Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Greece and Dimon and Bernanke

Standard & Poor’s rating services have just given Greece sovereign debt the lowest rating it has.  The Greek leadership is upset.  “We have a very tight fiscal package coming” the leaders say.  Yet the downgrades continue. 

The timing of the reduction in the debt rating, according to some pundits, is not coming at a very good time.

But, these things never happen “at a very good time”.  Building up excessive amounts of debt reduce options (http://seekingalpha.com/article/271651-debt-ultimately-leaves-you-with-no-good-options) and they leave you in a state where there is no “good time” to deal with the debt. 

Yet, people and governments, over the past fifty years, acted as if the amount of debt outstanding did not matter to their economy and that any fiscal difficulty a country might find itself in could be overcome by increasing the spending of the government and increasing the amount of government debt.

The amount of debt a government issued did not matter because the economic models the governments used did not include government debt.  Thus, a government could increase debt as much as it wanted and their economic models would be unaffected.

One of the primary reasons that debt, both public and private, was not included in the models was because there was not sufficient historical evidence on the levels of debt outstanding before, during, and after a financial crisis to justify inclusion in the models.  Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart have attempted to eliminate this reason with their study of eight centuries of financial data presented in their book, “This Time is Different.”

Another reason why it is hard to study the burden of debt on a country is that the analysis of the risk associated with any given amount of debt is to a large extent psychological.  There seems to be little if any “tight” relationship between when the market determines that the amount of debt being carried by a country is excessive.  There seems to be no unique “trigger” to determine a sovereign debt crisis.

The bottom line is that the role of debt in the precipitation of a debt crisis is very, very complicated and the quantitative tools that exist are just not sufficient to fully capture any one specific situation.

As a consequence, the amount of debt a country carries is a judgment call, but the more debt a country accumulates the more it limits its future options and the more it loses control over the timing of any “crisis” that might occur.    

There seems to be other cases currently in the news pertaining to governmental decisions in areas that are very complicated and cannot be modeled in any satisfactory way. 

This is brought out very clearly is the column by Andrew Ross Sorkin in the New York Times this morning, “Two Views on Bank Rules: Salvation and Job Killers.” (http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/06/13/two-views-on-the-value-of-tough-bank-rules/?ref=business)

In this article, Mr. Sorkin re-plays the recent verbal exchange between Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan, Chase, and Ben Bernanke of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.  Mr. Dimon, among other things, questioned the ability of the Federal Reserve (of regulators) to understand the consequences of their regulatory actions.

Sorkin remarks, “it’s an uncomfortable truth that Mr. Dimon should be taken seriously, at least his suggestion that policy makers can’t predict the full impact of the coming regulation.”

Sorkin reports that when Mr. Bernanke answered Mr. Dimon’s question, he said, “Has anybody done a comprehensive analysis of the impact on credit? I can’t pretend that anybody really has. You know, it’s just too complicated. We don’t really have the quantitative tools to do that.”

Mr. Bernanke’s answer captures something that the economist Friedrich Hayek stated many years ago, that a central organization or one individual body can never possess sufficient information to make decisions that are dependent upon information that is dispersed widely throughout the economy and is relevant for “local” decision making.

With this statement, Mr. Bernanke loses more of the credibility that he had been trying to hang onto over the past eighteen months. 

The economic models that people and governments have been using over the past fifty years are inadequate, at best, and misleading in practice.  They work best when the economy is smoothly growing.  They just do not have sufficient data to handle the very complex situations that happen when things are not going smoothly.

As Hayek taught us, there is just too much relevant information for us to collect, store, and process and even if we could store it all, most of the information pertains to “local” situations that are way beyond our ability to model. 

Hayek also taught us that one of the major roles of the economist is to demonstrate to decision makers how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. 

In this respect, governments need to create the processes though which decisions are made and should not focus on the outcomes.  Outcomes are a result of those things a decision maker thinks he/she can “design” and this applies to bank regulation, unemployment targets, and so forth. 
To me the process of openness and disclosure is still the most important thing that a government can require…of itself…or of the organizations it is regulating.  When the government begins to determine what decisions should be made and what outcomes are to be attained, it begins to exceed its ability to succeed. 

And, as the government fails to attain the outcomes it wants, it asks for more control to gain those outcomes…and then more control…and then more control…

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