Friday, October 3, 2008

Kenneth Rogoff: Significant Reasons to doubt wisdom of the bailout.

Rogoff is a professor at Harvard and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. Rogoff makes an interesting point that the government will be hiring all those unemployed geniuses from the investment banking sector who could not value assets properly in the private sector. They will now repeat their errors in the public sector while still receiving great salaries.
Rogoff is not for a completely laissez faire position as his own suggestions for government action show. to the web on: 30 September 2008Significant reasons to doubt wisdom of bail-outKenneth Rogoff

WITH minds concentrated by fears of another 1930s-style Great Depression, America’s politicians have adopted, virtually overnight, a $700bn bail-out plan to resuscitate the country’s rapidly deflating financial sector.The final deal is an elaborate piece of financial and political engineering whose ultimate effect is almost impossible to predict. There are good reasons, however, to be sceptical that this will be the panacea that credit markets are (literally) banking on.The plan’s central conceit is that government ingenuity can disentangle the trillion-dollar “subprime” mortgage loan market, even though Wall Street’s own rocket scientists have utterly failed to do so. To boot, we are told that the government is so clever it might even make money on the whole affair. Perhaps, but let’s not forget that a lot of very smart people in the financial industry thought the same thing until quite recently. Just a year ago, the US had five major free-standing investment banks that stood atop its mighty financial sector. Collectively, their employees shared more than $36bn dollars in bonuses last year, thanks to the huge profits these institutions “earned” on their risky and aggressive business strategies. These strategies typically involve far more risk — and sophistication — than the activities of traditional commercial banks.In mid-August, I had the temerity to predict that risks had come home to roost, and that a large US investment bank might soon fail or be forced into a highly distressed merger. Little did I imagine that today there would be no free-standing investment bank left on Wall Street. Indeed, after years of attracting many of the world’s best and brightest into ultra-high-paying jobs, collapsing investment banks are now throwing them out left and right. One such victim, a former student, called me the other day and asked: “What am I supposed to do now, get a real job?”This brings us back to the US treasury’s plan to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to unclog the subprime mortgage market. The idea is that the US government will serve as buyer of last resort for the junk debt that the private sector has not been able to price. Who, exactly, does the treasury plan to employ to figure all this out? Why, unemployed investment bankers, of course!Let’s ponder this. Investment bankers have been losing their cushy jobs because they could not figure out any convincing way to price distressed mortgage debt. Otherwise, their firms would have been able to tap the trillions of dollars now sitting on the sidelines, held by sovereign wealth funds, private equity groups, hedge funds, and others. Now, working for the taxpayer, these same investment bankers will suddenly come up with the magic pricing formula that has eluded them until now.Little wonder that academics across the political spectrum have expressed considerable scepticism. True, the treasury will take equity stakes in some firms, so there is some upside potential. But the main concern centres on the treasury’s apparent intention to pay more than double the current market price (20c-30c on the dollar) on the premise that the treasury’s success in untangling the mortgage market will make any discount seem like a bargain.Does such nitpicking fail to recognise the urgency of fixing the financial system? Isn’t any plan better than none? I, for one, am not convinced. Efficient financial systems are supposed to promote growth in the real economy, not impose a huge tax burden. And the US financial sector, in greasing the wheels of the real economy, has been soaking up an astounding 30% of corporate profits and 10% of wages. Thus, unlike in the 1930s, the US faces a hypertrophied financial system. Isn’t it possible, then, that rather than causing a Great Depression, significant shrinkage of the financial sector, particularly if facilitated by an improved regulatory structure, might actually enhance efficiency and growth?I am not suggesting that the government should sit on its hands. It needs to provide an expanded form of deposit insurance during this time of turmoil, so that there are no more Northern Rock-style bank runs. That was a big lesson of the 1930s. The government may also need to consider injecting funds more directly into the mortgage sector while the private sector reconstitutes itself. Certainly, the government must also find better ways to help home owners and their lenders work out efficient bankruptcy proceedings. It makes no sense for banks to foreclose on homes when there are workout options whereby people could stay in their homes and banks could recover far more money.Eventually, after further twists, turns, and huge expenditures, the US will emerge from its epic financial crisis. But there is a significant risk that this latest step, however grand, might end up doing more for profits and bonuses in the financial sector than for the rest of the economy. Project Syndicate, 2008. Rogoff is professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University, and was formerly chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.

1 comment:

jon said...

For any plan to work that will help us out of the present world crisis requires the cooperation of many people. And this can best be achieved if as many people as possible realize that we are all in this together and not be concerned merely about how the outcome will benefit oneself. The writings of Michael Laitman may be helpful in achieving this goal