Daily Archives: October 9, 2008

It’s rarely a good idea to pick fights with one’s friends–especially the clever ones–but I’ll take issue with Gideon Rachman’s column, “Conservatism overshoots its limit“. Gideon writes:

The market for ideas – like the market for shares – always overshoots. Ideas become fashionable and get pushed to their logical conclusion and beyond, as their backers succumb to “irrational exuberance”. Then comes the crash.

What we are experiencing now is the bust that has followed the 30-year bull run in conservative ideas that began with the Thatcher-Reagan revolution of 1979-80.

You can get a sense of how quickly the intellectual atmosphere has changed by picking up a copy of Alan Greenspan’s The Age of Turbulence, which was published last year. Mr Greenspan, head of the Federal Reserve from 1987 until 2006, heaped praise on the magic of financial markets and decried the foolishness of those who called for more regulation: “Why do we wish to inhibit the pollinating bees of Wall Street?” he asked rhetorically. Why indeed?

Mr Greenspan was considered such a guru that last year Senator John McCain suggested putting him in charge of a committee on tax reform, adding: “If he’s alive or dead it doesn’t matter. If he’s dead, just prop him up and put some dark glasses on him.” But Mr Greenspan’s reputation is now on the slide and Mr McCain has reinvented himself as a champion of regulation – and is denouncing the “corruption and unbridled greed that has caused a crisis on Wall Street”.

This kind of ideological whiplash is what happens when an intellectual bull market crashes. The current financial crisis can be traced to three of the central ideas of the Reagan-Thatcher era: the promotion of home ownership, financial deregulation and a fervent faith in the market. Each of these ideas did sterling service for 30 years, increasing prosperity and freedom. But pushed too far – and combined – they have created a disaster.

This seems to me to conflate three quite separate points, one true, one false, and one questionable.

Here is a brave and very interesting piece by Larry Kotlikoff and Perry Mehrling. I wonder if it is correct.

Global markets have not been reassured by the coordinated interest rate cuts of several central banks or by recent congressional action, but they should be. Our bet is that financial markets will return to normal in short order and that the U.S. economy will squeak by with a moderate recession. Recapitalizing the banks and working out mortgages will take time, but the financial system will not collapse — the government won’t let it.

The markets, of course, seem to be factoring in some probability of collapse. Why is this wrong?

For starters, the biggest subprime mortgage gamblers have already failed, been nationalized or been married off, shotgun-style, to banks run by grown-ups. Yes, lots of small shoes may still drop, but the Paulson “buy-up” bill, and, ultimately, the Fed’s ability to print money, provides the Treasury and Federal Reserve all the tools they need. The media don’t seem to have noticed, but Section 113 of the bill authorizes government capital infusions into the banking system as necessary — something the British government is now doing and the Swedish government successfully did in the recent past. That means any bank with a viable business will not be allowed to fail simply because it is temporarily undercapitalized.

Second, Uncle Sam (a.k.a. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke) is doing precisely what’s needed to avoid the mistakes of the 1930s. With credit markets drying up, he’s turning on the faucet by recycling our panic dollars back into the financial market.

The government is taking in our money (in exchange for Treasury bills) and using it to make mortgages and buy up the assets we’re too scared to hold. It’s doing this via the Treasury, the Fed, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Federal Housing Administration, the Federal Home Loan Bank, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other appendages. It’s starting to lend directly to large and small businesses whose usual sources of credit have become unavailable.

In short, Uncle Sam is becoming our new bank.

Read the whole thing.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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