There has been such a flood of media coverage of the financial crisis that it is best to begin with some very simple, basic points.
Banks (broadly defined to include investment banks and the many other lenders) borrow--bank deposits, for example, are loans to banks--and then lend out what they have borrowed. As a result, their loans are much larger than their capital assets (cash, a building, etc.). If their capital shrinks in value, they have less protection against the possibility that the loans they make will not be repaid in full. If a bank's capital is 10, and it borrows 100 and lends 100, and the persons or firms it lends to return only 90, its net worth will fall to zero (10 [its capital] + 90 [the value of its loans] - 100 [the amount it owes its depositors] = 0.
Banks in recent years have increased the ratio of their loans to their capital because borrowing costs were low and financial experts thought they had discovered ways of reducing the risk of leverage (that is, of borrowing). Many of the loans were mortgage loans, and the value of those loans fell when the housing bubble burst. (Risky, and in some cases deceptive, mortgage practices had contributed to the bubble.) What made the situation worse was that rather than retaining the mortgages that they originated, banks (especially the major ones) sold the mortgages in exchange for securities backed by the mortgages. Those securities became a part of a bank's capital. The value of the securities depended on the value of the mortgages that the entity issuing the securities had bought; those mortgages were the entity's assets. As that value fell, the bank's capital fell.
The mortgage-backed securities achieved geographical diversification of mortgage risk. But the housing bubble, though not geographically uniform, was sufficiently widespread that geographical diversification did not reduce the risk of mortgage defaults sufficiently to avert the fall in the value of mortgage-backed securities.
A complicating factor was that the value of those securities was and is very difficult to determine, because each security represents a share in pieces of many different mortgages. The bank that owns the security cannot readily determine the value of all those different mortgages, since it has no direct relationship with the mortgagor, having sold the mortgage to the entity that issued the mortgage-backed securities.
Because the banking industry (and remember that I am defining "banking" very broadly, basically as all lending) was highly leveraged, and because much of its capital consisted of securities very difficult to value, the bursting of the housing bubble reduced the capital of the banks, but by an unknown amount. The reduction and uncertainty have curtailed lending by reducing the capital cushion that a bank needs to reduce to an acceptable level the risk that some of its loans will not be repaid. That is the "credit crunch,‚Äù and it is painful because so many individuals and businesses borrow to finance their activities.
Ordinarily one would expect a credit crunch to be self-correcting. As lending dropped because of the fall in bank capital, interest rates would rise and this would attract more capital to the financial markets. We have seen this process at work in Warren Buffett's $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs. Buffett has capital, Goldman needs it, so Buffett gives it to Goldman in exchange for preferred stock (which is really a type of bond but one that does not have a term--it is never repaid) paying a handsome interest rate.
But Goldman is pretty healthy. Many lenders have so much of their capital tied up in mortgage-backed securities or other novel forms of capital that are difficult to value that they cannot attract new capital at a price that would enable the lender to continue in business. The sale of the securities would just expose their lack of value. The federal government, however, has essentially unlimited capital because of its taxing power. It is prepared at this writing to contribute perhaps as much as a trillion dollars to rebuild the capital of the banking industry. The Treasury wants to make this contribution in the form of buying the dubious securities, but that seems to be a mistake, unless pressure of time allows for no alternative. If the Treasury pays the actual value (if anyone can determine what that is) of the securities, it will not be injecting new capital into the banking industry, but merely swapping one form of capital for another. If the Treasury pays more than the securities are worth, then it is contributing capital to the industry all right, but it is also enriching the owners and managers of the banks, which creates the familiar moral hazard problem as well as upsetting people by rewarding careless management practices. The more it overpays, the most costly the bailout plan to the taxpayer.
A more palatable approach would be for the government to drive a Warren Buffett style hard bargain, in which, rather than buying anything from banks, the government would invest in them in a form, such as purchase of newly issued preferred stock, or bonds with a long maturity, that would augment the banks' capital and thus enable banks to make more loans. That would avoid conferring a windfall on the banks by overpaying them for their bad securities; no one thinks Buffett is conferring a windfall on Goldman Sachs. After the industry was back on its feet, the government could sell the bank stocks or bonds that it had acquired.
In considering what needs to be done to improve the functioning of the financial system, it is necessary to distinguish steps to avoid a major depression in the near term from long run reforms of the financial system. The Paulson Plan naturally concentrates on the very real short run emergency. I first discuss this plan and other suggestions, and then briefly consider long-term reforms.
