Sunday, October 12, 2008

Whose Fault was It?

Whose Fault was It?
October 8, 2008
Alvaro Vargas Llosa

WASHINGTON—As was the case with the 1929 crash that ushered in the Great Depression, the current financial meltdown is giving rise to myths that will influence public policy for decades to come. It is imperative that those myths be debunked before the next U.S. administration starts to make important decisions, followed by many other countries. By far the most dangerous myth is that deregulation is the root cause of the problem.

Yes, Wall Street firms were greedy, irresponsible and, in many cases, downright stupid. But those are fairly constant features in any society and there is no reason to believe that investment bankers were any more greedy, irresponsible and stupid in 2007 and 2008 than, say, five or 10 years earlier.

As many authoritative economists are desperately trying to explain amid all the confusion, the culprit was a system geared toward loaning money to people who were not in a position to pay it back. Two policies underpinned that system: easy money by the Federal Reserve and the government-induced lowering of standards for approving loan requests.

Lorenzo Bernaldo de Quiros, a leading European economist, is adamant that the crisis could have been avoided but for “the lax monetary strategy put in place by the Federal Reserve between 2001 and 2004. ... That is what caused the exuberant and unreal rise in the value of stock market and real assets, the excessive leverage on the part of families and companies, and the inevitable collapse of the house of cards once inflationary pressures forced the central bank to tighten its policy.”

The Fed’s policy would explain why asset values rose unrealistically, but not necessarily why they did so predominantly in the housing market. And here is where the second set of policies underpinning the system comes into play.

In a recent paper for the Independent Institute, University of Texas professor Stan Liebowitz argues that “in an attempt to increase homeownership...virtually every branch of the government undertook an attack on underwriting standards starting in the early 1990s.”

The government-promoted increase in homeownership dramatically increased the price of housing. As many as one in four buyers purchased property with purely speculative intentions. When prices stopped rising, the speculators tried to get out of the market. The rest is history. Read the rest...

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