Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Risk Endogenous

The SEC, which is seen by many as one example of a good thing from the New Deal (see Amity Shlaes here), has proposed changing a very subtle example of counterproductive do-goodism. I think the SEC is mainly responsible for mounds of paperwork, assigning one's signature to the effect that one is not breaking the law. This compliance makes it harder for people to get into asset management, and barriers to entry that protect market power, under the pretext of safegaurding the consumer, is the bread and butter of government regulation. There are lots of data on IPOs and earnings, leaking into stock prices (eg, stock goes up prior to official info release), yet very few arrests, except for high-profile celebrities like Martha Stewart. Meanwhile, the stock-loan market is a scam, the exchanges act like monopolists, and the SEC is OK with that, because it was designed with the interests of the status quo at heart (first SEC head: Joe Kennedy). So I don't think their mountain of registrations and perfunctory affidavits added transparency that reduced risk, any more than a sign on a mall that says "We Do Not Allow Guns on These Premises" reduces gun violence.

Currently, SEC rules require that money-market funds purchase only short-term debt with high investment-grade ratings. A new rule proposed by the SEC would put more discretion in the hands of money managers to determine whether the debt is investment grade.

Many fund managers did not re underwrite (aka re-analyze, with a skeptical banker's eye) loans because they got used to a regime where their credit skills were unimportant. If you are stuck choosing among AA bonds, your relative skill won't be empirically manifest in 1000 years, so work on something else like marketing (ie, 0.05% default rates imply too little dispersion to allow any skill). Thus, when the rating agencies dropped the ball, and did not adjust their ratings of mortgage pools as origination policy changed , no one was watching. What should have been a no brainer for anyone looking was not seen because no one was looking, and such is financial risk. It was not subtle: zero-money down and no income verification loans are risky. Moody's and S&P ignored this, and no one was checking on them. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

It is often the case that insulating someone from risk only make them more susceptible to catastrophes, in the same way that keeping your little snowflake away from germs will hurt her immune system.

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