Killing America

It’s probably a bad idea for someone like me, with a weak grounding in economics, to think about economics. But you can’t help thinking about economics nowadays. And I probably should have been thinking about it all along.

Thinking about it is hard work for me, in part because so many people I instinctively dislike and mistrust have weighed in on it so loudly, with opinions that seem to me based on flawed premises. But that doesn’t mean their conclusions are to be dismissed.

Look, here’s what I see. I’m 50. When I was a teenager, banks were local. In Philadelphia, you had PSFS and you had Girard. Both storied old names with deep local roots. You could open a savings account there and get 4% or 5% interest on $100. It taught you how to invest and grow your money. Both are gone now. The banks you see now on the city’s streets, I don’t even know where they have headquarters.

And nobody except rich dudes and eccentrics played the stock market. It was understood to be a form of legalized gambling in which the small and uninitiated investor was almost certainly going to be cheated, unless he worked his tail off at it. When you bought stock, you got a big engraved piece of paper with the name of the company on it.

When you had a good job, you had a pension fund. Your employers, who probably were local, had it invested in a local bank, which lent it out at interest to people it knew and trusted, to buy homes, build stores, etc.

There were many problems and pitfalls in all this. But it seemed to work well enough for modest growth and reasonably good employment.

Then, in 1978, along came the 401(k). I don’t think anyone intended it to have the effect it had. But it eventually made everyone an investor in the global financial markets. Nobody except government workers seems to have a pension fund now. In short, all of us gradually came to feel our interests were identical to those of the Wall Street sharks, because our pension funds were parked in the same places as their play money.

Worse, new financial products were devised which sliced and diced and repackaged investments like sausage meat. So you didn’t know if your money was in this company or that company, but you felt you were playing the game. And you were, but now it was a shell game. By the mid-1980s, guys in the barbershops were reading the stocks pages and bragging about their investments. As though the shark tank had become a Disney ride, as though they still weren’t guppies.

Short term, big profit. If someone bought up the local silverware making company and shipped the work off to China and Mexico, that put 150 people in your town out of work, but it also meant that company could make a lot more profit, and as we all were, technically, invested in corporate profits, it seemed like a good thing in the end overall. A little sad, maybe, if you knew one of the unlucky few. But we had learned to think of ourselves like little tycoons.

The Wall Street mentality. I don’t know any bankers, or any investment house executives. But I know the kind of rapacious swine they brought in to take over newspapers in the 1980s and ’90s, when they passed from family hands to corporate investments. They are people you don’t ever want to be beholden to for anything.

This guy can tell you what really killed journalism in America. The newspaper is a product that, unlike a lightbulb, can’t be outsourced to China or India to make (though, gods help them, they have tried). Doesn’t matter. It was subject to the same evisceration as any other American industry:

In fact, when newspaper chains began cutting personnel and content, their industry was one of the most profitable yet discovered by Wall Street money. We know now – because bankruptcy has opened the books – that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon edition and trimming nearly 100 editors and reporters in an era when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits. In the years before the Internet deluge, the men and women who might have made The Sun a more essential vehicle for news and commentary – something so strong that it might have charged for its product online – they were being ushered out the door so that Wall Street could command short-term profits in the extreme.

Such short-sighted arrogance rivals that of Detroit in the 1970s, when automakers – confident that American consumers were mere captives – offered up Chevy Vegas, and Pacers and Gremlins without the slightest worry that mediocrity would be challenged by better-made cars from Germany or Japan.

In short, my industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered, free-market logic that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries. And the original sin of American newspapering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place.

When locally-based, family-owned newspapers like The Sun were consolidated into publicly-owned newspaper chains, an essential dynamic, an essential trust between journalism and the communities served by that journalism was betrayed.

So didn’t it all start with the gentle, subtle, paradigm shift that made the average American worker (when there still was such a thing) feel like his interests were aligned with those of the worst sort of corporate bosses? That has occasionally happened before in our history (in the 1830s and 1850s, for instance), but it is not a stable position, because it is so palpably false. But now it’s become the fiction that sank the ship we rode this far.

I don’t think anyone did all of this deliberately, even though it was accomplished in a lifetime. I don’t think any one political party is to blame for all of it. But I do think some people steered it and nudged it for their own benefit. And they still have not been called to account for it.

