“Financial Equivalent of Snake Oil”

Today’s Financial Times has a second great column to go with Martin Wolf’s, mentioned in the prior post.  This column is from Robert Shiller, again talking about Keynes, his concepts of capitalism, the need to balance it with government, and the chaos of human emotion or “animal spirits” that adds a wild card to what classically trained economists wish would be a rational and easily modeled social science.

The column is an excellent read.  The best sound bite is calling modern investment products the “financial equivalent of snake oil”.

The concluding paragraphs read:

There is a broader moral to all this – about the nature of capitalism. On the one hand, we want to take advantage of the wisdom of Adam Smith. For the most part, the products produced by capitalism are what we really want, produced at a price that we are willing and able to pay. On the other hand, when confidence is high, and since financial assets are hard to evaluate by those who are buying them, people will and do buy snake oil. And when that is discovered, as it invariably must be, the confidence disappears and the economy goes sour.

It is the role of the government at two levels to see that these events do not occur. First, it has a duty to regulate asset markets so that people are not falsely lured into buying snake-oil assets. Such standards for our financial assets make as much common sense as the standards for the food we eat, or the purchase medicine we get from the pharmacy. But we do not want to throw out the good parts of capitalism with the bad. To take advantage of the good parts of capitalism, when fluctuations occur it is the role of the government to see that those who can and want to produce what others want to buy can do so. It is the role of the government, through its counterbalancing fiscal and monetary policy, to maintain full employment.

The principles behind such an economy are not the principles behind a socialist economy. The government insofar as possible is only creating the macroeconomic conditions that will allow the economy to function well.

That is the role of government. Its role is to ensure a “wise laisser faire”. This is not the free-for-all capitalism that has been recommended by the current economic theory, and seems to have been accepted as gospel by economic planners, and also many economists, since the Thatcher and Reagan governments. But it also is a significant middle way between those who see the economic disasters and unemployment of unfettered capitalism, on the one hand, and those who believe that the government should play no role at all.

The idea that unfettered, unregulated capitalism would invariably produce the good outcomes was a wrong economic theory regarding how capitalist societies behave and what causes their crises. That wrong economic theory fails to take account of how the animal spirits affect economic behaviour. It fails to take into account the roles of confidence, stories and snake oil in economic fluctuation.


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