The sub-prime fiasco was a pyramid scheme of its own, argues Thomas Friedman
Ronald Reagan is dead and Margaret Thatcher is a remote and, through advanced illness, a figure far removed from the world stage.
The revolution they jointly led in the ’80s of ever-advancing markets based on light regulation, easy credit, distrust of the state and unleashing of the “animal spirits” of capitalist accumulation have been discredited as the world faces the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the cardiac arrest suffered by world markets, including our own, since the collapse of Lehman Brothers on Wall Street last September has brought to light a series of mega-sized Ponzi schemes in the US and, more recently, in South Africa. The lure of easy, outsize pickings and staggeringly high rates of return explains the existence of pyramid schemes, such as those operated by Bernard Madoff, Allen Stanford and our own alleged Ponzi king, Barry Tannenbaum, now conveniently resident in Australia.
Ponzi schemes — named after the eponymous Italian immigrant to the US in the early 20th century who arbitraged the value of postage stamps — essentially pay back early investors with either the proceeds acquired from later investors or even with their own money. The scheme collapses and the fraud is finally revealed when people stop investing and there is no more loot to pay out the creditors. As author Michael Lewis explains, “something for nothing — it never loses its charm”.
Madoff, who apparently embezzled a staggering 50-billion from the rich and even banks and top charitable institutions, kept his operation going for over 30 years by offering consistently above-market rates of return, but not by such a wide margin as to attract either undue suspicion or to be unsustainable — until the unprecedented credit crunch last year caused a mass of withdrawals, which Madoff could not meet, since he had never invested most of the deposits originally received.
Tannenbaum, in contrast, is alleged to have lured hundreds of South African and overseas investors with the promise of a rate of return of between 90% and 200% per annum. Instead of postage stamps, his investors were invited to help buy active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), allegedly on behalf of South African drug-makers, and then shared in the proceeds of the profits when the APIs were sold to the drug companies.
The neatness of the scheme is that it fell outside the watch of the Financial Services Board. But when one creditor sought to recoup his investment, plus interest, well, the bird had flown the coop — and the personal cheques which Tannenbaum had issued were dishonoured.
These schemes usually involve high-level fraud, including cooking the books, and financial techniques to make actual losses look like bumper profits, or simply invent non-existent investments or sales. But the detail is less significant than the result. Not only are investors — the greedy, the gullible and innocent third parties — ruined, but the system itself gets discredited.
Last December, when the Madoff scandal broke, I was living temporarily in Washington DC. Two of the city’s most thoughtful commentators saw a much wider implication for the future of free enterprise.
Anne Applebaum described how difficult it was for her to acquire an apartment in Warsaw in the early ’90s — endless form-filling, visits to notaries and the seller requiring to be paid in hard currency and in cash. She described a culture of “low trust”, in which the market and its mechanisms are treated with suspicion.
In contrast, when she bought a car in Washington, she could drive it out of the showroom simply by providing a personal cheque, without any identification. It was this “high trust” culture, which both fuelled American capitalism and allowed its dark underside, in the form of Madoff and the like, to operate. As she put it, “Madoff’s pyramid scheme may have been made possible by our tradition of trust and lawfulness. And now he will bring that tradition down.”
Thomas Friedman was more damning. He saw in Madoff a scheme only slightly more outrageous than the “legal” one Wall Street was running, fuelled by easy credit, low standards and high greed. For him, the sub-prime fiasco was a pyramid scheme of its own: “What do you call giving a worker who makes 14000 a year, a nothing-down and nothing-to-pay-for-two-years mortgage to buy a 750000 home and then bundling that mortgage with hundreds of others into bonds that Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s rate AAA — and then selling them to banks and pension funds the world over. This is what the financial industry was doing. If that isn’t a pyramid scheme, what is?”
Friedman’s fury found an answer last week, when President Barack Obama produced plans for regulatory reform, including an expanded role for government. Clearly, the era of Reagan-Thatcher has ended. The age of exuberance has yielded to an era of control. Let’s just hope that the new medicine doesn’t amount to a treatment that kills the patient.
*Published Sunday Times 28 June 2009