Why the government shouldn’t insure securitized assets

May 29, 2009

Ezra Klein does us all a favor this morning by spending 1,000 words or so summarizing a 20,000-word, 53-page paper by Yale’s Gary Gorton. Now to make it even shorter!

The key concept is the distinction between informationally-sensitive financial assets — assets which change in price when new information emerges — and informationally-insensitive financial assets — assets which don’t change in price when new information emerges. In the latter bucket we can include insured bank deposits, but bank deposits are insured only up to $250,000, and there are a lot of companies and other institutional investors who just want a safe place to park their cash and are also on the hunt for informationally-insensitive assets.

They found them — or thought they found them — in things like asset-backed commercial paper: they would hand over cash, and receive the senior tranches of securitized loans as collateral. When that happens, writes Gorton,

A ‘banking panic’ occurs when ‘informationally-insensitive’ debt becomes ‘informationally-sensitive’ due to a shock, in this case the shock to subprime mortgage values due to house prices falling.

Gorton’s solution to this problem is to involve the government in all manner of regulation — and insurance — of the securitization market, thereby making ABCP behave much like federally-insured bank deposits. I don’t like this solution at all, since it would send the contingent liabilities of the government into the stratosphere, and more importantly would ratify the demand for informationally-insensitive assets by creating trillions of dollars of new ones.

In my view of the crisis, it’s precisely the demand for informationally-insensitive assets which is the problem. And we need to get individuals, companies, and institutional investors out of the mindset that they can do an elegant little two-step around the inescapable fact that anybody with money to invest perforce must take a certain amount of risk. If you have a world where people are all looking for risk-free assets, you end up shunting all that risk into the tails. And the way to reduce tail risk is to get everybody to accept a small amount of risk on an everyday basis. We don’t need more informationally-insensitive assets, we need less of them.


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