A Useful Narrative of the Crisis
By Arnold Kling
What had brought us to the brink of collapse in the first place was this relentless instinct for building ever-larger megacompanies, passing deregulatory measures to gradually feed all the little fish in the sea to an ever-shrinking pool of Bigger Fish. To fix this problem, the government should have slowly liquidated these monster, too-big-to-fail firms and broken them down to smaller, more manageable companies. Instead, federal regulators closed ranks and used an almost completely secret bailout process to double down on the same faulty, merger-happy thinking that got us here in the first place, creating a constellation of megafirms under government control that are even bigger, more unwieldy and more crammed to the gills with systemic risk.
In essence, Paulson and his cronies turned the federal government into one gigantic, half-opaque holding company, one whose balance sheet includes the world’s most appallingly large and risky hedge fund, a controlling stake in a dying insurance giant, huge investments in a group of teetering megabanks, and shares here and there in various auto-finance companies, student loans, and other failing businesses. Like AIG, this new federal holding company is a firm that has no mechanism for auditing itself and is run by leaders who have very little grasp of the daily operations of its disparate subsidiary operations.
It is long. Because it is Rolling Stone, it has many four-letter words. But it is worth reading. I could have included many excerpts. It is one of many interesting links that can be found in the latest column by David Warsh.
My one disagreement with Taibbi would be in his emphasis on the elimination of Glass Steagall. I think that if you re-ran history with Glass-Steagall intact, you would have perhaps a slightly different cast of institutional characters (Citigroup would not have existed in its current form) but almost exactly the same outcome.
I think that Taibbi’s basic “power play” narrative is correct. His view that the government money going to AIG is more of a bailout of Goldman Sachs than of AIG strikes me as on target. However, his implication that it is a one-way takeover of Washington by Wall Street is incorrect, in my view. I think that all along we have had a Washington/Wall Street industrial complex, particularly with regard to housing finance.
For quite a while, but especially over the last nine months, the best way to predict developments in politics and finance has been to ask: what will do the most to increase the concentration of power? Every headline, from the Geithner regulatory plan to the proposed cap on the charitable deduction, to the resignation of the General Motors CEO, should be viewed in that light.