Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance

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Overview

"A succinct, lucid and compelling account . . . Essential reading." -Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Renowned economist Nouriel Roubini electrified the financial community by predicting the current crisis before others in his field saw it coming. This myth-shattering book reveals the methods he used to foretell the current crisis and shows how those methods can help us make sense of the present and prepare for the future. Using an unconventional blend of historical analysis...

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Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance

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Overview

"A succinct, lucid and compelling account . . . Essential reading." -Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Renowned economist Nouriel Roubini electrified the financial community by predicting the current crisis before others in his field saw it coming. This myth-shattering book reveals the methods he used to foretell the current crisis and shows how those methods can help us make sense of the present and prepare for the future. Using an unconventional blend of historical analysis with masterful knowledge of global economics, Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm, a journalist and professor of economic history, present a vital and timeless book that proves calamities to be not only predictable but also preventable and, with the right medicine, curable.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

In years gone by, they called Nouriel Roubini "Doctor Doom." Now, the NYU professor who predicted our recent economic woes attracts more laudatory nicknames and much more watchful attention. Like his previous works, his new Crisis Economics far transcends mere jeremiads. Cutting across centuries, countries and continents, Dr. Roubini's comprehensive analysis encompasses a host of regional economic disasters that he argues manifest clear causes and possible corrective measures. Measured words in troubled times. (Hand-selling tip: Roubini's co-author possesses strong credentials. Dr. Stephen Mihm is a professor of economic history and a New York Times Magazine writer.)

Michiko Kakutani
Mr. Roubini…uses his gifts as a teacher to give the lay reader a succinct, lucid and compelling account of the causes and consequences of the great meltdown of 2008…Crisis Economics is…essential reading for anyone interested in getting a crisp, if opinionated, overview of how the global financial system seized up in the fall of 2008 and what may happen in the months and years to come if serious reforms and new regulations are not embraced. Instead of imposing a doctrinaire theory upon the facts, Mr. Roubini employs an eclectic, common-sense approach to history, picking a la carte from the thinking of such disparate economists as John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter.
—The New York Times
Paul M. Barrett
Readers hungry for more of the professor's grim analysis will appreciate his erudition. Even people who aren't finance buffs ought to read and heed his words. To his credit, Roubini doesn't merely recount how right he was. After a brisk recap of Wall Street's scariest hours since the Great Depression, he turns to the question of the moment: how to prevent such debacles in the future?…His ideas aren't all politically feasible, but that doesn’t make them any less sensible.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Roubini (Bailouts or Bail-ins), a professor of economics at NYU, was greeted with skepticism when he warned a 2006 meeting of the IMF that a deep recession was imminent. Along with economics historian Mihm, (A Nation of Counterfeiters) Roubini provides an in-depth analysis of the role of crises in capitalist economies from a historical perspective. With thumbnail sketches of nineteenth and twentieth century economic thought from Smith, Keynes, and others, they provide a context for understanding financial markets and the ways in which bankers and politicians relate to them. The authors also offer a theoretical context for understanding the current economic crisis and for using it as "an object lesson... in how to foresee them, prevent them, weather them, and clean up after them." Dismissing the "quaint beliefs" that markets are "self-regulating," they take issue with the simplistic populist assumption that the present crisis was caused by greed or something "as inconsequential as subprime mortgages." They blame Alan Greenspan's refusal to use the power of the Fed to dampen unbridled speculation, choosing instead to pump "vast quantities of easy money into the economy and keep it there for too long." This will be a useful guide for readers attempting to get a handle on the present crisis.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Two professors explain how we got into the current economic mess and offer a prescription for the way out. Roubini (Economics/New York Univ.; co-author, New International Financial Architecture, 2006, etc.) and Mihm (History/Univ. of Georgia; A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States, 2007, etc.) define crisis economics as "the study of how and why markets fail." The origins of the current upheaval, they contend, are deeply structural-far more severe than simply a housing bubble and the securitization of bad loans-and the storms will persist. They preface their proposed remedies with a whirlwind tour of past crises, a survey of economic thinkers who offer insights into why markets collapse, an analysis of how today's unstable moment compares with past market traumas and a look at the special dangers posed by our integrated global economy. Critiquing the unprecedented emergency measures taken recently to right the economic ship, they warn of the unintended consequences likely to flow from hasty decisions made under extreme pressure. We should use this moment of relative calm, they argue, to institute necessary changes. These range from the fundamental-reform of Wall Street's compensation system, the securitization process and private ratings agencies, and a crackdown on derivatives and bank supervision-to the radical-thoroughly rethinking the nature and composition of regulatory agencies, tackling the problem of financial institutions currently deemed "too big to fail" and using the government's tools to discourage predictable and disastrous economic bubbles. Notwithstanding their argument's scholarly scaffolding, Roubini and Mihm manage a smooth translation of the dismal science. Their challenging yet accessible narrative will reward general readers, many of whom are stunned by recent developments and suddenly seized with questions about how our economy works-and doesn't. An impressive, timely argument on behalf of transparency and stability for a financial system conspicuously lacking both. Tie-in with author's lecture schedule
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143119630
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 4/26/2011
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 692,189
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Nouriel Roubini is a professor of economics at New York University's Stern School of Business and the founder and chairman of Roubini Global Economics. He has served in the White House and the U.S. Treasury. He lives in New York City.

