Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Greed is good."

That was one of the infamous quotes given by corporate raider Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) to his protege Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) in Oliver Stone's film "Wall Street."

Bud is enthralled by the success and wealth of Gecko. He's willing to do anything to achieve something that resembles the life of Gecko. By the end of the movie he's lost it all and almost destroyed the company his father has worked a lifetime for. He ends up taking Gecko down with him and we find out that greed is really not so good after all.

From a Christian perspective we already knew this. There is more to this life than the pursuit of the dollar. Unfortunately the is not the perspective of everyone and it's been all too obvious the past year and especially the last few months.

The markets are in turmoil and we're learning that (surprise!) there can be too much of a good thing. In a nutshell we're seeing that greed driven companies have not only put themselves in jeopardy, but their employees, their customers and stockholders and the markets in general.

Think of the names that have been so prevalent in the news lately:

Shearson Lehman - bankrupt

Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac - under government control

Merrill Lynch - sold last minute to Bank of America to avoid bankruptcy

Bear Stearns - bankrupt

AIG - narrowly avoided bankruptcy with government intervention

It's much too complicated to go into detail as to how all of this took place. But sadly it does go back to a time of easy loans. Lots and lots of easy loans to people who eventually would not have the means to pay back. Pair that with insurance contracts being sold to cover those easy loans. Lots and lots of insurance contracts (CDS's or credit default swaps if you've heard the term recently). The loans went bad - lots and lots of loans went bad leaving mortgage institutions swinging in the wind. When the loans went bad the insurance contracts kicked in (or were supposed to kick in) leaving lots and lots of insurance institutions like AIG swinging in the wind. This is a very simplistic summary but it all boils down to the euphoria of fast, easy money and the notion that the good times will never end.

Companies were bleeding cash as the result of these bad deals. In addition the collateral against the loans was losing value at breakneck speed as more and more properties, residential and commercial, hit the market in fire sales and foreclosures. Think supply and demand. As more properties hit the market there was ample supply but banks and lending institutions were in such turmoil that lending rules became extremely tight - ample supply and very low demand. The result was (is) rapidly decreasing property values. As asset values fell and had to be 'written down' on balance sheets credit rating agencies become wary of the fact that these companies may not be able to meet their debt obligations. They downgrade the company's credit rating thus making them responsible for additional collateral payments to creditors. More and more cash ran out the door until there was none left. Crisis - to put it mildly.

It's a mess. However, this too shall pass. If we're not at the bottom yet I believe we're close. Steps are being taken to ensure liquidity in the markets. Honestly, I have been very impressed with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and his team's response to all this. His plan to keep AIG afloat was not actually a 'bailout.' In the end the taxpayers could come out of that deal with a nice profit.

Read more about the plan here: Will AIG plan cost taxpayers money, or just sleep?

All in all, let's disregard Gordon Gecko's advice about greed and stick with a more reliable source:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. - Collossians 3:1-3

By the way, the '4th Degree Byrnes' fantasy football team is currently 2-0. I'm carrying Payton and Eli Manning on the roster. Any suggestions for QB this week?