Monday, November 16, 2009

The Myths of Financial Deregulation

An exhaustive compendium by Critical Review author Peter Wallison.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Regulation, Not Markets, Let Us Down

by Viral V. Acharya

In the aftermath of the crisis, it is customary to fault the markets: Markets missed the crisis; markets are euphoric in good times; markets suffer from mob mania; markets reflect animal spirits, and so on. It is tempting to ring the death knell of “efficient markets”: How could creditors get it so wrong? Why did bank shareholders not react sooner? Can we rely on markets any longer?

I contend that markets have been reasonably efficient, but only within poor regulatory constraints. Markets slept in the buildup to this crisis when regulation was supposed to be on the watch. It was lax regulation – not markets – that let us down. And until we improve the regulatory perimeter within which markets operate, we will not be able to generate stable economic growth.

Let me elaborate.

Most of the leverage built by financial firms between 2004 and 2007 was either done through regulatory arbitrage or was the result of lax regulation. Commercial banks added over $700bln to their off-balance sheet leverage by providing under-capitalized guarantees to structured purpose vehicles (“conduits”) that themselves had hardly any capital. Regulators allowed this, even though a similar leverage game brought down Enron. Once the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) lifted their “net capitalization rule” in 2004, investment banks ramped up their exposure to sub-prime mortgages. In no time, these banks drove up their debt-to-equity ratios from 22:1 to 33:1. A.I.G. was the mother of all jurisdictional arbitrages. It bought a small thrift in order to get its several hundred billion dollars of credit default swaps weakly capitalized, avoiding the New York State Insurance Department, its natural but tougher regulator. Banks buying protection from A.I.G. could not care less as they too got a regulatory capital relief in the process. And regulators allowed Fannie and Freddie – set up by the government to securitize prime mortgages – to bet in sub-prime assets that eventually ruined them.

Markets could be deemed inefficient in all this if they had the relevant information, but made a mistake in not using it. But many activities through which the financial sector built up leverage, such as conduits and over-the-counter exposures, were not visible to investors. In contrast, these activities were – or should have been – visible to regulators. Elsewhere, it was simply not in the interest of investors to be bothered. For instance, Fannie and Freddie’s debt was understood by all to be government-backed, so their sub-prime bets were a pure gambling option for the shareholders. And except for a few cases, even uninsured creditors and counterparties of failed financial institutions have walked away without taking substantial haircuts.

The low price of credit risk of financials until 2007, coinciding with a rising path of their leverage, implied that the hidden trajectory of expected taxpayer losses was exploding. Put simply, profits were being privatized and risks socialized. It was regulation, not markets, that allowed this to happen.

Regulation is supposed to fix market failures. But regulation also reduces market discipline. For instance, insured depositors are unlikely to “run” but they also freely deposit at the highest-yielding bank, not worrying about its credit risk. Thus, when regulators deem a bank as well-capitalized, the onus is on regulators that this be right. Markets may not have the incentive to gather this information nor possess the details of regulatory supervision that led to such an assessment. Conversely, when regulation allows itself to be arbitraged, the financial sector becomes more opaque exposing markets to unexpected outcomes.

When such adverse outcomes materialized in the first eight months of 2007, market learned fairly quickly. By then, Countrywide had fallen, Bear Stearns had to bail out hedge funds invested in the US subprime assets, and indices tracking such assets were declining day by day. When BNP Paribas declared on August 8th that there was no market for subprime assets in its hedge funds, it became clear to investors that the entire financial sector had made a one-way bet on the economy. Investors realized that the seemingly well-capitalized financial institutions were in fact significantly more levered, no matter what their regulatory capitals looked like.

Since that day of rude awakening, markets have given hell to the weak players and rewarded the strong ones. Financials with the worst balance sheets have fallen, and the next in line have been punished severely. Bear Stearns failed in March 2008 even as its regulatory capital level exceeded 10%, well above the required minimum. It was clear to markets that Bear’s regulatory capitalization had little information content about its solvency. In fact, only the relatively stringent “stress tests” conducted earlier this year have restored markets’ confidence in regulatory endorsements of financial stability.

Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Chairman, acknowledged that he “made a mistake” in trusting that free markets could regulate themselves. The underlying assumption is itself questionable. The financial sector – so heavily regulated and partly guaranteed since 1930’s – is not exactly a free market, is it?

Recently, the G20 also accused the “reckless excesses” of the banking sector for the mess we are in. While there might be a grain of truth to this, there is also a sense in which these excesses are consistent with the efficiency of markets. If government guarantees are offered gratis to the private sector, competition leads to their fullest exploitation. If regulators legitimize the shadow banking world, then profit-maximizing bankers avoid capital requirements through off-balance sheet transactions. If money is being thrown at insolvent firms without any strings attached, these firms procrastinate on capital issuances and continue paying bonuses and dividends.

Hence, compared to 1930’s, the current job of rewriting regulation is tougher. We need to address regulatory failures in addition to market failures. Will we restrict the scope of government sponsored enterprises? Will we stop rebating deposit insurance premiums to banks in good times? Will we bring capital requirements of off-balance sheet activities in line with on-balance sheet ones? Will central bank lines of credit be made contingent on solvency criteria, like the private lines of credit? And will regulatory supervision be held accountable by requiring that they produce public reports on strengths and weaknesses of banks they invigilate?

To attribute this crisis to a failure of efficient markets is to miss its most important lesson: That poor regulation, with its incentive and information distortions, can also destabilize markets.

The author is a professor of finance at New York University Stern School of Business and co-editor of the book “Restoring Financial Stability: How to Repair a Failed System.” With Matthew Richardson, he coauthored "Causes of the Financial Crisis" in the special issue of Critical Review devoted to that topic.

Terrific Article by Edmund Phelps

Nobel laureate Ned Phelps writes : "The lesson the crisis teaches, though it is not yet grasped, is that there is no magic in the market: the expectations underlying asset prices cannot be 'rational' relative to some known and agreed model since there is no such model."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Real Bank Pay Scandal

Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke announced last week that all federally regulated banks will be subject to regulatory scrutiny of compensation practices “to ensure that they do not encourage excessive risk-taking.” Bernanke justified this plan by asserting that “flawed compensation practices at financial institutions” helped cause the financial crisis.

It would be an understatement to say that this assertion has not been proven. Bernanke’s heavily footnoted speech provides dozens of statements from various regulatory bodies that simply assert the Bernanke thesis as if it were self-evidently true. The real scandal of bankers’ pay contributing to the financial crisis is that nobody, literally nobody, has offered a shred of evidence that it did contribute to the crisis. Yet public opinion, the financial press, and the regulators have decided that it did, and drastic new regulatory policies are being constructed on that basis.
Moreover, when we consult what evidence is known, it seems that bankers, far from deliberately courting disaster so as to boost their pay, unintentionally took risks that jeopardized their own wealth.

We can see some of the results in the huge hits taken by key bank executives, such as Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers, who lost $1 billion by retaining his Lehman holdings until the bitter end. Sanford Weill of Citigroup lost half that amount. Ohio State economists Rüdiger Fahlenbrach and René Stulz have shown that banks whose CEOs held a lot of their banks’ stock fared worse in the crisis than banks with CEOs who held less stock. The CEOs who held stock in the riskier banks must have been ignorant of the risk, or they would have sold their shares.

