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10/19/2008

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Chris Graves

Everything Professor Becker said is true. Let me add that if we do not constrain the power of the Federal Reserve Bank to artificially inflate the money supply by, among other means, manipulating the interest rate, then we shall be back in this position time after time. We must impose a monetary rule or something like the Gold Standard to limit the ability of the Fed to mislead investors and entrepreneurs, even if their intentions are benign.

In regulation, we must carefully consider the insights provided by Guido Calabresi on the problem of moral hazard. Judge Calabresi has presented the following example to illustrate the problem. Assume there is a public beach with a dangerous undertow just off the beach. The town council can reasonably follow one of two courses: (1) They can allow people to enter this area of the beach freely and swim in the vicinity of the undertow if they so choose as long as they are clearly warned of the danger. If someone who knowingly assumes the risk of entering the dangerous waters gets caught in the undertow, then we must allow the risk-taker to bear the consequences of his decision and drown. (2) If the public policy decision-makers judge that they or the public at large cannot stand to see people suffer the consequences of their freely chosen actions with clear warnings of risk, then the beach must be put off limits with guards to prevent thrill-seekers from entering the beach and taking a chance with the undertow.

If policy-makers or the public do not allow failure by bailing people out of the negative consequences of the foreseeable downside of engaging in risky behavior, then we will continue or even accelerate the propensity of people to engage in dangerous behavior that not only risks the risk-takers' well-being but also the public purse and the well-being of others who must rescue them. There is a stark trade-off in cases where risk is involved that goes to the heart of controversies surrounding the banking system. Either we regulate and limit economic actors' freedom offering bailouts and insurance if they fail or we allow maximum liberty with only protections against fraud with clearly stated warnings to the unwary. At the same time, public policy offers no insurance or bailouts.

There cannot be a mixed system on this score due to the problem of moral hazard. Every measure taken to de-regulate must include a provision to provide personal accountability in the case of failure. Every attempt to offer a bailout or insurance must include restrictions on economic players taking risks.

Don the libertarian Democrat

"Although there may be other regulations and controls, I would not expect the US federal government to hold on for long to its preferred stock interest in various investment banks. I have not supported such government equity interests, and it would be a grave mistake if the govern continued to maintain such ownership."

My disagreement with you is that a Swedish type plan, although more intrusive initially, would actually prove easier to get out of for various reasons.

"Indeed, the government's influence over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac contributed in a significant way to the housing bust by encouraging these institutions to make many worthless sub prime loans, although clearly other important forces were also at work in the housing bust."

I'm not sympathetic to this analysis. Whether they were encouraged or not, there is no excuse to make foolish loans. The real problem was that there was an implicit government guarantee to intervene if these investments went bad, thus encouraging these businesses to ignore the obvious risk. That guarantee seems to me a better explanation than encouragement.

Sister Y

The latter part of this comment - that a depression could drive retreats from free markets - assumes that it is ideology driving such retreats. In light of Amy Chua's work, it seems much more plausible that racial inequality and ethnic hatred, rather than ideology, drive anti-market movements in most cases.

Mike

I think we should distinguish between "free" markets and "competitive" markets. An market can be competitive even with a high degree of regulation -- in fact sometimes regulation makes a market more competitive.

As an example, consider professional and college athletics. Presumably "regulation" in the form of salary caps, drafting rules, scholarship / recruitment limits, etc., these things are adopted to improve the state of competition.

Jack D

Still, middle class and poor families would be hurt the most by unwise government policies and attacks on the foundations of a competitive economy.

THAT IS SO TRUE... bang on... it proves why becker and posner are one of the best thinkers of our time. I really hope governments think about people and not polls.

nathan

you can always eat the goose

Dan

The Ingenesist Project; Putting an End to Debt Economics.

The U.S. National Debt is over 10 trillion dollars. Assuming deficit spending stops today, every man, woman, and child in the US is responsible for $33,500.00.

This means that $33,500.00 of every person’s productivity has already been spent. Obviously, the only way to pay the debt is to increase every person’s productivity by exactly $33,500.00.

