Two Kinds of Losses

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A well-drawn distinction from Benjamin Friedman:

Another fundamental issue that the current discussion has overlooked almost entirely is the distinction between the losses to banks and other lenders that reflect genuine losses of wealth to the economy, and other losses that don’t. When the value of your house falls, that’s a loss of wealth to the economy as a whole. If you keep paying your mortgage, you bear the loss yourself: your net worth is diminished by the amount of the decline in the home’s price. If you default on your loan, then someone else—maybe the bank that lent you the money, maybe some investor to whom the bank sold the loan—also bears part of the loss. If the government steps in and reimburses the bank, or the investor, the taxpayers will bear part of the loss as well. But however this loss is divided, what is inescapable is that someone, somewhere, will bear it. What much of today’s debate is about is how these losses should be divided among homeowners, banks, loan-purchasing investors, and the taxpayers. But the loss must be borne by someone, and America’s economy is poorer because it has occurred.

By contrast, suppose you and your neighbor have bet on whether today’s peak temperature would exceed fifty degrees. One of you was right, the other wrong. One of you won, the other lost, and the amount the winner won is identical to what the loser lost. There is no loss of wealth to the economy, merely a transfer of wealth from the loser to the winner. Many of the huge losses that American financial institutions have sustained in the current crisis are of this second kind. None of them was betting on the weather, but they were taking positions that amounted to placing bets on outcomes that represented no change in wealth to the economy as a whole. And with regard to these positions, for every loser featured in the latest newspaper story about banks posting losses and turning to the government for bailouts there is also, somewhere, a winner.

I’ve had this thought, then had the thought that this doesn’t get discussed enough, and then had the thought that I must be overlooking something and the distinction isn’t real. But Friedman’s an economics professor and everything, so there seems to be a real issue here.