Finance is the commodification of trust

Jul 18 JDN 2459414

What is it about finance?

Why is it that whenever we have an economic crisis, it seems to be triggered by the financial industry? Why has the dramatic rise in income and wealth inequality come in tandem with a rise in finance as a proportion of our economic output? Why are so many major banks implicated in crimes ranging from tax evasion to money laundering for terrorists?

In other words, why are the people who run our financial industry such utter scum? What is it about finance that it seems to attract the very worst people on Earth?

One obvious answer is that it is extremely lucrative: Incomes in the financial industry are higher than almost any other industry. Perhaps people who are particularly unscrupulous are drawn to the industries that make the most money, and don’t care about much else. But other people like making money too, so this is far from a full explanation. Indeed, incomes for physicists are comparable to those of Wall Street brokers, yet physicists rarely seem to be implicated in mass corruption scandals.

I think there is a deeper reason: Finance is the commodification of trust.

Many industries sell products, physical artifacts like shirts or televisions. Others sell services like healthcare or auto repair, which involve the physical movement of objects through space. Information-based industries are a bit different—what a software developer or an economist sells isn’t really a physical object moving through space. But then what they are selling is something more like knowledge—information that can be used to do useful things.

Finance is different. When you make a loan or sell a stock, you aren’t selling a thing—and you aren’t really doing a thing either. You aren’t selling information, either. You’re selling trust. You are making money by making promises.

Most people are generally uncomfortable with the idea of selling promises. It isn’t that we’d never do it—but we’re reluctant to do it. We try to avoid it whenever we can. But if you want to be successful in finance, you can’t have that kind of reluctance. To succeed on Wall Street, you need to be constantly selling trust every hour of every day.

Don’t get me wrong: Certain kinds of finance are tremendously useful, and we’d be much worse off without them. I would never want to get rid of government bonds, auto loans or home mortgages. I’m actually pretty reluctant to even get rid of student loans, despite the large personal benefits I would get if all student loans were suddenly forgiven. (I would be okay with a system like Elizabeth Warren’s proposal, where people with college degrees pay a surtax that supports free tuition. The problem with most proposals for free college is that they make people who never went to college pay for those who did, and that seems unfair and regressive to me.)

But the Medieval suspicion against “usury“—the notion that there is something immoral about making money just from having money and making promises—isn’t entirely unfounded. There really is something deeply problematic about a system in which the best way to get rich is to sell commodified packages of trust, and the best way to make money is to already have it.

Moreover, the more complex finance gets, the more divorced it becomes from genuinely necessary transactions, and the more commodified it becomes. A mortgage deal that you make with a particular banker in your own community isn’t particularly commodified; a mortgage that is sliced and redistributed into mortgage-backed securities that are sold anonymously around the world is about as commodified as anything can be. It’s rather like the difference between buying a bag of apples from your town farmers’ market versus ordering a barrel of apple juice concentrate. (And of course the most commodified version of all is the financial one: buying apple juice concentrate futures.)

Commodified trust is trust that has lost its connection to real human needs. Those bankers who foreclosed on thousands of mortgages (many of them illegally) weren’t thinking about the people they were making homeless—why would they, when for them those people have always been nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet? Your local banker might be willing to work with you to help you keep your home, because they see you as a person. (They might not for various reasons, but at least they might.) But there’s no reason for HSBC to do so, especially when they know that they are so rich and powerful they can get away with just about anything (have I mentioned money laundering for terrorists?).

I don’t think we can get rid of finance. We will always need some mechanism to let people who need money but don’t have it borrow that money from people who have it but don’t need it, and it makes sense to have interest charges to compensate lenders for the time and risk involved.

Yet there is much of finance we can clearly dispense with. Credit default swaps could simply be banned, and we’d gain much and lose little. Credit default swaps are basically unregulated insurance, and there’s no reason to allow that. If banks need insurance, they can buy the regulated kind like everyone else. Those regulations are there for a reason. We could ban collateralized debt obligations and similar tranche-based securities, again with far more benefit than harm. We probably still need stocks and commodity futures, and perhaps also stock options—but we could regulate their sale considerably more, particularly with regard to short-selling. Banking should be boring.

