Saturday, September 20, 2008

Pay “Back”?

It was an interesting week, to say the least—all the more so since I spent it surrounded by financial advisers.

The downs and—eventually—ups of the market, the absorption of storied brands, and the likely disappearance of others were, as you might imagine, fodder for a lot of cocktail banter and the occasional moment of financial gallows humor. But, after what is surely one of the most momentous weeks in memory, the question for most is—now what?

IMHO, most investors realize that stock markets will go up and down—even, as was the case this week, when those movements are deep and largely unanticipated. Those who rode out the tumult are doubtless relieved that they did (having the wisdom to “stay the course” is a time-honored rationalization for inertia). As one adviser told me, the only person that gets hurt on a rollercoaster is the one who tries to get off in the middle of the ride.

On the other hand, when malfeasance and/or malevolence seem to underlie those dramatic swings—and there are rumored culprits aplenty for this current mess—we should not be surprised that their confidence in our free market system of investment, their trust in those “stay the course” assurances, is shaken.

It’s not just that loans were made to people who couldn’t afford them—by people who shouldn’t have made them in the first place. Nor that those loans’ increasingly generous terms were encouraged by politicians pandering to constituents and “constituencies” and—let’s face it—driven by the greed of both lenders and borrowers willing to believe that there really was a free lunch. That that “free” lunch fed on itself, fueling prices that no one ever thought were sustainable over the long term—but that just about everyone thought could go on for just a bit longer—wasn’t the real issue…though that, of course, provided the impetus for even more bad loans that wound up being “packaged” in bundles that purported to provide diversity, even as they served to obscure just how tainted the underlying bundle had become (and just as surely, in some cases, served to rationalize a suspension of prudent evaluation).

That those chickens eventually came home to roost—and with a vengeance exacerbated by short-selling “vultures” (doubtless cousins of the speculators that have driven gasoline prices to record highs with little or no market justification)—should have surprised no one, for we have seen this cycle repeated time and again.

What may be different this time—at least in terms of its visibility—is the actions and “leadership” of those who will, despite their complicity in the debacle, walk away with more money than most Americans will see in their entire lives.

That, and the pervasive sense that “we” are paying for those exorbitant exit packages—with our retirement savings. IMHO, my love for our free markets notwithstanding, it’s time some of “them” paid for what they’ve done to the rest of us.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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