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Unreal: Banks' Created Fake Demand to Boost Profits and Yearly Bonuses

Over the last two years of the housing bubble, Wall Street bankers perpetrated one of the greatest episodes of self-dealing in financial history.
 
 
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Over the last two years of the housing bubble, Wall Street bankers perpetrated one of the greatest episodes of self-dealing in financial history.

Faced with increasing difficulty in selling the mortgage-backed securities that had been among their most lucrative products, the banks hit on a solution that preserved their quarterly earnings and huge bonuses: 

They created fake demand.

A ProPublica analysis shows for the first time the extent to which banks -- primarily Merrill Lynch, but also Citigroup, UBS and others -- bought their own products and cranked up an assembly line that otherwise should have flagged.

The products they were buying and selling were at the heart of the 2008 meltdown -- collections of mortgage bonds known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs.

As the housing boom began to slow in mid-2006, investors became skittish about the riskier parts of those investments. So the banks created -- and ultimately provided most of the money for -- new CDOs. Those new CDOs bought the hard-to-sell pieces of the original CDOs. The result was a daisy chain[1] that solved one problem but created another: Each new CDO had its own risky pieces. Banks created yet other CDOs to buy those.

Individual instances of these questionable trades have been reported before, but ProPublica's investigation, done in partnership with NPR's Planet Money[2] , shows that by late 2006 they became a common industry practice.

Click to see how frequently the banks turned to their best customers -- their own CDOs.[3]

Click to see how frequently the banks turned to their best customers -- their own CDOs.

An analysis by research firm Thetica Systems, commissioned by ProPublica, shows that in the last years of the boom, CDOs had become the dominant purchaser of key, risky parts of other CDOs, largely replacing real investors like pension funds. By 2007, 67 percent of those slices were bought by other CDOs, up from 36 percent just three years earlier. The banks often orchestrated these purchases. In the last two years of the boom, nearly half of all CDOs sponsored by market leader Merrill Lynch bought significant portions of other Merrill CDOs[3] .

ProPublica also found 85 instances during 2006 and 2007 in which two CDOs bought pieces of each other's unsold inventory. These trades, which involved $107 billion worth of CDOs, underscore the extent to which the market lacked real buyers. Often the CDOs that swapped purchases closed within days of each other, the analysis shows.

There were supposed to be protections against this sort of abuse. While banks provided the blueprint for the CDOs and marketed them, they typically selected independent managers who chose the specific bonds to go inside them. The managers had a legal obligation to do what was best for the CDO. They were paid by the CDO, not the bank, and were supposed to serve as a bulwark against self-dealing by the banks, which had the fullest understanding of the complex and lightly regulated mortgage bonds.

It rarely worked out that way. The managers were beholden to the banks that sent them the business. On a billion-dollar deal, managers could earn a million dollars in fees, with little risk. Some small firms did several billion dollars of CDOs in a matter of months.

"All these banks for years were spawning trading partners," says a former executive from Financial Guaranty Insurance Company, a major insurer of the CDO market. "You don't have a trading partner? Create one."

The executive, like most of the dozens of people ProPublica spoke with about the inner workings of the market at the time, asked not to be named out of fear of being sucked into ongoing investigations or because they are involved in civil litigation.

 
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