Tag Archives: Testimony

What Are You (Or Barney Frank) Going To Do About It?

At a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee yesterday, Barney Frank nicely summarized where we are with regard to re-regulation of our largest financial institutions: some of them are definitely “too big to fail”, with the potential to present the authorities with what Larry Summers calls the “collapse or bailout” choice, but what exactly should be done about it?

On a five-person panel, I had the middle seat (as usual) and found myself agreeing with points made both to my left and to my right.  Alice Rivlin is correct that we need to control leverage as well as increase capital requirements, and the Fed’s tools vis-à-vis leverage need modernization – your grandparents’ margin requirements would not suffice.  Peter Wallison, a member of the new financial crisis investigation commission, stresses that capital requirements should be higher for larger banks.  Paul Mahoney wants to change the bankruptcy code, to make it easier for courts to handle large financial firms in quick time; recent CIT Group events suggest this is a good idea.

And Mark Zandi was persuasive on the point that households had no idea what they were signing up to with option ARMs – even he has trouble with those spreadsheets.  Effective consumer protection – including a new consumer safety commission – would definitely contribute to financial system stability.

What will Barney Frank and his committee do?  There will be no “Tier 1 Holding Company” category of firms, if Frank has anything to do with it; this is too much like creating an implicit government guarantee. Frank is clearly drawn towards higher capital requirements or more insurance payments from firms that pose more system risk.  I suggested total assets of 1% of GDP as a threshold, but we agree this should be essentially a progressive drag on profits – creating the strong market-based incentive for the biggest firms to downsize.

Other than that, watch this space.

My written testimony submitted to the committee is below. Continue reading

Written Testimony to Senate Budget Committee Today

My written testimony is now attached: testimony-simon-johnson-for-senate-budget-on-nov-19-2008

Comments welcome!

Testimony This Morning: Senate Budget Committee

Wednesday morning, starting at 10am, I’m on a panel testifying to the Senate Budget Committee about the need for a fiscal stimulus.  The other witnesses are Mark Zandi and John Taylor.

I’ll post my written testimony after the hearing. I expect to make three main points in my verbal remarks:

1) We are heading into a serious global recession, caused by and in turn causing a process of global leveraging (i.e., reduction in lending and borrowing).  We have never seen this kind of deleveraging – synchronized around the world, fast-moving, and with an unknowable destination.

2) I do not think we can prevent this deleveraging from happening.  Nor do I think we should even try to keep asset prices high (or at any particular level).  But in the United States we have the ability to mitigate some of the short-run effects and to lay the groundwork for a sustainable, strong recovery.  One sensible tool to use in this context is fiscal policy.  I lean towards smart spending programs, but as the economy continues to worsen, I think some kind of temporary tax cut could also help – it can potentially have relatively quick effects.  (Note: contrary to those who think that if tax cuts are saved by consumers, they are somehow “wasted,” I would point out that anything that improves consumers’ balance sheets is both good for them and for the financial institutions that lend to them.)

3) But there is a real limit to how far we can go with fiscal policy (and with other policy measures).  Irresponsible budget policies would not be a good idea – we need to continue a process of fiscal consolidation; it is most vital that people around the world remain confident in the U.S. government’s balance sheet.  Some of the highest numbers now being proposed for a fiscal stimulus are probably too high and a mega-stimulus could be counterproductive if it undermines confidence.

I’m proposing a fiscal stimulus of roughly 3% of GDP, to be spent over several years.  Given the uncertainties involved, this seems like reasonable middle ground – it’s enough to make a difference, but doesn’t promise a miracle; it can be spent sensibly and at an appropriate speed; and it will not undermine our ability to consolidate the U.S. fiscal position (i.e., bring government debt onto a sustainable path) over the medium-term.