Monday, May 4, 2009

Causes of the Crisis

by James K. Galbraith, posted May 1 at the Texas Observer

Editor’s note: These remarks were delivered to a meeting of the Texas Lyceum in Austin on April 3, at a debate between University of Texas professor James Galbraith, an Observer contributing writer, and former Majority Leader Richard Armey, chief instigator of the recent Astroturf “tea party" protests. Armey had begun his remarks by noting that his rule in life was “never trust anyone from Austin or Boston,” and proceeded to declare his allegiance to the “Austrian School” of economics, a libertarian view that regards public intervention in private markets as socialism.

It is of course a pleasure to be with you today. I was born in Boston, and I am proud of it. And I have lived 24 years in Austin—and I’m proud of that.

Leader Armey spoke to you of his admiration for Austrian economics. I can’t resist telling you that when the Vienna Economics Institute celebrated its centennial, many years ago, they invited, as their keynote speaker, my father [John Kenneth Galbraith]. The leading economists of the Austrian school—including von Hayek and von Haberler—returned for the occasion. And so my father took a moment to reflect on the economic triumphs of the Austrian Republic since the war, which, he said, “would not have been possible without the contribution of these men.” They nodded—briefly—until it dawned on them what he meant. They’d all left the country in the 1930s.

My own economics is American: genus Institutionalist; species: Galbraithian.

This is a panel on the crisis. Mr. Moderator, you ask what is the root cause? My reply is in three parts.

First, an idea. The idea that capitalism, for all its considerable virtues, is inherently self-stabilizing, that government and private business are adversaries rather than partners; the idea that freedom without responsibility is a viable business principle; the idea that regulation, in financial matters especially, can be dispensed with. We tried it, and we see the result.

Second, a person. It would not be right to blame any single person for these events, but if I had to choose one to name it would be a Texan, our own distinguished former Senator Phil Gramm. I’d cite specifically the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act—the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act—in 1999, after which it took less than a decade to reproduce all the pathologies that Glass-Steagall had been enacted to deal with in 1933. I’d also cite the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, slipped into an 11,000-page appropriations bill in December 2000 as Congress was adjourning following Bush v. Gore. This measure deregulated energy futures trading, enabling Enron and legitimating credit-default swaps, and creating a massive vector for the transmission of financial risk throughout the global system. When the Washington Post caught up with me at an airport in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a year ago to ask for a comment on Gramm’s role, I said very quickly that he was “the sorcerer’s apprentice of financial instability and disaster.” They put that on the front page. I do have to give Gramm some credit: When the Post called him up and read that to him, he said, “I deny it.”

Third, a policy. This was the abandonment of state responsibility for financial regulation: the regulation of mortgage originations, of underwriting, and of securitization. This abandonment was not subtle: The first head of the Office of Thrift Supervision in the George W. Bush administration came to a press conference on one occasion with a stack of copies of the Federal Register and a chainsaw. A chainsaw. The message was clear. And it led to the explosion of liars’ loans, neutron loans (which destroy people but leave buildings intact), and toxic waste. That these were terms of art in finance tells you what you need to know.

Subprime securities are inherently unsafe and should never have been permitted. They are based on loans to borrowers who cannot document their income and who may have bad credit histories, and they are collateralized by houses with fraudulently inflated appraisals, rated by agencies that did not examine the loan files. Writing in The Washington Post, Richard Cohen described one case, of Marvene Halterman of Avondale, Arizona:

At age 61, after 13 years of uninterrupted unemployment and at least as many of living on welfare, she got a mortgage. She got it even though at one time she had 23 people living in the house (576 square feet, one bath) and some ramshackle outbuildings. She got it for $103,000, an amount that far exceeded the value of the house. The place has since been condemned. ... Halterman’s house was never exactly a showcase—the city had once cited her for all the junk (clothes, tires, etc.) on her lawn. Nevertheless, a local financial institution with the cover-your-wallet name of Integrity Funding LLC gave her a mortgage, valuing the house at about twice what a nearby and comparable property sold for. ... Integrity Funding then sold the loan to Wells Fargo & Co., which sold it to HSBC Holdings PLC, which then packaged it with thousands of other risky mortgages and offered the indigestible porridge to investors. Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service took a look at it all, as they are supposed to do, and pronounced it ‘triple-A.’”

The consequence of tolerating this and like behavior is a collapse of trust, a collapse of asset values, and a collapse of the financial system. That is what has happened, and what we have to deal with now.

Can “stimulus” get us out?

As a matter of economics, public spending substitutes for private spending. It provides jobs, motivates useful activity, staves off despair. But it is not self-sustaining in the absence of a viable private credit system. The idea that we will be on the road to full recovery and returning to high employment in a year or so therefore seems to me to be an illusion. And for this reason, the emphasis on short-term, “shovel-ready” projects in the expansion package, while understandable, was a mistake. As in the New Deal, we need both the Works Progress Administration, headed by Harry Hopkins, to provide employment, and the Public Works Administration, headed by Harold Ickes, to rebuild the country.

The desire for a return to normal is very powerful. It motivates both the ritual confidence of public officials and the dry numerical optimism of business economists, who always see prosperity just around the corner. The forecasts of these people, like those of official agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office, always see a turnaround within a year and a return to high employment within four or five years. In a strict sense, the belief is without foundation. Liquidation of excessive debt is now, and will remain for a time, the highest priority of American households. That is in part because for the moment they want to hold on to cash, and therefore they do not wish to borrow, and in part because with the collapse of house values, they no longer have collateral to borrow against. And so long as that is the case, there can be no strong recovery of private spending or business investment.

The risk we run, in public policy, is not inflation. It is lack of persistence, a premature reversal of direction, and of course the fear of large numbers. If deficits in the trillions and public debt in the tens of trillions scare you, this is not a line of work you should be in.

The ultimate goals of policy are not measured by deficits or debt. They are measured by the performance of the economy itself. Here Leader Armey and I agree. He spoke with approval, in his remarks, of the goals of 3 percent unemployment and 4 percent inflation embodied in the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978. Which, as a 24-year-old member of the staff of the House Banking Committee in 1976, I drafted.

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