Well, Ken Rogoff does not do a Shakespearean turn, but he makes a badly needed observation in his latest piece at Project Syndicate, namely, that pinning a lot of blame for the crisis on the Lehman collapse is a faulty analysis. And he picks up a pet theme of ours, that patching up the system is not a viable long-term solution.
From Project Syndicate (hat tip Mark Thoma):
The overwhelming consensus in the policy community is that if only the government had bailed out Lehman, the whole thing would have been a hiccup and not a heart attack..
Yves here. If that is what the policy crowd that Rogoff hangs with really believes, the are even more deluded than I realized. Back to his article:
Unfortunately, the conventional post-mortem on Lehman is wishful thinking. It basically says that no matter how huge the housing bubble, how deep a credit hole the United States (and many other countries) had dug, and how convoluted the global financial system, we could have just grown our way out of trouble….
It was not just Lehman Brothers. The entire financial system was totally unprepared to deal with the inevitable collapse of the housing and credit bubbles. The system had reached a point where it had to be bailed out and restructured. And there is no realistic political or legal scenario where such a bailout could have been executed without some blood on the streets. Hence, the fall of a large bank or investment bank was inevitable as a catalyst to action.
The problem with letting Lehman go under was not the concept but the execution. The government should have moved in aggressively to cushion the workout of Lehman’s complex derivative book, even if this meant creative legal interpretations or pushing through new laws governing the financial system. Admittedly, it is hard to do these things overnight, but there was plenty of warning. The six months prior to Lehman saw a slow freezing up of global credit and incipient recessions in the US and Europe. Yet little was done to prepare.
So what is the game plan now? There is talk of regulating the financial sector, but governments are afraid to shake confidence. There is recognition that the housing bubble collapse has to be absorbed, but no stomach for acknowledging the years of slow growth in consumption that this will imply.
There is acknowledgement that the US China trade relationship needs to be rebalanced, but little imagination on how to proceed. Deep down, our leaders and policymakers have convinced themselves that for all its flaws, the old system was better than anything we are going to think of, and that simply restoring confidence will fix everything, at least for as long as they remain in office.
The right lesson from Lehman should be that the global financial system needs major changes in regulation and governance. The current safety net approach may work in the short term but will ultimately lead to ballooning and unsustainable government debts, particularly in the US and Europe.
Asia may be willing to sponsor the west for now, but not in perpetuity. Eventually Asia will find alternatives in part by deepening its own debt markets. Within a few years, western governments will have to sharply raise taxes, inflate, partially default, or some combination of all three. As painful as it may seem, it would be far better to start bringing fundamentals in line now. Restoring confidence has been helpful and important. But ultimately we need a system of global financial regulation and governance that merits our faith.