Wednesday, May 20, 2009

James Surowiecki on the boom and on banks

James Surowiecki (yes he of Wisdom of Crowds Fame) wrote recently in the New Yorker on why regulators and politicians must realize that the small banks of the post war era (think George Bailey) will not be coming back.

Monsters, Inc.: Financial Page: The New Yorker:
"The desire to bring back the boring, small banking industry of the nineteen-fifties is understandable. Unfortunately, the only way to do that would be to bring back the economy of the fifties, too. Banking was boring then because the economy was boring. The financial sector’s most important job is channeling money from investors to businesses that need capital for worthwhile investment. But in the postwar era there wasn’t much need for this. The economy, while remarkably strong, was dominated by huge companies that faced little competition, and could finance investments out of their profits. And entrepreneurship was restrained: there were many fewer start-ups then than in the period after 1980. So the financial sector didn’t have much to do.

Two things changed this. First, in the seventies those huge companies started tottering, while the U.S. economy fell apart. Second, the corporate world was transformed by revolutionary developments in information technology and by the emergence of new industries like cable television, wireless, and biotechnology."

Interestingly in the same article Surowiecki writes about bubbles. And in particular that this one was unlike others since not only was there no real real (I love using the word real twice in a row) economy shift that led to it, but also (at least in his prediction) nothing good is coming out of this either.

"There have been three big banking booms in modern U.S. history. The first began in the late nineteenth century, during the Second Industrial Revolution, when bankers like J. P. Morgan funded the creation of industrial giants like U.S. Steel and International Harvester. The second wave came in the twenties, as electrification transformed manufacturing, and the modern consumer economy took hold. The third wave accompanied the information-technology revolution....In all these cases, it wasn’t so much that the bankers had changed; the world had.

The same can’t be said, though, of the boom of the past decade. The housing bubble was unique, and uniquely awful. Each of the previous waves had come in response to a profound shift in the real economy. With the housing bubble, by contrast, there was no meaningful development in the real economy that could explain why homes were suddenly so much more attractive or valuable. The only thing that had changed, really, was that banks were flinging cheap money at would-be homeowners, essentially conjuring up profits out of nowhere."

Surowiecki sure can write!

HT to SeekingAlpha for pointing this one out

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