If This Meltdown Were a Movie

Tue, 18 Mar 2008 15:39:20 +0000

Ben Bernanke would be played by Harvey Keitel, reprising his role as Winston Wolf if we're lucky or Victor the Cleaner if we're not.

The responsibility for this financial meltdown does not rest with him. It was his predecessor, Alan Greenspan, whose stewardship of monetary policy set the stage for the debt-laced consumption rampage of the American consumer and the leverage-soaked financial carnival of mortgage lenders and investment bankers. (If you're keeping score at home, Greenspan still doesn't get it.) Based on his performance so far, I'm nominating Ben Bernanke to the All-Madden team of central bankers.

Bernanke has two broad categories of options:

1) Damned if He Doesn't

Bear Stearns just collapsed--it cannot pay its creditors. What was a liability to Bear Stearns was an asset to some other investor. That asset now has no value. If the other investor was also a financial institution, then it has fewer assets relative to its liabilities and is now less solvent. It may not be able to pay all of its creditors. And so on, all through the leveraged financial sector.

The Fed can act to prevent or mitigate this cascade. Looking at the prospect of contagion, the Fed has acted on two fronts. It has lowered short-term interest rates to prop of asset values across the economy. As discounting for risk has increased, discounting for time has decreased. The Fed has also intervened in specific episodes, directly backstopping private actors like JP Morgan who have stepped in to assume the liabilities of the likes of Bear Stearns.

Bernanke can't sit idly while large financial institutions crumble. There is a perception, if not the reality, of too much collateral damage in the process.

2) Damned if He Does

The Fed is supposed to be the economy's lender of last resort. If a solvent but illiquid bank needs short-term cash and cannot find it on the private market, the Fed should make credit available. Without this backstop, financial institutions would be less willing to take leveraged positions in support of beneficial economic activity.

But sometimes financial institutions take these leveraged positions in support of exceedingly risky activities. This is particularly true when they hold a put option to sell the activity to someone else if its value falls. Any intervention by the Fed extends that put option to would-be speculators, if not today, then certainly in the future.

You can call this Samwick's Law if you like:

If an institution is deemed too big to fail, then it is only a matter of time before it finds a way to get big and fail.

When you provide insurance against outcomes that a financial institution cannot control, you distort incentives on the activities it can control. Specifically, they take on more risk. To address the immediate problem, Bernanke invites the next one. Snotty bloggers two or five or ten years from now may be hanging the next crisis--runaway inflation, a persistent liquidity trap, even more spectacular bubbles in financial markets--around Ben's neck.

The task of finding the least worst way to do the wrong thing is a thankless one, but Bernanke is persevering admirably. Let's see what he does at 2:15 today.

Cross-posted at Vox Baby.