Posts Tagged ‘Goldman Sachs’

Must-Reads of the Week: The IRA, Journalism, Unsavory Profits, Bipartisanship, and the Tyranny of New York

Friday, May 21st, 2010

1. Double Agents in the IRA. I recently came across an excellent article by Matthew Teague in The Atlantic about the British counterintelligence program and the IRA. It’s from 2006, but still engrossing.

2. Restoring Journalism. Maureen Tkacik talks about her life as a journalist, the nothing-based economy, and the future of journalism:

If journalism’s more vital traditions of investigating corruption and synthesizing complex topics are going to be restored, it will never be at the expense of the personal, the sexual, the venal, or the sensational, but rather through mastering the kind of storytelling that understands that none of those things exists in a vacuum. For instance, perhaps the latest political sex scandal is not simply another installment of the unrelenting narcissism and sense of invincibility of people in power. Most of the journalists writing about it have—as we all do—some understanding of the internal conflicts that lead to personal failure. By humanizing journalism, we maybe can begin to develop a mutual trust between reader and writer that would benefit both.

What I’m talking about is, of course, a lot easier to do with the creative liberties afforded a blog—one’s humanity is inescapable when one commits to blogging all day for a living.

The piece is long, and worth every word. (H/t to John Cantwell.)

3. The Papacy, Blumenthal, and Now Goldman Sachs. The New York Times took on Goldman Sachs earlier this week with a look at the perfectly legal but unsavory practices it uses to make money:

Transactions entered into as the mortgage market fizzled may turn out to have been perfectly legal. Nevertheless, they have raised concerns among investors and analysts about the extent to which a variety of Wall Street firms put their own interests ahead of their clients’.

“Now it’s all about the score. Just make the score, do the deal. Move on to the next one. That’s the trader culture,” said Cornelius Hurley, director of the Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law at Boston University and former counsel to the Federal Reserve Board. “Their business model has completely blurred the difference between executing trades on behalf of customers versus executing trades for themselves. It’s a huge problem.”

4. Erroneous Assumptions. Matt Yglesias concisely summarizes what left-leaning advocates of bipartisanship have found time and again:

Oftentimes people reach the conclusions that conservatives might support this or that by the erroneous method of pretending that conservatives believe in the stated reasons for their policy positions. It seems to me that private views of wonks aside in practice the conservative political movement simply opposes anything that would increase government revenue and/or be bad for rich people.

5. The Tyranny of New York (cont). Continued from last week, many voices around the interwebs weighed in on the conversation started by Conor Friedersdorf on the tyranny of New York in media and culture. There’s a lot of good pieces to read on this — but the 2 I will recommend are this response in the New Yorker by Amy Davidson and this follow-up by Friedersdorf himself.  Davidson, as an aside mentions an E. B. White essay “Here Is New York” that I now need to read:

(Friedersdorf mentions “living vicariously through” E. B. White, who once wrote that there were three New Yorks, that of the native, the commuter, and the newcomer from smaller American places, and that “Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal…Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion.” But I’ve never really bought that, as matchless as many of White’s descriptions of the city are, maybe because, as a native, I feel no shortage of passion, and don’t much like being called solid. And, again, for many of the most interesting newcomers, this is an entry point to America, not the “final destination.”)

[Image by me.]

Wall Street’s enormous profits are evidence of a poorly functioning market.

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

[digg-reddit-me]Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein had 2 complementary points in posts yesterday. (Damn you, JournoList!) Yglesias:

…[L]ooking at this chart I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Wal-Mart is the last thing we should be worried about. The worrying trend is the domination of the corporate landscape by super-profitable firms in the heavily regulated energy, banking, and telecom sectors.

Yglesias is making a point most commonly associated with libertarians that large firms often use the government — through favorable regulation, tax breaks and incentives, etc. — to increase their profits. For example, increasing the barriers for new firms in the industry and restraining their indirect competitors from direct competition. This follows the well-known principle that any government policy whose costs are diffused and whose benefits are concentrated will be adopted more often than not. Thus highly regulated industries tend to be dominated by a small number of large firms that make very large profits — because thanks to government regulation, there isn’t much competition. However, Ezra Klein observed:

In a competitive market, there’s really no place to make 27 cents on the dollar. Some other firm will come in and offer the same services for 24 cents, and then someone will undercut them at 19 cents, and so it will go until the profit margin narrows. Wal-Mart, for instance, has a profit margin of around 3.5 percent. Ah, capitalism.

