Two cheers for financial innovation

January 7, 2012

Protests against Wall Street and the U.S. financial system are hanging over an annual gathering of economists and social scientists in Chicago. Yale economist Robert Shiller offered two cheers for capitalist finance, saying that while the U.S. free market system has contributed to higher living standards, the vehemence of the recent public outcry points to a need for greater democratization. This is how he put it in a speech:

Occupy Wall Street … was something that in some sense you could see coming. I think we have increasing concerns about inequality, which is getting worse, about the distribution of power.

But rather than throw the financial system out, Shiller called for tinkering. Financial institutions and structures such as insurance or mortgage securitization have a role in improving social and human welfare, Shiller argued. U.S. economic success is due to a financial system that has evolved over centuries and helped improve the quality of life, he added.  A shortcoming of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it doesn’t accept those contributions, he said.

Changes in financial structures could make the financial system more responsive to people’s needs, said Shiller. For example, a new type of corporate entity that is allowed in six U.S. states – the “benefit corporation” — could provide incentives for firms to link success more closely to improvements in social welfare. This charter allows the for-profit companies to explicitly pursue a social purpose as well as its business goal. By law, regular corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to be profitable, while a benefit corporation also has some accountability, overseen by a third party, to perform a public good.

Shiller also wonders why there can’t be a mortgage that has automatic work-out provisions built in. Such a mortgage could require changes to terms and conditions if the borrower experienced job loss or other financial strains. The lender would price in the possibility of such losses at the beginning and cautious borrowers might be willing to pay a higher price for the insurance, Shiller said. In effect, a 30-year fixed rate mortgage is a similar instrument, since it allows lenders to pay a higher interest rate for a long-term loan that that they can refinance.

To contain income disparity, there could be a tax indexed to inequality, the Yale professor suggested. When the income of the top 1 percent of U.S. wage earners exceeds a certain multiple of the nation’s median income, the tax would kick in. In 2006, that multiple was 36, up from 12.5 in 1980, he said.

Shiller was not subject to the “mic check” interruption that the Occupy movement uses to disrupt some public officials’ speeches. But some thought he was taking too rosy a view of the benefits of the financial system and the public’s willingness to view financial executives sympathetically. Reynold Nesiba, an economics professor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said:

The financial innovations that he’s so proud of – I think lots of Americans have seen financial innovations as subprime mortgages that charge them higher rates of interest and provide pre-payment penalties. People at higher incomes have been mostly well served by financial innovation, but for large segments of the population has become more sophisticated ways of preying on the working class.

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