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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dissent on "Which Plan is Best": Why a Second Best Plan May not be Good Enough

Sach Mukherjee disagrees with my mild support of the Geithner plan. He's worried that if we let this window of opportunity for reform go by without making major changes - and going with the Geithner plan is, he believes, a step in that direction - then we are headed for an even bigger disaster than we have now at some point in the future:

Why a second best bailout may not be good enough, by The Compulsive Theorist: It’s not often I find myself disagreeing with Mark Thoma, but on the issue of the Geithner bailout plan I think I do. Thoma is a careful and reasoned writer, so what comes below I say cautiously, but nonetheless with some conviction.

Thoma writes:

So I am not wedded to a particular plan, I think they all have good and bad points, and that (with the proper tweaks) each could work. Sure, some seem better than others, but none — to me — is so off the mark that I am filled with despair because we are following a particular course of action.

Let me start by nailing my colours to the mast: I am not convinced the Geithner plan is a good one, and would greatly prefer to see a much more thorough reform of the financial sector, including a bankruptcy-like reorganization of insolvent firms. I understand that this sort of “solution” is much easier to consider in the abstract than implement in the real world and that such a plan would encounter formidable political obstacles at a time when the policy response needs to be rapid. So my argument below against Geithner-type plans is made neither lightly, nor simply to play devil’s advocate to optimists.

My opposition to the Geithner plan stems not primarily from outrage, concerns about equity, or even book losses borne by taxpayers, but from major concerns about future economic output and stability. The other issues are important and certainly things I care about, but my feeling is that even these are of secondary concern next to the signal issue of how today’s bailout will affect tomorrow’s broader economy.

For the moment, let’s categorize bailout plans into those which seek to recapitalize the banks while maintaining the current system in roughly its present form and those which go the route of bankruptcy-type proceedings and (given the breadth of the current crisis) would involve a much more thorough overhaul of the financial system. The Geithner and Paulson plans are of the first kind, and the “Swedish” plan (and its many variants) of the second kind. I’ll call these “bailout” and “restructuring” plans respectively. Clearly this nomenclature hides a lot of detail, but I think captures a key axis of difference between the various plans.

Two things about the aetiology of the crisis stand out. First, perverse incentives for agents within the financial sector played a central role in bringing about the crisis. Second, there were (and remain) issues of poor system design in the financial sector: even perverse incentives might have had limited consequences in a robust system. The problem with the Geithner plan is that even it works in terms of stabilizing the economy in the short-term, it does relatively little (the uncharitable would say almost nothing) to correct either incentives or system design. But the business and cultural norms and system-wide conflicts of interest which form the backdrop to the crisis run deep, and will not change without substantial impetus. It is precisely these deeper issues that we must address if we are to reduce the risk of a re-run of the crisis, probably on a larger scale, in a few years time.

I sympathize with the point of view which says that the political window of opportunity is narrow and the need for action urgent, so let’s accept the bailout plan for now, and deal with these wider issues later on. But the very fact that political momentum is limited means that if these wider changes are to be brought about, the process has to begin in earnest at once. Does anyone seriously believe that in a years time, if following massive government support the banks are stable - or can be made to appear stable – there will be any political will to break up very large institutions, or any real change to underlying norms in the financial sector?

However, absent these deeper changes, it is entirely possible that we will see a replay of the crisis - but on a larger scale - in a few years time. Naturally, one cannot say with certainty that such a cataclysm (and if it were much larger than the current crisis, it really would be a cataclysm) will occur. But if it does, the resulting costs will be huge. Martin Wolf has written persuasively about the costs of major economic dislocation. Net of unemployment, political instability and even wars, the human costs of a sequel could dwarf even the current crisis. Then, the choice in the present between the “bailout” and “restructuring” plans hinges on whether expected cost (in the broadest sense), conditioned on the “bailout” strategy is higher than expected cost conditioned on “restructuring”. One could formalize this argument as a decision problem, but it comes down to a judgement call on the relative probability of such a cataclysm under the two strategies and the magnitude of the dislocation. My feeling, admittedly subjective, is that the gloomy cataclysm scenario is substantially more likely under the “bailout” than “restructuring”, and that the costs would be immense.

This case can be put very simply: if we do not use current political momentum to fundamentally reform a system which has shown itself to be unstable and even dangerous, a second opportunity may come at a very high price. And this is not a gamble I wish to see our leaders make.

    Posted by on Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at 01:53 PM in Economics, Financial System, Regulation | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (17)


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