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Saturday, January 30, 2010

What If

The World Economic Forum is going on in Davos again. This time around the world is telling bankers to expect regulation, and lots of it, and soon. The bankers engaged the regulators, and were allowed to provide input, though that is probably meaningless, considering Barney Frank's attitude at the conference.

One of the biggest things guys like Frank would like to do is once again separate commercial and investment banking from each other. In the world according to Barney, the entire financial crisis was created because banks both lend money for housing (commercial enterprise) then package those loans as mortgage backed derivatives (investment banking) and sell them.

What Barney refuses to admit, or see, is that it wasn't the derivatives that brought down the market, it was the mortgages themselves, made easy by the rules he insisted on for mortgage lenders. When you push for regulations that make zero down mortgages, interest only payments, etc. the norm, you end up with a skewed market, that will crash.

What if Barney decided that the same capital reserve standards had to apply to government entities as the Davos crowd is pushing for banks? Would the US government be able to meet that standard considering it has 10 trillion in outstanding debt?

What if the bankers say "Okay", and just jump out of markets considered risky? Will Frank, Obama and the European leaders who are pushing these regulations admit the regulations might be the problem when capital sources start drying up for businesses? We've already seen the start of that, as banks are much less willing to lend right now. When they are told to be even more stringent in their investment standards do regulators really think that suddenly money will flow?

The proposed regulations will help prevent another economic collapse. That's because they'll prevent an economic recovery of any scale, and the folks pushing the regulations will lament they don't understand why.

If you'd like my cynical view of why the current US government and European governments want more, and very heavy handed regulation, it's because they want to be the major sources of capital, not the banks. It's much easier for governments to be the hero's, and pick the winners and losers when they don't have to worry about pesky free markets to make decisions.

Want an example? Green energy products. The markets have been slow to invest in them because they don't pay back the investment quickly, if at all. Solar cells, wind turbines and fuel cells are all great sources of clean energy, the problem; as real investors note; is that you can't sell them at a price that makes a reasonable profit, so they don't invest.

Governments chastise them for not investing in such a worthwhile endeavor, and ignore the fiscal facts of the industry. So then governments get to play king makers in the industry, and use it as a reason to say the markets don't work.

Take your Fusion hybrid as an example, Ford loses money on every unit it sells. But they get credits from the government for selling them, in the form of tax breaks and access to federal money to build the plants.

The markets actually work fine. As soon as someone comes up with a hybrid or all electric car, or fuel cell for the home that is profitable, and priced where it can be successfully marketed, they'll be all over it. Until then all but a few altruistic venture capitalists will opt out.

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