Crisis firefighting is more glamorous than crisis prevention..

Super column by Prof. Shiller.

He says it has been really difficult to pass any reforms to regulate financial sector. The policymakers have een rejecting simple ideas to rein in future crises. He narrates his experiences of chairing sessions at recent AEA-2014 meeting in financial crisis policy:

At a session that I chaired at the American Economic Association’s recent meeting in Philadelphia, the participants discussed the difficulty of getting any sensible reform out of governments around the world. In a paper presented at the session, Andrew Caplin of New York University spoke of the public’s lack of interest or comprehension of the rising risks associated with the FHA, which has been guaranteeing privately-issued mortgages since its creation during the housing crisis of the 1930’s.

CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphCaplin’s discussant, Joseph Gyourko of the Wharton School, concurred. Gyourko’s own 2013 study concludes that the FHA, now effectively leveraged 30 to one on guarantees of home mortgages that are themselves leveraged 30 to one, is underwater to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. He wants the FHA shut down and replaced with a subsidized saving program that does not attempt to compete with the private sector in evaluating mortgage risk.

Similarly, Caplin testified in 2010 before the US House Committee on Financial Services that the FHA was at serious risk, a year after FHA Commissioner David Stevens told the same committee that “We will not need a bailout.” Caplin’s research evidently did not sit well with FHA officials, who were hostile to Caplin and refused to give him the data he wanted. The FHA has underestimated its losses every year since, while proclaiming itself in good health. Finally, in September, it was forced to seek a government bailout.

Why these ideas are not being used elsewhere instead?

At the session, I asked Caplin about his effort, starting with his co-authored 1997 book Housing Partnerships, which proposed allowing homebuyers to buy only a fraction of a house, thereby reducing their risk exposure without putting taxpayers at risk. If implemented, his innovative idea would reduce homeowners’ leverage. But, while it was a highly leveraged mortgage market that fueled the financial crisis 11 years later, the idea, he said, has not made headway anywhere in the world.

Why not, I asked? Why can’t creative people with their lawyers simply create such partnerships for themselves? The answer, he replied, is complicated; but, at least in the US, one serious problem looms large: the US Internal Revenue Service’s refusal to issue an advance ruling on how such risk-managing arrangements would be taxed. Given the resulting uncertainty, no one is in a mood to be creative.

Meanwhile, there is strong public demand – angry and urgent – for a government response aimed at preventing another crisis and ending the problem of “too big to fail” financial institutions. But the political reality is that government officials lack sufficient knowledge and incentive to impose reforms that are effective but highly technical.

For example, one reform adopted in the US to help prevent the “too big to fail” problem is the risk retention rule stipulated by the 2010 Dodd Frank Act. In order to ensure that mortgage securitizers have some “skin in the game,” they are required to retain an interest in 5% of the mortgage securities that they create (unless they qualify for an exemption).

But, in another paper presented at our session, Paul Willen of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston argued that creating such a restriction is hardly the best way for a government to improve the functioning of financial markets. Investors already know that people have a stronger incentive to manage risks better if they retain some interest in the risk. But investors also know that other factors may offset the advantages of risk retention in specific cases. In trying to balance such considerations, the government is in over its head.

So much remains a staus quo as firefighting is far more glamorous:

One of our discussants, Joseph Tracy of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (and co-author of Housing Partnerships), put the problem succinctly: “Firefighting is more glamorous than fire prevention.” Just as most people are more interested in stories about fires than they are in the chemistry of fire retardants, they are more interested in stories about financial crashes than they are in the measures needed to prevent them. That is not a recipe for a happy ending.

Little doubt there. Look at the number of books on crisis etc and they easily are a multiple of books on measures to prevent one.

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