Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lessons from the Crisis

As seen by Michael Spence.

Mike says a lot of smart stuff in this article. But this sentence seems to veer off in the wrong direction, or at the very least could be easily misinterpreted:
we need a commission of top industry professionals and academics to address the challenge of measuring and detecting systemic risk and provide the underpinning of an effective “early warning” system.
I see little hope of creating any kind of "early warning" system, if by that Mike means better forecasting. Crises like the current one are inherently unpredictable. If they were predictable, hedge funds and other money managers would not lose so much money during them.

True, a few people were sounding an alarm in advance of the current crisis: Nouriel Roubini, in particular, comes to mind. And a few hedge funds have made money during the crisis. Yet that fact is not very meaningful. Given the diversity of opinion at any point in time, someone will always look right ex post. The key question is whether the event is reliably predictable ex ante.

Policymakers at the Fed and Treasury cannot do better than rely on the consensus judgment of experts, and a couple years ago the consensus opinion was not predicting anything like what is now occurring. To suggest a regulatory system that gives an "early warning" is like saying we need to find a better crystal ball. Good luck with that.

In my view, the key to regulatory reform is not trying to predict the future with more accuracy but, instead, making the system more robust so that the economy functions better when the unpredictable inevitably occurs. In other words, our focus needs to be not on what will happen but on what might happen.