I recently had dinner with my cousin who said, “I don’t understand how the economy was fine for so many years and now it isn’t fine. How did this happen? I don’t understand.”
Well, this is much too complicated a subject to discuss over just dinner, but I would imagine that many people feel the same way and are asking the same question as my cousin. “Why?”
Besides this blog, which has quite a few posts on this topic, I recommend checking out The Baseline Scenario, a web site whose tagline is “What happened to the global economy and what we can do about it.”
The founder of The Baseline Scenario is Simon Johnson, 46, currently a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. Previously, he was chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. Peter Boone and James Kwak also contribute to the site’s articles and posts.
Johnson is interviewed and quoted frequently, both in the mainstream media and on the internet. He has published many, many opinion pieces and articles on the global economic situation and possible solutions. He also writes for the New Republic and has been interviewed on NPR radio and the Charlie Rose program. Whew! It’s exhausting just following him around on the Internet!
In my opinion, The Baseline Scenario web site is so much more than just a simple blog. Rather, it’s a free online lesson on macro, monetary, and global economics.
The section, Financial Crisis for Beginners, quite effectively lessens the confusion. It covers pretty much everything, from old-fashioned bank runs to new-fangled credit default swaps. There are also very informative and helpful articles such as The Federal Reserve for Beginners and Interest Rates for Beginners. You’ll also find links to a thought-provoking article and radio interview, National Debt For Beginners.
Worth noting is the Japan’s Lost Decade article. While many economists, analysts and financial writers compare our current economic situation to the Great Depression, The Baseline Scenario suggests that “in many ways, a more relevant comparison may be the Japanese ‘lost decade’ of the 1990s, when the collapse of a bubble in real estate and stock prices led to over a decade of deflation and slow growth.”
It’s quite amazing that a single web site, and one ubiquitous observer, can have such an impact on the national debate. I highly recommend that you follow the articles and posts at The Baseline Scenario.
P.S. This is my 100th post. For some reason, this is supposed to be significant.
Over the past several months, economists have been coming up with one proposal after another in an attempt to stabilize falling home prices. This blog has reviewed several of them starting here.
It is clear that, despite the various proposals, the previous administration did very little to alleviate the problem. It’s also clear that it is now a matter of some urgency for the new Obama administration.
The February 19th New York Times article, $275 Billion Plan Seeks to Address Housing Crisis leads with this, “President Obama announced a plan on Wednesday to help as many as nine million American homeowners refinance their mortgages or avert foreclosure, saying that it would shore up housing prices, stabilize neighborhoods and slow a downward spiral released his proposal…” and summarizes it as follows:
The plan has three components. The first would help homeowners who are still current on their payments, but who are paying high interest rates and cannot refinance because they do not have enough equity in their homes, a problem afflicting growing numbers of people as housing values tumble.
A second component would assist about four million people who are at risk of losing their homes. It would provide incentives to lenders who alter the terms of loans to make them affordable for the troubled borrowers. A third component would try to increase the credit available for mortgages in general by giving $200 billion of additional financial backing to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Beyond luring lenders with government money, the plan also calls on Congress to give bankruptcy judges the power to change the terms of mortgages and reduce the monthly payments.
Questions of fairness and efficacy were immediately raised. While some have criticized the plan as not doing enough, Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard University economist, believes that one virtue is that it does not try to solve every problem.
For his assessment of the advantages and shortcomings of the Obama initiative, read Housing Plan: The Virtues of Moderation which was published online.
In my opinion, most of the issues facing the Obama administration (and therefore all U.S. citizens) are more complicated than it first appears. Given the depth and breadth of our financial problems, we need reasoned arguments and a nuanced assessment of any new plan. We do not need knee-jerk responses, either pro or con.
Whatever the proposal on the table, there is always room for improvement, and certainly, more initiatives will be needed. We desperately need constructive criticism and cooperation. Professor Glaeser’s analysis delivers a useful starting point.
The previous post, The End of the Financial World as We Know It, wrote about short-term incentives operating at investment firms, credit rating agencies, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Treasury Department.
In How to Repair a Broken Financial World, Michael Lewis and David Einhorn lay out their policy prescriptions.
There are other things the Treasury might do when a major financial firm assumed to be “too big to fail” comes knocking, asking for free money. Here’s one: Let it fail.
