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Andy Xie: Why One Bubble Burst Deserves Another

09-28 15:34 Caijing

The financial crisis taught crucial lessons about the dangers of bubbles, loose regulation and debt. It's a pity we didn't learn.

Third, financial supervision has not changed. After the Lehman crash, most governments were talking about strengthening financial regulations and regulatory agencies, and possibly establishing an international regulatory body. The developments in the past year have actually made financial supervision worse. To support financial institutions, the U.S. government suspended mark-to-market accounting rules for assets on the books of financial institutions, which has allowed them to report profits.

Revamping the financial system has been reduced to political moves over regulating banker salaries. If this could be done, incentives for financial institutions to manufacture bubbles would be removed. But it can't be done. Financial professionals can be based anywhere in the world, and there will always be some countries willing to host them. Because of such competitive concerns, a global consensus on regulating pay for financial professionals is unlikely.

I think the ultimate objective for financial reforms is to make leverage transparent. There are many reasons that a bubble forms. Debt leverage, however, is always at the center of a property bubble -- the most damaging kind. Leverage within a financial system's assets-to-equity capital ratio is a driving force for an asset bubble. Complex accounting rules and varying treatment of different financial institutions make it difficult to measure leverage. The international standard for a bank's capital is 8 percent, which allows 12 times leverage. How off-balance sheet assets are treated can make a huge difference. A lot of big banks had 30 times leverage at the beginning of the crisis due to off-balance assets.

Other institutions such as finance companies are harder to regulate. Some industrial companies such as General Electric and General Motors took advantage of loopholes and created finance companies that are essentially banks. Hedge funds, mutual funds, private equity firms, etc., are even more lightly regulated. When they purchase securitized debt securities and engage in lending, they are like banks.

One interesting phenomenon is how money market funds wreaked havoc after Lehman crashed. These funds are supposed to be ultra safe for buying triple-A, short-term, liquid debt instruments. The problem was their demand for liquidity. Self-manufactured liquidity provided a false sense of security despite the risks of underlying securities, such as short-term paper issued by investment banks. When that false sense of security was jolted by the Lehman collapse, all rushed to exit at the same time. Without government support, they wouldn't have been able to get their money back.

The problem with financial regulation is not the banking system per se, but the shadow banking system. It provides leverage with much less capital than the banking system. When leverage in the economy is rising, asset prices rise, too. Rising asset prices boost collateral value and, hence, more borrowing. A surge in earnings among financial institutions usually accompanies such a spiral of rising leverage and rising asset prices.

It is extremely difficult for an established regulatory regime to stop such a spiral. Usually new financial institutions or products come on the scene, and then a new leverage game begins. It would be impossible for an existing regime to be comprehensive enough to anticipate future institutions and products. Governments may need to install principle-based, not just rule-based, regulatory agencies that could take action to control new financial creations.

The U.S. government is proposing a consumer protection agency for financial products. Such an agency could at least respond to new financial products sold to consumers and, therefore, could be an effective mechanism for stopping some future bubbles. The proposal has met vehement opposition from the financial industry. It may not get through.

What can we speak for after spending trillions of dollars? Not much. Few major players went to jail. The U.S. government sent many more to prison in the 1980s after the junk bond bubble burst. This bubble is 10 times bigger. Yet, apart from the most obvious criminals such as Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford, who ran multibillion-dollar Ponzi schemes, none of the big shots have landed behind bars. Indeed, a lot of the big shots who brought down the world are still out there running things. The lesson from the Lehman collapse seems to be, "Take whatever you can and, when it crashes, you get to keep it." How governments and central banks have dealt with this bubble will encourage more people to join bubble making in the future.

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