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S&L SCAM JUST TOO TEMPTING TO RESIST

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I didn't set out to steal your money. The devil made me do it.

Well, it was really the federal government that tempted me. But the result is the same: I am taking part in a scam that is going to cost every man, woman and child in the country upward of $2,000 in the next few years. It embarrasses me but not enough to make me stop, since it's all perfectly legal. I think they should change the rules.I'm just a bit player in the great savings and loan scandal. The money I'm getting is peanuts. But my case shows how stealing first becomes legal, then logical and finally almost irresistible - how the government tempts us to do it. And incidentally, how it's still going on.

I got into the game about a year ago when I cashed in my employee savings plan and rolled it over into an IRA. Since I don't plan to stop working any time soon, the problem for me was how to invest it without taking major risks so it would keep growing and protect me from inflation.

I found a financial adviser, and we put together a diversified portfolio: an annuity, some growth stock funds, some conservative bonds and some certificates of deposit. To my surprise, he said he knew where he could get two- to five-year certificates of deposit that paid more than 9.5 percent or more. That sounded very high.

"How can they pay 9.5 percent?" I asked.

"These are savings and loans, all loaded up with junk bonds," he explained.

"I don't want to get anywhere near a junk bond," I protested.

"Not to worry," he said. Sure, the junk bond bubble was due to burst. Maybe these thrifts issuing the certificates of deposit would go belly up. But if they did, my deposits would be federally insured up to $100,000. I wouldn't lose a nickel, not even interest. "I've been watching, and the ones that went bust, they paid up like clockwork," he said.

It didn't feel right. But my guy said, "Hey, who do you think buys those certificates of deposit if you don't? Just the big banks and insurance companies and your own pension fund, that's who."

And why not? The deposits are federally insured, aren't they? There's $200 billion in junk bonds out there, and a lot of them are really junk, but if some of them can be laundered through thrift deposits, only the taxpayer gets stuck.

I was already in the game; I just didn't know it, and the big boys were using my money and skimming the fattest profits. So why shouldn't I play directly, instead of letting my bank use my money to make profits for the bank's stockholders?

And if you want to know how the savings and loan scam happened, that's how. First the deposits were federally insured, but the thrifts' managers had to invest them according to the rules. Then the rules were repealed, and the fast operators moved in.

If the deposit insurance had been repealed, too - if it had even been cut back, so there was a real risk that a buyer of a certificate of deposit could lose, say, 20 percent of his investment - the depositors would be a lot more curious about what a thrift might be doing with their money.

As it was, they didn't care. Shopping centers in the desert? The junkiest kind of junk bonds? Stretch limos and fast women for the thrift managers? No skin off the big players' noses.