Not as chaotically as Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail. If a failing firm is deemed “too big” for that honor, then it should be explicitly nationalized, both to limit its effect on other firms and to protect the guts of the system. Its shareholders should be wiped out, and its management replaced. Its valuable parts should be sold off as functioning businesses to the highest bidders — perhaps to some bank that was not swept up in the credit bubble. The rest should be liquidated, in calm markets. Do this and, for everyone except the firms that invented the mess, the pain will likely subside.
This is more plausible than it may sound. Sweden, of all places, did it successfully in 1992. And remember, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury have already accepted, on behalf of the taxpayer, just about all of the downside risk of owning the bigger financial firms.
If we are going to spend trillions of dollars of taxpayer money, it makes more sense to focus less on the failed institutions at the top of the financial system and more on the individuals at the bottom. Instead of buying dodgy assets and guaranteeing deals that should never have been made in the first place, we should use our money to A) repair the social safety net, now badly rent in ways that cause perfectly rational people to be terrified; and B) transform the bailout of the banks into a rescue of homeowners.
There are also a handful of other perfectly obvious changes in the financial system to be made, to prevent some version of what has happened from happening all over again. A short list:
Stop making big regulatory decisions with long-term consequences based on their short-term effect on stock prices. Stock prices go up and down: let them. An absurd number of the official crises have been negotiated and resolved over weekends so that they may be presented as a fait accompli “before the Asian markets open.” The hasty crisis-to-crisis policy decision-making lacks coherence for the obvious reason that it is more or less driven by a desire to please the stock market. The Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the S.E.C. all seem to view propping up stock prices as a critical part of their mission — indeed, the Federal Reserve sometimes seems more concerned than the average Wall Street trader with the market’s day-to-day movements. If the policies are sound, the stock market will eventually learn to take care of itself.
End the official status of the rating agencies. Given their performance it’s hard to believe credit rating agencies are still around. There’s no question that the world is worse off for the existence of companies like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. There should be a rule against issuers paying for ratings. Either investors should pay for them privately or, if public ratings are deemed essential, they should be publicly provided.
Regulate credit-default swaps. There are now tens of trillions of dollars in these contracts between big financial firms. An awful lot of the bad stuff that has happened to our financial system has happened because it was never explained in plain, simple language. Financial innovators were able to create new products and markets without anyone thinking too much about their broader financial consequences — and without regulators knowing very much about them at all. It doesn’t matter how transparent financial markets are if no one can understand what’s inside them. Until very recently, companies haven’t had to provide even cursory disclosure of credit-default swaps in their financial statements.
Credit-default swaps may not be Exhibit No. 1 in the case against financial complexity, but they are useful evidence. Whatever credit defaults are in theory, in practice they have become mainly side bets on whether some company, or some subprime mortgage-backed bond, some municipality, or even the United States government will go bust. In the extreme case, subprime mortgage bonds were created so that smart investors, using credit-default swaps, could bet against them. Call it insurance if you like, but it’s not the insurance most people know. It’s more like buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house, possibly for many times the value of that house — from a company that probably doesn’t have any real ability to pay you if someone sets fire to the whole neighborhood. The most critical role for regulation is to make sure that the sellers of risk have the capital to support their bets.
Impose new capital requirements on banks. … A better idea would be to require banks to hold less capital in bad times and more capital in good times. Now that we have seen how too-big-to-fail financial institutions behave, it is clear that relieving them of stringent requirements is not the way to go.
Another good solution to the too-big-to-fail problem is to break up any institution that becomes too big to fail.
Close the revolving door between the S.E.C. and Wall Street. At every turn we keep coming back to an enormous barrier to reform: Wall Street’s political influence. Its influence over the S.E.C. is further compromised by its ability to enrich the people who work for it. Realistically, there is only so much that can be done to fix the problem, but one measure is obvious: forbid regulators, for some meaningful amount of time after they have left the S.E.C., from accepting high-paying jobs with Wall Street firms.
But keep the door open the other way. If the S.E.C. is to restore its credibility as an investor protection agency, it should have some experienced, respected investors (which is not the same thing as investment bankers) as commissioners. President-elect Barack Obama should nominate at least one with a notable career investing capital, and another with experience uncovering corporate misconduct. As it happens, the most critical job, chief of enforcement, now has a perfect candidate, a civic-minded former investor with firsthand experience of the S.E.C.’s ineptitude: Harry Markopolos.
The funny thing is, there’s nothing all that radical about most of these changes. A disinterested person would probably wonder why many of them had not been made long ago. A committee of people whose financial interests are somehow bound up with Wall Street is a different matter.
