“FAULT LINES”: WORLD ECONOMY BOOK BY RAGHURAM RAJAN

June 18, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Books, Economics, Eurozone, Financial, Globalization, History, Research, USA, World-system | Leave a comment

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Fault Lines:

How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World

Economy

Raghuram G. Rajan

Cloth  2010  272 pp.

e-Book  2010  ISBN: 978-1-4008-3421-1

Raghuram Rajan was one of the few economists who warned of the global financial crisis before it hit. Now, as the world struggles to recover, it’s tempting to blame what happened on just a few greedy bankers who took irrational risks and left the rest of us to foot the bill. In Fault Lines, Rajan argues that serious flaws in the economy are also to blame, and warns that a potentially more devastating crisis awaits us if they aren’t fixed.

Rajan shows how the individual choices that collectively brought about the economic meltdown–made by bankers, government officials, and ordinary homeowners–were rational responses to a flawed global financial order in which the incentives to take on risk are incredibly out of step with the dangers those risks pose. He traces the deepening fault lines in a world overly dependent on the indebted American consumer to power global economic growth and stave off global downturns. He exposes a system where America’s growing inequality and thin social safety net create tremendous political pressure to encourage easy credit and keep job creation robust, no matter what the consequences to the economy’s long-term health; and where the U.S. financial sector, with its skewed incentives, is the critical but unstable link between an overstimulated America and an underconsuming world.

In Fault Lines, Rajan demonstrates how unequal access to education and health care in the United States puts us all in deeper financial peril, even as the economic choices of countries like Germany, Japan, and China place an undue burden on America to get its policies right. He outlines the hard choices we need to make to ensure a more stable world economy and restore lasting prosperity.

Raghuram G. Rajan is the Eric J. Gleacher Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. He is the coauthor of Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists: Unleashing the Power of Financial Markets to Create Wealth and Spread Opportunity (Princeton).

Reviews:

“In a new book . . . entitled Fault Lines, Rajan argues that the initial causes of the breakdown were stagnant wages and rising inequality. With the purchasing power of many middle-class households lagging behind the cost of living, there was an urgent demand for credit. The financial industry, with encouragement from the government, responded by supplying home-equity loans, subprime mortgages, and auto loans. . . . The side effects of unrestrained credit growth turned out to be devastating–a possibility most economists had failed to consider.”–John Cassidy, New Yorker

“The left has figured out who to blame for the financial crisis: Greedy Wall Street bankers, especially at Goldman Sachs. The right has figured it out, too: It was government’s fault, especially Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Raghuram Rajan of the University of Chicago‘s Booth School of Business says it’s more complicated: Fault lines along the tectonic plates of the global economy pushed big government and big finance to a financial earthquake. To him, this was a Greek tragedy in which traders and bankers, congressmen and subprime borrowers all played their parts until the drama reached the inevitably painful end. (Mr. Rajan plays Cassandra, of course.) But just when you’re about to cast him as a University of Chicago free-market stereotype, he surprises by identifying the widening gap between rich and poor as a big cause of the calamity.”–David Wessel, Wall Street Journal

“I devoured Raghuram Rajan’s Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy in a very short span of time last night. It’s brief, well-written, and extremely interesting. I would definitely recommend adding it to your financial crisis reading list.”–Matthew Yglesias, Yglesias blog

