The Vampire Squid Strikes Again: The Mega Banks’ Most Devious Scam Yet


Banks are no longer just financing heavy industry. They are actually buying it up and inventing bigger, bolder and scarier scams than ever

Call it the loophole that destroyed the world. It’s 1999, the tail end of the Clinton years. While the rest of America obsesses over Monica Lewinsky, Columbine and Mark McGwire’s biceps, Congress is feverishly crafting what could yet prove to be one of the most transformative laws in the history of our economy – a law that would make possible a broader concentration of financial and industrial power than we’ve seen in more than a century.

The Vampire Squid Strikes Again The Mega Banks' Most Devious Scam Yet

But the crazy thing is, nobody at the time quite knew it. Most observers on the Hill thought the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 – also known as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act – was just the latest and boldest in a long line of deregulatory handouts to Wall Street that had begun in the Reagan years.

Wall Street had spent much of that era arguing that America’s banks needed to become bigger and badder, in order to compete globally with the German and Japanese-style financial giants, which were supposedly about to swallow up all the world’s banking business. So through legislative lackeys like red-faced Republican deregulatory enthusiast Phil Gramm, bank lobbyists were pushing a new law designed to wipe out 60-plus years of bedrock financial regulation. The key was repealing – or “modifying,” as bill proponents put it – the famed Glass-Steagall Act separating bankers and brokers, which had been passed in 1933 to prevent conflicts of interest within the finance sector that had led to the Great Depression. Now, commercial banks would be allowed to merge with investment banks and insurance companies, creating financial megafirms potentially far more powerful than had ever existed in America.

All of this was big enough news in itself. But it would take half a generation – till now, basically – to understand the most explosive part of the bill, which additionally legalized new forms of monopoly, allowing banks to merge with heavy industry. A tiny provision in the bill also permitted commercial banks to delve into any activity that is “complementary to a financial activity and does not pose a substantial risk to the safety or soundness of depository institutions or the financial system generally.”

Complementary to a financial activity. What the hell did that mean?

“From the perspective of the banks,” says Saule Omarova, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, “pretty much everything is considered complementary to a financial activity.”

Fifteen years later, in fact, it now looks like Wall Street and its lawyers took the term to be a synonym for ruthless campaigns of world domination. “Nobody knew the reach it would have into the real economy,” says Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. Now a leading voice on the Hill against the hidden provisions, Brown actually voted for Gramm-Leach-Bliley as a congressman, along with all but 72 other House members. “I bet even some of the people who were the bill’s advocates had no idea.”

Today, banks like Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs own oil tankers, run airports and control huge quantities of coal, natural gas, heating oil, electric power and precious metals. They likewise can now be found exerting direct control over the supply of a whole galaxy of raw materials crucial to world industry and to society in general, including everything from food products to metals like zinc, copper, tin, nickel and, most infamously thanks to a recent high-profile scandal, aluminum. And they’re doing it not just here but abroad as well: In Denmark, thousands took to the streets in protest in recent weeks, vampire-squid banners in hand, when news came out that Goldman Sachs was about to buy a 19 percent stake in Dong Energy, a national electric provider. The furor inspired mass resignations of ministers from the government’s ruling coalition, as the Danish public wondered how an American investment bank could possibly hold so much influence over the state energy grid.

There are more eclectic interests, too. After 9/11, we found it worrisome when foreigners started to get into the business of running ports, but there’s been little controversy as banks have done the same, or even started dabbling in other activities with national-security implications – Goldman Sachs, for instance, is apparently now in the uranium business, a piece of news that attracted few headlines.

But banks aren’t just buying stuff, they’re buying whole industrial processes. They’re buying oil that’s still in the ground, the tankers that move it across the sea, the refineries that turn it into fuel, and the pipelines that bring it to your home. Then, just for kicks, they’re also betting on the timing and efficiency of these same industrial processes in the financial markets – buying and selling oil stocks on the stock exchange, oil futures on the futures market, swaps on the swaps market, etc.

Allowing one company to control the supply of crucial physical commodities, and also trade in the financial products that might be related to those markets, is an open invitation to commit mass manipulation. It’s something akin to letting casino owners who take book on NFL games during the week also coach all the teams on Sundays.

The situation has opened a Pandora’s box of horrifying new corruption possibilities, but it’s been hard for the public to notice, since regulators have struggled to put even the slightest dent in Wall Street’s older, more familiar scams. In just the past few years we’ve seen an explosion of scandals – from the multitrillion-dollar Libor saga (major international banks gaming world interest rates), to the more recent foreign-currency-exchange fiasco (many of the same banks suspected of rigging prices in the $5.3-trillion-a-day currency markets), to lesser scandals involving manipulation of interest-rate swaps, and gold and silver prices.

