Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Back from the Abyss: Now What?

Remarks before the 125th Annual Convention of the Texas Bankers Association - Richard Fisher

“Every age has its peculiar folly—some scheme, project or phantasy [sic] into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of imitation.”

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds....”
-Charles Mackay Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions (1841)

The new set of circumstances included the economic and financial windfalls that came from at least two major structural changes. The first was the end of the Cold War and the commercial reorientation of China, Vietnam, India and
Eastern Europe, which unleashed enormous new capacity for the increased production of goods and services, held down costs and restructured the global economic map. The second was the explosion of computational power and communication ease that came from technological advancement and the Internet, facilitating globalization and leapfrogging frontiers that formerly separated the economic landscape. The world was our oyster. It simultaneously gave us new consumers and suppliers. It provided new sources of funds as well as new places to invest.

The easy money may well have been encouraged by central banks that held interest rates too low for too long. But it was exacerbated by lenders, investors and consumers who—keen on enhancing returns that seemed pedestrian with a flat yield curve anchored by low, risk-free rates—“craved” and “devoured” new risk instruments. As a result, they came up with new “schemes” and “projects” and “phantasies” made more enticing by expanded markets and financial innovation.

The short-sightedness was manifest in the abandonment of prudential practices. For the banker and lender, the time-tested principle of “know your customer” took a back seat to the mad rush to package and sell exposure to others. For the consumer, living within your means became a less compelling discipline in a world where a house was not just a home but a means to financial gain. For the investor, prudence took on another dimension with the presumed ability to mathematize judgment and hedge away the risk of default.

And yet, while the world had indeed changed, the behavioral pathology documented by Mackay and Bagehot in the 19th century—a pathology based on their studies of countless debacles through history—prevailed. A “plethora” of commercial and financial opportunity begat “speculative” excess that inevitably begat a “panic.” The thundering “herd,” spurred on by “the love of gain, the necessity of excitement or mere force of imitation” and “mad” with irrational exuberance for the upside, suddenly realized in 2008 it had “devoured” more risk than it could stomach and panicked. The financial system seized up and the economy descended into recession.

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