This is an excellent book because it is very broad and comprehensive in its treatment of the recent 2007-2008 financial crisis but also because Stiglitz discusses the international consequences and the impact such a financial disaster should have on the field and study of economics. Stiglitz discusses the five primary underlying causes of the 2007-2008 financial crisis as bad lending practices, fees and incentives allowed mortgage originators and others to ignore the weaknesses of the underlying mortgages, the collateral was inflated in a housing bubble, the financial institutions were over-leveraged, and a wilderness of new derivatives gave the impression that risks were under control when in fact they had become unsustainable. Stiglitz does not look for villains or try to blame the crisis on moral or personal failures. Rather, he indicates and supports his contention that this was a systemic failure put into place by failure to correctly estimate the dangers of deregulation and to manage the incentive systems so that moral hazard was controlled rather than increased. Stiglitz is a structuralist who does not wallow in terms like ‘greed’ which is so evident in the popular press. In Stiglitz’s view, greed cannot be addressed but incentives and opportunities for greed can be. He takes a systemic structural view to how the crisis came about and how the crisis should be addressed. Stiglitz also is able to contextualize the crisis by pointing out data regarding how wages for the middle and lower-middle classes has stagnated since around 1981. More women entered the workforce which allowed families to maintain a stable standard of living but this required two wage earners for each household rather than one. As wages and standards of living stagnated for almost 25 years, home equity increased and equity withdrawals allowed middle income homes to maintain their standard of living.
Stiglitz is an extremely well organized writer. For example he outlines the content of a good mortgage product: low interest rates, low transaction fees, predictable payments, no hidden costs, and protection against value loss or job loss. Stiglitz points out that financial markets should serve a societal good, like hospitals or schools or utility companies. Financial markets should optimally allocate under used capital for production and innovation while managing risks and maintaining low reasonable transaction fees. Stiglitz thinks these financial markets failed. There should be cause for concern around the financial health of the United States when in 2007 41% of all corporate profit was generated by financial firms. Support for innovations weakened in a market environment in which innovations that circumvented regulation and oversight gathered the focus of the financial industry.
Stiglitz builds the case that efforts to blame the government for the 2007-2008 financial crises are insubstantial. Ironically the financial instruments used against the lower working classes eventually brought down the financial institutions themselves. Efforts to deregulate and weaken government oversight resulted in the United States owning the largest automobile and insurance companies in the world. Stiglitz points out those subsidies to financial corporations make the economic system less efficient and these subsidies when to financial firms which had gone to great lengths to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Another irony pointed out by Stiglitz was that executive contracts at AIG were fully honored despite huge losses because the case was made that the government should not undermine contracts, whereas the union contracts at GM were undermined and had to be re-negotiated. One sentence from the book summarizes this: The 7 largest financial firms had losses of 100 billion dollars, were bailed out by the government with 175 billion dollars, and then gave the very executives that created the crisis 33 billion in bonuses.
This book spends a reasonable amount of time on the financial crisis but then analyzes the recovery and stimulus strategies. Stiglitz points out that a crisis does not destroy the underlying assets of an economy- physical plants, natural resources, the knowledge and skills of the workforce, technical knowledge and technologies are all still there. He points out the necessary ingredients for a successful stimulus package which would include: fast action and implementation, use of the multiplier effect to spread the impact of the stimulus, address long term infrastructural problems, invest in the future through research and innovation, should be fair to the middle class working families not just the affluent, should provide relief for short term hardships and should target job loss. Stiglitz makes the case that the stimulus package after the 2007-2008 crisis was too small and only spread out the pain of a slow recovery. Stiglitz is also critical of the lack-luster efforts to restructure financial markets by stopping casino type risks in derivative markets that result in little if any larger societal good. Further, Stiglitz spends considerable effort to explain multiple strategies that could have been undertaken for homeowners other than foreclosures, none of which were pursued. There was a clear tendency to blame the financially illiterate lower middle classes for the crisis when responsibility lay with the financial industry infrastructure and its perverse incentives. Mortgage originators and banks engaged in poor risk assessments and predatory lending practices – yet most government rescue efforts went to those who perpetuated the crisis.
Stiglitz points out that capitalism is an extremely robust economic model. It defeated feudalism during the middle ages. It can withstand high levels of inequality but eventually if private rewards are inverse to societal needs, then the entire system is in jeopardy.
Stiglitz has studied the impact of unequal knowledge in market transactions and finds that imperfect and asymmetric information challenges the concept of transparent equitable market transactions. Therefore the interest of the consumer should be a government responsibility.
Financial markets, in Stiglitz’s view, should benefit society as a whole by better allocation of capital to the most productive enterprise and to better manage risks. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 demonstrates that these markets failed. Their executives were rewarded with astronomical salaries and bonuses because they were supposed to know how to manage risks and they failed. Stiglitz points out that if these major financial firms were too big to fail, then they were too expensive to save and too big to manage. In fact, the failure of Lehman Brothers demonstrated these firms were unable to calculate their own worth. Lehman Brothers was showing 26 billion in assets on their books when in fact they had over 200 billion in losses.
Stiglitz finds the argument that TARP was necessary to strengthen the firms that managed most of American’s pension funds. He points out those retired and retiring tax payers would benefit more if the TARP money had been used to strengthen Social Security.
I found the book to be fascinating and far reaching with sections on how stock options for executives dilute share owner equity, the use of off-shore money havens that help support terrorist activities, and the Glass-Stegall act of 1933 that built a firewall between commercial and investment banking. Like Kaynes, Galbraith, and Krugman, Stiglitz does not think markets are self correcting. He points out that the irony of the Reagan-Thatcher approach to less government regulation led to more government control.