Sunday, January 27, 2008

Siller On Confidence of Financial Market

A nice article from Robert Siller in NYT.

THE key to maintaining economic stability is well-placed confidence in the
markets. Bubbles, by contrast, result from misplaced confidence.
We are living in a post-bubble world, following the stock market bubble of the 1990s and the real estate bubble of the 2000s. That is the backdrop for the current crisis. We need to restore confidence in the markets’ basic ability to function, not in their presumed tendency to make us all rich by always going up.
Some short-term remedies are under way. President Bush has said that fiscal policy is urgently needed to address the current situation and has reached tentative agreement with Congress on a temporary tax cut of $150 billion. This might increase the official federal deficit from about 1 percent of gross domestic product to something like 2 percent, about where it was a couple of years ago. And on Tuesday, the Federal Reserve under its chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, made an emergency between-meetings cut of three-quarters of a percentage point in the federal funds rate. The move brought that benchmark rate down to its level midway into the 2001 recession, and the Fed has signaled that it stands ready to make further cuts.
While a temporary tax cut and interest rate cuts are good ideas, they don’t address the underlying crisis of confidence. If these measures succeed merely in making people consume more, running to the malls and making the already-negative personal saving rate even more negative, they won’t restore faith in the financial markets.
One main response to the Depression that helped prevent another from occurring was a set of tools that improved confidence by truly improving market security. One of these was the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, in 1933, but there were also a large number of others, especially the Securities and Exchange Commission the next year.
These were not obvious innovations and, in fact, were highly controversial at the time. Indeed, it is never obvious how the government should foster well-functioning markets. The fundamental role of governments in promoting markets is clear, but the design of their instruments must make creative use of a great deal of information about financial theory, human psychology and existing institutions and practices. The successful markets we have are a result of considerable inventive effort.
The F.D.I.C. was controversial because it was established amid the ruins of various state-level deposit insurance plans that had just gone bankrupt. Critics at the time also argued that federal deposit insurance would encourage unsound banking. But it turns out that the F.D.I.C. was a very good idea. It restored confidence in the banking system during the Depression, and with hardly any cost.
The S.E.C. was similarly controversial. Critics said it would hamstring or straitjacket the markets. But it is now the model for securities regulation around the world.
We need such inventive effort today. It won’t be easy, but the first step would be to set up a national study commission and to pay for serious creative research on how to adapt important ideas, like deposit insurance and securities regulation, to a modern financial world.
Mr. Bernanke certainly knows the importance of well-functioning markets. In his 2000 book, “Essays on the Great Depression,” he wrote persuasively that runs on the banks and extensive defaults on loans reduced the efficiency of the financial sector, prevented it from doing its normal job in allocating resources, and contributed to the Depression’s severity.
The Depression-era problems he studied are mirrored by similar issues today, and they need urgent attention. The very fact that many people feel they can no longer rely on some of our financial institutions may bring a self-fulfilling prophecy, which could then fundamentally harm economic activity.
The mortgage market is suffering. People are having a hard time getting mortgages, and mortgage originators are finding it harder to sell their mortgages to those who would repackage them in mortgage securities.
The commercial paper market is suffering, too. The amount of outstanding asset-backed commercial paper, which has become a main element of an unregulated, uninsured, shadow banking system, has fallen 30 percent since August.
Other credit markets are also having problems. For example, some municipal borrowers have already had the credit ratings of their debt lowered because of the downgrading of Ambac, a municipal bond insurer, by Fitch Ratings. Problems in the bond market are likely to multiply if there are further downgradings of Ambac, or downgradings of other insurers like MBIA.
CONFIDENCE in our brokerage firms is suffering. With every announcement of major losses, some people start to wonder whether they can rely on these companies.
The Bank of England’s bailout of the mortgage lender Northern Rock in September was truly urgent. The bank was experiencing a run, the first in Britain since 1866. The newspaper photographs of long lines of people waiting on the street to withdraw their money probably rekindled dormant fears. People tend to remember such dramatic stories because they remember when their own confidence has been shaken.
The Northern Rock bailout was needed because ordinary depositors had begun to worry about their saving accounts. It was necessary to show them that they didn’t have to be worried. Improvements in the deposit insurance system in Britain began immediately after this crisis.
In the United States, the very least we can do is to raise the F.D.I.C.’s limits on insured deposits. The limit of $5,000 in 1934 was 12 years’ worth of per capita personal income at the time. The limit was last raised in 1980, to $100,000, which was then 10 years’ income. But because of inflation and economic growth, that limit is less than three years’ income today.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Reform Act of 2005 did not raise that ceiling, though it will start indexing the limit to inflation in 2010. We have allowed deposit insurance to go three-quarters of the way to extinction.
The insurance limits of the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, which protects customers when brokerage firms fail, were also last raised in 1980 — to $100,000 in cash accounts and $500,000 in securities — and thus have suffered an equally drastic erosion in real value. Such erosion could suddenly matter if the crisis, or even just the psychology of the crisis, were to worsen.
But far beyond this, at a time when so many problems have arisen outside the limits of existing federal insurance programs, we need to do more than update the programs for inflation. We need to consider the fundamental principles on which they were based, stress-test them for today’s environment and consider extending them in creative ways.