Thursday, September 18, 2008

An educated NZ view...

Liam Dann is Business Editor to Granny Herald.

As an indication of the kind of report that he produces, take a look at today's editorial -

He starts -
It is an age old question. As budding economists we all ask it of our parents some time around the age of 7 or 8. Why don't they just print some more money?

We are quickly told why that doesn't work. Money is worthless unless backed by something of real value.

Unfortunately this childhood lesson is one that Wall Street seems to forget every few years.

He then takes on the "greed" aspect, with the idea that speculation in "bubbles" can earn considerable profit but at the same time the dangers imposed by the bubble can be isolated and controlled.

The difference this time around is, as he expresses it -
When the product which is the focus of the speculative bubble is cash itself - as it is in this case - then the problem is far more serious.

Ironically it is the fallout from the collapse of the tech sector at the start of the decade that contained the seeds of the current meltdown.

As a response to the bust - and the additional panic caused by the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001 - the US and other central banks around the world slashed interest rates.

The aim was to give the wobbly economy a boost.

But as time wore on the cost of borrowing cash remained low. A global property boom created demand which was happily met by all manner of lenders.

As one astute commentator put it - they started lending to people like the characters from the TV show My Name is Earl

So he follows that trail to its logical end -
As debt was increasingly transferred and sold around financial institutions it became a commodity.

Then some smart cookie investment bankers took it a step further.

They packaged up a parcels of debt that were supposed to have a fixed rate of return and traded them as products in their own right.

Because these were new, they were unregulated. And despite the risks everyone and their grandmother's dog got in on them - including banks like ANZ in New Zealand who sold them to unsuspecting mum and dad investors as sensible investment products.

And it is at that point that, regrettably, he stops and follows the banking and business line -
Banks began facing up to that reality by writing down the value of the debt products they owned. In other words they admitted these products weren't worth what they thought.

Billions disappeared from their balance sheets. Every time one bank wrote down the value it affected the value for other banks.

Suddenly the investment banks that were in trouble because of the amount of worthless debt product they owned started running out of cash. They had been spending more than they had - because they thought they had a lot more than it turned out they really did.

Banks like Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros needed to borrow more just to survive.

But as the crisis grew those who still had cash to lend became risk averse. The cost of borrowing sky rocketed.

And so on...

The final accounting in this has yet to come.

The Fed has "rescued" AIG in much the same way as the NZ Government bailed out BNZ some years back. The interesting connections between the two are very direct -

First, both were "too big to be allowed to fail".

Second, both succumbed to the same disease; chasing high risk products for the purpose of gaining increased profit. AIG through providing an insurance instrument against the future failure of high risk debt and BNZ through enthusiastically lending on high geared property ventures that in the the short term at least failed to show the required security backing.

But, as I say, the final accounting has yet to come.

Let's just go back a moment or three to the "mum and dad investors"; those simple people who want to protect their life savings - small as that might be - while at the same time earning a reasonable return from them. A reasonable return? Recognition of the use of that money by another "person", to recognise the potential risk, and enough to cover the ravages of current and future inflation.

Now there is an "inescapable fact" that drops out here - we are not talking about people who are financial wizards, nor would they understand the true nature of a "derivative product". They would not appreciate the need to understand the backing investment, the nature and size of the risk, and assessing the adequacy of the return in the light of those facts would be an impossibility. Well, let's face it; that is why there is a market for "investment analysts" and "investment advisers" and "investment brokers".

When the last trump sounds, they are the people to whom the bankers, and all, will have to answer.
In a healthy system confidence and reasonably priced credit is vital to keep business humming.

Business needs credit to grow, to develop new and exciting products which in turn boost economic output and create jobs and wealth for ordinary people.

Well, there is one section of the community that has benefitted from that wealth. It is not the mum and dad investors, the ordinary people. It is the community that has earned multi-million dollar bonuses and stock options; the hangers-on who pimp worthless product to an unsuspecting and ignorant market.

In other words, we are seeing what happens when the economy is run by snake-oil medicine men and itinerant side-show freaks.

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