Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cherished myths of free markets fall victim to economic reality

Paul De Grauwe writes in the FT that what we learn and champion about free markets is in fact relevant to an ideal world only, not to this world with information imperfection. This also means that a new equilibrium should be sought between markets and state action, without tempering individual incentives.

[..]The credit crisis has destroyed the idea that unregulated financial markets always efficiently channel savings to the most promising investment projects. Millions of US citizens took on unsustainable debts, pushed around by bankers and other “debt merchants” who made a quick buck by disregarding risks. While this happened, the US monetary authorities marvelled at the creativity of financial capitalism. When the bust came, a large number of Americans who had been promised a new life in their beautiful homes were told to move out. This boom and bust cycle cannot have been an example of efficient channelling of savings into the most promising investment projects.

The fact that unregulated financial markets fail to deliver the wonders of efficiency does not mean that governments should take over. That would be worse. What it does mean is that a new equilibrium must be found in which tighter regulation is reintroduced, aimed at reducing the propensities of too many in the markets to take on excessive risks. The need to re-regulate financial markets is enhanced by the fact that central banks, backed by governments, provide an insurance against liquidity risks. Such insurance inevitably leads to moral hazard and excessive risk-taking. The insurer cannot avoid monitoring and regulating the be­haviour of those who obtain this insurance.

[...]If we have learnt one thing from the credit crisis it is that individuals did not understand the “truth” and, it must be admitted, neither did economists. Individuals who sold the new financial instruments did not understand the risk embedded in these instruments, nor did the buyers. When the bubble started many interpreted the happy turn of affairs as permanent and took on massive levels of debt that turned out to be unsustainable. When the bubble burst, they did not understand what had happened and nor did most experts. Our world is one of a fundamental lack of understanding of the “truth”.