I think part of the thing that is so weird about the big financial scandals this past year (other than that most are a complete replay of LTCM and other things from 10 years ago) are the sticky place that it puts someone like me who typically is a fan of “free market” mechanisms. John posted a link and an excerpt of a rant that I think expresses some frustration about just how off-the-rails those “free market” mechanisms seem to have gone.
Which brings me to some thoughts about the whole role of the financial services industry. The financial services industry doesn’t actually make anything. That doesn’t imply that its bad or that the people who work in it are bad- there are lots of industries that don’t make anything and yet are critical to the functioning of our society. Lawyers don’t make anything, they help us make sure we have good agreements about how things get made. Politicians don’t make anything, they create the rules that hopefully give us a level playing field for our society. Cops don’t make anything- they enforce the rule of law so that people don’t rip each other off or hurt each other. Each of these has a key role in the functioning of the overall society (and in making it possible for the other industries to function). But each of these can also have its own power-grab. If we were in a society where the politicians were just lining their own pockets with $10 million dollar bonuses and payouts and bribes or where the cops were doing the same thing I think we would scream bloody murder (and in fact we have when its been other countries where that happens). Each of these roles is expected to do its part and take an appropriate cut of societies resources for its role.
So what role does the financial services industry play? I can think of three key broad functions (and I’m sure I’m missing others)-
1) It provides capital so that people that want to accomplish things whether creating companies, goods, or buying houses, can do so without inefficiently having to have all their own cash up front.
2) It provides a stability and savings function. The combination of insurance and retirement savings and various off-shoots gives you a way to not just have to stuff cash in your mattress and live in fear that someone is going to steal it.
3) It provides a pricing function that comes up with appropriate prices for capital, commodities, and other financial instruments.
To provide these functions the people involved in this industry are necessarily working with lots of money. But that doesn’t imply that they are inherently owed 1% of whatever money passes through their hands. It doesn’t imply that society should let too much of our effort (both money and human capital) go into serving that function, ESPECIALLY if by doing so it erodes some of the fundamental things that the financial industry provides (stability, efficient market pricing, both of which have gone to hell because the compensation system on Wall Street encouraged short-term risk taking).
Let me give you an example that feels like it highlights this. The New York Times is reporting that the Fairfield Greenwich Group, one of the “feeder funds” that was investing in Madoff was paid 1 & 20% commissions on the money they invested for their clients in Madoff. To be fair, that is a fairly normal commission, although part of the presumption would be that the people earning that have done some serious due diligence into understanding how the money is being invested. So lets say you gave them $1000. After 3 years, they give you the great news that because Madoff is so smart your $1000 is now $2000. Oh, except that they kept 1% of assets under management each year (call it $45) and 20% of the profit ($200), so you only have $1755. Still, not to bad to make 75% gain in just 3 years.
Except that the underlying Madoff thing was all a fraud. But Fairfield still pocketed your $245. They took 25% of your money as a service fee to throw away the rest of it. To really understand how perverse this whole thing is, imagine Madoff did “even better”. He turned your $1000 into $5000. 400% profit! Meanwhile Fairfield pockets ~$90 for their 1% and $800 for their 20% of the profit. The “better” the fraud does, the more all the financial industry guys line their pockets.
Ever wonder why the banks don’t want to sell their toxic assets at real market prices (IE- what someone is willing to pay for them)? Why they were so eager to ditch the mark-to-market rules? The markets were up 4% today at one point on the relaxing of those rules. Basically that rule just lets them all keep playing the Madoff game and participate in the fantasy that the assets they hold have a higher value than they really do.
Which brings me full circle to the usual point I make in all these “financial crisis” posts lately. The only real solution, the only structural fix that would really work without imposing a web of complex “rules” that won’t adapt nearly as fast as the people trying to get around them, is total visibility for all transactions. Again, this will piss off a bunch of the underlying folks in the industry, but the Madoff thing wouldn’t have been able to happen. Various people will complain that it will be harder to make their huge profits using proprietary (and I’m sure very smart) techniques, but the balance has to not be in favor of protecting the ability for folks to make a profit in an industry that is fundamentally a “tax” that we all pay for the functioning of society. Full visibility will accomplish the real societal goals of why we need a financial industry better than the existing slick trading systems do, it will do so at lower cost to society, and it does it without having to over-regulate the details of what transactions are allowed and which ones aren’t.