Greg Mankew, former economic adviser to President George W Bush and currently an economics professor at Harvard, had an interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times entitled “That Freshman (economics) Course Won’t be Quite the Same.” In it he suggests that recent economic events necessitate the inclusion of four new topics into an introductory college economics course:
1) The Role of Financial Institutions-
“The current crisis has found financial institutions at the center of the action. They will have to become more prominent in the classroom as well.”
2) The Effects of Leverage-
“If housing prices (and other leveraged assets) have fallen only 20%, why did the banks lose almost 100% of their money? The answer is leverage, the use of borrowed money to amplify gains and, in this case, losses…there is no doubt that its effects have played a central role in the crisis and will need a more prominent place in the economic curriculum.”
3) The Limits of Monetary Policy-
“When the economy suffers from high unemployment and reduced capacity utilization, the central bank can cut interest rates and stimulate demand…what would happen if the central bank cut interest rates all the way to zero and it still was not enough to get the economy going again? …The Fed is acting with the conviction that it has other tools to put the economy back on track. These include buying a much broader range of financial assets than it typically includes in its portfolio. Students will need to know about these other tools on monetary policy.”
4) The Challenge of Forecasting-
“Students should understand that a good course in economics will not equip them with a crystal ball. Instead, it will allow them to assess the risks and be ready for surprises.”
While a terrific list and spot on in its insights, one may argue that it is not sufficiently inclusive. This author and sometimes finance professor would add four incremental topics for consideration:
1) The Globalization of Credit Markets and Economies-
Globalization has changed the game significantly and reduced the power of any one nation or region’s central bank to solve a crisis by itself. Today, America’s largest creditors include investors from around the world. Similarly, economic demand is global. When America reduces consumption of Chinese goods, both nations have a problem. It is exacerbated globally when the Chinese then reduce their purchases of Brazilian iron ore, Middle Eastern oil and products from other parts of the world. The impact of this ever increasing economic interdependency must be studied by even an introductory economics student.
2) The Impact of Debt Instruments on Every Day Life-
Forty years ago, few Americans carried credit cards, had variable rate mortgages or leased automobiles. There were minimal securitizations of debt instruments and, as Greg Mankew points out, leverage was substantially less a factor in the US or other economies. Today such financing vehicles are ubiquitous. The internet and saturation advertising by entities like Di-Tech.Com and others have encouraged even the least credit worthy consumers to become part of the game. Investors from around the globe, from Atlanta to Reykjavik to Beijing have become part of the global investment community directly or through mutual funds, hedge funds, their employer’s pension funds and even money market funds. Unlike the past, when primarily the “investor class” and marginal workers were those at risk, now almost everyone is exposed and has suffered. Issues of regulation and general investment risk/appropriateness are now important to most Americans. Education about these investments becomes essential to one’s economic well being.
3) Deleveraging -What it Means-
Just as Greg Mankew is correct in his point that we need to understand the impact of leverage, students will need to know a great deal about the methods and the impact of deleveraging. A simple explanation is that, if not done carefully, it can be as painful as drug withdrawal for a heroin addict! Deleveraging in its simplest form means reducing debt. While easy to comprehend in concept, the implications of how it is done can vary significantly. Today we are witnessing the ramifications of lenders demanding repayment and foreclosing on mortgage loans. Similarly, when banks seek to reduce leverage by not renewing credit lines, this can strangle a business’ operations and potentially lead to bankruptcy, investor losses, job losses, negative growth etc. Raising equity to reduce debt may be a possible solution; however, it is easier said than done. It requires available capital and a positive investor view toward risk. Recently we have seen the US government play an important role as a “last resort” source of capital for deleveraging to stabilize our financial institutions. Arguably the actions of TARP, including direct equity infusions, have restored investor confidence and facilitated over $50 billion in new equity offerings in the month of May. Learning from these lessons and understanding the successes and the failures should benefit our understanding of how to deal with 21st century economic crises.
Unlike any time in the last seventy years, bankruptcy has become a major risk factor in the US and global economies. While US laws are seemingly well established, and based on legal precedent, the rules of the road are now changing dramatically. US government intervention in the bankruptcy of Chrysler and the possible fall of General Motors is changing everything. Heretofore senior secured lenders had priority claims over junior creditors. Now, in part as a result of its equity ownership and capital support of US banks through TARP, the government is negating or minimizing such claims in favor of less senior lenders and unions. The ramifications of this activist approach raise many issues which may help or hurt the restoration of a major American industry, economic order and the vibrancy of the American capital markets. Regardless of one’s views, the actions and impacts must be studied carefully to provide a basis for prudent investing and to understand economic forces in our changing world.
It has been suggested by some that “education is wasted on the young.” In the case of the study of economics, this is hardly the case. Just as our parents learned economic lessons from the Depression, tomorrow’s leaders must learn from the new issues and actions of today. For Boomers, regardless of educational background or age, a refresher course based on current economic events would also be a welcome development!