Friday, September 19, 2008

Can We Talk A Bit About the S&L Crisis of the Late 1980s (and to a Lesser Extent the Keating Five), Please?

Posted By on Fri, Sep 19, 2008 at 9:00 AM

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This was initially going to be "A Primer," but I am pretty certain that any attempt I make at trying to explain finance will result in horrific misrepresentations. So instead, I'll say that about 15 minutes of light Googling is the least we as citizens can do here, but, at a very basic level:

Throughout the 80s, deregulation of Savings & Loan institutions led to a competition among S&Ls to make the most loans, and structure and trade ever more complicated packages of debt and insurance, to the point that the bubble, as bubbles must, collapsed and took the economy down with it, with taxpayers footing most of the bill for bailouts.

From the S&L crisis we learned that as expected returns multiply so does risk; that the American financial system is a machine designed to perpetually increase the rate of return; that as the machine increases velocity more and more people hitch a ride on it, meaning that the machine's engine must revolve ever faster (the more it eats, the bigger it gets; the bigger it gets, the hungrier it gets); that the machine has no built-in brakes; and that elected officials in a position to apply external brakes will rarely do so out of either a greedy, symbiotic relationship with the financial industry, or laissez faire economic philosophy, or some combination thereof.

I know, right?

Of course, the major blemish on John McCain's senatorial record is his membership in the Keating Five — that is, his too-close relationship with disgraced S&L chairman Charles Keating — but this is actually kind of a red herring, really, a corruption scandal to distract us from the fact that abuse of the system isn't the problem, the system is.

Yes we will probably find another bubble soon and live high, many of us, on a rising tide of unsustainable returns. But no, a President Obama will not really be able to enact much, if any, of his ambitious domestic agenda, given the extent to which the federal government has decided, now as before, to underwrite the bust half of the bubble economic cycle, for the sake of everyone who has an actual stake in it sharing in the benefits of the cycle's other half in, say, three years. Not that we really have a choice, though: another lesson we've already learned before now is that profits almost never trickle down, but liability almost always does.

On the plus side, though, the prospect of systemic economic collapse has gotten people at least thinking and talking about, you know, the way the country works, instead of like some random person's private emails...

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