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- Published on Amazon.com
The economic crisis of 2008 has caught almost all observers unaware. Here and there, a few voices issued warnings, pointing out the existence of the housing bubble and the dangerous effects of the global financial imbalances and America's growing deficits. Chief amongst these Cassandras, the man whose dire predictions proved most accurate, was Nouriel Roubini. Nicknamed "Dr. Doom" in a New York Times article written by Stephen Mihn, Roubini's reputation as a forecaster, almost a prophet, is today unmatched.
Roubini's sterling reputation was the reason I chose to read "Crisis Economics", a further collaboration between Mihn and Roubini. Of the half a dozen or so books about the crisis that I have read (Richard Posner's A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression and The Crisis of Capitalist Democracy, Robert Shiller's The Subprime Solution: How Today's Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What to Do about It, Vince Cable's The Storm: The World Economic Crisis & What It Means, etc), Roubini and Mihn offer the most wide ranging look, discussing the roots of the crisis, the government's response, and suggestions for reform. Roubini and Mihn write well, and their book is an excellent introduction for the crisis to the uninitiated. Unfortunately, "Crisis Economics" offers rather less to those of us who have spent some time on the subject. Those readers might, like me, find little new in the early chapters of the book (the ones discussing the origin of the crisis) and much to disagree with in the later chapters (the ones outlining the authors' suggested way out of it).
The first half of the book described combines a run of the mill description of the crisis's formation, mixed with standard history of economic thought (from Smith to Keynes), only partially enlivened by the rather unorthodox focus on economic crisis and failure rather than success.
The authors employ mostly conventional Keynesian perspective on the crisis, and so should be applauded for their discussion of the Austrian school views about it. But although they explain the Austrian position in full, they ultimately discard it with a superficial analysis that would not convince any Austrian. Later they argue that they are offering a synthesis of the Austrian and Keynesian perspectives, but no self respecting Austrian could possibly accept their call for massive government intervention, while Keynesians would find little to disagree with the notion that the problems of twisted incentives caused by the necessary intervention should be addressed, or at the very least taken into account.
For me, the book only became interesting in earnest about halfway through, when the authors discussed the response to the crisis. Particularly, they emphasize the role of Fed. I knew that the Federal Reserve played a huge part in the bailouts of such players as Goldman Sachs and AIG. But Mihn and Roubini's account highlighted a fact that I was insufficiently aware of - how America's central Bank acted not only as a lender of last resort, saving the financial system from collapse, but also as an almost ordinary lender, lending money to more and more non-bank institutions in order to stop the credit freeze. It seems to me that while the Fed's action as lender of last resort was probably necessary, the active intervention in the markets more questionable. Monetary tools are effective in restraining an overheated economy (as Paul Volker did in the early 1980s), and in unleashing willing investors, but they are generally no good for promoting economic activity when there's no will for it. Ben Bernanke took very extreme actions to try to encourage economic activity and especially lending, and it is far from obvious that the relatively meager results were worth the effort.
The classic Keynesian account places the onus of reigniting the economy on the government's fiscal rather than monetary powers: Crudely speaking, Keynes taught that governments should spend their way out of depressions. Oddly enough, beyond criticizing the stimulus for being a political bargain and thus far from ideal, the authors have little to say about the government's direct role in creating demand, focusing their discussion on the various ways it underwrote risks taken by other institutions.
The bottom line may be that both fiscal and monetary policy focused excessively on "reigniting" markets rather than on stimulating the economy via government spending on public works and other government projects. This arguably prevented the "work" of the crisis - culling out the weak firms from the good ones - from taking place, and increased the amount of irresponsible players who gained from the bailouts.
Moving forward, the authors make several proposal for reforms. Unfortunately, I think many of these proposals are extremely problematic. Take compensation - the authors point out that traders and managers in financial firms to excessive risks, because they had wrapped incentives - they would make a fortune if the gambles paid off, but would lose very little if they didn't. In the short run, the traders and the firms both did very well, but in the long run, the firms had to be bailed out, while the trader's bank accounts remained as healthy as ever. The authors therefore make a series of proposals, all meant to link the compensation of executives with the long term prospects of the firm they work in. The problem with these plans is that in the long run, the well being of the firm is likely to be determined by a host of factors, few of them in any person's control. Delaying compensation cuts the link between the employees' pays and their performance - which is, ironically, exactly what self dealing executives want (see Pay without Performance: The Unfulfilled Promise of Executive Compensation). Furthermore, in trying to align the interests of firms with those of the executives, the authors ignore the fact that part of the cost of a firms' downfall is carried by its creditors and suppliers (and as we see in this crisis, by the taxpayers). When the a cost of an activity are born by those other than the parties involved in the activity, the cost is what's known in economic terms as an externality. Negative externalities (costs), unborn by the firm, are not taken into account by it. Which means that from a social perspective, even rational, income maximizing firms are taking excessive risks.
Another problematic proposal is an overhaul of America's financial regulators. The authors point out that America has a host of bodies meant to regulate finance, all of them work in an uncoordinated and inefficient way. The argue that America should reform its regulators to make them more streamlined and centralized - somewhat like Britain's Financial Services Authority. But the FSA did not seem to spare Britain the crisis. Is it really a great model for a regulating agency?
The book's final chapter describes the global financial imbalances - namely the huge deficits incurred by the United States and other rich countries, contrasted with the enormous surpluses amassed by such emerging countries as South Korea and especially China. The authors disagree with the "Global Saving Glut" hypothesis (advocated by the likes of Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf - see Fixing Global Finance (Forum on Constructive Capitalism)). They argue, in effect, that America and Americans are responsible for their choice to borrow excessively (p. 250).
But whether to save or spend is a question of benefits versus costs. As long as Americans are offered amazingly cheap credit (and correspondingly, few avenues for profitable and safe long term investments), they are unlikely to stop taking advantage of it. It is natural to borrow when the costs of borrowing is low - it is unnatural to lend money for meager returns
"Crisis Economics" is therefore an eloquent introduction to the financial crisis, and a thoughtful program on how to get out of it. I disagree with many of the authors' recommendations, but they are worth considering very carefully. After all, Roubini has been proven right before.