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25 March 2008

When it pays to be crazy

In the irrational, out-of-control world of the financial markets, acting rationally loses money rath

By Martin O'Neill

As recent events indicate, financial markets seem incapable of self-regulation, and instead swing headily from irrational excesses to violent crashes. But it’s unlikely that governments could do a much better job of avoiding financial crises, as the job of creating wise and effective regulation may just be too difficult to perform. Nevertheless, when banks crash, it is the public purse that has to bail them out. The solution to this problem? Governments need to make sure that, during times of plenty, they make enough out of the financial sector to prepare for the bad times – for, as we’ve seen, days of plenty are always numbered.

The events of the past two weeks are instructive. Bear Stearns was a venerable Wall Street bank that kept on trading all the way through the Great Depression. In 2007, it was voted Fortune magazine’s “Most Admired” securities firm. Now, after the self-destructive excesses of the sub-prime mortgage bubble that has burst, it lies in ruins: sold over to JPMorgan Chase, via a government bail-out, at a mere $10 per share – a pale comparison to its market capitalization at $170 per share as recently as January 2007. The bigger problem is that no-one knows which venerable old institution will be next to implode.

The US Federal Reserve has had to stump up a massive $30 billion in order to smooth the sale of Bear Stearns, and who knows what kinds of additional largesse will be demanded of the world’s treasuries and central banks before the losses can be stemmed (if they can be). The financial system relies on trust; and once it is lost, trust – like innocence – is difficult to regain. Things could get much, much messier before they start to get better.

The origins of the current crisis lie in the short-sightedness, greed and poor regulation of the world’s markets in securitized credit instruments – the ever more exotic march of acronyms of CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), MBS’s (mortgage backed securities) and the like.

The world’s commercial banks have spent five years borrowing cheap money, lending it to (often poor) people for near-to-zero margins, and then marking their books with a repayment probability of 100 percent. Credit spreads narrowed to absurd levels, long term rates fell below short term rates (you actually got lower interest rates if you locked your cash up for longer) and the weakest, most brittle CDOs and MBSs could get an AAA rating from supine, eager-to-please rating agencies.

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It was the fantasy world of “mark to market” accounting practices that destroyed Enron, and in consequence their file-shredding accountants Arthur Andersen, when the last bubble burst, but memories seem to be short when there’s money to be made.

It was obvious that the liquidity bubble was going to burst sooner or later. So, one might ask, why didn’t the grotesquely well-paid analysts at Bear Stearns and elsewhere urge caution instead of the full-steam-ahead lemming sprint to the cliff’s edge? The answer is a disturbing one – in an irrational market, rational behaviour loses money rather than making it. The first bank to have pulled in the reins in the credit markets would have lost out as everyone else made a quick killing from the irrationally-rising market.

When a price bubble is inflating, there is massive money to be made from buying high, but selling higher. There is a classic co-ordination problem here. It is rational to act ‘irrationally’ as long as the crazy folk around you keep driving the market up; it becomes rational to act ‘rationally’ only when your rationality is contagious, or when everyone can see that the cliff edge is now in sight.

Anyone who thinks that financial markets can be successfully self-regulating hasn’t understood the way that acting crazy can be the way to make massive profits, as long as you’re not the only crazy one. Added to this, of course, is the problem of the time horizons of the people who actually work for investment banks. They’re so well paid that they don’t need to care about their position in 7 or 10 years’ time. If this year’s bonus can buy a townhouse, then there’s no need to sacrifice current margins to vague concerns for future stability.

The truth is that the players in the world’s financial markets find themselves in a classic Prisoners’ Dilemma. It’s rational for any fund manager to join in with the latest unsustainable get-rich-quick scheme, because he’ll make more money than if he shows restraint. But if everyone joins in, then you create an unsustainable bubble, and everyone loses out in the end. It’s collectively rational for the financial market to show restraint, but individually rational for each of the players in that market to (within limits) throw caution to the wind (especially while everyone else is doing so and the bubble is inflating). But there’s just no way of getting from individual commercial decisions to the collectively rational and restrained equilibrium.

So, the financial markets are structurally incapable of self-regulation. The obvious alternative is state regulation. But there are two massive problems here. The first problem is one of technical know-how. The world’s investment banks spend billions on wages to get highly technically gifted people to devise ever more complex financial instruments and strategies. Crashes and bubbles can happen in unpredictable ways, and it would take even greater resources and expertise to design the surgical regulation needed to head-off every possible disaster. States lack the capacity to stay one step ahead of these out-of-control financial behemoths.

The other problem, of course, is that states face a Prisoner’s Dilemma of their own. Tighter regulation or higher taxes in London drives the banks to Geneva, and it’s better for the state to get inadequate scraps than nothing at all. It would be collectively rational for states to co-ordinate their tax and regulatory activities but, yet again, individually rational for each individual state to defect and undercut the competition.

Both these problems have solutions, though. If ‘surgical’ regulation is too difficult, then perhaps governments need to treat the periodic expansions and contractions of the financial sector as an unavoidable evil, and simply make sure that they extract enough in the way of taxes when times are good. (Although there’s no doubt that some forms of regulation that would have headed-off the current crisis are shockingly simple – for example, imposing a maximum income-multiple on new mortgages, with tighter standards for income certification.)

Moreover, governments are much better situated for co-operation than are private players in the financial system. If tax flight is a problem, then governments need to get their heads together, and do more to impose uniform tax treatments of financial institutions and their employees. Co-operation at the European level is especially urgent, and realizable. Some of these forms of co-operation could be politically popular throughout the continent. The EU would be much more popular if it was seen taking a stand against the cynical and leaching Swiss treatment of hedge funds, or Monaco’s scandalous position on tax exiles. It’s high time that the hard working people of the continent stopped being exploited by tax havens.

At the moment, we have a horrible imbalance of power. When things are going well, the bankers take the spoils. When they fail, the state – and its taxpayers – pick up the tab. If we can’t control the irrational oscillations of world finance, we should at least make sure that its benefits are distributed more justly.

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