Friday, January 30, 2009

Big Government

So much discussion is going on today about “Big Government.” The urgency of the talk is, of course, a result of the Obama stimulus plan…and TARP…and a possible “bad bank”…and possibly even more spending and tax cuts coming down the line. There is even a new book out called “The Case for Big Government,” by Jeff Madrick.

Has anyone been to Washington, D. C. lately?

Tell me what someone means when they say…”small government”?

It’s all relative…right?

To me the talk about “Big Government” or “small government” is so much wasted energy. The United States government IS big! It is going to STAY big! There is no way that I can see it becoming smaller. And, this doesn’t even take into account that we are faced, throughout the world, with dealing with other BIG governments.

The question to me is not about the size of the government. I would even argue that the size and complexity of other organizations within the country and the problems that must be dealt with require that the government be big. To me the question is about how this government goes about its business…that is how the public sector interacts with the private sector.

Last February, I put up a post on this site titled “More on Hamiltonian Government” (2/27/2008). In this post I argued that government faces three problems that put a limit on its power. These problems relate to the creation of incentives, the lack of sufficient information, and the speed at which events are taking place in the modern world. These limits, as I saw the situation, restricts what a government can achieve and directs us to those things a government can do that are actually helpful. The conclusion is that a government can have a positive effect on the private sector if it focuses on process rather than outcomes. If it focuses on outcomes, a government may create more problems than it solves.

Let’s just looking at the first of these problems today, the problem of incentives: the basic incentive for government is to “improve” something…make something better…or less bad. (On January 10, 2009, I wrote a post called “Improvers” to discuss the topic a little more deeply.) The government doesn’t have a lot of specific incentives…except in cases like the military…win wars…keep the peace…and so forth. So the primary goal is to “improve” things.

The problem with this is that in trying to “improve” things, the government can often create other incentives that have undesirable results or results that are the exact opposite of what they would like to achieve. (To see some specific cases please refer to the popular book…and blog…called “Freakonomics” developed by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.) The difficulty occurs when people attempt to focus outcomes and state their objectives in specific goals. Setting the specific goals can then create other incentives that can harm or destroy the purpose of the whole effort the government has undertaken to “improve” things.

This often happens in situations involving the government’s monetary and fiscal policies. For example, the goal to avoid recessions can create government policies that send out messages to the private sector that can totally destroy the initial goal of the government. When Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System became so concerned about the possibilities of an extended recession following the bursting of the stock market bubble in the early 2000s that he kept the target interest rate of the Fed excessively low for an extended period of time, lower than the rate of inflation the economy was experiencing.

The result…excessive borrowing took place because the real rate of interest was negative…it paid people to borrow…a bubble in asset prices occurred in housing markets…this was passed into the capital markets through securitization…and this funneled into other areas of the capital market, especially more and more exotic derivative instruments…and as people continued to create credit at an exponential rate and as people continued to leverage up their balance sheets…the financial markets…and the whole economy…became more and more fragile.

Why did people…even sensible people…do these things?

The incentives created in the credit expansion distorted things. If, for example, I run a hedge fund and I want to earn a slightly better return on my portfolio than you I can, say, try one of two things. For one I can increase the riskiness of the assets I hold…maybe purchase securities backed by subprime loans rather than corporate bonds. Or, I can increase the leverage on my balance sheet to stimulate higher net returns on my portfolio. In either case I am increasing the riskiness of my portfolio in order to gain an advantage over you.

And, how can I get away with this. Well, I know that Alan Greenspan is so worried about avoiding a recession that he will continue to support the credit expansion even in the face of riskier asset portfolios or greater use of leverage in the system. And if this continues on for two or three years, the competitive pressure to do well and outperform my competitors will grow and grow. I will continue to increase the risk of my portfolios and to increase how much leverage I introduce to my balance sheet.

And, if I don’t do it? Suppose I am a relatively conservative portfolio manager and I don’t believe that I should either increase the riskiness of my asset portfolio or raise the amount of leverage on my balance sheet…what happens? Over time, as my competitors earn, even a few more basis points on the return on their portfolio…my clients will start withdrawing money from my funds and placing it with my competitor. If this environment is sustained by the government, I will either have to close my fund or capitulate and change my beliefs and become more aggressive. And, if I don’t have that choice and work for someone else…I will be replaced with someone that is more aggressive.

Is this outright greed that is driving this scenario? Are these people “bad” or “excessively crass” in their behavior?

These people want to perform well…that is true…but, I don’t believe that they are addicted to avarice any more or less than most people. The incentives changed on them and they just responded to the competitive pressures that were present in the market place. In my estimation…these incentives were set up by the government in following the incentive they placed high on their priority list…government officials wanted to improve things…they wanted to keep a recession from happening.

Government is going to have its incentives; and the private sector is going to have its incentives. The problem is not one of whether or not the government is big. The problem is related to how the government is going to implement its actions to achieve the goals it sets for itself. Often, as in the example I have given, the “good intentions” of the government can be translated into actions that create the “wrong” incentives for the private sector. If the private sector responds to these “wrong” incentives…and they will…the ultimate result may be totally the opposite of what the government was trying to achieve in the first place.

The problem is that the ultimate results occur at such a distance from the cause that the two are not tied together. Do people tie Greenspan’s attempt to avoid recession early in this decade with the current financial collapse?

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