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Bad behavior has a long history in the U.S.

August 20, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND

History coughs up plenty of precedent for modern bad behavior. Politics is dirty today, but not as dirty as it was through much of the 19th century. Business is diabolically heartless today — often at the expense of the average person — but no more diabolical than the Robber Barrons of the Guilded Age.

Anyone who believes the voyeurism on the 21st century is appalling should read up on Stanford White. O.J. Simpson only wishes he could get that much publicity.

So anyone witnessing America's apparent freefall on multiple fronts can take heart that it could, and has been, worse.

Yes, we like to think that society and the nation could evolve — that just because politics, business and even some aspects of culture were obnoxious more than a century ago, that it doesn't mean that it must be so today.

But perhaps it's enough if we can simply refrain from backsliding and sinking to a lower point than our history has ever seen. Which, sadly, just might be happening.

J.P. Morgan might not have been the most ruthless financier of all time, but he could hold his own. With a fierce, hawkish scowl, he was indeed one book you could judge by the cover.

Nor was he any fan of government, or scrupulously honest. His head nearly exploded when he was called before a congressional investigation, and during the Civil War he bought 5,000 flawed rifles at $3.50 each, waited a while and then resold them back to the Army for $22, representing them as being newly manufactured.

(In 1896, Morgan financed the purchase of a financially floundering newspaper, which then cut its prices and invested heavily in news reporting. Just the opposite of how today's newspapers are being managed. Morgan's paper made good and today goes by the name of the New York Times.)

But Morgan knew this, as far as government was concerned: There was a line not to be crossed, and that line presupposed that the fate of high finance and the United States government were inseparable.

So when the Panic of 1907 hit (prior to the advent of the Federal Reserve), it was Morgan who locked his fellow bankers in his library until they reached an agreement to step in and save the nation's banking system, at the risk of their own capital.

So today the question becomes: With the financial and federal government's back up against the wall in event of an extreme crisis, what would an industry titan such as Standard & Poor's do?

Would it risk its own name and its own bottom line in defense of this nation and its economic well being? Or would it sell America down the river if it suspected there was profit to be made?

Globalization has done many things, but one result is that major corporations apparently believe they can survive, even if America, as we know it, doesn't. Or perhaps survival is immaterial so long as the right people continue to enrich themselves at everyone else's expense.

The subprime housing bubble burst in March 2007, and by October 2008, even the one-time, creative-financing advocate Alan Greenspan (looking quite lost in this new economic world) admitted to Congress that he had failed to anticipate suicidal pursuits of profit.

The news out of S&P this week was that the federal government is investigating its role in the housing crisis, which the ratings house helped perpetuate by blithely assigning AAA ratings to bonds backed by mortgages on homes owned by people who couldn't pay for them.

S&P — which downgraded U.S. credit based largely on its own $2 trillion accounting error — might be a mess, but it deserves no more or less blame for the subprime crisis than dozens of other institutions.

Lost in these headlines, however, there was more S&P news this week that should be harder for most Americans to swallow.

According to the Financial Times, an investigation is in the works to determine whether S&P employees leaked word of its impending downgrade to select investors prior to the actual announcement.

Armed with this information in advance, the obvious bet would be against the market. Insider trading is nothing new, or course — but orchestrating it so that you win when your country loses?

If that turns out to be true, it might set a new record for corporate sewer swimming — not only are you selling out your country based on an accounting error, you are willing to foster side bets to profit from it.

Considering the quality of lawmakers we have in Congress at the moment, downgrading the credit rating of the United States is defensible. Helping your friends profit from the downfall of American finance, and Americans at large, is something not even J.P. Morgan would have considered.


Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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