Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Retirement Planning: Fixing Wall Street with Moral Authority

Ask any cop on the street for their assessment of a drug bust. It goes, they will tell you something like this: “Sir, may I search you?” “Yes.” “There is crack in your pocket.” “Not my crack.” “But sir, it was in your pants.” “Not my pants.”

There are two key elements of success on Wall Street that President Obama overlooked when he addressed the financial crisis a year past. The first is the crisis itself.

To which the conversation would proceed something like this: “Sure. Go ahead and try to figure out where we took risks, what those risks were and why those risks were not our fault. Search all you want.” “You took those risks because there was no real regulation governing what you did.” “Not my problem.” “Then we should begin to look for these problems so it doesn’t happen again.” “Not at my financial institution.”

Ask any cop on the street and they will tell you that the drug busts they often make are due to stupidity and ironically, bad driving habits. Ask Wall Street and they will tell you the appetite for risk drove them to do what they did. Ask any cop on the street and they will tell you that the more felony laws you break, the less misdemeanors matter.

The second reason we still have lingering effects from what happened last year is reckless behavior. Had the appetite for increased risk not been laid on the doorsteps of our financial institutions (by the Bush administration in the form of ridiculously low interest rates, lax regulations and tax-based, incentive-based rewards for bad behavior), the address at Federal Hall would have been far different.

Wall Street bankers choose not to attend the meeting on the anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Much like maligned athletes who do as they please, these CEOs do not want to be role models. The president was seeking what he refers to as “a broader sense of responsibility” when it comes to how they act, prodding them to lead the financial markets in the right direction. Knowing that the cameras would be trained on every facial tick, every sigh and every uncomfortable shift in their chairs, much the way the CEOs of the big three car companies were scrutinized, they stayed away.

Where Mr. Obama missed the mark was in taking the strength of his general popularity into the den of thieves, where his championing of the worker is often met with open derision. Suggesting that these financial titans should be beholden to the average citizen means the shareholder should be relegated to a lesser role in terms of consideration. To do that, the public sector would need to step in. And this is where the divide begins to widen.

Risk has never been adequately defined. For the small investor, it is a soul-searching exercise that is often fraught with anxiety and overtly quixotic. Unable to hedge their stance the way more savvy investors do, they simply take risk at face value, not as a mechanism designed to grow investments. The confusion starts for this group when they refer to their interaction with Wall Street (largely through their retirement plans and even though many were unaware, home ownership) as savings.

For the large investor, risk is the only reason they do what they do. Exotic products make the experience much more interesting and profitable. Lack of oversight makes the thrill doubly enticing. Using the government as a hedge against losses (not only of share value and assets but bonuses) made the process even more appealing. Is it any wonder that the headwind facing the president has picked up speed?

The main issue is how to regulate and protect. Currently the government does not have a single agency that can act in advance of such a storm. Having knowledge of an impending crisis would require you to have the ability to evacuate the innocent. Having that knowledge would require a federal agency to have much more private access to information than any publicly elected official would want, even the president.

We rely on the ability to learn lessons instead. Yet Wall Street uses another mechanism to understand the way markets work: forgetfulness. Understanding that politicians come and go suggests to these top financial folks that regulations should be either more fluid, able to evolve with the markets, or simply non-existent, employing a buyer beware sticker on each new product that makes its way to market.

Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), a member of the Senate Banking Committee suggested more introspection in the process: "Financial regulation needs to be done in an atmosphere of thoughtfulness." In other words, not at all. But reform does need to come in some shape or form. Doubts remain whether the president’s proposal of creating a consumer oversight committee to provide this sort of thoughtfulness will ever make it into law.

The ripple effect that spread in the aftermath of September 2008 still lingers in most of America. Billions of taxpayer dollars disappeared in an effort to bailout a system that few outside of Wall Street understood. Now we understand that the methodology employed by these brokers/traders/dealers/bankers offered no projection or even entertained the possibility of a fallout turns this into a politically charged topic. The moral authority of the president and his insistence that this will not happen again will turn this kind of regulation into a turf war with conservatives and financial interest groups.

Those that were instrumental in creating lax regulation will need to find a common ground with those that seek retributions for the market loses that followed the near-collapse of the financial system. The problem is determining which agency is best equipped to handle the new responsibility?

The Fed may not be the best choice. Their inability to see the crisis coming and possibly their own accommodative stance make them a poor candidate. The FDIC, which oversees the nation’s banking system doesn’t see their role as protector expanding to include all of the financial markets. Their grasp of regulation is still, even in the aftermath rather weak.

The Treasury would be an attempt to control by committee. Although Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner pointed out that the Fed is both incremental and essential in the president’s plan, the markets, Wall Street is quick to point out, have begun to recover without any new oversight. Forget economists.

The bailout should not be cure enough. In many instances, it came without ties or questions and has even been offered back to the government. Doing so, often before it was clear that the bad times were ending suggests that Wall Street is aware that regulation would hamper their efforts at delving into new and more complicated methods for making a profit.

The cycle of dramatic financial events is shortening. While some suggest that this type of regulation will protect us ten years from now, there is a greater likelihood that another similar event will shake out in a matter of years. This also suggests that regulation is needed yesterday more than ever.

As the president searched Wall Street for answers to why they did what they did, they simply replied: “Not my pants.”

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