Just who are the victims of the current mess?
It's easy enough to say that we all are, but that really isn't true.
Are homeowners who used their houses like ATMs to finance everything from their children's college educations to trips to Disneyworld? Are we really going to try to differentiate between those who borrowed for praiseworthy ends (presumably the former) and those who didn't (presumably the latter). Are the first time home buyers who bought into the American dream at absolutely the wrong time? Are the amateur real estate speculators who loaded up on liar loans because they'd attended one of those make a million dollars in real estate using other people's money seminars that used to advertised so profusely?
I suppose the first time home buyers are more sympathetic victims than the high school principals trying to get rich after taking the early retirement package. But, so what?
It's fun to bash the perps--but to what purpose?
I mean, I see the importance of enforcing fraud laws at the local and community levels, and pursuing exemplary justice not merely in the cases of appraisers, mortgage brokers and title companies, but straw borrowers and those who took out the liar loans, as well. I see even more importance and purpose in systematically destroying the financial elite that has grown up with a parasitic financial services sector that no longer serves the needs of the general economy but rather milks the general economy insatiably for its own gaming and profit.
Here is my concern for today--pension funds, endowments and other investment pools that exist to meet non-economic social needs. These things truly are victims of the current mess. Whether a foundation is going to have to curtail its funding of the programs it was created to pursue, a university is forced to reduce its research and educational activities to conform to its resources in a new environment, or a pension fund has become unable to meet its actuarially defined future obligations, a social problem has been created that may have a financial genesis, but doesn't have an economic solution.
Focus on the pension funds. A pension fund is a pool of assets that should be matched to a pool of liabilities. Historically, pension funds have made unrealistic projections of their managers' abilities to generate financial returns from those assets and when the managers actually had good couple of innings, the sponsors used the excuse of overfunding to reduce contributions or even capture the excess. Now, hit the present. The liabilities of pension funds are relatively unaffected by the current financial crisis. But the valuation of their assets most certain is.
Even if the general economy stumbles to some kind of recovery, there will be another round of crisis. Globally, financial assets are taking a hair cut. Globally, liabilities to current and future pensioners have not. That is going to create the mother of all asset-liability mismatches.
On one level, this is the problem of the so-called Social Security Trust Fund, and it is no big deal in terms of economic policy, because it is a demographic problem (a hairy demographic problem, but a demographic problem, nonetheless). But, unlike Social Security, a program of the federal government, private pension funds are, well, private. They have sponsors with limited legal obligations to make them whole, and they have the ability to become insolvent. There is a modest federal underpinning to the whole thing, of course, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, but it will be looking to its Treasury backstop long after the FDIC has pumped that well dry.
Perhaps, once again, poverty will be the companion of age.