The Political Consequences of Financial Crises

LONDON – I may not be the only finance professor who, when setting essay topics for his or her students, has resorted to a question along the following lines: “In your view, was the global financial crisis caused primarily by too much government intervention in financial markets, or by too little?” When confronted with this either/or question, my most recent class split three ways.

Roughly a third, mesmerized by the meretricious appeal of the Efficient Market Hypothesis, argued that governments were the original sinners. Their ill-conceived interventions – notably the US-backed mortgage underwriters Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as the Community Reinvestment Act – distorted market incentives. Some even embraced the argument of the US libertarian Ron Paul, blaming the very existence of the Federal Reserve as a lender of last resort.

Another third, at the opposite end of the political spectrum, saw former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan as the villain. It was Greenspan’s notorious reluctance to intervene in financial markets, even when leverage was growing dramatically and asset prices seemed to have lost touch with reality, that created the problem. More broadly, Western governments, with their light-touch approach to regulation, allowed markets to career out of control in the early years of this century.

The remaining third tried to have it both ways, arguing that governments intervened too much in some areas, and too little in others. Avoiding the question as put is not a sound test-taking strategy; but the students may have been onto something.