Out of Control
Dietmar Hawranek, Armin Mahler, Christoph Pauly, Michaela Schiessl and Thomas Schulz, Der Spiegel, Aug. 22, 2011
The enemy looks friendly and unpretentious. With his scuffed shoes and thinning gray hair, John Taylor resembles an elderly sociology professor. Books line the dark, floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves in his office in Manhattan, alongside a bust of Theodore Roosevelt and an antique telescope.
Taylor is the chairman and CEO of FX Concepts, a hedge fund that specializes in currency speculation. It’s the largest hedge fund of its kind worldwide, which is why Taylor is held partly responsible for the crash of the euro. Critics accuse Taylor and others like him of having exacerbated the government crisis in Greece and accelerated the collapse in Ireland.
People like Taylor are “like a pack of wolves” that seeks to tear entire countries to pieces, said Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg. For that reason, they should be fought “without mercy,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy raged. Andrew Cuomo, the former attorney general and current governor of New York, once likened short-sellers to “looters after a hurricane.”
The German tabloid newspaper Bild sharply criticized Taylor on its website, writing: “This man is betting against the euro.” If that is what he is doing, he is certainly successful. While Greece is threatened with bankruptcy, Taylor is listed among the world’s 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers.
A well-read man, Taylor likes to philosophize about the Congress of Vienna and the Treaties of Rome. But is this man really out to speculate the euro to death? And does he have Greece on his conscience?
Taylor grimaces and sighs. He was expecting these questions. “The big problem is that in some cases these politicians are looking for the easy way out and want to blame somebody else and say speculators are taking Europe apart, taking the euro down and ruining the prosperity of our country,” he says, characterizing such charges against hedge fund managers as “nonsense.” “My capital isn’t the capital of the Rothschilds,” he says, insisting that he is working with the “capital of the people,” and that his goal is to protect and increase this capital. Taylor points out that no one from any of the German pension funds that invest their money with him has ever called him on the phone to tell him not to bet against the euro.
Taylor’s arguments echo those of everyone in the financial industry—the executives, the bankers and the big fund managers. They all insist that they are not responsible for the crisis in the euro zone and the turbulence in the financial markets, and that their actions are purely rational and in the interest of their investors.
The truth is that the financial markets are controlling the politicians. If Sarkozy interrupts his vacation, the markets interpret his sudden return as a sign that the situation there is worse than they thought—and promptly set their sights on the country. And if there is an argument between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, then the markets target Italy, because they doubt that the Italian government is serious about introducing austerity measures. The markets take advantage of every weakness and every rumor to speculate against one country after the next.
In doing so, they aggravate the crisis. Once a country has become the subject of rumors and speculation, other investors become nervous. Fearing further price declines, pension funds and insurance companies also start selling stocks and bonds. In the end, fear nurtures fear and a panic ensues.
Stock markets are currently in turmoil. Even the most experienced equity traders cannot remember a time when prices fluctuated as widely from day to day—and often even within a single day—as they have in recent weeks. The German stock index, the DAX, fell by 5.8 percent last Thursday and lost another 2.2 percent the next day.
There is no calm in sight for the global economy. Sharp declines on the stock market and crises have become an everyday reality. This raises the question of why the financial markets are so erratic. They have developed into a permanent threat to the global economy. But what can be done to avert this risk?
It cannot be a coincidence that the number and scope of disruptions have increased with the expansion of the financial industry. The Asian financial crisis in the 1990s came on the heels of the bursting of the Internet bubble at the turn of the millennium. When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in 2008, the financial world suddenly found itself on the brink of collapse. Now that the euro is at risk, and millions of people are afraid of their currency collapsing. A number of countries, including the United States, are groaning under debt burdens that run into the trillions.
Naturally the financial industry—all those who trade in securities, currencies, money and the products derived from them, known as derivatives—is not responsible for all the crises in the global economy. Politicians also share some of the blame, for having accumulated too much debt and given the banks too much leeway. But without the destructive power of the banks, hedge funds and other investment companies, the world would not be where it is today—at the edge of an abyss.
The financial industry grew rapidly, as did the sums of money with which its players speculated on the prices of stocks, commodities and government bonds. The products they developed to turn money into even more money became more and more complex. At the same time, the risks they were willing to accept became incalculable.
The sector’s high salaries tend to attract the best and brightest university graduates. The members of this youthful elite don’t devise new products that make people’s lives better, nor do they found new companies that further progress. Instead, these young financial wizards invest a great deal of money and effort to develop sophisticated financial products, the sole purpose of which is to generate more profit for both their employers and, ultimately, for themselves—sometimes at the expense of other market players or even their customers.
