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Monday, May 4, 2009

Captured regulator premise gets more backers


Mark Thoma is coming close to the captured regulator position with regard to the Fed's handling of the financial crisis.



In a couple of posts linked on the web site, including his post entitled "The Professionals are not being Held Accountable" on Economist's View, Thoma addresses this point. In one he cites Michael Pomerleano


Viral V. Acharya and Rangarajan Sundaram. The latter two point out: “The US recapitalization scheme ... is ... generous to the banks in that it imposes little direct discipline in the form of replacement of top management or curbs on executive pay, and secures no voting rights for the government“.

We seem to forget one of the successful lessons from the late 1980s savings and loan crisis in structuring positive and negative incentives: holding accountable the directors and officers, lawyers, accountants of the banks, investment banks and the rating agencies. ... The Office of Thrift Supervision, which regulates the US’s thrifts, and its sister agency, the Resolution Trust Corp which was in charge of disposing of the assets of failed S&Ls, embarked on a deliberate deterrence strategy targeting lawyers, accountants, directors and officers of failed thrifts that aided and abetted the excesses leading to the S&L crisis. The intent was to discourage future abuses and recover some of the lost taxpayer funds. ...

In the US, we are told that there are no culprits in the crisis. The attitude of the policy makers, regulators, bankers and traders involved in the crisis is virtually fatalistic, treating the crisis as an inevitable “force majeure”.

(Demand Side point: According to Wikipedia, force majeure, literally superior force, refers often to a common clause in contracts which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, or an event described by the legal term "act of God" (e.g., flooding, earthquake, volcano), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract. However, force majeure is not intended to excuse negligence or other malfeasance of a party, as where non-performance is caused by the usual and natural consequences of external forces (e.g., predicted rain stops an outdoor event), or where the intervening circumstances are specifically contemplated.

Returning to Thoma, Pomerleano, Acharya and Sundaram.

All of them were observers and “no one saw it coming”. In short, the crisis is a Lemony Snicket’s “Series of Unfortunate Events”.

In reality the regulators that should have kept a close eye on the rapid growth of the shadow banking system were complacent, and the boards did not have the background in the industry and didn’t understand the risks. It is clear that the policy makers and regulators lack the moral authority to lead us out of the crisis. ...

The US Treasury plans to rely on the same firms and people that were involved in leading to the crisis to get us out of it. ... Clearly, nothing learned, nothing gained from the S&L crisis or the Swedish experience. Maybe this will change.

Saying it's not your fault you crashed the ship into the rock because the rock was underwater and hidden - nobody could have seen it coming - loses its force when you are navigating in waters that are known to be rocky. Even if you have the latest sonar based upon fancy, innovative math that is supposed to detect the rock before you hit it, and even if regulators were supposed to clearly map and mark all danger, if you hit it anyway, there's a reason why captains are expected to go down with - or at best be the last ones off - the ship. It ensures they'll do all they can to avoid hitting it in the first place.


This is getting very close to the Demand Side position that the Fed and other financial regulators are no different than examples throughout government where oversight bodies have become captives to the industries they are supposed to regulate. The Fed's continued insistence on rescuing the financial institutions rather than stabilizing the banking functions in new, smaller, credible institutions is the ultimate proof.