The articles by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn are well written, providing extremely useful context. And they make very sensible recommendations. However, the “Financial Crisis” goes well beyond the United States. Any negative effects felt within the U.S. economy quickly spread far and wide. As we know now, the sub-prime problem in the U.S. negatively impacted the economies of many countries, even bankrupting the economy of Iceland.
Therefore any comprehensive solution needs to encompass all of the intertwined global economies. We cannot solve our economic problems on a nation by nation basis. A global approach to monitoring (and regulating) the financial sector is essential in order to avoid another “Financial Crisis.”
“The Madoff scandal echoes a deeper absence inside our financial system, which has been undermined not merely by bad behavior but by the lack of checks and balances to discourage it. Greed doesn’t cut it as a satisfying explanation for the current financial crisis. … The fixable problem isn’t the greed of the few but the misaligned interests of the many.” – Michael Lewis and David Einhorn.
To arrive at the solution to any question, you first need to understand the extent, nature and causes of the problem. This is especially true with respect to the continuing and escalating “Financial Crisis” (now, unfortunately, worthy of capital letters and quotations), primarily because we just don’t have a playbook to refer to. Worse still, the “Financial Crisis” has morphed into a full-blown economic recession.
Previous posts have emphasized different aspects of the economic meltdown. Here’s another perspective. In two related articles published in the New York Times, Michael Lewis and David Einhorn have written in-depth about both the causes of our current problem and their recommended solutions.
The End of the Financial World as We Know It uses the Madoff scandal as a starting point to illustrate the perverse incentives operating at investment firms, credit rating agencies, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Treasury Department.
Wall Street Firms
…leaders of public corporations, especially financial corporations, are as good as required to lead for the short term.
Our financial catastrophe, like Bernard Madoff’s pyramid scheme, required all sorts of important, plugged-in people to sacrifice our collective long-term interests for short-term gain. The pressure to do this in today’s financial markets is immense.
Credit Ratings Agencies
Everyone now knows that Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s botched their analyses of bonds backed by home mortgages. But their most costly mistake — one that deserves a lot more attention than it has received — lies in their area of putative expertise: measuring corporate risk.
These oligopolies, which are actually sanctioned by the S.E.C., didn’t merely do their jobs badly. They didn’t simply miss a few calls here and there. In pursuit of their own short-term earnings, they did exactly the opposite of what they were meant to do: rather than expose financial risk they systematically disguised it.
The Securities and Exchange Commission
… the S.E.C. itself is plagued by similarly wacky incentives. Indeed, one of the great social benefits of the Madoff scandal may be to finally reveal the S.E.C. for what it has become.
Created to protect investors from financial predators, the commission has somehow evolved into a mechanism for protecting financial predators with political clout from investors. (The task it has performed most diligently during this crisis has been to question, intimidate and impose rules on short-sellers — the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse.)
The instinct to avoid short-term political heat is part of the problem; anything the S.E.C. does to roil the markets, or reduce the share price of any given company, also roils the careers of the people who run the S.E.C. Thus it seldom penalizes serious corporate and management malfeasance — out of some misguided notion that to do so would cause stock prices to fall, shareholders to suffer and confidence to be undermined. Preserving confidence, even when that confidence is false, has been near the top of the S.E.C.’s agenda.
It’s not hard to see why the S.E.C. behaves as it does. If you work for the enforcement division of the S.E.C. you probably know in the back of your mind, and in the front too, that if you maintain good relations with Wall Street you might soon be paid huge sums of money to be employed by it.
The U.S. Treasury
Say what you will about our government’s approach to the financial crisis, you cannot accuse it of wasting its energy being consistent or trying to win over the masses. In the past year there have been at least seven different bailouts, and six different strategies. And none of them seem to have pleased anyone except a handful of financiers.
… Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. persuaded Congress that he needed $700 billion to buy distressed assets from banks — telling the senators and representatives that if they didn’t give him the money the stock market would collapse. Once handed the money, he abandoned his promised strategy, and instead of buying assets at market prices, began to overpay for preferred stocks in the banks themselves. Which is to say that he essentially began giving away billions of dollars to Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and a few others unnaturally selected for survival. The stock market fell anyway.
