Opinion

Edward Hadas

In defence of financial coercion

Edward Hadas
Mar 26, 2014 15:45 UTC

Last week the British government gave a new freedom to its citizens, or at least to a relatively privileged group of them. No longer will pensioners with defined contribution retirement plans be forced to invest their accumulated funds in an annuity. The old requirement was a form of financial coercion: government rules which influence behaviour.

For the pensioners in question, the new arrangement may feel like liberation. They will no longer be enslaved to a product which offers meagre yields. For the rest of Britain, though, financial freedom has probably been reduced. All taxpayers will end up paying more for the medical bills of some pensioners, those who would have had an annuity income but who might now be forced to turn to the state if they run out of money when they need expensive care.

The elimination of one sort of coercion for some people brings a new coercion for others. The pattern is typical, and not merely in finance. Freedom is usually tied to constraint. If I am free to play loud music, my neighbour is forced to endure a racket. If I am free to charge as much as I want for a product that is in short supply, the rich are free to buy but poorer people are forced to do without.

In complicated modern economies, this financial coercion is inevitable. Banks and other institutions which collect and disperse money cannot operate well without trusting customers. These intermediaries are so big and distant that customers will not trust them without strong regulatory and legal protection. So the freedom of banks to decide about their capital structures and lending practices is justly restricted for the sake of protecting the value of the funds deposited in the banks. Indeed, more of that sort of financial coercion a few years ago would have saved the global economy a great deal of trouble.

The financial system will always be designed to promote some mix of social goods. In well-organised societies those goods start with prosperity and security. In more corrupt arrangements, the interests of particular groups – bankers, lenders or borrowers – are favoured. In all cases, some activities are well rewarded and others are discouraged or punished. Financial coercions can bring greater freedoms overall or can improve life in some other ways.

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.

A call for radical financial reform

Edward Hadas
Oct 9, 2013 14:56 UTC

The governments of developed countries have the power to rescue economies from defective finance. There is a radical solution. It would be relatively easy and at least as fair as the current slow generation-long recovery from the 2008 financial collapse.

I have been suggesting massive “start from scratch” financial reform for several years. The response is usually a mix of incredulity (it’s too hard to do) and indignation (it would be unjust). A thought experiment might help deal with those objections. Pretend that the current situation – excessive debts and deficits, unprecedented and risky monetary policy, overly powerful banks, slow GDP growth and unacceptably high levels of unemployment – was the result of a recent war.

Under those tragic circumstances, it would not be strange to say that the prevailing financial order was a relic from a lost period. Perhaps the arrangements were effective and fair back then, leaders would say, but the old promises, practices and privileges are now helping the few, hurting the many and holding the economy back. So finance needs to be reconstructed.

A dangerous lie about debt

Edward Hadas
Aug 21, 2013 09:41 UTC

I have spent much of the last five years searching for financial villains. The 2008 crisis and the extremely slow subsequent economic recovery have exposed a deeply flawed system, and some people, groups or ideas must be responsible.

There are many obvious culprits: greedy bankers, undercapitalised banks, lax monetary policymakers, reckless governments, weak international institutions and imprudent lenders and borrowers. They’re all guilty, but some of the worst offenders are intellectual – the dangerous ideas that encouraged overconfidence during the credit bubble and ineffective policy in the aftermath. Financial theory is a big problem. In particular, I accuse the risk-free rate of return of being the devil’s work.

Some aspects of the theory have already received a great deal of criticism, but the complaints are mostly quite technical. Beta, or market return, is too often dressed up as alpha, the extra return attributed to an investor’s skill (or luck) picking particular investments. And the distribution of daily returns is actually not mathematically normal, as much of the theory assumes. But I think the problem starts right at the beginning, with the assumption that there is a readily available, perfectly safe investment. The theory basically compares the range of likely returns on every other investment to the certain gain from the risk-free alternative. Additional returns are expected to compensate for additional risk.

Fear, greed and bank capital

Edward Hadas
Jul 17, 2013 14:27 UTC

Buildings should be strong enough to withstand storms and earthquakes. Similarly, banks should be able to remain upright after massive waves of losses. Engineers have a pretty good idea of how to make skyscrapers strong. The regulators and lawmakers who set the rules for big banks are still struggling, five years after the government rescue of many American and European banks.

Bankers and their defenders say that the struggle is over. The financial structures have been reinforced: deeper capital foundations, new supports added and weak materials removed. But many critics point out that the banks have not done the one thing necessary – to double or triple the ratio of shareholders’ equity to total assets. That is the only sure way, they say, to guarantee that large losses on loans do not threaten the ability of the institution to remain standing.

I think the critics are largely right. As economists Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig explain in their book, The Bankers’ New Clothes, the bankers’ almost instinctive aversion to equity protects bonuses and shareholders at the expense of the general public. Still, in my view banks have a more fundamental problem than poor capital structures. It is society’s unreasonable expectations of what they can accomplish.