Not so in the financial sector, though, which ever since deregulation has been posting higher and higher profit margins.

So, the exception to this trend is Wall Street — where deregulation has lead to higher profits. All of this seems quite intuitively true — both from a libertarian and from a liberal perspective — and even from a liberaltarian one.

The enormous profits taken out of every dollar (as seen in much of the the financial industry) is a demonstration of a lack of competition and thus a poorly functioning market. Of course, Goldman Sachs didn’t manage to make it on the list above — but it had more than double the amount of profit out of every dollar it took in as compared to each of the companies here. Goldman managed to take $0.26 of every dollar they made as profit to their shareholders. (And that includes the massive bonuses given to employees as expenses.) I think I need to see more data though to draw the conclusion that Klein is hinting at — that the deregulation of Wall Street increased it’s profits as a percentage of revenues — while deregulation generally has the opposite effect (as in the case of Wal-Mart).

Annie Lowery drives the point home in analyzing the 1Q results from Wall Street:

This is not quite a picture of a healthy industry. In a competitive marketplace, prices and fees at Wall Street firms should fall and margins should become thinner. On the one hand, Wall Street firms like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs have seen a number of their competitors die in the past two years, and have absorbed business from the failed Lehmans and Bear Sterns of the world. But on the other hand, Wall Street profit margins have remained sky high except for a short blip during the worst of the credit crunch. And, an economist would tell you, such sustained levels of high profitability point to anti-competitive behavior…

[T]he profits point to a lack of competition. That is one thing the Dodd bill — via derivatives regulation — attempts to fix. Right now, Wall Street firms do not bid for big derivatives contracts — they simply quote a price and work over-the-counter. For that reason, derivatives are wildly profitable for the companies. The Dodd bill will force derivatives pricing to become public to the market, driving down margins as companies compete.

There’s a whole lot to unpack within these points about the nature of American capitalism and the government’s role in it.

But one key takeaway seems to be a repudiation of the most ideological take of either the left or right — and an acknowledgment that free markets are not merely what happens when the government is out of the way — but are created and maintained by a complex balancing act in which government regulates and participates. What you end up with is something less than socialism or libertarianism and more like liberalism:

Contemporary liberals reject the doctrinaire distinction between the “market” and the government that animated so much of the conflict in the 20th century. The free market should not be treated as some theoretical utopian ideal or as a perpetually lost state of innocence. And the government is not some evil force which must be reduced until it is of a size that it “could be drowned in a bathtub.” Rather the government and the free market exist together – and in a capitalist republic such as ours, each is dependent on the other. The free market does not exist in a state of nature but must be created by and maintained by the society and the state which provide the values and the rules and other conditions without which a market cannot be free. In other words, a free market is a product of a just government.

Follow-up post here.

[Image by f-l-e-x licensed under Creative Commons.]

Fact-Checking Taibbi: The Sarah Palin of Journalism?

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

Having cited Matt Taibbi’s well-read Rolling Stone article on Goldman Sachs in a few previous posts, it’s worth taking some time to air some fact-checks of it. (Complete article here.) Megan McCardle has dubbed Matt Taibbi “the Sarah Palin of journalism”  but I wonder what this makes McCardle – whose feeling-based objections to any of the health care reforms on the table seem different only in tone than Taibbi’s hysteric rants on financial companies.

Which is why I cite this article at The Big Money instead – which takes a fact-based rather than feeling-based – look at Taibbi’s article. The takeaway by Heidi Moore is about what I suspected:

The mammoth article disappointingly failed to provide the smoking gun that so many people on Wall Street—who have envied and admired and hated Goldman for much of this decade—would have been delighted to see.

Moore’s piece also points out some of the ways in which Taibbi’s article is misleading – and it’s worth a read. Unfortunately, I do not know have the expertise in the subject to adjudicate these disputes – which essentially involve whether Goldman Sachs was a player or the main player in these various financial disasters.

