Monday, September 29, 2008
How is this for an explanation of the financial crisis in 100 words or less?
"As in every preceding crisis, the main cause was far too large a mass of credits -- that is, of debts -- for the amount of cash in which they were redeemable. Trade and speculation had long been so active, and too often recklessly expanded, that this disproportion had become dangerous, and a menace to our safety...a serious reaction, a serious revulsion, was inevitable unless we moderated our pace and mended our ways..I could foresee that this vast and growing disproportion between the volume of credits and cash would finally lead to collapse." That is a description of the Panic of 1907, courtesy of financier Henry Clews, who in 1908 wrote the book "Fifty Years in Wall Street." Mr. Clews also investigated the American stock panics of 1812, 1823, 1825, 1837, 1857, well, you get the idea, all the way through the Panic of 1893. The common denominator: too much debt, too much speculation. Flail as investors and financiers might, Mr. Clews argued that market panics were America's birthright. The country was built on innovation and growth, he said, and growth "requires outlays of capital in advance of obtainable results.... We thus have a ceaseless stream of new issues of stocks, mortgages and commercial paper and have, therefore, at all times outstanding a large amount of obligations which, from the uncertainty of their basis, are liable to wide fluctuations in value." Then there is unchanging human nature. Banks that hold toxic mortgage-backed securities and "hung" bridge loans are reacting in 2008 just as stockholders did in the downturn of 1904, when many railways and industrial companies were forced to liquidate their holdings. That left the country "sprinkled with poor rich men, capitalists with a good deal of property, real and personal, including stocks, but all unsalable in the market except at a ruinous loss. Their policy is naturally to hold on to what they have left till the tide turns," he wrote. The cure? Mr. Clews argued for more lending. "In every panic very much depends upon the prudence and control of the money-lenders...this is tantamount to saying that all depends on the calmness and wisdom of the banks." Now we might define "calmness and wisdom" as restrictions on lending, but "if they lose their heads and indiscriminately refuse to lend, or lend only to the few unquestionably strong borrowers, the worst forms of panic ensue," Mr. Clews warned. In the end, it is the business cycle as fate: "The action of commerce, like a motion of the sea or the atmosphere, follows an undulatory line. First comes an ascending wave of activity and rising prices; next, when prices have risen to a point that [limits] demand, comes a period of hesitation or caution; then, carefulness among lenders and discounters; then comes the descending movement, in which holders simultaneously endeavor to [withdraw their money], thereby accelerating a general fall in prices. Credit then becomes more sensitive and is contracted; transactions are diminished; losses are incurred through the depreciation of property; and finally the ordeal becomes so severe to the debtor class that forcible liquidation has to be adopted, and insolvent firms and institutions must be wound up."