Joseph Stiglitz / Robert Reich


As the first post of 2010, here is a column by the Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz. He is one of the economists who have been better than most at not only predicting the problems, but also recommending solutions. Unfortunately, he has been too often ignored by the government of the US.

Harsh lessons we may need to learn again

By Joseph E. Stiglitz
Updated: 2009-12-31 07:51

The best that can be said for 2009 is that it could have been worse, that we pulled back from the precipice on which we seemed to be perched in late 2008, and that 2010 will almost surely be better for most countries around the world. The world has also learned some valuable lessons, though at great cost both to current and future prosperity – costs that were unnecessarily high given that we should already have learned them.

The first lesson is that markets are not self-correcting. Indeed, without adequate regulation, they are prone to excess. In 2009, we again saw why Adam Smith’s invisible hand often appeared invisible: it is not there. The bankers’ pursuit of self-interest (greed) did not lead to the well-being of society; it did not even serve their shareholders and bondholders well. It certainly did not serve homeowners who are losing their homes, workers who have lost their jobs, retirees who have seen their retirement funds vanish, or taxpayers who paid hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the banks.

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Under the threat of a collapse of the entire system, the safety net – intended to help unfortunate individuals meet the exigencies of life – was generously extended to commercial banks, then to investment banks, insurance firms, auto companies, even car-loan companies. Never has so much money been transferred from so many to so few.We are accustomed to thinking of government transferring money from the well off to the poor. Here it was the poor and average transferring money to the rich. Already heavily burdened taxpayers saw their money – intended to help banks lend so that the economy could be revived – go to pay outsized bonuses and dividends. Dividends are supposed to be a share of profits; here it was simply a share of government largesse.

The justification was that bailing out the banks, however messily, would enable a resumption of lending. That has not happened. All that happened was that average taxpayers gave money to the very institutions that had been gouging them for years – through predatory lending, usurious credit-card interest rates, and non-transparent fees.

The bailout exposed deep hypocrisy all around. Those who had preached fiscal restraint when it came to small welfare programs for the poor now clamored for the world’s largest welfare program. Those who had argued for free market’s virtue of “transparency” ended up creating financial systems so opaque that banks could not make sense of their own balance sheets. And then the government, too, was induced to engage in decreasingly transparent forms of bailout to cover up its largesse to the banks. Those who had argued for “accountability” and “responsibility” now sought debt forgiveness for the financial sector.

The second important lesson involves understanding why markets often do not work the way they are meant to. There are many reasons for market failures. In this case, too-big-to-fail financial institutions had perverse incentives: if they gambled and succeeded, they walked off with the profits; if they lost, the taxpayer would pay. Moreover, when information is imperfect, markets often do not work well – and information imperfections are central in finance. Externalities are pervasive: the failure of one bank imposed costs on others, and failures in the financial system imposed costs on taxpayers and workers all over the world.

The third lesson is that Keynesian policies do work. Countries, like Australia, that implemented large, well-designed stimulus programs early emerged from the crisis faster. Other countries succumbed to the old orthodoxy pushed by the financial wizards who got us into this mess in the first place.

Whenever an economy goes into recession, deficits appear, as tax revenues fall faster than expenditures. The old orthodoxy held that one had to cut the deficit – raise taxes or cut expenditures – to “restore confidence.” But those policies almost always reduced aggregate demand, pushed the economy into a deeper slump, and further undermined confidence – most recently when the International Monetary Fund insisted on them in East Asia in the 1990’s.

The fourth lesson is that there is more to monetary policy than just fighting inflation. Excessive focus on inflation meant that some central banks ignored what was happening to their financial markets. The costs of mild inflation are miniscule compared to the costs imposed on economies when central banks allow asset bubbles to grow unchecked.

The fifth lesson is that not all innovation leads to a more efficient and productive economy – let alone a better society. Private incentives matter, and if they are not well aligned with social returns, the result can be excessive risk taking, excessively shortsighted behavior, and distorted innovation. For example, while the benefits of many of the financial-engineering innovations of recent years are hard to prove, let alone quantify, the costs associated with them – both economic and social – are apparent and enormous.

Indeed, financial engineering did not create products that would help ordinary citizens manage the simple risk of home ownership – with the consequence that millions have lost their homes, and millions more are likely to do so. Instead, innovation was directed at perfecting the exploitation of those who are less educated, and at circumventing the regulations and accounting standards that were designed to make markets more efficient and stable. As a result, financial markets, which are supposed to manage risk and allocate capital efficiently, created risk and misallocated wildly.

