To hear the rhetoric coming from the presidential campaign, I guess we can conclude that markets have about had it. The time has come for policymakers to step in and save us from the Capitalists. Or has it?
Is the current economic crisis a sign of market failure? To an extent it is. Certainly it has been a very costly failure, and it does involve the core of our financial markets. But a better case can be made that what has failed is a long standing attempt to manipulate the markets to a certain end through policy. For decades now, we have sought to empower more and more people to achieve homeownership, and generally these efforts have been successful. (And this is undeniably a noble goal.) But our mechanism for doing so has involved pooling assets and insulating financial institutions from the risks of their loans. By externalizing the risks associated with marginal or subprime loans, we freed lenders to become ever more aggressive, and eventually they became reckless. Combined with a parallel government policy of maintaining high liquidity of capital and very low interest rates, there was really never a better time to be irresponsible as a consumer.
Wait… Irresponsible Consumer? Isn’t the problem with the Capitalists? Some of it is, but mostly the recent events have occurred because consumers have thrown caution to the winds, and thought that they could have it all, if only they could juggle the credit.
Well it turns out they couldn’t. But a few companies like Countrywide tried to make a lot of money at the expense of these optimistic but overextended consumers, and more respectable institutions were sucked into the excitement. So certainly these companies have their own lapse of judgment to blame for their circumstances, and I’ll agree with those who say that some of them have not paid the full price for their errors.
But how do we approach fixing the problem? Carefully, because we must not overlook the role that bad policy played in setting this scenario up. Do we allow Policy to overtake Markets as the backbone of our economic system?
Unlike Policy, which is driven by a few individuals with vague direction from society, markets directly reflect the wishes and desires of millions. Policy, once established, becomes an end to itself, with its own constituency, and is highly resistant to change.
Markets, on the other hand, have a built in mechanism for self correction. Every consumer acts every day with his or her dollars.
As recent events remind us, markets can go awry, but in this respect they are no different than policy or regulatory means of decision making. The reason is simple: all modes of decision ultimately rest with human beings, and we frankly don’t always make very good decisions. Look at the decisions that the “average” American has made about their health and diet, their retirements savings and credit card debt, or their means of transportation. On average, we simply aren’t making very good decisions in these areas.
Markets reflect these decisions, but so does policy. Look at our national political scene: are voters demanding the information that would lead to reasonable and enlightened choices between our candidates?
I suppose one logical conclusion would be that the masses can simply not be trusted, and we must empower a small group to act in their best interests. As this approach has been tried and widely discredited (aside from being morally and philosophically indefensible in my view), what are we to do?
I believe that we must retain faith in markets as a highly imperfect, but the most accurate and most flexible instrument for economic decisions.