Saturday, November 26, 2011

Learning From The Economic Downturn

To say we've been through some tough financial times recently as a nation would be an understatement. Almost any financial advisor will tell you we're in unprecedented times right now, a decade of economic instability not imagined since the Great Depression. Analysts issuing financial advice must now reevaluate the new landscape and that seems to be the case across the board. Clearly, it's necessary for us to be boldly confident as we move forward, otherwise we risk relegating future generations to even more economic uncertainty. But it's equally critical that we take a look at the reasons for the precipitous decline of America's financial engines so that we can learn from the mistakes made. Here are the reasons for the situation we're in:

The housing bubble popped and sent our financial institutions crashing and burning. For decades, a confluence of factors built like volcanic magma beneath the sea floor. Easy credit conditions, bad underwriting, and predatory lending (like sub-prime lending) created the biggest housing bubble in American history. When these bloated, toxic loans weren't paid back or purchased it led to both historic foreclosure rates and the massive instability of our financial institutions, causing the collapse of AIG, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Fannie May, Freddy Mac, Stanley Morgan, Washington Mutual and the Lehman Brothers. The result of this has been the lowering of the US credit rating and the epic devaluation of what used to be the symbol of the American dream—the home.

Wall Street is faced with a new regime of regulations and lower returns. This time it may not be part of the cycle. Many stock market analysts say the proverbial train has gone off the track and may not ever return to its previous course. Because of new rules enforced after the bursting of the housing bubble, banks now have to producer higher levels of equity in order to balance risky assets. Most options for doing this will result in significantly lower returns, leading to many major corporations to embrace job cuts, outsourcing, deleveraged assets, and weaker markets. Even if Wall Street does make an epic return, the age of 'the market' being seen as the great economic stabilizer is over.

If we treat these as teachable events, it's possible to use the recent economic downturn as a way to redirect the future. The innovation and ingenuity of American entrepreneurship has bailed us out before and it can again if we take seriously the reality that markets require a constantly shifting balance between regulation and freedom. There's no silver bullet here, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't reload—our economy, that is.

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