Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Alan Greenspan's nirvana

I wrote a post a while back exploring some of the silliest things economists were saying before the crisis about how financial engineering was making our economy more robust, stable, efficient, wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, self-regulating, and so on. The markets were, R. Glenn Hubbard and William Dudley were convinced, even leading to better governance by punishing bad governmental decisions. [How that could be the case when markets have a relentless focus on the very short term is hard to fathom, but they indeed did assert this]..

Paul Krugman has recently undertaken a similar exercise in silliness mining -- in this case going through the hallucinations of Alan Greenspan. The Chairman of the Fed was evidently drinking the very same Kool-Aid:
Deregulation and the newer information technologies have joined, in the United States and elsewhere, to advance flexibility in the financial sector. Financial stability may turn out to have been the most important contributor to the evident significant gains in economic stability over the past two decades.

Historically, banks have been at the forefront of financial intermediation, in part because their ability to leverage offers an efficient source of funding. But in periods of severe financial stress, such leverage too often brought down banking institutions and, in some cases, precipitated financial crises that led to recession or worse. But recent regulatory reform, coupled with innovative technologies, has stimulated the development of financial products, such as asset-backed securities, collateral loan obligations, and credit default swaps, that facilitate the dispersion of risk.

Conceptual advances in pricing options and other complex financial products, along with improvements in computer and telecommunications technologies, have significantly lowered the costs of, and expanded the opportunities for, hedging risks that were not readily deflected in earlier decades. The new instruments of risk dispersal have enabled the largest and most sophisticated banks, in their credit-granting role, to divest themselves of much credit risk by passing it to institutions with far less leverage. Insurance companies, especially those in reinsurance, pension funds, and hedge funds continue to be willing, at a price, to supply credit protection.

These increasingly complex financial instruments have contributed to the development of a far more flexible, efficient, and hence resilient financial system than the one that existed just a quarter-century ago.

As Krugman notes, this can all be translated into ordinary language: "Thanks to securitization, CDOs, and AIG, nothing bad can happen!"


  1. Is hindsight 20-20? I was looking through Krugman's columns in October 2005 and found this interesting tidbit in October 28, 2005 in "Bernanke and the Bubble".
    "When all is said and done, the Fed controls only one thing: the short-term interest rate."
    So Greenspan had little ability to regulate in Krugman's world in 2005.

    In the same article, Krugman also described Greenspan in this way, "Mr. Greenspan, for all his flaws, has repeatedly shown his ability to divine from fragmentary and sometimes contradictory data which way the economic wind is blowing." Hindsight is, indeed, 20-20.

  2. Mark,

    That is great news! Obviously these past three years have just been a bad dream!

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