Leonhardt on Risk: BP, the Housing Bubble and Budget

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Tuesday, 01 June 2010 19:42

David Leonhardt's magazine piece on mis-estimating risk gets the story of BP largely right. The top executives felt free to take big gambles with safety and the environment because it was entirely a one-sided bet for them. Large profits from increasing production could mean millions or even tens of millions of dollars in additional compensation each year. On the other hand, the downside from even the worst possible disaster carried little consequence for top executives (who will still be hugely rich) or even the company since Congress capped liability at $75 million.

However he gets the story of the housing bubble and the budget deficit almost completely wrong. He argues that Greenspan and Bernanke missed the fact that the economy faced a nationwide housing bubble because we had never seen one before. While that may be partially true, this comment also ignores the incentives facing the Fed chairs. Large financial companies like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup were making enormous profits from the financing that fueled the bubble. If Greenspan or Bernanke had tried to clamp down on the bubble they would have been confronted by the full force of this powerful industry. They may have found themselves ridiculed and pushed to the side as happened to Brooksley Born when she tried to regulate derivatives in 1998 as head of the Commodities and Futures Trading Commission.

In contrast, their decision not to clamp down on the bubble led to catastrophic results leading to the worst economic downturn in 70 years with tens of millions of people unemployed or underemployed. Yet, both Greenspan and Bernanke are still wealthy men and highly respected. In fact, Bernanke was reappointed to a second term as Fed chair in spite of his disastrous first term.

In short, the problem was not that they underestimated risk. The problem is that they face an entirely assymetric tradeoff structure. Clamping down on financial speculation was sure to have serious consequences for their careers, even if they were right. By contrast, failing to regulate properly did not seem to damage either man's wealth or stature in any major way even though it led to just about the most distrous possible outcome.

Leonhardt also gets the story of the risks from the budget deficit largely wrong.  He writes:

"The big financial risk is no longer a housing bubble. Instead, it may be the huge deficits that the growth of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will cause in coming years — and the possibility that lenders will eventually become nervous about extending credit to Washington. True, some economists and policy makers insist the country should not get worked up about this possibility, because lenders have never soured on the United States government before and show no signs of doing so now. But isn’t that reminiscent of the old Bernanke-Greenspan tune about the housing market?"

First, it is pecular to include Social Security in this list. Social Security is growing at a relatively slow pace. It is projected to grow less rapidly than interest on the government debt. Like interest on the government debt, Social Security benefits have already been paid for in advance by their beneficiaries. Wall Street tycoons like Peter Peterson have been desperate to gut Social Security for decades and have invented numerous stories (e.g. that the Trust Fund does not exist) to advance their agenda. However a responsible newspaper should not be advancing this agenda under the guise of news reporting.

The projected growth of Medicare and Medicaid, driven by the explosive growth of health care costs in the private sector, will impose strains on the budget. However, if the growth in health care costs really follows the path assumed in budget projections it will provide a much greater burden on the private sector than the public sector. It is difficult to imagine that the public will itself to be priced out of the market for health care rather than taking simple and obvious steps that challenge the industry's power and ability to continually jack up prices. The point is that this is first and foremost a health care problem. It is only the Peterson Wall Street gang that insists on discussing the issue as a budget problem.

The second reason why the discussion of the budget is not entirely right is that we have been here before. The country has had ratios of debt to GDP in excess of 100 percent following World War II. In spite of this debt burden, interest rates remained low and the economy grew rapidly. Other countries, like the UK and more recently Japan and Italy have sustained much larger debt to GDP ratios without seeing any financial panics.

Finally, unlike Greece, which does not control its own currency, the debt of the United States is in dollars and the United States can always print more dollars. This means that the actual risk is not insolvency, but inflation, since the country would presumably print money rather than face bankruptcy. An honest discussion of the debt problem in the United States would discuss the risk from inflation. In the current environment, this is extremely low. In fact, according to a recent paper by Olivier Blanchard, the IMF's chief economist, the United States would actually benefit from a somewhat higher inflation rate (3-4 percent) since it would reduce debt burdens and lower the real interest rate.

So, the supposed threat from the deficits has been seriously misrepresented by the Wall Street deficit hawks. It is hardly irrational to disregard threats that are incoherent.