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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

May 7, 2010 at 10:05 AM

For markets, the only thing we have to fear is…well, plenty

Everybody has an opinion about the 1,000-point Dow nosedive Thursday and today’s continuing market volatility. Here’s mine: There’s no single cause but the overriding vibe is lack of confidence. Wall Street has two emotions — greed and fear — and a very short memory. But somewhere in the reptilian brain of market activity is a kernel of memory about the year leading up to the panic of the fall of 2008.

Back then, only a few economists and business journalists were warning about the deep troubles of which the subprime mess was only the pre-quake. The “experts” assured us things could be “contained” (rather like BP in the aftermath of the rig explosion). Now, Europe lacks the tools to even credibly contain the sovereign debt crisis. And, as before, the market movers don’t really know how the deeply interconnected global finance system will be affected. One of the sleeper issues has been the British election, which has resulted in potential paralysis as the U.K. faces its own economic troubles. Considering that America’s economy is so financialized, it’s difficult to believe we aren’t heavily exposed to these risks, even if Greek bonds aren’t in your portfolio.

It’s the not knowing, the opacity and complex linkages, and, ultimately, the fragile nature of this recovery that are the biggest factors among the millions of bets, decisions and emotions at work on Wall Street right now. And all this risk and edginess is hooked together in a lightning-response electronic trading system like Skynet in the Terminator movie franchise.

The reality is that nothing much has changed on Wall Street since the Great Panic. The too-big-to-fail banks are bigger, all now federally chartered as commercial institutions and thus taxpayer-backed. They’re making most of their profits by moving money around. Derivatives remain a big table game at the casino. The shadow banking industry, so lightly regulated but very hidden and risky, has more power than ever. Reform has been watered down and is still stymied. The only real change: The Federal Reserve and Congress committed much treasure to resuscitating the old order. What happens when crisis strikes again?

One potential change is that the biggest casino in town, Goldman Sachs, is facing some kind of reckoning. For most Americans, this would be well deserved. Cynics doubt it will ever happen. But the old order sees its “business model” — making money by moving money around, including in complex potential frauds — as under attack. This and sucking the wealth and jobs out of companies by pushing mergers. Could all the high-paid Wall Street MBAs from elite universities possibly figure out how to make money from raising capital for productive efforts in the real economy? I’m not sure — and they don’t want to.

Today’s jobs report showing an April increase of 290,000 jobs is good news, although hardly enough to begin to ease the backlog of unemployment. Long-term unemployment and underemployment rose. Again the message flashing is, fragile.

This should also matter back on Wall Street because the low-hanging fruit of equity price increases has already been picked. A further rally will either need more speculative hot money or fundamental and sustained strength in the real economy. The former is running to Treasuries and other safe havens because of Europe. The latter has yet to appear.

So, sure, blame technical factors for the degree of market swings. I’ve been having trouble with my 3G network, too. But the Dow is telling us something beyond geekdom, even if the traders themselves don’t understand it.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Goldman sets a goal:

Rebuild its reputation.

Construction jobs saved!

Comments | More in Bailout, Banking, Eurozone, International economy, Jobs/Unemployment, Macro/Big picture, Stock market

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