Ignorance, not a perverse pay structure, also seems to have been at work at Bear Stearns. William D. Cohan’s "House of Cards" suggests that before losing about $900 million in stock when the bank imploded, Bear Stearns CEO James Cayne had no idea that anything was amiss. In fact, he was obsessed with the construction of a huge new headquarters building that would testify to the permanence of Bear Stearns, formerly the upstart of investment banks. It isn’t plausible that he would have let anything jeopardize this legacy—if he knew about the risk. All the while, two Bear Stearns hedge funds were buying billions of dollars worth of mortgage-backed securities that ended up sinking the parent bank. Did the employees who ran these funds, Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, understand the risks they were taking? That is part of what’s at issue in their trial for securities fraud. But we already know that they had millions of dollars of their own invested in their hedge funds, and emails between them suggest that until nearly the end, they felt secure in the knowledge that the funds’ holdings were rated AAA.

Indeed, 93 percent of the mortgage-backed securities purchased by banks either were rated AAA or—better yet—were insured by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, with implicit federal guarantees. It turned out to be a mistake to trust the AAA ratings, but in making this mistake, bankers again demonstrated that they were not seeking short-term profits to boost their annual bonuses. Had that been the bankers’ aim, they would not have bought AAA-rated mortgage-backed bonds, which, being “safe,” paid a lower interest rate than AA- and lower-rated bonds. Bankers who were indifferent to risk because they were seeking higher return should have bought the more-lucrative, riskier bonds, but they did so only 7 percent of the time.

The theory that the financial crisis was caused by pay incentives that encouraged risk-taking simply does not fit the facts. Moreover, if we ask why bankers invested so heavily in mortgage-backed bonds instead of other securities, the answer seems to be a previous regulatory attempt to steer banks away from risk. In 2001, the Fed, the FDIC, the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of Thrift Supervision promulgated the Recourse Rule, which encouraged commercial banks to trade individual mortgages, which the regulators deemed risky, for mortgage-backed securities, which the regulators deemed safe—as long as they were guaranteed by Fannie or Freddie, or were rated AA or AAA. The bankers’ repudiation of the higher-yielding AA bonds shows that they were not deliberately courting risk. But the regulators’ judgment about the risklessness of AAA mortgage-backed bonds proved to be disastrously wrong—and this judgment, in the form of the Recourse Rule, made those bonds much more profitable for banks than they otherwise would have been. As a result, banks ended up buying about half of the world’s entire supply of mortgage-backed securities, and when housing prices began to drop, the uncertain value of these securities caused the financial panic of September 2008.

One lesson of the financial crisis, then, is that regulators, like bankers, are human. Nobody can flawlessly predict the future, but regulators—like bankers and other businesspeople—have no choice but to try.

There is a difference, however. Competing businesses may pursue a variety of strategies based on divergent risk/reward assessments. Citigroup jumped into mortgage-backed bonds with both feet, even opening its own securitizing unit to transform mortgages into mortgage-backed securities. J. P. Morgan thought the risk was too great and went in the opposite direction, even though that meant passing up the extra rewards offered by the Recourse Rule. Such heterogeneous behavior is perhaps the one saving grace of capitalism. By behaving heterogeneously in order to compete with each other, capitalists spread society’s bets among a variety of ideas about the location of risk and reward.

Capitalists as a group aren’t smarter or better at predicting the future than regulators are, and when capitalists fall victim to the herd mentality, they may homogeneously converge on a mistaken prediction. This is a danger, but regulations aggravate it. Of necessity, a regulation homogenizes capitalists’ behavior. Prudential bank regulation, for instance, imposes one idea about risk on the whole banking system, skewing the various risk/reward calculations of all bankers in a direction the regulators deem safe. If the regulators turn out to be mistaken, as they were in 2001, they put the whole system at risk.

The Bernanke plan is intended to reduce the risk taken by banks, but by homogenizing all banks’ compensation practices, it may actually aggravate systemic risk. To take such an action with no evidentiary basis flies in the face of reason.

--Jeffrey Friedman and Wladimir Kraus

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Katarina Juselius on Is Beauty Mistaken For Truth? A Marchallian Versus a Walrasian Approach to Economics

In his New York Sunday column Paul Krugman launches a blistering attack on mainframe macro (mostly based on representative agents with rational expectations who maximize over an infinite future). John Cochrane launches an equally blistering response rhetorically beginning with:
“Krugman, says, most basically, that everything everyone has done in his field since the mid 1960s is a complete waste of time. Everything that fills its academic journals, is taught in its PhD programs, presented at its conferences, summarized in its graduate textbooks, and rewarded with the accolades a profession can bestow, including multiple Nobel prizes, is totally wrong.”
No doubt, there are quite a number of economists, not to mention non-economists, that would nod at least in partial agreement with the above. As a result of the crisis, such views have manifested themselves in numerous critical articles in the press and in a chorus of critical voices (including the English queen!) demanding that standard textbooks in economics should be re-written. Also, a number of economists have triumphantly declared ‘I told you so, Keynes is right after all!’ But isn’t the latter just a foreseeable reaction by those whose papers were previously rejected by editors of top economic journals and whose proposals were largely ignored by policy makers? Loosely interpreted this seems more or less what Cochrane says in his response to Krugman’s critique. So, has Cochrane a valid point in saying that Krugman has misled New York Times readers with his outdated Keynesian insights?

I believe this is a question of considerable interest both among economists and the general public and have tried to address it based on my experience as an empirical econometrician over a period over roughly 25 years. Let me say it right from the beginning: when we let the data speak freely (in the sense of not constraining the data according to one’s economic prior without first testing such restrictions) they mostly tell a very different story than the one found in standard textbooks. No doubt, our fast changing reality is infinitely more rich and complicated than the models which are discussed there. This does not necessarily mean that these models are irrelevant; it only means that abstract theory models and the empirical reality are two very different entities. Therefore, it did not come as a big surprise that very few observers came close to predicting the scale of the global financial and economics crisis that erupted in August 2007, and that those who did predict a massive correction in financial markets, with the associated impact on the real economy, typically relied on anecdotal evidence and rule-of-thumb indicators that are far less sophisticated than the models employed by central banks and leading academics (Colander et al. 2009).

What lessons can we draw from the widespread failure of central bank modelling and forecasting prior to the crisis? Which considerations need to be built into future models to improve their predictive power? Cochrane essentially argues that the efficient market hypothesis tells us that there is no need to do anything. This is just what one should expect to happen in a market economy every now and then: “it is fun to say we didn’t see the crisis coming, but the central empirical prediction of the efficient markets hypothesis is precisely that nobody can tell where markets are going – neither benevolent government bureaucrats, nor crafty hedge-fund managers, nor ivory-tower academics. This is probably the best-tested proposition in all the social sciences.”

