Why the Warnings were Ignored: Too many False Alarms-Becker
I will first make a couple of comments on the present situation. It is not yet obvious that the recent steps taken by the Fed and the Treasury have been "failures". One cannot make that determination when the $700 billion plan has not yet been tried, and the Treasury seems to be changing its mind about the approach to use. I agree with the argument in the recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Paul Volker, the distinguished former head of the Fed, that the Fed and Treasury have enough tools to end the financial panic, and to get investment by banks started again.
To be sure, a recession is looming, but is this the biggest economic bust since the Great Depression? It is the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s, but the economic bust of the Great Depression meant a 25 percent unemployment rate for much of a decade, and sharp and sustained falls in GDP. While I expect unemployment to increase significantly from its present 6.1 percent level, and GDP to fall for a while, maybe sharply, there is little chance the downturn will approach anywhere near the 1930s levels. Perhaps it will be the most severe recession since then, although even that remains to be seen.
Consider what happened in Japan during the 1990s when it had a widely discussed major financial crisis that lasted for a decade. Unlike the Great Depression, Japan's real GDP did not fall much but was mainly stagnant: the real value of its GDP was 430 billion yen in 1990, 462 billion yen in 1995, and 482 billion yen in 2000. Nothing in this stagnating Japanese experience approached the economic devastation of the 1930s. I believe we have learned how to avoid such a huge economic disaster, although a decade of world stagnation would be quite bad.
To come to this week's blog topic, I also have a somewhat different take than Posner on why warning signals were ignored. The period since the early 1980s until the crisis erupted involved both rapid economic growth for most of the world, and unprecedented stability in this growth. Inflation rates were low and fluctuations in real output, as measured by the size and duration of recessions, were modest compared to the past. Economists and central bankers like Greenspan believed that we had learned how to keep inflation low, and also had the capacity to smooth out fluctuations in output and employment. The main Central Bank technique was inflation targeting, and a more general set of rules, called Taylor rules, that targeted a combination of the inflation rate and deviations of real output growth from its long term trend rate. These policies did work well for about 25 years, which created considerable confidence that they could handle future economic difficulties as well.
The second relevant development has been advances in financial instruments, such as derivatives, securitization, credit-backed swaps, and other even more esoteric instruments. These instruments seemed to work quite well in managing, spreading and even reducing the risk of the assets held by banks and other institutions. However, in the process they encouraged greater risk-taking ventures, as reflected by the large increase in the leverage-that is, in the ratio of assets to capital- of banks and financial institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. What has been insufficiently understood is that the growing use of these instruments, and the growing leverage of financial institutions, created considerable aggregate risk for the system as a whole that could not be diversified away.
This combination of growing central bank confidence in its ability to iron out various wrinkles in economic performance, and the belief that the new financial instruments would help manage and reduce risk, blinded the vast majority of economists (I include myself), bankers, and government regulators to the vulnerability of the whole system. This vulnerability was especially important for aggregate shocks akin to a classical run on banks. When institutions are highly leveraged, they have great difficulty coping with a massive loss of confidence in the system.
While Roubini and others who warned about weaknesses in the mortgage market and other parts of the financial system deserve credit for their foresight, experts predicted numerous disasters during the past several decades that never happened. For example, after the huge one-day stock market collapse in October 1987, Business Week and other magazines and newspapers warned that a Great Depression might soon be coming. I argued against that view in a column I published in Business Week the same week as the market crash (reprinted in The Economics of Life by Guity N. Becker and myself). These dire forecasts turned out to be completely wrong. Similar highly negative but wrong economic forecasts were made during the internet bubble, after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 (on this see my post of September 21st), the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, and after other periods of economic distress. In an atmosphere where the world economy showed great capacity to withstand difficult shocks, it is not at all surprising that some forecasts of disaster that turned out to be more correct were ignored.
In addition, one should not minimize the great economic achievements of the past 25 years in the form of rapid growth in world GDP, low world inflation, and low unemployment in most countries. Perhaps these achievements will be overshadowed by a deep world recession, but that remains to be seen. If the impact of this financial crisis on the real economy is not both very severe and very prolonged, and time will answer that question, the combination of the past 21/2 decades of remarkable achievement, and the economic turbulence that followed, may still look good when placed in full historical perspective.