Oct 312008

Having discussed the new strangeness of money as such, I will now turn the most money-dependent sector— finance. But before getting into details, let me make a point about banks and attention. Money flows in the same direction as attention does, and so, right now stars — that is, large scale attention getters — generally have high monetary incomes. But having money incomes doesn’t lower the net attention they have, because attention itself can be thought of as being “stored” in the memories of those who pay it. The more attention you pay someone the more you remember and the more likely you are to pay additional attention. And whenever you do pay attention you tend to have a certain urge to satisfy the attention-getter’s wants.

So despite their high money incomes, stars do not really require conventional banks, because their attention is stored in others’ minds, to be tapped more or less at will. The more attention you have gotten in the past, the easier it is to do this. At the same time, if you have never had attention, your money is not a very good guarantee that you will get attention when you need it. So, as attention transactions gain increasing prominence, the entire financial sector will have a less and less important real role to play. But instead of shrinking, this sector has burgeoned of late, which brings up a second mystery.

The Banking Mystery and the Suspects

In the next-to-last post, I discussed the rapid growth of productivity in typical industries that provide standardized goods and services. The financial sector, you would think, is among the most amenable to automation, since all that is involved is handling and recording the digits that represent money. And that has happened in practice:ATMs; automated credit card accounting; electronic stock exchanges and brokerage services; online banking: etc. In other words, most parts of normal financial transactions are exceedingly automated and require very little actual human attention.

However, the relative size, income, and employment of the financial sector — in this country and others — has grown and grown. Investment banks now spend an increasing portion of their efforts on trading for their own accounts. As with most hedge funds, this typically involve using sophisticated computer programs to find ways to cash in on slight fluctuations or small trends in the financial markets. Banks also package and trade in derivatives that are connected by complex algorithms to the underlying investments in such entities as standardized goods-producing companies, government bonds or real estate.

Derivatives are supposedly financial instruments intended to help minimize risk. If risk really were minimized, the possibility of gaining vast profits would presumably disappear, since profit is supposedly a reward for successful risk taking. To put it another way, if risk were so minimal, many would enter the market for the relatively small gains, which then become even smaller on average. But risk is of course not actually minimized. One reason is that the mathematics of risk minimization, like other mathematical economics, assumes that the basic conditions they describe or even just assume are somehow fixed and unchanging, or that everything had been taken into account in finite equations. Of course everything has never been taken into account; soothing generalities stop working; small risks can add up to huge ones; and risk takers, on average end up with what they came in with or less.

These risks can be taken only because the huge fund of worldwide savings that have no reasonable way of being invested in safe industrial growth  still search for growth somehow. The financial manipulations offer the appearance of such growth, even though it would certainly seem that unless they create money out of nothing, all they earn is merely taken in a game of poker in which someone else — someone with less good financial choices — actually loses.

I am agnostic about whether money is or is not in fact created, since central banks can increase the money supply through lending, and the financial houses who sometimes obtain amazing-appearing returns do so by being highly leveraged, hugely borrowing. Of course, if money can be created out of nothing, it can also disappear just as easily, and there is no reason to suspect that on net that does not happen, so as to balance everything out. (One way it disappears is when overall markets —whether of stocks or housing —  fall, certainly wiping out “paper gains.” A recent report I saw stated that two trillion dollars worth of “actual wealth” has been wiped out with declining real estate prices? Actual wealth? The houses of course are still there, for the most part, and standard economics teaches that the actual value of something is the current market value, so of course the wealth that disappeared was entirely notional, even though it was a notion central to many people’s financial planning. So much for finance, I guess.)

Of course, even if the money that is destroyed equals the money created, most players do not end up even. The banks, hedge funds, and brokerage houses probably have enriched their shareholders, and certainly their main partners and and a large subset of their employees, essentially by grabbing for themselves an ever-larger share of total incomes in each country. These unequal shares of income then head back into the global money fund, for they mostly are not used for buying things.

The Home-Run Kings

A considerable proportion of people employed as “quants,” analysts, traders, and brokers receive many times the monetary income of others with similar talents employed outside finance. They receive much of this in bonuses, supposedly connected with the profits of the firms or the departments of firms they work for. Yet, of the hundreds of billions of dollars made in the last few years by the major investment banks, even more has been lost this year alone. Nonetheless, far from being expected to pay back their past years’ oversize earnings, those still employed might even be paid similar bonuses this year. Some percentage of these bloated bonuses are however used for buying luxuries of all sorts, which does increase employment and to an extent greater than the mass-produced goods sector can do does spread wealth around a bit. (As I discussed last time, luxuries are highly attention-related.)

To some extent the financial stars seem to think of themselves in a manner analogous to sports superstars. The latter generally sign multiyear contracts with teams that offer high remuneration even if the player or team should experience a prolonged “slump.” Similarly, financial stars, good at playing a game of their own, think they deserve healthy bonuses even if they have lost fortunes instead of  gaining them.

