31 October 2015

No Real Chance of Another Financial Crisis - 'Silly'

I like Dean Baker quite well, and often link to his columns. On most things we are pretty much on the same page.

And to his credit he was one of the few 'mainstream' economists to actually see the housing bubble developing, and call it out. Some may claim to have done so, and can even cite a sentence or two where they may have mentioned it, like Paul Krugman for example. But very few spoke about doing something about it while it was in progress.  The Fed was aware according to their own minutes, and ignored it.

The difficulty we have in the economics profession, I fear, is a great deal of herd instinct and concern about what others may say. And when the Fed runs their policy pennants up the flagpole, only someone truly secure in their thinking, or forsworn to some strong ideological interpretation of reality or bias if we are truly honest, dare not salute it.

Am I such a person? Do I actually see a fragile financial system that is still corrupt and highly levered, grossly mispricing risks? Or am I just seeing things the way in which I wish to see them?

That difficulty arises because economics is no science. It involves judgement and principles, and weighs the facts far too heavily based upon 'reputation' and 'status.' And of course I have none of those and wish none.

But it makes the point which I have made over and again, that all of the economic models are faulty and merely a caricature of reality.  And therefore policy ought not to be dictated by models, but by policy objectives and a strong bias to results, rather than the dictates of process or methods.  In this FDR had it exactly right.  If we find something does not stimulate the broader economy or effect the desired policy objective, like tax cuts for the rich, using that approach over and over again is certainly not going to be effective.

Economics are a form of social and political science.  And with the political and social process corrupted by big money, what can we expect from would be 'philosopher kings.'

The housing bubble was no 'cause' of the latest financial crisis. More properly it was the tinder and the trigger event. The S&L crisis was just as great, if not greater. Why then did it not bring the global financial system to its knees?

The interconnectedness of the global system with its massive and underregulated TBTF Banks, the widespread and often fraudulent mispricing of risk, all make cause for a financial system to be 'fragile.' In this thinking Nassim Taleb is far ahead of the common economic thought as a real 'systems thinker.'   The Fed is not a systemic thinking organization because they are owned by the financial status quo, and real systemic reform rarely comes from within.

I see the same fragility which existed from 1999 to 2008 still in the system, only grown larger, global, and more profoundly influencing the political processes.

The only question is what 'trigger event' might set it spinning, and how great of a magnitude will it have to be in order to do so. The more fragile the system, the less that is required to knock it off its underpinnings.

And a crisis is not a binary event. There is the 'trigger' and the dawning perception of risks, and the initial responses of the political, social, and regulatory powers.

There is no point in debating this, because the regulators and powerful groups like the Fed are caught in a credibility trap, which prevents them from seeing things as they are, and saying so.

So Mr. Baker, rather than looking for the bubble, let's say we have a fragile system still disordered and mispricing risk, with a few very large banks engaging in reckless speculation, mispricing risk for short term profits, manipulating markets, and distorting the processes designed to maintain a balance in the economy.

Rather than hold out for a 'new bubble' as your criterion, perhaps we may also consider that the patient is still on full life support after the last bubble and crisis.  Why do we need to find a new source of malady when the old one is still having its way?

I think if one exercises clear and open judgement, they can see that we have stirred up the same pot of witches brew that has made the system fragile and vulnerable to an exogenous shock, and has kept it so.

A new crisis does not have to happen. This is the vain comfort in these sorts of 'black swan' events, being hard to predict.  But they can be more likely given the right conditions, and I fear little will be done about this one until even those who are quite personally comfortable with things as they are begin to feel the pain,

The problem is not a 'bubble.'  The problem is pervasive corruption, fraud, and lack of meaningful reform.  The 'candidate' is the financial system itself, with its outsized hedge funds and the TBTF Banks with their serial crime sprees and accommodative regulators in particular.

And if one cannot see that in this rotten system with its brazenly narrow rewarding of a select few with the bulk of new income, then there is little more that can be said.

Neil Irwin, a writer for the NYT Upshot section, had an interesting debate with himself about the likely future course of the economy. He got the picture mostly right in my view, with a few important qualifications.

"First, his negative scenario is another recession and possibly a financial crisis. I know a lot of folks are saying this stuff, but it's frankly a little silly. The basis of the last financial crisis was a massive amount of debt issued against a hugely over-valued asset (housing). A financial crisis that actually rocks the economy needs this sort of basis.

If a lot of people are speculating in the stock of Uber or other wonder companies, and reality wipes them out, this is just a story of some speculators being wiped out. It is not going to shake the economy as a whole. (San Francisco's economy could take a serious hit.)

Anyhow, financial crises don't just happen, there has to be a real basis for them. To me the housing bubble was pretty obvious given the unprecedented and unexplained run-up in prices in the largest market in the world. Perhaps there is another bubble out there like this, but neither Irwin nor anyone else has even identified a serious candidate. Until someone can at least give us their candidate bubble, we need not take the financial crisis story seriously.

If we take this collapse story off the table, then we need to reframe the negative scenario. It is not a sudden plunge in output, but rather a period of slow growth and weak job creation. This seems like a much more plausible story...

Anyhow, a story of slow job growth and ongoing wage stagnation would look like a pretty bad story to most of the country. It may not be as dramatic as a financial crisis that brings the world banking system to its knees, but it is far more likely and therefore something that we should be very worried about."

Dean Baker, Debating the Economy with Neil Irwin, 31 October 2015