It’s worth taking a look at Moore’s piece if you were one of the many who has read Taibbi’s. But I think it was pretty clear to anyone reading Taibbi’s piece that it was deliberately over-the-top and overstated.

Theories of the Financial Crisis: Goldman Sachs Did It! (cont.)

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]To follow up on my initial piece: Joe Hagan in New York magazine addressed the various accusations and news stories about Goldman Sachs’ role in the economic crisis and its aftermath – and he had inside access to the top honchos at Goldman Sachs as they attempted damage control. Hagan seems to have gone into the piece fair-minded and, unlike Taibbi and other polemicists, tried to give the pro-Goldman side its due – but he still ended up summarizing the two takes on Goldman Sachs’s business model thus:

On Wall Street, there are two interpretations of this business model: Either the firm is so brilliant at making near-riskless bets that it continually attracts more clients, who don’t mind being used for the golden database if it means more profits for them—or it’s a giant casino in which the house has gamed the system by knowing every hand at the table and using that information to enrich itself at the expense of others.

Read Hagan’s whole piece – it’s quite good. It’s hard to see how these two models are different – except that on one hand, Goldman is seen as good for its clients; and in the other bad. Either way, for the market and country as a whole, what do they contribute? And how is it that a company can make so much money making “near-riskless bets”? In a real market, one couldn’t – because everyone else would be providing the same “near-riskless bets.” But Hagan provides an expanation – the presumption that Goldman Sachs uses its access to its clients portfolios and finances to become more knowledgeable about the market than almost any other participant. Which is why they saw the subprime mortgage fiasco coming and while still providing these mortgages, bet that they would lead to a disaster. Hagan quotes Peter Solomon – “chairman and founder of the investment bank Peter J. Solomon Company” – explaining how Goldman Sachs along with other Wall Street firms has an interest in creating unfree markets – all the better to profit from if one already has advantages:

The interest of the Street, dominated by Goldman Sachs, has been to have markets that are opaque, inefficient, and unregulated. And that’s been the policy for twenty years. That’s what the world is reacting to.

Hagan explains  Goldman Sachs is able to make money because it exploits the inefficiencies in the market – it profits not from free markets but from unfree ones. Hagan also quotes Joseph Stiglitz deriding the business model of Wall Street firms in general, and Goldman in particular:

“Much of their recent profits seemed to be derived from ‘trading,’ which typically means gambling—not lending,” says Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize–winning economist who teaches at Columbia University. “It is lending which is required if our economy is to be revived; it was gambling that got our financial system into trouble.”

Goldman Sachs’s outrageous recent success proves once again that it is a proud beneficiary of gambling and unfree markets – with the government taking any losses. No wonder people people are losing faith in the financial system.

Theories of the Financial Crisis: Goldman Sachs Did It!

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Matt Taibbi most famously posited that the financial crisis was the result of Goldman Sachs’ self-interested manipulations. He saw this single investment bank as the malevolent force behind the latest financial crisis – as well as speculative bubbles throughout history:

The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money…The bank’s unprecedented reach and power have enabled it to turn all of America into a giant pump-and-dump scam, manipulating whole economic sectors for years at a time, moving the dice game as this or that market collapses, and all the time gorging itself on the unseen costs that are breaking families everywhere – high gas prices, rising consumer-credit rates, half-eaten pension funds, mass layoffs, future taxes to pay off bail-outs. All that money that you’re losing, it’s going somewhere, and in both a literal and figurative sense, Goldman Sachs is where it’s going: The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth – pure profit for rich individuals.

As over-the-top as Taibbi’s description might be, it wasn’t wholly inaccurate. Putting aside the exaggerated, macho, Hunter Thompson-esque prose, and even Felix Salmon, a mainstream blogger and financial writer for Reuters, finds a great deal of truth in this portrait of Goldman Sachs:

I don’t agree with all of Taibbi’s article, but I’m surprised at how much of it I do agree with…

Adding credence to this portrait of a massive bubble-making machine were the recent best-ever quarterly profits by Goldman in the midst of a recession for the rest of the country. Graham Bowley and Jenny Anderson of the New York Times summarized this state of affair simply in their piece:

Most of Wall Street, and America, is still waiting for an economic recovery. Then there is Goldman Sachs.

