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April 20, 2009

Economist's View - 5 new articles

Solow: How to Understand the Disaster

Robert Solow reviews Richard Posner's A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression:

How to Understand the Disaster, by Robert M. Solow, NY Review of Books: ...Judge Posner ... has an extraordinarily sharp mind... But I also have to say that, in some respects, his grasp of economic ideas is precarious. ...Posner has taught at the University of Chicago. Much of his thought exhibits an affinity to Chicago school economics: libertarian, monetarist, sensitive to even small matters of economic efficiency, dismissive of large matters of equity, and therefore protective of property rights even at the expense of larger and softer "human" rights.

But not this time, at least not at one central point, the main point of this book. ... The underlying argument—it is not novel but it is sound—goes something like this. A modern ... economy ... can probably adapt to minor shocks ... with just a little help from monetary policy and ... automatic fiscal stabilizers... It is easy to be lulled into the comfortable belief that the system can take care of itself if only do-gooders will leave it alone. But that same financial system has intrinsic characteristics that can make it self-destructively unstable when it meets a large shock. ...

In that kind of world, imagine a period of low interest rates. Once a set of profit opportunities is found, big operators will be tempted to borrow so that they can play with much more than their own capital, and thus make very large profits. This has come to be called "leverage." ...

In the past, 10-to-1 leverage would have been about par for a bank. More recently,... many large financial institutions ... reached for 30-to-1 leverage, sometimes even more. ... [I]t is leverage that turns large banks and financial institutions into ninepins that cannot fall without knocking down others that cannot fall without knocking down still others. That seems to be the key to the potential instability of an unregulated financial system. It happens without any of the private actors violating the canons of self-interested rationality. ...

It is a noteworthy intellectual event that Posner has come to this understanding and expressed it forcefully and fearlessly. This same understanding must ... be the key to designing regulations that can reduce the frequency of financial crises like the current one...

There are ... weaknesses in Posner's remarks... For example, more than once he says that the various antirecessionary measures—like fiscal stimulus, bailouts—are very "costly" and "may do long-term damage to the economy." He does not explain what these costs and damages are. Sometimes he seems to have budgetary costs in mind. But bailouts are mostly transfers from one group in society to another... They are certainly not ethically satisfying transfers, but it is not clear how they do long-term damage to the economy. The components of a fiscal stimulus package are costs to the federal budget; but to the extent that they put otherwise unemployed labor and idle industrial capacity to work, they do not impoverish the economy; in fact, they enrich it. ...

There is an even odder chapter called "A Silver Lining?" In it Posner flirts with the idea that a recession, even a depression, has a good side. It weeds out inefficient firms and practices. This is a little like saying that a plague is not all bad: it cleans up the gene pool. No doubt there is some truth to this idea of a purifying effect. But the notion that it could possibly compensate for years of lost output and lost jobs seems wholly implausible. There is certainly no calculation of economic costs and benefits behind the thought of a "silver lining." I think it is another example of overemphasis on minor gains in efficiency and neglect of first-order facts.

Posner's chapter on "The Way Forward" is all of sixteen pages long, and fairly disorganized... This means he does not seriously try to imagine ... an effective regulatory regime... It seems to me that effective limits on leverage ... are basic to controlling the potential instability of the financial system. ...

The financial system does have a useful social function to perform, and that is to make the real economy operate more efficiently. Some human institution has to collect a nation's savings and put them at the disposal of those who have productive ways to use them. Risks arise in the everyday business of economic life, and some human institution has to transfer them to those who are most willing to bear them. When it goes much beyond that, the financial system is likely to cause more trouble than it averts. I find it hard to believe ... that our overgrown, largely unregulated financial sector was actually fully engaged in improving the allocation of real economic resources. It was using modern financial technology to create fresh risks, to borrow more money, and to gamble it away....

Greed and foolhardiness were not invented just recently. The problem is rather that Panglossian ideas about "free markets" encouraged, on one hand, lax regulation, or no regulation, of a potentially unstable financial apparatus and, on the other, the elaboration of compensation mechanisms that positively encouraged risk-taking and short-term opportunism. When the environment was right, as it eventually would be, the disaster hit.

Self-Regulation Doesn't Work

The last entry in the Blog War over regulation of the financial sector:

Why Self-Regulation of the Financial System Won't Work, by Mark Thoma: I want to finish up by broadening the discussion beyond the regulation of hedge funds to the more general topic of how attitudes toward regulation have changed in recent years, how that helped to set the stage for the crisis we are in, and what we need to do to prevent it from happening again. In the process, I also want to take on Houman's point that regulators fell down on the job and let this crisis happen, so we cannot trust them in the future.

As I described in my first post, after decades and decades of instability in the 1800s and early 1900s, followed by the massive bank failures of the early 1930s, regulations were imposed to stabilize the banking system. The result was sixty years of calm in the financial sector. That's hardly a failure of regulation. It wasn't until the shadow banking system began growing outside of the regulatory umbrella that problems began to reemerge. A central theme of the posts this week has been that bringing about another decades long period of relative stability will require the regulatory umbrella to be extended to cover all firms within both the traditional and non-traditional (or shadow) banking system, hedge funds included.

I believe we made two regulatory mistakes that contributed to the present financial crisis. First, there was a push for deregulation beginning in the 1970s based upon the belief that markets are self-regulating - even to the extent of self-repairing market failures - and that caused us to go too far toward deregulation. Even the regulation that was left in place was, in many cases, not enforced vigorously, and there was little chance of new, substantial regulatory changes being put in place to match the changes in the financial marketplace brought about by rapid financial innovation. In some cases, deregulation was needed, but in many other cases the deregulation went much too far.