Many things that happen on Wall Street and in London’s financial district are “socially useless,” says Lord Adair Turner, chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority (FSA). The values that are created there are often not real or of any use to society, Turner adds. Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, once remarked that the only truly useful financial innovation in the past 20 years is the cash machine.
Once upon a time, the sole purpose of banks was to supply the economy with money. They were service providers, sources of energy for the economy, so to speak, but nothing more. But now the financial industry has largely disconnected itself from the manufacturing economy, transforming its role from subservient to dominant in the process.
The potential upshot of this shift became evident less than three years ago. The banks had excessively foisted mortgages on Americans without paying much attention to their customers’ ability to repay these loans. They packaged the risks into new financial products and sold them on. But apparently very few people understood how these products actually worked. When the subprime bubble finally burst, it dragged down the entire financial industry with it. The major financial firms found themselves on the brink of bankruptcy and were forced to appeal to the government for help.
The assistance was provided, but a historic opportunity was squandered in the process. None of the powerful banks was broken up, and only a few of the dangerous financial products were banned. With the central banks lending money at low rates, speculation could continue.
The financial industry recovered quickly as a result, and now it is just as powerful as it was before the crisis—and just as dangerous, for both the economy and society as a whole.
Even passionate advocates of the market economy are now questioning how an economic system that functioned so well for so long could spin dangerously out of control. In a hard-hitting opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph on July 30, British journalist Charles Moore sharply criticized the banks for keeping profits while passing on losses to taxpayers. “The banks only ‘come home’ when they have run out of our money,” he wrote. “Then our governments give them more.”
Moore asks himself whether the left, with its criticism of the capitalist system, might actually be right. The prominent German journalist Frank Schirrmacher, expounding on Moore’s commentary in the Sunday edition of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote that a decade of economic policies based on loosely regulated financial markets is proving to be the “most successful” way to make the left-wing critique of free-market capitalism, which had fallen out of favor, popular again.
Western societies have seldom been more divided, and never have income disparities been as great as they are today. In no other industry can someone get rich as quickly as in the financial industry, where investment bankers divide up a large share of the profits among themselves and hedge-fund managers earn annual incomes in the millions—and sometimes even in the billions.
At the same time, the markets are constantly demanding higher returns. Those who do not meet their expectations are punished with declines in the price of their stock and higher borrowing costs. Companies, forced to adjust to these requirements, keep wages down and their workforces at a minimum.
These differences are especially glaring in London, Europe’s most important financial center. Bankers live in the lap of luxury in the city’s exclusive neighborhoods, while poor neighborhoods are home to people who have abandoned all hope. Many observers see this disparity and loss of hope as one of the causes of the recent unrest.
And still, says Heiner Flassbeck, chief economist at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “the time doesn’t seem ripe, and the crisis wasn’t severe enough, to grant—in defiance of the neoliberal zeitgeist—economic policy clear primacy over speculation-prone markets and to systematically restrict the financial industry to its function as a service provider to the real economy.”
Flassbeck believes that the crises in the globalized economy have “a common root, namely the inability of economists to correctly interpret the world.” Because financial markets function in a completely different way from markets for goods, Flassbeck argues, they should never be left to their own devices.
Of all people, it was an academic specializing in literary studies who managed to most accurately analyze the insanity of the financial markets and the impotence of economists. With his short 2010 book “Das Gespenst des Kapitals” (“The Specter of Capital”), Joseph Vogl wrote a closet bestseller that, despite being a tough read, attracted attention far beyond the arts section of newspapers—including among economists.
His theory is that crises are not some kind of occupational hazard in the financial system. Instead, Vogl argues, it is the system itself that inevitably leads to new crises.
Vogl was teaching at Princeton University when Lehman Brothers collapsed. He knew nothing about financial markets, and yet he was fascinated by the “confusing empiricism,” which had so little to do with theory.
According to economic theory, the invisible hand of the market always leads to equilibrium, as Adam Smith wrote in his classic 1776 work “The Wealth of Nations,” which Vogl refers to as the “Bible of economists.” The same theory is still taught in universities today.
But the theory also tells us that today’s excesses in the financial markets should never have occurred. This leads Vogl to conjecture that “by no means does the capitalist economy behave the way it’s supposed to.”
While the theory tends to be based on the economics of a village market, completely different circumstances apply in the financial markets, where both goods and expectations are being traded, and where speculative transactions are used to hedge against other speculative transactions. Vogl describes the principle as follows: “Someone who doesn’t have a product, and neither expects to have it nor will have it, sells this product to someone who also neither expects nor wants to have it, and in reality does not receive it.”
