Insights & Advice

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Twenty First Century Capitalism

Our concept of free markets may change dramatically as the result of this crisis. I believe that in the years ahead, the majority of Americans will no longer espouse the laissez faire attitudes of the last century. Instead, markets will be regulated and to some extent controlled by the government. Whether that will turn out to be a good or bad development remains to be seen.

It is estimated that the world’s total exposure to credit swaps and other toxic derivatives is over $63 trillion. Although I believe that is too conservative a number, it still amounts to more than the entire gross domestic product of the entire world’s economies. Although free market actions got us into this mess, this debt problem is now far too large for capitalism alone to dig us out of it. Enter governments around the world. The captains of industry are relinquishing the pilot’s seats out of necessity. They have been replaced by hands on; elbow deep, active regulators, appointed officials and soon-to-be- elected politicians. Make no mistake: now that Washington has the taste of financial power it will be reluctant to give it back if history is any guide.

This week Congress began the task of over hauling financial regulations, warning that the process will take time, thought and planning. However, no sooner did the gavel fall before opposing ideologies and partisan finger pointing erupted with dire warnings of socialism in America. Theatrics aside, I suspect the real work won’t begin until after the election votes are counted. No matter which party ends up with a majority the demands from outraged voters to reign in the financial system have been heard loud and clear. Expect big changes that will alter our financial system from top to bottom.

Consider Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman and financial advisor to Barak Obama, who told members of the House Committee of Government Oversight and Reform today that he had made a mistake in trusting that free markets could and would regulate themselves without the need of government intervention.

“I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,” admitted the 81 year-old pillar of capitalism.

Given his 18-year stint as head of the Fed, Greenspan’s words carry far more weight around the world then one would imagine. He used the words “shocked disbelief” in referring to the failure of banks to regulate them. Since Greenspan has been an avid supporter and promoter of deregulation throughout his 40-year professional career, his admission will no doubt influence the thinking of many within and outside the financial community. I expect others will admit (or be forced to admit) the same thing.

The crisis is not over and will require the government’s full attention for months if not years to come. So expect more not less involvement as events unfold. One of the jokes going around the markets is that Wall Street has moved from Manhattan to Washington, D.C. I think there may be far more truth in that statement then many are willing to believe.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Macroeconomics