Thursday, August 13, 2009

His name was Paul Volcker

Dani Rodrik is onto something obvious, which makes it all the more unbelievable that his view is not more widespread.  I excerpted the main points for your enjoyment, but the piece is good throughout.

What hampered Greenspan and Bernanke as financial regulators was that they were excessively in awe of Wall Street and what it does. They operated under the assumption that what is good for Wall Street is good for Main Street. This will no doubt change as a result of the crisis, even if Bernanke remains at the helm. But what the world needs is a Fed chairman who is instinctively sceptical of financial markets and their social value.

Here are some of the lies that the finance industry tells itself and others, and which any new Fed chairman will need to resist.

Prices set by financial markets are the right ones for allocating capital and other resources to their most productive uses.  That is what textbooks and financiers tell you, but we have now many reasons to be wary.

Financial markets discipline governments. This is one of the most commonly stated benefits of financial markets, yet the claim is patently false.

The spread of financial markets is an unmitigated good. Well, no. Financial globalisation was supposed to have enabled poor, undercapitalised countries to gain access to the savings of rich countries. It was supposed to have promoted risk-sharing globally.

Financial innovation is a great engine of productivity growth and economic well-being. Again, no. Imagine that we had asked five years ago for examples of really useful kinds of financial innovation. We would have heard about a long list of mortgage-related instruments, which supposedly made financing available to home buyers who would not have been able to purchase homes otherwise. We now know where that led us. The truth lies closer to Paul Volcker's view that for most people the automated teller machine (ATM) has brought bigger benefits than any financially-engineered bond.

Once the crisis got rolling, I think Bernanke did a reasonable job of not letting the entire system come apart.  The problem is that we are very very quickly returning to business as usual, which will essentially guarantee another crisis in short order, just as the way we handled the tech bubble bursting guaranteed the inflation of a housing bubble.  We are a rich nation, but eventually someone is going to call in the 'Armageddon Put'.  Everything always comes back to the same point -- the real battleground in the market has shifted almost totally to politics, and if we don't change how we elect our government we will end up with that most ultra-modern version of fascism, THE CAPITALIST AXIOMATIC.

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