Monday, September 20, 2010

Krugman on the causes of the financial crisis.

Paul Krugman and Robin Wells have a good review of the causes of the financial crisis. I am firmly in the group that believes the "global saving glut" played a large role in our financial crisis.

The Global Savings Glut

The term “global savings glut” actually comes from a speech given by Ben Bernanke in early 2005.1 In that speech the future Fed chairman argued that the large US trade deficit—and large deficits in other nations, such as Britain and Spain—didn’t reflect a change in those nations’ behavior as much as a change in the behavior of surplus nations. Historically, developing countries have run trade deficits with advanced countries as they buy machinery and other capital goods in order to raise their level of economic development. In the wake of the financial crisis that struck Asia in 1997–1998, this usual practice was turned on its head: developing economies in Asia and the Middle East ran large trade surpluses with advanced countries in order to accumulate large hoards of foreign assets as insurance against another financial crisis.

Germany also contributed to this global imbalance by running large trade surpluses with the rest of Europe in order to finance reunification and its rapidly aging population. In China, whose trade surplus accounts for most of the US trade deficit, the desire to protect against a possible financial crisis has morphed into a policy in which the currency is kept undervalued, which benefits politically connected export industries, often at the expense of the general working population.

For the trade deficit countries like the United States, Spain, and Britain, the flip side of the trade imbalance is large inflows of capital as countries with surpluses bought vast quantities of American, Spanish, and British bonds and other assets. These capital inflows also drove down interest rates—not the short-term rates set by central bank policy, but longer-term rates, which are the ones that matter for spending and for housing prices and are set by the bond markets. In both the United States and the European nations, long-term interest rates fell dramatically after 2000, and remained low even as the Federal Reserve began raising its short-term policy rate. At the time, Alan Greenspan called this divergence the bond market “conundrum,” but it’s perfectly comprehensible given the international forces at work. And it’s worth noting that while, as we’ve said, the European Central Bank wasn’t nearly as aggressive as the Fed about cutting short-term rates, long-term rates fell as much or more in Spain and Ireland as in the United States—a fact that further undercuts the idea that excessively loose monetary policy caused the housing bubble.

Indeed, in that 2005 speech Bernanke recognized that the impact of the savings glut was falling mainly on housing:

During the past few years, the key asset-price effects of the global saving glut appear to have occurred in the market for residential investment, as low mortgage rates have supported record levels of home construction and strong gains in housing prices.
What he unfortunately failed to realize was that home prices were rising much more than they should have, even given low mortgage rates. In late 2005, just a few months before the US housing bubble began to pop, he declared—implicitly rejecting the arguments of a number of prominent Cassandras2:—that housing prices “largely reflect strong economic fundamentals.”3 And like almost everyone else, Bernanke failed to realize that financial institutions and families alike were taking on risks they didn’t understand, because they took it for granted that housing prices would never fall.

Despite Bernanke’s notable lack of prescience about the coming crisis, however, the global glut story provides one of the best explanations of how so many nations managed to get into such similar trouble.

1 comment:

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