日曜日, 8月 12, 2018

Who Should Be Blamed for the Financial Crisis of 2008–2009?




Who Should Be Blamed for the Financial Crisis of 2008–2009?

 “Victory has a thousand fathers,  but defeat is an orphan.”  This famous quotation from  John  F.  Kennedy  contains  a  perennial  truth.  Everyone  is  eager  take  credit for success,  but no one wants to accept blame for failure.  In the aftermath of the financial  crisis of  2008–2009,  many people  wondered who was to blame. Not  surprisingly,  no one stepped forward to accept responsibility. Nonetheless,  economic observers have pointed their fingers at many possible culprits.  The accused include the following: nThe Federal Reserve. The nation’s central bank kept interest rates low in the aftermath of the 2001 recession. This policy helped promote the recovery,  but it also encouraged households to borrow and buy housing. Some economists believe by keeping interest rates too low for too long, the Fed contributed to the housing bubble that eventually led to the f inancial crisis. nHome-buyers.  Many people were reckless in borrowing more than they could afford to repay.  Others bought houses as a gamble,  hoping that housing prices would continue their rapid increase. When housing prices fell instead,  many of these homeowners defaulted on their debts. nMortgage brokers.  Many providers of home loans encouraged households to borrow excessively.  Sometimes they pushed complicated mortgage products with payments that were low initially but exploded later.  Some offered what were called NINJA loans (an acronym for  “no income, no job or assets”) to households that should not have qualified for a mortgage. The brokers did not hold these risky loans,  but instead sold them for a fee after they were issued. nInvestment banks.  Many of these financial institutions packaged bundles of risky mortgages into mortgage-backed securities and then sold them to buyers (such as pension funds) that were not fully aware of the risks they were taking on. nRating agencies. The agencies that evaluated the riskiness of debt instruments gave high ratings to various mortgage-backed securities 

that later turned out to be highly risky. With the benefit of hindsight,  it is clear that the models the agencies used to evaluate the risks were based on dubious assumptions. nRegulators.  Regulators of banks and other financial institutions are supposed to ensure that these firms do not take undue risks. Yet the regulators failed to appreciate that a substantial decline in housing prices might occur and that,  if it did,  it could have implications for the entire f inancial system. nGovernment policymakers.  For many years,  political leaders have pursued policies to encourage homeownership.  Such policies include the tax deductibility of mortgage interest and the establishment of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,  the government-sponsored enterprises that promoted mortgage lending.  Households with shaky finances,  however,  might have been better off renting. In the end,  it seems that each of these groups (and perhaps a few others as well) bear some of the blame. As  The Economist  magazine once put it,  the problem was one of “layered irresponsibility.” Finally,  keep in mind that this financial crisis was not the first one in history. Such events,  though fortunately rare,  do occur from time to time.  Rather than looking for a culprit to blame for this singular event,  perhaps we should view speculative excess and its ramifications as an inherent feature of market economies. Policymakers can respond to financial crises as they happen, and they can  take  steps  to  reduce  the  likelihood  and  severity  of  such  crises,  but  preventing them entirely may be too much to ask given our current knowledge.4  n Policy Responses to a Crisis Because financial  crises  are both severe and multifaceted,  macroeconomic policymakers use various tools,  often simultaneously,  to try to control the damage. Here we discuss three broad categories of policy responses. Conventional  Monetary and  Fiscal Policy  As we have seen,  financial crises raise unemployment and lower incomes because they lead to a contraction in the aggregate demand for goods and services.  Policymakers can mitigate these effects by using the tools of monetary and fiscal policy to expand aggregate demand. The central bank can increase the money supply and lower interest rates. The government can increase government spending and cut taxes. That is,  a financial crisis can be seen as a shock to the aggregate demand curve,  which  can,  to  some  degree,  be  offset by appropriate  monetary and fiscal policy. 4

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To read more about the history of financial crises,  see Charles P.  Kindleberger and Robert Z.  Aliber,  Manias,  Panics,  and Crashes:  A History of Financial Crises,  2nd ed.  (New  York:  Palgrave Macmillan,  2011);  and Carmen M.  Reinhart and Kenneth S.  Rogoff,  This  Time Is Different:  Eight Centuries of Financial Folly  (Princeton,  NJ:  Princeton University Press,  2009).

