Monday, September 29, 2008

2008 - a new depression?

In reading news articles about Congress' rejection of the $700 billion bailout, I stumbled across disturbing testimony to the US House of Representatives' Committee of Financial Services regarding the parallels between the stock market crash of 1929 and the present economic situation.

The reader, if bold enough to undertake such a deep reading, should be quite disturbed by the fact that the testimony was given almost a year ago...before the subprime meltdown really got into swing and we reached the current state of crisis.

Some interesting quotes,
"Your predecessors on the Senate Banking Committee, in the celebrated Pecora Hearings of 1933 and 1934, laid the groundwork for the modern edifice of financial regulation. I suspect that they would be appalled at the parallels between the systemic risks of the 1920s and many of the modern practices that have been permitted to seep back in to our financial markets."

"Since repeal of Glass Steagall in 1999, after more than a decade of de facto inroads, super-banks have been able to re-enact the same kinds of structural conflicts of interest that were endemic in the 1920s -- lending to speculators, packaging and securitizing credits and then selling them off, wholesale or retail, and extracting fees at every step along the way. And, much of this paper is even more opaque to bank examiners than its counterparts were in the 1920s."

"A last parallel is ideological -- the nearly universal conviction, 80 years ago and today, that markets are so perfectly self-regulating that government's main job is to protect property rights, and otherwise just get out of the way.

We all know the history. The regulatory reforms of the New Deal saved capitalism from its own self-cannibalizing instincts, and a reliable, transparent and regulated financial economy went on to anchor an unprecedented boom in the real economy."

"Mr. Chairman, we are living on borrowed time. And the vulnerability goes far beyond the spillover effects of the sub-prime debacle.

We need to step back and consider the purpose of regulation. Financial regulation is too often understood as merely protecting consumers and investors. The New Deal model is actually a relatively indirect one, since it relies more on mandated disclosures, and less on prohibited practices."

And one last bit...
"One last parallel: I am chilled, as I'm sure you are, every time I hear a high public official or a Wall Street eminence utter the reassuring words, "The economic fundamentals are sound." Those same words were used by President Hoover and the captains of finance, in the deepening chill of the winter of 1929-1930. They didn't restore confidence, or revive the asset bubbles.

The fact is that the economic fundamentals are sound -- if you look at the real economy of factories and farms, and internet entrepreneurs, and retailing innovation and scientific research laboratories. It is the financial economy that is dangerously unsound. And as every student of economic history knows, depressions, ever since the South Sea bubble, originate in excesses in the financial economy, and go on to ruin the real economy."

Truly, those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.

The original article is very long, and very heavy in its economic details. I don't pretend to understand all of it, though I do get the jist of most of it.

In the end, it's very frightening, as are the times we live in.

Here's hoping we're not on the cusp of the next Great Depression...

No comments: