Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Great Bailout Brouhaha

Economist Arnold Kling, who blogs at Econlog, used to work at Freddie Mac, and started, talks to about the proposed $700 bailout plan for investment banks and related firms.
Here are more of Kling's thoughts on the matter:
1. How bad is the current market situation?
The current situation is potentially dire. The comparison with 1932-33 is sobering: An unpopular Republican president is in office, the financial system is a mess, and an important election looms, yet many fear what the articulate Democratic candidate might do if elected. We won't have to wait until March to find out this time around. But given how fast the world moves these days, late January will seem an eternity away. The payments system broke down last time (March 1933), necessitating a bank "holiday," a moving speech ("the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"), and creation of the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation). Breakdown of the payments system today would stagger the economy. During the Depression we didn't have to worry about hackers and terrorists but they must be salivating now. They will probably wait until after the election, but they will almost certainly try to kick us while we are down, just like they did during the last two recessions (1990 invasion of Kuwait and 9/11).

2. How bad are the current proposed bailout plans?
The current bailout plans are so bad it's impossible to tell just how bad they are with any precision. The devil, as they say, is hiding in details that are either undisclosed or will be concocted on the fly. For example, it is clear that some sort of tax will have to be placed on financial institutions that grow TBTF (too big to fail). If the tax is too high, financial services firms will stay small and the United States may lose, or be unable to regain, its competitive advantage in some important financial areas. If the tax is too low, financial services firms will merge and conglomerate at a rapid pace just to avoid "Lehmanasia" (euthanasia if they are not big enough to represent a systemic risk) during the next crisis. If the tax is just right, only those companies that need to be huge to compete internationally should be willing to pay it. The probability that regulators will get this and similar issues right appears small indeed given their track record.

3. What's the one thing we should be doing that we're not?
There are many things that policymakers are not doing that they should be. One is thinking long and hard about how to improve regulation. Clearly, both regulators and financiers need to know more about economics and financial history: Paying mortgage originators their full commission upfront was an affront to both theory (incentives matter big time) and history (the failure of six previous mortgage securitization schemes in the U.S. between the Civil War and World War II for the same reason). Equally clearly, compensation structures within financial services firms need to put much more weight on long-term or deferred compensation. Yearly bonuses may be appropriate for some (e.g. traders) but are clearly not appropriate for others (e.g. executives). Only then will managers eschew short term profits for long term gains, as they used to do when they were partners in private concerns.

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