But those are purely financial schemes. In these new, even scarier kinds of manipulations, banks that own whole chains of physical business interests have been caught rigging prices in those industries. For instance, in just the past two years, fines in excess of $400 million have been levied against both JPMorgan Chase and Barclays for allegedly manipulating the delivery of electricity in several states, including California. In the case of Barclays, which is contesting the fine, regulators claim prices were manipulated to help the bank win financial bets it had made on those same energy markets.

And last summer, The New York Times described how Goldman Sachs was caught systematically delaying the delivery of metals out of a network of warehouses it owned in order to jack up rents and artificially boost prices.

You might not have been surprised that Goldman got caught scamming the world again, but it was certainly news to a lot of people that an investment bank with no industrial expertise, just five years removed from a federal bailout, stores and controls enough of America’s aluminum supply to affect world prices.

How was all of this possible? And who signed off on it?

By exploiting loopholes in a dense, decade-and-a-half-old piece of financial legislation, Wall Street has effected a revolutionary change that American citizens never discussed, debated or prepared for, and certainly never explicitly permitted in any meaningful way: the wholesale merger of high finance with heavy industry. This blitzkrieg reorganization of our economy has left millions of Americans facing a smorgasbord of frightfully unexpected new problems. Do we even have a regulatory structure in place to look out for these new forms of manipulation? (Answer: We don’t.) And given that the banking sector that came so close to ruining the world economy five years ago has now vastly expanded its footprint, who’s in charge of preventing the next crash?

In this Brave New World, nobody knows. Moreover, whatever we’ve done, it’s too late to have a referendum on it. Garrett Wotkyns, an Arizona-based class-action attorney who has spent more than a year investigating the banks’ involvement in the metals markets and is suing Goldman and others over the aluminum case on behalf of two major manufacturers, puts it this way: “It’s like that line in The Dark Knight Rises,” he says. “‘The storm isn’t coming. The storm is already here.'”

To this day, the provenance of the “complementary activities” loophole that set much of this mess in motion remains something of a mystery. We know from congressional records that a vice chairman of JPMorgan, Michael Patterson, was one of the first to push the idea in House testimony in February 1999 and that, later that year, an early version of the bill put forward in the Senate by Phil Gramm also contained the provision.

But even one of the final bill’s eventual authors, Republican congressman Jim Leach, can’t remember exactly whose idea adding the “complementary activities” line was. “I know of no legislative history of the provision,” he says. “It probably came from the Senate side.”

Moreover, Leach was shocked to hear that regulators had pointed to this section of a bill bearing his name as the legal authority allowing banks to gain control over physical-commodities markets. “That’s news to me,” says the mortified ex-congressman, now a law professor at the University of Iowa. “I assume no one at the time would have thought it would apply to commodities brokering of a nature that has recently been reported.”

One thing that is clear in the public record is that nobody was talking, at least publicly, about banks someday owning oil tankers or controlling the supply of industrial metals.

The JPMorgan witness, Michael Patterson, told the House Financial Services Committee at the 1999 hearing that his idea of “complementary activities” was, say, a credit-card company putting out a restaurant guide. “One example is American Express, which publishes magazines,” he testified. “Travel + Leisure magazine is complementary to the travel business. Food & Wine promotes dining out . . . which might lead to greater use of the American Express card.”

“That’s how insignificant this was supposed to be,” says Omarova. “They were talking about being allowed to put out magazines.”

Even apart from the “complementary” provision, Gramm quietly added another time bomb to the law, a grandfather clause, which said that any company that became a bank holding company after the passage of Gramm-Leach-Bliley in 1999 could engage in (or control shares of a company engaged in) commodities trading – but only if it was already doing so before a seemingly arbitrary date in September 1997.

This meant that if you were a bank holding company at the time the law was passed and you wanted to get into the commodities business, you were out of luck, because the federal law prohibited banks from being involved in physical commodities or any other forms of heavy industry. But if you were already a commodities dealer in 1997 and then somehow became a bank holding company, you could get into whatever you pleased.

This was nuts. It was a little like passing a law that ordered you to leave the Army if you were gay in November 1999 – but if you were a heterosexual soldier as of September 1997 and then somehow became gay after 1999, you could stay in the Army.

To this day, nobody is exactly clear on what the grandfather clause means. If a company traded in tin before 1997 and then became a bank holding company in 2015, would it have to stick with tin? Or did the fact that it traded tin in 1997 mean the company could buy oil tankers and pipelines in 2020?

In 2012, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York – the most powerful branch of the Fed, the primary regulator of bank holding companies and the final authority on these things – put out a paper saying it had no clue about the exact meaning of the provision. “The legal scope of the exemption,” a trio of New York Fed officials wrote in July that year, “is widely seen as ambiguous.” Just a few weeks ago, the Fed’s director of banking supervision, Michael Gibson, told the Senate, “I’m not a lawyer,” and that it’s “under review.”

