If you don’t create pathways for yourself and find alternatives to the system, the system will find alternatives for you. And even being rich is no protection against betting on a bubble.
Everyone’s ADD, including me. I get attracted by shiny objects. I first noticed Bitcoin as a shiny object in mid-2013. I went down the rabbit hole far enough for The Wall Street Journal to call me “Wall Street’s Bitcoin expert” while they live blogged a Bitcoin conference call I hosted. I invested in ChangeTip. I bought and sold BitcoinWallet.com. Unfortunately, by late-2014, nine months in to a severe Bitcoin price decline, my focus wandered to new shiny objects.
Fast forward to 2017, and my mind wandered to a new shiny object, ICOs. Once again, I got the four smartest people I could find on the topic, and held a conference call on June 29th during which I had my crypto epiphany.
Crypto is now so shiny, so luminous, I can’t divert my eyes. I’m living and breathing crypto 24/7. Reading every thoughtful post I can find. Meeting anyone thoughtful on the topic. Holding more crypto conference calls. And writing and writing on crypto, because that’s the best way to learn.
After 3 months going down the rabbit hole a second time, here’s what I learned…
1. I’m A One Eyed Man In The Land of Other One Eyed People
We’re still so early, that much about what people are saying and writing about crypto is more theory than fact. Lots of people (including me) compare the the crypto bubble to the Internet bubble. But the parallels between the development of crypto and the development Internet are everywhere I look. Take this snippet from Wikipedia’s “History of the Internet’’:
“With so many different network methods, something was needed to unify them. Robert E. Kahn of DARPA and ARPANET recruited Vinton Cerf of Stanford to work with him on the problem. By 1973, they had worked out a fundamental reformulation, where the differences between network protocols were hidden by using a common internetwork protocol…..”
As a non-techie, that sounds exactly like a paragraph I read yesterday on Medium. But an important difference about the evolution of crypto and the evolution of the internet is how public crypto’s early evolution is. There were maybe a few thousand people who cared about what Cerf was doing in the early days of the Internet. So it was done out of the public’s eye. It wasn’t until 1994, 21 years after Cerf’s 1973 solution, that Netscape introduced it’s browser, and most people learned about the internet.
Crypto is evolving in its early days in a public way, so it’s messy, and theoretical, and dense. So if you feel like you don’t really understand crypto, join the crowd. Neither of us would have understood much if we sat in the room with Vint Cerf in 1973.
Another sign that it’s early is that foundational parts of crypto theory like Joel Manegro’s Fat Protocol post , which has been repeated ad infinitum, is being questioned and rethought by Teemu Paivinen, Jake Brukhman and others (h/t Yannick Roux).
2. Bitcoin Is A Confidence Game, Utility Tokens Are Awesome But Legally Challenging, Security Tokens Are Going To Be Huge
The chart below provides a simple way to think about the three types of cryptocurrencies.
On the currency side, while Bitcoin is a crypto leader in payments, it’s rise in it’s value has little to do with the currency applications of Bitcoin, and all to do with it being a store of value. Therefore, Bitcoin is simply a confidence game as are ALL store of values. As with other assets, the higher Bitcoin’s value goes, the more confident investors become, which is another factor driving bubbles. After being used as a store of value for thousands of years, it’s easier to believe in gold as a store of value (hence the rocks have a total market cap/are storing over $7 trillion in value vs. $75 billion for Bitcoin today). I believe Bitcoin will continue to gain share of value storage. I’m a HODLer.
Utility Tokens like Civic which provide a digital good in return for the token (in Civic’s case they provide businesses and individuals the tools to control and protect identities) are an exciting new way to fuel ecosystems. However, in the SAFT White Paper published by Cooley and Protocol Labs last week, a whole section is titled “Pre-functional Utility Token Sales Are More Likely to Pass the Howey Test”, which is another way of saying the SEC is likely to deem them a security. Hence they propose the SAFT as an instrument to address this risk.
The third type of token are Security Tokens, which are similar to shares, as they convey ownership interests. The cool thing about Security Tokens is that they’re liquid (assuming there’s someone who wants to buy them and security laws are addressed), and companies can access a global investor base when raising capital/doing an ICO. While most of the ICOs to date have been Utility Tokens, because of the massive advantages that Security Tokens have over traditional capital raising, I think the total market cap of all security tokens will be much larger than the total market cap of all utility tokens.
3. Blockchain Technology Is Going To Be A Disruptive Force Across Industries
This post in Blockchain Hub gives a great detailed overview of the three types of blockchains? – ?public blockchains (like Bitcoin and Ethereum), federated blockchains (like R3 and EWF), and private blockchains (e.g. platforms like Multichain).
4. DECENTRALIZATION Is Potentially The Most Disruptive Force
Blockchains, cryptocurrencies, together with other smart contracts are enabling Decentralization, which is the REALLY disruptive thing. The chart below is widely known in crypto. It’s often disparaged as too simplistic to be meaningful, but I find it helpful.
Governments and businesses have largely functioned via centralization. Someone or some organization sits in the middle, making the rules, and taking a toll (either taxes or fees) for providing a function. We can now leverage technology, take out the middleman, and enable highly functional decentralized entities (like bitcoin).
Take life insurance. I believe, in the future, through smart contracts and the blockchain, decentralized structures will provide life insurance, saving buyers of life insurance the $10’s of billions of tolls (sales commissions, profits, …) that insurance companies takes for sitting in the middle.
