Posts Tagged ‘financial crisis’

Through the kindling glass: Uncle Ben in ’08

November 22, 2015

History is fascinating when you get into it.

Today I’m remembering the fall of 2008–that perilous time when the financial crash was pummeling down all around us. The reason I’m remembering this is: I’m reading on kindle Ben Bernanke’s book Courage to Act:

So I’m remembering.

My day job during that time was working with students at a local elementary school. The workday began every morning at 8 a.m. I have vivid memories of sitting in my old Subaru wagon in the school parking lot each morning, catching the latest financial news before going inside to punch in. I’d be sitting in the car during the last ten minutes of the 7 o’clock hour while listening to Marketplace Morning on NPR.

Not that I had any real money or assets to work with, mind you, just a little nest-egg house that wife and I had just about paid for, and a little spare change we had after the three young’uns had finished college, etc. just like most folks our age.

But here’s why the memory of those news reports clings to my unfettered mind so tenaciously. Those fateful September days of seven years ago released megalithic destructive financial forces of mayhem and immense complexity that changed forever the economic world as we kno(e)w it.  Perilous WallStreet cluster-fuds suddenly opened a flood of financial and fiscal confusion unprecedented in the history of the world. The only thing that compares to it would be the crash of ’29, but of course that was then and this was now.

In Uncle Ben’s book, Courage to Act, through which he strives to shine a light of transparency into the workings of the Fed and its relationship to the financial powers that be, he explains, in chapter 12, the demise of one particular entity (the AIG insurance conglomerate) that fell during that month’s frantic rearrangement of dominoes. He describes the problem this way:

 “AIG FP’s risk was compounded by the difficulty in valuing its highly complex position, in part because the securities that the company was insuring were so complex and hard to value.”

This universal fragility about value (or sudden loss of value) of toxic assets would be something akin to a global computer-virus, but in the financial world. Nobody knew how, when, or where, the infection of overnight falling  asinine asset prices could obliterate the richness of previously fat portfolios. It was like Ebola on WallStreet.

During that third week of September of 2008, the bankruptcy of investment bank Lehman Bros, and then the unraveling of worldwide cluster-fudded AIG, damn near brought the whole house of WallStreet et al etc cards of down.

I guess US Treasurer Hank Paulson and a few other arm-twisting high-flyers later put the fear of dog into Congress and into whomever else was in charge of this country at the time, so that the gov-softened crash landing of worldwide money tranches wasn’t nearly as bad as when something like that happened in ’29 and the whole dam American economy fell apart.

As I told you before, I was just a detached observer at the time, September 15 2008, a regular guy with no skin in the game trying to figure out what the hell was going as I heard about events on the car radio.

Now reading Uncle Ben’s memoir, I see a little more clearly what was going on behind the scenes. I guess his transparency mission is being realized; at least it is on me.

I see the light. I think I understand. Fear, as Joni Mitchell once sang, is like a wilderland.

Fear is a big part of this whole things fall apart deal that we see in life sometimes.

In the case of the investment banks and Wall Street and all that derivative-induced shenanigans that came unwounded in fall of ’08, it was fear of losing value on a massive scale, fear of diminishing assets on a global scale, and hence fear of metastasizing money-loss on a megadential scale.

But hey, there are worse fears in life. . .fear of dying?

Speaking of death, we could say that old folks are generally closer to it than young ones. But the fear of death can be, I feel, softened somewhat by the sense that one has lived a fulfilling life, or maybe an adventurous life, or perhaps a prosperous life, whatever attribute of the good life floats your boat.

Here’s something Uncle Ben wrote in his memoir about the old-timers on Wall Street during that fateful fall of ’08:

“For Wall Street old-timers, the events of the (Lehman weekend) weekend would evoke some nostalgia. Two iconic Wall Street firms that had survived world wars and depressions, Lehman (Bros.) and Merrill (Lynch), had disappeared in a weekend. I felt no nostalgia at all. I knew that the risks the two firms had taken had endangered not only the companies but the global economy with unknowable consequences.”

Unknowable consequences. That’s what you get when a bunch of old (or young) wise guys play fast and loose with a world-class pile of other people’s money.

But hey, that was then and this is now; it could never happen again.

At least not the same way.


