THE BASIS POINT

George Soros: The Crisis & What To Do About It

This week’s New York Review of Books has a worthwhile feature from George Soros on the financial crisis. In the first three sections, he covers a lot of the history of how this crisis came to be. Section 4, excerpted below, covers solutions which contain a familiar refrain: we need better regulation but not too much regulation.

The new paradigm has far-reaching implications for the regulation of financial markets. Since they are prone to create asset bubbles, regulators such as the Fed, the Treasury, and the SEC must accept responsibility for preventing bubbles from growing too big. Until now financial authorities have explicitly rejected that responsibility.

It is impossible to prevent bubbles from forming, but it should be possible to keep them within tolerable bounds. It cannot be done by controlling only the money supply. Regulators must also take into account credit conditions because money and credit do not move in lockstep. Markets have moods and biases and it falls to regulators to counterbalance them. That requires the use of judgment and since regulators are also human, they are bound to make mistakes. They have the advantage, however, of getting feedback from the market and that should enable them to correct their mistakes. If a tightening of margin and minimum capital requirements does not deflate a bubble, they can tighten them some more. But the process is not foolproof because markets can also be wrong. The search for the optimum equilibrium has to be a never-ending process of trial and error.

The cat-and-mouse game between regulators and market participants is already ongoing, but its true nature has not yet been acknowledged. Alan Greenspan was a past master of manipulation with his Delphic utterances, but instead of acknowledging what he was doing he pretended that he was merely a passive observer of the facts. Reflexivity remained a state secret. That is why the super-bubble could develop so far during his tenure.

Since money and credit do not move in lockstep and asset bubbles cannot be controlled purely by monetary means, additional tools must be employed, or more accurately reactivated, since they were in active use in the 1950s and 1960s. I refer to variable margin requirements and minimal capital requirements, which are meant to control the amount of leverage market participants can employ. Central banks even used to issue guidance to banks about how they should allocate loans to specific sectors of the economy. Such directives may be preferable to the blunt instruments of monetary policy in combating “irrational exuberance” in particular sectors, such as information technology or real estate.

Sophisticated financial engineering of the kind I have mentioned can render the calculation of margin and capital requirements extremely difficult if not impossible. In order to activate such requirements, financial engineering must also be regulated and new products must be registered and approved by the appropriate authorities before they can be used. Such regulation should be a high priority of the new Obama administration. It is all the more necessary because financial engineering often aims at circumventing regulations.

Take for example credit default swaps (CDSs), instruments intended to insure against the possibility of bonds and other forms of debt going into default, and whose price captures the perceived risk of such a possibility occurring. These instruments grew like Topsy because they required much less capital than owning or shorting the underlying bonds. Eventually they grew to more than $50 trillion in nominal size, which is a many-fold multiple of the underlying bonds and five times the entire US national debt. Yet the market in credit default swaps has remained entirely unregulated. AIG, the insurance company, lost a fortune selling credit default swaps as a form of insurance and had to be bailed out, costing the Treasury $126 billion so far. Although the CDS market may be eventually saved from the meltdown that has occurred in many other markets, the sheer existence of an unregulated market of this size has been a major factor in increasing risk throughout the entire financial system.

Since the risk management models used until now ignored the uncertainties inherent in reflexivity, limits on credit and leverage will have to be set substantially lower than those that were tolerated in the recent past. This means that financial institutions in the aggregate will be less profitable than they have been during the super-bubble and some business models that depended on excessive leverage will become uneconomical. The financial industry has already dropped from 25 percent of total market capitalization to 16 percent. This ratio is unlikely to recover to anywhere near its previous high; indeed, it is likely to end lower. This may be considered a healthy adjustment, but not by those who are losing their jobs.

In view of the tremendous losses suffered by the general public, there is a real danger that excessive deregulation will be succeeded by punitive reregulation. That would be unfortunate because regulations are liable to be even more deficient than the market mechanism. As I have suggested, regulators are not only human but also bureaucratic and susceptible to lobbying and corruption. It is to be hoped that the reforms outlined here will preempt a regulatory overkill.