In 2003, I wrote about mankind's tendency to build up defenses to protect itself against the disasters that have already happened, unaware that the next crisis to hit us generally won't resemble the last.
In Mayan mythology, the world is destroyed four times, each time by a different scourge. First comes a flood (caused by the god "Huracan," source of the term "hurricane"), so the Mayans respond by building their homes on higher ground -- right in the middle of a fire plain. And around we go.
Like most Americans, I'm furious that our financial system has been brought to its knees. I fully believe that we're courting disaster if we do nothing. Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction where Uma Thurman overdoses? I think we need to be John Travolta, not Eric Stoltz. Travolta, at least, was fighting the next disaster.
Financial markets are not like industrial ones. A lack of overall confidence in food doesn't put Campbell Soup (NYSE: CPB ) at risk of failure. But it does in the banking system. Say what you want about the banks' previous stupidities (and they are legion), but fleeing depositors were the proximate causes of both Wachovia (NYSE: WB ) and Washington Mutual being taken down by the FDIC.
Many folks, it seems, are worried about two things regarding the financial recapitalization package currently wending its way through Capitol Hill. First, many claim that the government's quantum leap in its involvement in the financial industry risks a return to socialism. Even people as august as famed investor Jim Rogers share this concern. I think socialism stinks, too. But is that really the big threat here?
I say no. We're not on the road to the second coming of Red China. While I greatly fear increased government participation in the economy, it's not the greatest risk right now. The potential that this financial contagion could destroy healthy companies in the United States demands an authoritative response. In a particularly smart column in The New York Times, David Brooks called the people who believe that we should simply risk a fall into deep recession "nihilists." (I'll return to that in a moment.)
The biggest risk to our markets is the trillions of dollars of capital racing around the world, overwhelming sector after sector. We're on our second China bubble in less than a decade. Money poured into energy, and then poured back out. Private equity thugs decided to buy up hundreds of companies at mad multiples, then ended up running formerly solvent entities like Linens 'n Things into the ground.
No, the government's attempt to fix the problem of the capital markets isn't my big problem. The trouble to me involves the second part of most people's opposition to the Paulson Plan. They might not voice it this way, but many Americans rightly consider the people who caused this mess utter sociopaths. Taxpayers aren't nihilists; they just want no part in cleaning up Wall Street's self-made mess.
And you know what? They're right. Wall Street is full of people who would step over their grandma's body to grab another buck. So were the mortgage banks and the brokerages. So were the executive suites at Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM ) and Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE ) , and in fact, executive suites all over the country, as well as in the halls of government.
None of these people had any interest whatsoever in preserving the trappings of a free market. They did not care in the slightest that their actions placed everyday people's very financial lives at risk. This wasn't capitalism, or a free market. Both of those basic concepts have a simple calculus to them: If you succeed, you profit. If you fail, you lose money.
How does that break down when Franklin Raines receives several hundred million dollars for his role in destroying Fannie Mae and bringing undue risk onto the American home market in the process? What did Raines risk? Under sociopathic logic, there was little downside for him to do whatever was necessary to increase the market capitalization and profitability at Fannie Mae. There were no limitations, because he was functionally insulated from harm.