Financial innovation is back with a vengeance

What didn’t we hear about financial innovation throughout the crisis? Whereas innovation in general is good, financial innovation on the other hand was the worst possible thing coming out of a human mind. Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the Fed, famously declared that the ATM was the only useful financial innovation since the 1980s. Harsh.

True, some financial innovations are better than others. In particular, those used to bypass regulatory restrictions are more dangerous, not because they are intrinsically evil or anything, but simply because their often complex legal structure makes them opaque and difficult for external analysts and investors to analyse. This famous 2010 Fed paper attempted to map the shadow banking system (see picture), and usefully stated that not all shadow banking (and financial innovations) activities were dangerous (but those specifically designed to avoid regulations were). Ironically (and typically…) one of the first innovations to ever appear within the shadow banking system was money market funds. What was the rationale behind their creation? In the 1960s and 1970s in the US, interest payment on bank demand deposits was prohibited and capped on other types of deposits. The resulting financial repression through high inflation pushed financial innovators to come up with a way of bypassing the rule: money market funds became a deposit-equivalent that paid higher interests. Today we blame money market funds for being responsible for a quiet run on banks during the crisis, precipitating their fall. It would just be good to remember that without such stupid regulation in the first place, money market funds might have never existed…

Shadow Banking

The last decade has seen the growth of two particularly interesting innovations within the shadow banking system: one was relatively hidden (securitisation) while the other one grew in the spotlight (crowdfunding/peer-to-peer lending). One was deemed dangerous. The other one was more than welcome (ok, not in France). What had to happen happened: they are now combining their strength.

Various types of crowdfunding exist: equity crowdfunding, P2P lending, project financing… Today I’m going to focus on P2P lending only. What started as platforms enabling individuals to lend to other individuals are now turning into massive gates for complex institutional investors to lend to individuals and SMEs. Given the retreat of banks from the SME market (thank you Basel), various institutional investors (mutual and hedge funds, insurance firms) thought about diversifying their investments (and maximising their returns) by starting to offer loans to individuals and companies they normally can’t reach.

Basically, those funds had a few options: developing the capabilities to directly lend to those customers, investing in securitised portfolios of bank loans, or investing in securitised portfolios of P2P loans. The first option was very complex to implement and the required infrastructure would take a long time to develop. The second option had already existed for a little while, but was dependent on banks lending to customers, which current regulations limit due to higher capital requirements on such loans. The third option, on the other hand, allowed funds to maximise returns and attract more potential borrowers thanks to the reduction of the cost of borrowing by disintermediating banks. And funds could also strike deals with those still tiny online platforms that would have never happened with massive banks.

While securitisation sounds scary, it is actually only a simpler way of investing in loans of small sizes (the alternative being to invest in every single loan, some of them amounting to only USD500… Not only many funds don’t have the capability of doing such things, but many have also restrictions about the types of asset class and amounts they can invest in). Securitisation also bypasses Wall Street investment banks: funds directly invest in P2P loans, package them and sell them on to other investors while retaining a ‘tranche’ in the deal, which absorbs losses first. Now some entrepreneurs are even talking of setting up secondary markets to trade investments in loans, pretty much like a smaller version of the bond market.

Is this a welcome evolution for the P2P industry? I would say that it is a necessary evolution. It is once again a spontaneous development that merely reflects the need for funding of the P2P industry, which small retail investors cannot fulfil (unless all investment funds’ customers start withdrawing their money to directly invest in P2P, which is highly unlikely). Many start to think that large institutional investors will end up crowding out small retail investors. Possibly, but as long as regulation remains light, keeping barriers to entry low, new platforms only accepting retail investors could well appear if the demand is present.

All this is fascinating. Not only because technology and the internet enables new ways of channelling funds from savers to borrowers, but also because this is the growth of a parallel 100%-reserve banking system. The shadow banking system is effectively some version of a 100%-reserve banking. And it keeps growing through those various innovations. As I argued in a previous post, this may well have implications for monetary policy that current central banks and economists don’t take into account. A 100%-reserve banking system does not have a deposit multiplier and consequently does not have an elastic currency to respond to a sudden increase or decrease in the demand for money. However, such a system perfectly matches savers’ and borrowers’ intertemporal preferences, limiting malinvestments. Nonetheless, we for now remain in a mix system of 100% reserve (most of shadow banking) and fractional reserves (traditional banking). It would still be interesting to study the possible policy implications of a growth in the 100%-reserve part of the economy.

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