If you are an economist you should be more, not less, outraged by the corruption and fraud of our financial elites. As Matt Stoller points out, they represent market inefficiencies and introduce far greater uncertainty than mere regulation.
Matt Stoller: Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto Cracks Open the Financial Crisis
Matt Stoller, Naked Capitalism
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Our essential economic problem is that our economy allocates resources through a mediating system of banks that are broken and/or corrupt. If you look at a chart of the recession, and then the recovery, you’ll notice that business investment perked up, but residential investment did not. The Fed lowered rates, bought Treasury bonds, and bought mortgage backed securities to lower rates for homeowners. But it’s not really working, because the monetary channel is corrupt. This indictment gets to that problem, it alleges tens of thousands of forged documents (or as a friend told me sarcastically, an afternoon’s worth of work for LPS). These documents represent foreclosures, economic loss, and clouded title. The indictments handed down, and the ones to come, show that corrupting our property laws and the basis of our economy is a crime.
First President Bush, and then President Obama, tried to reconstruct an economic system based on a corrupted transmission mechanism from the Fed to the real economy. This was the financial crisis, it’s why abstract derivatives based on subprime mortgages knocked trillions of productive output off of the economy. Corruption is really inefficient.
I think it’s important to begin considering criminal justice as a core element of economic policy. I’d like to hear from Suskind, Klein, Krugman, and others just where they think allowing massive systemic fraud fits into the analysis of what went wrong. After all, Eric Holder had ample prosecutorial discretion, so none of the usual arguments about political constraints apply. Allowing the corrupt monetary channel to continue was simply a policy choice. If the under-resourced Nevada Attorney General could make such a different policy choice, then a powerful by comparison White House and Justice Department could make it as well. And this sort of show of power does not operate in a vacuum. Taking on, and taking down, corrupt members of the elite would also have exposed all sorts of fracture lines, and would likely have change the Congressional dynamics that people argue is immutable. Bank executives would have had a strong personal incentive to fix housing problems and excessive debt loads, and politicians react differently when an act is officially deemed a crime.
The demand for justice, for a society to place certain activities outside of the bounds of socially acceptable, is not just about satisfaction of the public for wrongs committed. I get the sense that fraud for most economists is considered something of a side issue, a kind of aesthetic political problem to be ignored in favor of more significant questions of stimulus and regulatory policies. This is a baffling attitude. One of my favorite financial legal bloggers, Carolyn Sissiko, has pointed out that fraud actually can have significant macro-economic impacts by distorting bank balance sheets.
The felony indictments from the Nevada AG’s office are the first sign that the law enforcement community can take financial crimes seriously, that blowing up the economy through financial mismanagement can carry costs. There’s a lot of research to be done on the costs of fraud, and the costs of foreclosures. We don’t know that much about these costs, because there haven’t been investigations and there isn’t a lot of good public data. After all, we mostly just take our property rights system for granted, the notion that clouded titles or a broken $10 trillion mortgage market could inhibit growth simply was not imaginable a few years ago. What is clear is that there is a deep public hunger for justice. And I suspect, that if that hunger had been satiated a few years ago and if Holder had begun handing down indictments, mortgage servicer executives would have begun a serious loan workout program.
And our economy would probably be in much better shape. When you throw your capital into the hands of people who have no incentive to use it wisely, the economy suffers. When you enforce the rule of law, sound business models prevail and ordinary citizens have more confidence in the system and spend and invest accordingly. As an economic policy, justice works.
Unfortunately many economists are not scholars or scientists or even technicians, but merely enthusiastic members of the choir of Mammon, faith based believers who ignore evidence and logic.