Even as the G7 and International Monetary Fund meet to discuss the world's urgent economic crisis over the weekend, all we seemed to be left with were plans, promises and vows to do whatever is necessary. Is that enough to save investor confidence?
Even as these multi-national finance ministers met, you have to ask yourself: what if anything they can do would change what we already know. But what we do know is often ignored.
There are places in the world where people do not invest. They save. Perhaps it is your neighbor, the one who doesn't understand what all of the commotion is about and is feeling quite smug about having no real retirement plan to fret over, no loss of invested stock value and more importantly, probably no debt to speak of. These are the unknowns, the folks who live outside of capitalism's grip on the economy. They are the un-depressed.
Who are these people?
I have met many of these people over the years as I wrote about personal finance, retirement planning, and prudent and often conservative investing. They have ignored the pundits as they talk about possible depression, inevitable recession and stagnating credit freezes. Billions of dollars have no meaning to these folks and the banks that we are desperately trying to rescue. Yet their taxes, just like those of us who are fretting daily over stock market declines, grim financial news and an economy turned on its ear, will go to pay for these enormous transgressions against the public trust.
I am also aware that these folks are sleeping better than most of us and will wake up today and tomorrow completely ignorant of what is happening on a global scale. They have resisted globalization in their silence and now, we are envious of them. We can no longer cast a downward looking eye on these people as we count our retirement savings, plan our retirement lives, and dream daily of the life beyond the workplace. We may now be closer to what they are than vice versa.
Where we are now?
We have had weeks to examine the path that has led us to this point. And it will be many months until the trail we have taken, albeit unwittingly will be traveled. When we learned last week that the G7 would meet over the weekend, many of us had hoped that we would wake on Monday morning with news about how the G7 meeting of finance ministers would act.
The G7 Finance Ministers is comprised of seven member nations who are considered the world's largest industrialized nations and who believe they hold the key to world's financial well-being in their hands. Although it is arguable that numerous other nations from China to Mexico should have been included in that meeting, each of the participating members brings a different agenda and in some cases, their own brand of finger-pointing blame to the discussion.
Canada's Finance Minister James Flaherty, who is more concerned about Canada's access to credit than the results of any financial gamble like the one made stateside was suggesting ahead of the meeting that he wants to be proactive in Canada in our view to make sure that we protect Canadians and that we protect that availability in Canada.
Also in attendance was French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde. She took the high road ahead of the meeting suggesting that no one was to blame. She said: I'm not in the blame game and it is pointless to do so. The first lesson to be learned is humility. And that humility should be exhibited among the financial executives responsible for the mess by re-examining how we compensate these individuals.
German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck simply suggested that the British have the right plan. Their recent nationalization of eight banks seems at least to the Germans, the quickest and most prudent approach. Everyday Germans are notoriously under-invested compared to their US counterparts, many of whom rely on a system of community banks for savings and loans. They rely on foreign investment to fuel their economic growth. Any continuation of this credit freeze will slow the German economy but will not end its overall growth.
Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti has pointed out that much of what these ministers were trying to do was just business as usual. Despite a common currency, the Europeans have little in the way of central regulation. Knowing this, Mr. Tremonti thought the agenda was a bit weak.
While the rest of the world is worried about the health of their own banks and credit, Japan's Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa took a much broader stance, one that acknowledges the problem on a truly global scale. His belief that the IMF should be funded to offset the trickle down effect that the financial misdeeds of the few will have on emerging nations, has called upon economies equally as large (China and the Middle East, glaringly absent from the discussion) to help. This approach of helping the customers rather than the supplier is somewhat out-of-sync with the methods so far employed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, who have supported the banks rather than the taxpayers of their respective nations.
Revamping the System
And the world sits and waits for some solution - still. But do we need one? The idea of a central bank is good one. But the notion that four banks need to control 50% of the banking business is not. This financial wake-up call should have all of us running to our community banks again. While these institutions are generally much smaller, the risks they take are also in proportion to that size. They are F.D.I.C. insured and they make prudent lending decisions based on creditworthiness and the ability to pay back the loan.
Our banking system is a regulatory mess with numerous states and authorities exercising a wide range of policies that originally was meant to keep the central bank from having too much power. Instead, the power it did have was under-utilized and incredibly slow to the punch. It enabled risk rather than tempering it. It knew what was going on - it had to with so many business minded people in its employ to be completely caught unaware while so many others saw the consequences of these risky markets months, even years ago.
As much as I would like to see an admission of global blame shouldered by the U.S., it is unlikely. But then so is a solution. Many nations have harbored the feeling that our form of capitalism has escaped our own grasp and because of what we understood but chose to ignore, the world is paying the price. But as the G7 emerged from the weekend meetings without much of a plan, it will be because of the humility the U.S. will need to show. I'm not so sure Mr. Paulson is the right person to step up and say, we were wrong.
There are relatively few options left. No financial entity wants to be the first in line as TARP begins handing out cash. That admission of guilt would leave a stain on the company's record moving forward. Banks will still not borrow from one another while there is so much mistrust and lack of confidence. Perhaps a perp walk of executives might do the trick but at this stage, a witch hunt is not a likely remedy and might involve some high ranking government officials. Perhaps a super sovereign fund to offer investment backing to the banking system would help more that the outright but somewhat veiled nationalism of banks.
The U.S. is on sale and there are numerous nations out there that could buy what they wanted. The only question left then would be, how much help do we, a debtor nation, allow a creditor nation to help. Years ago, the term third world was dropped from common vernacular, replaced with emerging nation. What then do you call a sub-merging nation with $2.7 trillion in debt?