The free market digest The Economist immediately saw the significance of these profits so soon after government aid:

For a firm that probably would have collapsed without government capital, debt guarantees and fast-track approval to turn itself into a commercial bank (not to mention a multi-billion-dollar payout as a counterparty of American International Group), such largesse is cheeky at best, distasteful at worst. It has already drawn rebukes on Capitol Hill, even though Goldman has repaid the government’s $10 billion preferred-equity investment.

That Goldman Sachs was going to be a big winner in all of this was pretty evident as early as October when I included this as one of the 11 lessons I learned while trying to figure out the financial crisis: “Goldman Sachs always wins.” What was evident already was that – as Russell Roberts pointed out in the Times – Goldman Sachs had “won” the bailout game:

It is deeply disturbing that Lehman Brothers was a long-time competitor of Secretary Paulson’s former firm, Goldman Sachs. It is equally disturbing that the chief executive of CIT, Jeffrey Peek, has been a contributor to Republicans rather than Democrats. This could be mere coincidence. But the current and ad hoc bailout strategy inevitably creates suspicion and destroys faith in our economic and political system.

Aside from Taibbi – who sees Goldman’s tentacles at the root of most of America’s worst economic  moments through history – most observers do not see Goldman Sachs as the deliberate instigator of the current crisis. They see it instead as an opportunistic organization – one that navigated through the crisis with aplomb – as it saw its rivals vanquished and as it shored up its own business. It also played a significant role as the leader of the financial industry as it used political influence to push for various policies including a relaxation of regulation. The oversize influence of the financial industry should be the next Theory of the Financial Crisis I cover.

But the key point now is that Goldman Sachs – if successful in opposing most common-sense reforms – will be substantially to blame for the next crisis.

[Image by nydisccovery licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Success of Goldman Sachs as a Repudiation of the Free Market

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]David Rothkopf – commenting on Goldman Sachs – sees their success as a repudiation of the free market – and I tend to agree with him:

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist. I love free markets. I hope a free market marries one of my daughters some day. But if some people have too many advantages and others simply can never catch up, the markets aren’t free, regardless of law or intent. Even if the advantages are in part derived from talent and hard work, fairness can remain an issue if other components of the success are linked to access, influence, history and other intangibles. [my emphasis]

From this insight comes the inevitable conclusion that – contrary to the doctrine of the right-wing – the government is not the antithesis of the free market, but rather plays an essential role in creating and maintaining it.

Goldman Sachs – with their obscene profits so soon after needing public assistance – demonstrate that our system has become less free and more feudal. As I wrote several weeks ago:

[T]he free market is effective because it prevents any small set of individuals from monopolizing decision-making. Especially in the world today with so much information available and events moving so quickly, the “right” business choices to make aren’t always clear. A free market – by allowing each business to make its own choice – prevents decision-making from falling victim to individual follies. But our current economic system – with it’s enormous corporations – ends up recreating the feudal system in which power is not centered in a single place, but in a handful of powerful “princes.” While these “princes” push for free market reforms, it is not in their interest to actually achieve this ideal free market – as Yglesias points out:

As a market approaches textbook conditions—perfect competition, perfect information, etc.—real profits trend toward zero. You make your money by ensuring that textbook conditions don’t apply; that there are huge barriers to entry, massive problems with inattention, monopolistic corners to exploit, etc.

George Will himself has pointed out that those “reforms” that are passed tend to be of a specific sort, following what Will calls, “the supreme law of the land…the principle of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.” What free market supporters rarely seem to admit is that the free market exists not in spite of the government, but because of it. And today, our market is far from free because the government has failed to protect it – and has instead allowed the worst characteristics of capitalism (exploitation of labor; externalizing as much cost to society as possible, for eg. pollution) with the worst characteristics of socialism (concentration of power and limitation of competition) to create a kind of modern feudal society. In  this feudal society, freedom is enjoyed by the “princes” of finance and industry while the creative ferment of a real free market is formally protected but effectively quashed.

David Rothkopf expresses the same thing with different terminology:

These guys [at Goldman Sachs] operate as ultra-citizens in our society, virtually able to tell the government to heel and fetch in ways the rest of us can only fantasize about.