Stephen Mihm writes on economics and history for The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications and is an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia. He lives in Decatur, Georgia.

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Read an Excerpt

For the past half century, academic economists, Wall Street traders, and everyone in between have been led astray by fairy tales about the wonders of unregulated markets and the limitless benefits of financial innovation. The crisis dealt a body blow to that belief system, but nothing has replaced it.

That’s all too evident in the timid reform proposals currently being considered in the United States and other advanced economies. Even though they have suffered the worst financial crisis in generations, many countries have shown a remarkable reluctance to inaugurate the sort of wholesale reform necessary to bring the financial system to heel. Instead, people talk of tinkering with the financial system, as if what just happened was caused by a few bad mortgages.

Throughout most of 2009, Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly tried to quash calls for sweeping regulation of the financial system. In speeches and in testimony before Congress, he begged his listeners to keep financial innovation alive and “resist a response that is solely designed to protect us against the 100-year storm”.

That’s ridiculous. What we’ve experienced wasn’t some crazy once-in-a-century event. Since its founding, the United States has suffered from brutal banking crises and other financial disasters on a regular basis. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, crippling panics and depressions hit the nation again and again. The crisis was less a function of sub-prime mortgages than of a sub-prime financial system. Thanks to everything from warped compensation structures to corrupt ratings agencies, the global financial system rotted from the inside out. The financial crisis merely ripped the sleek and shiny skin off what had become, over the years, a gangrenous mess.

The road to recovery will be a long one. For starters, traders and bankers must be compensated in a way that brings their interests in alignment with those of shareholders. That doesn’t necessarily mean less compensation, even if that’s desirable for other reasons; it merely means that employees of financial firms should be paid in ways that encourage them to look out for the long-term interests of the firms.

Securitization must be overhauled as well. Simplistic solutions, such as asking banks to retain some of the risk, won’t be enough; far more radical reforms will be necessary. Securitization must have far greater transparency and standardization, and the products of the securitization pipeline must be heavily regulated. Most important of all, the loans going into the securitization pipeline must be subject to far greater scrutiny. The mortgages and other loans must be of high quality, or if not, they must be very clearly identified as less than prime and therefore risky.

Some people believe that securitization should be abolished. That’s short-sighted: properly reformed, securitization can be a valuable tool that reduces, rather than exacerbates, systemic risk. But in order for it to work, it must operate in a far more transparent and standardized fashion than it does now.

