WITH turmoil in the world's markets, politicians and commentators have been demanding more regulation and control of the financial sector. Kevin Rudd even says it was caused by extreme capitalism. Their reaction is predictable, but entirely wrong.Eamonn Butler is director of the Adam Smith Institute, a free market think tank in London, and author of the excellent Adam Smith: A Primer (2007, IEA, London).
This crisis was not caused by capitalism being fatally flawed. It was caused by politicians forcing the banks to give out bad loans, monetary authorities flooding the West with cheap credit and regulators being asleep at the wheel.
Indeed, one can date its origin precisely, to October 12, 1977, when US president Jimmy Carter signed the anti-redlining law. Before then, lenders generally denied loans to people in poor neighbourhoods, believing that the local mix of low incomes and a weak housing market would lead to many people defaulting. But the politicians - with good intent - wanted to make home ownership available to all Americans. So lenders were forced into giving out risky mortgages, what we call sub-prime loans.
By 1985, this torrent of bad business had nearly bankrupted the US's savings and loan institutions. So the government took on their bad debt and encouraged them to consolidate, unwittingly making them too big to be allowed to fail.
Meanwhile, several other problems worried the monetary authorities. In 1987, the US stock market plummeted, fearing that other lenders could collapse. There have been other successive crises. Asia's markets sank. Mexico, Argentina and even Russia defaulted on their loans. Over-valued dotcom stocks crashed. Then there was 9/11. Each time, Western authorities responded by flooding the markets with cash.
After 9/11, the Federal Reserve took US interest rates down from 6.25 per cent to just 1 per cent, fearing this blow to investor confidence could sink the markets. But, again, its action boosted the wrong market by sustaining the credit bubble.
With loans six times cheaper, mortgage applications soared.
Lenders, awash with the Fed's cash, happily issued more sub-prime loans. With more people buying homes, house prices soared. Buying a house seemed a certain money-maker, so more people got more loans and bought more houses, continuing the spiral.
In London, that other great financial centre, a decade of government overspending saw public debt soaring. Private debt and house prices soared even faster.
So for 10 years, economies boomed, the champagne flowed and everyone had a great party. But it was financed by fake money, printed by the authorities solely to keep the party going. When the realisation broke, the long party turned into the inevitable hangover we suffer today.
The regulators, meanwhile, were unconscious on the floor. The US mortgage institutions, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, had 200 regulators on their case but still went bust for $US5 trillion. These semi-governmental companies allowed investors to believe the bad mortgages were guaranteed by government, causing credit rating agencies to give their dodgy bonds high scores.
Mortgage lenders repackaged these bad debts across the world, but nobody cried foul. Institutions were lending 30 times their asset base. Though the Bank of England knew that the huge mortgage lender Northern Rock was failing, the 2500 staff of Britain's financial regulator seemed to do nothing until it collapsed six months later. Even then, they had no coherent plan.
When the government is persuading the casino to hand out free chips and the regulators are standing drinks at the bar, you shouldn't be surprised if the customers place a few risky bets. It's the management, not the system, that deserves our scorn for breaking the basic rules of economics: there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.
Any sustainable solution has to get finance back to those basics. But the bailout package includes so many treats for special interests that it could save the culprits without helping the victims.
But it's a big world out there. China, the world's fourth biggest economy, continues to grow at nearly 10 per cent. India and other emerging economies are expanding, too. Even with the West in recession, world growth next year will probably be near 4 per cent. That's pretty good.
Western capitalism has been dealt a severe blow by inept politicians and officials. But global capitalism continues to pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It's a great system. Let's not break it.
Tuesday, 21 October 2008
Butler on the finanical crisis
Eamonn Butler writing in the The Australian, on the 21 October, points out that there is No such thing as a free lunch. He writes