Thursday, November 26, 2009

Financial Innovation

The book ‘Fool’s Gold’ is the detailed story about those innovative financial products which caused the credit crisis. The book is written by Gillian Tett, an extremely competent writer from the Financial Times. She writes about those ‘exotic’ financial products with acronyms like CDO (credit default obligations) or CDS (credit default swaps) and other types of credit derivatives that led to the near global financial disaster. The book describes the creation of these financial instruments in JP Morgan which ultimately spread through out the financial world. But the real culprit for the disaster is really greed not the financial instruments themselves. In fact, I think these tools are great innovations if properly regulated or monitored to prevent greed from taking over.

In my mind, these financial innovations reflect the same brilliant creativity seen in software industry. These financial inventions rival the best design seen in products from Apple, Google or Microsoft. It also rivals the best piece of creative work from Hollywood or the music industry. So I think regulation that will stifle the creativity in the financial world will not be good. These innovations I think have resulted in increased home ownership, personal wealth and quality of life not seen in man’s history. But the common sense application of these innovative products was missing. For instance, irrational lending to sub-prime borrowers or insensible purchase of larger and larger houses by over leveraged buyers.

So it was the existence of greed and over consumption that ultimately led to the crisis. The result was the fatal under estimation of risk. So how does one regulate greed or an overly materialistic lifestyle? These are areas where spiritual guidance is more appropriate. Perhaps the decline of religion in the country and the world is to blame. From this premise, I venture to say that countries or states with strong religious sentiment will experience this problem less. For instance, what are the statistics of foreclosures in the Bible-belt or Southern or Midwest states? I think that most foreclosures have occurred in ‘liberal’ places like California, Nevada and Arizona. Nevertheless, the point is that these credit derivatives and other such financial innovation are not to blame for the current crisis.

In fact I think that these financial innovations together with innovation in software or film making or music have a high component of creativity unmatched anywhere in the world. It’s the comparative advantage that would keep the USA its superpower status as compared to its other traditional strengths like manufacturing or services. Perhaps the problem is that the regulatory infrastructure has not reached the scale needed to prevent a financial disaster. For instance, technological innovation in finance has not achieved the self-regulatory mechanism inherent in free markets due to greed. So perhaps government should provide this function until more maturity is reached. For instance, Theodore Roosevelt’s anti-trust actions did not hinder the country’s industrial rise but only provided the correct road map based on moral principles.

I am not sure how the regulation or transparency should be implemented. It should be the topic for experts. But I would think that the financial industry is one of the best places to invest based on this perspective. I think it’s a growth industry with its record of creative innovation that can be applied to the rising wealth in Asia. All the strands come together with the rising innovation in finance and software improvements to create a new world as forecasted by Alvin and Heidi Toffler in ‘Revolutionary Wealth.’ I guess it’s a world where the road is still bumpy and tortuous until the final destination is reached. But I guess I am in the minority today because most people look at the finance industry as a disaster where there are still hidden problems lurking behind these complex equations. I think these people are like those in the early age of the personal computer who like IBM thought the Personal Computer is useless.

Hence, today’s financial innovators such as the creators of CDO or CDS or even finance instruments like ETFs (exchange traded funds) can be seen to play a similar role as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or the Google twins in the software industry. But changes are still needed to restructure the usual financial firm. It would need a transformation similar to what happened to IBM who transformed itself from hardware to a software services firm. It was a radical change that had skeptics within the industry itself and the public. I think it’s the same story in the financial sector. The trick is to prevent people from chasing fool’s gold so that a new industry can be born. I think people are in place who can achieve this change but who may have to navigate the current problems and misperceptions existing in the public today.

No comments: