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The Mother Goose Economy


Searching for the lesson of this painful recession.

Forget the statistical analysis, chatter from the guru of the minute, and the price of oil or gold, because we're in a Mother Goose economy.

The author of nursery rhymes summed up our current fine mess in "This is the House that Jack Built." The endless repetition delights children at bedtime and drives its adult readers nuts, but the lesson is clear: Events are linked and there's no clear way to escape the logical progression of the unfolding chaos, underscored by the utter complacency of all involved.

If you haven't been able to pry yourself away from the latest grim table published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the final stanza of the Mother Goose rhyme reminds us:

This is the farmer sowing his corn,
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn,
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt,
That lay in the house that Jack built.

The contemporary version of the tale goes like this: Once upon a time, there were Fannie and Freddie, officially known as the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNM) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FRE), who, at the behest of Congress, "rolled the dice" in an effort to boost affordable housing.

Lower standards briefly swelled home ownership, but many loans were made to people who had little chance of repaying them. The result: foreclosures. Fannie and Freddie lost tens of billions of dollars and the bill was presented to the taxpayers, who later took a whack at propping up the housing market with a first-time buyers credit.

To the housing bubble, add gutted hedge funds and, eventually, the federal bailout of American International Group (AIG) on the theory that its collapse "would be close to an extinction-level event as the financial markets have seen since the Great Depression."

Does that feel like a "crumpled horn" in the butt to you? No? Try this:

Robert Toll, chief executive officer of Toll Brothers (TOL), a builder of luxury homes, says, "Yesterday's sub-prime is today's FHA. It's a definite train wreck and the flag will go up in the next couple of months: Bail us out. Give us more money."

To use the precise scientific term, such talk makes people hinkier than Mother Goose's "worried cat." Worse, hinky people don't hire and they sit on their money. The immediate result: Consumer confidence takes a hit.

The Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers says its preliminary consumer sentiment index for November fell to 66 from 70.6 in October and 73.5 in September, which were up from 67.5 in August and 66 in July. Most analysts expected the index to rise in November.

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