2012-10-30 00:00:00

6 Top Economists Explain Which President Is More Likely to Speed the Next Financial Crisis

Five years after the horrific financial collapse of 2007-2008, the economy remains fragile. No one is quite sure when another financial crash might happen. Five years? Ten years? There’s widespread worry, however, that whenever it comes it's likely to make 2007-2008 look like a picnic in comparison. A short list of some of our most urgent vulnerabilities shows that we could easily be plunged into hell once again unless politicians act responsibly and forcefully to avoid it:

  • The financial sector remains bloated; price-fixing, money-laundering and monster trading losses illustrate continuing abuse and risky behavior in the banking industry.
  • Too-big-to-fail banks are bigger and more dangerous than ever. Deposits are much more concentrated in the largest banks now than they were before the crisis.
  • Politicians are embracing government austerity policies —commonly known as “belt-tightening” – that weaken the economy. That must inevitiably push down the value of many assets that banks continue holding on their books, even though they are assuredly selling off many mortgage-backed securities to the Federal Reserve, Fannie and Freddie.
  • The housing market remains troubled and recovery efforts have often protected banks at the expense of strapped homeowners.
  • Student debt is growing, now exceeding credit card debt, though a good chunk of these debts are owed to various federal government agencies.
  • The unchecked flow of money into the political system means that the players in the financial sector are bribing the overseers of the regulators: Congress. And with bank compensation continuing to soar, regulators and congressional staff still know they can walk out the door to much higher salaries if banks perceive them as friendly.
  • Unemployment remains high, and widespread chronic job insecurity imposes tremendous social and economic costs.

The two politicians seeking the White House have different views of how to handle these challenges. Which of their approaches is more likely to help us avoid the next financial crisis, and which would likely hasten it? I asked several prominent economists to weigh in.

1. Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics, and author, most recently, of The Price of Inequality:

“Austerity policies will make the economy more fragile, and because the banking system is not fully fixed, that could put the financial sector at risk. It’s absolutely clear that Romney and Ryan are much more wedded to austerity policies than Obama. Obama is more interested in a jobs program and providing stimulus to the economy.

"On financial sector reform, I think Romney has been totally disingenuous. In the first presidential debate, he criticized Dodd-Frank for worsening the problem with too-big-to-fail. If he were serious, he would have said something about breaking them up. But given where his support was coming from, he was not willing to tell us what he thinks. He was trying blame to Dodd-Frank for not breaking up banks, but what Dodd-Frank said is that if you don’t break up the banks, then we will put in place a framework in which shareholders and bondholders will bear the costs of failure. The intent of Dodd-Frank, and the belief of the Obama administration, is that they have put in place safeguards so that taxpayers will be protected: a living will, resolution authority, etc. That doesn’t prevent too-big-to-fail, and the criticism that I and many others have is that in crisis, we will blink and let the banks do what they want. But Romney’s criticism was totally wrong.”

2. William Lazonick, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and director of the Center for Industrial Competitiveness:

“Financial crises occur when the value-extracting activities of financial interests dominate the value-creating activities of productive interests. During his first term, we cannot exactly credit President Obama with waging war against the value-extractors on Wall Street and corporate boards. But at least, unlike Romney, he is not running on a platform that claims that financial manipulation, driven by individual greed, will restore prosperity to the American economy.

"If we learned anything from eight years of George W. Bush, a Romney administration is the nation's best chance of, once and for all, destroying the American dream.”

3. Gar Alperovitz, Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative:

“Romney clearly would be more likely to hasten the next financial crisis, first by the kind of (radically reduced) regulatory enforcement (and deregulation) he has promised; second, by undoing the modest Dodd-Frank legislation; third by appointing an Attorney General and Treasury Secretary almost certain to give the store away to Wall Street as a matter both of ideology and inclination.”

4. Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC:

“I would say that the prospects look better with Obama, but not by much. If you go by what he says (who knows what he would do), Romney doesn't take any restraints on the banking system seriously. He has spoken with explicit contempt of Dodd-Frank, not attacking specific provisions, but has implied that the idea that the government had to rein in the financial sector was fundamentally wrong-headed.

"On the other hand, Obama has repeatedly backed away from any policy that would seriously hurt the financial industry. The top two on my list would be breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks and a financial transactions tax. More importantly he has been reluctant to talk honestly about the basis for the crisis, an out-of-control housing bubble that the regulators were too incompetent to recognize. In fact, he hired back many of these top incompetents and gave them key positions in his administration (Bernanke tops the list).

"Failing to recognize an $8 trillion housing bubble and to understand that its collapse would cause serious damage to the economy is an error of monumental proportions. It is like a school bus driver coming to work drunk and getting all the kids killed by driving into oncoming traffic. Obama's decision to give all the drunken bus drivers an amnesty virtually ensures that they will continue to drink on the job and that they will be no better in preventing the next bubble than they were in preventing the last one."

5. James K. Galbraith, Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government/Business at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas:

"This election is important for many  issues; avoiding a future financial crisis isn't one of them because it's not an issue that differentiates the candidates so far as I can tell, except maybe the effect of the fiscal stance.

"On that, I might give a slight edge to Mr. Romney, since Republicans in power famously do not care about budget deficits. Under the Democrats, the coming campaign for 'fiscal responsibility' might just be bad enough to push the financial sector back over the edge. Still, that's not a reason to vote for Romney."

6. Thomas Ferguson, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and author of The Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems:

“New York bank stocks swerve with every twist in the European crisis that raises the probability of a 'Lehman in reverse' – a bank failure over there that would spread over here. That tells you all you need to know about whether President Obama’s Dodd-Frank 'reform' bill really fixed the problem of our too-big-to-fail banks or not, even if our giants can still borrow more cheaply than smaller banks because of the implied government guarantee. 

"As for Romney, the latest musings about banking regulation on his Etch-A-Sketch pad are not quite as crazy as his earlier talk about just repealing Dodd-Frank. But it’s still a good bet that he would water down into nothingness even the flimsy safeguards built into that wretched legislation. So I guess I’d say that under either man a future banking crisis is a serious risk, but that under Romney the likelihood is even higher."

Tue, 10/30/2012 (All day)

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