The only sustainably way to increase human productivity is innovation. The Ingenesist Project is an open source economic development program that will meet this challenge head-on by inducing an Innovation Economy.

The Innovation Economy:

The Ingenesist Project has identified three relatively simple web applications which, when applied to Social Networks, will allow human intellect, social capital, and creativity to become tangible outside the construct of Wall Street, Corporations, and Government.

The Ingenesist Project will build a mirror economy trading rallods (‘dollar’ spelled backwards) in an innovation economy. Rallods will be backed by “innovation” whereas dollars are backed by “debt”, hence, a mirror economy.

The Ingenesist Project has a Patent Pending for an Innovation Banking System and will release all rights to the public domain. By definition, The Ingenesist Project holds 10 Trillion rallods – and counting - to spend on development.

The Ingenesist Project will generously award rallods on a reputation scale for posts to The Ingenesist Project public forum toward the design, development, and improvement of the three web application (did I mention TIP has 10 million million rallods to blow?).

The New ‘Stock’ Market

Countless “new-to-the-world” business plans and patentable methods, systems, and devices will result from the The Ingenesist Project.

Entrepreneurs are encouraged to patent, protect, or contain all intellectual property that they develop and become as wealthy as they possibly can under the condition that they pay royalties, equity, or options to their knowledge inventory.

The entrepreneur’s “Secret-Sauce”, however, must be shared with The Ingenesist Project in order to improve the Percentile Search Engine Algorithm for the benefit of the public domain.

Participants eventually be able to trade services among each other in Rallods.

Objective:

Deficit spending is unsustainable. The existing financial system has exceeded its ability to pay back the debt and is being consumed by the interest on this debt.

As the dollar crashes, society will need an alternate economy to trade upon – one whose currency is backed by something tangible - our own productivity!

The dollar may eventually peg at some exchange rate to the Rallod.

T V Selvakumaran

Online Debate on the Financial Crisis at Economist.com
Proposition: "It would be a mistake to regulate the financial system heavily after the crisis"

Pro: Professor Myron Scholes, Stanford University
Con: Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia University
Moderator: Henry Tricks, Finance Editor, The Economist

Comment to the Moderator on Professor Scholes' Opening Statement:

Sir,

The financial system needs to be regulated mainly because the theoretical underpinnings of modern finance are quite weak and outdated. For example, let us take the Modgliani-Miller theorem which forms the central theme of Professor Myron Scholes' Opening Statement in this debate. This theorem states that the value of a firm is independent of its debt-to-equity ratio. For its simplicity and effectiveness, this theorem is definitely a creditable achievement of modern economics. Indeed, its discoverers Professors Franco Modgliani and Merton Miller went on to win the Nobel prize in Economics (at different times), for this theorem and other achievements. When this theorem was first established more than 50 years ago, it applied very well to the industrial economy of that time.

In those days, if an entrepreneur wanted to start a business for the first time, say a small factory or a retail shop, his/her initial investment (down-payment) would have to be substantial, say 25 percent or more. A financial institution, like a community bank, would lend the rest of the money. The bank can verify that its money is being used to actually build the factory, a physical asset, and thus it has a fairly good understanding of how its money is being employed for making profits. After several years, if the business runs successfully, the entrepreneur goes back to the bank to help build a second factory. After this process happens a few times, the company has grown quite large, having established a successful business model with a well-understood revenue/profit stream. At this point, the entrepreneur realizes that to reach economy of scale, (s)he has to jack up his/her business plans by an order of magnitude, and (s)he would have to find access to much larger sources of finance. The result is that the company goes public. Note that the entrepreneur also benefits personally because his/her own investment in the company, which is now made into shareholding claims, has become more liquid. The company could issue more shares in the stock market, i.e., increase equity, or issue bonds in the credit market and/or get more loans, i.e., increase debt, to raise capital for its further business ventures.

