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April 21, 2009

Economist's View - 5 new articles

"The Professionals are not being Held Accountable"

Michael Pomerleano at Martin Wolf's Economist's Forum calls for more accountability:

The crisis: holding the professionals to account, by Michael Pomerleano, Economists' Forum: My education (Harvard Business School and economics department) and professional experience prime me to advocate finance's role in the growth of economies. ... However, the conduct of professionals in the financial crisis leads me to reassess these beliefs. ...

In this context,... the professionals are not being held accountable. As Viral V. Acharya and Rangarajan Sundaram point out: "The US recapitalization scheme ... is ... generous to the banks in that it imposes little direct discipline in the form of replacement of top management or curbs on executive pay, and secures no voting rights for the government".

We seem to forget one of the successful lessons from the late 1980s savings and loan crisis in structuring positive and negative incentives: holding accountable the directors and officers, lawyers, accountants of the banks, investment banks and the rating agencies. ... The Office of Thrift Supervision, which regulates the US's thrifts, and its sister agency, the Resolution Trust Corp which was in charge of disposing of the assets of failed S&Ls, embarked on a deliberate deterrence strategy targeting lawyers, accountants, directors and officers of failed thrifts that aided and abetted the excesses leading to the S&L crisis. The intent was to discourage futures abuses and recover some of the lost taxpayer funds. ...

In the US, we are told that there are no culprits in the crisis. The attitude of the policy makers, regulators, bankers and traders involved in the crisis is virtually fatalistic, treating the crisis as an inevitable "force majeure". All of them were observers and "no one saw it coming". In short, the crisis is a Lemony Snicket's "Series of Unfortunate Events".

In reality the regulators that should have kept a close eye on the rapid growth of the shadow banking system were complacent, and the boards did not have the background in the industry and didn't understand the risks. It is clear that the policy makers and regulators lack the moral authority to lead us out of the crisis. ...

The US Treasury plans to rely on the same firms and people that were involved in leading to the crisis to get us out of it. ... Clearly, nothing learned, nothing gained from the S&L crisis or the Swedish experience. Maybe this will change.

Saying it's not your fault you crashed the ship into the rock because the rock was underwater and hidden - nobody could have seen it coming - loses its force when you are navigating in waters that are known to be rocky. Even if you have the latest sonar based upon fancy, innovative math that is supposed to detect the rock before you hit it, and even if regulators were supposed to clearly map and mark all danger, if you hit it anyway, there's a reason why captains are expected to go down with - or at best be the last ones off - the ship.

"A Crisis of Ethic Proportions"

John Bogle says "self-interest got out of hand":

A Crisis of Ethic Proportions, by John Bogle, Commentary, WSJ: I recently received a letter from a Vanguard shareholder who described the global financial crisis as "a crisis of ethic proportions." Substituting "ethic" for "epic" is a fine turn of phrase, and it accurately places a heavy responsibility for the meltdown on a broad deterioration in traditional ethical standards. ... Relying on [the] "invisible hand," through which our self-interest advances the interests of society, we have depended on the marketplace and competition to create prosperity and well-being.

But self-interest got out of hand. ... Dollars became the coin of the new realm. Unchecked market forces overwhelmed traditional standards of professional conduct, developed over centuries. ... We've moved from a society in which "there are some things that one simply does not do" to one in which "if everyone else is doing it, I can too." Business ethics and professional standards were lost in the shuffle. ... The old notion of trusting and being trusted ... came to be seen as a quaint relic of an era long gone.

The proximate causes of the crisis are usually said to be easy credit, bankers' cavalier attitudes toward risk, "securitization"..., the extraordinary leverage built into the financial system by complex derivatives, and the failure of our regulators to do their job.

But the larger cause was our failure to recognize the sea change in the nature of capitalism that was occurring right before our eyes. That change was the growth of giant business corporations and giant financial institutions controlled not by their owners in the "ownership society" of yore, but by agents of the owners, which created an "agency society."

The managers of our public corporations came to place their interests ahead of the interests of their company's owners. ... The malfeasance and misjudgments by our corporate, financial and government leaders, declining ethical standards, and the failure of our new agency society reflect a failure of capitalism. ...

What's to be done? We must work to establish a "fiduciary society," where manager/agents entrusted with managing other people's money are required -- by federal statute -- to place front and center the interests of the owners they are duty-bound to serve. The focus needs to be on long-term investment (rather than short-term speculation), appropriate due diligence in security selection, and ensuring that corporations are run in the interest of their owners. ... Making that happen will be no easy task.

Rules will never cover everything, so ethics is part of the problem. But the solution to the agency problem has to come in large part from changing incentives so that the self-interest of the managers coincides with the interests of the people they represent. [Kahneman also talks about agency problems in a section I left out of the next post.]

"There were Exactly Five People Who Foresaw This Crisis"

Daniel Kahneman on economic models:

Irrational everything, by Guy Rolnik, Haaretz: Prof. Daniel Kahneman has dozens, perhaps hundreds, of stories about people's irrational behavior when it comes to making economic decisions. ... But the story Kahneman recalls when asked about the economic models at the root of the current financial crisis is actually taken from history, not an experiment. It concerns a group of Swiss soldiers who set out on a long navigation exercise in the Alps. The weather was severe and they got lost. After several days, with their desperation mounting, one of the men suddenly realized he had a map of the region.

They followed the map and managed to reach a town. When they returned to base and their commanding officer asked how they had made their way back, they replied, "We suddenly found a map." The officer looked at the map and said, "You found a map, all right, but it's not of the Alps, it's of the Pyrenees."

