Saturday, May 08, 2010

Grecian 'Formula'

While the markets were in an apparent freefall last week, I could hear former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulsen on the TV in the next room telling (lecturing?) the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that the problems that led to the 2008 meltdown could, and should, have been dealt with sooner, and that we could, and should, have moved faster—and with more to stave off the crisis. The criticism then—as it was last week in Europe—was that this was a time to act, not to think; that if we didn’t act—act now, act decisively, and without question—well, the results would be catastrophic.

It is a theme that runs through Paulsen’s recent book, “On the Brink,” as he drags the reader from one impending crisis to another during those fateful weeks of 2008. In Paulsen’s retelling, those who back his “need for speed” are thoughtful and prescient; those who don’t, well, their motivations are generally painted as either blinded to the seriousness of the situation or hopelessly ideological. From the former Goldman Sachs CEO’s perspective, we weren’t bailing out Wall Street, we were saving the very financial system itself (though he was willing to let the politicians claim that they were saving jobs). And perhaps we were, so we set aside our doubts and concerns, gave the experts what they said they needed—and plenty of it—and hoped they knew what they were doing.

Now, in fairness, the financial system did stabilize and the markets did—eventually—return to some semblance of normality. Until ….

Now I, perhaps like many of you, am not yet quite sure what to make of the crisis bubbling in Greece, much less the response of the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and what that might mean to us. But the chorus—we must act, act now, act decisively, and without question, or else—well, it’s a little too familiar to those of us who thought we had already been there, done that. But, once again, we’re told that if we don’t, things will get worse, much worse—and we’re (again) afraid that’s not an exaggeration.

Déjà View

But make no mistake: There are some clear and disturbing parallels between this “rescue” and the ones that have gone before. Once again you have a sudden infusion of apparent wealth on paper that fueled a borrowing binge that fueled a spending spree that fueled more borrowing, until things reached a point where the system was no longer willing to loan money (despite lucrative fees)—at which point, the whole thing should fall apart. But at that point the outstanding debt is so large that that same system that empowered that situation now claims that failure is not an option. It’s not just that bank, or that automobile company, or that country…it’s all the other things that depend on them….

We’ve seen this before—and more than once—from investment banking to the foreclosed house down the street.

Now, if this was your compulsive gambler of a brother-in-law on the wrong side of another “can’t miss” bet that put him (and perhaps your sister) in trouble with his bookie’s “collection agency,” you’d doubtless bail him out, and insist that he check into rehab (at least the first time). Indeed, that’s what the Greek “austerity plan” is all about: raising the retirement age to 63 (from 61), freezing pay and cancelling year-end bonuses for public-sector workers (no simple thing that, when something north of a third of the population works for the government), hiking the nation’s VAT to 23% from 21%, and cutting retirement pensions by 14% (by some accounts, those pensions currently provide an 80% replacement ratio, adjusted for wage inflation).

This, of course, is also what set off those riots in Greece last week—and the concerns about what that portends for the implementation of this new bailout, and its ability to stem the tide, took a bit of “austerity” out of all of our retirement security last week.

Once again politicians have been led (many willingly and happily) down the primrose path by so-called financial experts—told that there was, after all, a free lunch; lured into a sense of complacency and then, abruptly, told something else. It is a formula that has, again, taken us to what is being painted as a pivotal point, a crisis beyond which a chasm lies. We worry—that they are right, that it won’t be the last, that we’re not doing enough, or that we’re doing too much - again.

And then, somewhere in the dim reaches of consciousness perhaps, we realize that the folks telling us what we absolutely have to do now—without thinking, without questioning, without hesitation—look suspiciously like the folks who got us into this mess in the first place.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

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