The Great Subprime “Babel”—A Modern Tale of Biblical Greed
Wall Street never changes. The pockets change, the suckers change, the stocks change, but Wall Street never changes because human nature never changes. - Jesse Livermore
The public’s annual loss to Wall Street has usually been estimated in former years at $100,000,000 per annum, but owing to the more recent enterprising methods of the “Street” in manipulating the game, this estimate is now far to small as we shall see.-Franklin Keyes (1904)
Conceit of the Street
Shortly after the explosion of the great “dot.com” bubble something happened that was to change the monetary affairs of all men on Earth.
The investment banking tribes had once again begun to proliferate and fill the Street. They spoke a new tongue--the tongue of rampant financial innovation. It was a strange tongue with words like synthetic CDOs, conduiting, CLOs, SIVs, bespoke swaps, CDOs squared, negative default correlations, binomial expansions and stochastic modeling. A tongue curiously reminiscent of the tongue of the House of ENRON.
The generations of bankers before the “dot.com” bubble, were believers in the fundamental laws of securities valuation and diversification. They were believers in the book of Graham and Dodd.
But the new generation of investment bankers was different. They stressed an opposite code of investing. The smart investor did not count. Their game was a vast pyramid of derivatives and mortgage backed securities. Had they confined themselves to this kind of financial life in a modest fashion, all might have been well. But the obscene fee income made possible by cheap leverage, financial engineering and securitization techniques made them ever greedier and in their hubris they thought they could beat the financial laws of thermodynamics.
They decided to build a great Tower of mortgage backed securities. With the Tower they would pillage the housing markets and at the same time seemingly eliminate all risk for themselves. Heads we win, tails you lose; that was their credo. The symbol of their invincible wealth, as they thought, was to be built in the shadow of the House of Greenspan. It would be squeezed out of Joe Public who was long disdained and exploited by the Lords of the Street. This time they would build tempt Joe with reckless mortgage loans supported by an “irrationally exuberant” real estate market.
According to the Lords of the Street, a new paradigm had emerged: financial risk could be sliced and diced into oblivion, cheap leverage is here to stay and housing prices can only go up. Many foresaw the folly of this enterprise. Buffet, the great chief of the House of Berkshire Hathaway, called the new instruments of invincible wealth, financial weapons of mass destruction. But the aging House of Greenspan was oblivious to the great folly unfolding before its jaundiced eye. The unbelievers were admonished to stay in Nebraska where they belonged.
Finally, the Market decided to punish the arrogance of the bankers by destroying the tower. First, it, confused them by splitting them up into many greedy tribes, each with a tongue and agenda of its own, (hence the name Babel, meaning “confusion”). A new tribe, the Shorts, arrived and the hunters soon became the hunted. Alas, they were forced to subjugate their vast pools of CDOs and CDSs to the divine force of the Market. This ultimate humiliation came to be known as the “great MTM slaughter.”
When this happened, the Tower had to be abandoned. The various bankers would migrate in different directions. Many were fired. Others headed West to the Valley of Silicon, no doubt dreaming of other Babels ripe for exploitation—nanotech, infotech, biotech and cleantech to name but a few .
The Tower itself was partly burned and partly swallowed by the great Houses of Morgan, Barclay’s and BOA. As for the Great Houses of Goldman and Morgan, they were forced to pledge themselves to the Fed, under the wise and benevolent protection of Gentle Ben, the new master of the House of Greenspan. He who would later come to be known as “Father Moral Hazard”.
(Adapted by WilliamBanzai7 from the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel)