With my daughter working as a new media journalist for Thompson Reuters in New York City, I have taken a special interest in films depicting the crash of 2008. Young people don’t read anymore. They get all their information from TV, computer and movies screens, so live content is more important than ever.
Michael Lewis’ book, “The Big Short --- Inside the Doomsday Machine” is now an engaging movie offering simple explanations of what were very esoteric financial instruments at the time --- instruments that created the fog of war under which borderline fraud could run amuck with impunity.
Beyond just the fraud, there was the fact that investment banks had been allowed to leverage themselves 30 to one, which meant that they only had to lose 3 percent to be wiped out. The previous limit had been 15 to one. A theory at the time, espoused by pillars of financial rectitude like Alan Greenspan and Glen Hubbard, was that financial institutions didn’t need government regulatory restrictions because they had enough common sense and self interest to avoid their own demise. What those seers didn’t appreciate was what I call the “IBG Factor” as in, “I’ll be gone.” Too many people in the world can justify what’s in their short-term self interest, and when the long term won’t matter, to them anyway. all hell can break loose.
Two other movies in recent years bear honorable mention. The first is yet another fictional account based on Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book “Too Big to Fail.” This excellent work focuses on the drama that unfolded during the few weeks of the banking industry’s implosion. It depicts the combined heroic effort by Henry Paulson, Nancy Pelosi, Ben Bernanke and George Bush as they prodded Congress to advance the $700 billion that averted, within hours, the point at which ATM machines around the world were to shut down.
But the best of these films for my money is “Inside Job,” the Oscar-winning documentary of the crash and the personalities behind it. Actual news clips and interviews with some of what we now see as the perpetrators of the era are priceless. Glen Hubbard, Dean of Columbia School of Business, for example, had been Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Bush and at the time a big proponent of relaxing government regulation of financial services. As it turned out in an interview he cut short, Mr. Hubbard failed to acknowledge that he was also on the boards of several major financial services companies. All of this necessitated a new conflict of interest policy at Columbia and spawned a student industry of You Tube comedy skits. Under Mitt Romney, he might have become Treasury Secretary or Chairman of the Fed.
But like Bermuda grass whose deep roots make it difficult to kill, the weakness of the financial system persists today but on a much more massive scale. The Dodd Frank legislation is designed to protect the public, and at least we’ve now had some practice at bailing out the banking industry, but banks with their lobbying resources keep popping back up to undermine the regulations and return to business as usual. No-down-payment loans are back and Collateralized Debt Obligations are now called “Bespoke Tranch Opportunities” as purveyed by Goldman Sachs. Just eleven major banks control over 70 percent of all bank assets. Every effort is being made to defang and un-fund the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which protects small borrowers and corrects former abusive loan practices.
The tragedy of all this has its roots in the combining of the brokerage industry with the banking industry. All of the eleven major institutions are now in both businesses. If you want to make a statement, consider doing business with smaller regional banks and don’t let your securities of individual stocks be held in street name at a major brokerage firm. The two-big-to-fail firms can include your stocks as part of the collateral against which they can borrow for their own accounts. Only $500,000 is protected by the Securities Industry Protection Corporation. It may be a long wait before someone like Bernie Sanders gets elected to fix all of this, but in the meantime if you care, you can vote with your feet and walk your money across town.