Archive for May, 2010

Financial reform bill: Better than nothing

22 May 2010

This week the Senate passed a financial reform bill that’s at least a bit tougher than looked possible a couple weeks ago.  Paul Krugman has a concise rundown on it right here:

“What’s good? Resolution authority, which was sorely lacking last year; consumer protection; derivatives traded through clearinghouses; ratings reform, thanks to Al Franken; tighter capital standards for big players, although with too much discretion to regulators.

“What’s missing? Hard leverage limits; size caps; not much in the way of restoring Glass-Steagall. If you think that too big to fail is the core problem, it’s disappointing; if you think that shadow banking is the core, as I do, not too bad.”

Dean Baker has some additional words here on Al Franken’s credit-rating-agencies reform amendment, which would eliminate the huge grades-for-sale conflict of interest of having companies being rated pay the rating agency for their work.  Instead, the Securities and Exchange Commission will assign the rating agency for each new securities issue.

The Senate bill also includes a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which will be technically independent, as reformers had been pushing for and industry had been furiously opposing.  However, the agency will be housed within the Federal Reserve, which reformers had opposed because of the Fed’s dismal track record on consumer protection over the past decade.  Supposedly the agency will not have to answer to the Fed’s leadership, but we’ll have to see how that works out in practice.  I have not yet seen any word on whether the fabulous Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law professor who had been advocating for this agency, would still be interested in heading it.

All told, the bill still leaves much to be desired — Simon Johnson and James Kwak at The Baseline Scenario decry its lack of hard capital requirements or bank size restrictions — but looks a whole lot better than nothing:

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History lesson: Recessions are modern

8 May 2010

Interesting just in its own right, this paragraph from Paul Krugman:

“… the 19th-century economy had much more flexible prices and wages than later came to be the case — not, primarily, because of different institutions, but because it was still largely an economy of small, self-employed farmers. More than half of US workers were in agriculture up until the 1880s. Peter Temin has told me — I can’t find it in a quick search — that the United States didn’t start having modern recessions, with large declines in real GDP, until the Panic of 1873; Britain started having them much earlier, because it became an industrial economy earlier.”

Or possibly not even until the Panic of 1893, which at the time was known as the Great Depression.  Some economic history research that I have not seen, but which is cited confidently in this compelling column by Charles R. Morris, concludes that the 1870s contraction was actually quite mild.

Which is not to see that genuine and widely felt “hard times” never occurred in our pre-industrial, pre-1870 economy.  Financial panics and deflations were common, and any big drop in farm price surely hurt the real incomes of many farmers, as long as their prices fell more than other prices and farmers had nominally denominated debts.  Many economic historians have even said that a “depression” in the early 1770s helped set the stage for the American Revolution.  But it does seem we need to have a better understanding of what those early “hard times” were like for the people who experienced them.

Too big, too bad, too late: Greenspan speaks

5 May 2010

Simon Johnson has yet another fine post on the need to break up the biggest banks, for the sake of financial stability.  Unfortunately, he notes, it looks like it ain’t gonna happen, that the SAFE Banking Act sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Ted Kaufman (D-DE) won’t make it anywhere near the Senate floor.*

The post includes a remarkable quote by Alan Greenspan, who now seems to get it:

“For years the Federal Reserve had been concerned about the ever larger size of our financial institutions. Federal Reserve research had been unable to find economies of scale in banking beyond a modest-sized institution. A decade ago, citing such evidence, I noted that ‘megabanks being formed by growth and consolidation are increasingly complex entities that create the potential for unusually large systemic risks in the national and international economy should they fail.’ Regrettably, we did little to address the problem.”

Now, Greenspan is a bit like the Bible, Shakespeare, or Adam Smith — comb through all his words and you can probably find something to support your position, whatever it is.  But it is striking that he acknowledges the lack of economies of scale brought by big banks and their potential for systemic damage.  His regret at not addressing the problem would be more constructive if he could find a concrete proposal to support, like Sen. Kaufman’s bill, for example.  (I’m reminded of the old quote A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.)

* Update:  The Brown-Kaufman SAFE Banking Amendment did make it to the Senate floor on May 6, but it was voted down, 33-61.  The roll call vote is here.  About two-thirds of Democrats voted for it, along with three Republicans.  Among the Democrats voting No were Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd and New York’s Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Warren Buffett defends snake-oil sales

4 May 2010

That’s my interpretation of this column, anyway.  The NYT‘s Andrew Ross Sorkin and all the other apologists for Goldman Sachs take a different view.

Buffett says the institutions who bought the reeking mortgage derivatives from Goldman have only themselves to blame.  They just got outsmarted.

Um, couldn’t we say the same about the lady who bought the kerosene-soaked sugar from the local grocer?

Why was Goldman selling toxic products in the first place?  If they knew they were toxic, isn’t that fraud?  Isn’t that the basis of the lawsuit?

I’d always liked Warren Buffett prior to reading this column, but now it’s hard not to conclude that he’s just like all the rest who would maintain that nobody on Wall Street bears any blame whatsoever for the financial crisis.  Buffett famously said a while back that derivatives were financial weapons of mass destruction.  Caveat emptor — said destruction can only be the buyer’s fault.

UPDATE, 7 May 2010:  Les Leopold, author of The Looting of America, says all this, and more, right here.

Obligatory song link: