No, this isn’t a prediction of mine, but the title of the book I’ve just finished reading. Written by Wall Street Journal reporter Roger Lowenstein and published in 2010, it traces the build-up to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008.
Isn’t it amazing how quickly we forget how grim it looked and sounded back then, when American banks such as Lehmans and other ginormous corporations went under or were bought and/or propped up by the US government, and it looked like the next Great Depression would happen?
It was just over three years ago now, but in the meantime various bailouts and much money-printing helped keep the wheels of commerce and consumerism spinning – at least for a while longer. And while they keep turning, we are led to believe that the problem is over. We may have a mild recession, we’re told, but the system will right itself in time and we’ll be able to get back to economic growth and raising our so-called standard of living.
I read this book aiming to understand a little better how it happened, and hoping to gain a view on how the capitalist system that the US has bestowed (or inflicted) upon the western world must be changed to turn things around to a sustainable system rather than business as usual which is merely delaying the inevitable.
You see – and I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging – I was one of those who sort of saw it coming, back before the experts were saying that “in hindsight the GFC was bound to happen but no-one could have predicted it beforehand”. It was in fact predictable, and this book shows how the storm gathered. Greed, irrational optimism and adherence to a credo that “values (particularly of real estate) always rise” combined to make most of us blind to what the dark clouds were telling us.
The author of The End of Wall Street is not an expert business reporter but simply a thorough researcher with a good reporter’s way of simplifying complex facts and parallel developments into a consistent, readable narrative. Not that I understood it all – but then not many people back then seemed to fully understand what the Wall Street traders in stocks, equities, securities, bonds, mortgage swaps, CDOs etc were actually doing. But I think I’ve got the gist of it now, thanks to Roger Lowenstein.
What the traders and banks were in fact doing was speculating on the value of anything they could get their hands on or could imagine mathematically (particularly future values), and more often than not with no inkling of the value or riskiness of those things. The name of the game was not owning anything but rather moving money, IOUs, stocks, bonds, mortgages, sliced mortgage securities, and other intangibles around between themselves, collecting a percentage along the way with each transaction along with any capital gain.
They made the hamster’s treadmill spin faster and faster (going nowhere in particular, of course) until, one day, it seized up. Perhaps a bearing broke or a spoke snagged. The Wall Street traders and banks were left with nothing tangible, nothing of intrinsic value, and no way of borrowing money to pay for the stuff they had in their hands or the debts they owed when the treadmill snagged.
Now we’re seeing something similar in effect, though different in substance, in the Euro crisis. All bailout plans are merely attempts to keep the hamster’s treadmill moving, short-term ways of keeping cash moving around by borrowing from anywhere and using the period of time before repayment is due to work out some way of doing it again to keep the lenders happy.
Anyone who publicly says what is pretty obvious – that this cannot be sustained even in the medium term – is considered an unwanted pessimist or doom-merchant. The goal of the wheel-greasing process is to maintain enough confidence among consumers and money dealers to see the system through another day, week or month. The horizon appears to be little further than this.
My view remains as I wrote in August in this post, that it’s the change of tide we should be reacting to, not the waves. The tide is coming in and we’re the children on the beach trying to build defences and diversion channels to stop the individual waves from destroying our sandcastles. In the end, the tide will win.
As Roger Lowenstein concludes, the lessons are there for the learning, and if we don’t learn them and make the changes necessary to our capitalist system, we will continue to get it wrong.