How should the economics curriculum change after the 2008 Panic? It would seem obvious that every econ department should add a course in the “hardy perennial”, financial crises, now that we are freed from the convenient myth that economic crises are things of the past (eliminated by a rationalistic FDIC). One such class can be found here.
Inevitably, such courses would remain electives. How should the “core” of macroeconomics change? I don’t mean (here) the Principles of Macroeconomics course, in which we give a wide variety of students (who may or may not care much about economics) a taste of what macroeconomics cares about. I don’t mean, either, the macroeconomics that professional economists do research on. I mean the undergraduate curriculum for committed economics majors, principally the Intermediate Macro course.
New macroeconomics texts should have a separate chapter for the financial sector. Economists know a lot about how banks and markets work, how and why they fail, what policies or workarounds can be used, and what the consequences of well- and ill-functioning financial systems are. We can teach this stuff. A nice model is this (ridiculously expensive) book.
Students should learn why financial intermediation is deemed necessary (and who can take advantage of direct finance), and what are different ways in which financial intermediation can be more costly or break down.
A fairly easy topic here is fractional reserve banking: reasons and consequences. Deposit insurance, moral hazard, too-big-to-fail, and too-interconnected-to-fail are topics that suggest themselves pretty easily.
A separate, harder topic is that of risk. Risk needs to be introduced to explain why there are different “types” of borrowers (which brings us back to the usefulness of financial intermediaries and forward to the use of diversification), why we charge higher rates to the risky types, and why (after a point) we wouldn’t keep raising interest rates in response to risk, but rather just ration credit (and possibly engender a credit crunch).
When put in the context of macroeconomics, we are led to ask whether there are cases in which “riskiness” is not just “determined” outside of the economic system by, say, a person’s genes, but that it is rather a consequence of the workings of the system itself. One example is the idea of the financial accelerator: an economic prosperity increases borrowers’ wealth, makes them more likely to pay back, and more creditworthy. Similarly, a recession or crisis makes borrowers less creditworthy and produces a credit crunch … which worsens the recession.
This discussion leads to the discussion of bubbles, euphorias, panics, and Minsky moments (stepping slightly outside of the mainstream). Riveting stuff, but somewhat complicated.
A final topic is the workings of finance itself, which must include a clear discussion of leverage and the distinction between illiquidity and insolvency. And the ways in which one leads into the other. (One might talk about securitization, but this topic is either very simple (and quickly passé) or very complicated and arcane.)