By James Kwak
In White House Burning, there is a section on the rise and political influence of the conservative media. At one point, I looked up the top ten talk radio shows by audience. Nine of them were unabashedly right-wing, politically oriented shows. The tenth was Dave Ramsey. Ramsey has plenty of conservative elements: religion, moralism, glorification of wealth. But his show isn’t about conservative politics. It’s about personal finance.
Ramsey is a huge success because—in addition to his charisma and marketing skills—he is peddling one of the huge but popular illusions of American culture: that people can become rich by making better financial decisions. He’s also one of the characters skewered by Helaine Olen in her recent book, Pound Foolish, which describes the fallacies, hypocrisies, and borderline-corrupt schemes of personal finance gurus like Ramsey and Suze Orman. It’s a fun read—a bit repetitive, but that’s largely because all personal finance “experts” are pushing a small handful of myths.*
By James Kwak
I’ve had Robert Litan’s recent paper defending most financial innovation (the web page doesn’t tell you much; you need to grab the PDF) on my to-do list for a while now. I wasn’t looking forward to writing about it, since I’m a bit tired of the subject, and I don’t think I have much more to say. So thankfully Mike Konczal beat me to it, in a two-part series. Part I is really brilliant, and has not one but two insights. The first (to simplify) is that we generally think of innovation in products as making them simply better on all dimensions. We don’t realize that, with most new financial products, we are just getting to a new point on the risk-reward spectrum that wasn’t there before. Now, it might be good for the economy as a whole for that new point to exist. But as consumers, we don’t realize that the good properties of a new financial product are almost invariably counterbalanced by some bad properties.
The second insight is that real, good financial innovation does not look like a new product; it looks like a new way of dealing with an existing product. Konczal’s example is TRACE, a recent system for increasing transparency in the market for corporate bonds (you’ll have to read his post for a more complete description). The effect has largely been to make pricing more transparent and reduce spreads, which is good for investors. More broadly, as Felix Salmon said somewhere (probably many times), financial innovation should show up as lower prices for all the bread-and-butter financial products–equity and debt underwriting, interest rate swaps, etc.–not has higher profit margins for dealers.
Konczal’s Part II asks some more general questions about Litan’s results. I have some different questions.
Andrew Martin has an article in The New York Times on the dynamics of the debit card industry. I don’t have any expert knowledge to add, but here’s the summary: Visa has been increasing its market share by increasing the prices it charges to merchants; it takes those higher transaction fees and passes some of them on to banks that issue Visa debit cards, giving them an incentive to promote Visa debit cards over other forms of debit cards. Not only that, there are different fees on debit cards depending on whether you use them like a credit card (signing for them) or like an ATM card (entering a PIN). Signing costs the merchant more, so the banks and Visa give you incentives to sign instead of using a PIN. The end result is higher costs for merchants, who pass them on to you.
On Monday I wrote a post criticizing the sloppy way that Robert Shiller argued for financial innovation, which focused primarily on the use of metaphor and secondarily on the use of a valid example (people are overly cautious about some financial products) to make an invalid general point (people are overly cautious about all financial products. Then I threw in a sloppy paragraph, because I wanted to get to the end of a long post:
“From there, the article actually gets better, because Shiller gives us examples of areas where he thinks financial innovation would be good. And here I don’t really disagree with him that much. I agree with him that reliance on housing as an investment vehicle is bad. I don’t really agree that target-date mutual funds are such a good idea (since as far as I can tell the conventional wisdom about switching from stocks to bonds as you age is the equivalent of an old wives’ tale), but they are probably better than many of the things people are currently invested in. Retirement annuities, another thing he recommends, would definitely be useful if you could get them at a decent price. (I believe now they suffer from a significant adverse selection problem.)
“For the sake of argument, I am willing to concede that these are useful innovations that would make people better off.”
Felix Salmon rightly points out that I shouldn’t have conceded it for the sake of argument. Really, what I should have said was that I agreed with Shiller that people face real problems — relying on housing for investment is bad, and it “would definitely be useful” if you could get inflation-adjusted annuities for retirement. (I don’t like target-date funds, and I said so.) But since I had already made my main point (the one about metaphor), I didn’t look into the specific innovations that Shiller was proposing to solve these problems. Salmon points out accurately that the proposed solutions rely on embedded options that ordinary consumers are likely to get screwed by. I recommend reading his post.
