It has become a quadrennial tradition for presidential candidates and their campaigns to ask if the voters were better off now versus four years ago. It worked for candidate Ronald Reagan and has become part of the modern political playbook since. Mitt Romney and the Republicans appear ready to pop the question to rebut this week’s Democratic National Convention.
I find the timing of this question terrible and timeframe insulting. About four years ago at this time I was readying to go to Japan for FIA Asia. Arriving in Tokyo, I discovered the financial crisis of 2008 had hit a new zenith. Merrill Lynch had been sold to Bank of America, Lehman Brothers had failed and a few days later in September AIG was saved from becoming the financial version of a black hole. That September and October, confidence was gushing out of the markets as every counterparty was called into question and every asset class got clobbered, except for managed futures.
In a Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP meeting on September 18, 2008, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, reportedly told key legislators and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, “if we don’t do this, we may not have an economy on Monday.” On October 3, 2008, the TARP plan was signed into law. (If you want to relive all of this, read or watch “Too Big to Fail.”)
While the banking crisis eased and stabilized following the passage and implementation of TARP, the stock markets would continue to plunge until the low was hit in March of 2009. CNBC business editor Rick Santelli would deliver his “rant” heard around the world on February 19, 2009.
So are we better off now than four years ago when the very core of our economy was on the brink? TARP will be debated for years to come, but the credit markets improved following this and other moves by Congress, Treasury and the Fed.
It is said that there are two things that move the markets – fear and greed. Four years ago the world was in the grips of unadulterated fear. We were in a dramatic, critical time. We are still in a critical time, though the drama is now political and more contrived. Our elected and appointed leaders did then what they thought was best, needed and necessary to restore market liquidity and confidence. I shall never forget those times, even if I don’t have the memory of an elephant.
Since then another Congress has passed and the current president signed much needed sweeping market regulatory reform in the form of the Dodd-Frank Act. We still are not without our market confidence problems today. And as Dodd-Frank and its implementation is not without its problems of its own, it is and was a step in the right direction.
I noted in a speech in Chicago back in 2009 that this financial crisis and the legislation from it would take time. It would be no different than the reaction to the 1929 crash when the first legislation was the Securities Act of 1933 and then the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which created the SEC. The last legislation as a result of the 1929 stock market crash was the Investment Advisors Act of 1940, 11 years after the 1929 crash.
Like the aftermath of the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, sometimes it takes a while to right an economy and get the laws in place to build the foundation for future economic growth. It took the biggest jobs program in history, World War II and more than three-plus terms for President Roosevelt to right the economy and get us back to full employment. We don’t need to go there again.
The panic is gone from the fall of 2008. That is a good thing. The absence of that panic alone makes us better off than we were four years ago whether we are willing to admit it or not.