The Treasury's announced insurance of all money market funds carries considerable moral hazard risks, but it has not aroused much controversy. The Paulson Plan goes much further and involves purchases from banks of up to $750 billion of assets that have uncertain worth. I say uncertain worth since there is essentially no market for many of these assets, and hence no market pricing of them. The government hopes to create this market through using reverse auctions. In these auctions, banks would offer their assets at particular prices, and the government would decide whether to buy them. This part of the Plan has been heavily criticized because it gives great discretion to the Treasury Secretary since the total value of the assets that would be purchased at this point is not known. In addition, many are repelled by the intention to bail out companies and their executives who made decisions that got the companies into trouble. There is also much concern about the moral hazard consequences for the future behavior of banks if they are led to expect to get rescued by the government when their investments turn sour.
While I find helping these banks highly distasteful, moral hazard concerns should be put aside temporarily when the whole short term credit system is close to a complete collapse. However, the proposed Plan does indicate, as I suggested in an earlier post (April 28, 2008), that the $29 billion bailout of the bondholders of Bear Stearns in March was a mistake. It probably did have a moral hazard effect by encouraging Lehman brothers and other investment banks to delay in raising more capital because they too expected to be helped if times got much worst.
The agreement apparently just reached between Congress and the White House does allow the government to purchase distressed assets up to about $700 billion- I would have preferred a considerably smaller initial limit. It does have a provision for Congressional oversight of the Treasury's use of the funds, whatever that is worth, and has several other features as well. For example, it includes pay limits for executives whose firms seek government help. That is too much micromanagement of the operations of these banks, even though no one can think much of executives who led their banks into such a mess.
I am also not enamored of the apparent provision that gives the government an equity stake in some banks that they help if these banks should prosper. It is unwise to allow governments in general to have equity interests in private companies, particularly if this equity gives them voting rights on company policies. Perhaps inevitably, this did occur in the AIG bailout. Many examples in recent history, such as the current Alitalia fiasco, show that political interests outweigh economic ones when governments have partial ownership of alleged private companies.
The agreement appears to require the government to use their new ownership of distressed mortgage-backed securities to reduce home foreclosures. Homeowners as well as bankers should have known that the insanely good times in the housing and mortgage markets could not last forever. However, consumers are less well informed about financial matters and housing pricing than are the supposed expert executives at banks. Helping homeowners also uses taxpayers money, but in a way that would generally aid people with modest to moderate incomes. Indirectly, moreover, it would also help banks by increasing the value of the mortgage-backed securities they hold.
One suggested supplement to the Paulson Plan is to require investment banks and other financial institutions to raise additional capital now, so that they have resources to start widespread lending again. Such a requirement would be unwise since banks that can raise capital readily are already doing so, as illustrated by Warren Buffet's investment in Goldman Sachs, and Mitsubishi's purchase of a stake in Morgan Stanley. Were such a requirement imposed, weaker banks might cut their lending even further in the attempt to increase their liquid capital. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz argue convincingly in their Monetary History of the United States that the Fed's raising of reserve requirements for commercial banks during the mid-1930s contributed to a prolonging of the Great Depression. For it induced these banks to further contract their lending in order to gain the liquid assets that were removed by higher reserve requirements.
The main problem with the modern financial system based on widespread use of derivatives and securitization is that while financial specialists understand how individual assets function, even they have little understanding of how the whole incredibly complex financial system operates when exposed to various types of stress. In light of such ignorance of the financial system's mode of operation, it is difficult to propose long-term reforms. Still, a few seem reasonably likely to reduce the probability of future financial crises. The capital requirements of banks relative to assets might be increased, so that the highly leveraged ratios of assets to capital in financial institutions during the past several years would become less common. Possibly a minimum ratio of capital to assets should be imposed by the Fed on investment banks and money funds. As much as possible, the measure of capital should be market, not book, value, such as the market value of publicly traded shares of banks. My discussion last week indicated that book value measures badly missed the plight of Japanese banks during their decade-long banking crisis of the 1990s.
The government should as quickly as possible sell Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to fully private companies that receive no government insurance or other help. These two giants did not cause the housing mess, but in recent years they surely greatly contributed to it, partly through Congressional pressure on them to increase their purchases of sub prime loans. They owned or guaranteed almost half of the $12 trillion in outstanding mortgages with less than $100 million of capital. The housing market already has excessive amounts of government subsidies, such as from the tax exemption of interest on mortgages, and should not have government sponsored enterprises that insure mortgage-backed securities.
Finally, the "too big to fail" approach to banks and other companies should be abandoned as new long-term financial policies are developed. Such an approach is inconsistent with a free market economy. It also has caused dubious company bailouts in the past, such as the large government loan years ago to Chrysler, a company that remained weak and should have been allowed to go into bankruptcy. All the American auto companies are now asking for handouts too since they cannot compete against Japanese, Korean, and German carmakers. They will probably get these subsidies, even though these American companies have been badly managed. A "too many to fail" principle, as in the present financial crisis, may still be necessary on hopefully rare occasions, but failure of badly run big financial and other companies is healthy and indeed necessary for the survival of a robust free enterprise competitive system.
