Review of #TheBigShort including of the movie

About the only time the Hollywood Left oozes with patriotism is when getting stuck into Wall Street. Hollywood must get its revenge for all those times investors did not back their film pitches, trimmed budgets and get the lion’s share of merchandising royalties and syndication profits. As Larry Ribstein explained:

American films have long presented a negative view of business…. it is not business that filmmakers dislike, but rather the control of firms by profit-maximizing capitalists… this dislike stems from filmmakers’ resentment of capitalists’ constraints on their artistic vision.

The Big Short is still a good film despite the left-wing populism, worth going to see. Its limitations in not discussing the monetary policy of The Fed or regulations that encouraged lending to high risk borrowers are justified poetic license and editing.

The film is already 120+ minutes long despite frequent resorts to breaking the fourth wall to explain technical terms, who was what and what they were doing, past and present. The Big Short is a film designed it make money at the box office, not a semester long documentary.

The Big Short is well acted, funny, insightful and still a good story despite the documentary element that was impossible to do without.

The Big Short highlights that its protagonists had skin in the game. They were investing in mortgages or shorting the same in the expectation of a crash. There were no windbags and armchair critics in The Big Short talking gloom and doom on the horizon without investing their own money to profit from their forecasts. That said, the protagonists betting on a sub-prime mortgages crash, bar two of them, were a little bit nutty.

I do not know any of the critics of the economics of the film’s explanation of the sub-prime crisis who suggested how they could fix these gaps in its economics without making the film much, much longer.

These critics fall into the exact same trap that the Big Short was not about. The Big Short was about investors to put their money where their mouth is. The critics of the film should put their script doctoring skills where their mouths are at least of The Big Short.

Source: What ‘The Big Short’ Gets Right, and Wrong, About the Housing Bubble – The New York Times.

Getting stuck into the role of the Fed and regulatory mandates on the banks regarding their level of sub-prime mortgages is for another film. Plenty of people warned of dark days ahead. An essay anyone can read with profit is Ross Levine’s “An Autopsy of the U.S. Financial System: Accident, Suicide, or Negligent Homicide?

Other films, correctly documentaries, place the blame for the sub-prime crisis and the Great Recession directly on the Fed:

The financial mess we’re still climbing out of can be laid directly at the feet of the Fed, whose misguided advocacy, under Greenspan, of a borrow-and-spend economy rather than a focus on savings and investment has created a situation where, as the title implies, money is disconnected from any underlying value.

There are plenty of points that could be added to the economics of The Big Short if it was a film of more or less unlimited length:

Krugman and friends like the film because it leaves out any discussion of the main culprit behind the financial crisis, which was not Wall Street “greed” but bad monetary and credit policies from the Federal Reserve and the federal government. The movie barely hints at any exogenous factors behind the boom or bust. (This FEE report by Peter Boettke and Steven Horwitz fills in the missing information.) So the pro-regulation crowd is cheering. Viewers are given no understanding of the real causal factors and hence fill in the missing data with a feeling that banks just love ripping people off. To be sure, if you approach this movie with some knowledge of economics and monetary policy, the rest of the narrative makes sense. Of course Wall Street got it wrong, given Washington’s policies on mortgage lending!

To add to the brew, Edward Prescott points out the Great Recession can be explained through productivity shocks. Specifically, a collapse in investment and in particular investment in intangibles such as intellectual property in 2007 in anticipation of more taxes and more regulation.

The Great Recession had many of the same features of the 1990s technology boom but in reverse. The boom in the 1990s and bust in 2007 were somewhat inexplicable because major sources of volatility were unmeasured, specifically, investment in intangible capital.

V.V. Chari also points out that the extent of the financial crisis was overstated. This is because the typical firm can finance its capital expenditures from retained earnings so it was hard to see how financial market disruptions could directly affect investment.

What Chari disputed was that bank lending to non-financial corporations and individuals has declined sharply, that interbank lending is essentially non-existent; and commercial paper issuance by non-financial corporations declined sharply, and rates have risen to unprecedented levels.

John Taylor argues that we should consider macroeconomic performance since the 1960: There was a move toward more discretionary policies in the 1960s and 1970s; A move to more rules-based policies in the 1980s and 1990s; and back again toward discretion in recent years.

These policy swings are correlated with economic performance—unemployment, inflation, economic and financial stability, the frequency and depths of recessions, the length and strength of recoveries. Less predictable, more interventionist, and more fine-tuning type macroeconomic policies have caused, deepened and prolonged the current recession. Robert Hetzel puts it this way:

The alternative explanation offered here for the intensification of the recession emphasizes propagation of the original real shocks through contractionary monetary policy. The intensification of the recession followed the pattern of recessions in the stop-go period of the late 1960s and 1970s, in which the Fed introduced cyclical inertia in the funds relative to changes in economic activity.

Finn Kydland considers fiscal policy to be at the heart of the slow recovery. Instead of restructuring and investing more prudently, Western countries faced with budget shortfalls will seek to increase taxes:

  • The U.S. economy isn’t recovering from the Great Recession of 2008-2009 with the anticipated strength.
  • A widespread conjecture is that this weakness can be traced to perceptions of an imminent switch to a regime of higher taxes.
  • The fiscal sentiment hypothesis can account for a significant fraction of the decline in investment and labor supply in the aftermath of the Great Recession, relative to their pre-recession trends.
  • The perceived higher taxes must fall almost exclusively on capital income. People must suspect that the tax structure that will be implemented to address large fiscal imbalances will be far from optimal.

Now imagine trying to incorporate all the above points into a film and keeping it at its current two-hour length?