ICOs are funding a growing list of real-world decentralized companies. Augur is building a decentralized prediction market. PROPS is a decentralized economy for digital video. OpenBazaar is a decentralized peer-to-peer marketplace. Aragon is a decentralized provider of tools to enable more efficient decentralized companies.
Decentralization is the lens through which I now look at everything. It’s the most important thing I’ve learned about over the last three months.
It seems to make sense that, all else being equal, the industries most at risk for disruption from decentralization are where the middlemen charge the highest tolls. Below is a list from Forbes of the 10 industries with the highest net margins in 2016:
Even though investment managers are getting disrupted by ETFs and robo -advisors, they’re still churning out nice margins. Certainly my own industry (venture capital) is at risk:
But I don’t think VCs aren’t going away anytime soon, particularly VCs that focus on crypto and invest in ICOs. In addition, ICO investors see name VCs as a positive signal (e.g. Filecoin). So VCs may be diminished, but the good ones will adapt and innovate.
To learn more about decentralization, read Vitalik’s “The Meaning of Decentralization” which goes in to the the three different dimensions of decentralization:
5. It’s A Bubble….So What
The biggest sign that it’s not a bubble, is that almost everyone says it’s a bubble. By way of background, I’m a VC and former Wall Street equity analyst, and I think it’s a bubble because I see ICOs trading at 50X-100X+ what I think they would be valued at if they were funded by VCs or traded publicly. And history says it’s not different this time. Here’s a great book on the last 800 years of people saying “it’s different” this time to justify lofty valuations.
I say “so what” because I believe in Amara’s Law: We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. This is part of the reason we get bubbles. We get overexcited about a new technology and we drive up prices beyond any reasonable valuation. Bubble’s go on for years. The internet bubble lasted 5+ years.
But the more important part of Amara’s law is that we underestimate the effect of a technology in the long run. The internet is more impactful, and a greater wealth creator than anyone imagined. The internet brought us $3 trillion of wealth just in FAMGA. What’s the value to be created from crypto, blockchain, and decentralization? Today, the cryptocurrency market cap is around $150 billion. Could that figure go down 78% like the NASDAQ did in the 30 months after it peaked on March 10th, 2000? Sure. And that would be painful. But I’m playing the long game. It was a good strategy with the internet, and it should be a good strategy today with crypto.
6. Governance Is The Biggest Risk To Bitcoin
Regulatory risk is obviously significant on a country-by-country basis, or within the U.S. on a state-by-state basis re all cryptocurrency. We’ve seen what happened in China. Korea and other countries are also clamping down. In the U.S. the SEC DAO Report was a big step forward for ICOs given the incredible amount of detail and guidance the SEC gave in the report, without it being an enforcement action. Crypto’s next on the SEC agenda on October 12th. But at the end of the day, governments are going to do what’s in their best interests.
While there is significant regulatory risk, I believe governance is the greatest risk to Bitcoin and other decentralized entities. Bitcoin is essentially governed by exit (h/t Ari Paul). While there’s a consensus mechanism, if people don’t like the consensus, they have three choices. They can 1)suck it up, 2) they can sell their bitcoins and leave, or 3) they can take the open source code and fork it. Forking comes with both technical risk and community risk. The Segwit2X debate, which could result in a hard fork November 18, is just the latest example of Bitcoin’s risk from governance by exit. The Balkanization of Bitcoin won’t be a good thing for the community.
7. Don’t Hate The Haters. Love The HODL’ers
After Jamie Dimon said “Bitcoin is a fraud”, my Twitter stream was filled with Dimon haters. I read what he said, which brought nothing new to the conversation other than his opinion, and moved on. Maybe Dimon doesn’t even believe what he’s saying. Maybe he’s just talking up his own book. I don’t know, I don’t care, and I won’t spend time defending the industry from haters or dissecting the reasons the haters hate (unless they’re bringing something new to the conversation).
I want to spend my time preaching to the choir. I want to spend my time learning from, helping, and investing in the believers. As an industry, we have a lot of work ahead of us to achieve the massive world-changing potential of blockchain, cryptocurrency, and decentralization. I’m getting to it.
Wells Fargo has been in the news for allegedly doing all sorts of bad things to consumers. One thing Wells hasn’t done is collect payments on loans that were owned by someone else. Then, tell federal regulators that they are forgiving the loans they have sold to get federal credit under the huge federal mortgage settlement. Supposedly, Chase hired to company with ties to the Church of Scientology to prepare releases on thousands of loans Chase no longer owned to get the federal credit. A suit against Chase claims that is what the country’s largest bank did, allegedly with the CEO’s full knowledge. It sounds too bizarre to be real but 21 companies who bought defaulted mortgages from Chase say that is what happened. Consumers have been caught in the middle with Chase sending them notices that their loans were paid in full and the companies who say they bought the loans from Chase telling them they still owe the money.
Special Investigation: How America’s Biggest Bank Paid Its Fine for the 2008 Mortgage Crisis—With Phony Mortgages!
Alleged fraud put JPMorgan Chase hundreds of millions of dollars ahead; ordinary homeowners, not so much.
You know the old joke: How do you make a killing on Wall Street and never risk a loss? Easy—use other people’s money. Jamie Dimon and his underlings at JPMorgan Chase have perfected this dark art at America’s largest bank, which boasts a balance sheet one-eighth the size of the entire US economy.