On Sunday of this past week Merrill Lynch agreed to sell itself to Bank America, on Monday Lehman Brothers, a venerable major Wall Street investment bank, went into the largest bankruptcy in American history, while Tuesday saw the federal government partial takeover of AIG insurance company, one of the largest business insurers in the world. Instead of calming financial markets, these moves helped precipitate a complete collapse on Wednesday and Thursday of the market for short-term capital. It became virtually impossible to borrow money, and carrying costs shot through the roof. The Libor, or London interbank, lending rate sharply increased, as banks worldwide were reluctant to lend money. The rate on American treasury bills, and on short-term interest rates in Japan, even became negative for a while, as investors desperately looked for a safe haven in short term government bills.
The Treasury" extended deposit insurance to money market funds-without the $100,000 limit on deposit insurance. The Fed also began to take lower grade commercial paper as collateral for loans to investment and commercial banks, and the Treasury encouraged Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to continue to purchase mortgage backed securities.
Is this the final "Crisis of Global Capitalism"- to borrow the title of a book by George Soros written shortly after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98? The crisis that kills capitalism has been said to happen during every major recession and financial crisis ever since Karl Marx prophesized the collapse of capitalism in the middle of the 19th century. Although I admit to having greatly underestimated the severity of this financial crisis, I am confident that sizable world economic growth will resume under a mainly capitalist world economy. Consider, for example, that in the decade after Soros' and others predictions of the collapse of global capitalism following the Asian crisis in the 1990s, both world GDP and world trade experienced unprecedented growth. The South Korean economy, for example, was pummeled during that crisis, but has had significant economic growth ever since. I expect robust world economic growth to resume once we are over the current severe financial difficulties.
Was the extent of the Treasury's and Fed's involvement in financial markets during the past several weeks justified? Certainly there was a widespread belief during this week among both government officials and participants in financial markets that short-term capital markets completely broke down. Not only Lehman, but also Goldman Sachs, Stanley Morgan, and other banks were also in serious trouble. Despite my deep concerns about having so much greater government control over financial transactions, I have reluctantly concluded that substantial intervention was justified to avoid a major short-term collapse of the financial system that could push the world economy into a major depression.
Still, we have to consider potential risks of these governmental actions. Taxpayers may be stuck with hundreds of billions, and perhaps more than a trillion, dollars of losses from the various insurance and other government commitments. Although the media has amde much of this possibility through headlines like "$750 billion bailout", that magnitude of loss is highly unlikely as long as the economy does not fall into a sustained major depression. I consider such a depression highly unlikely. Indeed, the government may well make money on its actions, just as the Resolution Trust Corporation that took over many saving and loan banks during the 1980s crisis did not lose much, if any, money. By buying assets when they are depressed and waiting out the crisis, there may be a profit on these assets when they are finally sold back to the private sector. Making money does not mean the government involvements were wise, but the likely losses to taxpayers are being greatly exaggerated.
Future moral hazards created by these actions are certainly worrisome. On the one hand, the equity of stockholders and of management in Fannie and Freddie, Bears Stern, AIG, and Lehman Brothers have been almost completely wiped out, so they were not spared major losses. On the other hand, that makes it difficult to raise additional equity for companies in trouble because suppliers of equity would expect their capital to be wiped out in any future forced governmental assistance program. Furthermore, that bondholders in Bears Stern and these other companies were almost completely protected implies that future financing will be biased toward bonds and away from equities since bondholders will expect protections against governmental responses to future adversities that are not available to equity participants. Although the government was apparently concerned that foreign central banks were major holders of the bonds of the Freddies, I believe it was unwise to give them and other bondholders such full protection.
The full insurance of money market funds at investment banks also raises serious moral hazard risks. Since such insurance is unlikely to be just temporary, these banks will have an incentive to take greater risks in their investments because their short-term liabilities in money market funds of depositors would have complete governmental protection. This type of protection was a major factor in the savings and loan crisis, and it could be of even greater significance in the much larger investment banking sector.
Various other mistakes were made in government actions in financial markets during the past several weeks. Banning short sales during this week is an example of a perennial approach to difficulties in financial markets and elsewhere; namely, "shoot the messenger". Short sales did not cause the crisis, but reflect beliefs about how long the slide will continue. Trying to prevent these beliefs from being expressed suppresses useful information, and also creates serious problems for many hedge funds that use short sales to hedge other risks. Their ban can also cause greater panic in other markets.
Potential political risks of these actions are also looming. The two Freddies should before long be either closed down, or made completely private with no governmental insurance protection of their lending activities. Their heavy involvement in the mortgage backed securities markets were one cause of the excessive financing of home mortgages. I fear, however, that Congress will eventually recreate these companies in more or less their old form, with a mission to continue to artificially expand the market for mortgages.
