2008: The Year We Lost (Financial) Contact

Sobering end-of-year commentary by Floyd Norris on the International Herald Tribune: “The year the system failed“:

Long-term interest rates are at their lowest levels in half a century. Long-term interest rates are at their highest levels in nearly 20 years. This is shaping up as the worst year in seven decades for the stock market. Of the 10 best days the stock market experienced during those 70 years, six came in 2008. A Wall Street legend who became a hero for forcing Wall Street to treat investors better now admits to defrauding a later generation of investors of $50 billion. A prominent lawyer is said to have embezzled hundreds of millions by selling phony securities to hedge funds. The economists are worried about deflation. They are also fearful of inflation. The U.S. government is lending money to businesses that never could have borrowed from it before. People fear a wave of corporate bankruptcies as companies find they cannot borrow money to repay loans that are due.

This was the year the financial system stopped working. Nearly all the contradictory but accurate statements above can be traced to that fact. […]

the banking industry was in no position to assume its historical role as a lender that patiently waited for loans to be repaid. To the contrary, banks trusted neither their own balance sheets nor those of other banks. For a significant part of the economy, the government became the lender of first and only resort.

For most of 2008, the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury failed to realize that the banking system faced a solvency crisis rather than a liquidity crisis. Efforts to provide liquidity proved ineffectual because no one had confidence in the values of enormous amounts of derivatives and securitizations that the banks owned.

It is more or less self-evident that it’s the whole banking system that needs to be reviewed. As soon as things turned sour, it kind of disappeared from view, apart from few notable exceptions (and nobody would bet they won’t get in trouble in the next few months if not weeks…).

Perhaps we should just accept that as things stand, all banks are ultimately owned by the state. And rather like most major US airlines, banks will periodically make a big, big mess with their accounts.

Trouble is, they make the mess with everybody else’s money too…