Back to Normal – Global Delusions & Vanities :: by Wilfred Hahn

The New Year roared out of the starting gate, complacency and renewed optimism in full display. In Davos, Switzerland, where the world’s elites were congregating at the World Economic Forum (WEF), a cautious optimism was again evident. After long last, the water felt warm and advisors were enthusiastically waving everyone back into the pool. More and more money managers and policymakers are now sure that “Things are back to normal!” The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) crisis is over.

This couldn’t be more wrong. Amazingly, only a little more than 2 years after the biggest global financial crisis in 80 years, every lesson and precautionary moral seems to have been forgotten. We’d certainly like to sound the “all clear” as well. But this is not possible. We cannot ignore the facts nor the great lessons of history. The GFS continues in different forms.

Says Barrie Wilkinson of the firm Oliver Wyman (a business consulting firm specializing in the financial sector): “The things that caused the previous crisis — loose monetary policy and trade imbalances — they’re actually bigger now that they were then.” Other intrepid, intellectually-honest observers agree. Simon Johnson, formerly Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a professor at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Sloan School of Management agrees. This “straight-shooter,” after attending the galas at the recent WEF meeting, comments “I came […] somewhat pessimistic […] I am now terrified. There is an incipient sovereign crisis here mixed in with the bank crisis.”

But if the great problems still exist, why the great euphoria again? Why have stock markets turned in one of the strongest performances in memory over the past four months? Actually, this is no great surprise. We have frequently talked of a financial decoupling … a period of time were financial interests do not reflect the underlying trends in the real economy. The olden-time classical economists made the distinction between “raffendes Kapital” (meaning, “grabbing capital” and “Schaffendes Kapital “creative capital); between “wealth creation” and “wealth extraction”; and, between “industrial circulation” and “financial circulation.” It is the latter conditions that are being deliberately promoted. History shows that the fall-out of such similar periods were grim. More to come.

The massive government deficits and the stimulative spending that has been unleashed over the past several years, have played no small part in leading people to think that the appearance of recovery is sustainable. Also, the zero-interest rate policies (of 3 of the world’s four largest central banks) have also played a role. But, these are unprecedented developments that are not sustainable … not without creating further stresses and imbalances that will eventually result in even greater disaster.

Politicians and economists are still arguing about the technical causes of the GFC andAmerica’s weakened financial condition. Yet, the real causes are not difficult to diagnose. Of course, venerated economists and politicians would not dare speak about the “real” causes for fear of discrediting themselves. For instance, to see what we mean, consider the recently-released final report of the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States entitled The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report (FCIR).

It ascribes cause to these factors: “corporate governance and risk management ill prepared for the crisis,” “excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency put the financial system on a collision course with crisis,” “the crisis was the result of human action and inaction not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire”; “breakdown in accountability and ethics.” A long list is presented of technical, clinical, inanimate causes. It would seem that human lust had no role.

Consider the evidence: In the 662-page report one finds the words “greed” only 7 times; “avarice” zero; “morality” zero; “lying”, only once and this in reference to a mortgage borrower; “theft” zero; “stealing” once. We therefore are to conclude that technical issues were the cause, not humans, their conspiracies, nor the “love of money” which is supposedly the “root of all evil”?

Despite the “non-moralistic” slant of this gargantuan report, we must acknowledge that sensible opinions were also expressed: We quote: “These conclusions must be viewed in the context of human nature and individual and societal responsibility. First, to pin this crisis on mortal flaws like greed and hubris would be simplistic. It was the failure to account for human weakness that is relevant to this crisis.“

An amazing attitude, however, is revealed in this comment: “Despite the expressed view of many on Wall Street and in Washington that the crisis could not have been foreseen or avoided, there were warning signs.” This is an important admission though it should have been as obvious as snow is white. It is remarkable that many professionals on Wall Street and in policymaking circles actually take the view that the GFC was not foreseeable.

There indeed were many signs that were available for anyone to see … not just the supposed professionals. The disingenuous claim that the crisis was not foreseeable doesn’t square up with the fortunes that were made by Wall Street elites and others. The GFC crisis driven as it was by the financial industry (by grabbing capital) has in fact worsened America’s already-extreme wealth distribution imbalance. Says Johnson, “The big winners from “financial innovations” of all kinds [now considered a euphemism for pillage and deceit] over the past three decades have not been the poor (or even the middle class) but the rich — people already highly paid. (See the graph on the front page.)

Commenting rhetorically on the FCIR, questions Johnson: “Did the Poor Cause the Crisis?” Given the amount of stonewalling and argument about who actually caused the crisis — macro-economists, politicians, regulators, Wall street billionaires, none accepting the blame — it might as well be the poor.” After all, had these relatively poor people not been so gullible and hopeful; had they only had higher income to have more ably afforded their mortgages on the over-inflated houses that they were to buy, why, there would have been no GFC. We live in interesting times. One thing they are not — normal