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Financial Planning > Behavioral Finance

Dodge City Redux

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Although the subprime meltdown seems to have been going on forever, it’s only since the beginning of 2007 that many companies have been taking impossibly huge writeoffs.

Much of this information has come out piecemeal over a few quarters, so it’s been like a painfully slow ooze. This makes it difficult to get one’s hands around the overall damage that has occurred.

Fortunately, there’s always the New York Times to come to the rescue with information like this, and on April 22 the Times published a story with a chart (based on data from Bloomberg) that showed the 16 companies with the largest subprime losses and write-downs since the beginning of 2007.

The total for these 16 firms is just shy of $219 billion.

Granted, this amount of money is paltry compared to most of the budget deficits the Bush administration has managed to accumulate. But in most people’s books it is a lot of money. And not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a lot of money to lose.

At the top of the pile, towering like Mt. Everest, is Citigroup with losses/write-downs of $40.9 billion since the beginning of ’07. Right behind, kind of like K-2 to Citi’s Everest, is UBS with $38 billion. Merrill Lynch comes in third with $31.7 billion and then the amounts fall off sharply, with Bank of America in 4th place on the loss/write-down list with (only!) $14.9 billion.

The list goes on and on: Morgan Stanley, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, IKB Deutsche, Washington Mutual, Deutsche Bank, Wachovia, Cr?dit Agricole, Cr?dit Suisse, Mizuho Financial Group, Canadian Imperial, Soci?t? G?n?rale.

Now, as denizens of the world of insurance, does anything about this list reach out and grab you by the lapels or hit you right between the eyes?

Yes, you’re right. There’s not one insurance company on the list of the biggest losers in the biggest bubble to hit financial markets since the last bubble popped in the early 2000s (the tech bubble).

I’ve often referred to insurance as the Rodney Dangerfield of financial services for the simple reason that, of all the diverse businesses in that sector, insurance invariably gets the least respect, if it gets any.

Well, here’s one area about which the business can feel proud. While banks, those so-called bastions of safety, and investment banks, those gamblers in all but name, rack up mind-boggling losses, boring old insurance companies are on the sidelines watching as mayhem occurs all around them.

It says something for the strictness of financial regulation that insurers are subject to and, to my way of thinking, it should start to say something about the way these other segments of financial services need to be regulated.

When financial companies can do pretty much anything they want (with other people’s money) the inevitable result at one point or another is going to be chaos in the markets and a replication of the Wild West.

Yes, it’s exciting to experience the old West by watching Clint Eastwood or reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove–the vicarious thrill is there but you’re still safe and sound.

When real bullets start flying, however, Dodge City is the last place I want to be. And if Wall Street is going to insist on being Dodge City whenever it can, then the rest of us have to insist on getting the Sheriff into town as fast as we can.


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