After JPMorgan’s deceitful activities in the housing market helped trigger the 2008 financial crash that cost millions of Americans their jobs, homes, and life savings, punishment was in order. Among a vast array of misconduct, JPMorgan engaged in the routine use of “robo-signing,” which allowed bank employees to automatically sign hundreds, even thousands, of foreclosure documents per day without verifying their contents. But in the United States, white-collar criminals rarely go to prison; instead, they negotiate settlements. Thus, on February 9, 2012, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced the National Mortgage Settlement, which fined JPMorgan Chase and four other mega-banks a total of $25 billion.
JPMorgan’s share of the settlement was $5.3 billion, but only $1.1 billion had to be paid in cash; the other $4.2 billion was to come in the form of financial relief for homeowners in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure. The settlement called for JPMorgan to reduce the amounts owed, modify the loan terms, and take other steps to help distressed Americans keep their homes. A separate 2013 settlement against the bank for deceiving mortgage investors included another $4 billion in consumer relief.
A Nation investigation can now reveal how JPMorgan met part of its $8.2 billion settlement burden: by using other people’s money.
Here’s how the alleged scam worked. JPMorgan moved to forgive the mortgages of tens of thousands of homeowners; the feds, in turn, credited these canceled loans against the penalties due under the 2012 and 2013 settlements. But here’s the rub: In many instances, JPMorgan was forgiving loans it no longer owned.
The alleged fraud is described in internal JPMorgan documents, public records, testimony from homeowners and investors burned in the scam, and other evidence presented in a blockbuster lawsuit against JPMorgan, now being heard in US District Court in New York City.
JPMorgan no longer owned the loans because it had sold the mortgages years earlier to 21 third-party investors, including three companies owned by Larry Schneider. Those companies are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit; Schneider is also aiding the federal government in a related case against the bank. In a bizarre twist, a company associated with the Church of Scientology facilitated the apparent scheme. Nationwide Title Clearing, a document-processing company with close ties to the church, produced and filed the documents that JPMorgan needed to claim ownership and cancel the loans.
“If the allegations are true, JPMorgan screwed everybody.” —former congressman Brad Miller
JPMorgan, it appears, was running an elaborate shell game. In the depths of the financial collapse, the bank had unloaded tens of thousands of toxic loans when they were worth next to nothing. Then, when it needed to provide customer relief under the settlements, the bank had paperwork created asserting that it still owned the loans. In the process, homeowners were exploited, investors were defrauded, and communities were left to battle the blight caused by abandoned properties. JPMorgan, however, came out hundreds of millions of dollars ahead, thanks to using other people’s money.
“If the allegations are true, JPMorgan screwed everybody,” says Brad Miller, a former Democratic congressman from North Carolina who was among the strongest advocates of financial reform on Capitol Hill until his retirement in 2013.
In an unusual departure from most allegations of financial bad behavior, there is strong evidence that Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s CEO and chairman, knew about and helped to implement the mass loan-forgiveness project. In two separate meetings in 2013 and 2014, JPMorgan employees working on the project were specifically instructed not to release mortgages in Detroit under orders from Dimon himself, according to internal bank communications. In an apparent public-relations ploy, JPMorgan was about to invest $100 million in Detroit’s revival. Dimon’s order to delay forgiving the mortgages in Detroit appears to have been motivated by a fear of reputational risk. An internal JPMorgan report warned that hard-hit cities might take issue with bulk loan forgiveness, which would deprive municipal governments of property taxes on abandoned properties while further destabilizing the housing market.
Did Dimon also know that JPMorgan, as part of its mass loan-forgiveness project, was forgiving loans it no longer owned? No internal bank documents confirming that knowledge have yet surfaced, but Dimon routinely takes legal responsibility for knowing about his bank’s actions. Like every financial CEO in the country, Dimon is obligated by law to sign a document every year attesting to his knowledge of and responsibility for his bank’s operations. The law establishes punishments of $1 million in fines and imprisonment of up to 10 years for knowingly making false certifications.
Dimon signed the required document for each of the years that the mass loan-forgiveness project was in operation, from 2012 through 2016. Whether or not he knew that his employees were forgiving loans the bank no longer owned, his signatures on those documents make him potentially legally responsible.
The JPMorgan press office declined to make Dimon available for an interview or to comment for this article. Nationwide Title Clearing declined to comment on the specifics of the case but said that it is “methodical in the validity and legality of the documents” it produces.
Federal appointees have been complicit in this as well. E-mails show that the Office of Mortgage Settlement Oversight, charged by the government with ensuring the banks’ compliance with the two federal settlements, gave JPMorgan the green light to mass-forgive its loans. This served two purposes for the bank: It could take settlement credit for forgiving the loans, and it could also hide these loans—which JPMorgan had allegedly been handling improperly—from the settlements’ testing regimes.
“No one in Washington seems to understand why Americans think that different rules apply to Wall Street, and why they’re so mad about that,” said former congressman Miller. “This is why.”
Lauren and Robert Warwick were two of the shell game’s many victims. The Warwicks live in Odenton, Maryland, a bedroom community halfway between Baltimore and Washington, DC, and had taken out a second mortgage on their home with JPMorgan’s Chase Home Finance division. In 2008, after the housing bubble burst and the Great Recession started, 3.6 million Americans lost their jobs; Lauren Warwick was one of them.
Before long, the Warwicks had virtually no income. While Lauren looked for work, Robert was in the early stages of starting a landscaping business. But the going was slow, and the Warwicks fell behind on their mortgage payments. They tried to set up a modified payment plan, to no avail: Chase demanded payment in full and warned that foreclosure loomed. “They were horrible,” Lauren Warwick told The Nation. “I had one [Chase representative] say, ‘Sell the damn house—that’s all you can do.’”