Warren Buffett seems to agree – as he claimed that America is moving from an aspiring “Ownership Society” to a “Sharecropper’s Society” – with its suggestions of a feudal structure. Of course, Buffet now owns a significant portion of the very Goldman Sachs that epitomizes this trend.

Goldman Sachs – along with other major corporate powers – rise by exploiting inefficiencies in the market – and eventually must try to create inefficiencies in the market in order to maintain their profitability (which is the hyperbolized point of Matt Taibbi’s recent piece). This contradicts those who see the market as supremely efficient – as Warren Buffet admitted, he would “be a bum on the street with a tin cup if the markets were always efficient.”

Goldman Sachs proves – with its successes – that our system is not a truly free market – but a more feudal one – in which those with sufficient money can secure power and tilt the system to their advantage.

[Image by saebryo licensed under Creative Commons.]

Why It’s A Good Sign That Byron Trott Is Leaving Goldman Sachs

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Though the articles about investment bankers leaving the big firms to start up their own smaller, competing firms seem to be trying to suggest that this is a bad thing – I find it hard to see it as anything but good. For example, an article in today’s Wall Street Journal by Heidi N. Moore and Scott Patterson suggests Byron Trott is leaving Goldman Sachs to start his own firm because of caps “on executive pay and calls for tighter regulation” on large banks. Byron Trott is significant because he is Warren Buffett’s favorite investment banker – but the article also suggests he is part of a larger trend. 

This strikes me as an almost unalloyed good. If banks like Golman Sachs, Citibank, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, etcetera are too big – and if the government isn’t going to break them up – then this draining of talent and resources into smaller firms run by highly competent former members of these organizations seems like the next best thing. Hopefully, this will help defuse the centralization of power and money in a few big firms which is one of the major factors that led to this crisis. 

Simon Johnson and others have argued that we need to break up these banks that are too big to fail:

Anything that is too big to fail is too big to exist.

My thought is that this might be accomplished with less political capital and more “naturally” in a market-driven approach that simply imposed regulations and costs on institutions that are “too-big-to-fail” that would serve to drive individuals to set up smaller companies.  At institutions that are too big to fail, there should be, for example, a fee similar to that paid to the FDIC by banks to finance the protection given to them. At the same time, pay – rather than being capped at a particular hard amount – should be forced to be tied to long-term results to avoid drastic short-term risk-taking; I’m sure there are other ways out there to limit pay without imposing caps. And of course, regulations should ensure that an appropriate amount of capital is available to handle any leveraged risks.

Even if this market-driven approach is not sufficient, the steps taken so far are at least moving people in the right direction.

11 Things I Learned While Trying to Figure Out the Financial Crisis

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]Like a lot of people, I’ve been struggling to understand this financial crisis over the past few weeks. I don’t pretend to be an economic expert – I’ve always been more interested in foreign policy, politics and history – but the issue of this crisis is obviously so important, it seems that it is everyone’s responsibility to find out what went on, what caused this.

I also feel that this is an issue which is confusing our politics, our partisan impulses. Both the right and the left have many reasons to hate the bailout – yet the pragmatists on both sides agree that something must be done. Everyone is angry. Very few predicted this. I only came across a few who prominently warned about a crisis such as this – subscribers to the Austrian school of economics such as Ron Paul; liberal capitalists such as Warren Buffet and George Soros; and economists like Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

This crisis has succeeded in confusing ideological categories – which is probably part of the reason it has spwarned so many interesting and non-ideological takes, as people struggle to understand these momentous events in terms they are familiar with. (Here’s one ingenious example.) On the whole, Republican politicians instinctively trusted the market and although some attempted to reign in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they saw no imminent threat to the financial system. A few Democrats saw the need for more oversight to prevent excessive risk-taking that might endanger the financial system; many more Democrats (especially as the party in Washington is dominated by neo-liberals), didn’t see the profit in warning of an unknowable future catastrophe. Those financial firms whose main purpose was to minimize risk and maximize profit accomplished this by reducing the risk of any individual transaction while placing greater and greater stress on the system – trading many small risks for a giant catastrophic risk. But theyse firms didn’t know this because the entire system was opaque and oversight was minimal. As long as things were going well, there was no reason to figure out what was going on.

Now, here we are today.

