Who deserves more blame for the global economic collapse, bankers or economists?

Commentary about business and finance.
April 14 2009 11:57 AM

Bankers vs. Economists

Who deserves more blame for the global economic collapse?

This is adapted from Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation, which is now available in paperback.

Which profession bears more blame for the global credit meltdown and its ensuing gazillion-dollar bailouts: bankers or economists?

This isn't a trick question.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

So far, bankers have been getting most of the opprobrium. Yes, there are a few solid bankers who didn't destroy their firms. But pretty much all the prominent bankers failed. And their failures are writ large on the pages of the Wall Street Journal every day. They've been hauled before Congress, been deposed and fired, lost vast fortunes, and been the targets of populist rage. By common consensus, bankers (and by this I mean the term as it's used in the tri-state metro area: to describe anybody who works at a relatively high level in the financial services industry) blew it.

But they couldn't have created the Dumb Money debacle without a substantial assist from economists. Toiling in government and academia, at trade groups and Wall Street firms, practitioners of the dismal science provided the intellectual ballast and justification for much of the insanity of this past decade. At every step of the way, as an Era of Cheap Money devolved into an Era of Dumb Money and then into an Era of Dumber Money, Ph.D.s led the cheers. And when things started to go bad, they failed to grasp just how bad things would get. (Except for a few of them, such as ...)

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In February, I recounted some of the economists' most egregious errors. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve System, was easily the most influential economist of the last quarter-century. His intellectual virtues were many. So, it turns out, were his intellectual sins. Greenspan spent his career evangelizing for the Holy Trinity of low interest rates, deregulated markets, and the ability of financial innovation to insulate markets from calamities. Oops! The persistence of low interest rates sparked a speculative orgy in securities and derivatives. The tools that were supposed to help people manage risk instead created systemic risk. And deregulated, free, and open markets blew up so badly they required massive government interventions.The disaster was a feature of the financial operating code Greenspan had helped write, not a bug. (Bonus Greenspan screw-up: telling borrowers in February 2004 that adjustable-rate mortgages could help people save money—just as he was about to start boosting short-term rates.) Greenspan wasn't the lone academic economist at fault. During the credit bubble, Greenspan's successor and many other prominent economists provided intellectual cover for our vices, failure, and greed. Ben Bernanke helped assuage concerns that interest rates were dangerously low by arguing first that interest rates should be low if deflation is nearly as much a worry as inflation and then that low rates stemmed from a global savings glut. David Malpass, chief economist of Bear Stearns, said we shouldn't fret about the pathetically low national savings rate at a time when everybody owned stocks and houses. Rising asset markets would do the heavy lifting of savings. Late into the housing boom, David Lereah, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors, continually urged Americans to buy houses. After all, he promised, they'd rise in value at least through the end of the decade.

While the performance of many prominent economists during the boom was poor, their performance after it ended may have been worse. As a class—again, with significant exceptions—they failed to recognize that the fall of housing, which started in the summer of 2006, would have negative effects on the economy ("The worst may be over for housing," Greenspan declared on Oct. 9, 2006) and on the financial system. In November 2007, Bernanke estimated the losses stemming from subprime as being "in the ballpark" of $150 billion. (Must have been a really big ballpark.) Neither of the nation's chief economists, despite spending their days poring over economic data and meeting with professional economists inside and outside the Fed, seemed to have a clue that the virus of bad lending had spread far beyond subprime and far beyond housing and far beyond America's borders.

Economic forecasting is hard. But the dismal scientists collectively did a horrific job of prognostication as the economy shifted into recession and then plummeted into a sharp contraction. The recession, we now know, started in December 2007. The Blue Chip forecasters surveyed by the Philadelphia Fed in the fourth quarter of 2007, when the recession was about to start, projected the economy would grow by 2.5 percent in 2008 and the economy would add more than 100,000 jobs each month in 2008. (Instead, the economy lost jobs every month in 2008 and ground to a halt.) In the middle of the fourth quarter of 2008, one in which the economy was shrinking at a 6.3 percent annual rate, they took down their forecast for the quarter from 0.7 percent growth to a decline at a 2.9 percent annual rate. They projected the unemployment rate would be 7 percent in the first quarter of 2009. By March 2009, it was up to 8.5 percent.

Clearly, economic forecasters weren't asking the right questions, or looking at the right indicators. Economists also didn't always help the private-sector companies with which they were associated. Martin Feldstein, president and CEO of the National Bureau of Economic Research, the official arbiter of recession dating, sat on AIG's board for two decades and in 2008 was on the board's finance committee and on its regulatory, compliance, and legal committee—areas in which AIG had catastrophic breakdowns. Legendary Wall Street economist Henry Kaufman was chairman of Lehman Bros.' finance and risk committee when it went tapioca.

Is it unreasonable to expect that very smart—even genius—economists would have insights into complicated businesses that the CEOs and other bankers lacked? Perhaps. But the economists' failures may have been less human ones than professional ones. It turns out that the worldview that many economists hew to—a system of efficient markets populated by rational actors and by owners/managers who naturally take action to preserve the value of their companies—can't really account for the actions during the credit bubble (or in any other bubble, for that matter). The set of theories upon which many economists rely—again, I know I'm painting with a really broad brush here—is out of vogue and is being replaced by a set of funkier ones, which draw from sociology, anthropology, and psychology, as well as classical economics. The behavioral economists who are ascendant will tell you that the irrational behavior on display came as no surprise to them.

So, back to our original question. Bankers or economists?

Bankers have clearly suffered more financial damage—they had a lot more to lose. But when it comes to reputation, I think it's a draw. One similarity between the two professions' reactions to the meltdown is that it doesn't seem to have occasioned much self-examination. The best Greenspan could muster was that he had "found a flaw" in his theories.

Bankers vs. economists? Monsters vs. aliens? Who do you think is more at fault? Send votes and supporting claims to moneybox@slate.com and we'll run the best.

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