The Crisis & What to Do About It

Published on NYbooks, by George Soros, Volume 55, Number 19, December 4, 2008.

… The cat-and-mouse game between regulators and market participants is already ongoing, but its true nature has not yet been acknowledged. Alan Greenspan was a past master of manipulation with his Delphic utterances, but instead of acknowledging what he was doing he pretended that he was merely a passive observer of the facts. Reflexivity remained a state secret. That is why the super-bubble could develop so far during his tenure.

Since money and credit do not move in lockstep and asset bubbles cannot be controlled purely by monetary means, additional tools must be employed, or more accurately reactivated, since they were in active use in the 1950s and 1960s. I refer to variable margin requirements and minimal capital requirements, which are meant to control the amount of leverage market participants can employ. Central banks even used to issue guidance to banks about how they should allocate loans to specific sectors of the economy. Such directives may be preferable to the blunt instruments of monetary policy in combating “irrational exuberance” in particular sectors, such as information technology or real estate. 

Sophisticated financial engineering of the kind I have mentioned can render the calculation of margin and capital requirements extremely difficult if not impossible. In order to activate such requirements, financial engineering must also be regulated and new products must be registered and approved by the appropriate authorities before they can be used. Such regulation should be a high priority of the new Obama administration. It is all the more necessary because financial engineering often aims at circumventing regulations.

Take for example credit default swaps (CDSs), instruments intended to insure against the possibility of bonds and other forms of debt going into default, and whose price captures the perceived risk of such a possibility occurring. These instruments grew like Topsy because they required much less capital than owning or shorting the underlying bonds. Eventually they grew to more than $50 trillion in nominal size, which is a many-fold multiple of the underlying bonds and five times the entire US national debt. Yet the market in credit default swaps has remained entirely unregulated. AIG, the insurance company, lost a fortune selling credit default swaps as a form of insurance and had to be bailed out, costing the Treasury $126 billion so far. Although the CDS market may be eventually saved from the meltdown that has occurred in many other markets, the sheer existence of an unregulated market of this size has been a major factor in increasing risk throughout the entire financial system … (full long text).

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