On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. That marked neither the beginning nor the end of the financial and economic crisis of 2008. Yet, there has been such a deluge of coverage in the last one week of the crisis. That is part of the crisis. Excessive event-oriented attention that does little to improve the process.
Central bank hubris and complacency and the ‘Rise of Finance’ (the title of an upcoming book authored by Yours Truly and Gulzar Natarajan) played a part in the 2008 crisis. They are still around and alive. The world is unprepared because of the protagonists of the crisis of 2008 are unrepentant. That is the burden of my column in MINT on Tuesday.
Ben Bernanke summarises his own research published by the Brookings Institution (he is a Senior Fellow there) in this post. He is partly right. I have alluded to that in my column above. Why did the financial panic become global? The role and the rise of Finance have a lot to do with it. He does not go there. That is where my column went.
It is obligatory to refer to the piece that Paulson-Bernanke-Geithner wrote because it contains nothing of meaning except this passing ‘mea culpa’ reference:
Although we and other financial regulators did not foresee the crisis, we moved aggressively to stop it. [Link]
It is instructive to see the links that come up below the article. They sum up the failure of their post-crisis efforts too:
Staying with Ben Bernanke and his former colleagues, we note the speech by Peter Fisher (not to be confused with Richard Fisher, former President, FRB Dallas) at James Grant’s Symposium last year. Peter Fisher has served in the U.S. Treasury and in the Federal Reserve. See his profile here.
A key extract from his speech delivered in March 2017:
Curiously, the Fed has acknowledged no failures. All the experiments have been successful, every one: no failures, no negative side effects, no perverse consequences, only diminishing returns.
The third claim, inviting us to imagine how much worse things would have been had the central banks not done exactly what they did, suggests exactly the opposite of the scientific method and a striking lack of imagination. It implies that the only other possible courses of history would have been worse. It leaves no room for perverse consequences or negative side effects. It claims the counterfactual all to itself, leaving no room for doubt….
… So, as I see it, forward guidance is the process through which the Fed – through its more explicit influence on the expected rate of interest – becomes the much more explicit owner of the “conventional valuation” of asset prices.
One person who referred to this speech is John Authers of FT. His remarks:
Ten years ago many of us, myself included, thought a rerun of the Great Depression was very likely, and some of the actions taken in desperation during the crisis hold up slightly better than might have been expected. But long waves of monetary ease, fiscal austerity, and legal leniency for the guilty did not need to follow from this, and have left the bulk of the populace angry and embittered. [Link]
What John Authers has done in the piece linked above is something similar to what I am attempting here. He has linked to several pieces of writing on the crisis. The good thing for you, dear reader, is that his coverage and mine have only few common elements. So, if you read this blog post and his column, you will have covered a pretty good range of the writings that marked the 10th anniversary of the global financial crisis.
But, pieces such as these were not very common. We have another one by Peter Doyle, former IMF staffer in FT Alphaville. A key extract from his post:
But these ex-ﬁreﬁghters cannot bring themselves to say — though let’s hope it hasn’t entirely escaped their attention — that: public debt has more than doubled, curbing critical ﬁscal capacity (even if only due to political constraints) to respond in future; that policy interest rates are barely off their ﬂoors and QE is barely off its ceiling, so they are not much in reserve for the future either; that banking concentration has increased since pre-crisis; that no-one has any idea if international bank resolution frameworks will actually work in the heat of battle; and that the whole policy response to the crisis has emphatically underscored to big institutions that they will collectively be bailed out — spurring herd, concentration, and moral hazard behavior further. Focussing only on policy actions taken (raising the ﬂood barriers) and ignoring the increased moral hazard and other impairments arising from the crisis response itself (the higher tide), everyone wants to agree that things are “safer” now; but absolutely no-one wants to be asked if things are safe.
However, I believe that Peter Doyle lets bankers off too lightly. He does not ask the question that John Authers asks. He is dismissive of the fact that no real big cat banker went to jail. Peter Doyle is happy with political accountability.
Also, I am not quite sure that China bailed out the world economy and that they did it out of their generosity or enlightened public interest. Of course, policymakers who were part of the G-20 deliberations at that time tell me that those who had the capacity to stimulate were asked to stimulate their economies (those with external surpluses). China had one of the largest external surplus.