Policymakers  did  precisely  this  during  the  financial  crisis  of  2008–2009. To  expand  aggregate  demand,  the  Federal  Reserve cut  its  target  for the  federal funds rate from 5.25 percent in September 2007 to approximately zero in December 2008. It then stayed at that low level for the next six years. In February 2008 President Bush signed into law a $168 billion dollar stimulus package, which funded tax rebates of $300 to $1,200 for every taxpayer. In 2009 President Obama signed into law a $787 billion stimulus,  which included some tax reductions but also significant increases in government spending.  All of these moves were aimed at propping up aggregate demand. There are limits,  however,  to how much conventional monetary and fiscal policy can do. A central bank cannot cut its target for the interest rate below zero. (Recall the discussion of the  liquidity trap  in Chapter 12.) Fiscal policy is limited as well.  Stimulus packages add to the government budget deficit, which is already enlarged because economic downturns automatically increase unemploymentinsurance payments and decrease tax revenue.  Increases in government debt are a concern because they place a burden on future generations of taxpayers and call into  question  the  government’s  own  solvency.  In  the  aftermath  of  the financial crisis of 2008–2009,  the federal government’s budget deficit reached levels not seen  since  World  War  II.  As  noted  in  Chapter  19,  in  August  2011,  Standard  & Poor’s responded to the fiscal imbalance by reducing its rating on U.S.  government  debt  below  the top  AAA level  for  the  first  time  in  the nation’s  history,  a decision that made additional fiscal stimulus more difficult. The limits of monetary and fiscal policy during a financial crisis naturally lead policymakers to consider other,  and sometimes unusual,  alternatives. These other types of policy are of a fundamentally  different nature.  Rather than addressing the symptom of a financial crisis (a decline in aggregate demand),  they aim to f ix the financial system itself.  If the normal process of financial intermediation can be restored,  consumers and businesses will be able to borrow again,  and the economy’s aggregate demand will recover. The economy can then return to full employment and rising incomes.  The next two categories describe the major policies aimed directly at fixing the financial system. Lender of Last Resort  When the public starts to lose confidence in a bank, they withdraw their  deposits.  In  a system  of fractional-reserve  banking,  large and sudden withdrawals can be a problem.  Even if the bank is solvent (meaning that the value of its assets exceeds the value of its liabilities),  it may have trouble satisfying all its depositors’  requests.  Many of the bank’s assets are illiquid—that is,  they cannot be easily sold and turned into cash.  A business loan to a local restaurant,  a car loan to a local family,  and a student loan to your roommate,  for example,  may be valuable assets to the bank,  but they cannot be easily used to satisfy depositors who are demanding their money back immediately. A situation in which a solvent bank has insufficient funds to satisfy its depositors’ withdrawals is called a  liquidity crisis. The central bank can remedy this problem by lending money directly to the bank. As we discussed in Chapter 4,  the central bank can create money out of thin  air by,  in effect,  printing it.  (Or,  more realistically  in our electronic era, it  creates  a  bookkeeping  entry  for  itself  that  represents  those  monetary  units.) 

