How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities

How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities

by John Cassidy

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Behind the alarming headlines about job losses, bank bailouts, and corporate greed is a little-known story of bad ideas. For fifty years or more, economists have been busy developing elegant theories of how markets work?how they facilitate innovation, wealth creation, and an efficient allocation of society?s resources. But what about when markets don?t work? What… See more details below


Behind the alarming headlines about job losses, bank bailouts, and corporate greed is a little-known story of bad ideas. For fifty years or more, economists have been busy developing elegant theories of how markets work?how they facilitate innovation, wealth creation, and an efficient allocation of society?s resources. But what about when markets don?t work? What about when they lead to stock market bubbles, glaring inequality, polluted rivers, real estate crashes, and credit crunches?

In How Markets Fail, John Cassidy describes the rising influence of what he calls utopian economics?thinking that is blind to how real people act and that denies the many ways an unregulated free market can produce disastrous unintended consequences. He then looks to the leading edge of economic theory, including behavioral economics, to offer a new understanding of the economy?one that casts aside the old assumption that people and firms make decisions purely on the basis of rational self-interest. Taking the global financial crisis and current recession as his starting point, Cassidy explores a world in which everybody is connected and social contagion is the norm. In such an environment, he shows, individual behavioral biases and kinks?overconfidence, envy, copycat behavior, and myopia?often give rise to troubling macroeconomic phenomena, such as oil price spikes, CEO greed cycles, and boom-and-bust waves in the housing market. These are the inevitable outcomes of what Cassidy refers to as ?rational irrationality??self-serving behavior in a modern market setting.

Combining on-the-ground reporting, clear explanations of esoteric economic theories, and even a little crystal-ball gazing, Cassidy warns that in today?s economic crisis, conforming to antiquated orthodoxies isn?t just misguided?it?s downright dangerous. How Markets Fail offers a new, enlightening way to understand the force of the irrational in our volatile global economy.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Market disasters—and the cycle of delusions responsible—receive lively, engaging analysis by Cassidy (Dot.con), a journalist at the New Yorker. The author focuses primarily on the rise and fall of free market ideology and the mostly unrealistic ideal of a self-correcting marketplace. An excellent comprehensive history of the economic thought that led to this kind of utopian economics provides a refresher course in Adam Smith, Friedrich August von Hayek, Kenneth Arrow and Hyman Minsky. Both a narrative and a call to arms, the book provides an intellectual and historical context for the string of denial and bad decisions that led to the disastrous “illusion of harmony,” the lure of real estate and the Great Crunch of 2008. Using psychology and behavioral economics, Cassidy presents an excellent argument that the market is not in fact self-correcting, and that only a return to reality-based economics—and a reform-minded move to shove Wall Street in that direction—can pull us out of the mess in which we’ve found ourselves. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
New Yorker and Conde Nast Portfolio contributor Cassidy (Dot.con: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, 2002) presents an elegant, readable treatise on economics, swathed in current headlines. "[P]ursuing a policy of easy money plus deregulation doesn't amount to free market economics; it is a form of crony capitalism," writes the author. The decline of 2007 and collapse of 2008 make convenient handles for the narrative, and players such as Alan Greenspan-busy making the absurd claim that the market economy is inherently stable-make fine symbols for the schools of thought that underlie the whole mess. Conventionally, these come down to the free-market types such as Hayek and Friedman on one hand and interventionists such as Keynes and Galbraith on the other. However, Cassidy does a nice job complicating that picture by drawing on the entire history of economic thought and introducing such overlooked figures as William Stanley Jevons and Leon Walras, who, it turns out, had a great deal to say about the overall subject of the book-namely, why economies can collapse so rapidly. In an ideal world, Cassidy writes, a market is a win-win environment: "Markets," he declares by way of introducing the ever-pleasing Pareto equilibrium into the narrative, "facilitate mutually advantageous trading." Ah, but there are wolves out there in possession of secret information, including players of Ponzi schemes (Madoff) and Ponzi economics (Greenspan et al.). In the case of the subprime mortgage problems that precipitated the current catastrophe, "too many mortgage lenders exploited the information advantage they had over their customers." Cassidy delivers on the promise of his title, but he also offers a clear-eyedlook at economic thinking over the last three centuries, from Adam Smith to Ben Bernanke, and shows how the major theories have played out in practice, often not well. The dismal science coupled with dismal news-it doesn't make a promising premise, but Cassidy writes with terrific clarity and a finely tuned sense of moral outrage, yielding a superb book.
From the Publisher
“A brilliant intellectual framework for the story of our economic collapse.” —Paul M. Barrett, New York Times Book Review

