October 13, 2008
Retirement savings losses
Like most people who have retirement accounts, the beginning of October saw the arrival of my quarterly statements and they did not make for pleasant reading. Mine showed a drop of 12% since the beginning of the year.
I have heard many people express dismay over similar losses. It is, of course, not pleasant to see ones savings drop so sharply. But at the same time, we have to realize that what we may be seeing is a drop from an artificially high and inflated value. Over the past few years, those same retirement accounts have grown at a rapid clip due to the galloping stock market prices.
While reading the quarterly statements back in the good old days (i.e., last year) were fun, I never thought of that as 'real' money or wealth, the way I view the money in my bank account. It is like the value of my home. It may go up or down but as long as I am not selling it or trying to borrow against it, it has no effect on my life except psychologically.
Talking of the good old days, wasn't it was just this summer that $150 billion was given away as $600 to each taxpayer and that this 'stimulus package' was supposed to solve all our financial problems by the simple expedient of having people go shopping? Ah, those were the good times.
As I have mentioned before, if we think of the virtual economy of the stock market as being a measure of the real economy, then the Dow Jones Index should only be about 5,500, still below its current value. So, except for people who are forced to convert their stock assets into actual cash, there has been no tangible loss.
What is extraordinary is the effort by some to blame the whole subprime mess on what they claim is the effort by the government to provide loans to poor and minority communities to encourage them to buy homes. They say that this is what encouraged risky lending practices. This is flat-out false.
There were of course many people who did buy homes and made other major purchases based on a false sense of wealth and it is they who are now really feeling the pain. There are those people who bought homes they could not really afford before the real estate market went sour, for which they now owe more money than the house is worth and hence have now defaulted. It is uncertainty both about the scope and extent of this default problem and the worth of the securitized investments made out of bundled mortgages that seems to fueling the loss of confidence in banks and the stock market.
To be sure, many individuals were greedy and took advantage of the chance to buy expensive homes at inflated values based on artificially low introductory rates. Many of them also spent way more than they should have on credit, maxing out their cards. Have we forgotten that people have long been strongly urged to shop, and that it was almost their patriotic duty to do so in order to keep the economy going? Credit card offers were plentiful and so easy to obtain that we were regaled with stories of even cats and dogs obtaining them. Now it seems that credit card debt was also 'securitized' like home mortgages were and those debts are also in danger of default, and suddenly people are being lectured to sternly for their thriftless ways.
People seemed to have had an unrealistic sense of what they could and could not afford. Such people are by no means blameless. But what they are guilty of is greed. They cannot be blamed for the mess because they are not the ones who were in control of the situation.
It should also not be forgotten that not all home mortgage or credit card defaults are due to greed. Some people default because of factors outside their control, like loss of their job or a major illness. In fact, the largest factor in personal bankruptcies is due to the cost of medical care.
It is the banks that we expect to be the grown ups in this situation, who should understand what risks are reasonable. They are the professionals. They are not obliged to give loans to whoever asks for them. It is they who are supposed to check on the value of the homes that are being bought and the ability of the purchaser to pay back the loans before they lend money.
But the banks did not practice the kind of due diligence that was called for. So while they, like the homeowners, are also guilty of greed, they definitely bear the major responsibility for the mess.
POST SCRIPT: Crazy prayers
The idiocy of some religious believers never ceases to amaze me. Take this invocation given by Rev. Arnold Conrad, past pastor of the Grace Evangelical Free Church at a McCain rally in Davenport, Iowa.
"I would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons," Conrad said.
"And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and Election Day," he said.
Apart from the pastor's ignorance (he mixes up the names of gods with the names of the religions) he is warning his Christian god that this election is being seen as a grudge match between him and his competitor gods and that if he doesn't act to make McCain win, he wont be able to show his face in the neighborhood again. Unbelievable.