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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Golden Geese

Becker and Murphy:

Do not let the ‘cure’ destroy capitalism, by Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy, Commentary, Financial Times: Capitalism has been wounded by the global recession, which unfortunately will get worse before it gets better. As governments continue to determine how many restrictions to place on markets, especially financial markets, the destruction of wealth from the recession should be placed in the context of the enormous creation of wealth and improved well-being during the past three decades. Financial and other reforms must not risk destroying the source of these gains in prosperity.

Consider the following extraordinary statistics... World real gross domestic product grew by about 145 per cent from 1980 to 2007, or by an average of roughly 3.4 per cent a year. ... Global health, as measured by life expectancy at different ages, has also risen rapidly, especially in lower-income countries.

Of course, the performance of capitalism must include this recession and other recessions along with the glory decades. Even if the recession is entirely blamed on capitalism, and it deserves a good share of the blame, the recession-induced losses pale in comparison with the great accomplishments of prior decades. ...

Governments should not so hamper markets that they are prevented from bringing rapid growth to the poor economies of Africa, Asia and elsewhere... New economic policies that try to speed up recovery should follow the first principle of medicine: do no harm. ...

The failure of financial innovations such as securities backed by subprime mortgages, problems caused by risk models that ignored the potential for steep falls in house prices and the overload of systemic risk represent clear market failures, although innovations in finance also contributed to the global boom over the past three decades.

The people who made mistakes lost, and many lost big. Institutions that made bad loans and investments had large declines in their wealth, while investors that funded these institutions without proper scrutiny have seen their wealth cut in half or much more. Households that overextended themselves have also been badly hurt.

Given the losses, actors in these markets have a strong incentive to correct their mistakes the next time. In this respect, many government actions have been counterproductive, shielding actors from the consequences of their actions and preventing private sector adjustments. ...

The claim that the crisis was due to insufficient regulation is also unconvincing. For example, commercial banks have been more regulated than most other financial institutions, yet they performed no better... Regulators got caught up in the same bubble mentality as investors and failed to use the regulatory authority available to them. ...

The Great Depression induced a massive worldwide retreat from capitalism, and an embrace of socialism and communism that continued into the 1960s. It also fostered a belief that the future lay in government management of the economy, not in freer markets. The result was generally slow growth during those decades in most of the undeveloped world, including China, the Soviet bloc nations, India and Africa.

Partly owing to the collapse of the housing and stock markets, hostility to business people and capitalism has grown sharply again. Yet a world that is mainly capitalistic is the “only game in town”... We hope our leaders do not deviate far from a market-oriented global economic system. To do so would risk damaging a system that has served us well for 30 years.

When the golden goose is too wild for its own good, you can clip its wings without killing it.

While it's possible that regulation will go overboard in response to the crisis, there are powerful interests that will resist regulatory changes that limit their opportunities to make money (and Nobel prize winning economists willing to back them up), so my worry is that regulation will not go far enough, particularly with people like Kashyap and Mishkin arguing that we should wait for recovery before making any big regulatory changes to the financial sector. They may be right that now is not the time to change regulations because it could create additional destabilizing uncertainty in financial markets, and that waiting will give us time to see how the crisis plays out and to consider the regulatory moves carefully. But as we wait, passions will fade, defenses will mount, the media will respond to the those opposed to regulation by making it a he said, she said issue that fogs things up and confuses the public as well as politicians, and by the time it is all over there's every chance that legislation will pass that is nothing but a facade with no real teeth that can change the behaviors that go us into this mess.

    Posted by on Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 05:04 PM in Economics, Financial System, Regulation | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (31)


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