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Commentary Last Updated: Mar 31st, 2008 - 23:53:42

Bad business for America
By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Associate Editor

Apr 1, 2008, 00:42

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Is it any wonder Wall Street finds itself in a money crunch so tight the Fed had to jump in and rob a bank, Bear Stearns, and give it to JPMorganChase at two (then 10) bucks a share, down from $178 a year ago, with a guarantee of $30 billion to JPMC that any residue of subprime paper the Bear was still digesting wouldn�t crap all over Morgan�s balance sheet, which, thanks to its CEO Jamie Dimon was stable, aside, that is, from the $65 billion in derivatives JPMC is stuck with. Even le cr�me goes astray.

But, needless to say after so much has been written about it, the subprime fiasco was not �the fault� of Bear Stearns. The Bear was one of many investment banks that were overexposed to bad debt for profit. Merrill-Lynch was in deeper and so was Morgan Stanley. Bear was not even in their league, but Bernanke pounced on its losses and shut the Discount Window to it, while doling out billions to JPMC and others. Well, somebody had to suffer. Poor Bear.

But wait! What about all the lending institutions (not investment banks) who made these lousy loans in the first place and collateralized them upwards? Who�s been singled out, who�s going to jail, or getting his or her wrist slapped hard? Very few if any are hit. Let me go a step further and say that the general laissez-faire attitude of the Bush administration and seven years of trillions in tax cuts to the rich, plus five years of a two to three trillion dollar war represent the essence of bad business: increasing your costs dramatically while cutting your income drastically.

Any student in any 101 business class, or even your mom and dad know that. Balance your checkbook, Herman. See if you�re spending more than you�re making. Don�t spend half your paycheck on lottery tickets you think will make you the millionaire you are presently spending like. In fact, the latest wave of subprime disaster, as the New York Times recently reported, are equity loans on homes, loans on mortgaged property that had appreciated. Now that home values are declining, now that waves of subprime loans are signaling �can�t pay,� that second and even third tier of home-based loans are going to leave a lot of people on the street, including the lenders.

The consequences are mind-boggling. But at the core is the same problem: unwise lending and borrowing, which initially the lender and borrower were fully aware of, but chose not to think about. But was or are George Bush, Henry Paulson (former Goldman Sachs chief) and Ben Bernanke thinking about it? Is anyone telling Bush you can�t keep spending more and more on two wars running while reducing taxes on your most solvent, biggest-earner citizens. It�s hari-kari, financial suicide. Yet no one has thrown a net over Bush/Cheney as of yet, even though the Bear was swiped, put in a financial cage, and given away to JPMC by the Fed.

Oh, and I do understand the spin about how you had to restore confidence and avoid a domino fall of banks, investment banks as well as savings banks, so, kaboom, you don�t have a nice depression. By the way, at least savings banks have some vestige of financial control. They have to keep a certain amount of cash on total deposits. They can�t invest all or more than all assets at any given time. Unfortunately, investment banks have carte blanche to hock themselves up to their armpits. They have no �credit limit� let alone regulation for a reserve fund. This encourages the profligate to work that advantage to the endgame we are seeing and will continue to see, unless some limits, as in a Las Vegas casino, are put on what can be borrowed to gamble.

Now, someone tell this to George W Bush, the reputed president of America, Incorporated. You can�t spend yourself deeper and deeper into debt and not drown, no matter how deaf you choose to be. Debt has a way of catching up with you and kicking you in the head. Ask the CEO of Bear Sterns, ask the ex-CEO of Citibank, which wrote down close to $70 billion in crappy subprime paper last year; ask Merrill Lynch. Ask the US comptroller whose watching the national debt climb to $9 trillion and more. Sooner or later you pay the piper. You wanna dance, you gotta pay the band. Fill in your favorite clich� here ( ). If you said, don�t spend money you don�t have, you win a lifetime of relative financial security. Now, that wasn�t so hard, was it?

Or is it? See, you have to deal with a very powerful emotional component here: greed. That is, wanting to scam something for nothing, financial engineering as opposed to real work to produce a real product or service for profit. Even the richest among us, who know better, are not mailing back their undeserved tax cuts. Warren Buffett kids that he pays less taxes than his secretary. So, if Mr. Money Bags himself thinks it�s a joke, and the president doesn�t get the punch line, the laugh is on the American people and world economy. Bottom line, Bush�s policies, tax cuts for the rich, trillion dollar war, is bad business for America and is a bad example for business worldwide.

Jamie Dimon, who graduated Harvard to be the numbers man for Sandy Weil, and worked his way up to CEO of JPMorganChase, will tell you that. Core values are essential. Risk and credit limits need to be set: with your credit card or your Pentagon, your equity loans or your department of Homeland Security. You have to respect money not worship it. You need to have power, personal or national, not abuse it, use it to bully, coerce or corrupt. If you do the latter, what goes around will come around to haunt you, like those market plunges, those soaring numbers of dead and wounded troops, foreclosures, bankruptcies, financial and spiritual.

Also, a large, previously unaccounted for cost of the war was beyond expenditure for bombs, guns, hardware, but lives of the lost and wounded; the cost of paying $15,000 to $30,000 per annum to survivors and/or up to $400,000 in life insurance to a single person�s survivor or a family�s survivor, for many, many years (meager sums at that). Did anyone at White House Central ever consider that? Or did they figure this well of humanity they were drawing from was bottomless? Or that the claim-holders of that flesh and blood would not need recompense for their losses? It was bad business, bad management, human, financial, and every which way. No core values.

So if you want Wall Street to be legit, if you want to send a message, start at the top. Reverse the pattern of taxation to progressive. It�s only real, the more you earn (thanks to the system), the more you repay the system, thanks. And, god forbid, if you have to go to war, to defend yourself, as FDR did, you have some reserves, you have a manufacturing machine that can build your defense hardware when you need it, as in WW II, the one we won. Want to be a winner again, America? Be legit, be smart, make an honest buck, don�t screw your neighbor. The house you save or the roof you bring down may be your own.

Also, I think that there should be a CEO tax surcharge fund for repayment to the US Treasury for companies badly managed. If a guy�s making $50 million, $100 million a year or more, to run a company and he buries himself in subprime paper, let�s take a month of his salary as a tax surcharge for his errors. He�ll have to cancel his vacation in the Caymans and spend the time in his miserable mansion stateside and maybe have MacDonald�s cater one of his bashes. That�s economics from the School of Hard Knocks. A few knocks on a few hard heads would take us a long way. Maybe the Fed then wouldn�t have to play dealmaker and rob a bank to keep the economy afloat.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer living in New York. Reach him at

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