Financial Sector: What Good Is It, Anyway?

Behind the ephemeral debates over the financial crisis and the bailouts it has spawned, there is a broader debate about the financial sector as a whole: what good is it, how much of it do we need, and how do we know if it is working?

There are many descriptions of what the financial sector does, but most of them have something to do with moving capital (money) from someone who has more than he needs to someone who could use a bit more. And I think most people would agree that is a good thing, as long as the latter person has some productive use for it. Mike at Rortybomb, in “The Financial Sector We Want,” describes a doctor saving up $1,000 more than she needs for consumption and lending it to a factory, which returns her $1,100 after a year. In real life, we need some kind of a financial sector to get the money from the doctor to the factory, even if it’s just a single local bank. Everyone is happy.

When you start asking how big the financial sector should be, and whether or not it is working properly, things get more complicated. One of the Economist’s Free Exchange bloggers took the position that financial innovation is generally good in and of itself, although it has a high risk of creating “negative spillovers” – a higher risk than for non-financial innovation: “Most financial innovations are positive, and we don’t know ex ante which will be negative, so giving ourselves the power to block certain innovations because they might have negative spillovers is risky.” At first blush, this seems like a reasonable extension from real-world innovation to financial innovation.

However, Mike (Rortybomb) has an interesting counter-argument. Financial innovation, he says, is not like real-world innovation; the former only creates value if it solves an existing market imperfection. Figuring out which factories are worth investing in – so the doctor doesn’t have to worry about it – solves a market imperfection. But his point is that it’s the factory that’s creating the value; the financial sector is helping make that possible. So, he argues, if someone figures out a way to get a higher yield out of a risk-free investment (and that was the point of the CDO boom, where you could create a “super-senior, better-than-AAA” bond that paid a higher yield than Treasuries), then you either have to show what market imperfection it is solving, or it isn’t actually risk-free. In most cases, he suspects, innovation that generates a higher return does so simply by taking on more risk.

So what are we to make of the last quarter-century, when the financial sector got bigger and bigger and the people in it got richer and richer?

An instinctive free-market reaction might be to assume that the financial sector was doing great things, and that the people getting rich deserved to. But from Mike’s perspective, you have to ask: did people suddenly discover how to fix such massive market imperfections that they deserved to make that much money for so long? Ryan Avent put it this way:

Frankly, I have no idea what most of the recent growth in finance was for. . . . To get back to Mike’s original point, when you have a few people taking home billions, that’s a sign of either very good luck or some brilliant new strategy. When you have a lot of people in finance taking home billions, then something has gone badly wrong. Either something unsustainable is building, or there are some serious inefficiencies in the market.

And Felix Salmon, I think, pinpointed the crucial issue. If the financial sector was doing such a good job innovating, then it shouldn’t have continued making so much money.

[O]ne would hope and expect that between sell-side productivity gains and a rise in the sophistication of the buy side, any increase in America’s financing needs would be met without any rise in the percentage of the economy taken up by the financial sector. That it wasn’t is an indication, on its face, that the financial sector in aggregate signally failed to improve at doing its job over the post-war decades — a failure which was then underlined by the excesses of the current decade and the subsequent global economic meltdown.

Ordinarily, if an industry innovates, a few people make a lot of money, and then most of the benefits flow to that industry’s customers. Let’s take one of the greatest examples of recent history: Microsoft and Intel together probably created a handful of billionaires and a few thousand multi-millionaires out of their employees; but for at least the last ten years, no one going there has gotten anything more than a decent salary and a good resume credential. As computers get smaller, cheaper, and faster, the benefits flow overwhelmingly to their customers – to us. And those are near-monopolies. The general pattern in the technology industry is that a few entrepreneurs make a lot of money, and the vast majority of people make a decent salary; even the highly-educated, highly-trained, hard-working software developers, most of whom could have been “financial” engineers, are making less than a banker one year out of business school.

That’s the way innovation is supposed to work. You invent something great, you make a lot of money, then your competitors copy you, prices go down, and the long-term benefits go to the customers. And you and your competitors all get more efficient, meaning that you can do the same amount of stuff at a lower cost than before. If you want to make another killing, you have to invent something new, or at least invent a better way of doing something you already do.

By contrast, the historical pattern of the financial sector – rising revenues, rising profits, and rising average individual compensation – is what you get if there is increasing demand for your services and, instead of competing to lower costs and prices, you limit supply. Sure, prices fell on some financial products, but financial institutions encouraged substitution away from them into new, more expensive products, with the net effect of increasing profitability (and compensation). Why this happened I won’t try to get into here, but it would be worth understanding if we want to reduce the chances of living through this crisis again in our lifetimes.

About James Kwak 133 Articles

James Kwak is a former McKinsey consultant, a co-founder of Guidewire Software, and currently a student at the Yale Law School. He is a co-founder of The Baseline Scenario.

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