Update mars 19
It seems to me that the U.S. financial system, and even the world financial system, have to be profoundly reformed, if they are to serve the real economy, rather than the contrary. If such a reform does not come about, however, I am afraid that we have entered a period of economic difficulties that may last many, many years. In fact, I think that the world economy stands today at the hedge of a large precipice.
What type of reform? First and for all, the packaging of different debts in impossible to untangle CDOs should be outlawed. These products are financial time-bombs waiting to explode for the real economy, not only in the United States, but around the world. Second, CDS insurance products should be issued only against insurable securities and not issued as casino chips in values much larger than the value of the insured securities (i.e. no so-called naked CDSs). In order words, the entire innovation of securitization finance has to be reviewed and reigned in before it does further damage. These two reforms could be implemented immediately if politicians really understood the problems or if they were not in the banks' pockets.
However, if the U.S. Congress feels that this is too big a problem to tackle on its own, for different reasons, my third recommendation would be for the Obama administration and the EU to call for an international finance conference, preferably a G-20 conference, to have coordinated actions and have legislation implemented to that effect.
So far, the steps taken to study the problem and to reform the system have been slow in coming and very timid. For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi intends to create a congressional panel (rather than an outside commission of inquiry) to investigate the causes of the US 2007-09 financial crisis. This would seem to me to be an inadequate and insufficient response to a crisis of this magnitude and severity.
Fourth, for the longer run, and regarding the toxic financial products that precipitated the crisis, one wonders why new medication pills or drugs have to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in order to make sure that they do not hurt the human body, while no similar requirements of the sort exist for new financial products to make sure that they are not going to be very harmful to the real economy.
There seems to be two different standards applied here. I personally think that there is a need for a Financial Products Administration (FPA) in order to make sure that possibly toxic financial products are not made available to the public before having been fully tested for their absence of toxicity. It should be mandatory that risky financial products be tested and approved before being sold to the public.
And fifth and last, as to deposit-taking banks and investment banks, I happen to believe that the Glass-Steagall act should be brought back in full. It was a wise and prudent law that stabilized financial markets for three quarters of a century. Its near complete elimination in 1999 opened the floodgates of irresponsible financial gambling that nearly brought down the demise of the entire U.S. economy. I do not think the contemplated “Volcker rule” to prevent banks from operating their own hedge funds goes far enough, considering the magnitude of the problem.
—I was amazed when the Glass-Steagal act was de facto repealed in 1999, and I am still amazed that the very economist who was most instrumental in that repeal is currently President Obama's principal economic adviser (Larry Summers).
—As a general principle, it should be reaffirmed that finance is there to serve the needs of the real economy, and not the reverse.
—Finally, I would say that in economics, as in medicine, it is never too late to do the right thing. But if you don't, the disease may become progressively worse and it may become irreversible. I think that is where we stand today regarding the necessity to reform the financial system.