The fun part – assigning blame

The piece I wrote for YaleGlobalOnline, which I mentioned in my last entry, was published today, and is called “US and China Must Tame Imbalances Together.” In the article I try to argue that the roots of the current financial imbalance – or, more accurately, of the latest and strongest stage of the current financial imbalance – are buried in the trade and capital relationship between, primarily, China and the US. It is very important, I argue here and elsewhere, that the US and Europe do everything possible to help what could otherwise be a very difficult adjustment for China. The editor’s summary of the piece is:

With surging liquidity and massive trade imbalances, no one should have been surprised by the global economic crisis, because as finance professor of Peking University Michael Pettis explains, this has been the historical pattern. Pettis details the history of the crisis, starting in 1980s, when US policy encouraged securitization of mortgages, converting illiquid assets into highly liquid investments; US households shifted money into homes rather than savings accounts, and housing prices climbed; China, enjoying a trade surplus, collected US dollars and invested in US assets. A self-reinforcing cycle led US consumers to buy more, Chinese factories to produce more, banks in both countries to lend more, and the bubbles burst in late 2008. US adjustment is more rapid than China’s, which could lead to a new set of problems. Pettis warns that replacing US household consumption with US government consumption will only perpetuate the imbalances, and he urges the two nations to act responsibly, coordinating fiscal and monetary policies to ease US overconsumption and Chinese overproduction.

The argument I am making here is also part of a spirited discussion among a group of China scholars who communicate regularly on China-related themes. At the heart of the discussion is an argument over the monetary and policy mistakes made by the major players in permitting or even encouraging the credit bubble of the past decade. Although at its worst these kinds of discussions can quickly degenerate into a fruitless who-to-blame invective (”It is all the fault of Chinese polices” versus “It is all the fault of the US failures”), at its best – and the discussion has generally been quite good – it is a real attempt to understand the roots of the current crisis and the still-unclear ways in which it may continue to unfold.

I am not allowed to publish or publicize any of the comments among this group since the moderator wants to encourage completely open discussion, but I can say that one of the participants wondered about the sequence of events and questioned my claim that crises are always caused as a result of periods of excess liquidity, and that it is difficult for regulators to prevent excessive risk-taking when the financial system is forced to accommodate excess liquidity. I think that this is an interesting enough discussion, and very relevant to China, to repeat the argument and my response.

My friend argues that although he agrees excess liquidity is a necessary condition for credit bubbles, it is not at all clear to him that it is a sufficient condition. Besides excess liquidity, he argues, we need misguided regulatory policies to create a bubble and a subsequent financial collapse. In his view, the Fed was primarily responsible for the crisis because of its failure to regulate the financial system with sufficient rigor, and given the expansion of liquidity, it was only a question of time before that failure would lead to crisis.

In my response I argued that it is hard to say if excess liquidity growth is both necessary and sufficient condition for crisis since we would need an objective way to measure excess liquidity growth, and that is extremely difficult, at best. The late Frank Fernandez, while chief economist of the Securities Industry Association, spent years trying to do so, but always complained that the financial system was too good at developing new and unexpected ways to expand money.

I am convinced however – perhaps a little monomaniacally – that excess liquidity is sufficient and I doubt the ability of regulators to prevent bubbles. Part of my skepticism about whether or not a robust regulatory framework can truly prevent credit bubbles is theoretical, and part of it is empirical, with the latter resting on two personal experiences. First, in my reading on financial history and current events there has clearly been tremendous improvement over the past 300 years and more in our understanding of financial risks, the functioning of the financial system, the sophistication of our regulatory institutions, and monetary policy, but absolutely no concomitant reduction in the incidence of credit bubbles.

Quite the contrary, and if good regulation prevented crises, why wouldn’t we have seen evidence of gradual improvement in the number and viciousness of crises? Second, as a former smart-ass banker/trader I am too respectful of the enormous ability of the market to game any system that can be put into place. Regulators simply cannot outplay the market, and when too much liquidity leads to an increase in risk appetite, the financial system will find a way to take on more risk that might be healthy. As I argue in my piece, “When any part of the financial system is constrained from taking on risk, the market simply evades these constraints in one of three ways: It innovates around them, it generates or develops new and unregulated parts of the financial system, or it conceals regulatory violations.”

That leaves me a hard-core Minskyite on financial instability, and it is Minsky who creates the theoretical basis for my skepticism. According to Minsky it is not possible even in theory to eliminate financial instability because the very mechanisms used to control one form of instability will cause changes in the financial system (all those smart-ass bankers/traders) that will create new forms of instability. The whole purpose of a financial system is to intermediate risk, and when risk appetites change, the financial system will find a way to accommodate that change, whether or not regulators are comfortable with the change.

That doesn’t mean regulations are a waste of time. On the contrary, they are extremely important in the proper functioning of the financial system, but we need to be clear where they matter and where they don’t. As I see it, the purpose of the regulatory framework is:

1) To create a financial system that in “normal” times optimizes the ability of the system to allocate capital cheaply and efficiently. This is where issues of transparency, corporate governance, agency problems and information asymmetry matter.

2) To eliminate balance sheet feedback mechanisms that are automatically pro-cyclical and, to the extent possible, create fiscal and balance sheet stabilizers. These don’t eliminate bubbles and crises, but they do reduce the impact and weaken the transmission mechanism into the real economy.

To bring this back to China, it is for these reasons that I am more skeptical than most about the recent financial reforms in China. As I see it, the financial system here is replete with balance sheet pro-cyclicality, which the government has not directly addressed (in fact many of their interventions increase the risk) and so China runs the risk of a big, “unexpected” jump in volatility when things turn bad.

