Unicorns, Tooth Fairies, and Free Markets

The most frequent criticism of free markets lies in their comparison to unicorns, fairies, and leprechauns. In other words, they exist only in our imaginations and thus are unworthy of serious discussion. This is sheer nonsense. It is like denying the value of Plato’s ideal forms as a means of comparison and judgment. Democracy also does not exist in its pure, idealistic form, so, is it a useless figment of our imaginations? I don’t believe so.

Free markets should be thought of as markets for free people, much like democracy is a political market for free people. In terms of exchange, people are free when buyer and seller can either mutually agree on an exchange or walk away. This freedom obtains best when there are lots of competing and comparable alternatives to any particular good or service. Also, voluntary action is enhanced when the terms of the transaction are transparent to both parties. Some markets offer better and more options than others, while some are more transparent than others, so markets are defined along a continuum from “free” to “unfree.” The whole thrust of free market theory is to point us in the right direction.

Oddly enough, the failure of unfree, or controlled, markets is often cited as proof that markets don’t work. This is like pulling the wheels off my car and then stating that since it can’t go anywhere, cars are a poor form of transportation. Such arguments should be the butt of jokes, not serious debate. Some may qualify this argument by saying some markets are easier to manipulate or control by narrow interests or are less transparent, and thus need to be regulated by a disinterested third party such as a government bureaucracy. But that just begs the more important question over what means will insure that any particular market becomes freer?

Regulation vs. Competition

We can’t really answer this question without a careful analysis of behavioral incentives, of both the economic and political variety. It is widely accepted that economic and political actors pursue their narrow self-interests, with economic behavior determined by loss aversion and profit/utility maximization and political behavior more influenced by power, status, and control. These behaviors dovetail in real people as we all seek to survive by pursuing wealth, power, and control over our own destinies. When we scrape beneath the surface we find that survival is more about not losing (loss aversion), than winning (big rewards).

We would assume from these incentives that most actors would like to manipulate markets to their personal advantage, so how do we constrain or redirect this?

Most people would look to contract law as the explanation for what keeps us honest, but that offers only a narrow understanding of how markets work. We make dozens, if not hundreds, of market transactions every day and very few ever reach that threshold where we feel the need to consult legal counsel or call our Congressperson in Washington. Instead, we rely on more efficient means, such as trust, reciprocity, the implicit value of repeat business, and competing alternatives to guide our choices.

This point about competing alternatives is crucial because while trust, reciprocity, and relationships help ameliorate the need for transparency, competition gives us freedom of choice. Anti-competitive monopolies are considered economic evils because they control the market for their product or service, so consumers must pay their price or go without. (Likewise why we despise political tyranny.) Critics often deride market capitalism as a competitive conflictual system, but that too is a myopic point of view. Markets foster cooperation as much as competition, and many of the transactions in economic markets are win-win positive sum games rather than win-lose zero-sum games.

Think about it: Sellers compete among themselves in order to develop a long-term cooperative relationship with their buyers and suppliers. Ever wonder why a department store takes back that dress or pair of shoes you bought last week because you changed your mind? That doesn’t seem in their immediate profit interest, but it does when you consider how the retailer values repeat business against the freedom you have to take your business elsewhere.

It is not laws or regulatory watchdogs but open competition under accepted market rules that constrains most of our selfish economic behavior. In addition, market competitors have the biggest incentive to insure all play by the established rules, thus they are the watchdogs. This implies the need for transparency. Third party regulatory agencies are inadequate to the task of monitoring the multitude of transactions in markets, especially financial markets. For example, the banking industry is the most regulated industry in the US, and yet the financial crisis of “too big to fail” revealed how ineffective that regulation was. So the test should not be regulation OR competition, but regulation FOR competition. Financial markets in particular need to be open, transparent, and competitive to constrain behavior that risks the integrity of the financial system. In financial markets, failure is a big inducement for prudence.

