Commentary

Why is it we make the same mistakes over and over?

There should be lessons learned from the awful track record of sub-prime lending, but apparently not.

Today it's causing problems in the housing market, but remember Mitsubishi? Remember Ford Credit? Every few years there's another sub-prime disaster. If you lend money to people who can't pay it back, they won't. Expand that to international banking. If you lend money to countries that can't pay it back, they won't. Lend money to the Congo or Brazil and kiss it goodbye.

Yes, the smart ones may cash in. They lend money to people who can't pay it back, then sell the paper so somebody down the line gets stuck. Loans to nations that can't repay are made by international funds backed by tax payers, and when they aren't repaid the loans are extended, revised, reduced or canceled over time, as occurred after World War I. The taxpayer holds the bag. Likewise, the auto industry fails to learn from its mistakes: Auto execs constantly say:

  • You can shrink your way to success by closing factories and laying off workers. Making cost cutting the major goal always leads to disaster. Only product leads to success, but the financial community doesn’t like admitting that.
  • You must rationalize the industry. How many times do you hear that? Never trust anyone who uses the word “rationalize” – he wants to shut your plants. You never hear anyone calling to rationalize the number of Wall Street analysts or business- school professors.
  • ˜Americans will buy a cheap little car. People point to the Honda Fit as a great success, but it's selling at an infinitesimal 30,000-a-year rate. I remember Kaiser's Henry J small-car failure. Small, cheap cars get identified as cars for poor people, and then even the poor people don't want them. The one great success was the old Volkswagen Beetle, but it was a fine car that sold on whimsy, or maybe love.
  • YPlatform consolidation is the answer. Too many platforms are disastrous, I agree. But also remember that Chrysler was the best at platform consolidation. Everything came off one, the famous K platform. Boy, did we get bored. Chrysler got hot when it junked platform consolidation and began building a variety of platforms sensibly and frugally.
  • 0“The chassis contributes as much of the personality of a vehicle as any of its other components. We can continue to try to fool ourselves into thinking our customers wont see it, or won't know the difference. But believe me, they will,” says a former Chrysler executive vice president and chief engineer.
  • (We can always squeeze parts suppliers to cut costs. How many billions of dollars is General Motors paying because its parts supplier, Delphi, went bankrupt? How do you get cheaper parts out of bankrupt suppliers? How can they spend money on research and innovation if you take away their profits?
  • Don't offend your buyers with radical design. They want conservative styling. Check your focus groups. Need I say more?

Why do we keep making the same mistakes, again and again, like sub-prime lending?

Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.