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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Latest failure beyond the pale for Fed

IN OCTOBER 1929, as the New York sharemarket teetered on the brink of collapse, a bevy of top investment bankers stood inside the exchange, laying orders for millions of shares in a bid to stabilise prices. It was pure bluff, a power play to imbue markets with the blithe confidence that had prevailed the previous nine years.

As the market edged closer to a fall of cataclysmic proportions, banker Thomas Lamont, the unflappable chairman of J.P. Morgan, declared the sharemarket had hit a few "air pockets". It was, he said, "susceptible to betterment".

Even when shares plunged five days later, slumping 25% and irreparably shattering investor confidence, Lamont bravely ventured that the market "retained hopeful features".

You gotta love New York bankers, eh? No headwinds shall defeat them. No stumble is ever too big. For those who deal in big bucks, big risks and ever-bigger falls, the Big Apple is where it all happens and always will. Centre of the universe, the font of all financial wisdom, and the epicentre of its woes.

This week there was no bluff, no power plays, as two of the world's biggest investment banks, both based in New York, succumbed to perhaps the world's biggest financial crisis.

Overwhelmed by bad debts in mortgage loans and by their holdings of dicky securities backed by those same hapless mortgages, the books closed on Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. Lehman is bankrupt; Merrill Lynch will be absorbed by Bank of America.

Amid market crashes, banking collapses and mass redundancies, when it seems the financial world is falling apart, a core of level-headed pundits usually temper the sensationalism. Rightly, they pan descriptions of a 2% fall as a "plunge" or 5% as a "bloodbath", saying such falls are mere blips.

Look back, they say, at the really dramatic crashes of 1997 or 1987 or, more pertinently, October 1929. Consider what a real crisis is. Well, we did — and the similarities between 2008 and 1929 are remarkable.

Just as happened in 1929, investment bankers this week met Federal Reserve officials to consider rescuing colleagues. This followed revelations about margin lending, short-selling, share manipulation, and years of banks spraying investors with dodgy securities.

Today's financial system has been jeopardised by a baffling array of vaporous securities, which, although backed by picket-fenced mortgages, are almost impossible to describe in sensible English. Back in 1933, Ferdinand Pecora's inquiry into the Great Crash found that plenty of US investors had been cajoled into buying securities tied to "a bewildering array of Viennese, German, Peruvian, Chilean, Hungarian and Irish government obligations".

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