Markets Can’t Rule Themselves

For years, there has been an ongoing discussion among world leaders and thinkers about deficiencies in the international financial architecture and about economic imbalances, including the widening U.S. trade deficit. Many worried about a disorderly unwinding of these imbalances. Nothing was done. (Story continued below...)

We are now paying the price for our failure to act. Ten years ago, the fear was that financial turmoil in the developing world might spill over to the advanced industrialized countries. Today, we are in the middle of a "made in the U.S.A." crisis that is threatening the entire world.

If we are going to address this worldwide crisis and prevent a recurrence, we must reform and reconfigure the global financial system. There are simply too many interdependencies to allow each country to go its own way. For example, the United States benefited from its export of toxic mortgages; had it not sent some of them to Europe via complex securitization, its downturn would have been far worse. But the resulting weaknesses in Europe's banks are now ricocheting back to the United States.

Better regulation would have helped prevent such a situation. But the reform of the global financial system must go much further. For example, there must be better monetary-policy coordination around the world. Europe's current slowdown is due in part to the fact that while the European Central Bank spent the past year focusing on inflation, the United States was (rightly) focusing on the impending recession. The resulting difference in interest rates led to a strong euro and weak exports. That hurt Europe. But a weak Europe eventually hurts the United States, as Europe is forced to reduce its imports of American goods. With better coordination, perhaps America would have been able to convince Europe of the risks of recession, and that would have led to moderation of Europe's interest rates.

There is also a need for internationally coordinated stimulus programs to help jump-start growth. It is good news that China, the United States and Japan have now all instigated major programs of fiscal expansion. But they are of vastly different sizes, and so far, Europe's is lagging behind. Its growth and stability pact imposes constraints that may have global consequences.

Beyond this, confidence in financial markets will not be fully restored unless governments take a stronger role in regulating financial institutions, financial products and movements of capital. Banks have shown that they can't manage their own risk, and the consequences for others have been disastrous. Even former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, the high priest of deregulation, admits he went too far.

What we need now is a global financial regulatory body to help monitor and gauge systemic risk. If financial rules are allowed to vary too widely from nation to nation, there is a risk of a race to the bottom—some nations will move toward more lax regulation to capture financial business at the expense of their competitors. The financial system will be weakened, with consequences that are now all too apparent.

What should this new set of global financial rules encompass? For starters, it should ensure that managerial incentive schemes are transparent and do not provide perverse encouragement for bad accounting, myopic behavior and excessive risk taking. Compensation should be based on returns not from a single year but over a longer time period. At the very least, we should require greater transparency in stock options, including making sure that they receive appropriate accounting treatment. And we need to restrict the scope for conflicts of interest—whether among rating agencies being paid by those they are rating, or mortgage companies owning the companies that appraise the properties on which they issue mortgages. We need to restrict excessive leverage, and other very risky behavior. Standardization of financial products would enhance transparency. And financial-product safety and stability commissions could help decide which products were safe for institutions to use, and for what purposes. We have seen what happens if we rely on bankers to regulate banking.

Beyond better global coordination of macroeconomic policy and regulation, there are at least two other actions governments should take. First, we need a reform of the global reserve system. More than 75 years ago, John Maynard Keynes, the greatest economist of his generation, wrote that a global reserve system was necessary for financial stability and prosperity; since then the need has become much more dire.

Keynes's hope was that the International Monetary Fund would create a new global reserve currency that countries would hold instead of sterling (the reserve of the time). Today, such a currency could be used to replace the dollar as the de facto reserve currency. Because it would not depend on the fortunes of any one country, it would be more stable. Supply could be increased on a regular basis, ensuring that reserves kept up with countries' needs. Issuance could be done on the basis of simple rules—including punishment for countries that caused global weaknesses by having persistent surpluses. This is an idea whose time may have finally come.

The other major reform should be a new system of handling cross-border bankruptcies (including debt defaults by sovereign states). Today, when a bank or firm in one country defaults, it can have global ramifications. With various national legal systems involved, the tangle may take years to unwind. For example, the problems arising from Argentina's 2001 default are still not resolved, and bankruptcy complications plagued South Korea and Indonesia during their crises a decade ago, slowing down the process of recovery. The world may soon be littered with defaults, and we need a better way of handling them than we have had in the past.

This crisis has highlighted not only the extent of our interdependencies but the deficiencies in existing institutions. The IMF, for instance, has done little but talk about global imbalances. And as the world has focused on problems of governance as an impediment to development, deficiencies in the IMF's own governance meant its lectures had little credibility. Its advice, especially that encouraging deregulation, seems particularly hollow today. Many critics in Asia and the Middle East, where pools of liquid capital dwarf the IMF's own, are wondering why they should turn over their money to an institution in which the United States, the source of the problem, still has veto power, and in which they have so little voting power.

This is a Bretton Woods moment—a time for dramatic reforms of existing institutions or, as was done at the end of World War II, the creation of new ones.

Until now, Washington has consistently blocked efforts to create a multilateral global financial system that is stable and fair. It exported the deregulatory philosophy that has proved so costly, both to itself and to the world. President Obama has an opportunity to change all this. Much depends—now and for decades to come—on his response.