FPC Blog


Building a Crisis Resilient Financial System

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I consider the Financial crisis of 2007–2008 to be an inevitable consequence of “Moral Hazard” in the finance industry. Banks made profits on risky investments during the boom but taxpayers shared the losses when the investments went bad, thus encouraging riskier behavior.

In my view:

Capitalism generates wealth by allowing the free market to reward the good and punish the bad. If that can’t happen, capitalism does not work. Ideally, the banks which had lent irresponsibly and the individuals and businesses which had taken loans they could not afford would have all gone bankrupt and everyone would have learned their lesson.

Unfortunately, the financial system was characterized by Moral Hazard. The banks convinced themselves they could write bad loans and still make money, because they had devised complex financial instruments which spread the risk so widely that almost every bank in the world was exposed to it. The system became so interconnected that it wasn’t possible to let the “bad” parts of the system fail because they could not be distinguished from the “good” parts. Faced with the possibility of all their banks going bust or bailing them out, many national governments felt obliged to do the latter. This is textbook moral hazard because the entity bearing the losses is not the entity profiting from the original transaction.

The financial system may well have recovered more quickly if the bailouts hadn’t happened, but the suffering in the meantime would most likely have been unacceptable. Everyone who had savings would have seen them wiped out and a great many businesses would have ceased trading because they depend on credit for their cash flow, resulting in mass unemployment. Military coups in previously stable democratic countries could not have been ruled out and the prospect of extreme left or right wing groups taking control would have been a real possibility. The global economy was able to absorb localized banking collapses such as that in Iceland or of Lehman Brothers, but the human cost of a wider collapse would have been far worse.

The bailouts have been “successful” in the sense that some stability has returned, but they have not solved the underlying problem. Despite commitments in some areas to split up retail and investment banking and to improve capital ratios, the moral hazard remains because banks know they are too big to fail and will be bailed out again should the need arise. Only a total, irreversible disengagement of government from the financial sector could resolve this, and that is politically unrealistic. The main issue remains that the real cost of the bailouts is that they have reinforced the promise which was the root cause of the problem, that governments are there to rescue the banks when they fail.

How can we avoid another 2007-2008 type Financial Crisis in the Future?

I believe:

  • The section of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 repealed in 1999 which separated Commercial Banking from Investment Banking and from Insurance must be reinstated, because the Volcker Rule is too hard for regulators to operate/enforce. The bright line rule was much easier to enforce because the lines were very clear. Need to do something special across disciplines? Syndicate it. Money’s too fungible to rely on anything other than legally separate corporate entities, and having Bank Deposit Insurance (i.e. FDIC) on one side of the same house invites cross-subsidization of risk (i.e. abuse, moral hazard).
  • Too big to Fail Financial Institutions must not be allowed to exist – the “living will” requirement is silly nonsense, and will be found to have not been properly updated for a given such institution that gets in trouble in the future. If it’s too big to be allowed to fail, it’s too big to be allowed to exist at all, and the current ones must be cut down to size. This means setting hard limits in law, like the law that prohibits any single deposit-taking bank from having more than 10% of the deposits of the USA (Bank of America is just under the limit, and we might want to think about lowering that one to 5%). The limits must be stated in percentages of economic measures (e.g. GDP) rather than particular dollar amounts. This can be viewed as in the same economic policy vein as Antitrust Law: require a minimum number of entities (prevent cartels, oligopolies, and monopolies) to ensure competition and resultant efficient allocation of capital.
  • Once they’re separate again, Investment Banks must be prohibited from being Public Companies, i.e. selling shares of stock on the public markets to all comers – they must be legally restricted to being Corporate Partnerships. Investment banks walk on the high wire, taking lots of risk, and that risk shifts around much too fast for uninvolved investors to monitor the management – that’s a straight Principal-Agent Problem. I don’t want to restrict their ability to leverage to the skies if they want to – I just want to be able to not care if they screw up & go bust in so doing. If the managers are required to be the owners, the problem goes away. Hell, the managers have every incentive to monitor each other!
  • Credit Default Swaps are insurance, and must be regulated as such. I’m sure that a review of all financial instruments will find very little is actually new under the sun – just the names have been changed to avoid existing regulations (which are usually born out of hard-won experience). That has to stop, which is to say, again, bright line rules for what things are being bought and sold in broad categories, with established regulations on them.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act fixed exactly none of these problems – it papered them over. Paul Volcker is a very, very smart economist and legendary former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, and his rule as he states it is the right thing in principle, but the regulations they wrote to define all the terms & conditions are so grey and messy (and probably pliable or go-around-able) that I think the point is probably lost. That’s why I want legally separated corporations in these differently regulated businesses back. Easy, obvious, bright-line rule.

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