Since the financial crisis began in earnest in September 2008, I have read 10 books on the subject. Additionally, I got my MBA in finance from the University of Texas. After a lot of thought and a lot of pondering, I am going to put together my analysis of the center of our nation’s economic woes, Wall Street.
The financial industry is sort of a con game. Although Bernie Madoff is the poster child for malfeasance, the entire financial industry’s business model is not all that different than Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The financial industry is 100% a confidence game. Back in the early days, in fact, banks used to routinely put the word “trust” in their titles because that’s what they were selling. Still today, banks place themselves in fancy buildings with flashy signs, and big sturdy vaults all to give the illusion of stability. This trust is the essence of the banking industry, and without it, it could not exist.
What are we trusting? We are trusting the fact that if we give the bank our money, that when we want it, they will give it to us. Pure and simple. Now, once they have our money, they immediately go and burn that money. In today’s world, they don’t want our money to be idle, so it is spent in some way. It may go out as a small business loan, or your banker might build himself the nicest house in the neighborhood, but either way, the money is spent. So in essence, your money is gone. Their only hope is that when you actually want your money back, that some other guy is depositing money at the same time. Then and only then will you get your money back.
So here’s problem number one. I have lost all confidence in this system. As I have already documented, I have closed all my brokerage accounts, and I have been moving well over half of my savings to Brazil. But the issue is what happens if more people than little ole me start to feel the same way? This is the nightmare scenario for the banks. They are selling confidence and if we are not buying then the game is over. It is called a run on a bank. Once confidence is lost, it happens in a heartbeat. No one can say when it will happen, but when it does, it will happen in a blink of an eye. Because it happens so fast, very few people are unscathed.
The very reason the Fed exists is to stop runs on banks. It is to give the banks money when too many people want their money back. The Fed was created in 1913 and that was the purpose to instill even more confidence in the banking system. So let’s make it clear, that’s what the Fed does – bail out banks. When banks screw up, and hence lose customer confidence, then the Fed comes in and saves the day. Banks are impervious to screw ups because of the Fed. If that were all the Fed did, things would be fine, but unfortunately, in recent years, the Fed believes its role is much broader.
It all goes back to a guy named Alan Greenspan who served as Chairman of the Fed under Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Bush, Bill Clinton, and George Walker Bush. Greenspan believed that he could and should control the entire economy. He believed that if he printed more money than the economy needed, that economy would grow to accomodate the cash infusion. So that’s what he did.
I will leave it for economic historians to determine the damage this idiot policy has ravaged on the world and the American economy. But there is one group alone that has clearly benefited – Wall Street. The more money the Fed printed, the higher stock market went. Then as we all know, Greenspan put the money machine in high gear, and housing prices went through the roof in the last decade. Wall Street profits went through the roof under Greenspan’s rule. He must be the love of their lives.
Worse yet, Wall Street has crept into all aspects of government oversight to the point where there really is no oversight. The Fed has become an extension of Wall Street. It is the proverbial fox watching the hen house, and they know it and they love it.
One of the books that I read was called 13 Bankers. It states and proves clearly that our banking system is an oligarchy. The definition of oligarchy is when financial power becomes political power. It is painfully clear that has happened with the powerful banking lobby and our feckless Congress. The reality is that Wall Street has the ability to redirect so much of our money to their own pockets, that they can buy Congress 10 times over.
There is no other way to say it. Our system is corrupt. Our banking system is not to serve the American people, nor the American economy, it is to serve itself. It is a living and breathing entity and it will spare nothing to maintain its existence.
Here’s the saddest part. I was reading a history book with my nephew, Ryan, last July. We were reading about how the American economy in the late 1800’s were over taken by monopolies the largest of which was the banking monopoly ran by JP Morgan. Then Teddy Roosevelt (a Republican no less!) ran a campaign stating that he would BUST THE TRUSTS. He got elected and so he did. Can you imagine a Republican running on such a campaign? More over, if a Democrat ran they would never win. I believe that Wall Street’s tentacles reach into the election process much greater than when Teddy Roosevelt and JP Morgan did battle. Of course, this should make all of us sad, because there seems to be no solution in sight. Other than hitting bottom once we all lose confidence in the entire system.
Big Business Bias
I have several close friends that work on Wall Street, and one of them remarked that Obama is anti business. It should not come as a surpise. Obama is starting to figure out that Wall Street is the root of the problem, and that scares them. But let’s be clear. Wall Street is NOT about business. At best, Wall Street is a proxy for the largest businesses. The biggest of big. It is stunning for me to see the dichotomy. The Dow is up, large company profits are up. But…. I was in Myrtle Beach and had a party. Many of the people at the party were owners of small businesses. Not one of them were unemployed, but all of them were down significantly in revenues and income. That’s what Wall Street doesn’t get. Employment is bad, but it is only part of the picture. Small business is suffering a lot right now. Many of them are near broke but they are not unemployed.
