Sunday, April 3, 2011

Greatly Mistmatched Expectations

A common criticism of the U.S. financial industry repeatedly dished out after 2008 was that the high-level executives preferred to pursue short-term gains, rather than the long-term stability and growth of their respective institutions. The claim is that their compensation packages incentivized them to take excessive risks with their loans and securitization practices. Yet, we only have to look to another bloated and unproductive American industry to see how this criticism completely misses the broader storyline. I am speaking of the entertainment industry, and, more specifically, the professional sports industry.

The National Football League (NFL) is currently in the process of attempting to solidify a "lockout" of the players for the 2011 season, which would also serve to lock out the numerous other workers associated with NFL teams and venues. After collective bargaining failed to make any progress, the NFL players' union decertified so that the players could launch a class action anti-trust lawsuit against the League and its owners. If this lawsuit fails, the lockout will continue and there will be no games scheduled for the 2011 season.

The team owners had reaffirmed a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") in 2006, which gave the players 60% of NFL revenues and unrestricted free agency (no conditions on signing with another team after contract expiration). In 2008, they decided to "opt out" of that CBA and, since that time, have been attempting to completely renegotiate their existing contracts with employees (players), just as any exploitative cartel would during an economic depression. [1].

The NFL has seen its revenues plummet since 2008 as ticket, merchandise and concession sales have all dropped off. Now, the team owners and their corporate sponsors would like to keep a larger slice of the $9B revenue pie in the future. They are proposing to decrease the percentage share of revenue given to players, or perhaps even implement fixed salaries without revenue sharing, and extend the regular season by two games, among other things. [2].

The collective negotiations were obviously just a show, since the owners knew from the beginning that they had massive amounts of leverage over the players. Unlike their counterparts in professional basketball, many of these players do not have guaranteed contracts, are not paid exorbitant salaries (relative to their value for the team), are prone to significantly increased risk of injury as they get older and are also heavily in debt. While the owners believe they can afford to miss out on revenues for a season, the players, given their lifestyles and expectations, do not. One sports commentator described the owners' mentality as one that is willing to endure "short-term pain" for "long-term gain". That's why they are so confident in their ability to ultimately get what they want.

Major financial institutions and their executive decision-makers have, similarly, decided that they will pursue a strategy of short-term pain for long-term gain. They literally and figuratively hold unfathomable amounts of leverage over the global economy, and the lingering threat of debt deflation has, so far, only served to increase the strength of their stranglehold. The short-term pain comes in the form of a few financial institutions being sacrificed at the altar of greed, slightly reduced share values (relative to their peak) and a public relations nightmare for perhaps a year. That's really it. From the perspective of these financial executives, it will be smooth sailing from here on out, because global economic actors are still entirely dependent on their good will.

As the global financial situation remains unstable and continues to deteriorate, they expect to get concessions from the players (central/local governments and their taxpayers) all along the way. These concessions may come in the form of direct subsidies, backdoor monetary policy (quantitative easing), austerity and tax hikes (continued servicing of government debt) or cheap access to public assets (land, oil, etc.). It is not just the financial crisis which provides them with leverage, but every sociopolitical crisis that stems from it and even unrelated crises.

In fact, every single crisis in the last three years (see sub-prime housing meltdown, Haiti EQ, Pakistan floods, Russian drought, European sovereign debt crisis, MENA revolutions, Japanese EQ/flood/nuclear meltdown) has been used as justification for further taxpayer subsidies to the financial industry. Governments and private individuals simply do not have enough funds for relief efforts, so they must finance most of it.

People are dying and something must be done, but, given the current monetary paradigm, governments can only take action through the issuance of more debt and the payment of more interest to private banking cartels. It is no wonder, then, that certain Wall Street executives are earning millions in salaries and bonuses while the rest of the world quickly crumbles into little bits and pieces.

The "plan" was not to blindly chase risky investments until everything crashes and everyone goes broke, but to make large sums of money while also gutting the productive economy and deliberately plunging the entire world into a state of hopeless dependency. Those of us in the developed world have all ended up like the NFL players, watching the wealth pie shrink as we hold grossly mismatched expectations, but no chips at the table to bargain with.

At the same time, however, those NFL players do see a slight glimmer of symbolic hope in front of them. It is true that the ongoing anti-trust lawsuit against team owners is essentially meaningless, yet another procedural display of injustice at work, and the players will never be able to meet their material expectations. However, the court of public opinion may offer them the next best thing - a form of revenge on the greedy owners and corporate sponsors. Justice, in our current society, can only be measured by how equally the losses are shared.

American sports fans do not want to go an entire season without professional football, partly because of our selfish need for mindless entertainment, but also because many of the fans view the teams as an extension of their immediate family. They follow every single detail of the team's performance, anticipate every single game with child-like enthusiasm and celebrate every victory like it was a validation of their own existence. They also mourn the losses like they would if a close relative had just passed away. The team owners figure that this level of extreme attachment will always serve to bring the fans back, no matter how disappointed they are in the short-term, as they always have in the past.

We are not living in the past, however, and the average American person, whether a sports fan or not, has just about reached his or her breaking point. They can no longer afford to buy season tickets or even tickets to individual games, and now they are being told that that they can't even watch their favorite players on TV. We can no longer afford to buy homes, cars, boats, computers or even gas, and now we are being told that we must pay higher taxes and receive less public benefits.

If that is really a recipe for long-term gain, then I must take my hat off to the financial masters of our world. That would mean they have managed to subjugate billions of productive workers around the world and steal what little wealth these workers have left, without generating any real threats to their own wealth or power in the process. If they end up on the wrong side of a slim margin of error, however, then they have only managed to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders for a few short yards, right before the strain became too great and they collapsed in a heap on the field.

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