“This is very much like what happened before the stock market crash of 1929,” says City Attorney Mike Aguirre, brother of Gary Aguirre. “In the 1920s, there was an escalation of speculation. But it could be measured then; it was tied to a central reference point.” Today, estimates of the notional value of derivatives run from $500 trillion to $700 trillion — beyond anyone’s comprehension. Even adjusted for the inflation that has occurred since the 1930s, “today’s numbers dwarf the numbers then. There has been a corporate takeover of the full faith and credit of the U.S.”
In short, Roosevelt’s dog would be a hundred yards long and its tail would be a fraction of a millimeter. “The situation is more dangerous than it was in 1929,” says Mike Aguirre, a securities lawyer before he became city attorney. “The numbers are larger; the nation is in worse shape because of the war in Iraq; we don’t have the manufacturing, transportation, and infrastructure [dominance] we had then.”
Ben Bernanke came in as head of the Federal Reserve promising more transparency. But the Fed-directed takeover of Bear Stearns by JPMorgan was “done completely behind closed doors,” says Mike Aguirre. Why did the Fed secretly arrange the emergency nuptials? Because if Bear Stearns had gone bankrupt, the extent of its interrelationships with other Wall Street houses, hedge funds, pension funds, and commercial banks would have become public knowledge. The people would have known that the system was on the brink of collapse and exactly which banks and brokerages were most at risk. Mike Aguirre says that in future such cases, a failing institution should be forced to go bankrupt. “There should be full disclosure of the liabilities.” The complexity-obsessed markets must be reformed and simplified: “There should be no trading under the counter. Trading should be in organized markets. This is a good time to close all the loopholes.”
That’s what reformers said in the 1930s. Then the commercial banks, securities firms, hedge funds, and offshore buccaneers created the loopholes anew. Members of Congress, with Wall Street’s money in their sticky fingers, let it happen. Now we’re back on the brink again with tattered nets below us.