Monday, September 28, 2009

In defence of financial innovation

Posted in the Financial Times by Robert Shiller:

Many appear to think that the increasing complexity of financial products is the source of the world financial crisis. In response to it, many argue that regulators should actively discourage complexity.

The June 2009 US Treasury white paper seemed to say this. The paper said that a new consumer financial protection agency be “authorised to define standards for ‘plain vanilla’ products that are simpler and have straightforward pricing,” and “require all providers and intermediaries to offer these products prominently, alongside whatever other lawful products they choose to offer”.

The July 2009, HM Treasury white paper “Reforming Financial Markets” similarly advocated “improving access to simple, transparent products so that there is always an easy-to-understand option for consumers who are not looking for potentially complex or sophisticated products.”

They do have a point. Unnecessary complexity can be a problem that regulators should worry about, if the complexity is used to obfuscate and deceive, or if people do not have good advice on how to use them properly. Complexity was indeed used that way in this crisis by some banks who created special purpose vehicles (to evade bank capital requirements) and by some originators of complex mortgage securities (to fool the ratings agencies and ultimate investors).

Modern behavioural economics shows that there are distinct limits to people’s ability to understand and deal with complex instruments. They are often inattentive to details and fail even to read or understand the implications of the contracts they sign. Recently, this failure led many homebuyers to take on mortgages that were unsuitable for them, which later contributed to massive defaults.

But any effort to deal with these problems has to recognise that increased complexity offers potential rewards as well as risks. New products must have an interface with consumers that is simple enough to make them comprehensible, so that they will want these products and use them correctly. But the products themselves do not have to be simple.

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.

The problem is that financial breakdowns come with low frequency. Since flaws in the financial system may appear decades apart, it is hard to figure out how some new financial device will behave. Moreover, because of the low frequency of crises, people who use financial instruments often have little or no personal experience with the crises and so trust is harder to establish.

When people invest for their children’s education or their retirement, they are concerned about risks that will not become visible for years. They may not be able to rebound from mistaken purchases of faulty financial devices and they may suffer if circumstances develop that create risks that could have been protected against.

Thus, to facilitate financial progress, we need regulators who ensure trust in sophisticated products. They must work towards clearing the way to widespread use of better products, concerning themselves with both safety and creative ideas. They must not simply be law enforcers against the shenanigans of cynical promoters, but also be open to making complex ideas work that have the potential to improve public welfare. Unfortunately, the crisis has sharply reduced trust in our financial system.

At this point in history, there has been over-reliance on housing as an investment. It is an appealing investment as it is simple to understand: we see the home we own every day. But in using housing as a big savings vehicle, people have built homes that are larger than needed and hard to maintain. This extra housing would be expected to have a negative return in the form of depreciation.

The popular reliance on housing as an investment, combined with the increased leverage with newer mortgage practices, contributed to the housing bubble that has now burst, resulting in historically unprecedented numbers of foreclosures. The fact that a bubble could grow this large and burst is a sure sign of imperfect financial institutions, not of overly complex institutions.

Unfortunately, people do not trust some good innovations that could protect them better. The innovations in mortgages in recent years (involving such things as option-adjustable rate mortgages) are not products of sophisticated financial theory. I have proposed the idea of “continuous workout mortgages”, motivated by basic principles of risk management. The privately issued mortgage would protect against exigencies such as recessions or drops in home prices. Had such mortgages been offered before this crisis, we would not have the rash of foreclosures. Yet, even after the crisis, regulators seem to be assuming a plain vanilla mortgage is just what we need for the future.

Another example of a potentially useful innovation is the target-date fund (also called life-cycle fund) that invests money for people’s retirement in a way that is specifically tailored for people their age. Such a fund plans for young people to take greater risks and for older people to invest more conservatively. Target-date funds, first introduced by Wells Fargo and BGI in the 1990s, are growing in importance, but few people commit the bulk of their portfolio to such funds, or make use of target-date funds that might make adjustments for their other investments. It appears that people do not fully trust that these funds are designed correctly, or would protect them from crises.

Another innovation that is underused is retirement annuities that include protections against potential risks. There are life annuities that protect people against outliving their wealth, inflation-indexed annuities that protect against inflation, impaired-life annuities that protect against having problems in old age that require they spend more money and generational annuities that exploit the possibilities of intergenerational risk sharing. But most people do not make use of any of these.

Ideally, all of these protections for retirement income should be rolled into a unified product. Such products are not generally available yet. Certainly, people might be mistrustful of committing their life savings to such a complex new product at first even if it were available. So, such products are not offered and people often do nothing to protect themselves against most of these risks.

Behind the creation of any such new retail products there needs to be an increasingly complex financial infrastructure so that professionals who try to create them can manage a full array of risks. We need liquid international markets for real estate price indices, owner-occupied and commercial, for aggregate macroeconomic risks such as gross domestic product and unemployment, for human longevity risks, as well as broader and more effective long-term markets for energy risks. These are markets for the risks that were not managed as the crisis unfolded, and they create a deeper array of possibilities for new retail financial products.

It is critical that we take the opportunity of the crisis to promote innovation-enhancing financial regulation and not let this be eclipsed by superficially popular issues. Despite the apparent improvement in the economy, the crisis is not over and so the public continues to support government-led interventions. Doing this means encouraging better dialogue between private-sector innovators and regulators. My experience with regulators suggests that they are intelligent and well-meaning but often bogged down in bureaucracy. Regulatory agencies need to be given a stronger mission of encouraging innovation. They must hire enough qualified staff to understand the complexity of the innovative process and talk to innovators with less of a disapprove-by-the-rules stance and more that of a contributor to a complex creative process.

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