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Was the Financial Crisis Caused by Ignorance?

Famed economist Hernando de Soto argues in the most recent issue of Business Week that the financial crisis was brought about by a reversal of a long trend to record and classify economic knowledge.

In reaction to earlier economic crises, reformers assembled what de Soto describes as "the first massive 'public memory systems.'"

From Business Week:

Knowing who owned and owed, and fixing that information in public records, made it possible for investors to infer value, take risks, and track results. The final product was a revolutionary form of knowledge: "economic facts."

Over the past 20 years, Americans and Europeans have quietly gone about destroying these facts. The very systems that could have provided markets and governments with the means to understand the global financial crisis—and to prevent another one—are being eroded.

Governments have allowed shadow markets to develop and reach a size beyond comprehension. Mortgages have been granted and recorded with such inattention that homeowners and banks often don't know and can't prove who owns their homes. In a few short decades the West undercut 150 years of legal reforms that made the global economy possible.

He goes on to describe how the Dodd-Frank financial reforms fail to fix this problem.

First, various groups of derivatives end users, such as nonfinancial companies and sovereign wealth funds, are likely to be exempted from the clearing process—from 40 percent of them, according to Craig Pirrong of the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business, to 70 percent, according to Michael Greenberger, a former Commodities Futures Trading Commission director. Second, the information collected would be available only to regulators because certain business data are considered "proprietary." Third, the $700 trillion worth of derivatives that ignited the recession are not covered by Dodd-Frank.

Warren Buffett successfully lobbied for their exclusion, saying it would be tantamount to rewriting old contracts and would force healthy derivatives players such as his own Berkshire Hathaway to post collateral on old deals. Fourth, the clearing system is not likely to be fully operational for another 5 to 10 years. Fifth, many clearinghouses do not have the kind of complete information required by traditional public memory systems: incentives for recording that asset owners can't resist; standard classifications to facilitate identifying and governing the assets; universal access to the information; integration or linkages with other recording systems; provisions to protect third parties from negative externalities; identification of all asset holders and interested parties; limited liability provisions to improve accountability.

That's a lot of failure to digest in a single paragraph.

Indeed. Go read the whole thing.

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