But is this really so? The efficient market hypothesis says that nobody should be able to systematically make money by predicting future outcomes. This has generally been interpreted to mean that financial prices should behave like a random walk and this hypothesis has certainly been tested many times. The problem is that the univariate random walk hypothesis is all too simple as a test of the EMH. For example, if we assume for a moment that stock prices in general should be affected by the level of savings and investments in the economy, it would be reasonable to assume that stock prices would have a common component. In that case some linear combination would very likely be cointegrated and, hence, testing the random walk hypotheses in a multivariate setting would reject the hypothesis (which is what we find). This, however, does not as such imply a rejection of the EMH. If everybody reacts on the common information (though not according to the Rational Expectations Hypothesis) the market may not be able to systematically make money. Over the long run prices would converge to a level that could, for example, be consistent with a Tobin’s q level or a constant price/earnings ratio, and would therefore in a broad sense be predictable. But, even though the EMH might be right over the very long run, over the medium run of say 5-10 years, unregulated financial markets are likely to produce persistent swings in asset prices (Frydman and Goldberg, 2009) which are basically inconsistent with the following two interrelated assumptions:

1. Financial markets tend to drive prices towards their fundamental equilibrium values
2. Financial markets pricing behaviour is influenced by fundamentals in the real economy, but it does not change the fundamentals.

While most rational expectations models are implicitly or explicitly based on the above assumptions, empirical evidence (when letting data speak freely) suggest that financial markets drive prices away from fundamentals for extended periods of time with strong effect on the real economy. This is what George Soros has named reflexivity between the financial and real sector of the economy. Since it undermines the idea of unregulated financial markets as a guarantee for efficient capital allocation, reflexivity is an important feature of free financial markets that need to be included in our economic models.

Could empirical analysis have signalled the looming crisis? Already many years before the bubble burst, the relative house-consumption price index exhibited very pronounced nonstationary behaviour. Such movements of house prices away from ordinary consumer prices was (primarily) facilitated by low price inflation and interest rates. Prior to the bursting of the bubble, the house – consumption price ratio increased almost exponentially signalling that house prices were moving far away from their sustainable level, given by the level of inflation and interest rates. This, in my view, would have been the absolutely last moment for the authorities to react to prevent the subsequent disaster. But, the empirical result that the extraordinary high level of house prices were sustainable only by the extraordinary low levels of nominal interest rates and inflation rates should have been a reason for concern much earlier.

Has beauty been mistaken for truth? Assume for a moment that economists would agree that a minimum requirement for a theory model to be called empirically relevant is that it would be able to explain basic empirical facts as formulated in terms of the pulling and pushing forces estimated from a correctly specified and adequately structured VAR model. In such a case I would not hesitate to answer the above question in the affirmative. Economic data, when allowed to speak freely, often tell a very different story than being told by most Walrasian type of models. If anything, the stories data tell have much more a flavour of Keynesianism (though not New Keynesianism!) than Neoclassicism (or other recent isms). But when this is said, I doubt whether it is a good idea to ask which school is right and which is wrong. In some periods, one school seems more relevant, in other periods, it is another one. Quite often data suggest mechanisms which do not fit into any school. But, I am convinced that relying on beautiful but grossly oversimplified models as a description of our economic reality may easily prevent us from seeing what we really need to see. For example, I believe information about looming crisis was there in sufficiently good time to have helped us see the coming disaster, had we chosen to look carefully.

To conclude: I believe many economists were indeed blinded by the beauty of their theory models and in my view Krugman was right to point this out to the readers of NY Times.

Katarina Juselius

The full article can be downloaded here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Alan Kirman on What's Wrong with Economics

Alan Kirman, one of our contributors, was unable to post this himself for technical reasons:

The first thing that comes to mind, as one reads through the various postings about the crisis, is that economic theory was locked into a bubble which has now burst--and that the reactions have either to ignore this (John Cochrane) or to herald the return of one of our old heroes, Keynes (Paul Krugman). Economists seem to have been victims of extremely short memories and an incapacity to anticipate what the next theoretical developments will be. We periodically come to believe that we have hit upon the "right model" and that all previous efforts can be consigned to the waste basket of history. When the current model turns out to be completely at odds with reality, the reflex reaction seems to go back to the previous model and to chide the modernists for having lost sight of it. Dave Colander has tried to add a little historical perspective, but the debate remains very short sighted and ideologically motivated.

All of this seems to be misplaced. Supposing that we accept that economic theory, like the economy, is a complex adaptive system. Then we should expect to see it continually evolving and being modified to take into account both new theoretical insights and the evolution of the economy itself. We will not see theory evolving toward a given model which more closely represents the economy, since the economy itself is changing.

However, we might expect theory to evolve to at least be able to envisage the occurrence of the major crises that periodically shake the economy. We might then avoid the usual habit of falling back on the standard equilibrium notions and claiming that some major exogenous shock has hit the system. The latter sort of claim rarely identifies the shoc,k and as Bouchaud has shown, almost every significant turning point in all of the major stock price indices was accompanied by no notable news, and hence shock, at all.

Thus these large and abrupt movements must be due to the endogenous dynamics of the system. What has become the standard macroeconomic model--Dynamic General Stochastic Equilibrium (DGSE), for insiders--is justified by its proponents on the grounds that it has more "scientific" foundations than its predeceesors. By this is meant that it is based on rational maximising individuals. But there are two problems with this. First, we have known since the mid-70s that aggregating the behaviour of lots of rational individuals will not necessarily lead to behaviour consistent with that of some "representative agent." Second, the axioms that are used to define "rationality" are based on the introspection of economists and not on the observed behaviour of individuals. Thus, we have wound up in the weird position of developing models which unjustifiably claim to be scientific because they are based on the idea that the economy behaves like a rational individual, when there is a wealth of evidence to show that the rationality in question has little or nothing to do with how people behave.

Why do I say we do not look back far enough? Consider the Efficient Markets Hypothesis which has ruled the roost for some years in finance. Its originator was, by common accord, Bachelier, who developed the notion of Brownian motion at the turn of the twentieth century. His argument that stock prices should follow this sort of stochastic process, after years of being ignored, was acclaimed by economists both for analytic and ideological reasons. Yet, shortly after having written his report on Bachelier’s thesis, the great French mathematician Henri Poincaré observed that it would not be sensible to take this model as a basis for analysing what happens on financial markets. As he said, individuals who are close to each other, as they are in a market, do not take independent decisions, they watch each other and it is always herd behaviour that persists. Thus Poincaré clearly envisaged one of the most prevalent features of financial markets long before modern economists took this theme up to explain "excess volatility."

With regard to modern macro models, the same Poincaré wrote to Walras and chided him for his assumptions of infinite farsightedness and infinite selfishness. The latter he could believe at a pinch, but the former he found dubious, to say the least. Yet, while in other areas of economics we have moved on from these assumtptions,we are still faced today with macro models in which these two assumptions are central.

This brings me to my second point. Why are we so reluctant to envisage different models and different tools? As somebody said, we went through the twentieth century developing and perfecting a model based on nineteenth century physics; perhaps in the twenty first century we could move on to a model based on twentieth century physics. But as Paul Krugman has pointed out, the vested interests are strong and to ask economists to take up a new set of tools is probably asking too much. To discard equilibrium in the standard sense and to move on to study out of equilibrium dynamics is perhaps too big a step. To place externalities, the influence of one person’s actions on another, at the centre of the action rather than to regard them as "imperfections" in our equilibrium model is a necessary step. But if we argue that the interaction between individuals is important, then we have to specify the structure of that interaction. This means that we have to study the structure and fragility of the networks which govern the interaction between individuals and again to make this central in our analysis and not just a peripheral, albeit fascinating, topic.

