Opinion

Edward Hadas

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.

My issue is with those open financial markets – particularly in shares, bonds and currencies. In each of these markets, cash is traded for something entirely intangible and uncertain: a promise of fixed cashflow for bonds, potential cashflow for shares, and potential purchasing power and interest income for currencies. The problem is simple. Because the valuation of the financial asset is necessarily unknown, there is no hard reality to restrain irrational optimism and rampant cupidity. Both flourish.

In financial markets, prices wander all over the place like escaped cattle. That judgment is supported by solid analysis. In the 1980s, economist Robert Shiller demonstrated that actual changes in the economy and in companies’ fortunes together cannot possibly explain the magnitude of share-price moves. He concluded that psychological factors – mood swings – play a major role.

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.

Greed, justice and deception

Edward Hadas
Dec 19, 2012 12:15 UTC

Greed contributes to all the economic and financial woes of prosperous societies. The United States and other rich countries produce much more than is needed to support all of their people in comfort, so if desires were all truly modest, there would be few problems. Greed encourages people to decide that their own share is too small. Greed influences the popular desire for GDP growth (more, faster), financial gains (higher house prices as a human right) and total economic security (guaranteed pension, come what may). Voters’ greed encourages governments to spend more and tax less.

During the boom years, politicians and economists consistently underestimated greed’s disruptive power. While few endorsed the extremist view that greed is actually good, even fewer acted as if it were dangerous. The rhetoric changed during the crisis. It has become fashionable to add “greedy” to the description of any unpopular group – bankers, highly paid executives, rich people in general, welfare cheats.

In theory, the entry of greed into the public discourse ought to be helpful. If those subject to immoderate desire could be identified with certainty, then society might take up arms against them. While we might never win the battle, we could at least hope to shame and restrain the malefactors.

Sloth and the Big Honest State

Edward Hadas
Jul 18, 2012 14:01 UTC

There is only one good, proven, way to organise a political economy in the modern world – and that’s via the Big Honest State. Right now, one key aspect of the BHS is under serious threat.

What is the BHS? As the name suggests, it is large. In quantity, the various organs of a BHS account for 30-60 percent of GDP. In quality, the state dominates education, health care, industrial policy and the financial system. The BHS is also trustworthy. Its official bureaucracies are expected to be, and mostly are, meritocratic and dedicated to the common good. A BHS, though, is far from the total government of fascists and communists. One of the defining facets of the BHS, indeed, is that it works alongside a vibrant non-state sector.

The basic BHS model has been adopted in all advanced economies and it is aspired to by most leaders in almost every developing country. Universal adoption is easy to explain: the BHS works well. It has delivered a reasonable mix of prosperity, protection and social support. It has proved remarkably sturdy. Since the Second World War, no BHS country has had collapsed into chaos, become impoverished or suffered fundamental social breakdown. The system is also popular with voters, even if many government-hating Americans hate to admit it.

Market tantrums should be tamed

Edward Hadas
Jul 4, 2012 14:10 UTC

The headline could have come from a hundred places any time in the last hundred years. “Market has gone wild”, it read. The accompanying news report explains that the price of a crucial financial asset is in “free fall”. Traders and businessmen are calling on the government to step in.

The asset in question could be peripheral euro zone government debt today, global equity markets in early 2009. The wild market could have been soaring rather than falling: the stocks of 1929 and 1999, the house prices in Florida or London in the 2000s, or the supposedly safe government bonds today.

The actual headline comes from a Hong Kong newspaper in 1983, when investors in the then British colony began to fear the worst from a Chinese takeover. The UK’s Minister of State told the locals to “have confidence in yourselves”, but, as today’s Spanish and Italian politicians can ruefully confirm, such rhetoric is not enough to stop an investor stampede. A few weeks later, the Hong Kong authorities did indeed take the matter out of traders’ hands – they fixed the exchange rate between Hong Kong and U.S. dollars.

Depressions can be avoided

Edward Hadas
Jun 6, 2012 13:26 UTC

Stability has been one of the most elusive economic goods. Despite more than a century of effort, economies remain prone to downturns, which often come after booms that proved unsustainable. Rich countries are currently stuck in one of the down periods, a seemingly endless Lesser Depression.

Economists argue about the details of what went wrong, but they often miss something basic: persistent instability is surprising. Surely, societies which summon enough economic ingenuity and organisation to develop smart phones, manage global supply chains and pay for a dozen years of universal education can manage to maintain a steady pace of overall economic activity? All that is required is the identification and early correction of imbalances, in both the real economy and the financial system.

In the pre-industrial age, good macroeconomic management was all but impossible. As long as agricultural activity was the economic mainstay, a poor harvest led not only to less food but to less spending by farmers. Their purchases of ploughs and shoe leather declined, even though a temporary spell of bad weather had no effect on production capacity.

Finding a way to make finance less sacred

Edward Hadas
Feb 29, 2012 15:25 UTC

Has finance become a “false divinity in the world”? Pope Benedict XVI thinks so. “We see that the world of finance can dominate the human being,” he has said.  “[It is] no longer an instrument to foster well-being… [it] becomes a power that oppresses, that almost demands worship.”

As well as warming the hearts of banker-haters everywhere, the Pope’s criticism is well aimed. Not only did the finance industry’s arrogance help spur crisis and recession, but there’s something dangerous at the core of finance. The human good can all too easily be lost when people’s past work and future hopes are expressed in purely monetary terms.

In the Old Testament, the ancient Israelites were warned that too rigid a view of financial obligations is cruel and socially divisive. Aristotle added another essential objection. The ancient Greek philosopher pointed out that monetary wealth can keep on increasing forever — unlike our appetite for the things that money can buy. Yet while the worldly infinity of finance is alluring, it is ultimately false. Money has no human meaning on its own, but only when it serves a meaningful purpose.

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