One wants to ask the Wall Street wizards who comprise the talent pool for the incoming administration, “If you so smart, how come you ain’t rich no more?”

Manhattan’s toniest private schools, harder to get into than Harvard, quietly are looking for full-tuition pupils now that the children of sacked Wall Street bankers are departing for public schools in cheaper suburbs. Harvard University president Drew Faust has warned of budget cuts to come due to “unprecedented losses” to its US$39 billion endowment.

Shares of Citibank, the current firm of Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary Robert Rubin, last week traded at less than a tenth of their year-earlier market price and may require yet another federal bailout. [Citigroup will have more than $300 billion of troubled mortgages and other assets guaranteed by the US government under a federal plan to stabilize the lender after its stock fell 60% last week, Bloomberg reported today, November 24. Citigroup also will get a $20 billion cash infusion from the Treasury Department, adding to the $25 billion the bank received last month under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. In return for the cash and guarantees, the government will get $27 billion of preferred shares paying an 8% dividend.]

Rubin, a transition advisor to president-elect Barack Obama, was mentor to Treasury secretary designate Timothy Geithner. Even Goldman Sachs, the thoroughbred trading machine that gave us Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson as well as Rubin, is trading at a fifth of its peak value.

These facts came to mind while reading David Brooks’ November 21 New York Times panegyric to Obama’s prospective cabinet, which gushes, “Its members are twice as smart as the poor reporters who have to cover them, three times if you include the columnists.” Brooks added, “… as much as I want to resent these overeducated Achievatrons … I find myself tremendously impressed by the Obama transition.”

Has Brooks checked the markets? The cleverest people in the United States, the Ivy-pedigreed investment bankers, have fouled their own nests as well as their own net worth, and persuaded the taxpayers to bail them out. If these are the best and the brightest of 2008, America is in very deep trouble.

The one-trick wizards of Wall Street had one idea, which was to ride the trend and pile on as much leverage as credulous investors and crony regulators would allow. It has gone pear-shaped, and those who didn’t cash out early along with the cynics are poor. Fortunately for them, Obama will let them play with the budget of the US federal government for the next four years.

Failed financiers run the Obama transition team. It used to be that the heads of great industrial companies got the top Cabinet posts. Now it is the one-trick wizards. After George W. Bush fired former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who had run Alcoa, the last survivor of the species was Vice President Dick Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton. Obama’s bevy of talent comes from finance. American industrialists have become figures of ridicule, like the pathetic chief executive of General Motors, Rick Wagoner, begging for a government loan.

Stocks rallied on November 22 on reports that Obama would give the Treasury post to Geithner, the New York Federal Reserve Bank president and the architect of the biggest bailout in history. He doubled the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet to more than $2 trillion, through the purchase of such risky assets as the commercial paper of near-bankrupt American auto companies. That is in addition to the Treasury’s $700 billion bailout plan. Investors like the idea of trillion-dollar transfers from public funds to private companies.

Former Treasury secretary Rubin “was an architect of the [Citibank’s] strategy,” the New York Times reported on November 23. “In 2005, as Citigroup began its effort to expand from within, Mr. Rubin peppered his colleagues with questions as they formulated the plan. According to current and former colleagues, he believed that Citigroup was falling behind rivals like Morgan Stanley and Goldman, and he pushed to bulk up the bank’s high-growth fixed-income trading, including the [structured credit] business. Former colleagues said Mr. Rubin also encouraged [former Citibank CEO Charles] Prince to broaden the bank’s appetite for risk, provided that it also upgraded oversight – though the Federal Reserve later would conclude that the bank’s oversight remained inadequate.”

A case in point is the reported implosion of the Harvard and Yale endowments. For years, these giant funds were held up as proof that superior intelligence was the ticket to excess returns. During the 10 years through 2007, Harvard and Yale produced compound annual returns of 15% and 17.8% respectively, far better than the market, the average endowment or the average hedge funds – only to blow up in 2008 by frightful proportions not yet released.

