Stiglitz's 5 Step Fix for Financial Crisis

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 10/27/2008 08:54:00 AM
Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has come up with five items on his "to do" list in order to fix the current financial crisis. While most of these prescriptions concern American policymaking, we'll cut him slack as it is a TIME article. Never let it be said that Stiglitz fails to think big. The Economist has faulted him in the past for prescribing remedies that are, if anything else, too ambitious. Here, I would like have liked more discussion from Stiglitz about how steps 2 and 3 are going to be funded. After all, he is an economist, and "there's no such thing as a free lunch" remains operative. In step 5, he calls for a new global regulator. Here I have two questions. First, why can't we work with the current set of institutions like the Bretton Woods twins, the Bank of International Settlements, and so on? Second, why does he cite the French as inspirational in promoting new regulatory regimes when they are self-serving more often than not?

1 Recapitalize banks. With all the losses, banks have insufficient equity. Banks will have a hard time raising this equity under current circumstances. The government needs to provide equity. In return, it should have voting stakes in the banks it helps. But equity injections also bail out bondholders. Right now the market is discounting these bonds, saying there is a high probability of default. There needs to be a forced conversion of this debt to equity. If this is done, the amount of government assistance that will be required will be much reduced.

It's good news that Treasury Secretary Paulson seems to finally realize that his original proposal of buying what he euphemistically called distressed assets was flawed. That Secretary Paulson took so long to figure this out is worrying. He was so bound by the idea of a free-market solution that he was unable to accept what economists of all stripes were telling him: that he needed to recapitalize the banks and provide new money to make up for the losses they incurred on their bad loans.

The Administration is now doing this, but three questions are raised: Was it a fair deal to the taxpayer? The answer to that seems fairly clear: taxpayers got a raw deal, evident by comparing the terms of Warren Buffet's injection of $5 billion into Goldman Sachs, and the terms extracted by the Administration. Second, is there enough oversight and restrictions to make sure that the bad practices of the past do not recur and that new lending does occur? Again, comparing the terms demanded by the U.K. and by the U.S. Treasury, we got the short end of the stick. For instance, banks can continue to pay out money to shareholders, as the government pours money in. Thirdly, is it enough money? The banks are so nontransparent that no one can fully answer the question, but what we do know is that the gaps in the balance sheet are likely to get bigger. That is because too little is being done about the underlying problem.

2 Stem the tide of foreclosures. The original Paulson plan is like a massive blood transfusion to a patient with severe internal hemorrhaging. We won't save the patient if we don't do something about the foreclosures. Even after congressional revisions, too little is being done. We need to help people stay in their homes, by converting the mortgage-interest and property-tax deductions into cashable tax credits; by reforming bankruptcy laws to allow expedited restructuring, which would bring down the value of the mortgage when the price of the house is below that of the mortgage; and even government lending, taking advantage of the government's lower cost of funds and passing the savings on to poor and middle-income homeowners.

3 Pass a stimulus that works. Helping Wall Street and stopping the foreclosures are only part of the solution. The U.S. economy is headed for a serious recession and needs a big stimulus. We need increased unemployment insurance; if states and localities are not helped, they will have to reduce expenditures as their tax revenues plummet, and their reduced spending will lead to a contraction of the economy. But to kick-start the economy, Washington must make investments in the future. Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis were grim reminders of how decrepit our infrastructure has become. Investments in infrastructure and technology will stimulate the economy in the short run and enhance growth in the long run.

4 Restore confidence through regulatory reform. Underlying the problems are banks' bad decisions and regulatory failures. These must be addressed if confidence in our financial system is to be restored. Corporate-governance structures that lead to flawed incentive structures designed to generously reward CEOs should be changed and so should many of the incentive systems themselves. It is not just the level of compensation; it is also the form — nontransparent stock options that provide incentives for bad accounting to bloat up reported returns.

5 Create an effective multilateral agency. As the global economy becomes more interconnected, we need better global oversight. It is unimaginable that America's financial market could function effectively if we had to rely on 50 separate state regulators. But we are trying to do essentially that at the global level.

The recent crisis provides an example of the dangers: as some foreign governments provided blanket guarantees for their deposits, money started to move to what looked like safe havens. Other countries had to respond. A few European governments have been far more thoughtful than the U.S. in figuring out what needs to be done. Even before the crisis turned global, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in his address to the U.N. last month, called for a world summit to lay the foundations for more state regulation to replace the current laissez-faire approach. We may be at a new "Bretton Woods moment." As the world emerged from the Great Depression and World War II, it realized there was need for a new global economic order. It lasted more than 60 years. That it was not well adapted for the new world of globalization has been clear for a long time. Now, as the world emerges from the Cold War and the Great Financial Crisis, it will need to construct a new global economic order for the 21st century, and that will include a new global regulatory agency.

This crisis may have taught us that unfettered markets are risky. It should also have taught us that unilateralism can't work in a world of economic interdependence.