Who Wants to Kick a Millionaire?

A catastrophic loss of confidence is in the making, as corporate bosses continue to reap taxpayers' billions.

During the Great Depression, American moviegoers seeking escape could ogle platoons of glamorous chorus girls in “Gold Diggers of 1933.” Our feel-good movie of the year is “Slumdog Millionaire,” a Dickensian tale in which we root for an impoverished orphan from Mumbai’s slums to hit the jackpot on the Indian edition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

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It’s a virtuoso feast of filmmaking by Danny Boyle, but it’s also the perfect fairy tale for our hard times. The hero labors as a serf in the toilet of globalization: one of those mammoth call centers Westerners reach when ringing an 800 number to, say, check on credit card debt. When he gets his unlikely crack at instant wealth, the whole system is stacked against him, including the corrupt back office of a slick game show too good to be true.

We cheer the young man on screen even if we’ve lost the hope to root for ourselves. The vicarious victory of a third world protagonist must be this year’s stocking stuffer. The trouble with “Slumdog Millionaire” is that it, like all classic movie fables, comes to an end — as it happens, with an elaborately choreographed Bollywood musical number redolent of “Gold Diggers of 1933.” Then we are delivered back to the inescapable and chilling reality outside the theater’s doors.

Just when we thought that reality couldn’t hit a new bottom it did with Bernie Madoff, a smiling shark as sleazy as the TV host in “Slumdog.” A pillar of both the Wall Street and Jewish communities — a former Nasdaq chairman, a trustee at Yeshiva University — he even victimized Elie Wiesel’s Foundation for Humanity with his Ponzi scheme. A Jewish financier rips off millions of dollars devoted to memorializing the Holocaust — who could make this stuff up? Dickens, Balzac, Trollope and, for that matter, even Mel Brooks might be appalled.

Madoff, of course, made up everything. When he turned himself in, he reportedly declared that his business was “all just one big lie.” (The man didn’t call his 55-foot yacht “Bull” for nothing.) As Brian Williams of NBC News pointed out, the $50 billion thought to have vanished is roughly three times as much as the proposed Detroit bailout. And no one knows how it happened, least of all the federal regulators charged with policing him and protecting the public. If Madoff hadn’t confessed — for reasons that remain unclear — he might still be rounding up new victims.

There is a moral to be drawn here, and it’s not simply that human nature is unchanging and that there always will be crooks, including those in high places. Nor is it merely that Wall Street regulation has been a joke. Of what we’ve learned about Madoff so far, the most useful lesson can be gleaned from how his smart, well-heeled clients routinely characterized the strategy that generated their remarkably steady profits. As The Wall Street Journal noted, they “often referred to it as a ‘black box.’ ”

In the investment world “black box” is tossed around to refer to a supposedly ingenious financial model that is confidential or incomprehensible or both. Most of us know the “black box” instead as that strongbox full of data that is retrieved (sometimes) after a plane crash to tell the authorities what went wrong. The only problem is that its findings arrive too late to save the crash’s victims. The hope is that the information will instead help prevent the next disaster.

The question in the aftermath of the Madoff calamity is this: Why do we keep ignoring what we learn from the black boxes being retrieved from crash after crash in our economic meltdown? The lesson could not be more elemental. If there’s a mysterious financial model producing miraculous returns, odds are it’s a sham — whether it’s an outright fraud, as it apparently is in Madoff’s case, or nominally legal, as is the case with the Wall Street giants that have fallen this year.

Wall Street’s black boxes contained derivatives created out of whole cloth, deriving their value from often worthless subprime mortgages. The enormity of the gamble went undetected not only by investors but by the big brains at the top of the firms, many of whom either escaped (Merrill Lynch’s E. Stanley O’Neal) or remain in place (Citigroup’s Robert Rubin) after receiving obscene compensation for their illusory short-term profits and long-term ignorance.

