Thursday, October 30, 2008

Should We Blame the Market?

Watch five minutes of coverage on the financial crisis and you'll come across one general theme: the markets are to blame. We need more regulation. Go ahead, turn on CNN. How about that, huh.

With the presidential election closing in fast, both candidates, but especially Barack Obama have been pushing for more federal oversight, regulation and assistance. John McCain is less enthusiastic about the regulation, but went ahead and joined Obama in supporting the 700 billion dollar bailout among other measures. And plenty of polls have been showing that people are losing trust in the free market and believe more regulation is required.

Well is this what we should do? Did capitalism fail? Did the markets let us down like they always seem to do? Do we need our benevolent government to step in and save the day? Well if you trust the government to fix this mess you might as well ask the guy who just stabbed you to perform the surgery.

First let me start with a disclaimer, a big one at that. I do not mean to absolve Wall Street of its responsibility. On the aggregate, they screwed up badly. Some, such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America, did the right thing. They played it conservatively when housing prices were skyrocketing and now they're the one's with enough money to buy up all those who got caught up in what Alan Greenspan called "irrational exuberance." However, most of the major firms and CEO's behaved irrationally, irresponsibly and sometimes criminally.

What started this train a rollin' were the flood of sub prime mortgages made by financial institutions to borrowers who had no business buying a home. Many of these loans were interest only or negatively amortized, which basically means that the owners were relying on continued appreciation or otherwise they would be upside down (owe more than the home was worth). Many banks accepted stated income, which boiled down means the borrower simply states how much they make and that's good enough. The stupidity here needs no further elaboration. In addition, many mortgage brokers would do anything and everything they could to get people into these loans because the risk didn't matter to them, they were just in it for the commission. Finally, these mortgages were packaged into mortgage-backed securities that were then sold to investors thereby infecting the entire financial system with garbage loans. Here's a nice little primer on how the whole process worked.

Anyways, when the real estate market finally and inevitably started to take back some of its ridiculous gains, the whole deck of cards collapsed. So again, Wall Street deserves plenty of blame, especially AIG, who after being bailed out is now spending $140,000 on a party for their "top sellers."

Given all of this, you may ask how is not the market's fault you ask? Well gee, where should I begin?

Let's start with the Federal Reserve and its ridiculous monetary policy during the real estate boom. After the dot com bubble burst, the Enron and World Com scandals and the 9-11 attacks the markets looked shaky. Alan Greenspan and the Fed thought that dramatically lowering interest rates could help avert a recession. They lowered the discount rate to 1% and kept it there for about two years! This is a stupidly low rate for a ridiculously stupid period of time. It probably prevented a longer recession after 9-11 (there was still a short one) but the prosperity was all an illusion.

What such a monetary policy did was push floods of liquidity into the market. With people scarred of a tumbling stock market they turned to real estate and the bubble began to form. Housing prices and starts accelerated at record paces and builders built far too many homes and apartments. Why did they do that? Simple, they supplied what demand told them to. Unfortunately the demand was artificial, pumped up by the low interest rates. In turn people started refinancing their newly found equity and used it for all sorts of things (like big screen TVs, new cars, etc.). This spending was what made the economy run. Unfortunately, that money was not only borrowed, it was borrowed against equity that shouldn't have existed in the first place! When the market finally adjusted people found themselves with what amounted to unsecured credit card debt. And predictably the foreclosures started coming en masse.

Unfortunately, this was not the only mistake the government made. Thomas Sowell made a pretty good list, but I'll highlight a couple of the other ones for you. First it was the goal of both the Clinton and Bush administration to increase home ownership. It sounds great, but like most political inventions, these great sounding goals come with unintended consequences. One of the major ways they attempted to influence this trend was with the Community Reinvestment Act. What this program did was push lenders to make loans in poor communities. Sounds altruistic and all, but these lenders need to justify risky loans with higher rewards. So whereas politicians used to be praising banks for making risky, higher interest loans, now they are condemning them. Say what, politicians can be hypocritical... who would have thought?

Then there's the whole Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac thing. These are both government created firms that have made it easier to make home loans. Again nice sounding, but it has lead to a steady and artificial growth in real estate prices for a long time. And a little digging will expose how again the politicians cheered Fannie Mae when it made it its goal in 2002 for every American to own a home. Same old goal, same old political cheering and same old unintended consequences. Now look where we are.

There are a litany of other government offenses, but I'll stop there. The main question is do we need more regulation now? There are probably some helpful regulations here and there, but going back to a strictly regulated economy is not the answer. Whenever that temptation befalls you, just remember the airlines used to be heavily regulated and now they are not. If they still were there would be no Southwest or Jet Blue to give you cheap flights to one of the few other countries that we still have a good exchange rate with. Same goes for many other industries. In addition, we would be regulating to prevent this crisis, not the next one. As the famous military slogan goes "we must be prepared to fight the first day of the next war, not the last day of the last war." Unfortunately, the best medicine for this whole mess is probably just time. Time for the market to liquidate the bad debt so we can get back to some sense of normalcy. Then hopefully our government can maintain some semblance of a reasonable fiscal and monetary policy. Damn, good thing you can't see me because I couldn't even write that with a straight face.

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