Monday, January 4, 2010

The Price of Casino-Like Finance Is Higher Than We Think

by Maxine Udall (girl economist) 

With the New Year, Maxine has been thinking about old problems: banks, risk management, prices and wages as signals in well-functioning markets, and the efficient allocation of capital. She has been marveling at the disconnect between what her economics textbooks assert and the realities she has observed lately.

Things that have been especially salient are the misallocations that have resulted from very distorted signals in financial markets. Remember that one of the foremost advantages of capitalism and well-functioning competitive markets is the wonderfully efficient way in which prices and wages (at least in theory) signal profits to be made and value to be added to the economy and to us all. When they work, the signals coordinate a large complex economy far better than any central planner (aka government) could do and they assure that resources are diverted to sectors and productive enterprise that most closely match people’s preferences. To the extent that individual preferences correspond to individual and societal well-being, both individual and societal well-being is also improved. (For an example of a case in which individual preferences do not necessarily correspond to individual or societal well-being, think "drug addict" or "alcoholic." For an example of a case where individual preferences correspond to individual well-being, but not in all cases to societal well-being, think "investment banker who required a bailout.")

Over the last several hundred years, as capitalism and commercial enterprise have come to dominate, there have been a series of cyclical downturns usually brought on by “irrational exuberance” or “animal spirits” in some market. Casino-like behavior aimed at capturing high short-term gains replaced sober, sound, long-term business investment supporting long-term corporate growth and survival. Notice that including “survival” rules out Enron-like "growth."

Economic theory is pretty specific about the characteristics of investors, producers, and consumers that will prevent animal spirit-induced bubbles: reason, self-interest, and full-information. It is not often explicitly stated, but reason and self-interest are taken to mean that the individual is rational and self-interested enough to take a long-term view of their own well-being, their reputation in the market, and their own or their firm’s survival. Full-information means that there is no uncertainty or risk, such as one might find in oh, say, futures markets, mortgage and health insurance markets, stock markets, bond markets. One could go on and on, but Maxine thinks you must get the point.

Unfortunately, an entire cottage industry called the economics profession sprang up, firmly anchored on the shores of Lake Michigan, aimed at creating cultural narratives and myths about how “markets” (meaning some abstract aggregation of semi-rational, often ill-informed, but definitely self-interested points of light) would magically “know” and act rationally and with perfect foresight. In many ways, the birth of the cottage industry known as freshwater economics is a testimony to the power of markets. There was and is a lot of money to be made in that cottage industry, especially if one was willing to drink the “business as usual,” “just ignore the man behind the curtain,” “the business of business is business” kool-aid that until recently has characterized Maxine’s profession.

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