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Friday, July 16, 2010

"The Uses and Abuses of Economic Ideology"

Adair Turner has lost faith in the idea that making market more complete necessarily leads to a more stable financial system:

The Uses and Abuses of Economic Ideology, by Adair Turner, Cpmmentary, Project Syndicate: ...[I]n the arena of financial economics, a vulgar version of equilibrium theory rose to dominance in the years before the financial crisis, portraying market completion as the cure to all problems, and mathematical sophistication decoupled from philosophical understanding as the key to effective risk management. Institutions such as the IMF ... set out a confident story of a self-equilibrating system. ... And at regulatory agencies like Britain’s Financial Services Authority (which I lead), the belief that financial innovation and increased market liquidity were valuable because they complete markets and improve price discovery was not just accepted; it was part of the institutional DNA.
This belief system did not, of course, exclude the possibility of market intervention. But it did determine assumptions about the appropriate nature and limits of intervention. For example,... requirements for information disclosure could help overcome asymmetries of information between businesses and consumers. Similarly, regulation and enforcement to prevent market abuse was justifiable... And regulation to increase market transparency was ... acceptable ... since transparency, like financial innovation, was believed to complete markets and help generate increased liquidity and price discovery.
But the belief system of regulators and policymakers ... tended to exclude the possibility that rational profit-seeking by professional market participants might generate rent-seeking behavior and financial instability rather than social benefit – even though several economists had clearly shown why that could happen. Policymakers’ conventional wisdom reflected, therefore, a belief that only interventions aimed at identifying and correcting the very specific imperfections blocking attainment of the nirvana of market equilibrium were legitimate. ...[I]t was beyond the ideology to recognize that information imperfections might be so deep as to be unfixable, and that some forms of trading activity, however transparent, might be socially useless. ...
Market efficiency and market completion theories can help reassure major financial institutions’ top executives that they must in some subtle way be doing God’s work... But we should not underplay the importance of ideology. Sophisticated human institutions ... are impossible to manage without a set of ideas that are sufficiently complex and internally consistent to be intellectually credible, but simple enough to provide a workable basis for day-to-day decision-making.
Such guiding philosophies are most compelling when they provide clear answers. And a philosophy that asserts that financial innovation, market completion, and increased market liquidity are always and axiomatically beneficial provides a clear basis for regulatory decentralization.
Here, I suspect, is where the greatest challenge for the future lies. For, while the simplified pre-crisis conventional wisdom appeared to provide a complete set of answers resting on a unified intellectual system and methodology, really good economic thinking must provide multiple partial insights, based on varied analytical approaches. Let us hope that ...[we] learn that lesson.

    Posted by on Friday, July 16, 2010 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Financial System, Market Failure, Regulation | Permalink  Comments (7)


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