Jan 31 2009

Banker Assigns Responsibility for Meltdown

“I sincerely believe that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies, and that the principles of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.” – Thomas Jefferson


A friend of mine, who happens to run a local BB&T bank, sent me an interview of the recently retired Chairman of BB&T Corp, John A. Allison that was in American Banker – The Financial Services Daily.  I have read that Mr. Allison is a somewhat highly regarded bank executive and this might be debatable, but one thing is for sure – he is confident that he knows what caused the financial mess we are now living through.  I didn’t find this article online when I searched, so I thought readers would find some of what he said quite interesting.


Mr. Allison’s views on the root causes of the mess we’re now in:

“There are certainly individual financial institutions that have made some pretty serious errors.  But the root causes, however, are government policy, and I think there are four primary culprits in this regard: 1.  The Federal Reserve, which has, in my opinion, mismanaged the interest rates and monetary policy by driving rates down too low and raising them too high and that has distorted economic calculation.  2.  The existence of FDIC insurance, which has allowed people to raise money they couldn’t have in a true free market.  3. Housing in a broad context where the government tried to encourage above-market rate of homeownership under the theory that homeownership is always good.  Homeownership in general is good, but giving someone a home is not necessarily good, and particularly if they’re not able to pay for it…Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the No. 1 villians because of their magnitude…They were the ones who created the subprime crisis.  4.  Finally, the Securities and Exchange Commission is largely to blame.  Fair-value accounting has certainly accelerated the problems.  If we had had it in the early 1990’s, we would have had an economic collapse.  It is a very poor accounting concept.  Personally, I would just get rid of it tomorrow.”


Mr. Allison’s comments on which banks will survive:

“Through a very non-market-driven process, you have potentially created an oligopoly in the banking business, with four to nine institutions depending on how you look at it…Look at Citigroup.  It failed twice last year and even more times during my career.  That’s not good, and it creates a challenge.  While there are some economies of scale, you can say it’s not obvious that having more than a trillion dollars in assets is a good thing.  BB&T can compete very effectively against these big banks, but they have a…fundamental, long-term, potential competitive funding advantage if they are basically perceived as being subsidized or protected by the government.  It’s artificial, and you can argue that it is adverse selection.  Citibank shouldn’t be here…”


Mr. Allison’s thoughts on redeeming qualities to the Tarp:

“Only in one context.  Tarp wasn’t necessary except that the government created a panic and they probably had to do something about it.  But they didn’t need to create the panic to begin with.”


Mr. Allison’s views on when we will know we have hit bottom and how much longer until things get better:

“I think the biggest indicator will be the stabilization of real estate prices.  It is amazing to me how little focus has been put on fixing these real estate markets.  Until you bottom real estate, you’re not going to fix the economy.  I think the market will bottom in less than 18 months, but it will take at least 18 months before we see a meaningful recovery.  I think BB&T will be very advantaged on the other side.  We have an operating model and a culture that can compete more effectively over the long term.”


DBP Disclaimer: Although I generally agree with Mr. Allison’s comments, I am not suggesting they are correct, nor do I have any reason to believe that his timetable for recovery is valid in specific terms.

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Jan 18 2009

The Curious Case of Bernard Madoff

Published by under Investing

“In any country where talent and virtue produce no advancement, money will be the national god.  Its inhabitants will either have to possess money or make others believe that they do.  Wealth will be the highest value, poverty the greatest vice.  Those who have money will display it in every imaginable way.  If their ostentation does not exceed their fortune, all will be well.  But if their ostentation does exceed their fortune they will ruin themselves.  In such a country, the greatest fortunes will vanish in the twinkling of an eye.” – Denis Diderot, 1774


I realize the whole Madoff scandal is old news by now, but even considering the startling stream of financial news of disappearing investment banks, gargantuan bailouts and record layoffs, I can’t quite get past what Madoff did and how he was able to get away with it for so long.


For me, the more I learn about Madoff’s reported tactics, the more terrified I am.  Not because I could lose money directly, but because someone who was respected and trusted by some of the most prominent people and organizations in the world would could pull off such a shocking crime.  He duped them all and now they must pick up the pieces.  So how many other Madoffs are out there taking advantage of people and institutions right now?  Hopefully not many more but I wouldn’t bet on it.


There are at least five questions I hope to learn the answers to as I continue to follow the unfolding story.  First, why would such an accomplished and respected man engage in such despicable tactics to begin with?  At least on the surface it would appear that Madoff started out on the right track.  He formed his own trading firm in 1960 and after struggling to compete with the big NYSE firms, he helped develop an electronic system to disseminate quotes and set his firm apart from competitors.  Eventually the technology he helped develop led to the formation of the NASDAQ electronic stock exchange.  Madoff went on to serve as the NASDAQ chairman of the board of directors.  Impressive if you ask me.


Second, did he really believe he would get away with it all when he started?  If he did, he clearly wasn’t terribly bright after all or he was delusional.  Third, how many other people were knowingly involved in this mass deception?  There is no way anyone can convince me that one man fooled and deceived hundreds and maybe thousands of people out of billions of dollars for over twenty years without help from others.  I expect quite a list of accomplices by the time this goes to trial.  Fourth, how in the world did the SEC fail to recognize what was actually going on?  It is common knowledge that outside analysts have been throwing flags for years – and yet nothing was uncovered (apparently).  And finally, was bribery and/or coercion involved in keeping the deception under wraps so the scheme could continue much longer than it would have otherwise?  It is certainly possible and maybe even likely considering what we now know.


If you can shed some light on this bizarre mystery then I certainly look forward to your comments and one more thing…think twice or maybe ten times before you invest your money anywhere these days.

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