Glass Chimera


the Minotaur metaphor from Yanis V.

May 10, 2015

The day after we arrived in Greece for a vacation, they SyrizaNws
held an election there.

The leftist Syriza party won, propelling Alexis Tsipras into the office of Prime Minister. With no delay, Mr. Tsipras appointed Yanis Varoufakis as the new Finance Minister for Greece.

Before that week was over, these two men were visiting national leaders all over Europe. They were abruptly leaping into the Continental fracas of unbalanced financial equilibrium between their bankrupting government and the Euro creditor overlords up north.

Messers T and V immediately let it be known that their negotiating strategy on behalf of the Greek people would be very different from that of their predecessors. Austerity was not working to solve the problem, and would no longer be tolerated by the poor people of Greece. And it was time to acknowledge that fact. Something had to change.

That was about 3 and a half months ago. Now, in May 2015, the then-newly-appointed finance minister Mr. Varoufakis has already been replaced; he is now moving on to other roles in the international order of things (if “order” is an appropriate word for whatever it is that holds our nations together.)

As I write this, on a Sunday morning in May, in the USA, I am 2/3 of the way through reading Mr. Varoufakis’ book The Global Minotaur;

I can tell you I am not surprised that his role as a negotiator was so brief. The man is a truth-teller. (of the leftist type; there are truth-tellers on both the “left” and the “right”.)

As a regular ole conservative-leaning working-stiff kind of guy, I’ve done quite a bit of reading on this financial Crisis that has engulfed us since the fall of ’08. Mr. V’s explanation of that 6-year devolving tsunami is the easiest to understand that I have seen.

Yanis’ strategy is centered on what we call these days a narrative. That is to say, a kind of story. He converts the whole unfolding circus of events into a story based upon the ancient Greek mythical tale of a terrible flesh-devouring beast, the Minotaur. If this sounds far-fetched, it is.

My conservative brethren these days disdain the narrative approach to elucidating current events; they prefer, as Sgt. Friday used to say back in the day. . . just the facts, ma’am.

As if such a thing–separating facts from fluffy hype–were possible in this day and time of cyber bewilderment. Even statistics, raw numbers, are near-nonsense nowadays; they’re almost useless for making sense of contemporary fiscal/financial conundrums.

One has to survive by intuition in the 21st century.

There’s “spin” imposed on everything! Consider the unemployment figures that the BLS cranks out every month. Talking heads await those stupid numbers on the first Friday of every month, so they can have something to talk about, forming projections and predictions about future events based on stuff that already happened last month. Looking for the “trend.”

To hell with the trend! What’s the truth?

Unemployment rate, or Labor participation rate?–you tell me which one really tells the tale.

It’s like the CPI, Consumer Price Index. They leave fuel and food costs out of the equation, when those two factors comprise the biggest impact on every “middle class” household budget. Go figure.

But I digress.

Here’s this lefty, Mr. Varoufakis, an economist. He writes a very interesting book, using the Minotaur analogy narrative, and helps me understand what the hell has been happening in the world of money, which is to say the real world.

And though he claims to be some kind of neo-Marxist, I don’t care. If some conservative can do a better job of explaining why the free market has been buried under a landfill of toxic assets and leveraged finance-babel, let him/her do so.

I’ve blown my wad here in ranting, which is something I hate to see in other blatherers online, so I’ll not weary you with more of this grievance;

I’ll not explain the Greek’s minotaurial metaphor. Except to say it involves  the global recycling of economic surpluses since the post-WWII Bretton Woods financial arrangement that slanted everything in the world toward American advantage.

But now, since 1971, when Nixon shut down the gold window, all of that US-favoring international baggage has been lost in an airport somewhere between Brussels and Beijing and so the great recycling flow of surpluses has reversed. So that now it morphs into recycling deficits instead of surpluses and the winners will someday be losers and vice versa and so austerity is for the birds and now Mr. V thinks the Bretton Woods potentates should have listened to Mr. Keynes in 1944 instead of Harry Dexter White.

Or something like that. More about this later, probably next week after I finish the book. I suppose I’ll have to jump over to Hayek or Schumpeter or Mr. Volcker for some right-leaning controlled financial disintegration explanations after this tragi-comedic death-toggle with Greek mythology.


Glass Chimera