Then, one day, the hounding stopped. In October 2009, the Warwicks received a letter from 1st Fidelity Loan Services, welcoming them as new customers. The letter explained that 1st Fidelity had purchased the Warwicks’ mortgage from Chase, and that they should henceforth be making an adjusted mortgage payment to this new owner.
The alleged shell game put JPMorgan hundreds of millions of dollars ahead—with federal permission.
Lauren Warwick had never heard of 1st Fidelity, but the letter made her more relieved than suspicious. “I’m thinking, ‘They’re not taking my house, and they’re not hounding me,’” she said.
Larry Schneider, 49, is the founder and president of 1st Fidelity and two other mortgage companies. He has worked in Florida’s real-estate business for 25 years, getting his start in Miami. In 2003, Schneider hit upon a business model: If he bought distressed mortgages at a significant discount, he could afford to offer the borrowers reduced mortgage payments. It was a win-win-win: Borrowers remained in their homes, communities were stabilized, and Schneider still made money.
“I was in a position where I could do what banks didn’t want to,” Schneider says. In fact, his business model resembled what President Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s with the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which prevented nearly 1 million foreclosures while turning a small profit. More to the point, Schneider’s model exemplified how the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama could have handled the foreclosure crisis if they’d been more committed to helping Main Street rather than Wall Street.
The Warwicks’ loan was one of more than 1,000 that Schneider purchased without incident from JPMorgan’s Chase Home Finance division starting in 2003. In 2009, the bank offered Schneider a package deal: 3,529 primary mortgages (known as “first liens”) on which payments had been delinquent for over 180 days. Most of the properties were located in areas where the crisis hit hardest, such as Baltimore.
Selling distressed properties to companies like Schneider’s was part of JPMorgan’s strategy for limiting its losses after the housing bubble collapsed. The bank owned hundreds of thousands of mortgages that had little likelihood of being repaid. These mortgages likely carried ongoing costs: paying property taxes, addressing municipal-code violations, even mowing the lawn. Many also had legal defects and improper terms; if federal regulators ever scrutinized these loans, the bank would be in jeopardy.
In short, the troubled mortgages were the financial equivalent of toxic waste. To deal with them, Chase Home Finance created a financial toxic-waste dump: The mortgages were listed in an internal database called RCV1, where RCV stood for “Recovery.”
Unbeknownst to Schneider, the package deal that Chase offered him came entirely from this toxic-waste dump. Because he’d had a good relationship with Chase up to that point, Schneider took the deal. On February 25, 2009, he signed an agreement to buy the loans, valued at $156 million, for only $200,000—slightly more than one-tenth of a penny on the dollar. But the agreement turned sour fast, Schneider says.
Among a range of irregularities, perhaps the most egregious was that Chase never provided him with all the documentation proving ownership of the loans in question. The data that Schneider did receive lacked critical information, such as borrower names, addresses of the properties, even the payment histories or amounts due. This made it impossible for him to work with the borrowers to modify their terms and help them stay in their homes. Every time Schneider asked Chase about the full documentation, he was told it was coming. It never arrived.
As CEO, Jamie Dimon is potentially legally responsible for JPMorgan’s apparently phony mortgages.
Here’s the kicker: JPMorgan was still collecting payments on some of these loans and even admitted this fact to Schneider. In December 2009, a Chase Home Finance employee named Launi Solomon sent Schneider a list of at least $47,695.53 in payments on his loans that the borrowers had paid to Chase. But 10 days later, Solomon wrote that these payments would not be transferred to Schneider because of an internal accounting practice that was “not reversible.” On another loan sold to Schneider, Chase had taken out insurance against default; when the homeowner did in fact default, Chase pocketed the $250,000 payout rather than forward it to Schneider, according to internal documents.
Chase even had a third-party debt collector named Real Time Resolutions solicit Schneider’s homeowners, seeking payments on behalf of Chase. In one such letter from 2013, Real Time informed homeowner Maureen Preis, of Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, that “our records indicate Chase continues to hold a lien on the above referenced property,” even though Chase explicitly confirmed to Schneider that it had sold him the loan in 2010.
JPMorgan jumped in and out of claiming mortgage ownership, Schneider asserts, based on whatever was best for the bank. “If a payment comes in, it’s theirs,” he says; “if there’s a code-enforcement issue, it’s mine.”
The shell game entered a new, more far-reaching phase after JPMorgan agreed to its federal settlements. Now the bank was obligated to provide consumer relief worth $8.2 billion—serious money even for JPMorgan. The solution? Return to the toxic-waste dump.
Because JPMorgan had stalled Schneider on turning over the complete paperwork proving ownership, it took the chance that it could still claim credit for forgiving the loans that he now owned. Plus the settlements required JPMorgan to show the government that it was complying with all federal regulations for mortgages. The RCV1 loans didn’t seem to meet those standards, but forgiving them would enable the bank to hide this fact.
The Office of Mortgage Settlement Oversight gave Chase Home Finance explicit permission to implement this strategy. “Your business people can be relieved from pushing forward” on presenting RCV1 loans for review, lawyer Martha Svoboda wrote in an e-mail to Chase, as long as the loans were canceled.
