For quite some time, but in particular since the late 1990s, the world has experienced a chronic shortage of financial assets to store value. The reasons behind this shortage are varied. They include the rise in savings needs by aging populations in Japan and Europe, the fast growth and global integration of high saving economies, the precautionary response of emerging markets to earlier financial crises, and the intertemporal smoothing of commodity producing economies.
The immediate consequence of the high demand for store-of-value instruments was a sustained decline in real interest rates. Conventional wisdom blames these low rates on loose monetary policy, but this position is difficult to reconcile with facts from the period of the so-called “Greenspan conundrum’’ – when tightening monetary policy had virtually no impact on long rates. In my view, the solution to the apparent conundrum is that low long rates were driven by the large demand for store-of-value instruments, not short-term monetary policy considerations.
That is, Bernanke's famous "savings glut," with an added tilt towards risk aversion. The "subprime" mess is a result of the attempts of the financial sector to manufacture assets to meet this demand:
Under this perspective, there is a more subtle angle on subprime mortgages than simply being the result of unscrupulous lenders. The world needed more assets and the subprime mortgages were helping to bridge the gap. So far so good.
However, there was one important caveat that would prove crucial later on. The global demand for assets was particularly for very safe assets – assets with AAA credit ratings. This is not surprising in light of the importance of central banks and sovereign wealth funds in creating this high demand for assets. Moreover, this trend toward safety became even more pronounced after the NASDAQ crash.
Soon enough, US banks found a “solution” to this mismatch between the demand for safe assets and the expansion of supply through the creation of risky subprime assets; the market moved to create synthetic AAA instruments. This consisted of pooling subprime mortgages on the asset side of a Structured Investment Vehicle (SIV), and to tranch (slice) the liability side to generate a AAA component buffered by the now ultra volatile “toxic” residual. The latter was then pooled again into Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), tranched again, and then into CDO-squared, and so on. At the end of this iterative process, many new AAA assets were produced out of some very risky subprime mortgages.
In a second column, he argues the financial system is afflicted with "Knightian uncertainty" - the possibility of truly unknowable outcomes, as opposed to standard "risk" where economists and financiers can attach a probability distribution to a set of known outcomes. The appropriate policy solution, therefore, is for the government to step in and take an increased role as an insurer (like it did for Citi):
Essentially, the US (and other) financial markets are experiencing the modern version of a systemic run as we had not seen since the Great Depression. It used to be that depositors ran from banks. Some of this still happens, but runs in modern financial markets, to be systemic, have to involve a larger class of assets. A run against explicit and implicit financial insurance is essentially a run against virtually all private sector financial transactions but for those with the shortest maturities. Thus, the modern lender-of-last resort facility has to be a provider of broad insurance, not just deposit insurance. This is what it will take to get us back into a reasonable equilibrium where we can initiate a recovery from a (more) “normal” recession. We will see if the second round of the TARP and future Fed improvisations incorporate more of an insurance component, which would involve the government taking on more contingent liabilities, rather than spending directly (which might be a way of getting around budget limits imposed by Congress, for better or worse). One thing we can be sure of is that the ballooning deficit means that the federal government will be making plenty of safe assets (Treasury bonds) available.