Friday, March 1, 2013

Limited clairvoyance

The current approach to financial and banking regulation relies a lot on the idea that our now-wise regulators, armed with new powers and the tens of thousands of pages of Dodd-Frank regulations, really will see trouble around the corner next time and do something about it. If only they had more power back then....And of course even conventional macro policy chat revolves around wise heads of the Fed, IMF, ECB, and so on spotting "global imbalances," pricking "bubbles," "coordinating policies" and otherwise guiding the ships of state.

In this context, a lovely little piece at "The American" AEI's online magazine, caught my eye, Alex Pollock's "The housing Bubble and the Limits of Human Knowledge"

An excerpt:
Consider the lessons of the following 10 quotations:

1. About whether Fannie and Freddie’s debt was backed by the government: “There is no guarantee. There’s no explicit guarantee. There’s no implicit guarantee. There’s no wink-and-nod guarantee. Invest and you’re on your own.” — Barney Frank, senior Democratic congressman, notable Fannie supporter, later chairman of the House Financial Services Committee

It would be difficult to imagine a statement more wrong.

2. “We do not believe there is any government guarantee, and we go out of our way to say there is not a government guarantee.” — John Snow, Republican and secretary of the Treasury

Saying it did not make it so, unfortunately.

3. “The facts are that Fannie and Freddie are in sound situations.” — Christopher Dodd, senior Democratic senator, prominent Fannie supporter, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee

Pronounced two months before Fannie and Freddie collapsed.

4. “We have no plans to insert money into either of those two institutions [Fannie and Freddie].” — Henry Paulson, Republican and secretary of the Treasury

Stated one month before the Treasury started inserting money into Fannie and Freddie.

Ordinary Americans are being taxed so that foreign and domestic bondholders get back every penny they lent Fannie and Freddie.

5. “Home prices could recede. A sharp decline, the consequences of a bursting bubble, however, seems most unlikely.” — Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board

The common wisdom of the bubble years. At the time of this statement in 2003, the Fed was in the process of dramatically reducing short-term interest rates and stimulating house-price increases.

6. “Global economic risks [have] declined.” — International Monetary Fund

Observed four months before the international financial panic started in August 2007.

7. “More than 99 percent of all insured institutions met or exceeded the requirements of the highest regulatory capital standards.” — Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation

This statement was made in the second quarter of 2006, at the peak of the housing bubble. More than 400 such institutions later failed and others were bailed out in the ensuing bust. The FDIC failed its own required capital ratio, reporting negative net worth.

8. “The risk to the government from a potential default on GSE [Fannie and Freddie] debt is effectively zero.” — Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize–winning economist, Peter Orszag, a future White House budget director, and Jonathan Orszag

Conclusion after considering “millions of potential future scenarios” — but obviously not the scenario which then actually happened.

9. "'Not only didn’t we see it coming,' but once the crisis started, central bankers 'had trouble' understanding what was happening." — Remarks by Donald Kohn, vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board

A candid statement of the truth.

10. Finally: “Libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.” That is: “People easily believe that which they want to believe.” — Julius Caesar

Nothing has changed in this respect since Caesar’s day, and his dictum applies to government officials, central bankers, economists, and experts — just as it does to you and me.