Chase dubbed this the “pre DOJ Lien Release Project.” (To release a lien means to forgive the loan and relinquish any ownership right to the property in question.) The title page of an internal report on the project lists Lisa Shepherd, vice president of property preservation, and Steve Hemperly, head of mortgage originations, as the executives in charge. The bank hired Nationwide Title Clearing, the company associated with the Church of Scientology, to file the lien releases with county offices. Erika Lance, an employee of Nationwide, is listed as the preparer on 25 of these lien releases seen by The Nation. Ironically, Schneider alleges, the releases were in effect “robo-signed,” since the employees failed to verify that JPMorgan Chase owned the loans. If Schneider is right, it means that JPMorgan relied on the same fraudulent “robo-signing” process that had previously gotten the bank fined by the government to help it evade that penalty.
On September 13, 2012, Chase Home Finance mailed 33,456 forgiveness letters informing borrowers of the debt cancellation. Schneider immediately started hearing from people who said that they wouldn’t be making further payments to him because Chase had forgiven the loan. Some even sued Schneider for illegally charging them for mortgages that he (supposedly) didn’t own.
When Lauren and Robert Warwick got their forgiveness letter from Chase, Lauren almost passed out. “You will owe nothing more on the loan and your debt with be cancelled,” the letter stated, calling this “a result of a recent mortgage servicing settlement reached with the states and federal government.” But for the past three years, the Warwicks had been paying 1st Fidelity Loan Servicing—not Chase. Lauren said she called 1st Fidelity, only to be told: “Sorry, no, I don’t care what they said to you—you owe us the money.”
JPMorgan’s shell game unraveled because Lauren Warwick’s neighbor worked for Michael Busch, the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. After reviewing the Warwicks’ documents, Kristin Jones, Busch’s chief of staff, outlined her suspicions to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. “I’m afraid based on the notification of loan transfer that Chase sold [the Warwicks’] loan some years ago,” Jones wrote. “I question whether Chase is somehow getting credit for a write-off they never actually have to honor.”
After Schneider and various borrowers demanded answers, Chase checked a sample of over 500 forgiveness letters. It found that 108 of the 500 loans—more than one out of five—no longer belonged to the bank. Chase told the Warwicks that their forgiveness letter had been sent in error. Eventually, Chase bought back the Warwicks’ loan from Schneider, along with 12 others, and honored the promised loan forgiveness.
Not everyone was as lucky as the Warwicks. In letters signed by vice president Patrick Boyle, JPMorgan Chase forgave at least 49,355 mortgages in three separate increments. The bank also forgave additional mortgages, but the exact number is unknown because the bank stopped sending homeowners notification letters. Nor is it known how many of these forgiven mortgages didn’t actually belong to JPMorgan; the bank refused The Nation’s request for clarification. Through title searches and the discovery process, Schneider ascertained that the bank forgave 607 loans that belonged to one of his three companies. The lien-release project overall allowed JPMorgan to take hundreds of millions of dollars in settlement credit.
Most of the loans that JPMorgan released—and received settlement credit for—were all but worthless. Homeowners had abandoned the homes years earlier, expecting JPMorgan to foreclose, only to have the bank forgive the loan after the fact. That forgiveness transferred responsibility for paying back taxes and making repairs back to the homeowner. It was like a recurring horror story in which “zombie foreclosures” were resurrected from the dead to wreak havoc on people’s financial lives.
Federal officials knew about the problems and did nothing. In July 2014, the City of Milwaukee wrote to Joseph Smith, the federal oversight monitor, alerting him that “thousands of homeowners” were engulfed in legal nightmares because of the confusion that banks had sown about who really owned their mortgages. In a deposition for the lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase, Smith admitted that he did not recall responding to the City of Milwaukee’s letter.
If you pay taxes in a municipality where JPMorgan spun its trickery, you helped pick up the tab. The bank’s shell game prevented municipalities from knowing who actually owned distressed properties and could be held legally liable for maintaining them and paying property taxes. As a result, abandoned properties deteriorated further, spreading urban blight and impeding economic recovery. “Who’s going to pay for the demolition [of abandoned buildings] or [the necessary extra] police presence?” asks Brent Tantillo, Schneider’s lawyer. “As a taxpayer, it’s you.”
Such economic fallout may help explain why Jamie Dimon directed that JPMorgan’s mass forgiveness of loans exempt Detroit, a city where JPMorgan has a long history. The bank’s predecessor, the National Bank of Detroit, has been a fixture in the city for over 80 years; its relationships with General Motors and Ford go back to the 1930s. And JPMorgan employees knew perfectly well that mass loan forgiveness might create difficulties. The 2012 internal report warned that cities might react negatively to the sheer number of forgiven loans, which would lower tax revenues while adding costs. Noting that some of the cities in question were clients of JPMorgan Chase, the report warned that the project posed a risk to the bank’s reputation.
Reputational risk was the exact opposite of what JPMorgan hoped to achieve in Detroit. So the bank decided to delay the mass forgiveness of loans in Detroit and surrounding Wayne County until after the $100 million investment was announced. Dimon himself ordered the delay, according to the minutes of JPMorgan Chase meetings that cite the bank’s chairman and CEO by name. Dimon then went to Detroit to announce the investment on May 21, 2014, reaping positive coverage from The New York Times, USA Today, and other local and national news outlets. Since June 1, 2014, JPMorgan has released 10,229 liens in Wayne County, according to public records; the bank declined to state how many of these were part of the lien-release project.
Both of Larry Schneider’s lawsuits alleging fraud on JPMorgan Chase’s part remain active in federal courts. The Justice Department could also still file charges against JPMorgan, Jamie Dimon, or both, because Schneider’s case was excluded from the federal settlement agreements.
