Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Day 164 - Conspiracy Theories

          The job boards are bleak for the Treasure Coast area. I should have thought to check before we moved, not that it would have made a difference under the circumstances. We still would have come here because we’re needed. Still it would have been good to know how bad things are here. This is a depressed area. St. Lucie and Martin Counties have unemployment rates that are 40 to 50 percent higher than the rest of the state. There don’t seem to be any jobs listed around here at my level and damn few even at entry level. My thought had been to only look for work in this area so we can stay here as long as we’re needed. I might have to rethink that.
          We switched out the cable service when we got here so that my wife and I could have high speed internet service for our computers. Nelson had a satellite system, and we changed to a cable provider that also offers fiber optic internet service. They finally got the last of it hooked up today. It’s been a struggle with a series of contractors to get the cable run, buried, hooked up, and programmed. Apparently all those things have to be done by different people. Lean they are not.
Nelson’s been grousing through the whole process. He hates change. The new remote is giving him fits. None of the buttons are in the same location they were on his old remote. He doesn’t remember that he has a new device in his hand until he’s already pressed a button according to its placement on the old one. Then, when he gets an unexpected result, he gets peevish. I spend a lot of time listening to him cuss at Mother Angelica because he accidently got to EWTN and can’t figure out how to get back to the Western Channel.
          He was adamant about the Western Channel. He’s been talking about it all week. He likes his western movies, and he needs to see one every night or his day is incomplete.

* * * * *

          As I work through my career history in accounting it becomes increasingly obvious to me that I have spent a great deal of time working for fools, charlatans, thieves, and scalawags who seemed bent on bringing me low. Even so I have always been able to exert a certain amount of influence over my circumstances, and there as always been a certain amount of leverage involved in knowing, because of my familiarity with the books and records, where all the bodies were buried.
          You could argue (as I’m sure the guys who fired me would) that I had a hand in my own undoing at my last company. I wasn’t what they hoped I would be, although, to be fair to myself, what they hoped I would be changed over time as evidenced by two years of positive performance reviews leading up to getting fired. But even had I been what they were hoping for at the end, I don’t think the outcome for me would have been very different. My real problem, I think, was expressing aloud my opinion that our CFO was too prone to knee-jerk hysterics, and that our corporate accounting manager was an anal-retentive myopic who couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
          Of course all that is water over the dam at this point. My current problem is not that I lost a job, but that I can’t get a new one because 1) there aren’t any jobs to speak of in the area where I have chosen to reside, and 2) there aren’t very many jobs anyplace else.
When I first lost my job, I thought I would get another in fairly short order. I had a pretty good résumé, a stable work history, and a boatload of experience. When I lost my last job, the result of a wholesale reduction in force to reduce overhead pursuant to a pre-packaged bankruptcy plan, I found a better job in just a few months. I had the sincere hope that things would not be materially different this time. As the global economy crumbles around me however, I am being forced to give up the notion that I will get a job quickly and easily. My hope for another job depends on an economic recovery more than it depends on my acumen, credentials, and persistence. To make matters worse, the hope of an economic recovery seems to grow more remote every day.
I honestly don’t know how we got into this fix. I’m not sure anyone else does either. There are lots of opinions being floated in the financial media, but not very much of it makes sense to me. As an accountant I want to be able to make the numbers work. I want to be able to follow and quantify the logic. I can’t.
Many analysts are blaming the sub-prime mortgage debacle—too many bad loans made to borrowers who did not adequately demonstrate their ability to repay. The sup-prime problem has been with us for over a year now, and everyone is talking as if we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. If we’ve known about the problem for over a year, how is it that the smartest kids on the block—the MBAs and analytical wizards on Wall Street, graduates of the finest institutions of higher learning in the country who are knocking down salaries and bonuses that the rest of us can only dream of—weren’t able to foresee the collapse and mitigate its effect?
How is it that, of the total of all mortgages outstanding, the percentage that is actually at risk of default is sufficient to tank the entire global economy. How is it that a relative handful of bad loans—bundled and securitized with good loans, rated investment grade by respected rating agencies, discounted to accommodate a historically reasonable rate of default, collateralized by real estate, guaranteed with sophisticated derivative contracts, and purchased and held by the very investment banking institutions that had a hand in their creation and so should have clearly understood the inherent risks—how is it that those loans were sufficient to cause the complete collapse of some of the largest banks in the world?
None of it makes any sense to me. I don’t think we’re being told the truth about any of it. We’re being spoon fed bits and pieces that seem to make sense in and of themselves, but they don’t add up to a coherent and believable whole. We’re not getting the whole picture. We’re getting a cubist Picaso. It may be art and it may be genius and it may be distracting, but no way in hell does it look like what it purports to represent.
The guys responsible for this ‘art’ have taken the rest of us to the cleaners. They took huge profits in their firms and huge bonuses personally while they built a house of cards that collapsed on the rest of us. After the collapse they took bailout money to make themselves whole again while the rest of us are left wondering how we (and our children) will pay the bill.
I’m not looking for a grand conspiracy behind all this. My personal feeling is that the captains of Wall Street are just another enclave of venal, self-serving, socially inbred fools, charlatans, thieves, and scalawags. The only real difference between them and the bottom-feeders it has been my misfortune to work for is that the Wall Street bozos play with much bigger numbers.
Others of my acquaintance do see a grand conspiracy here, whether real or imagined. I’ll grant them that their theories are at least as logical as mine. My theory depends on a confluence of coincidence, a perfect storm as it were of events and circumstances that worked together to undermine the foundations of our economic systems. The conspiracy theories depend only on the collusion of a small band of bad actors who already know each other, who work in the same industry, came from the same schools, and reside in the same geographical area. A grand conspiracy is much easier to orchestrate in this instance than an unfortunate confluence of coincidence.
I’ve already mentioned my brother-in-law who believes that there is an effort afoot by the extremely privileged to eliminate the middle classes. I find it hard to believe that this is a coordinated enterprise with and agenda and regular meetings, but, whether or not there exists an actual conspiracy, it grows increasingly difficult to argue that the middle classes are not at risk of disappearing.
Another conspiracy theory has been advanced by author, Sara McIntosh, in her novel, Shell Games. McIntosh is a former accounting consultant and forensic auditor in Chicago who sold her successful business to indulge her love of writing. Shell Games is a laudable first effort. She calls it a financial thriller, and, unlikely as it may seem to those whose eyes glaze over at the mention of accounting issues, she makes good on her promise by delivering a sexy page-turner.
The premise of Shell Games is that the current financial collapse is the result of a large-scale and exactingly orchestrated fraud that has been effectively covered up by the sudden availability of TARP funds. Of course there is more to it than that, and I won’t spoil the plot by revealing it here. Suffice to say that McIntosh has worked out a cogent explanation for the gaps in logic that I have found in the explanations being offered up by our government and by the financial media. Who is to say that McIntosh hasn’t hit on the real deal?
What sets her novel apart from other novels featuring large-scale financial fraud is the author’s intimate knowledge of the details of searching for accounting anomalies in huge volumes of transaction data. It takes an unusual and focused mentality to get a thrill from the discovery of emerging patterns in financial records, but there is perhaps greater skill involved in being able to convey that thrill to the uninitiated. The excitement of accounting is not something easily conveyed to an audience that has largely been persuaded that accountants are a uniformly boring bunch of socially inept slugs. McIntosh is anything but, and her book may do much to dispel the myth. If my TV producer friend, Wendy, had found Sara McIntosh all those years ago when she was looking for ‘interesting’ accountants, she may have been able to come up with a show.

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