Too Big To Fail…Twice?

Nothing demonstrates where the world stood in 2008 as well as this image of Hank Paulson – then Treasury Secretary and former Goldman Sachs boss – kneeling before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, literally begging her not to break up the proposed deal that would bailout the nation’s financial system.

Too big to fail Hank Paulson

This image isn’t exactly real. It’s from HBO’s adaptation of the excellent Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin.

But did it really? The thought of the ultimate Master of the Universe bowing to the Prada-wearing arch-enemy of Dubya, Paulson’s boss, is the most telling example of the insanity that was the few weeks in September 2008 when the world changed.

And change it did

America’s unemployment rate has shrunk from its peak of 19% in 2009 (thanks, Bureau of Labor Statistics), but millions still remain out of work. An untold amount of people are underemployed, working part-time at jobs beneath their skill level. Home foreclosures have slowed, but many communities remain ravaged by the vacant properties now owned by banks that just sit, empty, waiting for squatters and vandals to trash. No city better symbolizes all that was changed, for the worst, than Detroit – the home of the American auto industry and Motown that recently declared bankruptcy and appears like it will never come close to its former glory.

But for some, not much has changed. The CEOs and others that placed their huge bets on complex derivatives? They may have left their posts (although not all did), but they still managed to exercise golden parachutes raking in millions upon millions of dollars. They still get to enjoy the Hamptons estates and the Vail winter paradises. The 1% remains just that, and they’re even more ahead of the curve than they were before.

And the proposed legislative changes to prevent a meltdown like this from ever happening again? Well, good luck with that. The pride and joy of the Dodd-Frank reforms was the Volcker Rule. Named after former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, this policy would prevent banks from making investment bets from their own money – the same type of bets that caused them to lose trillions of dollars and need bailouts in the first place.

Too big to fail Volcker Rule

But the Volcker Rule is far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far away from being finalized, five years after The Great Recession came into our lives. Five separate government agencies are charged with the task of creating the final language of the Volcker Rule. These agencies (the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) all have their own agendas.

On top of that, they’re also mandated to incorporate public comment into their discussions. That public includes the investment banks they’re charged with regulating. Those banks and their associations and lawyers have flooded the agencies with their (many times legitimate) concerns.

It’s taken forever and we’re nowhere near done.

But on the bright side, the stock market has returned to glorious heights, with the Dow recently eclipsing 15,600 and other indexes also surging. But at the same time, Main Street – the street you and I most likely walk on – still struggles.

So, what can we learn from this?

Well, it’s up to us to get and stay educated on investing our money. Investing is and will forever be a great, great thing. But it’s hard and scary and intimidating. Too many people jump into the fray, randomly picking a few stocks without knowing a thing about fundamental analysis or technical trading factors. Too many people don’t know the difference between actively managed mutual funds and index funds and how that affects the bottom line. Too many people trust the hot stock picks of whatever analyst wormed his or her way into getting face time on CNBC as opposed to really sitting down to do the research or finding trustworthy, smart people who have already done the work.

Just today, a reputable economist who had predicted the financial crisis, Manuel Hinds, took measures that signified his concerns for the short-term economic future. If we are to face another “2008”, we better get ourselves protected. And the best form of protection is knowledge.

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