The epilogue of the book summarizes the book best – “The crisis has resulted from a confusion about the appropriate roles of the government and the market. We need to find the right balance again, and I am hopeful we will.” The book presents two important government distortions – the push for universal home ownership in the United States and the push for export-led growth in some countries such as Germany and China that have left to massive “global imbalances”, with some countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Spain persistently being in deficits and borrowing from the surplus, exporting nations. While pursuit for home ownership affordability and growth are nothing to complain about per se, the book makes sharp observations that they are occurring at the expense of something more, or as, important. In the United States, the book argues, there has been a growing income inequality, which combined with a relatively feeble safety net for the poor, has created pressure on politicians to bridge the inequality. Instead of improving the competitiveness of labor force in a global market with changing mix of industries and required skills, governments have adopted the option “let them eat credit” (Chapter One’s title). The presence of government-sponsored agencies in the United States enabled exercising such an option readily through a push for priority lending to the low-income households (sub-prime mortgages). In case of surplus countries, the single-minded focus on exports has led governments to ignore the domestic sector, preventing sufficient redeployment of surplus for internal development and somewhat perversely, boosted domestic savings rates significantly due to lack of adequate safety nets (at least in case of China, if not in case of Germany). The savings have thus had no place to go but to outside and ended up resulting in massive capital inflows that fueled the housing sector expansion in the US, the UK and Spain.

While these government “failures” are themselves pretty interesting to have observed and highlighted, what is fascinating is how they interacted with each other – and with the financial sector – in fueling the expansion to levels that can be called massive housing bubbles. The idea here is that the invisible hand operating through the price when the price is distorted can lead to massive distortions in allocation of capital also. The financial sector in developed world is so sophisticated and amoral (a great choice of word by the author) that its dispassionate pursuit of profits leads it to direct capital to wherever there is a relative mis-pricing. So if governments are subsidizing home ownership, efforts will be made to deploy pretty much all available free capital of the world to that sector. If some governments are finding it cheap to borrow because savings are seeking them out, the financial sector will grow at a sufficient rate to absorb and support expansion through the capital inflows. While clearly there are some incentive-based distortions, especially short-term nature of accounting-based compensation that ignores true long-term risks, the book takes the stand, and explains it well, that the bigger issue was that the imbalance of capital flows and the ease of pushing sub-prime home ownership – both due to government distortions – meant the financial sector was essentially the conduit to make happen what the rest of the world was seeking to achieve. In the process, it made a ton of bad loans (but the governments were happy with that till it all really blew up). And some parts of the financial sector pursued this role even more aggressively than one could have imagined due to the steady entrenchment of too-big-to-fail expectations — large banks being repeatedly bailed out through government and regulatory forbearance and enjoying Central-Bank monetary stimulus each time markets turned south. In essence, one walks away with an explanation of what brought about the perfect storm.

Some may question the basis of this argument by saying – why did we see credit expansion across board and not just in low-income households. There are two important points the book makes. One, that once risk is mispriced for one investment (by governments for sub-prime lending), financial sector must demand similar return elsewhere. That is, there will be mispricing of risk across board. Second, the book focuses on a rather fascinating recent phenomenon that recent recoveries from recessions, especially in the United States, have remained “jobless” for extended periods of time. Perhaps as a subconscious response to this (or due to ideologies in other cases), Central Banks have tended to provide massive monetary stimulus to get the financial sector to push the real sector hard through greater lending and intermediation. Such stimulus, unfortunately, again serves to transfer rents from households to the financial sector (by keeping interest rates low) and produces mispriced risk and the economy moved “From Bubble to Bubble” (Chapter Five title), until the most recent bubble could not be mopped up by anyone, in spite of the efforts to do so.

Those who have read Raghu Rajan’s earlier book and research would recognize that his writings are always cogent and based in sound set of facts. But this book is more special in the sense that here he paints on a much larger canvas, covering bases from distributional issues within income strata of society, to the persistent capital imbalances across large countries of the world, and the power and ruthless profit-maximizing incentives of modern market-based financial sector. The point of Fault Lines is that these are slow-moving tectonic plates, neither movement might seem dangerous by itself, but that when these plates come together and collide, global economy can get badly shaken. To most minds that are focused narrowly on their own positions, let alone the movements of the plate they stand on, the earthquake – like this crisis – may seem sudden. The beauty of the book is in explaining that when viewed carefully, the crisis was not a pure accident and that more may arise in future unless the root causes are addressed sufficiently soon.

