Why all the gubmnt intervention in the markets now? Why haven't the regimes of the past been sufficient for today's market conditions?
Stress tests for banks are a case in point. Surely we should expect that people who lend to banks would do a modicum of due diligence to make sure the probability the bank will go under would be miniscule. Shouldn't we?
Oops. I lend to banks all the time by depositing my money with them and I NEVER do a stress test. I never even consider the possibility that my bank might default on my demand deposits or my notice deposits. The banks have deposit insurance, and deposit insurance means I don't have to waste my time doing a stress test of every bank with which I might have dealings. Furthermore, due diligence by a deposit insurance company means that each depositor doesn't have to do its own due diligence: the insurer can capture some important economies of scale on behalf of all depositors.
Okay, so my deposits (i.e. my loans to banks) are insured (whether I like it or not). Then surely the insurance company is doing its own due diligence, making sure the banks remain sound and able to repay their depositors.
Oops again. Most bank deposits are insured by the FDIC in the US, a quasi-gubmnt institution, which ultimately means it is the taxpayers who are on the hook for risky decisions made by bankers. And even if the deposits were insured by private corporations (AIG's credit default swaps were a type of private insurance after all), then what happens if the private insurers take on too many risks? Once again the taxpayers are on the hook.
Cute, isn't it: if the banks and their insurers take risks and make money, they (and their stockholders) earn a lot of money. But if the banks and insurers take risks and lose money, it is ultimately the taxpayers who bear the downside risk.
And it is this asymmetrical reward-to-risk structure that induces (and in many people's minds justifies) gubmnt intervention in the form of stress tests for banks.
My own preference would be for lenders and insurance companies to bear the downside risk that accompanies their decisions. If they knew the taxpayers were not prepared to bail them out, they would be forward-looking and we would not have nearly so massive clean-up operations. But politically this probably isn't going to happen.
And I guess that is why we need diligent oversight on behalf of taxpayers. As a libertarian, I must say this rankles. I would prefer less gubmnt, but at the same time I understand our unwillingness politically to let small depositors suffer when bankers screw up.
But maybe if the bankers and insurers who screw up risked losing everything they own, they, themselves, might be more concerned about downside risks. And herein lies one possible solution for the future:
Stockholders and bond holders must be required to lose big from the current financial crisis. If they do, then in the future, they will work carefully to design incentive compatible reward structures for the executives of their firms so that the executives will face enormous losses if they screw up. This is at least a partial market solution to the insurance and risk problems that have evolved.