The Man Who Called The Credit Crunch

Robert Shiller is one of a handful of economists who have been feted for foreseeing the credit crisis, but he is the only one who predicted it for the right reasons. New York University's Nouriel Roubini, now known as "Dr. Doom," warned as early as 2006 of an imminent housing crash that would stop America's consumer-spending spree and lead to severe recession. Another über-bear, Morgan Stanley's Stephen Roach, had warned for years that the weakening dollar and the U.S. trade deficit with China were signs of a dangerously imbalanced global economy, doomed to fall. While both deserve credit for highlighting weaknesses that others ignored, neither had much to say about the real reasons for the current state of affairs, namely the vast amount of speculation that took place in the financial world linked to home mortgages.

Shiller did. Long before the extent of the subprime-mortgage crisis was evident, Shiller predicted that home prices would fall more rapidly than any models had predicted and that financial markets globally would be upended as a result. A specialist in the management of risk, he recognized that the real-estate bubble in the United States and parts of Europe represented, above all, a failure to manage risk. Now Shiller, a Yale professor who first made his name by accurately forecasting the stock-market collapse of 2001, is alone again, this time in his prescription for what needs to be done to stabilize credit markets in the future.

Most experts will tell you that Barack Obama needs to move quickly to contain the multitrillion-dollar market that turned low-quality mortgages into high-priced derivatives, the Wall Street innovation now widely blamed for the credit crisis. Shiller says the opposite. He argues that unless the central issue of risk is addressed, all the money that governments are pouring into financial rescues won't prevent another, potentially worse financial crisis down the line. In Shiller's view, derivatives "are a risk management tool much the same way insurance is. You pay a premium and if an event happens, you get a payment." His radical answer to our problems is that trying to leash financial innovation is hopeless, and that we should instead push forward into a brave new world where derivatives become as common as cash.

What separates Shiller from the majority of economists is his lack of faith in the "efficient-market hypothesis." That belief, which also guides the hand of most money managers, holds that the market will price assets according to their fundamental value and that those prices reflect all pertinent information. Shiller instead follows those, like John Kenneth Galbraith, who hold that market prices reflect "animal spirits" and popular passions, not perfect information.

That is why bubbles form, and that, for Shiller, is why financial innovation and government regulation are imperative. Pressure has been building in Washington to crack down on the complex derivatives that were structured on toxic mortgages, especially given the scale of global capital flows and trillions of transactions facilitated by computer models and electronic communications. Barney Frank, the powerful chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has talked of finding ways to force financial companies to become more risk-averse. Similar measures are being considered in Europe and Asia.

The reaction is understandable. Each financial crisis results in a backlash against what caused it. The Securities and Exchange Commission was established in 1934 after the perceived excesses of markets in the 1920s, and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed in 2002 after the spectacular frauds of Enron and WorldCom. While he is in general support of more regulation, Shiller is convinced that the move to restrict derivatives and risk is misguided. In "The Subprime Solution," which he wrote just as the system was beginning to implode, he says that what is needed now is the next stage of financial innovation, not constriction. "Risk management is not the prevention of risky behavior," he told me. "It is carrying it through to its logical end in order to actually make it happen."

He also sees government intervention as vital to channel animal spirits and innovation. And where innovation is most needed now is in real estate and for the individual homeowner.

For all the trillions in derivative trading, there were very few traders. Almost all the subprime mortgages that were bundled and turned into derivatives were sold by a handful of Wall Street institutions, working with a small number of large institutional buyers, ranging from the Bank of China to HSBC to sovereign wealth funds. And as we now know, these derivatives were black boxes whose contents were known by neither the sellers nor the buyers. It was a huge but illiquid and opaque market.

Meanwhile, the system was built on the myriad decisions of individual homeowners and lenders around the world. None of them, however, could hedge their bets the way large institutions can. Those buying a condo in Miami or Marbella had to believe that the market was going up, and had no way to protect themselves if the market went down. When it did, millions were left with homes they could not sell, even for less than they paid.

