Thursday, August 23

Some reflections on the financial crisis

I was thrown into the wolves yesterday. In an academic conference full of economics, finance, politics, philosophy and journalist professors from across the world, this uglyass suited fat old git of a banker shambled in and decided to bollox up their lives. Apparently, for the past three years, they were debating how to fix the finance sector and then decided to invite me in to discuss the financial crisis, (i) what has gone wrong, (ii) what needs fixing, and (iii) how to put things right. Here are some thoughts.

  • Andrew Lo compared the search for reasons and fixes to the Financial Crisis to Rashomon, I would much rather talk about the Blind Men of Hindoostan. We are observing this from London, so the reasons are bit broader than what has been summarised nicely by Andrew Lo and others.
  • What's the problem and what's a symptom? Low interest rates? loose fiscal and monetary policy? housing bubble? subprime mortgage issues? liquidity and solvency issues? originate to distribute? fraud? reward and compensation policies in investment banking? repeal of Glass Stegal? Hubris? Too big to fail? regulatory failure? corporate governance? capital structure discussions - preference setting off debt against tax versus equity, regulatory capture and political contributions, inequalities? global capital imbalance and the dollar as reserve currency? govt push for housing - Freddie and Fannie mae, BSDs and Masters of Universe, risk transfer and risk management policies?
  • What needs fixing? All of the above
  • How to put things right? capital adequacy - Basel III, recapitalisation of banking system, the breakup of investment and retail banks - reintroduction of glass steagal, improved regulatory oversight, changes in comp policy, CoCo bonds, living wills, shrinking banks, etc. etc.

The above were my notes. So after the initial discussions, then questions came fast and furious. Im afraid I was very disruptive. Somebody asked me if the additional regulations were appropriate. I said, yes, the answer is yes. Is it going to avoid another crisis? No, its like saying passing laws against murder and theft will stop murder and theft. Plus all those regulations are actually increasing the possibility that there will be less money to go around.

A professor asked me, what should we teach our students? I said, I don't know about students as I am not a full fledged academic, but I look at my son and tell you the four things I taught him

  1. How to survive on his own, cooking, killing, hunting, growing vegetables, DIY, etc.
  2. Personal financial management, how to manage his own finances and how to be self sufficient, prudent with money, etc.
  3. I have taught him that he needs to have a technical skill, something that he can rely on somebody paying for that all through his life. That can be coding, that can be accounting, that can be engineering, that can be copywriting, something that somebody can and will pay for what you do. If nothing else, learn to dig ditches.
  4. Finally, learn how to sell. Everybody sells. Everybody. Some sell services, some sell ideas, some sell products, some sell themselves. Everybody needs to learn how to sell.

The last thing pisses me off, why don't business schools teach selling? eh? eh? There are about 150 business schools here in the UK. Do you know how many business schools teach sales? THREE. Warwick, Cranfield and Portsmouth. WTF? What do you think business is if its not revenue generating and selling? MORONS! I met with some people in Cranfield and I was pleasantly surprised to note their lovely sales programme. I am going to do something with them..

But the bottom line I told the conference. Remember that banking is an intermediary. And stop ascribing morality to economics. It takes money from people who have excess and gives it to who need it. If you want to reform it, then remove the need for banking.

When people were fulminating about derivatives, I asked a question, how many people here have insurance? Why are you taking insurance? Go home and stop taking insurance. If you cant, then dont fulminate against other people who are looking to protect their assets. But but, you cant slice and dice and and and. I said, you guys are confusing the underlying desire to protect with an instrument. Its like saying you need to ban ferraris because they drive too fast. That’s not going to change the underlying need to protect. People will find some other way to protect themselves.

Then I scared the crap out of them and said, you guys are all having academic pensions and think you are safe from the markets, eh? Let me wake you up, each and every one of you is going to have a poor retirement because there is no money in the pot. The deficits will be made up by the governments squishing your returns and asking you to pay more and work longer. That scared the crap out of them. heh.

My final point was, let the market be (I said I was a libertarian and that prompted some air whistling through the teeth and when I said that that was based on my religious principles – my Indian heritage tells me that I am responsible for my salvation through my deeds – that confused the heck out of these chaps, lol, they cant really complain about my religious beliefs while being against the tea party like / ayn ryandian individual rights business..hehehehehe). You complained about structured products, well, the crash made sure that pretty much a majority of people making and selling structured products have lost their jobs and the products arent there.

But bottom line is, we cannot live like this, spending too much, consuming too much. I said that we are heading for another crash as every sector of the economy, individual, household, corporate and government is trying to deleverage, so there is no demand. Don't assume that the business cycle is banished. So demand zero. ANy external shock like war or natural catastrophe is going to screw up our lives. Which I will welcome, I am hoping for a crash. Pretty much, I am happy to plonk down some money that in the next 5-7 years, we will have another crash/recession. And then hopefully people will wake up and reduce spending, reduce demands, reduce consumption, reduce materialism.

Here’s a great cartoon.

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