MacroScope

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.

Staggering the introduction of new assets is likely to be ineffective because it reduces traders’ speculation simultaneously with their learning. A more viable alternative appears to be temporary position limits on new assets, which can be implemented with temporary capital requirements.

 

 

Are CDS markets the euro zone’s iceberg?

icebergIn an unfortunate turn of phrase at the height of his country’s current debt crisis, Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou on Monday compared his government’s Herculean task in slashing deficits and debts as akin to changing the course of the Titanic. Sadly, we all know where the great “unsinkable” ended up almost a century ago and I’m sure,  given the chance, Mr Papaconstantinou would have chosen another metaphor. But if the Greek economy (or perhaps the euro zone at large?) is to be cast as the Titanic, then what is its potential iceberg?

For some euro politicians, look no further than the sovereign Credit Default Swaps market. France’s finance chief Christine Lagarde said as much last week when she questioned “the validity, solidity of CDSs on sovereign risk” and warned speculators to be careful as regulators took a “second look” at the market and European governments closed ranks. Lagarde, of course, is not alone.  You can be sure CDS are being examined long and hard by Spanish intelligence services investigating the “murky manoeuvres” in the debt markets.  But what is the exact charge against CDS?

CDS are ways to buy or sell insurance on the risk of debt defaults without needing to own the underlying bonds in the first place. It’s a way of hedging your debts, if you like, without having to go through the often more complicated game of selling securities short (or selling borrowed paper). In essence, it allows you to take a bet on default without having to go to the trouble of owning the bonds you’re insuring against.  Some critics, not unreasonably, would view this as the epitome of the casino capitalism that has elicited so much public outrage over the past three years . The fear is this market has become the tail wagging the dog.