The cost of insuring the financial industry

For the last 50 years – or more – we have been taking part in a vast experiment: insuring against losses in the stock market. The result? The feds have spread the risk around so much that everybody pays for everybody else’s mistakes.

A view of Fannie Mae headquarters is seen in this July 14, 2008 file photo in Washington, DC. Troubled US mortgage finance giant Fannie Mae on May 8, 2009 reported a loss of 23.2 billion dollars in the first quarter of 2009 as it reeled from a home mortgage meltdown that triggered global crisis. Following the setback, the company which was effectively take over by the government after a meltdown last years, said it had asked the US Treasury for an additional 19 billion dollars to help it weather the extended crisis.

“Ask me how insurance works.”

“All right, how does insurance work?”

“Well, okay, you give me your money…”

“Is that all there is to it?”


“Is that a joke?”

“Not exactly…”

Fire insurance works by sharing out the risk of a fire among hundreds of homeowners. In effect, if one house burns down, the others have already put aside enough money to rebuild it.

It’s a kind of voluntary socialism…freely collectivizing the risk of a house fire.

But just because you have fire insurance doesn’t mean you will leave a can of gasoline on the kitchen stove. You know it would be a big pain to replace the house and its contents – even if you were made whole financially. That’s why it works, because it doesn’t change human behavior. So, actuaries can calculate the odds of a fire fairly accurately.

But suppose you could insure against losses in the stock market? Or suppose you were guaranteed health care…or a comfortable retirement…no matter what you did? Wouldn’t you at least be tempted to live a little? To take chances? To spend a bit more?

And wouldn’t the whole economy change as a result?

For the last 50 years – or more – we have been taking part in a vast experiment. What will happen as more and more risks and costs are socialized?

We already saw what happened in the mortgage market. Bankers used to take their risks one by one… If they thought a man was a good credit risk, they lent him money. Sometimes they were right. Sometimes they were wrong. Being wrong from time to time was just a cost of doing business.

But then the financial industry collectivized the risk. The banker lent, earned a fee, and then sold the mortgage on to Wall Street, where it was securitized, packaged and resold. What was the consequence? Well, mortgage lenders stopped worrying about individual risks. They changed their behavior and stopped using their own judgment. All they wanted was to close the folder, collect their fees, and move the paper on. Soon, they were lending without asking questions – using low-doc, IO mortgages. House buyers changed their behavior too. Easy mortgage credit pushed up demand…which pushed up prices. Pretty soon, the whole town was on fire.

But then the feds stepped in and collectivize the risk even further. Now, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are arms of the US Federal Government. And now we’re all partners in the insurance company! Now, when houses burn down WE ALL have to pay.

We’ve seen what happened when government collectivized other parts of the financial system too. You can collect Social Security whether you saved for your retirement or not. And you could get unemployment compensation whether you saved for a rainy day or not. And you can get food stamps whether you tried to find a job or not.

And now, if you’re a major Wall Street bank, you can get a bailout from Washington whether you deserve it or not.

How about that? The feds have spread the risk around so much that everybody pays for everybody else’s mistakes.

Is that a good system, or what? Government insures everybody against everything. Only the government doesn’t have any more money…

…So, then you give your money to government…

…and that’s all there is to it.

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