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October 22, 2008

"Shrinking of Wall St. Isn't a Bad Thing"

Fareed Zakaria has a thoughtful article in Newsweek on the silver linings in the dark cloud that hangs over the USA.

Two decades of easy money and innovative financial products meant that virtually anyone could borrow any amount of money for any purpose. If we wanted a bigger house, a better TV or a faster car, and we didn't actually have the money to pay for it, no problem. We put it on a credit card, took out a massive mortgage and financed our fantasies. As the fantasies grew, so did household debt, from $680 billion in 1974 to $14 trillion today. The total has doubled in just the past seven years. The average household owns 13 credit cards, and 40 percent of them carry a balance, up from 6 percent in 1970.

...Wall Street will also need to change. Paul Volcker has long argued that the recent spate of financial innovation was nothing of the kind: it simply shuffled around existing resources while contributing few real benefits to the economy. Such activity will now be reduced significantly. Boykin Curry, managing director of Eagle Capital, says, "For 20 years, the DNA of nearly every financial institution had morphed dangerously. Each time someone at the table pressed for more leverage and more risk, the next few years proved them 'right.' These people were emboldened, they were promoted and they gained control of ever more capital. Meanwhile, anyone in power who hesitated, who argued for caution, was proved 'wrong.' The cautious types were increasingly intimidated, passed over for promotion. They lost their hold on capital. This happened every day in almost every financial institution over and over, until we ended up with a very specific kind of person running things. This year, the capital that remains is finally being reallocated to more careful, thoughtful executives and investors—the Warren Buffetts … of the world."

...The financial industry itself is likely to shrink, and that's not a bad thing, either. It has ballooned dramatically in size. Curry points out that "30 percent of S&P 500 profits last year were earned by financial firms, and U.S. consumers were spending $800 billion more than they earned every year. As a result, most of our top math Ph.D.s were being pulled into nonproductive financial engineering instead of biotech research and fuel technology. Capital expenditures went into retail construction instead of critical infrastructure." The crisis will stop the misallocation of human and financial resources and redirect them in more-productive ways. If some of the smart people now on Wall Street end up building better models of energy usage and efficiency, that would be a net gain for the economy.

Arun Natarajan is the Founder & CEO of Venture Intelligence, the leading provider of information and networking services to the private equity and venture capital ecosystem in India. View free samples of Venture Intelligence newsletters and reports.