This Motley Fool series examines things that just aren't right in the world of finance and investing. Here's what's got us riled today. If something's bugging you, too -- and we suspect it is -- go ahead and unload in the comments section below.
Today's subject: Last year's "Autumn of the Massive Collective Pants-Soiling" heralded what I like to call the ensuing "Year of What The --" … well, suffice to say, the Fool frowns on publishing certain words.
Much of the blame for our economic crisis can be pinned on the Federal Reserve's monetary policies. Even worse, the "cure" for an ailing economy always seems strikingly similar to what caused the problems to begin with, at least according to the Fed. That means our problems aren't over by a long shot.
Why you should be indignant: Way before Ben Bernanke came along, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's low interest rates, left in place too long, fed the frenzy of borrowing that fueled the housing bubble. Recall that we had back-to-back asset bubbles; before housing blew up, the dot-com bubble popped, leaving only a few survivors like Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) , Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) , and eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY ) amid the wreckage.
The death of dot-com drove us into a recession that turned out to be artificially mild, however painfully it hit us at the time. Just as Internet and telecom stocks started tanking, the housing bubble began to take off. The housing market mayhem was just as crazy and speculative as the dot-coms had been, yet it gave the comforting illusion of economic growth. Who doesn't want that?
Pumped up by low interest rates, our overinflated economy lifted homebuilders such as Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL ) and high-profile mortgage lending monstrosities like Countrywide. People were thrilled with the inflated "values" of their homes -- never mind whether their meteoric rise made any real sense. They bought into the red-hot real estate market with interest-only loans and other exotic vehicles, then used their homes as ATMs to finance bling, trips, fancy cars, and more. The ripple effects expanded throughout the economy as greed, myopia, and rampant consumerism took hold. Too many people realized it was fun to spend way above their means; everything went "up," and the piper seemed to go unpaid.
This manic mentality was even worse in the housing market, yielding flawed financial models that never bothered to account for a fall in housing prices or other negative possibilities. I guess it wasn't convenient or pleasant for many to think too hard about economic realities. As last fall amply proved, it was even less pleasant to live through them.
In the wake of the collapse, some financial companies have gone bust or been swallowed up by rivals. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , Citigroup (NYSE: C ) , Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) and many others took a shot of taxpayer money to stay on their feet. We're all on the hook for pulling them back from the brink of collapse.
Is the "fix" better than the disease? Bernanke's Fed has lowered interest rates to record lows to rejuvenate the same terrible behavior that got us into trouble in the first place. To juice the economy, the Fed's encouraging banks to make new loans, even when there are still plenty of bad loans out there. Overly indebted consumers and businesses have not yet deleveraged, plain and simple.
Meanwhile, the massive bank bailouts have partly made their way into bankers' pockets, thanks to a continued abundance of lucrative pay and bonus packages. We were all told that bailing out the banks was a necessary evil to ensure economic survival. Apparently, some of us are "surviving" better than others.
With economic friends like The Fed, who needs enemies? (Unless, of course, you're a bank executive.)
What now? The Fed's policies keep some of us awake at night. True, high inflation has not set in despite the steady printing of more money, lending us a false sense of security. But there are real dangers if the Fed screws up its "exit strategy."
Texas Congressman Ron Paul has been pushing for an audit -- and calling for an eventual abolishment -- of the Federal Reserve. Given the Fed's control on our nation's line of credit (a real bummer of a way to run a household or boost an economy in the first place), this idea may frighten people who are fond of the status quo. However, if we're relying on borrowing, not income or savings, to fuel ourselves, do we really have a "real" economy?
Government stimulus may be getting our economy back on its feet, but it isn't real or organic, either -- and most of it's also funded by money we had to borrow from someone else. In that light, the GDP "growth" we supposedly recently experienced looks suspiciously artificial.
We need to look beyond prevailing "conventional wisdom" for solid solutions that emphasize real growth, not irresponsible borrowing and speculation. We won't achieve real economic prosperity if we stick to our current course. At best, printing new money to keep the economy afloat will only put us at greater risk of inflation. The Fed's prescriptions for "health" seem to only encourage the disease.