Four Impending Catastrophes: A Warning from Michael Panzner

by: Michael Panzner

Michael Panzner's Financial Armageddon: Protecting Your Future from Four Impending Catastrophes doesn't pull any punches. The book is a hard-hitting exposé of what may be our future, as events that have been wound up by more than a decade of irrational exuberance wind down in reverse. Against this frightening backdrop — made all the more frightening by the recent market jitters — Panzner concludes the book with some pointers to help average people navigate the treacherous waters of what may well be an inevitably dark near-term future. And to prepare them to better set a stage for brighter days on the other side of darkness for themselves and for their children.

Panzner's graphic depiction of future events is more detailed than I have seen before. In this it reminds me a lot of John Kenneth Galbraith's The Great Crash: 1929, which leaves Panzner in a great position to do a historical follow-up after the fact much like Galbraith did. For the rest of us, the book paints a picture to hold in front of us, and to test against as the future unfolds.

Clearly the future will not exactly follow the book. But that is not the point. Rather, Panzner wants us to better understand the complexities, the leverage-built-upon leverage, the gleefulness and gullibility of the actors, and more of what constitutes America's house-of-cards financial community that too many celebrate as America's highly-resilient economy.

On the run-up side we are led through the saga of America's decades-long party that has depleted the personal savings of many of our citizens. We are exposed to corporate shenanigans and government complicity in over-promising retirement and health care entitlements. We witness the mess that the government and "we the people" have made of our ever-more-bubbly housing sector, and how the Greenspan Fed misled average people into Adjustable Rate Mortgages in an era when interest rates could not fall, or at least would not fall further.

Among other misdeeds, Americans have forgotten that they need savings for security and they have used their houses (via refinancing) as giant ATM machines to buy new cars and other consumer goods. The party, as egged on by corporations and the government, seems never-ending. But, of course, the party must end. And it must end badly, in part due to too much greed, too much leverage, too little attention to prudent risk, and too much related "innovation" in the financial services sector that mislead many and their bankers, brokers, and commentators to believe that a new era had arrived, when all that was happening was a repeat of an age old penchant for mania, albeit with modern twists.

Add to this the never-ending consolidation in the financial services industry that helped keep stock prices pumped ever-higher and, when coupled with the perception that the true giants were now Too-Big-To-Fail, the stage was set for dominos to fall when one or more of the TBTFs actually begins to falter. Add in the recent Congressional and Administrative undoing of the many financial checks and balances put in place after the Great Crash and we see a stage set for disaster. Panzner elaborates:

There are too many links in the chain and too many points of vulnerability in the financial system, especially for commercial banks, which have been some of the most aggressive contributors to the recent credit bubble expansion. Ironically, a 2006 report that the FDIC was disbanding many bank closure teams because of a lack of failures may well have been one of the most ironic moments in the long and sorry saga of moral hazard and unintended consequences. Like dominos, when one begins to fall, the others won't soon be far behind.

If readers aren't shaken enough by the moral failures of the traditional banking community and supposed government overseers, Panzner devotes an entire chapter to derivatives, hedge funds, leverage, and risk concentration — and the seeming calm-before-the-storm that collectively they have wrought on the markets. His devotion is that of an "insider," with more than 25 years experience in stock, bonds, and security markets working with some of the biggest players including HSBC, Soros Fund, ABN Amro, Dresdner Bank, and JPMorgan Chase. Here is how Panzner sums up the problem:

… [D]espite recent efforts to address at least some of the concerns, past and present structural deficiencies have laid the groundwork for a chaotic and possibly nightmarish scenario. Thos who believed they were covered might be left scrambling to hedge their sudden and unexpected exposure, desperate to make up the shortfall under conditions of duress.

But the systemic risks do not only stem from a particular instrument or market. They exist also because of the concentration of exposure at certain large commercial banking groups, including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, Wachovia, and HSBC. According to data collected by the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency, as of the fourth quarter of 2005, these five institutions accounted fo 96 percent of the more than $100 trillion of derivatives contracts outstanding among 836 U.S. Banks. Remember too, the exposure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who have $1.5 trillion of derivatives between them to hedge against risks in their massive portfolios.

Panzner follows with thorough looks into possible depression and hyperinflation, investigating the economic, financial, social and geopolitical aspects of these possible nightmares.

In the last part of the book, Panzner help us better understand necessary planning for these depressing contingencies. His philosophy parallels mine: Better that we heed an old maxim: "Assume the worst, hope for the best, and be prepared for whatever happens." Panzner gives us insights (and hope) in terms of investments, relationships, and lifestyles.

Having just finished both Peter Bernstein's Against the Gods and Charles Kindleberger and Robert Aliber's Manias, Panics, and Crashes I didn't expect to be impressed with Financial Armageddon. But I was impressed! Don't take my word for the worth of Panzner's book. Wander over to his blog and take a look at the advance praise from the back cover. Then explore the rest of his website, including Panzner as Featured Guest on Jim Puplava's Financial Sense Newshour, 3/3/2007.