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Placing Our Faith in Economic Oracles

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

One of the sadder categories in the history of human misfortunes is the list of those things that are obvious, but wrong. By definition, if something is obvious, most people agree with it, and thus, it is likely to win the day -- but lose the verdict of history. The Earth is flat -- obviously. The sun rotates around the Earth -- obviously. What we need is a financial systemic-risk regulator who can spot an impending systemic financial risk -- and stop it. Obviously?

Unfortunately, save for a few Republican senators and outside experts, it is obvious to most of official Washington that, as Sen. Christopher J. Dodd's Banking Committee gets ready to mark up the financial regulation bill, only the form that a financial systemic-risk regulator should take is seriously in dispute.

What could be more obvious than the lamentable fact that the economic crisis occurred because our regulatory mechanisms failed in 2007-08 to spot the impending financial crash? And that the failure occurred because no one was looking at the entire financial system -- only individual pieces of it? If some regulatory body had been looking at the entire system, the danger could have been spotted and corrected. So, obviously we need a systemic-risk regulator.

But what do we mean by systemic? All American banks? All American financial transactions? All economic activity in America? No, in a globalized economy, the system in question is the entirety of global financial activity -- and all other economic activity that might affect financial decisions. In other words, the system is the entire global economy. My, my, that is a lot even for a building full of Ivy League economists to fully comprehend. If they could, they would be in business making trillions of dollars.

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For instance, Iceland had a systemic crisis last year because some loan officers in Florida and elsewhere authorized loans to unqualified borrowers, and then thousands of such loans were bundled together by Wall Street investment banks and sold as reliable investments to banks all over the world -- thus starting a process that undermined Icelandic banks.

The next systemic financial crisis might happen because the Chinese Communist Party decides -- for geopolitical rather than financial reasons -- to order the immediate sale of all China's U.S. Treasury notes. Or perhaps it will be caused by Britain getting into -- and losing -- a war with Argentina over oil in the Falkland Islands that results in the collapse of the British pound, which reverberates around the financial world.

Or, to be more prosaic, the next systemic failure may result from a failure to recognize that what looked like a healthy increase in the value of information technology stocks, or real estate, or green technology stocks was really a bubble -- which burst.

Or perhaps the next systemic failure will result from American banks being too cautious in their loan policies, resulting in a slow-motion collapse of small business -- which usually creates about two-thirds of all new jobs -- thus causing so many bankruptcies and skyrocketing unemployment that most American banks fail also.

Or perhaps hedge funds will be so closely regulated that their investments yield less than 8 percent -- resulting in their primary clients -- pension funds -- not being able to deliver the full, guaranteed value of pensions to 50 million retired people. The resulting national panic might cause a systemic crisis of confidence in our economic system, followed by riots and economic collapse.

How likely is it that the 300 statisticians and economists working for the new systemic-risk regulator would catch any of these -- or an infinite number of other -- possible systemic risks? Well, you might say, we wouldn't be worse off than we are now -- so it's worth the effort.

But the purpose of the proposed systemic-risk regulator is not only to spot the impending systemic risk -- but to intervene to prevent it from happening. Consider the power such a regulator would have. Consider that the existence of such a regulator would increase moral hazard -- as it would be assumed that if the systemic regulator isn't warning of danger, market players would be more likely to assume risk is low. And consider the consequences of using such power mistakenly.

For example, let's say the regulator spots what he believes is a dangerous national real estate bubble. He acts quickly to snuff it out by raising interest rates or requiring minimum 40 percent down payments or some other intervention. What was a booming economy with 3 percent unemployment turns into a hard recession with 8 percent to 10 percent unemployment.

But later it is determined that it was not a bubble, but rather the beginning of what would have been a steady, healthy increase in value. Imagine if such a regulator had existed in 1955 and snuffed out the great post-World War II expansion that made America a prosperous middle-class nation of homeowners in suburbia rather than poorer renters in the city.

It is not given to the smartest people in the world the capacity to see the future, to discern with sufficient precision the details of the moment that cause the critical consequences in the future.

But it certainly is the lamentable history of man that we have the power to screw things up all the time. Remember the vaunted Japanese industrial policy of the 1970s that was going to permit Japan to shrewdly dominate the economic world over us hapless free-market countries with no governmental power to identify the industries of tomorrow?

In the end, the call for a systemic-risk regulator is yet another futile expression of faith in the power of government to outthink the markets. It is another foolish bet on bureaucrats and politicians in a tightly regulated economy being more likely to bring prosperity than free businessmen, investors and consumers in a free market. It is the biggest sucker bet in history: a bet on tyranny over liberty.

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