The Average Is Not the Typical...
links for 2010-10-05

It Does Not Seem to Me That Charles Ferguson Has Gotten It Right...

Google Image Result for

Oh, back in 2005 Rajan was right and Summers was wrong.

But it did not go down like Charles Ferguson says it does.

Charles Ferguson:

Larry Summers and the Subversion of Economics - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education: Summers remained close to Rubin and to Alan Greenspan, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve. When other economists began warning of abuses and systemic risk in the financial system deriving from the environment that Summers, Greenspan, and Rubin had created, Summers mocked and dismissed those warnings. In 2005, at the annual Jackson Hole, Wyo., conference of the world's leading central bankers, the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, Raghuram Rajan, presented a brilliant paper that constituted the first prominent warning of the coming crisis. Rajan pointed out that the structure of financial-sector compensation, in combination with complex financial products, gave bankers huge cash incentives to take risks with other people's money, while imposing no penalties for any subsequent losses. Rajan warned that this bonus culture rewarded bankers for actions that could destroy their own institutions, or even the entire system, and that this could generate a "full-blown financial crisis" and a "catastrophic meltdown."

When Rajan finished speaking, Summers rose up from the audience and attacked him, calling him a "Luddite," dismissing his concerns, and warning that increased regulation would reduce the productivity of the financial sector. (Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, and Alan Greenspan were also in the audience.)

I was there. From my memory, it does not seem to me that Ferguson's summary of the exchange is fair. As I recall--and as the transcript shows--Summers made six points:

  1. The problems that Rajan points to are very real.
  2. He is probably wrong to say that they are more salient now than they have been in the past.
  3. His proposed solution #1--sand in the gears to return us to plain-vanilla banking--is too drastic and throws away very large and very real benefits from financial risk-spreading.
  4. His proposed solution #2--align incentives of managers with ultimate owners--is not drastic enough because LTCM and Shleifer-Vishny show us that it really cannot do the job.
  5. Our best chance is rather to make finance transparent--public transactions in standardized financial vehicles via exchanges so everybody can see what short and long interest are.
  6. And (implied) to rely on central bankers who understand Bagehot's rule and are willing to apply it in emergencies.

I still agree with Larry on (1), (4), and (5). Larry was wrong on (2). And I am on the fence on (2) and (6).

Let's roll the videotape:

Lawrence Summers: I speak as a repentant, brief Tobin tax advocate, and someone who has learned a great deal about the subject, like Don Kohn, from Alan Greenspan, and someone who finds the basic, slightly Luddite premise of this paper to be largely misguided. I want to use an analogy, not unlike the one Hyun Song Shin did, but to a rather different conclusion.

One can think of the history of transportation over the last two centuries as reflecting a gradual and determined move away from arm’s length transactions. People once supplied their own power. Then, they started carrying on transportation using tools that they owned. Then, they increasingly relied on tools that other people owned that were provided by intermediaries.

In that process, the volume of transportation activity increased very substantially. Over time, people became almost entirely complacent about the safety of the transportation arrangements on which they relied. Large sectors of the economy came to be organized in reliance on the capacity of planes to fly and trains to move. The degree of dependence on individual hubs—like O’Hare Airport—increased substantially. The worst accidents came to be substantially greater conflagrations than they had ever been in an earlier era.

Yet, we all would say almost certainly that something very positive and overwhelmingly positive has taken place through this process. Something that is overwhelmingly positive for individuals is that the number of people who die in transportation-related episodes is substantially smaller than it was in an earlier era.

The best single way to think about the process of financial innovation is as representing a similar process of movement across spaces, spanned not by physical space, but by different states of nature. It seems to me that the overwhelming preponderance of what has taken place has been positive. It is probably true that—as we didn’t use to have transportation safety regulation and we do now—an evolving system does require an evolving regulatory response.

But it seems to me that one needs to be very careful about stressing the negative aspects of the evolution, relative to the positive aspects of the evolution. I was going to make the same point that Don Kohn made about the Japanese financial system and the Scandinavian financial system standing out for the magnitude of damage done and the reliance on vanilla banking, relative to other activities.

Something similar could be said about the history of U.S. business cycles. The history of the business cycles prior to 1970 would place very substantial reliance on problems that came out of the financial sector and the regulation of the financial sector.

I was surprised by the tone of the recommendation around the incentives because it seems that if you take what is the central, most plausible area of concern that is suggested by what takes place in the paper, it is the notion that speculation involves negative feedback over a certain range, then positive feedback once you get outside of that corridor, and that process is very substantially exacerbated by hedge fund phenomena. Indeed, if one looks at the Shleifer-Vishny paper that Mr. Rajan refers to, hedge funds and the behavior induced by hedge funds and hedge fund liquidations are the central example. Yet, hedge funds would be the primary example we have of a financial institution where those who were running it did in fact have, as Raghu Rajan recognized in his comment on Long-Term Capital Management, very substantial wealth that was involved.

While I think the paper is right to warn us of the possibility of positive feedback and the dangers that it can bring about in financial markets, the tendency toward restriction that runs through the tone of the presentation seems to me to be quite problematic. It seems to me to support a wide variety of misguided policy impulses in many countries.

I would say as a final example of what has come out of the discussion for the 1987 crisis is that if those who wish to protect their assets had bought explicit puts rather than portfolio insurance, the situation would have been substantially more stable. That also argues for the benefits of more open and free financial markets, rather than for the concerns they bring.