Now, by the time the company has reached this situation, invariably, its balance sheet would have grown to include far more than just equity and debt. Due to accumulation of profits over the years, it would have reserve funds. Then again it would have to pay into its employees' pension funds. It would be helpful for the reader to keep in mind some large corporation of the 70s and 80s, like Bethlehem Steel. The company would have a large number of assets and it would indeed be a huge undertaking, far more than just the sum of its equity and debt. The Modgliani-Miller theorem says that the total value of the firm, as given on its balance sheet, would not be dependent on the ratio of its equity and its debt. Moreover, the creditors (those who have furnished the company with its debt) can also understand the business model of the company by verifying the company's assets, which are mostly tangible and real. Here I would like to point out that it is not in the creditors' interest to take over the company, because the entrepreneur-industrialist brings substantial expertise about how to pursue profit-making opportunities during the day-to-day functioning of the company. In this context, the theorem provides the (very) useful information that while analyzing the balance sheet of the company, one need not worry about the debt-equity ratio.

In contrast, there are a lot of problems when one tries to apply the Modgliani-Miller theorem to figure out whether regulation of today's finance industry should stop with 'capital requirements and pricing flexibility', as mentioned in Professor Scholes' Opening Statement. Now, a typical 'bulge-bracket' investment bank (like the top few Wall Street firms) would have about 30 to 40 billion dollars in capital (equity + accumulated profits). However the bank would have borrowed over 800 or 900 billion dollars to finance its operations (and hence the oft-quoted leverage ratio figure of 25 to 30). At this point, it might be helpful for the reader to actually see the balance sheet of a publicly traded Wall Street investment bank (it is available for free on Yahoo Finance).

Now where did the 800 to 900 billion dollars come from? They came from the pension funds and the mutual funds. Hence, there is a serious problem here. If you asked a pension fund manager in 2003 about the details of the mortgage securities, (s)he would have had no idea how the whole process works, because financial innovation was happening at a furious pace, and there was a whole alphabet soup of CDOs, CDSs, AAA MBSs being created newly every week or so. Thus, while the industrial economy of the 1950s, 60s and 70s had the entrepreneur operate at leverage ratios less than 10 and gave his/her bankers a fairly good idea about the business model, the technology and the innovation, in sharp contrast, the creditors of the contemporary finance firms have no way of knowing whether their money is being employed in the business venture in a sensible manner. And most importantly, the entrepreneur whose own stake is only 40 billion dollars controls the whole of the 900 billion dollars. Unlike the situation in the industrial economy, the long-term economic contribution of the entrepreneur is quite suspect precisely because a financial crisis could wipe out his/her business venture (40 billion) whereas the total value (900 billion) is more stable.

This is the fundamental weakness of modern finance theory. If the common (wo)man had followed the news about Wall Street since the beginning of this year, (s)he would have mostly heard about the high leverage ratios in the investment banks, about sub-prime mortgages, about the credit freeze and how it is all going to come down on Main Street as a huge financial meltdown. In talking about debt and equity, the Modgliani-Miller theorem gives the illusion that the whole of the 900 billion dollars is a part of the investment bank, when in fact, that money belongs to the pension funds. The pension funds and mutual funds carry anywhere from 20 to 50 trillion dollars of people's savings (source: Wikipedia). So, the discussion among financial experts in the media should have focused on these large accumulations of capital. This approach would have avoided fear and panic in the financial markets, but perhaps it would have also made it impossible for the Wall Street investment banks to extract more than 20 percent returns on capital year after year.

Thus, the financial system needs to be regulated until the experts of modern finance can go back to the drawing board and work out a more stable foundation. Instead of promoting financial innovation in the markets, they should conduct credible research in finance at the universities. Having said that, I have to mention that I am also quite worried that after this Presidential election in America the extreme leftists would take control of the government and the media which would lead to tax-and-spend liberalism and big government. There is a grave risk that re-regulation would quickly become excessive.

Coming back to Professor Scholes' Opening Statement, further objections to modern finance theory can be made from other perspectives. The first objection is based on the economics of asymmetric information. For an excellent overview of this perspective, please see Professor Kenneth Arrow's article 'Risky Business' in The Guardian on October 16, 2008. The second objection is more subtle. It says that economic risk cannot be quantified so easily as modern finance theory presumes. For this perspective, see Professor Edmund Phelps' article 'Our Uncertain Economy' on March 14, 2008 in The Wall Street Journal.

