The Recovery Isn't Going to Be Pretty

There are few people who have the luxury of saying they called the 2008 financial meltdown, but one of those people is Charles Geisst. Not only did he call the crash, he is the man that called it four years prior in a book entitled Undue Influence: How the Wall Street Elite Puts the Financial System at Risk.

Geisst is a professor of finance at Manhattan College and author of 15 books, including most recently Collateral Damage: The Marketing of Consumer Debt to America.

So, what's his outlook now? In short, Geisst thinks the outlook for economic recovery will be anemic since the bust is rooted in the financial system, which depends on the recovery of banks from Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) to Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) to Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) as well as insurer AIG (NYSE: AIG  ) . Geisst doesn't think consumer spending is going to snap back. He also says he thinks America's expectation of quick recoveries from recessions is flawed.

What follows is an edited transcript of what he had to say.

Jennifer Schonberger: As someone who wrote a book foreshadowing the 2008 financial meltdown, what is your outlook now for the financial system?

Charles Geisst: It's not particularly rosy. Looking at the condition of Wall Street, they created the bull from 2000 to 2007. Securitization drove most of the net bond issues, the underwriting fees, and of course the bonuses that went with them. I don't think it will come back any time soon. Despite the fact that Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) may have had a good quarter, or a good couple of quarters, I think it's more of an anomaly.

Without credit being created, especially consumer credit -- mortgage credit, credit cards, or the inability now of credit card companies to sell their assets to the banks and securitize them -- I think that puts a damper on the consumer. Lop on the unemployment numbers, and I just don't think that we're in for a resounding recovery. I think we'll muddle along the way we are now.

Schonberger: What does recovery look like to you? L shaped, U shaped? W?

Geisst: I would think it's "L" shaped with the vertical on the left hand side. I think we've dropped down to this particular level where we are now and the tail on the L will remain long for some time.

Schonberger: So are we looking at a Japan scenario here?

Geisst: I think so.

Schonberger: Banks have largely neglected to take writedowns on commercial real estate-loans. How severe is this scenario in your view, and could we be facing a meltdown akin to the one last fall?

Geisst: Yes, to an extent. I think we're now better able to cope with it. At least now we have some mechanisms in place -- like them or not -- that we can use. But I think a lot of people are going to be surprised when the other shoe to drop, which hasn't dropped yet, is credit card receivables, which are going to get worse and worse. So I think when securitized commercial real estate [comes crashing down], credit cards are not going to perform particularly well, either.

Schonberger: Do you think there is a long-term secular shift taking place regarding consumer spending? In other words, once the recession abates and employment comes back, will spending remain muted, or will it snap right back as before?

Geisst: I don't think it's going to explode. I think a lot of people think the consumer isn't doing well because times are tough and unemployment is high, and that as soon as things get back to normal, they'll be buying two television sets again. I just don't see that.

The ironic part of this economic cycle, which happens so rarely, is that the only way it's going to change behavior is if there is at least one generation that changes its habits. The more severe that this becomes, the more likely they are to change their behavior.

If we were to get out of it tomorrow, things are going to go back to the way they were before. The longer this is prolonged, a generation will sober up -- much like in the Great Depression -- and say this sort of behavior can't continue.

Schonberger: To your point, in many ways this recession is very similar to a depression. Maybe we do experience 1%, 2%, or even 3% GDP growth, but it still seems like things are going to be pretty bad, unemployment is going to remain high for a while, and it's going to feel like a recession for an elongated period of time. Am I wrong?

Geisst: No, I think you're perfectly right. The one thing we can learn from looking back at American financial history is that our perception of the Great Depression is probably not psychologically correct.

We seem to think we have the ability with some good reason to recover from these things in real time very quickly. We recovered, for instance, from the stock market crash of 1987 relatively quickly; the rest of the world did not. In some places, it was much more severe and lasted much longer. We recovered from 2001 relatively quickly, considering -- not this time. This time it was a failure of financial institutions.

When the institutions fail, there's no telling how long it will take to get them back to health -- if some of them ever get there. So as a result, we as growth-oriented Americans are viewing this as a problem we can whip, and I'm not too sure it's true.

For related Foolishness:

Fool contributor Jennifer Schonberger owns shares of Bank of America, but she does not own shares of any of the other companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On October 14, 2009, at 12:15 AM, Pogue1245 wrote:

    Mr. Geisst hits on a nerve. His opinions have to resonate with anyone who is familiar with what happened during the Great Depression. And by familiar, I mean someone who understands what that event did to people because they lived it or have known someone who did. He's talking about the human response. The longer that this recession continues, the more people who suffer, the more it can look like the 1930s. Heaven help us.

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