A famous conservative explains the current financial crisis

Jonathan Rauch has a review of what appears to be one of the early classics dealing with the global economic crisis: ‘A Failure of Capitalism – The Crisis of ’08 and the Descent Into Depression,’ by Richard A. Posner

This book is not socialist screed decrying capitalism, Richard Posner is “one of America’s leading conservative intellectuals, so his insights into this crisis deserve attention”.

If you read the newspapers, you will not see much in “A Failure of Capitalism” by way of unfamiliar particulars. Cheap money and an inrush of foreign capital fueled a lending boom, which poured credit into the housing market. As prices went up, up, up, even risky mortgages seemed safe and everyone piled in, including banks. Financiers relied on securitization and complicated financial instruments to dilute the attendant risk, but the result was to spread that risk through the financial system, making it impossible to locate. When the housing bubble popped, everyone was holding bad debt, but no one was sure how bad or even how much. With banks suddenly looking undercapitalized, lenders stopped lending and started selling assets to raise cash. The faster everyone ran for the exits, the faster asset prices fell, dragging banks’ balance sheets down with them. Credit markets seized up, depressing the economy, causing more mortgage defaults and asset-price deflation, further weakening banks, further paralyzing credit, depressing the economy still more. . . . Repeat ad nauseam.

You know that story, and Posner tells it well, with a particular flair for showing how dozens of moving parts interacted. Being Richard Posner, however, he is not content to be an amiable guide through the thicket. His real interest is in finding and detonating grenades in the underbrush.

One is right there on the title page, which flaunts the D-word. The current crisis, Posner maintains, is a depression. True, it is not (we hope) a great depression. But the typical postwar recession is a partly self-correcting disinflationary contraction that soon subsides, often leaving the economy healthier. The present downturn is a self-sustaining deflationary contraction whose costly aftereffects will linger for years. The Great Depression led to World War II. Today’s depression presumably won’t be that bad, but it may cause a huge loss of output, an immense increase in the national debt, a swing to excessive regulation, a nasty bout of inflation, a decline in America’s economic and geopolitical power, and increased political instability abroad.

A typical recession is a market correction, usually of inflation or other economic imbalances; a depression is a market failure. And it is a failure (here is grenade No. 2) that the market is powerless to prevent. “An interrelated system of financial intermediaries” — a banking system, broadly defined — “is inherently unstable,” Posner writes. Think of it as “a kind of epileptic, subject to unpredictable, strange seizures.”

…A perfect storm of irresponsibility? Hardly. The crisis came about precisely because intelligent businesses and consumers followed market signals. “The mistakes were systemic — the product of the nature of the banking business in an environment shaped by low interest rates and deregulation rather than the antics of crooks and fools.” Were a lot of people reckless and stupid? Of course! But that cannot explain why the whole system crashed, since a lot of people are always reckless and stupid. The problem, fundamentally, is that markets cannot, and rationally should not, anticipate their own collapse. “A depression is too remote an event to influence business behavior.” Any single business can rationally guard against its own bankruptcy, but not the simultaneous bankruptcy of everybody else. “The ­profit-maximizing businessman rationally ignores small probabilities that his conduct in conjunction with that of his competitors may bring down the entire economy.”

…markets, entirely of their own accord, will sometimes capsize and be unable to right themselves completely for years at a stretch. (See: Japan, “lost decade” of.) Nor can monetary policy be counted on to counteract markets’ tippy tendencies, as so many economists had come to believe.Alas, economists and policy makers got cocksure. They thought they had consigned depressions to history. As a result, they missed warning signs and failed to prepare for the worst. “We are learning,” Posner writes, “that we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails.”

Other reviews:

How to Understand the Disaster By Robert M. Solow (New York Review of Books)

The Rational Crisis – Richard Posner takes on the financial meltdown by Guy Sorman (City Journal)

Richard Posner is blogging at The Atlantic.

(All of this was via Fabius Maximus)

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