There has been no punishment for many of those who failed to heed this repeated lesson. Quite the contrary. The business magazine Portfolio, writing in mid-September about one of the world’s biggest insurance companies, observed that “now that A.I.G is battling to survive, it is its black box that may save it yet.” That box — stuffed with “accounting or investments so complex and arcane that they remain unknown to most investors” — was so huge that Washington might deem it “too big to fail.”

Sure enough — and unlike its immediate predecessor in collapse, Lehman Brothers — A.I.G. was soon bailed out to the tune of $123 billion. Most of that also disappeared by the end of October. But not before A.I.G. executives were caught spending $442,000 on a weeklong retreat to a California beach resort.

There are more black boxes still to be pried open, whether at private outfits like Madoff’s or at publicly traded companies like General Electric, parent of the opaque GE Capital Corporation, the financial services unit that has been the single biggest contributor to the G.E. bottom line in recent years. But have we yet learned anything? Incredibly enough, as we careen into 2009, the very government operation tasked with repairing the damage caused by Wall Street’s black boxes is itself a black box of secrecy and impenetrability.

Last week ABC News asked 16 of the banks that have received handouts from the Treasury Department’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program the same two direct questions: How have you used that money, and how much have you spent on bonuses this year? Most refused to answer.

Congress can’t get the answers either. Its oversight panel declared in a first report this month that the Treasury is doling out billions “without seeking to monitor the use of funds provided to specific financial institutions.” The Treasury prefers instead to look at “general metrics” indicating the program’s overall effect on the economy. Well, we know what the “general metrics” tell us already: the effect so far is nil. Perhaps if we were let in on the specifics, we’d start to understand why.

In its own independent attempt to penetrate the bailout, the Government Accountability Office learned that “the standard agreement between Treasury and the participating institutions does not require that these institutions track or report how they plan to use, or do use, their capital investments.” Executives at all but two of the bailed-out banks told the G.A.O. that the “money is fungible,” so they “did not intend to track or report” specifically what happens to the taxpayers’ cash.

Nor is there any serious accounting for executive pay at these seminationalized companies. As Amit Paley of The Washington Post reported, a last-minute, one-sentence loophole added by the Bush administration to the original bailout bill gutted the already minimal restrictions on executive compensation. And so when Goldman Sachs, Henry Paulson’s Wall Street alma mater, says that it is not using public money to pay executives, we must take it on faith.

In the wake of the Madoff debacle, there are loud calls to reform the Securities and Exchange Commission, including from the president-elect. Under both Clinton and Bush, that supposed watchdog agency ignored repeated and graphic warnings of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme as studiously as Bush ignored Al Qaeda’s threats during the summer of 2001.

But fixing that one agency is no panacea. All the talk about restoring “confidence” and “faith” in capitalism will be worthless if we still can’t see what’s going on in the counting rooms. In his role as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Timothy Geithner, Barack Obama’s nominee for Treasury secretary, has been at the center of the action in the bailout’s black box, including the still-murky and conflicting actions (and nonactions) taken with Lehman and A.I.G. His confirmation hearings demand questions every bit as tough as those that were lobbed at the executives from Detroit’s Big Three.

On Friday, Geithner’s partner in bailout management, Paulson, asked Congress to give the Treasury the second half of the $700 billion bailout stash. But without transparency and accountability in Washington’s black box, as well as Wall Street’s, there will continue to be no trust in the system, no matter how many cops the S.E.C. puts on the beat. Even the family-owned real-estate company of Eliot Spitzer, the former “Sheriff of Wall Street,” had entrusted money with Madoff.

We’ll keep believing, not without reason, that the whole game is as corrupt as the game show in “Slumdog Millionaire” — only without the Hollywood/Bollywood ending. We’ll keep wondering how so many at the top keep avoiding responsibility and reaping taxpayers’ billions while relief for those at the bottom remains as elusive as straight answers from those Mumbai call centers fielding American debtors.

This wholesale loss of confidence is a catastrophe that not even the new president’s most costly New Deal can set right.

© 2008 The New York Times

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