On Paul Krugman’s Blog he presents a graphical model of the current financial crisis in the US that implicitly discusses how the system lost resilience. He identifies leveraged investments as a slow variable which can lead to the creation of alternative regimes, the possibility for a shock to flip the system from one regime to another, and now possibly a new regime.
The other day I realized how much the Fed’s attempts to resolve the financial mess resemble sterilized foreign exchange intervention. That set me thinking about other parallels — and I realized how much the stories now being told about “systemic margin calls” and all that resemble the stories we all tried to tell about the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. Leverage, balance sheet effects, self-reinforcing financial collapse — the details are different, but there are some clear common themes.
…Think of the demand for “securities” — lumping together all the stuff that’s in trouble, from subprime to Alt-A to corporate bonds, as if it were all the same. Ordinarily we’d think of a downward sloping demand curve. At a given point in time, there’s a fixed supply of these securities that has to be held by someone [Normal Situation]
But in the current situation, a lot of securities are held by market players who have leveraged themselves up. When prices fall beyond a certain point, they get calls from Mr. Margin, and have to sell off some of their holdings to meet those calls. The result can be a stretch of the demand curve that’s sloped the “wrong way”: falling prices actually reduce demand.
In this case, there are two equilibria, H and L. (there’s one in the middle, but it’s unstable) And this introduces the possibility of self-fulfilling panic: if something spooks the market, you can get a “systemic margin call” that causes the whole financial market to go to L, and causes a big, unnecessary price decline. [Highly leveraged investment]
Implicitly, Fed policy seems to be based on the view that if only they can restore confidence — with extra liquidity to the banks, Fed fund rate cuts, whatever — they can get us out of L and back to H. That’s the LTCM model: Rubin and Greenspan met a crisis with a rate cut and a show of confidence, and the whole thing went away.
But at this point a series of rate cuts and other stuff just hasn’t done the trick — which suggests that maybe there isn’t a high-price equilibrium out there at all. Maybe the underlying losses in housing and elsewhere are sufficiently large that the situation really looks like this [current situation?]
And in that case, the Fed can’t rescue the financial markets. All it — and the feds in general — can do is to try to limit the effects of financial crisis on the rest of the economy.