economic crisis

WSJ Warns That Systemic Risks Remain

December 7, 2009

The Wall Street Journal has a good column this morning warning pretty starkly about the huge risks that are still very much embedded in the financial system.

Mark Whitehouse, one of the smartest guys at the Journal (so listen up!), writes that “as the worst crisis since the Great Depression appears to be passing, we could be setting the stage for the next one.”

That’s because we’re not really taking care of some critical (and obvious) structural issues that threaten a repeat of the last couple of years. This is a column, but it’s still nice to see this put so frankly (emphasis mine):

While policy makers breathe a collective sigh of relief, they’re making little progress in addressing deeper flaws that the crisis laid bare: an unwieldy banking system, unreliable financial plumbing and a global economy that encourages and depends on heavy borrowing by the U.S.

As for the systemic problems, there’s too big to fail, of course. Nothing’s been done about that overarching issue except make the problem worse, as Whitehouse points out, noting that the top 10 banks in the world now have 70 percent of bank assets, up from before the crisis. Let that sink in a minute: Just ten firms hold 70 percent of all banking assets in the world.

If hard and fast caps on size aren’t in the cards, then at least this is an interesting idea:

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To make it less likely that taxpayers would have to invest money in bank shares, as they did recently, banks could be required to issue bonds that would turn into stock in times of trouble. This “contingent capital” would force bondholders to share the pain — something that didn’t happen in the most recent round of bailouts.

Whitehouse also looks at the incomplete progress on credit-derivatives regulation. He does a nice job explaining why it’s necessary to put these “weapons of mass destruction”—in Warren Buffett’s famous term—where everybody can see them. And I didn’t know this:

But about 10 different clearinghouses are vying for the business. That, said Darrell Duffie, a Stanford University expert on derivatives, makes the market no less risky, because the failure of any one of those clearinghouses could wreak havoc. “I’m in favor of this,” he said. “I’m just very worried that it’s going wrong.”

That seems like a good subject for a news story.

And he takes on the global imbalance of trade and capital flows:

The long-term fix is to get U.S. consumers (and their government) to save more and Asian consumers to spend more. That could be done by boosting taxes on consumption, say gasoline, or by taking away incentives to borrow, such as the tax deduction on mortgage interest. In China, a better social safety net could make people feel more comfortable about saving less and spending more. On these fronts, though, there has been a lot of talk and little action.

It’s good to see such a clear-headed warning on page two of the Journal. That means something.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.