New regulations of financial transactions are a certainty, but whether overall they will help rather than hinder the functioning of capital markets is far from clear. For example, Professor Shimizu of Hitotsubashi University has recently shown that the Bank of International Settlement (BIS) regulation on the required minimum ratio of bank capital to their assets was completely misleading in predicting which Japanese banks got into trouble during that country's financial crisis of the 1990s. Other misguided regulations, such as permanent restrictions on short sales, or discouragement of securitization of assets, will both reduce the efficiency of financial markets in the United States, and they will shift even larger amounts of financial transactions to London, Shanghai, Tokyo, Dubai, and other financial centers.
Finally, the magnitude of this crisis must be placed in perspective. Although it is the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, it is a far far smaller crisis, especially in terms of the effects on output and employment. The United States had about 25 percent unemployment during most of the decade from 1931 until 1941, and sharp falls in GDP. Other countries experienced economic difficulties of a similar magnitude. American GDP so far during this crisis has essentially not yet fallen, and unemployment has reached only about 61/2 percent. Both figures are likely to get considerably worse, but they will nowhere approach those of the 1930s.
These are exciting and troubling economic times for an economist-the general public can use less of both! Financial markets have been seriously wounded, and derivatives and other modern financial instruments have come under a dark cloud of suspicion. That suspicion is somewhat deserved since even major players in financial markets did not really understand what they were doing. Still, these instruments have usually been enormously valuable in lubricating asset markets, in furthering economic growth, and in creating economic value. Reforms may well be necessary, but we should be careful not to throttle the legitimate functions of these powerful instruments of modern finance.
I agree with Becker that capitalism will survive the current financial crisis, even if it leads to a major depression (which it may not). It will survive because there is no alternative that hasn't been thoroughly discredited. The Soviet, Maoist, "corporatist" (fascist Italy), Cuban, Venezuelan, etc. alternatives are unappealing, to say the least. But capitalism may survive only in damaged, in compromised, form--think of the spur that the Great Depression gave to collectivism. The New Deal, spawned in the depression, ushered in a long era of heavy government regulation; and likewise today there is both advocacy and the actuality of renewed regulation. I would like to examine the possibility that government is responsible for the current crisis; for if it is, this would be a powerful intellectual argument against re-regulation, though not an argument likely to have any political traction.
I do not think that the government does bear much responsibility for the crisis. I fear that the responsibility falls almost entirely on the private sector. The people running financial institutions, along with financial analysts, academics, and other knowledgeable insiders, believed incorrectly (or accepted the beliefs of others) that by means of highly complex financial instruments they could greatly reduce the risk of borrowing and by doing so increase leverage (the ratio of debt to equity). Leverage enables greatly increased profits in a rising market, especially when interest rates are low, as they were in the early 2000s as a result of a global surplus of capital. The mistake was to think that if the market for housing and other assets weakened (not that that was expected to happen), the lenders would be adequately protected against the downside of the risk that their heavy borrowing had created. The crisis erupted when, because of the complexity of the financial instruments that were supposed to limit risk, the financial industry could not determine how much risk it was facing and creditors panicked. Compensation schemes that tie executive compensation to the stock prices of the executives' companies but cushion them against a decline in those prices (as when executives are offered generous severance pay or stock options are repriced following the fall of the stock price) further encouraged risk taking. Moreover, even when businesses sense that they are riding a bubble, they are reluctant to get off while the bubble is still expanding, since by doing so they may be leaving a lot of money on the table. Finally, if a firm's competitors are taking big risks and as a result making huge profits in a rising market, a firm is reluctant to adopt a safe strategy. For that would require convincing skeptical shareholders and analysts that the firm's below-average profits, resulting from its conservative strategy, were really above-average in a long-run perspective.
It should be noted that because of the enormous rewards available to successful financiers, the financial industry attracted enormously able people. It was not a deficiency in IQ that produced the crisis.
Becker makes incisive criticisms of the government's responses to the crisis. He points out that those responses create moral hazard, specifically a bias toward financing enterprise by bonds rather than by stock because the government's bailouts are limited to the bondholders and other creditors; create additional moral hazard because the responses include extending government insurance of deposits to money market funds; impede hedge funds by forbidding short selling, which enables the funds to hedge their risks; reduce information about stock values (another consequence of forbidding short selling); increase regulation of financial markets, which will carry with it the usual heavy costs of heavy-handed regulation; blur the role of the Federal Reserve Board by increasing its powers and duties; and increase the federal deficit.
