Interview with Eugene Fama
Excerpts from the New Yorker interview with Eugene Fama:
Many people would argue that, in this case, the inefficiency was primarily in the credit markets, not the stock market—that there was a credit bubble that inflated and ultimately burst.
I don’t even know what that means. People who get credit have to get it from somewhere. Does a credit bubble mean that people save too much during that period? I don’t know what a credit bubble means. I don’t even know what a bubble means. These words have become popular. I don’t think they have any meaning.
Maybe you can convince me there can be bubbles in individual securities. It’s a tougher story to tell me there’s a bubble in a whole sector of the market, if there isn’t something artificial going on. When you start telling me there’s a bubble in all markets, I don’t even know what that means. Now we are talking about saving equals investment. You are basically telling me people are saving too much, and I don’t know what to make of that.
Is it not true that in the credit markets people were getting loans, especially home loans, which they shouldn’t have been getting?
That was government policy; that was not a failure of the market. The government decided that it wanted to expand home ownership. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were instructed to buy lower grade mortgages.
So what caused the recession if it wasn’t the financial crisis?
(Laughs) That’s where economics has always broken down. We don’t know what causes recessions. Now, I’m not a macroeconomist so I don’t feel bad about that. (Laughs again.) We’ve never known. Debates go on to this day about what caused the Great Depression. Economics is not very good at explaining swings in economic activity.
The experiment we never ran is, suppose the government stepped aside and let these institutions fail. How long would it have taken to have unscrambled everything and figured everything out? My guess is that we are talking a week or two. But the problems that were generated by the government stepping in—those are going to be with us for the foreseeable future. Now, maybe it would have been horrendous if the government didn’t step in, but we’ll never know. I think we could have figured it out in a week or two.
What lessons have you learned from what happened?
Well, I think the big sobering thing is that maybe economists, like the population as a whole, got lulled into thinking that events this large couldn’t happen any more—that a recession this big couldn’t happen any more. There’ll be a lot of work trying to figure out what happened and why it happened, but we’ve been doing that with the Great Depression since it happened, and we haven’t really got to the bottom of that. So I don’t intend to pursue that. I used to do macroeconomics, but I gave (it) up long ago.
Thanks very much. Finally, before I go, what about Paul Krugman’s recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, in which he attacked Chicago economics and the efficient markets hypothesis. What did you think of it?
(Laughs) My attitude is this: if you are getting attacked by Krugman, you must be doing something right.
HT: David L. Prychitko