I don’t pretend to understand the cause or the cure of this crisis. But here are 10 things I’ve learned, 10 things worth sharing, in my attempts to figure out what’s going on:

  1. The “real” Great Depression of 1873: “[T]he current economic woes look a lot like what my 96-year-old grandmother still calls ‘the real Great Depression.’ She pinched pennies in the 1930s, but she says that times were not nearly so bad as the depression her grandparents went through. That crash came in 1873 and lasted more than four years. It looks much more like our current crisis.” This depression also featured mortgage issues, a housing bubble, an emerging economy undercutting global prices (America instead of China), amd a lack of transparency leading banks to refrain from lending. From Scott Reynolds Nelson in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
  2. The Martingale. Wall Street fell for a 400 year old sucker bet, the martingale. You always win in this betting game – as long as you can cover your losses. But once your losses are too great, this “double-or-nothing” game leads to catastrophe. The formula to understand this is simplified as:

    (0.99) x ($100) + (0.01) x (catastrophic outcome) = 0

    In other words, playing for $100, there is a 99% chance that you will make at least $100 dollars playing this game. But there is a 1% chance of a catastrophic outcome. If you never stop betting, the catastrophic outcome is inevitable.

  3. April 28, 2004. Stephen Labaton of the New York Times examines the SEC decision to relax regulations and create an exemption for the biggest investment banks (those with assets over $5 billion) that would allow them increase their leverage ratio, and borrow as much as 33 times their assets as Bear Stearns did. This made the big investment banks especially susceptible to any downturns, as if their overall investments declined by even 3%, they would lose all their assets.
  4. Goldman Sachs always wins. David Weidner of MarketWatch explains how Goldman Sachs looks to come out of this crisis stronger – and why their political connections had nothing to do with it. (Really. It’s just a coincidence that their main competitors have been ruined, the institution they relied on most was bailed out, and the Treasury Secretary is a former CEO.)
  5. Financial Interdependence. Which means that if one bank trips, the entire financial system falls down. Why? Because the key innovations of the past thirty years in the financial markets have been geared towards reducing risk. Often this was accomplished by spreading risk among many actors. An investor would borrow money to invest in some security; to hedge in case the investment went south, an investor would buy insurance; to hedge against the insurance company not being able to pay, they would purchase a credit default swap. Mark Buchanan described in a New York Times editorial how some economists had begun to create models of markets which projected the actions of many agents acting independently. As the economists allowed greater interdependence in these models: “The instability doesn’t grow in the market gradually, but arrives suddenly. Beyond a certain threshold the virtual market abruptly loses its stability in a ‘phase transition’ akin to the way ice abruptly melts into liquid water. Beyond this point, collective financial meltdown becomes effectively certain. This is the kind of possibility that equilibrium thinking cannot even entertain.”
  6. The American System. The American economic system is not and has never been pure capitalism. As Robert J. Schiller wrote:

    No, our economy is not a shining example of pure unfettered market forces. It never has been. In his farewell address back in 1796, 20 years after the publication of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” George Washington defined the new republic’s own distinctive national economic sensibility: “Our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing.” From the outset, Washington envisioned some government involvement in the commercial system, even as he recognized that commerce should belong to the people.

    Capitalism is not really the best word to describe this arrangement. (The term was coined in the late 19th century as a way to describe the ideological opposite of communism.) Some decades later, people began to use a better term, “the American system,” in which the government involved itself in the economy primarily to develop what we would now call infrastructure — highways, canals, railroads — but otherwise let economic liberty prevail. I prefer to call this spectacularly successful arrangement “financial democracy” — a largely free system in which the U.S. government’s role is to help citizens achieve their best potential, using all the economic weapons that our financial arsenal can provide.

    Americans may assume that the basics of capitalism have been firmly established here since time immemorial, but historical cataclysms such as the Great Depression strongly suggest otherwise. Simply put, capitalism evolves. And we need to understand its trajectory if we are to bring our economic system into greater accord with the other great source of American strength: the best principles of our democracy.