But here is a remarkable thing about these responses. To a great extent they are not responses by government, really, but by the private sector. Bernanke and Paulson are neither politicians nor civil servants; Bernanke is an economics professor and Paulson an investment banker. Their principal advisers are investment bankers rather than Fed and Treasury employees. Even the prohibition of short selling, which seems like a product of the kind of mindless hostility to speculation that one expects from politicians, has been strongly urged by Wall Streeters, including the CEO of Morgan Stanley. The White House, the Congress, and even the SEC have been only bit players in the response to the crisis. In effect, the government's power to repair the crisis that Wall Street created has been delegated to Wall Street.
It is true that the top financial officials of our government have usually come from the financial industry or academia. The difference is how recently Bernanke and especially Paulson were appointed, how heavily they are relying on financial experts from the private sector rather than on civil servants, and how small a role the politicians in Congress and the White House have played in shaping the response to the crisis.
I do not criticize the delegation of the handling of the crisis to (in effect) the finance industry. I imagine that Bernanke and Paulson and their private-sector advisers are the ablest crisis managers whom one could find. I merely want to emphasize that the financial crisis is indeed a "crisis of capitalism" rather than a failure of government, though it will not and should not lead to the displacement of free-market capitalism by an alternative system of economic management. But it is already shifting the boundary between the free market and the government toward the latter.
The forthcoming presidential election has drawn attention to online predictions markets. The first, and one of the best known, is the Iowa Electronic Market (IEM), started in 1988 to bet on presidential elections. Participants can bet up to $500. The odds and hence the price of a contract are set by the bidders themselves, as in a stock market, rather than by the "house," as in casino gambling. A number of other prediction markets, some using virtual (i.e., play) rather than real money, have emerged, includingTradeSports.com, the Foresight Exchange Market, Newsfutures, Intrade, and the Hollywood Stock Exchange.
IEM, on which I'll focus, has correctly predicted the outcome of every presidential election since 1988, and its predictions have been consistently more accurate than the polls. An interesting comparison between the Gallup Poll and the Iowa market in the 1996 presidential campaign (www.biz.uiowa.edu/iem/media/96Pres_VS.html) reveals that throughout the entire campaign the Iowa market‚Äôs predicted outcome was much closer (in margin of victory) to the actual outcome than the Gallup Poll was. Studies have found that prediction markets beat polls and other prediction tools even when a prediction market uses play rather than real money.
The Pentagon planned to create a prediction market in which participants could bet on the likelihood of terrorist attacks, assassinations, and coups. The plan caused outrage and was abandoned. There was a serious objection to the plan: people planning terrorist attacks, assassinations, and coups have inside information which they could use to make a killing (pun intended) in the prediction market.
The success of prediction markets is related to though distinct from the success of the "blogosphere" in ferreting out information that eludes the mass media. Both the blogosphere and prediction markets aggregate greater amounts of information than any centralized information gatherer can obtain. In the case of the blogosphere, it is easy to see why this is so. It is virtually costless (except in time) to become a blogger, and among the millions of people drawn to blogging are people with all sorts of pockets of specialized information, which the internet enables to be pooled rapidly. This pooling resembles the economic market, in which vast amounts of information, encapsulated in prices, are pooled (the basic insight of Friedrich Hayek, and the secret of capitalism‚Äôs superiority to socialism as a means of optimizing economic activity).
Prediction markets provide an even closer analogy to the market, since they (or rather some of them, for others permit betting only with play money) provide financial rewards for correct information (as blogging rarely does), in this resembling ordinary commercial speculation. Someone who thinks he has superior insight into political processes will have an incentive to place a bet in IEM or some other political prediction market. This method of aggregating information--call it expert aggregation--is different from public opinion polling, which is based on randomness. The political pollsters quiz a random sample of likely voters for their likely vote; they do not ask them for an opinion of how other people will vote, a matter on which randomly selected respondents cannot be expected to have an expert opinion. The idea behind the prediction market is that the opportunity to make money or just the fun of betting on one's insights or hunches (the only reward that the virtual prediction markets offer participants) will elicit expert opinions--more so, certainly, than random polling, which anyway, as I have said, does not ask respondents for an opinion about anyone's voting except their own..
I don't think the success of prediction markets is due to a "wisdom of crowds" phenomenon--the idea that somehow large groups of seemingly nonexpert people are bound to "get it right." The "wisdom of crowds" is really just a matter of reducing sampling error. Suppose 100 people guess the weight of a person. Some will guess too low, some too high, but the average guess will be close to the true weight. If, however, just one person is asked to guess, the chances are great that his guess will be either too high or too low.
One problem with prediction markets, a problem that occurred on the day of the 2004 presidential election, is that a market can swing on the basis of unreliable information until the information is corrected. (That happened last week when the price of stock in United Airlines plummeted on a mistaken report that the airline was about to declare bankruptcy.) Exit polls showed Kerry winning a disproportionate number of the votes cast early in the morning, and immediately the prediction markets predicted that he would win the election; and of course he lost.
