Once again, Tom Friedman of the New York Times has some very worthwhile things to say. Whereas one may not totally agree with all of his arguments, I believe that one can always gain something by reading him.
This past Sunday, Friedman commented upon the government bailout and the coming effort to re-regulate the financial markets: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/26/opinion/26friedman.html. He quotes the consultant David Smick: “Government bailouts and guarantees, while at times needed, always come with unintended consequences.” Then he goes on to say that he, Friedman, “is not criticizing the decision to shore up the banks…We need better regulation. But, most of all, we need better management.”
Friedman concludes, however, that “We must not overshoot in regulating the markets because they (the bankers) overshot in their risk-taking.”
This is all the further the argument is carried these days: they (the bankers) “overshot in their risk-taking.” There is very little discussion about how the environment was created in which this excessive risk-taking arose. Since almost all of the blame is falling on the bankers, it is to be expected that almost all the re-regulation will also fall on the bankers.
But, Friedman argues, “We must not overshoot in regulating the markets…” and rightfully so. We must not overshoot in regulating the markets because maybe…just maybe…the environment for excessive risk-taking was created by the government and not by the bankers. This is not a new argument, but it is one that tends to be forgotten while people focus primarily on the current turmoil that is swirling around them. It also tends to be forgotten because economic consequences tend to occur with a substantial lag behind the causative events that started everything off.
In looking for such a cause, I once again return to the failure of the current administration to combat the decline in the value of the United States dollar. The performance of a currency relative to other currencies depends upon market perceptions about future rates of inflation. If the inflation rate in the home country is expected to be more rapid than the inflation rates in other countries, the value of the home country’s currency will tend to decline. The value of the home country’s currency will tend to appreciate when the opposite is the case.
The value of the United States dollar began to decline in 2002 and continued to decline through August 2008. This decline followed about seven years in which the value of the United States dollar rose. So, it can be assumed that participants in foreign exchange markets came to believe that future inflation in the United States would exceed that in other countries, a reversal of the belief that had existed over the previous decade.
What seemed to be the cause of this change in expectations? The change seems to be very closely related to the Bush tax cuts, the consequent anticipation of substantial deficits in the Federal budget, and the acceleration in the costs associated with the war on terror and in Iraq. The deficits themselves are not considered to be inflationary, but in the western world, every major increase in government budget deficits were connected with a monetization of the debt at some time in the future. Given the size of the projected deficits it was expected that the United States government could not avoid monetizing a large portion of these anticipated deficits.
In the case of the United States, however, an unexpected path was taken. The large deficits of the United States government were underwritten by China, Middle-Eastern oil producing nations, and others. In effect, foreign governments monetized the Bush deficits taking the pressure off the Federal Reserve, even allowing the Fed to keep short term interest rates at extremely low levels for three-to-four years. This was something unheard of in terms of global economics.
And, where did a great deal of the funds connected with the monetized debt go? It went into the United States housing market. The history of financial innovation in the late twentieth century is a fascinating one. Of especial interest is the growth of the market for securitized mortgages. The first package of securitized mortgages came to market in the first half of the 1970s. By the middle of the 1980s, mortgage-related securities became the largest component of the capital markets. Playing in this end of the market became ‘sexier’ than any other. And, the attraction grew and grew and drew in more and more new players from around the world. The market for securitized mortgages became the playground for the world and attracted a large portion of the United States dollars now circulating around the globe.
Thus, through the market for securitized mortgages, the United States housing market became one of the bubbles that resulted from the ‘monetizing’ of the large deficits that were created by the United States government. The expected United States inflation came about through unusual channels, but the participants in the foreign exchange markets were correct in calling for the decline in the value of the United States dollar.
In my view, the speculative atmosphere that evolved in financial markets and financial institutions which resulted in excessive risk-taking was the result of the failure of policy makers to defend the value of the United States dollar. Most other countries in the world that created government deficits that were monetized had to back off from such policies as the value of their currencies declined on foreign exchange markets. This response was due to the resulting inflation in those countries. (France in the 1980s is a prime example.) These countries did not have others within the world like China and the countries of the Middle East, to absorb their debt the way that China and the Middle East purchased the United States debt.
The massive United States government deficits went global and in going global helped flood world financial markets with funds that narrowed interest rate spreads and created an environment where more and more risk had to be taken to keep institutional returns up. Financial leverage and other techniques of financial engineering became commonplace. The structure of the marketplace became more and more fragile.
The rest is history. But, now we have to deal with the aftermath. In my mind, the fault for the financial collapse does not lie solely with the bankers…a large share of blame should fall to the Government officials that created the environment in which the bankers had to operate. Yes, one can argue that the bankers took on excessive risk. But, one cannot let the Government officials off the hook. We cannot afford to over-regulate the financial markets because the government was irresponsible.
Yes, the financial markets need to be regulated but…who is going to regulate the regulators and the policymakers? Congress does not seem capable of it.
It seems to me that the regulators and the policy makers need some oversight but the only ones
that can ultimately provide that oversight are you and me…the voters. How can we, therefore, react in a timely manner against “bad policy” and bring about a change in direction? That, as always, remains the main question.