It’s hard to know what Mr. Paulson was thinking as he never really had to explain himself, at least not in public. But the general idea appears to be that if you give the banks capital they will in turn use it to make loans in order to stimulate the economy. Never mind that if you want banks to make smart, prudent loans, you probably shouldn’t give money to bankers who sunk themselves by making a lot of stupid, imprudent ones. If you want banks to re-lend the money, you need to provide them not with preferred stock, which is essentially a loan, but with tangible common equity — so that they might write off their losses, resolve their troubled assets and then begin to make new loans, something they won’t be able to do until they’re confident in their own balance sheets. But as it happened, the banks took the taxpayer money and just sat on it.
To be continued.
I recently received an email from a couple in their 60s requesting advice regarding how to invest their IRA funds. They had been to a “financial planner” who recommended a variable annuity. Luckily they had read my posts on the subject and said in their email that they were “skeptical because of the costs and early withdrawal penalties.”
I heartily concur.
Jeffrie Voudrie’s article Don’t Put Your IRA in A Variable Annuity explains why.
Here’s a quick summary.
If you’ve talked to a broker or agent about rolling over your retirement account, there’s a good chance the advisor recommended you invest in a Variable Annuity. Don’t do it! I believe the only reason a variable annuity is recommended for an IRA is so the advisor can earn more money. Let me explain.
One of the main sales ‘hooks’ used in selling a variable annuity is that you don’t have to pay a commission. That can be very compelling when compared to a mutual fund in which you pay the all the commission up-front. Many advisors will even say that they get compensated by the insurance company, not you. Do you really believe that? Insurance companies are not charitable organizations. If they are paying the broker, they’ll recoup those costs from you—the costs are just hidden so you don’t think you’re paying a commission. The second main argument for using a variable annuity for an IRA is the death benefit (not offered with a mutual fund). “That way you’ll never have to worry about your beneficiary getting less than you invested”, the thoughtful advisor says. This feature may seem nice, but you end up paying through the nose for it.
The real reason that you are recommended a variable annuity for your IRA isn’t that it’s better for you. It’s because it’s better for the advisor. If you invest $500,000 in a commission-based mutual fund, the advisor’s gross commission will only be about $10,000. The same investment in a variable annuity would yield gross commission to the advisor of $30,000-$35,000 or more! If an advisor can earn 3 times more by getting you to invest in a variable annuity instead of a mutual fund, which do you think will be recommended?
Don’t fall for the ‘put your IRA in a VA’ trap.
I am not sure which is more shameful (1) Wall Street titans who took outsized bonuses that turned out to be based on illusory profits or (2) the bad advice given to consumers every day by “financial advisors.” This self-serving advice costs consumers billions of dollars every year.
There is a better way - fee-only financial planners. To find one near you, consult this web site:
The last post highlighted an article by Alan S. Blinder, professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, which briefly summarized the causes of the Financial Crisis.
What Really Lies Behind the Financial Crisis? summarizes a 90-minute talk by Jeremy Siegel, a professor of Finance at the Wharton School. The two professors both blame government policy mistakes. However, Siegel adds Fed Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to the list of people who could have made better choices. Professor Siegel also focuses on the role of financial institutions in causing the crisis.
What was the true cause of the worst financial crisis the world has seen since the Great Depression? Was it excessive greed on Wall Street? Was it mark-to-market accounting? The answer is none of the above, says Jeremy Siegel, a professor of finance at Wharton. While these factors contributed to the crisis, they do not represent its most significant cause.
Financial firms bought, held and insured large quantities of risky, mortgage-related assets on borrowed money.
Many troubled banks and insurers continued to prosper in almost every other aspect of their businesses right up to the 2008 meltdown. The exception was the billions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities that they bought and held on to or insured even after U.S. home prices went into a free-fall more than two years ago. American International Group (AIG), the insurer that received an $85 billion federal rescue package last September, is a prime example. Some 95% of its business units were profitable when the company collapsed. “AIG has 125,000 employees,” Siegel noted. “Basically, 80 of them tanked the firm. It was the New Products Division, which had an office in London and a small branch office in Connecticut. They came up with the idea of insuring mortgage-backed assets, and nobody at the top decided it wasn’t a good idea. So they bet the house — and the company went under.”
Lapse over Lehman
According to Siegel, federal officials — particularly outgoing Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson – mishandled initial efforts to intervene in the crisis. For example, Paulson was concerned about the political backlash that might be unleashed by bailing out Lehman Brothers. He allowed the firm to collapse last September but underestimated the impact of Lehman’s demise on financial markets. Despite a $700 billion bailout, banks are still unwilling to extend credit.
