05 Jan 2009

James Grant Is the Man, though Idealistic for the NYT

All Posts No Comments

The NYT reviews James Grant’s book, Mr. Market Miscalculates, which reflects on his warnings about the financial storm (HT2 von Pepe). The reviewer basically credits Grant for making spot-on predictions, then takes away the compliment through various nitpicks. A representative excerpt:

Mr. Grant’s targets have been many, but none more so than the Federal Reserve. During the height of Alan Greenspan’s maestro acclaim, Mr. Grant made the case against him, then took up the cudgel against his successor, Ben S. Bernanke. He accused them of inflating bubbles and of fighting what Mr. Grant sees as the false bogeyman of deflation.

Beyond the tilting, though, one question begs an answer: Is it possible to have robust growth without the follow-on crises? Essentially, Mr. Grant answers, no.

Capitalism, like invention, is disruptive, he has observed many times, while arguing that past efforts to ensure future safety have only increased long-term instability. That’s because well-meaning protections against “systemic risk” — even government insurance for bank deposits — encourage recklessness. Such was the backdrop to the financial engineering that computers made possible.

IN addition, as Mr. Grant sees it, the world went to hell after 1971, when the United States abandoned the gold standard. “Gold not only collateralized the currency but also tempered the growth in bank credit,” he admonished in 1999 — and, it seems, every year, before and since.

Unhitching economic growth from the vicissitudes of mining freed the Fed to issue endless liquidity to prop American employment and G.D.P. But cheap credit meant that investors, already egged on by Uncle Sam’s implied backstop guarantees, became flush with gambling money.

Mr. Grant is dead right about the long-run tendency of central banks to debase their own paper currencies, but permanently returning the dollar to a gold standard is no more practicable than reducing the government’s size to 19th-century levels. Still, as he warned in 2002, “very low interest rates often ignite booms, but even ultralow interest rates may not fix busts.” Live by the Fed’s pump-priming, die by the Fed’s pump-priming.

Can someone tell me what is up with this “practicable” line? How “practicable” is our current mess? Is the NYT guy really arguing that Grant is right, but the suggestion is impractical, or is he really not even taking Grant seriously?

Eight months ago, how “practicable” would it have been if Paul Krugman suggested that the feds nationalize major portions of the financial sector, and borrow a trillion more dollars for stimulus? Times change quickly.

Comments are closed.