The solution, says Shiller, is to use derivatives to allow home-owners—and, by extension, lenders—to insure themselves against falling prices. In the United States alone, housing is a $20 trillion market, in there are few ways to unlock profit when the market falls. But for stocks, because of the use of derivatives and options, money can be made when markets fall, which significantly increases the potential number of buyers and sellers at any given point. And more buyers and sellers—according not just to Shiller but to most finance scholars and traders—means that markets stay liquid and functional even under pressure.

Shiller has been exploring ways to create homeowner insurance against falling prices for nearly 20 years, and most of the papers he has written on the subject are written for other academics. Even his recent "Derivates Markets for Home Prices," a working paper published last March at Yale, is more jargon-filled than most laypeople could handle. While he has been both adept at sounding his warnings about bubbles and fortunate in his timing (he published a book, "Irrational Exuberance," on a bursting stock-market bubble just as the burst arrived in March 2000, and another on the subprime meltdown just as the meltdown went global), his call for derivatives as homeowner insurance have not received nearly as much attention.

It's not as if he hasn't tried to put his money where his mouth is. With business partners he created a home-price index, the Case-Shiller Index, which in turn can be traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. But that is limited mostly to gamblers and speculators who want to take bets on whether the index and underlying average home prices are going to go up or down. That is a far cry from someone buying a home in a suburb of Las Vegas or Phoenix being able to use some sort of financial instrument to hedge himself against home-price declines. As Shiller freely admits, it's a long way from where we are to where he thinks we ought to be.

Though he's acutely aware of how rarely academics get the real world right, Shiller's critics accuse him of much the same thing. Several traders I know dismissed Shiller's basic premise that more derivatives would make the housing market more liquid and more stable. They point out that futures contracts haven't made equity markets or commodity markets any less immune from massive moves up and down, and may have made such moves steeper, sharper and more rapid. They also scoff that Shiller, his experience with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange notwithstanding, has never had to manage a portfolio or a trader's book, and that a ballooning world of home-based derivatives wouldn't lead to homeowners' insurance: it would lead to a new playground for speculators. To the contrary, says Shiller, by enabling people to hedge against price declines, "derivatives could make it more difficult for bubbles to form."

Given that these ideas are untested in the real world, it's impossible to know who's right. But Shiller's radical ideas have a parallel in the thinking of the influential Peruvian-born economist Hernando de Soto. De Soto's pathbreaking observation was that the Western world began to outstrip the rest of the world when its legal and banking systems allowed people to turn land into cash. The contemporary system of using property as collateral for loans is the result, and it has given the Western world a huge advantage.

In many ways, Shiller is saying that too much potential wealth is still locked up in land and real estate. Because the owner of a property can sell that property easily only when conditions are good, the asset is risky and illiquid, and there is no way to offset those problems. Expanding the world of derivatives and giving homeowners the ability to "short" their own property could potentially make real estate as easy to buy, sell and hedge as stocks, bonds and some commodities are now. The effects, predicts Shiller, would be to unleash much more potential wealth while simultaneously decreasing the systemic risks.

In essence, Shiller is laying the intellectual groundwork for the next financial revolution. We are now suffering through the first major crisis of the Information Age economy. Shiller's answers may be counterintuitive, but no more so than those of doctors and scientists who centuries ago recognized that the cure for infectious diseases was not flight or quarantine but purposely infecting more people through vaccinations. "We've had a major glitch in derivatives and securitization," says Shiller. "The Titanic sank almost a century ago, but we didn't stop sailing across the Atlantic."

Of course, people did think twice about getting on a ship, but if we listen to those fears, we lose the very dynamism that has propelled us this far. That is the nub of Shiller's call for more derivatives and more innovation. Every major crisis in capitalism is met by calls to return to an earlier, mythic time when life was more secure and things were better. For a time, animal spirits may be tempered, but rarely for longer than the average New Year's resolution. The challenge is to find a way to prevent them from running wild when they inevitably return. Shiller's call for more derivatives is a tough sell at a time when they've produced so much havoc. But he reminds us that the tools that got us here are not to blame; they can be used badly and they can be used well. And trying to stem the ineffable tide of human creativity is a fool's errand.

Karabell is president of River Twice Research.

Join the Discussion