Share market losses during previous financial crises in the USA and UK

The modern macroeconomics of the Global Financial Crisis

Banking crises are more common than you think

Source: Bank closures like Greece’s are rare | Pew Research Center

Financial crises surprisingly common, but few countries close their banks

Real and Pseudo-Financial Crises, the Chinese share market crash and Anna Schwartz

If we could take time out from the breathless journalism about the Chinese stock market, which some people may have heard of before this week, it’s crash should be seen through the lens that Anna Schwartz developed in 1987 of a pseudo financial crisis and a financial crisis.

Her paper is written at the same time as the 1987 stock market crash. On financial crises, Anna Schwartz said:


As for those pseudo financial crises, she said:


Schwartz’s principal concern with regard to pseudo financial crisis was:

proposals to deal with pseudo-financial crises is the perpetuation of policies that promote inflation and waste of economic resources

As we are talking about the Chinese stock market, Anna Schwartz also wrote about the concepts of real systemic international risk and and pseudo international systemic risk.

Once again, and as with pseudo financial crises and real financial crises, what distinguishes real systemic international risk and pseudo international systemic risk is a threat to the payment system. The threat of bank runs, which can easily be eliminated through lender of last resort facilities:


As always it is about the security of the payments system – of avoiding bank runs, not private losses:


The lesson for the day is that when people start panicking about the economy or the stock market or international markets, don’t go to a macroeconomist for advice, go to a monetary historian. They have seen it all before.

Employment losses after recent financial crises

Financial regulation and financial crisis | Sam Peltzman Oct 19, 2014

Romer and Romer vs. Reinhart and Rogoff – MoneyBeat – WSJ

Identifying financial crises after the fact is problematic: researchers will disagree on what their characteristics were, when they started and ended, and what actually counts as a crisis. This is particularly true of crises before World War II or involving developing economies, for which accurate data are harder to come by.

So the Romers created a measure of financial distress based on real-time accounts of developed-economy conditions prepared semiannually by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development between 1967 and 2007. And to check that the OECD wasn’t for some reason off-base on conditions, they crosschecked it with central bank annual reports and articles in The Wall Street Journal.

They then scored the severity of financial conditions from zero to 15, thus avoiding quibbles over what is and isn’t a crisis and allowing for more precise readings of economic effects.

Their finding: Declines in economic output, as measured by gross domestic product and industrial production, following crises were on average moderate and often short-lived. There was a lot of variation in outcomes, so there was nothing cut and dried about how economies respond to crises…

via Romer and Romer vs. Reinhart and Rogoff – MoneyBeat – WSJ.

Romers’ work suggests the poor performance of economies around the world in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis shouldn’t be cast as inevitable. In The Current Financial Crisis: What Should We Learn From the Great Depressions of the 20th Century? de Cordoba and Kehoe note that:

 Kehoe and Prescott [2007] conclude that bad government policies are responsible for causing great depressions. In particular, they hypothesize that, while different sorts of shocks can lead to ordinary business cycle downturns, overreaction by the government can prolong and deepen the downturn, turning it into a depression.

2014 Homer Jones Memorial Lecture – Robert E. Lucas Jr.

The first part of his lecture discusses how the Fed can influence inflation and financial stability.

Central banks can control inflation. Can central banks maintain economic stability’s financial stability? This is still an open question as to whether central banks can do that. The quantity theory of money makes certain sharp predictions about monetary neutrality which are well borne out by the cross country evidence.

In the second part of this lecture, Lucas discusses how central banks around the world have used inflation targeting to keep inflation under control.

What is the Fed to do with the stable relationship between money and prices? Inflation targeting is superior to a fixed growth monetary supply growth rule. This always pushes policy in the direction of the inflation rate you want. Central banks around the world have succeeded in keeping inflation low by explicitly or implicitly targeting the inflation rate.

In the last part of his lecture, Lucas discusses financial crises. he agrees with Gary Gordon’s analysis that 2008 financial crisis was a run on Repo. A run on liquid assets accepted as money because they can be so quickly changed into money. The effective money supply shrank drastically when there was a run on these liquid assets.

Lucas favoured the Diamond and Dybvig of bank runs as panics. The logic of that model applies to the Repo markets now was well as to the banking system. How to extend Glass–Steagall Act type regulation of bank portfolios to the Repo market is a question for future research.

Inflation targeting is working well but the lender of last resort function is yet to be fully understood.

Note: The Diamond-Dybvig view is that bank runs are inherent to the liquidity transformation carried out by banks. A bank transforms illiquid assets into liquid liabilities, subject to withdrawal.

Because of this maturity mismatch, if depositors suspect that others will run on the bank, it is optimal for each depositor to run to the bank to withdraw his or her deposit before the assets are exhausted. The bank run is not driven by some decline in the fundamentals of the bank. Depositors are spooked for some reason, panic, and attempt to withdraw their funds before others get in first. In this case, the provision of deposit insurance and lender of last resort facilities reassures depositors and stems the bank run

In the Kareken and Wallace model of bank runs, deposit insurance is problematic because of the incentives it gives to deposit taking institutions that are insured to take much greater risks. When there is deposit insurance, depositors don’t care about the greater risk in the portfolios of their banks. The greater risk taking leads to higher returns at no extra cost because if these risky investments do fail, the deposit insurance covers their losses

It is therefore necessary to regulate the portfolio of insured banks to ensure that they do not do this. That is the great dilemma for banking regulation because quasi-banks and other liquidity transformation intermediaries such as a Repo market spring up just outside the regulatory net.


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