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O'Rourke (The View From the Couch): Profit and Loss

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Now that AIG's "bonuses" stirred up the media hornet's nest and Obama's economic team members spent so much face time on the Sunday shows showing how shocked, shocked, they were that AIG was going to funnel millions of taxpayers' dollars to deserving executives as part of its "contractual" pay packages, one question that always had bothered me the last decade has been pushed to the forefront: How did all those financial firms manage to extract so much profit from their businesses that they were able to throw around for a decade these million dollar gifts to one and all?

Thanks to college-era summer jobs, I have some knowledge of retail and I was well aware of the profit margin on the merchandise shops sold. In the case of jewelry, it was often a hundred percent. Hoop earrings the owners would get for five dollars they would sell for fifteen, and so on. And, of course, there was overhead — rent, electricity, salaries, etc. I've always wondered about the mysteries of so-called surplus capital, meaning the actual profit removed from anything sold, produced. The surplus capital on capital must have been tremendous for those in the financial world to get so, so rich. A number of people over the decade noticed that America was no longer a champion of manufacturing, except in one new area, money.

Wall Street firms became elegant factories producing money out of paper, the famous derivatives, credit default swaps, and all the other "instruments" that those businesses turned out on three shifts. Steel, cars, all might have declined in the USA, but the money factories worked long hours. In New York City you would see snaking lines of limousines idling in front of Merrill Lynch at all hours, ready to bring home those overworked executives leaving late at night. This is capitalism's magic, making something out of nothing. Some old geezer once said property is theft, but the theft is the raging amount of profit that was extracted from all the financial transactions. All those millions handed out each year as bonuses. And one still hears that they won't be able to get, retain, the "best people" if these ungodly amounts aren't payed out. We have all seen what the best people produce. When one adds up the billions, trillions that AIG and all the banks and brokerage firms (which have — presto — been converted into banks) have been handed out may well end up being the same amount of "profit" that all of them earned the last decade. Some Freakosoid economist should do the math.

President Obama has just said that he intends to "pursue every legal avenue" to stop those AIG bonuses. Those legal avenues are filled with huge loop holes and waffling exits. Bernie Madoff may be in jail, but he has used pleading guilty as a new age form of claiming the Fifth. He isn't going to squeal on anyone else, leaving the implicated and well paid to play lawyerly chess with the prosecutors. Madoff, of course, took everything he was given as profit, though it must have cost him some overhead (those nice offices in the Lipstick building) to run his Ponzi scheme. A lot of responsible commentators (not people like me) have been saying we've all become victims of greed. It isn't greed if it's an institution and there is something ludicrous about the president and his people saying over and over it must be saved. What is it we are all saving?

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