Audit Notes: Goldman-Greece, Planet Money, Leverage Limits

The Wall Street Journal flooded the zone on the Goldman-Greece debt scandal with a troika of stories today. On page one, it has a nice overview of the story and broadens it by pointing out that other European countries, including Portugal, did similar things and that Goldman was hardly the only bank arranging the deals.

The paper profiles the Goldman executive who came up with the deals, which brought in up to $300 million in fees for the bank. And it looks at a shell company called Titlos set up by Goldman and Greece for their, well, shell game.

And, as an aside, Government Sachs doesn’t just sprinkle its alumni around the U.S. Treasury and Fed. The squid’s worldwide, baby:

Goldman, the National Bank of Greece and the Greek government have long had close ties. Last week, Greece named Petros Christodoulou, who worked at both Goldman and the National Bank of Greece, as the government’s new debt chief.

— I had high hopes for this Planet Money podcast on “Why Is A Corporation A Person?” But it doesn’t have the goods. There’s an awful lot of boring studio chatter here to sit through for not much journalism. To make it worse, most of the boring studio chatter is about how “This American Life” thought the segment was too boring to air in its entirety.

And as a sharp commenter points out, NPR failed to counter the pro-corporate spin of one of its interviewees, who equated a corporation’s speech to that of a nonprofit, implying that since we don’t want the latter’s to be infringed on, we can’t regulate the former’s. But nonprofits’ speech is regulated:

I would like to say how disappointed I am in with this broadcast. You guys missed a huge point. When Sandefur tried to compare a corporation to non-profit and used a religious institution as his example, you all didn’t question the premise of his argument at all. Non-profits have HUGE restrictions compared to for-profits, like Exxon. Very disappointed. Shoddy reporting like this is why I stopped listening to Marketplace.

See the IRS about that.

David Moss has a common-sense piece at Baseline Scenario calling for limits on leverage, which uses borrowed money to goose returns and left the financial system exposed (and insolvent, perhaps) in the crash last year.

A healthy financial system would have been able to absorb the subprime shock, like a well-conditioned fighter who’s able to take a punch and remain standing. But our financial system, wildly overleveraged, crumpled after just one blow. If we don’t fix the leverage problem, everything else will be for naught.

Over the past several decades, rising debt levels characterized just about every part of the American economy. But total debt outstanding rose particularly fast in the financial sector, surging from $578 billion (21% of GDP) in 1980 to $17 trillion (118% of GDP) in 2008. In the years leading up to the crash, moreover, financial firms increased their leverage to dizzying heights, piling ever more debt on a dangerously thin foundation of capital. Among domestic investment banks, gross leverage ratios grew from about 23-to-1 in the first quarter of 2001 to over 30-to-1 in the fourth quarter of 2007. And that’s just what was visible on their balance sheets. Off-balance-leverage rose dramatically higher, with contingent liabilities (including AIG’s notorious credit default swaps) inflating hidden leverage to truly extraordinary levels.

Moss advocates limiting leverage to ten times capital.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.