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How Free-Market Delusions Destroyed the Economy

The worship of free markets set off the economic meltdown.

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Waxman: The question I have for you is, you had an ideology, you had a belief that free, competitive -- and this is your statement -- “I do have an ideology. My judgment is that free, competitive markets are by far the unrivalled way to organize economies. We have tried regulation, none meaningfully worked.” That was your quote. You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You  were advised to do so by many others. And now our whole economy is paying the price. Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?

Greenspan: Well, remember, though, what an ideology is. It’s a conceptual framework with [sic] the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to. To exist, you need an ideology. The question is, whether it is accurate or not. What I am saying to you is, yes, I found the flaw, I don’t know how significant or permanent it is, but I have been very distressed by that fact.

You found a flaw?

I found a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.

Waxman: In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working.

Greenspan: Precisely. That is precisely the reason I was shocked, because I had been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.

The flaw, to be clear, wasn’t a minor one of shoddy data. Nor was it the bigger Black Swan problem that writers like Nassim Taleb discuss, a problem of failing to account for highly unlikely events that, should they happen, involve catastrophic consequences. Greenspan’s flaw was more fundamental still. It warped his view about how the world was organized, about the sociology of the market. And Greenspan is not alone. Larry Summers, the president’s senior economic advisor, has had to come to terms with a similar error -- his view that the market was inherently self-stabilizing has been "dealt a fatal blow." Hank Paulson, Bush’s Treasury Secretary, has shrugged his shoulders with similar resignation. Even Jim Cramer from CNBC’s "Mad Money" admitted defeat: "The only guy who really called this right was Karl Marx." One after the other, the celebrants of the free market are finding themselves, to use the language of the market, corrected.

The extent of Greenspan's admission has passed most of us by. If you trawl the oped pages of the financial press, you'll find plenty of analysis that fits Greenspan's first gambit, with pundits offering stories about how risk was incorrectly priced (which it was), how the lack of regulation allowed the panic to feed back into the financial system (which it has), how the incentive structures rewarded traders who were able to push financial risk far into the future (which they did) and how free market ideologues removed the sorts of circuit-breaking policies that might today have helped (and they did that too). But these are all it-could-have-been-fixed-if-we'd-planned-better responses. I am not sure that we're able to comprehend what Greenspan's admission might really mean for us. It would be too big a shock to have the fundamentals of policy in both government and the economy proved wrong, and to have nothing with which to replace them.

It's as if one day, you were to wake up and find yourself transformed into a cockroach. This is the premise of Franz Kafka's novella Metamorphosis. In the first sentence, a young salesman named Gregor Samsa wakes up, after a night of bad dreams, to find that he has turned into an enormous bug. Gregor Samsa's response is revealing, telling us a little bit more about ourselves than we'd like. For what does Samsa do when he discovers he's a bug? He doesn't scuttle from his room screaming, or ponder how this happened, or what his transformation means, and what he might become tomorrow. His response is essentially this: "Poor me! How am I going to keep my job?" Which is almost exactly how we've reacted to this economic crisis. While no one has yet woken up in the body of a bug, we have all found ourselves in a world turned upside down, where everything we were told was to our advantage has turned out to be its opposite. Greenspan's "flaw" has profound repercussions -- to understand it fully would mean a complete reappraisal of the way we conduct our lives. We would need not only a new way of mooring our expectations of our society and our economy, one based on richer assumptions about human nature, but also a different ideology governing the exchange of goods and services.

Prices do some heavy ideological lifting in Greenspan's world. They provide a way to see and know the collective wants and resources of our small planet. This is Friedrich Hayek's economic philosophy, in which prices are the tendrils through which wants and needs are communicated. Science fiction fans will already be familiar with what this looks like. In "The Matrix," liberated humans (and the programs who hunt them) can see the world in its raw form, as a digital rain of symbols and signs. This is the science fiction that governs economic fact. Data pelting down monitors is what the masters of the universe on the global financial exchanges stare at, their eyes darting from screen to screen, trying to see through the world and profit from it. In "The Matrix," the signs were a simulation of the real world, hiding more than they revealed. The trouble is that this unreliable digital ticker tape has now become a central prop in the drama of modern commerce.

Consider the fate of Volkswagen, which at the end of October 2008 managed briefly to become the world's most valuable corporation without having to sell a single vehicle. With the economy still in free fall, traders on stock market floors were taking a dim view of Volkswagen. They looked at their screens and concluded that, just like every other auto manufacturer, Volkswagen was heading for tough times. Imagine you're a trader who feels in your bones that the stock price can only fall. One way to cash your hunch in is to sell Volkswagen stock today, and buy it back when the price falls. Since you don't walk around with Volkswagen stock falling out of your pockets, you'll turn to someone who does, like an institutional investor. You borrow their stock, for a price, and promise to return all of it very soon. The institutional investor is happy because they make money from lending out the stock, which they will get back in one piece. You're happy because you can sell this stock, wait for the price to fall, buy it back and, with the profit, not only pay back the institutional investor, but make the next installment on your yacht in Monaco. This practice is called "shorting."

