Friday, December 3, 2010

Step on the Gas; Hit the Brakes; and at the same time!

There has been lots of words and press spilled on the recent revelations about who the Federal Reserve “bailed out” during the recent financial crisis. Let me just use one such article to capture some of the attitudes being expressed about this information.

Sebastian Mallaby, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the book “More Money than God”, writes in the Financial Times” (

“The point is that the Fed bail-outs were hair-raisingly enormous, and that neither the regulators nor the regulated should be allowed to forget that. Wall Street institutions that now walk tall again survived only because the taxpayers saved them. Goldman Sachs turned to the Fed for funding on 84 occasions, and Morgan Stanley did so 212 times; Blackrock, Fidelity, Dreyfus, GE Capital – all of these depended on taxpayer backstops. The message from this data dump is that, two years ago, these too-big-to-fail behemoths drove the world to the brink of a 1930s-style disaster – and that, if regulators don’t break them up or otherwise restrain them, they may do worse next time.”

There doesn’t seem to be much movement afoot to “break them up” at this time, but there has been, and will continue to be, great efforts to “restrain them”. I don’t see the will or the leadership to “break them up”. I have my own views about the ability of the government to “restrain them” but I treat that question elsewhere.

I would like to raise another issue at this time which I believe to be integral to the situation mentioned above.

Discussions about the actions of the Federal Reserve during the financial crisis tend to be completely void of any discussion about the actions of the federal government or the Federal Reserve in creating the environment that resulted in the financial collapse.

Leading up to the financial crisis of 2008-2009 was approximated fifty years of governmental actions that created the largest credit inflation in the history of the United States. The gross federal debt of the United States government increased at a compound rate of approximately 9 percent per year from 1961 to the start of the crisis. Monetary policy, throughout this time period, accommodated this growth in debt. And, this period saw the greatest burst of financial innovation and credit creation in world history.

Why did this happen?

Two major reasons: first, the short-run emphasis of the government to sustain high, perhaps unsustainable, levels of employment; second, the goal of the government to put as many Americans in their own home and provide them with a financial “piggybank” to secure their future.

The first reason meant that the government had to keep stimulating the economy to keep people employed in the jobs they had. As a consequence, many American workers did not have the incentive to grow and prepare themselves for the “jobs of the future.” As a consequence, about one out of every four Americans of employment age is “under-employed”! Furthermore, the length of being unemployed has trended upwards from the 1950s and in October 2010 the average duration of unemployment is just about 34 weeks, almost three years. (See “Unemployed and Likely to Stay That Way,”

The second reason meant that the government had to build programs and provide financial innovation and finance so that more people could own their own homes. The inflation that took place in the real estate sector resulted in home ownership becoming the real “piggybank” of the middle class, producing for them the “best” investment they could experience over this time until, of course, the bubble burst.

The federal government set up the environment and the incentives that everyone else had to live within.

Chuck Prince, the former Chairman and CEO of Citigroup, made the now famous statement that “while the music keeps playing, you must keep dancing.”

The environment created by a government that set the example of “living beyond one’s means” created an almost perfect environment for taking financial risk, mismatching maturities, leveraging up debt, and financial innovation. The “Greenspan Put” during the 1990s and early 2000s sustained this environment by providing downside protection thereby creating greater “moral hazard.” In essence, the federal government “kept the music playing” and businesses, both financial and non-financial, had to “keep dancing” in order to remain competitive.

The question was constantly asked by executives, “How can I get a few more basis points return to be competitive with others in the industry?” The answer within such an environment was more leverage, more risk, and new financial innovations. At least, until the load became too heavy to bear.

But, in the rush to “break” companies up or to regulate and “restrain” them from such activity, most people have forgotten that the whole environment and the incentives set up were created by the same people now interested in breaking up these companies or restraining them.

So, within this call for breaking up these companies and regulating them more closely we hear
the same people calling for more government spending, more tax cuts, more quantitative easy on the part of the central bank, and greater welfare benefits to those that are hurting.

This is why the whole scenario seems to be one of trying to drive your car as fast as you can while at the same time trying to drive your car as safely as possible.

You are stepping on the gas and stepping on the car brakes at the same time!

So, where does this discussion take us? Really nowhere.

In my view, the people calling for the federal government to constantly provide fiscal and monetary stimulus to the economy are still in control and I don’t see their demise anytime soon.
People will try to regulate and restrain the financial sector, but, as I have written many times before, they will not be able to be successful. Given the global nature of finance today and the tools brought to the finance industry by information technology, these attempts to regulate and restrain will not succeed.

And, there will be renewed calls for providing social services and payments for those being hurt by the actions mentioned in the preceding two paragraphs. What is really needed to resolve the problems of the modern economy is of a long term nature and our short-sighted politicians will never implement these solutions, at least, anytime soon.

So, we must continue to face a bumpy ride. Stepping on the gas and the brake pedal at the same time produces such a ride.

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