Some of us—especially those under 60—have always wondered what it would be like to live through the kind of epochal event one reads about in books. Well, this is it. We're now living history, suffering one of the greatest financial panics of all time. It compares with the big ones—1907, 1929—and we cannot yet know its full consequences for the financial system, the economy or society as a whole.
I'm betting that, in the end, the world's governments will win this battle against fear. They have potentially unlimited tools at their disposal, especially if they act in concert. They can nationalize firms, call bank holidays, suspend trading for weeks, buy up debt and equity, and renegotiate home mortgages. Most important, the American government can print money. All of these tools have long-term effects that are extremely troublesome, but they are nothing compared with the potential collapse of the financial system. And Washington seems to have recognized that it must do whatever is required to shore up that system. Big questions remain. What will it take to stop the fall? How costly will it be? How long before the rescue plan starts to have an effect? But at some point, the panic that gripped world markets last week will end. Of course, that will not mean a return to growth or a bull market. We're in for tough times. But it will mean a return to sanity.
Amid all the difficulties and hardship that we are about to undergo, I see one silver lining. This crisis has—dramatically, vengefully—forced the United States to confront the bad habits it has developed over the past few decades. If we can kick those habits, today's pain will translate into gains in the long run.
Since the 1980s, Americans have consumed more than they produced—and they have made up the difference by borrowing.
Two decades of easy money and innovative financial products meant that virtually anyone could borrow any amount of money for any purpose. If we wanted a bigger house, a better TV or a faster car, and we didn't actually have the money to pay for it, no problem. We put it on a credit card, took out a massive mortgage and financed our fantasies. As the fantasies grew, so did household debt, from $680 billion in 1974 to $14 trillion today. The total has doubled in just the past seven years. The average household owns 13 credit cards, and 40 percent of them carry a balance, up from 6 percent in 1970.
But the average American's behavior was virtue itself compared with the government's. Every city, every county and every state has wanted to preserve its many and proliferating operations and yet not raise taxes. How to square this circle? By borrowing, using ever more elaborate financial instruments. Revenue bonds were backed up by the prospect of future income from taxes or lotteries. "A growing trend is to securitize future federal funding for highways, housing and other items," says Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute. The effect on the projects, he points out, is to make them more expensive, since they incur interest payments. Because they "insulate the taxpayer from the cost"—all that needs to be paid now is the interest—they also tend to produce cost overruns.
Local pols aren't the only problem. Under Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve obstinately refused to inflict any pain. Russian default? Cut interest rates. Worried about Y2K? Cut rates. NASDAQ crash? Cut rates. The economy slows after 9/11? Cut rates. Whatever the problem, the solution was to keep the money flowing and goose the economy. Eventually, by putting the housing market on steroids, the strategy created problems too large to untangle.
The whole country has been complicit in a great fraud. As economist Jeffrey Sachs points out, "We've wanted lots of government, but we haven't wanted to pay for it." So we've borrowed our way out of the problem. In 1990, the national debt stood at $3 trillion. (That sounds high, but keep reading.) By 2000, it had almost doubled, to $5.75 trillion. It is currently $10.2 trillion. The number moved into 11 digits last month, which meant that the National Debt Clock in New York City ran out of space to display the figures. Its owners plan to get a new clock next year.
"Leverage" is the fancy Wall Street word for debt. It's at the heart of the current crisis. Warren Buffett explained the problem in his inimitable way on "The Charlie Rose Show." "Leverage," he said, "is the only way a smart guy can go broke ... You do smart things, you eventually get very rich. If you do smart things and use leverage and you do one wrong thing along the way, it could wipe you out, because anything times zero is zero. But it's reinforcing when the people around you are doing it successfully, you're doing it successfully, and it's a lot like Cinderella at the ball. The guys look better all the time, the music sounds better, it's more and more fun, you think, 'Why the hell should I leave at a quarter to 12? I'll leave at two minutes to 12.' But the trouble is, there are no clocks on the wall. And everybody thinks they're going to leave at two minutes to 12."
If there is a lesson to be taken from this crisis, it's a simple and old rule of economics: there is no free lunch. If you want something, you have to pay for it. Debt is not a bad thing. Used responsibly, it is at the heart of modern capitalism. But hiding mountains of debt in complex instruments is a way to disguise costs, an invitation to irresponsible behavior.
At some point, the magical accounting had to stop. At some point, consumers had to stop using their homes as banks and spending money that they didn't have. At some point, the government had to confront its indebtedness. The United States—and other overleveraged societies—have now gotten the wake-up call from hell. If we can respond and change our behavior markedly, this might actually be a blessing in disguise. (Though, as Winston Churchill said when he lost the election of 1945, "at the moment it appears rather effectively disguised.")