Another potential problem with the prediction-market model is that the limits of the bets that can be placed, illustrated by the Iowa market‚Äôs $500 limit, are so low. One understands why there are limits: otherwise there would be a danger of market manipulation. Expenditures on the current presidential election campaign will exceed a billion dollars. It must be that the prediction markets attract people who derive nonpecuniary satisfaction from successful bets and that among those people are likely to be a number who really do have insight into the issues bet on in the market, since their bets are more likely to be correct and therefore they are more likely to derive the satisfaction that comes from successful betting. Probably most people who bet on horse racing think they know something about horses, and probably most people who bet on the outcome of a political campaign know something about politics.
It may seem odd, though, that a stranger would have a better sense of how people will vote than a random sample of people would know, each of them, how he or she will vote. But only about half of all eligible voters actually vote in a presidential election, many people refuse to talk to pollsters, some people do not make up their mind until the last minute (but may be hesitant to reveal their indecision to a pollster), some respondents will tell the pollster what they think he wants to (or will be impressed to) hear, and the number of persons sampled is never large enough to avoid a confident prediction of a point outcome, as distinct from a range (say a 95 percent probability that one candidate's vote percentage will be between 47 and 50 percent and the other's between 49 and 52 percent).
There is an interesting question whether prediction markets should be thought of as "gambling‚Äù and perhaps prohibited. As a matter of policy, that would be a mistake, even if one thinks that gambling should be prohibited. The prediction markets are markets for speculation, rather than for game-playing or risk-taking. Slot machines, card-playing, roulette wheels, and other conventional forms of gambling do not generate socially valuable information. Speculation does. Commercial speculation serves to hedge commercial risks and bring prices into closer phase with value. Political, cultural, etc. prediction markets also yield socially valuable information. The outcome of elections is important to companies and even individuals for whom particular public policies are important; they may wish to make adjustments to avert or exploit looming political change. Politicians too need to have as sharp a sense as possible about the effects on the electorate of their and their opponents' strategies. Apparently they can get more accurate information from the prediction markets than from the public opinion pollsters.
Prediction markets are pervasive in finance, especially in modern derivative markets. Someone who is long on the S&P 500 Index is betting that average stock prices in the United States will be going up, while those who are short in this market are betting that they will go down. Price movements in these markets are a good measure of aggregate sentiment, where the aggregation process gives greater weight to those willing to risk larger sums.
The aggregation in online political prediction markets, such as the Iowa Electronic Market (IEM), is more democratic because these markets usually place sharp limits on how much can be bet- the IEM limits bets to no more than $500. Yet as Posner indicates, this and other online political markets have been successful in predicting the outcomes of American elections-more successful than various polls. In the present election, the IEM odds in favor of the Democrats winning the presidency hovered around 60 per cent From May of 2007 to the end of August, but these odds have narrowed considerably since then to about 51-52 per cent for the Democrats to 48-49 per cent for the Republicans. Narrowing has also occurred in various polls. The IEM market is indicating that Senator Obama now has a small lead over Senator McCain.
Since bets on political online markets are small, the motivation of bettors can hardly be the amounts they win or lose. Nor can the usual economic theories of risky choices be of much relevance since the risks to bettors' wealth are rather insignificant. These gambles are made because of utility derived from the gambling itself, not because of the amounts won or lost. This has the very important implication that the positions taken by bettors-for example, whether they bet that the Democratic rather than the Republican presidential candidate would win- is not necessarily determined by which one they expect to win. On the contrary, their betting behavior may be in good measure determined by whom they want to win rather than whom they expect to win.
Studies of betting on sports events show a home team "bias" in the sense that the odds tend to be skewed in favor of home teams relative to the actual winning percentages of home teams. This may be because many local residents bet on their home team, such as Chicagoans betting on the Chicago Cubs, at odds where objectively they should be shifting their bets to visiting teams, and also because individuals in home cities are more likely to bet on games in their cities.
This home team bias is likely to be even more pronounced in political betting markets like the IEM since bets are small. However, if biases of Democratic and Republican bettors are about equally strong, and if a non-negligible fraction of all bettors are making prediction bets, then aggregate betting would tend to give on the whole accurate predictions about who will win, although these predictions would be quite noisy. Predictions rather than hopes may be of relatively large importance in the IEM and other online political prediction markets because the main bettors have been academic economists and financial experts rather than the general public. This type of wishful betting presumably is quite different in betting on other types of events, such as the unemployment rate shown by data to be released on a certain date.
