The Myth Of The Laissez-Faire Meltdown

In The Spectator, Fraser Nelson has a searching piece on the myth that laissez-faire conservatives led to the current economic troubles:

So while it’s a statement of the obvious, the obvious can’t be stated enough at a time when we’re fighting (or should be) for the future of capitalism and the open society. The last ten years were not laissez-faire, as even Gordon Brown suggests. The crash was the result of bad regulation, not insufficient regulation. Brown told the Guardian last month that “laissez-faire had its day” and it did – in the 1880s. The problem this time was a blind, almost fundamentalist, faith in rules-based economics – the idea that, if inflation was low, everything else would be fine. And this stems from a blind faith in the power of governments.

He’s right. The crash was caused not be “Wild West capitalism” or anything similar. It was caused by a regulatory climate that encouraged systemic risk. The mortgage meltdown was not the product of evil capitalists meeting in smoky rooms to screw over everyone, it was the product of government meddling in the economy.

Our system of financial regulations has been based on a rules-based approach. Far from being unregulated, the financial markets are covered by a number of regulatory agencies—the Securities and Exchange Commission regulated the trade of stocks and other securities, along with FINRA (formerly the NASD) acting as a quasi-private regulatory body. Banks were governed by a massive amount of regulations by bodies like the Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC) and the U.S. Treasury. Corporate books were governed by the Sarbanes-Oxley bill that was passed in the wake of the Enron and Worldcom scandals. The housing markets were heavily regulated by the Housing and Urban Development department, the Community Reinvestment Act, and the presence of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (who everyone know were “too big to fail” and would be bailed out by the government if things got too bad).

With all that going on, the argument that somehow the financial markets were totally unregulated is hardly justified by the facts. Quite the opposite, the government was doing plenty to tilt the market for various social policy reasons. Since President Carter signed the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977, it’s been government policy to expand home ownership to minorities and low-income people. President Bush’s “ownership society” was hardly a new direction from government policy, but rather a continuation of what came before.

Tilting the Playing Field: Why the Rules-Based Approach Failed

There are two rather huge problem with the rule-based approach: first, it gives incentives for industry to try to tilt the rules to their benefit, and secondly such an approach can’t work fast enough to effectively regulate a modern economy.

On the first point, it’s obvious to all that there was a cozy relationship between the regulators of the financial markets and those people they were supposed to be regulated. Take the example of Sen. Chris Dodd, who while having been supposed to be in charge of regulating the financial industry was getting sweetheart loan deals from Countrywide and raking in tons of cash from AIG. This is, sadly, not a case of one bad apple in a bunch—Rep. Barney Frank was one of the biggest impediments to reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and fixing the problems with the mortgage market.

This cozy relationship meant that efforts at substantive reform like the Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act of 2005 could never get off the ground. The regulators were in the pockets of the regulated agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and no way would they allow the world to inspect their books and see just how deeply in trouble they were.

Even if federal regulators were uniformly brilliant and far-sighted (and some of them are), they’re no more insulated from political pressure than the corrupt politicians. Regulatory capture remains a major and persistent problem. There is enormous political pressure, not only from the financial companies, but from special interest pressure groups like ACORN and the unions to push rules through that try to expand home ownership to those who would be enable to afford it. In the end, it wasn’t just about turning a profit, it was about “helping the poor” by lowering lending standards so that more people could buy homes they couldn’t otherwise afford.

A rules-based approach will always produce these results. Ban the giving of money and the transactions go under the table. There’s no way to prevent this kind of influence-peddling so long as there is influence to be peddled. As long as people like Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, and the rest of our corrupt legislative class can tilt the playing field, entities like AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and others will have every incentive to see that the rules get tilted in their favor. That is human nature, what James Madison called “faction” all the way back in Federalist #10 in 1787.

The other problem with a rules-based approach is that it’s slow. The process of passing a new federal regulatory rule takes at least a year on average. Yet the financial markets move much faster. New financial equations and methods like David X. Li’s Gaussian copula function (which Wiredcalls “the formula that killed Wall Street”) is something that is difficult for anyone, especially federal regulators to understand and predict. Trying to craft a rules-based approach to deal with a modern financial system in the Internet age is ultimately futile: by the time there’s been a rule that’s survived the rule-making process, the system has already changed.

It’s not possible to have a regulatory system that works fast enough to meet the demands of today’s economy. Even if it were, we don’t want to have a system that produces rules without time for interested parties to have some say. Even worse than our deliberative rule-making process is one that pushes through rules without considering the potential ramifications.

Preventing the Next Crisis: Make Regulations Simpler, Fairer, and Automatic

The rules-based approach is not going to work in the 21st Century, at least not in the form that we have it now. There’s too many opportunities for regulatory capture and the system cannot keep pace with the needs of a rapidly-evolving market. We need a better approach to the financial system.

That approach should come in the form of a smarter system of regulations. Gary Becker wisely suggests that regulations be automatic rather than subject to the discretion of regulators—such as capital requirements that keep financial institutions from getting “too big to fail”. This approach would reduce regulatory capture, but it may be difficult for regulators to set the right ratio of assets to capital. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

In addition to that, what we need is a set of financial rules that are dramatically simpler. The more complexity there is in a rule-based system, the easier it is for companies to find loopholes. The large and sophisticated players can find their way around the rules, the smaller and less sophisticated players are easily caught up in a system they can scarcely understand. That tilts the playing field away from smaller competitors and towards the bigger ones. That is not a smart way to run any kind of economic system.

We need to clear away the layers of over-complicated, overlapping, and over-burdensome regulations and replace them with a comprehensive system based on simpler rules that anyone can follow. That will naturally be met with huge cries from both the government agencies and the companies that have captured them, but it’s a necessary step to fixing this mess.

We also have an urgent need to reduce moral hazard. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac knew they could get away with anything because they were “too big to fail” and their close ties with government would mean they would be the recipients of a federal bailout. That means that they could take far more risks than was safe, and once they did it, others started to follow suit. In a functioning free market system, there has to be a system in which smart risks get rewarded and dumb risks get punished—otherwise everyone will start making dumb and risky moves.

Finally, we have to recognize that more government is not the right solution. More bad regulations will only make the system worse. They will continue to create even more problem with regulatory capture and corruption, and it’s quite likely that they will have a host of negative side effects that won’t be foreseeable for quite some time. Too much bad regulation got us into this mess, and trusting the same government actors that created the mess in the first place to get us out is a fool’s errand.

This crisis was not the result of laissez-faire capitalism, it was the result of bad regulation and corrupt government. In order to repair the damage and move ahead we must stop the culture of bailouts and expanding the power of the corrupt technocrats and move to a system that is fairer, less needlessly complicated, and less prone to regulatory capture. That will not make people like Chris Dodd and Barney Frank happy, nor will it be very welcome within the industries that have grown accustomed to buying favor with the government. But for the future of the American economy, it is the right thing to do.