By Niall Ferguson and Ted Forstmann
A "trilemma" is like a dilemma, only there are three things to choose from and you can have just two. The current debate over post-crisis financial regulation suggests we face such a trilemma: We can choose any two of the following, but not all three: 1) efficient capital markets 2) no bailouts to big banks and 3) a depression-free economy.
From the 1980s until 2007, we essentially opted for one and two. Financial markets operated with more freedom than at any time since the 1930s and the Federal Reserve stood ready to cut interest rates if asset prices tanked. But the idea that big banks might be able to get new capital from the Treasury was scarcely even contemplated. Choosing one and two resulted in a global financial and economic crisis worthy of the name depression.
In the aftermath, congressional Democrats are claiming that we can have three out of three. In effect, the bill introduced to the Senate by Christopher Dodd purports to prevent future depressions without sacrificing the efficiency of our financial markets or committing taxpayers to future bailouts of the banking system. This trifecta is not credible.