Monday, December 1, 2008

Overlooked culprits of the crisis

November 24, 2008 Monday, 08:00 AM

Joanne Lee points her fingers at ratings agencies and Dubya for the crisis.

IT REALLY came as a shock six years ago when my brother was buying a beach house in Miami, Florida. His agent had proposed a unit that was beyond his monthly budget.

When my brother demurred, the agent surreptitiously disclosed that it didn't matter if he eventually defaulted on loan payments since my brother's long term plan was to return to Singapore anyway.

My brother was aghast.

Steeped in our Singaporean culture in which bankruptcy is taboo, my brother chose the safer option - a much smaller apartment that was far more comfortable to his conscience.

It wasn't the only example of dodgy retail lending I'd come across prior to the implosion known as the US credit crisis.

Three years ago, when a business school classmate's daughter was settling in Hollywood to pursue an acting career, he didn't even have to provide the bank with a letter of credit worthiness as guarantor before opening an account - both checking and credit. Neither did his daughter have to provide a pay slip to show that she had a steady flow of income.

At the time, I marvelled at how easy it was to get cash in the US. And when the sub-prime mortage problem started surfacing, I'd wondered what had taken everyone so long to realise how lax lending requirements had been.

Much has been written castigating the unscrupulous architects of financial products on Wall Street, greedy retail advisers that sold assets they didn't understand (or didn't care enough to understand), and regulators like Alan Greenspan who should have known these nefarious sub-prime activities were rampant, among others.

But I have a couple of bones to pick with two other players.

(1) The ratings agencies: Where were these guys the whole time this was going on? The likes of Moody's and Standard & Poors' - names that, frankly, don't inspire much confidence(!) - are supposed to be independent researchers assessing the risk of various instruments. How did the repackaging of dodgy loans make the cut in their books?

If retail investors cannot trust financial advisers who obviously have commission on their minds when they push a product, they must at least be able to turn to an independent evaluator of the products. The ratings agencies, in my opinion, dropped the ball in an unforgiveable way in this respect.

(2) Dubya. In a roundabout way, he's also one who should shoulder a significant proportion of the blame sinking the markets. If the outoing US president (and his cabinet hawks) had not unilaterally railroaded the international organisations to achieve America's defence agenda in their wars with Afghanistan and Iraq, the evolution of these organisations would have not been stymied over the last eight years.

During the 1987 economic crisis, for example, organisations like the United Nations, World Trade Organisation, World Economic Forum and the G7 played significant roles in stemming the spread of devastation across the world with quickly coordinated bailout packages and loans. The Asian financial crisis benefitted from swift IMF intervention too.

But since the US ignored the process of international consensus and chased his own "maverick" foreign policy, the collective muscle of the international organisations has atrophied and nothing's been done to court the new emergent superpowers on the global stage.

The likes of China, India and Russia have emerged as huge sources of global liquidity - and they don't share the credit crunch concerns of the rest of the developed world. Had not the international organisations become impotent post-911, the last eight years might have seen the new players co-opted into the international scene in a much more meaningful way.

Talk about the Butterfly Effect. A couple of dodgy property agents promote bankruptcy to get away from loan default and the whole finaniclal world collapses.

Pondering these thoughts this weekend while reading David Smick's highly-acclaimed The World Is Curved, it's really been quite a downer walking down Orchard Road despite the cheery Christmas songs. Every time I hear some bling-bling calling out to me, ABC's celebrity financial advisor Suze Orman's voice interrupts with her characteristic "DENIED, DENIED" in my head. What a bummer.

Ah well, I guess we can all point our fingers at everyone else for the credit crisis, but at the end of the day, we just have to suck it up and learn to live with it.

Now, to whittle down that credit bill and cut up the plastic. Sigh.

[Comment: I don't know if the Ratings agencies and Bush should share the blame, but certainly the examples of lax practices and loose "morals" are educational.]

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