“Cassidy clearly knows a great deal of economics, and he tells his story extremely well . . . Many of his chapters—on the development of general equilibrium theory (how everything in the economy systematically depends on everything else), for example, or marginalism (why prices are determined by what we’re prepared to pay for the very last item of something we buy, rather than what the whole amount is worth to us)—would make useful supplementary reading in an undergraduate economics course.” —Benjamin M. Friedman, The New York Review of Books

“The most intellectually sophisticated account of what went wrong.” —Lucas Wittmann, The Daily Beast

“[A] wonderful book . . . The most concise and elegantly written account, among the many that have come out, of how we got into this mess.” —Liaquat Ahamed, The National Interest

“[How Markets Fail] brilliantly dissects much of what has passed for economic wisdom, and decries the lack of humility from those whose theories helped cause the disaster.” —Floyd Norris, The New York Times

“Highly readable . . . Cassidy offers a clear and occasionally colorful exposition of the evolution of relevant economic thought in a way that is accessible to non-economists.” —Richard N. Cooper, Foreign Affairs

“Fascinating and important.” —Eliot Spitzer, Slate

“An admirably lucid account of how ‘utopian economics’ drove us to disaster . . . This is a compelling synthesis that derives most of its narrative energy from the author’s clarity of thought and exposition.” —James Pressley,

“An essential, grittily intellectual, yet compelling guide to the financial debacle of 2009.” —Geordie Greig, London Evening Standard

“The last major attempt of 2009 to make sense of what has become of the discipline of economics.” —Stefan Stern, Financial Times (Best Books of the Year)

“A well constructed, thoughtful and cogent account of how capitalism evolved to its current form.” —Edmund Conway, The Daily Telegraph

“[How Markets Fail] is more than just an account of the failures of regulators and the self-deception of bankers and homebuyers, although these are well covered. For Mr. Cassidy, the deeper roots of the crisis lie in the enduring appeal of an idea: that society is always best served when individuals are left to pursue their self-interest in free markets . . . An ambitious book, and one that mostly succeeds.” —The Economist

“An ambitious, nuanced work that brings ideas alive . . . Cassidy makes a compelling case that a return to hands-off economics would be a disaster.”—Chris Farrell, BusinessWeek

“Both a narrative and a call to arms, [How Markets Fail] provides an intellectual and historical context for the string of denial and bad decisions that led to the disastrous ‘illusion of harmony,’ the lure of real estate and the Great Crunch of 2008. Using psychology and behavioral economics, Cassidy presents an excellent argument that the market is not in fact self-correcting, and that only a return to reality-based economics—and a reform-minded move to shove Wall Street in that direction—can pull us out of the mess in which we’ve found ourselves.” —Publishers Weekly

