There’s been plenty said about Wall Street’s incredible collapse and the byzantine practices and illusionary (some would say delusionary) financial products that almost brought down our economy. But not enough has been said about the pervasive mindset that caused all the trouble in the first place.
The real problem with our current economic system has little to do specifically with derivative implosions, mortgage-backed securities meltdowns, and the like. These are just the symptoms. The disease itself is short-term thinking that treats companies, people, and necessities like jobs and mortgages as commodities to be manipulated for fast and easy profiteering. Short-term thinking is embedded in the strategies used by venture and private equity investors and hedge funds, thanks to a vast assortment of rules and regulations that encourage it. Raise short term capital gains rates dramatically, and you’d quickly see these vultures look elsewhere for the outsized returns they’ve become addicted to.
An autumn article in the New York Times offers a chilling case study. It tells the story of the Simmons Bedding Company of Beautyrest mattress fame, which has spent the last 25 years being bought and sold by a steady stream of investment firms that would purchase the company on credit and then make a ton of money charging fees and borrowing cash using the company’s assets as collateral to pay themselves back and then some. Once the merry dealmakers had gotten rich, the company would be sold to a new group that would start the process all over again, leaving the employees of Simmons to clean up the mess.
It’s the corporate version of house flipping, and now after being bought and sold multiple times by firms including Merrill Lynch Capital Partners; Investcorp, a Bahrain investment group; Fenway Partners; and Thomas H. Lee Partners of Boston, Simmons has a 1.3 billion dollar debt it can’t repay. It’s been leveraged to death by a parade of investors that treated the company like a personal ATM without giving a single thought to what might come next.
Here’s the collateral damage: People lose their jobs, pension funds are destroyed, towns shutter, and the misery piles up. Add up all the companies in all the places that have suffered a similar fate, and you have a lot more than an economic crisis. You have a moral calamity that’s rippling across the country — shattering families, destroying communities, destabilizing the country, and leaving everyone but a few with less than they had before.
Stronger regulations that encourage and reward slower, longer-term growth strategies at the expense of naked short-term profit grabs can fix some of this, but until we see companies for what they really are — groups of real people whose families’ and communities’ very survival hinges on the work each business provides — we won’t fix the deeper troubles that are our most serious economic problem.
As a nation, we must start basing our personal and professional financial decisions not on what’s in it for us alone right now or soon thereafter but on what’s in it for all of us over time. We need to question whether our banks and investment firms have financed some of these deals. We should know if our pension funds provide capital to such bankers. We have to seek the broader wisdom that will allow us to see past our own self-interests and think bigger and better than we’ve been thinking. Only then will we build the just and sustainable financial system that’s the real answer to our economic crisis. That system will understand that when we plunder a company like Simmons, we’re stealing a lot more than just the hopes and dreams of a handful of people we’ll never know. We’re robbing our collective future and ultimately doing little more than stealing from ourselves.