Absent this shift, accurately pricing these securities, much less reviving the market for securitization, is next to impossible. What we need are reforms that deliver the peace of mind that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did when it was created.

Let’s begin with standardization. At the present time, there is little standardization in the way asset-backed securities are put together. The “deal structures” (the fine print) can vary greatly from offering to offering. Monthly reports on deals (“monthly service performance reports”) also vary greatly in level of detail provided. This information should be standardized and pooled in one place.

It could be done through private channels or, better, under the auspices of the federal government. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) could require anyone issuing asset-backed securities to disclose a range of standard information on everything from the assets or original loans to the amounts paid to the individuals or institutions that originated the security.

Precisely how this information is standardized doesn’t matter, so long as it is done: we must have some way to compare these different kinds of securities so they can be accurately priced. At the present time, we are stymied by a serious apples-and-oranges problem: the absence of standardization makes comparing them with any accuracy impossible. Put differently, the current system gives us no way to quantify risk; there’s far too much uncertainty.

Standardization, once achieved, would inevitably create more liquid and transparent markets for these securities. That’s well and good, but a few caveats also come to mind. First, bringing some transparency to plain-vanilla asset-backed securities is relatively easy; it’s more difficult to do so with preposterously complicated securities like Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), much less chimerical creations like the CDO2 and the CDO3.

Think for a moment about what goes into a typical CDO. Start with a thousand different individual loans, be they commercial mortgages, residential mortgages, auto loans, credit card receivables, small business loans, student loans, or corporate loans. Package them together into an asset-backed security (ABS). Take that ABS and combine it with 99 other ABSs so that you have 100 of them. That’s your CDO. Now take that CDO and combine it with another 99 different CDOs, each of which has its own unique mix of ABSs and underlying assets. Do the math: in theory, the purchaser of this CDO is supposed to somehow get a handle on the health of 10m underlying loans. Is that going to happen? Of course not.

For that reason, securities like CDOs — which now go by the nickname of Chernobyl Death Obligations — must be heavily regulated if not banned.

In their present incarnation, they are too estranged from the assets that give them value and are next to impossible to standardize. Thanks in large part to their individual complexity, they don’t transfer risk so much as mask it under the cover of esoteric and ultimately misleading risk-management strategies.

In fact, the curious career of CDOs and other toxic securities brings to mind another, less celebrated acronym: GIGO, or “garbage in, garbage out”.

Or to use a sausage-making metaphor: if you put rat meat and trichinosis-laced pig parts into your sausage, then combine it with lots of other kinds of sausage (each filled with equally nasty stuff), you haven’t solved the problem; you still have some pretty sickening sausage.

The most important angle of securitization reform, then, is the quality of the ingredients. In the end, the problem with securitization is less that the ingredients were sliced and diced beyond recognition than that much of what went into these securities was never very good in the first place.

Put differently, the problem with originate-and-distribute lies less with the distribution than with the origination. What matters most is the creditworthiness of the loans issued in the first place.

Equally comprehensive reforms must be imposed on the kinds of deadly derivatives that blew up in the recent crisis. So-called over-the-counter derivatives — better described as under-the-table — must be hauled into the light of day, put on central clearing houses and exchanges and registered in databases; their use must be appropriately restricted. Moreover, the regulation of derivatives should be consolidated under a single regulator.

The ratings agencies must also be collared and forced to change their business model. That they now derive their revenue from the firms they rate has created a massive conflict of interests. Investors should be paying for ratings on debt, not the institutions that issue the debt. Nor should the rating agencies be permitted to sell “consulting” services on the side to issuers of debt; that creates another conflict of interests. Finally, the business of rating debt should be thrown open to far more competition. At the present time, a handful of firms have far too much power.

