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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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So we would expect alpha to be rare, and it is, but driven by the desire to cash in, there were many who created fake alpha through bets that appeared to produce consistently good returns despite having a small built-in chance of catastrophic loss. If the expected value of this loss were factored in, the alpha would disappear. But the risks were ignored and bonuses flowed. The frat boys who ran the economy, and profited from its poor regulation, made billions. They were paid today for outcomes that they predicted would happen in the future, using a "mark to model" accounting practice that essentially allowed them to book today what they projected they'd earn tomorrow. This practice was justified on the grounds that "markets know best."

That markets should know best is a relatively recent article of faith, and it took a great deal of ideological and political work to make it part of governments' conventional wisdom. The idea that markets are smart found its apotheosis in the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, an idea first formulated by Eugene Fama, a Ph.D. student in the University of Chicago Business School in the 1960s. In the ideological foundations it provided for financiers, it was a mighty force -- think of it as Atlas Shrugged, but with more equations.

The hypothesis states that the price of a financial asset reflects everything that a market knows about its current and future prospects. This is different from saying that the price actually does reflect its future performance -- rather, the price reflects the current state of beliefs about the odds of that performance being good or bad. The price involves a bet. As we now know, the market's eye for odds is dangerously myopic, but the hypothesis explains why economists find the following joke funny:

Q: How many Chicago School economists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: None. If the lightbulb needed changing, the market would have already done it.

The problem with the Efficient Markets Hypothesis is that it doesn't work. If it were true, then there'd be no incentive to invest in research because the market would, by magic, have beaten you to it. Economists Sanford Grossman and Joseph Stiglitz demonstrated this in 1980, and hundreds of subsequent studies have pointed out quite how unrealistic the hypothesis is, some of the most influential of which were written by Eugene Fama himself. Markets can behave irrationally -- investors can herd behind a stock, pushing its value up in ways entirely unrelated to the stock being traded. Despite ample economic evidence to suggest it was false, the idea of efficient markets ran riot through governments. Alan Greenspan was not the only person to find the hypothesis a convenient untruth.

By pushing regulators to behave as if the hypothesis were true, traders could make their titanic bets. For a while, the money rolled in. In the mid-1990s, the Financial Times felt able to launch a monthly supplement, titled "How to Spend It," to help its more affluent readers unburden themselves. The magic of the past decade's boom also touched the middle class, who were sucked into the bubble through houses that were turned from places of shelter into financial assets, and into grist for the mill of the financial sector. But ordinary homeowners couldn't muster the clout that banks could: Governments enabled the finance sector's binge by promising to be there to pick up the pieces, and they were as good as their word. When the financiers' bets broke the system, the profit that they made from these bad bets remained untouchable: The profit was privatized, but the risk was socialized. Their riches have cost the whole world dear, and yet in 2009 the top hedge fund managers have had their third best year on record. George Soros is, in his own words, "having a very good crisis," and staff at Goldman Sachs can look forward to the largest bonus payouts in the firm's 140-year history.

What this suggests is that the rhetoric of "free markets" camouflages activities that aren't about markets at all. Goldman Sachs employees are doing well because their firm turned some distinctly nonmarket tricks. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi has recently revealed, with characteristic verve, how Goldman Sachs has bought the U.S. government. In the Obama administration's economic team, Wall Street has a generation of finance-friendly appointees, from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who arranged a historic $29 billion loan to persuade JPMorgan Chase to acquire Bear Stearns during his tenure as chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; to Larry Summers, who earned $5.2 million by working one day a week for a couple of years in a large Wall Street hedge fund. Their new positions in the White House make them the Tarzans of the economic jungle. Wall Street has reason to be pleased. Goldman had invested heavily in AIG, the insurance giant whose financial products division had brought the 90-year-old giant to bankruptcy. With the 2008 AIG rescue, the $13 billion that Goldman invested was repaid at full face value. Investors in Chrysler, by contrast, stand to get 29 cents for every dollar they invested.

Anyone concerned with democracy should be worried that the seam between Wall Street and the government is almost invisible. At the very least, it raises serious reasons to doubt that the institutions that facilitated the crisis can clean up their mess. Nassim Taleb points to the absurdity here: "People who were driving a school bus (blindfolded) and crashed it should never be given a new bus." The problem is that because both our economy and to a larger extent our politicians aren't really subject to democratic control, the bus drivers are always going to be graduates of the same driving school.

Despite the ongoing hijack of government by Wall Street, a word that hasn't been heard in over a generation is being uttered by politicians: "regulation." It's true that Goldman Sachs and others are profiting handsomely from the collapse, but there is nonetheless a growing sense among politicians that the market may have been allowed too free a rein. Naomi Klein's devastating critique The Shock Doctrine demonstrates how disasters were turned into platforms for rabidly free market policies, and it's an analysis that explains the post-World War II era and today's ongoing financial plunder, from California to Wall Street to the City of London, very well. But there is a recognition among the public and some politicians that today's economic crisis is a failure of free market thinking, and not a warrant for more. In response to popular outcry, politicians around the world seem ready to discuss how to regulate and restrain the market. The question is, can they, and, if they can, in whose interests will this regulation work?

From its inception, the free market has spawned discontent, but rare are the moments when that discontent coalesces across society, when a sufficiently large group of people can trace their unhappiness to free market politics, and demand change. The New Deal in the United States and the postwar European welfare states were partly a result of a consortium of social forces pushing for new limits to markets, and a renegotiation of the relationship between individuals and society. What's new about this crisis is that it's pervasively global, and comes at the last moment at which we might prevent a global climate catastrophe.