Tuesday, October 27, 2009
How Wall Street is Making Their Money by Philip Greenspun
Wall Street banks have had profitable quarters. JPMorgan Chase reported $3.6 billion in profit (more than $1 billion per month). Goldman Sachs was only slightly behind, at $3.2 billion. These profits supposedly came from “trading.” I asked a friend who has worked in the money business how this was possible. “For someone to make money trading, there has to be someone on the other side of every trade who is losing money. Where does each bank find someone who can lose $1 billion every month?”
He explained that “carry trade” would be a more accurate description of what they’re doing. Because of the Collapse of 2008 financial reforms, the big investment banks are able to borrow money from the U.S. government at 0 percent interest. Then they can turn around and buy short-term bonds that pay 2 or 3 percent annual interest. Now they’re making 2 percent on whatever they borrowed. They can use leverage to increase this number, by pledging some of the bonds that they’ve already bought as collateral on additional bonds.
I asked if they were taking any risk in order to earn this return. “If interest rates went up to 20 percent, even though the bonds are short-term, the price of the bond could fall enough to make the trade a money-loser.” (Though since the banks are too big to fail, they would simply be bailed out with additional taxpayer funds.)
What kind of bonds are they buying? Are they investing the money in American business? “No, they are mostly buying Treasuries.” So the money is just being shuffled from one Federal bank account to another, with each Wall Street bank skimming off $1 billion per month for itself? “Pretty much.”
[A more old-fashioned way of making supranormal returns is insider trading, which was perfectly legal until the Crash of 1929 (history). The New York Times ran a story yesterday on Raj Rajaratnam, a hedge fund manager who invested heavily in inside information. Rolling Stone published "Wall Street's Naked Swindle" on October 14. The story is much more sensational and entertaining than anything from the Times. It covers a guy who spent $1.7 million on out-of-the-money put options on Bear Stearns on March 11, 2008. The options would become worthless on March 20, just 9 days later, unless Bear Stearns basically went bust. Bear Stearns collapsed the next day and the guy made a $270 million profit. He has never been identified by the SEC.]