There has been a great deal of discussion lately with regards to the ever-changing role of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). Initially, the program was designed to purchase the troubled assets of financial institutions in an attempt to cleanse their balance sheets and get them lending again. I have previously come out against this plan as it fails to take into account the limitations and dispersal of knowledge within markets. Perhaps this and other objections were heeded by the Treasury Department, which inexplicably abandoned this stated goal in favor of direct equity injections in troubled financial institutions. In the aftermath of this decision, little has been done to instill confidence in the financial markets and the capital infusions have done little to increase the lending by the recipient institutions. Given that many noted economists preferred capital infusions to the purchase of troubled financial assets, recent events beg the question as to why this change in policy has been unsuccessful.
The answer can be found in Fairleigh Dickinson economist Roger Koppl’s theory of Big Players. Koppl defines a Big Player as a market participant that is substantially large, immune to profit and loss mechanisms, and yields ample discretionary power to have an impact on the market as a whole. Central banks are perhaps the clearest example of a Big Player and this theory indeed might explain much about the artificial boom that preceded the current mess. However, the theory is perhaps more applicable in the aftermath of the boom. Since the onset of the crisis, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury department have acted as Big Players. They continue to wield significant discretionary power and often take unprecedented action – and at times unexpected restraint. In other words, to use a tired saying, they are flying by the seat of their pants. One need not look beyond the TARP for an understanding of the discretionary power of these entities.
The effect of this discretionary power is to increase uncertainty within the financial markets. Firms that receive capital infusions refuse to increase lending precisely because the rules are changing on a daily basis. The same goes for investors who must not only predict what the market is going to do, but also the behavior of the Big Players. Of course, the ability to predict what the Treasury and the Fed are going to do next is substantially difficult. The result is the herd-like behavior that has been prevalent in the stock market for the last few months. When there is a high level of uncertainty in markets, participants start relying more on what they believe that others believe than the prospective yield of a particular investment. The empirical evidence presented by Koppl and his colleagues confirms these claims. Uncertainty breeds uncertainty.
Nevertheless, some pundits continue to press on. The same individuals who advocated using capital infusions and who were surprised to find the institutions unwilling to lend are now advocating forcing the financial companies to lend. Markets function well when the surrounding institutional framework is sound. If the government really wants to help, they can start by setting the rules now and following through on their promises. So long as they continue to change the rules on a daily basis, uncertainty will prevail, the stock market will remain volatile, and the credit markets will remain frozen.