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Commentary: How we got into this money mess

  • Story Highlights
  • Glenn Beck: Hundreds of years of Wall Street history vanished this week
  • Major companies collapsed due to the subprime mortgage fiasco, he says
  • Beck: Firms still own too many toxic mortgages they can't sell
  • A new government agency could form to buy up mortgages, Beck says
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By Glenn Beck
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Editor's note: Glenn Beck is on CNN Headline News nightly at 7 and 9 ET and also is host of a conservative national radio talk show.

Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck says Wall Street's troubles began with a wild craze for subprime mortages.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- "Greed is good."

At least, that's what Michael Douglas' character Gordon Gekko claimed in the movie Wall Street. But, just like Gekko, the modern-day companies that followed that motto now find themselves wondering how everything could collapse so fast.

You know the names by now: Countrywide Financial, Bear Stearns, IndyMac, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, AIG. And that's not even counting companies like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs that, while still in existence, have lost untold billions in market value and have laid off thousands of employees.

Maybe greed isn't so good after all.

Lehman was founded in 1844 when Henry Lehman, a German immigrant, opened a small shop in Montgomery, Alabama. His brothers joined him six years later and, by 1858 they were busy turning cotton provided by local farmers into a cash crop -- a business that didn't have anything to do with helping low-income families afford 27-bedroom McMansions.

More than 150 years later, after surviving the Great Depression, Black Monday, the savings and loan crisis and the dot-com bust, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection. They had gone 14 years as a public company without ever reporting a single quarterly loss. Now they will never again post a profit.

Bear Stearns' story is eerily similar. Founded in 1923. Survived every crisis. Never posted a quarterly loss until last year. Gone without a trace.

So how did 235 years of rock-solid American finance disappear virtually overnight? Well, it's not as complicated as you think. If you replace all of the acronyms invented by the brainiacs on Wall Street with references to things that Main Street understands, it becomes a lot easier to see how it all happened. Here's a quick story I invented that does just that.

(Note to any Wall Street executives who might be reading this: I know this simple little story isn't perfect, but let's remember that you're the ones who tried to make everything complicated and I'm the one who still has a job.)

It's just before Christmas,1996, and as you watch overeager parents trample each other to buy Tickle Me Elmo dolls for their kids, you see an opportunity. "This isn't a Tickle Me Elmo bubble," you think to yourself, "this is a long-term trend. Every person in America will soon own a Tickle Me Elmo, maybe even two. It's the American dream."

You approach your local banker about a loan and, naturally, he loves your idea. In fact, he loves it so much that for every $1 you have in your account, he's willing to lend you $34. Great deal, you think, as you max out your credit line and buy as many Tickle Me Elmos as you possibly can.

Sales are easy at first. People are lining up to buy your dolls and the prices are going far higher than you ever thought. The only person happier than you is your banker.

But the following year something unexpected happens: Kids stop asking for Tickle Me Elmos. You try to cut the price, but no buyers show up. You cut the price more, but your store remains empty.

Panic sets in.

You're pretty sure that this downturn is just temporary (after all, who wouldn't want a Tickle Me Elmo?) but you're quickly running out of cash. Your only option is to buy time and hope that Tickle Me Elmos start flying off your shelves again.

You visit every bank in town and, using your piles of Tickle Me Elmo dolls as collateral (which, of course, you purchased with money you didn't have) you get as much new capital as possible.

Soon that money is also gone. Even your friends and family refuse to give you any more loans. At the end of your rope, you go to your town council, which gives you a "bridge loan" to get you through the next few months (something that makes your Furby-selling competitors extremely upset).

Unfortunately, no matter how much you borrow, there's still one nagging little problem: No one wants to buy your stupid Tickle Me Elmo dolls anymore.

The longer you wait, the less they're worth. You sell some for pennies on the dollar, but pretty soon you can't even do that. Then things get even worse: News breaks that China is poisoning some Tickle Me Elmos before shipping them to the United States. Now your dolls are not just out of favor, they're toxic. You literally can't even give them away.

Soon the rest of your money dries up, as do the people who are willing to lend you any more of it. Now you're out of cash; out of a job, and, if not for the pile of poisonous Tickle Me Elmo dolls in your basement, completely alone -- which sounds kind of like the CEOs of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns.

Believe it or not, this ridiculous story may be far from reality, but it's not that far off from describing what these financial and mortgage companies did to themselves. Just replace the Tickle Me Elmo references with the once popular, then discounted, now completely toxic subprime mortgages and you're pretty much there.

When you cut through all the noise about "bridge loans" and "discount windows," what you're left with is the fact that too many companies still own way too many Tickle Me Elmos that no one wants to buy. Giving those companies more money doesn't solve anything, it just buys time. Unless and until the underlying problem is fixed, no real turnaround can happen.

But we all know that investors (and elected leaders worried about their careers this November) aren't all that patient. That's why the new chorus you're likely to soon hear will be from people arguing that the only way out of this mess is for the federal government to step in and purchase all of the toxic mortgages themselves. That would allow the companies with eyes bigger than their balance sheets to start over, with barely any repercussions whatsoever and without ever taking responsibility for their mistakes.

Come to think of it, maybe greed isn't so bad after all.

Would the government actually consider that idea? They already are. In fact, the only thing stopping politicians from "rewarding" us with a new government agency that will put billions more of our tax dollars at stake is, ironically enough, the election of new politicians.

Disclaimer: Tickle Me Elmo is still an extremely popular, non-toxic product and, to the best of my knowledge, is not responsible for the credit crisis.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

All About Financial MarketsSubprime LendingLehman Brothers Inc.

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