What I’ve learned from the past year (a RexBlog re-run)

It appears from media accounts and Presidential speeches, we’re supposed to be treating this week as an anniversary, of sorts.

Unlike 9/11 or Katrina, however, it’s hard for most Americans (including me) to conjure up visual imagery of any disaster that occurred this time, last year. Sure, there are the cliche photos of stock market traders looking tensely across rooms — but, no doubt, traders do that everyday. The events of the past year (and they continue) are being played out in personal ways hard to capture on video: no flood damage or mangled steel. The foreclosure signs and people in job lines may come close, but they aren’t as dramatic as, say, Depression-era photos of former executives selling pencils along city streets.

But since today is being treated as an anniversary, I guess I should also take a look back.

For this post, I decided to do something I don’t believe I’ve ever done before: Repost entirely something I’ve written before.

On March 1 of this year, I wrote the post that I am re-running below. I probably wrote it to sum up what I thought about the (then) previous six months. In hindsight, March 1 was about a week before the “rock bottom” of the stock market crash that began one year ago (the bottom was hit on March 9).

I haven’t changed a word of what I wrote then:

Things I no longer believe in, and some I do

lucy holding a footballWhile I remain ever-confident of the potential of the U.S. and its economy, I’ve decided there are some long-held beliefs and some U.S. institutions the current recession has caused me to write-off for the rest of my life — sorta like we say of people in my parent’s generation, “You know, they grew up during the Depression and so that’s why they believe what they do.”

Here are some things I no longer believe in:

Anything too big to fail: Personally and professionally, I am and have always been, a small business person. I have identified with and favored small and independently run businesses and institutions of all types: small towns, small schools, small restaurants. However, I’m also a pragmatic realist and understand the benefits to the nation and world of large, synergistic, productive and efficient institutions of finance and commerce.

However, the whole “bigger is always better” thing has now been exposed as a nice theory, but a failed reality. Why? Because all the algorithms and information technology and most brilliant programming in the world can’t overcome the bugs of greed, hubris and randomness that can best be summed up in the vernacular, “sh*t happens.”

How did we get to this place where massive corporations that have enriched the investment bankers, lawyers, investors and executives who profited through merger after merger now must be rescued by taxpayers because they are “too big to fail”? If they are too big to fail, I suggest we demand back the legal and banking fees and executive bonuses, etc., that were doled out to those who made the companies “too big” in the first place. Alas, that won’t happen. So the only thing we can do is refuse to believe the investment bankers and executives who, no doubt, will continue their mantra that bigger is better, even when it’s not.

For the rest of my life, I will believe that a company is too large when its CEO can’t explain every way it makes money, including any exotic financial instruments on which it might slap a label like “derivatives.” (Last October, I suggested that companies that pass a certain threshold in “importance” (perhaps a blend of employee size, revenue and markets served) be required to pay into a form of FDIC for ‘companies too big to fail.’ Any company could opt out of the program, but if they did, all parties would understand it has no ability to one day play the “too big to fail card.”)

The U.S. Congress: There are many many federal lawmakers who I admire and respect as individuals (for example, I am friends with and have a tremendous respect for my Congressman), but as a group — a “body” — the U.S. Congress, both the House and the Senate, are a hopeless, incompetent failure.

Those who wrote and first adopted the Constitution were aware this could happen, indeed, endless deliberation and hindering the ability of lawmakers to easily legislate was part of their intent.

However, today, Congress has deteriorated into a useless glob of 535 elected officials who are mired in a cynical system that has turned their jobs away from policy into a business of running 535 little marketing and strategy factories focused on building the lawmaker’s personal brand, creating and consolidating his or her political power and control of resources, raising funds and collecting personal chits for the next campaign, taking care of his or her state’s or district’s economic interests and perhaps, at the end of the day, paying a little lip service to the lofty goals he or she once said drew them to a life of “public service.”

A President’s Cabinet and “Advisors”: Again, I am sure that I would like many of these men and women as individuals.

However, as a group and over the bipartisan history of the past 16 years, they were collectively asleep at the wheel or chained to some ideological whipping post that resulted in issue-after-issue being put off, swept under the rug or ignored.

(Note: I haven’t lost faith in the power of the “Office of the President,” as I’ve lived long enough to see Presidents who accomplished great things with the office and others who failed miserably. I still believe that a great individual serving in that office can help us rise above all the other failures listed on this page.)

Doing nothing until there’s a crisis: I’ve been known to espouse a rather cynical belief that having a road-blocked Congress and incompetent Cabinet are good, because of some misguided belief that the less lawmakers and administration officials can do anything, the better off we are as citizens.

However, the reality of the situation is this: Such incompetence means nothing gets done until there is a crisis. And mid-crisis is the absolute worst time to enact legislation. It results in legislating for the worst-case scenario. For example, if you wait until Enron to enact laws related to transparency in corporate governance, you enact the hair-brained Sarbanes Oxley bill that assumes all publicly traded companies are Enron, unless proven otherwise. Such “crisis-response” legislation inevitably leads to unintended consequences that do more harm than good.

Any explanation of the economy that is reduced to a narrative: Any economy, be it your hometown’s or the world’s, is highly complex, random and often illogical. It is impossible for any economist (even the Nobel-prize winning ones) or pundit or individual (including me) to reduce the economy to a metaphor or series of logically explained events.

No doubt, the individual explaining what has or is taking place will lead you through a set of “realities” that will convince you of their point of view. However, what they will also do is cherry-pick events to paint the picture of their reality and leave out any truth that contradicts it.

For instance, if you want to believe the world is going to hell in a handcart, you would purge from your narrative anything that appears on the blog Carpe Diem where Mark J. Perry, a University of Michigan management professor, posts regularly.

Or, if you believe his narrative that things are not as bad as they seem in the main-stream business media, you can easily find news that will convince you it is he who is wrong. [For an indepth look at how we convince ourselves to believe “economic narratives” that lead us over the cliff or close our eyes to mountains of opportunity, I strongly recommend reading the book, The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.]

CNBC & the myth of real-time market analysis: I could lump in other financial media that follow the practice of having reporters seek instant “whys” to every minute-by-minute move in markets, but it is the people who produce the day-time programming for CNBC for whom I think is being prepared a special place in hell.

They have covered markets and the economy as if they were Anderson Cooper in a slicker. On CNBC, every cloud is a potential category 5 hurricane. Their coverage has been inexcusable. Despite its pre-hurricane hype, at least the Weather Channel devotes portions of its coverage to educating individuals about the weather. Even when CNBC does that, it is shrill, screaming, panic.

Pox on you.

Investment truisms: In the long-run, the best investment is what? Please, don’t answer it, as it’s a trick question: In the long-run, we all die.

For my self-directed 401K, I’ve invested regularly and conservatively into an index fund and some diversified financial instruments for as long as I can recall. I don’t even look anymore to see where that prudent, conservative approach has crashed to.

However, no doubt, I would have been better off putting it under a mattress for the past decade. Of course, I’ll continue to plow along with my retirement fund and in 15 or so years when I retire it will likely have performed well “in the long run,” however, I’ll be cynical now of anything that even sounds “safe” AND “conservative.”

So in what have I not lost faith?

I haven’t lost faith in the higher being in which I personally believe.

I still believe anyone reading this page has the power to believe in himself or herself.

Therefore, I haven’t lost faith in your ability to not give up or give in.

So I don’t think I’ve lost faith in anything that really matters, in the long run.