Global imbalances and the crisis: A solution in search of a problem

Michael Dooley, Peter Garber 21 March 2009

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The current crisis is likely to be one of the most costly in our history, and the desire to reform the system so that it will not happen again is overwhelming. Our fear is that almost all this effort will be misdirected and unnecessarily costly. Three important misconceptions could lead to a disastrous reform agenda:

  1. That the crisis was caused by current account imbalances, particularly by net flows of savings from emerging markets to the US.
  2. That the crisis was caused by easy monetary policy in the US.
  3. That the crisis was caused by financial innovation.    

In our view, a far more plausible argument is that the crisis was caused by ineffective supervision and regulation of financial markets in the US and other industrial countries driven by ill-conceived policy choices. The important implication of the crisis itself is that for the next few years, at least, the misbehaviour that flourished in this environment will not be a problem, unless replicated under government pressure to restore the flow of credit to the uncreditworthy. If anything, excessive risk aversion and deleveraging will limit effective private financial intermediation. So the first precept for reform is that there is no hurry.

When markets recover, the key lesson is that the industrial countries need to focus on moral hazard, public and private, as the source of the problem and apply the prudential regulations they already have to financial entities that are too large to fail. It is not sensible to try to limit international trade and capital flows, to ask central banks to abandon inflation targeting, to stifle financial innovation, or to regulate entities such as hedge funds1  that do not generate systemic risks. 

International capital flows

One “lesson” that seems to be emerging is that international capital flows associated with current account imbalances were a cause of the crisis and therefore must be eliminated or at least greatly reduced.2  The idea that fraud and reckless lending flourished because US financial markets were unable to honestly and efficiently intermediate a net flow of foreign savings equal to about 5% of GDP, while having no problem with intermediating much larger flows of domestic savings, is astonishing to us. If so, would not the much larger gross capital flows into and out of the US also cause an outbreak of bad behaviour even without a net imbalance? If this were true, we would have to stop all capital flows, not just net imbalances. In the US context, we are unable to think of any plausible model for such behaviour.

If capital inflows did not directly cause the crisis perhaps they did so indirectly by depressing real interest rates in the US and other industrial countries. We have emphasised that capital inflows to the US from emerging markets associated with managed exchange rates caused persistently low long-term real interest rates in both the US and generally throughout the industrial world (Dooley, Folkerts-Landau and Garber 2004, 2009). Low real interest rates in turn drove asset prices up, particularly for long-duration assets such as equity and real estate.3  At the same time, low real interest rates temporarily reduced credit risks and a stable economic environment generated a marked decline in volatility of asset prices.

We have not argued that a “savings glut” in emerging markets is the fundamental driving force behind these capital flows. We have argued that the decisions of governments of emerging markets to place an unusually large share of domestic savings in US assets depressed real interest rates in the US and elsewhere in financial markets closely integrated with the US. These official capital flows are not offset, but reinforced, by private capital flows because managed exchange rate pegs are credible for China and other Asian emerging markets.

Low risk-free real interest rates that were expected to persist for a long time, in the absence of a downturn, generated equilibrium asset prices that appeared high by historical standards. These equilibrium prices looked like bubbles to those who expected real interest rates and asset prices to return to historical norms in the near future.

Along with our critics, we recognised that if we were wrong about the durability of the Bretton Woods II system and the associated durability of low real interest rates, the decline in asset prices would be spectacular and very negative for financial stability and economic activity. The hard landing predicted for Bretton Woods II was not to be caused by low real interest rates per se but by the sudden end to low interest rates as unsustainable capital inflows to the US were reversed. This is not the crisis that actually hit the global system.

But the idea that an excessive compression of spreads and increased leverage were directly caused by low real interest rates seems to us entirely without foundation.4  The alternative hypothesis is that an effective deregulation of US markets driven by government-dictated social policy, especially in mortgage origination and packaging, allowed the ever-present incentive to exploit moral hazard to flourish.5  This could just as well have happened with stable or rising real interest rates, as it did, for example, during the lead up to the US S&L crisis in the 1980s, another government manufactured disaster. Falling real interest rates in themselves should make a financial system more stable and an economy more productive.

Imagine a global system with permanent 4% equilibrium real interest rates. Now imagine a system with permanent 2% real interest rates. Why is one obviously more prone to fraud and speculation than the other? The vague assumption seems to be that capital inflows were large and interest rates were low, and this encouraged “bad” behaviour.

The current conventional interpretation is that low interest rates and rising asset prices generated an environment in which reckless and even dishonest financial transactions flourished. One version of this story is that rising real estate prices led naïve investors to believe that prices would always rise so that households with little income or assets could always pay for a house with capital gains on that house. Moreover, households could borrow against these expected capital gains to maintain current consumption at artificially high levels. This pure bubble idea does not provide much guidance for reforming the international monetary system. Clearly we should enforce prudential regulations that discourage people from acting on such expectations. But do we really want to reform away anything that causes real interest rates to fall and asset prices to rise?

