Financial Crisis

A Couple of Krugman Kicks


Raghuram Rajan takes long, detailed exception to a Paul (The Smartest Liberal on Earth™) Krugman (I understand he's won a famous prize) co-authored review of his book Fault Lines at the New York Times Freakonomics blog. Rajan particularly focuses on Krugman's (ever-shifting) denial that federal housing policy was important in precipitating the crisis: [UPDATE: This article, though it only came to my attention today, was from September. However, its points are still as timely as tomorrow's shitty economic news.]

In absolving Fannie and Freddie, Krugman has been consistent over time, though his explanations as to why Fannie and Freddie are not partially to blame have morphed as his errors have been pointed out.  First, he argued that Fannie and Freddie could not participate in sub-prime financing. Then he argued that their share of financing was falling in the years mortgage loan quality deteriorated the most.  Now he claims that if they indeed did it (and they did not), it was because of the profit motive and not to fulfill a social objective…..

Critics were quick to point out that Krugman had his facts wrong. As Charles Calomiris, a professor at Columbia University, and Peter Wallison, of the American Enterprise Institute (and member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission), explained, "Here Krugman demonstrates confusion about the law (which did not prohibit subprime lending by the GSEs), misunderstands the regulatory regime under which they operated (which did not have the capacity to control their risk-taking), and mismeasures their actual subprime exposures (which he wrongly states were zero)."

So Krugman shifted his emphasis. In his blog critique of a Financial Times op-ed I wrote in June 2010, Krugman no longer argued that Fannie and Freddie could not buy sub-prime mortgages. Instead, he emphasized the slightly falling share of Fannie and Freddie's residential mortgage securitizations in the years 2004 to 2006 as the reason they were not responsible. Here again he presents a misleading picture. Not only did Fannie and Freddie purchase whole sub-prime loans that were not securitized (and are thus not counted in its share of securitizations), they also bought substantial amounts of private-label mortgage-backed securities issued by others. When these are taken into account, Fannie and Freddie's share of the sub-prime market financing did increase even in those years.

The Krug also doubts that monetary policy played a role, and Rahan hits him on that as well:

He argues that the Fed's very accommodative monetary policy over the period 2003 to 2005 was also not responsible for the crisis. Here Krugman is characteristically dismissive of alternative views. In his review, he says that there were good reasons for the Fed to keep rates low given the high unemployment rate. Although this may be a justification for the Fed's policy (as I argue in my book, it was precisely because the Fed was focused on a stubbornly high unemployment rate that it took its eye off the irrational exuberance building in housing markets and the financial sector), it in no way validates the claim that the policy did not contribute to the manic lending or housing bubble.

A second argument that Krugman makes is that Europe too had bubbles and the European Central Bank was less aggressive than the Federal Reserve, so monetary policy could not be responsible. It is true that the European Central Bank was less aggressive, but only slightly so: It brought its key refinancing rate down to only 2 percent, while the Fed brought the Fed Funds rate down to 1 percent. Clearly, both rates were low by historical standards. More important, what Krugman does not point out is that different Euro-area economies had differing inflation rates, so the real monetary policy rate was substantially different across the Euro area despite a common nominal policy rate. Countries that had strongly negative real policy rates — Ireland and Spain are primary exhibits — had a housing boom and bust, while countries like Germany with low inflation, and therefore higher real policy rates, did not. Indeed, a working paper by two ECB economists, Angela Maddaloniand José-Luis Peydró, indicates that the ultra-low rates enforced by both the ECB and the Fed at this time had a strong causal effect in relaxing banks' commercial, mortgage, and retail lending standards over this period.

What does Krugman blame for the bubble and bust? Foreign savers reinvesting their saved bucks in the U.S. and driving down longterm interest rates.

In other kicking-Krugman news, Steven Horwitz in The Freeman on Krugman's call: "Let's Have a War! We could all use the money!"

Spending trillions of dollars fighting a war can certainly bring idle capital and labor into employment, driving up GDP and lowering unemployment. But this does not mean we are any wealthier than before.

Wealth increases when people are able to engage in exchanges they believe will be mutually beneficial. The production of new goods that consumers wish to purchase is the beginning of this process. When instead we borrow from future generations to spend on goods and services connected not to the desires of consumers, but rather to the desire of the politically powerful to rain death and destruction on other parts of the world, we are not allowing individuals the freedom to do the things they think will make themselves better off. And we are certainly not extending that freedom to those killed in the name of our economy-enhancing war….

Employing people to dig holes and fill them up again, or to build bombs that will blow up Iraqis, will certainly reduce unemployment and increase GDP, but it won't increase wealth. The problem of economics is the problem of coordinating producers and consumers. This coordination happens when we produce what consumers want using the least valuable resources possible. That is why it is wealth-enhancing to dig a canal using earth-movers with a few drivers rather than millions of people using spoons, even though the latter would generate more jobs.

Sending soldiers off to war is a waste of human and material resources, and is almost by definition wealth-destroying, no matter what it does to GDP or unemployment rates. The only way one can view economics amorally, as Krugman wishes to, is if one is only concerned with total GDP and not its composition. However, it is the composition of GDP, in the sense of how well what we've produced matches consumer wants, that ultimately matters for human well-being.

Fear preceded Krugman: