March 2009

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2009.

Customer 2.0

Attention shoppers: we have arrived.

We’ve all been doing the ecommerce thing for a while now. We’re all semi-pro online bargain hunters. We all finally feel safe using our credit cards online. And the government is finally getting around to taxing online commerce (bastards), because they know it’s gotten to a level that some pesky tax won’t pull us back from.

Online sellers are giving Main Street a run for it’s money like it’s never seen before.

Think about it: 20 years ago we were bemoaning big, bad WalMart swooping into smalltown America and squeezing out the Mom and Pops.

– The mom and pops cried “foul!” Economists cried “competition!”

And then a few years later it was the demon spawn Barnes & Nobles and eviler still Starbucks hastening the extinction of our local bookstores and coffee shops.

– The purists cried “foul!” Everyone else cried “vente soy latte!”

But now we find ourselves in the middle of an even braver, newer world: ecommerce has fully matured. And now no one’s safe. Even brick-and-mortar behemoth WalMart.

Oh, the irony.

Today a small town semi-savy Grandmother with a little extra time on her hands can easily find most of what WalMart offers elsewhere, for cheaper. With free shipping. And points. And she does.

We have arrived.

There’s a lot less cries of “foul” now too.

Why? For one, it’s not just the hardware stores, bookstores, or the coffee shops that are getting a beatdown; it’s every kind of shop imaginable, save for restaurants and nail salons.

But the main reason no one’s complaining is that the benefit to the consumer (you know, us) has finally gotten past the tipping point: everything’s cheaper, and who’s going to cry “foul” on that?

The unfettered competition made all the prices lower, just like it tends to do. And it’s a beautiful thing.

But lately another powerful phenomenon has come to the fore. One which will certainly throw yet another wonderful wrench in the works: Consumer Reviews.

You thought consumers had power before? Well, you’re in for a treat.

Now it’s not only their pocketbooks they’re speaking with. It’s their mouths. Fancy that.

Welcome to Customer 2.0.

Message boards. Blogs. Dedicated, free review sites like yelp. Dedicated, paid review sites like angieslist. And even company’s own sponsored forums, customers are making themselves heard. And loudly.

Consumers are making their experiences known, and their opinions count in ways that were simply impossible to count before.

And, moving forward, it will be very, very interesting to witness how this will affect individual businesses, and the marketplace in general.

I predict the consumer will win once again.

No, the customer isn’t “always right”. Just like “there’s no bad PR”, there’s always exceptions to rules like those.

But there aren’t just “angel customers” and “devil customers” either. There’s a patchwork spectrum of anything and everything consumers have to offer. From the truly good, bad and ugly, to suspiciously-glowing self-reviews and the vendetta carpet bash. It’s all valid, and if handled correctly, all helpful. But if business merely try to “bucket” them instead of simply learning from them, they will =fail.

So, with billions of consumers sounding off about the good, bad and everything in-between, how will we know what’s worth listening to?

Well, the market will sort that out, too.

Crazy, that.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more people in jail because of all this Mortgage Madness?

More delicious white collar perp walks? More lawyers suddenly employed?

Sure, there’s Madoff and that other guy in Texas who are both certainly going away for a long, long time. But they weren’t connected to the housing mess, really. Amazingly.

But there is a metric shitton of apparent perpetrators in this disgusting mess. From the realtors, to the brokers, to the CEOs. And they’re called-out every day in the press, and on Capital Hill for their “wrong doing”.

So why haven’t there been more headline-inducing criminal charges for those awful people who so obviously “preyed” on our Nation’s poor and uneducated?

Are we lazy? Are there not enough judges? Have they paid somebody off?

After all, the national “ire” meter is through the roof, the highest it’s ever been. We want blood. If ever there was a time for publically stringing people up, it’s now.

So why isn’t it happening? Wasn’t all that stuff illegal?

Well, no. Sadly, and amazingly… it wasn’t illegal.

In fact, thanks to our super-awesome Government and its relentless pursuit of voters (and their property taxes), they actually made 99.9% of it bona-fide, free and clear, LEGAL.

From verifying income, to making sure the securities were rated accurately, all of it was A-OK.

And it was  made A-OK on purpose.

Ala the various iterations of the Community Reinvestment Act, and subsequent tweaks, even a cursory check for something like, say, income, would derail the whole, lucrative process. The Government would be deprived of their precious tax revenue, and the politicians would be deprived of appreciative voters.

And millions of Americans would be cheated out of their “American Dream”.

A quick word about the Community Reinvestment Act, without going tootoo deep into it (wiki, for that). Nobody is arguing the INTENTIONS of the CRA, which were to help people get homes who normally wouldn’t be able to get homes. A laudable aim, for sure, because after all, who wouldn’t want some poor, but well-meaning and hard working family to have the safety, security, and stability of a home of their own? Their very own “American Dream”?

(BTW, the “American Dream” is not “home ownership”, it’s “opportunity”. But if you want your “opportunity” to result in a home with a white picket fence, then so be it. But the “American Dream” is not, and has never been, merely owning a home. That definition was an invention of our politicians, The National Association of Realtors, and the media.)

So, only a certifiable asshole (or a mean old Republican) would deny a good-hearted, but poor soul, their “right” to own a home, right? Well, the problem with that, and the CRA is, instead of addressing the root of the problem –why these people couldn’t afford a home in the first place, or why their credit was bad, etc– the Government decided to simply force banks to loan them the money.

Those big, bad banks.

Again, perhaps an admirable tact, because at one point in our history some banks would “red line” whole communities, unfairly disallowing normally qualified people from access to credit based on their race, age, sex, or proximity to deadbeats. Never mind that various laws have outlawed that sort of thing for many, many decades. And the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it all illegal yet again. But of course, despite the fact that redlining was already illegal five-times-over, the Carter Administration, through the CRA, decided that it was the banks’ fault, and only the banks’ fault, that more people weren’t buying homes. And therefore the banks’ duty to rectify the situation directly, by forcing banks to jettison their own, time-honored, self-imposed “regulations” for credit worthiness.

That’s right. The CRA outright forced the banks to loan money (for a home) to people who they would never have normally lent to. Not because of race, sex or location, mind you, but because of bad credit or lack of income.

(Leave it to Government to use a jackhammer for a job that really required a little sandpaper.)

At first the CRA only insisted that banks dedicate a small percentage of their total loan portfolio to “bad” home loans (because that’s what they were, “bad”, in a strict financial sense). And the banks quickly figured out how to make it work: by passing along the cost of the added risk to their customers.

The banks’ PR people saw an opportunity too, so we started seeing ads and press releases proclaiming “Last year we proudly made __% of home loans to underpriveledged families… we’re looking out for you”, etc. So it’s not like they used their bully pulpit to bitch about it.

But then under Clinton, though, the quota of “bad loans” went up. Way up, to almost 50%. Thanks Andrew Cuomo.

And, well, the banks hit the roof. 5% forced-bad loans they could deal with. They could sweep it under the carpet, and pass along or hide the cost. But 15, 21, 34, and then almost 50% was just too much. It was becoming catastrophic to their business. And so they did what any red-blooded American big business would do: they lobbied the shit out of congress.

So the Clinton Administration agreed to re-jigger Freddie and Fannie to “back” these increasing numbers of bad loans, which were rechristened “sub prime” and hailed as a new “groundbreaking” loan type because they “helped” so many people.

Again, subprime simply meant “loaning money to someone with bad credit”. 15 years ago that was considered a good thing.

Fast-forward to 1998, and the banks still weren’t happy. At all. F&F simply weren’t efficient enough to “eat” all these ever-increasing numbers of bad loans.

And numbers of bad loans were ever-increasing for more reasons than just ever-rising CRA quotas, of course. As stupid as the banks knew all of this was, the implicit “Government backing” that came with F&F spurred them, and their adjuncts, to make even more bad loans, above and beyond those insane quotas. After all, the Government (us) had their backs, right?

Well, even though, technically, F&F “had their backs” the banks were still nervous about having all those bad loans on their books (Enron hadn’t happened, and so mark-to-market wasn’t in effect yet). So in 1998 Clinton, along with a bipartisan congress, repealed Glass Stegall, allowing banks to securitize these home loans, good and bad, and “kick” them up to wall street.

That meant that these bad loans no longer had to sit on their books. In fact, they could easily sell them now,  especially after the bubble burst in 2000. Because securitized home loans, which represented a solid, underlying, physical asset (the house and it’s property), made sure these new securities were suddenly very sexy.

Then, as they tend to do, Wall Street started divvying them up, and bundling them into packages, and hocking them to anyone and everyone they could. Including poor, poor Iceland.

And then Greenspan refused to raise the interest rates, further fanning the flames. Raising prices.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

(PS, read this post if you want a slightly more detailed explanation of all this awesemeness)

But the overarching point here is this:


That’s why our thirst for blood is going unquenched.

And why was it all legal?

Stay with me here… and follow the money….

Because, under the auspices of helping poor people, the Government MADE it all legal.

That’s why we’re not seeing Dog the Bounty Hunter dragging those asshole mortgage brokers out from under their beds by their hair. That’s why we’re not following some Wall Streeter as he skips from country-to-country trying to evade extradition. That’s why were not seeing anyone busted for anything.

It was LEGAL.

It’s distasteful. It’s greedy. And it might actually end up ruining the World.

But again, IT WAS ALL LEGAL.

The Government forced the banks to abandon their own, century’s old self-imposed “regulations” in order to “fix” a societal problem (regulation). And they repealed their own laws that stood in the way, too (deregulation). They offered up Freddie and Fannie to backstop this idiocy. And then they act surprised that some of the worst elements of our society looked at this ludicrous, artificial market and said “I’ll bite!”

And after a while even the good, moral players had to play along. Because they were losing business.

Government tees it up, and then acts surprised when the private sector knocks it out of the park.


And every discussion at every Denny’s, right now, surely includes the words “they should be put in jail!”

And they’re not wrong.

Those slimy mortgage pushers who signed as many people up as they could, and then danced off with their millions of dollars in “fees”? And those unctuous iBankers pushing these bundled securities, they knew were full of shit? And don’t even get me started on the credit ratings agencies. I mean, how on earth were these overly-complicated packets of over-priced, and obviously bad loans given AAA ratings?


It was LEGAL!

But now we have to ask ourselves… WHY was it all legal.

As a country, we MUST do that. We HAVE to do that. Because that’s the only way we’ll learn from this.

And let’s be very wary of the people who are saying “Common guys! The damage is done! It’s water under the bridge! Let’s not point fingers of blame! Let’s move forward!”… we need to because those are the people who caused this mess.

We absolutely should go back in time, dig around, point fingers, assign blame, and be vigilant about what exactly happened. And why.

It’s the only way to make absolutely sure it doesn’t happen again. Ever.

It’s our duty to do that. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our children.

Tags: , , , , , ,