LONDON – Before we tuck in to this week’s topic, I thought it worth mentioning that last week’s column about the Large Hadron Collider built underneath the French-Swiss border generated an extraordinary amount of reader e-mail. In the article we pointed out that after 14 years and 8 billion dollars, scientists from around the world were giddy with excitement as they fired up the mother of all experiments and sent a gaggle of protons racing around a 17-mile track.
We marveled at the complexity of the project and expressed our interest in the fact that the scientists don’t really know what will happen once the protons build up a head of steam and eventually start crashing into each other. The positive outcome would be that they could recreate conditions that existed just after the Big Bang (one must always capitalize Bang after preceding it with Big), thus shedding light on mysteries of the universe. The negative outcome, as slight as it may be, would be the end of the world. As we noted in the column, in for a penny, in for a pound.
Now, I should point out that the PWB is not an accredited science journal nor would I actually recognize a proton if it bit me in the butt. Our intention in writing the article on the collider was simply to point out the fun that physicists can have with an unlimited budget and free rein to wreak havoc on the world. We were not actually trying to provide readers with an education in particle physics nor were we passing judgment on the science community.
Apparently, we touched a nerve with actual physicists and also with physicist wanna-be’s … a category of people I had no idea existed. While the majority of reader responses were highly entertaining answers to the column’s question, “If the collider were to destroy the world, how would you spend your last 24 hours?”, we also received a large number of angry e-mails from eggheads who thought I was being disrespectful of the amazing collider project.
For those of you who week in and week out understand that the PWB’s purpose in life is to try to figure out where common sense has gone, we salute you. For those of you who wrote in with surly, oddly emotional attacks on the PWB’s educational value (huh?) and lack of scientific awareness, we can only suggest that you take a deep breath, pour yourself a tasty beverage, stare into the mirror and mutter quietly, “I am a humorless tool.” Repeat as necessary.
Anyway, it’s all relatively moot as the week passed and we were not sucked into a black hole. Huzzah. Admittedly, they’ve just started the initial steps of the overall experiment, sending protons chugging around the track in one direction. Next week it gets really interesting when dozens of the nerds responsible for the experiment are released and start racing around the track in the opposite direction. We’ll all hold our breath to see what happens when protons and scientists ultimately crash into each other.
Switching gears, I find myself in London this week, a wonderful city that should be seen at least once in a lifetime. Make your way here when you get the opportunity, although preferably when the U.S. dollar is worth more than a tuppence.
If ever you needed proof that the world is shrinking and our economies are intertwined, you should have walked with me through the London financial districts today. Just yesterday, across the Atlantic in New York City, the U.S. government and major Wall Street players were attempting to slap a compression bandage on the sucking chest wound that is Lehman Brothers. That effort failed, partly because everyone realized that Lehman’s debt of approximately $630 billion was a lot of jack, and the bank announced it was heading into Chapter 11.
This morning in London, 6,000 UK-based Lehman employees woke up to learn they were unemployed. While that number is only a fraction of the total job losses resulting from Lehman’s demise, it is a stark reminder of the ties that bind the global economy. As I walked around Canary Wharf and London’s City financial center today, you could feel the same tension and concern that exists on Wall Street, as it does in Paris, Tokyo, Beijing and in numerous other financial hubs.
The good news, I suppose, is that we’re not on our own. The bad news, likewise, is that we’re not on our own. The mess created by greed, failure to carry out due diligence up and down the ladder, dishonesty and insufficient regulation is not a U.S.-only creation. The idiots responsible for this house of cards, and there are plenty, absolutely needed the cooperation of the international banking system in order to build such an enormous compost pile.
It was fascinating being overseas on the day that Lehman fell, news of AIG’s struggles became more public and the word broke that Bank of America was taking over Merrill Lynch. Merrill Lynch had to be bought in order to keep it from tanking? Are you kidding? I grew up watching that Merrill Lynch bull stomp around in television ads while some narrator banged on about stability, wisdom and financial integrity. What a load of crap. More precisely, what a load of bullcrap.
I’ve listened to countless discussions, interviews and press releases talking about why the financial markets are facing such turmoil and lack of confidence. In all honesty, I’ve yet to hear anyone in a position of significant authority say that we’re in this mess because people from homeowners to senior executives in the banking, lending, mortgage and ratings industries abused or misused the system, failed to do their jobs or acted out of greed. I know the admission won’t solve anything, but because I’m small-minded and a tad bit irritated, it would make me feel better if the obvious would be pointed out.
The other day, after the government stepped in to shore up Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, now renamed Fric and Frac Mac, I heard an industry expert say “… well, moving forward we’ll see that loans will be based on people’s ability to show income, provide paperwork and make a downpayment.” Well, there’s an interesting concept.
Sooo, only make loans when proper due diligence shows that people can repay those loans? Huh. That’ll be a damn inconvenience to all those folks who would like to buy stuff they can’t afford … and think of the loss of income to those institutions that can’t bundle up piles of crappy loans. That’s a shame.
Was it really necessary to have a financial meltdown in order to convince us of the wisdom of being honest, doing the job you’re supposed to do (basic due diligence on loan transactions, ratings, risk management) and keeping greed in check? While a bunch of us across America were playing the game according to the rulebook we’d been given early in life, we were getting hosed by people who decided the rulebook was for suckers.
Okay, maybe there were homebuyers who were legitimately bamboozled by shady real estate operators and mortgage brokers. But there were a lot of homebuyers who knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t give a crap. There were players throughout the real estate industry and financial services sector who couldn’t be bothered carrying out the basic due diligence or taking the time to understand the risk involved in their transactions.
These are the people I want to hunt down and smack over the head with my amazing shrinking investment portfolio. Another word for investment portfolio is children’s college savings. It’s also the retirement nest egg. Whatever. It’s shrinking. If I don’t hunt them down soon, I’ll have nothing to smack them with.
Perhaps you feel the same frustration. I suspect the good people of France had similar emotions just before they went hunting for Marie Antoinette. Mind you, I’m not advocating revolution. With the price of gas and general lack of pitchforks, a revolution is probably out of the question.
What to do? As far as your investments, if you’re fortunate enough to have any, I’d recommend doing nothing. Remember, it’s times like this when the wealthy become even more wealthy. All of us peasants blink and retreat from the scary marketplace while Muffy, Biff and Thad jump in to place more bets and make more money. Now’s not the time to be withdrawing and stuffing your mattress. Having said that, I’ve got the financial acumen of a mattress, so seek professional advice.
Otherwise, I’d like to suggest that we take the advice of many of the PWB readers who took the time to answer last week’s question, “…what would you do if you only had 24 hours left?” Hundreds of readers said that they would gather together with family and friends, tell them how much they care about them, say things to folks they’ve been meaning to say and spend the rest of the time being together.
I don’t want to get all Oprah, but it occurs to me that we might benefit from treating each other as if the Super Nerd Collider is going to blow the world up tomorrow. Talk to your parents, your spouse, your kids and your friends as if it’s the last day … don’t put off telling them your thoughts, unless of course you're harboring negative thoughts, in which case you could hold off.
But you get my point. Don’t wait to tell your kids how much they mean to you, or thank your parents, family or friends for their support. Granted, it won’t solve the financial mess we’re in, but it can’t hurt. And in today’s marketplace, that ain’t a bad return.
As always, we want to hear from you. Send along your thoughts, comments and concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org
Till next week, stay safe. And diversified.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," as well as major motion pictures.