Opinion

Edward Hadas

Small is beautiful in finance

Edward Hadas
Nov 6, 2013 16:14 UTC

Some economic activity makes the world better, some is a cost of making the world better, and some actually makes the world worse. Where does the business of finance – lending, borrowing and securities trading – fit in? Mark Carney, the new governor of the Bank of England, recently said: “a vibrant financial sector brings substantial benefits.” The implication is that more finance is a good thing, as long as it is safe. That is simply wrong.

True, empirical studies show that financial activity increases along with incomes in poor countries. But this correlation has little bearing on developed economies with mature financial systems. In these countries, additional financial activity unquestionably adds to GDP, but the same can be said for the substitution of expensive medical care for cheap preventative action. The question is whether additional finance promotes overall economic good.

It can do so, but not directly. Finance is a cost. It is a means not an end, an input not an output. People and companies should engage in financial activity only to help them do other things – most notably to preserve or increase wealth, to coordinate expenditure with incomes and to help organise real investments, production and distribution.

Unnecessary financial activity is a wasted expense. Even if the excess does not directly cause problems – such as housing bubbles or fiscal crises – it makes the world worse because it wastes economic resources. The right goal for the financial system is to be as small as possible without doing economic harm.

By that standard, the current system is extremely wasteful. The waste can be seen in both the quantity of financial assets and pace of the financial activity. One measure of quantity is the ratio of debt to GDP. For the United States, which probably leads the world in financial excess, the calculation is aided by the U.S. Federal Reserve, which every quarter tots up all the outstanding debts, from government borrowing to bank loans. Total debts were 144 percent of GDP in 1975. In the most recent quarter, they were 263 percent.

Has quantitative easing worked?

Edward Hadas
Sep 4, 2013 15:05 UTC

It is nearly five years since the U.S. Federal Reserve slid into quantitative easing, the deployment of artificially created money into the bond market. QE and a prolonged period of near-zero interest rates have been the highlights of post-crisis monetary policy. That era is far from over, but it has lasted long enough for a preliminary judgment of monetary policy – especially as the Fed says it is now preparing to “taper” its bond purchases. My verdict: QE could have been worse, and it should have been better.

We know that policymakers might have done a worse job, because that is what they did in 1929, the last time a cross-border credit boom ended in a cross-border credit bust. Today’s central bankers have done better than their professional ancestors. In the 1930s, central bankers in many countries presided over debilitating deflation, and failed to prevent banking crises. This time, prices have neither collapsed nor exploded, and Lehman Brothers was the only big financial institution to topple.

While monetary policy helped stabilise economic and financial conditions, government bank rescues, large fiscal deficits and the automatic benefits of welfare states all played more important roles. The central banks’ support of weak institutions, and, in the euro zone, of weak governments was more important than their monetary policy.

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