DISLOCATION

Guest post from Mike Cohen

http://www.cohenstrategicconsulting.com/index.php

Dislocation: dis-lo-ca-tion (\,dis-(,)lō-’ka-shən): a disruption of an established order

The financial world has undergone a dislocation of epic proportions, one that is rivaled by only two such situations in our lifetimes: the Great Depression and to a lesser magnitude the interest spike and related chain of events of the early 1980’s. Financial institutions, and even more profoundly the world financial order, have been found to be standing on foundations of sand, and dynamics/financial behaviors/paradigms/systems that we took for granted are not effective, or at the very least stumbling along in a state of disarray and confusion.

As our ‘rose-colored glasses’ (spawned by over-optimism, greed, laziness, ignorance and unjustified trust) have been taken away and replaced with optical devices fitted with Coke-bottle lenses with Vaseline smeared on them, we are confronted with the critical endeavor of recreating nothing less than our way of life and arguably the most important underpinning of it, our financial system.

Our World Has Changed: This dislocation is different and more troubling than any other in history, in large part because it almost triggered the collapse of the world’s financial system.  The crisis we are faced with today was caused by widespread business practices where society’s hard learned lessons were ignored:

–       The financial system is based on trust (in people, in the system itself), and the resulting belief that it works; there has been a considerable amount of activity that almost any observer would describe as untrustworthy

–       Accurate, objective analysis is critical

–       Greed kills, sooner or later

Joseph Schumpeter, the famous Czechoslovakian economist, observed in the 1920’s:

Capitalism moves forward following a process of creative destruction. Inevitable cycles of expansion and retraction are not only survivable but are in fact the secret of capitalism’s extraordinary power to inspire innovation and progress.”

It would be completely inaccurate to describe the financial crisis that has occurred as the result of ‘creative destruction’. The root causes of this crisis are much darker.

How did we get to where we are?

–       Unjustifiably easy credit was offered to homebuyers who very logically couldn’t have been expected to be able to service their mortgage loans.  A substantial price bubble was created and inevitably burst, as many have before it, but this time the entire American society was hurt badly as opposed to individual investors in past bubbles.

–       Asset managers making ambitious claims about investment returns they said they couldn’t possibly achieve, and others committing outright fraud

–       Rating analysts not adequately analyzing securities, causing them to be overrated and underpriced

–       Investment bankers and others facilitating transactions built on elements that had not been properly vetted, and which have turned out to have crushing levels of risk and unforeseen financial liabilities

Macro Issues Abounded:

– The banking system almost collapsed, and may have had it not been for considerable government intervention, which has raised a host of other profound issues. An enormous amount of bad loans were made as the result of capricious underwriting, leading to huge amounts of bad assets on banks’ books and causing a paralyzing level of fear for making further loans.

– The financial markets ‘froze’. The flow of capital slowed to a trickle because lenders did not believe that borrowers were credit-worthy; ironically, the thought process evolved from lending money to anybody to lending money to no one. The markets are just beginning to thaw, a year later.

– Complicated financial instruments confused and overwhelmed the system, creating enormous risk. Counterparties, partners in transactions, did not understand these vehicles they were buying and selling (and in many cases how their counterparts were managing their own enterprises) … and the risks they were taking on. A certain notorious business operation has long held the notion that “Be close to your friends, and closer to your enemies”.

– The real estate market plunged into its worst cycle in decades, and possibly ever. This collapse was caused by a number of dynamics:

* Selling housing/making loans to individuals or companies whose financial positions were not strong enough to service their financial obligations

– The rating agencies have been called to task over their role in the current situation, and a number of vexing questions have been raised:

* How are they analyzing companies and investment vehicles?

* How are they to be paid for their rating services? Are there conflicts of interest imbedded in their client relationships?

* How will they be operating going forward?

* How will they be regulated?

– Consumer attitudes have been more negative than ever since they began being monitored in the 1960’s, although recently they have improved marginally as economic and financial stabilization is beginning to occur.  The widespread view is that the current situation is beyond a cyclical downturn and is perceived as a failure of the system. Uncertainty about the financial system, rising unemployment, restricted credit, and a depressed housing market have all contributed to plummeting consumer sentiment.

– Government responses in the form of rescue programs of various types are beginning to fix the problems within the financial system (banks and insurers) and key industries (automotive), and are gradually beginning to calm fears. Substantial efforts to revise the nation’s financial services regulatory infrastructure are underway, conceived to both address current issues and create a more shock-free system in the future. A number of vexing problems have arisen, however, that will be very difficult to solve:

* Well intentioned programs to interject capital to troubled sectors of the economy have been slow to take effect

* Massive budget deficits are building, which will lead to substantial debt servicing obligations in the future and consequentially depressed economic growth

* The government owns stakes in huge corporations (with the implication of socialistic-type government in the United States, for crying out loud!), and is being perceived as making broad decisions on which corporations will survive or fail.

* Understanding that things that can go wrong (either known or unknown), and making sure the adverse affects do not cause crippling and irreversible harm

* A fundamental question begging to be asked is “how did so many elements of this financial disaster occur that had aspects and implications of risk that no one either understood or quantified anywhere close to properly, or didn’t bother to look at?”

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