Like a bubble formed from chewing gum, the gradual expansion of the spherical formation occurs much slower than the immediacy of the pop. A minority of investors identified the treacherous, credit-induced bubble of 2008 before it burst, however not included in that group are financial regulators. Now we’re left with the task of cleaning up the sticky mess on our faces and establishing measures to prevent future blow-ups.
George Soros, Chairman of Soros Fund Management and author of The Crash of 2008, has been around the financial market block a few times, so I think it pays to heed the regulatory reform recommendations as it relates to the “Super bubble” of 2008. As you probably know, financial bubbles are not a new concept. Beyond the oft-mentioned technology and real estate bubbles of this decade, bubbles such as the “Tulip-mania” of the 1630s serve as a gentle reminder of the everlasting existence of irrational economic behavior. If the Dutch were willing to pay $76,000 for a tulip bulb (inflation-adjusted) almost 400 years ago, then virtually any mania is possible.
Bubbles and Efficiency
Efficient markets are somewhat like UFOs. Some people believe in them, but many do not. In order to believe in the existence of bubbles, one needs to question the validity of the pure form of efficient markets (read more about market efficiency). Here’s how Soros feels about market efficiency:
I contend that financial markets always present a distorted picture of reality.
I believe we will be in a hyper-sensitive period of bubble witch-hunting for a while, as the fresh wounds of 2008-09 heal themselves. If you get in early enough, bubbles can be profitable. Unfortunately, like a distracted teen fixated on the sunbathers at a nude beach, the excitement can lead to a painful burn if preventative sunscreen measures are not taken. Most bubble participants are too exhilarated to carry out a thoughtful exit strategy – the news can just be too tempting to jump off the top.
In his analysis of market regulation, Soros lays some of the “Great Recession” blame on the Federal Reserve and Alan Greenspan (Chairman of Fed):
Instead of a tendency towards equilibrium, financial markets have a tendency to develop bubbles. Bubbles are not irrational: it pays to join the crowd, at least for a while. So regulators cannot count on the market to correct its excesses…The crash of 2008 was caused by the collapse of a super-bubble that has been growing since 1980. This was composed of smaller bubbles. Each time a financial crisis occurred the authorities intervened, took care of the failing institutions, and applied monetary and fiscal stimulus, inflating the super-bubble even further.
Soros’ Recipe for Reform
What is Soros’ solution for the “Super bubble?” Here are some recommendations from his Op-Ed in the Financial Times:
- Regulator Accountability: First of all, financial authorities need to accept responsibility for preventing excesses – excuses are not an acceptable response.
- Control Credit: Rather than having static monetary targets such as margin requirements, capital reserve requirements, and loan-to-value ratios, Soros argues these metrics can be adjusted in accordance with the swinging moods of economic cycles. He punctuates the point by saying, "To control asset bubbles it is not enough to control the money supply; you must also control credit."
- Limit Overheating in Specific Sectors: Had regulators limited lending during the real estate explosion or had the SEC limited technology IPOs in the late 1990s, perhaps our country would be in better financial health today.
- Manage Derivatives and Systemic Risk: Basically what Soros is saying here is that many market participants can become overwhelmed by certain exposures or exotic instruments, therefore it behooves regulators to proactively step in and regulate.
- Manage Too Big to Fail (read related Graham IC article): According to Soros a big reason we got into this trouble relates to the irresponsible proprietary trading departments at some of the larger banks. Responsibly separating these departments and limiting the amount of risk undertaken is an important element to the safety of our financial system.
- Reformulate Asset Holding Rules: Underestimating the risk profile of a certain security can lead to concentration issues, which can potentially generate systemic risk. Soros highlights the European Basel Accord rules as an area that can use some improvement.
Soros admits most, if not all, the measures he proposes will choke off the profitability of banks. For this reason, regulators must be very careful with the implementation and timing of these financial strategies. If employed too aggressively, the economy could find itself in a deflationary spiral. Move too slowly, and the loose monetary measures instituted by the Fed could fan the flames of inflation.
Bubbles will never go away. Eventually, the recent panic-induced fear will fade away and the entrepreneurial seeds of greed will germinate into new budding flowers of optimism. As investors nervously chomp away at their chewing gum, I will patiently await for the next financial bubble to form. I echo George Soros’ hope that regulators prick future “mini-bubbles” before they become “super-bubbles.”