The smartest guy in the room?

One thing that really puzzles me about the great bailout plan is the almost universal acceptance that Paulson should be the one to run it, at least until the next Administration. More generally, I’m surprised by the kid-glove treatment he’s been getting in public discussion, even from people highly critical of the plan.

Let’s stipulate that he’s a smart guy. He wouldn’t have risen to the top in Wall Street if he wasn’t. And, of course, if having smart guys running the show was sufficient to ensure good outcomes, Wall Street wouldn’t be in its current mess.

Looking back at the record, plenty of people have observed that, at least in his public statements, Paulson repeatedly underestimated the severity of the crisis. And there’s nothing in the ad hoc shifts between cash infusions, bailouts and bankruptcies to suggest that he has much more of an understanding of what’s going on than anyone else. As Paul Krugman has said, he’s making it up as he goes along, just like the rest of us.

But the bailout plan is something else. The possibility of a meltdown like this has been talked about, increasingly seriously, for the last couple of years. Yet Paulson responds with a three page document saying “I need $700 billion, no questions asked”. Wasn’t there a contingency plan? Or worse still, was this the contingency plan?

Either way, Paulson should be sacked forthwith.

Climate change and the Murray Darling Basin

I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on the future of the planet for the last week or so, what with the nationalisation of vast segments of the financial sector, the disappearance of all four remaining US investment banks, the trillion dollar bailout and so on. But I’m going to be presenting a lecture for UQ research week on Wednesday night, entitled “Climate Change and the Murray Darling Basin”. The news isn’t good but there is still some hope if we act swiftly and sensibly. Perhaps the other speaker will have something more solidly positive to tell us. He’s Professor Paul Burn Federation Fellow, School of Molecular & Microbial Sciences talking on ‘Can Light Solve the Energy Crisis?’

The one-hoss shay (repost)

I thought I’d repost this piece from March readers can make the necessary adjustments.

The Fed’s bailout of Wall Street investment bank Bear Stearns has, unsurprisingly, been discussed in terms of the domino theory. A more appropriate metaphor is The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay . This was a carriage constructed on the theory that a system always fails at its weakest spot.

The way t’ fix it, uz I maintain, Is only jest T’ make that place uz strong uz the rest”.

On the Fed’s current approach, the system is unbreakable, provided that “too big to fail” protection is extended to every significant firm in the system. The result of this protection is that the kind of crisis where the failure of one firm leads to a cascade of failures elsewhere is prevented. But then

First a shiver, and then a thrill, Then something decidedly like a spill,– And the parson was sitting upon a rock, At half-past nine by the meet’n’-house clock,– Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!

–What do you think the parson found, When he got up and stared around? The poor old chaise in a heap or mound, As if it had been to the mill and ground! You see, of course, if you ‘re not a dunce, How it went to pieces all at once,– All at once, and nothing first,– Just as bubbles do when they burst.

Moral hazard, meet adverse selection

At a time when anyone on the cutting edge is talking quadrillions, it seems a bit petty to worry about a $50 billion component of the latest bailout (only $500 per US household!). Modest as it is, the insurance scheme offered to money market funds by the US Treasury provides the opportunity to explain a little bit more about the theory of insurance.

By now, everyone has heard about moral hazard, that is the encouragement to take risky or reckless action that arises when your losses are insured by someone else. Now it’s time meet moral hazard’s evil twin, adverse selection. That’s what happens when the people you are offering to insure already have a pretty good idea whether they are going to collect or not.

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