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.