Yes I know we have heard it now a thousand times. But when the story keeps showing up in the WSJ and on the Marketwatch page, it does give one pause. This analysis by Bret Arends gives ten reasons why he thinks that the next financial crisis will be worse than the last. A good deal worse.
1. We are learning the wrong lessons from the last one. Was the housing bubble really caused by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Community Reinvestment Act, Barney Frank, Bill Clinton, “liberals” and so on? That’s what a growing army of people now claim. There’s just one problem. If so, then how come there was a gigantic housing bubble in Spain as well? Did Barney Frank cause that, too (and while in the minority in Congress, no less!)? If so, how?
Or Australia or Ireland or Iceland or…..What’s really happening is that this spin is being given legs to keep people from thinking about who the real culprits are.
2. No one has been punished. Executives like Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers and Angelo Mozilo at Countrywide , along with many others, cashed out hundreds of millions of dollars before the ship crashed into the rocks. Predatory lenders and crooked mortgage lenders walked away with millions in ill-gotten gains.
3. The incentives remain crooked. People outside finance — from respected political pundits like George Will to normal people on Main Street — still don’t fully get this. Wall Street rules aren’t like Main Street rules. The guy running a Wall Street bank isn’t in the same “risk/reward” situation as a guy running, say, a dry-cleaning shop. Take all our mental images of traditional American free-market enterprise and put them to one side. This is totally different. For the people on Wall Street, it’s a case of heads they win, tails they get to flip again. Thanks to restricted stock, options, the bonus game, securitization, 2-and-20 fee structures, insider stock sales, “too big to fail” and limited liability, they are paid to behave recklessly, and they lose little — or nothing — if things go wrong.
That’s right. For Wall Street there is no risk, not consequences what so ever for bad behavior.
4. The referees are corrupt. We’re supposed to have a system of free enterprise under the law. The only problem: The players get to bribe the refs. Imagine if that happened in the NFL. The banks and other industries lavish huge amounts of money on Congress, presidents and the entire Washington establishment of aides, advisers and hangers-on. They do it through campaign contributions.
And the SEC. Apparently they are the bagmen for congress.
5. Stocks are skyrocketing again. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index SPX +1.05% has now doubled from the March 2009 lows. Isn’t that good news? Well, yes, up to a point. Admittedly, a lot of it is just from debasement of the dollar (when the greenback goes down, Wall Street goes up, and vice versa). And we forget there were huge rallies on Wall Street during the bear markets of the 1930s and the 1970s, as there were in Japan in the 1990s. But the market boom, targeted especially toward the riskiest and junkiest stocks, raises risks.
Think the ending commodities market scene from Trading Places but with multiple Duke Brothers who are convinced they can game the system forever.
6. The derivatives time bomb is bigger than ever — and ticking away. Just before Lehman collapsed, at what we now call the height of the last bubble, Wall Street firms were carrying risky financial derivatives on their books with a value of an astonishing $183 trillion. That was 13 times the size of the U.S. economy. If it sounds insane, it was. Since then we’ve had four years of panic, alleged reform and a return to financial sobriety. So what’s the figure now? Try $248 trillion. No kidding. Ah, good times.
And lest we forget, the banks balance sheets have not really improved much since 2008.
7. The ancient regime is in the saddle. I have to laugh whenever I hear Republicans ranting that Barack Obama is a “liberal” or a “socialist” or a communist. Are you kidding me? Obama is Bush 44. He’s a bit more like the old man than the younger one. But look at who’s still running the economy: Bernanke. Geithner. Summers. Goldman Sachs. J.P. Morgan Chase.
Yep. What we have here here is Black Reaganomics. Trickle down with a dash of W thrown in for good measure. Just goes to show that being intelligent does not preclude being dumb as dirt.
8. Ben Bernanke doesn’t understand his job. The Fed chairman made an absolutely astonishing admission at his first press conference. He cited the boom in the Russell 2000 Index RUT +1.52% of risky small-cap stocks as one sign “quantitative easing” had worked. The Fed has a dual mandate by law: low inflation and low unemployment. Now, apparently, it has a third: boosting Wall Street share prices. This is crazy. If it ends well, I will be surprised.
If it ends well, the I’m a Hobbit.
9. We are levering up like crazy. Looking for a “credit bubble”? We’re in it. Everyone knows about the skyrocketing federal debt, and the risk that Congress won’t raise the debt ceiling next month. But that’s just part of the story. U.S. corporations borrowed $513 billion in the first quarter. They’re borrowing at twice the rate that they were last fall, when corporate debt was already soaring.
As well as consumer debt. Sure the housing market is still in a tail spin, but there is still credit card debt and student loans and on and on. Not to mention a large number of countries that are still in hock up to their eyeballs as well as states and counties and cities. Get the picture ?
10. The real economy remains in the tank.The second round of quantitative easing hasn’t done anything noticeable except lower the exchange rate. Unemployment is far, far higher than the official numbers will tell you (for example, even the Labor Department’s fine print admits that one middle-aged man in four lacks a full-time job — astonishing). Our current-account deficit is running at $120 billion a year (and hasn’t been in surplus since 1990). House prices are falling, not recovering. Real wages are stagnant. Yes, productivity is rising. But that, ironically, also helps keep down jobs.
As well as small businesses going under. So this is the real story boys and girls. Nothing and I mean nothing substantive has been done to improve the economic conditions. And if the president or anyone comes out of this with their political (or even physical) skin still intact, it will be a miracle. For me it’s like watching the tsunami hit the nuclear plant in slow motion.