Banking

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Discussion

Their Traditional Role

John Cassidy:

" Since the promulgation of Hammurabi’s Code, in ancient Babylon, no advanced society has survived without banks and bankers. Banks enable people to borrow money, and, today, by operating electronic-transfer systems, they allow commerce to take place without notes and coins changing hands. They also play a critical role in channelling savings into productive investments."

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/11/29/101129fa_fact_cassidy#ixzz16pKnpPVb


Contemporary Rent-Seeking

John Cassidy:

"In effect, many of the big banks have turned themselves from businesses whose profits rose and fell with the capital-raising needs of their clients into immense trading houses whose fortunes depend on their ability to exploit day-to-day movements in the markets. Because trading has become so central to their business, the big banks are forever trying to invent new financial products that they can sell but that their competitors, at least for the moment, cannot. Some recent innovations, such as tradable pollution rights and catastrophe bonds, have provided a public benefit. But it’s easy to point to other innovations that serve little purpose or that blew up and caused a lot of collateral damage, such as auction-rate securities and collateralized debt obligations. Testifying earlier this year before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that financial innovation “isn’t always a good thing,” adding that some innovations amplify risk and others are used primarily “to take unfair advantage rather than create a more efficient market.”

Other regulators have gone further. Lord Adair Turner, the chairman of Britain’s top financial watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, has described much of what happens on Wall Street and in other financial centers as “socially useless activity”—a comment that suggests it could be eliminated without doing any damage to the economy. In a recent article titled “What Do Banks Do?,” which appeared in a collection of essays devoted to the future of finance, Turner pointed out that although certain financial activities were genuinely valuable, others generated revenues and profits without delivering anything of real worth—payments that economists refer to as rents. “It is possible for financial activity to extract rents from the real economy rather than to deliver economic value,” Turner wrote. “Financial innovation . . . may in some ways and under some circumstances foster economic value creation, but that needs to be illustrated at the level of specific effects: it cannot be asserted a priori.” (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/11/29/101129fa_fact_cassidy)

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"Lord Adair Turner, the chairman of Britain’s top financial watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, has described much of what happens on Wall Street and in other financial centers as “socially useless activity”—a comment that suggests it could be eliminated without doing any damage to the economy. In a recent article titled “What Do Banks Do?,” which appeared in a collection of essays devoted to the future of finance, Turner pointed out that although certain financial activities were genuinely valuable, others generated revenues and profits without delivering anything of real worth—payments that economists refer to as rents. “It is possible for financial activity to extract rents from the real economy rather than to deliver economic value,” Turner wrote. “Financial innovation . . . may in some ways and under some circumstances foster economic value creation, but that needs to be illustrated at the level of specific effects: it cannot be asserted a priori.” (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/11/29/101129fa_fact_cassidy)


The inefficiency of contemporary financial markets

John Cassidy:

"Paul Woolley, a seventy-one-year-old Englishman who has set up an institute at the London School of Economics called the Woolley Centre for the Study of Capital Market Dysfunctionality. “Why on earth should finance be the biggest and most highly paid industry when it’s just a utility, like sewage or gas?” Woolley said to me when I met with him in London. “It is like a cancer that is growing to infinite size, until it takes over the entire body.”

From 1987 to 2006, Woolley, who has a doctorate in economics, ran the London affiliate of GMO, a Boston-based investment firm. Before that, he was an executive director at Barings, the venerable British investment bank that collapsed in 1995 after a rogue-trader scandal, and at the International Monetary Fund. Tall, soft-spoken, and courtly, Woolley moves easily between the City of London, academia, and policymaking circles. With a taste for Savile Row suits and a keen interest in antiquarian books, he doesn’t come across as an insurrectionary. But, sitting in an office at L.S.E., he cheerfully told me that he regarded himself as one. “What we are doing is revolutionary,” he said with a smile. “Nobody has done anything like it before.”