And I would like to see them all shipped off to a barren rock of an island in shark-infested waters, with no trees and no shade and no fresh water, and left there. I’d even go get a pilot’s license and fly them there myself.

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Author: mileslascaux

I don't read blogs. Neither should you.

36 thoughts on “Killing America”

  1. The stock market kept going up on average, for 20 years. So anyone with a bank account instead of stocks was considered stupid. And believe it or not, we still are! I watched the TV show Wealthtrack the other day, and they said you must have risk in your portfolio or you lose your shirt! What?

  2. If there’s ZERO risk in your portfolio, then the return on investment is going to be at best about equal to the rate of inflation, if you’re lucky maybe, just maybe, a bit higher than that.

    I disagree that ONLY the wealthy were in the market back in the day. Smart middle class people did it then, too, but without the foolishness of the day trading and such. My grandparents (my grandfather was an engineer at a paper mill) slowly and quietly bought AT&T, Sears, and GE stock for decades, and it worked out very well for them. But back then, it was considered bad manners to talk about money in public.

    As for local banks, if you want one, you can still find them. They’re mostly organized as credit unions now. There are a lot of regional banks, too, which remain in extraordinarily good health, not having put all their capital into the hot real estate mortgage trend like so many national banks. But without the big banks, we wouldn’t have seen a lot of the great things come along that I wouldn’t want to give up. Without big banks to start the trend, would we have ubiquitous internet banking? Would any small local bank have come up with the app that lets you deposit checks by taking pictures of them with your cell phone?

    Sure, the 80s saw plenty of short-term thinking greed, and so did the 90s. We should study what factors led to that, so we can adjust the tax and regulatory structures to encourage longer-term investment thinking by corporations. But let’s keep in mind that our economy is still highly diversified, most jobs are still with small companies, and life back in the day wasn’t all sunshine and unicorns…

  3. “If there’s ZERO risk in your portfolio, then the return on investment is going to be at best about equal to the rate of inflation, if you’re lucky maybe, just maybe, a bit higher than that.”

    I know, but you don’t LOSE anything. I probably have the same overall return as most Americans, whose stocks went up and then crashed.

  4. The “String ’em up” perspective exonerates us for our own complicity in this course of events, which is problematic, from my perspective. The particular brilliance of any culture contains toxins, which must either be absorbed and metabolized or which will, in the end, prove fatal. In our case, the ‘steering and nudging’ of growth for individual benefit created an enormous, diverse, wealthy economy, but its requirement for continuous and ever-increasing growth would eventually be gamed for personal benefit by those who had built the expertise to do so. Legislation tries feebly and futilely to keep the system from being gamed, but it mostly only succeeds in distilling the class of experts who can game the system.

    If we call to account the experts who created this situation, nothing will be accomplished unless we call ourselves to account. That would require a willingness to participate in the creation, even if only on the micro level, of a sustainable series of alternatives to a free market system that becomes more opaque, less free, and more desperate to sustain growth, with each passing day.

  5. Oh, the proposed punishment is the only thing I’m certain of. Punishment, so the advocates of punishing assure us, is an effective deterrent against others who would offend in like cases. Now I doubt that applies to skag addicts and the other sorts of people we routinely shove into hellholes. But I think it would have a bracing effect on a vain, selfish, pleasure-loving bank executive or wall street money manager. It’s the sort of thing the old Romans would have done to someone who rent the very fabric of the social contract.

  6. ” a willingness to participate in the creation, even if only on the micro level, of a sustainable series of alternatives to a free market system”

    This idea has been a fantasy for a long time, and will always continue to be a fantasy. Cooperation depends on competition, and socialists have never been able to see this. This is true on all levels of our reality, from subatomic particles to human civilizations. There are forces that repel and forces that attract, and the physical world could not exist without a balance of both. It would either collapse or explode.

    The free market system reflects the greater natural world it evolved within.

  7. Miles:

    Certainty is a beautiful thing.

    Real:

    Actually, it’s not a fantasy. It’s a reality, every day, in local, regional and national economies here and abroad. It’s not a Marxist or Socialist revolution or a wholesale abandonment of capitalism: it’s a constant adjustment of it, by increments, and it’s actually more like the America that Toqueville described than like Socialism: concern for both individual and community characterized by a more equitable distribution of property than was visible in the old world.