Even more radical reforms must be implemented as well. Certain institutions considered too big to fail must be broken up, including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. But many other, less visible, firms deserve to be dismantled as well. Moreover, Congress should resurrect the Glass-Steagall banking legislation that it repealed a decade ago but also go further, updating it to reflect the far greater challenges posed not only by banks but by the shadow banking system.

These reforms are sensible, but even the most carefully conceived regulations can go awry. Financial firms habitually engage in arbitrage, moving their operations from a well-regulated domain to one outside government purview. The fragmented, decentralized state of regulation in the United States has exacerbated this problem. So has the fact that the profession of financial regulator has, until very recently, been considered a dead-end, poorly-paid job.

Most of these problems can be addressed. Regulations can be carefully crafted with an eye toward the future, closing loopholes before they open. That means resisting the understandable impulse to apply regulations only to a select class of firms — the too-big-too-fail institutions, for example — and instead imposing them across the board, in order to prevent financial intermediation from moving to smaller, less-regulated firms.

Likewise, regulation can and should be consolidated in the hands of fewer, more powerful regulators. And most important of all, regulators can be compensated in a manner befitting the key role they play in safeguarding our financial security.

Central banks arguably have the most power — and the most responsibility — to protect the financial system. In recent years, they have performed poorly. They have failed to enforce their own regulation, and worse, they have done nothing to prevent speculative manias from spinning out of control.

If anything, they have fed those bubbles, and then, as if to compensate, have done everything in their power to save the victims of the inevitable crash. That’s inexcusable. In the future, central banks must proactively use monetary policy and credit policy to rein in and tame speculative bubbles.

Central banks alone can’t handle the challenges facing the global economy. Large and destabilizing global current account imbalances threaten long-term economic stability, as does the risk of a rapidly depreciating dollar; addressing both problems requires a new commitment to international economic governance. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) must be strengthened and given the power to supply the makings of a new international reserve currency.

And how the IMF governs itself must be seriously reformed. For too long, a handful of smaller, ageing economies have dominated IMF governance. Emerging economies must be given their rightful place at the table, a move reinforced by the rising power and influence of the G20 group.

All of these reforms will help reduce the incidence of crises, but they will not drive them to extinction. As the economist Hyman Minsky once observed: “There is no possibility that we can ever set this right once and for all; instability, put to test by one set of reforms, will, after time, emerge in a new guise.” Crises cannot be abolished; like hurricanes, they can only be managed and mitigated.

Paradoxically, this unsettling truth should give us hope. In the depths of the Great Depression, politicians and policy-makers embraced reforms of the financial system that laid the foundation for nearly 80 years of stability and security. It inevitably unraveled, but 80 years is a long time — a lifetime.

As we contemplate the future of finance from the mire of our own recent Great Recession, we could do well to try to emulate that achievement. Nothing lasts forever, and crises will always return. But they need not loom so large; they need not overshadow our economic existence.

If we strengthen the levees that surround our financial system, we can weather crises in the coming years. Though the waters may rise, we will remain dry. But if we fail to prepare for the inevitable hurricanes — if we delude ourselves, thinking that our antiquated defenses will never be breached again — we face the prospect of many future floods.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 The White Swan 13

Chapter 2 Crisis Economists 38

Chapter 3 Plate Tectonics 61

Chapter 4 Things Fall Apart 86

Chapter 5 Global Pandemics 115

Chapter 6 The Last Resort 135

Chapter 7 Spend More, Tax Less? 158

Chapter 8 First Steps 182

Chapter 9 Radical Remedies 211

Chapter 10 Fault Lines 238

Conclusion 266

Outlook 276

Afterword 302

Acknowledgments 311

Notes 316

Select Bibliography 335

Index 343

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 51 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 13, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Useful account of the second great depression

