From the conservative golf-club grillrooms of La Jolla to the left-wing corners of London, the rage is ubiquitous. After a week when equity prices tumbled nearly 20% and a wave of quasi-bank nationalizations spread around the globe, one wonders if a group of teenage pranksters-those types at M.I.T. who break into the Pentagon's computer system for kicks-didn't infiltrate Wall Street and succeed in a plot to bring the global financial system to its knees.
In retrospect, however, the decision to let Lehman go bankrupt in early September may rank alongside the Federal Reserve Board's 1929 decision to raise interest rates following that ancient stock market crash. Like most Americans, I was all for letting these Wall Street clowns go under and meet the fate we all agree they deserve, all the while doubting any of these endless bailouts would amount to anything positive.
So when I read Princeton University economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman write in mid-September that when the Fed and Treasury Department let Lehman go under, they were playing Russian roulette with most chambers of the revolver loaded, I was skeptical. In retrospect, he was 100% right, as the global banking system moved from the ICU into the emergency room within days. Since then the economy and the markets spiraled into chaos, while cargo ships were left stranded around the world because they couldn't get letters of credit.
In early September, Paulson and Bernanke told Congress if they just gave Fannie and Freddie $200 billion, everything would be peachy. Two weeks later, Hank was on his knees begging House Speaker Pelosi for $700 billion. Interestingly enough, at this year's Financial Advisor Symposium in Chicago on October 14, both First Trust's Brian Wesbury and Loomis Sayles' Dan Fuss told attendees that Fannie and Freddie had yet to tap one dime of the $200 billion that Washington gave them. Go figure.
The stock market got sick when Congress rejected the bailout, but a week later after our legislature approved the bailout, it suffered the biggest one-week drop since 1929. Now Paulson is considering the European solution of partially nationalizing certain banks. Some think $50 billion to back up Lehman-while making sure shareholders were wiped out-could have saved taxpayers a couple of trillion.
In the past, it was left-wing dictators like Vladimir Lenin and Hugo Chavez who nationalized banks. It's a new world today. Now some bankers are begging for government assistance, while totalitarian dictators are getting margin calls from their brokers. Imagine the poor margin clerk who has to give Putin the call for cash.
We'll survive this, but the sad thing is none of this had to happen. There were plenty of regulations on the books that could have prevented this if they'd been enforced, and new laws could well be counterproductive. Still, the move to require mark-to-market accounting at the same time as financial institutions were permitted to raise their leverage ratios from 12:1 to 40:1 takes the cake. The notion that financial institutions could hedge with 100% certainty against a 3% swing in asset prices, which is what a firm needs to do if it is leveraged 40:1, was lunacy.
Maybe that's what it takes to create one of the great buying opportunities for equities in our lifetime.
Evan Simonoff, Editor-in-chief
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your opinion.