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Friday, August 31, 2007

Melvyn Krauss: Don't Crucify Labor on a "Cross of Moral Hazard and No-Bailouts"

I like this, perhaps because it echoes and provides a foundation for some of the points I've been making. It's from Melvyn Krauss, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution:

Sub-Prime Economic Theory, by Melvyn Krauss, Project Syndicate: The possibility that the European Central Bank may raise interest rates in the midst of a financial crisis recalls the great American orator William Jennings Bryan’s famous “cross of gold” speech in 1896. Referring to the international gold standard’s deflationary bias, Bryan railed: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor a crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

In other words, ordinary people should not be made to suffer for the foibles of policymakers enthralled by some defunct economic theory.

Today, the defunct economic theory is that a rapid shift in preferences – colorfully called a “reduced appetite for risk” – is the key reason behind the current sub-prime mortgage and financial crisis. To avoid future increases in this appetite, policymakers and pundits have focused on the so-called “moral hazard problem”: the “bad guys” must pay for their mistakes, lest they make them again.

One would have expected the modern-day William Jennings Bryan to be warning central bankers not to crucify mankind on a “cross of moral hazard and no-bailouts.” But, surprisingly, the opposite is occurring.

Some on the left, motivated in part by revulsion against financial types who are thought to reap unjustified incomes, have joined forces with conventional economists, whose almost religious belief in their models has blinded them to the harm their dubious economic theory can do to the real economy and the interests of ordinary people. No bailouts can mean no college for the kids – or, for many, no house.

The key question economists should now be asking is why financial markets are “seizing up” when banks and other financial institutions are flush with liquidity.

The conventional explanation – a reduced appetite for risk – is not convincing. The sub-prime market seems too small to have caused such a broad-based change in risk preference.

A more convincing explanation is that the current crisis, with its unknown dimensions and scope, has so clouded the economic landscape as to freeze market participants in their tracks, so to speak, until things clear up.

That is the fundamental lesson of an important new book, Imperfect Knowledge Economics: Exchange Rates and Risk, by Roman Frydman and Michael Goldberg. The key to understanding financial markets, especially when they are as unsettled as they have been in recent weeks, is not a change in preferences, but inherent imperfection of knowledge and altered expectations concerning the future course of macroeconomic fundamentals.

What policy prescriptions does the “imperfect knowledge” approach imply for the current crisis? The most important one for central bankers is that they should cut interest rates – and cut them fast – to re-assure market participants that turmoil in financial markets will not be allowed to affect the real economy.

Judging by its recent policy reversal, the US Federal Reserve acts as if it were a late convert to the imperfect knowledge hypothesis. ... It matters little that the Fed could have ... cut the federal funds rate ... at its emergency meeting – indeed, that may have to be done. The important thing is that the Fed’s policy crossed the bridge from indifference to re-assurance. Could it be that Bernanke obtained an advanced copy of the Frydman-Goldberg book during those pregnant ten days in August?

Bernanke certainly had time to reflect upon how his legendary predecessor, Alan Greenspan, handled the Long Term Capital financial crisis in 1998. Greenspan was not the kind of economist who would crucify mankind on either a cross of moral hazard or the mechanistic models of conventional economic theory. He cut interest rates to re-assure markets that the financial crisis caused by the hedge fund’s collapse would not affect the real economy. The markets and economy responded with vigor and enthusiasm.

After an initial stumble – a rookie mistake, as one commentator put it – Bernanke appears to be following in the master’s footsteps. ...

    Posted by on Friday, August 31, 2007 at 05:22 PM in Economics, Financial System, Market Failure, Monetary Policy, Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (30)

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