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I have a feature in the new issue of Rolling Stone called “Secrets and Lies of the Bailout,” which focuses in large part on the seemingly intentional policy of deception in the government’s rescue of the financial sector. The government didn’t just bail out Wall Street with money: It also lied on Wall Street’s behalf, calling unhealthy banks healthy, and helping banks cover up just how much aid they were getting in secret.
Proponents of the bailouts will say that whatever the government did, it worked. The economy didn’t collapse as it appeared it might in late 2008, and the stock markets are puffed up all over again, as financial companies in particular are back making huge profits.
But in the course of researching the magazine piece, we discovered definite victims of the myriad deceptions that became a baked-in feature of the bailouts. One of those victims was a southern investment broker who lost lots of his own money, lost money for family members who’d invested with him, and (maybe worst of all) lost plenty of his clients’ money, when he made investment decisions based on what turned out to be incomplete information.
If this particular broker had known exactly how far the bailouts reached, neither he nor his clients would ever have lost so much. But during the crisis it was decided, by people deemed more important than small-town investment advisers and their clients, that the full story of the bailouts didn’t need to be told.
As a result, George Hartzman and his clients got creamed. In recent years we’ve heard a lot about how the bailouts saved the world. This is the other side of the story.
George Hartzman is easy to like. The easygoing North Carolinian has every salesman’s ability to grab you from the first moment with humor and charm, but what makes him a little bit of a different kind of cat – and I suspect some of this change developed after he joined the growing population of financial crisis-era whistleblowers, dismissed from a Wells Fargo brokerage after making complaints about what he felt were bailout-related abuses – is that the humor is often self-directed. He loves to tell stories about all the goofy, sometimes-dicey sales jobs he’s taken over the years, and the hard work he put in to get really good at each and every one of them.
“Hell, I even sold encyclopedias,” he says, laughing. “You just look ‘em in the eye and say, ‘Listen, do you want your kids to go to college, or not?’” He laughs again. “What are they going to say?”
Now 45 years old, George as a younger man sold it all – copiers, above-ground aluminum swimming pools, even vinyl siding, a job which he describes as selling “relatively bad things to the relatively elderly.” In down times, he waited tables and tended bar at a restaurant/nightclub in a tough section of Greensboro, where he said the rule was, “you don’t take out the trash through the back door without somebody with a gun.”
But throughout it all, he wanted to be in finance, wanted to buy stocks and bonds and actually make money for people, as opposed to just talking old folks into buying stuff they maybe didn’t need. Eventually he got his chance, working at several national brokerage firms through the 2000s, paying his dues as the guy who sucked it up for the endless cold calls.
“Do you have any money, anywhere, that’s earning less than 7 percent right now?” he says, chuckling as he quotes his old self. “I must have said that line, I shit you not, not less than 100,000 times.”
Eventually, George found himself selling retirement and investment plans as a broker for the granddaddy of Carolinian megabanks, Wachovia. Working out of the Greensboro, North Carolina area, he handled dozens of clients, including himself and several of his family members, and by 2007 had settled in to what he thought was the good life working for Wachovia Advisors, managing tens of millions in assets for the huge national brokerage firm.
In hindsight, it’s ironic – given that the vast federal bailouts were what ultimately sank George’s career as a broker – that when Wachovia went belly-up in 2008, George’s job was initially saved by a bailout. After its collapse (caused in large part by its disastrous 2006 acquisition of subprime-laden Golden West financial), the giant bank was swallowed up in a state-aided merger by Wells Fargo, which received as much as $36 billion in cash and special tax breaks as it was finishing the merger deal.
When the merger was finished, Wells Fargo was the fourth-largest commercial bank holding company in America, and George Hartzman found himself working essentially the same job, only with a new name on his letterhead – Wells Fargo Advisors.
While brokers in most places started taking the big bath in 2007 and 2008 as the subprime market collapsed, George was quietly killing it. In both those years he made very good money for his clients, his family and himself, mainly by shorting the very companies that had inflated the subprime bubble, firms with names like Goldman, Sachs, MBIA and Merrill Lynch.
“I saw it early,” he says, a bit immodestly, but with perspective, too. “I was doing great, right up until the time I wasn’t.”
When I called former clients of George’s to check his story, they confirmed that he took a much different and more aggressive approach than your average broker. George’s clients seemed to like him a lot, and were impressed by how hard he worked at a job that a lot of storefront brokers just mail in.
“A lot of guys will just tell you that you just have to stay in the market, that in the long run, things always go up,” says John Mandrano, a former CPA who trusted a sizable portion of his retirement fund with George. “George was different. He really put a lot of thought into what he was doing. And he invested his own money, and his family’s money, so you know he had a stake in what he was doing.”
Having made money betting against Wall Street in 2007 and 2008, George planned on continuing the same strategy in 2009, even after the bailouts. In early 2009, he placed a series of short bets against the market, among other things betting against an index of real estate trusts and the S&P 500. He explained to his clients that even though the government and the talking heads in the financial press kept insisting the worst was over, he still thought a lot of firms, particularly financial firms, were in deep trouble.
“I thought they were screwed,” he says. “The numbers just didn’t add up.”
What happened instead is that the stock market went into a prolonged and seemingly miraculous rebound, with the NYSE soaring from the mid-6000s in February of 2009 to over 13,000 in recent months. George couldn’t figure out how so many seemingly insolvent companies were doing it – where was the money coming from?