A Capitalist’s Lament is about what happens when financial firms and their employees forget whose interest they are supposed to protect. It shows how making foolish or wrong predictions is of no consequence to those who make them and how Wall Street luminaries with poor track records still garner celebrity status. Most of all, it spotlights how Wall Street manipulates the system and furthers its own interests at its customers’ expense and puts us all at great risk. Here is what you need to know to protect yourself from “business as usual” and get ahead—instead of getting taken.
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America: We Have a Problem
Wall Street is fleecing you and ruining America. You may think Wall Street's perpetual activity and financial innovations help the free-enterprise system, but in fact they cause irreparable harm to the country. This story of how Wall Street completely fools you as it skillfully makes a killing for itself, turning your money into theirs, is too vastly important to ignore. We will all continue to be at great risk and suffer if we do not force changes to this toxic system.
Investors, big and small, are continually being fleeced and have very few people on their side. Whether you have nothing to invest and are interested only in good public policy and consumer protection, or you have a nest egg of $10,000 or $10,000,000,000 (yes, many of the most wealthy are taken in, too), you need to know how the Wall Street system really works, how the benefits are distributed, how much risk is routinely taken, how Wall Street uses the media to promote its charade, and how it shamelessly misleads investors and the public.
If after reading this book you think the title is hyperbole, then I have failed in my mission. Wall Street has ingeniously convinced a large segment of the public that to oppose Wall Street is to be against the great American free enterprise system. Not so! I am a hard-core capitalist, but I am not an apologist for Wall Street's horrendous behavior. I am not a populist trying to change our core beliefs. As an independent investment advisor, I've been both a West Coast outsider and a clear-eyed insider in the financial world. Unlike Ralph Nader and Michael Moore, who berate the system itself, I'm outraged precisely because I support our regulated but essentially free market economy. I'm not someone who failed and then rails. I've worked very successfully in the industry and observed it over my entire professional career. I know it inside and out. I have represented real people with their real money and financial lives on the line. I have had to make the tough decisions on the spot. I am not a journalist or an academic looking at events or the system with the luxury of hindsight.
This book is not about bashing the American economic system; it is about bashing business as usual on Wall Street. Too many people think that free enterprise, or capitalism, has failed. I completely disagree. The free enterprise system has produced the greatest amount of economic prosperity for the greatest number of people in history. If you don't support free enterprise, please turn in your iPad and your smartphone, stop watching cable television, and never go to Google. Self-interest serves us all well. But selfish interest — taking advantage of the system by illegal or immoral actions — harms us all.
I am outraged that Wall Street constantly puts its own interests ahead of those of its customers and society. Smooth-talking yet well-credentialed hucksters selling the false promise of easy gains have hijacked our system in order to earn higher fees for themselves. Wall Street continually makes outrageous predictions designed to impress you and entice you to buy. But it is mostly a giant casino where games of chance masquerade as investments. This culture of gambling exposes us all to risks that no one should take.
Let's be clear. We are not talking about boiler-room operations and swampland shysters. We are talking about the largest, most prominent and renowned Wall Street players: brokerage firms, financial advisors, mutual fund complexes, financial center banks, insurance companies, analysts, consultants, rating agencies, government agencies, government-sponsored enterprises, the financial press and broadcast media, and many financial economists. When Wall Street firms and their employees forget whose interest they are supposed to protect and instead act only in their own selfish interest, the problem is not just unscrupulous or unethical behavior but the criminal practices that go with it.
Today Wall Street does not create wealth; it takes it from others. Wall Street's unsavory tactics assume many guises — alluring come-ons, airbrushed risks, high stakes gambling, distortions, half-truths, false promises, misleading statements, falsified research, outlandish predictions, white lies, bold lies, tricks to overcharge customers, bad deals, and outright fraud. The financial-services industry seduces Main Street investors — and surprisingly even the big players, including major corporations and other institutional investors — getting them to take chances that no one should ever consider.
Wall Street takes advantage of uninformed customers by charging hidden fees and markups on their products. It tells clients they are paying less when in fact they are paying more. Financial prospectuses feature a picture of a grandfather and his granddaughter, implying he is investing for her security — when in fact the fund advertised is chock-full of risky investments.
Wall Street celebrities, worshipped by the media, use their status to hype forecasts that mislead the investing public. They consistently get the big things wrong, yet no one in the financial press seems to know or care or hold anybody accountable. Most Wall Street experts confidently predicted that the stock market would increase in 2008; instead we saw the worst decline in seventy years. A Nobel Prize winner predicted that the S&P 500 Index would fall to 400 from 1000, only to see a rise to almost 2100 by the date he specified.
Wall Street is a world where the largest firm in the industry can recommend to its customers stocks that its own internal memoranda refer to as "dogs." It's a world where hedge fund operators make hundreds of millions of dollars managing funds in which their investors lose billions. It's where the most popular television personality can give his advice on the one single best stock to own, only to see it decline by 50 percent over the next year and by 95 percent over the next two years. It's where employees of the major firms do not even try to protect their clients and customers; they go out of their way to harm them in order to help either a few favored clients or themselves. It's where too many people have disdain for their very own clients and customers, display arrogance without limit, and have a sense of entitlement that never ends.
Wall Street sells risky products to nonprofit organizations. When university endowments or charitable foundations suffer needless losses, services are diminished. Pension plans depend upon their investments to provide retirement benefits. They are in jeopardy because Wall Street sold unsophisticated representatives of state and local governments risky products, incurring higher fees and losses. Now pensioners or taxpayers are on the hook for the losses.
Wall Street siphons money from the productive segments of society, misallocates government resources, and is destroying America's social fabric. Wall Street's ability to extract money from the economic system is really like toll taking, exacting tribute for the use of their services. This makes America less productive and less competitive.
Wall Street's compensation practices have caused a huge brain drain. Too many of the "best and brightest" pursue careers in finance rather than in productive careers in engineering, chemistry, manufacturing, or education. Unlike the wealth earned by Bill Gates (Microsoft), Sam Walton (Walmart), Steven Jobs (Apple), or Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), who all created new companies and products and services, the fortunes amassed by hedge fund operators represent very little contribution to the economy. And Wall Streeters then have the audacity to complain about the possibility of being forced to pay the same tax rate as other wealthy people.
Wall Street created the Internet (or dot-com) bubble and then the severe downturn in 2000 — 2002. Wall Street followed that with the subprime mortgage bust. That in turn caused the market crash in 2008, which led to the Great Recession.
The Great Recession did not arise from weaknesses in the underlying economy. It was produced by the actions of Wall Street firms. Wall Street's culture of debt has been totally out of control and has put us all at greater risk. It has recklessly borrowed money on its own while encouraging its customers to borrow even more. This has destabilized the economy as downturns in markets lead to greater losses that in turn increase the risk of insolvency or bankruptcy. Without excessive debt used by both Wall Street and its customers, the Great Recession of 2008 would have been far less severe or might not have happened at all.
The potential for insolvency, a severe decline in lending activity, substantial losses by the major banks, and the mere possibility that the banking system could collapse in 2008 led to massive government guarantees and bailouts. These bailouts in turn diverted government money from what I hope we all think are better uses — better educational programs, more research into renewable energy, improvements to our infrastructure, lower taxes, and decreased government deficits.
Meanwhile, daily scandals continue to rock the financial world: high-profile bankruptcies, mismanaged pension funds, sky-high compensation, old-boy favoritism, insider trading, stock-option giveaways, and massive bailouts. Lapses in accountability are the rule. Wall Street passes off poor analysis as fact and undue risk as opportunity. Making foolish or outlandish or just plain wrong predictions is of no consequence. Wall Street luminaries with poor track records still garner celebrity status.
Wall Street's ever-increasing emphasis on short-term performance and get-rich-quick schemes increases everyone's risk, destroys morale, and lessens the incentive for long-term investments, which can lead to lower productivity. Individuals and the society are economically more secure and more productive if we take a long-term approach to investing. We should want to reward hard work rather than speculation.
Has Wall Street learned anything from the Great Recession or from the continuing scandals? Sadly, not much. There has been the appearance of renewed scrutiny of banks, brokerage houses, investment advisors, funds, and customer lending. But appearances do not add up to fundamental change. In fact, manipulation lives on, adapting itself to evolving conditions.
Fundamental overhaul of the system is needed to rebuild the great financial engine that once powered prosperity. But pundits, politicians, and regulators suggest only meager reforms that do nothing to eliminate the systemic rot that is leading us to financial disaster yet again. Wall Street's actions have a profound impact on all segments of our society, and when they threaten the banking system in the United States, the repercussions are felt around the world. Who was served when Iceland's government pension plans lost billions investing in subprime mortgages, or when Goldman Sachs helped Greece hide its true government deficit while earning a fee of $300 million?
These misdeeds have led to the public's growing lack of trust in the free enterprise system. Wall Street's sense of entitlement, its ceaseless pursuit of selfish interest, and its relentless extracting of huge sums from the economy are leading to class warfare as I have never seen before. The Occupy Wall Street movement rightfully voiced its discontent with "the system." But many or even most of the protestors had no clear understanding of the problems, which would be difficult enough to solve if we were united and much harder if we are at each other's throats.
Wall Street as it now behaves does not merit our support. But we do need a well-functioning financial system to raise capital to help companies grow, to place debt instruments, and to make liquid markets for investors. "Shut it down" is no answer; it's not as if we can eliminate Wall Street and all will be fine. We need it to function differently. Government needs to be part of the solution, but instead it is just as guilty as, and perhaps even guiltier than, Wall Street. More regulation and socialism waste time and money and reduce productivity. They simply provide more work for bureaucrats who merely check boxes on forms.