Some amount of commodification may be inevitable, but clearly much of what we currently have could be eliminated. In particular, the selling of loans should simply be banned. Maybe even your local banker won’t ever really get to know you or care about you—but there’s no reason we have to allow them to sell your loan to some bank in another country that you’ve never even heard of. When you make a deal with a bank, the deal should be between you and that bank—not potentially any bank in the world that decides to buy the contract at any point in the future. Maybe we’ll always be numbers on spreadsheets—but at least we should be able to choose whose spreadsheets.

If banks want more liquidity, they can borrow from other banks—themselves, taking on the risk themselves. A lending relationship is built on trust. You are free to trust whomever you choose; but forcing me to trust someone I’ve never met is something you have no right to do.

In fact, we might actually be able to get rid of banks—credit unions have a far cleaner record than banks, and provide nearly all of the financial services that are genuinely necessary. Indeed, if you’re considering getting an auto loan or a home mortgage, I highly recommend you try a credit union first.

For now, we can’t simply get rid of banks—we’re too dependent on them. But we could at least acknowledge that banks are too powerful, they get away with far too much, and their whole industry is founded upon practices that need to be kept on a very tight leash.

An unusual recession, a rapid recovery

Jul 11 JDN 2459407

It seems like an egregious understatement to say that the last couple of years have been unusual. The COVID-19 pandemic was historic, comparable in threat—though not in outcome—to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

At this point it looks like we may not be able to fully eradicate COVID. And there are still many places around the world where variants of the virus continue to spread. I personally am a bit worried about the recent surge in the UK; it might add some obstacles (as if I needed any more) to my move to Edinburgh. Yet even in hard-hit places like India and Brazil things are starting to get better. Overall, it seems like the worst is over.

This pandemic disrupted our society in so many ways, great and small, and we are still figuring out what the long-term consequences will be.

But as an economist, one of the things I found most unusual is that this recession fit Real Business Cycle theory.

Real Business Cycle theory (henceforth RBC) posits that recessions are caused by negative technology shocks which result in a sudden drop in labor supply, reducing employment and output. This is generally combined with sophisticated mathematical modeling (DSGE or GTFO), and it typically leads to the conclusion that the recession is optimal and we should do nothing to correct it (which was after all the original motivation of the entire theory—they didn’t like the interventionist policy conclusions of Keynesian models). Alternatively it could suggest that, if we can, we should try to intervene to produce a positive technology shock (but nobody’s really sure how to do that).

For a typical recession, this is utter nonsense. It is obvious to anyone who cares to look that major recessions like the Great Depression and the Great Recession were caused by a lack of labor demand, not supply. There is no apparent technology shock to cause either recession. Instead, they seem to be preciptiated by a financial crisis, which then causes a crisis of liquidity which leads to a downward spiral of layoffs reducing spending and causing more layoffs. Millions of people lose their jobs and become desperate to find new ones, with hundreds of people applying to each opening. RBC predicts a shortage of labor where there is instead a glut. RBC predicts that wages should go up in recessions—but they almost always go down.

But for the COVID-19 recession, RBC actually had some truth to it. We had something very much like a negative technology shock—namely the pandemic. COVID-19 greatly increased the cost of working and the cost of shopping. This led to a reduction in labor demand as usual, but also a reduction in labor supply for once. And while we did go through a phase in which hundreds of people applied to each new opening, we then followed it up with a labor shortage and rising wages. A fall in labor supply should create inflation, and we now have the highest inflation we’ve had in decades—but there’s good reason to think it’s just a transitory spike that will soon settle back to normal.

The recovery from this recession was also much more rapid: Once vaccines started rolling out, the economy began to recover almost immediately. We recovered most of the employment losses in just the first six months, and we’re on track to recover completely in half the time it took after the Great Recession.

This makes it the exception that proves the rule: Now that you’ve seen a recession that actually resembles RBC, you can see just how radically different it was from a typical recession.

