Jan 28, 2012

Opaque finance?

Steve Randy Waldman has one of his typical long, subtle series (one, two, three) looking at the concept of opaque finance:
Financial systems help us overcome a collective action problem. In a world of investment projects whose costs and risks are perfectly transparent, most individuals would be frightened. Real enterprise is very risky. Further, the probability of success of any one project depends upon the degree to which other projects are simultaneously underway. A budding industrialist in an agrarian society who tries to build a car factory will fail. Her peers will be unable to supply the inputs required to make the thing work. If by some miracle she gets the factory up and running, her customer-base of low capital, low productivity farm workers will be unable to afford the end product. Successful real investment does not occur via isolated projects, but in waves, forward thrusts by cohorts of optimists, most of whom crash and burn, some of whom do great things for the world and make their investors wealthy. But the winners depend upon the existence of the losers: In a world where there was no Qwest overbuilding fiber, there would have been no Amazon losing a nickel on every sale and making it up on volume. Even in the context of an astonishing tech boom, Amazon was a pretty iffy investment in 1997. It would have been an absurd investment without the growth and momentum generated by thousands of peers, some of whom fared well but most of whom did not.
To summarize, if I may, the idea is basically that the financial system is successful because it is a systematic con. It's similar to some ideas I'm reading in Reasons and Persons right now, where Derek Parfit talks about "coordination problems" where if everyone does what is rationally worse for them individually, everyone as a whole is better off. Waldman makes a lot of intelligent points about finance, and worries a bit about opacity and how it might be eliminated. It's natural given the 2008 cataclysm, and as a lot of his readers pointed out, finance unregulated leads inevitably to recurring economic crises.

However, I took a different message away from it. A utopian, transparent financial system would obviously be ideal, but if we concede the point and treat finance as a black box, and financiers as, collectively, a bunch of dopes, I think we can then gain some real benefit. As Waldman says in the third post:
Financiers aren’t especially bright, and they are in the business of mobilizing capital, it’s what they get paid to do. As a group, they can’t distinguish periods with excellent real opportunities from periods in which they are shepherding capital into idiocy and waste. Financiers are first and foremost salesmen. Some of them do understand when they are selling poison. But many of them, like most good salesmen, persuade themselves of the amazingness of what they are selling in order to persuade the rest of us more effectively. So there are periods, as we’ve just seen, when financiers attract huge gobs of capital and confidently deploy it into an incinerator.
The great thing about the idea of opaque finance is it makes financial regulation very easy. If all the hysterical arguments about efficiency and crippling our financial competitiveness are bogus—if, in fact, the very thing that makes finance work is that it is a kind of collective madness, conducted by knaves and fools—then those arguments may be safely jettisoned. We don't need smart regulation that takes into account all the theoretical advantages to having umpteen complicated forms of derivatives contracts on soybean futures, we need dumb regulation that is easy to understand. We need blunt, brute force kinds of rules that take a claw hammer to the largest institutions and make the accumulation of excessive risk as hard as possible.

Some ideas:
-Ban banking across state lines.
-Break up any bank with more than 5% of total deposits.
-Break up any institution with assets greater than 5% of GDP.
-Institute a public option banking program.
You see what I'm getting at. Obviously enforcing those rules would be an entirely different proposition, but I would also note that once-implemented this would make financiers substantially less wealthy and therefore easier to crush underfoot when the time came.

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