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Monday, December 31, 2007

Delong: Three cures for three crises

by Calculated Risk on 12/31/2007 03:52:00 PM

From Project Syndicate, Professor DeLong writes: Three cures for three crises

A full-scale financial crisis is triggered by a sharp fall in the prices of a large set of assets that banks and other financial institutions own, or that make up their borrowers' financial reserves. The cure depends on which of three modes define the fall in asset prices.
DeLong discusses what he sees as the three crisis modes: a liquidity crisis, a minor solvency crisis, and a major solvency crisis. DeLong notes:
At the start, the Fed assumed that it was facing a first-mode crisis -- a mere liquidity crisis -- and that the principal cure would be to ensure the liquidity of fundamentally solvent institutions.

But the Fed has shifted over the past two months toward policies aimed at a second-mode crisis -- more significant monetary loosening, despite the risks of higher inflation, extra moral hazard and unjust redistribution.
Clearly this is a solvency crisis, not just a liquidity crisis. Professor Thoma notes:
And, as if on cue, from the WSJ Economics blog:
Liquidity Threat Eases; Solvency Threat Still Looms, WSJ Economics Blog: As 2007 winds down, the much-feared year-end liquidity crisis appears to have been averted thanks to aggressive action by central banks. ... [A]s 2008 begins, it's solvency, not liquidity, that threatens the economy and the financial system. And at the root of the solvency threat is a likely decline in housing prices that will further undermine credit quality. Making banks more confident of their own ability to raise funds is not going to resolve a generalized shrinkage of lending driven by declining collateral values. ...
So now, in Dr. DeLong's view, the question is: Is this a minor solvency crisis or a major solvency crisis? Much depends on how far housing prices fall. A 30% price decline would reduce household real estate asset by about $6 trillion and cause significant losses for lender and investors. That would probably be DeLong's major solvency crisis. His solution:
The third mode is like the second: A bursting bubble or bad news about future productivity or interest rates drives the fall in asset prices. But the fall is larger. Easing monetary policy won't solve this kind of crisis, because even moderately lower interest rates cannot boost asset prices enough to restore the financial system to solvency.

When this happens, governments have two options. First, they can simply nationalize the broken financial system and have the Treasury sort things out -- and reprivatize the functioning and solvent parts as rapidly as possible. Government is not the best form of organization of a financial system in the long term, and even in the short term it is not very good. It is merely the best organization available.

The second option is simply inflation. Yes, the financial system is insolvent, but it has nominal liabilities and either it or its borrowers have some real assets. Print enough money and boost the price level enough, and the insolvency problem goes away without the risks entailed by putting the government in the investment and commercial banking business.

The inflation may be severe, implying massive unjust redistributions and at least a temporary grave degradation in the price system's capacity to guide resource allocation. But even this is almost surely better than a depression.
I don't think it's quite that bad. Even if the losses for investors and lenders reach $1 trillion (a possibility), I think the financial system can absorb those losses. Sure, some players might disappear, and others might have to sell significant assets (or dilute their shareholders), but I don't think the choice is between serious inflation and depression.

Still, I think the "Yikes" tag fits.