Thursday, 23 July 2009

Is a Love of Finance the Root of All Evil?

There is a syllogism that has gained currency just as financial markets have been devalued. And it goes something like: (i) finance is dangerous (ii) the economy is in danger (iii) finance must therefore be constrained. I regularly attend conferences and hear a panoply of dirigiste sentiment directed against the financial sector, arguing that not only that financial markets and banks been the root cause of the final crisis but that they must now be bound like Prometheus to a stone. Though such a conclusion is tempting, it may not be quite right.

The critiques are well known: financial markets underpriced risk, created excessive liquidity and leverage, unbundled exotic near-worthless debt instruments and at the limit, often via hedge funds, promised semi-permanent excess returns. All activities that rewarded participants on the upside and ended up having government support on the downside. The argument then is that faced with such a skew in returns, too many resources have been devoted to financial activity. It is said that banks and financial institutions have become too large both in absolute size because they cannot then be allowed to fail without creating systemic risk and relative to the size of the economies they service. Maybe.

Let us rehearse the arguments about why finance matters. Finance allows individuals and firms to disconnect in time and space their abilities to earn and their abilities to spend and hence concentrate on one or other at any particular moment. The advantages of specialisation are clear – everyone can benefit from the greater production of goods and services by allowing agents inter-temporal as well as geographical options to share resources. But we do know that the efficient allocation of funds from savers to borrowers is subject to severe informational constraints and also various temptations to renege: the avoidance of these problems requires significant regulation, institutional capability and investment in reputation-building. These kind of first order problems do not in general sort themselves out and it is possible even to write about the vast sweep of economic development itself in terms of the history of solutions, failed or otherwise, to these types of problems.

So we can expect that alongside the development of financial instruments we will have to re-write the book of rules and regulations every generation or so, as we moved from heavyweight capital controls in the immediate post-war era under Bretton Woods to an era of neo-liberalism running from the late 1970s to about now and hopefully beyond. And so let us not take the initial premise too far in that the problems with the global financial system are best solved by reducing the size of that system because it seems likely that at least some of the problems stem from its incompleteness rather than its dominance. Let me illustrate: it is entirely proper that capital flows from “impatient” countries to “patient” countries and at some real interest rate the deficits of the impatient must equal the surpluses of the patient. Over time the patient countries will then build up claims or assets against the debts of the impatient countries. Now let us suppose that the patient countries become wealthier, say as their productivity levels catch-up, and all this extra wealth is saved, global savings will then initially exceed investment and interest rates will have to fall to clear the global market for savings, encouraging the impatient to become more impatient and increase their overall level of indebtedness.

For impatient read the US and for patient read China. Under this equilibrium real rates are low and capital flows uphill from fast growing to mature economy. The problem here is that the extra savings are all being sent to the impatient, as there are limited vehicles for the patient to invest in their own economy. In a closed economy, the extra income would have to be channelled domestically and domestic growth would be stimulated in order to use the savings. And so by the same token, if there is an inadequate development of savings vehicles in the patient economies then these savings will tend to drive up the prices of existing assets, for example, US Treasuries which will be in short supply. This global excess demand for assets hence drives down real interest rates raising other asset prices in turn, for example housing, equity or real commodities.

It is thus the lack of financial development in emerging economies which arguably lies at the heart of the problem of this financial crisis and not, perversely, the excess of financial development. An example from the most recent IMF Article IV report from October 2006 for China suffices to illustrate the point, which reports that the foreign exchange rate market remains tightly managed, there seems to be little development of bond markets even at maturities of less than one-year and little or now availability of bonds in the 1-10 year maturity range and equity markets seem not to allow firms to access the market. Overall the IMF view was that the “limited role of capital markets in China…reflects the dominance of state banks in intermediation, but these markets are plagued with regulatory and governance problems”. Obviously a report form late 2006 may well be rather out of date but it does clearly illustrate the point about a lack of liquid assets in newly emerging economies at the high watermark period of so-called financial excesses.

So rather than shunning financial market development, global policies ought also to think more about deepening capital markets and encouraging the development of assets across the risk spectrum, particularly in parts of the world where surpluses are being generated. By helping the development of such assets, policy makers will help raise global real rates, help prevent the conditions under which asset price bubbles will develop and also help get various parts of the world onto more sustainable growth paths that are not reliant on the capacious appetites of Western-style consumption alone. And if as a consequence, we become a little more patient and they become a little more impatient, then we have all become a lot closer to each other, which is a rather pleasant thought.