...Archive for September 2009

Vanilla is a commodity

Do we have no fight left in us at all? Mike Konczal and Kevin Drum are excellent as always, but must we really write eulogies? Is one of the best regulatory proposals so far dead just because a single well-bought congressman says so?

Extracting the vanilla from the CFPA is not, as Felix Salmon put it “the beginning of the end of meaningful regulatory reform”. It is the end of the end. Vanilla products were the only part of the CFPA proposal that was likely to stay effective for more than a brief period, that would be resistant to the games banks play. All the rest will be subject to off-news-cycle negotiation and evasion, the usual lion-and-mouse game where regulators are the rodents but it’s the rest of us that get swallowed.

Wall Street’s favorite comedian-politician, Barney Frank, was very savvy in framing the debate over the issue with his well-placed mischaracterization of vanilla products as “anti-market”. That is bass-ackwards. The vanilla option is pro-market, because it is procompetitive. Of course, that is precisely why banks hate it: Vanilla products would turn basic financial services into a commodity business, and force providers to compete on price.

Ezra Klein is suitably depressed, but he’s wrong when he writes that “the ‘plain vanilla’ provision was never likely to do that much.” Vanilla products would be very popular, which is why they are so threatening. Financial services are an area where markets not only fail due to informational problems, but where participants are very aware of that failure. Consumers know they are at a disadvantage when transacting with banks, and do not believe that reputational constraints or internal controls offer sufficient guarantee of fair-dealing. Status quo financial services should be a classic “lemons” problem, a no-trade equilibrium. Unfortunately, those models of no-trade equilibria don’t take into account that people sometimes really need the products they cannot intelligently buy, and so tolerate large rent extractions if they must in order to transact.

The price of assuring that one is not taken advantage of by financial service providers is not participating in the modern economy. You cannot have a job, because payments are by check or direct deposit. You cannot buy a home or a car, because for the vast majority, those purchases require financing. Try travelling with only cash for plane tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals. People will “voluntarily” participate in markets rigged against them for the privilege of being normal. And we do, every day.

But define a reliable vanilla option, and the dynamic flips on its head. Instead of tolerating rent-extraction as a cost of participation, consumers put up with one-size-fits-all products in exchange for peace of mind. Most consumers benefit very little from exotic product features, and I suspect that many are made deeply nervous by the complex contracts they can neither negotiate nor understand, but nevertheless must sign. Vanilla financial products would be extensively vetted and and their characteristics would soon become widely known. Inevitable malfunctions would be loudly discussed in the halls of Congress, rather than hushed-up in rigged private arbitrations. Vanilla products would face discipline both from private markets (no one is suggesting we forbid other flavors) and from a very public political process. Politics and markets are both deeply flawed, but they are flawed in different ways, and we should take advantage of that. In Arnold Kling’s lexicon, a market in which vanilla and exotic financial products coexist and compete offers the benefits both of exit and of voice. [Update: Chris Mealy notes in the comments that these terms are due to Albert Hirschman]

Rather than being anti-market, vanilla financial products would help correct very clear market failures that arise from imperfect information and high search costs. It is the status quo that is anti-market.

I’m sympathetic to the principled libertarian objection to having the government require that private parties offer a product they otherwise might not. No one should be forced to offer vanilla financial products. Small-enough-to-fail boutiques should be free to offer only the products they wish. However, if an institution wishes to avail itself of government-provided deposit insurance or to access Fed borrowing facilities, it is perfectly legitimate for the government to set requirements. The government can choose not to offer its safety net to institutions that don’t offer vanilla products, just as banks currently choose not to offer me a credit card unless I sign up to binding arbitration and unilateral contract changes. I fail to see why one is coercive and the other not. (The government has no monopoly on deposit insurance. Private insurers are free to provide similar insurance, and do so for many financial service companies already.)

An Economist anonobloggeer has some peculiar non-compliments about the vanilla products proposal:

The vanilla offering seems to be intended to substitute for sophistication or research on the part of the customer, but I’m just not sure that’s a good way to approach the issue. As best I can tell, the vanilla plan wouldn’t mandate the price of the simple option; just because a bank would have to offer a vanilla mortgage loan doesn’t mean it would have to offer a competitive vanilla mortgage loan. If that’s the case, banks could easily use high rates on the simple products to steer individuals toward the complex offerings. Or, the vanilla rule could actually serve to direct bank collusion toward high-priced, high-margin products.