According to a recent study [1], the “super endowments” sailed past their peers by loading up real estate, commodities, and “private equity,” precisely the sectors that underwent necrosis this year. Private equity is the subprime version of corporate finance, acquiring non-public companies with a minimum down payment and the maximum of debt.

David Swenson, the legendary manager of the Yale Endowment, learned one trick: buy on dips in the equity market with all the borrowed money he could get. The alumni network on Wall Street made sure that the university endowments were first in line for the hottest deals. That worked until 2008. We do not know how far the private equity holdings of Harvard and Yale have fallen, but the traded equity price of the Blackstone Group, a leading private equity firm, is a fair gauge. It is down from its $35 initial offering last year to only $4.65 today, a drop of 87%. Commodities, meanwhile, have fallen by half.

For a quarter of a century, the inbred products of the Ivy League puppy mills have known nothing but a rising trend in asset prices. About the origin of this trend, they were incurious. The Reagan administration had encountered a stock market in 1981 trading 50% below its the long-term trend. Reagan restored the equity market to trend by cutting taxes, suppressing inflation and easing some regulations. The private equity sharps were fleas traveling on Reagan’s dog. They simply rode the trend with the maximum of leverage.

Now that the stock market has collapsed, the private equity strategies cannot repay their debt, and their returns have evaporated. Note that equity investors spent a decade in the cold, from 1973 to 1983; it may be even worse this time. The maturities on debt issued to finance private equity deals will come due long before the recovery.

Over the long term, we know that the average investment cannot grow faster than the economy, for investments ultimately are valued according to cash flows, and cash flows stem from economic growth. Real American gross domestic product grew by 2% a year on average between 1929 and 2007. Whence came the enormous returns to the Ivy League? Some of them surely came from betting on the right horses, but most came from privileged access to leverage.

One recalls Ferdinand I of Austria (1793-1875), deposed for incompetence after the 1848 Revolution, who apocryphally shot an eagle, and said: “It’s got to be an eagle, but it’s only got one head!” Ferdinand thought the two-headed bird of his family crest was the norm, just as the pink-shirted, suspender-wearing Ivy Leaguers thought that two-digit returns were the norm for their investments.

The same privileged access to leverage allowed the investment banks to produce return on equity in excess of 20% year in, year out, by selling structured products, as I explained in a recent essay (Lehman and the end of the era of leverage, Asia Times Online, September 16, 2008). For the 10 years through 2007, American homeowners joined the party, with returns in excess of 20% of their home equity (10% home price appreciation more than doubles with leverage).

Investment banks were levered long the leverage, so to speak. The more leverage the world demanded, the more Wall Street could charge for ever-more-arcane methods of packaging leverage, and the higher the returns to leverage providers.

That explains how a Washington political operative like Rahm Emanuel, now Obama’s chief of staff, who studied ballet rather than balance sheets, could earn a reported $16.2 million in two-and-a-half years at Wasserstein Perella, the mergers and acquisitions boutique. At the height of the bubble, Bruce Wasserstein’s firm sold out to Germany’s Dresdner Bank for the fairy-tale sum of $1.6 billion. Even the crumbs from Wasserstein’s loaf could make a Chicago politician rich.

Without leverage, the clever folk around Barack Obama are fleas without a dog. None of them invented anything, introduced an important new product, opened a new market, or did anything that reached into the lives of ordinary people. They wore expensive cufflinks, read balance sheets, exercised regularly, sat on philanthropic boards, and assumed that their flea’s ride on the Reagan dog would last forever.

All they knew was leverage, and now that the world is de-levering, they are trying to put leverage back into the system. One almost can hear Mortimer Duke, Don Ameche’s charcter in Trading Places, shouting, “Now, you listen to me! I want trading reopened right now. Get those brokers back in here! Turn those machines back on!”

Of course, nothing excludes the possibility that Obama’s team will come up with something constructive. But there is no reason to expect a drastic change from the crisis response of the same sort of people (starting with Treasury Secretary Paulson) in the Bush administration. They will bail out incompetent, failing firms and drop money from helicopters and call it a stimulus package. And it will turn out no better than it did for the humiliated Republicans.


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