Saturday, December 10, 2011

"The Man Who Busted the ‘Banksters’"

I have been meaning to do a post on Mr. Pecora for the last couple years. In an August 2010 post "Climateer Quote of the Day: Hot Money and Emerging Markets Edition" I threatened:
One of these days I'll get around to telling the story of National City Bank and their early adventures in securitizing sub-prime loans back in the 1920's.
National City is now Citigroup.
What was old is new again.

A couple months later we had "Securitization: "The historical echoes of the mortgage bond scandal"" which got a "Ha!" out of me. That post continued:
Well, it appears that Michael Perino beat me to it and that Felix Salmon recognized the relevant bits in Perino's new book.
From Reuters:
What did Wall Street used to be like, before the Securities Act of 1933? Michael Perino’s new book on Ferdiand Pecora, which I reviewed here, reminds us. For instance, there was National City Bank’s Peru deal.
National City’s South American experts had reported that the government’s finances were “positively distressing”, with the treasury “flat on its back and gasping for breath” and the president surrounded by “rascals”. Yet, inevitably, National City decided to underwrite a series of bonds from Peru. Nowhere in the prospectus was there any indication of National City’s view on the country; meanwhile, National City’s ads stated that “when you buy a bond recommended by The National City Company, you may be sure that all the essential facts which justify the Company’s own confidence in that investment are readily available to you”.
Perino continues:
National City kept right on offering Peruvian bonds in 1927 and 1928, even though one of its own South American experts continued to conclude that he had “no great faith in any material betterment of Peru’s economic condition in the near future”. The political situation, he wrote, was “equally uncertain,” with “revolution” a distinct possibility. Would the public have purchased these bonds, Pecora asked, if that information had been included in the prospectus? “I doubt if they would,” Baker replied.
Pecora did something similar with a bond offering for the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. National City used much of the proceeds to pay off a loan due to itself, without telling telling investors that it was using their money to exit the very credit they were buying into. And that’s not all...
Here's some more, from Smithsonian Magazine's Past Imperfect blog:
Three years removed from the stock market crash of 1929, America was in the throes of the Great Depression, with no recovery on the horizon.  As President Herbert Hoover reluctantly campaigned for a second term, his motorcades and trains were pelted with rotten vegetables and eggs as he toured a hostile land where shanty towns erected by the homeless had sprung up. They were called “Hoovervilles,” creating the shameful images that would define his presidency. Millions of Americans had lost their jobs, and one in four Americans lost their life savings. Farmers were in ruin, 40 percent of the country’s banks had failed, and industrial stocks had lost 80 percent of their value.

With unemployment hovering at nearly 25 percent in 1932, Hoover was swept out of office in a landslide, and the newly elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, promised Americans relief. Roosevelt had decried “the ruthless manipulation of professional gamblers and the corporate system” that allowed “a few powerful interests to make industrial cannon fodder of the lives of half the population.”  He made it plain that he would go after the “economic nobles,” and a bank panic on the day of his inauguration, in March 1933, gave him just the mandate he sought to attack the economic crisis in his “First 100 Days” campaign.  “There must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and wrongdoing,” he said.

Ferdinand Pecora was an an unlikely answer to what ailed America at the time. He was a slight, soft-spoken son of Italian immigrants, and he wore a wide-brimmed fedora and often had a cigar dangling from his lips. Forced to drop out of school in his teens because his father was injured in a work-related accident, Pecora ultimately landed a job as a law clerk and attended New York Law School, passed the New York bar and became one of just a handful of first-generation Italian lawyers in the city. In 1918, he became an assistant district attorney. Over the next decade, he built a reputation as an honest and tenacious prosecutor, shutting down more than 100 “bucket shops”—illegal brokerage houses where bets were made on the rise and fall prices of stocks and commodity futures outside of the regulated market. His introduction to the world of fraudulent financial dealings would serve him well.

Just months before Hoover left office, Pecora was appointed chief counsel to the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Banking and Currency. Assigned to probe the causes of the 1929 crash, he led what became known as the “Pecora commission,” making front-page news when he called Charles Mitchell, the head of the largest bank in America, National City Bank (now Citibank), as his first witness. “Sunshine Charley” strode into the hearings with a good deal of contempt for both Pecora and his commission. Though shareholders had taken staggering losses on bank stocks, Mitchell admitted that he and his top officers had set aside millions of dollars from the bank in interest-free loans to themselves. Mitchell also revealed that despite making more than $1 million in bonuses in 1929, he had paid no taxes due to losses incurred from the sale of diminished National City stock—to his wife. Pecora revealed that National City had hidden bad loans by packaging them into securities and pawning them off to unwitting investors. By the time Mitchell’s testimony made the newspapers, he had been disgraced, his career had been ruined, and he would soon be forced into a million-dollar settlement of civil charges of tax evasion. “Mitchell,” said Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, “more than any 50 men is responsible for this stock crash.”...MORE
One of these days I'll write the Pecora post, I promise
The basis of that tale is the testimoney of the National City structured product guys ca. 1927 before the Pecora Commission.