In the short term, all the solutions to the current crisis require that governments take on more debts and larger obligations. This is inevitable and necessary. But that doesn't mean we should, as some noted economists advocate, stimulate the economy with more tax cuts. That would be only one more way to keep the party going artificially—like asking a drunk to go to AA next year, but in the meantime to have even more whisky. A far better stimulus would be to announce and expedite major infrastructure and energy projects, which are investments, not consumption, and therefore have a much different effect on the country's fiscal fortunes. (They are not listed separately in the federal budget, but that's just bad accounting.)
In the medium and long term, we have to get back to basics. Households, for instance, should save more. Governments should put incentives in place that make such savings more likely. The U.S. government offers enormous incentives to consume (the deduction of mortgage interest being the best example), and it works. We have the biggest houses in the world, the thinnest flat-screen TVs and the most cars. If we were to tax consumption and encourage savings, that would also work. Regulations on credit-card debt should be revised to ensure that people understand the risks and costs of these instruments. Moving in this direction would be good for families and for the government as well.
Wall Street will also need to change. Paul Volcker has long argued that the recent spate of financial innovation was nothing of the kind: it simply shuffled around existing resources while contributing few real benefits to the economy. Such activity will now be reduced significantly. Boykin Curry, managing director of Eagle Capital, says, "For 20 years, the DNA of nearly every financial institution had morphed dangerously. Each time someone at the table pressed for more leverage and more risk, the next few years proved them 'right.' These people were emboldened, they were promoted and they gained control of ever more capital. Meanwhile, anyone in power who hesitated, who argued for caution, was proved 'wrong.' The cautious types were increasingly intimidated, passed over for promotion. They lost their hold on capital. This happened every day in almost every financial institution over and over, until we ended up with a very specific kind of person running things. This year, the capital that remains is finally being reallocated to more careful, thoughtful executives and investors—the Warren Buffetts … of the world."
Volcker has also argued that the highly complex financial system was not nearly as stable as people believed and that far-reaching efforts were needed to regulate and stabilize it. Now these issues will get attention at the highest level. The fear on Wall Street is that a Democratic administration would overregulate. But look at who is advising Barack Obama—Buffett, Volcker, former Treasury secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. It is more likely that what will come from their efforts will be a better-regulated financial system that, while producing less-extravagant profits, will be more stable and secure.
The financial industry itself is likely to shrink, and that's not a bad thing, either. It has ballooned dramatically in size. Curry points out that "30 percent of S&P 500 profits last year were earned by financial firms, and U.S. consumers were spending $800 billion more than they earned every year. As a result, most of our top math Ph.D.s were being pulled into nonproductive financial engineering instead of biotech research and fuel technology. Capital expenditures went into retail construction instead of critical infrastructure." The crisis will stop the misallocation of human and financial resources and redirect them in more-productive ways. If some of the smart people now on Wall Street end up building better models of energy usage and efficiency, that would be a net gain for the economy.
The American economy remains extremely dynamic and flexible. Even now, the most surprising data continue to be how resilient the economy has been through all these shocks. That will not last, especially if the panic persists. But even so, it highlights the fact that the U.S. economy has underlying virtues and, after a tough recession, will probably recover faster than many can now imagine. The rise in emerging-market economies, which have been powering global growth, will not vanish overnight, either.
A new discipline would benefit America in a more general sense, too. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has operated in the world with no constraints or checks on its power. This has not been good for its foreign policy. It has made Washington arrogant, lazy and careless. Its decision making has resembled General Motors' business strategy in the 1970s and 1980s, a process driven largely by a vast array of internal factors but little sense of urgency or awareness of outside pressures. We didn't have to make strategic choices; we could have it all. We could make blunders, anger the world, rupture alliances, waste resources, wage war incompetently—it didn't matter. We had more than enough room for error—lots of error.
But it's a different world out there. If Iraq cast a shadow on U.S. political and military credibility, this financial crisis has eroded America's economic and financial power. In the short run, there has been a flight to safety—toward dollars and T-bills—but in the long run, countries are likely to seek greater independence from an unstable superpower. The United States will now have to work to attract capital to its shores, and manage its fiscal house better. We will have to persuade countries to join in our foreign endeavors. We will have to make strategic choices. We cannot deploy missile interceptors along Russia's borders, draw Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, and still expect Russian cooperation on Iran's nuclear program. We cannot noisily denounce Chinese and Arab foreign investments in America one day and then hope that they will keep buying $4 billion worth of T-bills another day. We cannot keep preaching to the world about democracy and capitalism while our own house is so wildly out of order.
It's a fundamental American belief that competition is good—in business, athletics and life. Checks and balances are James Madison's crucial mechanisms, exposing and countering abuse and arrogance and forcing discipline on people. This discipline will be painful for a country that has gotten used to having it all. But it will make us much stronger in the long run. If we can learn the right lessons from this crisis, the United States will once more be playing by its own rules. And that cannot be bad for us.