The trouble was that Volkswagen's rival, Porsche, had started quietly buying Volkswagen stock, aiming to secure 75 percent of the company. When the scale of Porsche's buying spree came to light, it became rapidly clear that there was little of the company left to trade. With Porsche sucking up all the shares, the price for Volkswagen didn't drop. Traders were selling borrowed stock to Porsche, and when Porsche announced its intentions to hold the stock, traders panicked. This led to a "short squeeze," a flocking of investors looking to cover the ill-conceived bets that they'd paid for with stock that they didn't own. They'd wagered that Volkswagen's price, like that of any other car company in a recession, would fall. When it became clear that even if Volkswagen wasn't doing well in the car market, its share price was nonetheless defying gravity, the speculators rushed to buy before the price went any higher.

Their combined purchases drove the price of shares up further. So high did the price rise that Volkswagen entered the DAX 30 index of the largest corporations on the German bourse. This triggered another buying spree, driven not by stock market gamblers, but by their polar opposites -- conservative institutional investors. Pension funds, for instance, invest with an eye to long-term returns; they prefer a slow and certain accumulation of wealth rather than risky bets. One way that they keep their portfolio on an even keel is to buy shares in nothing but blue chip corporations, ones that are guaranteed to be least susceptible to the shocks that stocks are heir to, ones that are in the top, say, thirty corporations traded in the open market. When Volkswagen joined the ranks of the DAX 30, a flock of institutional investors automatically wanted in. So they bought Volkswagen shares at what ever price they could find them. The result? The price per share went from 200 to 1,000 in a week--an increase in company value of 300 billion (244 billion; $386 billion). It made Volkswagen, briefly, bigger than ExxonMobil (with a book value of a mere $343 billion). And for this, the company didn't raise a finger.

In the end, the rules on the DAX were changed, the price settled down and, in 2009, Volkswagen bought Porsche. It is easy enough to tell this story as one where institutional investors got caught with their pants down, where there was imperfect information about the size of the market, where the rules of different short-run and long-run games tangled. But look more closely. Underwriting this version of the story is a conceptual structure that lies beneath every story of excess and crash. The very notion of a bubble relies on the premise that when the bubble pops, things return to a normal state, a situation of price reflecting value more accurately. This is the story told after every boom and bust, from the South Sea Bubble of 1720 to the housing catastrophe of 2008. There's a widely shared opinion that normality will ultimately return to the world economy--but it's a consensus view that rests on a story where bubbles are exceptions to the standard (and successful) procedures of market valuation. If those procedures themselves were flawed, as Greenspan suggests, then our faith in a gentle return to earth is misplaced, for there is and never has been any solid ground beneath our feet.

There is a discrepancy between the price of something and its value, one that economists cannot fix, because it's a problem inherent to the very idea of profit-driven prices. This gap is something about which we've got an uneasy and uncomfortable intuition. The uncertainty about prices is what makes the MasterCard ads amusing. You know how it goes -- green fees: $240; lessons: $50; golf club: $110; having fun: priceless. The deeper joke, though, is this: The price of something doesn't measure its value at all. This prickly intuition has become entertainment. An alien from another planet would find it strange that one of the most popular TV shows in dozens of countries is one that trades on the confusion around what something's worth: "The Price Is Right." In the show, the audience is presented with various consumer durables, and asked to guess the retail price of each. Crucially, you don't win by correctly guessing how useful something is or how much it costs to make -- prices are poor guides to use and true costs of production. You win by developing an intuitive sense of what corporations believe you're willing to pay.

In the world of fund management, the systematic confusion surrounding what something is worth has made some people very rich. Traders' salaries are linked to the returns above expected rates for the risk they take on, the so-called alpha that they contribute to the returns. Think of a bet on a coin flip, with odds of two to one. I bet $1 that I will hit heads, and every time I do, I get $2. In the long run, I'd expect a dollar bet with those odds to return a dollar because I'll come up heads about half the time. But if I'm returning $1.50 on the bet, I'm making magic happen. This magic gets turned back into coins that I get to keep, through bonuses and increased salary. This is a tough trick to pull off because there are only a handful of ways to create added value in fund management -- I can pick undervalued stocks that outperform expectations, I can nurture innovations that change the rules of the game, or I can create new bespoke assets that institutional investors might like.