What encourages more risk on Wall Street?

Posted by Jason | Posted in Government | Posted on 06-11-2009

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The Wall Street Journal  has an op-ed today by Charles Gasparino, a CNBC on air-editor and author, in which he explains why the government encourages the risk that led to our current crisis.

We’ll never know if LTCM’s demise would have tanked the financial system or simply tanked a couple of firms that bet wrong. But one thing is certain: A valuable lesson in risk-taking was lost. By 2007, the years of excessive risk-taking, aided and abetted by the belief that the government was ready to paper over mistakes, had taken their toll.

With so much easy money, with the government always ready to ease their pain, Wall Street developed new and even more innovative ways to make money through risk-taking. The old mortgage bonds created by Messrs. Fink and Ranieri as simple securitized pools had morphed into the so-called collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), complex structures that allowed Wall Street banks as well as quasi-governmental agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to securitize ever riskier mortgages.

Mr. O’Neal, the man considered most responsible for Merrill’s disastrous foray into risk-taking, told me in an interview last year that in the fall of 2007, when he saw that the firm’s problems were insurmountable, he had a deal to sell Merrill to Bank of America for around $90 a share. But Merrill’s board rejected it, believing he would be selling out cheaply. The CDOs would eventually recover, they argued, as the Fed pumped life into the markets.

Likewise, nearly to the minute he was forced to file for bankruptcy, former Lehman CEO Dick Fuld believed the government wouldn’t let Lehman die. After all, government largess had always been there in the past.

All of which brings me back to Mr. Fortsmann’s comment about policy makers helping turn a cold into cancer. What if the Fed hadn’t eased Wall Street’s pain in the late 1980s, and again after the 1994 bond-market collapse? What if policy makers in 1998 had allowed the markets to feel the consequences of risk—allowing LTCM to fail, and letting Lehman Brothers and possibly Merrill Lynch die as well?

There would have been pain—lots of it—for Wall Street and even for Main Street, but a lot less than what we’re experiencing today. Wall Street would have learned a valuable lesson: There are consequences to risk.

via Charles Gasparino: Three Decades of Subsidized Risk – WSJ.com.

This is another case of where we think government behavior can get different outcomes than we get in our personal lives. The results are the same. How many of you know a parent that constantly bails their child our of trouble? Does it lead to less trouble? How about someone who gives money to a drug or alcohol addict? How about someone who always gives or lends money to that one person who always seem to be broke? In our personal lives, we call these people enablers. They are not helping the person in question. They are enabling them to continue the bad habits they are claiming to help.

This is no different when the government does it. Are we to believe that executives and banks will not be more cautious if they know that the government will not bail them out? Of course they would be. The problem is mommy government has always bailed out and enabled her baby Wall Street. The behavior will continue as long as Washington continues enabling. Don’t fall for the excuses. Mommies always have what they believe are good reasons for bailing out their children, but the problem is they aren’t letting their children learn their lessons.

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Comments (2)

That was an absolutely perfect analogy. Parents who constantly bail out their child every time that child gets into trouble only makes matters worse and it creates a monster. Now that child has no regard for risk because there are no consequences; they know mommy and daddy will bail them out.

What ends up happening if mommy and daddy try to smarten up is that the child throws a massive tantrum and that usually gets the parents to cave. At least, that’s what would happen if mommy gov’t finally tried to stop helping out Wall Street.

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To carry it a little further, we need an intervention. The public needs to take the looters of Wall Street to task and confront mommy government for being an enabler. We need to say this is it. You will not get away with this again, because we won’t bail you out anymore.

It will be painful the first time for everyone, just like it’s painful for a parent to watch their child wallow in their troubles, but in the end everyone is better off for it.

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