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Monday, December 28, 2009

A ''Turning Point in U.S. Society''?

Did Enron change everything?:

Might Krugman's polemic prediction about Enron vs. 9-11 ever come true?, by Michael Roberts: I look at our financial and economic system in dumbfounded awe as to how it all works.  We shovel trillions of dollars into banks, stocks and mutual funds, rarely knowing the first thing about how well the underlying companies are managed or how profitable they are or what they are truly doing with our money.  While I think I'm more informed than the average investor, I couldn't tell you which 10 CEOs are most responsible for my investments.  I couldn't even tell you the top 10 companies! ...
The fact that I do invest shows I have remarkable confidence in our financial system.  That confidence is based on history, the fact that firms and CEOs have been honest and transparent enough in their accounting and that, over the long run, the stock market has performed extremely well.  The long sweep of history says I'm crazy not to invest.
But then I look at recent history and I wonder how the long history came to be.  Honest and transparent are not adjectives that come easily to mind when looking at our modern financial system and events over the last decade.
This issue is in fact the lynch pin to modern capitalism.  At a fundamental level what makes it all work is to having institutions that deal effectively with asymmetric information (the econ jargon).  If one cannot see exactly what they are buying with their investment money, little investment will take place, and economies don't grow.  So modern capitalism requires rock solid institutions that reduce information asymmetries and allow dollars to flow toward investments with the greatest potential returns.
This is why, back in 2002, Paul Krugman made what I think was his most polemic prediction ever:
I predict that in the years ahead Enron, not Sept. 11, will come to be seen as the greater turning point in U.S. society.
Many, including me, thought this was a bit much, even if Krugman made some good points in that old column. His column today, a tribute the naughties, echos similarly to his 2002 prediction...
Krugman was worried about the collapse of our financial institutions and saw Enron as an omen. ... And here we are. Things didn't collapse completely but it wasn't pretty.  While we've begun to recover (barely) many problems still need fixing, particularly re-regulation of financial markets.
I still think Krugman overstepped when he made that prediction in 2002, not just because the Enron fallout blew over relatively quickly, but because the sweeping fallout of 9/11 has been so great. But today I do think there is a chance ... that Krugman's prediction might eventually turn out to be right after all. ...

What's disappointing is that after Enron, and after what just happened, things might not change, at least not by very much. As Krugman notes, we seem unwilling to learn from our mistakes:

Even as the dot-com bubble deflated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with facades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors believed banks’ claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn’t understand. Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers’ expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage.

Part of it is transparency, and more is certainly needed, and perhaps it is an inability to learn from mistakes, but a bigger problem is the distribution of economic and political power. Business interests are dominant in Washington, and these powerful interests will do what they can to resist constraints on their behavior no matter what lessons the rest of us may have learned from their actions in the past. It is not at all clear that the political will needed to overcome the opposition of business groups and make the needed regulatory and legislative changes is present. Unless and until the political will is there, and if this crisis doesn't do it I'm not sure what will, we'll be in danger of repeating the same mistakes yet again. Congress might surprise and take tough action if and when the financial reform process currently underway is complete, but I'm not expecting that to happen.

    Posted by on Monday, December 28, 2009 at 04:23 PM in Economics, Financial System, Politics, Regulation | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (42)


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