Most of the economics is far beyond me, but I like what I understand of John Cochrane's observations in this interview by John Cassidy (via Stephen Spruiell).
All science is, to some extent, conservative. You find one butterfly that looks weird, you don’t say, “Oh, Darwin was wrong after all.” We have a similar centuries-long experience that markets work tolerably well, and governments running things works pretty disastrously. We have got to think hard before we throw all of that out.
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A central bank, a lender of last resort, deposit insurances with the supervision that comes with it—these are reasonable regulations. If you just say regulation versus no regulation that becomes an undergraduate 2 A.M. bulls**t fest. Talking about “regulation” vs. “deregulation” in the abstract is pointless. We have to talk about specifics if we want to get anywhere. Stuff like, Do you think credit default swaps should be forced on to exchanges? It’s all very boring to your readers, but unless you are specific you don’t get anywhere.
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In the United States, we’ve had two massive speculative bubbles in ten years. How can that be consistent with the efficient markets hypothesis?
Great, so now you know how to define “bubbles” for me. I’ve been looking for that for twenty years.
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When house prices are high relative to rents, when stock prices are high relative to earnings—that seems to signal a period of low returns. When prices are high relative to earnings, it’s not going to be a great time to invest over the next seven to ten years. That’s a fact. It took us ten years to figure it out, but that’s what (Robert) Shiller’s volatility stuff was about; it is what Gene (Fama)’s regressions in the nineteen-eighties were about. That was a stunning new fact. Before, we would have guessed that prices high relative to earnings means we are going to see great growth in earnings. It turned out to be the opposite. We all agree on the fact. If prices are high relative to earnings that means this is going to be a bad ten years for stocks. It doesn’t reliably predict a crash, just a period of low returns, which sometimes includes a crash, but sometimes not.
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Look, evaluating economic models is a lot harder than just staring out the window and saying, “This is going on. Keynes was right.” Nothing in the incoming data has removed the inconsistencies that plagued Keynesian economics for forty years until it was thrown out. I mean, we threw it out for a reason. It didn’t work in the data. When inflation came in the nineteen-seventies that was a major failure of Keynesian economics. It was logically incoherent.
What happened is the government wanted to spend a lot of money. They said “Keynesian stimulus” and people got excited. What event, what data says we’ve got to go back to Keynesianism? Again, I’m going to throw it back on you. What about it other than that Paul Krugman thinks we need another stimulus tells us that this is an idea to be rehabilitated?
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I’m going to be the government, I’m going to borrow from you, and I’m going to spend it. So over here, that’s more output. But you were going to do something with that dollar, which is now invested in government debt. Now, what else were you going to do with it? Well, you were going to buy a mortgage backed security; you might have bought a car. You were going to do something with that money. So, on basic dollar accounting, if I take that money that’s a dollar more demand, but you have a dollar less demand.
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The other reason I’ve been against the stimulus: it’s pretty clear what the problem with the economy was. For once, we know why stock prices went down, we know why we had a recession. We had a panic. We had a freeze of short-term debt. If somebody falls down with a heart attack, you know he has a clogged artery. A shot of cappuccino is not what he needs right now. What he needs is to unclog the artery. And the Fed was doing some remarkably interesting things about unclogging arteries. Even if (the stimulus) was the solution, it’s the solution to the wrong problem.
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Think about an unemployed accountant in New Jersey, fired from a big bank. How is going to build a road in Montana going to help him? Keynes thought of a world in the nineteen-thirties where labor was more amorphous labor. If you hired people to dig ditches, that would solve the unemployment line in the car industry. We have very specialized labor, and just hiring people doesn’t resolve the problem. Somebody who lost their job in a bank—building more roads is not going to help them.
It’s a long logical leap from the fact of unemployed resources to the proposition that the federal government borrowing another trillion dollars and spending on pork is going to make those resources employed again.
So what should the government response have been?
Not making so many mistakes. First rule: do no harm. What we experienced was a fairly classic bank run, panic, whatever. There were good things the government did. The Fed intervened very creatively, in sort of a classic lender of the last resort way. We also did a lot of stuff—lots of bailouts—that didn’t need to be done. I think the TARP was silly. The equity injections were silly. Lender of the last resort—get frozen markets going again, and get out of the way—is probably plenty.
And don’t cause more panic. There was lots of confusion and uncertainty about: What’s the government going to do? When is it going to do it? Who is going to get bailed out? Who isn’t going to get bailed out? That doesn’t help.
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Where should we go from here? If you were hired as head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, what would you tell the President?
I’d get fired in about five minutes. I’d start with a broad deregulatory approach to health care reform. There, I just got fired.
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Let’s go back to Bear Stearns. Here we had a proprietary trading group married to a brokerage. We discovered you could have runs on brokerage accounts—that was the systemic thing. So what I thought would happen after that is that Wall Street would say, “Oh wow, we’ve got a problem!” Marrying proprietary trading to brokerage is like managing gambling to bank deposits. What I thought Wall Street would say is: “We’ve got to separate these things. Customers want to know that their brokerage isn’t going to get dragged down by the proprietary trading desk, and we want to separate them fast so that Washington doesn’t come in and regulate us.” Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. What happened is that everybody said, “Aha, the Fed is going to bail us all out. We can keep this game going forever.”
So what I would like to see is a strong (statement): “You guys have got to set this us so it can go bankrupt next time around. And we are going to set it up so we don’t even have the legal authority to bail you out, so you’d better get cracking.”