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16 October, 2008

Hard Times Ahead

It's hard not to panic. Since I retired, ten months ago, my superannuation fund has fallen in value by 40%, the cost of living has gone up by 5%, and 'the economy' has become the number one item on the evening news night after night.

Of course, as my financial adviser keeps reminding me, the stock market goes up and down all the time. When it's low, the worst thing you can do is sell (unless you think it's going to go a lot lower.) The trouble is, traders seem to be selling as fast as they can punch the 'sell' buttons on their terminals – selling banks and buying commodities, then selling commodities and buying banks, then selling banks again, with the net value of the market dropping just a little more with each trade.

Economists don't have a clue. If there is one thing the past year has shown us, it is that current economic theory is a pile of horse's dung. Economists are idiots, devising ever more subtle formulae to estimate the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. And it is economists who came up with the brilliant risk management formulae – all that fun with Monte Carlo simulations they all had! - that proved that black really is just another way of describing white and that lending money to people who can't afford to pay it back is just fine, no problem at all.

Bankers are also idiots. Faced with complex formulae they can't begin to understand, they have staked the fortunes of the world on their trust of economists, and have turned investors' money into so much toxic debt that their very institutions are at risk – and, if this goes on much longer, probably capitalism itself. Not that that will stop them taking their huge salaries, bonuses, and, when they've finally killed the golden goose, their pay-offs. Which means investors in banks must be idiots too for letting idiots like that handle their investment.

Governments, of course, are idiots. For years they have deregulated financial markets, they have created 'business environments' in which capital can flow more easily, where risky investment can be freely exercised, all in the name of helping 'the market ' create wealth. The fact is that most politicians are just loud-mouthed arseholes off the street – or the idiot sons of rich families – and they have even less understanding of how market economies work than the bankers or the economists. Yet, they've listened to their economic advisors and the industry lobbyists and to every other bullshit merchant who'd like the government to help them get rich, and they've set up a legal framework that allows – nay, encourages! - the kind of idiotic speculation the banks have been blindly indulging in for so long. Now these same governments are busy splashing around trillions of dollars of our money, shoring up the very system that has so patently let us down. And when they've shovelled enough of our money into the holes, so that the world's wealth is no longer running through them like fantasies through an economist's head, when we've reached a point where enough businesses have failed and enough people are out of work and enough mortgages have been foreclosed and enough pensioners have died of hypothermia for want of a few bucks for the fuel bill, what then? Won't all that money simply mean money is worth less? Will we be looking at ten, fifteen, twenty-percent inflation, just when everyone is so poor that it will really, really hurt? Won't these same heroic governments who are keeping idiot bank CEO's in their multimillion-dollar jobs today be saying they have to cut education, healthcare, pensions, and the minimum wage tomorrow because, gee, we spent all your money saving the banks?

Well, I'm thinking of buying a goat and a few chickens, planting a vegetable patch and setting up some solar panels – before I'm too poor to do any of this.


Anonymous said...

Yes, but don't we bear some responsibility ourselves for trusting these institutions, rather than learning about economics and finance ourselves? We've learned the lesson now, and I am certainly trying to make up for lost time. It's terribly inefficient: if the government won't give me a pension, and if I can't trust insurance companies and banks, then I have to spend a much larger proportion of my time learning how to manage my savings. That's time I can't spend programming computers, being a lawyer or looking after my child. Too bad! The super rich are trying to destroy the middle class. We should stop trusting them and take better care of ourselves.

graywave said...


graywave said...

Hmmm. What I meant to say was...

That's an interesting point of view and one Ive got a lot of sympathy with. There are just two major problems with it.

1. Learning economics won't help. The economists haven't got a clue what's going on. They couldn't predict this and they don't know what to do about it. There are some practical things you could learn about managing your own money but in times like these, they don't help much - they just save you from doing something stupid (which you probably wouldn't anyway). We're just too much at the mercy of the global economy. If that's not working, we're stuffed.

2. Society can't work without trust. Yes, you could become an expert in finance to help mitigate the chaos inflicted on us by other 'experts' - but can you also become and expert in politics, and in medicine, and in law, and in all the other things your welfare depends on? At some point we have to put our trust in others and they have to put their trust in us. There really is no option in a society this complicated.

Anonymous said...

Some economists did predict it, for example Nouriel Roubini. As for whether economists know what to do about it, a lot of them believe they know what to do and some have strong opinions about it. Many of them do "know" what to do, but they might not have your or my interests at heart and we might not like either their objectives or their methods.

The trust, sadly, has already gone, or at least, it should have! The people who have made a lot of money out of the various asset bubbles, in real estate, shares and currencies, understand very well how a pyramid selling scheme works. Their interests are however inconsistent with your interests or mine, as they made their money at the outset and we are the mug punters left holding the devalued assets when the bubbles burst. Learning economics and finance will help, if it enables us to recognise these schemes and take action in future to avoid them.

It doesn't seem to me to be about incompetence at all. What has happened in the financial world over the last few years has been a competent enough scheme for enriching people who are not like you or me. Contrary to what may have been widely believed, the financial system does not exist to enrich low-to-middle-income middle class people. It has been designed to enrich investment bankers and corporate executives at the expense of, among others, the middle classes and to that extent it has been effective.

Personally, I think it is a good idea to learn about financial, legal and medical issues that are relevant to my life. No-one else is as motivated to do this as I am!

People running banks and insurance companies are however not in the position of our own doctors and lawyers. They do not represent our interests. Financial advisers are not independent like doctors and lawyers if they receive commissions.

Caveat emptor.

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