Taking back our power: What families and small businesses should learn from the failures of Wall Street

I’d like to start this essay with compassion. Collectively, we’ve been through a lot of financial turbulence in the 80 years following the Great Depression. Rebounding from a period of austerity, easy access to credit in recent years overextended most families and individuals beyond our means, just as subsidized food has expanded waistlines.

With many people living on the brink of financial ruin, it may be time to stop pointing fingers of blame at the 1%, and rather point the finger of curiosity: What can we learn from the very public meltdown of Wall Street, and how can we use that information to take back our power on Main Street? I believe the following three lessons will help families and small businesses get back on track toward financial health:

1. The Danger of Money Illusions and Spending Money Before you Have It

We can learn a lot from the failure of brokerage firm MF Global in 2011. CEO and former lawmaker Jon Corzine took over this firm when it was struggling and in the red (like many families are today). In order to try and turn the company around, he started placing bets on complicated derivative products, which were unique in that they enabled his business to show profit on the accounting side before any actual profits materialized. This made his company appear healthy and robust to outside investors and regulators, who continued to support the company’s efforts. Meanwhile, the CEO was involved in an obscenely risky gamble involving 6 billion dollars of the company’s already troubled assets in unapproved overseas markets and sovereign debt derivatives.

So how does this at all relate to what an individual might experience at home? When your personal finances are in the red, you eagerly anticipate the next influx of cash, whether this is a salaried paycheck or some other income payment. You are the CEO in charge of bringing your family’s finances back into the black. It might be a sure bet, or there might be some risk as to when you will receive the next cash influx, or how much you will receive. The amount of confusion around the amount of money you will receive and when is similar to having a derivative product on your hands.

When you think you have money coming in, and feel pressure to meet financial obligations, you tend to make worse assumptions and take higher risks than you otherwise might. You also take more risks than a large business might, because it is likely that no one is looking over your “accounting” at all to regulate you. You might subconsciously inflate your income in your head, or assume you have more money coming in than you actually do, or sooner than it actually will, and you might feel pressured to spend the money before it arrives, maybe by taking out a “payday loan”, or by spending up to the amount you think you are going to have on “necessities” or perceived priorities, or buy things on credit believing your ship is coming in.

The confusion around it all is somewhat comforting, because you don’t actually WANT to face how much money you owe or how much is coming in. But this almost always causes you to spend more and earlier than you ought to, digging yourself further into debt.

On the small business, side, I believe that Groupon (and its competitors) has become wildly successful off the backs of small business owners who are not skilled in keeping business accounts in the black and are hungry for a risky quick-fix. A Groupon-type deal can be seen as a way to influx a failing (harsh but true) business with cash to give it the illusion of solvency. It is a sure bet that not all the customers who buy the deal will redeem their certificates, so the business gets the illusion of having made a profit before any actual transaction has occurred with a client. This can and has caused businesses to take even higher risks, rather than solve their cash flow issues, leading many businesses to ultimately go out of business sooner than they might have trying to charge full price for their services.

To break the downward spiral of debt accumulation, one must simply stop spending money before one has it in the account, period. This removes temptation for more risky bets and actions, and shifts the focus toward money-making.

Ultimately, such derivative products as invested in by MF Global are becoming more and more regulated/banned. We learned that we need to know the details of financial investments so that actual risk can be made apparent to investors or those that entrust their money to others.

Individuals can do the same by insisting on a personal discipline of only acting on money that is already 100% cleared in their accounts. Once an individual is financially healthy again, transparent risk-taking can be responsibly added back into the equation.


2. Inappropriately borrowing from internal accounts instead of making money or cutting back

In the case of MF Global, the company likely did not have enough capital to cover the investments that were being made. Inevitably, the money had to come from somewhere, and what was found was evidence of internal borrowing – called internal repo – where a brokerage firm can borrow money internally from another part of the firm. In addition, according to a Frontline investigation, “Investigators are now trying to determine if in those last desperate days, MF Global executives intentionally transferred customer money to JPMorgan to meet a margin call from the bank.”

Debtors living on the brink of ruin become extremely resourceful about consuming every available resource toward their debt and needs. No accounts are left alone. If a home has equity, it gets spent. If a credit card is found with a lower interest rate, balances are shifted around accounts to make the debt appear less burdensome. But it’s all just a futile game. The mind in debt has been trained to look backward and around for money, and not forward to new sources.

This is resourcefulness as a vice. Instead of reaching outside to investors for capital, a company will suck every already available resource to make a financial play. A person will “borrow” from their 401K or retirement accounts to make ends meet somewhere else, borrow from a friend or family member, take money out of a savings account, or drain some other account which has temporarily been granted “low priority.”

Taken to another level, it’s like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. It’s the same kind of thinking that led to the ruin of Bernie Madoff and his investors. On a psychological level, part of it is acting like a rogue, not being willing to ask for help when it is needed, and taking on too much risk without having an end-game. Part of it is defining your resources too narrowly, and not thinking outside the debtor’s box.

In December 2011, the CFTC banned internal repo as a viable financial practice for companies. Individuals should do the same.

Do not take on new expenditures if it means taking from other accounts available to you which you have already designated for other purposes.



3. Giving Away Your Power: Ignoring or Delegating Financial Decisions

Wrapped up in all the financial turmoil we’ve experienced in the recent Wall Street crises is the idea that we trusted people to manage our money, manage our financial system, and that they “failed us.” There’s a lot of blame going on. There’s a lot of talk about the 1%, about bailout regrets, about taxing the rich, making them pay their “fair share.”

CEO’s have multiple zeros beyond their employee’s paychecks. The richest citizens are obscenely rich compared to the average family’s income. Health care is no longer controlled by doctors or patients, but by the insurance companies who have been entrusted with dealing with the financial side of the business. This is serious stuff. It seems everyone knows someone who is struggling because the retirement money they entrusted someone else to manage straight up evaporated.

There’s an elephant in this room, and it’s wearing a suit and tie. No one is asking, “Why have we given all of our money to other people to manage in the first place?”

There is a lot of ignorance out there regarding money, and excuses for why we don’t take responsibility for our own financial success. People will say, “I’m not good with numbers,” “I don’t understand investing,” or “Taxes are too complicated.” I think there is something deeper going on here. Where there is great resistance, there are great lessons to be uncovered. I think money is so deeply tied up with our basic needs for safety, security, housing, food, love, and appreciation, that we are afraid of what our ability to handle money might say about us. So we don’t even try. If someone else fails us, we can sit back with no responsibility and blame them for their shortcomings.

The first step back to financial health is a sense of responsibility, then awareness, then education.

A person must be willing to open their bills, to look at financial statements, to start keeping accurate records. There’s nothing wrong with consulting with someone for their expertise, but at the point where you relinquish responsibility for the outcome, you have given too much of your power away.

I believe that if our economy is going to turn around, it has to happen one individual at a time, in our personal economies. There is no savior coming. No change of parties in the White House can make this happen. It starts with us.

Christina McKinstry is a San Francisco coach and small business owner coming back from bankruptcy in 2011.