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RAJAN, Raghuram G.

Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy

Once I saw this trend, the paper quickly wrote itself and was titled “Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier?” As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2009 in an article on my Jackson Hole presentation: Incentives were horribly skewed in the financial sector, with workers reaping rich rewards for making money but being only lightly penalized for losses, Mr. Rajan argued. That encouraged financial firms to invest in complex products, with potentially big payoffs, which could on occasion fail spectacularly. He pointed to “credit default swaps” which act as insurance against bond defaults. He said insurers and others were generating big returns selling these swaps with the appearance of taking on little risk, even though the pain could be immense if defaults actually occurred. Mr. Rajan also argued that because banks were holding a portion of the credit securities they created on their books, if those securities ran into trouble, the banking system itself would be at risk. Banks would lose confidence in one another, he said. “The inter-bank market could freeze up, and one could well have a full-blown financial crisis.” Two years later, that’s essentially what happened. Forecasting at that time did not require tremendous prescience: all I did was connect the dots using theoretical frameworks that my colleagues and I had developed. I did not, however, foresee the reaction from the normally polite conference audience. I exaggerate only a bit when I say I felt like an early Christian who had wandered into a convention of half-starved lions. As I walked away from the podium after being roundly criticized by a number of luminaries (with a few notable exceptions), I felt some unease. It was not caused by the criticism itself, for one develops a thick skin after years of lively debate in faculty seminars: if you took everything the audience said to heart, you would never publish anything. Rather it was because the critics seemed to be ignoring what was going on before their eyes.