A generation or so ago, Paul Sheehan was a slightly modish, slightly left of centre chronicler of the ebbing zeitgeist of post-60s social change.

But today he has morphed into a somewhat cantankerous Fairfax version of Piers Ackerman.

Take Paul’s October 20 Sydney Morning Herald column on the global financial crisis — “Greed a Deadly Sin for the Economy“. It’s an old testament-style harangue on how we all are culpable for the global financial meltdown, especially anyone who dared breathe during the course of the last decade.

To be fair Sheehan makes some reasonable observations about Australia’s wasted years under Howard when rather than investing the produce of our boom we spent it on McMansions and plasma screens (via a baby bonus going straight into Gerry Harvey’s share price) — although we don’t recall Mr. Sheehan being much of a critic of Howard at the time.

But in lauding and quoting at length the predictions of gloom from the pen of Herr Hans Redekar, the foreign exchange strategist for BNP Paribas, one of Europe’s biggest investment banks, Sheehan has fallen for the classic one card trick.

Investment banks like BNP Paribas are past masters in the art “walking both sides of the street”. It’s easy, necessary and cheap to keep a contrarian like Redekar on the books while at the same time engaging in the very risk taking practices which gives the prophet of doom his particular cachet.

But make no mistake, BNP Paribas was one of the biggest marketers of “structured finance” products in the game and hence has no small role in the current fragile and febrile state of the world markets and economy.

So from asset-backed securities (ABS), mortgage backed securities (MBS), collarateralised mortgage obligations (CMOs), collateralised debt obligations (CDOs), collateralised bond obligations (CBOs), collateralised loan obligations (CLOs), collateralised fund obligations, through to credit derivatives, credit default swaps and the rest, BNP Paribas had a product targeted to the client’s needs.

What all of these products had in common was that BNP Paribas got all the yield but only a slice of the risk.

Banks such as BNP Paribas also play a major role in the global custodian markets. These businesses are the outsourced back offices major financial institutions used to have to manage share holdings and transactions.

As such, it was custodians who were able to clip fees as stocks were lent out for the purposes of short-selling — another practice that has been at the core of such wealth destruction in recent months, and arguably the basis on which many businesses became the targets for hedge funds who could see that with changed perceptions of debt and risk there were clear opportunities for major gains — as well as to destroy shareholder value along the way.

So Paul might have been well advised to have asked some more telling questions of Herr Redeker. And he would have served his readers better if he had done a bit more leg work and digging to see how institutions such as BNP Paribas and the other global banks have been able to handsomely profit from this whole debacle.

Blaming the average working punter may do wonders for Sheehan’s sense of schadenfreude, but he has let the bank whose guru he cites, well and truly off the hook.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey