Two cheers for financial innovation

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.

When speculation squashes innovation

Paul Volcker famously joked in the wake of the 2008 credit crisis that the most important financial innovation of the last few decades had come not from Wall Street’s fancy footwork but rather the engineering acumen that created the ATM. A paper published by the National Bureau for Economic Research lends some academic credence to Volcker’s view. In particular, the research of Alp Simsek, a Harvard economist, finds the very uncertainty that esoteric new securities introduce into financial markets eats away at benefits arising from greater credit availability:

Financial innovation always decreases the uninsurable variance because new assets increase the possibilities for risk sharing. My main result shows that financial innovation also always increases the speculative variance. This is true even if traders completely agree about the payoffs of new assets. The intuition behind this result is the hedge-more/bet-more effect: Traders use new assets to hedge their bets on existing assets, which in turn enables them to place larger bets and take on greater risks. This effect suggests that financial innovation is more likely to be destabilizing in more complete financial markets and when it concerns derivative assets.

The author argues that rules prohibiting too many new types of securities from being introduced at once – so that traders don’t go too crazy too quickly – isn’t enough. As the crisis showed, when push comes to shove, hard-and-fast rules deliver better results than efforts at industry self-discipline.