Sunday, September 14, 2008

Financial Collapse?

Seems that principles may be trumping common sense today with the failed deals to back Lehman and AIG. It's not wise for the Fed and U.S. Treasury to give a lecture about moral hazard on Deck 5 as the Titanic is sinking.

Only one group has the credibility to prevent the collapse of significant U.S. banks(and later others in Europe) -- the Fed and U.S. Treasury. It appears that fear of indulging moral hazard (a principle) is prompting the Fed "to teach banks a lesson" today by allowing Lehman to collapse.

Lehman was the oldest bank on Wall Street. Lehman was relatively trusted and honest. Although it's true that Lehman has been circling the drain for a year -- see our prior blog post.

The core problem is that government economists assume people are rational. They assume that lessons will be learned and trust will be acquired by the most honest.

I'm from a psychiatry background. I don't think I've ever met a rational person. People respond to some rational direction for a while, but over time they are more likely to respond to incentives. The incentive structures on Wall Street (dictated by the Fed, Congress, and the SEC) are seriously deficient in this understanding of endemic irrationality and the limitless nature of uncontained greed.

The initial prevention was to impose adequate regulations (in advance) that would account for the lack of responsibility and short-term incentive structures on Wall Street. People are people (especially on Wall Street), and they will grab as many cookies from the cookie jar as possible if the lid is left open.

Lecturing Wall Streeters after they get diabetes is not helpful. Their diabetes has become contagious, and is infecting anyone within sneezing distance.

Locking the cookie jar, or limiting the outflows, is the only prevention. But it's not a solution now. We all have diabetes now, and we need our financial insulin (so to speak). But the private sector has run out of insulin.

The counterparty risk of Lehman's intertwined web of positions is unknown ($2 trillion in interrelated positions?). And that will spook the markets for weeks if not months as the carnage is sorted out (if it can be). Worse, the markets will continue to suffer as the disease spreads.

One thing I haven't seen in my (admittedly short) lifetime is fear that swelled into panic that caused a global financial collapse. I still haven't quite seen it, but we're getting close if no one (ahem, FED!!!) steps up to back the sagging real-estate linked assets of AIG and Lehman.

When ideology trumps practicality at the highest levels of policy making, we're all in trouble.

The Hong Kong government supported the Hang Seng in 1997 to prevent collapse, and it profited handsomely when offloading those shares (bought on the cheap) many years later. There are precedents for government support to excessively fearful markets, to restore confidence. With mortgage-related assets so cheap (and no willing buyers of size), and with the goverment inextricably bound to insure the performance of many banks anyway (through the FDIC), it makes little sense for the Fed and Treasury to dither.

Safe Investing!

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