Tuesday 12 July 2011

The Trouble with Financial Services: Why Regulators Fail

Last year I wrote about the difficulties inherent in organising healthcare services. Another industry with in-built instability is financial services. Several characteristics of this sector make it especially difficult to regulate effectively. I have explored some of these below.

Financial regulation is in a constant state of tension between two approaches. The ‘Laissez-faire’ (i.e. hands-off) approach advocates minimal interference, based on the assumption that the best interests of society are served through free markets. The alternate approach (‘interventionist’) suggests that free markets often act irrationally; they require close supervision and restrictions to avoid damaging financial crashes, amongst other problems.

The decision of where in the regulatory continuum between these two extremes a particular regulator should sit is fraught with difficulty. I’d like to draw attention to four particular problems.

1.) Complexity
Financial systems are full of feedback mechanisms that we don’t completely understand. The actions of millions of market participants combine to set asset prices, provide capital and transfer risks. What happens in the markets affects their behaviour, which in turn has an effect on the markets. George Soros calls the feedback patterns ‘reflexivity’ and blames the recent financial crisis on it.

Complexity in the markets might be seen as a good reason not to intervene, as regulators’ actions are liable to have ‘unintended consequences’. However it could also justify interventions which prevent increases in complexity (such as restrictions on derivative products). Regulatory rules may also help companies deal with the unexpected (such as capital requirements for banks). Market complexity is a double-edged sword that makes regulators’ jobs extremely difficult.

2.) Revolving Doors
The Oscar-winning documentary ‘Inside Job’ highlights how top roles in financial regulators are frequently filled by ex-bankers. This isn’t surprising, given the specialised knowledge these roles require. However it can reasonably cause concerns about conflicts of interest. Social ties, political contributions, and the ‘revolving doors’ between jobs in regulation, banking, and lobbying create strong disincentives to individual regulators taking hard line.

3.) Race to the Bottom
Financial services firms can base themselves where they like. As a result, some countries try to attract them by offering low regulatory burdens. The risk that firms will flee financial centres such as New York or London is a major disincentive to regulators in the US and UK from tightening up their supervisory regime.

4.) Financial Innovation
As Merton H. Miller explained in his 1986 paper on Financial Innovation, “the major impulses to successful financial innovations have come from regulations and taxes.” More specifically, financial institutions use new products as a way to get around regulatory restrictions, rendering them ineffective. (As an example, the US withholding tax on interest payments remitted abroad triggered the creation of the market for Eurobonds, to allow US firms to raise money outside of the US.) In addition, continuous financial innovation makes it extremely difficult for regulators to stay up-to-date with the latest financial instruments being created.

This is a very cursory treatment of a subject that could inspire whole volumes. I am sure I have missed out other important reasons behind the difficulty of regulating financial services. Ultimately, it will be the widespread recognition of these potential roadblocks to effective regulation that allows us to make progress overcoming them.

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