Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bad Assumptions—“The Invisible Hand of the Marketplace” Edition

It’s past time to go over some of the bad assumptions that have been made that allowed some of us to make bad decisions, and why these assumptions are so wrong. I’ll tackle two of the biggest ones in this essay.

For several years now I’ve been saying that Communists and Free-Marketeers (often Neo-Cons) make the exact same fundamental error in their respective basic assumptions. Both are great theories, but completely fail in real life. They fail because they both make the assumption that everyone will do what is best for everyone all the time, instead of taking advantage of anyone, and that policing is not necessary. Communists claim that the government, once in control of the marketplace, will police itself. Oddly, Free-Marketeers claim that once the government gets out of the marketplace, the marketplace will police itself. Both are completely, and very obviously, wrong.

The big problem with a completely free market, and Adams’ “Invisible Hand of the Marketplace,” is that it requires transparency in order to work. If you have no policing mechanism, or one that is ineffective for any one of dozens of reasons, then all you need is one person near the top, or a few lower down, to be dishonest or incompetent to bring the entire system down. Just ask Bernard Madoff’s investors. Communists put that trust into the hands of just a few people in political power, which is why the Soviet Union is no longer with us. Free-Marketeers put that power into the hands of corporate heads without supervision, which is why we’re in our current economic mess, not to mention the last several economic messes, including the tech bubble, the S&L collapse, the Great Depression, and so on.

The assumption by the Free-Marketeers is that “The Invisible Hand of the Marketplace” will punish the dishonest, corrupt, or incompetent through the customers and investors that would avoid them. The reality, which any neutral observer would report, is that the people that the “Invisible Hand” is supposed to punish when they are incompetent or corrupt are the ones in control of the information that the investors and customers need to make sound decisions. Distort the information and prevent the punishment until it’s too late.

Another important assumption of the Free-Marketeers that is wrong is that increases in efficiency are always a good thing. You often hear when one company takes over another that the increase in efficiency by eliminating redundancy will improve things. Often you won’t hear what things will improve. What it really translates as is firing people that have the same job at the other company will improve the bottom line of the combined company. That’s true, it probably will. If this kind of combination happens when the economy is in a boom cycle, the effect of people losing their job can even be fairly benign. However, this isn’t always, or even usually, the case. Often the effect of people losing their job is that these people have less money to throw around to buy things—like the things their former company made, or services they provide, and decrease their participation in our economy.

Let’s just take the efficiency argument out to it’s logical conclusion. An increase in efficiency is an attempt to reduce the capital outflow while maintaining income, or in other words, you don’t pay as much out as you get paid. This sounds good at first. Companies can increase efficiency by using less material or by eliminating jobs that don’t help the company as much. The problem is as a company starts getting significantly more efficient, the economy starts to feel the burden. More money from the economy tends to go to the company, and less comes out. In fact, a company that is 100% efficient has no capital outlays, just income. It would have no employees, even executives (hence, no payroll) and would produce nothing (so no cost of manufacturing or providing a service,) while paying no taxes or dividends. This kind of company would simply suck money out of the economy without contributing anything, being a kind of economic black-hole. Conservatives would argue that Government fits this description, but a company of this kind has no employees and produces nothing, and the government does not fit either definition by a large amount. A religion might come closer, but still doesn’t hit that target (too many employees.)

This is what most companies strive for. One of our problems that we are facing is that we won’t have a sufficient proportion of our population working and participating in our economy to keep it going, meaning fewer people are buying products and services, making companies get rid of employees, causing our economy to spiral downward. As large companies consider downsizing, or whatever they are calling layoffs today, the executives need to be asking themselves the question Henry Ford (yeah, I know) asked when someone pointed out to him that he didn’t have to pay his workers so much: “Then who would buy my cars?”

The reality is that the economy works best with a certain amount of inefficiency, and the hardest part of this to explain to people is that the amount of inefficiency that economy works best with is a constantly moving target. Most people want to hear a specific number, but that number will change depending on economic circumstances, specifically the ratio of jobs to labor. If there are a lot of jobs openings going unfilled, you can have an efficiency level that is high, because most people who want to work are doing so. If there are few jobs available, a greater amount of inefficiency will help to absorb these people and keep them participating in our economy. This may involve taking pay cuts at the executive level, or giving up hours or benefits at the worker level. Flexibility is key.

