By Arnold Kling
Bloomberg interviews William Poole. Bloomberg doesn’t permalink their video interviews, so I just linked to the page where I found it. It’s not necessarily worth watching the whole thing. The essential message is that he doesn’t like leverage. He even suggested phasing out the deductibility of interest on corporate income taxes as a way of encouraging less debt and more equity.
I think that would only lead to financial excess showing up in a different way. I think we’re better off dealing with the system as it is than tampering with it.
On housing, I absolutely agree with Poole. If we go back to 20 percent down payments, the market will be more stable. I’m sure that in a free market we would see 20 percent down payments. Barney Frank is the only person I can think of who still wants to lend with little or no money down. He’s welcome to do it, but I dare him to use his own money instead of ours.
One of the big newspapers asked me to do an op-ed on alternatives to the rating agencies. I think they were expecting me to say, “If you just use method X to rate mortgage securities instead of using Moody’s and S&P, we’ll be fine.” Instead, what I wrote was that with low down payments, the housing market is unstable, and ultimately mortgage lending of any kind is unsustainable. I don’t think the op-ed is going to run.
I honestly think that the commentators who blame the rating agencies have the least credibility of anyone. None of the big institutions that have made the headlines this year bought mortgage securities on the basis of ratings. In fact, AIG’s business model was to insure the default risk on mortgage securities. That business was based on the fact that nobody took the ratings seriously, and instead they bought protection from AIG. If AIG measured the risk incorrectly, that reflects on their internal risk assessment, not on the rating agencies.
The other interesting news is market behavior. Effective COB yesterday, I took some money out of Treasury securities and put it into a stock index fund. Today, I got trampled by people running in the opposite direction. Megan and Tyler say that the three-month t-bill rate is down to one basis point.
It’s like the government is the only hedge fund anyone will lend to any more. When inflation is at least two percent, and you can borrow at zero, you can make a profit holding just about anything. It’s every corporate raider’s wet dream. Given how generous the bond markets are, Bernanke and Paulson ought to just keep the acquisition spree going. The more they add to the balance sheet, the cheaper it gets for them to borrow. If they run out of firms in difficulty, then Ben and Hank should just go ahead and make hostile tenders for healthy companies, too. In this market, management has no takeover defense.
UPDATE: Ken Rogoff writes,
If the US were an emerging market country, its exchange rate would be plummeting and interest rates on government debt would be soaring. Instead, the dollar has actually strengthened modestly, while interest rates on three- month US Treasury Bills have now reached 54-year lows. It is almost as if the more the US messes up, the more the world loves it.
Something has to give.