Rethinking the Financial Crisis

Russell Sage Foundation
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Some economic events are so major and unsettling that they “change everything.” Such is the case with the financial crisis that started in the summer of 2007 and is still a drag on the world economy. Yet enough time has now elapsed for economists to consider questions that run deeper than the usual focus on the immediate causes and consequences of the crisis. How have these stunning events changed our thinking about the role of the financial system in the economy, about the costs and benefits of financial innovation, about the efficiency of financial markets, and about the role the government should play in regulating finance? In Rethinking the Financial Crisis, some of the nation’s most renowned economists share their assessments of particular aspects of the crisis and reconsider the way we think about the financial system and its role in the economy.

In its wide-ranging inquiry into the financial crash, Rethinking the Financial Crisis marshals an impressive collection of rigorous and yet empirically-relevant research that, in some respects, upsets the conventional wisdom about the crisis and also opens up new areas for exploration. Two separate chapters–by Burton G. Malkiel and by Hersh Shefrin and Meir Statman – debate whether the facts of the financial crisis upend the efficient market hypothesis and require a more behavioral account of financial market performance. To build a better bridge between the study of finance and the “real” economy of production and employment, Simon Gilchrist and Egan Zakrasjek take an innovative measure of financial stress and embed it in a model of the U.S. economy to assess how disruptions in financial markets affect economic activity—and how the Federal Reserve might do monetary policy better. The volume also examines the crucial role of financial innovation in the evolution of the pre-crash financial system. Thomas Philippon documents the huge increase in the size of the financial services industry relative to real GDP, and also the increasing cost per financial transaction. He suggests that the finance industry of 1900 was just as able to produce loans, bonds, and stocks as its modern counterpart—and it did so more cheaply. Robert Jarrow looks in detail at some of the major types of exotic securities developed by financial engineers, such as collateralized debt obligations and credit-default swaps, reaching judgments on which make the real economy more efficient and which do not. The volume’s final section turns explicitly to regulatory matters. Robert Litan discusses the political economy of financial regulation before and after the crisis. He reviews the provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, which he considers an imperfect but useful response to a major breakdown in market and regulatory discipline.

At a time when the financial sector continues to be a source of considerable controversy, Rethinking the Financial Crisis addresses important questions about the complex workings of American finance and shows how the study of economics needs to change to deepen our understanding of the indispensable but risky role that the financial system plays in modern economies.

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About the author

ALAN S. BLINDER is the Gordon S. Rentschler Memorial Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University.

ANDREW W. LO is Charles E. and Susan T. Harris Professor at M.I.T.

ROBERT M. SOLOW is Institute Professor, Emeritus, at M.I.T.

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Additional Information

Russell Sage Foundation
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Published on
Jan 3, 2013
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Business & Economics / Economic Conditions
Business & Economics / General
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New York Times Bestseller

One of our wisest and most clear-eyed economic thinkers offers a masterful narrative of the crisis and its lessons.

Many fine books on the financial crisis were first drafts of history—books written to fill the need for immediate understanding. Alan S. Blinder, esteemed Princeton professor, Wall Street Journal columnist, and former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, held off, taking the time to understand the crisis and to think his way through to a truly comprehensive and coherent narrative of how the worst economic crisis in postwar American history happened, what the government did to fight it, and what we can do from here—mired as we still are in its wreckage.

With bracing clarity, Blinder shows us how the U.S. financial system, which had grown far too complex for its own good—and too unregulated for the public good—experienced a perfect storm beginning in 2007. Things started unraveling when the much-chronicled housing bubble burst, but the ensuing implosion of what Blinder calls the “bond bubble” was larger and more devastating. Some people think of the financial industry as a sideshow with little relevance to the real economy—where the jobs, factories, and shops are. But finance is more like the circulatory system of the economic body: if the blood stops flowing, the body goes into cardiac arrest. When America’s financial structure crumbled, the damage proved to be not only deep, but wide. It took the crisis for the world to discover, to its horror, just how truly interconnected—and fragile—the global financial system is. Some observers argue that large global forces were the major culprits of the crisis. Blinder disagrees, arguing that the problem started in the U.S. and was pushed abroad, as complex, opaque, and overrated investment products were exported to a hungry world, which was nearly poisoned by them.

The second part of the story explains how American and international government intervention kept us from a total meltdown. Many of the U.S. government’s actions, particularly the Fed’s, were previously unimaginable. And to an amazing—and certainly misunderstood—extent, they worked. The worst did not happen. Blinder offers clear-eyed answers to the questions still before us, even if some of the choices ahead are as divisive as they are unavoidable. After the Music Stopped is an essential history that we cannot afford to forget, because one thing history teaches is that it will happen again.
Will higher pay provide an incentive for better work? Can productivity be increased by changing the way workers are compensated? In response to the urgent need to improve productivity performance in American industry, leading economists examine alternative compensation schemes to assess their efficiency in raising productivity.

Over the years a number of suggestions have been made for improving labor productivity by changing the manner in which laborers are compensated for their efforts. The ideas presented and analyzed in this volume have all been put into practice, in modified form or on a small scale, in the United States or elsewhere. Some are new; others quite old.

David I. Levine and Laura D'Andrea Tyson consider the effects of employee participation in decisionmaking on firm performance, and Martin L. Weitzman and Douglas L. Kruse discuss the implications of profit sharing and related forms of pay for group performance. Michael A. Conte and Jan Svejnar analyze employee stock ownership plans in the United States and other forms of worker ownership in Europe; Masanore Hashimoto uses a transaction-cost perspective to assess Japanese employment and wage systems. Daniel J. B. Mitchell, David Lewin, and Edward E. Lawler III give an overall analysis of traditional and alternative pay systems, their history, development, and curent use, and recommend further experimentation with alternative compensation plans to ensure more adaptability on the part of U.S. firms. Blinder provides an overview of the findings and conclusions.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow directs his attention here to one of today's most controversial social issues: how to get people off welfare and into jobs. With characteristic eloquence, wit, and rigor, Solow condemns the welfare reforms recently passed by Congress and President Clinton for confronting welfare recipients with an unworkable choice--finding work in the current labor market or losing benefits. He argues that the only practical and fair way to move recipients to work is, in contrast, through an ambitious plan to guarantee that every able-bodied citizen has access to a job.

Solow contends that the demand implicit in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act for welfare recipients to find work in the existing labor market has two crucial flaws. First, the labor market would not easily make room for a huge influx of unskilled, inexperienced workers. Second, the normal market adjustment to that influx would drive down earnings for those already in low-wage jobs. Solow concludes that it is legitimate to want welfare recipients to work, but not to want them to live at a miserable standard or to benefit at the expense of the working poor, especially since children are often the first to suffer. Instead, he writes, we should create new demand for unskilled labor through public-service employment and incentives to the private sector--in effect, fair "workfare." Solow presents widely ignored evidence that recipients themselves would welcome the chance to work. But he also points out that practical, morally defensible workfare would be extremely expensive--a problem that politicians who support the idea blithely fail to admit. Throughout, Solow places debate over welfare reform in the context of a struggle to balance competing social values, in particular self-reliance and altruism.

The book originated in Solow's 1997 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University. It includes reactions from the distinguished scholars Gertrude Himmelfarb, Anthony Lewis, Glenn Loury, and John Roemer, who expand on and take issue with Solow's arguments. Work and Welfare is a powerful contribution to debate about welfare reform and a penetrating look at the values that shape its course.

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