Friday, May 7, 2010

Dr. Doom Collects His Prescient Thoughts About Economics and the Financial Crisis

Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm has written a book about the financial crisis that could become the most influential book on the subject thanks to Roubini's brilliance and track record as the man who most clearly and definitively predicted the crisis.

The new book is called Crisis Economics - A Crash Course in the Future of Finance and is reviewed in today's New York Times. "Instead of imposing a doctrinaire theory upon the facts, Mr. Roubini employs an eclectic, common-sense approach to history, picking à la carte from the thinking of such disparate economists as John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter," Michiko Kakutani writes in her review.

Stephen Mihm, a journalist and professor of economic history at the University of Georgia, wrote an excellent portrait of Dr. Doom in New York Times Sunday Magazine in August 2008, the month before the financial collapse. Mihm's story began like this:

On Sept. 7, 2006, Nouriel Roubini, an economics professor at New York University, stood before an audience of economists at the International Monetary Fund and announced that a crisis was brewing. In the coming months and years, he warned, the United States was likely to face a once-in-a-lifetime housing bust, an oil shock, sharply declining consumer confidence and, ultimately, a deep recession. He laid out a bleak sequence of events: homeowners defaulting on mortgages, trillions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities unraveling worldwide and the global financial system shuddering to a halt. These developments, he went on, could cripple or destroy hedge funds, investment banks and other major financial institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The audience seemed skeptical, even dismissive. As Roubini stepped down from the lectern after his talk, the moderator of the event quipped, “I think perhaps we will need a stiff drink after that.” People laughed — and not without reason. At the time, unemployment and inflation remained low, and the economy, while weak, was still growing, despite rising oil prices and a softening housing market. And then there was the espouser of doom himself: Roubini was known to be a perpetual pessimist, what economists call a “permabear.” When the economist Anirvan Banerji delivered his response to Roubini’s talk, he noted that Roubini’s predictions did not make use of mathematical models and dismissed his hunches as those of a career naysayer.
So much for the power of abstract mathematical models in economics! Or as Mihm puts it in his 2008 essay:
The dismal science, it seems, is an optimistic profession. Many economists, Roubini among them, argue that some of the optimism is built into the very machinery, the mathematics, of modern economic theory. Econometric models typically rely on the assumption that the near future is likely to be similar to the recent past, and thus it is rare that the models anticipate breaks in the economy. And if the models can’t foresee a relatively minor break like a recession, they have even more trouble modeling and predicting a major rupture like a full-blown financial crisis. Only a handful of 20th-century economists have even bothered to study financial panics. (The most notable example is probably the late economist Hyman Minksy, of whom Roubini is an avid reader.) “These are things most economists barely understand,” Roubini told me. “We’re in uncharted territory where standard economic theory isn’t helpful.”
In their book, Roubini and Mihm analyses the current proposal for reform of the financial markets, proposals that have the backing by both President Barack Obama and treasuru secretary Timothy Geithner. They are way too timid according to the authors, who also propose a break-up of Wall Street's financial giants:
Throughout most of 2009, Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly tried to quash calls for sweeping regulation of the financial system. In speeches and in testimony before Congress, he begged his listeners to keep financial innovation alive and “resist a response that is solely designed to protect us against the 100-year storm”.

That’s ridiculous. What we’ve experienced wasn’t some crazy once-in-a-century event. Since its founding, the United States has suffered from brutal banking crises and other financial disasters on a regular basis. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, crippling panics and depressions hit the nation again and again. The crisis was less a function of sub-prime mortgages than of a sub-prime financial system. Thanks to everything from warped compensation structures to corrupt ratings agencies, the global financial system rotted from the inside out. The financial crisis merely ripped the sleek and shiny skin off what had become, over the years, a gangrenous mess.

The road to recovery will be a long one. For starters, traders and bankers must be compensated in a way that brings their interests in alignment with those of shareholders. That doesn’t necessarily mean less compensation, even if that’s desirable for other reasons; it merely means that employees of financial firms should be paid in ways that encourage them to look out for the long-term interests of the firms.

Securitization must be overhauled as well. Simplistic solutions, such as asking banks to retain some of the risk, won’t be enough; far more radical reforms will be necessary. Securitization must have far greater transparency and standardization, and the products of the securitization pipeline must be heavily regulated. Most important of all, the loans going into the securitization pipeline must be subject to far greater scrutiny. The mortgages and other loans must be of high quality, or if not, they must be very clearly identified as less than prime and therefore risky.

Some people believe that securitization should be abolished. That’s short-sighted: properly reformed, securitization can be a valuable tool that reduces, rather than exacerbates, systemic risk. But in order for it to work, it must operate in a far more transparent and standardized fashion than it does now.

Absent this shift, accurately pricing these securities, much less reviving the market for securitization, is next to impossible. What we need are reforms that deliver the peace of mind that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did when it was created.
There is an allegory that bites!
Wall Street is a lawless jungle that has served us rotten food, hence we need a financial FDA! I'm sure Upton Sinclair smiles in his grave! (His 1906 novel about Chicago's meatpacking plants, The Jungle, led to new food inspection laws in 1906, and eventually - 1930 - the FDA.)

Hans Sandberg

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