I sing the praises of financial innovation
A few weeks ago, Dani Rodrik issued a challenge:
[A]dvocates [of financial innovation] owe us a bit more detail about the demonstrable benefits of financial innovation. What I would love to hear are some examples such financial innovation—not of any kind, but of the kind that has left a large enough footprint over some kind of economic outcomes we really care about. What are some of the ways in which financial innovation has made our lives measurably and unambiguously better?
If I had asked this question a little over a year ago, I suppose I would have been hearing a lot about how collateralized debt obligations and structured finance have allowed millions of people to purchase homes that they would not have been able to afford otherwise. Sorry, but you will have to come up with some other examples now.
I will give Dr. Rodrik some of what he wants, that is, examples. But first, I have a nit to pick. In citing last year’s would-have-beens, Rodrik has offered up the textbook marker of an anti-innovation.
…have allowed millions of people to purchase homes that they would not have been able to afford otherwise.
Any claim that a financial innovation has achieved a concrete, positive end is a sure sign of disaster, or (in the unfortunate lingo of economics) a distortion. The purpose of a financial system is to solve a collective optimization problem whose solution we cannot guess a priori. If we are very sure that welfare is maximized by vastly expanding the housing stock and making homeowners of people who otherwise might not buy, then the government should just tax to build McMansions, and auction off the oversupply. More generally, one cannot judge a financial system by any particular outcome, because all financial systems make mistakes, and the mistakes always look good while they last. We judge financial systems by the performance of the economies they guide over time.
Rodrik has asked for examples of good innovations. Here are a few on my list:
- Exchange-traded funds
- The growth of venture capital and angel investing
- The democratization of access to financial information (e.g. Yahoo! finance)
- The democratization of participation in financial markets (e.g. the growth of internet and discount brokerages that offer easy access to a wide variety of stocks, bonds, and exchange-traded derivatives, both domestic and international).
No list of good innovations is complete without a list of bad innovations. Obviously at the top of the list go CDOs, CPDOs, OTC credit-default swaps, the general alphabet soup of the structured finance revolution. (I would not, however, put all mortgage or asset-backed securities on the list. Well-constructed asset-backed securities, those that are transparent and not overdiversified, are very much like ETFs, and if they were more widely accessible I’d place them directly in the “good” column.) But there are many, many more bad innovations that we have yet to come to terms with:
- 401-K plans with limited investment menus
- The conventional wisdom that long-term savings ought by default be placed in passive stock funds
- The conflation of ordinary saving and financial return seeking
- The tolerance, advocacy, and subsidy of financial leverage throughout the economy
- The move towards large-scale, delegated, and professionalized of money management
- The growth of investment vehicles accessible primarily or solely to professional and institutional investors
How do I distinguish the good innovations from the bad? I cannot do what Dani Rodrik asks, and point to concrete good outcomes, and I have no studies to show that economies with tools I prefer outperform those without. In engineering fields, one develops and chooses innovations not by virtue of historical experience, but by application of a theoretical toolkit that prescribes what would work if it were tried. Of course, eventually historical experience either vindicates or discredits the theory, but I have a theoretical view, and I claim that it has not been discredited. Here are a few principles:
Financial systems are means of aggregating diverse, decentralized information into patterns of capital creation in the real world. Financial innovation ought to be judged by how capably they facilitate this information transmission. By this criteria, “opaque” financial instruments — these include everything from complex tranches of CDOs to certificates of deposit at your local bank — are presumptively bad. If an investor does not know and actively choose to bear the risk of the real projects she is investing in, then she is introducing noise into the allocation decision. On a sufficiently large-scale, this noise will lead to allocative errors and widespread catastrophe with probability one.
- Are transparent, investors can understand what they are investing in.
- Are expressive, that is they increase the range of widely dispersed information that investors can impound into an investment decision.
- Are compartmentalized, the parties upon whom the costs and benefits of the investment decision fall are well-defined, and these parties accept and are capable of bearing the risks they have chosen without external support.
