Since Bernard L. Madoff was handcuffed and taken from his office by FBI agents, we have been made well aware of the nature of Ponzi schemes, fraudulent investment opportunities that pay off early participants with money from newcomers, not from returns on legitimate stock or bond holdings. Mr. Madoff, once a highly respected member of the Wall Street establishment, has admitted to defrauding investors of as much as $50 billion in such a manner. When asked by the agents who arrested him if he could explain what he'd done, he reportedly said, "There is no innocent explanation."
According to the man who may be the leading expert on banking fraud, there is also no innocent explanation for the events leading to the current economic crisis. Last week on his PBS show, Bill Moyers interviewed William K. Black, the senior regulator during the savings and loan scandal in the late 1980s. Mr. Black, who wrote a book based on his experiences and called it The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, said the fraud and deceit that resulted in the world banking system's dire distress makes Bernie Madoff look like a piker. In fact, says Mr. Black, who is the former director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention, what we have experienced was caused by "calculated dishonesty" on the part of corporate CEOs, aided and abetted by politicians and regulators who tore down the barriers to financial shenanigans - perhaps the most important example being the repeal of the Great Depression-inspired Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial banking from investment banking. This cleared the stage for the fraudulent investments that made a lot of people very, very rich in what we can now see was an immense Ponzi scheme, many times the size and scope of the scam pulled off by Mr. Madoff.
Consider that one company, the now-defunct IndyMac - which specialized in making liar's loans - in a single year (2006) sold $80 billion of these toxic things to other companies. IndyMac lost more money than all the lending institutions involved in the S&L crisis of the 1980s. And those at the helm of this firm and the others we've heard so much about - A.I.G., Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, etc. - knew what they were doing. Mr. Black believes they dealt in investment instruments they knew were created fraudulently.
So, why haven't we seen the people responsible for this hauled off in handcuffs the way Bernie Madoff was? Or at the very least, how come the CEOs of the banks involved in this scheme haven't been made to walk the plank like Rick Wagoner of General Motors? Because, says Mr. Black, "We don't want to change the bankers, because if we do, if we put honest people in, who didn't cause the problem, their first job would be to find the scope of the problem. And that would destroy the cover-up."
When asked by Mr. Moyers whether he was alleging that Timothy F. Geithner and others in the administration, and the banks, are engaged in a cover-up to keep us from knowing what went wrong, Mr. Black said, "Absolutely." The rulers are frightened to admit that many of the large banks are insolvent. They have ignored the proven methods for dealing with bank fraud and have instead adopted what they used to laugh at when the Japanese did it: covering up bank losses by lying about them and injecting money into failed institutions. Even though it's working exactly as one would expect - just as it did in setting Japan into a long, deep recession - they don't know what else to do. To take effective action would reveal what they believe cannot be revealed. The lurid facts must be hidden.
So much for the vaunted transparency the new president promised us.
Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.