Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. The one last Wednesday showing Christopher Dodd, chairman of the US senate’s banking committee, flanked by Hank Paulson, Treasury secretary, and Ben Bernanke, governor of the Federal Reserve, was such a picture. This showed Mr Bernanke as a performer in a political circus. Mr Dodd even announced Mr Bernanke’s policies: the latter had, said Mr Dodd, told him he would use “all the tools” at his disposal to contain market turmoil and prevent it from damaging the economy. The Fed has its orders: save Main Street and rescue Wall Street.
By Lawrence Summers
Over the past 20 years major financial disruptions have taken place roughly every three years, starting with the 1987 stock market crash; the Savings & Loans collapse and credit crunch of the early 1990s; the 1994 Mexican crisis; the Asian financial crises of 1997 with the Russian and Long-Term Capital Management events of 1998; the bursting of the technology bubble in 2000; the potential disruptions of the payments system after the events of September 11 2001 and the deflationary scare in the credit markets in 2002 after the collapse of Enron.
This record suggests that by 2007 the world had been overdue a major disruption. Sure enough the problems of subprime mortgages – initially seen as a confined issue – went systemic as the market began to doubt the creditworthiness of even the strongest institutions and rushed to buy US Treasury debt. Financial crises differ in detail but, just as there are plot cycles common to literary tragedies, they follow a common arc.
“Over the past decade a combination of diverse forces has created a significant increase in the global supply of saving – a global saving glut – which helps to explain both the increase in the US current account deficit and the relatively low level of long-term real interest rates in the world today.” Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve.*
Has the Federal Reserve been a serial bubble-blower? Or has it been responding to exceptional macroeconomic conditions? Not surprisingly, the implication of Ben Bernanke’s celebrated speech on the global “savings glut” implies the second view. Yet his self-exculpatory perspective is far from universally shared. So who is right? My answer is both. The Fed can indeed be accused of being a serial bubble-blower. But this is not because it has been managed by incompetents. It is because it has been managed by competent people responding to exceptional circumstances. Read more
By Martin Wolf
“At particular times a great deal of stupid people have a great deal of stupid money. . . At intervals. . . the money of these people – the blind capital, as we call it, of the country – is particularly large and craving; it seeks for someone to devour it, and there is a ‘plethora’; it finds someone, and there is ‘speculation’; it is devoured, and there is ‘panic’.” Walter Bagehot.*
Panic follows mania as night follows day. The great 19th-century economist and journalist, Walter Bagehot, knew this better than anybody. Lombard Street, his masterpiece, is dedicated to the phenomenon. It is devoted, too, to how central banks should deal with its results.
Ours has been a world of the “no income, no job, no assets” 100 per cent mortgage; of the “do what you like with our money, as long as you pay the fees” covenant-light loan; and of the “in go poor credits and out comes a triple A-rated security” financial alchemist. It has been a world of confidence, cleverness and too much cheap credit.
By Jeffrey Garten
The growth of government-owned investment companies, often called sovereign wealth funds, has caused a lot of hand-wringing in the US and Europe – and rightly so. Read more
By Willem Buiter
The UK government is con-sidering reclassifying cannabis from a class C drug to a class B drug, carrying higher penalties for using and dealing. As an economist with a strong commitment to personal liberty and responsibility, my preference would be to see all illegal drugs legalised. The only exception would be substances whose consumption leads to behaviour likely to cause material harm to others. Read more
By Jean Pisani-Ferry
The first six months of 2007 have been momentous ones for the European Union. In January, the accession of Bulgaria and Romania completed its eastern enlargement. In March, it set itself ambitious targets for a common energy and climate change strategy. And in June it reached agreement on a new draft treaty. José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor whose country then held the rotating presidency of the European Council, deserve their holidays: there could have been worse ways to mark the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. Read more