So, what are the solutions to these issues? Giving money without strings attached to corporations is not going to make the situation better. The New York Times has reported several times that the original bank bailout money is being used not to free up the credit market for either homeowners or businesses, but rather to pay off debt, buy other banks, and hang onto for later. We need more than this to improve our situation. We need money to be used to create jobs and improve our country. We need oversight of our corporations. The SEC and FDIC need to be doing their jobs, and we need to be certain that the next time money is handed to these people that it goes to where it is needed by our definition, not theirs.

To constantly keep the correct efficiency level of our corporations, the best way is to pass the “Employee Free Choice Act.” Negotiations are the best way to make sure we have the right staffing level, not simple corporate decision making, because corporations will always try to reduce staffing levels and payroll. Unions prevent that, but sometimes even they get out of hand. The best way is for Unions and businesses to negotiate often, at least yearly. This may seem a waste of time, but how else are you going to make sure employment levels are optimal?

In addition we need to be investing money as a country. This is what most conservatives, whether crackpot Free-Marketeers or not, would say individuals do when they get tax breaks, while failing to acknowledge that Governments can invest as well. Most of them fail to see that putting money into infrastructure or education is the way governments invest. We all benefit when we can contact each other more easily, when we can travel faster and with less damage to our vehicles, when power sources are steady, and when someone who otherwise couldn’t afford an education gets it and invents something we need, like a new cure. We have to fix our roads, bridges, communications, and educate our people. In short, corporate aid needs to have strings attached and can’t by itself be expected to pull us out of this depression.

Higher education is a good solution both short-term and long-term to our problems. Giving people grants to stay in school in the short term reduces the labor pool, increasing wages, and in the long term increases the number of job options for those people and their wages when they attain them. It also makes them a bigger asset to the company that employs them. This is a win-win for the country.

Most importantly, we need to call those who insist on sticking to the completely free market idea crackpots, just as we do with Communists. Brand them with a catchy name, such as the “Free-Marketeers” as I have (feel free to copy me.) They have been completely discredited in the last couple of years, and we need to make sure they do not try to regain their respectability, or they will. Theirs is a simple and seductive chant. If we don’t make sure our children are aware of the dangers, then they will surely try to repeat our mistakes under the spell of these snake oil salesmen.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Odd Financial Situation I'm In

It's hard for me to believe that it's been over a month since I've updated this blog. In that time I've been entering a diary over at The Daily Kos, mostly because most of those entries fit better there, but also because more people check out my entries there. I will, for now, continue to update my blog here, but I will also continue to evaluate my using this blog from time to time.

Now, here's my most recent entry. It's also probably my most personal one.
I’m going to do something I haven’t done before. I’m going to open up about my current financial situation. The main reason I’m going to open up here is because in all of my years, I find myself in a bizarre situation that I haven’t ever been told to expect.

Whenever I’ve committed thoughts to keyboard, I’ve always held back a little bit from my private life, which I understand includes ones financial life as well. I’ve not understood why this should be the case, since politicians and celebrities seem to have so little financial privacy, but I’ve held back in order to protect those around me from some… unknown, unseen, possibly legal liabilities.

So, with no further beating around the bush, here’s the background of my situation. Like many Real Estate Agents in the last few years, I got duped into taking one of those toxic loans out in order to buy a nice new home that I should have known I wouldn’t be able to afford once the loan recast. I can’t really remember the reasons why I would do something that seems so dumb in hindsight, but I’m betting the banks are thinking the exact same thing right now, only from the other side (“Why did it seem like such a good idea to loan money to people while making such a point to make sure we knew nothing about their finances?”)

So, about a year ago, under mounting financial debt and looking at a home value about 2/3 what we paid, we looked at our choices. We could file for bankruptcy, go through credit counseling, have the counselors tell the judge that we couldn’t pay the debt, have the court auction off everything, etc., or try something else. The something else that seemed most honorable to us was to pay off our credit cards, which in hindsight seems like the best thing we could do (Citibank recently increased their lowest credit card interest rate to over 20%!) while negotiating with our mortgage company in order to see if we could change the terms of our mortgage.

