David Prosser: How Wall Street played the system

Slowly but surely, America's justice system is waking up to the idea that there is some mileage in going after the banks at the centre of the financial crash of 2008. Hot on the heels of the Goldman Sachs SEC charges comes an investigation by the New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo into whether eight Wall Street banks misled the big credit ratings agencies so they would give the mortgage securities at the centre of the collapse a clean bill of health.

To which you might say, what took them so long? Such was the breathtaking scale of the crash, and its global ramifications, it seems remarkable that Goldman is the only Wall Street institution to currently be facing charges over its conduct.

Still, the idea that the rating agencies were duped into over-rating mortgage securities lets them off the hook a little too easily. Some of the tricks played by those packaging up mortgage bonds in the run-up to the crash look less like the work of financial whizzkids pulling the wool over the eyes of innocents and more like ploys that anyone with a bit of commonsense should have seen through.

In particular, the banks sought to get better credit ratings for their bonds in two ways. They preferred the mortgages of borrowers with little or no credit history at all and who thus had decent individual ratings – known as "Fico scores" in the US – purely because they had no record of transgressions. And they aimed to package up mortgages so as to produce a decent average Fico score by putting lots of very poor risks together with some good ones. This is known as barbelling, and statisticians explain the problem with this analogy: "A man with his head in a freezer and feet in an oven is, on average, at room temperature."

Amazingly, this blatant fixing of the odds seems to have been enough to persuade the ratings agencies to give mortgage securities the all-clear. When some in the industry did raise concerns they got short shrift. Possibly it is no coincidence that the ratings agencies were being paid for their work by the very banks whose products they were rating.

It is good to see the authorities trying to bring Wall Street to book for the crash. But in this case, it may prove be difficult to bring charges unless there is a law against exploiting incompetence.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
Life and Style
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Entry Level Fund Accountant (Edinburgh)

£17 - £20 per hour: Cameron Kennedy Recruitment: My client, one of the worlds ...

SQL DBA/Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL DBA/Developer
 SQL, C#, VBA, SQL Server, ...

Risk Analyst - VBA/EXCEL

£300 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: Risk Analyst Access, EXCEL, VBA, RISK, ...

Market Access Analyst (FIX 5.0, Equities, Derivatives)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Market Access Analyst (FIX On-boarding, FIX 5.0,...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on