But, central bankers have their defenders too. A prime example is Neil Irwin of NYT. The header of the article gives the story away:
The Policymakers Saved the Financial System. And America Never Forgave Them [Link]
It comes across as a pathetic attempt to paint policymakers as victims of irrational, ungrateful lynch mobs.
I think Peter Fisher demolishes the argument that they saved the world. Assuming that American policymakers did indeed save the world, the question that comes to mind is this:
If a firefighter puts out the fire dousing the house with water, one will be thankful. But, what if he continues to douse the house with water, long after the fire is put out?
Joseph Sternberg in Wall Street Journal asks the right questions:
After decades of financial transformation, globalization and policy experimentation, central banks know less than they used to about the effects they have on Main Street. It’s likely to be some time before we figure out what central banks actually did to the economy after the Lehman crisis, let alone whether it worked. [Link]
He says that central banks lost control of the transmission to the real economy after the 1970s. Quite true. They never admitted to it. The change happened with the Rise of Finance as banks created money (credit) plentifully since then.
Matt Stoller of the Open Markets Institute contrasts the Roosevelt bailouts with that of Geithner-Obama bailouts. He says that the Paulson-Geithner-Bernanke bailout eroded the social contract that lies behind the capitalist America – home-ownership. He has a pithy quote from Roosevelt:
In 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered his view on what causes democracies to fail. “History proves that dictatorships do not grow out of strong and successful governments,” he said, “but out of weak and helpless ones.” Did the bailouts of ten years ago work? It’s a good question. I don’t see a strong and vibrant democracy in America right now. Do you? [Link]
I have to agree with Franklin Roosevelt there. Obama administration is responsible, in more ways than one, for the economic and social polarisation of the American society.
Anand Giridhardas takes a different but related line about the elites (ht: Rohit Rajendran). The burden of his song is that philanthropy is a very poor (even morally wrong) substitute for self-aggrandisement of the elites in their normal lines of business or commerce. Quite true. Their true philanthropy will come through or should come through in the manner in which they run their businesses and treat their employees. You can read his interview and his article here and here.
But, the interesting thing – no fault of Giridhardas – is that he has very few cogent answers’ to elite aggrandisement. His ideas – assuming student loans and doing some affordable housing – sound too naive. I do not blame him. That is the nature of the world. Even democracy is only a symbolic fig leaf for the dominance of the elites. It gives the ordinary folks a belief (false) that they have a stake in the process and they shape it. It is far from the truth. They benefit when the tide is so big that it lifts all boats. But, they fail to notice that some of the boats are lifted higher and those are bigger and more powerful boats too. The second time their needs get some attention is when a crisis like the ‘Great Depression’ strikes.
In a way, by preventing the ‘Great Depression II’, the crisis managers – Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner – prevented meaningful benefits and better lives for the ordinary masses which Teddy Roosevelt managed to deliver using the Great Depression as the trigger.
Barry Ritholtz, a bear (Pre-2008) turned bull (post-2008) has a short and pithy column on ten things that people still get wrong about the crisis. One tends to agree with most of what he had written. Talking of Barry Ritholtz, one should read this column by Joshua Brown (ht: Rajeev Mantri) who had commented on how he met Barry and benefited. The column is about how intellectually open-minded Bary was (and, if I may add, lucky) after the crisis and turned bullish. That merits a separate blog post. I shall do it after this one.
Aaron Brown of AQR Investments wrote (ht Rajeev Mantri) in Bloomberg that crisis autopsies asked the wrong questions. He wonders why banks accumulated illiquid assets, cut loan-loss reserves and raised dividend payments after 2006 when the problems were beginning to manifest already. That could be due to poor risk management, complacency and indefinite extrapolation of near-term optimistic trends.
In India, Ila Patnaik could not resist taking potshots at RBI for claiming to have handled the crisis fallout far better than other countries did. But, that is true. Not only did RBI do well in the immediate aftermath but some of its pre-crisis measures are only now becoming de rigueur in the Western world.
This sentence is too clever by half:
It (India) was at the other end of the spectrum, where instead of worrying about sophisticated derivatives products being traded, most derivative products have restrictions, or are banned, and the bulk of the population has no access to bank loans. [Link]
It is too clever because ‘non-access to bank loans’ is a serious problem but not trading derivatives is not. It is gambling by another name. Putting both in the same sentence or mentioning them in the same breath is to draw an utterly false equivalence between the two.
