When friends used to ask me what to do about some family ne’er-do-well, some hopeless high school drop-out who can’t parse a sentence, recollect how to multiply by 10, or deploy an ounce of logic in solving bone-simple problems, my answer was always the same: Tell him to join the world of book publishing. There’s plenty of room for idiots there, and he’ll feel right at home.
(Sample quote from an editor when my own book on Tina Brown was about to be published: “Judy, we received all the chapters you e-mailed and they’re fine, and thank you. But now we want them in hard copy. That’s right. 360 pages, printed out. Two sets. Why? Because it says so in your contract.”)
Anyway, in the last two weeks I’ve changed my mind. No, the world of book publishing hasn’t gotten appreciably smarter (cf: Oprah by Kitty Kelley). But the world of banking has gotten lots dumber. Or maybe, it always was mentally challenged: One thinks back, for instance, to the idler’s paradise fondly known years ago as “bankers’ hours,” which meant you shut up shop by 3 pm. To the $160 billion Savings & Loan bank crisis of two decades ago. To the banks that dawdled incomprehensibly before acquiring ATM machines. Well, I could go on and on.
Now it turns out that ABN Amro, a major Dutch bank, and the Royal Bank of Scotland, which acquired a big portion of Amro, had to shell out over $800 million when a dubious investment vehicle called Abacus collapsed. A risky mortgage investment vehicle sold by—who else?—Goldman. And IKB Deutsche Industriebank, a German commercial bank, lost almost $150 million.
Bad luck, you say? All of it the fault of wicked Goldman Sachs, which, the U.S. government now says, very belatedly in the usual U.S. government way, was engaged in fraud?
Well let’s examine this a second. On the one hand, yes, Goldman sold that investment without apparently disclosing a crucial detail: The securities were crafted by another Goldman client, cunning hedge fund billionaire John Paulson, who three years back was bearish on the mortgage markets and betting on them to crash. That wasn’t very nice of Goldman; in fact, it was also (surprise…) plain stupid because who’s going to trust those guys now? And I hope everyone dumps the firm. Today.
But a little paragraph from a recent article in The Wall Street Journal just caught my eye, mainly because it coincided with precisely what I was thinking. A paraphrase of a quote from Paulson himself, who’s been talking recently to ostensibly skittish clients.
“Mr. Paulson suggested to clients that the large investors who purchased the Goldman deal and others relied on rating firms, and didn’t do enough of their homework…”
And you know what? Paulson is right. You’re a fat bank, you invest big-time, and you don’t do due diligence? You don’t check out what Goldman (or anyone) is hawking? You just take the lazy way out and leap precipitously? And then you’re astonished when you fall headlong into the gooey swamp of a mortgage mess.