  7. The Shadow Banking System. Existing alongside the regulated banking system is what is called a shadow financial system – including money market accounts, hedge funds, investment banks, and countless other financial creatures. This system was invented in order to avoid government regulation of various sorts. This crisis has been mainly but certainly not exclusively in this shadow system – and those regulated banks have been the big winners in all of this (aside from Goldman Sachs.) Even the remaining independent investment banks – Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have chosen to be subject to greater regulation. Nouri Roubini speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations explained that the shadow banking system is on the verge of collapse because of their lack of transparency and because they took risks they would not have been able to if they were subject to regulation.
  8. Market Fundamentalism. I am a person suspicious of fundamentalism of any kind – and perhaps that makes me more prone to see reflections of the true believers in Communism during the collapse of the Soviet Union in the true believers in capitalism during the current crisis. The difference of course is that we today are not in a pure capitalist system – which is at least part of what has prevented this crisis from destroying our economic system so far. The government shored up essential institutions and is taking various measures now to restore liquidity to the markets – from the bailout to the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented actions. But what is evident to most observers – that the market failed to regulate itself, that the market mispriced risk, that short term profits were prioritized over long-term value, that the actions of thousands of individual actors acting for their own best interest created a systematic risk – is not clear to market fundamentalists. They insist that it was the fact that the government was involved in the market at all that led to these risks – specifically in the form of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They have a point – in that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were only lightly regulated in recent years, and that though they got into the subprime lending market late and were forced out by regulators early, they underwrote a significant amount of these loans during that time, and that these institutions were able to overleverage themselves because of an assumed implicit government guarantee. All of this is to say that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were part of the problem. They weren’t the first companies to be hit by the crisis; and other companies came quickly afterward. Perhaps it is because of my limited experience, but I haven’t heard any serious economists on the right or left pushing forward the theory that this was all Fannie and Freddie’s fault – only right-wing partisans trying to throw some political blame the Democrats’ way. What these market fundamentalists want to insist is that though even the remaining investment banks have taken themselves out of the shadow banking system and voluntarily subjected themselves to regulation, what we really need is less government intervention in the market. All this is based on the distinction between economic activities of the government as decided in a democracy by the people, which in market fundamentalism are inherently oppressive, and economic activities of private individuals and corporations, which are free. Which means that a single individual controlling hundreds of billions of dollars is freedom while a government of the people controlling a similar amount is oppressive.
  9. Cognitive errors. Megan McCardle of The Atlantic has compiled a useful list of cognitive errors that seem to have played a role in the crisis – both in creating the conditions that led to it and in compounding it. For example, she discusses the recency effect:

    People tend to overweight recent events in considering the probability of future events. In 2001, I would have rated the risk of another big terrorist attack on the US in the next two years as pretty high. Now I rate it as much lower. Yet the probability of a major terrorist attack is not really very dependent on whether there has been a recent successful one; it’s much more dependent on things like the availability of suicidal terrorists, and their ability to formulate a clever plan. My current assessment is not necessarily any more accurate than my 2001 assessment, but I nonetheless worry much less about terrorism than I did then.

  10. The Black Swan. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is my kind of economist. The basis of his philosophy is that, “The world we live in is vastly different from the world we think we live in.” He advocates “tinkering” as our best mean to change the world – and his theory of the markets take into account many of the previous points. While he was running his own hedge fund in the 1990s, he turned his own knowledge of his lack of knowledge – and others’ lack of knowledge – into enormous profits. It came at the expense of losing a little money 364 days of the year – but making enormous profits in that one remaining day. He would bet on market volatility – which he understood financial firms repeatedly underestimated. Taleb’s key insight is that we know very little of the world itself – and will be more often fundamentally wrong than right. The example he uses is the Black Swan as described by David Hume:

    No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.

    This fundamental unknowability of the world must inform our actions, and perhaps points to some solutions. We must attempt to resolve this crisis by tinkering with different solutions, and seeing what works, while being mindful that our actions will inevitably have consequences we do not imagine. And remember – at any point – a black swan could come around and reshape our world suddenly – as 9/11 did, as the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand to start World War I, as did the invention of the personal computer, as has this financial crisis. The solution will not come from our determined application of fixed ideas, but by our openness to the possibility that we may be wrong, even as we are determined to act. We must see the shades of gray and acknowledge that we do not fully understand the world, yet still act – tinker, if you will.

  11. Damn, it feels good to be a banksta!

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