How can we reduce risk for individuals? That's a natural question when a financial crisis has vaporized trillions of dollars of personal wealth in residential real estate and financial instruments. The problem is, when you try to reduce risk for individuals too much, you end up making things much more risky.
Case in point: the financial system over the past decade. Our current difficulties arose from "the idea," as Nicole Gelinas describes it in the New York Post, "that any loan, bond or other bank asset could be sliced up and turned into an instantly liquid, priceable and tradeable security, with all its risks engineered away." The securitization of mortgages seemed to reduce risk for everyone -- for the lender (who avoided risk of non-payment by selling the mortgage), for the borrower (who got the mortgage at a lower rate than otherwise) and for the purchaser (because all those mortgages couldn't got belly up at once, could they?).
The problem was that the risk models were based on the experience of only the last seven years or so, and that both the Clinton and Bush administrations and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac encouraged the granting of mortgages to borrowers who were, by previous standards, non-creditworthy.
So eliminating risk ended up creating huge risk for everyone -- so huge that just about no one, even the Treasury armed with $700 billion -- wants to purchase the securitized mortgages in bank portfolios.
Or take another case recently in the news. The United Auto Workers, a forward-thinking union, wanted to eliminate the risk for its members of retiring without comfortable pensions and entirely free medical care. So they negotiated contracts with what we used to call the Big Three U.S. auto companies that guaranteed UAW retirees big pensions and free medical care for life.
But that assumed that the companies could always fund those benefits. If, as now seems possible, the Detroit Three go bankrupt, those pensions will be replaced by limited government pensions and those free retiree health benefits will vanish altogether. Eliminating risk turned out to be very risky.
Which is my answer to those, like Yale Professor Jacob Hacker, who advocate public policies to reduce risk for individuals. In his book "The Great Risk Shift," Hacker argues that the move over the past 25 years from defined-benefit pensions (in which an employer pays into a pension fund) to defined-contribution pensions (in which an employer pays into every employee's personal investment account) makes life unbearably risky for ordinary people. And to be sure, almost everyone's 401(k) account has shrunk over the last three months.