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Monday: Who appointed the financial wizards as Gods anyway?

Greed is Good Gekko

"Greed is Good" Gekko

Automakers are on the frontpage of the NYTimes again today.  It looks like someone is trying to replace the finance giants smarting asses with a new whipping boy.  Who can feel much sympathy for the guys who ran Detroit?  They’ve known for at least 30 years that the oil would run out and that we would all have to switch over to more fuel efficient cars.   Back in the early eighties, they had even made some lame attempts to produce some of them.  But they were poorly designed, half-hearted attempts, as if someone was forcing them to eat spinach.  The Japanese killed them in the small car area and that, combined with an oil glut, caused the automakers to forget all about fuel efficiency.  They partied like it was 1999.

Of course, it is the union workers who have to pay for that.  Well, naturally.  It goes without saying.  Why does it go without saying that the unions must pay for the mistakes of the guys in the boardroom?  I don’t know.  It just is.

And now, bonddad at Huffington Post tells us we shouldn’t get down on the finance guys either.  They provide a valuable service:

But that does not mean that finance in and of itself is evil or that all people involved in this area of the economy are corrupt. I have often read the criticism that “The US doesn’t make things anymore” as if creating financial structures is somehow less valid than making a physical good. In fact, both activities are equally valid and should be treated as such. Individuals who prudently manage other’s money and take well-thought out risks provide a valuable service to the economy; they should not be publicly vilified because other members of their profession have made huge mistakes. In essence, there are good practitioners and bad practitioners in any profession; but the presence of bad practitioners does not nullify the contributions of the professions as a whole.

In addition, many finance people provided invaluable advice to their clients throughout this recession — advice which preserved their client’s money during an incredibly difficult time. Market watchers such as Barry Ritholtz, Mish Shedlock and Tim Iacona all provided invaluable advice to their clients and the public at large. Yet the criticism of finance groups all people in this industry together — or provides asterisks and caveats regarding industry professionals who are agreed with while still spilling a fair amount of bile at the industry as a whole. Throughout this recession I am often reminded of the public’s attitudes about criminal defense lawyers — a profession which is ridiculed and roundly criticized on a regular basis until you need one. Then you can bet your bottom dollar that you want Johhny Cochran at your side saying, “If the glove does not fit, you must acquit.” The point is broad brush strokes about any profession are inappropriate at best.

In short, Dr. Krugman’s analysis is wrong. Securitization has provided many benefits to the economy as a whole. It is not the sole problem with the current situation; we arrived at out present crisis because of a combination of numerous ill-thought out events and decisions. Finally, finance is not in and of itself bad and not all “wizards were frauds.” Securitization has been around a long enough time to indicate that properly done it does not pose a threat to the economy as a whole. The current mess is not solely caused by securitization, but instead a combination of many inter-related events.

In short, I respectfully disagree with Dr. Krugman’s analysis.

Is it true that the US doesn’t make things anymore?  Probably not.  Oh, sure, we don’t really make the world’s steel, appliances, furniture, textiles, computers and now, cars.  I think we can still give the world a run for the money in munitions, aircraft and pharmaceticals.  Agriculture is still pretty strong, though it’s mostly owned by big agribusiness.  But mostly, we have a lot of small businesses and the service industry.  Thank God we still have the finance industry.  It would never put out shoddy or poorly designed products like the auto industry.

Heck, didn’t we all gladly turn in our pension funds for cash-balance plans that we could manage ourselves?  And weren’t the finance wizards so very helpful in telling us how to set up our 401k’s that would steadily grow and grow and grow until we were 65?  And didn’t we listen to them when they told us that we didn’t put aside enough for our retirements and we should put more and more and more of our compensation into the stock market that, over many decades has shown only to increase in value?  Surely, they deserved all of the fees they wracked up whenever there was a transaction.  Surely, the work they did warranted the billions of dollars in bonuses.  It is very hard to skim money off the top of all those trillions of dollars of our hopes and dreams of adult communities on the golf course of our futures.

What I can’t understand is how they managed to appoint themselves Gods in the first place.  And was there a plan to first convince us to fork over our cash and then defraud us of the profits or did it just “happen”?  The rise in the financial genius class happened right about the time Reagan took office.  Reagan who preached “rugged individualism”, “voodoo economics” and the Laffer Curve. What we have 30 years later is a stratified society, a true class system, where the finance giants justify their existence in life as creating wealth, mostly for themselves.  What is their purpose in life really?  Who would be harmed if we got rid of the whole lot of them?

Let’s try that thought experiment.  Without the finance Gods handling our money we might still have pensions.  We might be making more money because the investor class wouldn’t be cheering for the increase in quarterly earnings that happen every time a company announces a layoff.  We might not have to have teleconferences at ridiculous hours with programmers in India.  People who need to get stuff done at work wouldn’t have to spend half of their time negotiating contracts with outsourcers, trying to get multiple contractors to handle what a single full time employee with benefits used to handle.  We might be making more fuel efficient cars if CEO’s had spent less time resisting the future, skimming the profits off the top, and more time encouraging the design of cars that would take advantage of that future.  But that would require hiring more designers and letting them design instead of figuring out how to make changes without incurring any additional expense.  They might have gotten good at car design, had they been allowed the creativity and money to do it.  We might have a Michigan that doesn’t resemble Blade Runner.  We could have dispensed with Six Sigma, “rank and yank” and other silly management theories that justified the MBA’s existence and wasted our precious time.  Workers everywhere could have been spared the biz speak jargon than made our ears bleed and meant that our pink slips were right around the corner.  We could have actually been rewarded for the work we did instead of being subjected to the stress of “what have you done for me lately?”.

That last question has been the focus of the finance giants for the last 30 years.  The finance industry has been focussed on their own bottom line with such intensity that producing anything of value has been an afterthought, just like the lives of the people who were affected by their machinations and securitization have been an afterthought.  And we can’t heal ourselves as a nation until we ask the finance giants “What have you done for me lately?” and impose the same performance based standards on them that they’ve forced on us for the last 30 years.

It’s time for a performance review.

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