Thursday, September 25, 2008

Financial Crisis & Williamson's Behavioral Taxonomy

The whole crisis in the financial sector made me reflect today on Oliver Williamson's thoughts on transactions costs economics and behavioral assumptions built into various models economists employ. The basic taxononmy can be represented by looking at agents' behavior in two dimensions, rationality (maximizing, bounded rationality, and organic rationality or rationality as an evolutionary process) and self interest motivation (opportunistic, simple self-interest, or obedient).

Mostly, the relationship in the crisis comes down to a philosophical question of rationality - how well did folks figure out what kind of trap they were getting themselves into - and greed - how willing were agents to take advantage of others to get ahead.

Realistically, if agents are acting opportunistically, the type of economic organization that leads to the best outcomes is mechanism design (regulation). Unfortunately, under those circumstances, the mechanism has to be well designed. Copouts and loopholes will basically lead to another way for agents (homeowners and banks and realtors) to game the system. Furthermore, even if we're all trying to be rational the lack of information should give us more pause. Why hasn't anyone with some authority noticed this and put the brakes on this crazy rush to do "something?"

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