For an illustrative case, consider the policy response to the financial crisis of 2008, the 2010 Dodd-Frank law. Under that legislation, “too big to fail” banks have gotten even bigger, while 1,500 community banks—the source of half of all loans to local businesses—reportedly have been destroyed. The remaining community banks have had to hire 50% more compliance staff just to keep up with the regulations. That means far less competition among lenders to serve borrowers and more concentrated finance that does not respond to the bankruptcy constraint. It means a far less efficient and just credit market and far more control centralized in a financial oligopoly seeking to influence the policymaking process in its favor. According to the practice of regulatory capture – where lobbyists “buy” politicians with campaign contributions to formulate policy to constrain their competitors – we’ve discovered too often that big government mostly works for big business, the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected to the detriment of open and honest competition among free people.

One could make the same argument against health care reform under the Affordable Care Act. Has policy made the market more open, transparent, and competitive, or less? Health care provision is really about competition and abundance in the supply of health care rather than the price and distribution of access. With an abundance of competitive health care providers, price and access take care of themselves.

The most important argument in favor of markets is the crucial role they play in providing information feedback signals. Free markets provide the most accurate and essential signals to consumers and producers needed to make efficient economic decisions, like comparing alternatives to maximize preferences, or where to invest and how much to produce, and how to adapt to changing market conditions. These signals are embodied in prices and inventory quantities and without these, producers are operating in the dark about what people want. Hayek was the first to point out the lack of private exchange markets would make central planning under socialism untenable over time. He was right.

Market failures do exist and we don’t live in a world of idealized free markets. But in addressing those failures we should strive not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, because free markets support free people and that’s the bottom line.

Besides, it would be heartbreaking to admit to our children that this is best we can do when it comes to unicorns and tooth fairies:

adult-unicorn-costume toothfairy1

Gambling with Debt and Leverage

banksters

This article explains the simple problem with the modern world of banking and finance: too much debt leverage promoted by misguided tax and regulatory policies. The root cause of every financial crisis is excessive leverage funded by cheap credit. The solution is more equity on the part of shareholder owners through higher capital ratios. The essence here is RISK and the proper pricing of that risk. This means more skin in the game for those who control the financial risks. Then they can absorb the rewards or the failures of risk-taking, not the taxpayers. Of course, less leverage also means less bang for the buck, which implies banking should become the boring business it was meant to be.

From the NY Times:

We’re All Still Hostages to the Big Banks

By ANAT R. ADMATI

NEARLY five years after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers touched off a global financial crisis, we are no safer. Huge, complex and opaque banks continue to take enormous risks that endanger the economy. From Washington to Berlin, banking lobbyists have blocked essential reforms at every turn. Their efforts at obfuscation and influence-buying are no surprise. What’s shameful is how easily our leaders have caved in, and how quickly the lessons of the crisis have been forgotten.

We will never have a safe and healthy global financial system until banks are forced to rely much more on money from their owners and shareholders to finance their loans and investments. Forget all the jargon, and just focus on this simple rule.

Mindful, perhaps, of the coming five-year anniversary, regulators have recently taken some actions along these lines. In June, a committee of global banking regulators based in Basel, Switzerland, proposed changes to how banks calculate their leverage ratios, a measure of how much borrowed money they can use to conduct their business.

Last month, federal regulators proposed going somewhat beyond the internationally agreed minimum known as Basel III, which is being phased in. Last Monday, President Obama scolded regulators for dragging their feet on implementing Dodd-Frank, the gargantuan 2010 law that was supposed to prevent another crisis but in fact punted on most of the tough decisions.

Don’t let the flurry of activity confuse you. The regulations being proposed offer little to celebrate.

From Wall Street to the City of London comes the same wailing: requiring banks to rely less on borrowing will hurt their ability to lend to companies and individuals. These bankers falsely imply that capital (unborrowed money) is idle cash set aside in a vault. In fact, they want to keep placing new bets at the poker table — while putting taxpayers at risk.

When we deposit money in a bank, we are making a loan. JPMorgan Chase, America’s largest bank, had $2.4 trillion in assets as of June 30, and debts of $2.2 trillion: $1.2 trillion in deposits and $1 trillion in other debt (owed to money market funds, other banks, bondholders and the like). It was notable for surviving the crisis, but no bank that is so heavily indebted can be considered truly safe.

