Silly ideas of the day, Dylan Ratigan edition

By Felix Salmon
January 11, 2012
Noam Scheiber is raving about Dylan Ratigan's new book, giving it his highest praise: he calls it "sensible".

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Noam Scheiber is raving about Dylan Ratigan’s new book, giving it his highest praise: he calls it “sensible”. Which is maybe not obvious from the title, Greedy Bastards: How We Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters, and Other Vampires from Sucking America Dry.

He’s wrong. It isn’t sensible at all. Scheiber says that “one of the more intriguing ideas” in the book comes from Dick Grasso, of all people, who wants to classify a large part of the CDS market as “online gaming” and therefore “null and void”. Which sounds like one of those ideas which sounds great in the middle of your third bottle of wine.

But giving Scheiber (and Grasso, I guess) the benefit of the doubt, I had a look at the page of the book in question. Here it is, page 54, in full:

We must require not only that banks retain more capital but also that when they place bad bets, they pay the price for their losing bets themselves. Otherwise we are stuck with the worst of two economic systems: like a capitalist country, we have private banks that keep their profits. But like a communist country, we have a system where banking losses are charged to the government. Only when we end this corporate communism will we realign the interests of the banks with the investors they serve. The way to do this is debt reduction or cancelation. If the system is so out of control that we can use a computer to fabricate trillions in new money by simply adding some zeros, then surely we can find a way to delete some zeros as well. By definition, if you can print it, you can cancel it.

As we have already seen, a swap can either be an insurance policy that helps to lower long-term costs for a business or a bet by an outsider on whether a given company or country will succeed or fail. Putting swaps on a public exchange would create the visibility for all to see the difference between commodity insurance that is critical to the economy and speculative bets that are not much different from gambling. In fact, Richard Grasso, former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, suggested to me in a personal interview that the speculative bets that fueled the financial crisis could be reclassified legally as online gaming — and then cancelled. His technical explanation: “I believe regulators should require the product to be registered with a central clearing agent (like an exchange) and thus able to be monitored globally to prevent contracts being written in excess of the debt obligations they are designed to insure (corporate or sovereign). This is easily accomplished by [regulators] and Treasury issuing a cross-markets rule adopted by non-US counterparts. Any contracts written outside these requirements would be deemed null and void by regulators as simply online gaming.”

This is exactly the kind of thing we need much less of, at least in book form. It’s fine if you’re just shooting the breeze with a bunch of financially-illiterate friends, but it really doesn’t belong in a volume which aspires to present “smart policy” prescriptions.

I mean, we start off OK, with a standard-issue broadside about privatized profits and socialized losses. Got that. But what on earth is this supposed to mean?

The way to do this is debt reduction or cancelation. If the system is so out of control that we can use a computer to fabricate trillions in new money by simply adding some zeros, then surely we can find a way to delete some zeros as well. By definition, if you can print it, you can cancel it.

I’ve spent the best part of a day trying to work out what on earth Ratigan might be driving at here, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he was probably just high. Never mind the fact that he doesn’t bother to identify which debt he wants reduced or canceled; just admire the elegant way that he proves that debt cancellation is somehow the equal and opposite action to printing money. (In reality, of course, printing money is a way of canceling debts, by inflating them away.)

Even more admirable, in a sense, is the way that Ratigan throws in his “let’s just delete some zeros” idea and then jumps straight to something completely unrelated — the idea of putting all derivatives on exchanges. I mean, it’s not as though deleting zeros willy-nilly would destroy the fundamental nature of capitalism as we know it, and might therefore be worthy of, oh, another sentence or two. We’ve got Grasso to get to!

Of course, we’re not going to get into any nitty-gritty here about the difference between exchanges and clearinghouses, despite the fact that Ratigan’s talking about the former, Grasso’s talking about the latter, and the two are not at all the same thing. And we’ll not spend much time either on the silly idea that anything interesting or systemically important happens at the point at which the notional value of derivatives contracts exceeds the amount of the underlying. (It doesn’t.)

Because even putting those points aside, what Grasso is suggesting here doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of sober thought. (Especially if debt obligations — the underlying bonds being insured — can simply be reduced or canceled by deleting zeros.)

The way that markets and exchanges work, there’s no way that a clearinghouse would ever be able to know whether the counterparties to a derivatives contract had some kind of insurable interest in the underlying. Grasso’s proposal wouldn’t put an end to what Scheiber calls “naked bets”, it would just allow speculators to crowd out genuine hedgers, to the point at which people who did have an insurable interest wouldn’t be able to do any hedging, because the speculators would have got there first and written contracts up to the maximum allowable limit.

Ratigan has a bully pulpit on the television, and his heart is pretty much in the right place. I can see why he’d want to publish a book where he can tease out his policy ideas in detail, while keeping them accessible to his television audience. But it’s irresponsible to boil complex issues down into a simplistic world of good and evil, complete with simplistic solutions (cancel debt! outlaw speculative gambling!). If anything, it plays right into the rhetoric of the Tea Party, which Ratigan hates.

There are big and hugely important issues to be addressed in the global economy; the least we can do is take them seriously. And stop pretending that being harsh on a coterie of banksters would be both necessary and sufficient to solve all our problems.

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