Mexico. Brazil. Argentina. Mexico, again. Thailand. Indonesia. Argentina, again.
The story has played itself out time and time again over the past 30 years. Global investors, disappointed with the returns they’re getting, search for alternatives. They think they’ve found what they’re looking for in some country or other, and money rushes in.
But eventually it becomes clear that the investment opportunity wasn’t all it seemed to be, and the money rushes out again, with nasty consequences for the former financial favorite. That’s the story of multiple financial crises in Latin America and Asia. And it’s also the story of the U.S. combined housing and credit bubble. These days, we’re playing the role usually assigned to third-world economies.
For reasons I’ll explain later, it’s unlikely that America will experience a recession as severe as that in, say, Argentina. But the origins of our problem are pretty much the same. And understanding those origins also helps us understand where U.S. economic policy went wrong.
The global origins of our current mess were actually laid out by none other than Ben Bernanke, in an influential speech he gave early in 2005, before he was named chairman of the Federal Reserve. Mr. Bernanke asked a good question: “Why is the United States, with the world’s largest economy, borrowing heavily on international capital markets — rather than lending, as would seem more natural?”
His answer was that the main explanation lay not here in America, but abroad. In particular, third world economies, which had been investor favorites for much of the 1990s, were shaken by a series of financial crises beginning in 1997. As a result, they abruptly switched from being destinations for capital to sources of capital, as their governments began accumulating huge precautionary hoards of overseas assets.
The result, said Mr. Bernanke, was a “global saving glut”: lots of money, all dressed up with nowhere to go.
In the end, most of that money went to the United States. Why? Because, said Mr. Bernanke, of the “depth and sophistication of the country’s financial markets.”
All of this was right, except for one thing: U.S. financial markets, it turns out, were characterized less by sophistication than by sophistry, which my dictionary defines as “a deliberately invalid argument displaying ingenuity in reasoning in the hope of deceiving someone.” E.g., “Repackaging dubious loans into collateralized debt obligations creates a lot of perfectly safe, AAA assets that will never go bad.”
In other words, the United States was not, in fact, uniquely well-suited to make use of the world’s surplus funds. It was, instead, a place where large sums could be and were invested very badly. Directly or indirectly, capital flowing into America from global investors ended up financing a housing-and-credit bubble that has now burst, with painful consequences.
As I said, these consequences probably won’t be as bad as the devastating recessions that racked third-world victims of the same syndrome. The saving grace of America’s situation is that our foreign debts are in our own currency. This means that we won’t have the kind of financial death spiral Argentina experienced, in which a falling peso caused the country’s debts, which were in dollars, to balloon in value relative to domestic assets.
But even without those currency effects, the next year or two could be quite unpleasant.
What should have been done differently? Some critics say that the Fed helped inflate the housing bubble with low interest rates. But those rates were low for a good reason: although the last recession officially ended in November 2001, it was another two years before the U.S. economy began delivering convincing job growth, and the Fed was rightly concerned about the possibility of Japanese-style prolonged economic stagnation.
The real sin, both of the Fed and of the Bush administration, was the failure to exercise adult supervision over markets running wild.
It wasn’t just Alan Greenspan’s unwillingness to admit that there was anything more than a bit of “froth” in housing markets, or his refusal to do anything about subprime abuses. The fact is that as America’s financial system has grown ever more complex, it has also outgrown the framework of banking regulations that used to protect us — yet instead of an attempt to update that framework, all we got were paeans to the wonders of free markets.
Right now, Mr. Bernanke is in crisis-management mode, trying to deal with the mess his predecessor left behind. I don’t have any problems with his testimony yesterday, although I suspect that it’s already too late to prevent a recession.
But let’s hope that when the dust settles a bit, Mr. Bernanke takes the lead in talking about what needs to be done to fix a financial system gone very, very wrong.