From Form to Reform in Law and Finance: Tammy Lothian

Robert Hockett –

As with most topics having to do with our primary modes of production and distribution – “microeconomics,” “macroeconomics,” “industrial economics,” “labor economics,” … – so with “financial economics” there is a well-entrenched orthodoxy that seems to enjoy pride of place in the academy and on the hustings. Indeed, one often hears “the financial markets” described as that site of economic activity which most closely approximates, in respect of its principal players, constitutive features, and felicitous outcomes, the received Smithian wisdom on decentralized market economies and their virtues.

Financial market participants lack market power, we are told, and the trading mechanism quickly impounds privately held value-pertinent information into publicly observable securities prices. Hence the financial markets can generally be relied upon smoothly to channel investment capital toward its “most valued uses” on a real-time basis. Continuous buying and selling produce informational efficiency, that’s to say, while informational efficiency produces allocative efficiency. Et voila, we are all of us left better off, producing more of what’s most valued and less of what’s least valued than could otherwise be reasonably expected. All thanks to our financial system – like our healthcare system, “the envy of the world.”

If there is any realm, then, in which public intervention should be “light touch” and minimal, orthodoxy tells us that it is the realm of finance. Sure, many a self-styled progressive economist will concede, there are market failures aplenty in some spheres that warrant public intervention. There is “the labor market,” for example, where monopsony power on the part of employers must be counterbalanced by state-sanctioned monopoly power on the part of employees. Or there is “the environment,” in connection with which pollution externalities are an ever-present source of inefficiency that must be made to be re-internalized. But the financial markets are one place where nature is best left to take its beneficent, Scottish Enlightenment course.

It is almost as if the vaunted “Fundamental Theorems” of welfare economics were conceived and derived with the financial markets as their “intended interpretation.”  And maybe they were: note the work done by futures markets, for example, in Hicks’s foundational Value and Capital – work of which Hicks’s intellectual descendants Ken Arrow, Gérard Debreu, and others made similar, and seminal, use later. Surely, then, the financial markets are our most market-like markets – they are markets at their just and efficient best, they are markets par excellence.

Now to anyone who has been paying attention to “real world” economic or even political developments over the past decade or so, the foregoing remarks must ring facetious. Isn’t “Wall Street” the seedbed of all that went wrong in the American and global economies during the lead-up to 2008 and its aftermath? Isn’t Wall Street itself what was accordingly “occupied” once it grew clear that neither Congress nor President Obama were going to do much beyond Dodd-Frank to put things right? And didn’t bank-bashing figure prominently, even if cynically, in certain “AstroTurfed,” pseudo-populist rightwing political movements in 2010 and 2016?

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