I believe that online political prediction markets, and other online prediction markets as well, should be legal in the United States and elsewhere, even if the amounts bet were quite large. There is no important substantive difference between such online betting markets and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and other exchanges that allow individuals and organizations to take positions on movements of stock indexes, housing price indexes, and prices of other derivatives. A distinction is sometimes made between political betting markets and derivative markets since participants in derivative markets may be hedging other risks that they face. Yet this distinction has little substance since if larger bets were allowed in online political markets, groups whose welfare depended greatly on political outcomes would make greater use of these markets. For example, if a Republican presidential win would mean greater spending on military weapons, companies in the arms business might hedge their risks by betting on Barack Obama.
If large bets were allowed, some wealthy groups may bet a lot on their candidates in order to exert bandwagon influences on public opinion through their large bets affecting market odds. If so, these markets likely would become less reliable as predictors of outcomes, and hence would have less influence on opinions. To a large extent, therefore, these markets would be self correcting, although online political markets might place various other restrictions on bets, as is common in derivative and other exchanges.
An eye-opening article in the New York Times on August 29th discusses the effects of India's economic reforms and subsequent economic growth on the poverty and progress of the untouchables. This is India's lowest and poorest caste whose members have been shunned by the other castes for centuries. They have been confined to the dirtiest and least desirables jobs. The article is built around the views of a successful untouchable, Chandra Bhan Prasad, a former Maoist revolutionary who is married to another untouchable. His observations and interpretation of the effects of India's economic liberalization that started in 1991 on progress of some untouchables converted him to the belief that competitive and open markets is the only hope for his caste.
The Indian government early after it became independent in 1947 officially abolished the caste system, and especially the horrible position of the 160 million untouchables. Nevertheless, this caste experienced limited progress during the 40 years of socialism and slow economic growth that followed independence. Prasad became an economic liberal after seeing what he interpreted as the dramatic effects of 15 years of economic reform on the economic opportunities of the untouchables.
The economic theory of discrimination adds analytical support to Prasad's observations (see my The Economics of Discrimination, 2nd. ed., 1973). An employer discriminates against untouchables, women, or other minority members when he refuses to hire them even though they are cheaper relative to their productivity than the persons he does hire. Discrimination in this way raises his costs and lowers his profits. This puts him at a competitive disadvantage relative to employers who maximize their profits, and hire only on the basis of productivity per dollar of cost. Strongly discriminating employers, therefore, tend to lose out to other employers in competitive industries that have easy entry of new firms.
This is why minorities typically do better in new industries with young and initially smaller firms. Both Jews and American blacks were accepted more readily in Hollywood in its early days than in other established industries, like steel making and banking, although blacks were limited primarily to entertainment roles. Contrast this with American baseball, where the major league owners had a virtual monopoly of the industry. They did not accept any black players until Branch Rickey broke the color bar in 1947 by promoting Jackie Robinson from the minor leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers. This long delay in accepting blacks by the baseball monopoly occurred despite the fact that for decades many outstanding black players could be observed playing in segregated Negro leagues.
Employee discrimination against minority fellow workers-such as a male worker who does not want to work for a female boss- cannot be so easily competed away by non-discriminating employers. For they have to pay discriminating employees more, perhaps a lot more, to work with minority members. A similar argument applies to consumers who do not want to be served by particular minorities. Yet in these cases too, competition can blunt the impact of prejudice. For profit-maximizing employers will attempt to avoid the cost of discriminating employers by segregating minorities into separate companies. For example, women bosses may have mainly women employees, or untouchable foremen will supervise untouchable workers.
Segregated minority workers in competitive markets may get paid just as much relative to their productivity as do majority workers in these markets. In a fundamental way, segregation can serve as a way to bypass the prejudices of other workers, consumers, and employers. When Jews could not get work in the banking industry at the turn of 20th century, they began to open their own banks that hired mainly other Jews. African -American doctors and dentists in the old South catered to other blacks as their patients.
Globalization and the growth of world trade have added another competitive force against discrimination, one that is surely helping Indian untouchables and other minorities. As I mentioned earlier, costs of production are raised when employers discriminate against various minorities in their country. Employers in other countries not burdened with costs of discrimination will be able to undersell discriminating employers in the international market for goods. This too acts as a force lowering the impact of discriminating employers, and reduces the international competitiveness of countries where discrimination in employment is dominant.
The slow growth of the old American South is a good illustration of the effects of international and interregional competition. Discrimination against former slaves was rampant in most parts of the South. Private desires to discriminate were supported and often enforced by discrimination by state and local governments. Blacks were denied access to schools of equal quality, and local governments sometimes retaliated against local companies that promoted blacks to higher-level positions. As a result, Southern manufacturing companies were at a disadvantage relative to companies from the North and West, and also to those from other countries. In good measure because of this systematic government discrimination, and private discrimination enforced often by government pressures, the South performed poorly for a century after the end of the Civil War.
The rapid growth of world trade during the past several decades, and the increasing market orientation of different economies, sometimes raise rather than lower income inequality, as least for a while. However, trade and competition has made this inequality more dependent on differences in human and other capital, and less directly on skin color, gender, religion, caste, and other roots of discrimination. This is an unsung but major consequence of greater trade and globalization.
