The Man Nobody Wanted to Hear Global Banking Economist Warned of Coming Crisis

By Beat Balzli and Michaela Schiessl

Part 6: Just as Predicted


Meanwhile, the global economy is on the brink of disaster, as it faces the most devastating and brutal crisis in a century. The only reason the financial system is still intact is that governments are spending billions to support it. Central bankers have been forced to abandon their air of sophisticated aloofness and to try, together with politicians, to save what can be saved. Nowadays no one is talking about the free market's ability to heal itself.

And everything happened just the way White predicted it would.

This is visibly unpleasant for officials at the BIS. Even though they can pride themselves for having provided the best analyses, they have also been forced to admit that their central bankers failed miserably. "We had the right nose, but we didn't know how to use it," says BIS Secretary General Dittus. "We didn't manage to portray the global and financial imbalances in a convincing fashion."

Did White express himself unclearly? No, it was more that he represented a system that only questioned the prevailing view. "Ultimately, an economic model can only be defeated by an opposing model," says BIS Chief Economist Stephen Cecchetti, White's successor. "Unfortunately, we don't have a generally recognized model yet. Perhaps this partly explains why our warnings were less effective than would have been desirable."

The group of the 20 most important industrialized and emerging nations, which is now left with the task of cleaning up the wreckage of the crisis, apparently faces less academic problems. At the London G-20 summit in April, the group decided to promote a crisis-prevention model based on White's theories.

They want to introduce what might be called his hoarding model, which calls for banks to build up reserves in good times so that they can be more flexible in bad times. The central banks, according to White, must actively counteract bubbles and exert stronger control over the financial industry, including hedge funds and insurance companies.

As an adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's group of experts, White helped to shape the basic tenets of the new order. And the 79th annual report of the BIS, published in Basel last week, also reads like pure White. It lists, as the causes of the crisis, extensive global imbalances, a lengthy phase of low real interest rates, distorted incentive systems and underestimated risks. In addition to improved regulation, the BIS argues that "asset prices and credit growth must be more directly integrated into monetary policy frameworks."

Simply Part of Life

Even though this is what he has been saying for more than 10 years, White, a passionate financial professional, is the last person to show signs of bitterness. During a conversation in his Paris office at the OECD, he has no harsh words for those who had long dismissed him as an alarmist. For White, the BIS will always be the greatest experience for an economist. The errors made by central bankers, politicians and business executives, he says, are simply part of life.

"Take the Enron example," he says. "We analyzed the disaster and found that 12 different levels of the government malfunctioned. This is part of human nature."

He is familiar with human nature, and he knows how to handle it. White is more concerned about the things he doesn't understand. New Zealand is a case in point. Interest rates were raised early in the crisis there, and yet the central bank was unable to come to grips with the credit bubble. Investors were apparently borrowing cheap money from foreign lenders.

This is the sort of thing that worries him. "That's when you have to ask yourself: Who exactly is controlling the whole thing anymore?"

Perhaps his model has a flaw in that regard. Could it be possible that central bankers today have far less influence than he assumes?

The thought causes him to wrinkle his brow for a moment. Then he smiles, says his goodbyes and quickly disappears into a Paris Metro station.

He knows that he is needed.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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