If India had absorbed the lesson from the crisis that financial sector liberalisation had to be pursued even more deliberately than before, it was then a lesson well learnt, unlike what Ms. Patnaik thinks.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha (now with IDFC Institute) wonders if there is so much a need for a new economics as there is one for a dialogue between different schools of economics, in the wake of the 2008 crisis:
Too many critics have lazily equated modern economics with a certain style of macroeconomic thinking that was dominant in the financial markets as well as in central banks, especially the ability to forecast future outcomes. It is a bit like criticizing all of modern medicine because oncologists are not yet capable of predicting when cancer will strike. [Link]
He praises Olivier Blanchard for intellectual honesty. But, Blanchard has not deviated from the Washington – New York consensus as much as he made us believe that he has done so. Niranjan’s praise is not fully earned, yet.
Ira Dugal has a good conversation with Dr. Subbarao, who stepped into RBI and stepped into the crisis, into G-20, etc. His entire tenure was marked by a series of global and local crises. Her interview with Dr. Y.V. Reddy is here.
My favourite academic-politician Yanis Varoufakis was part of a panel of experts whose views ‘The Guardian’ newspaper sought. I had not read all their views. But, here are his proposals to make the world better:
What should be done? First, we need a global green investment programme to put the global glut of idle savings to useful purpose. A multilateral partnership of public investment banks could issue bonds in a coordinated fashion, which their respective central banks would support in the secondary markets. In this manner, global savings would be energised into major investments in jobs, the regions, health and education projects, and the green technologies that humanity needs.
Second, trade agreements must commit governments of poorer countries to minimum living wages for their workers. Third, we need a new Bretton Woods agreement to rebalance trade, re-couple trade and capital flows, put the financial genie back in the bottle, and create an international wealth fund to alleviate poverty and support marginalised communities across the world. [Link]
His ideas make sense to me. But, that also means that they won’t be taken up seriously. Comments by rest of the panel also, at the headline level, make sense. But, one has to dig deeper. I have not done that.
The panel by FT – a novel one – was not a panel. It simply asked seven people as to how their lives changed post-crisis. Each one was interesting and human in its one way. Comments by Nick Bayley, who was the Head of Regulation at the London Stock Exchange are appropriate in this context.
This episode alone would make for an interesting case-study:
I was on the Sunday night conference call on September 14 2008 when Paul Tucker from the Bank of England told representatives of all the big City firms and infrastructure that the Barclays acquisition of Lehman had failed, and Lehman was going to go down the pan the following morning.
It was just a monumental time. Lehman was a global titan. The idea that it would collapse was unthinkable. We knew there were issues in the market; prices were all over the shop. But we went into that weekend assuming that someone would step in and a deal would be done.
There must have been 30-odd institutions on that Sunday night call. When Paul told us that Lehman would go down the next day, nobody said anything. He said he wanted to go around the call and hear that we were ready and this wouldn’t cause a problem. He said he’d start with the London Stock Exchange, so I was the first person to speak.
When in doubt, keep it short. I made a few noises about Lehman’s important role in the equity markets and that we have default rules that come into play, and then I shut up. We went around the call and everybody said the same thing. Nobody told Paul Tucker, ”This is going to cause huge problems, and there will be a major domino effect.” [Link]
No one says what every one knows to be true because no one wants to be the bearer of bad tidings! Nor does Paul Tucker probe them (based on this recollection here, of course).
Andy Kessler (I have read one of his books but forgotten which one it is!) has a good piece on the politics of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. His concluding words:
There is more concentration in banks today than pre-Lehman. They’re better capitalized with better reserves, but it’s still fractional reserve banking. And the shadow banking business that got drenched in derivatives may be larger today than it was before the crisis. Leveraged loans are rampant. That doesn’t point to stability.
In downturns, equity hurts but debt kills. Like an electrode-implanted rat that can’t stop pushing a pleasure lever, banks will lend until they implode. A decade ago, the Fed failed as the lender of last resort. It’s still failing at preventing the next crisis. [Link]
This is the best quote (by Nick Bayley) to end this blog post:
We live in a bubble in financial services. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably kidding you. We get paid more than most industries do. Do we deserve it? Not in my view. Are people much cleverer in financial services than in other industries? No, not in my view.