Becker points to India as an example of a society in which competition has been more effective than law in reducing discrimination in employment. As with most analyses of historical phenomena, determining causation is rife with uncertainty. Had the Indian government not abolished the caste system, would discrimination against untouchables have declined as much as it has?
The question is of more than academic interest from an American standpoint because we have laws against so many forms of employment discrimination--discrimination on racial grounds, of course, but also on grounds of ethnicity, religion, sex, disability, and age. We also had a caste system in the South until relatively recently. So do we need discrimination laws, or can competition be relied on to eliminate discrimination?
The answer I would give is that competition cannot be relied upon to eliminate discrimination (nor has Becker ever argued that it can be), but that, even so, laws against discrimination may not be desirable on balance, at least from the standpoint of economic efficiency, as distinct from making a political or moral statement. They may also not be very effective. I will confine my analysis largely to employment discrimination.
If an important class of customers does not want to be served by, say, black employees, or if an important class of workers does not want to work with black employees, then the tendency in the absence of a discrimination law, as Becker explains, will be segregation of the workforce: the market will be served by a combination of all-white and all-black firms. If, however, segregation raises employers' costs by more than the increase in wages that they would have to pay their white employees to induce them to work side by side with blacks, plus the loss of net revenues from white customers who do not want to be served by black employees, there will be competitive pressure on the employers to integrate their work forces. The pressure will depend in part on how strong the whites' aversion to working with or dealing with blacks is. There is no reason for competition to affect that aversion, other than by bringing the costs of it home to employers and through them to their white workers and customers.
Although law can try to eliminate employment discrimination, it is unlikely to be very effective and if it is effective it may not be efficient. Take the second point first. Suppose white employees have a strong aversion to working with blacks. Then forbidding discrimination will impose a heavy cost on the white employees. If there are more of them than there are blacks, the cost to the white employees may exceed the benefits to the black employees. Of course, an antidiscrimination law may rest on a political or moral judgment that costs imposed by thwarting a taste for discrimination should not count in the social calculus, but that is a judgment outside of economics.
Now as to the efficacy of such laws: it is bound to be limited unless enforced by savage penalties, which our discrimination laws are not. There are three reasons for their limited efficacy. The first is that an employer who wants to continue discriminating against blacks can (within limits) reconfigure his work force to reduce his demand for skills likely to be possessed by black applicants for employment, can substitute capital for labor, and can relocate to areas in which the applicant pool contains few blacks. Second, felt legal pressure to hire blacks results in "affirmative action," which both creates resentment among whites and casts some doubt on the average quality of black employees and so in effect stigmatizes the entire class. And third, because a discrimination law makes it more difficult to fire a member of the class protected by the law, it increases the cost of hiring members of the class and so increases the incentive to discriminate in hiring. There is some evidence that the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, forbidding discrimination against the disabled, led to an actual decline in the number of disabled persons employed.
Although an employment discrimination law is thus apt to be of limited (though not zero) efficacy, other bodies of law can play a large role‚Äîlarger even than market forces‚Äîin reducing employment discrimination. Much employment is public, and public bodies can decide to incur the costs of eliminating discrimination in their work forces and hire many blacks. In addition, laws that reinforce a caste system, such as the Jim Crow laws in the southern states that persisted into the 1950s, can reduce employment opportunities for blacks beyond what private discrimination would do, for example by limiting their educational opportunities. The repeal or invalidation of such laws can thus indirectly increase black employment opportunities.
Deregulation is a minor but interesting legal change that tends to reduce discrimination. A regulated monopoly is constrained in the amount of monetary profit that it can obtain, but unconstrained in nonmonetary perks, including indulging a taste for discrimination.
Neither legal nor market forces have brought employment parity between whites and blacks in the United States. Parallel with the struggle of blacks for parity, Jews, East Asians, and immigrants generally, have made rapid economic progress and indeed (at least in the case of Jews and East Asians) largely overcome discrimination, yet without significant help from the law. An open economy provides opportunities even to victims of discrimination, especially if the victim group is large enough to achieve economies of scale in trade within the group. As members of the group grow modestly affluent and thus achieve a standard of living that enables them to assimilate to the larger culture, as by consuming similar goods and services and sending their children to good schools, discrimination against them declines because they cease to seem ‚Äúdifferent‚Äù from the majority. When members of a minority group talk and think and act like the majority and have the same tastes and in short share the same culture, the fact that they may have a different physical appearance ceases to count greatly against them, as indicated by high rates of intermarriage in the groups I have mentioned. Assimilation to the dominant culture, as yet incomplete for a great many blacks, may thus be the major force in reducing discrimination, with competition and law playing lesser roles.