Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Rent-seeking in Finance: "The Best, Brightest and Least Productive"

As long as the rent-seeking academic understands the distinction between rent-seekers and rentiers.
(just kidding, we like Prof. Shiller and not just because he is the keeper of the Cowles Commission* data)
But seriously, back to questions America wants answered: What are we to do with the free riders among the rent-seekers?

Professor Shiller writing at Project Syndicate:
NEW HAVEN – Are too many of our most talented people choosing careers in finance – and, more specifically, in trading, speculating, and other allegedly “unproductive” activities?

In the United States, 7.4% of total compensation of employees in 2012 went to people working in the finance and insurance industries. Whether or not that percentage is too high, the real issue is that the share is even higher among the most educated and accomplished people, whose activities may be economically and socially useless, if not harmful.

In a survey of elite US universities, Catherine Rampell found that in 2006, just before the financial crisis, 25% of graduating seniors at Harvard University, 24% at Yale, and a whopping 46% at Princeton were starting their careers in financial services. Those percentages have fallen somewhat since, but this might be only a temporary effect of the crisis.

According to a study by Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef, much of the increase in financial activity has taken place in the more speculative fields, at the expense of traditional finance. From 1950 to 2006, credit intermediation (lending, including traditional banking) declined relative to “other finance” (including securities, commodities, venture capital, private equity, hedge funds, trusts, and other investment activities like investment banking). Moreover, wages in “other finance” skyrocketed relative to those in credit intermediation.

We surely need some people in trading and speculation. But how do we know whether we have too many?

To some people, the question is a moral one. Trading against others is regarded as an inherently selfish pursuit, even if it might have indirect societal benefits. But, as economists like to point out, traders and speculators provide a useful service. They sort through information about businesses and (at least some of the time) try to judge their real worth. They are thus helping to allocate society’s resources to the best uses – that is, to the most promising businesses.

But these people’s activities also impose costs on the rest of us. Indeed, a 2011 paper by Patrick Bolton, Tano Santos, and José Scheinkman argues that a significant amount of speculation and deal-making is pure rent-seeking. In other words, it is wasteful activity that achieves nothing more than enabling the collection of rents on items that might otherwise be free.

The classic example of rent-seeking is that of a feudal lord who installs a chain across a river that flows through his land and then hires a collector to charge passing boats a fee (or rent of the section of the river for a few minutes) to lower the chain. There is nothing productive about the chain or the collector. The lord has made no improvements to the river and is helping nobody in any way, directly or indirectly, except himself. All he is doing is finding a way to make money from something that used to be free. If enough lords along the river follow suit, its use may be severely curtailed....MORE
HT: The Big Picture 

*"Several Cowles associates have won Nobel prizes for research done while at the Cowles Commission.
These include Tjalling Koopmans, Kenneth Arrow, Gerard Debreu, James Tobin, Franco Modigliani, Herbert Simon, Lawrence Klein, Trygve Haavelmo and Harry Markowitz". -Marginal Revolution

Also Professor Cowen's "What do I think of the Cowles Commission?".

As I've said more than once
"A subject near and dear to my heart. I may be the only person I've ever met who read every page of "The Cowles Commission's Common Stock Indexes 1871-1937". [you must be a blast at parties -ed]"