The strongest element of counter-cyclicality in China is probably government ownership and control of the banks, but even this is counter-cyclical only up to a point, beyond which it becomes massively pro-cyclical –for example if problems in the banking system ever threaten government credit, which is why I have always advised anyone who will listen that the government should be very sparing in its willingness implicitly or explicitly to guarantee credit risk. Government control of the banks can prevent banks from behaving in ways that exacerbate a downturn, and usually this is a good thing, but in a very severe downturn – like that which Japan experienced after 1990 – the attempt to control banking activity can actually backfire if it leads to a surge in government debt that threatens government credibility. This loss of government credibility happened in Japan (yet) but it has happened in a number of other cases.

This is basically why I think the liquidity creation generated by the Chinese recycling of the US trade deficit would have led to crisis anyway, even if there had been stronger regulation within the US financial markets. And, by the way, although I share in the general horror about the huge breaches in our regulatory framework, I also remember that during the enormous petrodollar recycling in the 1970s, the US regulatory framework was much more robust, regulated, rigid and constrained then it is now, but that didn’t prevent excess risk-taking. The only impact of regulatory constraints was that extremely foolish behavior – massive loans to countries that had no chance in hell ever to repay – still occurred among American banks (to such an extent that by the time I joined the market in 1987 only one – JP Morgan – of the top ten US banks was not insolvent) but they occurred outside the regulatory constraint. For all the regulatory prudence the risky behavior simply migrated to London, where international banks were not as strictly regulated by their home countries.

The real fault of the Fed in the current crisis, in my opinion, was not to foresee that this unsustainable system would eventually come to a breathtaking close, and to prepare the stabilizers that would have prevented the decimation of the US financial system and its brutal transmission into the real economy. In fact every time they intervened to prevent the system from clearing, they increased the accumulation of balance sheet mismatches. The regulators did have a role, but it was not to prevent the crisis but rather to mitigate its impact. In my opinion the Fed could not have prevented the crisis except by engineering a recession in the US to counteract strong mercantilist policies in Asia, and that is perhaps a lot to ask.

One last thing about the joy of assigning blame, I have read and re-read several times Charles McKay’s Extraordinary Popular delusions and the Madness of Crowds and thought I should post the following selection from his chapter on the South Sea Bubble – after the bubble collapsed brining ruin in its wake:

The state of matters all over the country was so alarming, that George I shortened his intended stay in Hanover, and returned in all haste to England. He arrived on the 11th of November, and parliament was summoned to meet on the 8th of December. In the mean time, public meetings were held in every considerable town of the empire, at which petitions were adopted, praying the vengeance of the Legislature upon the South-Sea directors, who, by their fraudulent practices, had brought the nation to the brink of ruin. Nobody seemed to imagine that the nation itself was as culpable as the South-Sea company. Nobody blamed the credulity and avarice of the people,—the degrading lust of gain, which had swallowed up every nobler quality in the national character, or the infatuation which had made the multitude run their heads with such frantic eagerness into the net held out for them by scheming projectors. These things were never mentioned. The people were a simple, honest, hard-working people, ruined by a gang of robbers, who were to be hanged, drawn, and quartered without mercy.

This was the almost unanimous feeling of the country. The two Houses of Parliament were not more reasonable. Before the guilt of the South-Sea directors was known, punishment was the only cry. The king, in his speech from the throne, expressed his hope that they would remember that all their prudence, temper, and resolution were necessary to find out and apply the proper remedy for their misfortunes. In the debate on the answer to the address, several speakers indulged in the most violent invectives against the directors of the South-Sea project. The Lord Molesworth was particularly vehement. “It had been said by some, that there was no law to punish the directors of the South-Sea company, who were justly looked upon as the authors of the present misfortunes of the state. In his opinion they ought upon this occasion to follow the example of the ancient Romans, who, having no law against parricide, because their legislators supposed no son could be so unnaturally wicked as to embrue his hands in his father’s blood, made a law to punish this heinous crime as soon as it was committed. They adjudged the guilty wretch to be sown in a sack, and thrown alive into the Tiber. He looked upon the contrivers and executors of the villanous South-Sea scheme as the parricides of their country, and should be satisfied to see them tied in like manner in sacks, and thrown into the Thames.” Other members spoke with as much want of temper and discretion.

Mr. Walpole was more moderate. He recommended that their first care should be to restore public credit. “If the city of London were on fire, all wise men would aid in extinguishing the flames, and preventing the spread of the conflagration before they inquired after the incendiaries. Public credit had received a dangerous wound, and lay bleeding, and they ought to apply a speedy remedy to it. It was time enough to punish the assassin afterwards.” On the 9th of December an address, in answer to his majesty’s speech, was agreed upon, after an amendment, which was carried without a division, that words should be added expressive of the determination of the house not only to seek a remedy for the national distresses, but to punish the authors of them.

Robert Walpole, for those who don’t remember, was the brilliant (if not always scrupulous) statesman – effectively Britain’s first Prime Minister, although the title hadn’t yet been invented – who had been more or less pushed out of favor for speaking strongly and often against the South Sea scheme and warning of its consequences. After the collapse, he was called back to London to clean up the mess – predictable, right? Perhaps because he had been so widely reviled for speaking against the South Sea scheme, he was not fully sympathetic to the claims that the whole thing had been a scam foisted on innocent people by evildoers. He was perfectly happy to avoid the whole orgy of blame and deal with the actual consequences, but needless to say blaming the schemers was always likely to be a lot more satisfying than acknowledging that an awful lot of people participated a little too willingly in the whole thing. Walpole was famously a realist – when there were sufficient incentives for foolishness and fraud, he didn’t doubt that even the nicest people would act stupidly or dishonestly.