The smartest article yet on the financial crisis

Charles Calomiris of the Wall Street Journal has written a brilliant piece on the financial crisis that punches so many holes in the Obama-Democrat mantra that "deregulation" caused the meltdown that it makes swiss cheese out of them:

As for the evils of deregulation, exactly which measures are they referring to? Financial deregulation for the past three decades consisted of the removal of deposit interest-rate ceilings, the relaxation of branching powers, and allowing commercial banks to enter underwriting and insurance and other financial activities. Wasn't the ability for commercial and investment banks to merge (the result of the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed part of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act) a major stabilizer to the financial system this past year? Indeed, it allowed Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch to be acquired by J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America, and allowed Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to convert to bank holding companies to help shore up their positions during the mid-September bear runs on their stocks.

Even more to the point, subprime lending, securitization and dealing in swaps were all activities that banks and other financial institutions have had the ability to engage in all along. There is no connection between any of these and deregulation. On the contrary, it was the ever-growing Basel Committee rules for measuring bank risk and allocating capital to absorb that risk (just try reading the Basel standards if you don't believe me) that failed miserably. The Basel rules outsourced the measurement of risk to ratings agencies or to the modelers within the banks themselves. Incentives were not properly aligned, as those that measured risk profited from underestimating it and earned large fees for doing so.

That ineffectual, Rube Goldberg apparatus was, of course, the direct result of the politicization of prudential regulation by the Basel Committee, which was itself the direct consequence of pursuing "international coordination" among countries, which produced rules that work politically but not economically. International cooperation, in case you haven't heard, is exactly what the French and the Germans now say was missing in the past few years.

So why blame deregulation and small government? The social psychologist Gustav Jahoda says that unreasonable beliefs often arise in circumstances where people lack control and need to believe in something to get them through a highly stressful situation. And a fellow named Machiavelli might help us to understand a different reason for simplistic explanations.

Ultimately, Calomisis blames several factors for the meltdown including loose monetary policy, government "leveraged" real estate subsidies by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and arcane and misplaced rules (see his "Basel rules" above). In other words, deregulation as a cause for this mess is nowhere to be found.

In fact, Calomisis makes the point that the reform of Glass-Steagall act - where Democrats blame McCain advisor Phil Gramm for his tinkering - actually mitigated what could have  been a total disaster by making it possible for for investment banks to be taken over by commercial banks - events that wouldn't have been possible under the old form of the law.

But the Democratic narrative that 'deregulation and 8 years of Bush incompetence" caused the crisis resonates because, as Calomisis points out, people want to believe it. I would add that it's easy to believe because it is easier to explain than the complex interaction of public and private pressures on the system that ultimately led to where we are now.





Charles Calomiris of the Wall Street Journal has written a brilliant piece on the financial crisis that punches so many holes in the Obama-Democrat mantra that "deregulation" caused the meltdown that it makes swiss cheese out of them:

As for the evils of deregulation, exactly which measures are they referring to? Financial deregulation for the past three decades consisted of the removal of deposit interest-rate ceilings, the relaxation of branching powers, and allowing commercial banks to enter underwriting and insurance and other financial activities. Wasn't the ability for commercial and investment banks to merge (the result of the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed part of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act) a major stabilizer to the financial system this past year? Indeed, it allowed Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch to be acquired by J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America, and allowed Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to convert to bank holding companies to help shore up their positions during the mid-September bear runs on their stocks.

Even more to the point, subprime lending, securitization and dealing in swaps were all activities that banks and other financial institutions have had the ability to engage in all along. There is no connection between any of these and deregulation. On the contrary, it was the ever-growing Basel Committee rules for measuring bank risk and allocating capital to absorb that risk (just try reading the Basel standards if you don't believe me) that failed miserably. The Basel rules outsourced the measurement of risk to ratings agencies or to the modelers within the banks themselves. Incentives were not properly aligned, as those that measured risk profited from underestimating it and earned large fees for doing so.

That ineffectual, Rube Goldberg apparatus was, of course, the direct result of the politicization of prudential regulation by the Basel Committee, which was itself the direct consequence of pursuing "international coordination" among countries, which produced rules that work politically but not economically. International cooperation, in case you haven't heard, is exactly what the French and the Germans now say was missing in the past few years.

So why blame deregulation and small government? The social psychologist Gustav Jahoda says that unreasonable beliefs often arise in circumstances where people lack control and need to believe in something to get them through a highly stressful situation. And a fellow named Machiavelli might help us to understand a different reason for simplistic explanations.

Ultimately, Calomisis blames several factors for the meltdown including loose monetary policy, government "leveraged" real estate subsidies by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and arcane and misplaced rules (see his "Basel rules" above). In other words, deregulation as a cause for this mess is nowhere to be found.

In fact, Calomisis makes the point that the reform of Glass-Steagall act - where Democrats blame McCain advisor Phil Gramm for his tinkering - actually mitigated what could have  been a total disaster by making it possible for for investment banks to be taken over by commercial banks - events that wouldn't have been possible under the old form of the law.

But the Democratic narrative that 'deregulation and 8 years of Bush incompetence" caused the crisis resonates because, as Calomisis points out, people want to believe it. I would add that it's easy to believe because it is easier to explain than the complex interaction of public and private pressures on the system that ultimately led to where we are now.