Risk and Reward


An insightful comment from “Chris” at Felix Salmon’s blog:

The person most willing to take on risk is the one unaware he is doing so. He charges no risk premium…

The resulting market equilibrium is that the guy who is unaware of the risk ends up loaded with it. Then the music stops.

As Salmon remarks:

This is possibly a very beautiful and elegant explanation for the extreme profitability of investment banks. They charge their clients a lot of money to take risk off their hands, and then they transformed that risk, using sophisticated financial engineering, into instruments which didn’t, on their face, look risky at all, and which could easily be sold to risk-averse investors. Bingo, massive profits.

Conclusion: “Financial complexity and innovation, on this view, are essentially tools of obfuscation.” I don’t think we should say that financial innovation is “essentially” one thing or another. A lot of the financial innovation of the past thirty years was aimed at regulatory arbitrage. A lot was basically aimed at hiding the ball so as to better be able to mislead people (and in some cases the financial institutions themselves) about where risk lay. And it’s also true that if you look at shifts in the global economy over the long run, innovation has led to more efficient financial markets. It’s much easier than it was 150 years ago to find reasonable ways to finance moderately risky projects in capital poor areas of the world.

But I think the upshot of this isn’t that we need to be “against” financial innovation but that we need to be skeptical of the claim that any measure to reduce the pace of innovation is likely to bring economic disaster. We should try to stifle innovation aimed at exploiting loopholes in regulations or ripping people off. It’s pretty basic to see that there are good business opportunities in those fields and thus we should expect a lot of innovative activity to be aimed at exploiting those opportunities.