It almost didn’t matter. For nearly a decade, this obscure provision of Gramm-Leach-Bliley effectively applied to nobody. Then, in the third week of September 2008, while the economy was imploding after the collapses of Lehman and AIG, two of America’s biggest investment banks, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, found themselves in desperate need of emergency financing. So late on a Sunday night, on September 21st, to be exact, the two banks announced they had applied to the Federal Reserve to become bank holding companies, which would give them lifesaving access to emergency cash from the Fed’s discount window.

The Fed granted the requests overnight. The move saved the bacon of both firms, and it had one additional benefit: It made Goldman and Morgan Stanley, which both had significant commodity-trading operations prior to 1997, the first and last two companies to qualify for the grandfather exemption of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. “Kind of convenient, isn’t it?” says one congressional aide. “It’s almost like the law was written specifically for them.”

The irony was incredible. After fucking up so badly that the government had to give them federal bank charters and bottomless wells of free cash to save their necks, the feds gave Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley hall passes to become cross-species monopolistic powers with almost limitless reach into any sectors of the economy.

And they weren’t the only accidental beneficiaries of the crisis. JPMorgan Chase acquired the commodity-trading operations of Bear Stearns in early 2008, after the Fed pledged billions in guarantees to help Chase rescue the doomed investment bank. Within the next two years, Chase also acquired the commodities operations of another failing bank, the newly nationalized Royal Bank of Scotland, which included Henry Bath, a U.K.-based company that owns a large network of warehouses throughout Europe.

As a result, entering 2010, these three companies were newly empowered to go out and start doubling down on investments in physical industry. Through a fortuitous circumstance, the cost of financing for bank holding companies had also dropped like a stone by the end of 2009, as the Fed slashed interest rates almost to zero in a desperate attempt to stimulate the economy out of its post-crash doldrums.

The sudden turning on of this huge faucet of free money seems to have been a factor in an ensuing commodities shopping spree undertaken by all three firms. Morgan Stanley, for instance, claimed to have just $2.5 billion in commodity assets in March 2009. By September 2011, those holdings had nearly quadrupled, to $10.3 billion.

Goldman and Chase – along with Glencore and Trafigura, a pair of giant Swiss-based conglomerates that were offshoots of a firm founded by notorious deceased commodities trader and known market manipulator Marc Rich – all made notably coincidental purchases of metals-warehousing companies in 2010.

The presence of these Marc Rich entities is particularly noteworthy. According to famed Forbes reporter Paul Klebnikov, who was assassinated in 2004 after years of reports on Russian corruption, Rich made a fortune in the early Nineties striking crooked deals with the Soviet bosses who controlled the U.S.S.R.’s supplies of raw materials – in particular commodities like zinc and aluminum. These deals helped create a fledgling class of profiteers among the bosses of the crumbling Soviet empire, a class that would go on years later to help push Russia out of its communist past into its kleptocratic present.

“He’d strike a deal with the local party boss, or the director of a state-owned company,” Klebnikov said back in 2001. “He’d say, ‘OK, you will sell me the [commodity] at five to 10 percent of the world-market price . . . and in return, I will deposit some of the profit I make by reselling it 10 times higher on the world market, and put the kickback in a Swiss bank account.'”

Rich made these reported deals while in exile from the United States, which he fled in 1983 after the U.S. government charged him with tax evasion, wire fraud, racketeering and trading with the enemy after being caught trading with rogue states like Iran, among other things. The state filed enough counts to put him away for life, and he remained a fugitive until January 2001, when a little-known Clinton administration Justice Department official named Eric Holder recommended Rich be pardoned. A report by the House Committee on Government Reform later concluded that Holder had not provided a credible explanation for supporting Rich’s pardon and that he must have had “other motivations” that he didn’t share with Congress. Among other things, the committee speculated that Holder had designs on the attorney general’s office in a potential Al Gore administration.

In any case, in 2010, a decade after the Rich pardon, Holder was attorney general, but under Barack Obama, and two Rich-created firms, along with two banks that have been major donors to the Democratic Party, all made moves to buy up metals warehouses. In near simultaneous fashion, Goldman, Chase, Glencore and Trafigura bought companies that control warehouses all over the world for the LME, or London Metals Exchange. The LME is a privately owned exchange for world metals trading. It’s the world’s primary hub for determining metals prices and also for trading metals-based futures, options, swaps and other instruments.

“If they were just interested in collecting rent for metals storage, they’d have bought all kinds of warehouses,” says Manal Mehta, the founder of Sunesis Capital, a hedge fund that has done extensive research on the banks’ forays into the commodities markets. “But they seemed to focus on these official LME facilities.”


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One Response

  1. 5 War Veteran says:

    The owners of these “Fed” banking INDUSTRIES are the root of all evil in the world today. They bought your government and are using their bought personages to control world policy and you are paying for it anyway.

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