While the book is worth it even just for its explanation of why we had a crisis now rather than at some other points of time in the past, it goes the extra mile and proposes valuable reforms – once again focusing on all three issues – building a better safety net in the United States (see in particular, the suggestions to improve education access to all), reducing the global imbalances, and improving the regulation of the financial sector so that they (and their financiers) pay for mopping up of “bubbles” that they create, rather than governments and Central Banks passing on these costs to taxpayers.

As you can tell from this review, there is a lot going on here. But it is written with great examples and cases – almost allegorical at times (even has a fascinating poetry recounted in the chapter “The Fable of the Bees Replayed” ), and should be accessible to one and all. Not all may find it easy to agree with every single point (as it will certainly question some long-held biases about different countries and societies), but it is hard to not take a deep breath and ponder once you have read it all. In many ways, it shows that when economic conditions so demand or induce, developed world behaves much the same way as developing world: they are both after all driven by choices of human beings and the book lays out some common patterns of global economic behavior – in households, markets and governments.

Viral Acharya, Professor of Finance, New York University Stern School of Business

Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1
CHAPTER ONE: Let Them Eat Credit 21
CHAPTER TWO: Exporting to Grow 46
CHAPTER THREE: Flighty Foreign Financing 68
CHAPTER FOUR: A Weak Safety Net 83
CHAPTER FIVE: From Bubble to Bubble 101
CHAPTER SIX: When Money Is the Measure of All Worth 120
CHAPTER SEVEN: Betting the Bank 134
CHAPTER EIGHT: Reforming Finance 154
CHAPTER NINE: Improving Access to Opportunity in America 183
CHAPTER TEN: The Fable of the Bees Replayed 202
Epilogue 225
Notes 231

Chapter 7 is quite interesting. He opens the chapter, pp 124-125, with a simple explanation of the reasons for the collapse of the derivatives.

To paraphrase:

Consider a company which buys a pool of ten mortgages, all most likely subprime. Now the chance of any one going under is 10%. That means on average only one of the 10 will not pay back. This does beg the question of what factual basis was used to determine this but alas that was left to Wall Street and the rating agencies. Now we create two tranches, bundles, one which get a great interest rate but bears the losses, and second which gets a lower but still good interest rate and has its losses hedged by the first tranche. This works well except that the model is wrong!

What really happens is a Markov chain where when the first guy goes bankrupt, then the probability of another going is not the same but higher, and when a second goes bust it goes even higher. This means that instead of the first tranche bearing all the risk, the risk is moved to the second tranche which never thought it would have any! And then an AIG insures the second, and we know that there is a high probability of at least a 50% loss, a number AIG would never have imagined. Dumb quants! Yes, and on pp 142-143 Rajan details the Trillin conjecture that the changes in Wall Street over the past 30 years resulted in the dumbest guys moving upward relative to the Merlin’s mixing their brews in the quant rooms. Rajan rejects that conjecture somewhat but there is considerable truth in it…just look at some of the folks who left and ended up in Government.

Chapter 8 discussing the reforming of the financial world. On p 164 he details a suggestion which should be adopted, the altering of compensation to reflect the risk over time. In Chapter 9 he returns to how to improve things in the US and on p 189 he speaks of the major problem in secondary education, the lack of competent instructors. To teach in a public school you need an education degree. Even if you had a PhD, held faculty position in a half a dozen universities and taught for over twenty years you still needed to learn how to operate an overhead projector and prepare a lesson plan. Thus the lack of educational advantage he posits in Chapter 1 is in many ways a result of the teachers unions barriers to entry of competent folks. Yet he never takes that leap. On pp 192-193 he posits the expansions of unemployment and benefits.

Product Details:

· Hardcover: 272 pages

· Publisher: Princeton University Press

· May 24 2010

· Language: English

· ISBN-10: 0691146837
· ISBN-13: 978-0691146836

Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy

Raghuram G. Rajan

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