Posts Tagged 'crisis'

Playing God and Taking Shortcuts…

This financial crisis is more than what it appears.

It is symptomatic of a society that sometime over the last 30 years lost its way by seeking not the road less traveled, but instead the quickest route.

It is the culmination of a mindset that increasingly became interested in pursuing immediate gratification at any cost.

Look around you. In every area of modern life, the shortcut has become the rule, not the exception.

In sports, we substituted medicine for athleticism as steroids offered the quickest path to success (And I cheered as Mark McGwire belted homer after homer chasing down Maris’ record).

In entertainment, we substituted notoriety for talent as reality television offered the quickest path to fame (And I lapped it up as Richard Hatch ‘survived’ an island and dozens of out-of-control women wooed Flavor Flav).

In war, we substituted power for strategy as shock and awe offered the quickest path to victory (And I couldn’t pull my eyes away as CNN aired its little war video game, the pinball-like sights and sounds of buildings being destroyed and people getting killed).

In friendship, we substituted technology for intimacy as tweets and status updates offered the quickest path to communication (And I blog away, making facile analogies as dreams of writing the Great American Novel slip away).

It goes on and on and on.

We wanted it big, we wanted it all, we wanted it now.

Cheating, if not encouraged, was at least ignored. Just pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

So is it really any surprise that in business, too, we fell prey to the same phenomenon? In hindsight, it almost seems inevitable that we indulged in this financial alchemy, pursuing policies and practices to make the quick buck while conveniently ignoring the potential long-term negative consequences of our actions.  The no-doc loans, the credit default swaps, the collateralized debt obligations belong in the same metaphorical bucket as the anabolic steroid, Omarosa and gastric bypass surgery.

The funny thing is, the issue isn’t due to a loss of work ethic. Most of the bankers who concocted these weapons of mass destruction worked insanely hard at their jobs, just as our medically enhanced athletes put in long hours at the gym, just as our most vacuous reality stars went to incredible lengths to promote themselves (and just as I am spending way too much time trying to fine-tune this post).

And I’m not about to suggest that this eagerness to seek the shortcut is an entirely new development. People have of course always found ways to cheat or exploit the system – it’s just that in the past, the tools were more rudimentary and thus less dangerous (e.g. the spitball and the corked bat just can’t wreak the same havoc as the human growth hormone).

We became too smart and too powerful for our own good. We acquired knowledge and technology, but not the wisdom to use them productively, or to realize that sometimes we should refrain from using them at all.

And unfortunately, our primary solutions to this crisis so far – the stimulus plans, the bailouts, the monetary injections – offer more of the same. We are still seeking the quick, easy way out. Wanting it all, and wanting it now. Not willing to deal with the consequences of our actions.

Which of course makes perfect sense. In a world where man ultimately controls so little, including the time and manner in which he will depart it, how can we be surprised when he believes he has figured out a better way of accomplishing a goal and overplays his hand.

We have gotten what we deserved.

We have somehow lost our way.

We better find it back.

Nationalize Now …

I am going to try and keep this as short as possible because I’m off on a biz trip tomorrow (expect a lot less blog activity from me for about a week) and have things I need to get done before then.

But I just had to comment on the statement released jointly this afternoon by the Treasury, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), and the Fed.

In the statement, which discusses the upcoming ‘stress test’ process all large banks will be undergoing starting Wednesday, the government in essence reaffirmed its preference that the banking system remain in private hands, saying in part:

“Because our economy functions better when financial institutions are well managed in the private sector, the strong presumption of the Capital Assistance Program is that banks should remain in private hands.”

For the past several weeks, I have maintained that we need to address our financial crisis in a significant and comprehensive way if we expect the other aspects of our recovery plan, such as our stimulus package, to have any kind of lasting impact.

I have argued that the banking system is so poorly capitalized that we will eventually need to nationalize significant swaths of our banking system, and that I’d rather get there sooner than later before we throw away hundreds of billions of dollars trying to put band-aids on a mortal wound.

I have heard several objections to the idea of nationalizing our banking system over the past several weeks. I will go through them quickly.