I’m going to do something I really didn’t want to do at this point: Name the bank. I think you’ll understand why later. To the credit of Indymac Federal Bank, even while they were going through all of their problems, they kept working with us. At least they did until last September. They asked us to get our financial information together for them and call them back with the information. I got the information, just as they asked, and called them back at the number they gave me, and ended up leaving them a voice-mail message. Next day, I left them another one. I waited a few days, called them back, and left another voice mail message. Then I did the same the next week. The week after that, I did the same thing. No replies came. No calls, no letters, no emails, no faxes, nothing. I called again the next week. I kept this up until around the middle of October, figuring they were backlogged, and would get back to me when they had the time.

Then came mid December. I got a letter from Indymac telling me I owed them roughly half of our joint household income by January 19th, or they would start foreclosure proceedings. I called them back at the number provided…and left them a voice mail message. And another one. Same thing the next week.

I figured it was time to up-the-ante, so I contacted my Congresswoman’s office and left a voice mail for her assistant who handles these things…and got no response.

So last week, we contacted a company that supposedly will negotiate with our mortgage company for an up-front fee, and I was going to go with them until I went to the California Attorney General’s webpage and found out that it was illegal for them to take a fee from us until after they had provided the services. Yesterday I called Indymac and after leaving my voice mail message in disgust, I called the Consumer Credit Counseling Service in my area, as suggested by the AG’s office, and was surprised to hear only confusion on their end. They suggested that I try to find a branch of Indymac and go in and talk to them, even though there are no branches in my area (in fact, the nearest branch is an 8 hour drive away). That was their best suggestion after a roughly 20 second phone call. No service from them was suggested or provided to this consumer regarding credit or counseling, so I’d say they failed completely.

To me, this is a bizarre situation. In my experience, and in all of the classes I’ve taken from high-school on, I’ve been told that the person who is owed money is the one that constantly tries to contact the person who owes them money. This is completely the opposite of my current situation. I’ve been calling them for MONTHS, and I haven’t even gotten any kind of confirmation that I’ve contacted them. I feel like I’m hounding them. I imagine them cowering in some room someplace, saying “Don’t answer the door, that guy owes me money!” It’s nuts. We hear all the time that if you’re in financial trouble that the worst thing to do is to stop talking to your lenders. That’s not my problem. They have stopped talking to me, even before we could talk about a possible solution! Is this the Indymac Federal Bank who was supposed to be a model of working things out with their customers, as was reported just a few months ago?

I hate to say it, but the real feeling I have is that this problem is so large for these people that they actually have no idea how to tackle it. Indymac can’t figure out what they can do, Congress can’t figure out what they should do, and the CCCS doesn’t know who they are, what day it is, or remember how they got to work (“What’s that ringing thing? What happens if I pick this thing up?”) The problem of foreclosures has gotten so huge that they are unable to figure a way out, and have decided to simply shut-down all thought and hope the automatic systems take care of the problem, or that by some miracle, it simply vanishes; the nightmare over with the dawning of a beautiful new day. Unfortunately, the dawning morning is the dream, and the financial crisis is real.

My family and I would like to keep the house, but we have completely lost our investment in it. The question is: “Should I keep plunging money into an investment that is currently, and probably always will have a negative return on my investment?” The businessman in me says no. Any further investment is money lost, unless Indymac can reduce our payments to a reasonable level. No offense intended, but that’s the right business decision. However, this is about family. If I could work out something else, I would, but it’s going to require Indymac to at least return my phone calls. The question for them is: “Do you want to definitely lose 2/3 of your investment, or find some way to lose ¼ or less (or possibly nothing, but no more than 2/3)?” Their current actions say they would rather definitely lose big than risk losing small. They know where I live and have all of my contact phone numbers.

I would love to hear from other people. Do you have any suggestions on what to do next? Are you in or have you been in a similar situation? Do you work at Indymac and know what is happening? I’m completely at a loss, and for once in my life, I have no idea what to do next.