Saturday, 29 November 2008

Robert Shiller on tour

I made it along to a Work Foundation seminar this week where Robert Shiller was the guest speaker. I think some of the stuff he has written is really interesting. Irrational Exuberance is an excellent takedown of the efficient markets hypothesis and famously came out at the very peak of the dotcom bubble. But I actually think that The new Financial Order is the most interesting thing he has written as it attempts to put forward some ideas about how to mitigate risk.

At the the seminar his presentation combined both areas of his work. First he had a look at speculative bubbles and the subsequent collapses (1929, 1987 and the 1990s in the stockmarket, and the recent housing bubble) and he made the point very clearly that the current situation can only really be compared in scale to 1929. Shiller's view of bubbles is very definitely that they exist (as I've said before this is disputed by some) and that they are driven by psychological factors. In Irrational Exuberance he says bubbles are naturally occuring Ponzi schems which is a nice way of looking at it. His argument that psychology is key is in contrast to the view that bubbles may arise because of specific policy decisions made by key officials (ie central bank rates). Personally I find his view the most believable interpretation of bubbles, but we can argue about that another day.

In the second bit of the presentation he touched on a few ideas for financial reform, which in essence are really about designing financial services that are a better fit with people's lives. One suggestion he looked at was continuous workout mortgages that allow you to pay less if you run into financial difficulties. He also briefly mentioned his ideas about macro markets.

My general impression was that people were in tune with his critique of speculative bubbles, but less onboard with his ideas for new financial products. And I suppose in a way the section half didn't necessarily flow from the first. That said, it sounds like Shiller is doing the rounds in the policy world and has put his ideas in at a high level. Personally I think there's a lot of good ideas in what Shiller says, though I recognise other TU people aren't quite so impressed (Colin!). One question/point made by one of the policy people there was whether, if the market for the types of products Shiller advocates don't naturally arise, the Government could mandate some of them. I reckon that is a line of thought worth exploring.

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