By no means do I excuse the banks. Until 2005, I headed fixed-income research for Bank of America, and resigned for what the bank and I agreed to call “philosophical differences.” On leaving, I sold every share I owned. In July 2007, I warned the public (including Larry Kudlow’s national audience on CNBC) about a “trillion-dollar AAA asset bubble.”
The fact is that no-one likes a fast buck more than the American public. Wall Street was the enabler, but Main Street was the addict. Americans stopped saving as long as home prices rose; when home prices started to fall, they started saving again.
Household real estate assets vs personal savings rate
That is why the Wall Street protesters are foolish and petulant. American households levered a $6 trillion net inflow of foreign savings during the decade 1998 through 2007 into a bubble that benefited them far more than it did Wall Street. The impact of the bubble on the household balance sheet exceeds the growth in real-estate assets, moreover, because most small business expansion followed the housing bubble.
For fifteen years we rode a tsunami of foreign capital pouring into American markets. We didn’t save a penny. Why should we? Our home equity was our retirement account. Our smartest kids got MBAs and went to Wall Street derivatives desks. Engineering was for dummies. Home prices rose so fast that local governments swam with tax revenues and hired with abandon. Everybody went to the party. Now everybody has a hangover, especially the bankers. We thought we were geniuses because we won the lottery. Now we actually have to produce and export things, and we have to play catch-up. Our kids are competing with Asian kids who go to cram school and practice the violin in the afternoon. This isn’t going to be easy, and the sooner we decide to roll up our sleeves and get back to work instead of looking for bankers to blame, the better our chances of coming back.