The dollar took a dive in the wake of the Iraq War; financial institutions failed across the country, leaving the government to bail them out. There was an out of control health crisis being ignored by the government. Housing prices halved, as employment tanked. The war in Iraq caused thousands of casualties that went under-serviced by the Pentagon and the Veteran's Administration. The University of Michigan's Consumer Sentiment Index hit a low of 69.5. New forms of tradable financial instruments were propping up a market reeling from an earlier market correction. President Bush, who had rallied a majority of the populace behind him at the time of the invasion of Iraq, saw his popularity plunge in the final year of his administration.
If you are under twenty, perhaps you assume I'm talking about today's United States. Let me throw one more at you: civil unrest broke out in Los Angeles; a curfew was declared; and a terrified city stayed locked in their homes while a swath of area from South Central to Hollywood was looted clean and burned to the ground.
If those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, it certainly seems we, as a nation, have the memory of a turnip (and we're cooked). In fact, this week the Consumer Sentiment Index, measuring just that, did drop to that nadir once again, for the first time in 16 years. The government's own consumer confidence index hit its lowest level since 1973! How ya feelin' now, big spender? Wanna go to the mall? I didn't think so.
In the months preceding the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, there was a palpable level of tension in the air, as if one knew something was going to blow, and when it did (the fuse being the acquittal of LAPD officers in the Rodney King beating incident), the level of destruction that winter was the worst man-made destruction of an American city since the Civil War. It was horrifying, and the Bush in charge at that time didn't jump in for days. Yet, the first building to get National Guard protection after four days of fire and looting, of chaos and anarchy was not in the hard-hit South Central neighborhood. It was the Beverly Center, that enormous luxury shopping mall nestled on the pricey border of the conjoined cities of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. Save the mall. Guard the "stuff."
Remarkably, civil unrest has not yet broken out. Let's hope it doesn't - but I wouldn't put money on it either way. I suspect, however, that should it happen, this time it will come from the ranks of the newly displaced. Nothing is more dispiriting than losing one's home. But the steam of millions of newly foreclosed-upon homeless people will likely blow.
Back to the parallel state of affairs between that fateful year and this one: the housing crisis that began under the Bush 41 administration didn't recover until after the 1996 election. This one has only just begun, and no doubt the commercial realty market is next.
Back then, Savings and Loans were failing due to risky business models and lack of oversight, and mostly their executives got the loot and the customers' savings had to be covered by the government (through the FSLIC). Today, of course, it's the investment companies that are in the soup. But they never would have gotten there had they still been properly regulated and had the Glass-Steagall Act not been repealed by Bill Clinton. The wall that was put up between banks and brokerages during the Roosevelt administration (1935), the wall that kept banks from risking customers' savings in the stock market and kept brokerages from holding anyone's savings without insurance, Glass-Steagall was repealed by the zeal of today's Gilded Sultans of Greed. One after another, fourteen Banking and Wall St. CEOs and presidents in the last year have walked away with 8- and 9- digit severance packages while their companies were losing money.
In 1992, South Africa was abandoning apartheid and began phasing out its authoritarian government. Commodities market watchers were, reasonably, on tenterhooks wondering how the governmental transition would affect mining and markets. Today, Zimbabwe's corrupt and despotic Mugabe regime is on its way out, but, again, rich with mining wealth (presently being horded by Mugabe and his cronies). The state of those resources should well be of concern, as that country is gripped by hyperinflation (100,000%). The minute Mugabe is out, they'll need aid and structure, and with agriculture decimated, mining will be fast-tracked. Who will regulate it the United States? No - oil. It will, ironically, fall to South Africa to step in to shore up the mining infrastructure and keep pricing stability in Zimbabwe. As the existing South African regime didn't let that nation's resources slide into anarchy, today's South Africa won't let Zimbabwe's markets slip.
What is different now is that China and India have awakened over those 16 years from being third world countries whose consumer products were novelty goods at Pier One, to now being flat-out competitors. It was disclosed this week that GM sold more Buicks in China than they did in the United States in 2007. Jaguar and Land Rover were sold to Tata Motors of India. How ironic is it that the jewels in the crown of British motoring have been sold off to the Jewel in the Crown of the former Empire because neither BMW nor Ford could figure out how to make a profit off them?
Perhaps it is no coincidence either, that now the level of consumer credit defaults has risen to the level of you guessed it! 1992. The American Bankers Association reported that in its survey of eight categories of loans, including credit cards, accounts paid over 30 days late were now at 4.38 and rising. Of course, with the late payment charges now also at an all-time high (essentially an undisclosed interest rate hike) the banks have a way of winning this battle against the consumer as well.
It makes one think that the Bushes like to leave dirty diapers to clean up. But that's a whole other column.