While the first and the second objections concern the focus of modern finance on risk management at the level of a company-firm, by far the most common criticism of finance theory is that it is ineffective in containing systemic risk. This perspective has been given much needed theoretical heft and some respect by Professor Gary Becker's article 'We're Not Headed for a Depression' on October 7, 2008 in The Wall Street Journal. Particularly striking is his statement, "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 limited understanding of the aggregate risks created by the system". Lastly, please check out my blog-post where further clarifications about the current financial crisis are given: http://selvasblog.blogspot.com/2008/10/faq-on-current-financial-crisis-q1.html


Further critiques of the Modgliani-Miller theorem from more advanced perspectives

1) Professor George Akerlof has proposed a new formulation of maco-economics which takes the Modgliani-Miller theorem as one of the given conditions of the economy (he calls these conditions neutralities). Then he attempts to derive these conditions in a rigorous way by extending on the traditional micro-economic assumptions that a firm would aim for profit-maximization and a consumer would aim for utility maximization. The extensions he assumes are basically norms on the behavior of the consumer, which he calls 'realistic norms'. Please see his Presidential address to the American Economic Association in January 2007, 'The Missing Motivation in Macroeconomics'. However, one should note that the Modgliani-Miller theorem is far from the last word even in the industrial economy of the second half of the 20th century. One should recall how many large corporations, e.g., Bethlehem Steel, had underfunded their pension plans for prolonged periods of time. In the case of the steel-making corporations, when it was finally discovered that their balance sheets had simply been out-of-touch with reality for the better part of two decades, they went into bankruptcy courts. The pension plans and health benefits of their employees had to be foregone, and they were sold for fire-sale prices to become what is now Arcelor-Mittal steel company.

2) Demographically, the aging of the baby boomers has meant that the typical American investor is aging (as measured by average age or median age). Hence portfolio management advisors would invariably be advising their clients that they need to reduce risky investments as they approach retirement. In the aggregate, this means that as a nation, the United States, and similarly, other advanced industrial countries, would prefer progressively more cautious investments in the next two decades or so. However, in saying that it does not matter whether a firm prefers debt or equity to finance itself, the Modgliani-Miller theorem does not address this demographic reality well. In fact, with the enterpreneurial culture in a capitalist society, the equity-holders take full control of the firm, even though their own stake is as much as 30 times less than the debt-holders. In modern times, there is also the conflict of interest between share-holders and management. These developments are at odds with the demographic realities of today. Thus a different theory of finance that takes into account (i) the changing risk tolerance of the population, and (ii) the relative stakes of the management, creditors and shareholders could definitely be more suited for the future.

Jeff Hansen

I agree with this for the most part. What I am most worried about is all of this reckless spending. Michael Pento pointed this out today in a good piece. This spending needs to stop.

http://www.greenfaucet.com/economy/the-shortcomings-of-a-second-stimulus-package/98199

T V Selvakumaran

Yes, the reckless spending has been a big concern for me. I am especially troubled by the logic of this $700-billion plan. In my opinion, it is quite unnecessary. I have explained the situation in my FAQ: http://selvasblog.blogspot.com/2008/10/faq-on-current-financial-crisis-q1.html


I quote the relevant portion here:

Q5. Why have the markets for mortgage securities continued to remain illiquid?

A. The main reason that the markets for mortgage securities have been illiquid for a prolonged period of time is that the home-owner who is the only party with a credible and serious interest as a buyer of the mortgage securities has been shut out of the market. Instead of directly involving the home-owner, Wall Street has been peddling bizarre theories about risk management that has resulted in this huge mis-allocation of this $700 billion recently. By providing the information for a direct match-up of the home-owners on Main Street and the security-owners on Wall Street, the government could implement a low-cost eBay-type bidding system that would enable the home-owners to bid for the various tranches in the mortgage securities issued on their homes -- those tranches that the banks want to get rid of. This way the home-owners stand to benefit from a reduction in their debt obligations. The security-owners gets a floor on the prices of the mortgage securities and because of the decent prices, their capital gets replenished. Moreover, the home-owners' debt reduction can be structured in a way that encourages good behavior, and timely re-payment of the rest of the mortgage loan. This process would cost less than $1 billion for the government and achieves the objectives of liquidity and re-capitalization stated in the $700 billion bill. In addition, this direct match-up plan reduces foreclosures by reducing the home-owner's debt. Professor Martin Feldstein has also proposed a plan to reduce foreclosures. In his plan the government re-negotiates the home-owners' loans to provide debt reduction through low-interest loans, in return for enhanced claims on the home-owner. In my plan, the government's role is solely to provide reliable information.

