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Oct 6, 2008 6:37 pm


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An irreverent Wall Street Blog
by Bill Singer Subscribe to RSS Feed: Blog Home | Past Entries Of Wall Street, the Titanic, and the Britannic Written: October 6, 2008

Many of my readers and members of the press have sought out my opinions about the current decline of Wall Street.  I have tried, and not always successfully, to find ways to explain some of the more complex issues that I see.  There is no simple explanation and no single cause to point at.  Nonetheless, there are some general themes that need to be brought to the public's attention, and I will try to explain my personal perspective, as follows:

Oh, They Built the Ship Titanic

About 100 years ago, the White Star Line built a line of cruise ships known as the Olympic-class.  The first to be built was the Olympic, which was retired in 1935. 

The second ship was the ill-famed Titanic. In 1912 it hit an iceberg and sunk, taking 1,517 lives.  The lore of this vessel is well known and likely need not be repeated; however, let me set forth just a few salient points:

it was the largest passenger ship of its day; reputed to be state-of-the-art and virtually unsinkable; it was equipped with the latest Marconi wireless radio; and it carried more lifeboats than maritime code required.

Consider the following well-documented facts:

spotters saw the iceberg but the ship could not alter course in time--the warnings came too late for the rudder to be brought into play; under maritime code the number of lifeboats were determined by the ship's tonnage and not passengers--hence, although the number of lifeboats exceeded the code, there were only enough seats for 52% of the passengers; radio warnings of icebergs were sent to the Titanic by other ships, but its wireless operators were too busy handling passenger communication traffic to notify the bridge; distress messages were sent but the nearest ships were hours away; the Titanic was designed according to the most modern theories and utilized advanced construction techniques--but the hull and bulkheads failed, and construction methods were determined to be faulty, materials were found to be substandard.

Armed with all of the above findings, the third of the Olympic-class ships, the Britannic, was retrofitted. 

Question: Would you book passage on the Britannic?

Full Speed Ahead?

I believe that powerful market forces aligned to propagate a myth that "household names" (i.e., brokerage firms and banks that advertised on national television) were somehow more honest and safer than those lousy little mom-and-pop institutions that helped build your community and gave your parents the dollars to open and expand their businesses.  You were manipulated over recent years to associate smaller community banks and broker-dealers with pennystock hustlers and boiler-room fraudsters.  Humongous financial institutions made massive campaign contributions to favored politicos, who did their bidding.  Those large firms also used their influence throughout the regulatory structure to advance their goals at the expense of their smaller competitors.  I can't be polite about this: the regulators were either willing lackeys or clueless stooges.  

And, boy, did you lambs follow the Judas goats to slaughter. You bought in to the nonsense, whole hog.  

Bigger-is-better was the mantra and you sat by as they shuttered the little shops downtown and built the massive shopping center that sucked your local economy dry. Minimum wages. No benefits. No competition. Traffic congestion.  You got three t-shirts for $15, but the local mills closed and the hospital's emergency staff was overwhelmed with uninsured patients. 

They told you it was progress.  You understood, sort of--they said that we were evolving from a manufacturing economy to a service one. Sounded good to you. Sort of made sense. Then, oddly, the computer manufacturing jobs went overseas...but they also took the telecommunication service jobs. 

The local bank shuttered and the larger commercial replacement was spanking new, but when you asked for a small business loan, they were too big to be bothered with you.  You were thrilled when that financial superstore opened next door. Their television ads showed how they would show up at your kid's wedding and at your retirement party. They told you what you wanted to hear: double-digit returns, online investing, computerized portfolio modeling, and insured accounts. It's what they didn't tell you that came back to  hurt you.

They didn't tell you that the financial products they sold to you were ticking time bombs. They didn't tell you that the firm itself would soon collapse under the weight of its own foolish speculation. 

They didn't tell you that when you needed to raise $2 million to expand -- a sum that your former broker happily handled at his independent/regional firm -- that you were of no importance to them.  You must have missed the commercial where they just said "sorry, not interested in servicing local yokels."  Of course, they did raise the $30 million for your national competitor, who opened up a few blocks away and drove you out of business.  

Who hit what?

Let's at least agree on one historic fact: The iceberg did not seek out and attack the Titanic. No, the ship sailed into the iceberg.

The failure to promptly process many warnings and the willingness to sacrifice safety for speed put the ship on a deadly collision course.  Design flaws based upon false assumptions and deficient construction ultimately sunk the vessel. Inadequate safety standards--even if compliant with the letter of the law--prevented the saving of many lives. 

Much the same could be said of the wreckage of Wall Street. 

The world's markets sped full-speed ahead into the path of icebergs. But, not to worry, they chided us. Our state-of-the-art technology protects investors with layers of regulations and regulators. Our floors of computers  monitor trading and we will pounce on any anomalies.  For over three-quarters of a century, the post-Depression regulatory schema of the Federal Reserve, the SEC, the CFTC, the state regulators, and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) prevent the ship of Wall Street from sinking--it might list to one side, but it would never sink. They told you that. They promised you that. You rested comfortably on that assurance.

Alas, Wall Street still ran smack dab into a killer iceberg. 

No regulator sounded the alarm until it was too late -- and now we are hearing the bells for "abandon ship." None of the vaunted new market architecture worked: the hulls and bulkheads are now flooding, and we see too few lifeboats.  And woe be we survivors in the icy waters if the Carpathia is the nearest boat.

How Ironic

As asked earlier, knowing what you do about the Titanic, knowing that its younger sister ship was retrofitted after the famed sinking, would you book passage on the RMS Britannic?

And as I now ask you, knowing all you do about the present market meltdown, knowing that the politicians and regulators who christened the flawed ship that is sinking are now trying to retrofit our markets, would you buy stock or bonds today?

One Last Thing

Financial panics such as our current situation are fraught with ironies.

Solutions are often sought from the selfsame experts who fueled the collapse with erroneous analyses. Those who are adept at seeing a coming calamity may not be equally equipped to solve the problem--diagnosis and cure are two very different disciplines. Even when financial regulators and financial institutions cause an economic collapse that burns down the house, society feels compelled to re-set the circuit breakers rather than rewire the house.

In 1916, the Britannic became a hospital ship during World War I and hit a mine--and sunk within 55 minutes! What's the point? I don't really know--perhaps there isn't one. Still, makes you wonder.

Oct 6, 2008 6:48 pm

Excellent thought provoking post Bill. I posted several months ago the Asian Tiger crisis and was/am astounded how may similarities. Different Names , Different Places but the same impact. I remember very well how many investors , companies , politicians and investment firms bought the story. It made absolutely no sense then and am sitting on the sidelines when it comes to the Economic Miracle of China. Let’s see.

Oct 6, 2008 10:17 pm

Great post. How’d you do that “printer friendly” trick?

Oct 9, 2008 6:09 pm

Thanks for sharing that Bill.  I appreciate your contribution.

Oct 9, 2008 6:52 pm

Amen Bill. The CEO of AIG quite clearly said before the Hearings … " I was more concerned about my employees compensation and my time was being focused on currently accepted accounting practices ". As we jet away for a week at the Four Seasons in Carlsbad , CA and spend 400,000.00 as the company flames out.