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Archive for April 30th, 2010

I’m sure it could be true, so it’s worth sharing even if it is an urban legend.

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One bonus of speaking at the Global Financial Services Centres Conference in Dublin earlier this week is that I got to listen to Paul Atkins, a former Commissioner at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Unlike many others who have served in that role, Paul understands economics and recognizes the limited value of government regulation. Here’s and excerpt of what he had to say in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago about the so-called reform legislation being pushed by the White House and Hill Democrats:

The centerpiece of this legislation includes creating a group of officials to regulate “systemic risk.” Unfortunately, instead of advancing transparency and empowering investors, it will do very little to address systemic risk, while adversely affecting many of America’s most successful non-financial businesses. In fact, combined with other provisions of the bill, government officials will be in a position to substitute their judgment for that of investors. …The fundamentally wrong conclusion…, now seized upon by the Administration and politicians on both sides of the aisle, is that another, cleverly designed government institution is the prescription for our present ills. Given that most of the “bailed out” institutions were the most tightly regulated, even in terms of capital standards specifically designed to prevent the kind of bank run we witnessed, the “safety and soundness” approach to bank regulation itself needs to be reexamined. The end result of this traditional regulatory approach is that government bureaucrats tightly control the information that investors can learn about a financial institution, limiting proper analysis. …The bill proposed by Senator Christopher Dodd, along with the Treasury and House versions, simply doubles down on this same approach. The proposals seek to extend bank-style regulation to any American company that is deemed to be systemically significant – a “threat” to the financial system. The powers extend to companies and, ultimately, financial products. The new regulatory body is to be both omniscient and omnipotent – supposedly able to predict future market excesses and use sweeping powers to stop them. If the bill becomes law, two outcomes are likely: the systemic risk regulator will prove as incapable of predicting the future as everyone else in history, and the regulator will prove so overly cautious that it prevents financial market innovation and stifles economic growth.

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Russ Roberts of George Mason University has written a very good article for the Mercatus Center explaining – for economists and non-economists – how government intervention created distortions in the housing and finance sectors. He also blames Wall Street, paticularly for lobbying for the policies that caused the distortions and led to the financial crisis. Here’s an excerpt from the executive summary:

Some blame capitalism for being inherently unstable. Some blame Wall Street for its greed, hubris, and stupidity. But greed, hubris, and stupidity are always with us. What changed in recent years that created such a destructive set of decisions that culminated in the collapse of the housing market and the financial system? …public-policy decisions have perverted the incentives that naturally create stability in financial markets and the market for housing. Over the last three decades, government policy has coddled creditors, reducing the risk they face from financing bad investments. Not surprisingly, this encouraged risky investments financed by borrowed money. The increasing use of debt mixed with housing policy, monetary policy, and tax policy crippled the housing market and the financial sector. Wall Street is not blameless in this debacle. It lobbied for the policy decisions that created the mess. In the United States we like to believe we are a capitalist society based on individual responsibility. But we are what we do. Not what we say we are. Not what we wish to be. But what we do. And what we do in the United States is make it easy to gamble with other people’s money—particularly borrowed money—by making sure that almost everybody who makes bad loans gets his money back anyway. The financial crisis of 2008 was a natural result of these perverse incentives. We must return to the natural incentives of profit and loss if we want to prevent future crises.

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