1) Do you really expect the government to run a bank effectively?

No, I don’t. And the mandate will have to be for the government to clean up any nationalized institution and get it back into private hands as quickly as possible (though perhaps in a different, less unwieldy form, i.e. turning a conglomerate like BofA into a bunch of smaller institutions based on region or function).

However, it’s not like we’re going to be putting lifelong bureaucrats and politicians in charge of running the day-to-day operations of nationalized institutions. Except for maybe the top tier of management, the vast majority of bank personnel would remain in their current positions, and I assume that respected, qualified individuals who have always worked in finance would make most of the major decisions.

More importantly, I find it deliciously ironic when people pursue this line of argument, because as bad as government will likely be at running banks, how can they possibly do any worse than our vaunted private system, which obviously got us into the current mess in the first place.

2) Nationalizing the banks will throw the system into chaos.

The system is already in chaos. The question is would nationalization cause the kind of systemic collapse that some people argued almost happened when Lehman Bros. was allowed to fail. Opponents fear a situation where all lending would shut down and people would start running to their banks to pull out money, creating a financial panic that we’ve largely avoided so far.

I don’t think this would happen at all. Perhaps the automobile manufacturers can make a rational case that if they were forced to declare bankruptcy, consumers would be much less likely to buy their cars because of concerns about car quality, or warranties being honored. But I think if anything, when it comes to their finances, consumers would feel more confident knowing their money was in the hands of the government. Corporations and other healthier banks I think would also perhaps be more willing to do business with nationalized institutions.

After all, this would be a nationalization, not a bankruptcy where assets would have to be sold immediately and at any price; once the uncertainty of the banks’ survival was removed, the government could take its time in figuring out the best way to handle the toxic asset situation and eventual reprivatization process.

3) Nationalization would call into question the very essence of our capitalist system.

I think this could happen. Confidence in the integrity of the system is a key prerequisite for a healthy, functioning capitalist economy. It’s why large and widespread examples of fraud and abuse, like we’ve seen with Enron and Madoff, create so much long-term damage.

Equity and especially bond holders who see their investments, contracts and covenants basically voided by the federal government would no doubt wonder about the very essence of private markets and private property, and whether they could feel confident that they truly owned any of their other investments.

However, I think we can mitigate these concerns by structuring the process and the language we use to make it clear that any nationalization plan would be both limited in scope and temporary in nature.

Unfortunately, we are facing an emergency situation and extreme measures are sometimes needed at those times. We can deal with the economic philosophizing later.

There are other arguments people have made against nationalization. Some argue that while nationalization may have worked for Sweden and Norway, it will be too expensive here. Others say that if we just tried to value these toxic assets accurately and dropped arcane accounting techniques like mark-to-market, nationalization wouldn’t even be necessary.

I think the critics of nationalization are all swimming in denial. Nationalization won’t be easy and painless. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made throughout the process. Certain investors would obviously lose everything. It’s merely the best of a bunch of bad choices. And whether we like it or not, it’s already happening: We already have basically nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and AIG, and could own 40% of Citigroup if a current capital infusion plan being negotiated is implemented.

The question is whether we continue to engage in a form of Chinese water torture by trying to fix the situation in a piecemeal, haphazard manner or finally come to grips with the magnitude of our current crisis by devising a plan that deals with the situation once and for all.


I’ve had it.

This country has been on engorging on a cheap credit binge for the last decade, stuffing itself on the sugar highs and empty calories provided by ultra-low interest rates and fancy derivatives and zero-down mortgages. Now the chickens are coming home to roost, and everyone is looking for a way to get their butt saved.

It’s bad enough that Congress already spent $150 billion earlier this year on a fiscal stimulus plan that did nothing but allow us to buy IPhones and XBoxes for a few more months. The American people now want more, and it looks like Congress is going to give it to us with another huge stimulus package. It’s money we can’t afford right now and which won’t do anything but provide another very temporary boost to an economy and consumer that needs to retrench for an extended period of time before they can begin to reflate.