Such changes are essential if we are to progress, but the inertia in the economics profession is strong and whilst the economy has shown that it is capable of sliding rapidly into a new phase, economists may well self organise to prevent this from happening to them in the immediate future. But in the end we will move on, for as Max Planck said, "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

--Alan Kirman

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Basel Rules & the Crisis

Here is (believe it or not!) a very illuminating blog discussion (illuminating blog discussions are a bit like black swans) regarding whether bank-capital regulations, even if they did help cause the crisis, can justly be blamed on the regulations themselves or on the bankers who took advantage of them to "leverage up." The discussion was prompted by my post here last week and was begun by Mike Konczal of the Atlantic business blog. All credit to him for pushing me on whether a regulatory inducement (as opposed to a command) constitutes a form of deregulation, not regulation.

Also relevant: an article on bank capital from today's Financial Times.

Frydman and Goldberg on "Rationality"

A very important piece on the impossible standards of economic rationality that lead, in reaction, to claims of "irrationality"; coauthored by Roman Frydman of NYU and Critical Review contributor Michael Goldberg of the U. of New Hampshire.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Posner on Friedman on Posner on the Crisis

I invited Judge Richard Posner--who will be contributing a postscript to the book version of Critical Review's special issue on the causes of the crisis--to post a reply to my review in The Weekly Standard of his book, A Failure of Capitalism (Harvard, 2009). And here it is:

I fear that my book may not have conveyed with adequate clarity my views about the economic crisis. The depiction of those views in Jeffrey Friedman’s review does not correspond to what I thought I was saying. He says that the “heart of Posner’s case against ‘capitalism’ is the…theory…[that] perverse incentives, created by banks’ executive-compensation systems, caused the crisis.” That is not my position at all. For one thing, I do not mount a “case against ‘capitalism.’” I believe in capitalism. I merely argued that capitalism is apt to run off the rails without (and here I am quoting from Friedman’s review) “active and intelligent government.” I attribute the financial collapse of last September that deepened a recession into something grave enough to warrant the name of “depression” to unsound monetary policy by the Federal Reserve and to excessive deregulation, coupled with lax regulation, of the financial services industry. Friedman I think agrees, at least about regulation (he doesn’t mention monetary policy at all), as when he remarks that banks’ leverage ratios are regulated by law and “this law, unmentioned by Posner, was probably the main cause of the crisis.” The decision by the SEC in 2004 to allow broker-dealers (Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, etc.—major components of the “shadow banking” system, which played a bigger role in the financial collapse than the commercial banks) to increase their leverage is an example of excessive deregulation, which was indeed, as I emphasize throughout the book, a main cause of the crisis.

Friedman appears to agree that regulatory ineptitude created an environment in which rational self-interest drove bankers to take risks that were excessive from a macroeconomic standpoint. That and unsound monetary policy were the main causes of the crisis—as I argued, I thought clearly and indeed emphatically, in the book (as in my subsequent blogging on the crisis in my Atlantic blog, which is also called “A Failure of Capitalism”).

I never said, by the way, as Friedman thinks I did, that the banks were “heedless of the risk” of risky lending. I said they took risks that seemed appropriate in the environment in which they found themselves. They probably were heedless of macroeconomic risk, but as I explain in the book it is not the business of private business to avoid actions that create external costs, such as the costs borne throughout the economy when the financial system collapses. The responsibility for controlling those costs are the government’s, and it was discharged poorly.

I do think executive-compensation practices played a role in the crisis, and Friedman does me the courtesy of describing my theory of how the practices affected the behavior of banks “logical.” But he is incorrect to suggest that I think the practices “caused” the crisis. They were a causal factor, but not a principal one; the main ones, as I thought I had made clear in my book, were as noted above.

He does make the good point that to test the theory would require correlating different banks’ compensation schemes with different banks’ losses; I don’t believe that that’s been done.

He points out correctly that banks structured as partnerships would be more risk averse than banks that are structured as corporations (because of the limited liability of shareholders), but it is unrealistic to suppose that banks of the scale of the major modern banks could attract sufficient equity capital as partnerships—precisely because of the greater financial risk borne by a partner than by a shareholder. Friedman’s example of a financial company organized as a partnership—Brown Brothers Harriman—has partnership capital of only about $500 million. Goldman Sachs’s market capitalization of almost $100 billion is 200 times greater.

But I agree that the tax laws are among the deep underlying causes of the economic crisis, in particular the deductibility of mortgage and home-equity interest (but not other interest) from personal income tax, which encourages risky investment in housing, and the favorable treatment by the tax code of debt versus equity, which encourages leverage. I do not dwell on these causes of the crisis in my book because they will not be changed. In contrast, improvements in monetary policy and in regulation are at least within the realm of the possible, though perhaps unlikely.

--Richard A. Posner

Has the Recovery Been "Unstimulated"?

In James Hamilton's reply to the Scott Sumner article linked below, Hamilton raises a separate issue in pointing out that in October 2008, "the Fed began paying interest on reserves, in effect borrowing directly from banks, and creating an incentive for banks to hold the newly created deposits as a staggering burgeoning of excess reserves . . . preventing its actions from increasing the value of M1." Hamilton is suggesting that the monetary stimulus could not have worked, since the huge wave of liquidity created by the Fed was sequestered inside the banks.

In conjunction with the John Taylor article posted below, which argues that the fiscal stimulus did not work, the implication of Hamilton's point would seem to be that the current economic recovery has occurred as a "natural" process, unstimulated either by fiscal or monetary policy.

Was It Actually a Monetary Crisis?

In the first post in a debate on Cato Unbound, Scott Sumner argues that contrary to the general consensus of the papers in Critical Review, the crisis was indeed "macro"--caused by contractionary monetary policy in the summer and fall of 2008--rather than being a "financial" crisis caused by banks' misinvestments in mortgage-backed securities.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Three Myths about the Crisis: Bonuses, Irrationality, and Capitalism

With a year having passed since the start of the greatest economic crisis in our lifetimes, you’d think we would know a lot more now than we did then about what caused it. Yet by the spring of 2008, a three-part conventional wisdom about the crisis had taken hold that still governs mainstream thinking about what happened and why—even though there was never any evidence in favor of the conventional wisdom, and there is now much evidence against it.

The Myth of Irrational Exuberance

The first part of the conventional wisdom began to make its way into public consciousness soon after September 15, 2008, when most people thought of the crisis as a burst housing bubble. Bubble talk naturally leads to visions of “irrational exuberance,” and the notion that home buyers, bankers, and investors had irrationally thought that house prices would keep rising forever quickly took hold.

