Sunday, January 30, 2011

Four takes on the financial crisis, and why I agree with Joe Nocera and Frank Partnoy.

Here are three different takes:  one in the WSJ from Bill Thomas, Keith Hennessey, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin (here), one in the WSJ from Holman Jenkins, Jr. (here), one from Joe Nocera in yesterday's NYT (here), and one from Frank Partnoy in today's NYT (here).

Look, everyone's right in pointing out that the crisis had nuanced causes.  That's not rocket science.  (I have ways of proving that statement--we have a friend who is an actual rocket scientist, and I can always ask him.)

But here's Nocera's bottom line, written in his inimitable style:
In pushing the idea that the crisis was avoidable, Mr. Angelides is also trying to make an additional point: if we just do it better next time, we will avoid the next crisis. I’m all for holding the bad actors accountable, and to the extent the F.C.I.C. has done that, I tip my hat. But mass delusions, alas, are part of the human condition, and no report, no matter how scathing, is going to change that.
And thus the question really isn’t whether it will happen again. It’s when. 
That's exactly the point we made in our second Enron book (available here).  Until we all recognize that humans are hard-wired to make certain cognitive mistakes, we will keep looking for nuanced causes that, ultimately, are irrelevant.  That's why I liked Jenkins's point that, unless we figure out incentives that will keep people from doing what humans do best (those darn cognitive errors), we'll see the problem repeat itself.  And why do I like Frank Partnoy's point?  Because he's seen the Wall Street world from the inside and knows whereof he writes.  When Frank points out how partisan politics skewed the Financial Crisis report, I listen.

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