A bankers’ ethics oath risks being seen as empty posturing

The suggestion put forward yesterday by ResPublica think-tank that we can restore consumer trust and confidence in the financial system, or prevent the next crisis by requiring bankers to swear an oath seems excessively naïve.

Such a pledge trivializes the ethical issues that banks and their employees face in the real world.  It gives a false sense of confidence that implies that an expression of a few lines of moral platitudes will equip bankers to resist the temptations of short-term gain and rent-seeking behavior that are present in the financial services industry.

In fairness to ResPublica’s report on “Virtuous Baking” the bankers’ oath is just one of many otherwise quite reasonable proposals to address the moral decay that seems to be prevalent in some sections of the banking industry.

I don’t for a moment suggest that banking, or any other business for that matter, should not be governed by highest moral and ethical standards.  Indeed, the ResPublica report is written from Aristotelian ‘virtue theory’ perspective that could be applied as a resource for reforming the culture of the banking industry.  ‘Virtue theory’ recognizes that people’s needs are different and virtue in banking would be about meeting the diverse needs of all, not just the needs of the few.

The main contribution of the “Virtuous Banking” report is to bring the concepts of morality and ethical frameworks into public discourse.  Such discourse is laudable but we should be under no illusion that changing the culture of the financial services industry will be a long process. Taking an oath will not change an individual’s moral and ethical worldview or behaviour.  The only way ethical and moral conduct can be reintroduced back into the banking sector is if the people who work in the industry were to hold themselves intrinsically to the highest ethical and moral standards.

Bankers operate within tight regulatory frameworks; the quickest way to drive behavioural change is therefore through regulatory interventions.  However, banking is already the most regulated industry known to man and regulation has not produced any sustainable change in the banks’ conduct.  One of the key problems with prevailing regulatory paradigms is that regulation limits managerial choice to reduce risk in the banking system, rather than focuses on regulating the drivers for managerial decision-making.

Market-based regulations that do not punish excellence but incentivize bankers to seriously think through the risk-return implications of their business decisions, will be good for the financial services industry and the economy as a whole.  A regulatory approach that makes banks and bankers liable for their decisions and actions through mechanisms such as bonus claw-back clauses will be more effective in reducing moral hazard at the systemic level and improving individual accountability at the micro level than taking a “Hippocratic” bankers’ oath.

Voxplainer on Scott Sumner & market monetarism

I have to admit that I usually dislike Vox. The twitter parody account Vaux News gets it kinda right in my opinion—they manage to turn anything into a centre-left talking point—and from the very beginning traded on their supposedly neutral image to write unbelievably loaded “explainer” articles in many areas. They have also written complete nonsense.

But they have some really smart and talented authors, and one of those is Timothy B. Lee, who has just written an explainer of all things market monetarism, Prof. Scott Sumner, and nominal GDP targeting. Blog readers may remember that only a few weeks ago Scott gave a barnstorming Adam Smith Lecture (see it on youtube here). Readers may also know that I am rather obsessed with this particular issue myself.*

So I’m extremely happy to say that the article is great. Some excerpts:

Market monetarism builds on monetarism, a school of thought that emerged in the 20th century. Its most famous advocate was Nobel prize winner Milton Friedman. Market monetarists and classic monetarists agree that monetary policy is extremely powerful. Friedman famously argued that excessively tight monetary policy caused the Great Depression. Sumner makes the same argument about the Great Recession. Market monetarists have borrowed many monetarist ideas and see themselves as heirs to the monetarist tradition.

But Sumner placed a much greater emphasis than Friedman on the importance of market expectations — the “market” part of market monetarism. Friedman thought central banks should expand the money supply at a pre-determined rate and do little else. In contrast, Sumner and other market monetarists argue that the Fed should set a target for long-term growth of national output and commit to do whatever it takes to keep the economy on that trajectory. In Sumner’s view, what a central bank says about its future actions is just as important as what it does.

And:

In 2011, the concept of nominal GDP targeting attracted a wave of influential endorsements:

Michael Woodford, a widely respected monetary economist who wrote a leading monetary economics textbook, endorsed NGDP targeting at a monetary policy conference in September.

The next month, Christina Romer wrote a New York Times op-ed calling for the Fed to “begin targeting the path of nominal gross domestic product.” Romer is widely respected in the economics profession and chaired President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors during the first two years of his administration.

Also in October, Jan Hatzius, the chief economist of Goldman Sachs, endorsed NGDP targeting. He wrote that the effectiveness of the policy “depends critically on the credibility of the Fed’s commitment” — a key part of Sumner’s argument.

But read the whole thing, as they say.

*[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16]

An unpublished letter to the LRB on high frequency trading

Lanchester, John. “Scalpers Inc.” Review of Flash Boys: Cracking the Money Code, by Michael Lewis. London Review of Books 36 no. 11 (2014): 7-9, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n11/john-lanchester/scalpers-inc

Dear Sir,

It is striking for John Lanchester to claim that those who believe high-frequency trading is a net benefit to finance (and by extension, society) “offer no data to support” their views. Aside from the fact that he presents such views in the line of climate-change deniers, rather than a perfectly respectable mainstream view in financial economics, it doesn’t really seem like he has gone out looking for any data himself!

