What My Father Has to Say About This Economic Mess

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with my father, a retired businessman with lots to say about the current state of things.

My father has always been an entrepreneur and I grew up with dinner conversation that was always about business, the economy and the stock market. The kitchen table often had piles of prospectus documents scattered around, which I ended up reading as a kid.

Other than doing the required auditing for an accounting firm so he could earn his designation, my father never worked for anyone else. He always ran his own show, believing strongly in entrepreneurship and that small businesses were the real engine of the economy. He always used to say that most people don’t understand how difficult it can be for a business owner just to meet a payroll, let alone make money from a business.

Coming from very modest means, my father worked hard and earned a business degree and a professional accounting designation. When he finished school, he got on a plane and went to Australia with the master franchise rights to Pizza Hut. This was over 40 years ago and Australia didn’t know what pizza was. His first location was right across the street from the University of Sydney and was an instant success, with long line-ups.

After building and operating more than a half-dozen Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in Sydney, he decided it was time to come home and do something else. He sold the business to PepsiCo and the final sale price was decided at PepsiCo’s offices over a golf-putting competition.

My father tells the story that the deal came down to a difference of $100,000 (back then that was a lot of money) and the negotiator at PepsiCo said to my father that if he could sink the putt in his office, the company would agree to his asking price. My father never played a game of golf in his life. He lined up the shot, took a deep breath and hit the ball. It bounced over the carpet, went in the hole at the end of the room and the deal was done. He never played golf after that, figuring that he would never be so lucky again. It was a $100,000 putt and it was the greatest. Amazingly, he was only 32 at the time and had enough money to retire.

Being a business owner his whole life, he never paid into a pension. In retirement, he manages his own money, which is largely scaled towards generating income. My father has always been an optimist. He believed in honest business dealings and he believed in people and the power of ideas. Ever the optimist, he says that no other economy in the world is better or faster at turning things around than America. He says we’re going to get through the current mess and the housing market, the economy and the financial system will be much better off for it.

His worry isn’t the current recession. He argues that you just can’t have a period of housing market excess without a correction. Prices don’t rise forever. You can’t sell problem credit forever. Eventually, it’s going to come back on you. He argues that we can’t escape the fact that the business cycle exists. We have to prepare for it when times are good, and bear it when times are tough. The business cycle isn’t going away.

His greatest fear going forward isn’t the housing market or the recession. He’s confident we’ll get through this quickly. His biggest fear about the future is driven by derivative financial securities. In his view, any financial instrument that you can’t explain to a child is ripe for a fall. Like the credit swaps that Wall Street sold around the world, these instruments can be so complicated that regulators and investors themselves don’t understand what they own and don’t understand their real exposure to risk. He says that this is where we need new government oversight or he fears we will get a total collapse of global capital markets in the future.

My father has always been confident and opinionated about business issues. He argues that the current credit crisis is a warning shot about bad business practices and derivatives. It’s a difficult issue to deal with, but my father feels that we’ve got to fix the derivatives industry quickly, before the derivatives industry fixes us.