While angry investors and taxpayers are anxiously looking to assign blame for the current state of the economy, it’s important to know not only which factors led to the meltdown, but which ones did not. He said that government programs encouraging home-buying by low- and middle-income families and short-selling of financial stocks — which was halted for a time last fall — have little to do with the crisis on Wall Street.
Instead, Siegel pointed to two interlocking issues: One is a massive failure, not only by traders, but by CEOs of financial firms, their risk management specialists and the major rating agencies to recognize that an unprecedented housing-price bubble began building after 2000. Their faulty reasoning was that the inability of homeowners to pay their mortgages — and the consequent foreclosures — would not pose a threat to their mortgage-backed securities. They believed that as long as home prices kept rising, the underlying value of the real estate would provide a hedge against the risk of such defaults. They failed to realize that this reasoning was based on the assumption that home prices would go in just one direction — up. In fact, these assets became enormously risky once the housing bubble burst and home prices began their inevitable decline.
Siegel also argued that ultimately, the buck stops with corporate CEOs who didn’t ask hard enough questions about the risks posed by mortgage-backed assets. He said he and others have wondered why firms like Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Morgan Stanley — which survived the much more severe Great Depression of the 1930s — collapsed during 2008. One reason, he suggested, might be that, back then, these firms were organized as partnerships. In such an organizational structure, the partners would have to risk their own capital. When the partnerships were reorganized as widely held public companies, however, they no longer had such constraints. “Back when it was a partnership, you had your life invested in that company,” said Siegel, noting that banks also began making higher-return but higher-risk investments in recent years as public ownership increased.
One other key player that Siegel criticized for not heading off the collapse of the mortgage-backed securities is former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who oversaw the government’s central bank until 2006. Greenspan was so influential while he oversaw the Fed that he could have easily blown the whistle on the over-accumulation of mortgage-backed assets by the U.S.-based financial giants. He, however, failed to discover that firms were taking such large, risky individual stakes without protecting themselves against a housing market collapse. “[Greenspan was] the greatest central banker in history — he had access to every piece of data,” Siegel said. “He could have looked at the balance sheets of Morgan Stanley or Citigroup and said, ‘Oh my God — they didn’t neutralize their risk.’”
Another reason why federal officials and economists failed to detect the perilous economic risks of the 2000s, Siegel said, is the so-called “Great Moderation.” This term refers to the fact that since the 1980s, the volatility of the business cycle has declined, thanks to more aggressive fiscal policy and the rise of a service-based economy, among other factors. Siegel noted that a similar flattening of the economic cycles had occurred during the 1920s after the 1913 establishment of the Federal Reserve Bank, a factor that caused stock investors to ignore risks, which eventually led to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.
“People asked, ‘Are we ever going to have a big recession again?’” Siegel said of today’s policy makers. “Everybody thought we were in a new stage and risk premiums didn’t need to be so high.” But those risks hit home last year. While it would have been difficult for federal regulators to save Lehman Brothers — which had invested billions of dollars in assets related to subprime mortgages — even if they had acted six months sooner, the fall of the 158-year-old financial house had a disastrous impact on the wider financial market. Lehman Brothers was connected to 950,000 or so transactions. As a result, bankers became gun-shy about making any type of loan, even to companies with a flawless credit history.
Trouble with TARP
For that reason, Siegel said, the initial phase of the Bush administration’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) was seriously flawed. Paulson’s Treasury Department decided to buy equity stakes in troubled banks, assuming they would make more loans with more capital on hand. The amount of capital, though, has little to do with the reluctance of banks to make loans, even as the rate on federal funds is slashed to near zero. John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, called this situation a “liquidity trap,” Siegel noted. “The big failure of TARP was that it misunderstood why banks weren’t lending. Officials thought it was because they didn’t have enough capital. In reality, they were worried about the solvency of all the borrowing that was out there.” Siegel suggested that the government rescue plan could be improved with guarantees that recipients demonstrate they are using the federal dollars to extend credit.
According to Siegel, monetary policy has failed to stimulate the U.S. economy. The U.S. faces a situation similar to what happened in Japan during the 1990s when interest rates of zero could not revive the country’s moribund financial markets. The only viable solution now open to American policy makers is Keynesian fiscal policy, a stimulus program that lowers taxes or increases government spending or both. Indeed, this is exactly the type of program — costing at least $825 billion — that the Obama administration and Senate Democrats are considering. Siegel said that policymakers should not worry about the impact on deficits; it is large, he added, but not dangerously so.