Socially useless?

Animosity towards the business of finance is ancient and persistent. Because finance creates intangible value, its contribution to society is still invisible to many observers, including former regulator Lord Turner, who described large swathes of the sector as “socially useless”. Such claims are unfounded and dangerous. Not only that, but the oft proposed remedy, increased statutory regulation, may heighten rather than mitigate the exposure of taxpayers and households to recessions and speculative bubbles. Financial firms serve many useful functions which individuals and households could scarcely undertake on their own. These functions include maturity transformation, matching lenders and borrowers at low cost, facilitating the transfer of risk and consumption across time and between people, monitoring, and diversification of investments. The best analogy for the financial sector is probably supermarkets. It would be possible to prepare dinner by visiting a chicken farmer to buy a chicken, a market gardener to buy a cabbage, and so on. But such a process would be very time-consuming and involve high opportunity costs. Banks reduce the transaction costs of financial activity, enabling people to spend their time more productively. Gross value added (GVA) by the UK financial sector amounted to £124 billion in 2016. Of this, 50 per cent is exported. Contrary to the claims of critics, the sales and trading activity which is alleged to be self-serving accounts at most for 10 to 13 per cent of financial services business in Britain. It is often argued that private-sector finance is short-term oriented. Whilst there is some evidence that shareholders may be heavily discounting distant profits, the reasons for this could be policy uncertainty and not irrationality as is commonly suggested. Moreover, the valuations of tech firms, whose positive cash flows lie far in the future, and low yields on corporate bonds suggest that investors are patient by historical standards. Much financial regulation is based on the notion that, in a free market, providers dupe consumers. But regulatory intervention is often grossly miscalculated. The Financial Conduct Authority’s recent interest cap on payday loans shrank the market by between three and five times more than the regulator expected. Markets are not perfect, but regulation is often a very poor substitute.

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