    What we currently have does not resemble a free market. That’s actually the problem. A free market gives people authentic choices not beholden to the forces Miles is complaining about.

    That’s what I meant when I said that every system contains the seeds of its own destruction. The market has become legislated and arcane, and thus the province of a few privileged, powerful, and very savvy individuals and interest. Free, it ain’t.

  8. I’m no socialist. I made my peace with capitalism long ago. I think Herbert Hoover was one of the great Americans of the last century. And I’ve actually read what he wrote about capitalism and business and individualism and free enterprise. And you know what? If he was alive today he’d be as infuriated as anyone about what was done here in the last 30 years in the name of business as usual. When you’ve been screwed you can’t unscrew yourself by pretending it didn’t happen.

    Capitalism is not pillaging of the public for the enrichment of a few. It is not pissing on the social contract. It is not perversion of the government for the sake of pelf. Any more than buying the umpire and corking the bat is “playing baseball.” If Reader_iam is still here, I’ll say something for her understanding: This was the Sandy Schwartzing of America.

  9. To advocate punishment for those who came up with new financial products which didn’t work out, without anything coming back on those who bought them, is like punishing those who bought winning lottery tickets last week, while doing nothing to those who bought losing tickets. In both cases, the people who got hurt were those who pursued the dream of getting something for nothing. Yes, someone may beat the odds and get rich quick. But most will lose the amount that they bet.

    In contrast to the example that Pat gives of those who made investments which they did not would make them an instant fortune. But which they thought were reasonably likely to make them a steady income in the long term. Yes, they might end up with the occasional GM which would end up bankrupt. But if they were paying attention, they could sell out of those investments which were headed downhill long before they lost a significant portion of their principal — the issue that realpc seems focused on.

    And I speak as one who has had investments go south. could I have bailed out? Sure…but I got wrapped up in something else and didn’t pay attention. It was doing better than expected for a while, but…. On the other hand, those investments which were a bit more cautious are still doing fine. And of the things where I “took a flyer,” the occasional one did very well indeed. So it comes down, IMHO, to a basic principle of not gambling with the rent money. You save as you go along, and put a small portion at risk; but only a small portion.

    Don’t try to get rich quick, and you are unlikely to find yourself getting broke quick. But if you do bet the ranch on something, don’t blame others if you lose it.

  10. ” But let’s keep in mind that our economy is still highly diversified, most jobs are still with small companies, and life back in the day wasn’t all sunshine and unicorns…”

    Yeah, today’s the day of sunshine and unicorns– who missed the memo?

    The only stock i invest in has four legs and goes ~moo~. One animal could be worth thousands today and you turn it down, waiting for her to reproduce and gain worth… only to wake up tomorrow w/her dead in the pasture two weeks from having her 1st calf that would also be worth thousands. True story.

    Holy crap– i hate the speculation of markets and here i have been playing it all along.

  11. America has always had a love/hate relationship with “speculators” and financial folk. When times are good, we love them and the capital they arrange to provide to us to expand our farms and businesses. When times turn poor, and the bills come due, then we hate that they’re making a profit on our misfortune.

  12. I don’t tyink the Founders loved them.

    Look, these guys packaged properties they KNEW would fail. How do we know they know? Because they bet against them. They sold them to others, around the world, and bet that they would fail. And they knew Uncle Sugar — that’s us — would pay to clean up the mess.

  13. Can’t agree with that, Miles, unless you want to condemn the stock market itself, in its very essence. Everybody wants to buy low and sell high. In every transaction, the seller thinks the stock is going to stay the same or go down, the buyer thinks it’s going up. Difference of opinion, and different tolerance for risk, does not equate to “knowing” what’s going to happen. Indeed, the whole point of the packaged bundles of mortgages was that they mixed in the good with the bad, so that on average, they were anticipated to be a fairly stable bet.

    I just refinanced my own house. My credit union handled the mortgage, but immediately assigned it to a larger financial institution that specializes in such things. Was that because my credit union knew that I’m not going to pay the mortgage? Of course not.

    There were two causes of the housing collapse, to my mind. One is the issuance of large mortgages to poor credit risks, the “sub prime” lending. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were complicit in this, as were a decade or two of Congressional bullying of banks to “encourage” them to loan more money to poor people.