At GMO, Woolley ran several funds that invested in stocks and bonds from many countries. He also helped to set up one of the first “quant” funds, which rely on mathematical algorithms to find profitable investments. From his perch in Angel Court, in the heart of the City, he watched the rapid expansion all around him. Established international players, such as Citi, Goldman, and UBS, were getting bigger; new entrants, especially hedge funds and buyout (private equity) firms, were proliferating. Woolley’s firm did well, too, but a basic economic question niggled at him: Was the financial industry doing what it was supposed to be doing? Was it allocating capital to its most productive uses?

At first, like most economists, he believed that trading drove market prices to levels justified by economic fundamentals. If an energy company struck oil, or an entertainment firm created a new movie franchise, investors would pour money into its stock, but the price would remain tethered to reality. The dotcom bubble of the late nineteen-nineties changed his opinion. GMO is a “value investor” that seeks out stocks on the basis of earnings and cash flows. When the Nasdaq took off, Woolley and his colleagues couldn’t justify buying high-priced Internet stocks, and their funds lagged behind rivals that shifted more of their money into tech. Between June, 1998, and March, 2000, Woolley recalled, the clients of GMO—pension funds and charitable endowments, mostly—withdrew forty per cent of their money. During the ensuing five years, the bubble burst, value stocks fared a lot better than tech stocks, and the clients who had left missed more than a sixty-per-cent gain relative to the market as a whole. After going through that experience, Woolley had an epiphany: financial institutions that react to market incentives in a competitive setting often end up making a mess of things. “I realized we were acting rationally and optimally,” he said. “The clients were acting rationally and optimally. And the outcome was a complete Horlicks.” Financial markets, far from being efficient, as most economists and policymakers at the time believed, were grossly inefficient. “And once you recognize that markets are inefficient a lot of things change.

...One is the role of financial intermediaries, such as banks. Rather than seeking the most productive outlet for the money that depositors and investors entrust to them, they may follow trends and surf bubbles. These activities shift capital into projects that have little or no long-term value, such as speculative real-estate developments in the swamps of Florida. Rather than acting in their customers’ best interests, financial institutions may peddle opaque investment products, like collateralized debt obligations. Privy to superior information, banks can charge hefty fees and drive up their own profits at the expense of clients who are induced to take on risks they don’t fully understand—a form of rent seeking. “Mispricing gives incorrect signals for resource allocation, and, at worst, causes stock market booms and busts,” Woolley wrote in a recent paper. “Rent capture causes the misallocation of labor and capital, transfers substantial wealth to bankers and financiers, and, at worst, induces systemic failure. Both impose social costs on their own, but in combination they create a perfect storm of wealth destruction.”

Woolley originally endowed his institute on dysfunctionality with four million pounds. (By British standards, that is a significant sum.) The institute opened in 2007—Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, turned up at its launch party—and has published more than a dozen research papers challenging the benefits that financial markets and financial institutions bring to the economy. Dmitri Vayanos, a professor of finance at L.S.E. who runs the Woolley Centre, has presented some of its research at Stanford, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and other leading universities. Woolley has published a ten-point “manifesto” aimed at the mutual funds, pension funds, and charitable endowments that, through payments of fees and commissions, ultimately help finance the salaries of many people on Wall Street and in the City of London. Among Woolley’s suggestions: investment funds should limit the turnover in their portfolios, refuse to pay performance fees, and avoid putting money into hedge funds and private-equity firms.

Before leaving for lunch at his club, the Reform, Woolley pointed me to a recent study by the research firm Ibbotson Associates, which shows that during the past decade investors in hedge funds, over all, would have done just as well putting their money straight into the S&P 500. “The amount of rent capture has been huge,” Woolley said. “Investment banking, prime broking, mergers and acquisitions, hedge funds, private equity, commodity investment—the whole scale of activity is far too large.” I asked Woolley how big he thought the financial sector should be. “About a half or a third of its current size,” he replied. (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/11/29/101129fa_fact_cassidy)