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November 9, 2010

Econ experts diverge on crisis cause

President Harry Truman once asked for a one-handed economist. Why? “All my economists say, ‘on the one hand...on the other,” Truman said.

At a panel discussion entitled “The Future of Financial Regulation,” three economists—that’s a total of six hands—evaluated the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill and debated the best methods to reform the financial system in Swift Hall this Saturday.

The economists agreed the financial industry is not nearly competitive enough, using the high salaries of bankers as evidence. They also agreed that financial engineering is not the main cause of the financial crisis, because recessions have taken place long before the invention of credit default swaps.

Beyond that, there was little resolution.

MIT economics professor Bengt Holmstrom urged students to try to understand the crisis themselves, claiming that the experts are not better informed than undergraduates. Full of skepticism regarding how much experts understand the causes of the financial crisis, he encouraged them to ask “stupid questions.”

He said it was hard to make a claim for improving financial regulation when he himself is unsure of the exact causes of the crisis.

“Almost everything I say is conjectural,” he said.

Doug Diamond from the Booth School of Business argued that experts do have some ideas about the causes of the financial crisis, and their opinions can help refigure the financial foundation. He said short term debt is the fundamental concept in all financial crises and the main question of regulation is, “What’s the right amount of shorter debt that countries should produce?”

But Allen argued that international cooperation was crucial in making financial regulation effective.

He stressed the need to incorporate Asian perspectives in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, noting that not a single senior member of the IMF and the World Bank is from economically significant countries like Japan, South Korea, and China.

Allen gave the example of South Korea’s relationship with the IMF after its financial crisis of 1997. Because the IMF did not understand the South Korean economy, its loan policy exacerbated the country’s financial distress, leading the South Koreans to distrust dealings with the IMF and rely instead on accruing a massive reserve. This huge pool of reserves, he said, is unstable and one of the causes of the global financial crisis.

“The biggest problem with Dodd-Frank is the lack of framework for international cooperation,” Allen said.

But Allen also said that having branches of banks like Citibank and Bank of America in dozens of countries worldwide poses a serious risk to global financial health because it’s almost impossible to regulate these branches when each country has different requirements about the bank’s assets and liabilities. Allen suggested eliminating cross border branching and only permitting subsidiaries.

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