According to Kahneman, the moral of the story is that some of our economic models, perhaps those of the investment world, are worthless. But individual investors need security - maps of the Pyrenees - even if they are, in effect, worthless. ...

"In the last half year, the models simply didn't work. So the question arises: Why do people use models? I liken what is happening now to a system that forecasts the weather, and does so very well. People know when to take an umbrella when they leave the house, or when it will snow. Except what? The system can't predict hurricanes. Do we use the system anyway, or throw it out? It turns out they'll use it." Okay, so they use it. But why don't they buy hurricane insurance? "The question is, how much will the hurricane insurance cost? Since you can't predict these events, you would have to take out insurance against many things. If they had listened to all the warnings and tried to prevent these things, the economy would look a lot different than it does now. So an interesting question arises: After this crisis, will we arrive at something like that? It's hard for me to believe."

The financial world's models are built on the assumption that investors are rational. You have shown that not only are they not rational, they even deviate from what is rational or statistical, in predictable, systematic ways. Can we say that whoever recognized and accepted these deviations could have seen this crisis coming? "It was possible to foresee, and some people did. ... I have a colleague at Princeton who says there were exactly five people who foresaw this crisis, and this does not include ... Ben Bernanke. One of them is Prof. Robert Shiller, who also predicted the previous bubble. The problem is there were other economists who predicted this crisis, like Nouriel Roubini, but he also predicted some crises that never came to be." He was one of those who predicted 10 crises out of three. "Ten out of three is a pretty good record, relatively. But I conclude from the fact that only five people predicted the current crisis that it was impossible to predict it. In hindsight, it all seems obvious: Everyone seemed to be blind, only these five appeared to be smart. But there were a lot of smart people who looked at the situation and knew all the facts, and they did not predict the crisis." ... The interesting psychological problem is why economists believe in their theory, but this is the problem with the theory, any theory. It leads to a certain blindness. It's difficult to see anything that deviates from it." We only look for information that supports the theory and ignore the rest. "Correct..." ... Let's end with your story of the Swiss soldiers and the map of the Pyrenees. I know why the map helped the soldiers: it gave them confidence. But why didn't they use a map of the Alps? Why don't we use the right economic models, ones that are relevant to extreme cases as well? "Look, it's possible that there simply is no map of the Alps, that there is nothing that can predict hurricanes."

[full interview]

Policy and Uncertainty

Robert Stavins:

What Baseball Can Teach Policymakers, by Robert Stavins: ...Uncertainty is an absolutely fundamental aspect of environmental problems and the policies that are employed to address those problems. Any analysis that fails to recognize this runs the risk not only of being incomplete, but misleading as well. ...

To estimate proposed regulations' benefits and costs, analysts frequently rely on inputs that are uncertain – sometimes substantially so. Such uncertainties in underlying inputs are propagated through analyses, leading to uncertainty in ultimate benefit and cost estimates...

Despite this uncertainty, the most prominently displayed results ... are typically single, apparently precise point estimates of benefits, costs, and net benefits (benefits minus costs), masking uncertainties inherent in their calculation and possibly obscuring tradeoffs among competing policy options. Historically, efforts to address uncertainty ... have been very limited...

Over the years, formal quantitative uncertainty assessments — known as Monte Carlo analyses — have become common in a variety of fields, including engineering, finance, and a number of scientific disciplines...

The first step in a Monte Carlo analysis involves the development of probability distributions of uncertain inputs to an analysis. These probability distributions reflect the implications of uncertainty regarding an input for the range of its possible values and the likelihood that each value is the true value. Once probability distributions of inputs to a benefit‑cost analysis are established, a Monte Carlo analysis is used to simulate the probability distribution of the regulation's net benefits by carrying out the calculation of benefits and costs thousands, or even millions, of times. With each iteration of the calculations, new values are randomly drawn from each input's probability distribution and used in the benefit and/or cost calculations. ... Importantly, any correlations among individual items in the benefit and cost calculations are taken into account. The resulting set of net benefit estimates characterizes the complete probability distribution of net benefits.

Uncertainty is inevitable in estimates of environmental regulations' economic impacts, and assessments of the extent and nature of such uncertainty provides important information for policymakers evaluating proposed regulations. Such information offers a context for interpreting benefit and cost estimates, and can lead to point estimates of regulations= benefits and costs that differ from what would be produced by purely deterministic analyses (that ignore uncertainty). In addition, these assessments can help establish priorities for research.

Due to the complexity of interactions among uncertainties in inputs..., an accurate assessment of uncertainty can be gained only through the use of formal quantitative methods, such as Monte Carlo analysis. Although these methods can offer significant insights, they require only limited additional effort... Much of the data required for these analyses are already obtained...; and widely available software allows the execution of Monte Carlo analysis in common spreadsheet programs on a desktop computer. ...

Formal quantitative assessments of uncertainty can mark a truly significant step forward in enhancing regulatory analysis... They have the potential to improve substantially our understanding of the impact of environmental regulations, and thereby to lead to more informed policymaking.

Macroeconomic policy uses the same type of framework for looking at uncertainty, but with additional twists, the addition of model uncertainty, and the addition of parameter uncertainty within a given model. The steps above are carried out over a variety of different policies, models, and a distribution of parameter values, and the goal is to find the most likely outcomes as well as the distribution of outcomes for each policy. The monetary and fiscal authorities then choose policies that, for example, avoid the chance that the policies will backfire and cause severe problems. But if the true model (or a close approximation to it) is not well represented by the models used in the uncertainty analysis, big policy errors are still possible. That's something we tend to forget when we do these types of analyses characterizing the degree of uncertainty that we face.

links for 2009-04-21

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