George Soros, in today’s Financial Times, joins a long list of critics of the Paulson financial services reform plan, although even to dignify its bureaucratic legerdemain with the label “reform” is singularly misleading.
Soros departs from his peers in sketching out where he thinks regulators went wrong and offers two specific proposals, I am particularly keen about his idea of moving credit default swaps to an exhange; as I’ve discussed before, that is one of the cleanest and most sensible options available, and it would be viable in a large, active market like CDS.
From the Financial Times:
The proposal from Hank Paulson, US Treasury secretary, for reorganising government regulation of financial institutions misses the point. We need new thinking, not a reshuffling of regulatory agencies. The Federal Reserve has long had authority to issue rules for the mortgage industry but failed to exercise it. For the past 25 years or so the financial authorities and institutions they regulate have been guided by market fundamentalism: the belief that markets tend towards equilibrium and that deviations from it occur in a random manner. All the innovations – risk management, trading techniques, the alphabet soup of derivatives and synthetic financial instruments – were based on that belief. The innovations remained unregulated because authorities believe markets are self-correcting.
Regulators ought to have known better because it was their intervention that prevented the financial system from unravelling on several occasions. Their success has reinforced the misconception that markets are self-correcting. That in turn allowed a bubble of excessive credit to develop, which extended through the entire financial system. When the subprime mortgage crisis erupted it revealed all the weak points. Authorities, caught unawares, responded to each new disruption only after it occurred. They lacked the ability to foresee them because they were in the thrall of the market fundamentalist fallacy. They need a new paradigm. Market participants cannot base their decisions on knowledge, or what economists call rational expectations. There is a two-way, reflexive interaction between the participants’ biased views and misconceptions and the real state of affairs. Instead of random deviations, reflexivity may give rise to initially self-reinforcing but eventually self-defeating boom-bust sequences or bubbles.
Instead of reshuffling regulatory agencies, the authorities ought to prepare for the next shoes to drop. I shall mention only two. There is an esoteric financial instrument called credit default swaps. The notional amount of CDS contracts outstanding is roughly $45,000bn. To put it into perspective, that is about equal to half the total US household wealth and about five times the national debt. The market is totally unregulated and those who hold the contracts do not know whether their counterparties have adequately protected themselves. If and when defaults occur, some of the counterparties are likely to prove unable to fulfil their obligations. This prospect hangs over the financial markets like a sword of Damocles that is bound to fall, but only after some defaults have occurred. That must have played a role in the Fed’s decision not to allow Bear Stearns to fail. One possible solution is to establish a clearing house or exchange with a sound capital structure and strict margin requirements to which all existing and future contracts would have to be submitted. That would do more good in clearing the air than a grand regulatory reorganisation.
The other issue is rising foreclosures. About 40 per cent of the 6m subprime loans outstanding will default in the next two years. The defaults of option-adjustable-rate mortgages and other mortgages subject to rate reset will be of the same order of magnitude but occur over a longer period. With single family home sales running at an annual rate of 600,000, foreclosures will overwhelm the market and cause prices to overshoot on the downside. This will swell the number of homeowners with negative equity who may be tempted to turn in their keys. The fall in house prices will become practically bottomless until the government intervenes. Cutting foreclosures should be a priority but the measures so far are public relations exercises.
The Bush administration has resisted using taxpayers’ money because of its market fundamentalist ideology. Apart from a bipartisan fiscal stimulus, it has left the conduct of policy largely to the Fed. Yet taxpayers’ money will be needed to reduce foreclosures. Two proposals by Democrats in Congress strike a balance between the right to foreclosure and discouraging the exercise of that right. One would modify the bankruptcy laws allowing judges to modify the terms of mortgages on principal residences. Another would provide Federal Housing Administration guarantees that would enable mortgage holders to be paid off at 85 per cent of the current appraised value. These proposals will not solve the housing crisis, but go to the heart of the issue. They should be given serious consideration.