It  can then lend this newly created money to the bank experiencing greaterthan-normal withdrawals  and accept  the bank’s illiquid  assets as collateral. When a  central  bank  lends  to  a  bank  in  the  midst  of  a  liquidity  crisis,  it  is  said  to  act  as a  lender of last resort. 
 The goal of such a policy is to allow a bank experiencing unusually high withdrawals to weather the storm of reduced confidence. Without such a loan, the bank might be forced to sell its illiquid assets at fire-sale prices.  If such a fire sale  were to occur,  the  value of the  bank’s  assets  would decline,  and a  liquidity crisis could then threaten the bank’s solvency.  By acting as a lender of last resort, the central bank stems the problem of bank insolvency and helps restore the public’s confidence in the banking system. 
 During 2008 and 2009,  the Federal Reserve was extraordinarily active as a lender of last resort. As we discussed in Chapter 4,  such activity traditionally takes place  at  the  Fed’s  discount  window,  through  which  the  Fed  lends  to  banks  at  its discount rate.  During this crisis,  however,  the Fed set up a variety of new ways to lend to financial institutions. The financial institutions included were not only traditional commercial banks but also so-called shadow banks.  Shadow banks are a diverse set of financial institutions that perform some functions similar to those of banks but do so outside the regulatory system that applies to traditional banking. Because the shadow banks were experiencing difficulties similar to those of commercial banks,  the Fed was concerned about these institutions as well. 
 For example, from October 2008 to October 2009, the Fed was willing to make loans to money market mutual funds. Money market funds are not banks, and they do not offer insured deposits.  But they are in some ways similar to banks:  they take in deposits,  invest the proceeds in short-term loans such as commercial paper issued by corporations,  and assure depositors that they can obtain their deposits on demand with interest.  In the midst of the financial crisis,  depositors worried about the value of the assets the money market funds had purchased,  so these funds were experiencing substantial withdrawals.  The shrinking deposits in money market funds meant that there were fewer buyers of commercial paper,  which in turn made  it  hard  for  firms  that  needed the  proceeds  from  these  loans  to  finance  their continuing business operations.  By its willingness to lend to money market funds, the Fed helped maintain this particular form of financial intermediation.
    It is not crucial to learn the details of the many new lending facilities the Fed established during the crisis.  Indeed,  many of these programs were closed down as the economy started to recover because they were no longer needed. What is important to understand is that these programs,  both old and new,  have one purpose:  to ensure that the financial system remains liquid. That is,  as long as a f inancial institution had assets that could serve as reliable collateral,  the Fed stood ready to lend it money so that its depositors could withdraw their funds. 

Injections of Government Funds  The final category of policy responses to a financial crisis involves the government’s use of public funds to prop up the f inancial system. The most direct action of this sort is a giveaway of public funds to those who have experienced losses.  Deposit  insurance  is  one example. Through  the  Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC),  the federal government promises to 

make  up for  losses  that a  depositor  experiences  when  a  bank becomes insolvent. In 2008, the FDIC increased the maximum deposit it would cover from $100,000 to $250,000 to reassure bank depositors that their funds were safe.  (This increase in the  maximum insured deposit  was originally announced  as temporary,  but it was later made permanent.) Giveaways of public funds can also occur on a more discretionary basis.  For example,  in 1984 a large bank called  Continental Illinois  found itself on the brink  of  insolvency.  Because  Continental  Illinois  had  so  many  relationships  with other banks,  regulators feared that allowing it to fail would threaten the entire f inancial  system.  As  a  result,  the  FDIC  promised  to  protect  all  of  its  depositors, not just those under the insurance limit.  Eventually,  it bought the bank from shareholders,  added capital,  and sold it to Bank of  America. This policy operation cost taxpayers about $1 billion.  It was during this episode that a congressman coined  the  phrase  “too  big  to  fail”  to  describe  a  firm  so  central  to  the  financial system that policymakers would not allow it to enter bankruptcy. Another way for the government to inject public funds is to make risky loans. Normally,  when the Federal Reserve acts as lender of last resort,  it does so by lending to a financial institution that can pledge good collateral.  But if the government  makes loans  that might not  be repaid,  it is  putting public funds at risk. If the borrowers do indeed default,  taxpayers end up losing. During the financial crisis of 2008–2009,  the Fed engaged in a variety of risky lending.  In March 2008,  it made a $29 billion loan to JPMorgan Chase to facilitate its purchase of the nearly insolvent Bear Stearns. The only collateral the Fed  received  was  Bear’s  holdings  of  mortgage-backed  securities,  which  were  of dubious value.  Similarly,  in September 2008,  the Fed loaned $85 billion to prop up the insurance giant  AIG,  which faced large losses from having insured the value of some mortgage-backed securities (through an agreement called a  credit default swap). The Fed took these actions to prevent Bear Stearns and  AIG from entering a long bankruptcy process, which could have further threatened the financial system. A final way for the government to use public funds to address a financial crisis is for the government itself to inject capital into financial institutions.  In this case, rather than being just a creditor,  the government gets an ownership stake in the companies. The  AIG loans in 2008 had significant elements of this:  as part of the loan deal,  the government got warrants (options to buy stock) and so eventually owned most of the company.  (The shares were sold several years later.)  Another example is the capital injections organized by the U.S.  Treasury in 2008 and 2009. As part of the Troubled  Asset Relief Program (TARP), the government put hundreds of billions of dollars into various banks in exchange for equity shares in those banks. The goal of the program was to maintain the banks’  solvency and keep the process of financial intermediation intact. Not surprisingly,  the use of public funds to prop up the financial  system, whether done with giveaways, risky lending, or capital injections, is controversial. Critics assert that it is unfair to taxpayers to use their resources to rescue financial market participants from their own mistakes.  Moreover,  the prospect of such f inancial bailouts may increase moral hazard because when people believe the government will cover their losses,  they are more likely to take excessive risks. Financial risk taking becomes  “heads I win,  tails the taxpayers lose.” Advocates of 