Few would expect Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department to pursue such a case, but what this sorry episode most highlights is the pathetic disciplining of Wall Street during the Obama administration.
JPMorgan’s litany of acknowledged criminal abuses over the past decade reads like a rap sheet, extending well beyond mortgage fraud to encompass practically every part of the bank’s business. But instead of holding JPMorgan’s executives responsible for what looks like a criminal racket, Obama’s Justice Department negotiated weak settlement after weak settlement. Adding insult to injury, JPMorgan then wriggled out of paying its full penalties by using other people’s money.
The larger lessons here command special attention in the Trump era. Negotiating weak settlements that don’t force mega-banks to even pay their fines, much less put executives in prison, turns the concept of accountability into a mirthless farce. Telegraphing to executives that they will emerge unscathed after committing crimes not only invites further crimes; it makes another financial crisis more likely. The widespread belief that the United States has a two-tiered system of justice—that the game is rigged for the rich and the powerful—also enabled the rise of Trump. We cannot expect Americans to trust a system that lets Wall Street fraudsters roam free while millions of hard-working taxpayers get the shaft.
The “cash on the sidelines” myth is officially dead.
Recall that at the end of July, we reported that in its Q2 earnings results, Schwab announced that after years of avoiding equities, clients of the retail brokerage opened the highest number of brokerage accounts in the first half of 2017 since 2000. This is what Schwab said on its Q2 conference call:
New accounts are at levels we have not seen since the Internet boom of the late 1990s, up 34% over the first half of last year. But maybe more important for the long-term growth of the organization is not so much new accounts, but new-to-firm households, and our new-to-firm retail households were up 50% over that same period from 2016.
In total, Schwab clients opened over 350,000 new brokerage accounts during the quarter, with the year-to-date total reaching 719,000, marking the biggest first-half increase in 17 years. Total client assets rose 16% to $3.04 trillion. Perhaps more ominously to the sustainability of the market’s melt up, Schwab also adds that the net cash level among its clients has only been lower once since the depths of the financial crisis in Q1 2009:
Now, it’s clear that clients are highly engaged in the markets, we have cash being aggressively invested into the equity market, as the market has climbed. By the end of the second quarter, cash levels for our clients had fallen to about 11.5% of assets overall, now, that’s a level that we’ve only seen one time since the market began its recovery in the spring of 2009.
While some of this newfound euphoria may have been due to Schwab’s recent aggressive cost-cutting strategy, it is safe to say that the wholesale influx of new clients, coupled with the euphoria-like allocation of cash into stocks, means that between ETFs and other passive forms of investing, as well as on a discretionary basis, US retail investors are now the most excited to own stocks since the financial crisis. In a confirmation that retail investors had thrown in the towel on prudence, according to a quarterly investment survey from E*Trade, nearly a third of millennial investors were planning to move out of cash and into new positions in the second half of 2017. By comparison, only 19% of Generation X investors (aged 35-54) were planning such a change to their portfolio, while 9% of investors above the age of 55 had plans to buy in.
Furthermore, according to a June survey from Legg Mason, nearly 80% of millennial investors plan to take on more risk this year, with 66% of them expressing an interest in equities. About 45% plan to take on “much more risk” in their portfolios.
In short, retail investors – certainly those on the low end which relies on commodity brokerages to invest – are going “all in.”
This was also confirmed by the recent UMichigan Consumer Survey, according to which surveyed households said there has – quite literally – never been a better time to buy stocks.
What about the higher net worth segment? For the answer we go to this morning’s Morgan Stanley earnings call, where this exchange was particularly notable:
Question: Hey good morning. Maybe just on the Wealth Management side, you guys had very good growth, sequential growth in deposits. There’s been some discussion in the industry about kind of a pricing pressure. Can you discuss where you saw the positive rates in Wealth Management business and how you’re able to track, I think, about $10 billion sequentially on deposit franchise?
Answer: Sure. I think, as you recall, we’ve been talking about our deposit deployment strategy for quite sometime, and we’ve been investing excess liquidity into our loan product over the last several years. In the beginning of the year, we told you that, that trend would come to an end. We did see that this year. It happened a bit sooner than we anticipated as we saw more cash go into the markets, particularly the equity markets, as those markets rose around the world. And we’ve seen cash in our clients’ accounts at its lowest level.
In other words, when it comes to retail investors – either on the low, or high net worth side – everyone is now either all in stocks or aggressively trying to get there.
Which reminds us of an article we wrote early this year, in which JPM noted that “both institutions and hedge funds are using the rally to sell to retail.” Incidentally, the latest BofA client report confirmed that while retail investors scramble into stocks, institutions continue to sell. To wit:
Equity euphoria continues to remain absent based on BofAML client flows. Last week, during which the S&P 500 climbed 0.2% to yet another new high, BofAML clients were net sellers of US equities for the fourth consecutive week. Large net sales of single stocks offset small net buys of ETFs, leading to overall net sales of $1.7bn. Net sales were led by institutional clients, who have sold US equities for the last eight weeks; hedge funds were also (small) net sellers for the sixth straight week. Private clients were net buyers, which has been the case in four of the last five weeks, but with buying almost entirely via ETFs. Clients sold stocks across all three size segments last week.”
The best way to visualize what BofA clients, and especially institutions, have been doing in 2017 is the following chart:
Meanwhile, a familiar buyer has returned: “buybacks by corporate clients picked up as US earnings season kicked off, with Financials buybacks continuing to dominate this flow.”
