By far, the most read item this year on Bad Money Advice was Swoopo: Entertaining Yes, Shopping No. It’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to a post really going viral, accounting for about 4% of all page views on this site. No doubt it was the first thing many of you ever read here.
So I don’t need to recap what it says. But I will remind you all that I called Swoopo a sort of "commercial performance art in which it is demonstrated just how dumb we really are." But dumb isn’t quite the right word. Irrational is better.
And that is today’s year-in-review theme, that we are all nuts. Not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s just that we aren’t nearly as logical as we think we are.
Back in March I posted on a wonderful new concept discovered by two professors: saver’s remorse. The gist of it is that it is possible to regret saving instead of spending, just as you could regret the reverse. In a better world that would have been an absurdly mundane finding, but in our world it is pretty radical.
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Continuing my review of the year via a review of this blog that I started yesterday, today the topic is the interrelated themes of credit cards and identity theft.
It has been quite a year for credit cards. How bad, and just how flat out weird, things had gotten was made apparent back in February, when I posted about American Express paying a bounty of $300 to certain customers to just go away and stop being customers. As I said at the time, this can’t possibly make big-picture business sense, although it might have been a plausible reaction to some perverse incentives from Wall Street.
Sadly, my scheme to seek out other companies that might pay me not to do business with them failed miserably.
By June things had gotten even worse for credit card companies. Or maybe the mainstream media just discovered how bad it was and started reporting on it. The Times had a story about how card companies had done everything but start printing "or best offer" after your balance on the monthly bill. I had a post on that, which also pointed out that everybody hated the companies anyway.
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As winter rolls in and the season of office parties fades into the season of empty offices, it is time to pause and take stock. It is hard to imagine that we will be looking back on 2009 as the good old days any time soon, but things could certainly have been worse.
The end of 2009 also marks, more or less, the end of the first year of this blog. So it makes sense to review the year by reviewing the year in the blog. In the next few posts I will be highlighting a few general themes that emerged as the year went on. Today it is the most obvious of topics, The Great Recession.
What set off the GR was best discussed here at Bad Money Advice in a book review I wrote (in two parts) of the probably now forgotten The Wall Street Journal Guide to the End of Wall Street as We Know It. I meant to do more book reviews when I started this blog.
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Earlier this week I stumbled across a surprisingly on-target quote about what got us into this economic mess from, of all people, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
The failures that led to this financial crisis were many. Banks and investors took on large risks, risks they did not understand. Washington allowed those risks to build up unchecked. And in communities across the country, Americans borrowed too much in part because they did not understand how to save prudently, how to borrow responsibly, and they did not understand fully that pension values and house prices, equity prices will not always rise.
It’s not a perfect explanation. I wouldn’t make the general statement that banks and investors didn’t understand the risks they were taking. Some didn’t, but many understood quite well. And I think Washington was more than a passive observer of the whole mess.
But the blame laid at the feet of Wall Street and the government is mostly pro forma here. What Geithner is saying is that, as it turns out, a widespread lack of financial acumen amongst ordinary folks was at least as damaging as the foolishness amongst the bankers and bureaucrats. In the immortal words of Pogo "We have met the enemy and he is us."
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In yet another sign that the Great Recession is receding, earnest discussion has begun in the punditocracy on long-term cures for our nation’s home mortgage system, particularly Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (Remember them?)
I’m not sure if anything at all will come of this. It’s not clear that Congress has enough gas left in the tank to finish with healthcare, never mind rewiring the mortgage business. If I had to bet money I would say that this window of opportunity, in which there is consensus that something needs fixing, will close without much of anything changing.
But it’s inspired some rare discussion of that great American institution, the thirty year fixed rate mortgage. And it really is a uniquely American institution. Except for Denmark, which has a very peculiar system dating to the Eighteenth Century, only in America do consumers think that borrowing on thirty year fixed rates is normal.
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