Thomas Friedman in the New York Times
Citigroup is lucky that Muammar el-Qaddafi was killed when he was. The Libyan leader’s death diverted attention from a lethal article involving Citigroup that deserved more attention because it helps to explain why many average Americans have expressed support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The news was that Citigroup had to pay a $285 million fine to settle a case in which, with one hand, Citibank sold a package of toxic mortgage-backed securities to unsuspecting customers — securities that it knew were likely to go bust — and, with the other hand, shorted the same securities — that is, bet millions of dollars that they would go bust.
It doesn’t get any more immoral than this. As the Securities and Exchange Commission civil complaint noted, in 2007, Citigroup exercised “significant influence” over choosing $500 million of the $1 billion worth of assets in the deal, and the global bank deliberately chose collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s, built from mortgage loans almost sure to fail. According to The Wall Street Journal, the S.E.C. complaint quoted one unnamed C.D.O. trader outside Citigroup as describing the portfolio as resembling something your dog leaves on your neighbor’s lawn. “The deal became largely worthless within months of its creation,” The Journal added. “As a result, about 15 hedge funds, investment managers and other firms that invested in the deal lost hundreds of millions of dollars, while Citigroup made $160 million in fees and trading profits.”
How does this happen?
Our Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery. One consumer group using information from Opensecrets.org calculates that the financial services industry, including real estate, spent $2.3 billion on federal campaign contributions from 1990 to 2010, which was more than the health care, energy, defense, agriculture and transportation industries combined. Why are there 61 members on the House Committee on Financial Services? So many congressmen want to be in a position to sell votes to Wall Street.
We can’t afford this any longer. We need to focus on four reforms that don’t require new bureaucracies to implement. 1) If a bank is too big to fail, it is too big and needs to be broken up. We can’t risk another trillion-dollar bailout. 2) If your bank’s deposits are federally insured by U.S. taxpayers, you can’t do any proprietary trading with those deposits — period. 3) Derivatives have to be traded on transparent exchanges where we can see if another A.I.G. is building up enormous risk. 4) Finally, an idea from the blogosphere: U.S. congressmen should have to dress like Nascar drivers and wear the logos of all the banks, investment banks, insurance companies and real estate firms that they’re taking money from. The public needs to know.