Jim

As I recall from ethical moral theory, the difference between usury and investment is one of intent and outcome. Certainly the usurious intent was there in this crisis and the outcome speaks for itself.

Once agiain, I will ask our distinguished professors when their discipline will incorporate some element of human nature into their predictive methods. I know that they will say that they already have. In response I will say that they do not work very well.

jeff

Keep spreading the news of Free Markets.
Free markets do not always mean equal outcomes for everyone.
Paraphrasing Friedman, Freedom does not mean equality. Equality doesn't mean freedom.

The Chicago School must spread the word that mathematically, they have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt the value that free markets and small limited government bring to constituents of a country.

We need to do it now, before the world goes Atlas Shrugged on us.

neilehat

Jeff, The "World?" has already gone "Atlas Shrugged". It occured, when Greenspan (a Randite Syncophant and inner circle member from the earliest days) became the Federal Reserve Chairman. As for Rand, are you aware that she was a graduate of St. Petersburg U., a hotbed of Menshevism/Bolshevism, pre and post Revolution. With that in mind, the case can be made that she (Randism) was an Agent-Provocatuer sent by the Cheka/KGB to disrupt the Nation economically.

"Free Trade/Free Markets" anyone? Welcome to the last vestiges of the "COLD War".

Paul H

Judge Posner,

A fascinating post. One small complaint: The Prime Minister of "England" is properly called the Prime Minister of the "United Kingdom" (a landmass comprising England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Indeed the particular Prime Minister of which you wrote - namely Gordon Brown - is himself Scottish.

Many thanks,
(a wounded Scot)
Paul H

Martha Fall

Anyone interested in this subject should read Forbes's new article titled:
"How Capitalism Will Save Us"

http://www.forbes.com/hcome/forbes/2008/1110/018.html

He's really on the right track. After reading this article it is certainly my opinion that we need to realize that government regulations have more often than not been the cause of economic crisis's, and capitalism has been the salvation.
Right now we must be more careful than ever that we don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just because the crap is hitting the fan right now doesn't mean that we should throw out the massive successes of the past three decades under the Free Market Approach established by Reagan.

SpeciousRiches

Good post, but even Greenspan admitted today that he underestimated the ability for free markets to fail. They didn't police themselves. Why? Because they are run by humans, who are ruled by emotions like greed and fear (yes, yes, behavioral finance...)

I could get philosophical, but proper regulation, crafted from a position of calm reflection can act as a proper restraint on human emotion. The danger lies in enacting these regulations from the position of fear that currently rules.

SpeciousRiches
http://speciousriches.wordpress.com

neilehat

Martha, "Forbes" huh? Talk about a "Free Market - Free Trade" broadsheet. For a more balanced view it needs to be read along side of the likes of the "Arbiter Zeitung". Oh that's right, the Zeitung, was bought up and shutdown by the likes of "Forbes".

Queer huh?

Superheater

Anybody wants to see the effect of pervasive government regulation should read about the Interstate Commerce Commission and its reign of error from 1887 to 1995. With a few notable exceptions, it was destructive. Business historian Albro Martin detailed the earliest government ineptitude in "Enterprise Denied". Railroads were hamstrung for DECADES before the mass failures of the 1970's that led to to the creation of "Conrail" and the subsequent passage of the Staggers Act in the 1980's.

It was do bad that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president did away with it. Of course, it wasn't really done away with, it was split. Economic issues are now handled by Surface Transportation Board (STB or "Surf BOARD) and the operational safety regulations are the province of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Even with the remaining regulation, railroads are now thriving, as evidenced by the interest in their stock by value investors such as Warren Buffett.