these policies acknowledge these problems,  but they point out that risky lending and capital injections could actually make money for taxpayers if the economy recovers.  (Indeed,  in December 2014,  the federal government estimated that TARP ended up yielding a $15 billion profit.) More important,  they believe that the costs  of these policies are more than offset by the benefits of averting a deeper crisis and more severe economic downturn. Policies to Prevent Crises In addition to the question of how policymakers should respond when facing a financial crisis,  there is another key policy debate:  How should policymakers prevent future financial crises? Unfortunately,  there is no easy answer.  But here are five  areas where policymakers have  been considering  their options and,  in some cases,  revising their policies. Focusing on Shadow Banks  Traditional commercial banks are heavily regulated.  One justification is that the government insures some of their deposits through the FDIC.  Policymakers have long understood that deposit insurance produces a moral hazard problem. Because of deposit insurance, depositors have no incentive to monitor the riskiness of banks in which they make their deposits;  as a result,  bankers have an incentive to make excessively risky loans,  knowing they will reap any gains while the deposit insurance system will cover any losses.  In response to this moral hazard problem,  the government regulates the risks that banks take. Much  of  the  crisis  of  2008–2009,  however,  concerned  not  traditional  banks but rather  shadow banks—financial institutions that (like banks) are at the center of financial intermediation but (unlike banks) do not take in deposits insured by the FDIC.  Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers,  for example,  were investment banks and,  therefore,  subject to less regulation.  Similarly,  hedge funds,  insurance companies,  and private equity firms can be considered shadow banks.  These institutions do not suffer from the traditional problem of moral hazard arising from  deposit  insurance,  but  the  risks  they  take  may  nonetheless  be  a  concern  of public policy because their failure can have macroeconomic ramifications. Many policymakers have suggested that these shadow banks should be limited in how much risk they take.  One way to do that would be to require that they hold more  capital,  which would  in turn limit  these  firms’  ability to  use leverage. Advocates of this idea say it would enhance financial stability. Critics say it would limit these institutions’  ability to do their job of financial intermediation. Another issue concerns what happens when a shadow bank runs into trouble and nears insolvency.  Legislation  passed  in  2010,  the so-called Dodd-Frank  Act, gave  the FDIC  resolution authority  over shadow banks,  much as it already had over traditional commercial banks. That is, the FDIC can now take over and close a nonbank financial institution if the institution is having trouble and the FDIC believes it could create systemic risk for the economy. Advocates of this new law believe it will allow a more orderly process when a shadow bank fails and thereby prevent a more general loss of confidence in the financial system.  Critics fear it will make bailouts of these institutions with taxpayer funds more common and exacerbate moral hazard.

Restricting Size The financial crisis of 2008–2009 centered on a few very large financial institutions. Some economists have suggested that the problem would have been averted, or at least would have been less severe, if the financial system had been less concentrated. When a small institution fails, bankruptcy law can take over as it usually does, adjudicating the claims of the various stakehold-ers, without resulting in economy-wide problems. These economists argue that if a financial institution is too big to fail, it is too big.Various ideas have been proposed to limit the size of financial firms. One would be to restrict mergers among banks. (Over the past half century, the banking industry has become vastly more concentrated, largely through bank mergers.) Another idea is to impose higher capital requirements on larger banks. Advocates of these ideas say that a financial system with smaller firms would be more stable. Critics say that such a policy would prevent banks from taking advantage of economies of scale and that the higher costs would eventually be passed on to the banks’ customers.