Second, we didn't focus enough on macroeconomic stability. I think we came to believe that a large crash of the economy was extremely unlikely, particularly one driven by problems in the financial sector. Several factors were responsible for this. The transformative financial innovation of recent decades - particularly the slicing and dicing (securitization) of mortgages and other assets into many complex financial products - was supposed to distribute risk broadly and prevent collapse. We had the "Great Moderation" after the mid 1980s when the variability of output fell significantly and inflation stabilized at low levels, and this was widely attributed to the skill of policymakers and the deregulation of the economy. Because policy had improved, and because we believed the economy was more stable due to deregulation, we let our guard down. We continued to recognize that garden variety fluctuations in output were still possible, though we thought the Fed could mostly handle those, but big crashes were a thing of the past. Or so we thought.

Hopefully, we have been adequately reminded that large recessions can still happen, and that will motivate us to take the regulatory steps needed to bring more stability to the financial system. Some people argue that any new regulation needs to wait until the financial sector has re-stabilized to avoid creating another source of uncertainty, a view that has merit. But the will and hence our ability to impose new regulation tends to diminish when the economy recovers, and if we wait too long to get started, the opposition to any new regulation may carry the day and we'll fail to get the measures we need put into place. The time to start is now.

But what of the charge that regulators blew it and caused this crisis, and therefore we are foolish to rely upon them for stability in the future? First, as I've said, I don't think decades of stability is a failure by any definition, and the recent failure was driven by an ideological belief that markets are self-regulating and hence best left alone. Most markets can be left alone, but as Alan Greenspan has recently acknowledged, financial markets are not among them. Second, I believe the recent failure did not happen because regulators were incapable of doing better than they did, it was their belief in the self-healing power of markets - their belief that what just happened was next to impossible - that stopped them from intervening as needed. With different beliefs and a different framework for approaching the problem, the outcome is much different.

So I am not ready to throw up my hands and say this is too hard, either the private sector finds a way to take care of itself, or it doesn't get done at all. We have the capacity to learn from our mistakes, to drop ideologies and theoretical constructs that led us astray, and I have faith we will do just that (Alan Greenspan's conversion is a prime example). With comprehensive regulation to prevent the excesses that caused the problems we are having, with the flexibility for regulations to evolve as new innovations come to the financial marketplace, and with regulators who have learned the lessons of the past, we can look forward to another decades long period of stability. But if we fail to take the steps that are needed and rely too much on private markets to regulate themselves, we are setting ourselves up for this to happen again.

Houman's response is here (it's partly in response to the previous post).

Paul Krugman: Erin Go Broke

Paul Krugman hopes we don't turn Irish:

Erin Go Broke, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: "What," asked my interlocutor, "is the worst-case outlook for the world economy?" It wasn't until the next day that I came up with the right answer: America could turn Irish.

What's so bad about that? Well, the Irish government now predicts that this year G.D.P. will fall more than 10 percent from its peak, crossing the line ... sometimes used to distinguish between a recession and a depression.

But there's more to it than that: to satisfy nervous lenders, Ireland is being forced to raise taxes and slash government spending in the face of an economic slump — policies that will further deepen the slump. And it's that closing off of policy options that I'm afraid might happen to ... us. ...

How did Ireland get into its current bind? By being just like us, only more so. ...Ireland jumped with both feet into the brave new world of unsupervised global markets. Last year the Heritage Foundation declared Ireland the third freest economy..., behind only Hong Kong and Singapore.

One part of the Irish economy that became especially free was the banking sector, which used its freedom to finance a monstrous housing bubble. ... Then the bubble burst. The collapse ... sent the economy into a tailspin... The result, as in the United States, has been a rising tide of defaults and heavy losses for the banks.

And the troubles of the banks are largely responsible for putting the Irish government in a policy straitjacket.

On the eve of the crisis Ireland seemed to be in good shape, fiscally speaking... But the government's revenue — ...strongly dependent on the housing boom — collapsed along with the bubble.

Even more important, the Irish government found itself having to take responsibility for the mistakes of private bankers ... putting taxpayers on the hook for potential losses of more than twice the country's GDP, equivalent to $30 trillion for the United States.

The combination of deficits and exposure to bank losses raised doubts about Ireland's long-run solvency, reflected in a rising risk premium on Irish debt and warnings about possible downgrades from ratings agencies.

Hence the harsh new policies. ... As far as responding to the recession..., Ireland appears to be really, truly without options, other than to hope for an export-led recovery if and when the rest of the world bounces back.

So what does all this say about those of us who aren't Irish?

For now, the United States isn't confined by an Irish-type fiscal straitjacket:... financial markets still consider U.S. government debt safer than anything else.

But we can't assume that this will always be true. Unfortunately, we didn't save for a rainy day: thanks to tax cuts and the war in Iraq, America came out of the "Bush boom" with a higher ratio of government debt to GDP than it had going in. And if we push that ratio another 30 or 40 points higher — not out of the question if economic policy is mishandled over the next few years — we might start facing our own problems with the bond market.

Not to put too fine a point on it, that's one reason I'm so concerned about the Obama administration's bank plan. If, as some of us fear, taxpayer funds end up providing windfalls to financial operators instead of fixing what needs to be fixed, we might not have the money to go back and do it right.

And the lesson of Ireland is that you really, really don't want to put yourself in a position where you have to punish your economy in order to save your banks.

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links for 2009-04-20

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