Financial Planning

What’s wrong — and right — about our financial system

Devil This financial crisis has been one long headache brought on by deception, confusion and incomprehension. Unless you have a Ph.D. in economics, your eyes probably glazed over long ago at long-winded descriptions of credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, mortgage-backed securities and the like.

What we need is a good sound bite, an easy-to-remember phrase that helps the masses understand what went wrong, and after listening to Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson speak in St. Louis, I think I've got one:

Smart people did stupid things. There's our crisis in a nutshell.

"One of the huge lessons of our work over the last few years has been how shockingly stupid incredibly smart people can be," said Davidson, who with Blumberg has been reporting on the crisis for nearly two years as part of National Public Radio's "Planet Money" team. "That includes bankers, regulators and investors."

OK, that's a given. Lesser known is this: Our elected officials in Congress -- the ones trying to reform our financial services industry as we speak -- don't really understand the issues at hand.

"We spent a day with the Financial Services Committee -- Barney Frank's committee -- and it was an amazing experience," Davidson said. "We talked to 13 congresspeople, 12 of whom admitted that they don't understand this at all. And the guy who thought he did really didn't."

It's interesting, then, that these are among the folks calling for investor protections and significant financial reforms. And by "interesting," I mean "anxiety-inducing." I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt; their intentions are good, after all. But you know what they say about the road to hell.

So CPAs have a job to do -- to keep lawmakers informed and offer advice for how the proposed laws can be improved. In fact, they're already doing it. In testimony before Congress, the AICPA offered its support for consumer protections while emphasizing the importance of protecting small businesses at the same time.

In the meantime, our job is to resist cynicism -- not an easy task, given everything that's happened so far.

But Blumberg and Davidson are showing us the way.

"Another great lesson we've learned is how unbelievably beautiful much of our financial system continues to be," Davidson said. "The core job of our financial system is to convert your savings into investments. When it works well, you deposit money in the bank and the bank lends that money to a factory, which builds a new line that employs your cousin, who then has money to put in a bank, which then funds some high-tech startup that comes up with some new innovation. This process is amazing. It works very well. It was not a cause of this crisis; it was an innocent victim, like all of us.

"The more we follow that system," he added, "the more likely we are to have wealth and grow and expect that future generations will be wealthier than past generations. I certainly hope we can regain our faith in that system."


Bill Sheridan