Monday, May 04, 2009

It was our experts that failed us… and they still do.

That the markets did not work because there were intromissions in its workings, is not the same as a market failure, and that is a distinction that we must make so when we now find ourselves lost so that we do not lose us even more. We owe that foremost to the developing countries.

The Basel Committee the most important regulatory authorities of the by means of allowing for immensely smaller bank capital requirements, favored immensely anything that could display a triple-A sign issued by the credit rating agencies. And sure enough… the market responded as human markets normally respond by creating a huge number of AAA signs, many of them related to securities backed by lousily awarded subprime mortgages and which the investors, like a herd, followed over a precipice.

Unfortunately because most of the experts failed to realize it, or if they did they did not speak out against it, almost all notorious economic and financial experts are mostly ignoring the above in a global cover-up. More than a market failure what we had were the experts failing us.

Let me just give one example of what I mean. “The Commission of Experts on Reforms of the International Monetary System” of the President of the General Assembly of the United Nations, chaired by Professor Joseph Stiglitz and comprised of outstanding economist, policy makers, and practitioners from all over the world chosen, and I quote the Note by the President of the General Assembly, “based on their comprehensive understanding of the complex and interrelated issues raised by the workings of the financial system”, they write the following in paragraph 41 of their report dated March 19 2009.

1. “The collapse in confidence in the financial sector is widely recognized as central in the economic crisis; restoration of confidence will be central in the recovery. But it will be hard to restore confidence without changing the incentives and constraints facing the financial crisis”

Of course restoration of confidence is central for economic recovery but for the recovery of confidence a full understanding of what happened is a must. That a Bernard Madoff can cheat does not affect confidence in the markets because the markets are much aware that cheaters have always been around and are in fact themselves a part of the market.

But, if the credit rating agencies who were so recently officially bestowed with so much power in the surveillance of risks, and therefore must be the best, sort of the “Appointed Surveyors to the Majesty” managed to fail so miserably, then that is of course a tremendous blow to confidence. That loss of confidence can only be cured by fully acknowledging that the mistake was in the creation of an oligopoly in risk surveyance .and that this oligopoly will now be eliminated… not strengthened.

2. “It is imperative that the regulatory reforms be real and substantive, and go beyond the financial sector to address underlying problems in corporate governance and competition policy, and in tax structures, giving preferential treatment to capital gains, that may provide incentives for excessive leverage.

The above says that not taxing the profits is at fault and so that presumably we now must tax profits? Silly, the problem is not that the profits had tax incentives but that the profits proved to not be profits at all. The “incentives for excessive leverage” those were provided by the regulators and thank God… the authorized financial leverage was never even reached by any bank before the crisis. This of course does not preclude that there might be other valid reasons to tax profits but that is a quite different matter.

3. “Even if there had been full disclosure of derivative positions, their complexity was so great as to make an evaluation of the balance sheet position of the financial institutions extraordinarily difficult”.

First the crisis was not caused by “derivative positions” and second, the “complexity” argument is irrelevant because the instruments that were so complex that they were not even understood by those who generated them, would never even have reached the balance sheet of a bank, or an investor, had they not been granted the triple-A rating which substituted for the understanding, unfortunately in a much imperfect way. There is of course a need for a better management of the exposures though central clearing houses but that is a quite different matter.

Does this all mean that I do not believe that Stiglitz and his fellow experts cannot help us? Of course not and I do agree with many of the recommendations in the report. But, in order for these and other experts to really be of help they better step down from where they think they belong and start to discuss as the faulty humans we all are.

The commission says “As the world focuses on the exigencies of the moment the long standing commitments to the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals and protecting the world against the threat of climate change must remain the overarching priorities; indeed, appropriately designed global reform should provide an opportunity to accelerate progress toward meeting these goals.”

I could not agree more… but that has to start with a debate that is much more profound than a Lilliput-Blefuscu or a short-long skirt-length type of debate and to which the commission seems to be headed, when it allows itself to (somewhat gloatingly) say that “the current crisis has exposed deficiencies in the policies of some national authorities and international institutions based on previously fashionable doctrines.”


A member from the civil society who having seen trillions going down the drain of badly awarded mortgages instead of perhaps helping to avert or to adapt to climate change, does not really feel like being too civil for the time being.