Phew. So, along with everyone else, we woke up this morning, or went to bed last night depending on how you get your news, to word that the Lehman Brothers was filing for bankruptcy protection and Merrill Lynch was being sold to Bank of America. It’s no secret around these parts the we are not financial experts, or even reasonably knowledgeable, but when “In one of the most dramatic days in Wall St. history” is the lede of the front page story in the NYT we know it’s really bad. Fortunately Dealbreaker’s John Carney — who, by the way, continually scooped the MSM on the Lehman’s Bros. story all last week — was available to walk us through. And yes, it’s really, really, once-in-a century bad. Maybe when we can no longer afford groceries Sarah Palin can teach us how to hunt wolves.
Yes. First, we scooped everyone with the story that the Fed and Treasury were working on the Lehman problem. The Washington Post reported this story five hours later. Second, we were first, I believe, to report that there would be no government funding for a Lehman rescue. Third, not quite reporting, the we did explore the possibility of there being no deal to rescue or acquire Lehman on Friday, when everyone was still assuming the deal would happen.
So, other than the coffee man, how did you do it?
We’ve built a network of readers at both the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department and on Wall Street. Basically, these readers have come to trust us to provide information to them quickly. It’s kind of your basic Web 2.0 strategy, where an involved online community creates two-way communications of information. They send us emails and text messages about the developments, while we post to the Web site. The directness and immediacy of the Web have allowed us to build up the kind of reporter-source relationships that might otherwise take years.
These headlines are very scary. How bad is this really? Are we looking at soup kitchens? Should we put what little money we have under the pillow?
We’re already calling it Black Sunday. It’s very, very, bad, and things may deteriorate further. This is as bad as anyone alive has ever seen it. Wall Street is broken, the independent investment banks that have existed since the Great Depression are passing from the scene and we may never see their kind again. Your money is safe if it’s in an FDIC insured account [one day readers, we will figure out what that is], although even there it is threatened by inflation. There aren’t many places to hide. I’m sorry that’s so negative but these are dark times.
How come the government didn’t do a bailout this time the way they did for Fannie and Freddie?
Fannie and Freddie were different from Lehman in five ways. First, Fannie and Freddie were much bigger. Second, Fannie and Freddie were far more deeply connected to the political machinery in Washington. Third, the government decided that Lehman could be allowed to fail without bringing down the rest of the financial system while Fannie and Freddie were seen as more central to our financial and real estate economies. Fourth, internationally, Fannie and Freddie were widely viewed as pseudo-arms of the US government and their bonds were heavily owned by foreign governments. Their failure was viewed a possibly sparking a foreign policy crisis.
Finally, Lehman’s timing was wrong. The sense was that the bailouts were creating “moral hazard,” encouraging risky behavior by shielding Wall Street from the consequences of risk. The government was looking for an opportunity to show that we’re still a free market society, where those who profit from good times feel the pain from the bad times. Allowing failure was seen as a necessary act of creative destruction.
Do you have anything good to tell us?
The best thing we have going for us is that most Americans were not heavily invested in financial stocks, don’t have outrageous mortgages and have largely sat out the latest financial bubble. Provided we don’t make things worse with ill-advised government meddling, this could be a terrific re-evaluation about where wealth should be invested in our country. In short, unwinding the Wall Street boom should make us a healthier, better country.
The story rolls on. Now people are asking if the last big two independent investment banks, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, will be able to survive without teaming up with a major depository bank. On a more macro level, if you want to know where the next boom-bust cycle will run, look to “green” technology: solar, wind, biofuels. There’s a broad political consensus in favor of these things, they are increasingly heavily subsidized and trendy among investors. It’s the real estate boom of the next decade.