Aug 11th 2009

Let Finance Skeptics Take Over

by Dani Rodrik

Dani Rodrik, Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the first recipient of the Social Science Research Council’s Albert O. Hirschman Prize. His latest book is One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth.

CAMBRIDGE - The race is on to fill the most important economic policy position in the world. United States Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's term ends in January, and President Barack Obama must decide before then: either re-appoint Bernanke or go with someone else - the names most often mentioned are Larry Summers and Janet Yellen - with more solid Democratic credentials.

It is a decision of momentous consequence not just for the US, but also for the world economy. As guardians of the nation's money supply and setters of short-term interest rates, central bankers have always played a critical role. Lower the interest rate too much, and inflation and monetary instability result. Raise it too much, and the economy slides into recession and unemployment.

Monetary policy is hardly a science, so a good central banker must be humble. He must appreciate the limits of his understanding and of the efficacy of the tools at his disposal. Yet he cannot afford to be perceived as indecisive, which would only invite destabilizing financial speculation.

Indeed, as important as their functions are, in recent decades central banks have become even more significant as a consequence of the development of financial markets. Even when not formally designated as such, central banks have become the guardians of financial-market sanity. The dangers of failing at this task have been made painfully clear in the sub-prime mortgage debacle. Under Obama's proposed new rules, the Fed will have even larger responsibilities, and will be charged with averting financial crises and ensuring that banks are not taking on too much risk.

This is a job at which former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan proved to be a spectacular failure. His blind spot on financial-market excesses - the little "flaw" in his thinking, as he later termed - left him oblivious to the dangers of Wall Street titans' financial innovations. As a member of the Fed's Board of Governors under Greenspan during 2002-2005, Bernanke can also be faulted for having played along.

The Fed chairman exerts global influence not only through monetary policy, but also through his words. He sets the tone for policy discussions and helps shape the belief system within which policymakers around the world operate.

What hampered Greenspan and Bernanke as financial regulators was that they were excessively in awe of Wall Street and what it does. They operated under the assumption that what is good for Wall Street is good for Main Street. This will no doubt change as a result of the crisis, even if Bernanke remains at the helm. But what the world needs is a Fed chairman who is instinctively skeptical of financial markets and their social value.

Here are some of the lies that the finance industry tells itself and others, and which any new Fed chairman will need to resist.

Prices set by financial markets are the right ones for allocating capital and other resources to their most productive uses. That is what textbooks and financiers tell you, but we have now many reasons to be wary.

In the language of economists, there are far too many "market failures" in finance for these prices to be a good guide for resource allocation. There are "agency problems" that drive a wedge between the interests of the owners of capital and the interests of bank CEOs and other finance executives. Asymmetric information between sellers and buyers of financial products can easily leave buyers vulnerable to abuse, as we saw with mortgage-backed securities.

Implicit or explicit bail-out guarantees, moreover, induce too much risk-taking. Large financial intermediaries endanger the entire financial system when they use the wrong risk model and make bad decisions. Regulation is at best a partial remedy for such problems. So the prices that financial markets generate are as likely to send the wrong signals as they are to send the right ones.

Financial markets discipline governments. This is one of the most commonly stated benefits of financial markets, yet the claim is patently false. When markets are in a euphoric state, they are in no position to exert discipline on any borrower, let alone a government with a reasonable credit rating. If in doubt, ask scores of emerging-market governments that had no difficulty borrowing in international markets, typically in the run-up to an eventual payments crisis.

In many of these cases - Turkey during the 1990's is a good example - financial markets enabled irresponsible governments to embark on unsustainable borrowing sprees. When "market discipline" comes, it is usually too late, too severe, and applied indiscriminately.

The spread of financial markets is an unmitigated good. Well, no. Financial globalization was supposed to have enabled poor, undercapitalized countries to gain access to the savings of rich countries. It was supposed to have promoted risk-sharing globally.

In fact, neither expectation was fulfilled. In the years before the financial crash, capital moved from poor countries to rich countries, rather than vice versa. (This may not have been a bad thing, since it turns out that large (net) borrowers in international markets tend to grow less rapidly than others.) And economic volatility has actually increased in emerging markets under financial globalization, owing in part to frequent financial crises spawned by mobile capital.

Financial innovation is a great engine of productivity growth and economic well-being. Again, no. Imagine that we had asked five years ago for examples of really useful kinds of financial innovation. We would have heard about a long-list of mortgage-related instruments, which supposedly made financing available to home buyers who would not have been able to purchase homes otherwise. We now know where that led us. The truth lies closer to Paul Volcker's view that for most people the automated teller machine (ATM) has brought bigger benefits than any financially-engineered bond.

