Matt Taibbi Gets His Sarah Palin On

This Eric Martin post reminds me that a number of you have asked me what I thought of Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone piece on Goldman Sachs.  What I think, sadly, is that Matt Taibbi is becoming the Sarah Palin of journalism.  He seems to deliberately eschew understanding his subjects, because only corrupt, pointy-headed financial journalists who have been co-opted by the system do that.  And Matt Taibbi is here to save you from those pointy headed elites. 

Taibbi is a gifted narrative journalist, whose verbal talents I greatly admire.  But financial meltdowns don't offer villains, for the simple reason that no one person or even one group is powerful enough to take down a whole system.  Confronted with this, Taibbi doesn't back away from the narrative form, or apply it to smaller questions where it is more appropriate, as William Cohan did in House of Cards.  Instead, he grabs whoever's nearest to hand and builds them up into a gigantic straw villian, which he proceeds to bash with a handful of recently acquired technical terms that he clearly doesn't quite understand.  It's not that everything he says is wrong, but the bits that are true aren't interesting, and the bits that are interesting aren't true.  The whole thing dissolves into the kind of conspiracy theory he so ably lampooned in The Great Derangement.  The result is something that's not even wrong.  It's just incoherent.

To give you a flavor of what I mean, Taibbi rants about how we knew derivatives were bad bad BAD! because they'd gone so badly wrong before:

There was only one problem with the deals: All of the wheeling and dealing represented exactly the kind of dangerous speculation that federal regulators are supposed to rein in. Derivatives like CDOs and credit swaps had already caused a series of serious financial calamities: Procter & Gamble and Gibson Greetings both lost fortunes, and Orange County, California, was forced to default in 1994. A report that year by the Government Accountability Office recommended that such financial instruments be tightly regulated - and in 1998, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a woman named Brooksley Born, agreed. That May, she circulated a letter to business leaders and the Clinton administration suggesting that banks be required to provide greater disclosure in derivatives trades, and maintain reserves to cushion against losses.

But it's not clear how much derivatives regulation would have helped any of these three companies.  Gibson was defrauded by its bankers.  P&G wasn't; they spent a great deal of money unwinding their positions when the Treasurer realized they had a lot of exposure on a bad bet on falling interest rates.  Orange County, too, was making a massive, levered bet on a steep yield curve (roughly, a large difference between short and long term interest rates) that came undone when the yield curve flattened and interest rates rose.  Moderately complex derivatives allowed its idiot financial manager to take somewhat larger bets, but you can take massive, money losing bets without them.  At any rate, none of these derivatives have much to do with CDOs or CDSs; you might as well conflate stocks and bonds because they're both "securities".   No one, as far as I know, is now proposing that we need to curtail the use of interest rate swaps.

Or take Taibbi's complaints about Goldman and its nefarious role in the Great Depression:

Beginning a pattern that would repeat itself over and over again, Goldman got into the investment-trust game late, then jumped in with both feet and went hog-wild. The first effort was the Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation; the bank issued a million shares at $100 apiece, bought all those shares with its own money and then sold 90 percent of them to the hungry public at $104. The trading corporation then relentlessly bought shares in itself, bidding the price up further and further. Eventually it dumped part of its holdings and sponsored a new trust, the Shenandoah Corporation, issuing millions more in shares in that fund - which in turn sponsored yet another trust called the Blue Ridge Corporation. In this way, each investment trust served as a front for an endless investment pyramid: Goldman hiding behind Goldman hiding behind Goldman. Of the 7,250,000 initial shares of Blue Ridge, 6,250,000 were actually owned by Shenandoah - which, of course, was in large part owned by Goldman Trading.

The end result (ask yourself if this sounds familiar) was a daisy chain of borrowed money, one exquisitely vulnerable to a decline in performance anywhere along the line; The basic idea isn't hard to follow. You take a dollar and borrow nine against it; then you take that $10 fund and borrow $90; then you take your $100 fund and, so long as the public is still lending, borrow and invest $900. If the last fund in the line starts to lose value, you no longer have the money to pay back your investors, and everyone gets massacred.

In a chapter from The Great Crash, 1929 titled "In Goldman Sachs We Trust," the famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith held up the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah trusts as classic examples of the insanity of leverage-based investment. The trusts, he wrote, were a major cause of the market's historic crash; in today's dollars, the losses the bank suffered totaled $475 billion. "It is difficult not to marvel at the imagination which was implicit in this gargantuan insanity," Galbraith observed, sounding like Keith Olbermann in an ascot. "If there must be madness, something may be said for having it on a heroic scale."

This is all technically true, and collectively nonsense.  Investment trusts--aka mutual funds, now heavily regulated--were not the cause of the Great Depression.  They were not even the cause of the stock market crash.  They were an interesting sideshow that Galbraith included in his book because they were a vivid example of the froth.  And Goldman was not the center of investment trust activity.  They were one player among many whom Galbraith picked as an example, presumably because they happened to be still around and had a recognizeable name.  In other words, because their activity had been less extreme, and hadn't taken the bank down with it.  Yet Taibbi turns this into a central example in the exhibit against them.  Then there's a 65-year gap in the indictment, presumably because no one has written an engaging popular book about the stock market convulsions of the 1970s.

Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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