In fact there is a wide literature on the costs and benefits of HFT, much of it very recent. While Lanchester (apparently following Lewis) dismisses the claim that HFT provides liquidity as essentially apologia, a 2014 paper in The Financial Review finds that “HFT continuously provides liquidity in most situations” and “resolves temporal imbalances in order flow by providing liquidity where the public supply is insufficient, and provide a valuable service during periods of market uncertainty”. [1]

And looking more broadly, a widely-cited 2013 review paper, which looks at studies that isolate and analyse the impacts of adding more HFT to markets, found that “virtually every time a market structure change results in more HFT, liquidity and market quality have improved because liquidity suppliers are better able to adjust their quotes in response to new information.” [2]

There is nary a mention of price discovery in Lanchester’s piece—yet economists consider this basically the whole point of markets. And many high quality studies, including a 2013 European Central Bank paper [3], find that “HFTs facilitate price efficiency by trading in the direction of permanent price changes and in the opposite direction of transitory pricing errors, both on average and on the highest volatility days”.

Of course, we should all know that HFT narrows spreads. For example, a 2013 paper found that the introduction of an algorithmic-trade-limiting regulation in Canada in April 2012 drove the bid-ask spread up by 9%. [4] This, the authors say, mainly harms retail investors.

The evidence is out there, and easy to find—but not always easy to fit into the narrative of a financial thriller.

Ben Southwood
London

[1] http://student.bus.olemiss.edu/files/VanNessR/Financial%20Review/Issues/May%202014%20special%20issue/Jarnecic/HFT-LSE-liquidity-provision-2014-01-09-final.docx
[2] http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~jhasbrou/Teaching/2014%20Winter%20Markets/Readings/HFT0324.pdf
[3] http://www.ecb.europa.eu/pub/pdf/scpwps/ecbwp1602.pdf
[4] http://qed.econ.queensu.ca/pub/faculty/milne/322/IIROC_FeeChange_submission_KM_AP3.pdf

Is Uber worth $18bn?

James Ball, at The Guardian, thinks that Uber’s implicit $18bn valuation is “a nadir in tech insanity”. His case is that tech firms are overvalued because although investors know this, they always assume there are other “suckers” they can palm their securities off on. That is, they think the other guys are “behavioural” (falling prey to the sorts of biases detailed in behavioural economics and behavioural finance) but they themselves are rational. Ball is responsible for some very good and important work, but I think this particular piece would benefit from the application of some financial economics.

It’s always possible that prices are irrational. And because we can never test investors risk preference separately from the efficient markets hypothesis (the idea that markets accurately reflect preferences and expected outcomes) it’s very hard to work out if prices are off, or just incorporating some other factor (usually risk). This is called the joint hypothesis problem. But when there are two alternatives, there is a reason economists put rational expectations in their models—it’s a simpler, better explanation. Finding truly suggestive evidence of irrational price bubbles is the sort of thing that wins you a Nobel Prize not something that a casual onlooker could easily and confidently observe.

Ball might say that even if irrational pricing is rare because of the strong incentives against it in a normal market, there have certainly been episodes of it in the past. Quoting J.M. Keynes, he might say “markets can remain irrational much longer than you or I can remain liquid”. He might point to the 1999-2000 peak of what’s commonly described as the “dot com bubble”. But I urge Ball to consider a point raised in this email exchange between Ivo Welch and Eugene Fama:

How many Microsofts among Internet firms would it have taken to justify the high prices of 1999-2000?  I think there were reasonable beliefs at the time that the internet would revolutionize business and there would be many Microsoft-like success stories based on first-mover advantages in different industries.

Loughran and Ritter (2002, Why has IPO pricing changed over time) report that during 1999-2000 there are 803 IPOs with an average market cap of $1.46bn (Table 1).  576 of the IPOs are tech and internet-related (Table 2). I infer that their total market cap is about $840 billion, or about twice Microsoft’s valuation at that time.  Given expectations at that time about high tech and the business revolution to be generated by the internet, is it unreasonable that the equivalent of two Microsofts would eventually emerge from the tech and internet-related IPOs?

Has not the second wave of cyber firm success (FacebookGoogle, arguably Apple) been even more impressive than the first wave? It may well be only 25% or 10% likely that Uber turns out to be one of these behemoth firms, through network effects, first mover advantages, name-recognition or whatever—but even if the chance is small the potential rewards are huge.

But Ball may point out that even if this is true, in the (putatively) 90% likely scenario, of Uber being a failure, then all this capital is being wasted. It could be put in the projects he prefers: “green energy, modern manufacturing, or even staid-but-solid sectors like retail”. Even if rational expectations—the idea outcomes do not differ systematically (i.e. predictably) from predictions—and the efficient markets hypothesis are not violated, and risk-adjusted expected (private) returns are equal across industries, it might be that social returns from these staid-but-solid sectors are higher—after all, lots of capital is being apparently wasted when so much goes to Uber.

This does not obtain—from the prospects of society, Uber could deliver huge welfare gains. If it does turn out that Uber has enough in the way of network effects to generate returns justifying its price tag (or more) then it would have to create lots of value, by saving taxi-consumers serious money. If they are using less resources to create the same amount of goods, then they are making society better off. Since society is big and diversified, it can afford to be relatively risk neutral (at least compared to an individual), and take even 9-1 punts on the chance that one memorable, semi-established network might be a particularly good way of running a taxi market.