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The Looting of America: How Wall Street Fleeced Millions from Wisconsin Schools

Wall Street investment houses went after the $100 billion saved in school-district trust funds like Whitefish Bay's, and made a killing.

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What’s more, although the synthetic CDOs had been rated AA, as Noack had touted, those ratings were bogus. The CDOs were drawn from a vast pool of junk debt that had been chopped up into slices based on risk. The top slices had the least risk and the bottom slices had the most risk. Unbeknownst to both Noack and the school districts, the districts’ $200 million of borrowed money was used to insure a slice near the bottom of the barrel! They would be on the hook for paying out claims if the default rate hit about 6 percent, a number it is fast approaching. Neither savvy Dave Noack, nor confident Mark Hujik, nor concerned Shawn Yde appeared to have any understanding of this frightening reality.

But the big fish—the CDO creators and peddlers at the top levels—knew what they were doing. The Canadian bank received $11.2 million in up-front fees. (That’s right, the bank was, in effect, buying insurance, yet the school districts were paying the bank up-front fees for the honor of insuring the bank’s junk debt.) The investment sales company took $1.2 million in commissions. We don’t know precisely how much Depfa got for the loans, but it was substantial.

Whitefish Bay and the other school districts got something substantial too: nearly all of the risk. The school districts are about to lose all of their initial $37.3 million. They will also lose another $165 million of the money they’d borrowed from Depfa. As soon as the default rate is reached, $200 million will go to pay insurance claims to the Royal Bank of Canada. And the schools still will owe the full $165-million Depfa loan, and they will still owe on the bonds they had issued to raise much of their $37.3 million in collateral. The risk of reaching total default currently is so high that Kenosha’s entire piece of the CDO investment ($35.6 million) was valued at only $925,000, as of January 29, 2009—a decline in value of $36,575,000. Now the school districts are paying hefty fees not just to bankers but also to lawyers, as they sue to unwind the deal and recover damages.

“This is something I’ll regret until the day I die,” said Shawn Yde of the Whitefish Bay schools.

He’s not alone. As National Public Radio and the New York Times reported in a joint article, “Wisconsin schools were not the only ones to jump into such complicated financial products. More than $1.2 trillion of CDOs have been sold to buyers of all kinds since 2005—including many cities and government agencies. . . .”

Did these public agencies deserve any protections? A prudent rule might be to forbid investment houses to peddle such risky securities within a thousand yards of a school district. But there are no rules, since these “exotic and opaque” financial securities are still entirely unregulated. (When the Kenosha Teachers Association discovered that the securities peddled to the school districts were identical to those that sunk AIG, it requested that the Federal Reserve remove them from the school districts just as they have done for AIG—an eminently fair and reasonable request in my opinion. See chapter 8 for more on AIG.)

Whitefish Bay, Kenosha, and the other three districts made missteps and miscalculations. They were naive. As Mark Hujik candidly said, they saw a pot of gold on Wall Street and wanted their piece. But they were had. We all were. We know that something has gone terribly wrong not just in Whitefish Bay but with our entire economy. There’s a connection between the junk that was peddled to the “Wisconsin Five” and the crash of the global financial system. In fact, if we can understand exactly what David Noack sold to Whitefish Bay and why, we will also understand how the economy collapsed, and what needs to change to prevent this from happening again.

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