Monday, March 21, 2016

It's Time to put the Blame for 'The Great Recession' Firmly Where it Belongs.

This is a great interview with Michael Burry, the actual market genius (played by actor Christian Bale) from the movie 'The Big Short' -- and yes, this guy is on-point. People need to stop trying to lay the blame at the feet 'unfettered free markets' while trying to absolve all of the actors in the shit-show that was the Great Recession. There's plenty of blame to go around -- but especially so for the US Government, the Federal Reserve, and GSE's like FME and FRC.

On to some snippets from the interview...

NYMAG: When I spoke to some of the other real-life characters from The Big Short, I was surprised to hear that they thought that financial reform was pretty effective and that the system was much safer. Michael Lewis disagreed. In your opinion, did the crash result in any positive changes?

Michael Burry: Unfortunately, not many that I can see. The biggest hope I had was that we would enter a new era of personal responsibility. Instead, we doubled down on blaming others, and this is long-term tragic. Too, the crisis, incredibly, made the biggest banks bigger. And it made the Federal Reserve, an unelected body, even more powerful and therefore more relevant. The major reform legislation, Dodd-Frank, was named after two guys bought and sold by special interests, and one of them should be shouldering a good amount of blame for the crisis. Banks were forced, by the government, to save some of the worst lenders in the housing bubble, then the government turned around and pilloried the banks for the crimes of the companies they were forced to acquire. The zero interest-rate policy broke the social contract for generations of hardworking Americans who saved for retirement, only to find their savings are not nearly enough. And the interest the Federal Reserve pays on the excess reserves of lending institutions broke the money multiplier and handcuffed lending to small and midsized enterprises, where the majority of job creation and upward mobility in wages occurs. Government policies and regulations in the postcrisis era have aided the hollowing-out of middle America far more than anything the private sector has done. These changes even expanded the wealth gap by making asset owners richer at the expense of renters. Maybe there are some positive changes in there, but it seems I fail to see beyond the absurdity.

NYM: How do you think all of this affected people's perception of the System, in general?

MB: The postcrisis perception, at least in the media, appears to be one of Americans being held down by Wall Street, by big companies in the private sector, and by the wealthy. Capitalism is on trial. I see it a little differently. If a lender offers me free money, I do not have to take it. And if I take it, I better understand all the terms, because there is no such thing as free money. That is just basic personal responsibility and common sense. The enablers for this crisis were varied, and it starts not with the bank but with decisions by individuals to borrow to finance a better life, and that is one very loaded decision. This crisis was such a bona fide 100-year flood that the entire world is still trying to dig out of the mud seven years later. Yet so few took responsibility for having any part in it, and the reason is simple: All these people found others to blame, and to that extent, an unhelpful narrative was created. Whether it’s the one percent or hedge funds or Wall Street, I do not think society is well served by failing to encourage every last American to look within. This crisis truly took a village, and most of the villagers themselves are not without some personal responsibility for the circumstances in which they found themselves. We should be teaching our kids to be better citizens through personal responsibility, not by the example of blame.

NYM: Where do we stand now, economically?

MB: Well, we are right back at it: trying to stimulate growth through easy money. It hasn’t worked, but it’s the only tool the Fed’s got. Meanwhile, the Fed’s policies widen the wealth gap, which feeds political extremism, forcing gridlock in Washington. It seems the world is headed toward negative real interest rates on a global scale. This is toxic. Interest rates are used to price risk, and so in the current environment, the risk-pricing mechanism is broken. That is not healthy for an economy. We are building up terrific stresses in the system, and any fault lines there will certainly harm the outlook.

NYM: What makes you most nervous about the future?

MB: Debt. The idea that growth will remedy our debts is so addictive for politicians, but the citizens end up paying the price. The public sector has really stepped up as a consumer of debt. The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is leveraged 77:1. Like I said, the absurdity, it just befuddles me.

The absurdity is befuddling, indeed.

Also, let's get the details straight. The crisis pervaded almost 1,000 out of the United States' 6,900 banks, particularly the largest ones that got involved in the sub-prime market, mortgage-backed securities, and credit-default swaps. Not all US banks got mixed up in all of these toxic assets. Most banks stayed pretty conservative and smart with their lending and risk management and didn't need a bailout. I actually worked for one of these east-coast banks for three years immediately following the recession -- and they very much took advantage of the situation. Most of them weathered the financial crisis very well, considering.

