Will regulation hobble capitalism? I think the opposite is true. Properly done, government regulation of the financial industry will move the industry closer to the capitalist ideal. By capitalism, I mean where those who take the risks and put up the money get the fruits of their labor. And, importantly, where those who take the risks and put up the money actually do take the risks, bearing the full costs of failure as well as success. As things stand now, we have a finance industry that is capitalist when things are going well and socialist when things are going poorly -- right-tail capitalist/left-tail socialist.
Capitalism means bearing the costs
I sometimes miss the rugged beauty of Utah, where I spent some of my pre-Wall Street years. From my house on the foothills of the Wasatch mountains, I could see the cliffs of Mount Nebo to the south, nearly fifty miles away. Ten miles north, the western face of Mt. Timpanogas, capped with snow into early summer. To the west, the sun reflecting on Utah Lake. Oh, and on the eastern shore of the lake, the black smoke billowing out the stacks of Geneva Steel.
Geneva Steel was built to produce steel during the war effort, and kept in operation until seven years ago. It teetered at the edge – and at least two times over the edge – of bankruptcy, closing for good in 2002. Left behind were assorted furnaces, presses and scrap metal sold to a Chinese steel producer, and a giant pond of toxic sludge.
Fortunately, we’ve learned a thing or two about toxic sludge in steel production. The steel producer, in this case the original parent of the Geneva plant, U.S. Steel, has to set aside a fund to pay for the clean-up. The sludge is part of the production process, and the clean-up is a cost of production, even though it is a cost that is not realized until many years down the road. As a result, steel costs are a little higher and the shareholders fare a little worse than if this longer-term expense were not forced onto the producers. The regulation that requires setting aside funds for the clean-up might be considered intrusive to the core values of capitalism. But it is the contrary. It is forcing the steel mills to recognize all of their costs rather than leave society to foot part of their bill.
Wall Street’s toxic sludge
Wall Street has its own forms of toxic sludge, longer-term costs and negative externalities from products and strategies: The increase in the risk of crisis that comes from the opacity of complex derivatives; the fat tail risk of positions that are short credit or liquidity; negative gamma trading strategies, strategies that in various guises are like naked call writing, making money most of the time, but on occasion failing spectacularly; the forced deleveraging and liquidity crises that come from high leverage.
These costs are easy for the Wall Street capitalist to ignore, because unlike the sludge pond behind the steel mill, they are not visible until they finally hit. Indeed, they are not even deterministic. They might hit or they might not – so what we have in financial markets is invisible and probabilistic toxic sludge. Which makes sludge-producing strategies all the more popular with banks and traders, because if you can do things where you don’t have to bear some of the costs, the odds are better you will turn an apparent profit.
The limited liability assault on capitalism
The banks and trading firms don’t have to bear these costs because of the widespread use of limited liability. Limited liability creates a ‘heads I win tails you lose’ relationship. The template for limited liability is the corporation, a template that has been copied to create the trader’s option and short-term compensation, paid out before the full costs of a product or strategy are manifest.
If I want to get the most value out of limited liability, I will gravitate toward fat tailed and complex businesses, where most of the time I pump money out with regularity, but face some prospect of a catastrophic loss. How catastrophic? The bigger, the better. It doesn’t matter to me how bad things get once they have passed my liability limit. And the larger that catastrophic case, the more costs I am passing on, and thus if a general risk-return relationship holds, the more return I will get as long as the catastrophe is kept at bay.
Regulation that exposes this and forces the trader or bank to absorb these costs makes the markets more true to capitalist ideals. Capitalist regulation forces the producers to recognize all of their costs. It undoes the harm to capitalism that comes from limited liability and its kissing cousins, the trader’s option and short term compensation deals. The flip side is that with capitalist regulation, no one can take on more risk than they are capable of absorbing. Which means requiring higher levels of capital on the one hand, restricting leverage on the other, which in turn means reduced capacity to generate high returns.
The aspiring capitalists among us will decry such regulation because it invariably makes our lives harder; we can’t make as much money. But if the reason is that the regulation is now forcing us to bear all of the costs of our enterprise, then we are feeling the pain of having the socialist trappings removed, and entering into a more robust capitalist regime.