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Turning a crisis into a great opportunity

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The last 60 days have changed the world forever. Banking, investing, and even saving now require different considerations. Where and how we work and who we work for were changed. How and when we retire, even if we can stay retired, changed instantly. Institutions, including the government that we relied upon, failed us entirely. Americans went from confident, trusting and optimistic to insecure, wary and pessimistic in just one month.

What happened? It started when IndyMac Bank failed. Then, to prevent the mortgage industry from imploding, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were “rescued.” The $360 billion Washington Mutual went bankrupt (previously, the largest failure ever was $40 billion). Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. Bank of America bought Merrill Lynch. Citigroup bought Wachovia. AIG, the world’s largest insurance company, received $120 billion in loans from the Treasury to stay solvent. With no surviving investment banks, the implications for our economy’s health are unknown.

Derivatives share a large percentage of blame for the financial tsunami we find ourselves in. Credit default swaps, one kind of these derivatives, undermined the financial strength of our largest banks, insurance companies, and government institutions. The global value of these CDSs is $55 trillion, more than the total debt of the planet. Here’s the scary part: Bank for International Settlements values all derivatives on earth at $596 trillion. That is more than all the assets of banks and all the resources of the central banks on our planet. How will other derivatives react in our current economic climate? No one knows!

Finally, because other forms of credit have dried up, credit card debt, the most expensive debt, has increased to $2.57 trillion. Many Americans only pay the minimum payment; many can’t even afford that.

Where does that leave us? With the greatest opportunity for success and significance in history. In spite of any argument to the contrary, our current calamity is mostly a “crisis of confidence.” We can restore Americans’ confidence with our knowledge and skill. If we teach families how to work together, save for the future and pay themselves first, they will not only survive but thrive in this financial tsunami.

An 80-year-old woman interviewed on television about the upheaval in the economy proclaimed that she was happy, excited and hopeful. Here was her reason: “I hope Americans will consider taking personal responsibility for their own lives.”

Amazing. She nailed it. Our industry can and must deliver that message.