Congress has lurched back and forth on the bail-out bill or, as we are now supposed to say a "rescue," coming down on the side of defeating the current version Monday afternoon. However, it was clear over the weekend that, no matter how this all ends, the financial world has fundamentally changed.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made the pithiest assessment of the post-bailout bill, "The party is over." Many people, particularly conservatives deign to differ. Joe Scarborough on MSNBC's Morning Joe and guest Pat Buchanan maintained that 'the party is just beginning," claiming that the financial markets were going to have a field day with the infusion of billions in cash.
Former President Bill Clinton, appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, saw the changes as more fundamental. "First," he said, "it could change the political culture. I think that's important. I think it's important that you have the Republicans and Democrats in Congress asking the same good questions, good questions about if we're going to put up $700 billion, how will it be spent; to help homeowners, to give the taxpayers a chance to get their money back, to be transparent? I think that's important.
"I also believe it will have beneficial long-term economic consequences. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley ... (will) still be able to issue stock, they'll still be able to have some speculation... but there --you are not going to have these crazy binges of sub-subprime mortgages or the derivatives, because people now recognize all over again what they had to learn in the depression and two or three times since, which is markets, if unaccountable at the margins, will self-destruct. They will cannibalize themselves. So I think we've learned that. Listen, if we can just get out of this thing now and get the show back on the road, we will have learned quite a lot that's good for us."
The New York Times' Julie Creswell and Ben White said it is "The end of an era."
They describe yesterday's Wall Street as "a world of big egos...where people love to roll the dice with borrowed money...in search of ever-higher returns," and what those returns can buy. A place where private equity firms "amassed giant funds and went on a shopping spree, snapping up companies as if they were second wives buying Jimmy Choo shoes on sale."
That, they say, is not just an era but a world that is coming to an end.
Think of the firms that are gone - legends like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch (and we hasten to add to the Times list two major banks - Washington Mutual and Wachovia that have disappeared in the last four days) and that the financial center is shifting geographically with the remnants of Merrill going to Bank of America headquarters in Charlotte although the geography shifted again this morning as Citigroup prepared to bring the corpse of Wachovia from Charlotte to New York.
But, The Times says, the days of easy money and supersized bonuses are behind the big financiers. The credit boom that drove Wall Street's explosive growth has dried up. Regulators who sat on the sidelines for too long are now eager to rein in Wall Street's bad boys and the practices that proliferated in recent years.
Even Goldman Sachs, "the firm that other Wall Street firms love to hate" while as they tried their best to emulate it, is now fundamentally changed as even it could not withstand the firestorm of the last few weeks. Following the meltdown of American International Group, a close trading partner, its stock hit a wall and Goldman, as Morgan Stanley had previously done, turned itself into a deposit-taking bank. This means that they will be unable to go back to their old freewheeling ways, facing instead of periodic audits by the Securities and Exchange Commission stronger oversight probably on a daily basis by the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
It will also mean that those firms and the hedge funds that ultimately survive will no longer be able to "use and abuse (Wall Street's) favorite addictive drug: leverage."
Bear Stearns had borrowed $33 for every $1 of equity it owned and this was also typical of many hedge funds. This leverage was what fueled dramatic Wall Street returns and in turn the legendary executive salaries and bonuses. If these go away the top investment bankers and traders may leave the remaining firms and start their own small investment banking firms or hedge funds.
If we live through the current mess with roofs over our head and at least a few dollars in the bank and if Pelosi, Clinton, and The NYT writers are correct it might be in a much better financial world, one in which there will not be the concentration of wealth and imbalance of earnings. But Americans are also undergoing some profound changes.
They are finally getting a financial education. The education system has been criticized on the basis that Americans are not taught about the world of money they musts inhabit. We don't, the lament goes, know how to balance our checkbooks, understand the value of savings, realize that the irresponsible use of credit can ruin us or have the slightest idea how mortgages work. It isn't the education system that should bear the brunt of making us responsible users of money. The fact is we simply have been too lazy to pay attention.
We are paying attention now!
It would be interesting to know the percentage of adults who had never heard the words "derivatives" or "mortgage backed securities" six months ago and the percentage who can now give a credible explanation of the terms. The importance of Freddy and Fannie, the Federal Reserve, and FDIC Insurance is now crystal clear to Americans who can not get a mortgage or who have seen their banks fail. And even better, Americans have once again learned that, if they make enough noise, they can impact the system.
Members of Congress report that they have been buried in emails, letters, and phone messages about the bail-out from their constituents and that some report that sentiment, in fact very angry sentiment, has been running 100 to one against the original plan has not been lost on lawmakers as they rejected much of Treasury Secretary Paulson's original plan and then voted down the revised version, maybe wrong-headedly and with little regard for the possible outcome. Still, voters are feeling empowered.
And, while the financial mess isn't the only reason, increased registration of younger and minority voters and the overwhelming negative response to the poll question of whether American is headed in the right direction also play a big part, election officials are predicting an almost scary turnout in November. In several areas they are asking voters to take absentee ballots or vote early if that is an alternative in order to avoid waits of two or three hours at polling places.
After we have attempted to export democracy all over the world, is it possible that Americans have finally learned how to exercise its power at home? Maybe the world has changed but it isn't necessarily a bad thing.