Robert Solow is one of my favourite economists even though he’s a liberal and I’m not, and he helped focus a lot of attention on aggregate production functions, a monumental distraction (the Solow Growth Model). Reifying technology as a parameter with an exogenous growth process, and capital as a number K, is about as useful as telling me I should judge my daughter’s welfare by her height and weight.
But he has loads of common sense, and as he does not have an opinion on everything like other Nobelists–or at least does not feel compelled to tell us his opinion on everything–his opinions have a lot more weight. Like myself, he finds most nonfiction not just imperfect, but plain wrong, consistent with Sturgeon’s Law (that 90% of everything is crap). In contrast, Tyler Cowen’s reviews seems to assume a 10% crap base rate, but he reads books much differently than I do.
In the past, 10-to-1 leverage would have been about par for a bank. More recently, during the housing bubble that preceded the current crisis, many large financial institutions, including now-defunct investment banks such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, reached for 30-to-1 leverage, sometimes even more.
This canard is not made more plausible by repition. Bear Stearns had 34-to-1 leverage in 1989, 35 in 1992, 37 in 1997, and 33 in 2007. Lehman has a similar story, with leverage well above 30 throughout the 1990s. It seems high because he is conflating investment banks with traditional banks, which generally have leverage ratios around 12-to-1, and those have not changed much over the past 15 years. So the increase in leverage is because of an apples to oranges comparison. This fact is simply not true, unless you define leverage using notional derivative amounts, but there one would have to offset derivatives, and a lack of transparency makes that very difficult. In general, the really high notional amounts are for market makers who sold offsetting derivatives, creating a very misleading amount of exposure. [tech fact: I’m using TotalAssets/BookEquity as leverage–other measures give similar results].
Later, Solow notes:
I have deliberately kept this story stylised, omitting the juicy details about complicated derivative securities that seem to bear only the most tenuous connection to the everyday economic realities of production, employment, consumption, and so on
Consider that the main assets in trouble are all based on mortgages, which are linked to home prices. If home prices did not fall, this crisis would not be happening. The link between the economy, and the derivatives based on it, could not be more direct. Many times people talk about Wall Street as if it competes with the working class for economic spoils, but when you look at periods good for workers, they were generally good for the stock market, and so too with bad periods (30’s and 70’s bad for both, 50’s and 90’s good for both).
At the end, Solow argues for greater regulation:
I find it hard to believe, and I suspect that Judge Posner shares my disbelief, that our overgrown, largely unregulated financial sector was actually fully engaged in improving the allocation of real economic resources.
The less regulated hedge fund sector was not at the epicentre of this crisis, and they lost only about 25% in value in 2008, as opposed to the 60% average for banks. The bad actors were all heavily regulated by our mishmash of Federal Reserve, Treasury, State, and Federal oversight (eg, you need to get a good Community Reinvestment Act rating if you want to merge): CountryWide, IndyMac, Wachovia, Washington Mutual, Lehman, Fannie Mae, Lehman, etc. These institutions were much more regulated than the industrial sector of the economy.
These regulators litigated against lenders who failed to meet targets for serving ‘historically underserved markets’ (aka, ‘those that can’t pay back debts’), and Presidents, Congressmen and these same bankers made many speeches together extolling the costless benefit of increased home ownership. If you had 10 times more regulators, I fail to see these extra government employees telling banks to quit making so many NINJA loans because these loans served the objective of increasing home ownership, especially to minority communities. Further, traditional lending criteria (like a hefty down payment, no teaser rates, income verification) were seen as redlining in another guise because as home prices in aggregate had only risen since WW2, credit losses for these mortgage innovation were absent empirically, supporting the allegation they were arbitrary lending criteria used to keep poor folks down. Regulators may not have been necessary nor sufficient for this bubble, but they were definitely encouraging it the whole way up.
This was originally posted at Falkenblog.