I have seen a lot more red tape since the Great Recession, but I haven't seen a lot of meaningful reform. Part of the problem is that Wall Street's bad behavior did not start with the market crash leading to the Great Recession in 2008, nor with the dot-com bust in 2000, but much earlier.
I've been a firsthand observer of Wall Street misbehavior for over forty years. I started my firm in 1978 with nothing and grew it until I managed about $2 billion. Along the way we succeeded in many ways. First and most important, we helped our clients' assets grow and protected them against the substantial and unexpected market crashes. For the only four years I was eligible, I was named by Barron's to its annual list of the Top 100 Independent Investment Advisors in the country. For its entire life, from 1997 through 2010, I managed the CSI Equity Fund, which consistently out-performed most other mutual funds in its class. For much of its life, our fund received a five-star rating from Morningstar, and for many years we had better performance than Warren Buffett's famed Berkshire Hathaway.
When I started my company, I had the old-fashioned idea that the good guys win — that those who gave sound advice through careful research, reasoned analysis, and rational planning would prevail. But since then I have grown increasingly disillusioned, even outraged, by the ugly truth: Wall Street couldn't care less about its investors.
True reform is possible only when the problems are recognized for what they really are. Capitalism and free markets are not at fault — business as usual on Wall Street is what's wrong. The only way for investors to protect themselves is to understand what they're actually getting into — among many other things, to learn how much is being charged in fees, to see through the hype and worthless forecasts and predictions, to resist the dangerous allure of derivatives and hedge funds, to understand the role of the too-compliant financial media, to spot brokers' and money managers' conflicts of interest, and to avoid short selling, leverage, and IPOS.
That's my mission in this book: to promote reform and to help you get ahead instead of getting taken for a ride.CHAPTER 2
Big Is Not Beautiful
In 2011, MF Global, a highly reputable commodities futures brokerage, filed for the eighth-largest bankruptcy in US history. The San Francisco Chronicle published my thoughts at the time, which were the germ of the ideas developed in this book. Here is the article that ran in the newspaper:
"The stunning reality is that five years into the financial meltdown, it's business as usual on Wall Street — outlandish rewards for insiders with downside for almost everyone else. Occupy Wall Street protesters are right — something is wrong — but they're not sure what. Here's what I say: A rigged game affects not just the 99 percent, but everyone, and with global repercussions.
"I recently had a chance to explain these problems on 'Street Soldiers,' a radio program devoted to keeping inner-city residents 'alive and free.' It's not the usual forum for an independent investment adviser who has managed more than $1.5 billion in assets for clients from the 1 percent. The radio show host wanted his listeners to hear from a Wall Street 'soldier' who had broken ranks to publicly challenge his industry's out-of-control practices. Maybe I could explain what is wrong on Wall Street and why CEOs get eight-figure bonuses while hardworking Americans lose their homes and jobs.
"Make no mistake — as I told the listeners — I'm a hard-core capitalist. But capitalism has been hijacked, and I'm infuriated. For capitalism to work, people who assume risk should reap the rewards of success, but they also must suffer when losses occur.
"If you're unconvinced, let's revisit the latest debacle — the implosion of yet another Wall Street darling, MF Global. The fallout of its bad bets on European bonds is hitting home hard, even in rural America, where many of its agricultural customers work. As the eighth-largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, MF Global represents just about everything that is wrong on Wall Street.
1. The cult of a Wall Street superstar: In 2010, Jon Corzine, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs and former governor of New Jersey, became CEO of MF Global. His goal was to transform the little-known futures broker into a powerhouse investment bank. It took him only 19 months to blow up an institution that dates back to 1793.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Capitalist's Lament"
Copyright © 2016 Leland Faust.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Section I — The Lay of the Street,
ONE America: We Have a Problem,
Section II — The Triumph of Selfish Interest,
TWO Big Is Not Beautiful,
THREE Nonstop Conflicts of Interest,
FOUR So Much for So Little,
FIVE Sky-High Compensation,
SIX Fees and Sleaze: Welcome to the World of Hedge Funds,
Section III — Wall Street Pornography,
SEVEN The Compliant Media and the Wall Street Superstar,
EIGHT Stupid Predictions and Constant Hype: How to Lose a Fortune,
NINE Not Present at the Creation: IPOs,
Section IV — The Ultimate Con Job,
TEN The Casino: Wall Street's Gambling Problem,
ELEVEN Myopia: Short-Term Trading,
TWELVE Don't Get Caught Short,
THIRTEEN Leveraging Yourself to Death,
FOURTEEN Options, Derivatives, and Other Great Ways to Lose Money,
Section V — An End to Business as Usual?,
FIFTEEN Enforcement: Missing in Action,
SIXTEEN Protecting Yourself and Fixing the Wall Street Mess,