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Keep It in Vegas

September 17, 2008, New York Times, Keep It in Vegas, by Thomas L. Friedman.

Watching some financial stocks just get wiped out in recent months, I often hear a voice in the back of my head, and it is the same voice as one of those dealers in Las Vegas who coolly tells you as he sweeps up your chips after you've busted in blackjack: "Thank you for playing, ladies and gentlemen."

That's what happens when bubbles burst. You feel wiped out, and the coolness with which the dealers — in this case the markets — sweep away all your chips is unnerving. It's easy to over-react, and it is important that we don't. Now is the time for coolly sorting out what markets can do best and what governments need to do better.

Let's understand what happened here. Wall Street — the financial industry — became a bubble in recent years thanks to an excess of liquidity and the oldest bubble maker in history: greed. Some of the smartest people forgot one of the oldest rules of investing: There is no such thing as a risk-free return. When you reach too far for yield, sooner or later you get burned.

In the '90s, the no-lose, risk-free, high-yield return was supposed to be dot-com stocks. This decade's version are subprime mortgages and financial stocks. Just like the dot-comers in the 1990s, the financial stocks got inflated to ridiculous levels and salaries for Wall Street executives reached ridiculous heights. You are now watching live and in color that bubble burst: "Thank you for playing, Lehman Brothers." That's really sad for a 158-year-old company.

The market is now consolidating this industry, with the strong eating the weak, which will impose its own fiscal discipline. Good. Maybe then more of our next generation of math geniuses will think about going into engineering the next great global industry — energy technology — rather than engineering derivatives.

But we also need to understand the uniqueness of this bubble in order to identify where smart government needs to step in. One reason this financial bubble got so big is now well known: you and your neighbor went out and got subprime mortgages, which enabled many more people to become homeowners — a real blessing. Your local finance company or bank, which extended those mortgages, later resold them to an aggregator who put them into big packages with thousands of other subprime mortgages. Then those loan packages were chopped up and sold in small pieces as corporate bonds to all kinds of institutions, who were reaching for extra yield. Your subprime mortgage payments went to pay the interest on those bonds.

But as the housing market collapsed, and people couldn't cover their mortgages or sell their houses, the bonds lost value and, therefore, the banks that held them lost capital, and the whole pyramid started to crumble. This infected the entire housing market, so banks no longer knew the value of their mortgage-backed assets. The result? They stopped lending. Hence, the current credit crunch. This credit crunch is what makes this crisis so lethal. We can't tolerate a prolonged situation where banks won't lend to good companies.

That's why Congress needs to create another Resolution Trust Corporation like we used to get out of the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s. As then, so now, we need a government agency to buy the toxic mortgages off the banks' balance sheets, hold them and sell them in an orderly way later. That would prevent a fire sale of homes and mortgages now and restore confidence to banks so they start lending again.

In the long run, though, regulators need to find ways to limit the amount of leverage investment banks or insurance companies can take on at any one time, because given how intertwined they all are in today's global economy, one bank blowing up can now take down many.

"We are at the end of an era — the end of ‘leave it to the markets' and of the great cop-out that less government is always better government," argues David Rothkopf, a former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration and author of a book about the world's financial leaders who brought about this crisis: "Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making." "I think, however, it is important to stress the difference between smart government and simply more government.

"We do not need a regulatory "surge" on Wall Street," he added. "We need a complete rethinking of how we make global financial markets more transparent and how we ensure that the risks within those markets — many of which are new and many of which are not well understood even by the experts — are managed and monitored properly."

In sum, government's job is to police that fine line between the necessary risk-taking that drives an innovation economy and crazy gambling with other people's savings in ways that threaten us all. We need to make sure that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas — and doesn't come to Main Street. We need to get back to investing in our future and not just betting on it.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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