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克鲁格曼:浩劫归来!(收录)  

2009-03-25 11:38:08|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Partying Like It’s 1929


Published: March 21, 2008

If Ben Bernanke manages to save the financial system from collapse, he will — rightly — be praised for his heroic efforts.

But what we should be asking is: How did we get here?

Why does the financial system need salvation?

Why do mild-mannered economists have to become superheroes?

Theanswer, at a fundamental level, is that we’re paying the price forwillful amnesia. We chose to forget what happened in the 1930s — andhaving refused to learn from history, we’re repeating it.

Contraryto popular belief, the stock market crash of 1929 wasn’t the definingmoment of the Great Depression. What turned an ordinary recession intoa civilization-threatening slump was the wave of bank runs that sweptacross America in 1930 and 1931.

This banking crisis of the1930s showed that unregulated, unsupervised financial markets can alltoo easily suffer catastrophic failure.

As the decades passed, however, that lesson was forgotten — and now we’re relearning it, the hard way.

To grasp the problem, you need to understand what banks do.

Banksexist because they help reconcile the conflicting desires of savers andborrowers. Savers want freedom — access to their money on short notice.Borrowers want commitment: they don’t want to risk facing suddendemands for repayment.

Normally, banks satisfy both desires:depositors have access to their funds whenever they want, yet most ofthe money placed in a bank’s care is used to make long-term loans. Thereason this works is that withdrawals are usually more or less matchedby new deposits, so that a bank only needs a modest cash reserve tomake good on its promises.

But sometimes — often based onnothing more than a rumor — banks face runs, in which many people tryto withdraw their money at the same time. And a bank that faces a runby depositors, lacking the cash to meet their demands, may go bust evenif the rumor was false.

Worse yet, bank runs can be contagious.If depositors at one bank lose their money, depositors at other banksare likely to get nervous, too, setting off a chain reaction. And therecan be wider economic effects: as the surviving banks try to raise cashby calling in loans, there can be a vicious circle in which bank runscause a credit crunch, which leads to more business failures, whichleads to more financial troubles at banks, and so on.

That, inbrief, is what happened in 1930-1931, making the Great Depression thedisaster it was. So Congress tried to make sure it would never happenagain by creating a system of regulations and guarantees that provideda safety net for the financial system.

And we all lived happily for a while — but not for ever after.

WallStreet chafed at regulations that limited risk, but also limitedpotential profits. And little by little it wriggled free — partly bypersuading politicians to relax the rules, but mainly by creating a“shadow banking system” that relied on complex financial arrangementsto bypass regulations designed to ensure that banking was safe.

Forexample, in the old system, savers had federally insured deposits intightly regulated savings banks, and banks used that money to make homeloans. Over time, however, this was partly replaced by a system inwhich savers put their money in funds that bought asset-backedcommercial paper from special investment vehicles that boughtcollateralized debt obligations created from securitized mortgages —with nary a regulator in sight.

As the years went by, the shadowbanking system took over more and more of the banking business, becausethe unregulated players in this system seemed to offer better dealsthan conventional banks. Meanwhile, those who worried about the factthat this brave new world of finance lacked a safety net were dismissedas hopelessly old-fashioned.

In fact, however, we were partying like it was 1929 — and now it’s 1930.

Thefinancial crisis currently under way is basically an updated version ofthe wave of bank runs that swept the nation three generations ago.People aren’t pulling cash out of banks to put it in their mattresses —but they’re doing the modern equivalent, pulling their money out of theshadow banking system and putting it into Treasury bills. And theresult, now as then, is a vicious circle of financial contraction.

Mr.Bernanke and his colleagues at the Fed are doing all they can to endthat vicious circle. We can only hope that they succeed. Otherwise, thenext few years will be very unpleasant — not another Great Depression,hopefully, but surely the worst slump we’ve seen in decades.

Evenif Mr. Bernanke pulls it off, however, this is no way to run aneconomy. It’s time to relearn the lessons of the 1930s, and get thefinancial system back under control.


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