The View from Outside
By Arnold Kling
Tyler Cowen lets loose with both barrels in today’s New York Times.
we’re still at the point where the medical sector is enshrined as “too big to take a pay cut,” which is not so far removed from the banking motto of “too big to fail.” In finance and health care, a common political dynamic has created similar trends, namely, out-of-control costs, weak accountability, and the use of immediate revenue patches to postpone dealing with fundamental problems.
The pre-crisis activities and portfolios of Barclays, Goldman Sachs, and other “survivors” of this crisis were only slightly different from Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns, which failed. The “good” banks also securitized subprime assets, helped build the intricate web of IOUs between banks and insurance companies, and leveraged their balance sheets to enormous levels. The winners were not better, they were just smart enough to make sure someone else held the bad assets when the music stopped, and they were powerful enough to win generous bailout packages from their governments.
The danger we face is that, by bailing out these institutions and rewarding failed managers with new powerful positions, we have now created a much more dangerous financial system. The politically well-connected, knowing they will most likely do fine in the next crisis, is now highly incentivized to take even greater risk.
First, procedures adopted at private firms and federal agencies for supervising securitization activity at commercial banks, investment banks, and government-sponsored enterprises inappropriately shortcut due diligence by outsourcing the monitoring and policing of the safety-net consequences of potential defects in the securitization process to private parties. Second, when the adverse consequences of this imprudent arrangement emerged, officials falsely claimed that the difficulties that short-funded, highly leveraged firms were facing in rolling over debt reflected a shortage of market liquidity rather than a shortage of economic capital at key firms. Among knowledgeable parties, this raised severe doubts about the integrity and competence of the officials in charge of rescuing the industry. Finally, the panicky way that the Treasury and President recharacterized the nature and extent of the industry’s accumulated losses in September 2008 created an extreme urgency that subsequent delays in implementation revealed to have been dangerously exaggerated.
That authorities and financiers callously violated common-law duties of loyalty, competence, and care they owe taxpayers is a massive incentive breakdown in industry and government. What is needed is a thorough-going reorientation of: (1) how regulatory agencies report both on their performance and their interactions with Congress and the Administration, and (2) the contract structures and performance measures that determine how top managers and top staffers are graded and paid, not only in the financial industry but in government as well.
Compared to these three essays, my talk planned for this Tuesday does not sound so hard-hitting any more. What the three (four, if you count me) have in common is that their views come from economists who are outside the cabal of financial regulators (although Johnson was a top economist at the IMF). The view from the inside is different. Bernanke and Paulson are wearing out their arms patting themselves on the back.