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Moyers Journal: Madoff Was A Piker -- America's Big Banks Are a Far Larger Fraudulent Ponzi Scheme

One of America's top bank fraud experts explains the financial industry's "liar's loans" and wholesale greed that got us in this mess.
 
 
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Bill Moyers: For months now, revelations of the wholesale greed and blatant transgressions of Wall Street have reminded us that "The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One." In fact, the man you're about to meet wrote a book with just that title. It was based upon his experience as a tough regulator during one of the darkest chapters in our financial history: the savings and loan scandal in the late 1980s.

Bill Black was in New York for a conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice where scholars and journalists gathered to ask the question, "How do they get away with it?" Well, no one has asked that question more often than Bill Black. The former Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention now teaches Economics and Law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. During the savings and loan crisis, it was Black who accused then-house speaker Jim Wright and five US Senators, including John Glenn and John McCain, of doing favors for the S&L's in exchange for contributions and other perks. The senators got off with a slap on the wrist, but so enraged was one of those bankers, Charles Keating -- after whom the senate's so-called "Keating Five" were named -- he sent a memo that read, in part, "get Black -- kill him dead." Metaphorically, of course. Of course. Now Black is focused on an even greater scandal, and he spares no one -- not even the President he worked hard to elect, Barack Obama. But his main targets are the Wall Street barons, heirs of an earlier generation whose scandalous rip-offs of wealth back in the 1930s earned them comparison to Al Capone and the mob, and the nickname "banksters." Bill Black, welcome to the Journal.

William K. Black: Thank you.

Bill Moyers: I was taken with your candor at the conference here in New York to hear you say that this crisis we're going through, this economic and financial meltdown is driven by fraud. What's your definition of fraud?

Black: Fraud is deceit. And the essence of fraud is, "I create trust in you, and then I betray that trust, and get you to give me something of value." And as a result, there's no more effective acid against trust than fraud, especially fraud by top elites, and that's what we have.

Moyers: In your book, you make it clear that calculated dishonesty by people in charge is at the heart of most large corporate failures and scandals, including, of course, the S&L, but is that true? Is that what you're saying here, that it was in the boardrooms and the CEO offices where this fraud began?

Black: Absolutely.

Moyers: How did they do it? What do you mean?

Black: Well, the way that you do it is to make really bad loans, because they pay better. Then you grow extremely rapidly, in other words, you're a Ponzi-like scheme. And the third thing you do is we call it leverage. That just means borrowing a lot of money, and the combination creates a situation where you have guaranteed record profits in the early years. That makes you rich, through the bonuses that modern executive compensation has produced. It also makes it inevitable that there's going to be a disaster down the road.

Moyers: So you're suggesting, saying that CEOs of some of these banks and mortgage firms in order to increase their own personal income, deliberately set out to make bad loans?

Black: Yes.

Moyers: How do they get away with it? I mean, what about their own checks and balances in the company? What about their accounting divisions?

 
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