Selling Death: Wall Street’s Newest Bubble By L. Randal Wray, Univ.of Missouri, Kansas City
When Wall Street’s commodities bubble crashed last year, I asked whether the next bubble might be in securitized body parts. Wall Street would search the world for transplantable organs, holding them in cold storage as collateral against securities sold to managed money such as pension funds. Of course, it was meant to be an apocryphal story about unregulated banksters gone wild. But as the NYT reports, Wall Street really is moving forward to market bets on death. The banksters would purchase life insurance policies, pool and tranch them, and sell securities that allow money managers to bet that the underlying “collateral” (human beings) will die an untimely death. You can’t make this stuff up.
This is just the latest Wall Street scheme to profit on death, of course. It has been marketing credit default swaps that allow one to bet on the death of firms, cities, and even nations. And the commodities futures speculation pushed by Goldman caused starvation and death around the globe when the prices of agricultural products exploded (along with the price of gasoline) between 2004 and 2008. But now Goldman will directly cash-in on death.
Here is how it works. Goldman will package a bunch of life insurance policies of individuals with an alphabet soup of diseases: AIDS, leukemia, lung cancer, heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. The idea is to diversify across diseases to protect “investors” from the horror that a cure might be found for one or more afflictions--prolonging life and reducing profits. These policies are the collateral behind securities graded by those same ratings agencies that thought subprime mortgages should be as safe as US Treasuries. Investors purchase the securities, paying fees to Wall Street originators. The underlying collateralized humans receive a single pay-out. Securities holders pay the life insurance premiums until the “collateral” dies, at which point they receive the death benefits. Naturally, managed money hopes death comes sooner rather than later.
Moral hazards abound. There is a fundamental reason why you are not permitted to take out fire insurance on your neighbor’s house: you would have a strong interest in seeing that house burn. If you held a life insurance policy on him, you probably would not warn him about the loose lug nuts on his Volvo. Heck, if you lost your job and you were sufficiently ethically challenged, you might even loosen them yourself.
Imagine the hit to portfolios of securitized death if universal health care were to make it through Congress. Or the efforts by Wall Street to keep new miracle drugs off the market if they were capable of extending life of human collateral. Who knows, perhaps the banksters's next investment product will be gangsters in the business of guaranteeing that lifespans do not exceed actuarially-based estimates.
If you think all of this is far-fetched, you have not been paying attention. From Charles Keating’s admonition to his sales staff that the weak, meek and ignorant elderly widows always make good targets, to recent internal emails boasting about giving high risk ratings to toxic securities, we know that Wall Street’s contempt for the rest of us knows no bounds. Those hedge funds holding CDS “insurance” fought to force the US auto industry into bankruptcy for the simple reason that they would make more from its death than from its resurrection. And the reason that most troubled mortgages cannot obtain relief is because the firms that service the mortgages gain more from foreclosure. It is not a big step for Wall Street and global money managers with big gambling stakes at risk to slow efforts to improve health. Indeed, it is easy to see some very nice and profitable synergies developing between Wall Street sellers of death and health insurers opposed to universal, single-payer health care. As AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Trumka recently remarked on NPR, we already have committees deciding when to cut-off care—the private health insurers decide when to deny coverage. It would not be in the interest of securities holders or health insurers to provide expensive care that would prolong the life of human collateral—a natural synergy that someone will notice.
It should be amply evident that Wall Street intends to recreate the conditions that existed in 2005. Virtually every element that created the real estate, commodities, and CDS bubbles will be replicated in the securitization of life insurance policies. If Wall Street succeeds in this scheme, it will probably bankrupt the life insurance companies (premiums are set on the assumption that many policyholders will cancel long before death—but once securitized, the premiums will be paid so that benefits can be collected). But it is likely that the bubble will be popped long before that happens, at which point Wall Street will look for the next opportunity. Securitized pharmaceuticals? Body parts?
Here’s the problem. There is still—even after massive losses in this crisis—far too much managed money chasing far too few returns. And there are far too many “rocket scientists” looking for the next newest and best-est financial product. Each new product brings a rush of funds that narrows returns; this then spurs rising leverage ratios using borrowed funds to make up for low spreads by increasing volume; this causes risk to rise far too high to be covered by the returns. Eventually, lenders and managed money try to get out, but de-levering creates a liquidity crisis as asset prices plunge. Resulting losses are socialized as government bails-out the banksters. Rinse and repeat as often as necessary.
Reform of the US financial sector is neither possible nor would it ever be sufficient. As any student of horror films knows, you cannot reform vampires or zombies. They must be killed (stakes through the hearts of Wall Street’s vampires, bullets to the heads of zombie banks). In other words, the financial system must be downsized.