Saturday, December 17, 2011

Scott Sumner Uses the Asymmetry Argument

Chris Fawson at Utah State convinced me several years ago that taking two sides of an argument that are symmetric, and claiming they are asymmetric is both a common failure and a common justification for bad policy analysis.

Scott Sumner makes precisely this point about the (largely private)financial crisis in America and the (largely public) sovereign debt crisis in Europe.

Banks pour huge amounts of money into one particular asset class.  They are encouraged to do this by public policymakers, although there is some dispute about whether that was the main reason for their decisions.  These assets have a long tradition of doing well, although a close look at the evidence would have raised red flags.  The asset market in question suddenly takes a big dive as default risk increases sharply.  This drags down many large banks, forcing policymakers to provide assistance.

What have I just described?  The sub-prime fiasco or the PIGS sovereign debt fiasco?  I’d say both.  I’d say these two crises are essentially identical.  (I should clarify that by “essentially identical” I mean in essence, not in every detail.)

Of course the sub-prime crisis came first, so let’s consider the dominant (progressive) narrative of the sub-prime crisis.  If you read the mainstream media you will see it described as a sort of morality play; the evils of deregulation, which allowed the greedy big banks to take highly leveraged gambles with other people’s money, and then off-load the risk on to both taxpayers and unsuspecting buyers of MBSs.  Or something like that.

Obviously it would be impossible to tell a similar story for the sovereign debt crisis.  No regulator in his right mind would ever contemplate telling big banks not to buy European sovereign debt because it’s too risky.  Indeed the previous attempt at regulation (Basel II) encouraged banks to put funds into those “safe investments.”  Blaming the euro crisis on deregulation doesn’t even pass the laugh test.  The criminals were the regulators themselves.  Is the term ‘criminal’ hyperbole on my part?  Not at all.  Suppose Enron executives had used the same accounting techniques as the Greek government.  They’d all be in jail.  And as for Berlusconi, what can one say about a leader who continually passes laws exempting the Prime Minister from the very crimes he was accused of having committed?  As Keynes said:

Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking.

So here’s what I wonder.  Assume the eurozone crisis was obviously not caused by deregulation and greedy bankers.  Then if the sub-prime crisis was basically identical, at least in its essence, how can deregulation be the root cause of the former crisis?  I’m not saying it’s logically impossible, but doesn’t it seem much more likely that there’s a deeper systemic problem, which transcends this glib cliche?

To return to Fawson, it’s very unlikely that the solvency problems that are so nearly symmetrical in the two financial situations can be attributed so asymmetrically.

Unless, of course, the morality play is really important to your ulterior motives. Gee … ya’ don’t think.

Hat tip to Café Hayek for publicizing this point.

P.S. Love the Keynes’ quote.

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