We will soon find out whether we have learned the lessons of this crisis any better than we should have learned the same lessons from previous crises.

Regrettably, unless the United States and other advanced industrial countries make much greater progress on financial-sector reforms in 2010 we may find ourselves faced with another opportunity to learn them.

The author is an Economics Nobel laureate and university professor at Columbia University. He has many books, including Globalization and Its Discontents and The Roaring Nineties, to his credit. His latest book, Freefall, will be published in January.

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Robert Reich is the nation’s 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. A consistent progressive voice of reason.

Robert Reich

Posted: December 28, 2009 11:01 AM

2009: The Year Wall Street Bounced Back and Main Street Got Shafted

In September 2008, as the worst of the financial crisis engulfed Wall Street, George W. Bush issued a warning: “This sucker could go down.” Around the same time, as Congress hashed out a bailout bill, New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, the leading Republican negotiator of the bill, warned that “if we do not do this, the trauma, the chaos and the disruption to everyday Americans’ lives will be overwhelming, and that’s a price we can’t afford to risk paying.”

In less than a year, Wall Street was back. The five largest remaining banks are today larger, their executives and traders richer, their strategies of placing large bets with other people’s money no less bold than before the meltdown. The possibility of new regulations emanating from Congress has barely inhibited the Street’s exuberance.

But if Wall Street is back on top, the everyday lives of large numbers of Americans continue to be subject to overwhelming trauma, chaos and disruption.

It is commonplace among policymakers to fervently and sincerely believe that Wall Street’s financial health is not only a precondition for a prosperous real economy but that when the former thrives, the latter will necessarily follow. Few fictions of modern economic life are more assiduously defended than the central importance of the Street to the well-being of the rest of us, as has been proved in 2009.

Inhabitants of the real economy are dependent on the financial economy to borrow money. But their overwhelming reliance on Wall Street is a relatively recent phenomenon. Back when middle-class Americans earned enough to be able to save more of their incomes, they borrowed from one another, largely through local and regional banks. Small businesses also did.

It’s easy to understand economic policymakers being seduced by the great flows of wealth created among Wall Streeters, from whom they invariably seek advice. One of the basic assumptions of capitalism is that anyone paid huge sums of money must be very smart.

But if 2009 has proved anything, it’s that the bailout of Wall Street didn’t trickle down to Main Street. Mortgage delinquencies continue to rise. Small businesses can’t get credit. And people everywhere, it seems, are worried about losing their jobs. Wall Street is the only place where money is flowing and pay is escalating. Top executives and traders on the Street will soon be splitting about $25 billion in bonuses (despite Goldman Sachs’ decision, made with an eye toward public relations, to defer bonuses for its 30 top players).

The real locus of the problem was never the financial economy to begin with, and the bailout of Wall Street was a sideshow. The real problem was on Main Street, in the real economy. Before the crash, much of America had fallen deeply into unsustainable debt because it had no other way to maintain its standard of living. That’s because for so many years almost all the gains of economic growth had been going to a relatively small number of people at the top.

President Obama and his economic team have been telling Americans we’ll have to save more in future years, spend less and borrow less from the rest of the world, especially from China. This is necessary and inevitable, they say, in order to “rebalance” global financial flows. China has saved too much and consumed too little, while we have done the reverse.

In truth, most Americans did not spend too much in recent years, relative to the increasing size of the overall American economy. They spent too much only in relation to their declining portion of its gains. Had their portion kept up — had the people at the top of corporate America, Wall Street banks and hedge funds not taken a disproportionate share — most Americans would not have felt the necessity to borrow so much.

The year 2009 will be remembered as the year when Main Street got hit hard. Don’t expect 2010 to be much better — that is, if you live in the real economy. The administration is telling Americans that jobs will return next year, and we’ll be in a recovery. I hope they’re right. But I doubt it. Too many Americans have lost their jobs, incomes, homes and savings. That means most of us won’t have the purchasing power to buy nearly all the goods and services the economy is capable of producing. And without enough demand, the economy can’t get out of the doldrums.

As long as income and wealth keep concentrating at the top, and the great divide between America’s have-mores and have-lesses continues to widen, the Great Recession won’t end — at least not in the real economy.

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