This type of market will always have a tendency toward excess—in either direction.
Paul Woolley holds the same view, but from a different perspective. He is intimately familiar with the financial markets, after having made millions working in the London financial district. He spent four years with the deeply traditional Barings Bank, which was eventually destroyed by a minor English trader in Singapore. He later worked for the American fund manager GSO, which specializes in making very rich people even richer.
In Woolley’s experience, the idea that financial markets are efficient is erroneous. “All players in the financial markets behave rationally from their own perspective, but the outcome of this process can be disastrous for mankind,” he says.
Woolley, 71, still wears a pinstriped suit, tie and white shirt, but now he works in a small office stuffed to the gills with academic studies at the renowned London School of Economics. Woolley donated 4 million pounds (€3.5 million) to the elite university and funded its Paul Woolley Centre for the Study of Capital Market Dysfunctionality.
His goal is to prove how dangerous the financial markets are. “It’s like a tumor that keeps growing,” he says. According to Woolley, there is no justification for the fact that this industry brings in more than 40 percent of all US corporate profits and pays the highest salaries in good years, while in bad years it is bailed out by taxpayers.
In recent months, Woolley has spoken before the investment committee of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to major US fund managers at Harvard Law School. He is able to present his academic theories in the language of the market. And the turmoil on the markets is now so great that people are listening to this revolutionary in a pinstriped suit.
The former fund manager had his light-bulb moment when, in 2000, the dot-com bubble burst. Woolley had repeatedly told his clients, which included many of the world’s major asset managers, that small, money-losing tech stocks would not always be valued in the billions on the market.
But his warnings fell on deaf ears, and GMO’s clients withdrew 40 percent of their money when the company stopped investing in technology securities.
Woolley has observed the same phenomenon again and again. “The herd runs behind a trend until a crash occurs.” Society, he says, also pays a high price for this behavior. “The financial industry is doing a pretty good job of destroying society,” says Woolley. Many of his former colleagues, he adds, have a guilty conscience because “they can’t believe that the financial industry is still getting away with it.”
He feels that bankers have a strong incentive to design products to be as complex and non-transparent as possible. These products enable them to earn returns upwards of 25 percent, because customers simply do not understand the extent to which they are being had. Structured mortgage-backed securities, the risks of which even their creators no longer understood in the end, as well as credit default swaps, which allow investors to bet on the bankruptcies of entire countries, are only the best-known examples.
The more activity there is in the markets, the higher the fluctuations and the greater the potential profits. There is little that the traders at investment banks and hedge funds fear more than a boring market, one in which the economy is humming along nicely and the prices show little movement. The conditions that are reassuring to managers and employees in the real economy often lead to depression in the financial sector.
Two weeks ago, the share price of Société Générale, a major French bank, fell by 14 percent, after the British newspaper Daily Mail had reported the previous day on alleged problems at the bank. Even though the bank promptly denied the veracity of the report, the rumor had been set in motion. Apparently no one cared whether or not it was true. It was later rumored that journalists at the British paper had taken a piece of summer fiction printed in the French newspaper Le Monde, about a breakup of the euro zone and troubles at Société Générale in 2012, to be the truth—which the Daily Mail promptly denied.
This story seems almost antiquated, because share prices are usually set by computers nowadays. When Deutsche Börse decided to move from Frankfurt to the nearby town of Eschborn, the town saw a rapid increase in the demand for air-conditioned basement space, where so-called high-frequency traders, as well as banks, set up their state-of-the-art supercomputers. These computers are programmed to independently buy or sell stocks at intervals down to the millisecond, which enables them to react to the latest trends in the market.
Whoever has the fastest connection to the market stands the best chance of taking advantage of a critical millisecond and thus reacting to a price signal ahead of the competition. The computers are far more efficient than any human trader, because they can process hundreds of pieces of information per second. At the same time, such programs can also amplify—or even trigger—a crash.
On May 6, 2010, prices on Wall Street plunged by almost 10 percent within a few minutes. To this day, no one knows exactly what caused the so-called Flash Crash. Because this sort of thing happens with growing frequency, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has imposed a waiting period on computers in emergency situations. If the price of a stock has dropped by 10 percent within five minutes, trading is temporarily halted, allowing the human players to consider whether there is in fact a real reason for the sharp decline.
Woolley believes that this regulation is insufficient. He is calling for a strict ban on high-frequency trading, which, in his view, has no social value whatsoever.
