About time. Forensic financial experts are finally adapting some of the lessons learned in nuclear engineering to the hazards of global finance.
Perhaps the most profound and worrying parallel between preventing industrial catastrophes and financial ones emerges from Perrow’s pessimistic theory of “normal accidents”. For him, any sufficiently complex, tightly coupled system will fail sooner or later. The answers are to simplify the system, decouple it, or reduce the consequences of failure.I fear we have not addressed the intrinsic problems of "too big to fail", and the moral hazard of having the government prevent total collapse because of one firms' poor risk decisions. This is the gloomy conclusion of some economists, and the now sacrosanct status of Wall Street. They will spend billions to insure that protected position. There is no legislative will to do the obvious and what safety engineering commands: decouple and downsize critical components.
What might decoupling the banking system mean? Consider the slightly obsessive pastime of domino-toppling. One of the first domino-toppling record attempts – 8,000 stones – came to a premature and farcical end because a pen dropped out of the pocket of the television cameraman who had come to film the occasion. Other record attempts have been disrupted by moths and grasshoppers. It’s the quintessential tightly coupled system.
Professional domino-topplers now use safety gates, removed at the last moment, to ensure that when accidents happen they are contained. In 2005, a hundred volunteers had spent two months setting up 4,155,476 stones in a Dutch exhibition hall when a sparrow flew in and knocked one over. Because of safety gates, only 23,000 dominoes fell. It could have been much worse. (Though not for the hapless sparrow, which an enraged domino enthusiast shot with an air rifle.)
Given the propensity of finance to suffer frequent meltdowns, Perrow’s normal accident theory almost certainly describes the banking system. The financial system will never eliminate its sparrows (perhaps black swans would be a more appropriate bird) so it needs the equivalent of those safety gates. Rather than making a particular bank less likely to fail, it might be safer to focus on ensuring that one falling bank doesn’t topple other companies.
But few financial commentators have considered the implications of that. One notable exception is John Kay, a British economist and FT columnist, who argues for a system of “narrow banking” which, he asserts, would lead to “a far more robust industry structure, with simpler institutions, less interconnectedness, and greater diversity of industry structure”. Another is Laurence Kotlikoff, an economist at Boston university, who has a proposal for “limited purpose banking”. Both Kay and Kotlikoff have taken the view that it is worth pursuing a simpler and less tightly coupled financial system for its own sake – in sharp contrast to the prevailing regulatory approach, which unwittingly encouraged banks to become larger and more complicated, and actively encouraged off-balance sheet financial engineering. I do not know whether Kay or Kotlikoff have the right answer. Normal accident theory suggests that they are certainly asking the right question. [More]
As stated above, we will almost certainly be back here, and perhaps sooner than we think.