Another way to look a the rococo rise of the financial sector and its complex and unstable “products” and its “masters of the universe” is in the same terms as that of the nobles in say the period of Louis XIV of France. He had inherited a country full of the heirs of actual fighting feudal nobles, but he confined them to Versailles and turned them into dandies who did his bidding as they vied with each other for the most luxurious and remarkable clothes and hairdos, the best coaches and castles, etc. The competition that had taken the form of fighting was now both exaggerated and highly artificial. As they strolled through Versailles and its environs , the nobles wore bejeweled and beauteous swords and daggers, and in some cases knew how to use them, but these swords were no match for the muskets, pistols, and cannons in use by that time by actual armies. We can think of the stars of the financial sector as for the most part playing comparably decorative roles, even though apparently involved in what is most central and important for the old economy, namely money.

“Safe as Houses”

I think the complicated play-acting of the financial sector was bound to lead to an eventual fiasco, many orders of magnitude larger than, say, the Long-Term Capital Management fall of 1998 or the Enron catastrophe of 2001. As the finance sector continued to grow in apparent wealth,  more and more people would have come to depend on its inherent fallacy, until some point was reached where it proved quite incapable of actual delivery. However, the fact that the actual fiasco involved ordinary people’s homes and their putative value only helped both prolong an untenable situation and led to the effects oft ultimate crash being far more far-reaching.

If someone were to tell you that some standardized kind of good — whether it be a car, a computer or a corkscrew — could never go down in price but will always grow in value, you would consider them insane. After all, ordinary industrially produced goods become ever easier to replace,  wear out, become obsolete, or just lose their panache. But for some reason when similar optimism was expressed about very nearly mass-produced homes, too many people were willing to take the pronouncement as quite sane. “Real property” requires land, and supposedly “they aren’t making land anymore.”  Unfortunately, that statement is nonsense in several ways.

In the first place — as anyone who has ever looked at open houses offered by realtors or developers should know — much more than with ordinary mass-produced goods, they aren’t selling material objects, they are selling dreams. These are dreams of refuge, privacy, independence, marital concord, healthy and happy children, visits by friends and family, comfort,  warmth, praise from one’s friends, attention from strangers, beauty, ease, neighborhood, community, good schools, convenience — along with other emotionally tinged and historically contingent prospects. Dreams are subject to change, and the reality that supposedly underlies them can easily change too. An easy commute can become congested and overlong; neighbors can turn out not be nearly as nice as the ones one left, community spirit may not exist or may not welcome one; or an area with enough water for nice lawns can be affected by permanent shortages, especially as climate changes. And the gadgets, appurtenances, style and substance of a house or condo can become obsolete, come to seem ugly, or just fall apart.

What about that idea that the amount of land is fixed and invariable, so that, with a growing world population it is in increasingly short supply, and therefore intrinsically worth more and more? It just doesn’t hold water. The value of land, quite obviously, depends on where it  is and how it is looked upon, and both those things are subject to change, down as well as up. Land that was once highly desirable can become noisome and polluted, or just out of fashion, as home designs or sub-divisions can.  And, in effect, new land can be created every time it seems desirable — say — to live closer in to other people — perhaps in high-rise buildings rather than in a suburban houses. (Some land actually is “reclaimed” — created— from bodies of water or marshland, and though ecologically that might be undesirable, it still happens.)

Clearly though, real estate and housing related securities have a certain aura of security among people who don’t stop to think “concretely” of how very abstract the notion of ever-rising home prices is and always has been. The twenty-somethings who serve as the basic laborers in the field of investment banking may have had no knowledge or experience of land bubbles, but more mature people in those businesses seem to have been equally willing to be fooled by what they should certainly have understood better.

What makes mortgages even less reliable investment was little examined: in a typical case of foreclosure,the costs and right offs apparently can amount to upwards of 30% of the face value of the mortgage. The sliced, diced packages of mortgages seemed to lower the chances of such danger, while in fact making any analysis of risks much harder. The invention of newer and newer mortgage “products” that allowed introductory teaser rates with later sharp rate increases simultaneously gave investors the feeling that they would get good returns while greatly enlarging the pool of new home buyers. This further inflated housing prices, making the investments seem even more reliable. The chances of catastrophic failure grew ever larger.

And of course, all this would not have happened had it not been that all this funny money were chasing good investment opportunities while actual industrial growth could not offer nearly enough of an outlet. At the same time, the mortgage mess, etc.,would have been much less problematic if incomes had been less unequal. In that case, there would have been less money chasing investments, but more chance for ordinary people to pay more ordinary mortgages. That, however, is just what things once were like, in the US anyway. Whether they can be like that again, I tend to to doubt.

In a subsequent post, I will add to the prognostications and solutions I offered earlier.

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