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How finance became the problem

Oct 07,2023 - Last updated at Oct 07,2023

NEW YORK — Finance used to be a means to an end, not an end in itself. From food and housing to family vacations, everything in our daily lives must be paid for one way or another. If we do not have cash on hand, we turn to a lender for a credit line.

Companies do the same. They routinely finance their operations by borrowing or issuing equity stakes to investors, who will part with their money in the expectation of future returns. By bringing these counterparties together, capital markets play a crucial role in the economy. So far so good.

But finance is no longer just an intermediary that channels money from savers to borrowers. No longer are its functions confined to putting money in the hands of people who will pledge to pay back the principal, plus interest, in the future. On the contrary, finance is now in the driver’s seat, setting the agenda for others, including governments.

There are two big problems with this: finance is both dumb and dangerous. It is dumb because it can only read numbers, unable to understand, much less assess, difficult social problems or complex business or engineering strategies. And it is dangerous because the people at the helm of financial institutions think they are smarter than they are, which leads them to assume that they should steer the ship.

If you are looking only at price tags, ruling the world seems easy. Everything becomes comparable, and you need only buy low and sell high to make a profit. Unless you are one of the few moral investors who wants to feel good about where you direct your money, the nature of what you are buying or selling matters little. The price mechanism dispenses with the need to understand an asset’s real-world qualities, negative attributes, or possible side effects.

In fact, the less investors know or care about such matters, the more liquid the market. Hence, assets that have been around for a long time, such as shares of oil and gas companies, are more attractive than newer ones. The prices of assets that lack an established record are less reliable, regardless of the benefits they might offer.

Finance thus dispenses with the need for debate. If everybody can see what the price is, there is nothing left to discuss. If you believe an asset is overpriced, you can short it. Markets do not need political deliberation; they get things done here and now by allocating and reallocating resources to the highest bidder.

But this tendency to replace problem-solving with pricing is not limited to market players. Many governments, either voluntarily or involuntarily, have embraced the same approach, even if only to comply with conditions demanded by their creditors. As a result, in the United States, the Congressional Budget Office must price the costs and benefits of legislation, and courts have occasionally struck down agency actions that did not include such an analysis. For example, the designation of the insurance company MetLife as a systemically important financial institution was successfully challenged on these grounds.

Yet, reducing everything to a number comes at a cost, too. It requires us to pretend that price differentials between goods and services are the only thing that matters, even though we all know better. It leads us to lump together factories and commodities with nature, health, happiness, the climate, and life itself. And it pushes us simply to ignore issues that cannot be priced, such as matters of justice.

We can thank this reductive view of the world for “solutions” such as the use of securitisation to support homeownership, a private-pensions system to develop or deepen financial markets, and green assets to address climate change. Create an asset with a price tag, and investors will flock to it, especially when they can rely on implicit government guarantees against possible losses (as is often the case).

But consider the results. We got a mortgage market that fostered a boom in construction and house prices, but failed to solve the housing crisis; a pension system that constantly needs safe assets to meet future obligations, even if that means continuing to invest in oil and gas; and decades of delays in changing how energy is sourced, produced, and disseminated, because green assets simply cannot do those things. Having placed our faith in the “magic of the market”, we got a bloated, fragile financial system that is in constant need of stewardship by central banks, lest it implode and take the economy with it.

None of this makes much sense. After all, prices are poor guides to the future, which is inherently unknown and unknowable, all the more so when there is strong evidence that it will deviate substantially from the past. In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes quibbled that it was impossible to know if and when another world war would break out, or what the inflation rate would be in the 1960s. In 2023, we do not know just how rapidly climate change will accelerate, where the next wildfires will break out, or which parts of the world will experience devastating droughts, flooding and so forth.

Because these scenarios are uncertain, there is no way that markets can price them accurately. Still, unless we ignore the scientific evidence, we do know one thing for sure: More climate-related devastation is coming, and we cannot fathom the additional social and political effects it might bring.

Worse, because finance is in the driver’s seat, we have come to accept that the most obvious solution, reducing emissions immediately, is too “costly”. That is why more and more businesses and governments are now reneging on commitments to reduce emissions, diluting previously stated goals, or delaying policies for implementing them.

Financialisation has become so deeply rooted that we seem to have unlearned politics. By blindly relying on price tags, we have deprived ourselves of the skills for building consensus and developing effective strategies that avoid imposing the greatest costs on people whose lives are not “priced in”. No one benefits more from this calamity than finance. But those returns cannot last indefinitely.

 

Katharina Pistor, professor of Comparative Law at Columbia Law School, is the author of “The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality” (Princeton University Press, 2019). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023. www.project-syndicate.org

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