Crisis and Leviathan p. MCXLLII

1970 had one of the largest financial debacles since the 1930s. The top 10 computer, technology, and conglomerates stocks lost about 85% in 1960-70. The Penn Central Railroad company was a prominent issuer of Commercial Paper, and when they went into default many worried that companies that lent to them might go default as well, leading to contagion of default.

John Kenneth Galbraith once quipped there were two types of economists: those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know. Yet early in 1970, Galbraith wrote a New York Times article drawing a series of parallels between the then current situation and that of 1929: excessive speculation, too much leverage, inflated investment funds, funds that invested in other funds, etc. He seemed to have granted himself an exception, implicitly forecasting another Great Depression (however, like all good prognosticators, without actually saying so, so he’s never wrong). In any case, his diagnosis highlights that every recession make public minded people think: we shouldn’t let this happen again!

In response to the crisis, congress created Securities Investor Protection Corporation, or SIPC. They used funds provided by the securities industry to protect customers against losses when their brokers went broke. I think it’s fair to say that the SIPC has been ineffectual. For that matter, so were the FDIC, SEC, OCC, OFHEO, the Fed, and state insurance regulars, each of which was born around some crisis of confidence, the idea that a committee of far-seeing technocrats Washington would surely prevent the current cataclysm. The new Consumers Financial Protection Agency hopes to be more relevant primarily by having a broader mandate, but it’s rather naive to think that a program that does not work, would work if only it had more on its plate.

As per Penn Central, it happened right after the venerable Pullman Railroad Company failed, and led many to believe that rail transportation would be dealt a fatal blow. In response Congress passed and President Richard Nixon signed into law the Rail Passenger Service Act. This gave government funding to assure the continuation of passenger trains. It also create Amtrak, a hybrid public-private entity that would temporarily receive taxpayer funding and assume operation of intercity passenger trains. Amtrak has lost money perpetually, and its onerous work rules created a bloated, inefficient industry that did not reverse rail traffic decline.

The new government-owned GM, and the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency are just more permanent government agencies of irrelevance, similar to previous attempts to rectify identical problems in the past.

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About Eric Falkenstein 136 Articles

Eric Falkenstein is an economist who specializes in quantitative issues in finance: risk management, long/short equity investing, default modeling, etc.

Eric received his Ph.D. in Economics from Northwestern University , 1994 and his B.A. in Economics from Washington University in St. Louis, 1987

He is the author of the 2009 book Finding Alpha.

Visit: Eric Falkenstein's Website

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