Monday, June 8, 2009
The Economy Is Still at the BrinK
WHETHER at a fund-raising dinner for wealthy supporters in Beverly Hills, or at an Air Force base in Nevada, or at Charlie Rose’s table in New York City, President Obama is conducting an all-out campaign to try to make us feel a whole lot better about the economy as quickly as possible. “It’s safe to say we have stepped back from the brink, that there is some calm that didn’t exist before,” he told donors at the Beverly Hilton Hotel late last month.
Mr. Obama thinks that the way to revive the economy is to restore confidence in it. If the mood is right, the capital will flow. But this belief is dangerously misguided. We are sympathetic to the extraordinary challenge the president faces, but if we’ve learned anything at all two years into the worst financial crisis of our lifetimes, it is that a capital-markets system this dependent on public confidence is a shockingly inadequate foundation upon which to rest our economy.
We have both spent large chunks of our lives working on Wall Street, absorbing its ethic and mores. We’re concerned that nothing has really been fixed. We’re doubly concerned that people appear to feel the worst of the storm is over — and in this, they are aided and abetted by a hugely popular and charismatic president and by the fact that the Dow has increased by 35 percent or so since Mr. Obama started to lay out his economic plans in March. But wishing for improvement and managing by the Dow’s swings are a fool’s game. (Disclosure: One of us, Mr. Lewis, was convicted on federal charges of stock manipulation in 1989, pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2001 and had his lifetime trading ban overturned by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2006; documents relating to the case can be found at sblewis.net.)
The storm is not over, not by a long shot. Huge structural flaws remain in the architecture of our financial system, and many of the fixes that the Obama administration has proposed will do little to address them and may make them worse. At another fund-raising event, for Senator Harry Reid, President Obama said: “We didn’t ask for the challenges that we face. But we are determined to answer the call to meet those challenges, to cast aside the old arguments and overcome the stubborn divisions and move forward as one people and one nation .... It will take time but I promise you, I promise you, I’ll always tell you the truth about the challenges we face.”
Keeping that statement in mind — as well as an abiding faith in the importance of properly functioning capital markets — we have come up with a set of questions meant to challenge a popular president, with vast majorities in Congress, to find the flaws in the system, to figure out what’s being done to fix them and to get to the truth about the difficulties we face as we set out to restore the proper functioning of our markets and our standing in the world.
Six months ago, nobody believed that our banking system was well designed, functioning smoothly or properly regulated — so why then are we so desperately anxious to restore that model as the status quo? Nearly every new program emanating these days from the Treasury Department — the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, the Public Private Investment Program, the “stress tests” of major banks — appears to have been designed to either paper over or to prop up a system that has clearly failed.
Instead of hauling out the new drywall to cover up the existing studs, let’s seriously consider ripping down the entire structure, dynamiting the foundation and building a new system that rewards taking prudent risks, allocates capital where it is needed, allows all investors to get accurate and timely financial information and increases value to shareholders and creditors.
As a start, the best-compensated executives at the top of these big banks, hedge funds and private-equity firms should be treated like general partners of yore. If a firm takes prudent risks that pay off, this top layer of management should be well compensated. But if the risks these people take are imprudent and the losses grave, they should expect to lose their jobs. Instead of getting guaranteed salaries or huge bonuses, they should have the bulk of their net worth completely at risk for a long stretch of time — 10 years come to mind — for the decisions they make while in charge. This would go a long way toward re-aligning the interests of these firms with those of their shareholders and clients and the American people, who have been saddled with their risks and mistakes.
Why is so much effort being put into propping up those at the top of the economic pyramid — the money-center banks, the insurance companies, the hedge funds and so forth — when during a period of deflation like the one we are in, any recovery will come only by restoring the confidence of the people down at the bottom of the pyramid?
Confidence will return only when jobs can be found and mortgage payments are made. Even if Mr. Obama’s claim is true that his $780 billion stimulus package “saved or created” some 150,000 jobs, we seem a long way away from the point where those struggling to get by will feel like spending again. What happens when people buy a car once every 10 years instead of once every two or three, especially now that we taxpayers own such a big percentage of the American auto industry?