradings, frequently numbering in the millions.

HFT may cause new types of serious risks and dangers to the financial system. Algorithmic and HFT were both found to have contributed to volatility in the May 6, 2010 Flash Crash, when high-frequency liquidity providers rapidly withdrew from the market.

High Frequency traders trade with perfect information and their speed advantage assures that their trades incur no risk of loss. HDTs never lose money unless their algorithms or machines blow up.

Katsayama with Lewis katsayama lewis

Personalizing this mess, Lewis focuses on Brad Katsuyama a young trader at the Royal Bank of Canada who, in 2006 noticed that whenever he placed an order, the price instantly changed. Welcome to the brave new world of trading. What Brad discovers is that HFT and other financial institutions act on his orders before the actual traders can do so. These leaches co locate their equipment with the exchanges and pay fortunes for fast communications links. To gather information they troll tiny orders for a wide variety of stocks and when these tiny orders get a nibble they determine by the stock involved and the trader that this may be a part of a large trade and they rush throughout the exchanges to beat the traders to the stocks being offered. Once owned the front runners can change the price and sell them back.

Katsuyama eventually leaves RBC to start his own “honest” exchange, IEX. The trick is to ensure that his exchange IEX support only the few most common trading types and to guarantee that all connections to IEX are slow enough to prevent front running. If you trade exclusively on IEX, HFT and other financial institutions cannot front run your orders. IEX is new and its survival and success were unknown at publication time. Goldman Sachs placed its first large order on IEX on Dec 19, 2013 which IEX took as a very hopeful sign. Because stocks seldom trade exclusively on IEX, HFT and other financial institutions systematically troll IEX for information that they can exploit on other exchanges. Life goes on as usual.

Sergey Aleynikov and his attorney Kevin Marino serge and kevin marino

Lewis includes the side story of Sergey Aleynikov charged by Goldman Sachs with stealing proprietary software when he left the company. Sergey was acquitted on appeal but, for this reader, the interesting details concerned the use of open source software defined again by Wikipedia:

Open-source software (OSS) is computer software with its source code made available and licensed with a license in which the copyright holder provides the rights to study, change and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose. Open-source software is very often developed in a public, collaborative manner. Open-source software is the most prominent example of open-source development and often compared to (technically defined) user-generated content or (legally defined) open-content movements.

Open source software is often used by developers to shorten their development time and to produce better software. The trick is to find the right software on the internet that can be modified for the user’s purposes. Sergey’s stolen software was modified open source software that, according to the license of its use must remain open and the modifications made available to the public open source community. Goldman Sachs removed the license notice from the software so it was actually Goldman Sachs, not Sergey who illegally stole the software.

Cuba and the end of Apartheid

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

Visions of Freedom, Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991, Piero Gleijeses, 2013

This is a well researched history of Cuba’s involvement in Angola and the role of Cuba in the ending of South Africa’a apartheid rule. There has been so much distorted and wrong history of these events that Gleijeses felt compelled to spend years amassing documents and interviewing principals to tell the real story as best he can determine it.

Angola Founding Father Sam Nujoma Sam Nujoma

It begins with South Africa’s invasion of communist Angola in 1975 which led Cuba to send troops to Angola where they successfully drove the South Africans out of the country. The Cuban military was to remain in Angola until 1988 when they left as part of a four party settlement agreement between Cuba, Angola, South Africa, and the United States.

Namibian SWAPO slogans swapo

South Africa again attacked and destroyed a Namibian refugee camp at Cassinga in Angola. International outrage led ultimately to UN Resolution 435 which called for free elections in Namibia which South Africa occupied militarily and ruled through a puppet government. South Africa signed the resolution but knew it would lose a free election to SWAPO so refused to implement 435 til forced to do so in 1988.

Angola had its own civil war with the communist MPLA government fighting insurgent Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA. South Africa supported anti communist Savimbi militarily and economically. When Reagan became president, the US also began support of Savimbi. Savimbi spoke good English, was charismatic, and knew how to exploit anti communist sentiment. He had collaborated with Portugal in the colonial struggles and was a brutal and cruel terrorist. The Cubans made clear throughout their stay in Angola that they were there to stop South African incursions, not to help the government in its civil war.

UNITA Jonas Savimbi Jonas_Savimbi

The Soviets took a different view and helped plan and arm major MPLA offensives to destroy UNITA. The Soviets had no understanding of guerrilla warfare and wrongly believed that South Africa would stay out of their offensives. The first offensive was in 1985 and the MPLA lost about half its forces to South African artillery and air strikes. South Africa allowed the MPLA to retreat. The second disastrous attack was in 1987 and again MPLA lost many soldiers. This time South Africa pursued the MPLA with the intention of eliminating them altogether.

Cuba opposed both Soviet planned attacks but felt obligated to save the MPLA from South Africa. The counter offensive was planned by Fidel Castro himself in close consultation with his generals. Castro sent his best troops, MIG fighters, artillery and tanks and the latest Soviet anti aircraft weapons to Angola. This left him exposed at home but Gorbachev promised to send more weapons to Cuba.

Military Strategist Fidel in Angola castro angola

South Africa attempted to capture Cuito Cuanavale and the Cubans engaged them there. For the first time Cuba had air superiority and they prevailed. This time, Castro was determined to drive the South Africans out of Angola and developed a slow, careful, methodical campaign to achieve this objective. Reagan had set as his top priority in Africa to get the Cuban troops out of Angola. His diplomats, led by Chester Crocker, worked tirelessly trying to get the MPLA government to negotiate an agreement that would remove the Cubans but the Cubans were always excluded from these talks.

Reagan Crocker Discuss Angola crocker reagan

Once it was clear the Cubans were prevailing against the South Africans, American diplomats agreed to add Cuba to the negotiations. Cuba insisted that South Africa be added to the negotiations as well. Cuba had two non negotiable requirements; South Africa must implement UN Resolution 435 allowing free elections in Namibia; and South Africa must stop supporting Savimbi. After much posturing and bumbling, South Africa had to agree to the two conditions and to leave Angola. Cuba was in a position, not only to force South Africa out of Angola, but to attack South African bases in Namibia. Cuba agreed to leave Angola as part of the settlement in 1988. Free elections were held in Namibia and were won by SWAPO as expected. Free elections were also held in Angola and were won by MPLA. Savimbi refused to accept the results and US assistance was finally cut off for UNITA.

Fidel and Nelson castro mandela

Pretoria Freedom Park Monument freedom-park

Had these events happened only a year later when the Soviet system collapsed, Cuba would have been unable to force the removal of South Africa from Angola and force free elections in Angola and Namibia. Apartheid might still have ended under the pressure of an international boycott and sanctions but who knows if and when this would have happened. When Nelson Mandela visited Fidel Castro in 1991 he acknowledged that Cuba was centrally responsible for the fall of Apartheid in South Africa. The names of the 2000 Cubans who died in Angola are enshrined alongside those of the ANC on a monument in Pretoria’s Freedom Park South Africa today.