Thursday, February 12, 2009

Our Financial Crucible

I was watching some of the House Financial Services Committee’s hearings yesterday with the chief executives of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, State Street Bank, Wells Fargo Bank, and Bank of New York sitting there like a bunch of guilty school boys, being berated by their elders. These firms were the lucky recipients of the $700 billion banking bailout.

A number questions were posed to score points for our lawmakers, questions that were expected to be answered by a show of the hands so we all can see the scarlet letter of guilt. Questions along the lines of “how many of you have received government money but have changed your credit card terms?” The perplexed guilty parties sort of looked at each other (obviously wondering what is meant by the question), and as one would timidly raise his hand, the others would slowly follow. These questions went on and on, an embarrassment to those who posed them, those who were forced to answer, and those of us who are relying on this “system” to fix the problem. (Although they did manage to get John Mack of Morgan Stanley to say, “We are sorry.”)

Most of these lawmakers are the very ones who once pressured financial institutions to make loans available to everyone no matter what their creditworthiness so they could boast their beneficence to their constituency. And the bankers are the same financial wizards who created leveraged products that passed off tremendous risk to investors, and, now, to us. We also had a Federal Reserve that fed the fire with practically free money, leaving Alan Greenspan recently wondering, “I still don't fully understand how it happened or why it happened.”

One can empathize with the feelings of outrage, especially now that we learn that some seven hundred Merrill Lynch employees “earned” bonuses of more than one million dollars in 2008 as the firm lost $27 billion. Yesterday the apologists on CNBC generally defended Wall Street bonuses because even when a financial firm overall loses money there are individual “producers” who make pockets of money. The CNBC cheerleaders went on to say that these “producers” need to be “incentified” – otherwise they will be left only with their base salaries. Most people might be content with the latter and isn’t this the kind of “incentive” which motivated “producers” to take excessive risk in the first place?

The questions posed at the witch-hunt hearings centered on why banks are not lending out all the money they received. What planet do our representatives live on? You can’t force banks to lend money if people do not have jobs or are worried about losing jobs, and that is the central element in the crucible of today’s financial times. Just a cursory look at the chart Job losses in Recent Recessions prepared by Barry Ritholtz dramatically goes to the heart of the matter: