What do we learn from the troubles of Goldman Sachs, British Petroleum, Enron, Satyam, and other modern day corporations? These are the most sophisticated corporations ever formed yet victims of their own governance failures.
by Ejaz Ghani
China and India are both racing ahead economically. But the manner in which they are growing is dramatically different. Whereas China is a formidable exporter of manufactured goods, India has acquired a global reputation for exporting modern services. Indeed, India has leapfrogged over the manufacturing sector, going straight from agriculture into services.
The global financial and economic crisis of 2008 has brought an urgency to focus on shorter-term policy issues related to managing bubbles, analyzing current development paradigms, and drawing out policy lessons for future action, particularly lessons learned during the past two years. At the same, longer-term development challenges also must be addressed to avoid the mistakes of 1970s and 1980s when managing stabilization issues dominated economic policy making and development economics was pushed aside for a while. For example, with the exception of East Asian countries and more recently India, why are African, Eastern European and Central Asian, and other South Asian countries unable to sustain high growth rates for more than five to seven years? What are the policy implications of demographic changes and climate change? There is a need for policy discussion on frontier topics such as rethinking globalization in trade, finance, and labor; new economic geography; green growth; and inclusive, balanced, and sustainable growth.
The 15th-century Florentine Niccolo Machiavelli is said to be the first to state, “Never waste the opportunities offered by a good crisis.” During a crisis, countries experiment with policies and learn a lot in a hurry. This overview shares this learning on early policy responses to the current economic crisis, focusing particularly on specific issues that are of interest to policy makers and practitioners in the developing countries. The overview is a compilation of notes that staff members of the World Bank Institute have used during global dialogues and international seminars and conferences since October 2008.
What brought the world to the edge of an abyss in September 2008? After quickly recovering from the Asian crisis of 1997-98, world economic growth accelerated during the period 2000-07. However, in hindsight, there was a ‘perfect storm’ in the making as US and European housing defaults began to pile up beginning in late 2006, oil prices doubled in a few months during late 2007 and early 2008, while rice, wheat, and corn prices jumped by 40-50% during the same period.
Institutions matter was the oft chanted mantra for the past fifteen years. We were told that in the presence of social conflict between various groups, between haves and have-nots, political power precedes political institutions, economic institutions and economic policies. But, political power could be de jure (due to constitution, fair elections and smooth transition to political power) or de facto such as dictatorships and authoritarian leaders usurping power by coups and violence. Sixteenth century colonialism established ‘settler’ and ‘exploitative’ institutions depending on the then existing ‘climate’ in the colonized countries. For example, if the climate was unbearable and malaria-stricken, the colonial masters established an exploitative relationship of shipping out natural resources. If the climate was hospitable, they settled in with family in these countries and started administration and other institutions.
More recently good institutions were supposed to emerge when only de jure political power is in place. Also, a political and legal system that places constraints on elites is often conducive for better institutions. Following this logic, institutional economists have reasoned that advanced economies with de jure democratic political institutions have smooth transition, predictability and place constraints on elites and abuse of political power, and have strong institutions that ensure a system of checks on the executive, law and order, property rights, etc. The theory of institutions is that bad policy outcomes are the result of bad institutions and these are common in developing countries, where the distribution of political power needs to be reformed and deeper causes need to be strengthened. Others have argued that market-oriented institutions are important for economic policy management. By this categorization, advanced economies had better institutions that led to sound economic performance and consistently higher economic outcomes.
The financial system, measured by assets, profits, contribution to GDP, stock market capitalization, employment etc, has expanded rapidly since 1990. For example, global financial assets were about 50 trillion in 1989 and increased to about 200 trillion by 2007, during the same period financial depth increased from 200% of world GDP to 400% in 2007. The financial crisis has raised a plethora of issues, many of which are inter-twined. There have been failures on all fronts – market failures in the form of financial firms innovating new instruments while neglecting risk management practices, credit rating agencies failing in rating assets without much thought to risk, private auditors not checking Lehman Brothers’ assets and liabilities, government failures in the form of central bank keeping interest rates low in the run up to the crisis, and government entities such as Fannie and Freddie involved in mortgage lending and making enormous losses, and failure by regulators for not checking the books of financial firms such as Lehman Brothers that were moving toxic assets of the balance sheets, and last but least the financial economists who failed to foresee to crisis. There is plenty of blame to go around but one thing is clear: State ownership of financial firms is back. After decades of rising foreign ownership of banks (shrinking state ownership) in almost all regions, except the Middle East and South Asia, the trend could be reversed especially in the developed countries.
The crisis has shifted focus from foreign private ownership to some state ownership, from micro to macro prudential regulations, to re-assessment of deposit insurance, lender of last resort, and implicit guarantees, to consumer protection and taxpayer protection, from mark to market accounting to mark to funding, to revamping of credit rating agencies, to crisis in corporate governance and questioning of remuneration in financial firms, and to strengthening of supervision. These and a number of related issues of interest to policy makers are discussed below.
Given the large set of issues arising from the crisis, the major challenges facing countries are essentially two: (i) Government entities which are subsidizing directed credit (e.g. Frannie and Freddie in USA; similar type of ‘chaebol’ lending to industrial firms triggered the Asian crisis of 1997); and (ii) universality of too big to fail entities, where systemic important firms, often politically powerful conglomerates that are controlled by elites, have to be bailed out, which in turn leads to the moral hazard problem, where the large entity is considered worthy saving at all costs, including use of lender of last resort facilities from the Central Bank and tax payers money from the Treasury. The too big to fail entities also then knowingly max-out on leveraged lending (40 to one in case of USA) and ‘gamble’ on financially innovative instruments (e.g. mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps in case of USA). The large entities also have the political clout to suppress regulations and/or evade regulations. Successful regulation requires that the regulator should have information on exposure to systemic risks. Too big to fail institutions were exposed to CD swaps (e.g. AIG in USA) and we knew little about its exposure. The reason is that there is data on a firm by firm but there is no agency that can put it all together. But policy makers and politicians are reluctant to address these two problems head on. Instead the focus on a large set of problems, as detailed below, and obfuscate the issues.
I. Rethinking Fiscal Activism
The challenge of raising aggregate demand is now a global phenomenon. To get an understanding of the underlying processes, take the case of the US. Here, the fall in the stock market and owner occupied real estate led to an erosion of household wealth by over $10 trillion by June 2009. This led to an estimated decrease in aggregate demand by about $600 annually, or about 3% of GDP, due to a fall in household spending by about $400 billion and production by $200 billion. Automatic stabilizers like a decrease in personal and corporate taxes cushion the fall in aggregate demand by about a third, but still leaving a net GDP gap of about $400 billion annually1. So the present challenge in the US alone lies in policies that could potentially raise aggregate demand by about $400 billion annually.
In many advanced countries, including the United States, the scope of monetary policy to forcefully affect demand is limited to interest rates. However, interest rates in many of these countries are already at historically very low levels, leaving little leverage for further use of this instrument. In many emerging and developing economies, though central banks have lowered interest rates, they have done so cautiously so as to maintain incentives for capital inflows and external stability. Given the extent of the downturn and the limits to monetary policy action, fiscal policy is regarded as being crucial in providing short and medium term support to the global economy. However, while a fiscal response across many countries may be needed, not all countries have sufficient fiscal space to implement it since expansionary fiscal actions may threaten the sustainability of fiscal finances. This note discusses the possible fiscal policy goals, options and the potential long term impacts.
If you think the US financial system is broken, then you don’t know how much more broken the macroeconomic theory is. The traditional Keynesian model of ‘depression economics’ where increasing government spending could stimulate the economy was misused by governments, particularly in developing countries, for decades during the 1950s to the 1980s.
By early-2007, it became clear as housing prices began to decline, losses on sub-primate mortgages that originated in 2003-2006 were rising more rapidly than the assumptions used and risk-model predictions. The deterioration in borrowing quality and other shortcomings mentioned above gave little comfort to investors.
Proponents of state intervention argue that ‘market failures’ in information, coordination, credit and others necessitate ‘infant-industry protection’ and therefore an activist role for the government. For example, information about success or failure of new industries or technological adoption may be only available to investors and innovators and not shared with other entrepreneurs. Also, new industries and technologies require complementary human capital, and basic infrastructure among other things.