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Storms produce flashes of fury. And in this financial maelstrom, the world’s bankers have become the lightning rods. It is now fashionable to blame them for the credit crisis as well as the economic hardship that is sure to follow. This view, however cathartic, is as one-sided as it is hysterical. Sure, bankers were greedy, irrational and lax. But they were no more so than everyone else. The simple and unpalatable truth is that the crisis is of all our making.
Who has not met someone who boasted how clever they were to buy a house 10 or even 5 years ago? Prices only go up, you know. Buyers were not forced to take out mortgages often worth more than five times their salary. And what to do without the money to buy that brand new car, those clothes, or to take that holiday? Did people save? Or drive a second-hand motor instead? Hardly. General Motors offered car loans and banks issued credit cards because their customers were as greedy as they were.
Of course, the benign lending environment, caused among other things by low interest rates and imported deflation from countries such as China, meant that borrowers evaded their fate for years. But there were warning signs everywhere. Investors should have baulked when offered investment products backed by mortgages that promised a 12 per cent annual return, at a time when government bonds were yielding single digits. Equally, money market funds could only offer higher-than-cash returns because they were injected with risk.
An era of reckless, sometimes predatory, lending and equally profligate spending has come to an end. Bankers earned obscene and undeserved sums of money because they best exploited the excesses of a consumerist age. But they were no more self-serving than the armies of consultants, real estate agents or life-coaches feeding at the table of excess. It is easy to blame “spivs and speculators” for the world’s woes. If bankers catch it on Judgment Day, so will we all.
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