Thursday, March 27, 2008

Death of a dream

Before we move to columnists explaining to us the implications of the US Fed's actions following the Bear Stearns fiasco, we must turn to the only folks who can be trusted to tell it like it really is: Jon Stewart and Aasif Mandvi.

What are the implications of what just happned? The short version: more and more of the financial sector will now come under regulations. Click on the links for the longer version; thanks to Mark Thoma for both the links.

Here's Martin Wolf in the Financial Times:

Remember Friday March 14 2008: it was the day the dream of global free- market capitalism died. For three decades we have moved towards market-driven financial systems. By its decision to rescue Bear Stearns, the Federal Reserve, the institution responsible for monetary policy in the US, chief protagonist of free-market capitalism, declared this era over. It showed in deeds its agreement with the remark by Josef Ackermann, chief executive of Deutsche Bank, that “I no longer believe in the market’s self-healing power”. Deregulation has reached its limits. [...]

The lobbies of Wall Street will, it is true, resist onerous regulation of capital requirements or liquidity, after this crisis is over. They may succeed. But, intellectually, their position is now untenable. Systemically important institutions must pay for any official protection they receive. Their ability to enjoy the upside on the risks they run, while shifting parts of the downside on to society at large, must be restricted. This is not just a matter of simple justice (although it is that, too). It is also a matter of efficiency. An unregulated, but subsidised, casino will not allocate resources well. Moreover, that subsidisation does not now apply only to shareholders, but to all creditors. Its effect is to make the costs of funds unreasonably cheap. These grossly misaligned incentives must be tackled.

I greatly regret the fact that the Fed thought it necessary to take this step. Once upon a time, I had hoped that securitisation would shift a substantial part of the risk-bearing outside the regulated banking system, where governments would no longer need to intervene. That has proved a delusion. A vast amount of risky, if not downright fraudulent, lending, promoted by equally risky finance, has made securitised markets highly risky. This has damaged institutions, notably Bear Stearns, that operated intensively in these markets.

Here's David Wessel in WSJ:

The past 10 days will be remembered as the time the U.S. government discarded a half-century of rules to save American financial capitalism from collapse.

On the Richter scale of government activism, the government's recent actions don't (yet) register at FDR levels. They are shrouded in technicalities and buried in a pile of new acronyms.

But something big just happened. It happened without an explicit vote by Congress. And, though the Treasury hasn't cut any checks for housing or Wall Street rescues, billions of dollars of taxpayer money were put at risk. A Republican administration, not eager to be viewed as the second coming of the Hoover administration, showed it no longer believes the market can sort out the mess.