17 Sep 2009

Excellent Cochrane/Zingales Article on Lehman and Paulson

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I can forgive John Cochrane his excesses in defense of neoclassical financial models because he and Zingales did a wonderful job showing that the financial panic in September 2008 was most likely not caused by the collapse of Lehman. On the contrary, it was Paulson’s saber rattling that spooked investors:

The nearby chart shows that the main risk indicators only took off after Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s TARP speeches to Congress on Sept. 23 and 24—not after the Lehman failure.

On Sept. 22, bank credit-default swap (CDS) spreads were at the same level as on Sept. 12. (CDS spreads are the cost of buying insurance against default.) On Sept. 19, the S&P 500 closed above its Sept. 12 level. The Libor-OIS spread—which captures the perceived riskiness of short-term interbank lending—rose only 18 points the day of Lehman’s collapse, while it shot up more than 60 points from Sept. 23 to Sept. 25, after the TARP testimony. (Libor—the London Interbank Offer Rate—is the rate at which banks can borrow unsecured for three months.)

Why? In effect, these speeches amounted to “The financial system is about to collapse. We can’t tell you why. We need $700 billion. We can’t tell you what we’re going to do with it.” That’s a pretty good way to start a financial crisis.

And here’s the chart which is rather suggestive:

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