Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday Roundup

Niall Ferguson takes a break from his usual Newsweek hackery and takes a look at the political constraints surrounding the Eurozone. The narrative is rather similar to previous ones regarding the decentralization of economic and political power, and all the attendant problems that arise with coordination. Killer paragraph from the article:
Imagine that the United States had never ratified the Constitution and was still working with the 1781 Articles of Confederation. Imagine a tiny federal government with almost no revenue. Only the states get to tax and borrow. Now imagine that Nevada has a debt in excess of 150 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Imagine, too, the beginning of a massive bank run in California. And imagine that unemployment in these states is above 20 percent, with youth unemployment twice as high. Picture riots in Las Vegas and a general strike in Los Angeles.
Now imagine that the only way to deal with these problems is for Nevada and California to go cap in hand to Virginia or Texas—where unemployment today really is half what it is in Nevada. Imagine negotiations between the governors of all 50 states about the terms and conditions of the bailout. Imagine the International Monetary Fund arriving in Sacramento to negotiate an austerity program.
Capital control regimes look to be an interesting field of analysis for the future. The authors do make an important note: control over the capital account, to a certain extent, implies a control over the balance of trade. this is an important point for future negotiations, as it is a reason why capital controls should be used sparingly.

Apparently Bernanke doesn't shy away from strong language when the financial system is on the line. Although he's been relatively lukewarm about further easing to lower unemployment, he seems totally on board to do "whatever necessary" to stop the Eurozone contagion from spreading to the United States. One wonders what's the consideration preventing him from doing something similar to solve the US employment crisis.

The political argument about Glass-Steagall is quite interesting. The thesis goes that, after the merging of commercial and investing institutions, bank lobbies became much more unified, thereby warping the government towards helping the banks. This seems like an issue that would be interesting to study in a political business cycle or political DSGE model. It would make banking regulation endogenous, and the results could be quite unpredictable.

While I do think the broad enets of the efficient market hypothesis are true, I think the new concern with systemic risk is well deserved. I think viewing the EMH as a limitation on information, and not a limitation on the presence of crises is very important. Otherwise it leads to a dangerous bias, as described in the article:

There may be a deeper bias at work. In business and investing, choices under conditions of uncertainty are made all the time, and mistakes are routine. By contrast, developed country policymakers’ default stance seems to be that proactive or preemptive measures require a high degree of certainty, owing to a deep-seated belief that financial markets are stable and self-regulating. 
If one believes that market instability is rare, then it is reasonable to refuse to act unless there is a compelling case to do so. In light of experience, the view that the financial system is only exceptionally unstable or on an unsustainable path seems at least questionable.  
Unsurprisingly, the article is short on specifics on how to regulate systemic risk, but it is certainly one of the biggest issues for financial stability.

Finance is incredibly complicated, making it hard for anyone to regulate it. This is one of the issues that makes me skeptical of the argument that markets can regulate themselves when it comes to complex financial products. The payoffs are too volatile and uncertain for the market to truly know. Of course, it's unlikely that regulators know any better. However, this is no excuse for government to throw up its hands; rather, it's an opportunity to craft simpler rules that are robust to errors.

What are the systemic risks associated with money market funds? They played a large role in the liquidity crisis and financial turmoil in 2008, and thus their systemic role will be important for future analysis.

An insightful look into the failure of the Gaussian model and the real reasons why it was so destructive. Modelers never truly believed in it, and rating agencies never got around to implementing them. However, due to the demand for AAA rated assets, financial engineers gamed the system to satisfy the demand and earn hefty bonuses. It seems that the story is much more about individual incentives and corporate governance, and much less about an "equation that destroyed finance" or the financial conspiracy.

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