Posted by WSJ Deal Journal
Dear Main Street,
Are you trying to make sense of what’s happening here on Wall Street?
Don’t worry–you aren’t alone. A lot of people even here are trying to figure that out. It isn’t that complicated, but Wall Street is so full of mumbo jumbo that it’s easy to get confused–or bored.
Say “collateralized mortgage obligation” a dozen times and see if you can stay awake.
Stick with me, though, Main Street and I’ll explain what’s going on here in New York.
Believe it or not, you’ve seen this movie before. And I don’t mean, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” though that movie isn’t far from the mark.
What’s going on is a classic industry shakeout–not all that different from the shake-out of the American steel or auto industries over the past half century. Just in a much shorter time frame.In just nine months, we have gone from five big, independent Wall Street brokers to only two–Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.
The government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the country’s largest mortgage companies, a bit more than a week ago.
And just Tuesday, we nationalized AIG, the world’s largest insurer.
Of course, consolidation inevitably produces winners and losers. Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest US broker, is a loser. It went bankrupt two days ago.
Bank of America is a winner. It bought brokerage Merrill Lynch three days ago and is now our nation’s largest financial institution.
That’s a lot of change in a not a lot of time.
And when there’s change, there’s uncertainty. Today, for example, we still don’t know whether Washington Mutual, the largest U.S. savings & loan, will stay independent.
Uncertainty isn’t good for any business, as it destroys confidence. It is especially bad for our financial system, because the system runs entirely on confidence. I lend you money confident that you will pay me back. If I don’t have confidence in you, I won’t lend.
Which is just like Wall Street today. Our nation’s financial institutions don’t really trust each other. And for good reason.
In all, about $2 trillion dollars of lower quality mortgages are spread about our financial system. Many of these are now in default which threatens the banks that hold them.
And of course the lack of trust spirals. Less lending by banks to each other, less lending to Main Street’s companies and less lending to you. In the end, the money’s not there for you to get a mortgage or auto loan.
And you account for 70% of the economy. So when the money isn’t there, that’s bad for everybody. Without credit, you get a crisis–a credit crisis.
Of course, we deserve heaps and heaps of blame. Wall Street took the mortgages, sliced and diced them a hundred ways, sold and traded them. We took a nice cut along the way, blissfully oblivious to the risks.
We do have a remarkable talent for cooking up crazy get-rich schemes. Remember the Internet bubble? That was less than a decade ago.
But Main Street, you’re also to blame.
Recall the hundreds of billions in bad mortgages that are now killing Wall Street? That was money lent to you, Main Street, for homes and condos many of you could not afford.
And ironically, it is now your money that will be used to repay those dud mortgages because we on Wall Street are running out of money.
The government takeovers of AIG and Fannie and Freddie? That’s your money. J.P. Morgan’s buyout of broker Bear Stearns last March was also your money,
You might not like it. We on Wall Street may not like it. And even the politicians in Washington may not like it.
But nobody has a choice — unless you happen to have an odd yearning to live in a barter economy.
So Main Street, our crisis is unfortunately your crisis. We made the mess together and now we pay for it together.
The mergers, government takeovers and bankruptcies that will continue to sweep our financial system are a good sign. It means that we are fixing ourselves. Albeit at gunpoint.
Isn’t it strange the way our free market works? The government saves Wall Street — and you Main Street foot the bill.
My advice? Save this letter and show it next time we all embark on another stupid misadventure.