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Priceless: How the Federal Reserve Bought the Economics Profession

The Federal Reserve so thoroughly dominates the field of economics that real criticism of the central bank has become a career liability for economists.

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Rosner, the Wall Street analyst who foresaw the crash, says that the Fed's ideological dominance of the journals hampered his attempt to warn his colleagues about what was to come. Rosner wrote a strikingly prescient paper in 2001 arguing that relaxed lending standards and other factors would lead to a boom in housing prices over the next several years, but that the growth would be highly susceptible to an economic disruption because it was fundamentally unsound.

He expanded on those ideas over the next few years, connecting the dots and concluding that the coming housing collapse would wreak havoc on the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) and mortgage backed securities (MBS) markets, which would have a ripple effect on the rest of the economy. That, of course, is exactly what happened and it took the Fed and the economics field completely by surprise.

"What you're doing is, actually, in order to get published, having to whittle down or narrow what might otherwise be oppositional or expansionary views," says Rosner. "The only way you can actually get in a journal is by subscribing to the views of one of the journals."

When Rosner was casting his paper on CDOs and MBSs about, he knew he needed an academic economist to co-author the paper for a journal to consider it. Seven economists turned him down.

"You don't believe that markets are efficient?" he says they asked, telling him the paper was "outside the bounds" of what could be published. "I would say 'Markets are efficient when there's equal access to information, but that doesn't exist,'" he recalls.

The CDO and MBS markets froze because, as the housing market crashed, buyers didn't trust that they had reliable information about them -- precisely the case Rosner had been making.

He eventually found a co-author, Joseph Mason, an associate Professor of Finance at Drexel University LeBow College of Business, a senior fellow at the Wharton School, and a visiting scholar at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. But the pair could only land their papers with the conservative Hudson Institute. In February 2007, they published a paper called "How Resilient Are Mortgage Backed Securities to Collateralized Debt Obligation Market Disruptions?" and in May posted another, " How Misapplied Bond Ratings Cause Mortgage Backed Securities and Collateralized Debt Obligation Market Disruptions."

Together, the two papers offer a better analysis of what led to the crash than the economic journals have managed to put together - and they were published by a non-PhD before the crisis.

Not As Simple As A Pay-Off

Economist Rob Johnson serves on the UN Commission of Experts on Finance and International Monetary Reform and was a top economist on the Senate banking committee under both a Democratic and Republican chairman. He says that the consulting gigs shouldn't be looked at "like it's a payoff, like money. I think it's more being one of, part of, a club -- being respected, invited to the conferences, have a hearing with the chairman, having all the prestige dimensions, as much as a paycheck."

The Fed's hiring of so many economists can be looked at in several ways, Johnson says, because the institution does, of course, need talented analysts. "You can look at it from a telescope, either direction. One, you can say well they're reaching out, they've got a big budget and what they're doing, I'd say, is canvassing as broad a range of talent," he says. "You might call that the 'healthy hypothesis.'"

The other hypothesis, he says, "is that they're essentially using taxpayer money to wrap their arms around everybody that's a critic and therefore muffle or silence the debate. And I would say that probably both dimensions are operative, in reality."

 
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