But in reality, very sober housing experts and economists (including Ben Bernanke) agreed that there was no bubble, and there was nothing “irrational” about this consensus. After all, housing prices had risen steadily since the Depression as the U.S. population grew and its affluence increased. Why shouldn’t people keep buying bigger, more expensive homes? There had never been a significant nationwide housing bubble, and housing speculation in “hot” markets such as Miami and Las Vegas could be quite rationally dismissed as localized. Those who dismissed the bubble may have been wrong--but they had good reasons for their error; there was nothing irrational about it. Likewise for those who participated in the bubble. For instance, Peter Wallison points out that in most states, “no-recourse” laws effectively removed penalties from home buyers and house flippers who walked away from their mortgages if their investments went sour.[1] So there was a legally sanctioned incentive to gamble on rising prices, and it was hardly irrational for people to take advantage of this incentive by buying into the bubble.

Although careful scholars have grouped psychologically established behavioral biases under the term "irrationality," in the present context the term can easily become an emotionally satisfying but non-explanatory explanation for people’s mistakes. In retrospect, housing investments premised on ever-rising prices can be labeled “irrational,” but the label explains nothing about why people actually made their mistakes.

The Myth of Bankers’ Bonuses

Eventually scholars and pundits began to realize that even a burst housing bubble was not enough to have caused the crisis,[2] since what we were experiencing was a banking crisis (albeit one that was triggered by a burst housing bubble). Many banks had invested heavily in triple-A rated tranches of subprime mortgage-backed securities, and when delinquencies and defaults on subprime mortgages began to spike, the price of these tranches began to fall, calling into question the solvency of banks that had invested in them. But since nobody knew which banks had the biggest subprime investments, or how far the value of these investments would eventually fall, the effect of the sudden re-evaluation of their soundness was to trigger interbank panic, a lending freeze, and the recession; or so most scholars now believe.

How can the banks’ investments in subprime mortgage-backed securities be explained? Here, too, "irrationality" could be invoked, since it can be used as an all-purpose tool to "explain" any error. But self-interest, i.e., "greed," is always the most popular explanation among economists—and the general public. So a new idea took root: Far from being irrational, bankers knew how risky these investments were, but made them anyway because they were paid big bonuses for short-term profits.

This “executive compensation” theory of the crisis is now the keystone of the conventional wisdom, having been embraced by President Obama, the leaders of France and Germany, and virtually the entire financial press. But if anyone has evidence for the executive-compensation thesis, they have yet to produce it. It’s a great theory. It “makes sense”—we all know how greedy bankers are! But is it true?

The evidence that has been produced suggests that it is false.

For one thing, bankers were often compensated in stock as well as with bonuses, and the value of this stock was wiped out because of the investments in question. Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers lost $1 billion this way; Sanford Weill of Citigroup lost half that amount. A study by Rüdiger Fahlenbrach and René Stulz [3] showed that banks with CEOs who held a lot of stock in the bank did worse than banks with CEOs who held less stock, suggesting that the bankers were simply ignorant of the risks their institutions were taking. Journalists’ and insiders’ books about individual banks[4] bear out this hypothesis: At Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, for example, the decision makers did not recognize the risks until it was too late, despite their personal investments in the banks’ stock.

Perhaps the most powerful evidence against the executive-compensation thesis, however, is that 81 percent of the mortgage-backed tranches purchased by banks were rated AAA[5], and thus produced lower returns than the double-A and lower-rated tranches of the same mortgage-backed securities that were available. Bankers who were indifferent to risk because they were seeking higher return, hence higher bonuses, should have bought the lower-rated tranches universally, but they did so only 19 percent of the time. And most of those purchases were of double-A rather than A, BBB, or lower-rated, more-lucrative tranches.

The Myth that Capitalism Caused the Crisis

Both the myth of irrational exuberance and the myth of bankers’ bonuses have contributed to the notion that the excesses of capitalists—whether irrational excesses or self-interested ones—were the root cause of the crisis. Without the first two myths, however, the “Capitalism Did It” thesis itself begins to look more like a myth than a reality. Obviously capitalists were involved in the crisis—bankers were not government officials. But with irrationality and bonuses out of the way, the question is why bankers bought those triple-A mortgage-backed securities, and the answer may well lie in the regulations promulgated by government officials.[6]

Had bankers been looking for the safety connoted by triple-A ratings, they could have bought Treasurys, which were even safer. If they were looking for yield, they could have bought double-A or lower-rated bonds. And why mortgage-backed bonds? The answer seems to be an obscure rule enacted by the Fed, the FDIC, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of Thrift Supervision in 2001: the Recourse Rule, an amendment to the Basel I accord that governed banks' capital minima.

Under the Recourse Rule, an AA- or AAA-rated asset-backed security, such as a mortgage-backed bond, received a 20-percent risk weight, compared to a zero risk weight for cash and a 50-percent risk weight for an individual (unsecuritized) mortgage. This meant that commercial banks could issue mortgages—regardless of how sound the borrowers were—sell them to investment banks to be securitized, and buy them back as part of a mortgage-backed security, in the process freeing up 60 percent of the capital they would have had to hold against individual mortgages. Capital held by a bank is capital not lent out at interest; by reducing their capital holdings, banks could increase their profitability.

To be sure, banks that bought mortgage-backed securities to reduce their capital cushions were, indeed, knowingly increasing their vulnerability if the investments turned out badly. But absent the Recourse Rule, there is no reason that banks seeking a safe way to increase their profitability would have converged on asset-backed securities (rather than Treasurys or triple-A corporate bonds); thus, they would not have been so vulnerable to a burst housing bubble. The Recourse Rule artificially boosted the profitability of a certain type of investment that the Fed, the FDIC, and the other regulators thought was safe.

We know in retrospect that the capitalists who took advantage of the Recourse Rule, such as those at Citibank, were making a mistake. But not all capitalists made this mistake, even though it was costly for them to turn down the higher profits offered by the Recourse Rule. JPMorgan, for instance, recognized the danger and escaped destruction. None of these capitalists were irrational; all were self-interested; yet they had different perceptions of how to pursue their self-interest, based on different perceptions of risk.

In relatively unregulated markets, this diversity of viewpoints is precisely what makes capitalism work. One capitalist thinks that profit can be made, and loss avoided, by pursuing strategy A; another, by pursuing strategy B. These heterogeneous strategies compete with each other, and the better ideas produce profits rather than losses. In a complex world where nobody really knows what will work until it is tried, competition is the only way that people’s endless capacity for error can be checked, and loss is the regrettable but inescapable result.

In the banking industry, however, bankers’ heterogeneous strategies were homogenized (although not entirely) by the Recourse Rule, which loaded the dice in favor of the regulators’ ideas of where risk did and did not lie.

The regulators thought that AA or AAA tranches of asset-backed securities were 60-percent safer than individual mortgages. To be sure, this was not an “irrational” theory, either: The tranching structure created by Moody’s, Standard and Poor, and Fitch had a lot to be said for it, and even the little-known fact that the SEC had effectively conferred oligopoly status on these three rating companies[7] did not guarantee that disaster would follow from placing further official weight on their ratings. But the crucial fact is that however reasonable it seemed at the time, the Recourse Rule imposed a new profitability gradient over the bankers’ calculations, producing the same effect that is intended by all regulations: The regulatory carrot altered the behavior of those being regulated, the better to align it with the regulators’ ideas about what would make for prudent banking. By thus homogenizing the heterogeneous competitive process, the regulators inadvertently made the banking system more vulnerable--if, in fact, the regulators’ theory turned out to be wrong.

