Rogue Bankers Or Just Rogue Banks Responsible For Mortgage Mess?

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I’m going to quote from the end of a wonderfully insightful article by Barry Ritholtz, but please read the whole article. You need the interesting first part of this article to appreciate the logic and explanation of what he is saying about some of the trader fraud at investment banks and the mortgage crisis we are still in the middle of and whether the US taxpayer should be bailing these banks out. The bolding is mine.

In an era of bailouts on the backs of the taxpayer, it points to a simple reality: Firms must decide whether they are going to sacrifice profit in pursuit of safety, or sacrifice safety in pursuit of profit. Whatever they decide, it is not the responsibility or obligation of taxpayers to backstop these choices.

Consider the choices made by management: The collapse of firms such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were caused by the same sort of poor judgment as UBS’s $2 billion in losses – only the rogues gallery there included the senior-most managers of the firms. Alan Greenberg exhorting his staff to focus on reusing paper clips, while the mortgage syndication division lost billions of dollars. Dick Fuld surrounding himself with yes men while the firm’s leverage and risk exposure went through the roof. Tom Savage, president of AIG’s Financial Products, calling derivative underwriting free money.

Paul Volcker, arguably the greatest central banker in history, has persuasively argued that proprietary trading should not be part of the insured depository banking sector. I utterly agree with Fed governor Thomas Hoenig, who has described the banking sector as “more akin to public utilities” than independent entities. Want to be independent to pursue proprietary trading? Let’s drop their FDIC insurance and see how far their reputations carry them.

The next crisis – the one after the present one in Europe – is where I expect to see the ultimate damage wreaked by rogue bankers.

The bailouts have created a moral hazard, where leveraged speculators and rogue bankers know that the state will bail them out. This is unacceptable. There is no reason that taxpayers should be responsible for any rogues, traders or bankers.

Perhaps UBS’s failure to prevent this did us a favor. It points out that Volcker is right: Any firm that can blow itself up should not qualify for taxpayer guarantees. Lenders, underwriters and mortgage originators are in the business of using their capital to earn a fair return safely. That government-backed insurance should be available only to depository banks, not firms associated with speculative traders.

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