Thursday, May 12, 2011


The biggest news story in the world right now, according to the front page of today's print New York Times, is the conviction of hedge-fund billionaire Raj Rajaratnam on insider-trading charges. I've mostly been ignoring this story, while feeling a sense of annoyance about its prominence that I couldn't quite articulate. Now Charles Ferguson says what I wanted to say:

... some academics and Wall Street critics argue that prosecutors should have focused their efforts -- and their resources -- on ferreting out wrongdoing stemming from the financial crisis. The Justice Department has yet to bring criminal charges against any executive who ran a major financial services firm leading up to the disaster, which was caused by aggressive risk-taking and shoddy lending practices.

"The total amounts of money and the consequences in insider trading are trivial compared to the damage caused by the behavior that caused the financial crisis," said Charles Ferguson, an academic and filmmaker whose movie about the financial crisis, "Inside Job," won the 2011 Academy Award for best documentary.

"I'm not saying that insider trading isn't a serious crime, but the government should be deploying more resources to investigate those cases," Mr. Ferguson said.

Ah, but you see, this deserved to be a priority, because critical interests were at stake:

...Federal authorities have cited the loss of confidence in the stock market as a reason to pursue insider trading cases. In his closing argument in the Rajaratnam trial, Reed M. Brodsky, a prosecutor, stressed the point that such activities provided Wall Street professionals with an unfair advantage over the "average, ordinary investor."

"The stock market is designed to make sure the investing public isn't cheated," Mr. Brodsky said. "Wall Street is supposed to be an even playing field."

Yeah, right: "average, ordinary" Americans need gazillion-dollar hedge funds to be on the up-and-up or it's the end of civilization as we know it. The collapse of the global economy, the housing market, and the job market? Meh -- who cares? No one needs to be taught a lesson to ensure those things don't happen again -- they're just not that important! But Wall Street's credibility? That's serious! That must be preserved at all costs! Otherwise investors will flee! Spare no expense to prevent that from happening!

Except that isn't even happening:

But for all the added scrutiny and negative publicity surrounding insider trading at hedge funds, investors -- lured by the promise of outsize returns -- continue to pour billions of dollars into them. Last month, the industry celebrated another milestone: the money under hedge fund control surpassed $2 trillion, a record.

So we've assigned the road crews to do painstakingly tend Wall Street's already beautiful garden, while the bridges the road crews ought to be working on are collapsing -- as we ordinary schmucks try to drive over them.

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