Additionally, I continue to hear and read this utter nonsense that 'economic deregulation caused the crisis'. It's just complete and total silliness. This alleged 'economic deregulation' that all of these ignorant Pro-regressives like to refer to involved a 1999 repeal of two provisions (not the whole act, which is usually the first sign that the person you're talking to is regurgitating half-truths) of what was called the Glass-Steagall Act (also known as the 'U.S. Banking Act of 1933'). These two provisions separated commercial banking and investment banking activities so as to try to keep these industries isolated from eachother within the same company. However, the repeal of these provisions of this act had nothing to do with what caused the crisis. If it did, then Canada, which was definitely affected by the crisis, would have experienced many of the same problems. Well, it didn't, even though Canada didn't have anything like Glass-Steagall. Canada weathered the crisis pretty well, actually -- they certainly fared a lot better than the US, all while mixing commercial and investment banking since, well, forever in their banking history.

But, hey, don't just take my word for it -- take it from Former Deputy Governor Jean Boivin (2010-2012), himself, of the (Central) Bank of Canada. They had a sharp, deep recession, and immediately bounced right back -- faster, even, than the past couple recessions.

Hell, the entire claim of 'economic deregulation under Bush' is just absurd, even apart from all of this. Looking at the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), there has not been a single president, since at least Jimmy Carter (elected in 1976), and I'm pretty sure since even before FDR (obviously), who actually cut regulations on net. As a matter of fact, individual regulatory restrictions increased anywhere from a 57,000 minimum under Bill Clinton, to up to 105,000 under Barack Obama -- and Barry's numbers are based on stats only two years into his second term. At that rate, he'll hit 140,000 additional regulatory restrictions over the course of his presidency. The last I checked, the CFR currently stood at an approximated whopping 160,000 pages long. The whole idea or claim from pro-regressives, et al, that we have some vestige of a 'free market' -- is nothing short of complete and total  willful delusion.

Back to the factors that played into the Great Recession. Yes, there's plenty of blame to go around -- but where does it start, really? Certain actors set the stage for this all to take place. It was all done with good intentions, of course. Home ownership for all -- regardless of income, savings, or credit-worthiness! Near-zero interest rates, always! Infinite economic growth and increasing home prices, forever and ever! Equities, through the roof, with no end in sight! Central planning and micro-managing has defeated the free market! Consume everything! Produce nothing! Finance debt with more debt! Dig holes and fill them back up again! Move water with a bucket from one end of the pool, with water splashing out everywhere, and dump it into the other end of the pool, to end up with more water! See? All of our contrived and/or broken measuring instruments say-so!

But you know what they say... the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And it's never paved as well as it is with the arrogance of government bureaucrats.

The US Government expanded the Community Reinvestment Act under Clinton, pushing more people towards home-ownership that often weren't ready for it. They pressed the issue further by mounting increasing regulations over the financial and banking industry, punishing banks if they didn't lend to riskier individuals and families, and rewarding them if they did. You've got all of the other major financial regulations -- one for every letter of the alphabet, and then some. Throw into this mix a Federal Reserve that sets absurdly artificially low interest rates for extended periods of time, within a highly materialistic culture that loves to live beyond its means and is all too eager to accept easy credit -- and you naturally have a bubbling cauldron ready to explode.

I am and have long been with people like Michael Burry on where we were and we're headed. The path we're marching towards is a minefield that could set off a global financial crisis the likes of which we've never seen, and we're trying to fix the same old problems with the same old tools that caused those problems in the first place. Now, the Federal Reserve is stuck between a rock and a hard place -- the US economy is addicted to low interest rates, like a heroin addict. If it doesn't get its fix, it goes into a ruthless withdrawal. Eventually, the same old dose doesn't work its magic and bring the same euphoric high, anymore, and so now there's talk of entertaining the possibility of negative interest rate territory to get the same effect. Near-zero rates aren't having the effect they used to, anymore. Even increasing the Federal Funds Rate a measly quarter of a point sent the markets reeling. Yes, a major factor in the equities drop was an 'oversupply' of oil, but the rate hike couldn't have come at a seemingly worse time.

In the end, the US Government and Federal reserve is just kicking a snowball further down the road that continues to get bigger and bigger. Eventually, that snowball will roll up on a hill, and roll right back down on each and every one of us in an avalanche.

Source on the regulatory restriction numbers, here.

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