Robert Shiller says that while a Consumer Financial Protection Agency is a good idea, it wouldn't have prevented the housing bubble:
Financial Invention vs. Consumer Protection, by Robert J. Shiller, Commentary, NY Times: James Watt, who invented the first practical steam engine in 1765, worried that high-pressure steam could lead to major explosions. So he avoided high pressure and ended up with an inefficient engine. It wasn’t until 1799 that Richard Trevithick ... created a high-pressure engine that opened a new age of steam-powered factories, railways and ships.
That is how innovation often proceeds — by learning from errors and hazards and gradually conquering problems through devices of increasing complexity...
Our financial system has essentially exploded... We need to invent our way out..., and, eventually, we will. That invention will proceed mostly in the private sector. Yet government must play a role, because civil society demands that people’s lives and welfare be ... protected from overzealous innovators who might disregard public safety and take improper advantage of nascent technology.
The Obama administration has proposed a ... Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which would be charged with safeguarding consumers against things like abusive mortgage, auto loan or credit card contracts. The new agency is to encourage “plain vanilla” products that are simpler and easier to understand. But representatives of the financial services industry have criticized the proposal as a threat to innovation...
If a consumer agency had been set up 20 years ago, would the subprime mortgage crisis have been prevented? We don’t know, but it seems improbable. Such an agency would most likely have slowed some abusive practices... That ... would have reduced the severity of the crisis, and that is no small thing.
On the other hand, unless these regulators were extremely vanilla in approach and just said no to any innovation, or unless they had an unusually deep understanding of speculative bubbles, I think they would have allowed most of those subprime mortgages. And they probably wouldn’t have had the detailed knowledge they would have needed to halt the decline of lending standards on prime mortgages in a timely way. In all likelihood, we would still be in this financial crisis.
In short, the new agency seems a good idea, and, if it is created, it should ... support innovation and ...be staffed by people who know finance..., including some who appreciate that human behavior must be understood and factored into financial design.
But that leaves us with the deeper quandary: Our society needs financial innovation, and still seems vulnerable to ... speculative bubbles that create truly big problems. Even if they can be mitigated, periodic crises may not be preventable, at least not by banning abusive credit cards or even by throwing the bad guys in jail. ...
The effectiveness of our free enterprise system depends on allowing business people to manage the myriad risks — including the risk of asset bubbles — that impinge on their operations in the long term. And this process needs constant change and improvement.
Complexity is not in itself a bad thing. ... A laptop computer is an immensely complex instrument... Yet it can be designed well so that it seems plain vanilla to the ultimate user.
And as for steam engines, the modern turbine high-pressure versions are not plain vanilla in any sense. They are sophisticated triumphs of engineering. They help generate most of our electric power with very few accidents.
I'm not sure his example works. If a modern turbine engine fails, it doesn't threaten the broader economy. If the engines were interconnected, so interconnected that the failure of one could bring them all down (beyond a single set at a given geographical location), then they might threaten the entire economy and be more like financial innovation.
The point is, because the costs of a steam or turbine engine blowing up are mostly localized, we can allow innovation to occur with very little regulation within the private sector without too much concern. Of course, we need to make sure that, say, a steam engine blowing up in a garage doesn't harm the neighbors, or harm any employees who might be there, and we also want to protect the inventors from themselves to some extent, but since the threat from an explosion is localized, we can allow innovation to proceed in the private sector under relatively light regulation without incurring great risks.
Suppose, however, that the turbine engines were interconnected and the failure of a single engine anywhere in the system could bring the whole system down, and not just for a day or two, but for months and months, and that the loss of so much power for so long would wreck the economy. In such a case, how much trust would you be willing to place in an unregulated private sector development of a new engine type for the grid? How much complexity would you be comfortable with? How much testing would you want the engines to undergo before being allowed in use? Would the fact that they have "very few accidents" as Shiller notes be of comfort?
When the dangers are great, we need to be careful. The financial grid is interconnected in just this way, and we need to do all that we can to ensure that new innovations do not become engines of destruction yet again.
This post was republished from Mark Thoma's blog, Economist's View.