Moreover, even in this weird recession the usual policy conclusions from RBC are off-base. It would have been disastrous to withhold the economic relief payments—which I’m happy to say even most Republicans realized. The one thing that RBC got right as far as policy is that a positive technology shock was our salvation—vaccines.

Indeed, while the cause of this recession was very strange and not what Keynesian models were designed to handle, our government largely followed Keynesian policy advice—and it worked. We ran massive government deficits—over $3 trillion in 2020—and the result was rapid recovery in consumer spending and then employment. I honestly wouldn’t have thought our government had the political will to run a deficit like that, even when the economic models told them they should; but I’m very glad to be wrong. We ran the huge deficit just as the models said we should—and it worked. I wonder how the 2010s might have gone differently had we done the same after 2008.

Perhaps we’ve learned from some of our mistakes.

A prouder year for America, and for me

Jul 4 JDN 2459380

Living under Trump from 2017 to 2020, it was difficult to be patriotic. How can we be proud of a country that would put a man like that in charge? And then there was the COVID pandemic, which initially the US handled terribly—largely because of the aforementioned Trump.

But then Biden took office, and almost immediately things started to improve. This is a testament to how important policy can be—and how different the Democrats and Republicans have become.

The US now has one of the best rates of COVID vaccination in the world (though lately progress seems to be stalling and other countries are catching up). Daily cases in the US are now the lowest they have been since March 2020. Even real GDP is almost back up to its pre-pandemic level (even per-capita), and the surge of inflation we got as things began to re-open already seems to be subsiding.

I can actually celebrate the 4th of July with some enthusiasm this year, whereas the last four years involved continually reminding myself that I was celebrating the liberating values of America’s founding, not the current terrible state of its government. Of course our government policy still retains many significant flaws—but it isn’t the utter embarrassment it was just a year ago.

This may be my last 4th of July to celebrate for the next few years, as I will soon be moving to Scotland (more on that in a moment).

2020 was a very bad year, but even halfway through it’s clear that 2021 is going to be a lot better.

This was true for just about everyone. I was no exception.

The direct effects of the pandemic on me were relatively minor.

Transitioning to remote work was even easier than I expected it to be; in fact I was even able to run experiments online using the same research subject pool as we’d previously used for the lab. I not only didn’t suffer any financial hardship from the lockdowns, I ended up better off because of the relief payments (and the freezing of student loan payments as well as the ludicrous stock boom, which I managed to buy in near the trough of). Ordering groceries online for delivery is so convenient I’m tempted to continue it after the pandemic is over (though it does cost more).

I was careful and/or fortunate enough not to get sick (now that I am fully vaccinated, my future risk is negligible), as were most of my friends and family. I am not close to anyone who died from the virus, though I do have some second-order links to some who died (grandparents of a couple of my friends, the thesis advisor of one of my co-authors).

It was other things, that really made 2020 a miserable year for me. Some of them were indirect effects of the pandemic, and some may not even have been related.

For me, 2020 was a year full of disappointments. It was the year I nearly finished my dissertation and went on the job market, applying for over one hundred jobs—and got zero offers. It was the year I was scheduled to present at an international conference—which was then canceled. It was the year my papers were rejected by multiple journals. It was the year I was scheduled to be married—and then we were forced to postpone the wedding.

But now, in 2021, several of these situations are already improving. We will be married on October 9, and most (though assuredly not all) of the preparations for the wedding are now done. My dissertation is now done except for some formalities. After over a year of searching and applying to over two hundred postings in all, I finally found a job, a postdoc position at the University of Edinburgh. (A postdoc isn’t ideal, but on the other hand, Edinburgh is more prestigious than I thought I’d be able to get.) I still haven’t managed to publish any papers, but I no longer feel as desperate a need to do so now that I’m not scrambling to find a job. Now of course we have to plan for a move overseas, though fortunately the university will reimburse our costs for the visa and most of the moving expenses.

Of course, 2021 isn’t over—neither is the COVID pandemic. But already it looks like it’s going to be a lot better than 2020.