    But a second cause, to bring it back to the issue of pointing fingers at our own societal flaws, was basic greed by a LOT of ordinary people who assumed that property markets would never, ever decline. If you bought a $400,000 house that cost $200,000 just 2 years before, assuming that it would be worth $800,000 in just 2 more years, then you were partly responsible for the collapse. Yeah, it sucks that you’re now underwater on your house, and financial institutions probably shouldn’t have helped give you the rope with which to hang yourself, but it’s still on you for making that bad, greedy decision.

  14. I bought a $65,000 brick Victorian home in a ghetto 20 years ago. For all I know it would sell for maybe $80,000 now, if I replace the heater. I don’t care. I bought it to live in, not to sell. And it will still be solid as a rock 100 years ago when those plywood palaces they raped the farfmland to build are just piles of toxic dust again.

    I never wanted to play the stock market. It’s a mug’s game. I never wanted more house than I could afford. How am I, and others like me, and our children’s children getting stuck with the bill for a game rigged by a few greedy bastards? How is that American democracy? I’m all for legalized gambling. I’m NOT all for being dragooned to the baccarat table by my government. And I’m not going to blame it all on people who should have known they were too stupid to be buying homes in the first place. Though they are to blame for theitr own messes.

  15. Oops, auto-filled the wrong name (Michael Grant) above.

    Pat, the fact is that the people who sliced and diced bad mortgages and made giant bad mortgage sausage out of them knew what they were doing. They knew they were securing bogus bond ratings for shit. That makes them criminals, not just unlucky capitalists.

    And banks that then lied about those “assets” they knew were based on pure bullshit and were subsequently caught with their pants down, were not financial innovators, they were reckless scumbags who for the sake of profit endangered the entire financial system of the world.

    Capitalism was never meant to exist without morality or ethics or a sense of basic decency. Since those virtues are wholly lacking in the banking and stock-swindling, er, trading, communities, we are supposed to have government oversight. Unfortunately government is for sale.

    That doesn’t create an argument for unregulated capitalism — letting swindlers be swindlers. It argues for more oversight and doing something to reduce the ability of swindlers to buy congressmen. Unfortunately, the trend is in the opposite direction thanks to the Republican supreme court.

    You want to make the victims of the swindle co-conspirators. Doesn’t fly. Suckers? Sure. But the cops don’t arrest the people who get ripped off in a game of 3 card monte, they arrest the con artists.

  16. Miles, I’m certainly not in favor of the government bail-outs of the financial institutions which participated in this mess. The government involvement and the presumed government guarantees at least of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac certainly played a significant role in the crisis. I’m open to suggestions about how to prevent that guarantee from being presumed in the future.

  17. So, according to real, I’m a socialist, and according to Michael, I’m a free-market fundamentalist. I guess I’m not the only one that’s confused.

  18. It’s easy to lose sight of some things in a polarized political environment. Being angry at the abusers of economic liberty doesn’t automatically make you a socialist.

    Like this guy:

    “We have had heart-breaking betrayals of trust both in public and private life, mostly through crime or through loopholes in the law. Equally wicked and less known are those who have operated to destroy business and values of securities that they might profit from the losses of the people.

    “Such betrayals are not alone stealing of money. They injure the most precious faith that has ever come to a people — faith in Liberty. They cannot be atoned for by restitution or punishment. The men who have been guilty of these betrayals have, by breaking down confidence in our institutions, and our economic system, by the prejudice, hate, and discouragement they brought to our people, by the furious impulse to insensate action they aroused, contributed more to the cause of Regimentation, Fascism, Socialism, and Communism in the United States than all the preachments of Mussolini, Hitler, Karl Marx, or Lenin. No one has a right to condone an atom of it; anyone of even feeble instincts of righteousness will condemn every particle of it.”

    Anyone want to call Herbert Hoover a socialist? [“The Challenge to Liberty,” 1934, p 152-3].

  19. Pat: Are you suggesting there *wasn’t* [re]packaging of poor mortgage risks in mortgage-backed investments, and deliberately? Surely, I’m misreading you?

