Saturday, August 15, 2009 4 comments

Opinion: Why AustEcon supporters will never rule a country

As may get the feeling by now, I am not a fan of Austrian Economics. I support their stance on freedom and property rights but not their constant trashing of the government and call for unfettered capitalism. It is likely that the ideology will never gain any major support in any democratic system, except under duress (such as during a major war or super-high unemployment or some such thing.) To see why, consider what Mike Shedlock of MISH's Economic Analysis blog, who happens to be an AustEcon supporter, says about FDIC:

Instead of spreading a small number of small bank failures out over a large number of years, a large number of big failures are all clustered together.

If this is not an asinine model what is? Note this is a failure caused by regulation. There should not be an FDIC in the first place.

This view is nothing unique to Mike Shedlock and has been expressed by others such as Jim Grant and Jim Rogers (not sure if Rogers is an AustEcon believer.) So I'm not trying to single out Mike Shedlock; instead, I'm attacking the whole ideology that is against deposit insurance.

Does anyone know what happened before FDIC insurance?

No, we didn't have a paradise with few bank failures and losses. Nope! In fact, it was a horrible environment where bank failures were very common. In fact, if you looked at history over several hundread years, one will conclude that bank failures before FDIC insurance was even worse.

Yes, more of the losses accrued to the stockholders and bondholders (whereas now the bondholders seem to be protected by the government.) So it was more capitalist in punishing those whose firms made mistakes.

However, a conveniently ignored fact is that depositors almost always lost money. Guess who the depositors are? Some average guy off the street, like you and I. Even the best citizen who did their utmost job to determine if a bank is safe (a very difficult task even if you were an bank accounting expert) before dealing with the bank, had no chance. Losses were rampant and the average person literally lost their life savings with little recourse. Even worse, back then, was how farmers, who weren't even middle-class since the middle-class wasn't as big in the 1800's, often lost whatever money they had whenever there were bank failures.

To make matters worse, one bank failure often led to bank runs on all the other banks (since deposits were never safe* anywhere.) There were so many well-run banks wiped out by bank runs based on rumours and wild speculation (possibly started by competitors and other nefarious sources.)

As for the fat tail risk, that's unavoidable in my opinion. That's why the government handles this stuff. The nature of booms and busts means that you will have huge losses in a short period of time during the bust. This is nothing new and has been happening for the last few thousand years. Other than charging enough premiums to make sure you have enough money to cover losses, you really can't do anything. Criticizing the fat tail aspect of deposit insurance is kind of like someone criticizing an insurance company insuring against earthquakes for the fat tail risk. Of course there is fat tail risk—that's the nature of earthquakes!

It's amazing to me that people who already know all this (and know way more than me) call for such a ludicrous system. I am strongly against removal of bank deposit insurance. If someone wants to criticize, do so for the types of institutions that are covered. For example, should Iceland really insure off-shore deposits by Icelandic banks? That's a debatable point. Otherwise, it's like going back to the stone age.


* Some of the same people arguing against deposit insurance often argue that banking should not be fractional reserve banking. That is, under fractional reserve banking, the bank only holds a portion of the assets as reserves (i.e it lends out more than it has.) Only lending out exactly equal to deposits is very pimitive and practicaly no ecnomist, other than the few who propose that system, ever support it. Nearly all of modern history has involved fractional reserves. I'm not going to go into why only lending what you take in as deposits is inefficient in this post but maybe in the future.


4 Response to Opinion: Why AustEcon supporters will never rule a country

August 16, 2009 at 11:52 PM

Great argument.  These market fundmentalists are as bad as communists.

Sivaram Velauthapillai
August 17, 2009 at 11:04 AM

Yep... I feel that a lot on the "right" blindly believe in the markets, which is no different than, as you point out, people on the "left" who blindly believe that communism will lead to an prosperous, egalitarian, society.

August 18, 2009 at 7:27 AM

The FDIC is akin to Medicare.  The government shifts the costs to those who made a concerted effort to stay healthy from those who didn't.  A savings account is a risk investment.  The US is a pampered and irresponsible lot that expects everyone else to pull their feet out of the fire when they are too lazy to do due diligence.  No more.  JoelDee/Berlin

Sivaram Velauthapillai
August 18, 2009 at 10:31 AM

Do you honestly think the average person can do due diligence on the banks? It certainly didn't happen to any satisfactory degree in the 1800's or 1900's! And clearly no one, including banking experts, such as analysts, investors, bond investors, and regulators, know what is going on at the the banks. Perhaps you are an expert an was able to put your savings in a safe bank but the vast majority population, including experts, can't determine what is a sound bank and what is not. This goes for the megabanks, who were exposed to toxic structured products, and, it also applies to the small banks, who had negligbile exposure to structured products.

Certainly, in Canada, which is similar to the US, except five banks dominate, there is no way I could figure out the risk inherent in the banks. Admittedly, I'm just some guy off the street who doesn't do due diligence on banks for a living, but I suspect even if I paid someone to do it (which is what you are suggesting since average people like me don't have the skills), I suspect the experts wouldn't know for sure either.

Your argument goes to the root of what I was criticizing. You pure free-market views seem good in theory but are completely useless in the real world. On top of increasing costs (it's cheaper to get mass insurance from the government than it is for individuals to hire private analysts to research bank soundness), it just doesn't work. Like I said, look throughout history. You can even look when there was gold standard all over the world. There was no way for a depositor to protect themselves.

Post a Comment