The Financial Fire Next Time

NEW HAVEN – If we have learned anything since the global financial crisis peaked in 2008, it is that preventing another one is a tougher job than most people anticipated. Not only does effective crisis prevention require overhauling our financial institutions through creative application of the principles of good finance; it also requires that politicians and their constituents have a shared understanding of these principles.

Today, unfortunately, such an understanding is missing. The solutions are too technical for most news reporting aimed at the general public. And, while people love to hear about “reining in” or “punishing” financial leaders, they are far less enthusiastic about asking these people to expand or improve financial-risk management. But, because special-interest groups have developed around existing institutions and practices, we are basically stuck with them, subject to minor tweaking.

The financial crisis, which is still ongoing, resulted largely from the boom and bust in home prices that preceded it for several years (home prices peaked in the United States in 2006). During the pre-crisis boom, homebuyers were encouraged to borrow heavily to finance undiversified investments in a single home, while governments provided guarantees to mortgage investors. In the US, this occurred through implicit guarantees of assets held by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the mortgage agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

At a session that I chaired at the American Economic Association’s recent meeting in Philadelphia, the participants discussed the difficulty of getting any sensible reform out of governments around the world. In a paper presented at the session, Andrew Caplin of New York University spoke of the public’s lack of interest or comprehension of the rising risks associated with the FHA, which has been guaranteeing privately-issued mortgages since its creation during the housing crisis of the 1930’s.