Rate rigging costs more than money

Edward Hadas
Jun 19, 2013 14:41 UTC

Here are some depressing figures: 133, 20, 4, 3 and 1. They are the most recent key counts in what might be the most alarming of all the financial scandals since the 2008 crisis, the sometimes successful efforts of traders to rig benchmark rates.

The first four numbers come from Singapore; they count up, respectively the traders, institutions, years and rates involved in attempted manipulation in the city-state. The one is for Tom Hayes, the first and so far only trader to face criminal charges for messing with the Libor interest rate. Investigations of possible unfair play in energy-price benchmarks are continuing, but it is already clear that too many traders in too many markets tried too often to profit by manipulating supposedly objective readings of market conditions.

In cash terms, the machinations are hardly a problem. In comparison to the hundreds of billions lost and the score of institutions capsized by reckless speculation made before the 2008 financial crisis, any losses – the Singapore authorities say that rates there stayed honest – were microscopic. While the distortions of one-hundredth of a percent were large enough to enrich a few traders, they were too small to make anyone else noticeably poorer, or to add much to the profits of the banks which employed the crooked traders.

The dangerous aristocrats of finance

Edward Hadas
May 29, 2013 14:21 UTC

In many ways, the financial world has changed remarkably little in the five years since the 2008 financial crisis. Yes, banks, brokers and other intermediaries are neither as profitable nor as popular as in the pre-crisis years. However, the industry is still arrogant, isolated and ridiculously lucrative. Leading financiers look more like pre-revolutionary aristocrats than normal businessmen.

Pay is the most obvious sign of this privileged social position. Consider JPMorgan, a fairly typical financial firm in terms of remuneration. Last year, the annual compensation per employee was $192,000.

That already seems high, but the measure includes the majority of employees whose pay is bunched around the $45,000 average for non-supervisory U.S. workers in finance. Assume that two-thirds of Morgan’s employees were in that group. For the rest, the people at the top and upper middle of the company, that leaves an average pretax reward of $485,000 – more than 10 times the norm of the lower orders.

Banker-think in welcome retreat

Edward Hadas
Mar 27, 2013 09:45 UTC

For once, investors have got it right. In 2008, their panic turned a financial crisis into a long multinational recession, but they have mostly yawned right through the drama in Nicosia. They hardly twitched at a stream of warnings from investment banks and pundits: bank deposits are no longer sacrosanct; the European Union has been exposed as despotic and incompetent; the Russians are coming; the Russians are going; capital controls will destroy everything; “bail in” (taking losses on loans that cannot be repaid) is the end of the world as we once knew it.

Such talk was out of proportion. Cyprus is a small country – its GDP would put it at 116 on the Fortune 500 list of the largest quoted U.S. companies – with a financial sector that had expanded excessively for two decades, almost entirely by attracting flight capital from Russia. A national financial collapse was both insignificant and merited. Besides, the EU and the International Monetary Fund had a plan to deal with the collapse: a combination of financial help from other countries and managed pain for depositors in Cypriot banks.

Alarmists could not deny all this, but they invoked the great demons of financial crises: precedent and contagion. That was silly. Cyprus was obviously a special case, and the European Central Bank was clearly determined, and able, to keep its problems from spreading. Even if Cyprus had left the euro zone, there would have been no dangerous precedents or grim effects, just a demonstration of a bizarre desire for economic self-harm. For everyone else, Cyprus would still be like a flea-bite – scratch for a minute and forget about it.

The menace of financial markets

Edward Hadas
Feb 20, 2013 14:15 UTC

Financial markets are unstable, unhelpful and often immoral. They should be kept under better control.

My disdain will be dismissed by free-market enthusiasts. For them, lively markets where equities, bonds and currencies are sold at publicly disclosed prices are clearly a good thing; they may even be capitalism at its best. Such open markets, they say, both improve economic efficiency and make society more free.

Not so; these markets are economically and morally harmful. Let me be clear. I am not discussing what non-economists usually mean by markets, the generally useful supermarkets and farmers’ markets. Nor am I debating the merits of what economists refer to as the “market” – the real or virtual place where buyers and sellers make transactions. Nor is this a screed against all of finance. Banks and insurers do not need financial markets to gather savings and make loans and investments.

What Islamic finance can offer

Edward Hadas
Jan 9, 2013 13:53 UTC

The Islamic approach to finance was once the most advanced in the world. The period of pre-eminence ended six or seven centuries ago, but the religion’s fundamental insights into the field could help form a financial system suitable for the 21st century.

From the beginning, Muslim teaching took a religious view of commercial relations and responsibilities. There are a few injunctions in the Koran and far more in the teachings traditionally attributed to Mohammad. I am not an expert, but the basic ideas seem clear enough: merchants should be fair, risks should be moderate and understood, and God condemns all rapacious financial practices.

During the first centuries of Islam, Muslims became great traders, providing an economic bridge between Asia and Europe. Europeans adopted and then further developed the Islamic techniques of providing credit and of sharing responsibilities, risks and rewards. Christian thinkers continued the Islamic debate over what was fair and just, and church authorities copied the Islamic teachers’ practices, ruling on the legitimacy of transactions, and exhorting merchants and investors to restrain their greed.

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