If we seek the sources of a systemic failure, a logical place to look is among the legal rules that govern the system as a whole. Unfortunately, being legal mandates, these rules--unlike the different strategies pursued by competing capitalists--aren't subjected to a competitive process. So if they are based on mistaken ideas, we all suffer the consequences. That turned out to be the case with the Recourse Rule.

Contrary to popular belief, then, the crisis of 2008 is best described as a crisis of regulation—not a crisis of capitalism.

--Jeffrey Friedman, Editor, Critical Review


[1] Peter J. Wallison, “Cause and Effect: Government Policies and the Housing Crisis,” Critical Review 21(2-3), 372. See

[2] Although judging from his recent New York Times Magazine article, Paul Krugman has not yet realized this. See my earlier post on this blog, "Is Macroeconomics Relevant?"

[3] "Bank CEO Incentives and the Credit Crisis." Social Science Research Network.

[4] The best of these is William D. Cohan’s House of Cards, which shows that the chief executives and subordinate players at Bear Stearns had full faith in the triple-A ratings of the subprime securities in which they had invested. Lawrence G. McDonald and Patrick Robinson’s A Colossal Failure of Common Sense, about Lehman Brothers, inadvertently makes the same point, despite the authors’ conviction that “common sense” should have revealed to the decision makers that they were mistaken. Gillian Tett’s Fools’ Gold, conversely, shows that at JPMorganChase, Jamie Dimon and his subordinates saw great risk in mortgage-backed securities and largely avoided them.

Evidence from the Cohan and Tett books is assembled in my “A Crisis of Politics, Not Economics: Complexity, Ignorance, and Policy Failure,” Critical Review 21(2-3): 127-84, available online.

[5] Viral V. Acharya and Matthew Richardson, "Causes of the Financial Crisis." Critical Review 21(2-3): Table 1. (See

[6] We won't know with any certainty, however, that bankers did buy these securities because of the Recourse Rule until somebody actually asks them, in confidence. This research is being undertaken by Wladimir Kraus of the University of Turin.

[7] Lawrence J. White, "The Credit-Rating Agencies and the Subprime Debacle." Critical Review 21(2-3): 389-99. (See

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pretence and Economic Knowledge

Paul Krugman critiques the economics profession for widely shared views that failed to anticipate and ill prepared us for an economic crisis that promises to be the worst since WWII.

Hayek made a similar charge in his Nobel Lecture of December 11, 1974, The Pretence of Knowledge: “… the economists are at this moment called upon to say how to extricate the free world from the serious threat of accelerating inflation which, it must be admitted, has been brought about by policies which the majority of economists recommended and even urged governments to pursue. We have indeed at the moment little cause for pride: as a profession we have made a mess of things.” Although Hayek saw the problem as stemming from an inappropriate "scientistic" attitude, he explicitly wanted “…to avoid giving the impression that I generally reject the mathematical method in economics.” Rather, his main message was that “If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible…The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men's fatal striving to control society - a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.”

Economic scientists have precious little understanding of this rule governed complex order, and how to keep it on its demonstrated long term path of growth and human betterment without suffering too irreparably from the kind of unpredictable reverses that we are now mired in. Less pretence and a commitment to learn from the new data being generated as I write, will be both humbling and informative, after the inevitable human political impulse to blame one’s long standing political adversaries has run its course.

What is most impressive in the current crisis is that even those who find bubbles unsurprising, and who had warned of the housing bubble debacle, did not anticipate its ability to undermine the financial system so decisively and thereby to devastate a good performing economy. This is revealed in a fairly crisp timeline: residential home prices started their decline in 2006; mortgage market collapse in July-August, 2007 (which kick-started the Fed into taking “enhanced liquidity” measures); the fourth quarter 2008 events—the Treasury, Fed, FDIC joint announcement of crisis action, unprecedented extensions of FRB credit to holders of all varieties of underwater assets in implicit recognition that the financial system was under reserved and insolvent, not just illiquid.

Economists and policy makers have been learning as we go, and no one can be sure how long that process has yet to go.

The Failure of Economists to Account for Complexity

Testimony of David Colander submitted to the Congress of the United States, House Science and Technology Committee, for the Hearing on “The Risks of Financial Modeling: VaR and the Economic Meltdown,” September 10, 2009

Mr. Chairman and members of the committee: I thank you for the opportunity to testify. My name is David Colander. I am the Christian A Johnson Distinguished Professor of Economics at Middlebury College. I have written or edited over forty books, including a top-selling principles of economics textbook, and 150 articles on various aspects of economics. I was invited to speak because I was one of the authors of the Dahlem Report [revised and republished in Critical Review vol. 21, nos. 2-3, Spring-Summer 2009] in which we chided the economics profession for its failure to warn society about the impending financial crisis, and I have been asked to expand on some of the themes that we discussed in that report. (I attach that report as an appendix to this testimony.)

One year ago, almost to the day, the U.S. economy had a financial heart attack, from which it is still recovering. That heart attack, like all heart attacks, was a shock, and it has caused much discussion about who is to blame, and how can we avoid such heart attacks in the future. In my view much of that discussion has been off point. To make an analogy to a physical heart attack, the US had a heart attack because it is the equivalent of a 450-pound man with serious ailments too numerous to list, who is trying to live as if he were still a 20 year old who can party 24-7. It doesn’t take a rocket economist to know that that will likely lead to trouble. The questions I address in my testimony are: Why didn’t rocket economists recognize that, and warn society about it? And: What changes can be made to see that it doesn’t happen in the future?

Some non-economists have blamed the financial heart attack on economist’s highly technical models. In my view the problem is not the models; the problem is the way economic models are used. All too often models are used in lieu of educated common sense, when in fact models should be used as an aid to educated common sense. When models replace common sense, they are a hindrance rather than a help.

Modeling the Economy as a Complex System
Using models within economics or within any other social science, is especially treacherous. That’s because social science involves a higher degree of complexity than the natural sciences. The reason why social science is so complex is that the basic unit in social science, which economists call agents, are strategic, whereas the basic unit of the natural sciences are not. Economics can be thought of the physics with strategic atoms, who keep trying to foil any efforts to understand them and bring them under control. Strategic agents complicate modeling enormously; they make it impossible to have a perfect model since they increase the number of calculations one would have to make in order to solve the model beyond the calculations the fastest computer one can hypothesize could process in a finite amount of time.
Put simply, the formal study of complex systems is really, really, hard. Inevitably, complex systems exhibit path dependence, nested systems, multiple speed variables, sensitive dependence on initial conditions, and other non-linear dynamical properties. This means that at any moment in time, right when you thought you had a result, all hell can break loose. Formally studying complex systems requires rigorous training in the cutting edge of mathematics and statistics. It’s not for neophytes.

This recognition that the economy is complex is not a new discovery. Earlier economists, such as John Stuart Mill, recognized the economy’s complexity and were very modest in their claims about the usefulness of their models. They carefully presented their models as aids to a broader informed common sense. They built this modesty into their policy advice and told policy makers that the most we can expect from models is half-truths. To make sure that they did not claim too much for their scientific models, they divided the field of economics into two branches—one a scientific branch, which worked on formal models, and the other political economy, which was the branch of economics that addressed policy. Political economy was seen as an art which did not have the backing of science, but instead relied on the insights from models developed in the scientific branch supplemented by educated common sense to guide policy prescriptions.

