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Notes to myself, possibly of interest to others.
-- Bill Northlich

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The markets have ruled for a third of a century, but it has all ended in tears.

Any great failure should force us to rethink. The present economic crisis is a great failure of the market system. As George Soros has rightly pointed out, "the salient feature of the current financial crisis is that it was not caused by some external shock like Opec… the crisis was generated by the system itself." It originated in the US, the heart of the world's financial system and the source of much of its financial innovation. That is why the crisis is global...

There were three kinds of failure. The first... was institutional: banks mutated from utilities into casinos. However, they did so because they, their regulators and the policymakers sitting on top of the regulators all succumbed to something called the "efficient market hypothesis": the view that financial markets could not consistently mis-price assets and therefore needed little regulation. So the second failure was intellectual. The most astonishing admission was that of former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan in autumn 2008 that the Fed's regime of monetary management had been based on a "flaw." The "whole intellectual edifice," he said, "collapsed in the summer of last year." Behind the efficient market idea lay the intellectual failure of mainstream economics. It could neither predict nor explain the meltdown because nearly all economists believed that markets were self-correcting. As a consequence, economics itself was marginalised.

But the crisis also represents a moral failure: that of a system built on debt. At the heart of the moral failure is the worship of growth for its own sake, rather than as a way to achieve the "good life." As a result, economic efficiency—the means to growth—has been given absolute priority in our thinking and policy. The only moral compass we now have is the thin and degraded notion of economic welfare. This moral lacuna explains uncritical acceptance of globalisation and financial innovation. Leverage is a duty because it "levers" faster growth. The theological language which would have recognised the collapse of the credit bubble as the "wages of sin," the come-uppance for prodigious profligacy, has become unusable. But the come-uppance has come, nevertheless...

The enquiry must start with economics. If the case for the deregulated market system is intellectually sound, it will be very hard to change. Free- marketeers claim, contrary to Soros, that the crisis is the fault of governments. US money was kept too cheap for too long after the technology bubble burst in 2000 and the attacks of 11th September 2001. The market was temporarily fooled by the government. This is a shaky defence, to say the least: if the market is so easily fooled, it cannot be very efficient.

---Robert Skidelsky, New Prospect, issue of 1/09

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