Easy money and financial innovation

There is no sensible economic model that suggests that monetary policy can depress or elevate real long-term interest rates. The Fed could in theory target nominal asset prices (for example equity prices), but it would then lose control over the CPI. Would Alan Greenspan’s critics have preferred a monetary contraction necessary to depress the CPI enough to allow the real value of equities to rise? The Fed could, and may still, inflate away the real value of financial assets but this requires inflation as conventionally measured. This may yet come, but it was not a part of the story in recent years, and it is still not expected by market participants.

Third in the roundup of usual suspects in the blame game is financial innovation. There is no doubt that innovation has dramatically altered the incentives of financial institutions and other market participants in recent years. Securitisation of mortgages, for example, clearly reduces the incentives for those that originate credits to carefully screen applications. But securitisation also reduced the cost of mortgage credit and increased the value of housing as collateral. Private equity facilitated the dismantling of inefficient corporate structures. Venture capital has directed capital to high-risk but high-reward activities. Before we give up these benefits we need to ask if it is possible to retain the advantages of these innovations without the costs associated with the current crisis.

The problem was not financial innovation but the failure of regulators to recognise that innovation generated new ways to exploit moral hazard. Even more, it was the wilful ignorance of policymakers in often overriding the instincts of regulators and financial institutions in order to implement a desired flow of funds to uncreditworthy borrowers.

Fraud is not a financial innovation. The unhappy fact is that any change in the financial environment can generate new ways to undertake dishonest and imprudent positions. The regulators in turn have to adapt their procedures for monitoring and discouraging such activities. If it is really the case that regulators cannot understand the risks associated with modern financial markets and instruments, then there is a strong case for trying to return to a simple and relatively inefficient system. But we do not believe the story that no one can understand these innovations. To the contrary, it seems clear to us that the bankers that used these innovations to exploit moral hazard knew very well what they were doing and why. The first-best response to this is to attract a few of the many quants who are now unemployed to help enforce the prudential regulations already on the books.   

Conclusions

In this crisis, three macro-financial institutional arrangements remain to hold the financial system together. These are the dollar as the key reserve currency with US Treasury securities as the ultimate safe haven, the integrity of the euro, and the global monetary system as defined by the Bretton Woods II view. Attacking the latter as a major cause of the crisis and seeking its end is, at the end of the day, an attack on the basis of the international trading system. It is a sure way to metastasise the crisis in the global financial system further into a crisis of the global economic system.

References

Bernanke, Ben (2007) “Global Imbalances: Recent Developments and Prospects" speech delivered at Bundesbank Berlin September 11.
BIS 78th Annual Report (2008).


Dooley, Michael P., David Folkerts-Landau and Peter M. Garber (2004) “The Revived Bretton Woods System,” International Journal of Finance and Economics, 9:307-313.


Dooley, Michael P., David Folkerts-Landau and Peter M. Garber (2009) “Bretton Woods II Still Defines the International Monetary System,” NBER Working Paper 14731 (February).


Dunaway, Steven, Global Imbalances and Financial Crisis, Council for Foreign Relations Press, March, 2009.


Economic Report of the President (2008)


Economist (2009) When a Flow Becomes a Flood,” January 22.


Paulson, Henry (2008) “Remarks by Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr., on the Financial Rescue Package and Economic Update,” U.S. Treasury press release, November 12.  
Sester, Brad (2008) “Bretton Woods 2 and the Current Crisis: Any Link?", Council on Foreign Relations

Notes

1. Of course, a bank thinly disguised as a hedge fund should be regulated as a bank just as a hedge fund thinly disguised as a bank should be.
2. See Paulson (2008), Dunaway (2009).
3. This is arithmetic, not economics. A permanent fifty percent decline in the level of real interest rates, for example from 4% to 2%, is the same thing as a doubling of an infinite maturity financial asset’s price, provided that the payout from that asset is unchanged. For practical purposes, thirty years is good enough to about double prices.
4. This view has taken hold in central banks see Bernanke (2007), Hunt (2008), BIS (2008). In the financial press, see Sester (2008) and Economist (2009). It should be noted for the record that these claims are always raw assertions, without theoretical, empirical, or even logical basis.
5. The financial system problems in many other countries are independent of regulatory problems in the US. The banking collapses in Iceland, the UK, and Ireland were home grown. The loans of the European banking system to Eastern Europe and to emerging markets in general were independent of US financial system behavior.

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Topics:  Financial markets International finance

Tags:  financial crisis, moral hazard, financial regulation, global crisis debate

Professor of Economics, University of California - Santa Cruz

Deutsche Bank