“An elegant, readable treatise on economics, swathed in current headlines . . . Cassidy delivers on the promise of his title, but he also offers a clear-eyed look at economic thinking over the last three centuries, from Adam Smith to Ben Bernanke, and shows how the major theories have played out in practice, often not well . . . Cassidy writes with terrific clarity and a finely tuned sense of moral outrage, yielding a superb book.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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Acommon reaction to extreme events is to say they couldn’t have been predicted. Japan’s aerial assault on Pearl Harbor; the ter­rorist strikes against New York and Washington on Septem­ber 11, 2001; Hurricane Katrina’s devastating path through New Orleans—in each of these cases, the authorities claimed to have had no inkling of what was coming. Strictly speaking, this must have been true: had the people in charge known more, they would have taken preemptive action. But lack of firm knowledge rarely equates with complete ignorance. In 1941, numerous American experts on imperial Japan considered an attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet an urgent threat; prior to 9/11, al-Qaeda had made no secret of its intention to strike the United States again—the CIA and the FBI had some of the actual plot­ters under observation; as far back as 1986, experts working for the Army Corps of Engineers expressed concerns about the design of the levees
protecting New Orleans.
What prevented the authorities from averting these disasters wasn’t
so much a lack of timely warnings as a dearth of imagination. The in­
dividuals in charge weren’t particularly venal or shortsighted; even
their negligence was within the usual bounds. They simply couldn’t conceive of Japan bombing Hawaii; of jihadists flying civilian jets into Manhattan skyscrapers; of a flood surge in the Gulf of Mexico breaching more than fifty levees simultaneously. These catastrophic eventualities weren’t regarded as low-probability outcomes, which is the mathemat­ical definition of extreme events: they weren’t within the range of pos­sibilities that were considered at all.
The subprime mortgage crisis was another singular and unexpected event, but not one that came without warning. As early as 2002, some commentators, myself included, were saying that in many parts of the country real estate values were losing touch with incomes. In the fall of that year, I visited the prototypical middle-class town of Levittown, on Long Island, where, in the aftermath of World War II, the devel­oper Levitt and Sons offered for sale eight-hundred-square-foot ranch houses, complete with refrigerator, range, washing machine, oil burn­ers, and Venetian blinds, for $7,990. When I arrived, those very same homes, with limited updating, were selling for roughly $300,000, an increase of about 50 percent on what they had been fetching two years earlier. Richard Dallow, a Realtor whose family has been selling prop­erty there since 1951, showed me around town. He expressed surprise that home prices had defied the NASDAQ crash of 2000, the eco­nomic recession of 2001, and the aftermath of 9/11. “It has to impact at some point,” he said. “But, then again, in the summer of 2000, I thought it was impacting, and then things came back.”
By and large, the kinds of people buying houses in Levittown were the same as they had always been: cops, fi refighters, janitors, and con­struction workers who had been priced out of neighboring towns. The inflation in home prices was making it difficult for these buyers even to afford Levittown. This “has always been a low-down-payment area,” Dallow said. “If the price is three hundred and thirty thousand, and you put down five percent, that’s a mortgage of three hundred and thirteen thousand five hundred. You need a jumbo mortgage. For Lev­ittown.” When I got back to my office in Times Square, I wrote a story for The New Yorker entitled “The Next Crash,” in which I quoted Dal-low and some financial analysts who were concerned about the real estate market. “Valuation looks quite extreme, and not just at the top end,” Ian Morris, chief U.S. economist of HSBC Bank, said. “Even normal mom-and-pop homes are now very expensive relative to in­come.” Christopher Wood, an investment strategist at CLSA Emerg­
ing Markets, was even more bearish: “The American housing market is the last big bubble,” he said. “When it bursts, it will be very ugly.”
Between 2003 and 2006, as the rise in house prices accelerated, many expressions of concern appeared in the media. In June 2005, The Economist said, “The worldwide rise in house prices is the biggest bubble in history. Prepare for the economic pain when it pops.” In the United States, the ratio of home prices to rents was at a historic high, the newsweekly noted, with prices rising at an annual rate of more than 20 percent in some parts of the country. The same month, Robert Shiller, a well-known Yale economist who wrote the 2000 bestseller Irrational Exuberance, told Barron’s, “The home-price bubble feels like the stock-market mania in the fall of 1999.”
One reason these warnings went unheeded was denial. When the price of an asset is going up by 20 or 30 percent a year, nobody who owns it, or trades it, likes to be told their newfound wealth is illusory. But it wasn’t just real estate agents and condo flippers who were insist­ing that the rise in prices wouldn’t be reversed: many economists who specialized in real estate agreed with them. Karl Case, an economist at Wellesley, reminded me that the average price of American homes had risen in every single year since 1945. Frank Nothaft, the chief economist at Freddie Mac, ran through a list of “economic fundamen­tals” that he said justified high and rising home prices: low mortgage rates, large-scale immigration, and a modest inventory of new homes. “We are not going to see the price of single-family homes fall,” he said bluntly. “It ain’t going to happen.”
