Was the Mortgage Crisis Proof of Capitalistic Greed?

Posted by Jason | Posted in Economics, Government | Posted on 06-10-2009

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In my last post, I mentioned that I would address the mortgage crisis separately,  because it was a little more difficult to explain. As shown in my previous blog, Capitalism has nothing to do with greed, but that doesn’t answer why the mortgage crisis happened. Most people have heard that it was caused by Wall Street’s greed.

I’m not going to argue that Wall Street took advantage of the situation, but one has to ask was the home owners being “greedy” when they bought homes that were way out of their price range? Everyone involved in the mortgage crisis, including Wall Street, mortgage brokers, real estate agents, and home buyers would have to be considered greedy. That would include a large chunk of our society. So are we to believe that we are all greedy individuals, and that Socialism would have prevented this? Why would we not still be greedy under Socialism and look to take advantage of that system in anyway we can?

The reason is we are not greedy. Under normal circumstances in the Capitalistic system, all parties to an economic transaction act rationally in their self interest. There are only two circumstances that could change this. One, fraud, which was mentioned in my previous post and would have to be committed by one of the parties. Again, this isn’t a Capitalism issue. This is criminality committed by one of the parties actions. That would not be different under another system. The other is outside intervention.

So who could intervene in these transactions and have an effect on millions and millions of individual transactions. There is only two sources that can cause massive irrationality on a massive scale. One is the Government, and the other is the Federal Reserve, which is a private institution that holds the power over our monetary system. In this instance, the vast majority of the blame lays at the Federal Reserve.

In most of the play by plays of why this crisis happened, the media has been focusing on Wall Street, mortgage backed securities, CDOs, etc. The question is if this was Wall Street’s doing, why did they just start doing this now? Why wouldn’t they have done this in the past?

To find out how the Federal Reserve instigated this crisis, we have to go back to before the crisis began. The problem is you get into this crisis begot this crisis and that crisis begot that crisis, so I could end up taking us back to the founding of the Federal Reserve. To make it more simple, let’s start in 1998.

In 1998, the Asian markets had a crisis, and there was concern that it would cause a world wide crisis. As usual the Federal Reserve stepped in and flooded the market with money to head off the crisis. So, where did this money go? In the late 90s, I’m sure we all recall the tech bubble. The money found it’s way into the stock market propping up then completely worthless stocks. Eventually, this came to a head with the bursting of the DotCom bubble and the recession of 2001.

In order to ease the recession of 2001, which really had a lot of the same traits as The Great Depression, the Federal Reserve again stepped in and began a massive growth of the money supply. Interest rates were dropped to 40 year lows. Interest rates are the means the Federal Reserve uses to manipulate the market, and to manipulate interest rates, they increase or decrease the money supply (This is simplified explanation for my monetary theorist friends out there).

So again, we are back to the same type of circumstance we had in the late 90s. This time though, we learned our lesson not to invest in the stock market on worthless stocks. What can we invest in that has real value. Oh, I know. How about real estate? So money has to flow somewhere. In this case, it flowed into real estate.

“OK”, you say, “that explains where all the money came from, but that doesn’t explain why Wall Street and the home buyers were greedy. Why did the home owner buy something they couldn’t afford and why did Wall Street take advantage?”

In every business transaction, risk is weighed against return. Returns are adjusted for inflation. So, for example if I’m going to look at in investment, let’s say lending money, I’m going to look at the interest rate. So, I’m going to charge 6% interest. Now, what is the cost of the money I’m going to lend. The Federal Reserve took the Funds rate, which is what is used by banks, from 6.5% in May of 2000 to 1% in June of 2003. That is a huge difference, and that is a lot of new money. So now, if you are a bank, you can borrow at 1% and lend out at 6%. That is a 5% spread. That is a very nice return for banks. But, the calculation isn’t complete. The calculation doesn’t take into account inflation. If inflation is 3%, you are really borrowing money at 3% from the bank, and the bank is borrowing it at -2%. How many times have you heard the term free money in the past decade? As you can see, the home owner is getting almost 0% financing and the banks are borrowing at blow 0%. The banks are paying back the money at lower cost than they got it for. Doesn’t this seem like it would change your rationality a bit?

As you can see, Wall Street did not just willy nilly come up with this mortgage crisis. They were coaxed on by the Federal Reserve. Wall Street is in the business of investments. If you look at your risk and return based on the cost of money that the Federal Reserve put in place, you cannot fault Wall Street. You also cannot fault the home owner. Lastly, you cannot fault Capitalism. Under the circumstances, created by the Federal Reserve, both parties were acting rationally.  The fault of the mortgage crisis lays squarely at the feet of the Federal Reserve.

Now you won’t hear this type of analysis on the news channels. This is too complicated for them to explain. Instead it’s easier just to say Capitalism, greed, or Wall Street is to blame. As with most cases, the media blames the cancer for the patient’s death, when the root cause was the patient’s years of smoking.

