If you spend your time listening to Henry Paulson, treasury secretary of the United States, and Ben Bernanke, chairman of the US Federal Reserve, you would think that there is no way around the bailout. You get to hear scattered reasons about how if there was no bailout, the entire world would collapse. I am not only talking about the $700 billion, but the $5 trillion that is being spent and pledged via different channels of the US government. A closer look at their actions shows that they have little clue about what they are doing or supposed to do. After the collapse of Bear Stearns, these two men had six months to deal with this disastrous problem, but they seemed to have been caught off-guard when it was Lehman’s turn. Of course, they did not start the whole problem, but they certainly have to deal with it.
Economics is supposed to make sense, but many people seem happy to suspend reason in order to believe things that are obviously not true. Thinking that signing a 30- year loan to a very expensive house that you cannot afford will make you rich is ridiculous. That did happen for a few years. Bubbles do grow, but what bubbles do best is burst. One cannot increase income without increasing output, and signing loan papers does not qualify as output. Now, the big banks are getting bailouts and other financial institutions are trying to become banks to qualify for a bailout. The car makers are next in line. Bad businesses are supposed to restructure, and possibly fail. Banks that lose tens of billions of dollars should not get more money. The stronger, better managed banks will take over the failing ones; life will go on. Of course, we will experience extremely difficult times, but the emerging banks will be more stable and better run. Now what you get are people who had nothing to do with the problem having to support those who squandered their money and investors’ money. So, instead of being allowed to fail, like governments do with any normal business, these unhealthy institutions are being artificially propped up.
What is the lesson for the people who lived within their means, saved and bought only what they can afford when the government tries to bail out those who bought houses they clearly could not afford, then refinanced their homes, taking money out to spend on vacations, new cars and flat screen TVs? They are suckers. They could have lived a very fancy life for many years, and then walk away from their mortgage obligations as most with negative home equity are doing. What is the lesson for the banks that did not engage in this mortgage madness when they see the government bailing out the banks who bet big using obscene amounts of leverage? The lesson is that they are stupid because they should have taken more risk, made totally reckless loans, paid their executives millions of dollars a year for a few years, and have the taxpayers foot the bill for their excesses.
But what about systemic risk? Isn’t it too great, you ask?! Well, what do you expect bankers to say when they go to the government asking for money: “Please pay my bonus and help me keep my job”? No. They say, “If you do not help us, the entire system will collapse.” Well, guess what, the system is collapsing. I am happy that my many banker friends get to keep their jobs for now, but I am talking about the entire economy here, not the fortunes of a few bankers. The failure of major banks would have had a drastic effect on the economy but in the end, it would have been less drastic than the outcome we are going to see. And the recovery, ultimately, would have been quicker than it will now be.
Major economies around the world have entered into a recession at the same time. This is really a unique time in history — a very difficult time for countries, companies and families. That said, this is also a time of great opportunities for those investors who are able to properly analyze what is going on, and decide where, how, when, and how much to invest in different assets.
Ziad Ferzly is managing director at Cedarwood Advisors, which provides strategic, financial and investment management services to companies, investment firms, institutions and governments around the globe.