A few years ago I was writing a story on something called mark-to-market accounting. (No I promise! I'm going somewhere here!) The way mark-to-market worked with this one Enron division is roughly: they'd send salesfolks across the country promising big companies it would save them lots of money if they agreed to let Enron pay their energy bills for a set period of time. As an incentive to sign up, Enron wrote big checks to the companies for the privilege. Now, this division lost shitloads of money, but it didn't matter because when they needed to raise more cash from shareholders they would just prove they were profitable by using "mark-to-market" accounting, whereby they would book the year's portion of the profits they imagined they'd be making over the horizon of the contract. Of course, they had no fucking clue what these profits (or losses) would be. So they made them up! Pulled them out of asses and projections so rosy you couldn't even call them delusional. Anyway, I'm telling you this story not because mark-to-market accounting is currently being blamed for our present financial crisis — I mean, you know, as if — but because it gets back to this conversation I had at a bar the other night where a somewhat miscellaneous Lower East Side sleaze was trying to pick me up. A friend of mine was at right, fielding a flurry of amorous text messages.
The sender: a college friend of hers in Florida who had suddenly decided, after ten years of mostly long-distance friendship, that he wanted to marry her.
She was somewhat skeptical.
"What compels dudes," I asked the guy to my left, who had been hitting on me sort of pointlessly. "To constantly, like, pathologically, write checks they know they can't keep?"
I was thinking of my friend. I was thinking of Eliot Spitzer's bounced checks to the Emperor's Club. I was thinking of Jerome Kerviel and the internet bubble and Glengarry Glen Ross and the subprime mortgage crisis, specifically, this reformed mortgage broker whose self-published atonement memoir I had read about in Newsweek:
"The rate of property appreciation experienced on a national basis over the last seven years was not only a function of market demand, but was due, in part, to the subprime industry's acceptance of overvalued appraisals, coupled with a high percentage of credit-challenged borrowers who financed with no money down," Bitner writes.Well, duh. The crisis, like every financial crisis that came before it, was in large part a function of an institutionalized neglect of the glaringly obvious and systemic groundless optimism.
"We intend to keep them," the guy said. "It's just that you always disbelieve them. We can see it in your eyes, you have no faith. Your lack of faith ruins everything."
"Are you fucking kidding me?"
"Really. If anyone I'd ever asked to marry me had believed I really wanted to marry them, then I wouldn't be single."
He proceeded to tell me the uplifting story of his live-in girlfriend's recent second-trimester abortion and order a scotch.
"That's on the house, right?" he asked the bartender.
"Uh, I guess," she said.
Confessions Of A Subprime Broker [Newsweek]
Hedge Funds Reel From Margin Calls [Bloomberg]
Glengarry, Glen Ross [Wikipedia]
Mark-To-Market Academic Paper We Did Not Read But You Could [Princeton]
Did Mark-To-Market Accounting Create The Credit Bubble? [Naked Capitalism]