Computers have long set the tone in foreign currency trading. The currency markets are now too complex for humans to manage alone. “We realized that you couldn’t really manage this with the human thought process, it was too difficult, there were too many variables,” says New York hedge fund manager Taylor. Many of his roughly 60 employees are IT experts, mathematicians and engineers. They feed massive volumes of data into the computers, including figures on the gross domestic product of countries, interest rates, commodities prices and inflation rates. “The only thing the computers can’t handle are political developments, that is why we have me as Chief Investment Officer,” says Taylor, although he points out that the money ultimately follows the instructions that are spat out by the computers.
But even Taylor isn’t entirely convinced of the myth of purely rational markets that obey nothing but the logic of numbers.
For example, says Taylor, he is “sure” that legendary speculator George Soros is “plotting against the euro.” Although Soros denied such accusations in an interview with SPIEGEL last week, he also said: “Financial markets have a very safe way of predicting the future. They cause it.”
The 81-year-old is one of the founders of the hedge fund industry. In the early 1990s, he suddenly became the quintessential unscrupulous speculator, one who takes advantage of even the tiniest weakness in the system without regard to the consequences. He borrowed 10 billion British pounds, then sold them on, triggering a wave of speculation that meant the Bank of England could no longer maintain the pound’s fixed exchange rates against the other currencies in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The pound had to be devalued and withdraw from the ERM. Soros was able to buy back the sum of money he had borrowed from the bank at a lower exchange rate. It was a bet that earned him more than $1 billion (€700 million).
Normally individual speculators like Soros and Taylor cannot move the market to such a significant degree on their own. But they can establish a trend that others then follow. Investors adhere to a herd mentality and, like lemmings, they are prepared to rush headlong toward an abyss, provided a few individuals are heading in that direction with sufficient determination.
As a result of the crisis, some of these speculation funds have become even larger and more powerful, with a number of smaller competitors being forced out of the business. Customers tend to prefer investing their money with bigger players, believing this to be the safer choice.
For example, the hedge fund headed by John Paulson, currently the world’s most successful speculator, has grown to roughly $30 billion in assets in the last two years. This enables Paulson to place bets of ever-increasing size.
Paulson was largely unknown only a few years ago, until he bet a large sum of money on the collapse of the American mortgage market. Investment banks like Goldman Sachs created customized securities specially for Paulson that were based on subprime mortgages. They then sold the securities to investors who believed that their value was stable—and lost billions as a result. Paulson, on the other hand, profited. He earned close to $4 billion in 2007.
Speculation has always existed in economic history, but never to such an extent as today.
The deregulation of the markets and the rise of the financial industry began with the end of Bretton Woods. In 1944, a new system of fixed exchange rates was established at an international conference in the New Hampshire resort town, with the US government agreeing to exchange dollars for gold at any time.
Some 40 years ago, on Aug. 15, 1971, then US President Richard Nixon ended the Bretton Woods monetary system. He needed more money that he could cover with gold to finance the Vietnam War. The global economy lost its anchor as a result.
In 1972, foreign currency futures were established on the Chicago Board Options Exchange, making it possible for the first time to hedge against the risks associated with foreign currency transactions. This innovation paved the way for all manner of speculation. The financial market, as Berlin-based author Joseph Vogl writes, became “the market of all markets.”
There were still many hurdles to be overcome, including legal regulations that prevented the market from unleashing its unrestrained forces. With generous donations to politicians and parties, as well as active lobbying by Wall Street executives, the financial industry was able to make its voice heard in Washington.
Over time, the industry was able to rid itself of overly obstructive regulations. In fact, financial supervision was virtually eliminated. Politicians failed to control precisely that sector that is capable of unleashing more destructive force than almost any other industry.
The kiss of death came in 1999, under then President Bill Clinton, when the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed. The law dictated a strict separation between commercial and investment banks. Eliminating this separation removed a major barrier and enabled institutions like Citigroup and Bank of America to grow into financial giants. Indeed, many banks became so large and powerful that they are now—to use the famous phrase—too big to fail, meaning that in a crisis they have to be bailed out to prevent their collapse. Many small banks and brokerage firms were swallowed up in the process. From then on, the biggest players set the tone.
The investment banks made a brilliant move in 2004. The European Union had threatened to limit the foreign transactions of major US investment banks if the United States did not tighten its own regulations. This prompted five investment bankers to travel to Washington to exert their influence on the SEC. They proposed that the SEC be given the power to take a closer look at their high-risk positions in the future, but only if, in return, the banks would be required to keep less of their own capital in reserve to offset the risks of their transactions. From then on, the banks were able to expand their business unchecked. The second part of the deal—the SEC’s supervision—was pursued far less energetically.