In the early 1900s that two-part division broke down, and economists became a bit less modest in their claims for models, and more aggressive in their application of models directly to policy questions. The two branches were merged, and the result was a tragedy for both the science of economics and for the applied policy branch of economics.

It was a tragedy for the science of economics because it led economists away from developing a wide variety of models that would creatively explore the extraordinarily difficult questions that the complexity of the economy raised, questions for which new analytic and computational technology opened up new avenues of investigation.[1] Instead, the economics profession spent much of its time dotting i’s and crossing t’s on what was called a Walrasian general equilibrium model which was more analytically tractable. As opposed to viewing the supply/demand model and its macroeconomic counterpart, the Walrasian general equilibrium model, as interesting models relevant for a few limited phenomena, but at best a stepping stone for a formal understanding of the economy, it enshrined both models, and acted as if it explained everything. Complexities were just assumed away not because it made sense to assume them away, but for tractability reasons. The result was a set of models that would not even pass a perfunctory common sense smell test being studied ad nauseam.

Initially macroeconomics stayed separate from this broader unitary approach, and relied on a set of rough and ready models that had little scientific foundation. But in the 1980s, macroeconomics and finance fell into this “single model” approach. As that happened it caused economists to lose sight of the larger lesson that complexity conveys —that models in a complex system can be expected to continually break down. This adoption by macroeconomists of a single-model approach is one of the reasons why the economics profession failed to warn society about the financial crisis, and some parts of the profession assured society that such a crisis could not happen. Because they focused on that single model, economists simply did not study and plan for the inevitable breakdown of systems that one would expect in a complex system, because they had become so enamored with their model that they forgot to use it with common sense judgment.

Models and Macroeconomics
Let me be a bit more specific. The dominant model in macroeconomics is the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) model. This is a model that assumes there is a single globally rational representative agent with complete knowledge who is maximizing over the infinite future. In this model, by definition, there can be no strategic coordination problem—the most likely cause of the recent crisis—such problems are simply assumed away. Yet, this model has been the central focus of macro economists’ research for the last thirty years.

Had the DSGE model been seen as an aid to common sense, it could have been a useful model. When early versions of this model first developed back in the early 1980s, it served the useful purpose of getting some intertemporal issues straight that earlier macroeconomic models had screwed up. But then, for a variety of sociological reasons that I don’t have time to go into here, a majority of macroeconomists started believing that the DSGE model was useful not just as an aid to our understanding, but as the model of the macroeconomy. That doesn’t say much for the common sense of rocket economists. As the DSGE model became dominant, important research on broader non-linear dynamic models of the economy that would have been more helpful in understanding how an economy would be likely to crash, and what government might do when faced with a crash, was not done.[2]

Similar developments occurred with efficient market finance models, which make similar assumptions to DSGE models. When efficient market models first developed, they were useful; they led to technological advances in risk management and financial markets. But, as happened with macro, the users of these financial models forgot that models provide at best half truths; they stopped using models with common sense and judgment. The modelers knew that there was uncertainty and risk in these markets that when far beyond the risk assumed in the models. Simplification is the nature of modeling. But simplification means the models cannot be used directly, but must be used judgment and common sense, with a knowledge of the limitations of use that the simplifications require. Unfortunately, the warning labels on the models that should have been there in bold print—these models are based on assumptions that do not fit the real world, and thus the models should not be relied on too heavily—were not there. They should have been, which is why in the Dahlem Report we suggested that economic researchers who develop these models be subject to a code of ethics that requires them to warn society when economic models are being used for purposes for which they were not designed.

How did something so stupid happen in economics? It did not happen because economists are stupid; they are very bright. It happened because of incentives in the academic profession to advance lead researchers to dot i’s and cross t’s of existing models, rather than to explore a wide range of alternative models, or to focus their research on interpreting and seeing that models are used in policy with common sense. Common sense does not advance one very far within the economics profession. The over-reliance on a single model used without judgment is a serious problem that is built into the institutional structure of academia that produces economic researchers. That system trains show dogs, when what we need are hunting dogs.

The incorrect training starts in graduate school, where in their core courses students are primarily trained in analytic techniques useful for developing models, but not in how to use models creatively, or in how to use models with judgment to arrive at policy conclusions. For the most part policy issues are not even discussed in the entire core macroeconomics course. As students at a top graduate school said, “Monetary and fiscal policy are not abstract enough to be a question that would be answered in a macro course” and “We never talked about monetary or fiscal policy, although it might have been slipped in as a variable in one particular model.” (Colander, 2007, pg 169).

Let me conclude with a brief discussion of two suggestions, which relate to issues under the jurisdiction of this committee, that might decrease the probability of such events happening in the future.

* Include a wider range of peers in peer review
The first is a proposal that might help add a common sense check on models. Such a check is needed because, currently, the nature of internal-to-the-subfield peer review allows for an almost incestuous mutual reinforcement of researcher’s views with no common sense filter on those views. The proposal is to include a wider range of peers in the reviewing process of NSF grants in the social sciences. For example, physicists, mathematician, statisticians, and even business and governmental representatives, could serve, along with economists, on reviewing committees for economics proposals. Such a broader peer review process would likely both encourage research on much wider range of models and would also encourage more creative work.

* Increase the number of researchers trained to interpret models
The second is a proposal to increase the number of researchers trained in interpreting models rather than developing models by providing research grants to do that. In a sense, what I am suggesting is an applied science division of the National Science Foundation’s social science component. This division would fund work on the usefulness of models, and would be responsible for adding the warning labels that should have been attached to the models.

This applied research would not be highly technical and would involve a quite different set of skills than the standard scientific research would require. It would require researchers who had an intricate consumer’s knowledge of theory but not a producer’s knowledge. In addition it would require a knowledge of institutions, methodology, previous literature, and a sensibility about how the system works. These are all skills that are currently not taught in graduate economics programs, but they are the skills that underlie judgment and common sense. By providing NSF grants for this work, the NSF would encourage the development of a group of economists who specialized in interpreting models and applying models to the real world. The development of such a group would go a long way toward placing the necessary warning labels on models, and make it less likely that fiascos like a financial crisis would happen again.

Colander, David. 2006. (ed.) Post Walrasian Macroeconomics: Beyond the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium Model. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press.

Colander, David. 2007. The Making of an Economist Redux. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton
University Press.

Solow, Robert. 2007. “Reflections on the Survey” in Colander 2007.

[1] Some approaches working outside this Walrasian general equilibrium framework that I see as promising includes approaches using adaptive network analysis, agent based modeling, random graph theory, ultrametrics, combinatorial stochastic processes, cointegrated vector autoregression, and the general study of non-linear dynamic models.

[2] Among well known economists, Robert Solow stands out in having warned about the use of DSGE models for policy. (See Solow, in Colander, 2007, pg 235.) He called them “rhetorical swindles.” Other economists, such as Post Keynesians, and economic methodologists also warned about the use of these models. For a discussion of alternative approaches, see Colander, ed. (2007). So alternative approaches were being considered, and concern about the model was aired, but those voices were lost in the enthusiasm most of the macroeconomics community showed for these models.

