Thursday, May 10, 2012

Some lessons from the sub-prime crisis responses

There are very few counterfactuals in social sciences. The closest to such a counterfactual are the contrasting responses of US and Europe to resolving their respective financial market crises. Though in recent months, Europe has taken steps to emulate the US, the initial responses across both sides of the Atlantic bear a striking contrast.

In the US, at the first signs of the sub-prime crisis bursting, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve aggressively intervened to contain the damage. The Treasury came forward with its Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) to directly assist the beleaguered banks and other financial institutions with equity injections. The Federal Reserve expanded its balance sheet many times and initiated quantitative easing programs to emerge as the lender, insurer, and buyer of last resort for the financial markets.

However, across the Atlantic, driven both by lack of similar political resolve and strong ideological predilections, the Eurozone governments and the European Central Bank refrained from aggressive intervention. They let events take their own course in the hope that markets would soon resolve the issue. Credit markets froze, driving up sovereign debt yields and nearly shutting off the peripheral economies. Banks, saddled with massive sovereign debt exposures, stumbled to the brink. The ECB refused to lend either to the banks or the battered sovereigns. It stepped in finally only when the situation had worsened considerably.

The contrasting fortunes of both economies, atleast their respective financial sectors, is a clear verdict on the policy courses followed on both sides of the Atlantic. Europe stares at a potential Japan like financial dystopia, whereas American financial institutions have recovered smartly and are back to doing all those things that caused the sub-prime crisis! However, there are a few quick learnings from the situations across both sides,

1. The loudest message from the two different courses of action is that markets do not repair themselves and when faced with such deep financial market crises, governments and central banks have to step in with aggressive policies.This becomes all the more important as the complexity of our banking systems increase and the too-big-to-fail syndrome become entrenched.

2. Related to this is the central and disproportionate importance that financial markets have come to assume in determing the economic fortunes of a country. Despite the fact that the financial sector occupies a far less share of both the economy and the working population, its good health is critical to the fortunes of any modern economy.

3. Similar to the stark contrast between the US and European responses is the difference between the responses by the US Government and the Fed to the condition of over-leveraged financial institutions and debt-ridden individual households. The latter received nothing like the unlimited and cheap liquidity injections, debt rescheduling at very favorable terms, and sweeping credit guarantees offered to the financial institutions. Household foreclosures, even when it happened in a massive scale, became a source of concern only when it threatened to affect an exposed financial institution.

In other words, the disciplining elements of the free-markets are reserved for individual households and small business firms, while the financial sector behemoths, the much trumpeted success stories of deregulated free-market capitalism, face no such constraints. The negative externalities created by financial institutions do not get internalized.

4. All this highlights the increasingly sharp cleavage between the real economy and the financial markets. Are the gains of the financial markets, especially their outsized wins, coming at the expense of the real economy? Is there a recession or even a depression lurking at the end of a sustained period of financial market boom? The financial markets, especially in their current avatar, appear to have become too big a systemic risk to be left as it is.

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