Until the past few weeks, the financial panic was still mostly far away on Wall Street. But not now.
Car loans, mortgages and college financing are suddenly harder to come by. Millions are stuck in houses not worth what is owed on them. Cash-strapped consumers are cutting back. The economy is slowing. Jobs are disappearing. Who wants to open quarterly 401(k) statements only to learn that everything they put away in retirement accounts the past two or three years is gone?
There is plenty of blame to go around. Greedy Wall Street speculators took mega-bonuses even when they knew their leveraged companies were tottering -- and someone else would pick up the tab. Crooked or stupid politicians allowed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to squander billions, as they raked in campaign donations and crowed about their politically correct support for millions of shaky -- and now mostly defaulting -- buyers.
The new national gospel became charge now/pay later and speculate, rather than put something away in case of a downturn. To provide more goodies that we hadn't earned, politicians ignored soaring annual budget deficits and staggering national debt and kept spending.
But amid the gloom, there are some valuable lessons that we can take away from the Wall-Street panic.
First, cash really is king. For all the talk of a trillion here or billions there, when the crunch came many of these investment houses and their once-strutting managers found themselves with a minus net worth. They were desperate to find liquidity -- any money anywhere they could find it. Pedestrian passbook savings accounts proved wiser investments than all the clever hedge funds, derivatives and sub-prime schemes put together.
Second, wisdom and blue-chip college educations are not quite the same thing. The fools in Washington and New York who blew up Wall Street had degrees from our finest professional schools.
The most chilling example, at the very beginning of this ongoing mess, came in 2003 during the House Financial Services Committee's hearing on Fannie and Freddie. At one point, Harvard Law School graduate Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., asked Fannie Mae CEO and fellow Harvard Law School graduate Franklin Raines -- who took millions in bonuses even as he helped bankrupt the once-hallowed institution -- whether he felt the mortgage giant had been "under-regulated." Raines answered him under oath, "No, sir." Then overseer Frank announced, "OK. Then I am not entirely sure why we are here."
If these guys are our best and brightest, then it is about time we rethink what constitutes wisdom, since an Ivy League law degree certainly seemed no proof of either intelligence or ethics.
Third, we as a nation need to relearn the old notion of shame -- as in "shame on you!" Firms like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns were once responsible Wall Street institutions, built up over decades by sober men. But their far-lesser successors in just a few months have bankrupted these venerable brokerage houses -- with seemingly no shame at what they have done to the image of Wall Street.
Americans used to pay their debts. Somewhere in all the blame-gaming about the crooks and liars in New York and Washington, we never hear that real people borrowed real money that they should not have. And they then defaulted on what they owed to others. Walking away from debts may have been understandable, but it was also a violation of trust -- and wrong.
Finally, what one makes is no proof of his worth. Almost every head of a Wall Street firm took tens of millions of dollars in bonuses these past few years, as they posted phony profits by borrowing ever more with ever fewer assets. But if financing facilitates the American economy, we should remember that less exotic and remunerative construction -- such as farming, manufacturing and mining -- is what really powers America.
Recently, Americans built a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis to replace the older one on I-35 that collapsed last year. It was finished three months ahead of schedule, and the industrious construction team that worked 24/7 to make thousands of commuters safer is now eligible for up to $27 million in well-earned incentives. Meanwhile, Franklin Rains at Fannie Mae made nearly twice that sum in bonuses -- leaving behind nothing much at all other than billions in other peoples' debts.
How odd that all those boring lessons from our grandparents turn out to be true in the globalized, hip 21st century: Save your money. Don't borrow what you can't pay back. Look first at a man's character, not his degrees. And if a promised return on an investment seems too good to be true, it probably is.