Savers should not be investors, that is they should not be underwriting the execution of projects about which they have no opinion and whose risks they are unwilling to bear. Savers’ sole legitimate goal is to transmit their current wealth into the future with the minimum loss possible. (Savers who want to earn a real return must become investors, that is they must perform informational work and bear risk.) Our current system does not serve savers well, because our markets offer inadequate ways of purchasing claims on future consumption (as opposed to claims on future production). This is a tragedy both for savers (baby-boomers who are losing their retirements ought to have been able to “buy forward” their housing, food, transportation, etc. years ago), and for the economy as a whole, because information about future consumption is lost, and we have no reason to believe that the salesmen who pawn off “savings products” are qualified to make outsized contributions to the allocation decision.
A primary goal of a financial system is to allocate and minimize the burden of economic risk. That has two implications:
To the maximum degree possible, the financial system ought not introduce risks that are not inherent to the real projects it is underwriting. In particular, financial systems should be designed to minimize what I’ll call “secondary counterparty risk” — the risk that an intermediary will fail to pay a claim that is not made explicitly contingent by the terms of the investment contract. Secondary counterparty risk is tacit, it is opaque (since human enterprises are never perfectly transparent and inter-relationships are complicated, we can never know a counterparty’s capacity to pay), and the informational problem of evaluating and quantifying it grows exponentially with the size and complexity of financial intermediation. So, financial intermediation ought be kept as “thin” and simple as possible. Having vast numbers of intermediaries bound into unstructured and unknowable networks by virtue of idiosyncratic bilateral claims is obviously dumb.
- The risks inherent to real economic projects, which include ordinary investment risk and “primary” counterparty risk (you lend to an enterprise that fails, as opposed to the failure of a financial intermediary), should be very clearly allocated, and financial markets should not make it easy for risk-bearers to escape the consequences of their risks by ex post transfers in overly “liquid” markets. As much as possible, investors should be able to choose the level of risk they bear, and should plan to reap the fruit or accept the costs those choices in a very straightforward manner.
Some miscellaneous comments:
Complexity is much more often a marker of snake-oil than of quality in a financial instrument. “Sophisticated” investors are almost always predators or fools. The real-world informational problems investors face — what is it that should be done? how ought our resources be deployed? — are challenging enough. Creating structures that cannot be understood except by applying complex models that may or may not adequately capture the behavior of the instrument is just idiocy, a mish-mash of quant hubris and pseudoscientific salesmanship.
There is no inherent tension between financial innovation and regulation in designing a financial system. Some regulation compels and encourages useful innovation. For example, if as an outcome of the current crisis, banks find their leverage tightly constrained, it may be necessary for a new ecosystem of investment funds to arise to meet the needs of investors who otherwise would have lent to banks and enterprises that previously relied on bank financing. That is, a “local venture capital” boom might arise as a direct consequence of bank regulation. Further, much good regulation is itself a form of financial innovation. Centrally-cleared, collateralized derivatives exchanges are incredibly clever devices, whose function and regulation are intimately intertwined. Good regulation does not take the form of minions of the state saying “no! non! nyet!” to hearty capitalists. Good regulation involves the clever definition of market structures to which participants are naturally drawn because they function well. Regulation itself can be a form of financial innovation, as in “cap-and-trade” pollution control schemes, Warren Buffet’s import-certificate proposal, or congestion-pricing of trades in financial markets.
So, this has been a sprawling brain-dump, rather than a clear-headed vindication of the proposition “financial innovation can be good”. Despite the deficiencies of the essay, I strongly believe that transitioning from our current, very broken, financial system to something better will require a great deal of innovation, along with regulation. We should think of the financial system as an integrated system, and work creatively to improve both its private-sector and public-sector components. We should be humble, and careful, and introduce big changes incrementally where possible. We should try to bear in mind the social purpose of a financial system, and use that as a yardstick against which to evaluate new ideas. But we must make big changes, and it will not be enough to tell people what they cannot do. We want a financial system that is safe and simple, but also expressive and dynamic and capable of taking large, well-considered risks. We will have to invent to get what we want. The stakes could not be higher.