Regulation

| Wed Nov. 19, 2008 1:39 PM EST

REGULATION....Apparently there was a panel discussion on the financial crisis last night, and both Matt and Ezra report that the main takeaway was not to worry too much about trying to cure the precise causes of our current catastrophe. See, we've learned our lessons and the next catastrophe will almost certainly be caused by something different. Better instead to focus on broader regulations aimed at things like limiting leverage and taming asset bubbles slightly.

(That "slightly" is an important qualifier. There's plenty of legitimate controversy over whether the Fed can identify asset bubbles at all, and even if they can, whether the cure is worse than the disease. My own take is that I'll bet we can identify the worst asset bubbles if we make it a priority, and can probably do it early enough to provide mild corrections. That might not sound like much, but if the housing bubble had peaked out even 20% lower than it did in real life, I'll bet that would have made a noticeable difference in the severity of the ensuing financial meltdown. We still would have had a bubble, and its bursting still would have caused huge problems, but huge problems are still easier to deal with than catastrophic problems.)

In any case, I think Ezra is properly skeptical of this advice, since bankers will in fact make the exact same mistakes they made this time around if we allow them to. It'll take 20 years, but they'll do it. Here in Southern California, just to provide an example close to home, the fact that we had a disastrous housing bubble in the late 80s didn't put any brakes on the housing bubble in the early 2000s. In fact, the housing bubble was worse here than just about any other place in the country. It took us a grand total of 15 years to go from the peak of one housing bubble to the next.

Still, broad regulation is probably better. Leverage is obviously a common factor in lots of financial meltdowns and pretty clearly needs to be addressed seriously this time around — and that includes hedge funds, which have collectively grown big enough that they really can't be left to their own devices any longer. The CDS market allows risk to be laid off and spread around, which is good, but we probably ought to give a little more thought to whether it's really such a good thing when it happens on a gigantic scale. Perhaps forcing loan originators and bond underwriters, who (supposedly) understand their customers better than anyone, to retain more of their own risk acts as a natural brake on irrational exuberance. Transparency in financial transactions is another obvious target for regulators: more is almost always better. Finally, the obvious conflict of interest in rating agency behavior might or might not have been a major contributor to our current problems, but it was certainly part of the problem, and some modest regulations on that score couldn't hurt. David Zetland suggests that setting standard fees for rating financial instruments and then adjusting those fees over time based on their accuracy would be a good place to start.

What else? I wonder if anyone is seriously suggesting any macro solutions to what happened? If, for example, the global savings glut (or investment drought, depending on your view of the matter) really did produce such a tidal wave of idle cash that it was going to find stupid places to go no matter what regulations we had in place, then what's the answer to that? Is there one? Or should that simply be considered a specialized example of an asset bubble itself?

Too many questions, not enough answers. I'd sure like to hear more about this stuff from the econosphere, though. It would be nice for us laymen to start hearing about the issues and taking part in the debate before the conventional wisdom gets set too far in stone and there's nothing much we can do about it.

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