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Financial Planning > Behavioral Finance

‘Big Short’ Investor Says a 2008 Redux Is Unlikely

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Don’t expect to see a repeat of the global 2008 economic crisis to be repeated anytime soon, according to investor Steven Eisman, who’s best known for being one of the few experts who predicted the 2008 economic crisis and for being played — minus the name and New York accent — by actor Steve Carell in the film “The Big Short.”

Despite the likelihood that the “global industrial recession” we’re in now will continue into the near future, “there isn’t another financial crisis brewing” along the lines of what we saw in 2008, Eisman told the Sadis Alternative Investment Management Seminar in New York on Thursday.

For now, although there’s clearly been a “slowdown” in the global market, “the consumer is still healthy, the credit quality of loans is still excellent – there’s really no signs of deterioration” – and the job market is strong, said Eisman, who currently serves as managing director and senior portfolio manager at Neuberger Berman Investment Advisers.

Right at the start of the presentation, after jokingly rushing host Sadis & Goldberg Financial Services Group partner Ron S. Geffner to start asking him questions already because he had a flight to catch, Eisman was asked what lessons we have learned since the 2008 financial crisis.

“The financial crisis, in my view, was caused by four interlocking factors: Too much leverage, a big asset class that blew up, systemically important firms owned the asset class, and the role of derivatives,” Eisman responded. He added: “Every financial crisis in human history has had the first three … The only unique aspect of the [2008] financial crisis was derivatives.”

The lessons that have been learned since then, he said, are that: (1) “Alan Greenspan will go down in history as the worst chairman of the Federal Reserve in the history of the United States. No one is close.” (2) “Paradigms last a lot longer than you think they should. The paradigm of the financial system being overloaded was really almost a 20-year story.” (3) “It’s hard to tell people that they’re wrong when they think they’re God…. An entire generation of Wall Street executives mistook leverage for genius.” (4) “Incentives trump ethics almost every time. And the subprime mortgage was a terrible mortgage.”

Perhaps the one biggest difference between 2008 and now is that, “by 2006, the underwriting standards of mortgages” in the U.S. were only “can you breathe?” because, “if you can breathe, we can give you a mortgage,” he pointed out. That is in stark contrast to today, “where getting a mortgage” is much tougher — “and I know this for a fact because I literally just refinanced my own mortgage yesterday and it was the equivalent of a proctology exam,” he said, drawing laughs from the audience.

In general, while ethics haven’t changed, the “big change that has taken place since the crisis is that, pre-crisis, you had regulatory authorities who basically trust the banks and Wall Street to do whatever they want” and there were the “trappings of regulation but you didn’t actually have real regulation,” he told attendees. Today, however, “regulators don’t really trust the banks and so they watch them much more closely,” he said.

Eisman also predicted there will be a trade deal finalized between China and the U.S. But he guessed: “It will be an irrelevant deal. It will be mostly smoke and mirrors” — and won’t be enough to give CEOs enough confidence to make capital expenditures again, so “the slowdown will continue.” However, it’s “too early to say” now if the global slowdown will transform into a full-blown recession next year, he said.

He also predicted the 2020 U.S. presidential election will be between Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren, and “I honestly don’t know who will win.” All the people he knows in New York City, regardless of their political affiliations, say Warren cannot win, but all those same people had said Trump could not win in 2016, Eisman noted.

As for the chances of Michael Bloomberg becoming the Democratic standard-bearer, Eisman said: “I have higher odds of getting the nomination.”

Noting that he met Warren several times, Eisman told attendees: “She is by far the smartest and most knowledgeable politician I’ve ever met in my life.” That is in stark contrast to certain members of the Senate Finance Committee he spoke to recently who were “freaking idiots,” he said, adding: “I could have told them that the financial crisis originated in Tibet and they’d have believed it. That’s how little they actually knew.” Whether you agree with Warren or not on the issues, “she knows what she’s talking about,” he said.

During a Q&A with audience members that included jokes, a bit of profanity and even a drop of Yiddish, he addressed several other topics, including in no specific order: (1) “I don’t think there’s a bubble” in the exchange-traded fund market, although “there are a lot of ETFs.” (2) “I’m looking at” the environmental, social and governance investing movement “just to figure out what the hell it’s all about,” although it seems to be “sort of an attempt to try and reform capitalism from within. I don’t know if it’s going to be successful.” (3) Blockchain has not impacted the banking system yet and any possible impact may be “years away.” (4) All retailers like consumers’ dollars and aren’t looking instead to be paid in cryptocurrency, which has only “two social utilities — it’s an opportunity for rich white people to speculate … and it’s good for money laundering.” Nobody, meanwhile, has any idea on how to set a value for cryptocurrency, he added.


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