Reducing Excessive Risk Taking  The financial firms that failed during the f inancial crisis of 2008–2009 did so because they took risks that resulted in the loss of large sums of money.  Some observers believe that one way to reduce the risk of future crises is to limit excessive risk taking. Yet because risk taking is at the heart of what many financial institutions do,  there is no easy way to draw the line between appropriate and excessive risks. Nonetheless,  the Dodd-Frank  Act included several provisions aimed at limiting risk taking.  Perhaps the best known is the so-called Volcker rule,  named after Paul Volcker,  the former Federal Reserve chairman who first proposed it.  Under the  Volcker rule,  commercial banks are restricted from making certain kinds of speculative  investments. Advocates  say the  rule  will  help  protect banks. Critics  say that by restricting the banks’  trading activities,  it will make the market for those speculative financial instruments less liquid. Making  Regulation  Work  Better  The financial system is diverse, with many different types of firms performing various functions and having developed at different stages of history.  As a result,  the regulatory apparatus overseeing these f irms is highly fragmented. The Federal Reserve,  the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the FDIC all regulate commercial banks. The Securities and Exchange  Commission  regulates  investment  banks  and  mutual  funds.  Individual state agencies regulate insurance companies. After the financial crisis of 2008–2009, policymakers tried to improve the system of regulation.  The Dodd-Frank  Act created a new Financial Services Oversight Council,  chaired by the Secretary of the Treasury,  to coordinate the various regulatory agencies.  It also created a new Office of Credit Ratings to oversee the private credit rating agencies,  which were blamed for failing to anticipate the great risk in many mortgage-backed securities.  The law also established a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,  with the goal of ensuring fairness and transparency in how  financial firms  market  their  products to consumers. Because financial  crises are infrequent events,  often occurring many decades apart,  it will take a long time to tell whether this new regulatory structure works better than the old one. Taking a Macro View of Regulation  Policymakers have increasingly taken the view that the regulation of financial institutions requires more of a macroeconomic perspective. Traditionally,  financial regulation has been  microprudential: its goal has been to reduce the risk of distress in individual financial institutions, thereby protecting the depositors and other stakeholders in those institutions. Today,  financial regulation is also  macroprudential:  its goal is also to reduce the risk of system-wide distress,  thereby protecting the overall economy against declines in production and employment.  Microprudential regulation takes a bottom-up approach by focusing on individual institutions and assessing the risks that each of them faces.  By contrast,  macroprudential regulation takes a top-down approach by focusing on the big picture and assessing the risks that can affect many financial institutions at the same time. For example,  macroprudential regulation could have addressed the boom and bust in the housing market that were the catalysts for the 2008–2009 financial crisis. Advocates of such regulation argue that as house prices increased,  policymakers should have required larger down payments when homebuyers    purchased a house 

with a mortgage. This policy might have slowed the speculative bubble in house prices,  and it would have led to fewer mortgage defaults when house prices later declined.  Fewer mortgage defaults,  in turn,  would have helped protect many f inancial institutions that had acquired stakes in various housing-related securities. Critics of such a policy question whether government regulators are sufficiently knowledgeable  and  adept  to  identify  and  remedy  economy-wide  risks.  They worry that attempts to do so would add to the regulatory burden;  an increase in required down payments,  for instance,  makes it harder for less wealthy families to buy their own homes. Without doubt,  in light of what was learned during and after the financial crisis,  financial  regulators  will  pay  renewed  attention  to  macroeconomic  stability as one of their goals.  In this sense,  macroprudential regulation takes its place alongside the traditional tools of monetary and fiscal policy.  Yet how active policymakers should be in using this tool remains open to debate.5

5For more on macroprudential policy,  see Stijn Claessens,  “An Overview of Macroprudential Policy  Tools,”  IMF  Working Paper,  December 2014.


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