I never thought I would see the Wall Street that pitched privatization as the solution to most of the emerging world’s problems in the 1990s enthusiastically welcome (partial) state ownership through sovereign wealth funds. That though may have reflected my own naivete. Fees talk; many large fund managers have been close to the big sovereign funds for some time.
I never thought David Brooks would channel Dani Rodrik and warn of the danger of too much capital sloshing around – and imply that financial liberalization had gone too far. That concern presumably extends to too much Chinese central bank money sloshing around; China after all was the ultimate source of a lot of the money sloshing through the US housing market.
But you really know there is a true crisis when parts of the Street are arguing in favor of the (temporary) nationalization of the financial sector.
Who knows, if this continues the Street may soon be arguing for taxing carried interest as income and suggesting that the US might be able to reduce the cost of health care by looking closely at the French model …
So, in Ms McArdle's world, we have two options: 1) more government; and 2) a lot more government.
And some people wonder why the libertarian establishment hasn't had any success in reducing the size of government.
If he were to rise from the dead today, Marx might be delighted to discover that most economists and financial commentators, including many who claim to favour the free market, agree with him.
Indeed, analysts at the Heritage and Cato Institute, and commentators in The Wall Street Journal and on this very page, have made declarations in favour of the massive “injection of liquidities” engineered by central banks in recent months, the government takeover of giant financial institutions, as well as the still stalled US$700-billion bailout package.Some of the same voices were calling for similar interventions following the burst of the dot-com bubble in 2001.
“Whatever happened to the modern followers of my free-market opponents?” Marx would likely wonder.
At first glance, anyone who understands economics can see that there is something wrong with this picture. The taxes that will need to be levied to finance this package may keep some firms alive, but they will siphon off capital, kill jobs and make businesses less productive elsewhere. Increasing the money supply is no different. It is an invisible tax that redistributes resources to debtors and those who made unwise investments.
The obvious alternative to a bailout is letting troubled financial institutions declare bankruptcy. Bankruptcy means that shareholders typically get wiped out and the creditors own the company.
Bankruptcy does not mean the company disappears; it is just owned by someone new (as has occurred with several airlines). Bankruptcy punishes those who took excessive risks while preserving those aspects of a businesses that remain profitable.
In contrast, a bailout transfers enormous wealth from taxpayers to those who knowingly engaged in risky subprime lending. Thus, the bailout encourages companies to take large, imprudent risks and count on getting bailed out by government. This "moral hazard" generates enormous distortions in an economy's allocation of its financial resources.
Thoughtful advocates of the bailout might concede this perspective, but they argue that a bailout is necessary to prevent economic collapse. According to this view, lenders are not making loans, even for worthy projects, because they cannot get capital. This view has a grain of truth; if the bailout does not occur, more bankruptcies are possible and credit conditions may worsen for a time.
Talk of Armageddon, however, is ridiculous scare-mongering. If financial institutions cannot make productive loans, a profit opportunity exists for someone else. This might not happen instantly, but it will happen.
Further, the current credit freeze is likely due to Wall Street's hope of a bailout; bankers will not sell their lousy assets for 20 cents on the dollar if the government might pay 30, 50, or 80 cents.
Yet we, believers in free markets, allow the price of capital, i.e., the interest rate on loanable funds, to be fixed by a central committee in accordance with government objectives. We might as well resurrect Gosplan, the old Soviet State Planning Committee, and ask them to draw up the next five-year plan. . . .
Let's do exactly that. It is time to take on the task of establishing a new foundation for international economic relations and financial relations — one dedicated to open markets and based on monetary integrity. Every country is responsible for anchoring its own currency to the universal reserve asset, and every citizen has the right to convert the national currency into the universal reserve asset.
That's how a gold standard works. A bimetallic system, linked to silver and gold, works the same way. In either case the money is fixed to a common anchor — and thus automatically functions as a common currency to serve the needs of legitimate producers and consumers throughout the world.
How would such an approach cure financial market ills? Nothing can rescue humans from occasionally making bad choices or succumbing to herding instincts. But on the same principle as democracy and free elections, embedded in the aggregate judgment of individuals over time is a wisdom that outperforms the most ostensibly savvy administrator. Sound money would go a long way toward eliminating the distortions that pervert financial decisions and credit allocations. Price signals do matter; if they don't, then free markets don't matter, and capitalism doesn't work. In which case, let government dictate demand and regulate supply.