Unfortunately, the urge to hit the regulatory emergency brake seems to be re-emerging. President Bush just signed a new rail safety act, pushed no doubt by the California collision in which the engineer of one of the trains was "texting" from a wireless device.

But here were legislators all standing to insist that a new rule be added to specifically prohibit testing. Never mind that all railroads are run by extensive rules which govern the movement of trains and the conduct of operating crews. Never mind also that almost all rulebooks require safe operation, that crews devote themselves exlusively to their duties and prohibit the posession and/or use of electronic devices not issued by the company.

Yes, behold our legislators, waiving their hands furious to promulgate new laws and regulations, as if another rule will stop the occasional dereliction of duty.

I doubt their understanding of finance is any better than railroads. THEY created this mess and only we can hold them to account. Unfortunately, this seems beyond an increasingly feeble electorate.

Scott D

What continues to astound me is the following "logic" that seems to be advanced nearly every day:
1. Congress was empowered to intervene in mortgage markets.
2. It used that authority to attach de facto government guarantees to loans that would otherwise be too risky for investors.
3. Congress looked at the resulting surge in home prices that it created and said, "What, me worry?"
4. What we need now is for Congress to authorize even more ways to intervene in the financial markets.
5. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

lark

The markets and the financial wizardry failed, you assert, because of human influence.

This seems to beg the question. We improve our justice system, not because we expect to eliminate crime from human nature, but because we want our regulatory system to handle the known faults of human nature better.

It was specious for Greenspan to assert that he was shocked that greed was more powerful than integrity in the latest bubble. Any high school student of history, who spent 10 minutes with Google researching financial crises, would have known better. This pattern, precisely that of greed getting the better of integrity and judgement, is the rule in financial bubbles, panics, and the like.

The true flaw being revealed in this crisis is not one of human nature, but a flaw in the education, values, and ideology of economists and business people more generally, particularly graduates of business schools.

These folks need (obviously!) to study history - as history, not as fodder for ideologically driven sand box experiments. They need to consider seriously the lessons of economic history. They need to gain a measure of historical sophistication and gravitas they have heretofore lacked.

neilehat

Superheater, The initial failure of the R.R. was due to the development of the Interstate highway system and the rise of the Trucking Industry. As for passenger rail service loss, this was due to the rise of the automobile culture and planes. All pure market forces and the inability of the R.R. Industry to adapt to the new competitive environment after it's monopoly for some many years in the Transportation Industry. I really wish that I could take some of the old Inter-urbans around instead of having to drive. Oh well.

As for controlling Rail timetables, it's good thing the government does. Ever had to make it over multiple rail crossings in any urban area during rush hour? Evidently not. How about requiring R.R.'s to supply the necessary bridges and tunnels across the Rights of Way (at approx. 700 mil a pop)? How many millions of crossings are out there?

As for requiring safety reg's, it's a good thing they do. I certainly don't want a Locomotive Engineer operating an engine while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other mind altering substances (including electronic devices).

This analysis could gone on ad infinitum. Get the picture. Don't blame the government for simply trying to protect the public's health and safety while at the same time advancing the interests of Industry and Commerce as a whole.

wu

we have more chances right now, just catch it,Do it to the end!

DanC

to lark

What Greenspan said was the he was surprised that financial firms did not act in their long term interests.

Again, blaming greed for this mess is like blaming gravity for an airplane crash.

An assumed check in our system is that firms have a long term view. The stockholders of these companies, and others, discovered that these companies paid outlandish compensation to employees that were destroying the company. Why management was unable to judge the real risks of the firm's actions is unanswered

Matt, 20, San Diego

Would anyone be so kind as to explain the difference between a shortage of liquidity, and a shortage of solvency. There are very closely related I believe. Please forgive my naivete on this matter, but as I see it they both involve not having enough cash to run a business right? Thanks to anyone who replies.

Jim

Matt,

My understanding of solvency is the ability to cover debt with available cash and liquidity is the ability to convert assets to an equivalent asset in an available market for a recognized and generally agreed upon value.

Others will correct me if I am too far off.

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