Friday, January 15, 2010

Caballero's story

David Beckworth considers the proximity of economists to the financial system and their view of the effect of interest rates in the housing and credit boom. The idea is that, essentially, business economists see the Fed's lowering of interest rates as a key factor in the boom because of their keen, first-hand knowledge of the situation, rather than academic economists who have less contact. I'll ignore the obvious problems of Professor Beckworth's hypothesis to point out something that struck me as odd: Cabellero's story. Caballero seems to believe that the demand for safe assets rose...

By 2001, as the demand for safe assets began to rise above what the U.S. corporate world and safe mortgage‐ borrowers naturally could provide, financial institutions began to search for mechanisms to generate triple‐A assets from previously untapped and riskier sources. Subprime borrowers were next in line, but in order to produce safe assets from their loans, “banks” had to create complex instruments and conduits that relied on the law of large numbers and tranching of their liabilities.

... does this make sense? So, financial institutions poorly measured risk, sure. But, in order for complex instruments to be made from subprime loans, more subprime loans had to be made. Meaning, there had to be incentives for subprime borrowers to receive subprime loans. Does Caballero really believe that lower interest rates couldn't have been among these incentives? And that had interests rates been higher, there wouldn't have been less incentive? Ricardo Caballero's story can't be the one held by most academic economists, can it?

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