I finally got around to seeing the movie Inside Job, the story behind the credit crisis and winner of the Academy Award for best documentary. It’s very good and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it. It will certainly infuriate you. The movie doesn’t place nearly enough blame on homeowners, but all in all it does an excellent job of showing how Wall Street and government have become overrun by deregulation and sheer greed.
A combination of flawed economic theory and greed have combined to create the beast that we now call a “functioning” economy. The worst part of it all is that President Obama, who vowed change, has done almost nothing to fix any of it and in fact continues most of the policies that helped get us here in the first place.
In his latest letter Howard Marks touches on the regulatory debate. He says:
A great source on the subject is Wall Street Under Oath, a 1939 book on the causes of the Great Crash of 1929 written by Ferdinand Pecora, who was counsel to the Senate committee investigating the crash and later a New York State judge. I first read it about twenty years ago, and I brought it out of storage in 2007. It is a typical polemic, assigning blame and touting regulation pursuant to what I assume were the author’s philosophical/political biases (see page 4).
Pecora describes a Wall Street that, up to and including the 1920s, was like the Wild West. Bankers and brokers were out to make money for themselves; their behavior was largely unregulated; and conflicts between their interests and those of their clients were widespread and disregarded. In particular, according to Pecora, disclosure standards were non-existent.
These facts combined with other causes to produce a market crash of epic proportions; widespread losses; a drying up of capital; deflation; and a massive depression with a resulting increase in unemployment to 25%. Unsurprisingly, fingers were pointed at the prior administration and political power shifted to believers in an activist role for government. The most lasting result was the enactment of laws that governed the financial system for decades and in many cases still do: the Securities Act, the Securities and Exchange Act, and the Glass-Steagall Act. Thus the 1930s saw a massive swing of the pendulum in favor of regulation.
The next several decades on Wall Street were – perhaps thanks to the impact of those laws – a relatively placid period. This led to a view that, with rare exceptions, market participants are well-behaved by nature. Further, steady growth with only moderate dips caused a perception of an inherently benign and productive economy that could achieve even more if only the regulatory shackles were loosened. After President Carter deregulated the transportation industry in the late 1970s, the door was open for much of the regulatory apparatus built in the early part of the century to be relaxed. Ronald Reagan, whose famously free-market views coincided with a period of peace and prosperity, led the deregulatory charge. We saw a similar turn in Britain under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher; the collapse of the USSR and a resounding victory for capitalism; and the ascendance of free market adherents Alan Greenspan and George W. Bush.
With the economy and financial system generating prosperity, people wanted more of the same. And with manufacturing in decline, we relied heavily on the financial sector for an increased contribution to GDP, job creation and standards of living. The prevailing view was that the less regulation we had, the more productive business and finance could be. And what was there to be feared from an unregulated economy, anyway? The result in the past decade, according to a great newspaper quote that sadly I can’t locate, was “the kind of regulation you get from an administration that doesn’t believe in regulation.”
Thus, coming full circle from the 1930s, starting in 1999 we saw revocation of Glass-Steagall; elimination of the up-tick rule limiting short sales to instances when stock prices were rising; a pivotal decision to exempt derivatives from regulation; increased permitted leverage at investment banks; and starvation of regulatory agency budgets. These developments were followed by the global financial crisis of 2007-08. Coincidence or causality?
No, it’s most certainly not a coincidence. Marks goes on to argue that the markets and regulations will never be perfect so our economy will continue to be imperfect. It’s a rather defeatist and general attitude if you ask me. I think there are fairly basic rules that can and should be implemented that limit the potential outlier events from occurring. For instance, collateral on OTC derivatives would have substantially reduced the risks at the investment banks. Leverage limits. Higher capital standards. How about requiring down payments on homes? These are simple rules that eliminate the potential for some of the incredible risks we’ve seen over the last 25 years.
I am not an advocate of highly strict rules, just common sense rules. The fact that the NINJA loan ever even came into existence is a clear sign that allowing the markets to regulate themselves is bordering on insanity. Such lack of rules in capitalism is guaranteed to result in putting greed before rationality. I don’t want to contain capitalism. But I do want to keep it from destroying itself. That is the path we are on and the increasing instability upon which we build each recovery is a clear example….
In the movie, a prominent paper is mentioned written by Raghuram Rajan, a professor of Economics at the Chicago School. He shows how the financialization of the US economy is creating an increasingly unstable economy. Make no mistake, markets are not self regulating. This nonsense that government should never oversee the free market is disastrous policy that is driven by a misguided and dogmatic political perspective and a purely greed driven banking system.
It’s a great weekend read. Enjoy.