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A Little Note On Blame... for the loss of confidence

It is difficult to swallow the idea that the media is responsible for the current loss of confidence. Perhaps a deepening might be accredited to media, but I think the worst news came in the form of the balance on that latest retirement account.

The current situation was completely predictable and some foresaw it. It was one of the reasons I started blogging on finextra. Perhaps the real reason for the crash was that the media didn't cover the potential issues more thoroughly prior to the collapse.

Media did profit enormously in the short term with all the boom advertising and of course no-one wanted to switch off the money tap.

We have also been reminded that during booms there is always a plethora of 'too good to be true' schemes and that the cons and frauds are proportional to the general prevailing mentality, albeit more extreme. In recent times I believe the real problem may have been an over-estimation on the value of technology (or lack of it) and that the over-valued tech sector and the 'too good to be true' performance of companies which neither made anything nor made life easier pushed real and productive business to the sidelines. It may prove to have been more likely the culprit than simply easy credit. One followed the other.

Consumers were already becoming wary of credit in 2004. In early 2004 getting out of debt was the primary goal of many Americans, ahead of losing weight and other previously popular pledges. What happened? The tech stocks went crazy (again) and anyone could be rich. We could all google a million get rich quick stories and we were all knowing because we could just google up the answer.

Once we were all 'rich' why not borrow? Banks started backing 3rd party mortgage originators so everyone could buy and get rich quick, refinance and invest in the market or just blow it on consumer goods. The real-estate prices were egged on by every ex-car salesman who could pass the agents test and the media made it all sound like you were a loser if you didn't get in on the gold rush. On tech stocks and real estate.

Some banks could have been almost innocent victims in the scheme of things, virtually forced to make the same plays as their competitors, or face shrinkage in the face of 'too good to be true' promises from the opposition. Politicians are occasionally victims of similar forces. It does not excuse them from making false promises. Perhaps politics has set the example of no accountability, and like bankers they merely get tipped out of their seat for a turn, but without the bonus.

At some point though, some, in fact many people, promised what they knew they couldn't deliver. Who was watching? The media merely added to the fanfare as they sold their advertorials. Tricksters came out of the woodwork and made even more false promises, and everyone got into the act including company boards facing tough competition for funds.The whole global economy turned into one giant Ponzi scheme.

Businesses became dependent on leveraging and credit, where previously credit was for emergencies or short term. Suddenly everything had to be leveraged in order to get adequate returns on investments.

Many had a narrow view of the world and were incapable of comprehending the big picture.  Even the experts sometimes have a mistaken view, for instance, I'd like Mercer ('experts' on cost of living for expatriates) to find me a luxury 2 bedroom apartment in Sydney for US$1600 per month as they quote as part of the cost of living in Sydney. Try US$3300 upwards, unless Mercer's idea of luxury and mine are very different, and I'm not talking the top end of the market where US$25,000 per month is more like it.

It is a great illustration of lack of grasp on reality, both from the people who expect to get those prices, through to the reputable 'report writer' especially when the facts are only a mouse-click away. Increasingly executives and boards base business decisions on 3rd party reports from 'reputable' sources. There is no substitute for a bit of old fashioned 'own eyes' research. Imagine how much harder it was to make sensible business decisions in the financial industry. There was no transparency.

It is more important to think about what we do from here.

CEO's should be concentrating on the opportunities the circumstances present.

Perhaps even paying more attention to the products and services they create and ensure that they actually add value. With less rampant spending by consumers there is little chance for shoddy products and services or short-term thinking.

The last real industrial boom in the West succeeded by making the lives of consumers easier. The 'noughties techno boom' has so far failed in that regard. It's all too hard, passwords, PINS, cards, fob's, readers, firewalls, anti-virus, upgrades, fixes and what do you get? No time, no privacy, no security and stolen identity. It is difficult to give many new 'innovations' a value. Consumers obviously see little monetary value in a lot of tech offerings, illustrated by their lack of willingness to pay for them. There are plenty of ideas out there in the tech space, but they are mostly short on monetisation. Sure you can google up a report which gives you a narrow or even inaccurate view of the world, but mostly the internet has failed to live up to it's promises.