    Nouriel Roubini is Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and Stephen Mihm is Associate Professor of History at Georgia University. We are in a second great depression. Crises under capitalism are not black swans but white swans, from the 1630s tulip mania, the 1720 South Sea Bubble, the 1819 crash, the 1825 global crisis (triggered by the Bank of England), further crises in 1837, 1857, 1866, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1920-21 to the Great Depression of 1929-33. Post-1945, capital controls and the separation of investment banking from commercial banking brought growth and stability, for a time. Then came more crises, getting ever larger, till the current depression. What the authors call the ‘cancerous growth of finance’ created ‘a global financial system that was subprime from top to bottom’. As a banker said, “We are in a minefield. No one knows where the mines are planted.” It is a systemic failure, despite efforts to blame the poor, homebuyers, the public in general, subprime borrowers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Chinese savings, etc. The authors point out, “The huge growth in the subprime market was primarily underwritten not by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac but by private mortgage lenders like Countrywide. … overblown claims that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac single-handedly caused the subprime crisis are just plain wrong. … All of these factors – financial innovation, failures of corporate governance, easy monetary policy, failures of government, and the shadow banking system – contributed to the onset of the crisis.” Superlow interest rates, Quantitative Easing (printing money to give to bankers) and the growing carry trade in dollars are now fuelling a huge new global bubble in risky assets. Don’t forget that when the carry trade in yen unravelled in 2008-09, it wrecked Japan. The authors insist that banks’ creditors must be forced to take losses. Governments must not socialise the debt, as was done in Ireland. Central banks must stop taking taxpayers’ money to prop up illiquid and insolvent firms. Goldman Sachs has got more than $60 billion from the taxpayer. It should be broken up, like all the other firms that are ‘too big to fail’, including RBS. The authors warn, “Nor will any amount of budget cutting and austerity solve the problems of Greece, Ireland, and possibly Portugal and Spain.”

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  • Posted May 30, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Great!!!

    Great!!!

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  • Posted October 19, 2011

    Outstanding analysis!

    Crisis Economics presents an excellent analysis of the most recent financial crisis in comparison to past financial breakdowns and the great depression. The book makes clear, that this crisis followed well understood and predictable patterns, and it examines these mechanisms and the interdependency of financial markets with facts and figures. A particular strength of the book is the clear explanation of these mechanisms with examples and historical comparison where needed. The book concludes in the last chapters with a critical and sobering review of the post-crisis financial situation of the US and with recommendations to lower the exposure of the financial system to instability or lessen the impact of such instabilities. The book is unique in its analytical approach of the last financial crisis and while greed and many frequently mentioned issues of the financial market all contributed, this book provides a comprehensive picture of all of factors (the mechanisms, feedback processes, and interdependency of market elements, etc) at play during the last crisis. A must-read for someone who wants to understand how we got into this mess (and whether it is over yet).

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  • Posted September 23, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Nouriel Roubini, a farsighted economist, warns of a wild ride ahead and explains how to calm the waters.

    Nouriel Roubini is the rare economist who, in the midst of a speculative bubble, accurately warned that the financial crisis of 2008 was coming. His bona fides established - and his "Dr. Doom" nickname well earned - Roubini and economics professor Stephen Mihm offer an insightful, entertaining look at the history and future of crashes. Get ready, Roubini warns: After a period of relative calm after the 1930s Great Depression, financial markets are in for a wild ride. He expects financial crashes to continue and offers advice for mitigating the damage, such as restructuring Wall Street bonuses and reining in big banks, although you may suspect that his recommendations will go unheeded. getAbstract recommends this book to investors and business leaders seeking a deeper understanding of the markets' gyrations.

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  • Posted September 6, 2011

    Belongs on every desk

    Buy it. Read it. Lend it to your friends, and to every concerned citizen. One of the most useful books you will ever read. If Roubini had been Greenspan's boss, the current crisis would not have played out as badly. Fun read, though the subject is tragi-comic. I have read it three times in three weeks. It is densely packed with information on asset bubbles, cycles of boom and bust, policy prescriptions with sound reasoning... and credible expertise of the One-who- called- the- crash before it happened!

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