Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Random thought for the day

Warren Buffett continues to testify at the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission today.  It's pretty interesting because this commission is MUCH less willing to attack this man, compared to the way Goldman Sachs employees were treated.

If anyone needs some extra summer reading, below is a little bit of the introduction to Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings & Loans, written by Stephen Pizzo, Mary Fricker, and Paul Muolo.  Their research into the now extinct Centennial Savings & Loan is a fantastic look at the dangerous mix of brokered deposits and the riskier loan portfolios they necessitate.

Coauthors Steve Pizzo and Mary Fricker were jarred to attention by thrift 
deregulation's fallout when tiny, conservative Centennial Savings and Loan in 
their rural Northern California hometown of Guerneville began acting strangely 
in December 1982 (two months after the signing of the Garn-St Germain Act) 
and announced it was going to pay $ 1 3 million cash for a construction company. 
Pizzo was editor of the Guerneville weekly, the Russian River News, and Fricker 
was news editor. Pizzo wrote a news analysis highly critical of Centennial's plan 
to spend seven times its net worth' on a construction company, and he began 
aggressive coverage of a succession of strange happenings at Centennial Savings 
and Loan. 

Centennial officers suddenly were awash with money. Their names popped 
up in complex real estate transactions documented at the county recorder's office. 
Out-of-town visitors from places like Holland, Las Vegas, and Boston mysteri- 
ously came and went, taking money with them. Still the thrift's financial state- 
ments recorded phenomenal growth. And the small-town rumor mill geared up 
to churn out dozens of explanations for this bizarre behavior. In the Russian 
River News, Pizzo began asking some fairly obvious questions of the Centennial 
officers: "Where is all this money coming from? " "Who are you lending it to, 
and why?" "How can you justify these extravagant salaries, benefits, perks, planes,  luxury cars, boats, and trips?" Was this, Pizzo asked, the proper role for a savings  and loan, heretofore the most conservative, predictable, and reliable of all American financial institutions? 

Pizzo's journalistic probings infuriated Erv Hansen, the president of Cen- 
tennial Savings, and he exploded. He dispatched his assistant to complain to 
the paper's publisher. Periodically he threatened that tellers at Centennial would monitor withdrawals, and if they were substantial, he would sue the News for causing a run on the thrift. Drunk in a local bar one night, Hansen told Pizzo's 
business partner, Scott Kersnar, "You tell your partner he better stop sticking 
his nose where it doesn't belong or I'll do to him what 1 did to that San Diego 
reporter on that stock manipulation deal." Pizzo had no idea what had happened 
to the San Diego reporter, but he took the warning seriously because he had 
already discovered that some of those customers buzzing around Centennial's 
loan window had organized crime backgrounds. 

For four years Pizzo pursued the Centennial Savings and Loan story, and 
gradually his Russian River News articles about Centennial Savings found their 
way outside tiny Guerneville. They circulated quietly at the Federal Home Loan 
Bank in San Francisco and Washington and at the Justice Department. In late 
1985 Centennial collapsed — $165 million was missing. 

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