The world economy has been run for too long by finance enthusiasts. It is time that finance skeptics began to take over.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jan 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "Electricity will dominate the future global energy system. Currently, it accounts for only 20% of final energy demand,......Without assuming any fundamental technological breakthroughs, we could certainly build by 2050 a global economy in which electricity met 65-70% of final energy demand,....."
Jan 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the world economy operating dangerously close to stall speed, the confluence of ever-present shocks and a sharply diminished trade cushion raises serious questions about financial markets’ increasingly optimistic view of global economic prospects."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Gibson’s diagnosis is supported by international attitude surveys. One found that most Americans rarely think about the future and only a few think about the distant future. When they are forced to think about it, they don’t like what they see. Another poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 44% of Americans were pessimistic about what lies ahead. But pessimism about the future isn’t just limited to the US. One international poll of over 400,000 people from 26 countries found that people in developed countries tended to think that the lives of today’s children will be worse than their own. And a 2015 international survey by YouGov found that people in developed countries were particularly pessimistic. For instance, only 4% of people in Britain thought things were improving. This contrasted with 41% of Chinese people who thought things were getting better."
Jan 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "........while over 80% of the ECB scheme buys government and other public sector bonds, a huge chunk still goes into corporate bonds and other assets. At the time of writing, the ECB holds €263 billion worth of corporate bonds – a very significant amount in relation to individual firms and the sectors in question. According to the ECB, 29% of these bonds were issued by French firms, 25% by German firms and 11% each by Spanish and Italian firms. As at September 2017, the sectors they came from included utilities (16%), infrastructure (12%), automotive (10%) and energy (7%)."
Jan 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Thanks to cutting-edge digital technology, cars are increasingly like “smartphones on wheels”, so manufacturers need to have access to the latest patented 4G and 5G technologies essential to navigation and communications. But often the companies that hold the patents are reluctant to license them because manufacturers will not accept the high fees involved, which leads to patent disputes and licensing rows."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favorable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "In the absence of a declaration of war against Iran, the killing of a foreign official – by a drone strike on Iraqi territory – was possibly illegal. But such niceties do not perturb Trump. The evidence is that Trump’s decision was taken without consideration of the possible consequences. The national security system established under Dwight D. Eisenhower, designed to prevent such reckless measures, is broken to non-existent, with ever-greater power placed in the hands of the president. If that president is unstable, the entire world has a very serious problem."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is possible that Trump’s reverential base won’t be sufficient to keep him in the White House past 2020. But such ardent faith is hard to oppose with rational plans to fix this or that problem. That is why it is so unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "If anything has become clear in our recent Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling in Iraq, is that most Iraqis are tired of their country being used as a playground for regional conflict, especially the conflict between the US and Iran. In fact, our polling has shown Iraqis increasingly upset with the role played by both the US and Iran in their country. Majorities see both of these countries as having been the major beneficiaries of the wars that have ravaged their nation since the US invaded in 2003. "
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Under his [Suleimani's] leadership, Iran helped Hezbollah beef up its missile capabilities, led a decisive intervention to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supported the Houthi rebels who have been waging a war against Saudi-led forces in Yemen, and backed a wave of resurgent Shia militias in Iraq. According to Gadi Eizenkot, who completed his term as the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of general staff last year, Suleimani had plans to amass a proxy force of 100,000 fighters along Syria’s border with Israel."
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: ".....stunning technological progress during the 2010s makes it possible to cut GHG emissions at a cost far lower than we dared hope a decade ago. The costs of solar and wind power have fallen more than 80% and 70%, respectively, while lithium-ion battery costs are down from $1,000 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 to $160 per kWh today. These and other breakthroughs guarantee that energy systems which are as much as 85% dependent on variable renewables could produce zero-carbon electricity at costs that are fully competitive with those of fossil-fuel-based systems."
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "Predicting the next crisis – financial or economic – is a fool’s game. Yes, every crisis has its hero who correctly warned of what was about to come. And, by definition, the hero was ignored (hence the crisis). But the record of modern forecasting contains a note of caution: those who correctly predict a crisis rarely get it right again. The best that economists can do is to assess vulnerability. Looking at imbalances in the real economy or financial markets gives a sense of the potential consequences of a major shock. It doesn't take much to spark corrections in vulnerable economies and markets. But a garden-variety correction is far different from a crisis. The severity of the shock and the degree of vulnerability matter: big shocks to highly vulnerable systems are a recipe for crisis. In this vein, the source of vulnerability that I worry about the most is the overextended state of central-bank balance sheets. My concern stems from three reasons."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Conspiracy theories about sinister Jewish power have a long history. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery published in 1903, popularized the notion that Jewish bankers and financiers were secretly pulling the strings to dominate the world. Henry Ford was one of the more prominent people who believed this nonsense."
Dec 13th 2019
EXTRACT: "In previous British elections, to say that trust was the main issue would have meant simply that trust is the trump card – whichever leader or party could secure most trust would win. Now, the emerging question about trust is whether it even matters anymore."
Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.