Thursday, June 4, 2009

Regulation and the Free Market

Just in case you haven't noticed yet, Friedman and Greenspan were wrong. Free markets are extremely fragile. Left untended and unregulated, they can't survive -- they succumb to what economists call "market failure." The only institutions powerful enough to prevent market failure are governments, and the only way they have to do that is through economic regulation.

The chief component of the market failure that created our current economic crisis was lack of information. For markets to operate properly, buyers and sellers must be aware of the real value of what they buy and sell. In the case of derivatives, as we now know, that information just wasn't available. Not only were buyers misled by the ratings agencies -- who were paid by the sellers -- but derivative sales were private. Buyers had no means of knowing what other buyers were paying for very similar instruments. The derivatives market was totally obscure, and totally unregulated.

"Then, let there be regulation," intones Obama. "Right on it, boss," cries His Boy In Treasury, Timmy G. And there shall be regulation. Effective regulation? Um, well...

Some Democrats in Congress, like Senator Tom Harkin (whom I recall supporting in a presidential primary a great many years ago), want all derivatives to be traded in an open exchange -- like stocks or commodities. That would provide full transparency, and make a repeat performance of the current mess just about impossible.

Timmy G. has another idea, though -- derivatives would be traded through privately managed "clearinghouses," which would make the trades, well, sort of semi-transparent. More complicated, "customized" securities, however -- like the credit default swaps that brought down AIG -- would remain outside the system, and totally opaque.

You get one guess: which plan does the industry prefer? Here's a hint: if buyers get to know what the securities really are worth, they won't pay as much for them.

Maybe Obama will surprise me, and get behind the idea of an open exchange. Somehow, though, I doubt it. Bill Clinton signed the December 2000 bill exempting most derivatives from regulatory oversight, and so can claim a fat share of the responsibility for our current problems. Barack Obama, who took even more in campaign contributions from the financial industry than Clinton did, is not likely to be a major improvement.

As Dick Durbin pointed out recently, "the banks ... are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place." I'm afraid that probably is true of the White House as well.

Well, so much for free markets. How can markets be free when the government that's supposed to protect them is bought and paid for?

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