And just like during the peak of the last bubble, retail is once again becoming the last bagholder; now it is only a question of how long before the rug is pulled out. For now, however, enjoy the Dow 23,000.
“The markets in a panic are like a country during a coup, and seen in retrospect that is how they were that day,” wrote a young Salomon bond salesmen named Michael Lewis, of the chaos he witnessed. “One small group of people with its old, established way of looking at the world is hustled from its seat of power.”
As Bloomberg details, most of the people willing to share their memories count themselves as winners who seized the moment as an opportunity not only to make money, but also to insert themselves in the new financial order – Paul Tudor Jones, Stanley Druckenmiller, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Their story, and the story of Black Monday, is the birth story of modern financial markets – a wild ride of shock, angst, and, for some, glory.
In the weeks before Black Monday, a few investors spotted patterns that gave them pause.
The most confident were Paul Tudor Jones and Peter Borish, young partners at a small hedge fund in Lower Manhattan. In a prescient Sept. 24 note to investors, Jones even signed off with “caveat emptor” – buyer beware.
PETER BORISH, head of research at Tudor Investment Corp. and Paul Tudor Jones’ No. 2:
We were tracking exponential moves in the equity market. The main one was the equity move in the 1920s, and the market in 1987 looked almost identical. The week before Black Monday, the technical and fundamentals aligned, and so we thought Monday would be the day.
ALLAN ROGERS, head of government bond trading at Bankers Trust Co.:
In the first half of 1987, the bond and stock markets diverged for seven months. Bonds went straight down, equities straight up. These sorts of divergences always get my attention. In August and September, I persuaded management to cover all of our hedged short positions in sovereign fixed income, and we built up a long position in notes and bonds.
MICHAEL LEWIS, bond salesman at Salomon Brothers:
A week or two before Black Monday, Salomon announced job cuts. They chopped a few departments, including the municipal and money-market groups. It felt ill-considered and rushed. Nobody completely understood why.
Nippon Tel, the Japanese telephone company, was going to do an IPO in mid-August. I thought that would pull money from other segments of the equity market. In early October there was another IPO, which I think was a very large British company. These IPOs were a big deal to me, because the main thing I pay attention to is changes in global money flow.
Many people thought that Japan would crash before the U.S., because Japan was more extended on fundamentals; they would be long U.S. and short Japan. We looked at the 1920s, and it was Britain, the older bull market, that went first. So we said, “No, the old goes first, because people have more hope on the new.” By the way, Japan didn’t go until 1989.
STANLEY DRUCKENMILLER, founder of Duquesne Capital Management, who was also running several funds for Jack Dreyfus’s mutual fund company:
On Friday I placed a bet that U.S. stocks would rally, on the thinking that the week’s 9 percent decline in the Dow had been overdone. Over the weekend, after studying trading charts and talking to Jack, I knew I was wrong.
While Druckenmiller considered his options that weekend, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury James Baker III told his German counterparts: “Either inflate the mark or we’ll devalue the dollar.”
PAUL TUDOR JONES, founder of Tudor Investment Corp.:
When Baker threatened a devaluation of the dollar over the weekend, it was apparent the Acapulco cliff dive was on for Monday.
JIM LEITNER, Bankers Trust FX trader:
During the day, the noise level in the trading room got quite ferocious. The chairman of the bank, who at one point had been a trader, walked onto the trading floor and stood behind my chair, which was a first.
I remember walking from the 41st floor down to the 40th floor. The 41st floor was this cathedral of bonds, and then you walked down to 40 and were in this cramped, low-ceiled, dark place that was the equity department, with a lot of guys who were named Vinny and Tommy and Donny. They’d been around forever, and they had Brylcreem in their hair and big guts and they smoked too much and they were lovable. And they were all going through this visceral animal experience. People were screaming and going absolutely crazy in ways I’d never seen before. It was the first time in my career at Salomon Brothers where I was actually interested in standing beside the equity department and watching these people do their job.
There was red everywhere, and all I could think about was how cornered the portfolio insurers were.
HOWARD MARKS, head of the high?yield bond department at Trust Company of the West:
Portfolio insurance convinced people that they could somehow own more stocks without increased risk, which is fanciful. And like all silver bullets, it didn’t work.
HARLEY BASSMAN, mortgage trader at Merrill Lynch & Co.:
As a mortgage trader, I was watching stocks in what seemed like an out-of-body experience—and yes, I was thinking 1929.
The friends and counterparties I was speaking with were gripped with complete fear.
BLAIR HULL, managing partner of Hull Trading Co., a Chicago-based market-making firm specializing in options:
The 1987 crash is the only time I’ve ever seen the market makers scared to death.
I canceled my meetings and went to a friend’s office. The few times I tried to enter orders, I couldn’t get through. The structure of the market was dependent on these technologies that were voluntary. I was trying to cover my shorts and a buyer is what they were looking for, but people were not picking up the phones. So basically I sat on my hands, which turned out to be the right thing to do.
I check into my hotel, and there’s all kinds of security. I asked what was going on: Alan Greenspan and Margaret Thatcher were both checked in as guests. I get to my room and I’m trying to call New York, but I can’t get through. I had to go to another friend’s office, because the Fed chief and his staff had basically subverted the hotel switchboard.
We were concerned about a lot of the counterparties and their liquidity, so the best place to be was in fixed-income futures, because if worse came to worst, we could always take delivery of the bonds.
Greenspan lands in Dallas, and the story is that when he got off the plane he asked where the market ended up. The response was “Five oh eight” and Greenspan replied: “Oh, good, it had a nice rally.” He thought it was 5.08. He had only been in office since August, so I think he was a bit of a deer in the headlights.
