Columbia Professor Jeffrey Sachs: Financial System Is "Lawless" (Part 1)
By Jeff West
The following two-part article appeared in the August 21 and August 28, 2013 issues of The Times Examiner
Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, a professor of economics at Columbia University, is not exactly known as a Tea Party advocate (nor is his ultra-liberal university) but on April 17, 2013 he sounded like a conservative as he addressed the Philadelphia Federal Reserve with some scathing comments on the illegalities of our current financial system. Dr. Sachs has a long list of credentials, including being twice chosen in the top 100 influential individuals by Time magazine. He helped some former Soviet Union countries set up capitalist systems to replace their previous socialistic economies. Consequently, his opinions should be seriously considered, because in this regard his first-hand observations document the position of conservatives regarding financial corruption in America, which now extends across the globe and damaged our nation's reputation. Until these serious problems are corrected our domestic and global economy will only continue to worsen. The following is a transcript of his speech:
"I've been asked to talk a little about the international implications, especially the development implications, of the financial crisis and of the banking sector. And maybe it's useful to just share with you a sense that I received a few days ago in meeting with about a hundred UN ambassadors, who are discussing the global economy, and global policy framework for the period from 2015 to 2030, which is very much the United Nations agenda. What was palpable in the room was a very, very deep sense of anger and grievance at the American financial system. And I think that this is important to state, because we have our debates as if we're sometimes operating in a cocoon, in a way, and the rest of the world, especially the developing world, feels that they have been the victims of the U.S. and its mismanagement over the last few years. And I think that it's a geopolitical reality that is a very real and very justified one. In other words, the sense of the 2008 crisis is 'You did this to us.' And the failures of regulation in the United States have contributed markedly to the instability and economic stresses in other places. And as several of the ambassadors reflected, the U.S. and the IMF more or less treat the policy discussions as if nothing really has happened. And what several ambassadors said, is 'Why is that we're taking advice from people who have mismanaged the financial system so badly?'
"So, I think this is not an insignificant context. It's hard for the key currency and the center of the world financial system maybe to hear this very well, and to take it as seriously as it should be taken. But the backdrop from the world's point of view is that the United States has failed badly in financial management and that the implications of that are felt around the world.
"My feeling about this is actually similar. And I think that it's worth speaking outside of the monetary and macroeconomic framework for just a moment. And that is to reflect on the Fed's role as a regulator and on the real lessons of the financial crisis since 2008. And the angle that I would emphasize in this again I think is not typical for us as economists, but it is the massive illegality that has been exposed in the system. I am tracking systematically the news every day of new settlements of the financial markets through SEC and other legal proceedings. We have really a mountain of criminal and fraudulent behavior that is very much part of the 2008 scene. And we don't usually speak in these terms. We usually speak in terms of bubbles and mistakes, misjudgments and so forth. But the amount of what I would regard as utter criminality and financial fraud is absolutely enormous. And it's almost daily, whether it's the insider trading scandals, or whether it's LIBOR scandal, or whether it's the ABACUS and similar settlements on selling toxic assets by the investment banks, we are, because we're on the inside of this, I think we are not actually feeling the full weight of, not only regulatory failure and moral failure, but massive legal failure that's implicated in this as well.
"And today, just as an example, I clipped three stories from the news. One was that yesterday, a judge approved the settlement with SAC Capital, a $602 million fine for civil insider trading. You know, that's a modest fine, the judge expressed his concern that SAC Capital did not have to admit or deny any of the claims that were made in this. So this is a settlement without any resolution of the substantive topic. One asks whether a $602 million fine is likely to have much effect. Well, the same day we have the story of course that the owner and CEO of SAC Capital took home last year in compensation $1.4 billion personally. So the company is paying a $602 million fine and at the same time Stephen A. Cohen takes home in compensation $1.4 billion in personal compensation for his management of the company. And, if we just go back a few days, his top trader was arrested in handcuffs and led off from his apartment on Park Avenue. So this is what's called the American financial system at the moment. It's really mindboggling to me. And it's an unregulated, essentially lawless environment that is not getting any more lawful.
"So I checked what Stephen A. Cohen, his political engagement this past year, and he gave $217,000 in campaign contributions. Now this is a pittance from the point of view of his wealth obviously, his share of $1.4 billion paycheck, but $217,000 with our cheapskate politicians actually goes a long way to making sure that Mr. Cohen will be very well treated by his Senators and by others who are giving ample protection to all of this.
"So, this is where I would start, actually. I think the macroeconomics is important, but I think that the lawlessness in the sense of the world, in the complete impunity of the system is absolutely massive. And wherever you look, we see the same thing continuing 'til today, and that is massive, massive bonuses at the top of the financial market, massive civil fines being paid for really incredible behavior, and massive campaign contributions going from this financial leadership to the political class.
"Yesterday's front page story of the New York Times gave eight salary figures: David Tepper, $2.2 billion paycheck; Ray Dalio, $1.7 billion; Stephen Cohen, $1.4 billion-by the way, half of these companies didn't even beat the market last year. It doesn't matter. They have a fee structure that is independent of any real performance. And when they fail, of course, they don't have to give back anything, in this until today, including last year's billion dollar compensation holder, John Paulson, whose gold price bet is announced today to have lost $1.5 billion for his shareholders. But I can guarantee you he's not putting $1 billion back into his company. It's only upside, no downside. And when you look at the political linkages of all of this, Daniel Loeb, who gets only $380 million of compensation, gave last year $551,000 in campaign contributions. Ken Griffin, who took $900 million for Citadel, gave $2.7 million of campaign contributions. David Tepper of Appaloosa gave $601,000 of campaign contributions, and so forth. And many of these companies are involved in these civil lawsuits, payments for fraudulent behavior, that is neither admitted or denied.
"The final thing I would add on all of this that shocks the world, is that we have perfected not only this system, but we've perfected the system in which these companies are domiciled in the Cayman Islands, or they're domiciled with partners in the Cayman Islands, taking away any accountability and further not only masking them from tax liabilities on these earnings, but also masking them from many legal liabilities. The latest, of course as you know, is that they've created re-insurance companies, in Bermuda and in the Cayman Islands, that allow them to invest in their own firms, through a tax-sheltered mechanism, that is only a shell, from the point of view of insurance.
"So my question to you, you're part of the Fed, where's the Fed? Because this is about basic regulatory practice. It seems to me, in truth, that we have a system that is out of control, right now, that's politically out of control, regulatorily out of control, out of legal bounds, out of responsibility, and we've invented a system where you get to take home billions of dollars in personal compensation, your shareholders pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines, you shelter your money in the Cayman Islands in agreement with the IRS, and nobody seems to control it at all. And, you know, I sit with the diplomats here in New York, I can only tell you that the level of unhappiness has risen to very, very stark proportions. And I can only agree with them that I don't see any real progress being made in getting this right.
"So this is my brief message. I think we're beyond the macroeconomics right now, we're beyond the prudential issues. We're to a very gut level of legal accountability, fairness, tax regulation, transparency, and a basic sense of fairness, and my view is we don't have it right now. Wall Street is pretty lawless, and unfortunately, the regulatory system that we have is nearly broken down. That's my take from this end."