The Bankrupt Theology of Financial Deregulation

GENEVA – Now that the global financial crisis is abating, it is time to take stock of our mistakes and ensure that they are not repeated. Beyond regulatory improvements, preventing payment incentives from rewarding reckless risk taking, and building Chinese walls between originators of securities and rating agencies, we need to discover what made this crisis so difficult to predict.

The International Monetary Fund is our global watchdog, and many believe that it failed to foresee the crisis because it was distracted or looking in the wrong places. I disagree. The problem is that the IMF was unable to interpret the evidence with which it was confronted.

I served on the IMF Board in June 2006 when it discussed its annual review of the United States. The staff “saw” the relaxation of lending standards in the US mortgage market, but noted that “borrowers at risk of significant mortgage payment increases remained a small minority, concentrated mostly among higher-income households that were aware of the attendant risks.”

A few months later, in September 2006, just ten months before the sub-prime mortgage crisis became apparent to all, the Global Financial Stability Report (GFSR), one of the IMF’s flagship publications, stated that “[m]ajor financial institutions in mature...markets [were]...healthy, having remained profitable and well capitalized.” Moreover, “the financial sectors in many countries” were supposedly “in a strong position to cope with any cyclical challenges and further market corrections to come.”