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January 23, 2009

The Makings of a Classic Crisis

Catherine New
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Professor Frederic Mishkin, a former member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, met with students yesterday in a community forum to present his view of the current financial crisis. Framing his analysis in the historical context of the Great Depression, he said that many elements of the current crisis were “classic” and that they inspired a sense of “déjà vu.”

“The basic issue is that financial markets are the brain of the economy,” Mishkin told the students. “They are key to an economy functioning well because they help allocate capital to productive investments. But when financial systems stop working and they can no longer allocate capital, we see what is happening now.”

“A basic problem in allocating capital is asymmetric information … It’s an agency problem. What happened in this financial crisis, and in financial development, is new financial innovation, which in the long run is a very good thing,” he said. “The innovation was driven by a couple of features, technology and high-speed computers. This allowed you to do two things: cheaply bundle small loans into a security, so there were low transaction costs, and get information on people and their credit worthiness in a quantitative manner.”

“This allowed you to democratize credit and give credit to people who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten it, and then put those loans into a security and sell it off. A lot of people would like to see subprime lending never happen again but that would be a disaster. It is a real danger that regulation could kill off this market because it is something that, if it’s done right — which it easily can be — is a tremendous benefit to the average person who couldn’t access credit before.”

“But the problem is that sometimes you don’t solve all the information problems,” Mishkin continued. “Although there were all these benefits, maybe people didn’t have the right incentives to pay back [the loans] … Incentives were not aligned with those of the holder of the security.”

“We also had a huge flow of liquidity come in; poor countries were providing capital to rich countries, [like China to the United States],” he said. “As a result we had this global savings glut and huge inflows of liquidity. This, combined with the financial innovation, made the system go wild. Also what you see — and this is classic — is that when you have innovation and a burst of liquidity [together], you frequently have an asset bubble. And in this case it was in the real estate market.”

Photo credit: Randen Pederson