But spending money one doesn’t have is the American way. Just ask the country’s beleaguered homeowners now drowning under onerous interest payments, the folks who were too busy picking out Ikea furniture to read the fine print of those adjustable-rate, no-doc mortgages they were signing.  They, too, are soon going to get plenty of help from our friends in Washington.

You see, everyone says we need housing to rebound in order for the economy to recover, so by god, we are going to make the housing market rebound, even if it means the government has to buy up all those nasty little mortgages and restructure them, as Senator John McCain has so magnanimously offered to do (and to hell with the free market and the natural laws of supply and demand).

But really, who could possibly blame the American people for wanting to be spared the pain of an economic downturn?? They’re just following the lead of our most esteemed industry and financial leaders and watching with green eyes as the government tosses around hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars like so much loose change.

How fitting that the first ones at the government trough were the Wall Street pigs who cooked up this unhealthy smorgasbord slop and fed it to the ravenous, greedy (but mostly unsuspecting) crowd of American consumers.

Oh, it may seem unseemly that the ones largely responsible for creating this mess would be the first to come begging for help, but The Powers That Be knew the financial system that Wall Street had so cleverly manufactured was so fragile that many of these banks couldn’t fail. They knew that the pyramid scheme would have to be unraveled slowly or the entire economy would shut down.

So in order to prevent exposing the rot in the system to the public, regulators forced Bear Stearns into the hands of the relatively well-capitalized JP Morgan Chase, guaranteed the losses with a $29 billion loan and then lowered interest rates in an emergency session.

But that was just the start. You know the rest of the story. The scope of the problems became obvious, and it was clear the cancer had metastasized to every corner of our financial system. Housing in particular was a disaster, so we nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (which should never have been privatized in the first place, as one of the only things scarier than capitalism gone mad, is capitalism with implicit government backing gone mad ).

AIG, too, needed help since it had gotten caught insuring a lot of these failing institutions, so we rescued that firm with $85 billion (and then watched as some of that promised money was immediately spent on a lovely sales retreat, replete with a $23,000 spa bill).

And yet all that government assistance still wasn’t enough, so the Treasury and the Fed went to Congress and pleaded for another $700 billion, and only after getting that pork-laden package passed have they begun figuring out exactly how they are going to use that money to save our banking system and economy.

It is all just so very frightening, but the last straw for me was reading an article about some of those poor, poor folks in the hedge fund industry who are now hoping they’ll also see some of that bailout money. Treasury Secretary Paulson insists the money is just for banks and thrifts, but that ‘plans could change’.

You’ve got to be kidding me!!

I mean, for crying out loud, it was only a decade ago when the government and a bunch of banks bailed out a hedge fund company named (ironically enough) Long-Term Capital Management.

Long-Term Capital, with its use of insane leverage (at least 25x) in highly illiquid, poorly regulated financial instruments, including some of the very same derivatives and mortgage-backed securities that are now causing us grief, was in many ways Version 1. 0 of the current Wall Street mess. And yet we ultimately learned very few lessons from that clear early warning sign (This Working Group document has some great background on the LTCM debacle as well as a number of generally ignored conclusions and recommendations).

Frankly, we missed a golden opportunity to increase supervision and disclosure requirements to help rein in some of the industry’s excesses.

Even worse, the LTCM bailout (and the subsequent lowering of interest rates by then-Fed Chairman Easy Al Greenspan) helped fan the flames and foster the environment that we now find ourselves in by encouraging more ill-advised risk taking while institutionalizing the idea that the government will always be there to cover up for our mistakes.

But there is a price to be paid for that largess. Eventually, we’re going to have to pay for this misguided philosophy. I’m just worried that it’s too late, that we’ve dug ourselves into a hole so deep it will take a generation or more to climb out of.

So it’s time to stop the capital injections and bailout plans, the incessant pumping of liquidity into the markets and the careless printing of money, the debt issuance and the interest rate cuts. We’ve done enough to unfreeze the markets and prevent a systemic collapse. It’s time to let the brutally effective corrective mechanisms of capitalism take care of the rest.

As Obama said during the most stirring moment in his Denver keynote convention speech:


July 2016
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