As the housing boom continued, Nothaft’s suggestion that nation­wide house prices were unidirectional acquired the offi cial impri ­matur of the U.S. government. In April 2003, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, in Simi Valley, California, Alan Greenspan insisted that the United States wasn’t suffering from a real estate bubble. In October 2004, he argued that real estate doesn’t lend itself to speculation, noting that “upon sale of a house, homeown­ers must move and live elsewhere.” In June 2005, testifying on Capitol Hill, he acknowledged the presence of “froth” in some areas, but ruled out the possibility of a nationwide bubble, saying housing markets were local. Although price declines couldn’t be ruled out in some areas, Greenspan concluded, “[T]hese declines, were they to occur, likely would not have substantial macroeconomic implications.”
At the time Greenspan made these comments, Ben Bernanke had recently left the Fed, where he had served as governor since 2002, to become chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. In August 2005, Bernanke traveled to Crawford, Texas, to brief President Bush, and afterward a reporter asked him, “Did the housing bubble come up at your meeting?” Bernanke said housing had been discussed, and went on: “I think it’s important to point out that house prices are being supported in very large part by very strong fundamentals . . . We have lots of jobs, employment, high incomes, very low mortgage rates, growing population, and shortages of land and housing in many areas.” On October 15, 2005, in an address to the National Association for Business Economics, Bernanke used almost identical language, saying rising house prices “largely reflect strong economic fundamentals.” Nine days later, President Bush selected him to succeed Greenspan.
In August 2005, a couple of weeks after Bernanke’s trip to Texas, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, one of the twelve regional banks in the Fed system, devoted its annual economic policy symposium to the lessons of the Greenspan era. As usual, the conference took place at the Jackson Lake Lodge, an upscale resort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Greenspan, who had, by then, served eighteen years as Fed chairman, delivered the opening address. Most of the other speakers, who in­cluded Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary, and Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank, were extremely com­plimentary about the Fed boss. “There is no doubt that Greenspan has been an amazingly successful chairman of the Federal Reserve System,” Alan Blinder, a Princeton economist and former Fed governor, opined. Raghuram G. Rajan, an economist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who was then the chief economist at the Interna­tional Monetary Fund, took a more critical line, examining the conse­quences of two decades of fi nancial deregulation.
Rajan, who was born in Bhopal, in central India, in 1963, obtained his Ph.D. at MIT, in 1991, and then moved to the University of Chi­cago Business School, where he established himself as something of a wunderkind. In 2003, his colleagues named him the scholar under forty who had contributed most to the field of finance. That same year, he took the top economics job at the IMF, where he stayed until 2006. WARNINGS IGNORED • 21
He could hardly be described as a radical. One book he coauthored is entitled Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists: Unleashing the Power of Financial Markets to Create Wealth and Spread Opportunity. Bruce Bartlett, a conservative activist who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, described it as “one of the most powerful defenses of the free market ever written.”
Rajan began by reviewing some history. In the past couple decades, he reminded the audience, deregulation and technical progress had subjected banks to increasing competition in their core business of taking in deposits from households and lending them to other indi­viduals and firms. In response, the banks had expanded into new fi elds, including trading securities and creating new financial products, such as mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) and collateralized debt obliga­tions (CDOs). Most of these securities the banks sold to investors, but some of them they held on to for investment purposes, which exposed them to potential losses should the markets concerned suffer a big fall. “While the system now exploits the risk-bearing capacity of the economy better by allocating risks more widely, it also takes on more risks than before,” Rajan said. “Moreover, the linkages between mar­kets, and between markets and institutions, are now more pronounced. While this helps the system diversify across small shocks, it also exposes the system to large systemic shocks—large shifts in asset prices or changes in aggregate liquidity.”
Turning to other factors that had made the financial system more vulnerable, Rajan brought up incentive-based compensation. Almost all senior financiers now receive bonuses that are tied to the invest­ment returns their businesses generate. Since these returns are cor­related with risks, Rajan pointed out, there are “perverse incentives” for managers and firms to take on more risks, especially so-called tail risks—events that occur with a very low probabil ity but that can have disastrous consequences. The tendency for investors and traders to ape each other’s strategies, a phenomenon known as herding, was an­other potentially destabilizing factor, Rajan said, because it led people to buy assets even if they considered them overvalued. Taken together, incentive-based compensation and herding were “a volatile combina­tion. If herd behavior moves asset prices away from fundamentals, the likelihood of large realignments—precisely the kind that trigger tail losses—increases.”
