[OPE] Skidelsky's Keynesian interpretation

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Sat Apr 25 2009 - 17:36:16 EDT

We Should Blame Economists, Not Bankers

Moscow Times 23 April 2009
By Robert Skidelsky

(...) Before securitization, banks typically held mortgages. But securitized credit taken off one bank's balance sheet usually ended up on another bank's books. What resulted was a wonderful system for diversifying individual bank risk, but only by magnifying the default risk of all banks that held what came to be called "toxic debt." Because all the derivatives were based on the same assets, if anything happened to those assets, all the banks holding the debt would find themselves in the same soup.

What made the spread of derivatives possible was the ease with which the volume of debt for a given set of real assets could be expanded. This scalability was magnified by the use of credit default swaps, which offered phony insurance against default. Since an unlimited number of credit default swaps could be sold against each borrower, the supply of swaps could grow much faster than the supply of bonds.

Credit default swaps magnified the size of the bubble by hugely speeding up the velocity of monetary circulation. The market for collateralized debt obligations grew from $275 billion to $4.7 trillion from 2000 to 2006, whereas the market for credit default swaps grew four times faster, from $920 billion in 2001 to $62 trillion by the end of 2007.

Credit default swaps were the means by which derivatives found their way into the portfolios of banks all over the world. But the dependence of the whole structure on continually rising house prices was rarely made explicit. If the housing market started to fail, these paper assurances of safety would become, in the words of U.S. investor Warren Buffett, "financial weapons of mass destruction."

But financial intermediation would never have brought disaster (or indeed gone so far) save for the global imbalances arising from the United States' twin trade and budget deficits, financed to a large extent by Chinese savings. Floating exchange rates were supposed to prevent countries from manipulating their currencies, but, by accumulating large quantities of U.S. treasury bills, East Asian countries -- particularly China -- kept their exchange rates artificially low. This East Asian "savings glut" enabled a debt-fueled consumption glut in the United States, Britain and much of the Western world.

But the marriage between Chinese savings and U.S. consumption had a fatal flaw. It created nonrepayable debts. Chinese investments increasingly took the form of official purchases of U.S. Treasury bills. These investments did not create new resources to provide the means of repayment, because the counterpart of the U.S. debt build-up was the relocation of a significant portion of U.S. manufacturing capacity to China. As a result, Chinese savings flowed not into creating new assets, but into financial speculation and consumer binges.

"Surplus" Chinese savings made the U.S. credit expansion between 2003 and 2005 possible, when the federal funds rate (the overnight rate at which U.S. banks lend to one another) was held at 1 percent. Ultra-cheap money produced a surge in subprime mortgage lending -- a market that collapsed when interest rates increased steadily after 2005, reaching 5 percent. The financial crisis of 2008 was the start of a highly painful, but inevitable, process of deleveraging.

This interpretation of the origins of the present slump is disputed by the "money-glut school." In their view, there was one cause of the crisis -- the excessive credit creation from low interest rates that took place from 2001 to 2006 under Alan Greenspan's helm as chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. This view draws on the "Austrian theory" of booms and slumps and also on U.S. economist Milton Friedman's explanation of the Great Depression of 1929. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. This line of reasoning assumes that markets are perfectly efficient. If they go wrong, it must be because of mistakes in policy. This view is also self-contradictory, for if market participants are perfectly rational and perfectly informed, they would not have been fooled by a policy of making money cheaper than it really was. Greenspan is the sacrifice they offer to the god of the market.

This suggests a more fundamental reason for the economic crisis: the dominance of the Chicago school of economics, with its belief in the self-regulating properties of unfettered markets. This belief justified, or rationalized, the deregulation of financial markets in the name of the so called "efficient-market hypothesis." It led directly to the spread of financial risk-management models, which, by excluding the possibility of default, grossly underestimated the amount of risk in the system. (...)

Complete article http://www.themoscowtimes.com/article/1016/42/376527.htm

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