Perspective: Economic priorities

Last evening, I was the guest of UBS for a presentation by Michael P Ryan, the investment bank's head of wealth management research for the Americas.  Mr Ryan provided an in-depth analysis of the markers of this recession/depression and his take on what we can expect going forward.

The biggest surprise of the evening was the Q&A period.  There were probably 150 people there, and every question, save one, was not about what we had just seen but about what to do with one's investments.  The one different question was about how investors could muster up the courage to invest the way they know they should — how not to give in to the emotions at play right now.  Still an investment question, but at least the questioner alluded to what caused UBS to fly Mr Ryan in from New York to do the local event.

I know.  Grow up, Mary.

I got to ask the last question.  I had been posting Mr Ryan's key points on Twitter throughout his talk, and one of my Twitter pals, a former UBS employee, gently reminded me that UBS had one of the bigger failures in Europe around the sub-prime mortgage and credit default swaps issues.  So my question was, given what had happened within banking, what did Mr Ryan see the banking industry doing to give investors the incentive and confidence to manage today's stress and move forward?

The answer was candid, in three points.  Two of them did not pertain to banking action:  government policy and the passage of time.  The third point did.  I'm paraphrasing:  the industry needs to return to the long-term view of measuring growth and seeking gain.

I remember the first time I was exposed to the pressure a public company must manage when reporting quarterly results.  I thought it was nuts.  How in the world do you grow at 20 percent every quarter? And why was that the chief measurement of a company's value, quarter after quarter?

Here's the thing.  It's not just the bankers driving these ridiculous metrics.  It's us.  When the seven to ten questions put in front of a leading research analyst are all about "my money" in the face of a global financial crisis, I think it's safe to say that we still have a long way to go in getting a grip on this situation.  Like whether we're becoming a socialist nation or what we are teaching our kids about saving. 

We have become addicted to that 20-percent-a-quarter-dividend-increase.  It's time we wrapped our heads around the fact that the only safe harbor from the devastating yet predictable end of our obsession with 20 percent growth is being happy with reasonable growth and credit with strings attached.

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