Just because a commodity exchange standardizes the quality of corn that must be delivered into a futures contract doesn’t mean that any seller has to offer corn at a good price. So true! But sellers that offer commodities at above market prices don’t usually find buyers. Since vanilla financial products would be commodities, banks would have to universally collude to offer them at inflated prices in order to bilk consumers. Competing vanilla project offerings would (at least they should) vary only on a single dimension (e.g. an interest rate). Points, fees, penalties, etc. would be homogeneous or uniformly pegged to the core price. Banks are very, very good at forming tacit cartels, but colluding on complicated terms and conditions is easier and less likely to attract the antitrust authorities than fixing a headline price.

More from the econoanonoblogger:

To me it seems like the more effective solution would be to require that financial institutions explain, in detail, each and every fee they are assessing (or might potentially assess) to customers. That would inform consumers of what’s going on in the monthly bill, and it would create an incentive to reduce the number and complexity of fees, as lengthy explanations would be a hassle for all involved and would reduce business.

One of the great errors in modern policy is to confuse disclosure with information. It is not the case, currently, that banks secretly take your money without itemizing the charge on some statement. (Sometimes when they take your money they call it “service fee” or something equally nondescriptive, and it’d be nice if that practice went away.) Rather, banks intentionally define contracts in such a way that the cost to many customers of understanding and competitively shopping all the dimensions of the product seems higher than the cost of terminating the search and signing the dotted line. More detailed disclosure doesn’t eliminate, and can sometimes exacerbate, the real information costs customers face, which derive from the complexity of the required analysis and lack of information about alternatives, not from an absence of product data. Of that we all have pages, with more arriving every month. You might think there’d be a market for ostentatious simplicity, and there might be. But no bank’s lawyers would sign off on a single page, 12 point text, no-extratextual-incorporation-or-unilateral-modification contract. When routine contracts get more complex than that, it’s just gibberish competing with gibberish for people who have lives. Some financial products are necessarily complex. But one way of managing complexity is standardization. It may be worth it for consumers to carefully study the one contract they will probably sign in a way that it would not be worth poring through 100 freeform contracts, 99 of which they will never sign.

The most serious objection I know to vanilla financial products is that they would be harmful precisely because they would catastrophically succeed. The theory is that nothing is more dangerous than a commodified bank, and the evidence is May Day, 1975, when the SEC ended fixed stock trading fees in the brokerage industry. Some commentators (e.g. Barry Eichengreen) claim that by eliminating a stable, cushy profit center, the May Day deregulation forced gentle investment banks to become hungry innovators, that the financial system has grown progressively less stable because under cut-throat competition risk-takers dominate (until they self-destruct and take the rest of us down with ‘em). I don’t buy the May Day story, but for the sake of argument, let’s suppose it’s true. Let’s suppose that, in the name of stability, the best policy would be to ensure banks easy profits so that they needn’t dabble in dangerous things. Then two conclusions follow:

  1. If we are going to strike a policy bargain whereunder banks get a nice sinecure in exchange for a promise of stodgy mellowness, it seems reasonable that they should commit to the stodgy mellowness. Dull, subsidized banks should be heavily regulated banks, or, to use the term of art, “narrow banks“.

  2. If we are going to impose a regime that ensures bank profitability, we ought to do so in a reasonably equitable way. Business models that hide profit generators in complex contracts, or that extract fees especially from the disorganized and naive, are not reasonable instruments of public policy for keeping banks healthy. If we do go with the coddled but heavily regulated model of banking (not my preference!), and we’re not willing to have the Treasury end the capitalist charade and just cut checks to its payment-systems subcontractors, then a decent approach would be to have narrow banks offer only vanilla products and provide monopoly rents by putting floors under fees and ceilings above deposit interest rates (as existed in the US until the 1980s). Under either a competitive or “regulated utility” model, the fairness and informational case for defining standardized vanilla products remains compelling.

I think people like Barney Frank, when they try to sleep at night, have been sold on the “we need healthy banks, so let’s protect their profit centers” story, although they’d never admit to it while scoring points comparing powerless people with furniture. I wonder if it even occurs to Mr. Frank that maybe something serious should be demanded of banks in return for state protection of market power at the expense of the weak and disorganized. But then Mr. Frank has already gotten very much in return.

Update History:
  • 27-September-2009, 2:30 a.m. EDT: Changed “contracts” to “contract” in a singular context. Replaced a “to” with a “that” in a sentence with too many “too”s. (No substantive changes.)
  • 6-October-2009, 11:50 a.m. EDT: Added update in text crediting Albert Hirschmann with “exit”/”voice” terminology. Thanks to Chris Mealy.