Financial Innovation Update

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 4:28 PM EDT

FINANCIAL INNOVATION UPDATE....Yesterday I passed along Dani Rodrik's question about whether financial innovation has actually benefited the real economy. As he pointed out, it made homes available to a lot more people, but that turned out not to be such a great thing after all. Reader Brian J. then pointed me to Ben Bernanke's take on this issue from last year:

The increasing sophistication and depth of financial markets promote economic growth by allocating capital where it can be most productive. And the dispersion of risk more broadly across the financial system has, thus far, increased the resilience of the system and the economy to shocks.

Nope, neither of those turned out to be the case either. I'm tempted to say three strikes and you're out, but for now let's keep it an open question.

By the way, yesterday Tyler Cowen recommended this 2006 paper on credit derivatives, so I read it last night. It was quite good, and very accessible to lay readers. I was pleased to see that the authors basically concluded that CDOs are little more than a scam that violates basic economic principles and can only work (for a short time) thanks to industrial size helpings of hooey and sales malarkey. That's been pretty much my conclusion too. Credit default swaps are a different story, but the problem there is that, perhaps, hedging of risk might not really be such a good idea after all if it turns into an economy-wide phenomenon. After all, the people making/taking a loan (or issuing/buying a bond etc.) are the ones who are in the best position to assess the risk of the loan/bond/whatever and monitor its performance. Selling off risk to someone else often has real benefits, but it also produces incentives not to bother assessing risk properly and creates serious problems of nontransparency.

Also, it can cause the global economy to collapse via cascading counterparty defaults that send us back to the stone age. But that's a story for another time.

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