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Barack Obama Economics Financial Crisis Politics The Opinionsphere

Financial Markets : Real Economy (Is There a Proper Balance?)

[digg-reddit-me]Simon Johnson’s article in The Atlantic Monthly continues to generate attention and controversy. His thesis is essentially this:

In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn’t be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn’t roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better—in a “buck stops somewhere else” sort of way—on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for “safety and soundness” were fast asleep at the wheel.

But these various policies—lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership—had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. [my emphasis]

My only worry about Johnson’s argument is that he portrays the crisis as the result of individuals’ actions. His experience with emerging economies trained him to view the “Masters of the Universe” as oligarchs corrupting politics. But what I think is going on is more insidious. The problem is not that democracy is becoming oligarchy – although this is a danger we are closer to than we realize given the escalating consolidation of wealth – it is a financial sector that has grown out of balance with the real economy.1 Johnson and Paul Krugman both point this out repeatedly in their work – but neither of them identifies this as the problem. They instead see this as a symptom.

They are probably right – but I have a nagging suspicion that the core of this financial crisis – and that of the Great Depression – is at root a similar imbalance between the size of the financial markets and the size of the real economy.

Fundamentally, it seems there must be a limit as to what percentage of an economy can be managed by the financial markets. Just as the centralization of decision-making in the government can lead to inefficiencies, so can the centralization of decision-making in large financial instituions. Many of these factors that Johnson and Krugman talk about – increasing income disparity, asset bubbles, solvency issues, etcetera – can easily be seen as causes and/or effects of this central imbalance.

  1. With again the caveat that this is not backed up as much with economic analysis but with my sense and knowledge of politics, government, and history. []
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Barack Obama Economics Financial Crisis Politics The Opinionsphere

Is This Downturn a Crisis of Confidence or a Fundamental Error?

Prefacing my thoughts on economics, as always, with the warning that I am not an economist, but only an amateur…

My non-professional observation is that when a disproportionate amount of money is controlled by the financial sector, a crash soon follows. This observation isn’t original. As Paul Krugman observed a few days ago in the New York Times:

After 1980, of course, a very different financial system emerged. In the deregulation-minded Reagan era, old-fashioned banking was increasingly replaced by wheeling and dealing on a grand scale. The new system was much bigger than the old regime: On the eve of the current crisis, finance and insurance accounted for 8 percent of G.D.P., more than twice their share in the 1960s. By early last year, the Dow contained five financial companies — giants like A.I.G., Citigroup and Bank of America.

Krugman concludes that this structural issue is at the root of the problem – rather than a liquidity issue with the banks:

I don’t think this is just a financial panic; I believe that it represents the failure of a whole model of banking, of an overgrown financial sector that did more harm than good. I don’t think the Obama administration can bring securitization back to life, and I don’t believe it should try.

Simon Johnson, an economist formerly with the IMF, agrees with Krugman in a long piece in The Atlantic Monthly, and he echoes another point I’ve been making:

Oversize institutions disproportionately influence public policy; the major banks we have today draw much of their power from being too big to fail.

Reading both of these men, I find myself hoping they are wrong while sensing that they are at least partially right. Evan Thomas of Newsweek captured this balance nicely in his cover piece from the current issue:

If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. You hope he’s wrong, and you sense he’s being a little harsh (especially about Geithner), but you have a creeping feeling that he knows something that others cannot, or will not, see. By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. But sometimes, beneath the pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails, the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking.

At the same time as Establishment defenders such as Robert Samuelson are uneasy about the scope of what Obama is proposing, other members of the Establishment are uneasy that he may not be doing enough. We don’t know who is right.

To some extent we can discount Krugman’s opposition due to his personal fantasy of how his life might work out:

Krugman says he found himself in the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, especially the “Foundation” series—”It was nerds saving civilization, quants who had a theory of society, people writing equations on a blackboard, saying, ‘See, unless you follow this formula, the empire will fail and be followed by a thousand years of barbarism’.”

His critique of Obama’s plans seems to follow this model – as his warnings take on more prophetic tones.

But there is real intellectual weight to this theory of the financial crisis as something more than a liquidity or confidence crisis. Krugman outright rejects this explanation:

[T]he banks [are] really, truly messed up: they bet heavily on unrealistic beliefs about housing and consumer debt, and lost those bets. Confidence is low because people have become realistic. [my emphasis]

In other venues, Krugman describes the problems as extending far further than this – as above when he discusses the trend towards increasing the influence of American finance and increasing income disparity. This stands on contrast to the approach of both Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner who believe that the crisis is primarily one of confidence. They are treating the crisis as a more technical and esoteric version of a bank panic solved by a show of strength, as for example, the Panic of 1907:

Shipments of gold were on the way from London to New York, and confidence had returned to the French Bourse, “owing,” reported one paper, “to the belief that the strong men in American finance would succeed in their efforts to check the spirit of the panic.” During a panic, confidence is almost as good as gold.

Today, the government has taken the role of “the strong men in American finance” who are seeking a show of strength to boost confidence.

On the one side, you have economists – from Simon Johnson to Paul Krugman to Nouriel Roubini – who have been predicting doom for some time claiming that there are fundamental problems with our finance industry – and as a result of the size and influence of our finance industry – our entire economy. On the other you have men and women with power – in both finance and government – who are acting as if the problem is mainly one of a lack of confidence and a broken mechanism. 

My bet – based in no small part on my innate optimism as well as a respect for people on both sides of this debate – is that in the short term, the Geithner plans will work to restart the “old” economy. In this moment before that happens though, pressure from Europe and internal critics as well as a desire to avoid a repeat of this fiasco will enable enough forward-looking, gradualist regulation and legislation to correct the long-term problems with high finance.  Already, there are some signs that this is what is happening.

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Economics Financial Crisis The Opinionsphere

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

[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.