The six largest American banks — the others are Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley — collectively owe about $8.7 trillion. Only a fraction of this is used to make loans. JPMorgan Chase used some excess deposits to trade complex derivatives in London — losing more than $6 billion last year in a notoriously bad bet.

Risk, taken properly, is essential for innovation and growth. But outside of banking, healthy corporations rarely carry debts totaling more than 70 percent of their assets. Many thriving corporations borrow very little.

Banks, by contrast, routinely have liabilities in excess of 90 percent of their assets. JPMorgan Chase’s $2.2 trillion in debt represented some 91 percent of its $2.4 trillion in assets. (Under accounting conventions used in Europe, the figure would be around 94 percent.)

Basel III would permit banks to borrow up to 97 percent of their assets. The proposed regulations in the United States — which Wall Street is fighting — would still allow even the largest bank holding companies to borrow up to 95 percent (though how to measure bank assets is often a matter of debate).

If equity (the bank’s own money) is only 5 percent of assets, even a tiny loss of 2 percent of its assets could prompt, in essence, a run on the bank. Creditors may refuse to renew their loans, causing the bank to stop lending or to sell assets in a hurry. If too many banks are distressed at once, a systemic crisis results.

Prudent banks would not lend to borrowers like themselves unless the risks were borne by someone else. But insured depositors, and creditors who expect to be paid by authorities if not by the bank, agree to lend to banks at attractive terms, allowing them to enjoy the upside of risks while others — you, the taxpayer — share the downside. [Heads we win, tails you lose.]

Implicit guarantees of government support perversely encouraged banks to borrow, take risk and become “too big to fail.” Recent scandals — JPMorgan’s $6 billion London trading loss, an HSBC money laundering scandal that resulted in a $1.9 billion settlement, and inappropriate sales of credit-card protection insurance that resulted, on Thursday, in a $2 billion settlement by British banks — suggest that the largest banks are also too big to manage, control and regulate.

NOTHING suggests that banks couldn’t do what they do if they financed, for example, 30 percent of their assets with equity (unborrowed funds) — a level considered perfectly normal, or even low, for healthy corporations. Yet this simple idea is considered radical, even heretical, in the hermetic bubble of banking.

Bankers and regulators want us to believe that the banks’ high levels of borrowing are acceptable because banks are good at managing their risks and regulators know how to measure them. The failures of both were manifest in 2008, and yet regulators have ignored the lessons.

If banks could absorb much more of their losses, regulators would need to worry less about risk measurements, because banks would have better incentives to manage their risks and make appropriate investment decisions. That’s why raising equity requirements substantially is the single best step for making banking safer and healthier.

The transition to a better system could be managed quickly. Companies commonly rely on their profits to grow and invest, without needing to borrow. Banks should do the same.

Banks can also sell more shares to become stronger. If a bank cannot persuade investors to buy its shares at any price because its assets are too opaque, unsteady or overvalued, it fails a basic “stress test,” suggesting it may be too weak without subsidies.

Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, has acknowledged that the “too big to fail” problem has not been solved, but the Fed counterproductively allows most large banks to make payouts to their shareholders, repeating some of the Fed’s most obvious mistakes in the run-up to the crisis. Its stress tests fail to consider the collateral damage of banks’ distress. They are a charade.

Dodd-Frank was supposed to spell the end to all bailouts. It gave the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation “resolution authority” to seize and “wind down” banks, a kind of orderly liquidation — no more panics. Don’t count on it. The F.D.I.C. does not have authority in the scores of nations where global banks operate, and even the mere possibility that banks would go into this untested “resolution authority” would be disruptive to the markets.

The state of financial reform is grim in most other nations. Europe is in a particularly dire situation. Many of its banks have not recovered from the crisis. But if other countries foolishly allow their banks to be reckless, it does not follow that we must do the same.

Some warn that tight regulation would push activities into the “shadow banking system” of money market funds and other short-term lending vehicles. But past failures to make sure that banks could not hide risks using various tricks in opaque markets is hardly reason to give up on essential new regulations. We must face the challenge of drawing up appropriate rules and enforcing them, or pay dearly for failing to do so. The first rule is to make banks rely much more on equity, and much less on borrowing.