  20. Reader, I’m suggesting that the stated intent of much of such repackaging, was to dilute the risk, not to conceal it from the purchasers. As I understand it, had the entire market not collapsed (a systemic risk), the repackaged bundles would likely have worked as intended, diversifying the risk so that no individual mortgage failure would cause substantial losses.

  21. Everyone benefits from growth, and growth requires some level of volatility. But if the last decade has taught us anything, it is that there are a few people who benefit from volatility itself, whether or not it produces growth. Those people happen to possess a great deal of influence over both the financial system and both of the major political parties.

  22. “I never wanted to play the stock market. It’s a mug’s game. I never wanted more house than I could afford. ”

    I think you are definitely not in the norm in today’s culture, Miles. Some folks sate on the reality of living w/in the means, but the majority -IMhO- they indulge way beyond common sense and good manners.

    I STILL maintain that this collapse(& continued recession- hello Obama) of our financial institutions, etc have so much to do w/the demise of the Glass-Stegall Act (sp) under the Clinton Admin… Larry Summers- where lenders were given the ability to inter-trade… ok- outta my depth perception, but i kinda know exactly what i mean.

  23. Pat, I think we profoundly disagree, in one way and another. In one way, I think people absolutely DID have poor, or at least amoral, intent. In another, I think we had people ignorant of what they were doing, but being given incentives to do destructive things they did not understand. Or thought they understood, but in fact did not.

    The tranches were restacked and then they were sold (without proper disclosure that they were reshuffled product).

    That’s a hard fact to shove aside.

  24. In another, I think we had people ignorant of what they were doing, but being given incentives to do destructive things they did not understand. Or thought they understood, but in fact did not.

    To be clear, this sentence refers to perhaps a majority of (but not [not at all] all) of front-line mortgage, re-mortgage and second-mortgages sellers, as well as many home-equity line sellers.

    To be clear as well, this by no means should be taken that I can’t, and don’t, assign lots of blame to individual buyers as well, or the culture we’ve built that allows sleeping through realities which, at any time, might come home to roost. (And, yes, I also think Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac evolved–as often, if not more, disingenuously than as innocently unknowingly–into blobs of political expediency&corruption coupled with blood-sucking dishonesty&incompetence.)

    To be clear, I’m not of a mind to let ***any*** factor off the hook, nary a one of them.

    And, to be bold in my clarity, since I’ve gone so far already, I’m not of a mind to pay a smidge more attention than is earned to those from whatever political party, philosophy, or ideological POV who wish to fix things but won’t acknowledge and consider **all** of the factors.

    : )

  25. Probably a necessary precondition to getting the national ship off the rocks (since it will require work by the legislature) is for the non-partisans among us to force through the point of view that the problem grew for so long, under so many watches, that no one part can be assigned all or even the bulk of the blame for what happened. So silly to have to work that way, but so necessary.

  26. It seems to me that “accountability” has become a toss-off word, and thus so diluted as to be useless. It applies to whether whatever is measuring up to whatever political philosophy or partisanship to which the user is subscribing, at best, hostage at worst. It is not actually useful in terms of taking account of, much less auditing, approaches. In short, it is a dead letter;

    –yet, I hope not forever.

  27. I meant earlier to respond to what Karen said, but in responding to other things, I didn’t end up doing so. I think she’s on to many things, and with regard to the repeal of Glass-Steagall, she’s right to point to that watershed and what it fed.

  28. Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of Mortgage Backed Securities. I certainly agree that it is important to look at what went wrong in an objective, non-partisan fashion to the fullest extent possible. But one of the many subjective factors we must watch out for in the process of assigning “blame” is the human desire to cast somebody as the villain of the story. We EXPECT bad guys. We WANT bad guys. If a “bad guy” is the cause of the problem, then we can condemn him and vow to never again let the bad guys in. But if the real problem wasn’t caused by “bad guys” but just “not very far-seeing guys,” then that poses a much different, much more difficult, problem to solve.

