Paul Volcker, vanquisher of inflation in the early ’80s as chairman of the Federal Reserve System and now the chairman of President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said, “[T]he most important financial innovation that I have seen the past 20 years is the automatic teller machine.” While he qualified the comment as a “wiseacre remark,” he stood by it, going on to say, “Indeed, it was quite good in the 1980s without credit-default swaps and without securitization and without CDOs.”
Our friend Bob Litan has a new report out from the Brookings Institution on the benefits from financial innovation over the past thirty years. The report is worth reading in full, but a quick summary of his findings is found in a chart at the beginning of the paper (condensed into one image by Kevin Drum):
Given attitudes like Volcker’s, it might be surprising to see so many “+”s, connoting relative benefits, relative to “-“s, connoting developments that did not improve that part of the economy. (“0” indicates the innovation was a wash.) But that is the reality of innovative financial instruments — they are, by and large, designed to be beneficial, but unmonitored can cause more harm than good. Innovations like credit scoring, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and inflation-protected Treasury bonds (TIPS) — all were developed since Volcker was Fed chair. But the benefits from these innovations (increased access to credit, which allows for consumption smoothing) can also lead to abuses of the system (crushing credit card debt, NINA mortgages, balloon payment mortgages) and asset bubbles. These abuses can be swept under the rug if the underlying assets in a CDO are not transparent, and that CDO is sold to an unsuspecting client by an investment bank trading desk.
The status quo is unsustainable, but attempts to ban some of these activities are problematic as well. Proclamations like the Volcker rule — limiting the scope of bank activity — are either too tightly defined to be effective or are so broad they throw out the above benefits with the bathwater. What would be better is to provide transparency in these activities — through clearing credit default swaps (CDS) and other derivatives on exchanges, providing credit terms in an easily understood manner upfront, and eliminating hidden fees — so that all involved know what they are getting into.
Litan also points out one key fact at the end of his paper: we’re not done with financial innovation. He argues that despite the headlines, not all innovation is bad, and there is more to come. He cites the work of Robert Schiller, the Yale professor who has pioneered work in housing price markets — designed to give homeowners protection they currently don’t have against a fall in the value of their home — and counter-cyclical tax policy, as an obvious source of financial innovation that is for the good.
But Litan concludes by noting that the market — not government — will continue to drive innovation, but “policymakers must be better prepared in the future than they were before the financial crisis to step in — first with disclosure standards and possibly later with more prescriptive rules” to prevent crises like the most recent one from happening again. The one area where he sees a more active government role is in consumer finance, an area in which a robust Consumer Financial Protection Agency will be key.