Friday, April 09, 2010

How To Solve The Financial Crisis

Someone asked me to recommend him some academic economics journal articles about the causes of the Financial Crisis. I demurred, and explained why:

Mainstream economics, and at least 80% of all economics, is "free-market" in the sense that it understands and approves of the free market, and only wants to interfere with it when it will actually do some good for society as a whole, and wants the intervention to be as small and as market-based as possible.

So it would only support things like a Negative Income Tax (which Milton Friedman invented), or school vouchers (which Friedman also supported), and other sorts of vouchers.

To clarify even more: The overwhelming majority of economists dislike the vast majority of current government programs, even though they are moderate-liberal Democrats themselves. (For the question of why they still support the Democrats even though they oppose their programs, I refer you to Professor Klein, whose class I'm typing this in, and also Arnold Kling. Kling says it's "culture" or "psychological identification" -- they're more comfortable with fellow-intellectuals that they disagree with, rather than rednecks that they despise. They'd rather belong to the party of Soft Heads than the party of Hard Hearts.)

So just about *any* economics journal article would be acceptable.

Second, to quote Nobel Prize-winner George Stigler, "The typical article in a professional journal is unrelated to public policy -- and often apparently unrelated to anything in reality." So from that point of view *no* journal article would be acceptable. Use blogs, or articles in "popular journals," e.g. Atlantic or The Economist, instead.

Third, people -- even experts who are generally within the same economic doctrine -- are still arguing about what went wrong, never mind how to fix it.

Bottom line: Google "financial" and "crisis" at

Here's my take on what happened:

1. For a variety of reasons, some due to human miscalculation and some due to government intervention, we had a housing bubble: prices rose above a reasonable level, people kept buying anyway, and people overextended themselves buying housing on credit (zero-down mortgages).
Clear definition of a reasonable level: If bonds are paying 3% per year (33 x earnings) it's not reasonable to pay 50 x (expected) earnings for stocks. It makes no sense! It might make sense for a specific stock if you thought its expected earnings were going to skyrocket, or if you thought everyone else was about to mistakenly think its expected earnings were going to skyrocket, but not to do it across the board.

2. Eventually the bubble burst and housing prices dropped drastically. Therefore some people started defaulting on their mortgages (because they weren't worth keeping -- the debt was higher than the new value of the house) and even the mortgages that didn't default (yet) had to be re-valued and banks suddenly found their collateral for loans had disappeared and their balance sheets were horrible. For a variety of reasons, partly because the housing bubble had so many participants and partly because the risk was "spread around" by "bundling" mortgages, this meant a *lot* of banks and other financial houses were hit.

3. When the housing bubble burst, it also affected people who were relatively solvent, by dropping the value of their houses; and this affected the stock market. People *were* buying stocks by using the equity in their homes, and felt fine about it; now the equity disappeared -- it was just as if they found out their rich uncle who previously said he would leave all his wealth to them had suddenly decided to disinherit them -- started selling off stocks because they wanted cash in hand. This drove the value of stocks down, which caused even more panic selling.

4. Therefore, not only were people defaulting on mortgages but there were also people whose lives were unaffected by anything physical, anything that could be seen by watching a silent videotape of Before versus After, who felt poor and/or panicked. People who still had jobs and could meet their mortgage payments (same as before) and pay their groceries and utility bills (same as before) because all their paper wealth (the equity of their houses, and the value of their stock portfolios) had evaporated. (By the way, one extremely important thing to understand is that my vampire RPG character, Mr Grey a/k/a Caliban, lost 3/4 of his wealth in the crisis, because almost all of his wealth was in stocks and real estate -- I had established the basics of his investments when I created him back in 2002!)

5. Also, businesses were affected because capital dried up. People saved/invested less because they didn't have paper wealth, so they didn't have as much money to put into banks. (Previously, they had been getting cash by refinancing their houses, or by selling them, at inflated prices, or from the stock market, and then putting it into banks or stocks or more real estate.) And so banks didn't have as much cash on hand *and* they couldn't make any new loans anyway, because they were overextended because the value of the collateral on all their previous loans was gone. It was exactly as if tornadoes had devastated all the houses so there wasn't any collateral value left.

6. Banks reacted by drastically reducing the amount of new loans they made. Partly they raised their interest rates but mostly they just became very, very cautious; they wanted to see huge amounts of collateral before they would make a loan for anything, either homes or business loans or automobile loans or anything else. This helped cause a *real* recession (decline in employment and production and incomes, which then causes more decline, etc.) in addition to the crash of *paper* wealth (loss of value of real estate and stocks).

7. IMO the proper response by government would have been to say "Nobody is too big to fail; when you play with fire, you gonna get burn'; when you take the profits you gotta take the losses as well. We have guaranteed people's bank accounts up to $100,000 per person if they failed; we will make a special temporary increase up to $250,000 or $500,000 for the next year or two to cushion the blow so people aren't hurt *too* badly. We will also increase unemployment benefits to help those who have temporarily lost their jobs due to the recession. We will also reform the welfare system" -- hey, I'm like Rahm Emmanuel, I never want to let a good crisis go to waste, and reforming welfare to be more like a Negative Income Tax / Guaranteed Income system is something we should have done 40 years ago -- "and eliminate corporate welfare and other subsidies" -- as I always say, I don't know if we need more spending the less-fortunate but we definitely need less spending on the more-fortunate -- "and use all those savings to cut the deficit, which will boost the economy while bringing us *out* of debt instead of further into it."

8. Unfortunately, the government decided, by the most amazing coincidence, to do something to help out the people and groups who were politically powerful and well-connected. So they decided to bail out Wall Street bankers and brokers, and also the people who defaulted on their mortgages that they should never have gotten in the first place, and the non-Wall Street bankers who should never have given those mortgages in the first place -- in other words, gangs of criminals who ripped off hard-working taxpayers. I have some sympathy for poor, uneducated people who lied on their mortgage documents, but no sympathy for white-collar criminal "banksters" who told them to do it.