How Perfectly Wonderful It Is to See Bankers Lose Money

Hatred of bankers had been somewhat subterranean, and has broken out in all its fury.

You can't miss the sense of gloating on Wall Street over the fall of Bear Stearns, not to mention the humiliation of so many of the world's biggest bankers as they admit to their subprime involvements. The collapse of major banks may be the nightmare of modern economics because of the scars left behind by the Great Depression that began in 1929. Yet for all the fear of recession, so far at least, far from screaming in terror, people seem more apt to roll on the floor holding their sides at the bankers' expense.

Hatred of bankers had been somewhat subterranean, and has broken out in all its fury. The New York Times itself wrote that the banks are richly rewarded when their investment strategies work, and they find a floor beneath them when they fail. At worst, the bankers lose their bonus or maybe their jobs, but they won't have to return the pots of money they made when making those irresponsible bets with the public's money, the very bets that brought the banks low.

The loathing was fanned by reports of golden parachutes for the disgraced Wall Street bankers. The chiefs of Citi and Merrill Lynch wiped out billions upon billions of dollars in value from the assets of the banks they ran because of ill-fated investments in subprime-related vehicles. They were fired, this is true. But when they landed on the pavement, they found it padded with tens of millions of dollars in severance bonuses.

Even the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, couldn't escape the mounting excoriation of bankers as a breed: The New York Times wrote that the Fed was blocking JPMorgan, the titanic bank that's buying the remains of Bear Stearns, from sweetening its offer. JPMorgan is buying the Bear for 98% less than its value a year ago. Even though the low price aroused some of the Bear shareholders to rage and they threatened to torpedo the deal, the Fed clarified that no, they couldn't have more, for fear of being accused that it was rescuing not the financial system, but the Bear Stearns shareholders.

By the way, at the top of the Bear shareholders list are its own managers and workers. Most of their pay and pension savings are invested in Bear shares. In fact, they own 30% of its stock. Bear's implosion wiped out 98% of their capital.

There is some poetic justice at this gloating. True, bankers are people too, but this crisis is entirely the result of their greed.

Also, the events prove that there's no way to prevent greed-induced crises like this one, except punishment by the market. America's banks have written off almost $200 billion in assets because of the vanishing value of subprime mortgages, which are loans given to people who didn't merit them.

The biggest writeoffs were at giants such as Citi, Merrill Lynch, UBS, which are known for the sophistication of their risk management systems, their tight internal controls and their external control systems, too (think, the best directors, auditors and the like in the world.) Yet somehow all these checks and controls didn't stop them from extending bad loans to bad borrowers who had no collateral to offer.

Mainly one has to feel disappointed, again, at the impotence of the boards and accountants. Yet again, the directors seem to have no minds of their own, to be mere yes-men, while the number-crunchers prove unable to overcome their fundamental conflicts of interest. Even the biggest world-striding accounting firms seem unable to say no to a client: The pay and prestige they get for their work seem to preclude true supervision.

Who can we rely on to supervise the giants? The market, that's who; the disciplinarian that wiped out billions upon billions from the banks' assets and cost managers their jobs, and mainly, that brought down the Bear.