Back in November, Michael Lewis wrote a great story in Portfolio on the financial crisis, focusing on the traders who saw that the housing bubble was going to crash, bringing mortgage-backed securities down with it – and made lots of money betting on it. Now Lewis is back with his article in Vanity Fair on AIG Financial Products (FP) and its last head, Joseph Cassano. This time, though, it feels like it’s missing the usual Lewis magic.
Lewis sets out to tell the untold story of FP, based on extensive interviews with people who actually worked there. He starts by laying out the conventional wisdom about FP, which presumably he is going to debunk. The conventional wisdom, according to Lewis, is that the problem lay in credit default swaps: “The public explanation of A.I.G.’s failure focused on the credit-default swaps sold by traders at A.I.G. F.P., when A.I.G.’s problems were clearly much broader.” Indeed, Lewis implies that the government essentially framed FP: “Why were officials, both public and private, so intent on leading others to believe all the losses at A.I.G. had been caused by a few dozen traders in this fringe unit in London and Connecticut?
Sorry about the recent silence; I’ve been trying to kill off a rewrite of a paper, and sometimes I find that to get things done you just have to be singleminded about your priorities.
In case you haven’t seen them yet, I wanted to point out a couple of things that have been making the rounds of the Internet:
- Most of the people writing about health care reform on economics blogs – present company included – are not health care economics specialists. Uwe Reinhardt is. So when he writes about “rationing health care,” I recommend reading (hat tip Mark Thoma).
- Brad Setser is branching out from foreign reserves, holdings of U.S. government and agency bonds, and China – on which he is probably the leading figure on the Internet – to, well, everything. Visit the Council on Foreign Relations’ “Crisis Guide: The Global Economy” and click on Motion Charts. There are four charts in the sidebar to the right. For each one, you can watch Setser on video, or you can click the “Interact with Motion Chart” link and play with it yourself.
By James Kwak
This guest post is contributed by StatsGuy, one of our regular commenters. I invited him to write the post in response to this comment, but regular readers are sure to have read many of his other contributions. There is a lot here, so I recommend making a cup of tea or coffee before starting to read.
In September, the first Baseline Scenario entered the scene with a frightening portrait of the world economy that focused on systemic risk, self-fulfilling speculative credit runs, and a massive liquidity shock that could rapidly travel globally and cause contagion even in places where economic fundamentals were strong.
Baseline identified the Fed’s response to Lehman as a “dramatic and damaging reversal of policy”, and offered major recommendations that focused on four basic efforts: FDIC insurance, a credible US backstop to major institutions, stimulus (combined with recapitalizing banks), and a housing stabilization plan.
Moral hazard was acknowledged, but not given center stage, with the following conclusion: “In a short-term crisis of this nature, moral hazard is not the preeminent concern. But we also agree that, in designing the financial system that emerges from the current situation, we should work from the premise that moral hazard will be important in regulated financial institutions.”
Over time, and as the crisis has passed from an acute to a chronic phase, the focus of Baseline has increasingly shifted toward the problem of “Too Big To Fail”. The arguments behind this narrative are laid out in several places: Big and Small; What Next for Banks; Atlantic Article.
One of the central themes of our Atlantic article was that the current crisis in the U.S. is very similar to the crises typically seen in emerging markets, and that resolving the crisis will require (some of) the measures often prescribed for emerging markets. This, Simon said, would be the assessment of IMF veterans who had worked on emerging markets crises.
At the exact same time that we were writing that article, Desmond Lachman – who worked at the IMF for 24 years, and then worked on emerging markets for Salomon Smith Barney for another seven years – was writing an article for the Washington Post saying many of the same things.* Here are the first three paragraphs:
Back in the spring of 1998, when Boris Yeltsin was still at Russia’s helm, I led a group of global investors to Moscow to find out firsthand where the Russian economy was headed. My long career with the International Monetary Fund and on Wall Street had taken me to “emerging markets” throughout Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, and I thought I’d seen it all. Yet I still recall the shock I felt at a meeting in Russia’s dingy Ministry of Finance, where I finally realized how a handful of young oligarchs were bringing Russia’s economy to ruin in the pursuit of their own selfish interests, despite the supposed brilliance of Anatoly Chubais, Russia’s economic czar at the time.
One of our goals is to help increase understanding of the financial crisis, so that people can understand the policy choices facing our countries today. Doug Diamond and Anil Kashyap have done two guest posts on the crisis for the Freakonomics blog: one on September 18, just after the announcement of the Paulson plan, and one just yesterday. These aren’t quite explanations for beginners – they presume some understanding of debt, equity, credit default swaps, and so on – but they summarize and explain some of the key developments relatively clearly, and also lay out their opinion of the current U.S. recapitalization plan.
Simon discusses the financial crisis and some possible solutions on an MIT podcast (11 min.).
The Center for Economic and Policy Research has rushed out, and I mean that in the best sense of the term, a survey of economists’ recommendations for the world’s economic policymakers and, specifically, for the meeting of G7 finance ministers this week. The economists who contributed to the 40-page report (once there, click on the title to download the PDF), while presenting a range of views, generally agree on the need to recapitalize the banking sector and, with some dissent, to guarantee short-term bank liabilities in order to calm fears in the financial markets. They also agree on the urgent need for coordinated action across countries. These are positions we have been advocating on this site, and we are glad to see many other people on the same page.