Financial services are no better. Technology was supposed to make it easier and cheaper for customers. Er..I don't think that is what happened, rather the opposite and that is even if you don't count the appalling losses on investments. The other 'improvement' was call centres and we know how poorly they're generally run. (As I write this I am waiting on the phone for Commbank for 18 minutes as part of the tedious phone the bank and wade through irrelevant phone menu's process to get to a human just so they can tell me my client number.) That just cost a fortune in billable time and the cost of the mobile call. Do they have a deal with the Telco to keep us online for a certain time to offset their own phone charges? You'd think so. Going through the window dressing security procedures leaves me with the feeling that it is totally inadequate and the only protection is that they would bore the fraudsters to death. At 20 minutes on the phone the profit per hour from fraud is probably going to discourage even the Nigerians.

I don't phone bank nor do I Netbank but I need to on this one occasion. Imagine my surprise when after the rigmarole on the phone, I need my telephone banking password in order to reset my Netbank password. Now I am waiting on the phone again so that I can give my personal details to a call centre temp or whoever yet again. Call that security? The single security feature is that only an idiot would bother to spend half an hour on the phone to any bank in order to do business with them. I finally got my new netbank password after 40 minutes on the phone and giving out information that is neither secret secure or unavailable to almost any hacker. I'm finding a new bank, although it seems they all do things equally badly.

I have a few suggestions as to how to improve the call centre experience and reduce call centre costs by 70% but I'll not be giving those away for free in my blog. It'll cost them a little of that $2 billion profit, that profit they wouldn't have made if I, as a taxpayer, hadn't guaranteed their deposits along with all those other Aussie banks which were quote 'Shielded from the effects of the US mortgage meltdown'. False claims and promises? What about the coming Aussie mortgage meltdown? Hang on - rates were so high in OZ that we can just lower the rates a bit and they'll still be able to afford the mortgage on their 100% overvalued homes.

One alarming fact jumped out at me when I was perusing the PWC report on the Anglo Irish Bank. A paltry 2% of their loans are for industrial development. Surely the Irish can't need so many offices and hotels and homes and no industry. Is everyone playing monopoly? Is it the same at other banks? Where is the production? Where is the value add? Is the majority of business just service businesses? Where does the money to pay for the rest come from if there is no industrial production? I would like to see a similar PWC report on Commbank.

I'd also like to see an audit of the senior executives at the superannuation funds, like AMP to see how many of them managed to get their retirement funds out of the stock linked investments and into cash management before all their customers lost their money, and while some, including AMP merely ignored their clients instructions until it was too late to make any difference. It is fraud, there is no other way to describe it. Are they any different to Maddox?

Unless a thorough investigation is made and the industry is cleaned up, it would be foolish to place trust in these companies let alone give them your retirement funds.

Can economies survive when they produce nothing and only provide value-diminishing services? Apparently not. Heed the wake-up call. The age of parasites is over.

One stumbling block in the way of recovery might be that those who don't 'have' probably feel that everything was overpriced anyway and I suspect they can put a spanner in the works by becoming increasingly thrifty, like the Japanese in the 90's, leaving the 'haves' with real problems and diminished assets. One positive might be that things just aren't made the way they used to be and it won't be long before consumers are forced to go out and buy, just to replace the gadgets they have. Unlike previous recessionary phases, and busts, this one is global so even multi-national incorporated can't just switch it's sphere of operations and ride it out. Consumption is not going to make it all go away either and perhaps the bust has bought us a little more time to fix the way we treat the planet and ultimately ourselves.

Governments have a unique opportunity to move us forward. We all have the opportunity to move towards something much better. If banks falter, nationalise them, wars have been fought over less damage to our economies and societies. They can always be privatised again later and probably at a profit.

A little application is needed to the basic infrastructure to move forward as a global society - identity, accountability, freedom of speech, and of course democracy would be a good place to start. Without these we are doomed to be victims of corrupt governments, fraudsters and our own greed.

Whatever happens we can't turn back the clock, it'll take some positive outcomes to sway sentiment and we haven't hit the potential bottom yet. We need a dramatic improvement in trust from bottom to top, and a break-through there would go a long way to restoring confidence.

There is no going back. It time to decide what you want to go forward to. It better be good, it better be real.

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