Our Great Recession has made me and perhaps you skeptical about the quality of government’s work to improve all of our quality of life. Starting on January 13th, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a 10 member panel appointed last summer by Congress will begin the public hearings phase. I have confidence that this commission will have a significant and positive impact on the well-being of coming generations.
First a little history from the Great Depression. A similar inquiry by the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency began in 1933 and was led by Ferdinand Pecora. The public hearings were the top newspaper articles for months and many corporate leaders government officials’ reputations word enhanced or ruined as a result of their testimony. The commission’s recommendations led to legislation by 1934 to provide boundaries on business activities (the SEC) and protect depositors (the FDIC) that guided our country through the next 50 years of national growth. A number of forces in our culture will come to bear as the Commission’s public hearing testimony is debated throughout our country that will enhance or limit their contribution.
The most significant force, demographics, is that the baby boomer generation’s net worth was substantially reduced as a result of the Great Recession and if this generation follows the normal pattern, they will be the most informed and active voters in the next 20 years. The baby boomers will not allow others to threaten their hard earned retirement resources again.
A second force, real time data availability, will be the realization that traditional government and business economic modeling failed to anticipate and avoid the credit bubble. Intellectually, those who relied on that data in positions of responsibility couldn’t see the train about to hit them. The debate will be about who will responsible for the public good: regulators, CEOs or both.
Why CEOs? Quoted in the Telegraph.co.uk, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt had real-time advertising revenue data in May 2008 and concluded that something was odd. Aggregate demand was falling; Google was measuring it real time. Demand was dropping because lenders were in trouble. The bubble that burst was a credit bubble as those last in line to take advantage subprime and Alt-A loans were sold products they could not afford. This credit tsunami created by housing lenders washed over us all. Should or how can highly responsible CEOs like Schmidt with access to real time data in the future help our regulators act proactively? The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission should make how to use real time data fundamental to their recommendations. In the 1920s and 30s, real time data was unavailable.
The third force is that our political leadership driven by the 2010 re-election cycle will move to pass legislation to prevent the Great Recession from ever happening again. They need to be proactive to be re-elected and posturing will create a lot of noise in the debate. That’s one reason it took the Great Depression generation about six years to craft legislation that have lasting positive impact on the United States and that inquiry started in an off election year, 1933. We have already seen following Sen. Dodd’s retirement announcement, the cable pundits 7/24 discussions about tactics to move financial reforms through the Congress. Can quality, impactful legislation emerge going into the fall elections?
If history is our guide, the best reform concepts will come out of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commissions work and unlike the 1930s, we can watch it live provided feedback to our political leadership. This baby boomer is going watch it like a hawk and I hope you do too because preparing your family for retirement is a lifelong effort.