    There’s no question in my mind that there was a market failure here. None of the actual individual human beings making the decisions in this area had a significant stake in the long-term outcome. The local banker who approved a high-risk mortgage got his commission when the mortgage originated; his bank didn’t care that much, because it was selling the mortgage to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac or Countrywide the day after it closed. The guys at the desk for Fannie and Freddie and Countrywide got their cut of the transaction cost for processing the paper. Fannie and Freddie had very little concern for risk, because they were politically rewarded for getting more people into home ownership. And as de facto agencies of the federal government, they knew the firms would survive no matter what happened, so they didn’t need to worry about the institutional risks posed by holding so many MBSs; they didn’t need a diversified portfolio. And Countrywide, institutionally it was doing as described in the main post, exercising very short-term thinking, because none of the human decision makers had any incentive to look at the long-term.

    So as I see it, everybody was following the incentives provided for this market. Those incentives were severely distorted by government policies (Fannie and Freddie, mortgage interest deduction, etc.). If it were a simple matter of pure fraud, then more rigorous enforcement of existing laws against fraud would suffice. But it wasn’t. Most of these people weren’t actively trying to defraud anybody, and even if they were, nobody would ever be able to prove it.

    So “more regulations” is not the answer. Smart, greedy people find away to get around the regulations, at least until it’s too late. What’s needed is to redesign the system and structure, so that the incentives are properly aligned, that the human beings who make the decisions also faces the consequences, positive or negative, of those decisions.

  29. Passing along a couple of comments on this topic from private e-mail with someone who knows a hell of a lot more about money and government policy than I do, and who is not unknown to some of you:

    “Fund managers can exchange tranches, and it’s one of the reasons so much garbage found its way into people’s 401ks. In most of those circumstances, the manager carried a fiduciary duty to investors to maintain or advance the value of the fund. So if the exchange of a underperforming security for a higher one did the job, they did it. On the other hand, you can’t exchange tranches within a specific security, because it is a contracted instrument, not a managed instrument.

    “The problem with tranching where it applies to MBS’s is that you can create them utilizing just about anything, from AAA rated items to completely unrated items. Once thrown into the pool, they’re subsequently weighted and rated and sold, even if the underlying collateral they contain is less than the value they are weighted for. Because the weighting is based largely on calculated return, Alt/A and sub-prime mortgages were very attractive when placed alongside a sprinkling of AA or AAA rated mortgages in compiling a tranch. The whole tranch might be composed of 70% sub-prime, not even rated, but alongside 30% A, AA, or AAA and profit weighted, gain a AA or even AAA rating. Because of that, when the market dropped, most of those tranches weren’t worth much.”

    And, in regard to the whole big mess and what’s happening now:

    “You won’t see any truly major prosecutions occur. There’s too much liability spread between various parts of the government, the Fed, the banks, and corporations like AIG. The level of pure BS that went down under foolish policy law changes, gross mismanagement, and pure greed, if fully exposed, would cause pretty much every Main Street American, Wall street investor, and foreign investor, to completely lose faith in our banking system and our government. All you’re watching right now is damage control and a full-on, nothing else matters rush to recapitalize a banking system that blew itself right out of the sky.”

  30. “Passing along a couple of comments on this topic from private e-mail with someone who knows a hell of a lot more about money and government policy than I do, and who is not unknown to some of you:”

    Y’think? What the heck’s a tranche? Nowhere to be found between tramp and tranquilize. Full disclosure- i looked up fiduciary, as well. It seems an antiquated and noble value to be found in today’s shell game of finance.

    “The level of pure BS that went down under foolish policy law changes, gross mismanagement, and pure greed, if fully exposed, would cause pretty much every Main Street American, Wall street investor, and foreign investor, to completely lose faith in our banking system and our government.”

    Heh- i think there’s a horse and a barn door involved here, somewhere.

    Or, maybe a unicorn:0)?

  31. Right now my 2nd Senator from VT- good old Bernie- is wind-bagging from the floor via filibuster – something he has criticized heavily any time it has been used by Conservatives against his own ideological views.

    Now, i know there is so much blame in this economic game to go around- no taking sides. Yet, i could be mistaken… didn’t Bernie vote for the near 1trillion$ bailout- and the continuation of the unemployment benefits and, etc, ad puke? I have no respect here for Bernie– he has brainwashed many good folk up here- poor folk by his own living proof(he ain’t exactly a hurtin’ unit)so he gets elected like a broken clock. Now, he’s preventing an up-or-down vote? Nice move.

  32. Holy crap– i hate the speculation of markets and here i have been playing it all along.

    Funny, I first read that as “Holy cow”.

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