Writing history – the Panic of 2008

June 22, 2009

John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

Economic history is the only field of human endeavor where the past changes as much if not more than the present and the future. Policymakers and practitioners struggle to define and write a “narrative” of the past as a means to control how policy responds to current and future problems.

The debate now over financial reform is a case in point. Even though the banking system has only just emerged from the most severe shock since the 1930s, the battle over how to define the events of the last 18 months, and what they should mean for investors and regulators in future, is already well underway.

Contrasting speeches last week by Federal Reserve Governor Kevin Warsh and Bank of England Governor Mervyn King illustrate the two extremes around which the debate is polarizing:

* Warsh speech

* King speech PDF

The financial sector will exploit these differences to derail any fundamental overhaul of regulation.

Warsh’s speech characterized the crisis as the “panic of 2008″ and set it in the context of the previous two decades of rapid non-inflationary growth, implying the crisis was an irrational aberration in an otherwise well-functioning economic and financial system.

In effect, Warsh reprised a philosophy associated with former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan: occasional, wrenching crises are a price worth paying for an innovative, dynamic and wealth-generating form of capitalism. Policy should focus on ameliorating the after-effects rather than risk stifling growth by aiming to prevent crises altogether.

In contrast, King made the case for fundamental reform. He highlighted the real costs which a crisis that originated in the financial system is imposing on the real economy, as well as the more intangible but no less profound impact on attitudes towards wealth-creation, reward and regulation.

While noting there was no support for “excessively bureaucratic regulation”, King made clear “change to the structure, regulation and indeed culture of the banking system is necessary. Blaming individuals is no substitute for acknowledging the failure of a system, of a certain type of banking.”

STABILITY VERSUS GROWTH

King’s speech echoes the famous analysis set out in Hyman Minsky’s “Stabilising the Unstable Economy”. Minsky made a compelling case that periodic crises were an essential part of a financial-capitalist system in which massive long-term investment projects were financed by issuing large volumes of debt. By breeding over-confidence and increasingly risky capital structures, periods of stability laid the seeds of their own destruction.

But unlike Greenspan, Minsky argued such crises were not a “price worth paying”. Appropriate regulation was both necessary and desirable to constrain risk-taking to an acceptable level, and could be achieved without sacrificing growth. King’s speech appears to be advocating something similar.

Warsh is re-fighting an old debate between “stability-first” and “growth-first”. It is a false choice, as a closer look at the historical record suggests.

The problem with his speech is its truncated view of history. He notes U.S. output (measured by real GDP) grew at an average rate of more than 3 percent a year between the mid-1980s and 2007, and was significantly less volatile than in earlier periods. Unemployment averaged less than 5.75 percent, a full percentage point lower than in the previous 15 years.

But this is a tendentious use of dates. Warsh has picked the start and ends points to support a pre-determined conclusion. It specifically excludes the last two years of underperformance (2008 and 2009) from the period of the Great Moderation (as if the current problems had nothing to do with the policies pursued in the preceding years).

And by choosing the start point as the mid-1980s, then going back 15 years, it lumps both the Volcker recession of 1980-1982 and the oil shock of 1973 into the same base period for adverse comparison. With a selective use of statistics like this, it is possible to prove anything.

It is worth looking further back, in a more neutral manner. The attached PDF chart shows annual GDP growth since 1930 and the average rates for 20-year periods (1930-1949, 1950-1969, 1970-89 and 1990-2009).

While annual GDP growth was certainly less volatile during the most recent period, the average growth rate (2.5 percent) was not especially high compared with the previous 20 years (3.2 percent) or the two decades of the 1950s and 1960s (4.3 percent).

Warsh focuses on the undoubted benefits that openness to trade and rapid financial innovation delivered during the 1990s and the first part of the current decade, describing them as the principal achievement of the Great Moderation. Minsky’s own golden era was the 1950s and 1960s, when relatively conservative bank balance sheets and strict regulation appeared to tame the violent boom-bust cycle of the pre-war years while still enabling brisk growth and unprecedented prosperity.

But it is not obvious from the historical record whether macroeconomic management has been superior over the last 20 years to the 1950s and 1960s. Nor is it obvious policymakers have to choose between financial stability and economic growth. It is possible to have respectable growth and stronger financial supervision.

KEEPING OPTIONS OPEN

Minsky attributed the stability of the 1950s and 1960s to the impact of wartime finance, which had swapped a large part of the private securities on bank balance sheets for government debt, increasingly their liquidity, coupled with the development of a more extensive system of lender-of-last-resort, deposit protection and bank regulation.

Much of that framework of prudential oversight and conservative balance-sheet management has been swept away in the last 20 years as policymakers have relied more heavily on “market discipline”. The debate is how far to go in trying to recreate it.

Bank of England Deputy Governor Paul Tucker has already suggested banks should be forced to hold a greater cushion of highly liquid assets (for which read government debt) to reduce liquidity risks. In his speech, King reiterated the point.

He went on to suggest it was unsustainable that banks could take highly risky investment strategies while backed by an implicit (and free) state guarantee. Either regulation must be tightened, banks must pay for the guarantee, or it must be restricted to a range of “narrow banks” performing utility-like payments and basic lending services.

Rather than a set of detailed and perhaps politically unrealistic policy prescriptions, King’s speech should be seen as a plea to keep the debate and options open, not close them down prematurely and revert to business as usual.

King is right to try to encourage a deeper examination of the origins of the crisis. But radical reform seems unlikely. Wall Street and the City of London are already fielding an army of well-paid, silver-tongued lobbyists to deflect it. And as the divisions between King and Warsh reveal, regulators are too ham-strung by disagreements among themselves to force fundamental restructuring on a reluctant the industry.

3 comments

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The crisis is not over yet. The U.S. may be experiencing a bear market rally. The next two months will tell.

Using previous economic downturns to better understand this one is prudent. However I find it doubtful that the economy will rebound on the same old path. In part I believe this is due to the unprecedented environmental challenges civilization faces. Moreover China and India seek to attain a western lifestyle for their people. Most nations wish to raise their standard of living to the level of western societies. These are opposing interests.

Ultimately public clamor to address climate change and increasing demand for finite resources will add to inflationary pressures certain to follow the massive borrowing by governments. Austerity, rationing and government directed investment on a global scale may prove necessary to achieve these goals.

Perhaps it is time we take a good look at economic policies from 1939 thru 1945 and pay less attention to the New Deal. I believe we discover a better approach to restoring economic health and building a middle class.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Rationing, my foot.

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

Hey Dan, I feel ya! I’m glad I won’t be around should such a mess come to pass.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive