Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Banking, Banks, and the President: Defining the Issues

The side that wins the political battles is usually the one that presents the issues in such a way that the “public” responds to this presentation and goes with them rather than with the “other side.”

There is an election coming up next year and the campaigning has already begun. The battle: whether or not the Democrats are going to be able to maintain a large enough majority in Congress to control the action in Washington, D. C. Already, the Democrats are looking back over their shoulders to 1994 mid-term election and their loss of control of Congress at that time. And, they are scared.

The way to operate in politics is to “frame” important issues in such a way that they will resonate with a majority of the electorate. It takes time for specific issues to “take hold” with the public so the framing effort must be started well in advance of the election. The process of “framing” is moving ahead, full steam.

The economy is obviously going to be an issue. How it is framed will determine the result. It appears that the banking industry is going to play a big role in how the discussion on the
economy evolves. The battle lines: Main Street versus Wall Street. The issues: an unemployment rate of 10% and an underemployment rate at 17-18% versus lots of taxpayer money to bail out the banks and the subsequent profitability of the big banks. A further issue: people losing their homes through foreclosure versus the payment of large bonuses by the big banks to their executives.

Sure the meeting between the President and the heads of the major banks in the United States was a great photo op. But, what did the photo op turn into? Let me just say that a headline like “Bankers Put Obama on Hold” accompanied by a picture of the President at his desk holding a phone does not create a very favorable image of the bankers (see the article by Andrew Ross Sorkin in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/15/business/15sorkin.html?_r=1).

Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, is still a hero to many people, myself included, and is perhaps the most respected person in finance in the world today. He stated very bluntly in West Sussex, England this week that the bankers just didn’t get it. Great headlines!

In debates like this it doesn’t always matter who is right and who is wrong. We have seen over and over again that in economics, identifying the cause and effect of an economic situation is so difficult and the lags between the cause and the effect are so long, that explaining a situation to the public in terms that they understand is almost impossible.

Here I am specifically writing about the run-up to the financial collapse of 2008. To me the causes of this collapse go back to the almost 50 years of inflationary finance perpetrated by the United States government, Republican and Democratic alike, on the American people. This includes the huge deficits run up by the federal government since 9/11 and the inexcusable monetary ease that kept real interest rates negative for two to three years in the 2002-2005 period. The financial bubbles that resulted in housing and the stock market this decade produced the conditions that led to the subsequent events.

An economy with an inflationary bias is ideal for the evolution of financial innovation. It is ideal for leveraging up the balance sheet. It is ideal for assuming more and more risk.

It is difficult, however, to explain this cause and effect to the public.

Financial innovation looks like greed run amok. Assuming more and more risk looks like greed run amok. And, excessive amounts of leverage looks like greed run amok.

But, what about the government policy makers that created the incentives that made financial innovation valuable? What about those that contributed to the inflation that made high degrees of leverage worthwhile and edgy risk taking more attractive?

The connection is very difficult to put into sound bites and win the hearts and minds of voters.

In terms of financial regulation? My belief is that banks, especially the big banks have moved beyond the recent financial collapse. Congress and the regulators are always fighting the last war. The goal of Congress and the regulators is to not let the events of 2008 and 2009 happen again.

Guess what? The events of 2008 and 2009 will not happen again. The banks have moved beyond that. The reformed regulations will probably hurt the smaller banks much more than the larger banks. The smaller banks are still the ones dealing with the past, the questionable commercial real estate loans, the residential mortgages that are in arrears or are not paying at all, the consumer credit, the credit of state and local governments and so on and so on.

But, the big banks. They are already into 2010 and 2011 and beyond! More on this in another post.

This is why the banking industry must be careful at this time. In a real sense, Volcker is right; the bankers just don’t get it!

They can’t afford to look as if they are making the President look silly. They can’t afford to make themselves look like they are “fat cats.” Whoops, that is what the President called them Sunday night and it is all over the country. The bankers can’t afford to look as if they are staunchly against regulation reform. The bankers can’t look like they don’t care about mortgage foreclosures, or small-business loans, or getting people back to work.

The issues are being “framed” right now. The bankers cannot put themselves in a position to be characterized as “Scrooge” while the Obama administration comes on as “Tiny Tim.”

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