Free Markets, Free People
One of the well known institutions that politicians like to point to when things are going well or bad is Wall Street’s stock markets. They’re an indicator that at times are used to point out that things aren’t as bad as they seem and as well as illustrate how bad things really are.
Today is one of those latter examples. The Dow and other indices plunged. The Dow Jones Industrial is off 512 points, its 9th steepest drop ever.
The question of course is “why” and what one has to hope is the answer is something to do with a temporary situation. But it doesn’t appear that’s the case. Looking out at the broad economy, it seems, investors don’t at all like what they see. Add the government’s continued inability to address the debt and deficit and you have what could be the beginning of many down days on the street.
"The conventional wisdom on Wall Street was that the economy was growing — that the worst was behind us," said Peter Schiff, president of Euro Pacific Capital. "Now what people are realizing is the stimulus didn’t work, and we may be headed back to recession."
That’s not what you want to hear when you’re hoping to see investment and an economy turn around. And unfortunately, Wall Street is a place with a herd mentality, and when some investors get spooked, they all get spooked. Yesterday indicated they’re spooked.
There’s "total fear" in the market, said Bob Doll, chief equity strategist at the world’s largest money manager, BlackRock.
European and Japanese policy makers had to step in and shore up their markets as the sell off gained momentum.
"In the last two weeks, we’ve been through the ringer," said Rich Ilczyszyn, market strategist with futures broker Lind-Waldock. "When we start looking at the recovery, there’s nothing to hang our hats on anymore."
So despite assurances that a “deal” to raise the debt limit would have a calming effect on world markets, the reality is it didn’t. And Europe is in pretty deep trouble which is also reflected in this loss. Add in the poor economic reports here that continue to pile one on the other and you have a situation that looks increasingly bleak. The unemployment report today is most likely only going to underline that fact with most economists expect poor job growth to continue and the unemployment rate to stay at 9.2%. And now the Dow has lost all of what it had gained in 2011.
Stay tuned. Rocky road (continues) ahead.
Final as in the last thing I’m thinking about when I go to bed. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a bit of a brain dump at the end of the day, instead of writing about the hottest topic du jour, so consider this a flagship post (N.B. even though my not-so-well-thought-out-or-composed trial balloon was pretty much a flop).
I have very mixed feelings about the announcement from the Pay Czar today that 7 of the firms receiving TARP money would have their salaries dictated to them, resulting in as much as a 90% pay cut (although I’ve also heard 90% was the average).
On the one hand, I figure if you dance with the devil, then you can’t complain when he calls the tune. And since in my estimation these firms should have been allowed to fail in the first place, I’m not exactly shedding any tears over their lost compensation. If they wanted to have control over their businesses, then they shouldn’t haven’t gotten involved with the government in the first place. Whatever Paulson said in that room that fateful day, the decision-makers still had a choice. That they chose poorly is really not my problem, and I don’t feel one bit sorry for them.
Yet, I have no way of knowing if any of those salaries being cut would be going to mismanagers or saviors of the bailed-out firm. Clearly if these firms are going to survive (and the taxpayers are going to have any chance of getting their money back), then we would want the smartest, most industrious, and capable workers in there plugging away, whether it’s in the mail room or the board room. But how is that supposed to happen if these people aren’t getting paid their market rate? Why wouldn’t they go somewhere else, or start their own private companies?
More importantly, what sort of precedent does this set? I understand that the Pay Czar’s actions are legitimized by Congress in the statute setting up the TARP program, but what constitutional authority ever gave any of them the right to dictate pay? The Commerce Clause? The General Welfare Clause to which Congress is now hitching its hopes on forcing people to buy health insurance? The answer to that question only raises much deeper and frankly hair-raising questions.
If Congress can constitutionally give the Executive Branch the power to dictate the pay of those who receive federal funds, what else can it do to those being subsidized? If the federal government is picking up the tab for any portion of your health insurance or health care, for example, what limits can it place on the way you live your life? Can it force you not to smoke? Not to drink? Maybe you won’t be allowed to go skiing or rollerblading without a special permit. Would motorcycle riding still be allowed? How about eating fatty foods of any sort? What happens to student loan recipients? Will their classes be decided for them? Their future employment?
Scoff if you must, but if the government can dictate what your intellectual and physical efforts are worth, then why can’t it also dictate what your actual life is worth? And don’t be confused into thinking that decisions concerning how much the government will pay for your health care, or what you will do to earn a living, are anything but a determination of how much your life is worth.
Like I said above, I’m ambivalent about the Pay Czar actions. While I’m not crying over some Wall Street fat cats having the their lucre cut off, I am worried about the seeming ease with which Americans are taking this news and their apparent lack of interest in what it could mean for them (and me!). Governments are dangerous, no matter what goodies you think you might personally get from them. A government that exercises control over any of our lives with fanfare from the constituents, or worse, with their apathy, is by far the most dangerous. Which government and which polity do we have now?
Glad they finally noticed:
The Obama administration is increasingly concerned about a populist backlash against banks and Wall Street, worried that anger at financial institutions could also end up being directed at Congress and the White House and could complicate President Obama’s agenda.
Of course the greatest stoker of this populist backlash has been the Obama administration. I’ll be the first to agree that some of the financial institutions, such as AIG recently, have played into the populist condemnation by the administration, but instead of being specific about the AIGs of the world, they have instead gone after an entire industry to the point that “banks and Wall Street” are synonymous with crooks, swindlers and liars. Having established that narrative, seemingly purposely, there’s now a huge backlash building which may, in fact, cripple the administration’s efforts pertaining to both.
“We’ve got enormous problems that need to be addressed,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, said in an interview. “And it’s hard to address because there’s a lot of anger about the irresponsibility that led us to this point.”
“This has been welling up for a long time,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s aides said any surge of such a sentiment could complicate efforts to win Congressional approval for the additional bailout packages that Mr. Obama has signaled will be necessary to stabilize the banking system.
As it is, there have already been moves in Congress to limit compensation to executives at banks and Wall Street firms that are receiving government help to survive.
Beyond that, a shifting political mood challenges Mr. Obama’s political skills, as he seeks to acknowledge the anger without becoming a target of it. A central question for Mr. Obama is whether his cool style — “in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger,” he said in his address to Congress last month — will prove effective when the country may be feeling more emotional.
And the country is feeling emotional because the administration has been making emotional arguments targeting the industry it wants to help. Not very smart politics. And they’ve now finally realized that.
“Never underestimate the capacity of angry populism in times of economic stress,” said Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. “A big challenge for President Obama will be to maintain a rational and tactical public discussion in the midst of this severe downturn. The desire for culprits at times like this is strong.”
The “culprit” has been identified. In their desire to escape blame, government officials in Congress and elsewhere have almost unanimously used their access to the media to vilify banks and Wall Street while pretending they had no hand whatsoever in this debacle. Unfortunately they’ve been quite successful in the scapegoating. However, having established the narrative, they now have to attempt to reverse it because the public rage they’ve helped stoke may prevent them from doing what they think they need to do to turn the financial industry around.
The entire problem that the administration is now recognizing is one of their own making and another indication of their inexperience and lack of foresight. It’s one thing to demonize such industries when campaigning, it is, as they’re learning, an entirely different thing when you do it as the President of the United States. The administration now has to figure out how to reverse a narrative they helped build and establish. That should be interesting to watch.