Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why We Can't Afford Unfettered Capitalism

My stepson, who is pursuing a graduate degree in corporate finance in hopes of someday landing a job at a high-paying venture capital firm, recently told me that he thought it was ultimately futile to try to regulate business or for the government to implement counter-cyclical economic policies in an effort to ameliorate the social effects of capitalist boom & bust cycles.

In his view, booms & busts are inherent to capitalism, and any effort by governments to try to constrain their effects are doomed to failure because - like a metastasizing cancer that mutates relentlessly & invades previously disease-free organs in response to environmental pressures (and / or the demise of the original hosting organ) - markets always find a way around the constraints. Ultimately, government efforts are inefficient over the long run relative to simply allowing market failures run their course, and thus are sub-optimal. Never mind what happens to individuals in the short run. Laissez-faire fatalism.

As to the first part of his assertion - that boom and bust cycles are inherent, inevitable features of our modern capitalist economy - I can only partly agree. They are certainly an inherent risk; they are not, however, inevitable unless they are allowed to be.

Hyman P. Minsky's Financial Instability Hypothesis is one of the oft-ignored economic theories that explain the cause(s) of the Great Recession of 2007-09. Too bad most mainstream economists - particularly ones responsible for shaping actual government policy (Larry Summers, I'm talking to you, among others) - either don't know Minsky or poo-pooed his work without much thought.

Minsky's hypothesis suggests there may well be government policies that could mitigate the inevitability of booms and busts and irrational exuberance-fed asset bubbles. In particular, policies that clearly insulate socially utile financial hedging activities from the realm of socially useless financial speculation activities are recommended. And policies that aggressively seek to prevent financial speculation activities from devolving into Ponzi schemes are absolutely necessary. Bernie Madoff & Sir Allen Stanford were only as inevitable as the limited government, minimal regulation mindset allowed them to be. More detailed Minsky-ian policy ideas can be found here.

Over the past three decades, the very concept of regulation has undergone an ideological assault. Yet regulation should not be equated with red tape.
A sound regulatory structure provides a basic code of conduct that actually enhances the business of finance, by surrounding it with a sense of confidence and stability.
It also makes sure businesses operate within the broader social interest. In reality, a basic framework for proper behavior endows businesses like finance with a sense of legitimacy
—just what is sorely lacking under current conditions.

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