By James Kwak
Financial commentators use metaphors* all the time. Derivatives are “financial weapons of mass destruction,” for example. Actually, people use metaphors all the time. But what is the substantive content of a metaphor? More technically, if A is (like) B, then why should we believe that A has some attribute that B has?
I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but then Robert Shiller handed me a perfect example in the Financial Times, in his “defense of financial innovation:”
“The advance of civilisation has brought immense new complexity to the devices we use every day. A century ago, homes were little more than roofs, walls and floors. Now they have a variety of complex electronic devices, including automatic on-off lighting, communications and data processing devices. People do not need to understand the complexity of these devices, which have been engineered to be simple to operate.
“Financial markets have in some ways shared in this growth in complexity, with electronic databases and trading systems. But the actual financial products have not advanced as much. We are still mostly investing in plain vanilla products such as shares in corporations or ordinary nominal bonds, products that have not changed fundamentally in centuries.
“Why have financial products remained mostly so simple? I believe the problem is trust. People are much more likely to buy some new electronic device such as a laptop than a sophisticated new financial product. People are more worried about hazards of financial products or the integrity of those who offer them.”
I had a business trip late last week, so I used the plane flight home to read The Sages, by Charles Morris. It includes three short sketches of Warren Buffett, George Soros, and Paul Volcker, wrapped around the thesis that the recent financial crisis showed the importance of pragmatism and experience rather than sophisticated financial models. Obviously I’m just grabbing a couple of passages here that I found interesting.
Here’s Soros (pp. 42-43):
“I am a man of the markets, and I abhor bureaucratic restrictions. I try to find my way around them. … But I do believe that financial markets are inherently unstable; I also recognize that regulations are inherently flawed: Therefore stability ultimately depends on a cat-and-mouse game between markets and regulators. Given the ineptitude of regulators, there is some merit in narrowing the scope and slowing down the rate of financial innovations.”
And here’s Volcker (p. 160), as paraphrased by Morris:
“He scoffed at the notion that clamping down on banks, hedge funds, and other players would stifle ‘innovation.’ The only innovation that real people cared about for the previous twenty or thirty years, he said, was ‘the automatic teller machine.’”
By James Kwak
Fresh off my vacation, I have jury duty tomorrow, but today I got a jump on my fun reading for the courthouse – Traders, Guns, & Money, the anecdote-packed overview of derivatives by Satyajit Das, a prolific consultant, author, and commentator on the topic. Das says that his book “does not attempt to make a case for and against derivatives” (p. xiii), and it’s true that he does point out some of the useful, value-creating functions of derivatives. But this passage (p. 41) is probably more typical, and one I thought deserved being typed out:
We needed ‘innovation’, we were told. We created increasingly odd products. These obscure structures allowed us to earn higher margins than the cutthroat vanilla business. The structured business also provided flow for our trading desks. The more complex products were stripped down into simpler components that traders hedged. …
New structures that clients actually wanted were not that easy to create. Even if somebody came up with something, everybody learned about it almost instantaneously. They reverse-engineered the structure and then launched identical products.
The usual concern about the US-China balance of economic and political power is couched in terms of our relative international payments positions. We’ve run a large current account deficit in recent years (imports above exports); they still have – by some measures – the largest current account surplus (exports above imports) even seen in a major country. They accumulate foreign assets, i.e., claims on other countries, such as the US. We issue a great deal of debt that is bought by foreigners, including China.
There are some legitimate concerns in this framing of the problem - no country can increase its net foreign debt (relative to GDP) indefinitely without facing consequences. And the Obama administration, ever since the Geithner-Clinton flipflop on China’s exchange rate policy early in 2009, seems quite captivated by this way of thinking: Will they buy our debt? Can we control our budget deficit? What happens if China dumps its dollars?.
The reason real to worry about China, however, has very little to do with external balances, China’s dollar holdings, or even capital flows. It’s about productivity and rent-seeking. Continue reading