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Fault lines

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Introduction to Fault Lines

“Why here?” “Why now?” Get an introduction to Fault Lines as Rajan briefly discusses some of the stresses outside the financial sector that led to the collapse. Watch the video »

Raghu Rajan: Eric J. Gleacher Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

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February 05

Why Did Economists Not Spot the Crisis?

CHICAGO – At the height of the financial crisis, the Queen of England asked my friends at the London School of Economics a simple question, but one for which there is no easy answer: Why did academic economists fail to foresee the crisis?

There have been several responses to that query. One is that economists simply lacked models that could account for the behavior that led to the crisis. Another is that economists were blinkered by an ideology according to which a free and unfettered market could do no wrong.

Finally, an answer that is gaining ground is that the system bribed economists to stay silent.

In my view, the truth lies elsewhere.

It is not true that we academics did not have useful models to explain what happened. If you believe that the crisis was caused by a shortage of liquidity, we had plenty of models analyzing liquidity shortages and their effects on financial institutions. If you believe that the blame lies with greedy bankers and unthinking investors, lulled by the promise of a government bailout, or with a market driven crazy by irrational exuberance, we had studied all this too, in great detail.

Economists had even analyzed the political economy of regulation and deregulation, so we could have understood why some US politicians pushed the private sector into financing affordable housing, while others deregulated private finance. Yet, somehow, we did not bring all this understanding to bear and collectively shout out our warnings.

Perhaps the reason was ideology: we were too wedded to the idea that markets are efficient, market participants are rational, and high prices are justified by economic fundamentals. But some of this criticism of “market fundamentalism” reflects a misunderstanding. The dominant “efficient markets theory” says only that markets reflect what is publicly known, and that it is hard to make money off markets consistently – something verified by the hit that most investor portfolios took in the crisis. The theory does not say that markets cannot plummet if the news is bad, or if investors become risk-averse… MORE



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