Simon Johnson: The Slipperiness of 'Macroprudential Regulation'

by: Kevin S. Price

Back on April 1st, we produced an excerpt from Simon Johnson's excellent Atlantic essay "The Quiet Coup." We called our post "Line of the Year," with reference to Johnson's statement that "anything too big to fail is too big to exist."

Yesterday, at The Baseline Scenario, Johnson extended that line of thinking by wondering out loud whether the Fed--or any other "macroprudential regulator"--can "sniff" bubbles before they threaten the financial system.

"Asset bubbles may not be that hard to identify," [New York Fed President William C.] Dudley argues. Fine, but it would help to know exactly the Fed would do this ex ante-–not using the rear view mirror.

Of course, if the Fed can't get better at spotting bubbles, the implication is that no one can. Which means that "macroprudential regulator" is just a slogan-–a nice piece of what Lenin liked to call "agitprop."

And if macroprudentially regulating is an illusion, what does that imply? There will be bubbles and there will be busts. Next time, however, will there be financial institutions (banks, insurance companies, asset managers, you name it) who are-–or are perceived to be–-too big to fail"?

You cannot stop the tide and you cannot prevent financial crises. But you can limit the cost of those crises if your biggest players are small enough to fail.

We think Johnson's exactly right, not just in sensible-capitalist principle, but in practical terms as well. Government has a fighting chance to get antitrust-style stuff right. But identifying bubbles? And doing something about them at the right moments... neither too soon nor too late? We just don't see it.