The end of American capitalism? The ‘visible handshake’ sometimes trumps the ‘invisible hand’

We wrote an earlier piece on July 17 called Socialism for the rich (Jim Rogers and Nouriel Roubini later came with the similar terminology). Some people are indeed worried that the nature of American capitalism is fundamentally changing. They do have a point. But it can be restored..

In the last couple of decades, the business cycle seems to have been replaced by a ‘bubble cycle

Briefly, what has happened is the following:

  • Loose regulation and monetary policy (often a leftover of the previous bubble) enables some asset classes to form bubbles
  • These bubbles (the latest in sub-prime mortgages and the related financial products) create large and very concentrated amounts of wealth for just a very small group of people
  • The bursting of these bubble creates such risks (often systemic risks) that large-scale bailouts are often the only means of dealing with these
  • Funny enough, many of the institutions that created/and or profited from the mess in the first place are the prime receivers of those bailouts (private gains, social losses)
  • The bailout and loosening of monetary policy to deal with the mess sets the stage for the next bubble.

Some, like Luigi Zingalis (Robert C. Mc Cormack Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance University of Chicago) and others lament about the consequences of the bail-outs. They see it as a fundamental change in the nature of American capitalism, with it’s emphasis on free markets.

Although we have a good deal of sympathy with his views, the unfortunate thing is, most of the measures and bail-outs were probably necessary to preserve a modicum of integration of the financial system. So that is not the problem. Then, what is?

At the core, the problem is one of ideology. The free markets that the supporters purport to defend are a myth. Their version of free markets is a highly abstract one, in which any kind of public mingling is bad almost by definition. “Government is not the solution, it’s the problem” sums that up pretty nicely. The reality isn’t nearly as black and white as this old Reagan election slogan suggest.

It’s not hard to imagine that in times when the Government is the solution (and markets the problem), supporters of the abstract belief in free markets world-view is upset and they cry wolf. But it is that abstract belief in free markets what is wrong.

Any market, to be able to function, needs regulation and institutions which take care of that regulation. No one would question that in order to enforce the execution of contracts, property laws, and institutions to enforce those laws and mediate conflicts, are necessary.

Take that away, and sooner rather than later you’ll end up with privatized enforcement of contracts, Mafia style (ask the Russians early 1990s) and tit-for-tat settlement.

Another increasing problem for markets, in times of increasing complexity and division of labour, is asymmetric information. This is a situation in which one party has an informational advantage over its counterpart in a transaction, the classic example is the market for second hand cars (thanks to George Akerlof, the author of a seminal 1970 article called ‘The Market for Lemons’ which won him the 2001 Nobel prize in economics).

Asymmetric information can be exploited in transactions, those assurances you received from the seller of that second hand car might, on closer inspection be just that, assurances. They do not necessarily reflect reality.

For any good or service for which quality is difficult to assess at first hand, this problem potentially exist. Regulation is not always necessary to deal with some of the aspects of the problem, there are market based solutions, for instance:

  • Reputation. Works best in repeat business and/or community setting
  • Information transparency. For instance, rank doctors on performance on specific interventions
  • The ‘wisdom of crowds’. For instance, website aggregating consumer experiences
  • Independent review. For instance, testing  and rating agencies.

Financial markets are rife with asymmetric information problems:

  • Managers usually do know more about their company than shareholders, a knowledge advantage that can be exploited. (Which is the main reason we’re not against legitimate short selling).
  • Do you know more about the financial product than the person you bought it from?
  • Is the information your broker provides really that dispassionate and impartial as he claims?

Financial markets also are largely anonymous (you rarely know the counter party of a transaction), and characterized by extreme differences of wealth and power. Now, consider the following problems with these mechanisms in financial markets

  • The anonymity often makes the reputation solution defunct
  • The extreme differences in wealth and power multiply the incentives to deal with information advantages in an opportunistic way and frequently blunt what’s left of the incentive to build a reputation
  • The ‘wisdom of crowds’ is prone to collective waves of manic-depressive alterations of fear and greed
  • The independent reviews often turn out to be, well, somewhat less than totally independent..

Only information does work, but here the problem is that there is too much of it. And which info can you really trust. A website might have a great reputation but that journalist that contributed a nasty piece about a stock you happen to own, are you really sure he doesn’t have a private agenda? How sure can you be?

Which leaves an important role for regulation to keep excesses within reasonable boundaries. But this happens only after a big crisis (like the Glass-Steagall act of 1933). Slowly but surely, existing regulation has been dismantled, or financial innovation has worked its way around it.

The ingredients of what brought us into the present mess are really not terribly complicated to grasp:

  1. Loose regulation enabled opportunistic behaviour (taking advantage of information asymmetries) in mortgage markets, and then in the securitization of the risks associated with these (essentially, they were put in a blender and the resulting risks spread as invisible confetti over the financial system)
  2. Too much leverage and typical herd behaviour in financial markets magnified the initial problem.

Banks know (or should know) their customers at least to such a degree that enables them to make some assessment of default risks. It’s not always perfect, but what we have seen in the markets for financial products related to these mortgages is that the assumption that markets always come up with the right price signals is not necessarily true, and this has become blatantly obvious now. The ‘invisible hand’ is not always better than the ‘visible handshake’.

Yes, the unprecedented interventions and bail-outs by the authorities are largely necessary. Yes they do change the character of the US capitalism (which indeed has become a form of ‘Socialism for the rich’, as we earlier argued), but this is born out of necessity, there is no theoretical justification for it.

We need to break the cycle of bubbles inflating on the loose monetary policy and moral hazard leftovers of the authorities dealing with previous bubbles. We need sensible regulation that can prevent much of it. Those that made deregulation a religious belief and regulation always and everywhere a dirty word have a lot of explaining to do.

There is no a-priori argument against a US style free market capitalism (and much to recommend it) as long as it is accepted that markets do not function in a vacuum and need a modicum of regulation and institutional support. And markets for complex (financial) products might actually need a little bit more of that, as opportunities for opportunistic behaviour (taking advantage of asymmetric information abound.

What kind of regulation is necessary? We’ll leave the details to the specialists, but the broad direction is not hard to paint:

  • Regulate investment banks like normal banks, in short, reinstall a form of Glass-Steagall (a cynic might reply that shortly it might not be necessary anymore if there might be no investment banks left)
  • Limit leverage
  • Force maximum transparency
  • A bit more specific, don’t allow short-selling before stocks are borrowed. Arguments that naked shorting helps ‘liquidity’, let alone ‘price discovery’ are completely nonsensical.

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