As the owner of a small business, it is really frustrating. We all want to be successful, but if you want to be successful, and by successful I mean rich, then there is only legal way – Wall Street. I know a lot of millionaires and a handful of billionaires, and without exception they all have reached this financial status through Wall Street. Heck, I would not have gotten to where I am if Gateway were not a publicly traded company. This is not the American dream. The market should reward good companies, not Wall Street. But the reality is that the deck is getting more and more stacked against small companies. This is very anti American.
America is starting to feel more like Europe in this way, which makes me sad. Small business and the dream of making the business big is what makes America great. That dream does not really exist much in Europe, and it is slowly dying in the US too.
So that’s what Wall Street loves, monopolies. In the last 10 years, all we see are more and more mergers. The airline industries are merging. The ISP’s are merging. When two big companies merge, Wall Street wins. In fact, Wall Street coordinates and hatches the entire deal. Wall Street wants more monopolies. The reason is to increase profits. The definition of a monopoly is that they have price control over a market. You see it everywhere. Monopolies are increasing prices to improve profits. Then of course, when profits go up, Wall Street rewards them by forcing their stock price up.
The losers are the consumers. We are paying more because there is not competition in the market. This is exactly what Teddy Roosevelt made illegal. As I made the point before, I cannot imagine a candidate Republican or Democrat that would take a stand like Teddy Roosevelt.
0% Interest Rates
Why does 0% interest rates exist today? Interest rates are generally thought to be the price of money. In economic terms, prices are determined by the intersection of supply and demand. This means for a price to be zero, there is infinite supply! That’s right, we have infinite money. The Great American Money Press can spew out an infinite supply of money. That’s American ingenuity at its worst.
But the story gets worse. We see it all around us. I can’t borrow money at zero interest. My company can’t borrow money at that. No one can get a mortgage at that rate. In fact, the opposite is true. The banks are making it more difficult to get a loan or a mortgage. Although the banks can get money for free, they don’t want us to have it.
So where is the money going? Back into Wall Street of course. The stock market is up, and it seems that all those crappy mortgage back security, they seem to be a hot product. It makes a certain amount of sense. If you are a person that is preparing for retirement, you can’t hit your goal with zero interest rates. So you have no choice to move your money out of savings or certificate and deposit and put it in the stock market. Go Wall Street. There is no doubt that zero percent interest is good for Wall Street.
But wait a minute! Here’s another way to look at interest rates. Interest rates are often referred to as the time value of money. By pegging interest rates at zero, the Fed and Wall Street are telling us that the future has no value. They aren’t spending our money now, they are spending our children’s money, and their children after that.
No matter whether you like 0% interest rates or not (I don’t), we all can agree that this absurdity is unsustainable. But then what happens? As soon as we return to normal, a lot of bad things happen. 0% interest rates will immediately impact the stock market, and stock prices will fall as money retreats to less risky investments. More over, the economy will decline. When the economy declines, then the stock market will get hit again. That’s when the panic sets in, and we have a full out crash. Do you think that anyone at Wall Street would even let a chance that would happen.
So basically, we are stuck with 0% interest rates. That makes me want to puke.
The Masters of Debt
We all know it. Our federal government is addicted to spending more money than it has. Worse yet, it goes to the state and city level. I remember when I was a very novice investor in the early 90’s. My broker called me that the new thing was municipal bonds. Since cities collected taxes, they were sure to pay back. What could go wrong? I didn’t buy it then, and I don’t buy it now. We all should learn to live within our means, but Wall Street allows us to live in a little fantasy world.
Do you think that when Obama wants to run up another trillion in debt that he gives the PM of China a call?
“Hey, it’s me Barack. I just burned through a trillion, and another trillion to bide me over. I swear I can quit any time.”
Of course not. Obama’s not involved at all. It’s the Fed and Wall Street that are making the deals with the Chinese government. I do worry that one day the Chinese will get tired of our shit.
If you listen to the Wall Street talking heads, they claim to be the job creator over the last 10 years for the American economy. Remember all the credit default swaps? Well I guess they did create a few jobs, and they certainly paid well, but were they really productive for the economy? Essentially, Wall Street has become the bookie for the economy. Of course, their customers are other people in Wall Street. So if one Wall Street bank bets $1M with another bank that housing prices go up, that counts at $1M of GDP to our economy. But it isn’t really. We got our heads up our butt.
I am intentionally trying to paint a bad picture. Almost anyone I know will try to paint a rosier picture, but the reality is that the underpinnings for financial disaster are all in place. As I have been writing this, there seems to be a glimmer of hope for a solution. I’ll try to cover that in a different post in the future.