Beyond Krugman's Morality Tale

Paul Krugman has become the voice of economists for many businessmen, politicians, and lay people. Thus, when he writes an article entitled “How did Economists Get It So Wrong?” (The New York Times Magazine, September 6), it’s big news. Over the past week I’ve been continually asked by acquaintances what my view is of what he had to say. It’s difficult to respond; he’s a wonderful writer, and there’s some parts of the story he tells that are nicely expressed. But there are other parts that, from my viewpoint as an historian of economic thought and an economist watcher, he got quite wrong—sufficiently wrong to warrant a response.

The biggest general problem with the story Krugman tells is that it’s so black and white. There’s the good guys—the Keynesian gang, and bad guys—the Classical/Chicago gang. That, in my view, is seriously wrong. The real story is one of shades of grey, and full of nuances; it is a story in which it is hard to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. The real story is one of systemic failure of the large part of the academic economics profession which led them to pretend, and some of them to actually believe, that they understood a complex system that they did not, and still do not, understand. It’s a story of the economics profession’s failure to express their ideas and arguments with the humility with which they deserve to be told. It’s a story of a profession that has lost the enormous insights of past economists—both Keynesian and Classical.

There are three places where I'd say Krugman gets it wrong. The first is that he does a hatchet job on Classical economics. He misses the depth of Classical understanding. The second is that he doesn't make clear what Keynesian economics he is talking about when he says that Keynesian economics is the future of macro. If he is saying that the Keynesian economics of the discredited IS/LM variety is the future of macro--I think he is quite wrong. The third place where he gets it wrong is where he seems to claim that mathematics is to blame for the crisis. It isn't the mathematics; it's the use of the mathematics. See the Dahlem's group's response to Tony Lawson which can be found at:

--David Colander

Monday, September 7, 2009

Is Macroeconomics Relevant?

Paul Krugman's New York Times Magazine article argues for the superiority of Keynesian rather than efficient-markets explanations of...what, exactly? Sometimes his dependent variable seems to be bubbles, other times recessions/depressions. But the topic is supposed to be the financial crisis of 2008. How does Keynesianism explain that?

As near as I can tell, here is Krugman's answer, in the fourth paragraph from the end of the article: "...prices of assets such as real estate can suffer self-reinforcing plunges that in turn depress the economy as a whole." Is that really what brought the world economy to its knees--the unemployment of construction workers in California, Nevada, and Florida?

There is no place in Krugman's scenario for banks; Krugman is describing what we have just endured as if it were a standard-issue recession, or depression (as understood by a Keynesian), but as a practical matter, this seems to require assuming that what we just suffered was *not* a "financial" crisis.

I am a mere political scientist. But to judge from most of the economists' research published in the (widely acclaimed!) issue of CRITICAL REVIEW that gave rise to this blog, Krugman's story is, at best, incomplete. If I'm not mistaken, every one of our contributors argues (or assumes?) that this was a banking crisis--albeit one triggered by the popping of the housing bubble. According to them, the sources of the housing bubble and of its deflation are important, but these factors did not directly cause an economic calamity of worldwide scope. Instead, the popped housing bubble caused a sharp drop in the perceived value of mortgage-backed securities held by banks, leading to a severe credit crunch--and *that* is what led to the recession.

So I wonder if Krugman has managed to escape the abstraction from reality that he criticizes as typical of economics. Perhaps part of the urge to abstraction is the tendency to assume that all recessions are alike, and so can be subsumed under one or another macro theory--in turn, perhaps, part of the economists' conviction that they are only "scientists" if they discover economic "laws."

By contrast, our contributors suggest (in my reading of them anyway) that even if a decline in aggregate demand was an end result, the cause of the crisis was a series of "micro" factors that contributed to the concentration of toxic housing debt in the banks. These factors, according to our authors, ranged from bank-capital regulations (see the papers by Viral Acharya and Matthew Richardson and by Juliusz Jablecki and Mateusz Machaj) to the rating of mortgage-backed securities as AA or AAA (Lawrence J. White) to financial deregulation (Daron Acemoglu, Amar Bhide, and Joseph Stiglitz). Even the federal and state housing policies discussed by Peter Wallison, and the monetary factors emphasized by Steven Gjerstad and Vernon Smith, Joseph Stiglitz, and John Taylor are seen by the authors as having had their effect at the micro level--by making mortgages more affordable to subprime borrowers.

Maybe macroeconomics is useful in explaining "normal business cycles" or the Great Depression, but was the Crisis of 2008 in one of these two categories?

Jeffrey Friedman
Editor, Critical Review

The "Causes of the Crisis" blog

Welcome to "Causes of the Crisis." It is an experiment in scholarly discourse using what is usually the worst venue for careful discussion--the blog.

The Critical Review Foundation, the nonprofit foundation that is the blog's sponsor, hopes to encourage reflection on what caused the financial crisis, and on what the implications are for the financial system, the economy, the study of economics, the polity, and the study of politics. We hope to discourage polemics and ideological posturing, so these will be ruthlessly hunted down if they appear in the Comments section.

The distinguished contributors to this blog published articles in CRITICAL REVIEW vol. 21, nos. 2-3 (Spring-Summer 2009), a special issue on the causes of the crisis. Consistent with an ancient editorial policy of CRITICAL REVIEW, the special issue focused only on the past--what caused the crisis?--not on the future--what should be done about it? This self-imposed constraint is consistent with Max Weber's view of the proper role of social science, which is to understand, not to advise.

That will be the aim here, too. There is all too much policy advocacy in the world today, and it tends to engage emotions and "priors"--pre-existing beliefs about what has caused major social problems. So we shall confine ourselves to addressing the basis of future "priors" about the crisis by asking what did, in fact, cause it. We will leave the policy recommendations to the pundits.

This does not mean that our focus will be narrow or inaccessible, however. Factors that have been identified as possible causes of the crisis range from glitches in financial technology to normal business-cycle movements to major problems in financial capitalism and/or in attempts to regulate it. Big factors as well as small ones will be our concern.

The authors of articles in the special issue of Critical Review, all of whom have been given authorization to post blogs, are:

Daron Acemoglu (MIT)
Viral V. Acharya (NYU)
Amar Bhide (Columbia Univ.)
David Colander (Middlebury Coll.)
Michael Goldberg (Univ. of New Hampshire)
Steven Gjerstad (Chapman U.)
Michael Goldberg (U. of New Hampshire)
Armin Haas (Postdam Inst.)
Juliusz Jablecki (Polish Central Bank)
Katerina Juselius (U. of Copenhagen)
Alan Kirman (Univ. d'Aix Marseille III)
Thomas Lux (U. of Kiel)
Mateusz Machaj (U. of Wroclaw)
Matthew Richardson (NYU)
Brigitte Sloth (U. of Southern Denmark)
Vernon L. Smith (Chapman U.)*
Joseph E. Stiglitz (Columbia U.)*
John B. Taylor (Stanford U.)
Peter J. Wallison (American Enterprise Inst.)
Lawrence J. White (NYU)

* = Nobel laureate in economics

--Jeffrey Friedman (U. of Texas, Austin)
Editor, Critical Review