Finally, Rajan added, there is one more ingredient that can “make the cocktail particularly volatile, and that is low interest rates after a period of high rates, either because of financial liberalization or because of extremely accommodative monetary policy.” Cheap money encour­ages banks, investment banks, and hedge funds to borrow more and place bigger bets, Rajan reminded the audience. When credit is fl ow­ing freely, euphoria often develops, only to be followed by a “sudden stop” that can do great damage to the economy. So far, the U.S. econ­omy had avoided such an outcome, Rajan conceded, but its rebound from the 1987 stock market crash and the 2000–2001 collapse in tech stocks “should not make us overly sanguine.” After all, “a shock to the equity markets, though large, may have less effect than a shock to the credit markets.”
As a rule, central bankers don’t rush stages or toss their chairs; if they did, Rajan might have been in physical danger. During a discussion period, Don Kohn, a governor of the Fed who would go on to become its vice chairman, pointed out that Rajan’s presentation amounted to a direct challenge to “the Greenspan doctrine,” which warmly welcomed the development of new financial products, such as securitized loans and credit default swaps. “By allowing institutions to diversify risk, to choose their risk profiles more precisely, and to improve the manage­ment of the risks they do take on, they have made institutions more robust,” Kohn went on. “And by facilitating the fl ow of savings across markets and national boundaries, these developments have contrib­uted to a better allocation of resources and promoted growth.”
The Greenspan doctrine didn’t imply that financial markets invari­ably got things right, Kohn conceded, but “the actions of private par­ties to protect themselves—what Chairman Greenspan has called private regulation—are generally quite effective,” whereas government “risks undermining private regulation and fi nancial stability by under­mining incentives.” Turning to Rajan’s suggestion that some sort of government fix might be needed for Wall Street compensation schemes, Kohn insisted it wasn’t in the interests of senior executives at banks and other financial institutions “to reach for short-run gains at the ex­pense of longer-term risk, to disguise the degree of risk they are taking for their customers, or otherwise to endanger their reputations. As a WARNINGS IGNORED • 23
consequence, I did not find convincing the discussion of market fail­ure that would require government intervention in compensation.”
Lawrence Summers, who was then the president of Harvard, stood up and said he found “the basic, slightly lead-eyed premise of this paper to be largely misguided.” After pausing to remark on how much he had learned from Greenspan, Summers compared the development of the financial industry to the history of commercial aviation, saying the occasional plane crash shouldn’t disguise the fact that getting from A to B was now much easier and safer than it used to be, and adding, “It seems to me that the overwhelming preponderance of what has taken place is positive.” While it was legitimate to point out the possibil­ity of self-reinforcing spirals in financial markets, Summers concluded, “the tendency towards restriction that runs through the tone of the pre­sentation seems to me to be quite problematic. It seems to me to sup­port a wide variety of misguided policy impulses in many countries.”
The reaction to Rajan’s paper demonstrated just how difficult it had become to query, even on a theoretical level, the dogma of deregulation and free markets. As a longtime colleague and adviser of Greenspan’s, Kohn might be forgiven for defending his amour propre. Summers, however, was in a different category. During the 1980s, as a young Harvard professor, he had advocated a tax on securities transactions, such as stock purchases, arguing that much of what took place on Wall Street was a shell game that added nothing to overall output. Subsequently, he had gone on to advise presidential candidates and serve as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. Along the way, he had jettisoned his earlier views and become a leading defender of the conventional wisdom, a phrase John Kenneth Galbraith coined for the unquestioned assumptions that help to frame policy debates and, for that matter, barroom debates. As Galbraith noted in his 1958 bestseller, The Affl uent Society, the conventional wisdom isn’t the exclusive property of any political party or creed: Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, true believers and agnostics, all subscribe to its central tenets. “The conventional wisdom having been made more or less identical with sound scholarship, its position is virtually impregnable,” Galbraith wrote. “The skeptic is disqualifi ed by his very tendency to go brashly from the old to the new. Were he a sound scholar . . . he would remain with the conventional wisdom.”
But how does the conventional wisdom get established? To answer that question, we must go on an intellectual odyssey that begins in Glasgow in the eighteenth century and passes through London, Lau­sanne, Vienna, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. Utopian economics has a long and illustrious history. Before turning to the flaws of the free market doctrine, let us trace its development and seek to understand its enduring appeal.
Excerpted from How Markets Fail by John Cassidy.
Copyright © 2009 by John Cassidy.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and
reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in
any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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