Freefall- a manifesto for economic change

As markets tumble in Europe, America and across the globe, the world is waking up to reality: the recession is back. Indeed it never really went away. How much of this can really be a surprise? We have more or less the same economic system today as that which brought the economy to its knees just three years ago. In 2008 policy makers could at least plead naivety. Who could have seen the sudden collapse of the world’s largest banks? And who could have known just how interconnect companies and countries had become?
But these rhetorical questions do in fact have answers: Joseph Stiglitz, professor of economics and Nobel laureate, was our Cassandra.  He was preaching long before the housing bubble and credit default swaps of the inherent dangers posed by lax legislation and misaligned incentives. His 2010 book Freefall, recently updated, is his victory lap. But more than “I told you so”, Stiglitz offers a way out of the mire. Politicians would do well to head his advice.
Market Failure

Stiglitz lays the blame for the crisis squarely, triangularly and circularly at the feet of free markets and their ideologue proponents. I’ve blogged before about my own flirtatious relationship with free markets and identified some of their key failings. One failing I didn’t mention was externalities, which was a failing central to the near collapse of the financial system and one which Stiglitz emphasises.  Externalities are by-products of business where there is no market mechanism to account for them- sometimes positive, sometimes negative. If I own a bee farm and an orchard sets up next door, the orchard benefits significantly from my bees’ polination without affecting me. But should the orchard owners not pay for this privilege? This is an externality– the market provides no way of paying me. A negative externality would be global warming- harm is caused by business but not in a way penalised by the markets. 
Stiglitz argues that banks, with their light touch regulations, posed huge negative externalities on the economy as a whole in a number of ways: the misunderstanding of risk, performance related pay and implicit government subsidy.
Risky business

Before making a loan, banks need to understand the risk associated with the borrower defaulting and adjust the interest rate accordingly. But to further decrease risk, banks started to package loans together with assumption that the more loans one had, the more the risk was spread out. This was fine, provided defaults weren’t correlated. But when house prices started to fall across the country, defaults became very correlated indeed. Because many of these loans had been packaged together in highly complex ways, banks suddenly realised that they couldn’t really tell which loans were safe and which weren’t. They also couldn’t trust the safety of other banks and so stopped lending to each other, resulting in the credit crunch. Stiglitz verdict is clear- commercial banks shouldn’t be allowed to create products they don’t fully understand. As US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson quipped, “the only useful financial innovation in recent decades has been the cash machine”.
Performance related pay and other oxymorons

Performance related pay was abandoned by most professions when it became clear that it rewarded quantity, not quality and encouraged short term results. These are precisely the problems plaguing modern banking. Bonuses are paid for gains but not removed for losses, promoting excessive risk taking as bankers just couldn’t lose. Mortgage vendors were rewarded according to the number of mortgages issued, not their quality, leading to the phenomenon of “liar loans” for which borrowers required no proof of income. Even after the Crunch, the flow of bonuses continued, making a mockery of the claim that they were performance based.
Bankers on benefits

But perhaps the strongest externality was the implicit guarantee that the government would always save the biggest banks to protect the rest of the economy. This safety net enabled banks to take much greater risk at much lower interest rates- a subsidy of billions of dollars, greatly distorting the market. When the bailouts were received, very little was loaned on to small and medium sized business, the risks of speculation were still too tempting.
What’s to be done?

Stiglitz is no communist and recognises the importance of markets- the key is regulation. As the world sits on the brink of what may well be a double dip recession, here are his suggestions for policy changes to make a difference-
  1.    Separate commercial banks from investment banks- banks shouldn’t be taking huge risks with ordinary households’ money.
  2.      Require banks to keep some of the mortgages they sell on their books to ensure they have a vested interest on providing loans to those how can afford them.
  3.     Give share holders greater say over executive pay and stop payments in stock options- they encourage short-term thinking.
  4.     Require bailout funds to go to small and medium sized business. Much of it is their money, after all.

This is Stiglitz’s manifesto for change. Free markets have failed but markets can still work within sensible rules.  Failure to change in 2008 brought around the current difficulties. The world cannot afford to make the same mistake twice.

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