In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn’t be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn’t roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.
But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.
Johnson shows how financial firms became more and more profitable, and a bigger and bigger part of the U.S. economy. More capital meant more political capital, he argues, which eventually meant nobody prevented the melt-down. The same political entrenchment makes fixing the banks difficult.
The obvious solution to the financial crisis, Johnson says -- informed by his time at the I.M.F. -- is simple. The United States should determine which banks can't survive and temporarily nationalize them, instead of simply recapitalizing them, he says. But the relationship between top financiers and the government means this won't happen -- at least not unless things get much worse.
Still, his article includes a list of the policies (or lack thereof) which most contributed to the bubble and burst. It's a great crib sheet of what Capitol Hill and the G-20 Summit will tackle, piece by piece, to reform the system.
• insistence on free movement of capital across borders;
• the repeal of Depression-era regulations separating commercial and investment banking;
• a congressional ban on the regulation of credit-default swaps;
• major increases in the amount of leverage allowed to investment banks;
• a light (dare I say invisible?) hand at the Securities and Exchange Commission in its regulatory enforcement;
• an international agreement to allow banks to measure their own riskiness;
• and an intentional failure to update regulations so as to keep up with the tremendous pace of financial innovation.
It's fascinating, scary reading.