Could a Government Regulator of Systemic Risk Avoid the Next Economic Meltdown?--

One of the goals of proposed regulatory changes of the financial industry is — as President Obama has argued — to create "a 21st century regulatory framework to ensure that a crisis like this can never happen again":

1. [L]et's put in place some financial regulations to make sure that this doesn't happen again.

2. My job is to help the country take the long view, to make sure that not only are we getting out of this immediate fix but we're not repeating the same cycle of bubble and bust over and over and over again . . . .

We're going to put forward some regulatory architecture that ensures that we don't see these kinds of systemic risks again.

Yet can a government — whether run by Republicans or Democrats — really anticipate future bubbles or meltdowns? And if it could, would the government have the political will (or political power) to prevent future meltdowns?

As David Walker has argued, "Our off balance sheet obligations associated with Social Security and Medicare put us in a $56 trillion financial hole—and that's before the recession was officially declared last year. America now owes more than Americans are worth—and the gap is growing!"

Even if the problem is only a half or a third of the size that Walker identifies, it still constitutes a huge systemic risk. At some point in the future -- perhaps quite suddenly a decade or two hence — it is likely that the purchasers of the government's massive debt will decide that they won't buy it without a huge increase in interest rates. As Alistair Thompson said in August 2007 as the credit crisis first hit, "Liquidity can just be turned off, and essentially it is a confidence game."

Indeed, the last time that we had a recession as deep as the current one was in 1980-82 when a Federal Reserve induced credit crunch caused short term interest rates to reach about 19%.

So if today we had an all-powerful systemic risk regulator who could act to prevent a future melt-down, she might consider taking bold steps to:

Reduce government spending dramatically, especially in the future;

Prevent cap-and-trade from passing;

Stop any expensive health care reforms (and favor cost-cutting measures);

Stop dangerous lending practices at the FHA and the Veterans Administration;

Cut the future costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid;

Finance much of the existing federal debt with 30-, 50-, and 100-year bonds while interest rates are low; and

Begin orderly sales over the next decade of substantial unused lands owned by the federal government ("It's time for America to start an annual yard sale of stuff for which the government has little use. This has the ancillary positive effect of reducing excessive government power over its citizens and resources. Does the government really need to own 45% of the state of California?").

That would be my list to consider. David Walker, the former head of the GAO, has a somewhat different list, but like my ideas, only a few of his proposals are likely to be implemented.

If Walker and a slew of financial commentators are right, our profligate spending is threatening the long-term health of the economy. Excessive borrowing is highly likely to lead eventually to another big credit crunch in a decade or two, and another deep recession.

My point is this: if there were a systemic risk regulator today, very few of the steps she should favor to prevent a future crisis would be supported by the current administration and many would also be opposed by Congress, the last administration, and the American people. I just don't see how even a reasonably far-sighted super-regulator would be able to do much to reduce the systemic risks that our current policies are fostering.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Could a Government Regulator of Systemic Risk Avoid the Next Economic Meltdown?--
  2. FHA Adopts Countrywide's Business Model and It's Not Working . . . Again.--
  3. Former GAO Head Warns of Impending Deficits.--