Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Who's responsible for our financial crisis? The government says Stanford economist.

I've been listening to "The Forgotten Man" by Amity Shlaes, a history of the Great Depression 1930s era. What's happening today sadly sounds like a rerun of what happened in the 1930s.

I'm up to the 1934s and FDR's New Deal which was really just an amalgam of unrelated and uncoordinated government activities instituted in response to the economic crisis and based on the "progressive" ideology which guided FDR and his advisers. They really didn't know what they were doing. FDR's policies were really just an extension and massive expansion of Hoover's after the crash of 1929.

At a point, when things weren't turning around, the Roosevelt Administration went looking for scapegoats, particularly business leaders.

Here's a link to an interesting analysis of our financial crisis by a Stanford professor John B. Taylor who outlines missteps made by the Bush Administration and the Fed over the past several years.
My research shows that government actions and interventions -- not any inherent failure or instability of the private economy -- caused, prolonged and dramatically worsened the crisis.

The classic explanation of financial crises is that they are caused by excesses -- frequently monetary excesses -- which lead to a boom and an inevitable bust. This crisis was no different: A housing boom followed by a bust led to defaults, the implosion of mortgages and mortgage-related securities at financial institutions, and resulting financial turmoil.

Monetary excesses were the main cause of the boom. The Fed held its target interest rate, especially in 2003-2005, well below known monetary guidelines that say what good policy should be based on historical experience. Keeping interest rates on the track that worked well in the past two decades, rather than keeping rates so low, would have prevented the boom and the bust. Researchers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have provided corroborating evidence from other countries: The greater the degree of monetary excess in a country, the larger was the housing boom.

The effects of the boom and bust were amplified by several complicating factors including the use of subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages, which led to excessive risk taking. There is also evidence the excessive risk taking was encouraged by the excessively low interest rates. Delinquency rates and foreclosure rates are inversely related to housing price inflation. These rates declined rapidly during the years housing prices rose rapidly, likely throwing mortgage underwriting programs off track and misleading many people.

Adjustable-rate, subprime and other mortgages were packed into mortgage-backed securities of great complexity. Rating agencies underestimated the risk of these securities, either because of a lack of competition, poor accountability, or most likely the inherent difficulty in assessing risk due to the complexity.

Other government actions were at play: The government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were encouraged to expand and buy mortgage-backed securities, including those formed with the risky subprime mortgages.

Government action also helped prolong the crisis. Consider that the financial crisis became acute on Aug. 9 and 10, 2007, when money-market interest rates rose dramatically. Interest rate spreads, such as the difference between three-month and overnight interbank loans, jumped to unprecedented levels.

Diagnosing the reason for this sudden increase was essential for determining what type of policy response was appropriate. If liquidity was the problem, then providing more liquidity by making borrowing easier at the Federal Reserve discount window, or opening new windows or facilities, would be appropriate. But if counterparty risk was behind the sudden rise in money-market interest rates, then a direct focus on the quality and transparency of the bank's balance sheets would be appropriate.

Early on, policy makers misdiagnosed the crisis as one of liquidity, and prescribed the wrong treatment.

The government distorted sound money practices in an effort to keep the economy chugging along. Those actions and then ones in response to the financial crisis have only deepened the crisis we're facing.

Seeing what's happening with the Obama mega-billion economic stimulus bill looks like something the "progressives" would have done during the Roosevelt Administration. Lots of pork, social spending and efforts to further regulate and control society and the economy.

Then as today, the Keynesian economists were in the driving seat in terms of influencing government policy. The whole rationale behind the stimulus bill is that government spending is necessary to jump start the economy. Lot's of observers say that won't happen and will only add to the debt burden facing our government and society.

Getting it right doesn't like look like it's in the cards for the foreseeable future.

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