In the coming weeks and months, Congress will be turning its attention to financial market reform, in hopes of avoiding future financial crises. According to perceived wisdom, the root cause of the 2008 financial crisis was excessive risk-taking, and proper regulation can detect and prevent such excess in the future.He then notes that government-induced moral hazard caused the crisis.
This view is a pipe dream. Most new regulation will do nothing to limit crises because markets will innovate around it. Worse, some regulation being considered by Congress will guarantee bigger and more frequent crises.
The Financial Crisis of 2008 did not occur because of insufficient or ill-designed regulation. Rather, it resulted from two misguided government policies.The obvious conclusion from this is that if government-induced moral hazard caused the crisis, then new regulation should avoid creating or exacerbating this perverse incentive.
The first was the attempt to promote homeownership. Numerous policies have pursued this goal for decades, and over time they have focused mainly on homeownership for low-income households. These policies encouraged mortgage lending to borrowers with shaky credit characteristics, such as limited income or assets, and on terms that defied common sense, such as zero down payment.
The pressure to expand risky credit was especially problematic because of the second misguided policy, the long-standing practice of bailing out failures from private risk-taking. This practice meant that financial markets expected the government to cushion any losses from a crash in mortgage debt. Thus, the historical tendency to bail out creditors created an enormous moral hazard.
One crucial component of this moral hazard was the now infamous “Greenspan put,” the Fed’s practice under Chairman Alan Greenspan of lowering interest rates in response to financial disruptions that might otherwise cause a crash in asset prices. In the early to mid-2000s, in particular, the Fed made a conscious decision not to burst the housing bubble and instead to “fix things” if a crash occurred.
It was inevitable, however, that a crash would ensue; the expansion of mortgage credit made sense only so long as housing prices kept increasing, and at some point this had to stop. Once it did, the market had no option but to unwind the positions built on untenable assumptions about housing prices. Thus government pressure to take risk, combined with implicit insurance for this risk, were the crucial causes of the bubble and the crash. Inadequate financial regulation played no significant role.
The only way to limit financial panics is to eliminate government-induced moral hazard, and that means letting failed institutions fail. Whether resolution is carried out by the FDIC or a bankruptcy court is not the crucial question; rather, it is whether that resolution process forces all the losses on the institution’s stakeholders rather than bailing them out with taxpayer funds.So what should be done in the future?
To limit future financial crises, policy must first avoid the distortions inherent in the attempt to expand homeownership. This means eliminating the Federal Housing Administration, the Federal Home Loan Banks, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Community Reinvestment Act, the deductibility of mortgage interest, the homestead exclusion in the personal bankruptcy code, the tax-favored treatment of capital gains on housing, the HOPE for Homeowners Act, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (the bailout bill), and the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan. None of this is sensible policy.What's the bet no one listens to Miron's advice?!
In addition, policy must end its proclivity to bail out private risk-taking. This second task is difficult, since it requires policymakers to “tie their own hands.” Specific changes in policies and institutions can nevertheless support this goal. The first is avoiding new regulation that makes bailouts more likely. A second is repealing all existing financial regulation, since this would signal markets that they, and only they, can truly protect themselves from risk.
The third and perhaps most important way to reduce moral hazard is to eliminate the Federal Reserve. As long as the Fed exists, it will regard itself as, and be regarded as, the economic insurer of last resort. In a world with perfect information, appropriately humble central bankers, and an absence of political influence on monetary policy, such a protector might enhance the economy’s performance on average.