The financial industry had managed to create a belief system which held that what’s good for Wall Street is good for society as a whole. As a result, the sector’s influence on the US economy continued to grow. Between 1973 and 1985, before deregulation began, profits in the US financial sector made up no more than 16 percent of the total profits of all US companies. This industry’s share of total profits increased to 30 percent in the 1990s, and in the last decade it even reached 41 percent.
It was no surprise that the myth of efficient financial markets was accepted so uncritically in Washington, given the large number of political players who went there directly from Wall Street. One was the former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson, who became treasury secretary under then President George W. Bush in 2006. In 2008, he was called upon to manage the financial crisis, which he had played a hand in triggering in the first place. Simon Johnson, the former chief economist at the IMF, characterizes the direct involvement of financial players in the inner workings of the government as a “quiet coup.” The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz is also critical of the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street, saying that it leads to a shared worldview that, even despite the crisis, hinders effective reform of the financial system.
In fact, the United States and Europe did attempt to constrain the monster that was the financial market. Governments can hardly be accused of not having made a serious effort in this direction, but the project they face is exceedingly difficult.
Solo efforts by individual countries are pointless, because the industry is globally interconnected. On the other hand, internationally coordinated solutions are difficult. As a result, the regulations remain nothing more than piecemeal.
For the financial industry, new regulations are often little more than a sportsmanlike challenge to search for new tricks with which to circumvent the rules. In their conflict with politicians and regulatory agencies, banks and hedge funds have a clear competitive advantage: They hire the brightest minds in the financial world and pay them millions. The public-sector regulators can hardly compete.
Not surprisingly, politicians haven’t done much more than push around a lot of paper until now. The law with which President Obama intends to regulate the financial markets encompasses more than 800 pages. The law was intended to completely prohibit banks from engaging in proprietary trading, with which they speculate in the foreign currency, stock and commodities markets. But the legislation contains so many exceptions that business will continue to flourish, in some cases by simply outsourcing trading activities.
The United States also wants to force hedge funds to disclose more information about their business. But even though the law doesn’t go into effect until next March, speculator Soros is already demonstrating how it can be circumvented. After buying out the outside investors in his hedge fund, he now intends to conduct business in the future as a so-called family-owned company. Funds that manage the assets of a family are not subject to the new disclosure rules.
In Europe, the European Commission has developed a draft of new capital market rules, which includes 165 pages of guidelines and another 500 pages of regulations. Under the proposed rules, banks would be required to keep more capital resources in reserve to protect against risk, and they would only be allowed to borrow up to a certain ratio.
These proposals make sense, but the financial industry is already two steps ahead. It has created a world in which the usual rules for exchanges and banks do not apply: the realm of the “shadow banks.”
For bankers, this is by no means a world of illegal or semi-legal institutions, despite what the term implies. Hedge funds and private equity firms are known as shadow banks. In the United States, shadow banks have already incurred debts of more than $16 trillion, as compared with $13 trillion among commercial banks.
This poses a huge risk for the financial market. Jochen Sanio, head of Germany’s banking regulatory agency, believes it is highly likely that the next crisis will emanate from this largely unregulated realm of hedge funds and other financial players. Jens Weidmann, the president of the German central bank, the Bundesbank, also cautions against the dangers of shadow banks. But why are they not subject to the same rules as commercial banks?
In this case, national egos are what stand in the way of comprehensive financial market reform. Britain, in particular, isn’t keen on keeping too close an eye on hedge funds, because the financial industry is one of the few remaining sectors in which the British are still competitive worldwide.
An effective financial market reform would have to treat shadow banks the same way all other banks are treated. This would mean completely banning so-called short selling, which is essentially betting on falling prices. It would also have to improve licensing requirements on new financial instruments and ban some that already exist, because they are designed solely for speculative purposes. It would also involve establishing a number of other rules that would make doing business significantly more difficult for banks, hedge funds and private equity firms.
All of these measures would rein in the financial market and put its importance for the economy into perspective. Banks would have to concentrate once again on the role they played prior to the great deregulation of the financial market, namely to organize payment transactions, manage the investments of private customers and companies and finance their business deals with loans.
But that seems unlikely. The monster cannot be tamed with half-hearted reforms, which is why people who have been involved in the financial world for decades assume that it will strike again soon.
When asked whether it is possible to make future crises unlikely, Hilmar Kopper, the former CEO of Deutsche Bank and current chairman of the supervisory board of HSH Nordbank, replies with a simple “no.” According to Kopper, more huge financial bubbles could happen in the future.
"I’m frustrated," says Kopper. "I don’t know how a government is supposed to regulate this."