One of the more depressing bits of emerging conventional wisdom is the notion that the financial system took on "too much risk" in recent years. I think it is equally accurate to suggest that the financial system took on too little risk.
Consider the risks that were not taken during the recent credit and "investment" boom. While hundreds of billions of dollars were poured into new suburbs, very little capital was devoted to the alternative energy sector that is suddenly all the rage. Despite a "global savings glut" and record-breaking levels of "investment" in the United States between 2005 and 2007, capital was withdrawn from a variety of industries deemed "uncompetitive" in large part due to obviously unsustainable capital flows. Very few brave capitalists took the risk of mothballing rather than dismantling factories and maintaining critical human capital through the temporary downspike. Under the two to five year time horizon of our most far-sighted managers, whatever is temporarily unprofitable must be permanently destroyed. To gamble on recovery is far too great a risk.
I don't pretend to know where all that capital, that incredible swell of human energy and physical resources, ought to have gone. But it doesn't take an Einstein to know that it probably should not have gone into building Foxboro Court. Sure, hindsight is 20/20. But lack of foresight really wasn't the problem here. In 2005, how many macroeconomists or big-picture thinkers were arguing that the US economy lacked suburban housing stock of sufficient size and luxury? We gave the building boom the benefit of the doubt because it was a "market outcome". But the shape of that outcome was more matter of institutional idiosyncrasies than textbook theories of optimal choice. It resulted as much from people shirking risk as it did from people taking big bets.
The big central banks, whose investment largely drove the credit boom, were (and still are) seeking safety, not risk. The banks and SIVs that bought up "super-senior AAA" tranches of CDOs were looking for safe assets, not risky assets. We had a housing boom, rather than a Pez dispenser bubble, because housing collateral is (well, was) the preferred raw material for fabricating safe paper. Investors were never enthusiastic about cul-de-sacs and McMansions. They wanted safe assets, never mind what backed 'em, and mortgages are what Wall Street knew how to lipstick into safe assets. The housing boom was born less from inordinate risk-taking than from the unwillingness of investors to take and bear considered risks. Agencies, asset-backed securities, it was all just AAA paper. It was "safe", so who cared what it was funding?
Finance is not a closed system, a zoology of exotic contracts and rocket scientist equations. The job of a financial system is to make real-world decisions, "What should we do?" A good investment is a simple answer to that question, with clear consequences for getting it right or wrong. Mom and Pop can have FDIC insured bank accounts, and imagine that there is such thing as a "risk-free return". But that's a lie, a sugarcoated subsidy. Foregone consumption does not automatically convert itself into future abundance. People have to make smart decisions about what to do with today's capital. If they don't, no amount of regulation or insurance will prevent all those savings accounts from going worthless. When huge institutions treat the financial system like a bank, depositing trillions in generic "safe" instruments and expecting wealth to somehow appear, they are delegating the economic substance of aggregate investment to middlemen in it for the fees, and politicians in it for whatever politicians are in it for. And we are surprised when that doesn't work out?
Of course we should regulate and manage the risks that were the proximate cause of the credit crisis. Anything too big to fail should be no more leveraged than a teddy bear, and fragile, poorly designed markets should be fixed. But that won't be enough. We've trained a generation of professionals to forget that investing is precisely the art of taking economic risks, then delivering the goods or eating the losses. The exotica of modern finance is fascinating, and I've nothing against any acronym that you care to name. But until owners of capital stop hiding behind cleverness and diversification and take responsibility for the resources they steward, finance will remain a shell game, a tournament in evading responsibility for poor outcomes.
Investors' childlike demand for safety has made the financial world terribly risky. As we rebuild our broken financial system, we must not pretend that risk can be regulated or innovated away. We must demand that investors choose risks and bear consequences. We need more, and more creative, risk-taking, not false promises of safety that taxpayers will inevitably be called upon to keep.
|Steve Randy Waldman — Thursday August 7, 2008 at 1:49am