Saturday, 30 August 2008

Short review of The Sub-Prime Solution by Robert Shiller

Robert Shiller has written some very interesting things over the years. In my opinion Irrational Exuberance is still one of the best books to read about stockmarkets, and in the New Financial Order he set out some new ideas for democratising finance so that it better serves the public. This book (actually it's more of a pamphlet) draws a bit on the ideas mapped out in the New Financial Order as a way out of the current mess.

To massively over-simplify, Shiller says we need a mix of short-term sticking plasters and longer-term reforms. In respect of the former camp he says we have to accept bailouts as a necessary evil, even though it goes against the moral hazard arguments. he also suggests setting up a revamped Homeowners Loan Corporation which would take on mortgages as collateral for loans to mortgage lenders in return for influencing the form future mortgages take (in order that they offer a better deal to homeowners).

Turning to the longer term Shiller sets out 6 key policies - comprehensive financial advice (based on fees rather than commssions), the establishment of a consumer finance watchdog, the creation of more default financial options (not just pensions, mortgage arrangements could also be included), improved financial disclosure, to improve accountability, the creation of better financial databases which would help provide consumers with better advice and more tailored products, and finally and most radically the creation of new units of economic measurement, based on what things actually cost.

There are big plus points about this book. First, Shiller is willing to think big. he's effectively arguing for more financial innovation, not less, but also that the process should be carried out in a way that meets the needs of the public. Secondly he warns against scapegoating the financial sector. In the epilogue he argues that we should be focusing on the systems that went wrong, rather than seeking to punish the industry as a whole. As tempting as it might be to try to stick the boot into the super-rich in the City, that isn't really going to take us very far. Shiller instead is setting out some new ideas for how we might stop this kind of crisis arising again.

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