Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Floyd Norris' Book Selections

In the business section of the New York Times on Christmas Day, Floyd Norris offered a short list of the best books in 2009. The list contains six books:

--Liaquat Ahamed, Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World.
--Robert J. Barbera, The Cost of Capitalism: Understanding Market Mayhem and Stabilizing our Economic Future.
--Johan Cassidy, How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities
--Justin Fox, The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward and Delusion on Wall Street.
--Frank Portnoy, The Match King: Ivan Krueger, The Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals.
--T.J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

(Note that all six titles of colons and subtitles.)

I have not read the last two books and am not interested in them as far as the recent recession and financial crisis is concerned. Ahamed's book is fascinating, describing the relationahsips among the key central bankers in the years leading up to the Great Depression. I recently finished reading The Myth of the Rational Market and am ready to read How Markets Fail. The book by Fox focuses on the idea of efficient markets in finance. It is good in that it describes the theory relatively well, and presents some interesting anecdotes about the famous economists and finance professors who developed and tested the theories. But, Fox rejects efficient markets, and is much more favorable to behavioral finance. For all the labors he goes through, his bottom line solution is, "It leaves us with a need to find ways to temper speculative excess while acknowledging that we won't necessariyl be able to distinguish speculative excess from an entirely sustainable boom." (p. 319). Very helpful. With that we should be able to have a bright and riskless future.

In skimming through the introduction to the book, How Markets Fail, the topic is broader than the stock market, but looks at people like Hayek, Friedman, and others who advocated free marekts as the best way to organize economic activity. Cassidy also discusses behavior economics, but seeks to offer a broader critique that he calls reality-based economics. He criticizes the Fed for not trying to pop bubbles earlier.

This last point is interesting because it is a topic the members of the Open Market Committee had discussed. It is also a topic in Lords of Finance. Benjamin Strong, who was President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank until is death shortly before the stock market crash, believed there was a bubble but that the means that would be used to pop it could cause a big crash and a depression. After his death, the key decision makers in the Fed tried to pop the bubble, and we had a big crash and a severe recession. No one knows what a concerted effort to pop the housing or stock market bubbles in 2005 or 2006 would have brought about. Perhaps a less severe recession, and perhaps just as severe a recession only sooner.

I also have not read The Cost of Capitalism, but Norris describes it as an attempt to exlain the importance of Hyman Minsky and to demolish neoclassical economics. I have recently read Minsky's, Stabilizing an Unstable Economy (no subtitle). I found Minsky to be difficult to read--not because the ideas or writing was difficult but because I found so much of it to be nonsense. He described the period from 1946 to 1966 as one in which the U.S. had a stable economic and financial system, and that it has become more unstable since then. The reason for the increasing instability is financial innovation. In the end, he calls for a much larger role for government to keep the system more stable. I suspect that Minsky would have argued that he paid more attention to historical realities than traditional economists. I am not sure that is true though.

Many people around my age (baby boomers) recall the time Minsky said was stable in nostagic terms. The U.S. economy was strong and American firms dominated the world's economy. This was the time period when things were normal. But this is false; it was a time of abnormality. World War II left Europe and Japan in shambles. It took time for these economies to recover and rebuild. It took time before they could compete with American business. The world economy became more normal in the sixties.

There is another historical dimension glossed over by Minsky--the actions the government was taking. Lyndon Johnson won the presidency with a huge mandate and a Democratic Congress. He pushed for more government involvement in the economy through things like Medicare and the war on poverty. Meanwhile, we also had an actual war in Vietnam than picked up steam. The resulting pressure on prices led to the Fed mostly accommodating the fiscal policy, but sometimes trying to reduce inflation. The end result was often a stop-start monetary policy that saw inflation and unemployment increasing. The continued conflicts in the Middle East and the new-found power of OPEC led to large increases in oil prices. U.S. labor markets experienced a huge influx of young workers as baby-boomers entered in large numbers, and as women began seeking long-term careers rather than jobs until marriage and children. Minsky makes no reference to any of these changes in the U.S. that surely had repurcussions on the stability of the economy.

So, I must disagree about the greatness of several of the books selected by Norris. (I'll offer my own list in a later post). But I would like to finish the lengthy post with one other observation. The Federal Reserve was created in 1914 after the turmoil of the Panic of 1907. The Fed was supposed to make such panics a thing of the past. Yet, twenty-five years later we were in the worst depression the country ever experienced. Many economists blame the Fed for the severity and length of the depression. If people followed the pattern of many books today--the recession we just had shows the bankruptcy of economics and of markets. One could have concluded with better justification for the argument in 1930 that the Fed failed so miserably that it should have been disbanded.

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