I was so scared that I got $10,000 out of the bank, took it home, and stored it in the rafters. When I moved out, I forgot that I’d stashed the money. I think it’s still there.
I was feeling guilty about our success. I thought we were going into the Great Depression.
I had 1929 on my mind. Paul and I were concerned about our friends and people who were struggling that day.
* * *
And here is Paul Tudor Jones’ infamous live interview as the dust settled…
So what was learned from the Crash of ’87? Not much in my opinion.
As John S Lyons summed up perfectly, for starters, the laws of human nature have yet to be repealed. Additionally, high frequency trading is today’s version of program trading. Only now, instead of transmitting an order through a stock broker, who sends it to a floor broker, who give it to a trader, who takes it to a specialist at the post where the stock in question is trading, high frequency computer generated orders are automatically entered at the behest of complex algorithms and are executed and reported back in milliseconds. Witness the May of 2010 “flash crash” where the market lost about 1000 points and then mostly recovered all within 15 minutes.
In summary, risk cannot be removed from the stock market. The Crash of ’87 affected everyone. Crashes will occur again. Wear a seat belt!
* * *
Could never happen again …
The owner of one tiny, unassuming cottage in Mountain View, California just sold his house for well below the asking price of $1.6 million – but asked the new buyers to agree to one highly unusual condition: They must allow him to continue living there, rent free, for seven years, NBC News reported.
The Silicon Valley property went for $1.1 million after being on the market for only a few weeks, which is surprising, considering the house – little more than a shotgun shack – hardly has room for multiple tenants.
The property’s realtor said the home’s elderly former owner will continue living in the home for seven more years ‘rent back at no charge.’
Realtor Joban Brown said that while the price is not unusual for the hot spot location, the former owner’s request to continue living at the property is ‘not a typical situation.’
Erika Enos, another realtor, said she’d never heard of this type of a deal during her multi-decade career as a realtor:
‘In almost 40 years as a realtor, I have never seen terms of sale that included seven years free rent back, not even seven months free rent back,’ Enos said.
‘What if the property does not close or the seller is unhappy with the results or work men don’t get paid and put a lien the property?’
‘The asking price reflects market value, which is essentially lot value, for this area … I empathize with the seller, but the terms and conditions for this sale I feel are unrealistic and may have negative legal ramifications.’
The listing for the 976 square-foot cottage also included a requirement for the buyer to pay for the expensive repairs needed.
However, Mountain View’s status as a well-heeled tech hub – Google’s headquarters is located in the town, and companies including Microsoft and Samsung have offices there – has caused real-estate prices to explode over the past two decades, reflecting similar gains throughout the tech-focused Bay Area.
The realtor in charge of selling the location described it as having “all the conveniences of urban living” but in a secluded setting.
‘This is a location that’s hard to beat, tucked away in a quiet corner at the end of a small street,’ listing agent Daniel Berman said.
‘You’ve got all the conveniences of urban living, nestled in a secluded country-like enclave.’
We wonder: With Silicon Valley home prices soaring well beyond the means of most middle-class families, will we start to see more deals like this one? Already, a startup called Loftium has hit upon a similar concept. The commpany will front you the entire down payment if you just agree to rent out one of the rooms in your new house over Airbnb for a specified period of time. But there’s a catch … for now Loftium is only available in Seattle.
Once again the unintended consequences of government intervention are exposed…
In 2010 – following the release of sensitive government documents related to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – John McCain and Joe Lieberman led a bipartisan attempt to cut off WikiLeaks funding by forcing ‘traditional’ payment systems to block them.
7 years later and the price of Bitcoin has … risen … 50,000%!
As CoinTelegraph concludes, Wikileaks has been on the forefront of revealing government corruption, and Assange has lived as a fugitive in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012. With all the anti-government rhetoric, it’s no wonder Assange is not friendly with pro-government fiat currencies. Wikileaks and its founder represent the sort of non-governmental control that Bitcoin is founded upon.
And while governments around the world play ‘pass the hot potato’ with their regulatory crackdowns on cryptocurrencies, it appears – after denouncing Bitcoin earlier in the week – that Russia has accepted the inevitability of digital currencies… and created its own.
As CoinTelegraph reports, Russian President Vladimir Putin has officially stated that Russia will issue its own ‘CryptoRuble’ at a closed door meeting in Moscow, according to local news sources.
The news broke through Minister of Communications Nikolay Nikiforov.
According to the official, the state issued cryptocurrency cannot be mined and will be issued and controlled and maintained only by the authorities.
The CryptoRubles can be exchanged for regular Rubles at any time, though if the holder is unable to explain where the CryptoRubles came from, a 13 percent tax will be levied.
The same tax will be applied to any earned difference between the price of the purchase of the token and the price of the sale. Nikiforov said:
“I confidently declare that we run CryptoRuble for one simple reason: if we do not, then after 2 months our neighbors in the EurAsEC will.”
While the announcement means that Russia will enter the cryptocurrency world, it is in no way an affirmation or legalization of Bitcoin or any other decentralized cryptocurrency. On the contrary, Putin quite recently called for a complete ban on all cryptocurrencies within Russia. The statement from Putin seemed apparently to contradict the earlier comments from other ministers who seemed pro-crypto, but only with regulations, as well as Putin’s recent meetings with Buterin and others.
Now, with the issuance of the CryptoRuble, the apparent contradiction has been made clear.