Meanwhile, with the uproar created by these allegations, the Federal Government takes more of our freedoms away, and the Federal Reserve is back to printing money again to stave off this crisis. What sector will the next greedy Capitalist be in?

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Capitalism equals greed

Posted by Jason | Posted in Economics | Posted on 30-09-2009

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Since the economic down turn began, I have heard countless politicians, media pundits, and average Joes smear, besmirch, and out right lie about Capitalism. These people are either ignorant or liars. I prefer ignorant, so we can still assume the best of our fellow man.

In order to prevent further spreading of this ignorance, I have decided to outline some of the arguments against Capitalism and the truth that is evident as logic presents itself. Over the next few blogs, I will present the reasoning and logic of Capitalism. First let me apologize to my liberal friends. I will not use my feelings to present my argument. As we all know, feelings can be easily manipulated, which is why you don’t base policy on feelings, well, shouldn’t anyways.

So, let’s start with the most rampant accusation against Capitalism. The socialist mantra goes “Capitalism equals greed”, “Capitalism is based on greed”, or “Capitalism is inherently greedy”. Now, where did this belief come from? Capitalism has been a defined economic system since 1776, when Adam Smith published “The Wealth of Nations”.  In the book, Adam Smith puts forth that in the pursuit of our own self-interest, we build a much more prosperous society.  Even though that isn’t our intent, that is what takes place.

It wasn’t until Karl Marx began the Communist revolution that Capitalism became tarred and feathered. Karl Marx invented the term Capitalism as a smear. Now, how do you convince someone to go against their own self interest, which is what Capitalism is by definition. Well, you need to play on peoples emotions, distort the truth, and play on their morals. More recently, the movie “Wall Street” used a ruthless character named Gordon Gekko that said “Greed is Good”. For some reason, this is what people associate with Capitalism.

Let’s walk through this piece by piece. First, greed has to do with morality. Capitalism has nothing to do with morality. You can be an altruistic capitalist, you can be a greedy capitalist, or you can be a regular capitalist. Notice, that you could just as easily substitute the word person with capitalist. That is because greed is an adjective to describe an object, in this case capitalist. The adjective isn’t the object.

Still a system based on everyone pursuing their self interest sounds really selfish. That is only if you are assuming that everyone’s self interest is the same, and that self interest is detrimental to the well being of others.

First, not all our self interest is the same. If everyone’s self interest was becoming rich and famous, we’d have no stay-at-home moms, school teachers, soldiers, etc. Everyone pursues their best interest by going after their dreams or what makes them happy. If you think money will make you happy, you may pursue wealth. You may also decide to stay at home with your kids and give up financial wealth for the emotional wealth of raising your family. As you can see, self interest is not interchangeable with money, wealth, or greed.

The second part of this selfish stigma has to do with people assuming that Capitalism is a zero-sum game, in which one person gains while the other loses. This couldn’t be further from the truth. This is actually what takes place in other economic systems, such as Socialism or Communism. Now, I know you aren’t going to let me off that easy, so let’s walk through an example.

Under Capitalism, I have a need. Let’s say I have the need for a coffee. This is what I currently want to make me happy (self interest). Now, the local Starbucks, by pursuing their self interest of building wealth, has decided to serve coffee. I walk into the local Starbucks, and we exchange my cash (hopefully not credit for a coffee) for their product, coffee. Now, as you can see, this was not a zero-sum transaction. I got what I wanted, and the Starbucks got what it wanted. We both valued the transaction at the exact same value without any outside force.

Ok, ok, that was a simple, but what about Scrooge. He was greedy. Scrooge was greedy, but by pursuing his greed, he creates jobs, innovates new products or services, and … hold on get this… he serves his fellow man. I know. That doesn’t sound selfish. Let me say (well type) this very loudly.

YOU CANNOT CREATE WEALTH AND BECOME RICH WITHOUT SERVING YOUR FELLOW MAN.

It is by this service that we build a better society. “Hold up”, you say. “What about Bernie Madoff, Enron, and this mortgage crises?”

Well, let me take Enron and Madoff first. Capitalism makes no claims that participants are angels. We all know we are all fallible. In order to protect each other from each other’s fallibility, we pass laws. Many of these laws are passed in order to prevent fraud, which is lying in order to take financial advantage of another. In both the case of Enron and Madoff, you had enterprises ran by criminals. This criminality has nothing to do with Capitalism. You would have criminals under any other economic system, because all systems are made up of men. Capitalism will eventually expose the fraud, because you have to continually produce economic value. Fraud does not produce value. Under competing systems, such as Socialism, these criminals can maintain their fraud much longer because Socialism isn’t concerned with economic value. The fraud could be propped by taking resources from another activity that does produce value.

Now, the mortgage crisis is much more difficult, because it did not involve criminality. “See”, you say. “I told you Capitalism was to blame for the mortgage crisis.”

Well, let me just end this blog, and we’ll dig into that accusation in the next blog. Let’s just say, Capitalism assumes people will make rational decisions, but rationality can be changed when outside forces are introduced.

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