A few years ago, real estate was all the rage. Earlier this year, the business magazines were telling us to invest in Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, because those stocks were bound to zoom. Now another herd is on the march.
We’re in a paradigm shift, its members say. The current financial turmoil marks the end of the era of wide-open global capitalism. Today’s gigantic government acquisitions signal a new political era, with more federal activism and tighter regulations.
This observation is then followed by a string of ethereal gottas and shoulds. We gotta have smart regulation that offers security but doesn’t stifle innovation. We gotta have rules that inhibit reckless gambling without squelching sensible risk-taking. We should limit excesses during booms and head off liquidations when things go bad.
It all sounds great (like buying a house with no money down), but do you mind if I do a little due diligence?
In the first place, the idea that our problems stem from light regulation and could be solved by more regulation doesn’t fit all the facts. The current financial crisis is centered around highly regulated investment banks, while lightly regulated hedge funds are not doing so badly. Two of the biggest miscreants were Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which, in theory, “were probably the world’s most heavily supervised financial institutions,” according to Jonathan Kay of The Financial Times.
Moreover, there is a lot of lamentation about Clinton era reforms that loosened restrictions on banks. But it’s hard, as Megan McArdle of The Atlantic notes, to see what these reforms had to do with rising house prices, the flood of foreign investment that fed the credit bubble and the global creation of complex new financial instruments for pricing and distributing risk.
In other words, maybe there is something more going on here than just a bunch of laissez-faire regulators asleep at the wheel. But even if it is true that we need more federal activism, I’m a little curious about what we’re going to need to make the system work.
Surely, we’re going to need lawmakers who understand what caused the current meltdown and who can design rules to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And yet there’s no consensus about what caused this bubble.
Some people blame the Fed’s monetary policies, but some say the Fed had only a marginal effect. Some argue a flood of foreign investment allowed us to live beyond our means, while others say bad accounting regulations after Enron created a chain reaction of losses.
We don’t even have a clear explanation about the past, yet we’re also going to need regulators who understand the present and can diagnose the future.
We’re going to need regulators who can anticipate what the next Wall Street business model is going to look like, and how the next crisis will be different than the current one. We’re going to need squads of low-paid regulators who can stay ahead of the highly paid bankers, auditors and analysts who pace this industry (and who themselves failed to anticipate this turmoil).
We’re apparently going to need an all-powerful Super-Fed than can manage inflation, unemployment, bubbles and maybe hurricanes — all at the same time! We’re going to need regulators who write regulations that control risky behavior rather than just channeling it off into dark corners, and who understand what’s happening in bank trading rooms even if the C.E.O.’s themselves are oblivious.
We’re also going to need regulators who can overcome politics and human nature. As McArdle notes, cracking down on subprime loans just when they were getting frothy would have meant issuing an edict that effectively said: “Don’t lend money to poor people.” Good luck with that.
We’d need regulators who could spot a bubble and squelch a boom just when things seem to be going good, who can scare away foreign investment and who could over-rule popularity-mongering presidents. (The statements by the two candidates this week have been moronic.)
To sum it all up, this supposed new era of federal activism is going to confront some old problems: the lack of information available to government planners, the inability to keep up with or control complex economic systems, the fact that political considerations invariably distort the best laid plans.
This doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done. Martin Wolf suggests countercyclical capital requirements. Everybody seems to be for some updated version of the Resolution Trust Corporation, though disposing of complex debt securities has got to be more difficult than disposing of commercial real estate.
It’s just that there’s a big difference between dreaming of some ideal regulatory regime and actually putting one into practice. Everybody says we’re about to enter a new political era, rich in global financial regulation. The herd might just be wrong once again.