By Sy Schechtman
Words, like money, are fungible. And it is very important to know what you mean when you say “free enterprise capitalism” that you now include much more government intervention and even ownership then ever before. Just as, in the well known lyric “love is a many splendored thing”, capitalism has many more strings attached than before. Not that it was ever a chaste and pure effort prior to now, what with the multi billions already lavished by the Bush administration on the already depressed economy with the hopeful prayer that supervised federal government oversight will result in the nation’s taxpayers being repaid if and when, hopefully, the so called stimulus package really works. And GM, Chrysler and Ford continually sucking around the public trough for more financial nourishment, aided and abetted by the entire populace of Detroit and the almost moribund state of Michigan economically.
But we have been gradually inching toward a more “paternalistic” state over the last decade, even within the façade of laissez faire individualism, with the senior citizen drug initiative, and the growing interest and pressure for universal health care. That aspect of social and communal life that in Hilary Rodham Clinton’s political playbook “takes a village” to accomplish and not so much splendid individual initiative. While the wishful mantle of hope is for effective medical treatment for all, the mantra seems to be the single payer government approach, one size fits all as the most economic way to this putative blessing. We are gradually feeling our way in this crisis mode of economic uncertainty, and the fact of our economic slow pace of growth over the last few years has bred some general discontent and seems to condone this emergency mode of “throwing money at problems” does not necessarily mean that rampant socialism is just around the corner. The balance of sentiment has shifted somewhat and the word “liberal”, if not exactly fashionable is definitely much more appropriate at times. But rich people are not exactly reviled. We still have a fond place in our hearts for Donald Trump and his irascible “you’re fired” peccadilloes on TV, even though his real estate empire is somewhat “under water” financially.
One immediate capitalist compromise, however, is the subprime mess, which has allowed, or even enticed, new home owners who palpably had no valid credit status and could not even make a down payment of any amount, a sizable adjustable rate mortgage on a new home, whose monthly payments became impossible as interest rates rose, or the value of their property declined below the boom level the property originally cost. Even if these beleaguered home owners could afford refinancing to a more comfortable level many of them could not afford long term monthly payments over the 20 years or so that most mortgages entail. And ultimately foreclosure would result or some sort of distressed sale would occur. At the very least a few such foreclosures in any neighborhood area does not augment property values therein. Usually they are neglected homes that need repair and are a clear sign of possible trouble in the area. And thus an impediment to the future prospects of resale
In that neighborhood. (Remember! the three sacred rules of real estate value-----Location! Location! Location!)
Moral hazard, too, rears its dubious head. Quite a few banks and professonial lenders did not act ethically in their business transactions with many marginal home buyers; not explaining all the ramifications of adjustable mortgages and not examining the basic financial qualifications of applicants, even unto whether they could make the basic down payment of 20%. And many applicants lied about their financial resources or salary with very little or no attempt at verification by the lenders. All in the rosy glow of the quasi status of government backing afforded by Fannie and Freddie Mac—the largest mortgage brokers in the world. And the fertile nutrient of the Greenspan and Bernanke Federal Reserve very low interest rates. And in the political rush to attract poor people into the exalted ownership status of home ownership both Democratic and Republican parties approved. Republican President Bush exulted in the spread of our home ownership society to all classes, and democratic Barney Frank, chairman of the House Services committee assured people, erroneously, that Fannie Mae stock was a good investment just months before its bailout by the federal government. (Fannie Mae, and its analogous Freddie Mac, hold much of the sub prime mortgage paper issued and backed by the government). Absent and unaccounted for was the Securites and Exchange commission (SEC) the federal agency that was to oversee the new type of “securitized” subprime mortgage contracts that were then sold world wide with the quasi backing of the of the US Treasury.
The question of who was to blame becomes a “gotcha” game that is not productive. The election is over and many hands helped themselves plentifully in the cookie jar of the booming real estate market of the last decade. Among the sad leftovers are the millions now faced with homes that are beyond their financial means to afford. And how to either keep them afloat by “modifying” (i.e. lowering) the original terms, or going through the more drastic foreclosure route, which maybe more realistic, since many previously “modified” marginal home loans have eventually failed and ended on the the foreclosure block again. The dubious record of the Japanese, who have kept on their collective balance sheet costs of original purchases unchanged and not “marked to market”, to current much lesser value of these purchases, has produced a static ten year period of economic stagnation, is to be avoided in our, hopefully more realistic and dynamic way out of our current meltdown. We must seek, however, a more realistic path for stability and less volatility. Less boom and bust every decade or so and the inevitable financial agony of many almost wild interest rate swings and stock market gyrations.
In the short term—a year or two-- the Fed has the ability to control interest rates, and keeping them artificially low gradually inflates the money supply in circulation and thus creates “bubbles”, excess money chasing too little supply in certain economic spheres. This becomes almost a manic lemming like over the cliff debacle, in previous times the classic pursuit of tulips as if gold, and only a few years ago of cyber space dot.com stock issues that over reached, at least for now, their true growth value of technology leaders. And so for now with the over heated housing market. We all delighted in the continued ability of our homes to escalate in value in the last ten years because of incredibly cheap mortgage rates and the delightful refinancing at higher home values. In the immortal profound simplicity of Pogo, “we have met the enemy and he is….us!” And in the short run we must all the suffer for the overflow from the over exuberant economic punch bowl we have been enjoying. After all, in l980 the Dow Jones Industrial average was around 800. Only a year or so ago it was over 14,000, when the housing bubble burst and the Dow is down almost 50% at about 7500. Of course we are now agonizingly hoping that this is the bottom. But around this level, so far, not too bad. But if done more slowly and with less or no indebtedness and up and down gyrations, we would have needed less prozac or ambien along the way. And, of course, if it does stabilize around this level!
The cry now is that we need more regulation on the federal level of our financial markets. We certainly need more oversight and supervision of our existing laws, and an alert SEC commission so that the excesses committed and ignored under our existing laws are prosecuted. But above all no panic and too much “throwing money at all our problems”. It will take us much time and money to help the genuine basket cases involved in the salvageing or foreclosing the multitude of marginal homes involved already. Also time to fix our top priority, our very ineptly, marginally functioning financial system, which lamentably needs temporary federal jump starting on a massive scale so that adequate credit can start to flow once more. Remedying these two major disasters in our societal and economic fabric of existence will ignite the dynamic equilibrium that will make us the envy of the world once again. Not, of course, instantly. Lots of screening and evaluating will be needed . That heady mix of freedom, hard work, and compassion for our fellow human being. Balancing the essential need to assist our fellow man in distress with the just rewards of those who deserve the fruits of their hard earned labor.
Not Solomonic wisdom, alas, but dedicated democratic debate and honest compromise.