Tag Archives: Financial Crisis

The Crucial But Unknown Cause

Among all the books, articles, and academic papers analyzing the financial meltdown, very few have pinpointed and exposed what I think was the accelerant that turned a problem into an all-out panic: namely, the zealous application of mark-to-market accounting beginning in the autumn of 2007. In this video, two of these very few — Brian Wesbury and Steve Forbes — discuss the meltdown, mark-to-market’s crucial role, and the stock market’s short and mid-term prospects. Wesbury and Forbes have also written two great books explaining the Great Panic, why it’s not as bad as you think, and how capitalism will save us.

Holman Jenkins today also picks up the theme of mark-to-market’s central role in the panic.

The Real China Story

The New York Times, in its series on the origins of the financial crisis it calls “The Reckoning,” pins our housing and credit bubbles on Chinese savings and the U.S.-China trade gap. This is basically the view of Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke. We were helpless. Monetary policy had become ineffective. The New York Times also says the U.S. failed to react to the China-U.S. “imbalances” soon enough, that we took a “passive” approach. 

In fact, most of this is backward. We did not under-react to China. We overreacted. The U.S. weak-dollar policy — a combination of historically low Fed interest rates and a Treasury calling for a cheaper currency — was a direct and violent reaction to the trade gap. A series of Treasury secretaries and top U.S. economists, from John Snow and Hank Paulson to John Taylor and Martin Feldstein, explicitly backed this policy as a way to “correct” these “imbalances.” This weak-dollar policy was designed to reduce the trade gap but in fact boosted it by pushing oil and other commodity prices through the roof. It also created and pushed excess dollars into other hard assets like real estate, resulting in the housing boom and then bust.

America’s overreaction to China’s rise in particular and our misunderstanding of global trade and finance in general was thus, I believe, the chief source of our current predicament. The Fed and Treasury failed to grasp the truly global nature of the economy and the centrality of the dollar around the world. I tell the story of Chinese-U.S. interaction in this long paper, “Entrepreneurship and Innovation in China: 1978-2008.”

Technology: 2008 vs. 1992

See my comparison of the state of technology in 2008 versus 1992, when the last Democratic presidential transition took place. 

Today, an average consumer can buy a terabyte hard drive (1 million megabytes), on which she might store her family photos, videos and other digital documents for as little as $109.99. In 1992, a terabyte drive, if such a thing had existed, would have cost $5 million.

Go to Forbes.com for the full article: “How Techno-creativity Will Save Us.”


The prolific Niall Ferguson with a long narrative of the financial crash in Vanity Fair:

The key point is that without easy credit creation a true bubble cannot occur. That is why so many bubbles have their origins in the sins of omission and commission of central banks. 

A Modest Proposal: Sell Nevada

Alex Tabarrok wonders whether the U.S. should sell some of its massive land holdings to help pay for its latest binge, with more surely to come. Conceptually, it’s interesting. I and others like John Rutledge have long argued that we need to look at total U.S. assets when doing any macroeconomic analysis. This would include potential trillions worth of federal lands. But it’s not clear the government would actually have to sell the land to reap the gain. Merely owning it is useful collateral for issuing more debt. On the other hand, getting more land into private hands might be a good thing in and of itself.

As I Was Just Saying…

On the eve of the G20 global financial summit, Judy Shelton weighs in with yet another brilliant exposition on stable money:

At the bottom of the world financial crisis is international monetary disorder. Ever since the post-World War II Bretton Woods system — anchored by a gold-convertible dollar — ended in August 1971, the cause of free trade has been compromised by sovereign monetary-policy indulgence.

Today, a soupy mix of currencies sloshes investment capital around the world, channeling it into stagnant pools while productive endeavor is left high and dry. Entrepreneurs in countries with overvalued currencies are unable to attract the foreign investment that should logically flow in their direction, while scam artists in countries with undervalued currencies lure global financial resources into brackish puddles.

Pearls of Unwisdom

Steve Pearlstein of the Washington Post is on Charlie Rose right now saying the U.S. trade deficit was a chief cause of the present financial crisis. He’s got it just backwards. It was our overreaction to the innocuous trade deficit — namely, inflationary weak-dollar easy credit, designed in part to close the trade gap — that brought us here. The weak-dollar Fed juiced oil and home prices. High oil prices boosted the trade deficit — just the opposite of the weak-dollar advocates‘ intent. Skyrocketing home prices required, and were fueled by, hyper-aggressive and unsustainable mortgage lending.

Pearlstein then said we needed an international regulator to stop this from happening. This entity should have stopped the U.S. from buying so much from China. Wrong again. We needed the Fed and Treasury to maintain a stable dollar. A stable currency is the ultimate financial regulator and disciplinarian. If we had ignored the trade deficit and focused on stable money, there would be no financial crisis.

Dr. Doom Persists

Chief panic prophet Nouriel Roubini sees long-term decline:

The U.S. will experience its most severe recession since World War II, much worse and longer and deeper than even the 1974-1975 and 1980-1982 recessions.

There’s no hope of a V-shaped recovery: 

a U-shaped 18- to 24-month recession is now a certainty, and the probability of a worse, multi-year L-shaped recession (as in Japan in the 1990s) is still small but rising.

And there’s a real

risk that we will end in a deflationary liquidity trap as the Fed is fast approaching the zero-bound constraint for the Fed funds rate

leading to global


When a permabear like Roubini has been right so often for the past year (lo for the wrong reasons) it may seem a tall order to refute him. But John Tamny does an admirable job:

just as housing was the hot asset class in the early and late ‘70s, so was it this decade not due to economic growth per se, but thanks to currency debasement that always leads to a flight to the real. In short, the subsequent moderation of home prices has not been an economic retardant so much as it’s been the result of economic sluggishness that always reveals itself when currencies are allowed to weaken.

Roubini holds the reputation of soothsayer at present, but the very analysis that has made him all-seeing was faulty on its face. Lower home prices are an undeniable good for less capital going into the ground, as opposed to the entrepreneurial economy. What led to housing’s moderation of late was paradoxically what caused its boom. When currencies decline, hard assets do well, and investment in real economic activity withers. . . .

In short, Roubini made the correct call a few years ago about looming economic difficulty, but the call ignored the real cause which decidedly was the weak dollar. Happily for Washington’s political class, Roubini’s suggestions for “stimulating” the economy absolve it of its own mistakes, all the while allowing it to do what it does best: spend the money of others.